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.


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?


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.