Friday, 28 October 2011

Sacred Ibises

On several occasions this month when we have been in the Ludo/Quinta do Lago area we have seen a group of five Sacred Ibises which seem to have settled there. Possibly they are the same five birds that were reported earlier in the year further west at Paul de Lagos.

There have been regular reports of Sacred Ibises in the Algarve in recent years and records of the species elsewhere in Portugal as long ago as 1998 when a pair may have bred near Coimbra.

Sacred Ibis is a very common bird in sub-Saharan Africa but wild birds are not known to have ever reached Europe, so where then have the current five birds come from?

Sacred Ibises where they're supposed to be - in Africa!

With Sacred Ibises held in zoos and waterfowl collections in most European countries (presumably including Portugal) and established breeding colonies in France, Italy and probably Spain which result from escapes from captivity, there are clearly many possibilities. At least one of the Ludo birds has a ring on its leg which might provide a clue if only we could read it but that really isn’t the issue.

Sacred Ibises are reasonably attractive birds and are still something of a novelty here. Some people might even welcome the possibility that the Algarve might soon have a new breeding bird. Indeed, there might already have been breeding here. There are several precedents for allowing colonisation by non-native species (Common Waxbill, Black-headed Weaver, etc, etc) so why should it matter if we have another one?

Well, in some other parts of the world these birds have become serious pests, particularly as predators in colonies of ground-nesting birds such as terns and waders. In France, Common, Sandwich, Black and Whiskered Terns, Black-winged Stilts and Northern Lapwings have all been seen to lose eggs to Sacred Ibises and, in South Africa, Cape Cormorants have been amongst the victims. This is surely something we would want to avoid happening here – ground-nesting birds in the Ria Formosa already have enough to contend with! Also, Sacred Ibises are competitors for nest sites with Little Egrets and Cattle Egrets.

Sacred Ibises in the Algarve

So, with this in mind and remembering our very costly experience with Ruddy Ducks in the UK, perhaps now, while there are still only a handful of them, would be the time to ‘remove’ them rather than wait until there are hundreds or even thousands to be dealt with as there are now in France.

With good reason, The African-Eurasian Waterbird Agreement requires that the Contracting Parties (which include Portugal) shall:

prohibit the deliberate introduction of non-native waterbird species into the environment and take all appropriate measures to prevent the unintentional release of such species if this introduction or release would prejudice the conservation status of wild flora and fauna; when non-native waterbird species have already been introduced, the Parties shall take all appropriate measures to prevent these species from becoming a potential threat to indigenous species.

What do you think?

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Slightly Cooler Birding

This week we’ve had only one day in the Castro Verde area; it was another day when finding birds was hard work but which did at least produce reasonable numbers and decent views of both Great and Little Bustards and we saw Spanish Imperial Eagle and Golden Eagle. The Golden Eagle, seen from the roadside through the telescope, perched high on a crag, was probably the day’s highlight.

Otherwise we have been covering our regular sites in the Eastern Algarve: Tavira, Santa Luzia, Ludo and Quinta do Lago. What a pity that Castro Marim is no longer among the places we regularly visit! For the time being, we have also now added to our itinerary the watercress beds near Almancil where we recently found a Pectoral Sandpiper. Could lightning possibly strike twice in the same place?

On both Thursday and Friday we recorded more than 90 species during what were fairly gentle birding days. Although there are signs now that the weather may be about to change (cooler mornings and evenings and a bit more cloud), temperatures throughout the week have risen to a very pleasant 24º C to add to our enjoyment.

Eurasian Spoonbill - one of three Dutch-ringed birds seen this week in Tavira

There have been no real rarities on show other than a Barnacle Goose which we found at Quinta do Lago. Although this species is officially a rarity in Portugal, it was hard to imagine this individual as anything other than an escape from captivity. But who knows? It had no rings and did seem quite wary. Thankfully, it didn’t spook as easily as the two that were in Tavira last Christmas; those two departed in such a hurry that June missed seeing them completely!

