Friday, 28 January 2011

Photography morning

After a few days when the weather has been less than friendly it was good this morning to see the return of sunshine and blue sky. That's not to say that it's particularly warm or that it looks in any way settled but it was enough to have me reaching for the camera and having a couple of hours checking our regular sites around Tavira.

It's only at this time of year when the blossom is out that you realise just how many almond trees there are in the Algarve - they're a real sign of spring approaching! And everywhere you look, Bermuda Buttercups provide a bright yellow carpet. They're not really buttercups, they're Oxalis pes-caprae, a noxious weed introduced from South Africa, also known as Cape Sorrel. It's a highly invasive plant, difficult to control but for all that really quite attractive!

Almond trees with Bermuda Buttercups

I started this morning at the local saltpans and within a few minutes I saw flocks of Black-tailed Godwits flying in the distance. Something had clearly upset them and very soon I saw what it was - a male Hen Harrier, presumably the same bird that we have been seeing here since before Christmas. As I followed its progress, a flock of Golden Plovers also took flight from their regular roosting area which they share with the local Stone-curlews. I watched the Hen Harrier until it went out of sight - there was no chance of a photograph. However, it was at this moment that I thought it might be time to renew my battle of wits with the Stone-curlews, birds which rarely in my experience, allow close approach. We can see them every day but not since November have I tried to photograph them.

Well, it turned out to be the same old story! There were probably close to 100 Stone-curlews and maybe 50 Golden Plover but only a few within reasonable camera range. I managed just a few quick shots before they joined their friends in the middle of the field.

Eurasian Stone-curlew

European Golden Plover

This is the same area where for the last three weeks or more we have been watching Short-eared Owls and where we in turn have been kept under surveillance by the local Little Owl. I like to think that he has got used to seeing us and that he chose this pose realising that the yellow lichen on the roof would look nice against the blue of the sky!

Little Owl

Nearby, I found this group of Spoonbills. They're common enough here but never taken for granted.

Eurasian Spoonbills

And a little further on these two Caspian Terns were roosting along with a crowd of gulls - mostly Lesser Black-backs, but also two or three Audouin's.

Caspian Terns

Last photo before lunch was this Black Redstart. Any thoughts of an afternoon photo session disappeared with the arrival from the west of a huge black cloud and 'rain stopped play' once again!

Black Redstart

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Projecto Arenaria

After many years of involvement with bird censuses and surveys in the UK, it was only natural that we would want to take part in Projecto Arenaria, the Portuguese equivalent of the Non-estuarine Coastal Waterbird Survey run by the BTO.

The stretch of coast that we were allocated to cover was on the Ilha de Cabanas, one of several barrier islands that are part of the Ria Formosa. Contrary to what many visiting birders seem to think, the Ria Formosa is a complex of coastal saltwater lagoons and barrier islands, with extensive mudflats, sand banks, dune systems and saltmarshes that covers 16,000 hectares and stretches some 60 kilometres, from Manta Rota in the east to Ancão in the west. It was designated as a wetland of international importance under the Ramsar Convention in 1980. It is not just the small area around Quinta de Marim where the visitor centre is located!

The advice we received was that at low tide we could walk across to the Ilha de Cabanas. “It´s very easy to get to the island without getting wet”, said the email; it made no reference to the duration of that window of opportunity, nor the possibility of similarly staying dry when making the return to the mainland! Fortunately, it’s an area that we know pretty well so yesterday we ignored the advice, played safe and used a boat, specifically a water taxi from Cabanas operated by our good friends at Sequa Tours.

Cabanas de Tavira seen from Ilha de Cabanas

Our taxi to the island

There was a cool breeze from the east but the sky was clear and it was a perfect morning for a walk on the beach. As well as counting birds, we were required to count people and it was surprising that in two hours we saw only 14, mostly locals fishing in the surf. It was not so surprising that we found few birds. Our experience is that beaches such as this one generally hold little more than a few Sanderlings and flocks of loafing gulls, while on the food-rich tidal area on the other side of the island you can see hundreds of waders, gulls and terns. Still, we had a job to do and so we walked along the seaward side where Lesser Black-backed Gull (550) was the most numerous species and there were indeed 11 Sanderlings; the highlights were 20 Audouin’s Gulls. We recorded only six of the species that are targeted by Projecto Arenaria but we had a thoroughly enjoyable morning.

We saw 14 people in two hours...

...most of them fishing.

