Saturday, 30 October 2010

A Quieter Week

Well, we've had the relaxed week we promised ourselves but have still seen plenty of birds during single visits to Castro Marim, Parque Ambiental de Vilamoura and Quinta do Lago and several local excursions around Tavira and Santa Luzia. The weather has remained mostly warm and sunny, although Friday was cloudy and we had our first rain for a while.

Two unusual views of the ETAR at Vilamoura - a hide here overlooking the water treatment works would be popular
The very familiar view from the hide at Quinta do Lago.

After all last week’s excitement, a Common Gull reported from the Ria Formosa and a Pied Wagtail near Tavira have been the nearest we’ve had to rarities in the Algarve or at least that’s all we’ve heard about. However, remembering that November last year produced Whooper Swan, Red-breasted Flycatcher and White-rumped Sandpiper, there is still plenty of time to be looking for the unusual.

Meanwhile, we are seeing some of the scarcer wintering species settling in to familiar places. Black-necked Grebes, Squacco Heron, Little Bittern, a hybrid ‘Grey Egret’, Slender-billed Gulls, Glossy Ibis, Penduline Tit, Booted Eagles and Black-winged Kite have all been found in the last few days exactly where they were last winter. Some of the commoner winter species don’t yet seem to be here in the numbers we would expect, notably Song Thrushes and Chaffinches, and although we saw our first Bluethroat as long ago as 11th September, there still don’t seem to be many around Tavira at least. Late migrants in the last few days have included Turtle Dove, Pied Flycatcher, Yellow Wagtails and a Red-necked Nightjar.

Presumed garzetta x gularis hybrid egret.

Booted Eagle

Yellow Wagtail

Yesterday, we saw our first ‘kitchen window’ Eurasian Griffon of the autumn and no doubt there will be more during the coming weeks as the birds that have congregated at Sagres start to make their way east looking for a shorter crossing to North Africa.

It's heading straight for us!!

And, of course, we've been looking for a yellowlegs (or two?) around the local saltpans...

Common Greenshank

Monday, 25 October 2010

Pied Wagtail in Tavira

Okay, so it's not quite in the same league as Upland Sandpiper and Common Yellowthroat but a Pied Wagtail (Motacilla alba yarrellii) isn't an everyday bird here by any means. This one has been hanging around for several days now on the outskirts of Tavira. This morning it was feeding in the company of a White Wagtail (M. a. alba), which from time to time it chased off.

Pied Wagtail

Pied Wagtail is generally regarded as the British race of White Wagtail but it does in fact also breed in small numbers on the neighbouring European mainland in France, Germany and Holland.

Pied Wagtail

Most Pied Wagtails are fairly sedentary but many spend the winter in the south of France and in Iberia with some going at least as far south as Morocco. No doubt many are overlooked here in the Algarve where birds of the nominate race are numerous in winter.

White Wagtail

Saturday, 23 October 2010

A Rare Week

What a hectic week! In the last eight days we have been three times to the Castro Verde area, twice to Sagres and Cape St Vincent, we've been to Foia, the highest point in the Algarve, we've made four visits to the ringing team at Vilamoura, there were mornings at Castro Marim and Ludo and we've also spent a couple of hours looking for a Yellow-browed Warbler near Silves. Of course, we haven't both been to all those places, once or twice we've headed off in different directions, but we've certainly kept busy.

As we have remarked before, every trip to the Castro Verde area is different. Great Bustards, Little Bustards, Black-bellied Sandgrouse and various raptor species are the main targets but at this time of year some of them are quite difficult to find. We've been reasonably successful but two particular highlights stand out: the return of the first Common Cranes of the autumn, a party of 28 birds seen on Wednesday, and then, yesterday, one of the best views we've had of a perched Spanish Imperial Eagle, an adult on top of a small tree seen well through the 'scope. With flocks of larks, Meadow Pipits and Corn Buntings everywhere and increasing numbers of Northern Lapwings the change of season is very evident in the Alentejo.

Great Bustard - as many as 50 seen some days but never as near as you would want them.

At Cabranosa, the raptor watchpoint near Sagres, there have been reports of at least eighteen raptor species this week, amongst them Lesser Spotted Eagle (which we missed) and Rüppell's Griffon (which we did see). Red Kites have been in unusually high numbers but the main spectacle has been the gathering of Eurasian Griffons with more than 600 birds seen some days.

Eurasian Griffon

Eurasian Griffons - just a few of the 600 or more

Rüppell's Griffon - now seen annually in the Algarve

Red Kite - 50 or more were present on Monday

Short-toed Eagle

We also saw Griffons from the top of Foia, above Monchique, where Montagu's Harrier, Blue Rock Thrush, Ring Ouzel, Woodlark and Dartford Warbler were the main highlights. The views from up there at just over 900 metres are spectacular.