Barnacle Goose among the Eurasian Coots at Quinta do Lago

As we have hardly strayed away from the Ria Formosa, it’s not surprising that wetland birds have predominated – waders (24 species), ducks (10), gulls and terns (8), herons, spoonbills and ibises (7) made up more than half of our species total. Among them, only Sacred Ibis might not have been predicted, although we have now seen the same five birds in the same place on three occasions.

Grey Plover - still a smart-looking bird in winter plumage

Slender-billed Gull - easy to see around Tavira

Black-winged Stilt - numerous but always fun to watch

Northern Shoveler - numbers now building up as they arrive from...the north!

Robins, Bluethroats, Chiffchaffs, Song Thrushes, Meadow Pipits, Skylarks and White Wagtails are amongst the species that have now arrived here in numbers to spend the winter. On the other hand, there are fewer Whinchats and Northern Wheatears to be seen and Yellow Wagtails are in short supply. Two Red-rumped Swallows and a single Sand Martin were the only hirundines recorded.

Raptors have continued to provide plenty of interest down at the Sagres end of the Algarve this week with a Pallid Harrier causing particular excitement, but here in the east we have had to be content with just six species: Booted Eagle, Black-winged Kite, Marsh Harrier, Common Buzzard, Common Kestrel and Peregrine Falcon.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Sagres Day

We were delighted to get a phone call on Friday from our friends at Marilimitado at Sagres. Unfortunately, the boat trip with them that we had been booked on earlier in the month had to be cancelled but now another one had been arranged.

And so, yesterday we set off early to drive almost the length of the Algarve coast – possibly the last time we will be able to do so without paying tolls on the A22 motorway – arriving at the harbour in Sagres at about 8.15am.

While Ricardo was getting the boat ready and fetching a barrel of ‘chum’, a noisy Blue Rock Thrush kept us entertained.

The boat is the ‘Kogia’, the same one we have been on in previous years. Sitting astride the seats and holding the bar in front is rather like being a pillion passenger on a motorbike. Thankfully, the seats are extremely well padded.

It was quite windy and the sea didn’t look particularly inviting but in no time at all conditions improved and it seemed that the sea was calmer the further out we went.

Northern Gannet

Before we found any seabirds of note a Hammerhead Shark was seen briefly and soon we came across several Common Dolphins, which are always fun to see swimming alongside the boat. However, better was to come in the shape of a huge Leatherback Turtle, the first time that Ricardo had seen a live specimen of this species in these waters and a creature we have seen before only in South Africa. Again it was only a brief sighting and there are no photographs but it was exciting to see!

The plan was to head south looking for a trawler or two and hope that fishing activity would be attracting some birds. We found a boat about 12 miles out and with it were about 100 gulls, mostly Yellow-legged. By this time we had seen a couple of Balearic Shearwaters and lots of Northern Gannets. When Ricardo began dispensing the ‘chum’ more Gannets appeared and several Great Shearwaters came really close but surprisingly, we saw only one Cory’s Shearwater.

Great Shearwater

Before very long several Great Skuas spotted the opportunity for a cheap meal and began harassing the gulls that were the main beneficiaries of our generosity. And then several European Storm Petrels came darting about looking like House Martins or perhaps White-rumped Swifts and about as easy to photograph as those two species!

European Storm Petrel

Great Skua

And that was it, really. As pelagic trips go it wasn’t one of the best we have done but it’s getting late in the season and we didn’t really expect lots of birds. Ricardo had warned us that he hadn’t seen Wilson’s Storm Petrels for a while and also that Cory’s Shearwaters were few. Maybe it was surprising that there weren’t a few more Balearics and maybe some Sootys.

After the boat trip we drove to the nearby raptor watch point at Cabranosa but didn’t stay there very long – just long enough to see a Peregrine Falcon, a Common Buzzard and a Common Kestrel and to find out that it was generally a pretty slow day as far as migrant raptors were concerned. However, we also learned that last week’s Rose-coloured Starling had been seen again at Vale Santo, so that’s where we headed next. This time we did at least find a small starling flock but unfortunately there was no sign of the rarity among its Spotless and European cousins. Consolation came in the form of three Black Storks and an Egyptian Vulture that passed almost overhead.

