Friday, 26 December 2008

Back on the local patch

With the forecast for the weekend and beyond including the possibility of rain, we decided to take advantage of today’s glorious weather and have a walk from Tavira, around the saltpans towards Santa Luzia. It’s a walk we do fairly regularly and amongst the 60 or so species recorded in an almost entirely wetland area there were few surprises. An exception was a Common Quail that we flushed from the vegetation at the edge of one of the pans. It flew up from almost under our feet and we had really a good view of it in flight. It may seem an unlikely place in which to see a Quail but it is not the first time we have come across them in this habitat.

Notable among 20 species of shorebirds were 109 Knot roosting on the saltpans at high tide and a colour-ringed Black-tailed Godwit, details of which we have reported. An Osprey, in the middle of a dry pan eating a fish, was in exactly the same place that we saw it on 26th November and 14th December. Birds really are creatures of habit!

Santa Luzia saltpans

Most of the ducks that were here last month now seem to have moved on leaving just 30 or so Teal and a couple of Shoveler. Numbers of Greater Flamingos and Spoonbills are also much reduced now; just 35 Flamingos today and even fewer Spoonbills.

We found just a single Audouin’s Gull and a handful of Mediterranean Gulls among the many Lesser Black-backs and Black-headeds; the Caspian Tern that flew over was probably the same bird we saw in Tavira yesterday. Our walk was enlivened by frequent sightings of Kingfishers. It’s difficult to say how many individuals were involved but probably half a dozen at least and always nice to see.

Finally, the predicted maximum temperature today (www.google.co.uk) was 16° C but by 2.00pm it was several degrees warmer; both Clouded Yellows and Wall Browns were flying. Not bad for Boxing Day!

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Castro Marim and Tavira

We began the day at the Cerro do Bufo section of the Castro Marim reserve. There were no particular target species and on a cloudy, cool morning with very poor light that was perhaps as well! Most of the usual gulls, waders and wildfowl were present, plus numerous Greater Flamingos, Spoonbills and Cormorants, three or four Marsh Harriers, a Peregrine Falcon, a Common Kestrel and a Common Buzzard.

However, smaller birds were difficult to see in the gloom and we cut short our usual walk and instead drove to the Visitor Centre. By mid-morning the sun was trying to break through but during our stay of half an hour or so we saw few additional species other than a Sandwich Tern and six Caspian Terns.

From there we headed to Vila Real do Santo António (VRSA) stopping on the way when a flock of Azure-winged Magpies flew across the road. We tend to take these birds for granted but seen for the first time they are definitely a reason to hit the brakes and pull over!

At VRSA, we spent about 20 minutes by the River Carrasqueira, where if we had had more time we might have looked for a Red-knobbed Coot among the numerous Eurasian Coots. As it was, we contented ourselves with good views of Greater Flamingos, Pintail, Shoveler, Black-tailed Godwits, Kentish Plover and Curlew Sandpipers. A Little Tern also came quite close. We returned to Tavira for lunch having seen about 70 species, which wasn’t a bad result given the rather poor start.

The afternoon was devoted to photography at one of our regular sites just outside Tavira. All of the species that came within range were ones we had photographed before but there is always the chance of something new and it is always fun to try and improve on what we have done previously. This Hoopoe actually came a bit too close; the Goldfinch on the other hand posed quite nicely on a thistle head.





Monday, 22 December 2008

Back to Doñana

Another wonderful day in Paradise - or Doñana National Park as it is also known. Only three days after our last visit we returned with a fairly modest list of target species that proved no problem at all. The temperature reached at least 19° C and everyone went home happy!
We actually missed one or two of the species seen on Friday but we saw the important ones - Red-knobbed Coot, White-headed Duck, Black Stork, Common Crane, Booted Eagle, Short-toed Eagle, Black-shouldered Kite, Red-crested Pochard, Black-crowned Night Heron, Purple Swamp-hen, Spoonbill, Lesser Short-toed Lark and Glossy Ibis.

It is hard to describe what a great place this is. Just seeing so many Marsh Harriers and Kestrels is an experience in itself, not to mention the countless Little, Cattle and Great Egrets, Grey Herons and White Storks. At one site, both Avocets and Black-winged Stilts numbered more than 100, but otherwise waders were relatively few with Green Sandpipers the most numerous. There must have been at least 2000 Shovelers and they easily outnumbered all of the other duck species put together. Other raptors seen included a Sparrowhawk and a Peregrine Falcon, plus several Common Buzzards and Red Kites.

What a great day!

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Tavira saltpans

After spending most of last week away from here we’ve been quite busy today but this afternoon with the temperature around 20° C and the sky completely cloudless we couldn’t resist popping out for a walk down the road to the saltpans. We said we would be out for an hour but as can so often happen on such a gorgeous day, we were away for more than two!

We saw only about 40 species but a flock of 38 Stone Curlews was a new record number for us here in Tavira. On a newly ploughed field we found a couple of Mediterranean Gulls amongst a flock of mainly Black-headed Gulls and later a single Slender-billed Gull wasn’t hard to spot among the commoner species. Several Gannets passed off-shore and around the saltpans there were the usual waders, a Kingfisher, a Southern Grey Shrike and, of course…lots and lots of Chiffchaffs!

Sevilla

We’re just back from Spain. We were there with five representatives of other birding tour companies (two Brits, three Dutch) and a Spanish photo-journalist for a four-night stay at the invitation of Turismo de Doñana. From our point of view the object of the trip was to see parts of Sevilla province that we hadn’t visited previously and to find out more about those areas with which we are already reasonably familiar and perhaps learn about some new birding sites.

After spending the first night in El Pedroso, north of Sevilla, we spent much of the first day touring the Parque Natural de la Sierra Norte de Sevilla, a pleasant enough area of smooth, rounded hills with woods of stone pines and oaks and crossed by several rivers. Although we did see an immature Spanish Imperial Eagle, the truth is that we didn’t have a great day’s birding, spending too much time in the minivan as we tried to cover a huge amount of countryside. However, the bird list we were given suggests that it might be a very worthwhile area to explore in the spring and summer when Booted and Short-toed Eagles, Black, Griffon and Egyptian Vultures, Montagu’s Harriers, Black-shouldered Kites and Black Storks are all possible.

Our second day was spent in two areas to the south and east of Sevilla. We began by driving to Coripe where on a really cold and frosty morning began a walk of 6km along the Via Verde, a disused railway track that actually took us just a short way out of Sevilla province into Cádiz province. In spite of the temperature this was a most enjoyable walk that produced plenty of birds, including Hawfinch and Cirl Bunting before we reached Peñón de Zaframagón Interpretation Centre and Ornithological Observatory. Here is one of the largest colonies of Griffon Vultures in Europe. Apart from the vultures themselves, the main feature here is a remotely-sited digital video camera with a 300mm lens that allows real-time images of the birds and their nests to be seen on a screen inside the Centre. Bonelli’s Eagles also breed here and we were able to watch some wonderful footage taken earlier in the year of a pair of eagles bathing. No Bonelli’s Eagles to be seen now, unfortunately.

From here we went north to La Lantejuela where on the extensive plains that surround the village we were taken to see a flock of about 30 Great Bustards. Also in the same area we saw Stone Curlews and several of the common raptor species. At the edge of the village itself we had a brief visit in rapidly fading light to a complex of sewage and water treatment lagoons. There were Little and Black-necked Grebes here and a selection of the common duck species but it looked like a place that could be very productive at another time of the year. White-headed Ducks are said to breed here.

Our last full day was spent around the eastern side of Doñana National Park, including a stop at the Jose Antonio Valverde Visitor Centre. This was mostly familiar territory for us and it came as no surprise to see Greater Flamingos, Spoonbills, White-headed Ducks, Red-knobbed Coots, Purple Swamp-hen, Little Bustard, Common Cranes, Black-crowned Night Herons and countless raptors. A gathering of about 2000 White Storks was quite a sight and with them were Glossy Ibises, Wood Sandpipers and about a dozen Yellow Wagtails. We spent the last hour or so of the day in the Aznalcázar pinewoods in the hope if not with any real expectation of seeing a Spanish Lynx. Our consolation was standing in the dark listening to Tawny, Long-eared and Eagle Owls, all calling at the same time. This just after actually seeing a Little Owl!

Common Kestrel

On Saturday morning, after a short return visit to the pinewoods, we were taken to the FIBES Exhibition Centre in Sevilla to visit Sevilla Son Sus Pueblos, an event promoting tourism in Sevilla province. Sometimes the more formal segments of trips like this, when we have to leave our binoculars behind, can be a bit of a chore but this was definitely an exception. There was a workshop and an opportunity to discuss some of the issues involved in attracting birdwatching tourism to Sevilla; afterwards we enjoyed looking at the many stands on which the small towns and villages surrounding the city displayed their individual attractions.

All in all it was an excellent opportunity to see quite a few places that we might not otherwise have visited. We also renewed existing friendships and enjoyed great hospitality in some very nice hotels and restaurants. Many thanks to all at Turismo de Doñana and especially to Sergio and Manolo, our driver/guides.

