Saturday, 30 June 2012

Castro Marim

We’ve spent three mornings this week at and around the Reserva Natural do Sapal de Castro Marim e Vila Real de Santo António, which not surprisingly we tend to refer to simply as Castro Marim.  Not only is this one of the most productive birding sites in the Algarve but it also has the attraction for us that it is reasonably close to our base in Tavira and can be reached fairly quickly without incurring road tolls.

It’s getting to be quite warm here now with temperatures rising to 30ºC and higher by mid-morning, so early starts have become an essential part of our routine.  Breakfast has been accompanied by the ‘cut-ock, cut-ock’ song of Red-necked Nightjars and the calls of Little Owls, two birds that get the day list off to a good start before leaving home.

Castro Marim is primarily a wetland area and we have mentioned before that we recently counted almost 1,600 Greater Flamingos there.  We haven’t counted them this week but have no reason to think that there are any fewer than that number.  There is more to the reserve than just saltpans but they are a major attraction and already many Spoonbills and waders are returning, birds that have been north to breed or perhaps have suffered a failed breeding attempt.  Most numerous of these are Black-tailed Godwits but Dunlins, Grey Plovers and Ruddy Turnstones have also been seen and we were particularly pleased to see and hear the return of our favourite, Greenshanks and Green Sandpipers.

The local breeding waders, Kentish Plovers, Avocets, Black-winged Stilts and Stone-curlews all have young, some of them now well-grown.  A month or so ago, we saw a pair of Little Ringed Plovers with young on the reserve and it seems likely that Common Redshank have also nested in the area.

Gulls seen this week have been just the usual Yellow-legged, Slender-billed and Audouin’s.  Little Terns are numerous but it seems that they may not have had much breeding success.  Up to three non-breeding Caspian Terns have remained in the area and a flock of 18 Black Terns passed through on Tuesday.  Sightings of Collared Pratincoles have been popular and several pairs are assumed to be breeding.

We read somewhere in one of the guide books to the Algarve that there are few raptors here other than those seen at Sagres during the autumn period and that seeing anything other than a Common Buzzard or a Common Kestrel could be considered a bonus.  Well, we must have been very lucky this week with seven species seen just at Castro Marim!  A Black-winged Kite near Tavira made eight species.

We are still finding one or two Glossy Ibises in unexpected places and Castro Marim is no exception.  Several Purple Herons are being seen around the reserve which may also be birds displaced from Doñana.

Other highlights of the week at Castro Marim have been a pair of Purple Swamp-hens, singing Golden Orioles, a pair of Spectacled Warblers feeding young, Bee-eaters going backwards and forwards in and out of nest holes, several pairs of White Storks with young, Woodchat Shrikes, Southern Grey Shrikes, Little Bustards and what appeared to be a family party of four Common Ravens.

It is disappointing that ICNB have found it necessary to stop access to the Cerro do Bufo sector of the reserve and we miss doing the circular walk there that was part of our weekly routine.  Still, we have adapted to the change and we hope that visiting birders will also respect the restrictions – there are plenty of birds to be seen without the need to trespass!  

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Lagoa dos Salgados

Under the headline Silves sells out to developers, the Algarve Daily News reports that a contract for a massive development on the Salgados bird sanctuary to the east of Armaçao de Pêra was signed yesterday in Silves. An investment of more than €232 million will create jobs in the area, and boost the income of Silves Câmara (the local authority) by €35 million a year. The project plans include three hotels (two five-star, one four-star), five holiday villages, shops and an 18-hole golf course. According to the developer, the project is aimed at upper class tourists and not passengers flying on low cost airlines.

Lagoa dos Salgados, June 2012 - not much water!

Work will start in 2013 and by 2015, if everything goes as planned, the first tourists can be catered for with completion of the infrastructure and the first hotel. The development will be phased, as the promoters do not yet have the funds to complete the project, but in the course of time they hope to attract foreign investors. In fact they are confident that the money will be available "in two or three years, when this crisis is over." The first of the two five-star hotels is planned to be completed in mid 2017, the second in late 2018 and the four-star hotel is scheduled for completion in mid 2023.