The ringing activity at Parque Ambiental has already had some coverage with the previously reported Common Yellowthroat being the obvious star of the show. However, it was followed by two Common Rosefinches, probably the seventh and eighth records for Portugal, both of which we managed to miss in spite of our four trips to Vilamoura! The whole place seemed to be full of birds and its importance as a staging post for migrants and a wintering site for quite a number of species can't be overstated. As well as the ringing we had multiple sightings of Booted Eagles, Black-winged Kites and Marsh Harriers and we also enjoyed seeing a tiny Soprano Pipistrelle in the hand. Thanks, once again, to Fergus Henderson and his team for sharing news of their remarkable captures.

Penduline Tit

Grasshopper Warbler

Both Castro Marim and Ludo provided the usual quality birding that we expect at these sites. Booted Eagles and Black-winged Kite are always popular at Ludo; Little Bustards continue to be much easier to find at Castro Marim than they are in the Alentejo!

Next week we're planning to be a bit more relaxed!

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Common Yellowthroat!!

It was just a week ago that we said it: "Surely it can only be a matter of time now before we get a passerine from across the Atlantic!"

Well it turned out to be less than a week as yesterday a Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas) was trapped and ringed at the Parque Ambiental in Vilamoura. The bird was found in a mist-net late in the afternoon by John Hodson, part of a team of British ringers led by Fergus Henderson who had arrived in Portugal only that day.

Common Yellowthroat is a common enough bird in North America, breeding in most of the USA and southern Canada; birds from the north of its range are migratory, most spending the winter in Mexico and Central America south as far as Panama. This one, a hatch-year male, has the distinction of being the first passerine from across the Atlantic to be found in mainland Portugal.

Marshes and other wet areas with dense low vegetation are its favoured habitat and the Parque Ambiental is absolutely ideal. Maybe it will be seen again...

Friday, 15 October 2010

Tavira Yellowlegs

Today was the sixth consecutive day when we have spent at least some time searching the Tavira saltpans for the Greater Yellowlegs that was reported last Sunday.

And at last we got our reward...a Lesser Yellowlegs.

We saw it for just long enough to grab a few record shots before it took off with several Black-winged Stilts. Subsequent attempts to re-locate it were unsuccessful but no doubt it'll be hiding somewhere, waiting for anybody prepared to put the time in to look for it!

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Transatlantic Visitors

There's been a flurry of North American waders here in Portugal these last few weeks. It started with a Pectoral Sandpiper on the last day of August and then in September there was a Buff-breasted Sandpiper at Lagoa dos Salgados, two Spotted Sandpipers (Vilamoura and Alcochete) and an Upland Sandpiper (Santa Luzia). Already this month there has been an American Golden Plover (Estuário do Mondego), a Lesser Yellowlegs (near Vila Nova de Gaia), a Buff-breasted Sandpiper (Ria Alvor) and a Greater Yellowlegs (Tavira). Surely it can only be a matter of time now before we get a passerine from across the Atlantic!

The Greater Yellowlegs was reported from the saltmarsh here in Tavira on Sunday morning by John Edge and Clive Viney and after their phone call it took only a few minutes for us to get down there. Unfortunately, although John and Clive were still there when we arrived, the bird had flown and they were trying to re-locate it. Trying to re-locate it is what we have been doing ever since!

So we've had three days when we've spent quite a lot of time around Tavira. That's no hardship at all - the saltpans are full of birds and there are at least twenty species of waders but that does make it difficult to find just one Greater Yellowlegs. All of the regular six gull species that winter here can also now be seen together and as usual we have taken some time out to read and report colour-ring details. In fact, this morning it was possible to read colour-rings on Audouin's and Slender-billed Gulls, Greater Flamingos and Spoonbills, all from the roadside at the edge of town.

Slender-billed Gull

No Greater Yellowlegs yet but this afternoon there was reward for our efforts, in the form of an unusually approachable Black-winged Kite that was perched on a pole in the middle of the saltpans. Sometimes carrying a camera can be a bit of a chore but not today!

Black-winged Kite

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Alentejo again plus a Tavira walking tour

No two trips to the Castro Verde area are ever the same. Take last week for instance: on Monday we had really good looks at Griffon Vultures, flying and on the ground; just a few days later, we struggled to get more than a very distant view of a couple of birds in flight; on Monday there were plenty of Little Bustards to be seen, while on our second trip we didn't find any at all. On the other hand, we saw more raptors on the second trip, including Golden, Bonelli's and Spanish Imperial Eagles and our first Red Kite of the autumn.

Eurasian Griffon

Sometimes it's hard to account for such differences between visits that are just a few days apart but this week we can maybe point a finger at the calendar and see that Tuesday was a public holiday, celebrating the Implantação da República, a date that also marks the opening of the hunting season. From mid-August it is permitted to shoot migratory birds such as Turtle Doves but now Rabbits, Red-legged Partridges and probably Little Bustards, too, are fleeing for their lives and every other wild creature is keeping its head down. Hunting here is not just one or two people walking around with shotguns, its highly organised parties of heavily-armed men, out from the towns with their dogs, 'hides' made from straw bales to shoot from, tell-tale groups of vehicles parked in unusual, isolated locations. They take over the countryside and who knows what they shoot?