Monday, 15 December 2008

Ludo & Quinta do Lago

An early flight from Faro this morning but thankfully not for us, we just gave one of our neighbours a lift to the airport! It was just the excuse we needed to spend a few hours around the nearby Ludo Farm and Quinta do Lago area. It began as a quite a chilly morning and there was quite a breeze but by midday we both felt that we wearing at least one layer of clothing too many.

There were few surprises among the species that we recorded. An adult Little Gull was unusual but it has been at Lago do Sã o Lourenç o for a few days now so we were looking for it. Three species of hirundines were perhaps not to be expected in mid-December but with lots of Clouded Yellow butterflies along the trail they really didn’t seem out of place on a sunny morning.
Wildfowl numbers had increased since our last visit here and there are now something like 2,000 Wigeon, which out number all the other duck species put together. White Storks had also increased and at one point there were at least 80 in the air together.


White Stork

Raptors included Marsh Harrier, Common Buzzard and a couple of Booted Eagles; there were 20 species of waders and a single Caspian Tern was with the flock of mainly Lesser Black-backed and Black-headed Gulls. Amongst those making up the total of 75 species seen were Serin, Sardinian Warbler, Hoopoe, Bluethroat, Zitting Cisticola, Purple Swamp-hen, Azure-winged Magpie, Crested Lark, Greater Flamingo and Spoonbill.

All in all, a very pleasant morning!

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Bunting hunting

It was a little over a month ago that we received a call from Simon Wates telling us that Thijs Valkenburg had just trapped and ringed a Little Bunting at a site near Portimão. At that point the bird had still not been released but we were in Tavira, a 90-minute drive away, much too long a time to keep it held in a bag. Little Bunting is quite a rare species in Portugal and it would have been nice to see one here but clearly this wasn’t going to be it.

And then earlier this week came the news that a Little Bunting had been seen again at the same ringing site! Assuming that this must be the same bird and that it had been in the area for at least a month, we figured that it probably wasn’t going anywhere any time soon. Waiting for a day when the weather was forecast to be sunny and warm seemed sensible and so we fixed with Ray Tipper and Simon that we would all go bunting hunting today.

Well our luck changed! We were well on our way west when once again a call came from Simon. The message this time was quite simple - he was already at the ringing site and we were to join him there as quickly as possible! Thijs had just caught a bunting…but it wasn’t a Little Bunting!
When we arrived, there was a certain amount of excitement amongst those present as Thijs was processing what we could quickly see was a Rustic Bunting, a first-winter male. We are currently aware of only one previous record of this species in Portugal, one trapped at Alvor in November 1990. Our timing was perfect!

Rustic Bunting

Later, we spent a long time searching for our original target, the Little Bunting, but to no avail. The site is extensive and comprises rice fields with adjacent marsh and reedbeds. Birds in the rice stubble were almost impossible to see. We did see Water Pipits, Meadow Pipits, White Wagtails and Corn Buntings and there were 20 or more Reed Buntings to scrutinise but it was like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. More obvious were Common Snipe, Green Sandpiper and a couple of Black-winged Stilts, plus a Marsh Harrier and a Peregrine Falcon that flew over, while Blackcap, Bluethroat, Common Waxbill and Spotted Munia were amongst the species mist-netted while we were there.
Eventually we gave up and headed for home, making a brief visit on the way to the Parque Ambiental at Vilamoura. Here we had good views of a first-winter Black-crowned Night Heron, never an easy species to find in the Algarve.


Black-crowned Night Heron

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Colour-ringing

Colour-ringing is a valuable research technique that enables studies to be made that would be impossible using just the usual numbered metal ring. The main and obvious advantage is that a colour-ringed bird can be identified as an individual without the need for it to be re-captured and the ring number read. It follows from this that repeated sightings of a bird will yield much more information than could ever be hoped for from conventional ringing. Some colour-ringing projects involve behavioural research in a restricted area such as detailing the day-to-day activities of particular birds, while others are concerned mainly with movements between areas and following and discovering the timing of seasonal migrations. The website http://www.cr-birding.be/ maintained by Dirk Raes has details of all the European colour-ringing projects and this is our prime source of information.

There are lots of colour-ringed birds here on the Algarve. Over the last few years we’ve seen lots of Greater Flamingos and Spoonbills, several Slender-billed Gulls and Audouin’s Gulls, a Black-tailed Godwit and at least one Black-winged Stilt. More often than not the Flamingos, Spoonbills and gulls are too far away for us to read the rings, while Black-tailed Godwits in particular are nearly always in such deep water that we can’t see whether they have rings or not. Sometimes it requires a lot of time and patience to get the ring details and be sure that it has been read accurately. To be honest, we have to be in the right mood but when we do get ring details and send off a report we are always interested in the response we receive - if we get one! Dirk Raes warns that while some colour-ringing schemes provide swift replies, others don’t reply at all, which we find both surprising and disappointing. It is the feedback we receive that is our motivation for reading and reporting colour rings. We are never going to be in the mood to read rings on some species because we know that we ourselves will never learn anything as a result of reporting them.

Colour-ringed Spoonbill

Recently (27th November) we saw a colour-ringed Spoonbill at Alvor and sent the details to Otto Overdijk in The Netherlands. We had a reply almost immediately. The bird, probably a male, had been ringed as a nestling on 29th May this year in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany. It was later seen in Denmark (August) and was reported from Lagoa dos Salgados here in the Algarve on 8th October. Thank you Otto for sharing these details and for replying so quickly.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Local birding

Since our trip to the Alentejo on Sunday we’ve stayed mainly around Tavira this week. There’s been some photography from our mobile hide (aka the car) and we’ve explored on foot areas not far from here that we’ve previously only driven past.

The photography involved, amongst others, a frustratingly mobile Grey Wagtail made all the more difficult to photograph by an aggressive White Wagtail that would chase it off at regular intervals. This is a familiar scenario that we have watched at the same site on numerous occasions through October and November, presumably involving the same individuals.

Grey Wagtail

Apart from that we have checked on the ‘Grey Egret’ at Santa Luzia which was in its usual place; we’ve looked in on the local Barn Owl at its roost; we’ve seen Redwing (scarce in the Eastern Algarve) and Woodlarks just outside town and we’ve had a Short-toed Eagle fly over the nearby quarry.

We did venture as far as Vila Real do Santo António (we like to call it VRSA) for a couple of hours yesterday afternoon. It’s an unusual town, unique in the Algarve, in that the streets are laid out in a right-angle grid system. If you want shops that sell towels and bed linen, this is the place for you - the town centre is full of them! We did what we had to do and then drove just out of the town to the mouth of the Guadiana River to see whether we could find any Little Terns. Most Little Terns leave Europe in October to spend the winter off the coast of West Africa, some going as far as Ivory Coast and Ghana. However, a few usually remain here alternating between the river mouth and the nearby saltpans at Castro Marim. We counted 12 at Castro Marim on 23rd November but could find only three yesterday on the river. About 100 Oystercatchers were on a sandbank in the middle of the river but, as the Guadiana is the international border, they might have been in Spain!

And wherever we’ve been, no matter what the habitat, we have seen Chiffchaffs, gazillions of Chiffchaffs!

Monday, 1 December 2008

Target birding

Today we were target birding in the Alentejo with visitors from Germany. Their wish list contained just three species: Little Bustard, Spanish Imperial Eagle and Monk Vulture. Easy, we hear you say! But wait a minute, this is Portugal and it’s December!

The morning was bright and sunny but the wind was cold and birding from the car suited everyone. Raptors were the first to grab our attention; a Common Buzzard, a Black-shouldered Kite, a Red Kite and then more of the same. Then we came across our first Great Bustards, two of them and much closer to the road than we normally expect to see them. Not a bad start, but what about the target species?

We have a regular spot where we go to look for Great Bustards and where we sometimes also see Little Bustards. We drove down the track, stopped and without leaving the car had a good search round the fields to our right. Nothing! Then we saw two Red Kites on the ground and another on a nearby pole. They were perhaps 100 metres away but it looked like they had a carcass or at least food of some description. And then to our left, also on the ground and presumably wanting to share a meal, was an immature Spanish Imperial Eagle. Ravens were also showing interest and it was probably some mobbing from one of these that prompted the eagle to fly. We had quite good views of it on the ground and then in flight - not the Little Bustards we expected here, but one down, two to go!

Further down the track we had reasonably close views of more Great Bustards, a flock of 32. Then in the distance a much larger flock, maybe 50 or more Little Bustards took to the air briefly…and then promptly disappeared completely once they were on the ground again. They were a very long way off and it wasn’t a very convincing view, especially if it’s the first time you’ve seen this species. There was nothing we could do about it, no roads that would take us any nearer, nothing. A near miss!

As we were making to leave, a pale-phase Booted Eagle passed overhead and then another 28 Great Bustards were seen on the way to our regular lunch site on the hill top. It was a bit breezy up there but the view was wonderful and we managed to find some shelter while we enjoyed a sandwich and a cup of coffee. Looking down from this superb vantage point we saw 20 or so Common Cranes in a field to the north and 128 Great Bustards to the south but unusually no raptors were flying.

