A bird that we are quite often asked about, especially by first-time visitors to the Algarve, is the Common Waxbill (Estrilda astrild).
This isn’t because Common Waxbills are rare or even because they are hard to identify. In fact they really are quite common and they’re very distinctive and pretty much unmistakable. No, the reason for the regular questions is that the species is missing from several of the popular field guides and even the Collins Guide hides it away at the back amongst the introductions and escapes. As a result, many people are just not expecting to come across them.
Common Waxbills are native to sub-Saharan Africa and widely distributed there. They were introduced to Portugal in the 1960s and are now well established and apparently thriving. Accounts of exactly where and when they were introduced vary: The Birds of Africa (Vol. VIII) refers to c100 birds introduced or escaped near Lisbon in 1964; the excellent website www.avesdeportugal.info has the date as 1968 and the place as Lagoa de Óbidos. They are, of course, only one of several non-native species that are well established here. Not only are they very numerous in Portugal but they have also spread into neighbouring areas of Spain. Clearly they have found Iberia very much to their liking and the fact that they appear to have a very long breeding season has obviously contributed to their success.
They seem to prefer damp lowland areas with dense vegetation, particularly tall grasses and reeds. No surprise then that we have so many of them along the coast here in the Algarve. We routinely see them from our window but usually we hear them first. They have a very distinctive flight call and quite often this is what draws them to our attention and we are just in time to see a small flock of 15 or 20 birds disappear into the distance or maybe just into the vegetation close by.
They can be quite confiding and when seen well are quite attractive little birds that are easily identified. They are one of the 18 species that make up the genus Estrilda, several of which are kept as cage birds in various parts of the world. The books put their length at 11-12cm (roughly the size of a Serin); the most striking features of the adult bird are the orange-red bill and the red stripe through the eye. Juveniles have a black bill.