The report goes on to say that “Eco pressure groups have had more than four years in which to fight for this unique bird sanctuary yet have achieved zero results despite international acknowledgement that the area is of vital importance to wildlife.” But is this really true? We have referred previously here to the long-running battle to save Lagoa dos Salgados and on the face of it that battle has been lost. However, there are those here who even now are attempting to put a positive slant on this development from the point of view of birds and wildlife, as though this further expanse of concrete, tarmac and close-cropped grass was going to bring some sort of environmental benefit.

Lagoa dos Salgados, September 2007

We are told that there is an agreement with the developer for a ‘buffer zone’ that will safeguard the lagoon, that there will be funding available for habitat improvement and site management, that there will be hides, screens and boardwalks and even a visitor centre. Maybe there will and we really hope so, but we’re not going to hold our breath!

The future visitor centre, September 2009

We already have at least 40 golf courses here in the Algarve with serious competition in that market now coming from Turkey and elsewhere. The average occupancy rate in the Algarve’s hotels this May was 55.2%, the second worst May in the past 16 years, according to the Association of Hotels and Resorts in the Algarve. Surely the financial climate will have to improve dramatically before any right thinking person (or bank) will want to put money into a project that will add further to this over-supply.

 Lagoa dos Salgados, June 2007

Let’s hope that the first phase (general infrastructure, access roads, etc) doesn’t result in the whole area being trashed. After all, it could also be the last phase with the result being no hotels, no jobs and no birds!

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Antlion update

The verdict on the antlion that we found by the Esteiro da Carrasqueira at Castro Marim on 4th June is that it was Palperes hispanus.  This is a member of the Family Myrmeleonidae which in turn belongs to the Order Neuroptera .  And the good news is that Nelson Fonseca managed to find and photograph at least one more specimen when he visited the site this last weekend.
Palperes hispanus

We’re told that it is more than 100 years since this species was last recorded in Portugal and that there has been no previous record in the Algarve!  Of course, that may well be because there are very few people here who are remotely interested in antlions and even fewer who are capable of identifying them!  Still, it’s quite exciting.

We were at Lagoa dos Salgados at the weekend and managed to photograph another rather impressive insect that is a relative of P. hispanus.  This one is a spoonwing or thread-winged antlion, Nemophora bipennis, a member of the Family Nemopteridae, which also belongs to the Order Neuroptera.  This is quite a common species here but fun to see, nevertheless.

Nemophora bipennis

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Myrmeleontidae !!

When we were at Castro Marim recently we came across an insect that we didn’t recognise. Nothing unusual about that really – we’re birders not entomologists – but this was quite an impressive creature that resembled a dragonfly but clearly wasn’t a dragonfly. Unfortunately, we didn’t manage to photograph it, which made finding a name for it more than a little tricky when we got home and started looking at our books and trawling the internet.

We’ve since been back twice to the same area and although we have failed to re-locate the beast, amazingly June did find its remains or at least the wings! These were much easier to photograph and subsequently, with the help of our friend Nelson Fonseca, we now know that it was an antlion (family Myrmeleontidae). Whether it is Palpares libelluloides or P. hispanus we’re still not sure but the exciting thing is we’re told it may be a first record for Portugal or at least a first for the Algarve! It would be nice to think that there wasn’t just one of them and that there will be further sightings. 

Also at Castro Marim were a Purple Heron, Marsh and Montagu’s Harriers, Collared Pratincoles, three Caspian Terns and uncounted Slender-billed Gulls. 

The highlight of another visit to the ETAR (for the uninitiated that’s the Estação de Tratamento de Águas Residuais or wastewater treatment plant) was a colour-ringed Avocet. We reported it the same day and remarkably had an immediate reply identifying it as having been ringed at Veta La Palma in Andalucía on 4th July 1996, making it almost 16 years old. Confusingly, the ring began life white but is now almost orange in colour as the result of staining!