The afternoon saw the continuation of our search for Little Bustards and again we did see a flock of them in flight but even more distant than the earlier ones and totally unsatisfactory. There were more Great Bustards and three Black-bellied Sandgrouse for our efforts but not much more. By 3.00pm the weather was deteriorating and we were already thinking that we might have to switch to Plan B. But first, let’s try another look in the place where we saw the eagle this morning.

As we stopped the car at the point from which we had seen the Spanish Imperial Eagle earlier, we immediately saw that there was another large bird feeding on the carcass with Red Kites in attendance. Identification was obvious and immediate - it was a Monk Vulture (or Black Vulture as we still like to call them). Through telescopes we could see that it was probably a juvenile bird and eventually we also had brief views of it in flight as it took itself off to a nearby field. Two down, one to go!

Now it was threatening to rain and it really was time to put Plan B into action. This involved driving back to the Algarve via Mértola and trying to find Little Bustards at our regular site, Castro Marim. We arrived there in time to have half an hour or so of decent light remaining and after some searching we did indeed find what appeared at first to be a flock of six Little Bustards. Then a Marsh Harrier came by, the Little Bustards flew…and there were 15 of them.

Game, set and match!

Sunday, 30 November 2008

Sunday morning

After a couple of days of much cooler weather with not too much sun and more than enough rain, it was pleasant to be out this morning in bright sunshine. There was quite a strong wind at times, which meant that it was never really very warm but it was a definite improvement on Friday and Saturday and better than the forecast. Unfortunately, the rain had made the trail at Castro Marim rather muddy but this gave us a rare opportunity to wear our wellie boots, brought from the UK for just such days.

From a birding point of view it was an unremarkable morning that yielded just over 70 species, none of them unexpected, but when they include Greater Flamingo, Spoonbill, Little Bustard, Audouin’s Gull, Hoopoe, Crag Martin, Southern Grey Shrike, Azure-winged Magpie, Spanish Sparrow, Serin, Spotless Starling, Sardinian Warbler and 16 different waders it’s impossible not to be impressed.

The numbers were also impressive. On the saltpans there were hundreds of Flamingos, Northern Shovelers, Pied Avocets, Black-tailed Godwits, Lesser Black-backed and Black-headed Gulls and on the river we counted almost 400 Eurasian Coots as we searched through them looking in vain for a Red-knobbed. On the surrounding farmland, Golden Plover numbered around 150 and there were big flocks of Skylarks, Goldfinches, Linnets, House Sparrows and European Starlings.

Marsh Harriers are common here but we never tire of seeing them and they often help us by disturbing the wildfowl and waders from the far side of the marsh to which we have no access. There were two of them this morning, struggling to cope with the wind. Eurasian Teal and Northern Pintail rose from the water as they passed over but the small handful of Greylag Geese remained unconcerned.

Marsh Harrier

We stayed until lunch time and then made a brief visit to Altura tank before returning to Tavira for a welcome bowl of hot soup!

Thursday, 27 November 2008

A Rocha

When Dave and Sue Smallshire were here recently they gave us two publications that Dave acquired on his last visit to Portugal 17 years ago. They were the A Rocha Observatory Report for the year 1990 and An Atlas of the Wintering Birds in the Western Algarve, published in 1987, also by A Rocha. Both of these have made really interesting reading and it is clear that the status of several species, not surprisingly, has changed significantly over the last 20 years or so.

Anyway, reading these reports prompted us to head west this morning to visit Cruzinha, the base from which A Rocha has been researching and monitoring the wildlife, particularly birds, of Quinta da Rocha and the Ria da Alvor for more than 20 years. Situated midway between Lagos and Portimã o, the Ria de Alvor is one of the most significant coastal wetlands in southern Portugal. It was designated as a RAMSAR site in May 1996 and it is also one of the Natura 2000 network of sites. However, if you thought that these titles implied a degree of protection for the area you would be wrong - this is Portugal! Right from the start A Rocha has been faced with the threat of building development and that threat continues, as does the fight to safeguard the future of an area the importance of which for wildlife has been amply demonstrated. Unfortunately, in these parts the interests of wildlife are considered much less important than those of developers even when internationally recognised and designated sites are involved.

Bird ringing by A Rocha began in 1985 and since then more than 60,000 birds have been ringed. Every Thursday visitors are welcomed to the observatory to watch the ringing activity or indeed, if qualified and licenced to do so, actually help. Marcial Felgueiras had already completed the first net round when we arrived and we watched for an hour or more as the birds were ringed, weighed and measured. The catch comprised mainly of Robins, Blackcaps and Chiffchaffs but there was one surprise, a Goldcrest, only the eighth of this species caught here. Slightly concerning was the generally poor condition and low weights of the Chiffchaffs, perhaps an indication that they were recent arrivals. The Blackcaps, on the other hand, seemed to be well fed.

Goldcrest

Later we had a walk around the nearby marsh where we found the expected wader species, plus about 20 Greater Flamingos, a couple of Spoonbills, a Bluethroat and numerous Meadow Pipits and Spanish Sparrows. One of the Spoonbills was colour-ringed (lots of them are) and we have reported the details.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Back to Castro Marim

Yesterday was a photography day as a result of which we have added new images of Azure-winged Magpie, Black Redstart, Chiffchaff, Linnet and Dartford warbler to the slideshow on our website. Of the fifteen species that came within camera range the most remarkable, however, was a Pied Flycatcher, the first we have seen since 15th October. Although it was able to fly, it did seem to have sustained some damage to its left wing so perhaps had decided against going for the trans-Saharan crossing hoping instead to survive the winter here. We’ll keep an eye open for it.
Pied Flycatcher

Today we were at Castro Marim (again) and as usual recorded more than 80 species. On a warm sunny morning it was difficult to be surprised by Yellow Wagtail and Barn Swallow and really there was nothing unexpected. Almost the first birds we saw were three Little Bustards, a species that we have seen on six out of our eight visits since the beginning of October but in four different, widely separated areas of the reserve so that they are never guaranteed. Other highlights were a single Slender-billed Gull (a species that we are hoping SPEA will soon accept is not a rarity!), Lesser Short-toed Lark, 12 Little Terns, 2 Caspian Terns, Peregrine Falcon, 110 Black-necked Grebes, about 40 Shelducks and at least 25 Stone Curlews.
We ate our lunch by the Guadiana River and couldn’t resist trying yet again for flight pictures of Sandwich Terns. However, none were an improvement on the earlier, more easily obtained images of birds on the saltpans.

Sandwich Terns

As usual, we stopped at Altura on the way home but nothing much there had changed since our last visit. Counting the birds on and around the tank is never easy but there looked to be about 100 Mallard, 50 Common Pochard, four Northern Shoveler, about 20 Little Grebes and ten Eurasian Coots.

Friday, 21 November 2008

Double Crested!

With an unusually high number of Yellow-browed Warblers occurring this autumn in Britain and other parts of Western Europe it was probably just a matter of time before the species was reported in Portugal. Yesterday afternoon we received word of one in the Algarve, at Barranco Velho. Apparently it was found alongside the main road by a lucky birder who was walking back to his car having stopped in the village to buy a bottle of water. Unfortunately, it has not been seen since but it has put us on notice (as if we needed it!) that treasures can be found amongst all the hundreds of Chiffchaffs.

Yellow-browed Warbler follows Dusky Warbler, Little Bunting and Wallcreeper in a list of recent rarities here in which Goldcrest has gone unmentioned. Although not as rare in Portugal as a whole as the other three, Goldcrest is definitely a scarce bird in the Algarve and several long time birders have been seeing them here for the first time during the last couple of weeks. Today we caught up with Goldcrest at Ludo where we were birding with our friend, Georg Schreier. We had seen three Firecrests before the ‘rare’ Goldcrest appeared!

Firecrest

One of the main reasons for going to Ludo was to try and photograph Penduline Tit, a mission that proved impossible. It wasn’t that we couldn’t find our bird, just that it (or possibly they) showed no signs of wanting to co-operate. Other species of note here before we went off to nearby Faro beach for a cup of coffee were Common Buzzard, Booted Eagle and Iberian Green Woodpecker.

Later we made a rare visit to the ETAR da Zona Noroeste de Faro - the water treatment works by the airport. Access is currently even more difficult than usual as building works are in progress but through the perimeter fence we were able to see that most of the ducks were Shoveler with a few Teal and Gadwall amongst them, plus a few Little Grebes and Eurasian Coots. Our reward for an otherwise unremarkable visit was a Great Egret, a scarce bird in these parts and maybe the same individual we saw in the Ludo area almost three weeks ago.

The temperature today again reached about 70º F. Amongst several butterflies seen was a Wall Brown.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Doñana National Park

Yesterday we crossed the border into Andalucía for a visit to Doñana National Park probably one of the best known birdwatching sites in Europe. It is a vast area and in a day trip it is possible to cover only a small part.

