Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Upland Sandpiper

After several busy days with multiple visits to the Alentejo and to Castro Marim, we were just settling down to record some details for the blog when we got a call from Nigel Jackson here in Tavira.

He had just got home after a morning's birding during which he had found what he thought to be an Upland Sandpiper. We quickly noted down his directions to a field that is only 10 minutes drive away on the edge of Tavira, grabbed binoculars, telescope and camera and were out of the door before you could say Bartramia longicauda!

When Nigel saw the bird he was on the Ecovia Algarve and it was in a weedy field just the other side of a wire fence. Of course, when we arrived there was no immediate sign of it but after a systematic search of the area lasting about half an hour, the bird was found, its identity confirmed and its photograph taken.

Upland Sandpiper is a species that we have seen on quite a number of occasions in Texas and Wyoming but this is our first on this side of the Atlantic. It would appear that there has been one previous record in Portugal, at Ludo in 1999.

Many thanks, Nigel!

Thursday, 23 September 2010


We enjoyed excellent birding yesterday morning at Ludo recording more than 70 species during only quite a short walk.

For June, the woodpecker fan, it was a particular red-letter day as we saw all four of the locally available members of the family Picidae. We began by watching a Great Spotted Woodpecker and an Iberian Green Woodpecker on neighbouring telegraph poles, both of them being mildly harassed by Spotless Starlings. Soon after that, we found a Wryneck (people seeing this species for the first time always seem surprised by its small size) and later, a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, for us the least-often seen of the quartet.

We watched an elegant Black-winged Kite hunting and twice saw it bring a small prey item to a favourite plucking post. Nearby, two Booted Eagles were sitting only a couple of metres apart, engaged in a prolonged session of feather maintenance. A fly-by Marsh Harrier and a Common Kestrel completed the raptors.

The saltpans held the usual good selection of waders, more than a dozen species that included Avocet, Spotted Redshank, Greenshank and Curlew Sandpiper, plus a fair number of Greater Flamingos amongst which we again found one that had been ringed in France.

Spotted Redshank

A Water Rail squealed loudly from just two or three metres from us but refused to show itself; a couple of times we saw Little Bitterns in flight before they disappeared into reedbeds; thankfully, a Purple Heron was much more obliging as it landed in a tree and remained in full view.

Passage migrants were represented by Pied Flycatcher, Blackcap, Chiffchaff, Garden Warbler, Subalpine Warbler and Whinchat. Newly arrived, probably to spend the winter here, were our first of season Wigeon and European Robin.

Pied Flycatcher

Amongst other notables for our visitors from England were Red-rumped Swallow, Hoopoe, Turtle Dove (still quite common here), Crested Tit, Short-toed Treecreeper, Zitting Cisticola and Azure-winged Magpie, while for us, perversely, it was the single Common Magpie that was of interest as it was further west along the coast than we have previously seen this species!

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Around the local hotspots

We were at Castro Marim this morning, our first visit for a little over a week. The number of birds there continues to be impressive and although long-legged species (Greater Flamingos, European Spoonbills, Little Egrets, Grey Herons, White Storks, Pied Avocets, Black-winged Stilts and Black-tailed Godwits) predominate there are now several pans that are muddy or have just enough shallow water to make them attractive to the smaller sandpipers and plovers. Dunlin, Curlew Sandpipers, Ringed Plovers and Kentish Plovers were particularly numerous; we managed to find a single Little Ringed Plover and, of course, it was a pleasure to see our favourite Tringas.

Pied Avocet

Yesterday morning we visited Quinta do Lago where the numbers of ducks and gulls are increasing, particularly Gadwall, Shoveler and Lesser Black-backs. Migrant passerines included Pied Flycatchers, Garden Warbler and Sedge Warbler; among the 'expected species' were Black-crowned Night-Heron, Little Bittern, Red-crested Pochard, Booted Eagle and Purple Swamp-hen but it's always fun to experience these through the eyes of people who are seeing them for the first time. "Just look at the size of its feet!" was the immediate reaction to the Swamp-hen. The tidal lagoon here is a great place to photograph Whimbrel, Ruddy Turnstone and Bar-tailed Godwit; if only the Oystercatchers were so easy!


Ruddy Turnstone

Bar-tailed Godwit

At Quinta do Lago we were already half way to Lagoa dos Salgados so in the afternoon we decided to go and look for the juvenile Buff-breasted Sandpiper that was seen there at the end of last week. Remarkably, this bird showed up on almost the same date as the one that was at Salgados last year. In the event we didn't find it - there were plenty of waders to choose from but most were in an area of the lagoon that has now been rendered inaccessible by various means presumably designed to protect breeding birds. As a result they were quite a long way off and difficult to sort out through the heat haze. It was a bit frustrating. We did get good views of Little Stints, Curlew Sandpipers, Dunlin, Green Sandpiper and Whimbrel so no real complaints. A Northern Wheatear posed for photographs - this is currently the most numerous of the passerine migrant species here.