We were joined on our trip to the ETAR by Ray Tipper and Willow the dog (or possibly Willowthedog, all one word!).  Anyway, Ray reckons that Willow has seen more bird species in Portugal than any other canine and probably more than most human birders.  We're told that her list is a bit light on seabirds and unfortunately she still hasn't mastered use of the telescope...

We really don’t know what’s happened to our local Bee-eaters! There seem to be very few birds around Tavira or Castro Marim and we’ve seen little evidence of breeding at some of the sites where we would normally expect to see them.

As well as birds, our week has also been dominated by football and Euro 2012. Even though we don’t have a television, we’ve managed to see a fair number of matches, even popping over the border to join the locals and our friends, Steven and Julie, in a bar in Ayamonte to watch Spain v Ireland. It was Steven and Julie who put us onto some photographable Bee-eaters at Costa Esuri on the Spanish side of the Rio Guadiana which we were very happy to go and have a look at the following morning.

Finally, a couple of items of interest that came our way during the week from the BTO. One concerns those Common Cuckoos that they have been satellite-tracking for the past year, one of which, after just 42 days in the UK, has already set off back south. A further eleven Cuckoos have recently been fitted with devices and it will be fascinating to see over the coming months how the movements of birds from Scotland and Wales compare with those that breed in England. The other item was about the movements of Common Swifts as shown by geolocators and like the Cuckoo project has demonstrated the limitations of conventional bird ringing.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Avocets, Little Terns and more...

We’ve spent most of the past week fairly close to Tavira.  Otherwise, there’s been just one trip to Castro Marim, a walk around the water treatment ponds (ETAR) near Faro on a day when we had to go to the airport and a morning spent checking out a couple of White-rumped Swift nest sites inland.

Locally, we’ve been taking a particular interest in the nesting Avocets.  There must be close to 100 pairs on the Tavira/Santa Luzia saltpans and this week has seen the hatching of the first of the year’s young ones.
Unfortunately, last weekend some nests were lost when they were flooded by a slight rise in the water level in one of the pans.  It was only slight but combined with a strong wind it was enough to put paid to about a dozen out of the 40 nests that were strung out along a bund across the middle of the pan.  A pair of Little Terns also lost their eggs.  Thankfully, the level has since dropped and the remaining nests now look safe enough.  We were worried about the nests on another pan when we saw water being pumped into it but it does look as though most of those will be OK.

Other Avocets have chosen safer sites and no doubt the next few days will see lots more chicks emerge.  That will also result in an increase in the decibel level as the adult Avocets noisily chase off intruders, particularly the Yellow-legged Gulls.  They have been biding their time these last few weeks, preferring to wait for chicks to eat rather than settle for eggs!

Also nesting around the saltpans are Black-winged Stilts, Kentish Plovers and just a few pairs of Common Redshanks.  Not nesting are the Dunlins, Sanderlings, Grey Plovers, Oystercatchers, Curlews, Whimbrels, Black-tailed & Bar-tailed Godwits and Ruddy Turnstones that are still here.  Although many of these birds have moulted into something approaching breeding plumage, we have to assume that at this late stage they’re not intending to migrate north to breed.  No doubt, most are birds in only their second calendar year.  Next year they will have reached full maturity and be ready to find a mate but right now they seem happy enough in the Ria Formosa.  Some, on the other hand, might for some reason simply not be fit enough to moult or migrate.  Maybe they’ve worn themselves out getting here from somewhere much further south.

This morning we came across a disused saltpan that was alive with small black flies, a food source that was being exploited by a group of about 20 Little Terns.  It appeared that as the terns swooped down and skimmed the water surface, the flies would take off and immediately find themselves gobbled up just an inch or so above the water.  It’s a very different feeding technique from the one we’re used to watching Little Terns employ when their diet is mainly small fish.

Not surprisingly, a Yellow Wagtail had a different approach to catching the same flies.  In a corner of the pan there were hundreds of flies settling on some floating weed.  The wagtail simply dashed around after them on foot and seemed to be having a fair amount of success.

