Sunday, 25 September 2011

Ringing at Vilamoura

As well as visiting Ludo and Quinta do Lago and keeping an eye on the local Tavira and Santa Luzia area, this last week has twice seen us spending time at the Parque Ambiental de Vilamoura. For the fifth successive year a group of ringers from the UK has been visiting there and although there’s obviously a serious purpose to their visit, it’s also fun to see what they’re up to, what they catch and how they go about it all.

Catching a juvenile Booted Eagle and three juvenile Common Kestrels was certainly a surprise.

It’s instructive, too, and seeing how difficult it can be to age and sex birds in the hand definitely makes us more cautious about making these calls in the field. Also, of course, we remember that these same ringers, when they were here last year, trapped a Common Yellowthroat and two Common Rosefinches, birds that otherwise would surely have gone undetected. What might they turn up this time?

It was good to have the identification of a Greenland Wheatear confirmed by reference to biometrics rather than just “that looks big and chunky”.

As always, it was interesting to see familiar birds such as Bluethroats and Kingfishers in the hand and a Little Bittern at close range emphasised the fact that this is a bird that is all legs, neck and beak with quite a small body.

This year’s ringing session was earlier than any of the previous ones and almost a whole month earlier than in 2010. This in itself probably reduced the chances of trapping any major rarity but at the same time it was thought that it might increase the diversity of species ringed. Whatever, having already seen in the past few days without the aid of a mist net migrants including Wryneck, Woodchat Shrike, Tawny Pipit, Northern Wheatear, European Reed Warbler, Common Whitethroat, Greater Short-toed Lark and Whinchat, we knew there would be plenty to see.

Whereas in October, Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps have tended to be the most numerous species caught, this time there were relatively few of either of these. Instead, Red-rumped Swallow and European Reed Warbler seem to have topped the chart. No doubt, we will receive a full report with all the ringing totals in due course. Possibly one of the most surprising birds caught was a Spectacled Warbler found in what we would consider atypical grassland habitat.

Sorting out the races of Yellow Wagtails was easier when adult males were involved!

Willow Warbler and Chiffchaff, but which is which?

Red-rumped Swallow - hundreds roosting in the reed beds.

An unusual bird that wasn’t trapped was a Great Egret, one of only a handful of this species that we have seen in the Algarve. It flew over our heads and dropped into the neighbouring water treatment works (in Portuguese, the ETAR). The ETAR is usually full of birds at this time, particularly gulls, and it would be great to have access to the site or even a hide from which we could more easily view them.

As we have said before, the Parque Ambiental is a great site for birds and also for dragonflies and butterflies. It is one of the best places in the Algarve to see Monarch butterflies and this time we were also lucky enough to see a Plain Tiger, the so-called African Monarch, something of a rarity.

Parque Ambiental de Vilamoura


The occurrence in the UK of remarkable numbers of Nearctic vagrants on the back of Hurricanes Irene and Katia has to some extent been mirrored here in Portugal. So far this month six species of American shorebirds have been reported in mainland Portugal. Next door, in Spain there have also been multiple occurrences of transatlantic shorebirds. Unfortunately, here in the Algarve, we’ve had none at all or at least none have so far been reported. Surely there must be a Buff-breasted Sandpiper or a Pectoral Sandpiper here somewhere! Or, more difficult to find, perhaps a Semipalmated Sandpiper is lurking in one of the local saltpans. We must keep looking!

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Flying South

Autumn migration is now in full swing, millions of birds are on the move. An estimated 19% of the world’s bird species make regular journeys from their breeding grounds mostly to spend time in areas where the climate is more to their liking and, most importantly, where there is a more readily available food supply. Millions of birds are leaving Northern Europe to spend the winter further south; many of them will be crossing the Sahara. For some the Algarve will be their final destination: huge numbers of waders, wildfowl and gulls are already arriving and there will soon be countless numbers of Chiffchaffs and other passerines. The Algarve will also be a staging post for those that intend to continue south into Africa.

Eurasian Whimbrel - wintering in the Algarve or on its way to West Africa?

For many birdwatchers this is the most exciting time of the year. It’s the time when rare birds are most likely to be found. Of course, ‘rare’ usually equates to ‘lost’ and it is no coincidence that the vast majority of rarities are juvenile birds that are migrating for the first time with no previous experience. That’s not to say that adult birds don’t lose their way and, if it is climate that is a main reason for migration, it is weather that is the mostly likely cause of problems along the way.

Juvenile Buff-breasted Sandpiper - lost in the Algarve

Over the last 100 years or so a great deal has been learned about migration from ringing birds but there are still huge gaps in our knowledge. We may know where a bird was ringed but unless that ring can be read again at some time in the future, either on a dead bird or as a result of re-trapping the bird, we are not much further forward. In terms of our knowledge of migratory movements most of what we are now getting from ringing studies is confirmation of what has already been demonstrated. What, for instance, has ringing told us so far about where Common Cuckoos migrate? The facts are that out of 6,452 birds ringed in the UK (up to the end of 2010) only one has been recovered south of the Sahara - a bird that was shot in Cameroon in 1930!

However, anyone reading this will surely be aware by now that the situation is changing and that the satellite tracking of five Cuckoos earlier this year has already told us more in three or four months about their migration than we have learned in 100 years of ringing. This has been made possible by technological advances which have led to miniaturisation of solar-powered transmitters. Satellite tracking is now a well-established means of studying the movements of birds that are large enough to carry the weight of the necessary transmitter and as the kit gets smaller, so the possibilities open up to study smaller birds.

