Honey Buzzard Returned to the Wild at Quinta dos Malvedos

Peter Symington releasing the bird over Quinta dos Malvedos

A European honey buzzard — Pernis apivorus — nursed back to health by the UTAD (Universidade de Trás-os-Montes e Alto Douro) Wildlife Rescue Centre was returned to the wild at Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos on May 18th. Peter Symington, the SFE’s retired winemaker, who has been staying at the quinta with family and friends, released the female honey buzzard from one of the property’s highest vineyards at 350 metres (1,148 feet).

The Malvedos honey buzzard was taken to the University’s Veterinary Hospital in August 2016 after it had been found by members of the public, downed and injured near Miranda do Douro, a town in the north-eastern extremity of Portugal where the Douro marks the international border with Spain. The bird had been illegally shot, sustaining two fractures in one of its wings. It was operated on successfully at the veterinary hospital — which works closely with the wildlife rescue centre — and from October it began its recovery programme which consisted of several months of flying exercises in the rescue centre’s dedicated circular flight tunnel, the only one of its kind in the Iberian Peninsula. It’s unique in that it allows large birds of prey to fly continuously, thus regaining muscular strength and recovering flying proficiency in preparation for a return to nature.

Although its steady recovery was completed during the middle of winter, the rescue centre could not release the bird as it belongs to a migratory species, which flies south to sub-Saharan Africa at the end of the European Autumn in search of better feeding grounds, returning to Europe only in the spring for the mating season. As its name suggests, the honey buzzard feeds on bees and wasps and their larvae, raiding their nests. Its thick plumage, its claws covered with thick protective scales and narrow slit nostrils, protect it from attack by its preferred prey.

Dr. João Tomás, the veterinarian who accompanied the honey buzzard for release at Malvedos explained to those present that during the second week of May, approximately 8,000 honey buzzards were tracked over the Strait of Gibraltar, flying north on their return to Europe where they will mate, usually with the same partner, build nests and raise their chicks. He said that sightings of honey buzzards had already been reported in the Douro Superior and in the Trás-os-Montes and Beira Alta districts of Portugal. This was the signal that the timing was right to release ‘their’ bird.

The Symington family has supported the University’s Wildlife Rescue Centre (Centro de Recuperação de Animais Selvagens — CRAS, for short) since 2011 and several species of birds of prey have been freed at different family vineyards in the Douro over recent years. Malvedos is home to a remarkable variety of bird species, which include golden orioles, bee-eaters, turtle doves, Iberian magpies and larger birds such as black kites, which frequently nest in the wooded areas of the quinta. Just moments after the release of the honey buzzard, João Tomás identified a Bonelli’s eagle gliding effortlessly on the thermals above the vineyards.

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A Year in the Vineyards, March 2017

Frost on the vine in the vineyards of the Douro
Frost on the vine. Photograph: Fernando Alves
Miguel Potes, no stranger to the ups and downs of a year in the vineyards, talks about winter pruning, low temperatures, and a lot of hard work.

The winter pruning of the 2016/2017 viticultural year was largely concluded in our vineyards by the third week of February, a little later than usual due to the fact that in many of our properties in the Cima Corgo sub-region of the Douro work only began during the first half of December. Typically, winter pruning would be well underway during the month of November, but this year’s delay can be explained by the longer than usual vegetative cycle of the vines over the preceding season (2015/2016), which meant that after the vintage the vineyards were still relatively lush and the onset of leaf-fall was delayed by approximately two weeks. The above-average temperatures during the first half of November accentuated this further.

The relatively late start to the 2016 harvest also inevitably influenced the delay in winter pruning. In some of our principal vineyards such as Quinta dos Malvedos, picking during the harvest was halted on two occasions to work around some (beneficial) rain that arrived during the middle of September. Some of the finest grape varieties, including the Touriga Nacional, only began to be picked from September 26th, which meant that the harvest finished quite late, well into October.

Our pruning teams did not have to contend with much rain; in fact over the winter the lack of rain has given us some cause for concern, the shortfall being approximately 40% when compared to the 30-year-average. However, they did face very cold conditions, especially through January, which records showed as being the third coldest January of the last 30 years. The lowest temperature was registered at Quinta do Ataíde’s weather station on January 19th: 5.6°C below zero, which underlines the continental climate of the easternmost part of the Douro region.

Fortunately our pruners are equipped with electric secateurs, which not only increase productivity but also make the task much less physically demanding. They do, however, have to face the whims of winter weather for weeks on end, not to mention having to negotiate the steepness of the terrain, which really doesn’t make their task any easier.

Winter pruning of the vines is essential for their rejuvenation in the spring and one of its prime objectives is to influence the following season’s yield by controlling the number of buds and therefore those that will potentially burst and give rise to the desired number of bunches of grapes per vine.  Because it is so labour-intensive and time-consuming it accounts for around a third of the annual costs in our vineyards.

Electric secateurs notwithstanding, winter pruning in our vineyards is still an entirely manual task. It is one of the single most important periods of the year in the lifecycle of our vines for it is at this time that decisions are made that will determine the individual future of every single vine and have a significant impact on the success of this year’s crop. During the moments the pruner spends on each vine his or her decisions influence its growth over the new vegetative cycle, its fate quite literally in their hands. Manual pruning requires great skill, knowledge and experience if it is to be carried out successfully and one of its great advantages, as opposed to mechanical pruning, is the precision it offers given that each vine is tended with individual care, one of the indispensable prerequisites for the production of the finest possible wines.

 

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