We chose to head for the José Antonio Valverde Visitor Centre and we timed our visit so that we could have our lunch there. On our way to the Visitor Centre we made numerous stops beginning at a lagoon that had thousands of ducks on it, the vast majority of which were Northern Shovelers. We spent quite a while searching for the local specialities, Marbled Duck, Red-knobbed Coot and White-headed Duck but found only the last of these. At least seven White-headed Ducks were comparatively easy to see even amongst the huge flocks. The lagoon also held maybe 100 Great Flamingos and Black-winged Stilts in numbers that were uncountable - thousands of them. Add Little Egrets, Cormorants, Eurasian Coots, Little and Black-necked Grebes and it made quite a sight, particularly when a Marsh Harrier or a Red Kite passed over and spooked a few hundred birds.

A short distance further on we found our Red-knobbed Coot at a fairly reliable sight for this species that we have seen only occasionally in Portugal. There were several of them wearing neck collars just like the one that occurred at Quinta do Lago earlier this year. Also here was the only Black-crowned Night Heron of the day.

Apart from the stilts it was surprising how few waders we saw. There was an occasional Greenshank but otherwise the most frequently seen species during the day was Green Sandpiper. As we drove along rough tracks with ditches on either side, we flushed Green Sandpipers on numerous occasions. Greenshanks and Green Sandpipers are two of our favourite species - we really are tringaphiles!

Of course there were plenty of White Storks and during the day we came across a dozen or more Black Storks. And eventually we found Cranes. Just how many Cranes there were is difficult to say but one flock that we saw in flight was estimated at about 700. They made a wonderful sight strung across the sky. Also see in skeins were hundreds of Greylag Geese.

Cranes in Spain flying over the plains

It was quite a good day for raptors. As well as Marsh Harriers and Red Kites we saw countless Common Kestrels, a couple of Hen Harriers, a single Griffon Vulture, a Short-toed Eagle and a Merlin. The Merlin was getting amongst the flocks of larks and pipits. There were simply hundreds of Lesser Short-toed Larks.

It was particularly pleasing to find a Barn Owl. It was roosting in a derelict building that we have checked for this species on almost every occasion we have been to Doñana. Today, at last, we found someone at home!

When we eventually reached the Visitor Centre there were rather few birds there compared with the numbers we see in the breeding season but as always we enjoyed watching Purple Swamp-hen and there were several Penduline Tits in the bulrushes.

As we were leaving the National Park, one of the day’s highlights was finding ourselves almost eyeball to eyeball with a Black-shouldered Kite. It was on a roadside post, no more than four feet high, eating a prey item and we managed to pull up almost alongside it before it reluctantly flew off, taking its meal with it. It isn’t often that we can get so close to a raptor in the wild.

Doñana is well know for its spectacular sunsets and as we headed for home the sky turned a marvellous mixture of orange and red that made a fine end to a most enjoyable day.

Sunday, 16 November 2008

North to the Alentejo

After days out in the west and to the east, today we travelled north to the Alentejo. The excellent weather continues - although the morning started very cold the temperature rose to around 70° F by mid afternoon.

Soon after leaving Mértola we saw our first Eurasian Griffons, about 15 of them on the ground. It was presumably much too cold at that point for them to think about flying, but later we saw several birds rising on the warm air.

Bustards were among the targets today and we soon found a group of 11 Great Bustards. It was only after we had been watching them for a while that we saw that there were also 20 or more Little Bustards just a short distance from them. When a couple of Black-bellied Sandgrouse flew by we knew we had stopped in the right place! Further on we stopped at our favourite Great Bustard view point and saw another three of these elegant birds. We also saw several more Black-bellied Sandgrouse.

As always in this area raptors were a feature of the day. Common Kestrels, Red Kites and Common Buzzards are numerous but we saw just one Hen Harrier, one Peregrine Falcon and two Black-shouldered Kites. The star bird of the day, however, was a Spanish Imperial Eagle. We saw it first soaring some way off and in fact there may have been two different birds. We could not be 100% sure of our identification as we looked against the light but we were reasonably confident. Later, at our lunch stop not only did we see one much closer but also with the light behind us and having gained some height we were actually looking at it from above. Now there was no doubt what it was!

The road between Mértola and Castro Verde is well know for the many White Stork nests on the roadside telegraph poles. There are stretches of road where there is a nest on just about every pole - or at least there were nests. For some reason during the summer the nests have been removed and when the storks return they are going to be in for a shock. Instead of a bit of gentle nest repair they will need to start nest building from scratch and with no platforms on the poles to help them the likelihood is that they will have problems. Probably they will take to the trees. It will be interesting to see what happens.

Sunday is a hunting day in Portugal and so all day we saw men wearing camouflage gear with dogs and guns. We do wonder, though, whether the disturbance they caused resulted in us seeing more birds. Certainly the bustards and sandgrouse seemed quite mobile and we saw several groups of them in flight.

On the way home we made a brief stop at Altura tank. The light had all but gone but it was clear that the numbers of Mallard, Common Pochard and Eurasian Coot had all increased since our last visit. No doubt we will be there again quite soon.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

West and East

Thursday was devoted to a trip out to the west: Cape St Vincent, Vale Santo, Sagres, etc. although it was another sunny, cloudless day again there was a chilly wind.

We began at the lighthouse where we quickly found a Blue rock Thrush and several Black Redstarts. We looked hard for Alpine Accentors up to about half a dozen of which have wintered here in the past. Last year our first was on 6th November but there was no sign of them today.
Looking back towards the raptor viewpoint we could see that there were Griffon Vultures in the air so we headed in that direction and eventually saw about 350 of them. There were also a couple of Egyptian Vultures, at least two Black Kites, maybe three Booted Eagles and a Black Stork. We stayed watching them for quite a while during which time at least 10 Short-toed Eagles and 10 Common Buzzards also passed over.

As we headed for Vale Santo, we came across a Ring Ouzel and later we saw three more, one of which at least seemed to be of the race alpestris. Vale Santo had a flock of 400 or more Golden Plovers; at one point they were panicked by two large falcons. Presumably they were Peregrines but we did recall that this was exactly where we once saw a Lanner Falcon. A large area of land had been ploughed and a tractor was still going back and forth with Cattle Egrets, White Storks and White Wagtails the main beneficiaries. There were lots of Meadow Pipits, Skylarks and Thekla Larks. Other birds of note seen during the day were Northern Gannets and a Shag, Crag Martins, Ravens and Red-billed Choughs.

Yesterday we went a short way east and spent the day at Castro Marim. It was far less windy than of late and we enjoyed some excellent birding. In the total of more than 80 species recorded the highlights for us were probably Little Bustards, Lesser Short-toed Larks, Yellow Wagtails and Northern Wheatear (both rather late), Hen Harrier and about 100 Black-necked Grebes. We were also pleased to see the Peregrine Falcon on its usual post. It is difficult, though, to pick highlights out of so many birds.

After several days with little but birding, today was earmarked for catching up on some domestic stuff - shopping, washing, etc. An Egyptian Vulture was seen over Tavira during the morning. Later we did find time to have a couple of hours around the Tavira and Santa Luzia saltpans where we counted 25 Audouin’s Gulls, the Grey Egret was in its usual place and we photographed a few waders. Bird of the afternoon was a Temminck’s Stint that flew in and dropped by the roadside. It quickly walked into water that almost covered its legs but you can just see that they are yellow.

Temminck's Stint

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Ludo & Quinta do Lago

Had it not been for the cold north westerly wind, today would have been just about a perfect birding day. The sun shone from a cloudless sky throughout and we recorded 87 species of birds. Once again we were at Ludo and Quinta do Lago. Did we think there might still be a chance that last week’s Dusky Warbler was in the area? Of course we did. Did we find it? Well, no but it didn’t really matter.

Dave and Sue Smallshire were with us, both of them dragonfly enthusiasts so it wasn’t just birds we were looking at. As a result, the walk that sometimes takes us five hours to complete today took just over six hours!

We started by climbing to a viewpoint from where we hoped, based on previous experience, that we might see some raptors; we saw two pale phase Booted Eagles almost overhead immediately we reached the top of the bank and a Peregrine Falcon followed just a few minutes later.
Then we began our walk, passing by a reedbed where a Penduline Tit was first heard and then seen very well at close range. A little further on we found a juvenile Black Stork and while we were watching that a Purple Heron appeared - two species that we definitely wouldn’t have predicted in the second week of November. It was that sort of day!

Glossy Ibis and Little Bittern both showed at Lago do São Lourenço, there were several good views of Bluethroats, most of the expected wildfowl and waders were there, plus Iberian Green Woodpecker, flocks of Azure-winged Magpies and lots more besides.

So there was no disappointment about the Dusky Warbler, nor about the Osprey that we apparently missed.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Tavira saltpans

After the Dusky Warbler last week came news of a Little Bunting trapped and ringed near Portimao, but both were eclipsed by yesterday's news of a Wallcreeper on the Algarve. It was seen only briefly and hasn't yet been re-located but we live in hope!

Today, an afternoon walk locally produced the usual selection of waders, (including several Little Stints and Greenshanks), Greater Flamingos, a Spoonbill or two, Mediterranean Gulls, a single Slender-billed Gull and several Kingfishers. Around the edges of the saltpans, Chiffchaffs and Sardinian Warblers were the common birds and there were a couple of sightings of Bluethroats.

