Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Water Water Everywhere!

The monsoon season continues here in the Algarve - rain, rain and more rain, day after day. And it's still pretty windy, too! There's water lying everywhere, fields that just two weeks ago were bone dry are now under several inches of water. The depth of water in many of the local saltpans is now such that only flamingos and Spoonbills can feed in them - even the long-legged waders, Black-winged Stilts and Black-tailed Godwits have moved out into the fields. At high tide today flocks of waders, including Dunlin, Ringed Plovers, Turnstones and Little Stints could be found out in the stubble.

It's certainly not weather that anyone would want to be out birding in. However, we did find a brief window of opportunity today for a drive to some of our regular spots around Tavira and even to take a few photographs before the sky turned black again at about 3.00pm and another thunderstorm rolled in.

Today's photographs are all of common species and were taken in one place, a flooded field at the edge of town.

Common Redshank

Mediterranean Gull

Lesser Black-backed Gull

Black-tailed Godwit

Black-winged Stilt

Meadow Pipit

Mediterranean Gull

Sunday, 27 December 2009

Vilamoura & Quinta do Lago

Well that 10-day forecast certainly proved to be right! In fact, we've just experienced probably the worst prolonged spell of weather that we've known during our time here in Portugal. We've had a week of torrential rain, thunderstorms and quite severe gales. Just when people were starting to worry about low water levels in the reservoirs, we've probably had half the year's total rainfall dumped on us in a matter of a few days!

We have managed to get out birding once or twice but until today it's mostly been around Tavira. At last, today was promised to be a day without rain and we set off early to the Parque Ambiental de Vilamoura. As we have commented before, this wonderful wetland area with its extensive reedbeds is an important site for breeding, migrating and wintering birds and is surely deserving of some formal protection. Instead it is threatened by further development of the sort that has already claimed much of the surrounding area and made Vilamoura one of the most unattractive places in the Algarve.

Although the weather has been very wet it has remained quite warm and there is plenty of insect life about so it wasn't a complete surprise to see about two dozen hirundines feeding over one of the pools. Crag Martins we expect, but it was a surprise to see them out-numbered this morning by House Martins. With Barn Swallows also present, it was difficult to get an exact count of each species but House Martins probably made up half the total. As many as seven species of herons and egrets have been seen in the Parque Ambiental recently but today we managed to find only four of them. We did get good views of several Penduline Tits and also in the reeds were a few Yellow-backed (or Black-headed) Weavers.

We spent the afternoon at Quinta do Lago, another area that has been sacrificed to golfing tourism. Fortunately, what remains is still attractive to birds and the lake here is one of the most popular birding sites in the Algarve, known as 'the' place to see Purple Swamp-hen, Glossy Ibis and Little Bittern. Today we managed to see two out of the three.

Although we had no rain, we didn't see the sun either! So it wasn't really a great day for photography. Still we couldn't resist taking a few:


Purple Swamp-hen

Grey Plover

White Stork - nesting on camouflaged phone mast

Booted Eagle

Penduline Tit

Common Snipe

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Changing Weather!

It's been a week when we have had to adapt our birding activities to the ever-changing weather conditions. We've had 'sunny & warm', we've had 'cloudy & warm', for two days it was 'sunny & really cold' and then, yesterday, we had 'torrential rain with winds gusting to gale force'.

Twice we have taken advantage of the good weather to have nice long walks along Praia do Barril and Praia da Terra Estreita, wonderful beaches that form part of the Ilha de Tavira. The trail to the beach crosses saltmarsh and at low tide it's a good place to get close looks at waders, such as Whimbrel, that are obviously quite used to seeing people pass by. At this time of year, we're fairly sure to find a Bluethroat or two and on Sunday we also saw a ringtail Hen Harrier.


Out at sea there are usually plenty of Northern Gannets passing by. This week we've also seen several Razorbills, a Great Skua, a Caspian Tern and several Sandwich Terns as well as the usual gulls. On the beach there were just a few Sanderlings and a Kentish Plover, although we did also find a few dead birds - a Gannet, three Razorbills, several gulls, a Purple Swamp-hen and what we think was a Manx Shearwater (not much left of it!).

Praia da Terra Estreita


We spent both of the cold days just birding around Tavira, staying in the car most of the time (we must be getting soft!) and taking a few photographs. Mostly it was the usual subjects: Sardinian Warbler, Goldfinch, Stonechat, Little Egret, Zitting Cisticola, Bluethroat, etc. There must be 150 or more Audouin's Gulls here now and it's still fairly easy to go and find a Slender-billed Gull or two; Stone-curlews remain in their usual place and have now been joined by a few Golden Plovers. Of course, the saltpans are still full of birds - about 20 species of waders, Spoonbills, Flamingos and an assortment of ducks.



