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.


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!


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.


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