Friday, 31 December 2010

Avian Adventures in Portugal

We've just spent a week leading the Avian Adventures Christmas tour. In past years we have taken groups to Arizona & New Mexico, Texas, Cuba, Costa Rica and South Africa for Christmas birding but this year we had the people come to us in Portugal and we joined them, staying six nights in the excellent Vila Galé Albacora, located close to Tavira and just five minutes drive from home.

Hotel Vila Galé Albacora

The weather was kind to us more or less throughout. Although it was pouring with rain in Tavira on the morning of Christmas Day, we were able to change our plans and by driving out to Cape St Vincent managed to stay dry. Otherwise, it was a mixture of 'partly sunny' and 'partly cloudy' with a generally pleasant temperature.

Our programme for the week took us to all our favourite birding sites in the Algarve plus, of course, there was a trip into the Castro Verde area of the Baixo Alentejo.

Star birds of the week for us were the two Barnacle Geese seen less than a kilometre from the hotel on the Tavira saltpans. It seems that this was the first record of this species in the Algarve! Unfortunately, they were very skittish and quickly flew out of sight before there was any possibility of a photograph.

Also around Tavira we were able to find at least two Slender-billed Gulls, a male Hen Harrier, a Peregrine Falcon, almost 100 Stone-curlews and the usual selection of waders. The hybrid egret ('Hollywood Egret') at Santa Luzia performed well and we were also pleased to note the return of the similar garzetta x gularis hybrid at Forte do Rato, a bird we haven't seen for a while.

Forte do Rato - dates back to the 16th Century

Slender-billed Gull

Kentish Plover

We had an excellent day in the Ludo/Quinta do Lago area where Booted Eagles, Black-winged Kites, Marsh Harriers, an Osprey and a Hen Harrier all appeared on cue and we had little difficulty in seeing Little Bittern, Glossy Ibis and Purple Swamp-hen. A Black-crowned Night Heron and two Sacred Ibises were seen in flight.

Amongst the most popular birds of the week were the Penduline Tits seen at Parque Ambiental de Vilamoura. There were also Booted Eagle, Marsh Harrier and Purple Swamp-hen there and all four hirundine species were feeding together over one of the lagoons - Barn Swallow, Red-rumped Swallow, Crag Martin and House Martin. The trees and bushes were full of Blackcaps, Robins, Blackbirds and Song Thrushes; there were Siskins and Serins feeding together in the conifers and two Black-necked Grebes on the ETAR.

Penduline Tit

Parque Ambiental de Vilamoura

Our trip to Cape St Vincent produced one major surprise, a Great Bustard, the first we have seen in the Algarve. More to be expected here were Red-billed Choughs, Blue Rock Thrush, Rock Doves and Shag. Little Bustards were seen only in flight and at some distance.

At Lagoa dos Salgados there was relatively little water but plenty of birds - a nice selection of waders and ducks, plus Spoonbills, Purple Swamp-hen, hundreds of Black-headed Gulls and a couple of Bluethroats.

Castro Marim proved a little disappointing - the closing to birdwatchers of the Cerro do Bufo section of the reserve is undoubtedly a major blow to those of us who have been regular visitors there. However, we did get reasonable views of about 20 Little Bustards. Nearby, at the mouth of the Guadiana, we were able to find at least four Little Terns.

Our day around the Castro Verde area produced few surprises. We saw around 70 Great Bustards, mostly in flocks of about 15 or 20, there were lots of Red Kites, we found one good-sized flock of Calandra Larks, Cranes and Little Bustards were few but there were plenty of Black-bellied Sandgrouse. The highlight was seeing an adult Spanish Imperial Eagle on the ground with what appeared to be four immature birds of the same species.

All in all it was a satisfactory and very enjoyable week and hopefully we have sent 12 more people back to the UK to spread the word about how good the birding can be in the Algarve.

Hoopoe - always a crowd-pleaser

Monday, 20 December 2010

Another Rare Bird Alert!

The warm and sunny weather continued until Thursday but since then we have had some heavy rain and it has been mostly cloudy.

We had a couple of days covering the usual sites around Tavira and Santa Luzia where a big female Peregrine Falcon was the only unusual bird seen. We used what turned out to be the last of the sunshine to photograph a Bar-tailed Godwit and some Lesser Black-backed Gulls. It’s very easy here to photograph Black-tailed Godwits but Barwits, being mainly coastal, are almost always viewed against the light and are a different proposition. The same is true of Oystercatcher, Curlew and Knot. They do come on to the saltpans at high tide but only rarely do they roost where we can get near enough for a photograph with the sun on them. This one was unusually obliging, feeding only a short distance from the road.

