Saturday, 29 September 2012

Our birding week

On Tuesday we headed west to Sagres and Cabo de São Vicente, a journey that we are inclined to make less frequently these days as the price of fuel increases and with tolls now having to be paid on the A22 motorway.  We also know that the long day out to the west, although it promises much in the way of raptor migration and more, can sometimes prove to be a disappointing anticlimax.  The good days at Sagres can be really good but, of course, there are no guarantees other than the cost!

As it turned out and in spite of cloudy conditions and a fair amount of rain we had a reasonable morning’s birding.  Passerine migrants included several of the expected species such as Spotted & Pied Flycatchers, Northern Wheatears and Chiffchaffs and we also found a single Bonelli’s Warbler.  Out over the sea an occasional Balearic Shearwater was seen amongst the numerous Northern Gannets and Cory’s Shearwaters and we might have had further reward had we stayed longer on the cliff top.  However, raptors were our priority and during a brief spell when the weather threatened to clear up, we did see a couple of Egyptian Vultures, four Booted Eagles, possibly three different Short-toed Eagles and a Peregrine Falcon over Cabranosa.  Raptors elsewhere during the morning were a Black-winged Kite, at least one other Peregrine Falcon, several Common Buzzards and Common Kestrels and a Sparrowhawk.

On the way back we spent a couple of hours at Lagoa dos Salgados where there was an impressive number of gulls, White Storks and Greater Flamingos and a nice selection of waders that included the Pectoral Sandpiper that was first seen on 16th September.  A single Glossy Ibis, a Marsh Harrier, one or two Purple Swamp-hens and a Bluethroat were the other highlights.  The gulls were mostly Lesser Black-backs but also included at least a couple of Audouin’s.

It was disappointing that we spoke to several people at Salgados who were enthusing about the birds and the lagoon but who, in spite of all the publicity, still had no idea of the threat that the site currently faces or the online petition that has now attracted almost 16,500 signatures.

On Wednesday morning we went a much shorter distance in the opposite direction, east to Castro Marim, still our favourite birding area in the Algarve even though there is no longer public access to a major part of the reserve.  It’s hard to pick out highlights among the 60 or so species recorded as none were very surprising but we enjoyed seeing the hundreds of Audouin’s Gulls, a dozen or more Black-necked Grebes, a Peregrine Falcon, a Caspian Tern, about 20 Stone-curlews and a flock of 15 Little Bustards.  We were left to wonder what else there might have been in areas that we couldn’t see from the public track.

In the afternoon, we visited a small lagoon close to Castro Marim where three Ferruginous Ducks, eight Red-crested Pochards, a Purple Swamp-hen and a Kingfisher made the short diversion well worthwhile.  Later, back in Tavira, it didn’t take more than a few minutes to locate four Slender-billed Gulls, one of which had been colour-ringed in Spain.

Thursday was more or less a day off from birding but around Tavira we did see the hybrid “Grey Egret” and a Slender-billed Gull at Forte do Rato and there were 25 or more Greater Short-toed Larks at two different sites either side of town.  Unfortunately, the larks and the Yellow Wagtails with them proved rather skittish and difficult to photograph.

Yesterday we were in the Castro Verde area.  It was a mostly cloudy and dull day but it wasn’t until the drive home that there was significant rain.  We were able to find several groups of Great Bustards, totalling 20 or more birds but once again Little Bustards eluded us.  We saw about 30 or more Black-bellied Sandgrouse, several Tawny Pipits, Calandra Larks and Stone-curlews but, not surprisingly, it was a very poor day for raptors with Common Buzzards sitting dejectedly on power poles and just nine Griffon Vultures and a Black Vulture being of any real note.

Saturday, 22 September 2012

More seabirding

If anything, this morning's pelagic trip was even better than the one I reported on earlier in the week.  Again it was from Fuseta, it was the same boat and we were out in the same area of ocean for the same amount of time and again the sea was flat calm.  However, today there were even more species seen than there were on Tuesday and the sun shone throughout making for some generally more pleasing photographs.