Black Stork

Friday, 14 October 2011

Castro Verde Week

There’s not been much time for Algarve birding this week. Bustards have been in demand and our schedule has been dominated by trips to the Castro Verde area.

Great Bustard

As we have indicated previously, Great Bustards can be a bit elusive at this time of year and with temperatures reaching 32° it’s definitely best to be out early to look for them. It’s amazing how well they blend in with the vegetation in the parched landscape. Our 100% record of finding them remains intact but there have been occasional moments of doubt!

Little Bustards have been even harder to find in recent weeks so yesterday’s flock of more than 50 birds was particularly welcome. Sometimes we have to make do with flight views but these were on the ground and we had excellent views through the telescope.

Raptors in the area now include Hen Harriers, replacing Montagu’s, and Red Kites, replacing Black ones. We’ve had brilliant views of Spanish Imperial, Short-toed and Bonelli’s Eagles and yesterday had a reasonably close flock of two dozen or so Griffon Vultures.

Eurasian Griffon

All of the week’s Black-bellied Sandgrouse have been heard first and seen only as fly-overs; the area of habitat available for them now is huge.

Northern Lapwings started arriving several weeks ago but there are still relatively few of them. In this extremely dry environment, food must be in short supply. Mostly they are around the edges of the few reservoirs or on grassland that has been irrigated. The reservoirs are attracting a few other waders including Greenshanks and Green Sandpipers (two of our favourite birds!) and three times this week we have seen a Great Egret along with the Little Egrets and many Grey Herons. Great Egrets are relatively scarce here but we do seem to be seeing them more and more frequently. It was also good to see a couple of Black Storks standing amongst the assembled herons.

Black Stork

Northern Wheatears are numerous now, flying from roadside fence posts everywhere; it’s a time when we can easily see all three wagtail species and amongst the Yellow Wagtails there are a few Tawny Pipits.

Tawny Pipit

This Viperine Snake, a species usually found in or near to water, was taking advantage of a puddle formed by run-off from agricultural irrigation.

We don’t mind how often we visit the Baixo Alentejo and no doubt we’ll be up there again next week!

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Hot and Hectic!

With temperatures continuing around 25°C along the coast and 5 degrees warmer than that in the Baixo Alentejo, it’s been a another warm week for us as well as a fairly hectic one.

We’ve enjoyed two reasonably successful trips to the plains around Castro Verde looking for the special birds of that area. Even if we didn’t find Little Bustards, any day that produces four species of eagles has to be considered a good day!

On the other hand, our trip to Sagres and Cabo de São Vicente at the far western end of the coast was something of a disappointment - we simply picked the wrong day. Of course we were hoping to see some raptors migrating but few were in evidence – just a few Egyptian Vultures, a couple of Booted Eagles and one or two Hen Harriers. Not only that but we missed seeing the Rose-coloured Starling that was reported in the area. Lots of Northern Gannets and Cory’s Shearwaters were passing offshore and there might well have been more but we came away and spent the afternoon at Lagoa dos Salgados.

Black Redstart at Cabo de São Vicente

Salgados had an excellent assortment of birds in spite of the water level being rather higher than ideal. Purple Swamp-hens and Glossy Ibises were amongst the species seen. On the way back, we called at a site that regularly provides Black-crowned Night Herons and Little Bitterns with hardly the need to get out of the car. On this occasion it also provided a bonus in the form of a Wryneck.

Of course, Wednesday’s Pectoral Sandpiper was the week’s main highlight but, in terms of birds that we don’t often see here, a group of five Sacred Ibises is worthy of mention. Maybe while there are still only five of them we should be considering whether these are birds we really want here – perhaps a topic for another day.

Pectoral Sandpiper

Sacred Ibises

A morning spent in the Ria Formosa began well with five Booted Eagles, two Black-winged Kites and two Common Buzzards in the first half hour. In fact it’s been a good week for Black-winged Kites, a species which definitely seems to be increasing in numbers here. Twice recently, early starts have resulted in Red-necked Nightjars being the first birds of the day.