The highlight of our week was, of course, the day we spent in the Castro Verde/Mértola area. As well as the Sociable Lapwing that we found near Benviuda we saw an adult Spanish Imperial Eagle, about 70 Great Bustards, a dozen or so Black-bellied Sandgrouse, plenty of Common Cranes and most of the other expected species. It was good to see that quite a few White Storks have already returned to their enormous nests.

White Stork with Red Kite in attendance

Sociable Lapwing

Great Bustard

The 10-day forecast suggests that we might be in for quite a lot more rain. We do need it but unfortunately it might mean that we don't get out quite so much next week! We'll see...

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Sociable Lapwing

We've just returned from a great day's birding in the Baixo Alentejo where we toured some of our favourite locations between Castro Verde and Mértola. The weather was much better than the forecast with bright sunshine and warm temperatures.

Bird of the day was this Sociable Lapwing that we found close to the N123, the road that runs more or less due east from Castro Verde. It was associating with about half a dozen Northern Lapwings close to the junction that is signposted to the village of Benviuda to the south. We first saw it at about 10.30am and were able to relocate in the same area when we returned at 3.00pm.

Let's hope it stays around for others to see it - we think it may be only the tenth record for Portugal.

More about this week's birding and our Alentejo day will follow soon.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Another Week At The Office

We’ve had another week of really enjoyable birding, much of the time under a clear blue sky with temperatures again reaching 17°C or more most days.

Around Tavira we’ve been seeing pretty much the same birds as previously including 80 or more Audouin’s Gulls, a Slender-billed Gull and at least one Razorbill.

On Tuesday we had a good long walk on Barril beach, part of the 11-kilometre stretch of sand on the Ilha de Tavira that earlier this year was listed by Lonely Planet as one of the world’s top ten beaches. Walking for two hours on a glorious sunny morning we saw no more than half a dozen other people! We weren’t there for the birds but there was a constant movement of Gannets just off shore and over the adjacent salt marsh we watched 30 or more Stone-curlews take flight as a Hen Harrier passed by. On the beach itself were just a few Sanderlings, a small flock of Lesser Black-backs and a long-dead Dolphin.

Wednesday saw us return to Altura but there was no sign of either the Whooper Swan or the Yellow Wagtail seen a week previously. We did though see a Grey Wagtail and two Green Sandpipers (both of them in Peter’s top ten favourite species!). We also saw several Crimson Speckled moths, attractive day-flying insects that have somehow not registered with us before. There haven’t been many butterflies these last few days, just an occasional Clouded Yellow and Red Admiral.

Crimson Speckled

In woodland not far from Altura we spent a while trying to photograph Crested Tits and Short-toed Treecreepers but with very limited success. A bonus in this same area was to see two Purple Swamp-hens at the edge of a small man-made pond, not an easy bird to find in the Eastern Algarve. Nearby, we also came across two Moorish Geckos.

Crested Tit

Moorish Gecko

On Thursday, a fairly relaxed day spent mainly at Castro Marim produced a total of 86 bird species. There are several hundred Mediterranean Gulls there now, matched in number by the Lesser Black-backs. There were at least 16 Slender-billed Gulls but surprisingly we could find only a single Audouin’s. A Glossy Ibis was an unusual bird for us to see at this site; other highlights were about 50 Black-necked Grebes, probably four different Marsh Harriers, 20 or so Little Bustards, a Caspian Tern and four Lesser Short-toed Larks.

Mediterranean Gull

Yesterday we went to the Ludo Farm and Quinta do Lago area where we haven’t been for about a month. Our morning got off to a great start when, within about fifteen minutes of arriving, we had seen eight Booted Eagles, at least four Black-shouldered Kites, two Ospreys, a Marsh Harrier and a Common Buzzard! These were quickly followed by two of June’s favourites - a Great Spotted Woodpecker and a Green Woodpecker!

We usually plan to spend about five hours on the walk to Lagoa but this time we somehow managed to add two hours to our normal schedule! The lake is one of the Algarve’s most popular birdwatching sites but many of the visitors there are simply out for a walk, have not much more than a casual interest in the birds and know the names of few of them. One of our pleasures is to let some of these ’non-believers’ use our Swarovski telescope to look at birds such as Little Bittern and Glossy Ibis and possibly convert one or two. On this occasion a group of women from New York City were particularly appreciative of our help and very impressed by Purple Swamp-hens. At the same time they gave us a lot of pleasure through their enthusiasm and excitement.

