Monday, 26 September 2016

Back in the Algarve at last!

We’ve been back in the Algarve for just a week now and seem to have timed our return quite well.  The weather is very pleasant but no longer uncomfortably hot, children have returned to school and birds are migrating!

 Short-toed Eagle

Already we have been to Castro Marim, Ludo, Quinta do Lago, Parque Ambiental de Vilamoura, Lagoa dos Salgados (twice) and Sagres (twice) and seen more than 120 species.

Castro Marim, usually one of our favourite reserves, proved to be something of a disappointment.  There are plenty of birds there, particularly in the Cerro do Bufo sector but with access to the site restricted it is difficult to get close to many of them.  Highlights were Black-necked Grebes, Audouin’s & Slender-billed Gulls and of course there are hundreds of waders and Greater Flamingos but a telescope was definitely a necessity.  The salt harvest is in progress and it looks to have been a productive season.

 Salt harvest and Black-tailed Godwits

 Juvenile Greater Flamingo


There was also much salt-related activity at Ludo.  As so often, it was raptors there that proved most popular with five Booted Eagles putting on a show and a single female Marsh Harrier quartering the reedbed.

Booted Eagle

At Quinta do Lago, Little Bitterns were the stars.  We saw seven or maybe eight different birds.  A Water Rail showed well; a juvenile Black-crowned Night-Heron and a Whiskered Tern were unexpected treats.  We lost count of the number of Western Swamphens but nine of them were together, completely in the open on the golf course; two Glossy Ibises took off and left before we had much chance to look at them.  Five species of gulls were on the lagoa de São Lourenço and two or three Kingfishers were chasing each other about.

Lagoa de São Lourenço from the hide

The Parque Ambiental de Vilamoura has become a favourite place at this time of the year and it didn’t disappoint – it was full of birds!  Most numerous were Willow Warblers and Chiffchaffs and Yellow Wagtails with one or two Northern Wheatears and Pied Flycatchers but we know from past experience that all sorts of rarities can and do turn up here at this time of year.  We will be back for another look very soon.  A Black-winged Kite here was reasonably approachable.

Northern Wheatear

The water level at Lagoa dos Salgados was lower than we would have liked but still there were impressive numbers of birds.  Notable were a Marsh Harrier, an Osprey, a Black-winged Kite, at least four different Bluethroats, a Little Bittern, several Western Swamphens and what appeared to be a thunbergi-type Yellow Wagtail.  Waders included Little Stint, Bar-tailed & Black-tailed Godwits, Common Snipe and Wood Sandpiper.  We searched through hundreds of gulls without finding anything other than fuscus, michahellis and ridibundus.  Glossy Ibises were especially numerous and on our first visit we estimated that there might have been as many as 1,000.  We managed to read colour-rings on several of them, which identified their origins as breeding sites near Sevilla and Huelva in Andalucia.  Two colour-ringed Spoonbills had travelled further – one from France and one from the Netherlands.

 Common Snipe

 Lagoa dos Salgados

Glossy Ibis

Both of our trips to Sagres produced reasonable numbers of raptors and importantly there were good, close views of many of them.  Most numerous were Black Kites (31 on the first visit, slightly fewer the second time).  Also seen were Egyptian Vultures, Short-toed Eagles, Booted Eagles, Honey-buzzards, Common Kestrels, a Sparrowhawk, a Goshawk and a Peregrine Falcon.  Two Black Storks came close overhead.  We saw just a single Little Bustard and a couple of Red-billed Choughs, while migrants included a Wryneck, several juvenile Woodchat Shrikes, Common Redstarts, both Pied & Spotted Flycatchers, Whinchats and Northern Wheatears.

 Egyptian Vulture

 Black Stork

Little Bustard

So, not a bad start (for us) to the autumn migration period and still more than enough places to visit. 

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Birdfair 2016

We spent last weekend at the British Birdwatching Fair, generally referred to as ‘The Birdfair’ or simply ‘Birdfair’.  It’s one of the highlights of our year and we would hate to miss it.

As always, we were part of the Avian Adventures team, there to promote the company’s programme of birdwatching and wildlife holidays, some of which we expect to be leading in the months ahead.  Of course, we were also there to talk about birdwatching in the Algarve.

The Avian Adventures 2017 brochure

 On the Avian Adventures stand with Ray Tipper and Gerry Griffiths

Birdfair is held at Rutland Water and is jointly organised by the Leicestershire & Rutland Wildlife Trust and the RSPB.  It encompasses the whole spectrum of the birdwatching industry whilst at the same time supporting global bird conservation. This is the event of the year if you’re into birds and wildlife.
One of the main attractions of the Birdfair is the opportunity it gives us to meet up with the countless friends we have made over the years through birding, many of them from overseas.

Birdfair has raised astonishing amounts of money for a wide range of conservation projects (£320,000 in 2015).  This year’s beneficiary will be the national NGO Asity Madagascar, BirdLife in Madagascar, which has been working since 2005 to save Tsitongambarika Forest.  This forest was the subject of the Birdfair mural painted by various artists who were exhibiting their work in the Art Marquee.