As well as numerous Northern Gannets and Cory's Shearwaters, the bird list included Great Shearwater, Balearic Shearwater, Great Skua, Pomarine Skua, Arctic Skua, Common Tern, Black Tern, Sabine's Gull, Audouin's Gull, Little Gull and Black-legged Kittiwake, European Storm-petrel and Wilson's Storm-petrel.

We saw fewer European Storm-petrels than on Tuesday but most of the others appeared in increased numbers and there were three additional species with the Kittiwake in particular being somewhat unexpected.

Tuesday was a 7-gull day.  Well, with Mediterranean and Slender-billed seen in Tavira on the way home, today was a 9-gull day.  Surely that must be an Algarve record!

Tuesday, 18 September 2012


This morning’s pelagic trip from Fuseta was one of the best that I’ve experienced in the Algarve in terms of the numbers of species recorded even if the actual number of birds wasn’t exceptional.

The trip lasted just three hours during which time we went no more than about five miles from land, so hardly ‘pelagic’ really.  Surprisingly, no chum was used; it wasn't necessary - we simply headed out to find a fishing boat and that’s where most of the birds were.

The one major downside was that after weeks of uninterrupted sunshine it had to be today that started with 100% cloud cover.  Not until the trip was all but over did the sun put in an appearance.  As a result, photography was difficult to say the least and the results disappointing.

Highlights were Cory’s, Balearic & Great Shearwaters, Wilson’s & European Storm-petrels, Little, Black, Common & Sandwich Terns, Great & Pomarine Skuas, Sabine’s & Audouin’s Gulls.

I might have to go again!

After lunch back in Tavira, we were able to make it a 7-gull day with the addition of Slender-billed and a 5-tern day with the addition of Caspian.

Monday, 17 September 2012

She's Back!

At 3.52 metres, yesterday afternoon’s high tide was one of the highest this month.  I couldn’t resist the temptation!  After a morning spent tapping away at the keyboard, I felt that I had earned a break.  I headed for Olhão, definitely one of the best places to see flocks of gulls and waders sitting out the period of high water.

As well as wanting to see flocks of roosting birds, I went with two other objectives:  I thought there would be a good chance to photograph Mediterranean Gulls and Caspian Terns; I also expected to find a few colour-ringed birds among the hundreds of gulls.

The afternoon was largely successful.  By the time I arrived thousands of birds had already gathered.  There was nothing unusual that I could find but the numbers were impressive.  Eventually I managed to get a few reasonable images of the two target species but I managed to find only one colour-ringed Lesser Black-backed Gull.  Six colour-ringed Greater Flamingos were some consolation.

The Lesser Black-back had been ringed as an adult on 30th May 2011 at IJmuiden, Forteiland in The Netherlands.  Only a week ago it had been reported from the Marismas del Odiel in Spain.  Thank you, Kees Camphuysen for these details – if only we had such quick replies to all our ring reports!

As I was coming away I hesitated to drive past an area where several hundred gulls were resting even though they were much too far away for me to have read any rings that there might have been.  As I was looking at them through the ‘scope, a Portuguese guy rode past on a bike, a man probably in his sixties.  From the way he was dressed, I guessed he was going fishing.  We both said ‘boa tarde’, as is customary, but he went on his way with hardly a pause.

Minutes later, just as I was packing up and ready to go, I realised that the fisherman had returned.  He was standing about 30 metres away, waving to me, beckoning me to follow him.  He was holding his hands to his eyes making as though he had binoculars.  Had he found a Ring-billed Gull?  Did he need help identifying a Dowitcher?  Or did he just want to show me the flocks of birds that I had spent the last two hours looking at?  My guess was the last of these!  He had no English to tell me and I had no Portuguese to explain that I was already aware of the hundreds of birds that he had just happened upon.

What to do?  Should I ignore him and be on my way?  No, he was just so insistent and so enthusiastic, there was nothing for me to do but go with him, following behind as he encouraged me to go slowly and quietly!  Eventually, he had me sit on a low wall and from there we looked across to a saltpan that was crowded with honking Greater Flamingos.  Very soon he went on his way, leaving me to enjoy the birds but after a few minutes I could see him again, about 200 metres away this time and again beckoning me to join him for a different and better view.  There was no alternative!