Since our last visit a lot of the vegetation around the lake has been cut back quite severely. In the short term the result isn’t visually attractive but it probably makes sense for this management work to be carried out at this time of the year. It has certainly made it quite a bit easier to see and photograph some of the birds (and has made for some really horrible backgrounds in many of the photos!). Chiffchaffs and Common Snipe were very confiding by the water’s edge, a Glossy Ibis came close and for once wasn’t half hidden by reeds but it was just our luck that an obliging Bluethroat should be the least colourful example of this species that we have seen in a long time!


Glossy Ibis

Common Snipe


Friday, 4 December 2009

Swallows and Yellow Wagtail in December!

It's been another week of birding mostly around Tavira but we did spend one morning at Castro Marim and also devoted a day to visiting several lesser-known (to us) coastal areas to the east of here.

At Castro Marim we finally caught up with the drake Blue-winged Teal - at least we assume that the bird we saw was the long-staying individual reported back in September and again by Luis Gordinho at the end of October. Where has it come from? As always with wildfowl, you never can be sure. Other than that we saw pretty much what we would have expected including 28 Slender-billed Gulls and a dozen Little Terns, the latter now probably settled there for the winter.

Which brings us to the Whooper Swan that turned up two weeks ago at Altura. When we last looked in there on Wednesday of this week it was still present and now definitely looking a bit more rested. As with the Blue-winged Teal the question of its origin remains and there will always be those who quickly dismiss such birds as escapes from captivity. Maybe they are right but the recent records of Whooper Swans in Spain are interesting and could influence the decision-makers.

During our trip along the coast, as well as Altura, we spent time at Fabrica, Aldeia Nova and Cacela Velha before finishing up back here in Tavira. We were surprised at the end of the day to find that without really trying we had recorded 79 species, a total boosted by several woodland birds including Crested Tit, Short-toed Treecreeper and Green Woodpecker. It was that rare December day when we saw three species of wagtail! Last year we were surprised to see two Yellow Wagtails on 23rd November; the new record is 2nd December - but we will, of course, be hoping to find the bird again to extend that!

Yellow Wagtail

Around Tavira we have continued to see the usual Bluethroats, Blue Rock Thrush, Spoonbills, Greater Flamingos, Stone-curlews and Audouin's Gulls that we tend to take for granted, plus 22 wader species, an Osprey, two Hen Harriers, Slender-billed Gulls, Crag Martins, up to three first-winter Razorbills and lots more. A lovebird yesterday was a surprise; it was just at the edge of town and appeared to be a Lilian's Lovebird; it brought to mind the similar birds seen earlier this year near Armação de Pêra by Diederik van der Molen. Let's hope we're not about to add another exotic species to the breeding birds of the Algarve!


Generally the weather hasn't been too bad at all although maybe a little more cloudy than we would have liked. Temperatures have been reaching 17°C and three Barn Swallows over the saltpans yesterday didn't look out of place.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Just Around Tavira

Well, Tuesday turned out to be the last warm, sunny, cloudless day of the week! The weather here has changed significantly during the last few days and although we haven't yet had the really good downpour that most people would welcome, it has now rained on three consecutive days and it is suddenly much cooler.

So we haven't been inclined to go very far this week! In fact all of our birding has been within a mile or so of home and most of it has been from the car. We've still managed to see about 75 species and although the light has mostly been pretty poor there have still been opportunities for photography.

It's well known that to see raptor passage in the Algarve you have to go to the Sagres/Cape St Vincent area and around Tavira we can't compete with the numbers of birds that are regularly seen in the autumn at the western end of the coast. However, in the last few days we have seen eight raptor species here which is not to be sniffed at! Following on from Tuesday's Booted Eagle and Common Buzzard, we have seen Black-winged Kite, Marsh Harrier, Hen Harrier, Common Kestrel, Peregrine Falcon and Osprey. In fact, we've seen two different Hen Harriers, one of them a 'ringtail', the other the male that is presumably the same bird that has been in the area for a month now.

There are still plenty of gulls here, mostly Lesser Black-backed, Mediterranean and Audouin's. We counted over 100 Audouin's yesterday and managed to read a couple of ring numbers which we have reported. No doubt, like previous ones, they will prove to be from the Ebro Delta in Spain. There are also a few Slender-billed Gulls around town - a rarity in most of Portugal but easily found here in the south-east of the country.

Slender-billed Gull

It's not too difficult at this time of the year to find twenty or more wader species here and we never get tired of photographing them, searching through them for a rarity and simply watching them. Most of them can be found feeding on the saltpans but some species use the saltpans only for roosting at high tide and they're the ones that have so far proved the most difficult to photograph. We're referring in particular to Curlew, Knot, Whimbrel, Oystercatcher and Bar-tailed Godwit. We were fortunate to photograph three of these this afternoon, unfortunate to do so without the benefit of any sunshine!