Along the track that leads down to the saltpans we had good views of Common Waxbills, a single Dartford Warbler and several Zitting Cisticolas. In the distance we could see Northern Gannets passing just offshore.

Common Waxbill

Probably the ’best’ bird of the afternoon was a Black-shouldered Kite, seen at some distance but always a bird we enjoy. There was speculation as to whether it was the same bird we saw in the nearby Vale Formoso on 4th November. Anyway, we shall hope to see it again.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Dusky Warbler twitch

Well the builders came early as promised, they worked well for about two and a half hours and then, in the manner of builders everywhere, they left, promising to return tomorrow. Presumably they had other promises to fulfil today!

Although this was more than a little frustrating, it did mean that we could go out and this put the possibility of Dusky Warbler back on to the agenda. So off to Quinta do Lago we went.
We arrived at about 1.00pm to find just two people looking for the warbler. Simon and his pal, Thijs, had been there since 8.00am and thought they might at some point have heard a call that could have been Dusky Warbler…or possibly Yellow-backed Weaver. Not surprisingly, having put in a shift that was twice as long as our builders, they were soon ready to go and so we were left with the responsibility of finding the bird.

The information we had about the bird was that it was seen on Tuesday ‘in scrub near to the new hide at Quinta do Lago‘. It sounds quite precise until you get there and remember just how much scrub there is. The question soon arises: how near to the hide?

To cut a long story short, we drew a blank. We found ourselves looking at Chiffchaff after Chiffchaff and although we knew that we should quickly recognise a Dusky Warbler amongst all these Phylloscs it was difficult to avoid critically examining every one, lovely birds that they are. In fact it was quite educational (or as we say, confusing) to see how much they varied.

We put in a ’builders’ shift’ of two and a half hours and left at about 3.30pm. Our rewards were Little Bittern, Glossy Ibis, Water Rail, Purple Swamp-hen and all the usual birds of Lago do São Lourenço.

Glossy Ibis

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Santa Luzia saltpans

Cheered greatly by the overnight news from the USA, we set off this morning to do one of our regular walks. It was bright and sunny and warm enough to be wearing shorts, although by lunchtime there was a build-up of cloud.

Starting in Tavira the walk takes us over the extensive area of saltpans that lie between the town and neighbouring Santa Luzia. It is a great place to see waders and today we found 20 species, including four Golden Plovers that are unusual in this habitat.

Greenshank

The last time we were here (25th October) we counted about 700 Greater Flamingos but we could find only about 150 this morning. Other highlights were a Bluethroat, lots of Spoonbills, six species of gulls (including Slender-billed and Audouin’s), a Peregrine Falcon and our old friend the ’Grey Egret’, seen in its usual spot.

Later in the afternoon a call from Simon Wates brought news of a Dusky Warbler reported from Quinta do Lago. It was too late for us to go and tomorrow we are expecting builders here to carry out long-awaited remedial work that we don’t want to postpone. So, we’ll just have to wait for further news of the bird and hope it stays around. We really don’t like big twitches but the nice thing about twitches here is that there probably won’t be more than half a dozen people there!

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Castro Marim again

The Reserva Natural do Sapal de Castro Marim e Vila Real de Santo Antonio covers an enormous area of saltmarsh and saltpans with the result that we can go regularly to ‘Castro Marim’, cover different parts of the reserve and never get tired of it.

Yesterday was another bright and sunny morning but with a chilly wind as we set out in search of Little Bustards. We had looked for them on Saturday at Venta Moinhos without success but yesterday we returned to our best site where we saw them on three separate occasions last month. This time we drew a blank! That‘s birds for you - unreliable - just when you think you know where to find them, they let you down! Perhaps they had been disturbed before we arrived and flown out. Who knows, but the truth is that this probably isn’t the best time of year to be finding them.

We did see a fair selection of the usual gulls (including Slender-billed and Audouin’s), waders (including about 50 Golden Plover) and ducks. The Peregrine Falcon was on what has become its ‘usual’ fence post and, of course, there were Spoonbills, Cormorants and hundreds of Greater Flamingos.

Fortunately, we have seen Little Bustards often enough to have a pretty good idea where they go when they are disturbed. We have seen them put to flight by roaming dogs and by farm workers and they usually head off in the same direction. So we returned to the car and a drive of about 15 minutes took us to a vantage point where we quickly located at least four birds. They weren’t maybe as close as we would have liked and they didn’t offer to fly but it was a good enough view to satisfy.

After that we spent half an hour trying for flight shots of the Sandwich Terns that were diving into the River Carrasqueira. It was fun but the results are not going to win any prizes.

Sandwich Tern

After lunch back at home, we again saw a Griffon Vulture from the kitchen window. Our guess is that it was the same bird seen on Wednesday of last week and that it is in trouble, struggling on its own to find food and now lacking the thermals it needs to cover any distance. Although it looked to have roosted in a tree about half a mile away, there’s no sign of it yet this morning.

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Quinta do Lago

With the final round of the World Superbike Championships being held this weekend in Portimã o, it was no surprise to find a little more traffic on the motorway this morning, most of it two-wheeled and too fast! We were heading for Ludo, close to Faro airport, the starting point for a our walk to Quinta do Lago. Again there was a rather chilly start to the morning but like yesterday it soon warmed up and we were happy to be back in short sleeves and shorts.

The walk took us through a variety of habitats (pine woods, saltpans, estuary, fresh water lake, reedbeds) and produced about 75 bird species. For the UK-based birder, highlights were a Booted Eagle, dozens of Greater Flamingos, several Purple Swamp-hens, three Caspian Terns, a sharpei Green Woodpecker, three Short-toed Treecreepers, Serins, Spotless Starlings and countless Azure-winged Magpies.

Purple Swamp-hen

For us the ‘star’ bird was a Great Egret, an Algarve rarity, but we also enjoyed seeing nine species of ducks, including hundreds of recently arrived Eurasian Wigeon, and a nice selection of waders that included some of our favourite tringas.

Saturday, 1 November 2008

Lesser Short-toed Larks

After several days of fairly mixed weather we were pleased this morning to have some sunshine again for our visit to Castro Marim. It started quite cool but by 11.00am it was beautiful and as we walked by the River Guadiana we were wishing we had put shorts on.

It’s no secret that Castro Marim is the best place in Portugal to see Lesser Short-toed Larks, in fact it’s probably the only place to see them. However, knowing exactly where to find them is another thing and they are birds that we always enjoy showing to visitors. This morning, after a couple of less than satisfactory views of birds in flight, eventually several of them came close and were seen and heard well. Of course, for some people they are just ‘little brown jobs’ but we like them! The birds here are of the race apetzii.

Late in the morning a Griffon Vulture was circling over Castro Marim. We don’t see very many Griffons in the Eastern Algarve but this was our second this week after we watched one from the kitchen window on Wednesday. Other highlights of today’s walk were three different Marsh Harriers, an Osprey, three Caspian Terns, three Bluethroats and a couple of Dartford Warblers. At least two White Storks’ nests had displaying birds on them and there was a lot of bill-clattering going on. All in all it was a very pleasant and successful morning.

With the afternoon earmarked for some photography it was unfortunate that there was a build-up of cloud and the light really wasn’t very good. We spent a couple of hours at a small pool where a White Wagtail and a Grey Wagtail were feeding around the water’s edge and where Azure-winged Magpies, Great Tit, Chiffchaff, Robin, Greenfinch, Goldfinch, Serin and Spanish Sparrow came to drink or bathe.

Spanish Sparrow

Saturday, 25 October 2008

Great Bustards and Waders

Yesterday we headed north to the Baixo Alentejo and enjoyed a great day’s birding in pretty much perfect weather. The main target species was Great Bustard, usually not too difficult to find, but with a lot of agricultural activity in progress and tractors everywhere we thought we might have difficulty. Fortunately, our fears proved unfounded and we duly found a dozen or so birds that weren’t too far away from a main road. We watched them for quite a while from a vantage point we have used on several previous occasions.

Amongst everything else, it was quite a good day for birds of prey; Red Kites, Common Buzzards and Common Kestrels were all numerous, we saw several Black-winged Kites (probably our favourite raptor and one that we still tend to refer to as Black-shouldered), a beautiful male Hen Harrier, a Golden Eagle, a Booted Eagle and about 50 Eurasian Griffons.

It seems that nowhere in Portugal is safe from development and we are conscious that before long several of the wonderful areas we enjoy in the Alentejo will be blighted by more dreadful wind turbines. If golf courses weren’t bad enough..! Anyway, it was an excellent day.

This morning the request was for waders and we could do no better than walk the saltpans from Tavira where 21 species of plovers, sandpipers, stilts, etc included our favourite Greenshank and Spotted Redshank. High tide was mid-morning and the Oystercatchers, Bar-tailed Godwits and Knot were sitting it out on the bunds. When a light aircraft passed over a flock of about 700 Greater Flamingos were disturbed enough to fly around briefly, a fantastic mass of pink against the clear blue sky.