Bar-tailed Godwit

Lesser Black-backed Gull

On Sunday, in spite of the dismal weather and the fact that it was a hunting day, we took a trip to the Castro Verde area. Hunting is allowed here on Thursdays, Sundays and Public Holidays but we do wonder sometimes whether the locals have calendars! Anyway, the amount of shooting that we saw and heard on this occasion wasn’t enough to spoil our day, although it may have been sufficient to explain why we didn’t manage to find a single Little Bustard. Who could blame them for keeping their heads down? Happily, we did see plenty of Great Bustards and Black-bellied Sandgrouse and a good selection of raptors that included an immature Spanish Imperial Eagle and, more surprisingly, a Merlin. Lapwings and Golden Plovers were in their hundreds.

As we were driving back late in the afternoon we received a phone call from Thijs Valkenburg to tell us that he had just found a Long-billed Dowitcher on the saltpans at Olhão. There have been only a handful of records of this North American wader in Portugal and had we been at home we might have dropped everything and gone to look for it. As it was, we had no chance to get there in daylight.

So this morning at 10.30am we were at Olhão watching the Dowitcher. Even then it still didn’t seem like daylight but at least we got there before the rain started again. It almost goes without saying that we were on our own. There has been some discussion here recently about how we might improve the flow of news about rare and scarce birds and we support that. However, the fact is that there are still very few birders here and the record for the most people we have seen at a twitch in Portugal remains the 16 who came to Martinhal for the White-rumped Sandpiper in November last year. It seems likely to be a while before we are offered a Portuguese pager!

Long-billed Dowitcher

Long-billed Dowitcher

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Back in Action

An accident, an emergency requiring a brief trip to the UK and the need to have some essential maintenance carried out on the car have all conspired to limit our birding during the last couple of weeks. We've been out and about around Tavira and Santa Luzia a few times but this morning at last we were fully back in action and headed off to Ludo and Quinta do Lago.

Of particular interest at Santa Luzia has been the presumed hybrid E. garzetta x gularis now so easy to see and photograph as it poses on fences and posts that we refer to it as 'Hollywood Egret'. It feeds regularly in the same channel and defends it against all comers. Photographs show clearly that it is the same bird that has been there for at least the last two years and we hope soon to be able to compare our images with those taken by Ray Tipper going back ten years.

Photograph from November 2008

The same bird on the same post - December 2010.

Flight shot, December 2010

Another photo from last week.

This morning's visit to Ludo and Quinta do Lago was remarkable first of all for the amazing shorts and t-shirt weather - a clear sky and a temperature that reached at least 21° C . A total of more than 80 species included two Glossy Ibises, at least one Osprey, four or more Booted Eagles and two Black-winged Kites. We also saw one of the Sacred Ibises that seems to have made the Algarve its home, but for June the day's highlights were the three different Wrynecks that punctuated our walk. Together with several Great Spotted Woodpeckers and an Iberian Green Woodpecker they were enough to make the day for any 'piciphile' - and why not?

Friday, 3 December 2010

Dodging the Showers

A week of rather mixed weather has seen us staying mostly around the Tavira area, taking advantage of the sunny days (or more often half-days) to photograph some of the common birds. It's been exactly as forecast and we have been doing our best to dodge the showers.

Linnet - seldom more than a few seconds at the water.

Meadow Pipit - taking a bath.

European Goldfinch - content with just a drink.

Black Redstart - a spiffy male but a shame about the white wall!

Red Knot - well, more of a grey Knot really!

Bluethroat - this one scolding a cat that had intruded into its territory...

...and now looking pleased to have seen it off!

Common Sandpiper - also seemed to enjoy teasing the cat; hope it doesn't end in tears...

Common Redshank - waders often give the appearance of having only one leg; this bird does actually have only one, but seems to be managing OK.

Black-headed Gull - not only caught with its mouth open but also with its tongue sticking out!

Eurasian Spoonbill - one of the 'rare' unringed birds.

Common Stonechat - hard to resist when they perch like this one.

Slender-billed Gull - once considered a rarity in Portugal but can now be found here most days...

...their distictive feeding action makes them easy to pick out.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Tavira and beyond

The weather has been pretty discouraging this week and there was even a day when we didn't go birding! Really - that bad!

Mostly we have been enjoying the wonderful selection of birds on our doorstep here in Tavira but we've also been to Olhão, looking for unusual gulls at the 'docapesca', to Sagres, Cape St Vincent and Martinhal, to Altura, to Fuseta and to the 'top of the Algarve' at Fóia.

Radar, TV, radio and telephone installations on Fóia

In the Cape St Vincent/Sagres area we were pleased to find that there were still plenty of raptors; a Peregrine Falcon, lots of Common Kestrels and Common Buzzards but also ten or more Booted Eagles and at least one Short-toed Eagle. The whole area is full of birds: flocks of Lapwings, Golden Plovers, Skylarks, Corn Buntings, Spotless Starlings, Goldfinches, Linnets and Meadow Pipits; Jackdaws and Choughs; Thekla Larks, Black Redstarts, Blue Rock Thrushes and more.