We enjoyed ourselves so much that we quickly volunteered to cover another stretch of beach and this morning saw us walking along the sands from Altura to Castela Velha, just outside and to the east of the Ria Formosa. No worries this time about needing a boat but we certainly needed another layer of clothes as the easterly wind strengthened, there was total cloud cover and the temperature dropped quite sharply. It being Saturday and this being a much more accessible beach, there were more people in evidence (34) but again most of them were fishing. As well as birds and people, we were also asked to count the number of dogs not on a leash; yesterday we saw none at all but today there were four. As for birds, it was a similar story to yesterday with Sanderling and Lesser Black-backed Gull the two most numerous species actually on the beach. However, there were a few more birds offshore, including Northern Gannets and Great Cormorants, a couple of Great Skuas, a dozen or so Sandwich Terns, a Caspian Tern and surprisingly, a flock of 12 Common Shelducks.

Lesser Black-backed Gulls


So, not great birding but hopefully our results will be a useful small part of the bigger picture put together by Projecto Arenaria; also we got to a couple of places we wouldn’t otherwise have visited and had some much-needed exercise!

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Kestrels & Owls

It may have something to do with how much time we have to spare or perhaps how poorly we plan ahead; maybe the outrageous cost of petrol is a factor. Whatever the reason, it’s a fact that these days our cross-border excursions for birding in Spain are few are far between.Certainly it’s a measure of how good the birding is here in the Algarve that we are tempted so infrequently to venture ‘abroad’. Our base in Tavira is less than a two-hour drive from Doñana (also known as Doñana National Park and Coto Doñana), considered one of the most important wetlands in Europe and yet we probably head off in that direction no more than two or three times a year.

We were actually in Doñana just a few days ago but it proved to be a rather disappointing day. The problem was simply the weather. We picked a day when the forecast promised wall to wall sunshine but when we got there what we had instead was fog! Visibility was really poor until early afternoon and, of course, there was little or no light for photography which was the main purpose of the trip. During the day we recorded about 70 bird species and came away with a few useable images so it wasn't a total waste of time by any means but the morning was more than a little frustrating.

We managed to photograph one or two Common (Eurasian) Kestrels, easily the most numerous of the raptors present. Our previous experience of Kestrels has been that they don’t sit still very long to pose for photographs but this time a couple of birds did oblige, one when the light was still quite poor, the other later after the sun broke through. What they had in common was that they both chose really unattractive perches!

No such problems with the weather back here in Tavira where we have again been out trying to photograph Short-eared Owls. There are now three birds regularly hunting over the local saltpans but getting near them requires time and patience plus more than a bit of luck. As the afternoon light fades and the ISO value has to be increased, so the birds seem more inclined to come within range! Today we watched for more than an hour without even pointing the camera at an owl but earlier in the week we did get a few more reasonable images.

Short-eared Owls feed predominantly on small mammals and their presence, hunting over the saltpans provokes very little reaction from the hundreds of waders that are present. In contrast to this, a male Hen Harrier that has been regularly quartering the same area sends Redshanks, Black-tailed Godwits, Avocets and others flying in panic in all directions even though smaller birds are probably its more realistic targets.

The owls are clearly defending feeding territories and we have seen and heard several mid-air skirmishes. They are fun to watch and we hope they stay around for a while.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Birding by Boat

What better way to spend most of a warm (17°C), almost cloudless day than on a boat cruising around the Quatro Águas, the four waters that come together at the mouth of the Ria Gilao and lead to Tavira, Cabanas, Santa Luzia and the Atlantic Ocean?

For the bird photographer this is a wonderful opportunity when the tide and the light are both favourable. Cormorants, herons and a variety of waders, gulls and terns are the main subjects, but colourful boats and buildings are also hard to resist!

Thanks for a great day are due to Henrique of Tavira-based company, Another Level.

Santa Luzia

Santa Luzia

Great Cormorant

Lesser Black-backed Gull

Cabanas de Tavira

Lesser Black-backed Gull

Eurasian Oystercatcher - colour ringed in the Po Delta, Italy!

Bar-tailed Godwit

Sandwich Tern

Great Cormorant

Yellow-legged Gull

Santa Luzia

Cabanas de Tavira

Owls again

Two Short-eared Owls remain in the Tavira area and it will be no surprise that we've been out there watching them again and trying to get some better photographs.

They're being given a hard time by the local Lesser Black-backed Gulls and maybe that's why they seem to leave it quite late in the afternoon before starting to hunt.