Most of the ducks here currently are Northern Shoveler but as well as these and reasonable numbers of Mallard we managed to find a few Teal, Wigeon and Pintail. For once we didn’t find any Slender-billed Gulls, but there were dozens of Audouin’s and Mediterranean Gulls among the hundreds of Lesser Black-backed and Black-headed. We also found four Caspian Terns and a handful of Little and Sandwich Terns.

A regular bird in this area is a grey egret that is presumed to be a hybrid Little Egret x Western Reef Egret. It seems to frequent the same small area every day, feeding in the channel at low tide and standing on the side of one of the saltpans when the water in the channel is too deep. There is another similar-looking bird in the Tavira area and we recently saw a much paler presumed hybrid at Lagoa dos Salgados. At this point we have no information about their origin.

Presumed Little Egret x Western Reef Egret

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Castro Marim, Altura & the Faro ETAR

We usually visit Castro Marim at least once per week so our walk there this morning was overdue. We were there about four hours and saw 69 species, most of them not surprisingly the same ones we saw on our last visit. There were just five Little Bustards today and we might not have seen those had they not been flushed by a Marsh Harrier. We probably saw four different Marsh Harriers and had multiple sightings of Booted Eagle that may have involved more than one bird; a Common Buzzard was the only other raptor. Because Castro Marim is such a huge area it is always difficult to count birds accurately. The group of 27 Common Shelducks probably were the only ones there, but we can only say that Northern Shoveler, Pied Avocets, Greater Flamingos and Black-tailed Godwits each numbered in the hundreds. Gulls were particularly difficult to count as they were constantly on the move and in mixed flocks but there were certainly in excess of 100 Mediterranean Gulls; the most Slender-billed we saw together was seven. Also of note were five Barn Swallows, the first we have seen for about three weeks.

Slender-billed Gull

On the way back to Tavira we stopped for a few minutes as usual at Altura but it remains disappointing. We were able to count 31 Common Pochard, about 50 Mallard and a single Northern Shoveler but there were still only three Eurasian Coots and a handful of Little Grebes. Two Barn Swallows appeared briefly.

Later we had to go to Faro Airport and this gave us the opportunity to look in at the water treatment works on the way back home. This is not a site we visit very often but it’s guaranteed to be a ‘fragrant’ experience! Gadwall numbered over 1,000 and were easily the most numerous of the ducks; Mallard, Teal, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail and Eurasian Wigeon were also present in small numbers. Around the edges of the huge rectangular lagoons we found a few Common Sandpipers and the odd Common Snipe and lots of Little Egrets. There were 20 or so Mediterranean Gulls and we disturbed an Osprey from a fence post next to the adjacent fish farm.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Ringing at Vilamoura II

We’ve been with the ringers again today at Parque Ambiental Vilamoura, their last full day before they return to the UK tomorrow. As usual, the early morning was busy but the number of birds caught got fewer as the day went on. Blackcaps and Chiffchaffs were the most numerous species but we were lucky to see the only Reed Bunting that they have had and one of only two Subalpine Warblers.

Subalpine Warbler

Although it will be a while before all their ringing records are collated and a full report prepared, it seems that the number of birds caught during their week was well over 1,000 with about 20% of them being Blackcaps. Some of the Blackcaps we’ve seen today were really fat, as heavy as 25gm, perhaps confirming that although many spend the winter here, some at least are feeding up in preparation for onward migration. The highlights of the week in terms of rarity were six Penduline Tits, although there has been a suggestion that a pair of these birds may have actually bred at Vilamoura this year.

It seems certain that Colin and his team will be back at Vilamoura next year. Wouldn’t it be nice in the meantime if the importance of the Parque Ambiental as a wintering site and staging post for migrants were to be better recognised and the area protected and managed accordingly.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

Around Tavira

We’ve had three very busy days! That’s if you can be busy just sitting in the car watching and photographing birds. Well from time to time that’s what the job is about and it can in fact be quite tiring. First of all it requires a degree of concentration to try and make sure no bird or photo opportunity is missed; then there is a certain amount of discomfort to put up with and these last few days that has included temperatures of 70+ degrees F. and, at one of our sites, quite a few flies buzzing about. That’s in addition to sitting in one fairly cramped position for prolonged periods. Yes, bird photography can be a lot of fun!

Fortunately, most people understand what it involves and are happy to do whatever it takes to get the images they want. In four sessions in three days, with a little patience and perseverance, we’ve seen and photographed gulls, waders, finches, buntings, wagtails and more.

The fresh water pool just outside Tavira again provided the opportunity to photograph five species of gulls, six if we count the single Mediterranean Gull that popped in for just a couple of minutes. A Caspian Tern and a selection of waders also came and went.

At another site, again near Tavira, there have been plenty of chances to photograph White Wagtail, Grey Wagtail, Common Waxbill, Goldfinch, Serin and Chiffchaff. These birds have been coming and going constantly all the time we have been there. What makes it fun is that you really never know what is going to turn up next and we had a surprise yesterday when a Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush made a brief appearance, followed minutes later by two Cirl Buntings. Today, Pied Flycatcher, Northern Wheatear, Meadow Pipit, Sardinian Warbler, Blue Rock Thrush, Linnet and Black Redstart have all been around.

Sardinian Warbler

However, it hasn’t all been sitting in the car with a camera! On Saturday morning we had a good walk around the local saltpans where Greater Flamingos, Spoonbills, White Storks and Little Egrets are the common birds and we also noted 16 wader species and plenty of gulls, including one Slender-billed. In the short vegetation, Chiffchaffs are suddenly quite numerous and we found several Bluethroats. Also newly arrived are Robins, which are now singing their melancholy autumn song wherever we go.

Chiffchaff

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Ringing at Vilamoura

Together with Ray Tipper, we went to Vilamoura yesterday morning to meet up with our friend Colin McShane and his team who are over from England for a week ringing birds in the Parque Ambiental. Colin, Rob Skeates, Lee Wells, Dave Clifton and Glynn Middleton were amongst those who came out here in October last year and were so impressed that they had no hesitation in planning a return. By the time we arrived at about 8.30am, the ringers had been in action for a couple of hours and they had already caught and processed lots of birds, greatly helped by Portuguese ringers, Ana, Miguel, Nuno and Rita.

At this time of the year huge numbers of birds are on the move, most of them migrating south from their breeding grounds to spend the winter somewhere that is warmer and has a better supply of food. From ringing we now know a great deal about these movements. For instance, we know that some of the Chiffchaffs that are arriving here now are from Northern Europe (including the UK), that some of them will stay here until February or March but that others will simply use the Algarve as a staging post and having re-fuelled will continue their journey south to West Africa. The same can be said of Bluethroats, Yellow Wagtails and Blackcaps.

Different species have different strategies for survival. Pied Flycatchers, Northern Wheatears and Whinchats, for instance, are all here now but will soon be continuing their move south, most of them crossing the Sahara. We still don’t know where some of these birds finish up. For Blackbirds and Robins, on the other hand, the Algarve is the end of their autumn travels and they will be with us until the nesting season. There is still much to learn and in these times of climate change and continual habitat destruction ringing is also an important means of monitoring birds.

It is always instructive to see birds in close-up, being handled by skilled ringers. Yesterday we saw a variety of warblers, finches, Bluethroats, Kingfishers, Robins, Blackbirds and others. As well as being ringed they were weighed and measured and, as far as is possible, their age and sex determined. It is always exciting when a ringed bird is reported from some remote country but those are very much a minority and a great deal of information can be gathered in other ways.
While we were there yesterday, two birds were caught that had been ringed elsewhere, both of them Blackcaps. One carried a BTO ring from the UK, the other had a Belgian ring.

One bird that we were particularly pleased to see was a Grasshopper Warbler, outside the breeding season a notoriously secretive and inconspicuous species that we had never previously seen in Portugal. Last year Colin and his team caught 17 Grasshopper Warblers during their week at Vilamoura! Without a mist-net you just wouldn’t know they are there. Who knows whatelse may be hiding in those reedbeds?

Bluethroat

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Audouin's and Slender-billed Gulls

We’ve had a couple of days of photography around Tavira. Although we’ve spent most of our time sitting in the car, we haven’t actually been anywhere that we wouldn’t be happy to walk to from home.

At this time of the year the saltpans here offer plenty of opportunities to photograph waders, gulls, Grey Herons, Little Egrets, Spoonbills and Flamingos. Although it was impossible to resist a few shots of Black-tailed Godwit, Sanderling, Common Redshank, Little Stint, Dunlin and Ruff, we were keen to get decent images of Audouin’s and Slender-billed Gulls.

Audouin’s Gulls now breed not far from here and their numbers are increasing. Currently there are about 150 on the saltpans just outside of town. Slender-billed Gull is still a species classed as a rarity in Portugal, which means that we should be submitting records with descriptions to SPEA! The fact is that the species is quite common in the south east of the country and at the moment we can go out pretty much everyday and see them. Yesterday there were 31 at Santa Luzia, today there were 25 on the edge of Tavira where we watched them bathing in a fresh water pool.

We’re still sorting through the day’s images but here is one that caught the two target species together - and without any of the Lesser Black-backed and Yellow-legged Gulls that seem to want to be in every picture, whether invited or not!

