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.
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.
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.
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.
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