In between our trips to the Alentejo we agreed to help out our friends at Another Level by leading one of their guided walks starting in Tavira. It came as a relief and a surprise that people turned up for this walk carrying binoculars and so very quickly we were able to treat it as a 'birding walk'. We were out for something like seven hours and didn't carry a telescope or any heavy camera gear but we still managed to record 68 bird species. The highlight amongst these was a Black-winged Kite, the day's only raptor. We also took a few photos using the Panasonic Lumix FZ50 that is ideal for long walks such as this in that it weighs next to nothing.

Praia da Terra Estreita - a lovely, sunny day - nobody on the beach!

Lesser Black-backed Gull

Not all of the birds were easy to identify!

No sign all day of the rain that was forecast - no surprise there!

The "anchor cemetery" - remnants of the tuna fishing industry

Bougainvillea - starting to fade a little but still a colourful sight

No train ride for us but a good way to get to Praia do Barril

Coming off the island

We walked through areas of cultivation with vines...


and pomegranates

Speckled Wood

Greater Flamingos at Santa Luzia saltpans

Crimson Speckled

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Contrasting Days!

We were at Sagres on Sunday for the Festival of Birdwatching, a three-day event organised to coincide with BirdLife International's EuroBirdwatch weekend.

The old primary school building was the location for lectures and workshops

One of the main attractions at Sagres in the autumn is the migration of raptors and we spent some time at Cabranosa, the raptor watch point located between Sagres and Cape St Vincent. There were an amazing number of people there but disappointingly it wasn't a great day for birds. It was a shame when there have been so many good days there recently that just when some birds were needed they were a bit of a let down. We were happy enough to see just an Eleanora's Falcon, but where were the Booted Eagles and Honey-buzzards that would have had more appeal to some of the novice birdwatchers who turned out?

Raptor watchers at Cabranosa

Yesterday we were in the Alentejo again with a familiar list of target species. The day's highlight was undoubtedly the short period of less than half an hour during which, just standing in one spot on the side of the road, we managed to see both Great and Little Bustards, Black-bellied Sandgrouse, Stone-curlews and a Spanish Imperial Eagle! Also present were a supporting cast that included Subalpine Warbler, Whinchat, Northern Wheatear, Corn Buntings and Northern Lapwings.

Later, after seeing in the distance a number of vultures flying, including two Black Vultures that were probably the same birds that we saw last week, we managed to locate a group of 28 Griffons on the ground. There was no carcass, in fact they looked as though they might already have fed, but they allowed quite close approach.

It shouldn't be too long now before we see gatherings of these Eurasian Griffons at Cabranosa. Several hundred can be expected in the Sagres area by the end of the month. Wouldn't it have been nice if they had been there for people to see on Sunday!

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Upland Sandpiper update

We've been back a couple of times to see the Upland Sandpiper. It hasn't been easy to see and there has been no possibility of more photographs but at least we have been able to confirm its continuing presence. Today is its fourth day, it's only the second record for Portugal and, to our knowledge, it has now been seen by as many as five people! This is a far cry from last year's White-rumped Sandpiper 'twitch'; that was the third record for mainland Portugal and on its first day at least sixteen birders saw that one. For us, one of the major attractions of birding in Portugal is that there are no crowds!

While looking for the Upland Sandpiper this morning we were able to enjoy a nice selection of migrants that included Chiffchaff, Blackcap, Whinchat, Spotted and Pied Flycatchers and at least two or maybe three Wrynecks. A couple of Blackcaps were joined by a Sardinian Warbler in half-heartedly mobbing a Little Owl that was sitting in an old olive tree; nearby a flock of Serins had found some seed heads to feed on; a Cetti's Warbler called. All in all it was a very pleasant start to the day.

Little Owl

Earlier in the week we've seen Great and Little Bustards, Griffon and Black Vultures, Spanish Imperial Eagle, Black-bellied Sandgrouse, Montagu's Harriers and Short-toed Eagles in the Alentejo; on several visits to Castro Marim, Little Bustards have been easy to see and one day there were at least 47 Slender-billed Gulls there; elsewhere migrants have included Common Redstarts, Northern Wheatears, Tawny Pipit and a late Woodchat Shrike; more winter birds are arriving including Northern Lapwings and plenty of ducks.

Tawny Pipit

At Castro Marim we found time to read a few colour rings and have already received details of three Spoonbills ringed in the Netherlands and a Greater Flamingo ringed in the Ebro Delta in Spain. One of the Spoonbills was a sixteen year-old that in previous winters has been seen in Banc d'Arguin National Park in Mauritania and in Guembeul Natural Reserve in Senegal so perhaps once again it is on its way to West Africa.

Eurasian Spoonbill - French-ringed, details awaited