Audouin's and Slender-billed Gulls

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Sunday at Castro Marim

For the second day running we woke this morning to find that it had rained overnight but when we eventually started our walk at Castro Marim it was starting to show signs of brightening up a little. It was still shorts and t-shirt weather but it did seem sensible to carry the waterproofs just in case.

Although we walked for about four hours we covered very little distance at all, probably less than a couple of miles. It takes a long time because there are thousands of birds to look through. It’s a walk that we do regularly and it never disappoints. Today we noted 70 species, which is about the number we would have predicted.

Among the highlights it was good to find Little Bustards again in exactly the same place we saw them last Tuesday, even though there were only six of them today. Raptors included the same Peregrine Falcon, a female based on its size, that we saw last week. We haven’t yet seen this bird fly, it has a fence post that it likes where it sits surrounded by ducks and waders. Perhaps it hunts and feeds early before we get there; perhaps it just likes watching the Flamingos!

Although we didn’t cover anything like the whole site, there seemed to be fewer waders today and only 15 species. Amongst these we include Stone Curlews, which we always enjoy seeing. A group of 25 of them were seen in flight. We have seen as many as 80 here but they are very difficult to get near and a decent photograph of one remains a dream.

Again we saw six species of gulls including several Slender-billed and as well as the usual Little, Sandwich and Caspian Terns there was a single Black Tern.

Migrants included several Northern Wheatears, a couple of Willow Warblers, a Whinchat and a Pied Flycatcher. Robins are also migrants and along with Blackcaps, Chiffchaffs and Meadow Pipits are just now starting to arrive here on the coast.

Finally, a flock of eight Common Magpies was an unusually high number here. They aren’t common along the Algarve coast but they are gradually spreading west.

Friday, 10 October 2008

Rüppell’s Griffon

The long drive west is starting to become a habit! At least today we didn’t go all the way to Cape St Vincent. Our target this morning was a vulture roost site in the Serra do Espinhaç o de Cã o. There had been reports of a possible Rüppell’s Griffon in the area for a few days but last night the identification had been confirmed and the bird was reported to have gone to roost with about 100 Eurasian Griffons. Raptor passage and in particular the movements of vultures are being monitored in connection with a major wind farm development. The survey team are using radar to track the birds and so the directions to the lookout point were quite precise. We arrived there at about 8.30am.

We were quickly able to locate about 30 Eurasian Griffons sitting in the trees and we were expecting to wait until all the birds took to the air before we could look for the Rüppell’s. Although a few Eurasians did get up for a brief fly around, remarkably we found the Rüppell’s while it was still perched in a tree. It stood out amongst the Eurasians as being a very much darker individual and we believe it is probably a second year bird. Although the reference books tell us that Rüppell’s Griffon is a non-migratory species that is a resident of sub-Saharan Africa, there have been quite a number of records in Iberia in recent years and we know that one was seen at Tarifa in Andalucí a last month.

Eventually, after an hour or so, most of the vultures got up and began soaring around the wind turbines. At this point it was easy to pick out two Egyptian Vultures by their much smaller size and distinctive shape but the light was awful and once it was airborne we didn’t see the Rü ppell’s again. The turbines are not yet operational but it was easy to see the potential here for the vultures to have some serious problems. Two of them were seen yesterday to collide with the turbine blades and there is little doubt that birds would have been killed if the blades had been rotating. There is a suggestion that in future the turbines will be switched off at raptor migration times but we have our doubts (to say the least!).

On the way back to Tavira we diverted to Lagoa dos Salgados for another look at the Spotted Crake (the Pectoral Sandpiper seems to have gone) and this time, although the light was still poor, we managed to get a photograph.

Spotted Crake

Another ’grey egret’ here looked to us to possibly be a melanistic E. garzetta rather than a hybrid E. garzetta x E. gularis like the one seen earlier in the week. We photographed it alongside a Little Egret. It looks like one of those washing powder adverts - whose mother doesn’t know about Persil?

Two Little Egrets?

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Lagoa dos Salgados

This morning we set out early for Lagoa dos Salgados located about an hour’s drive from Tavira. We had received a message late last night from Ray Tipper that a Spotted Crake and a Pectoral Sandpiper had been found there, two species that are rare in Portugal. Ray had already seen them and that was encouragement enough for us to set an early alarm and visit what is in any case one of the best birding sites in the Algarve.

We had been disappointed only a few days ago to hear that Salgados had been drained again and it currently makes a bit of a sorry sight. The ongoing story of the battle to save Salgados, involving SPEA and the RSPB, has been detailed elsewhere but in spite of all the efforts that are supposedly being made to protect the site, seeing it today did nothing to cause us any optimism about its future.

Having said that, it has not yet completely dried out and there is quite an extensive area of wet mud that is proving attractive to Ringed Plovers and Dunlin and a few Common Snipe, Grey Plovers and Little Stints. And because the suitable habitat is limited, finding the Spotted Crake and the Pectoral Sandpiper didn’t prove too difficult. Also seen were one Purple Swamp-hen, four Caspian Terns, 17 Spoonbills, 24 Grey Herons, a Peregrine Falcon, countless Black-headed Gulls, several Northern Wheatears, a Whinchat and at least four Bluethroats.

From Salgados we headed back east, calling on the way at Vilamoura, a hive of activity ahead of a major golf tournament that starts there on 16th October. We had a walk in the Parque Ambientale, visiting both of the hides and then having a look at the lagoons at the adjacent water treatment plant. We had several sightings of Kingfishers, a Common Buzzard and a Marsh Harrier provided the raptor interest, Cetti’s Warblers were calling loudly everywhere, Willow Warblers were numerous and there was a flock of about 50 Yellow Wagtails. From one hide we had a brief up-close view of a Purple Swamp-hen, from the other just Eurasian Coots and Little Grebes. The lagoons held a few ducks (Gadwall, Common Pochard and Shoveler) and hundreds of Lesser Black-backed and Yellow-legged Gulls. Butterflies included a couple of Monarchs.

Monarch (Danaus plexippus)

Brief stops at a couple of other sites on the way home produced Blue Rock Thrush, Green Woodpecker, Grey Wagtail, Sandwich Tern and Whimbrel.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Working the local patch

We were at Castro Marim again this morning. For the first time in a week it was quite cloudy and the temperature remained comfortable all day. We walked nowhere near as far as we usually do but probably saw just as many species.

The highlight was seeing a flock of 13 Little Bustards; they’re not uncommon here but can’t be guaranteed. Additional to the 19 wader species found in the same area last week were about 10 Northern Lapwings and a Wood Sandpiper. There were still a few Slender-billed Gulls; Mediterranean Gulls had increased to double figures and there were at least 100 Audouin’s Gulls. A few Northern Pintail had arrived to swell the duck numbers and in addition to the usual Caspian and Little Terns, about a dozen Black Terns were feeding over the marsh. One or two Marsh Harriers were around, a Peregrine Falcon was sitting on a post in the middle of the salinas and just as we were leaving a Booted Eagle passed over.

On the way back we checked our best local sites for Blue Rock Thrush and Bluethroat and were successful at both, although we had to be patient. It was a case of “come on out - we know you’re in there” as we sat in the car waiting for them to appear. The Bluethroat was our first of the autumn but was in exactly the same spot that we see them every year which, not surprisingly, we call ’Bluethroat corner’.

While we were looking for a Bluethroat we saw another grey egret. We weren’t able to say with any certainty whether it was the same bird we saw at Santa Luzia last week but the suspicion is that there are at least two birds that frequent the Tavira area. Ray Tipper is comparing the many photographs of these birds and we will be adding the one below to his collection. Also seen here was one of the pinkest Slender-billed Gulls we have seen. Not only were its underparts pink but also its rump, tail and primaries. Oystercatcher and Bar-tailed Godwit brought the wader species total to 24 since we arrived back here last week.

'Grey Egret'

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Sagres Pelagic Trip

We took a ride out to the west again this morning, to Sagres. We covered much of the same territory that we visited on Wednesday and some of the birds seen today, including the Golden Plovers at Vale de Santo, were probably the same individuals we saw during our earlier visit. There were fewer passerines today but still the odd Common Redstart and Pied Flycatcher here and there. Several Common Kestrels, a Peregrine Falcon and a Marsh Harrier were all seen before we even reached the raptor watch point.

At the watch point, where we stayed for only half an hour or so, we saw a Black Stork, three Short-toed Eagles, seven Booted Eagles and a Sparrowhawk. We heard later that 40 Griffon Vultures and an Egyptian Vulture were seen there in the afternoon but we had other plans and we have accepted now that we can only be in one place at a time!

After a coffee break at the birder-friendly Pastelaria Marreiros in Sagres we headed down to the harbour to meet Ricardo of Mar Ilimitado with whom we had arranged for an afternoon boat trip. After last month’s 11-hour pelagic trip that took us 50 miles out into the Pacific Ocean from the Oregon coast, today we were at the other end of the spectrum with a two-hour trip that took us just eight miles out from Sagres. However, we saw plenty of birds: at least one Great Shearwater, one or two Sooty Shearwaters, several Balearic and Cory’s Shearwaters, two European Storm Petrels, two Great Skuas, countless Northern Gannets and of course lots of Yellow-legged and Lesser Black-backed Gulls. Not a bad return for such a short trip and all of the birds were seen really well. And neither of us was seasick!