No matter how good your camera and lens, sometimes you need a bit of luck and we certainly had that on Sunday. We had been watching one of the owls from quite some distance away and it showed no sign of wanting to come close. We decided that if the owl wouldn't come to us, then we had to move and try and get nearer to it.

As we did so, we found out why it was that so far that afternoon we had been watching only one of the two owls seen previously. It seems that not all Short-eared Owls wake up and go hunting at the same time. Purely by chance, we happened upon the second bird sitting on a bank, looking like its alarm had just gone off! It was remarkably approachable and seemed happy to stare back at us before eventually flying off quite lazily and finding another resting place only a short distance away.

And Short-eareds weren't the only owls in the neighbourhood. While we watched them, we in turn were being watched by this Little Owl.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Short-eared Owls

Short-eared Owls are among our favourite birds and for several weeks we have been looking enviously at reports and photographs of them from further north in Portugal and also from back home in Staffordshire.

They are birds not seen much in the Eastern Algarve so we were delighted to find one here in Tavira on New Year's Day. It was seen quite late in the day and in pretty poor light but it was only a five-minute drive away so, not surprisingly, we have been back several times during the past week for a better look.

We have now found that there are two birds in the area and as well as seeing them hunting over the saltpans we have watched them chasing each other and tangling in mid-air, presumably each defending a feeding territory.

Photographing them has proved difficult but today we managed to get a few reasonable images and no doubt we'll be trying for better ones in the next few days if the birds stay around.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

New Year's Day

Once again we spent New Year’s Day trying to find as many bird species as possible – a ‘Big Day’. It’s just a bit of fun and the only competition involved is with ourselves – our record to beat was 106, set in 2009 and a total that we managed to equal last year.

In past years we have spent the morning in the Ludo/Quinta do Lago area, the afternoon at Castro Marim and then used up the remaining hour or so of daylight around Tavira. Unfortunately, as there is no longer any access to the best (Cerro do Bufo) section of the Castro Marim reserve, yesterday this plan had to be revised. We decided, based on our visit there last Monday, to go instead to the Parque Ambiental de Vilamoura but this proved to be something of a tactical mistake.

We set off from Tavira at about 7.00am, not easy after a late night watching the New Year’s Eve firework display! The weather forecast referred to just a 20% chance of rain all day, which often means no rain at all, so there would be no excuses on that score.

At Ludo, we started the day with the expected Booted Eagles and Black-winged Kites but it was a sign of things to come that there was no Osprey or Hen Harrier to be seen, birds that we have found there on a number of recent visits. However, after continuing to Quinta do Lago, we saw most of the other expected species and when after about five hours we left the area, our running total was 84. We would have liked it to be at least 90!

Glossy Ibis at Quinta do Lago - No: 78 for the day

Opting to visit Vilamoura meant that we were driving further than we really wanted to, using up valuable birding time, but we were seduced by the prospect of Southern Grey Shrike, Penduline Tit, Barn Swallow, Red-rumped Swallow, House Martin and Black-necked Grebe, species that we had seen there only a few days ago most of which we were unlikely to see elsewhere. We also had this fantasy about finding a Jack Snipe there! In the event, Vilamoura let us down badly. We saw none of those anticipated species. In fact we left there having added only five species to the total and four of those we could probably have found around Tavira. The exception was Black-headed Weaver which we had somehow contrived to miss at Quinta do Lago. In the context of the day it was a long drive for effectively that one species.

We now had very little time left to cover our home area around Tavira and virtually no chance of getting anywhere near a record total. Even then, in an area we know so well, some birds that we were confident of seeing let us down. The flock of Knots that on any other day would have been feeding at Quatro Águas were nowhere to be seen! We simply didn’t have time to go and look for the local Blue Rock Thrush.

At about 5.00pm we were feeling a bit dejected and ready to pack up and return home. In the fading light we had found Stone-curlews and Golden Plovers but were more than a little disappointed that they were only numbers 94 and 95 on our list, way short of our target.

At this point, the last bird of the day put in a very welcome appearance and what a change there was in our mood. It was a Short-eared Owl! We may have been 10 species short but this bird was completely unexpected and it saved our day. There seem to have been more reports than usual of Short-eared Owls this winter but this was our first and we’ll be hoping it stays around so that we can see it again.

So, a total of only 96 species. Next year there will definitely have to be a re-think about the day's schedule and, of course, we will hope for more co-operation from the birds!