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!

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