Darren Rees working on the Birdfair mural

Birdfair can be a serious threat to the bank balance!  There are hundreds of stands selling the latest products for wildlife enthusiasts. From scopes to sculptures, binoculars to bird food, eGuides to eco-holidays, you can find almost anything you can think of.  Books tend to be Peter’s weakness, while June this year again came away with several items of clothing, mostly in her favourite colour – khaki!

Books - hard to resist!

A brand new book that seemed to be particularly well-received was Britain’s Birds: An Identification Guide to the Birds of Britain and Ireland, published by WILDGuides.  We haven’t always been keen on photographic guides but this one really is good with lots of useful text on identification features and there are surprisingly few missing species that will affect its use in Portugal.

Chris Packham was just one of several television presenters who were there, some giving talks, some signing books.  Chris took part in a well-attended debate about the issue of Hen Harrier persecution associated with driven grouse shooting and was promoting the petition that it is hoped will result in getting this subject a debate in Parliament.

Because we’re usually too busy talking, we don’t manage to find much time at the Birdfair for actual birdwatching.  We did see a Great Egret while trying out a Swarovski telescope but we can’t wait now to get back to some proper birdwatching in the Algarve. 

Monday, 4 July 2016

The Farne Islands, Northumberland

“There is something really special about colonies of breeding seabirds and no matter how many times one sees them on film there’s nothing like actually being there to experience firsthand the wonderful smell and the noise.”  That’s what we wrote five years ago (!) when we visited Bempton Cliffs RSPB reserve in Yorkshire.


Ever since then it has been our intention to visit another seabird colony with Skomer Island and the Farne Islands at the top of our list.  However, crossing to offshore islands to see breeding seabirds isn’t entirely straightforward, particularly if your starting point is in Portugal!  We needed to find an opportunity during what is always a busy time of the year and then we needed some settled weather for the boat crossing.

Atlantic Puffins - very cute!

Finally, this year, we made it.  After just a few days back in the UK we headed north to Northumberland and the Farnes.  Located just off the coast near Bamburgh, the Farnes are well-known as the home of thousands of breeding seabirds and were featured recently on the BBC Springwatch programme, so they need little introduction from us.

Arctic Tern

We spent just three days in Northumberland visiting Holy Island as well as the Farnes.  Our trip to the Farnes was on a boat from Seahouses operated by Billy Shiel.  We landed on Staple Island and on Inner Farne and had a little over two hours on each.

Bamburgh Castle - we stayed nearby

Seahouses harbour

Puffins (about 40,000 pairs) and Arctic Terns (about 2,000 pairs) are probably the main attractions but in recent years there has been a big increase in the number of Guillemots with more than 50,000 individuals counted.  What a nightmare it must be counting that lot - we have difficulty counting just two or three thousand birds at Castro Marim!  In all, about two dozen species nest on the islands, a total that includes several passerines.

Grey Seal - one of the many hundreds

Guillemot - numbers have increased dramatically in recent years

Northern Fulmar - Found only on St Kilda until the 1900s, now 500,000 pairs nest around the British coast

European Shag - the name apparently means 'tufted'

Rock Pipit feeding young

Common Shelduck - just a pair or two breed

Razorbill - one of the world's less numerous auk species

Settled weather and a healthy supply of food are the two important factors that lead to breeding success and from all the signs the auks were doing well.  All three species were bringing in plenty of their staple diet of sandeels.  Arctic Terns, on the other hand, were having a more difficult time finding food, we were told.  What the eventual outcome of the season will be only time will tell.

Atlantic Puffin with sandeels

Arctic Tern - the longest of long-distance migrants

Eider Duck - about 600 pairs breed

Black-legged Kittiwake - said to be the world's most numerous gull species

Red Squirrel - not on the islands but not far from Bamburgh

Being in such close proximity to so many birds (and hundreds of Grey Seals) was a memorable experience and we won’t want to leave it another five years before we enjoy again that distinctive smell and the constant calling of Kittiwakes.

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Lesser Kestrels & Rollers

Regular readers will know that we are frequent visitors to the Baixo Alentejo.  We love birding around the Castro Verde area and have got to know it well over the years.

We are members of the Liga para a Protecção da Natureza (LPN) and often call in at their Environmental Education Centre at Vale Gonçalinho.  Recently we spent a morning there watching and photographing Lesser Kestrels and Rollers from one of the hides.  Using a hide in this way not only helps us obtain better photographs but importantly it avoids unnecessary disturbance to the birds, many of which were feeding young still in the nests.

Lesser Kestrels and European Rollers are both species that suffered population declines in the second half of the last century.  However, there are indications now that population levels of both have at least stabilised.

The main cause of declines has been habitat loss and degradation, primarily the result of agricultural intensification but also afforestation and urbanisation.  The replacement of grazed grasslands and dry cereal cultivation with vineyards and crops such as maize and sunflower has reduced the abundance and accessibility of the large insects, reptiles and small rodents that are their main food sources.  Pesticide use has also had a negative impact on prey populations.