Bar-tailed Godwits

'Grey' Knot

Eurasian Oystercatcher

Perhaps the most surprising birds found were two Razorbills at the mouth of the river at Quatros Aguas. This is a species that we have previously seen only much further west.

There's been enough rain to make the tracks through the saltpans pretty muddy so it looks as though we might need our wellies if we're going for a much-needed walk tomorrow.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009


After several days that have been dominated by rarities, this morning we resumed our battle of wits with the local Stone-curlews. It was a beautiful, sunny, cloudless morning making the conditions ideal for photography. We approached the edge of the field cautiously and edged our way slowly to the point along the track which is closest to the strip of ploughed land where the birds regularly hide themselves away. As on a previous occasion, we were parked close to a culvert from which a Little Owl was looking out. He must be getting used to seeing us and the hope is that the Stone-curlews will also begin to accept that the car with the lens poking out of the window poses no threat. Actually, several of the birds did seem pretty relaxed this morning, so much so that they could hardly be bothered to stand up and all we could see were the tops of their heads! We did eventually manage to get a couple of images but we're still hoping for much better.

Rather than go straight home we went for a drive along the river to see whether we could find any roosting Night-Herons. No such luck, but we did see Booted Eagle, Common Buzzard, Green Sandpiper, Common Sandpiper, Kingfisher and Grey Wagtail - one of each - so it was a worthwhile diversion.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Algarve Wildlife - the natural year

Last Saturday we were at the Griffin International Bookshop in Almancil for the launch of a new book on the wildlife of the Algarve. Appropriately titled, Algarve Wildlife - the natural year, the book has been written by Clive Viney and superbly illustrated with the photographs of Ray Tipper. Both Clive and Ray are long-time residents of Tavira with an interest and enthusiasm for the region’s wildlife that spans many years and the book is the quality production that one would expect from the two of them.

The authors at the book launch

The book takes an unusual view of the year dividing it into 24 half-month periods and then highlighting the wildlife and countryside activity that can be expected during each period. For instance, we are told that now (that is during the period 16th - 30th November) “Stone-curlews are gathering, sometimes in flocks of a hundred or so” and that “a few late Little Terns are still passing through”. There are also detailed references to the various waders to be found on the saltpans and mention of the possibility of an occasional Hen Harrier. Regular readers of this blog will only have to think back to our posts last week to confirm the accuracy of those statements and similarly the advice that “it is always worth checking the local water treatment works” is borne out by the finding last Thursday of a Whooper Swan at Altura - clear evidence that the authors know their subject very well!

Birds are our speciality and main interest but the book covers a wide variety of wildlife and we are sure will encourage us in future to be more observant of the wildflowers, butterflies, dragonflies, trees, fungi and even the lichens. Now we will be even better informed about what to look for and when. Who knows, we may even be tempted away from our regular birding haunts to go and look for edible mushrooms or to search on sandy soil for yellow toadflax! Next month we will surely be out there looking for Narcissus papyraceus and it can only be a matter of time before we heed the advice to take a train ride from Tavira to Faro through the Parque Natural da Ria Formosa. Hopefully, others will similarly gain fresh insights to the Algarve’s wonderfully varied fauna and flora and value the region for more than just its sun, sand and golf courses.

This is a book that is written in such a way that it should appeal to a wide audience, both visitors and residents of the Algarve. The timing of its publication makes it an ideal Christmas present. It is available from the publishers, First Nature.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

More Rarities!

We made the long trek down to Figueira this morning to see the Red-breasted Flycatcher that was found there last Wednesday by Simon Wates. There have been only half a dozen or so documented records of this species in Portugal and it's one that we haven't seen here previously so, hearing that it seemed fairly settled, we didn't take much persuading! We were joined by Ray Tipper who like us was keen to photograph the bird.

As the bird was in a private garden, we were pleased when we got there to have Simon come along to make the necessary introductions. The bird was very easily located and we watched it for the best part of two hours as it fed making circuits of the garden where it seems to have established a territory. We soon worked out that it favoured a particular pomegranate tree where it proved to be fairly approachable. The light wasn't always to the liking of the photographers (when is it ever!) but we all came away reasonably happy with our images. It was a delightful little bird, quite vocal and constantly entertaining.

