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.

Thursday, 19 November 2009


Details of the birds trapped and ringed at Vilamoura last month by Colin McShane's group from the UK are now presented on the website of Brewood Ringers. The total number of birds ringed was more than 1200, a similar total to the last two years, although year on year comparisons are made less meaningful by the variation in ringing effort (i.e. the number of nets used) and by the slight changes in the timing of their visits. This year they were here for a week from 30th September, whereas last year their week was from 14th October and this will no doubt account at least in part for the difference in, for example, the numbers of Blackcaps (258 in 2008, 44 this year) and Willow Warblers (19 in 2008, 116 this year) that were trapped .

Colin's report again emphasises the importance of the Parque Ambiental for migrant and wintering birds from Northern Europe. There were recoveries this year of Reed Warblers that had been ringed in Holland, Bluethroats from Holland and Belgium and a Chiffchaff from the Channel Island of Jersey. In previous years they have trapped Reed Warblers, Blackcaps and a Bluethroat that had been ringed in France, Germany and the UK and these are just a tiny sample of the thousands of birds that rely on this site every year. Vilamoura's extensive reedbeds are also recognised as an important breeding area for species such as Little Bittern, Purple Heron and Purple Swamp-hen.

Purple Heron

Purple Swamp-hen

Unfortunately, all this is now under threat from further huge tourist development. Environmental group Almargem (Association for the Defence of the Algarve’s Cultural and Environmental Heritage) are threatening to submit an official complaint to the European Courts should the country's new Environment Minister approve the construction of a proposed project in Vilamoura named ‘Lacustre City’. While Almargem hopes that the arrival of the new Environment Minister will result in a re-evaluation of the project’s Environmental Impact Assessment, it has warned that failure to do so could ultimately result in legal action against the Government. Like several other sites in the Algarve, what little is left of Vilamoura's wildlife habitat should long ago have been designated a Special Protection Area under the EU Wild Birds Directive. It would be a tragedy to see it buried by yet more hotels and tourist resorts but based on what has gone before, we can't be optimistic.

It's ironic that this week the Algarve Tourism Board has announced its plan to promote the area as a birdwatching destination!

Saturday, 14 November 2009

That Was The Week...

It’s been another busy week!

On Monday we made a rare visit to Quinta de Marim, location of the Ria Formosa visitor centre. From the somewhat dilapidated hides a selection of common ducks and waders could be seen and from the roof of the tidal mill (currently closed) we saw distant Spoonbills and Caspian Terns. A plan was recently announced by the Instituto de Conservação da Natureza e Biodiversidade (ICNB) which will see a much-needed investment of around 1 million Euros in this site over the next 18 months and we are told that by the spring of 2011 it will have been transformed. We look forward to it! A change that has already been made is the transfer of management of the wildlife rescue centre from ICNB to a private organisation, Aldeia

Our trip to Castro Marim on Tuesday produced 70 species most of which could have been predicted beforehand. They included Bluethroat (one of our favourites!), Slender-billed and Audouin’s Gulls and half a dozen Little Bustards but the highlight was a Booted Eagle that gave close views from several different perches after apparently bathing in the fresh water marsh. On a pleasantly warm and sunny morning it didn’t take long to dry out. Black-headed Gulls were feeding on olives, something we have seen on several previous occasions here and elsewhere. This feeding behaviour was reported from Greece several years ago and we wonder how widespread it is.

Black-headed Gulls

An excellent day in the Alentejo on Wednesday produced 70 or more Great Bustards but only a handful of Little Bustards. Black-bellied Sandgrouse were very obliging and we saw plenty of Griffon Vultures but the raptors were mostly Red Kites and Common Buzzards with only the odd Black-shouldered Kite. We saw our first Cranes of the ‘winter’ - at the time our estimate was of 300 birds but photographs have since shown that there were actually only 295!

Common Cranes

Red Kite

Common Buzzard

Thursday was our day off from birding but there was time for some photography around Tavira. The local Bluethroats are still not co-operating fully but a Zitting Cisticola and a Sardinian Warbler provided a couple of pleasing images. How many Sardinian Warbler images do we think we might need?

Zitting Cisticola

Sardinian Warbler

Friday saw us at Quinta do Lago and Ludo. A female (or perhaps juvenile) Common Scoter was a surprise here - it was preening continuously and looked as though it was probably oiled. Otherwise, it was the regular Glossy Ibis, Purple Swamp-hen, etc and in the afternoon a nice selection of raptors: Osprey, Booted Eagle, Black-shouldered Kite, Marsh Harrier and Common Buzzard.