Great Shearwater

Friday, 3 October 2008

Audouin's Gulls

There seems to have been a clear-out of migrants overnight. There are still one or two Willow Warblers in the olive trees outside but there was no sign of a Pied Flycatcher or Redstart when we went out this morning. It's amazing to think that they have headed off across the sea and the Sahara to spend the winter in West Africa.

This afternoon we checked out a few sites around Tavira starting with the saltpans to the west of town towards Santa Luzia and then working our way back to Fort do Rota. A ‘Grey Egret’ wasn’t seen well but was almost certainly the presumed hybrid Little Egret x Western Reef Egret that regularly spends the low-tide period feeding in the same channel at Santa Luzia. A Collared Pratincole and five Slender-billed Gulls flew over as we settled down to try and photograph some of the many Black-tailed Godwits, but it wasn’t long before all the birds were disturbed by some passing children and we decided to move on.

In the saltpans by the market in town there were more Black-tailed Godwits, plus Curlew Sandpipers, Dunlins, Little Stints and Common Redshanks and plenty of Lesser Black-backed and Yellow-legged Gulls but we were looking at them against bright sunlight so again we quickly moved on.

Taking the road to Quatras Aguas we stopped to look at the gulls that were roosting around the saltpans and were surprised to find so many Audouin’s Gulls. Some of them were bunched so close together that they were difficult to count but there must have been 150 or so. With a rapidly increasing breeding population in Spain and now a few pairs also nesting in Portugal, Audouin’s Gulls are regular here but today’s count was our best in Tavira. It is said that 90% of the European population breeds at just ten sites, which is why the species is still classified as ’near-threatened’. Four Caspian Terns, several Little Terns and a Sandwich Tern were with them.



Audouin's Gulls

At Fort do Rota a Whimbrel called but there was little else to see other than the many Northern Gannets passing just off-shore.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Day trip to Sagres

On Wednesday, along with Ray Tipper, we made the trip west to the Sagres/Cape St Vincent area hoping to see some of the migrants reported earlier in the week and, as always, to find a few birds that we could photograph.

We began in a small area of coniferous woodland where we were pleased to find that there were still numerous Pied Flycatchers and Willow Warblers. Some of the Willow Warblers looked exhausted and it seemed likely that they might be new arrivals. At least one Blackcap and small numbers of Spotted Flycatchers, Common Whitethroats, Garden Warblers and Common Redstarts were also present.

From the raptor watch point we saw half a dozen or more Common Kestrels, a couple of Sparrowhawks, a single Marsh Harrier and a Black Stork but it didn’t seem like a day when there was going to be much movement of raptors so we didn’t stay long. A juvenile Woodchat Shrike in this area was the only one seen during the day.

As we headed for nearby Vale Santo, we stopped briefly to try and photograph a low-flying Short-toed Eagle but without much success. There were just six Golden Plovers where on another day there might have been Dotterel but there were no complaints as we soon saw Choughs, Northern Wheatears, Whinchats, Spotless Starlings, Yellow Wagtails, White Wagtails, Skylarks and Thekla Larks. Three or four Short-toed Larks flew over and we found several Ortolan Buntings. A Peregrine Falcon was the cause of temporary alarm and a Black Kite became the sixth raptor species of the day.

As the usual the area by the lighthouse was well populated with tourists so a few minutes here was long enough for us see a few Northern Gannets heading south and the usual Black Redstarts on the cliff top. We looked for a Blue Rock Thrush but didn’t find one until later when we stopped at a regular spot for them on the way back towards to Sagres. We also saw Shags here.
We completed the day’s birding with a short diversion to Martinhal where amongst a small group of Dunlins, Little Stints and Ringed Plovers we found the ‘oddity of the day’ a leucistic Ringed Plover.

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Castro Marim and more Pied Flycatchers

We spent a warm, almost cloudless morning at Castro Marim walking a complete circuit of the Cerro do Bufo saltpans. By 10.30am it was really quite warm and the gentle breeze was very welcome. As expected, there were parts of the trail that were quite muddy and it could be a week or so before everything dries out again.

As would be expected in this mainly wetland area, the total of 70 species that we recorded was dominated by waders (19), gulls (6), terns (3), grebes (3), herons and egrets (3) and ducks (5) but the total was boosted by several passerine migrants in the surrounding trees and bushes. These included Pied and Spotted Flycatchers, Willow Warblers, Whinchats, Northern Wheatears and Yellow Wagtails. We counted more than 150 Spoonbills and there were probably close to 1,000 Greater Flamingos; the only ’rarities’ were eight or more Slender-billed Gulls, actually an increasingly regular species along the Algarve coast although scarce elsewhere in Portugal.

After a short diversion across the border into Spain to re-fuel the car, on the way home we stopped at Altura tank . At this time last year there was a Red-knobbed Coot here amongst more than 100 Eurasian Coots; today there were just two Eurasian Coots. As usual there were Little Grebes and a few Common Pochard on the water plus about 30 Mallard but not much to get excited about. Barn and Red-rumped Swallows were flying over - the first hirundines of the day.

Back home we had a walk down the track towards the local shop, the area where we had been yesterday. Again there were numerous Pied Flycatchers and today we also found Spotted Flycatcher, Whinchat, Common Redstart, Common Whitethroat, Willow Warblers and Blackcap as well as the usual Eurasian Jays, Sardinian Warblers and Crested Larks. When the need for food finally took over and we headed back home, a Peregrine Falcon flew over bringing the day’s birding to an end.

The news is that there are unusually high numbers of passerine migrants all along the coast, particularly at Sagres and Cape St Vincent. What shall we do tomorrow…?

Monday, 29 September 2008

Pied Flycatchers

An early flight from Manchester this morning brought us back to Portugal and we were in Tavira by lunchtime - many thanks to Bevan Craddock and Ray Tipper for getting us to and from the airports.

There has clearly been a lot of rain here during the last few days - puddles everywhere and the promise of some muddy trails when we get out birding tomorrow. The good news is that it is now warm and sunny and if it stays this way it won’t be long before everything dries out.
During what was supposed to be a five-minute walk to the local shop for essential supplies there were enough Pied Flycatchers in evidence that we spent half an hour trying for a photograph - with just limited success.

Pied Flycatcher

Our neighbours, Dave and Glenys tell us that while we have been away one of the local Little Owls has taken to sitting on our balcony in the evenings. Probably our return will put an end to that routine because this evening we’ll be out there…

Friday, 26 September 2008

Washington & Oregon and Spain

Peter has just returned from leading a successful Avian Adventures tour in the Pacific Northwest of the USA - Washington and Oregon; June in the meantime, wearing her Algarve Birders hat, has been in Andalucía on an excellent trip organised by the Spanish Tourist Office.

The highlight of the Avian Adventures tour was a pelagic trip from Newport, Oregon on 13th September that produced what is being described as only the second-ever Wandering Albatross (Diomedea exulans) recorded in North America. To see three species of albatrosses in one day in North America was unexpected to say the least! Apart from the many Black-footed, a single Laysan Albatross made up the trio.

Of course, there has been a lot of debate about albatross taxonomy and although the American Ornithologists' Union doesn't (yet) recognise the split there are those who regard 'Wandering Albatross' as three separate species. Fortunately, 'our' bird was extremely obliging, staying in view for 40 minutes or so and providing close views that enabled its identification as Antipodean Albatross - Diomedea antipodensis or as the AOU would have it D.e.antipodensis.

Antipodean Albatross Diomedea antipodensis

Although most migrant breeding birds had left, the tour produced a very respectable bird list. Apart from all the expected seabirds including South Polar Skua and Buller's Shearwater, we saw Wandering Tattler, Surfbird, Black Oystercatcher, Black Turnstone, Varied Thrush, White-headed, Pileated, Lewis's and Black-backed Woodpeckers, Harlequin Duck, Wrentit and Lapland Longspur. Highlights amongst the mammals were Black Bear, Humpback Whale, Grey Whale and Dall's Porpoises.

As well as the wonderfully scenic Oregon coastline we spent time in the Klamath Basin, the Deschutes National Forest and on Mt Rainier during two weeks of almost uninterrupted and very welcome sunshine.

Hatstack Rock, Cannon Beach, Oregon

Meanwhile in Spain, June had a fairly hectic five days with a party of 24 journalists and tour guides visiting hotels, restaurants and birding sites in southern Andalucía. The trip included a visit to the inaugural Andalucía Bird Fair at Tarifa where it was no surprise to bump into Tim Appleton and others from Rutland Water giving the benefit of their long experience of organising such events.

Although this was only a part-time birding trip an impressive 190 plus species were logged, underlining what a terrific area this is - as we already know! As well as Tarifa, the itinerary included Ronda, Doñana National Park and the Marismas del Odiel.

Good birds, excellent food and wine and lots of new friends - who could ask for more?