After lunch we drove the short distance to Martinhal and within just a couple of minutes of arriving there found ourselves dealing with a bird that in terms of mainland Portugal is even rarer than the flycatcher - it was a juvenile White-rumped Sandpiper. Although we have seen plenty of these on the other side of the Atlantic and some also in the UK, this really was an exciting find. For the second time in four days we were soon making the necessary phone calls and before we left the scene as many as 15 people had seen the bird, making this the best-attended twitch that we have so far witnessed here. Again this was a bird so intent on feeding that it didn't seem at all concerned by the attention that it was attracting.

This was what June calls a 'cosmic birding day'. We have so many photographs of these two birds that it will take a week to go through them!

Saturday, 21 November 2009

The Week's Highlights

On Monday we were at Castro Marim. It was another 70-species morning with no particular highlights but 30 Golden Plover were new arrivals since our last visit, there were eight Little Terns and at least half a dozen Slender-billed Gulls.

Tuesday was mainly an admin day but we did manage a quick look at some of the local birds around Tavira in the afternoon. These included 50 or more Audouin's Gulls and a Caspian Tern plus all the usual waders, Greater Flamingos, Spoonbills, etc. Back at home, a Crag Martin past the kitchen window was a bit unusual.

We wrote recently about birds being faithful to the same wintering areas year after year. On Wednesday, leaving the car at home, we set out on foot to look for a Black-winged Kite in an area on the edge of Tavira where we saw one regularly last winter. Black-winged Kites are relatively common in some parts of Portugal but not especially so in the Eastern Algarve. It is possibly our favourite raptor species and one that we are always pleased to see. On a warm, sunny morning we found our target bird surprisingly quickly - sitting on the same power cable that we saw it on at this time last year. The same bird? We would like to think so!
Late in the afternoon we decided to count the local Stone-curlew flock. The total of 109 birds was our best so far this autumn/winter.


Thursday was another beautiful day and we spent the afternoon walking around the saltpans on the Santa Luzia side of Tavira. A total of 64 species was recorded, 23 of which were waders (or shorebirds, if you prefer) including about 20 Knot which are not always easy to find there. A male Hen Harrier was presumably the same bird that we first saw on 26th October and has been seen several times since. There were at least 20 Slender-billed Gulls which we have to keep mentioning lest anyone should think that they are still rarities!
Back at home later, we saw a Black-winged Kite from the window, presumably the bird that we went looking for yesterday come to return the compliment.

We have already written about Friday - the day of the Whooper Swan at Altura and the Osprey in Tavira. We didn't mention three Barn Swallows at Altura or that we also found time to photograph those local Bluethroats again!

That Whooper Swan again - from even further away!

Bluethroat - also distant!

Today we had to be in Almancil for a couple of hours from mid-day (more of which later) but the binoculars and telescope are always in the car and not surprisingly we found time for some birding. On the way there, a Black-winged Kite got the day off to a good start. On the way back we made just a slight diversion and were rewarded with two more Black-winged Kites, a Booted Eagle, a Marsh Harrier, a remarkable 12 Black-crowned Night-Herons, a Glossy Ibis, about 100 White Storks, a dozen or more Spoonbills including one with what we believe to be a Spanish colour ring and scores of ducks - Wigeon, Pintail, Shover and Gadwall. A Great Spotted Woodpecker flew into a nearby tree, a flock of Azure-winged Magpies passed by, a Water Rail was squealing, two Barn Swallows were overhead and there were more Little Egrets than we cared to count. All this while we stood by the car - which was a good thing really as we weren't dressed for birding.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Whooper Swan!

We were out early today trying to photograph Stone-curlews - there are currently over 100 of them here in Tavira. So far they have been pretty unco-operative but we're persistent and hopeful that eventually we'll get some decent results. An Osprey fishing nearby was a brief distraction as we watched the thick-knees watching us!

In need of a cup of tea, we returned home at about 11.00am to find an email message referring to a "Cygnus cygnus" seen this morning at Altura, about 20 minutes away. As there appears to be only one previously documented record of this species in Portugal (in December 1990), it didn't take more than a few seconds for us to be back in the car and heading down there.

It came as no surprise when we arrived at Altura to find that there were no birders there but we were soon joined by Carlos Vilhena who had found the bird earlier and phoned the report to Gonçalo Elias which had resulted in the email. Well done to both of them! Carlos seemed amazed that the news had travelled so fast and that he had started a twitch! Had this been the UK and a bird of equal rarity there would have been a crowd that Olhanense would have been pleased with.

Of course there will be questions about the origin of this bird but when it up-ended we could clearly see that it carried no rings on its legs that might indicate that it had escaped from captivity. It also appeared to be very tired and it quickly moved away to the middle of the pool when we approached.