Common Scoter

Today we checked on a few of the local birds around Tavira. Chiffchaffs are now here in big numbers and lots of Blackcaps are singing from the olive trees. Everywhere remains very dry and none of the little ponds where we did such a lot of photography at this time last year have any water. The 10-day weather forecast suggests the possibility of a shower of rain next Tuesday but otherwise it looks set to continue 'mostly sunny' with temperatures up to 21/22°C. Probably we shouldn't complain!

Monday, 9 November 2009

Griffons and Gulls

The weather here remains dry but temperatures are falling and today’s forecast maximum is ‘only’ 21° C. For a few days now a strong wind has been a feature.

Yesterday morning from the window here on the outskirts of Tavira we watched for half an hour or so a group of 15 Griffon Vultures struggling to make headway in the wind. We don’t often see Griffons at this eastern end of the coast but we also saw two last week near Castro Marim. Presumably these are young birds that are gradually and inexpertly finding their way to the Tarifa area for the short crossing to North Africa.

We now have hundreds of gulls on the local saltpans. Six species are involved and it’s not difficult to see them all together. Lesser Black-backs are the most numerous and at the other end of the scale there are just a handful of Slender-billed Gulls.

We were very pleased earlier this year when SPEA announced at last that they would no longer be treating Slender-billed Gull as a rarity requiring a description to be submitted with our records. With an expanding population in Iberia, the species has not been a rarity in Portugal for several years now but it is regular only here in the south-eastern corner of the country. As these decisions are made in far away Lisbon where Slender-billed is hardly if ever seen it has taken time for its true status to be acknowledged. In 2008 we found more than 70 individuals on 23 different dates and we are now seeing them most days.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

The Last Few Days...

For us, highlights of the last week or so in the Eastern Algarve have been a Black Kite and more than 20 Slender-billed Gulls at Castro Marim, three Black-crowned Night-Herons and about 60 Stone-curlews just outside Tavira and two Penduline Tits and two Griffon Vultures near the Spanish border.

We’ve spent quite a lot of time sitting in the car photographing waders and we’ve also been trying to get some better shots of the local Bluethroats. There seem to be three or possibly four different Bluethroats in quite a small area but so far they have ignored the perch we provided for them, leaving it to a very obliging Sardinian Warbler to pose on.

The weather has taken a turn for the autumnal, temperatures still 20° and above but for a few days now we have regularly had a stiff breeze blowing. Yesterday we made the long trip out to Cape St Vincent (which seems to have a climate of its own!) and suffered a wet and windy morning there before retreating back to Alvor and then to Lagoa dos Salgados where the weather was much better.

From the lighthouse we watched countless Northen Gannets passing just offshore, the majority of them adults, gleaming white against the grey sea. A few Cory’s Shearwaters also went by. Before the weather closed in completely we did see a couple of distant Griffon Vultures, a handful of Common Buzzards and a Hen Harrier but really it wasn’t a morning for raptor passage. Four Ring Ouzels were probably the 'best' birds seen.

At Alvor there was a selection of the usual common wader species, a Water Pipit and just a single Greater Flamingo. A Water Rail was making a lot of noise but typically remained hidden.

Lagoa dos Salgados has recently been drained again but still had a decent number of birds to offer. A Peregrine Falcon was sat on a post in the middle of the dry lagoon, a Marsh Harrier was patrolling and what appeared to be a late female Montagu’s Harrier was also hunting along the far shore. There were about 20 each of Spoonbills and Cormorants and at least 50 Grey Herons. Other than a flock of 30 or so Northern Lapwings there were just a few waders including a single Golden Plover.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Pretty Flamingo?

Do you remember that Manfred Mann song? From 1966?

“When she moves she walks so fine like a flamingo…When she walks by she brightens up the neighbourhood…”

Of course, not everyone sees them like that. Apparently there is no evidence that Lewis Carroll did recreational drugs but having Alice play croquet with a live flamingo as a mallet (and hedgehogs as the balls) shows that at the very least he had a particularly creative mind. It seems clear that he thought flamingos to be a somewhat comical species and regarded them as figures of fun. For him they obviously didn't bring to mind a girl who was "out of reach and out of sight".

There are not many surreal laughs of the Alice in Wonderland kind in the Concise Birds of the Western Palearctic and here the description of Greater Flamingo uses the words ‘graceful’ and ‘grotesque’ in the same sentence. Grotesque might just be taking things a bit far but you can see where they were coming from.

Here in Tavira now we've got hundreds of Greater Flamingos. They're here for the winter and they make a fine sight, particularly in flight when seen against a clear blue sky.

Back in 1979 a pop group called The Monks were one-hit wonders with a song that wasn’t about flamingos at all but which we reckon summed them up nicely. It was called Nice Legs Shame About The Face!