Short-toed Eagle

We also found Blue Rock Thrush on Fóia but our main target there was its cousin the Ring Ouzel. There were at least half a dozen of them, birds apparently of the central and southern European race, Turdus torquatus alpestris. They were extremely active and difficult to count, chasing each other around from one berry-laden tree to another, as if there weren't enough berries to go around. It was fun to watch but frustrating that, even if there had been enough light, we weren't able to get close enough for a photograph.

Around Tavira and Santa Luzia, we have at least 24 wader species in the saltpans and tidal channels, plus Greater Flamingos, Spoonbills, White Storks and the usual six species of gulls. Among the ducks, we have seen up to seven Common Shelducks; Sandwich Terns are common and one or two Caspian Terns can usually be found. A single Black-necked Grebe seems to have settled in to one particular lagoon and the hybrid Western Reef x Little Egret continues, also very faithful to one favourite channel. Bluethroats and Kingfishers provide regular flashes of colour. Raptors here this week have included a Black-winged Kite and a smart-looking male Hen Harrier.

Little Stint

Common Kingfisher

White Stork

The forecast seems to be for a further period of mixed weather with heavy rain on several days next week. No doubt we'll be doing our best to dodge the showers as usual.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Where were we?

We had a great day out yesterday! Lots of sunshine and plenty of birds.

The day’s bird list included two Black Storks, 30-plus White Storks, a Great Egret, more than 300 Common Cranes, a Spanish Imperial Eagle, a Griffon Vulture, numerous Red Kites, 150 or so Great Cormorants and a nice selection of waders that included Greenshank, Spotted Redshank, Dunlin, Ringed Plover and Snipe.

So, where do you think we were? It sounds a bit like Doñana, doesn’t it? But let’s add a few more species to the list: Great Bustard, Little Bustard, Black-bellied Sandgrouse and Bonelli’s Eagle.

Here's a clue!

Now what do you think?

Yes, that’s right, we were in the Baixo Alentejo. No need to go to Spain when Portugal offers so much!

Thursday, 11 November 2010

The Week in Pictures

We've been busy around Tavira this week where there has been plenty to keep us occupied:

Eurasian Griffons passed over Tavira this week, presumably heading for Tarifa. About 150 were counted on Sunday.

At least three Water Pipits have been regular at Pedras d'el Rei.

Meadow Pipits are now very numerous - but still smart little birds and quite variable in plumage.

Always popular and, in spite of what some of the books say, still quite vocal in November.

Greater Flamingos - hard to ignore.

Bar-tailed Godwit - one of at least 21 wader species currently around Tavira.

Sometimes even long-legged Flamingos get out of their depth!

Common Greenshank - always one of our favourites!

When not chasing off Little Egrets, this hybrid Western Reef x Little Egret regularly poses for photographs - tight-rope walking a speciality!

Stone-curlews are not too hard to see - if you know where to look!

Six gull species are here now and can sometimes be seen all in one place. Just two on this photograph.

Lesser Black-backed Gull - one of the most common species around here in winter.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Flamingos in the news

Who would have thought that research into the behaviour of Greater Flamingos would be so widely reported in the news media? This week the BBC, the Daily Mail and the Telegraph were amongst those who joined Birdguides in featuring our favourite pink birds. How clever of Juan Amat and his co-authors to include a reference to make-up in the title of their paper on the use of uropygial secretions; it certainly grabbed the attention of the headline writers! You can read their full text on-line in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, a Springer journal.

Greater Flamingos occur here throughout the year. There was a failed breeding attempt this year at Lagoa dos Salgados and there have been reports of similar attempts in the past at Castro Marim, but it is as a wintering area that the Algarve is of prime importance.

Not surprisingly, the birds we see here are mostly from the major breeding colonies in France and Spain. Most stay with us through the winter months but some carry on south and we have seen birds in Djoudj National Park in Senegal and in The Gambia that probably came from the Camargue or perhaps from Laguna de Fuente de Piedra, near Malaga.

It used to be thought that Greater Flamingos paired for life – the Handbook of the Birds of the Western Palearctic says that – but the reality seems to be that many of them choose a new partner each year. Not only that but they may also choose to nest in a different colony from one year to the next.

This week we watched a group of 80 birds here in Tavira that included five colour-ringed individuals, birds that had started life in France, Spain and Italy. Seeing these birds courting and displaying, it wasn’t difficult to see how the interchange between breeding colonies comes about and presumably this must be good for genetic diversity and the health of the population. Amongst the displays, we saw some ‘neck-stretching’ and ‘head-flagging’ and even some ‘wing-saluting’ but it’s probably a little early in the season for the birds to be putting on their make-up. Rest assured, though, that we will be looking out for it!