As usual, the Tavira/Santa Luzia saltpans have had a fair amount of our attention. This week the number of Mediterranean Gulls has increased and it’s now sometimes possible to see six gull species together – often with a Caspian Tern amongst them. More Bluethroats have arrived but there must surely be more to come and the same is true of Chiffchaffs, one of the most numerous species here in winter. With unseasonably warm weather being enjoyed further north, perhaps some of these migrants aren’t yet feeling the need to move south. The local Stone-curlews have been more difficult to see recently but can still usually be found. An Iberian Grey Shrike seems to have settled in the same area and we’re hoping it will stay around.

Mediterranean Gull


Iberian Grey Shrike

One afternoon we popped across the border into Spain and had a couple of hours birding around Isla Cristina. It’s not somewhere we often go but it made a change. We saw most of the regular wader species and, like almost everywhere else we’ve been this week, one or two Pied Flycatchers and Northern Wheatears.

Northern Wheatear

Today we were at Castro Marim where several Black-necked Grebes were our first since our last visit to Cerro do Bufo.

As we’ve said before: so many birds, so little time!

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Pectoral Sandpiper - at last!

With so many North American shorebirds turning up in the UK, in Spain and further north here in Portugal, we were sure there must be at least one somewhere here in the Algarve. For several weeks now we have been looking even more closely than usual at the many Dunlins, Little Stints and the rest as we’ve been birding around the saltpans of Castro Marim, Tavira, Santa Luzia and Olhão. All of that has been without success but today we finally had our reward and it wasn’t at any of our regular sites.

One of the lesser known products of the Algarve is watercress. Most of the watercress on sale in the UK is grown here, much of it near Almancil. And it was when we were on our way to Quinta do Lago today that we found this juvenile Pectoral Sandpiper on one of the watercress beds. Fortunately, it was quite confiding and close to the roadside.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Around the Eastern Algarve

In the last few days there have been reports in the Sagres area of a Lesser Spotted Eagle, a Long-legged Buzzard and a Red-footed Falcon but here in the Eastern Algarve rare birds continue to be in short supply. In spite of visits to Ludo, Quinta do Lago, Olhão, Castro Marim and Parque Ambiental de Vilamoura and almost daily coverage of the Tavira and Santa Luzia saltpans, the best we have found this week has been another Great Egret. Maybe it was the same bird we saw on 24th September at Vilamoura but this one was at Castro Marim and it was only our seventh record in the Algarve.

A juvenile Woodchat Shrike and a feisty Eurasian Jay were the highlights of our final session with the ringing team at Vilamoura on Tuesday. Jays are quite often bad tempered and ready to fight back and so are always handled with a degree of trepidation even by experienced ringers. This one was no exception! Mostly they were catching docile hirundines.

Eurasian Jay

As well as Monarch butterflies and an assortment of dragonflies there was other insect interest at Vilamoura in the form of a Red Palm Weevil and an impressive Death's Head Hawkmoth caterpillar. The weevil is a major pest here in the Algarve (and elsewhere) infesting and eventually killing large numbers of palm trees.

Red Palm Weevil

Death's Head Hawkmoth caterpillar

Hundreds of Spoonbills and Greater Flamingos continue to be a feature in the Tavira/Santa Luzia area. Three colour-ringed Spoonbills found this week originated from the Netherlands. One of them was 15 years old and has regularly been seen spending its winters in the Parc National du Banc d'Arguin in Mauritania. Presumably it will soon be heading in that direction again.

Eurasian Spoonbill

Until quite recently considered a rarity in Portugal, Slender-billed Gulls are now commonly seen and becoming more numerous. About 80 birds are currently to be found at Santa Luzia and there are also plenty in the Cerro do Bufo area of Castro Marim.

Slender-billed Gull

Cerro do Bufo, Castro Marim

This photograph of Cerro do Bufo may look like the first snow of winter but any climate change that may be in progress hasn't yet reached that extreme! No, of course, it's salt - a reminder that September sees the peak of the salt harvest, an activity they say has been going on in these parts for about 2,000 years or so.