Thanks to the efforts of the LPN an extensive area around Castro Verde was designated in 1999 as a Special Protection Area (SPA) under the EU Habitats Directive.  In this SPA extensive agricultural practices predominate with cereals rotating with fallow lands, resulting in an annual mosaic of crops, ploughed lands, stubbles and fallow areas. The fallow areas are generally used as pasture for sheep and cattle.  There are also holm oak groves and olive plantations.

Loss of nest sites has also been an issue for Lesser Kestrels and Rollers and the LPN has addressed this by building a number of walls and towers, which are effectively nest-boxes.  These can be seen dotted around the area with two of them at Vale Gonçalinho.  Many of the farms in the area also have nest-boxes.

Lesser Kestrels can return to the Alentejo as early as February; Rollers arrive later, in early April.  Whether this puts the Rollers at a disadvantage when it comes to selecting a nest-site isn’t clear but what can be seen increasingly is that both species face competition from a growing population of Western Jackdaws.  Reducing slightly the dimensions of the entrance to each nest-box might help keep the Jackdaws out but may also prevent their use by Rollers.

Migratory birds are potentially more vulnerable to environmental change than sedentary species; they rely on different, widely-separated sites for breeding and for over-wintering and others in-between for ‘re-fuelling’ during their migration.  In the past we have been able to find out about their movements through ringing but in recent years much more information has come from the use of satellite transmitters and geo-locators.  We now know, for instance, that the Rollers from Iberia that carried geo-locators took a westerly route in the autumn along the coast of West Africa, avoiding as far as possible the Sahara Desert, and then had a stopover in Cameroon or Congo before continuing to Angola and Namibia.  What a journey!

Although some Lesser Kestrels winter as far south even as South Africa, satellite-tracked birds from Spain went only as far as Senegal.  In January 2007, a single roost was found there containing an estimated 28,600 birds.  Imagine how many grasshoppers and locusts those birds were consuming and what the effect on the population would be if that food source disappeared for some reason.

In addition to Rollers and Lesser Kestrels, the Castro Verde SPA is home to Great & Little Bustards, Black-bellied Sandgrouse, Calandra Larks and many more species including numerous raptors such as Spanish Imperial Eagle and Montagu’s Harrier.  In late October, Common Cranes come from the north to spend the winter and flocks of Lapwings, Golden Plovers and Skylarks arrive.

Just writing about it makes us want to be there!

Saturday, 21 May 2016

Back into our routine

With Peter now back in the Algarve after his travels for Avian Adventures we have returned this week to our usual routine that includes birding in both the Algarve and Baixo Alentejo, some photography and some reading of colour-rings.

We began on Monday with a trip to the salinas at Olhão where two Red-necked Phalaropes had been seen during the previous few days. This species is classified as a rarity here and is always a delight to see. With good directions we easily found one of them but have to assume that the other one had departed.

 Red-necked Phalarope
Whilst in the Olhão area we called in at Quinta de Marim. This was partly to see our friends at RIAS but also to have a look for a Marbled Duck that had been seen and photographed on the small freshwater pond there. Marbled Duck is a species that many visiting birders want to see and ask us to find for them, presumably not realising what a scarce bird it has become in Iberia. The last record in the Algarve was in January 1997!

Marbled Duck

It used to be that they could be found across the border in Doñana but relatively few remain there and they aren’t easy to find. The breeding population is very small and has undergone a large and rapid decline because of destruction and degradation of breeding habitat. Many of the wetlands in North Africa where they spend the winter have also beeen destroyed.

Marbled Duck

When we found the duck it was quickly obvious that it had a yellow ring on its right leg and this it would seem is evidence that it originates from a Spanish re-introduction project. For more precise details it will be necessary to read the inscription on the ring, something that won’t be easily achieved!

We did hear that there had been a report of two Marbled Ducks at Quinta de Marim, which together with the secretive behaviour of the bird we saw has given rise to speculation that a breeding attempt might be in progress. Now that would be exciting!

A morning out around Tavira with the camera resulted in some pleasing portraits of European Bee-eaters. We also spent some time at a small puddle where Serins and Goldfinches were drinking and bathing and House Martins were collecting mud.

 European Bee-eater

House Martin

We spent a full day in the Castro Verde area where we saw most of the expected species including thirteen raptor species, European Rollers and both Little & Great Bustards. Rufous-tailed Scrub Robins (aka Rufous Bush Chats), Collared Pratincoles, Cattle Egrets and Gull-billed Terns were also getting on with the business of breeding. We also saw four Mute Swans but we’re not sure what they were doing there!

 Eurasian Griffon

 Gull-billed Tern

Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin

Cattle Egret

An enjoyable afternoon was taken up with a visit to the Audouin’s Gull breeding colony in the Ria Formosa. This species began breeding in the Algarve in 2001 and it’s amazing that there are now estimated to be 1,800 pairs here.  Forty years ago the global population was estimated to be only 1,000 pairs! The population has expanded owing to increased availability of fisheries discards close to key breeding colonies, something that could in future be affected by the EU Common Fisheries Policy. We managed to read a few colour-rings including some indicating that the birds originated from the Ebro Delta in Spain, site of the largest colony in the Mediterranean. There is also a substantial breeding colony of Yellow-legged Gulls on the island.

 Audouin's Gull

 Yellow-legged Gulls