Northern Wheatear

Locally, in Tavira and Santa Luzia, there are increasing numbers of Spoonbills and Greater Flamingos. We have already had news that a colour-ringed Flamingo which we reported on Friday from Santa Luzia was ringed in France in 1996 at Etg. du Fangassier - Bouches-du-Rhône. It has apparently been reported several times over the years from Castro Marim and Marismas del Odiel and in January 2009 it was seen in Tavira. There are lots more colour-rings out there for us to look at when we have some time on our own. For example, many of the Audouin's Gulls now gathering here are colour-ringed and although most originate from the Ebro Delta we have had the odd one from Mallorca.

Greater Flamingo

Greater Flamingo

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Praia do Barril

Just a short walk this morning to Praia do Barril, our local beach. Many people who go there use the narrow-gauge railway to cover the short distance from Pedras d'el Rei but by doing so they miss out on the birds - we prefer to walk!

There are always waders to be seen but at this time of year the trees and bushes can be good for migrant passerines. This morning we found just a handful - two Spotted Flycatchers, a Chiffchaff, two Garden Warblers, a Melodious Warbler and a couple of Northern Wheatears.

From the beach itself only Northern Gannets were passing close enough to the shore for safe identification.

With our binoculars and camera, we somehow felt we should avoid the section of beach that has been designated 'Praia Naturista'.

By the time we were leaving at 9.30am the beach was filling up and we were walking very much against the flow of traffic as we returned to the car park.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Portimão pelagic

September is probably the best month for pelagic trips off the Portuguese coast and yesterday a group of ten of us enjoyed an excellent 7-hour 'voyage' from Portimão aboard the catamaran Ecoceanus. The sea was calm and the sky almost cloudless - it was a day when any concerns about seasickness could be cast aside!

This was a longer trip than those we have done in previous years from Sagres. The plan was to go out to the edge of the continental shelf where the depth of water increases to something like 300 metres with the expectation that we would find more birds there. This proved to be successful to the extent that we found many more storm-petrels than previously but the numbers of shearwaters and skuas seen was a bit disappointing. However, there were no complaints - who would complain after seeing countless European and 50 or more Wilson's Storm-petrels? And then there was the Minke Whale, a brief but really close look as it broke the surface less than 50 metres from the boat.

The day's bird list included Cory's, Balearic and Sooty Shearwaters, Northern Gannets, of course, Great Skuas, Sandwich, Black and Common Terns. Perhaps the most surprising species was Northern Wheatear, an individual that landed on the boat for just a few seconds, presumably heading for North Africa.

For most of us the Wilson's Storm-petrels were the highlight of the day; we were able to watch a flock of them feeding and although we couldn't hear them, with the aid of a parabolic reflector and headphones, Magnus Robb actually made some sound recordings. He described their calls as being like those of small waders - Little Stints or Sanderlings.

All in all, an excellent day!

Thursday, 9 September 2010

First Stop - Castro Marim

It's good to be back in the Algarve again and straightaway we have been and had a good walk at one of our favourite sites here, Castro Marim. It was a warm sunny morning but a fresh breeze that kept the temperature down to a comfortable level also resulted in us seeing rather few small passerines, presumably keeping their heads down.

Two species dominated proceedings: Greater Flamingos and European Spoonbills. Birds are extremely difficult to count at Castro Marim, particularly when they are mobile, moving between the numerous saltpans. However, guestimates would put the Flamingos at close to 2,000 and the Spoonbills at maybe 500.

The main highlights for us were Little Bustards (to begin with just a few heads sticking up from long vegetation but later a flock of 25 in flight above our heads), Slender-billed Gulls (35), Stone-curlews (just 4), a Purple Heron, two Marsh Harriers, Shelducks with young, several Kingfisher sightings that included two birds apparently fighting and, of course, a nice selection of waders.

We had hoped to find the new hide open but for some reason, more than two months after it seemed to have been completed, it is still protected by a padlock. An enquiry at the Visitor Centre unfortunately brought no explanation.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Flying Squirrels

At the recent Birdfair we became involved in a conversation concerning Flying Squirrels and the question was asked whether it might be possible to see them on an Avian Adventures tour somewhere.

As they are nocturnal and reputed to be rather shy, everyone agreed that they would be very difficult to see anywhere and certainly not a species that we would be promising to find! The Finland tour was the most popular suggestion as a possibility but someone said that they also occur in Belarus, which is a new tour destination for Avian in 2011.

The talk was exclusively about Russian (or Siberian) Flying Squirrels (Pteromys volans). However, worldwide, there are actually 44 species of Flying Squirrels and the answer to the original question was that one had already been seen on an Avian Adventures tour and quite recently. And we have the pictures to prove it!

This Northern Flying Squirrel (Glaucomys sabrinus) was one of the stars of this year's Avian Adventures tour in Montana and Wyoming.

Found in coniferous and mixed forests, Northern Flying Squirrels are normally nocturnal and arboreal but this one had located an easy meal at ground level in the form of sunflower seeds at a feeder just outside Yellowstone National Park.

There are just two Flying Squirrels in the New World, the other (not surprisingly) is called Southern Flying Squirrel (Glaucomys volans), although it mostly occurs in the eastern USA.

Of course Flying Squirrels can't really fly but with the aid of their patagium, a furry parachute-like membrane that stretches from wrist to ankle, they do glide remarkable distances from tree to tree - "flights" by some species of as much as 90 metres have been recorded. Typical of many nocturnal creatures, they have large bulging eyes.

Pretty cute!