Details of satellite tracking studies are all over the internet. One story that came to our attention this week concerned two Hudsonian Whimbrels, birds that were fitted with transmitters in 2008 and had been providing valuable information about migration routes between Canada and Brazil. These were birds that from experience of previous such journeys knew where they wanted to go, how to get there and where to stop on the way. However, as referred to earlier, their problem was the weather. More specifically, Tropical Storm Maria and Hurricane Irene were the problems and because of severe weather both birds ended up somewhere they hadn’t been before. But this was only their first problem. Read about them here and here and add Guadeloupe to the list that includes Malta, Cyprus and who knows how many other islands where the locals have fun killing migrating birds.

Hudsonian Whimbrel - wintering in Costa Rica or on its way to Brazil?

Last month’s Birdfair chose to support Born to Travel – The BirdLife Flyways Campaign. Illegal shooting and trapping is only one factor affecting migrating birds. Loss of habitat is undoubtedly one of the major ones. Birdwatching tourism is increasingly being promoted in quite a number of countries including Portugal and is to be commended but much more than fancy hides and boardwalks, birdwatching tourists want birds and now, more than ever, birds need what is left of important habitats, including migration stopover sites, to be protected and bird protection laws to be enforced.

Lagoa dos Salgados - one of the Algarve's many important sites for migrating and wintering birds

Incidentally, amongst the recommendations contained in the recent report of the Taxonomy Sub-Committee of the British Ornithologists' Union Records Committee is that Hudsonian Whimbrel Numenius hudsonicus and Eurasian Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus should be treated as separate species. We’ve been doing that for some time, haven’t you?

Saturday, 10 September 2011

The Birding Week

Two trips to the Castro Verde area this past week have demonstrated again how much more difficult it can be at this time of year to find even those species which we think of as reasonably common there. Sure we’ve seen Great and Little Bustards, Black-bellied Sandgrouse, Griffon Vultures, Short-toed Eagles, Calandra Larks, Lesser Kestrels and plenty more but for some of them we’ve really had to work hard! On one visit we had great views of a juvenile Black Vulture but our best bird was probably a Rüppell’s Vulture. We say ‘probably’ because, in all honesty, we couldn’t be 100% sure of the identification; we both saw it briefly and came to the same conclusion but the bird quickly got mixed up in a flock of about 50 Griffons and was soon no more than a silhouette disappearing into the distance.

We’ve also spent a day around Ludo and Quinta do Lago where Little Bitterns, Purple Swamp-hens and Black-crowned Night Herons continue to be among the most popular birds. We had so many sightings of Little Bitterns it was difficult to come to any conclusion about the actual number of individuals that were present. We were also pleased to see both a Black-winged Kite and a Booted Eagle in an area where we have regularly seen them in the past and where we hope they will now remain through the autumn and winter.

Quinta do Lago - the familiar view from the hide

Around the Tavira area, we have been keeping an eye on the saltpans and adjacent areas. As well as Greater Flamingos, Spoonbills and increasing numbers of gulls and waders, there are now a few passerine migrants to be found, including Spotted and Pied Flycatchers, Northern Wheatears, Chiffchaffs and Tawny Pipits. There are many Red-rumped Swallows and House Martins in evidence currently and we are seeing plenty of Kingfishers. The increasing number of Stone-curlews probably explains why we couldn’t find any in the Alentejo!

Adult Greater Flamingos...

...and a juvenile

Black-winged Stilt


Black-headed Gull

Today, for a change, we crossed the border into Spain and met up with friends, Stephen and Julie, for a look around the Marismas de Isla Cristina. The birds there were much the same selection that we would probably have seen here in the Algarve but it was nice to have a change of scene. We also looked in at El Pintado Mill Ecomuseum, one of more than a hundred tidal mills that were constructed in Spain and Portugal in the second half of the 13th century and were an early example of the use of renewal energy. It’s definitely worth a look if you’re in the area.

El Pintado Mill Ecomuseum

Friday, 2 September 2011

Rain in Tavira

Back in Tavira, it was disappointing that our first morning's birding was interrupted by rain. As if we hadn't seen enough rain in the UK these last few weeks. That's definitely not what we came back for! Thankfully, the difference here is that even when it's wet, it's still warm.

Tavira saltpans

We managed a couple of hours around the town during which we saw about 50 species, the majority of them wetland birds either on the saltpans or tidal channels of the Ria Formosa. On cultivated land adjacent to the saltpans, there were two or three Northern Wheatears and nearby we found an Iberian Grey Shrike.

Curlew Sandpiper

There are lots and lots of Greater Flamingos here now and a good proportion of them are juveniles. As usual, it was no time at all before we were reading their colour-rings. Although we occasionally see Flamingos that have been ringed in France or Italy, most of those we have reported have originated in Spain, particularly Laguna de Fuente de Piedra near Malaga. Not surprisingly, there were also a couple of colour-ringed individuals among the Audouin's Gulls. Almost certainly they will have come from the Ebro Delta.

Greater Flamingo

Audouin's Gull

This was a second outing for the newly acquired Panasonic Lumix DMC FZ-100. Not too many opportunities to really test it but we're reasonably pleased with it so far.