White-rumped Swifts are still quite scarce birds in Portugal – we know of only six sites where they have bred.  At the end of May we found one of these sites in the Alentejo to be occupied again this year; a Red-rumped Swallows’ nest had been decorated with a feather in the entrance in the way that White-rumped Swifts do when they take them over and we saw a White-rumped Swift approach the nest.  Yesterday, we were disappointed that the two sites in the Algarve that we checked showed no sign of White-rumped Swifts being in residence.  At the one site there weren’t even any Red-rumped Swallows; at the other there was at least one active Red-rumpeds’ nest, so maybe there’s still time for some swifts to move in and use it.

Our recent comments about the increase in the number of Black Vultures proved to be prophetic as we saw one yesterday in the Algarve, quite an unusual occurrence at this time of year in our experience.  It had wandered quite a way south from where we normally expect to see them and was only about 25 kilometres from the coast as the vulture flies.

Our walk at the ETAR was notable for the number of young Common Shelducks.  There was a brood of 12 quite well-grown ones and then a crèche containing 48 very young ones of about the same age but presumably belonging to four or more pairs.  Where do our Shelducks go to moult, we asked ourselves without finding an answer!

Also at the ETAR were three Glossy Ibises and a single Sacred Ibis and at a nearby fish farm an Osprey seems to have settled for spending the summer on its own without the complications that come with having a mate and a family.

Highlights at Castro Marim were about 50 Slender-billed Gulls, two Black Terns and at least a couple of Collared Praticoles.

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Black Vultures & Spanish Imperial Eagles

Another trip to the Castro Verde area this week produced most of the expected species.  Little Bustards were an exception - at this time of year, when they have finished displaying and are no longer vocal, they need a bit of effort to find and on this occasion they weren’t a priority.

That the ‘expected species’ now include Black Vulture and Spanish Imperial Eagle says much about the change that there has been in the status of these two birds in recent times.  Not so many years ago, seeing either of them in Portugal would have made for a ‘red letter day’.  

Both declined as a result of a combination of factors.  The most serious of these were the indiscriminate use of poisoning as a means of controlling ‘vermin’, collisions with power lines, decreased food availability caused by European Union legislation on carcass disposal, the drastic decline in the population of European rabbits and habitat changes in their breeding areas.

In a study that examined the deaths of 267 Spanish Imperial Eagles (in Spain) between 1989 and 2004, 91.7% of the causes of mortality (where the cause of death could be determined) were of human origin. Electrocution and poisoning were by far the most common causes of death. 115 Spanish Imperial Eagles were electrocuted and 74 were poisoned.

Although some Black Vultures are electrocuted that doesn’t seem to be such a regular problem for them as it is for Spanish Imperial Eagles.  For vultures, illegal poisoning is a much more serious problem.  Since 1990, about 500 victims of poisoning are reported to have been found.

In recent years, great efforts have been made, particularly in Spain, to tackle these problems and thankfully both species have responded well with their populations showing remarkable recoveries and birds now spreading west into the Alentejo.

Because it’s what we’ve been accustomed to over many years, we still use the name 'Black Vulture' or sometimes ‘Eurasian Black Vulture’, which, of course, refers to the birds’ plumage colour.  An alternative, more recently adopted name is 'Monk Vulture', which is a direct translation of its German name Mönchsgeier, referring to the bald head and ruff of neck feathers like a monk's cowl.  The IOC World Bird List uses the name 'Cinereous Vulture', an attempt to rename the species to avoid confusion with the American Black Vulture.

‘Spanish Imperial Eagle’ is a bit of a mouthful and we’re inclined to refer to them as ‘Spimps’!  Of course, it’s not so long ago that they were just the western population of ‘Imperial Eagle’, regarded as conspecific with what we now know as 'Eastern Imperial Eagle'.  Maybe, if the present population trend continues we’ll soon hear them referred to as ‘Iberian Imperial Eagles’.