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 ( 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!


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 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 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!