There is a widely held believe that the interest that most older Portuguese have in birds extends only as far as wanting to know how to cook them.  However, I like to think that this fisherman was an exception.  My guess is that he has ridden his bike past all these birds on hundreds of occasions but that this day he was so lifted by the impressive sight and sounds of so many gulls, waders and Flamingos that he immediately wanted to share them with somebody.  I might have wished that it had been a Ring-billed Gull but I’m glad that I didn’t resist or reject his random act of kindness in wanting me to be that somebody and coming back to get me.

Eventually I did get away and on the way home I called in at Santa Luzia saltpans.  The subject “She’s Back” refers not to June (who remains in Colombia) but to Redshank H19.  Regular readers will perhaps remember that this Dutch-ringed Common Redshank has spent most of the last two winters (its only two winters) in the same corner of the same saltpan at Santa Luzia.  She has been back in The Netherlands during the summer but I hear from Wim Tijsen who ringed the bird that she has so far failed to find a mate there.  Now she is back here in the Algarve and it was only because I have been looking for her that I spotted her in amongst a flock of Black-tailed Godwits in water that was so deep I could hardly see the ring on her leg.  I wonder whether she will spend the next six months in the same saltpan – I bet she does!  

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Enjoying the Algarve...really!

What little news there has been so far from June has included detailed accounts of the many 'new' birds she is seeing in Colombia!  She sounds really enthusiastic about the place and why wouldn't she be?  It would have been nice if we had both been able to go but instead I'll have to wait...until January.  Anyway, if I needed any motivation to get me out birding here on my own, then she has provided it!

A couple of months ago we came across a small fresh water pool here in the Eastern Algarve that had been formed as a result of a leaking pipe.  In this parched environment it was already attracting quite a few birds and we had a couple of sessions there with the camera, using the car as a hide.  At the beginning of July the variety of species wasn't that exciting but it was obvious that if conditions continued and there was no repair to the pipe, then the migration season could provide a lot more interest.

And so it was that on Thursday and Friday mornings I set off early, arriving by the pool just as the sun was beginning to illuminate it.  There is actually more water there now than there was earlier, perhaps a little too much as where before there had been Yellow Wagtails, now there was were Green Sandpipers, a Common Sandpiper, a Little Ringed Plover and a Spotted Redshank.  Maybe, in due course, we might have to make some minor modifications, a small irrigation project, in the interests of species diversity!

In a total of five hours spent by the pool, I managed to photograph fifteen species with Woodchat Shrike and Spotless Starling being the highlights (other than, of course, the two Tringas already mentioned).  Spotless Starling, in particular, has proved in the past to be a very difficult bird to get close to.

Unless somebody calls a plumber (heaven forbid!) I can see this pool becoming part of our routine for weeks to come.

This morning I walked from Pedras d'el Rei to Barril Beach alongside the narrow gauge railway track.  The trees and bushes here always look like places that might attract a few migrants and now should be the time to find them.  And so it was but no more than a handful of Pied Flycatchers, a Common Redstart, a Turtle Dove, a Garden Warbler and a few Chiffchaffs.  There will be better mornings here in the next few weeks.

A brief visit to the salinas at Santa Luzia quickly produced all six of the regular gull species and I managed to read about a dozen colour rings on Audouin's Gulls, including several of the blue rings which denote an origin here in the Algarve.

Heading for home, I called at Forte do Rato where I needed the Swarovski 'scope to find the prodigal "Grey Egret", a bird that had been reported MIA but was it seems just AWOL.

Finally, half a dozen easily found Stone-curlews rounded off the morning before an excellent sausage and scrambled egg sandwich and a galão at Restaurante Ana.

Who needs Bogota Rail anyway?

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Contrasting Days!

Some days guiding can be really hard work!  Take Sunday, for instance.  We had a 12-hour day and managed to find just 41 species.  We were in the Castro Verde area where finding birds at this time of year can be really tough. 

There are times of the year in that area when you can expect to see Great Bustards round every corner; this is not one of those times.  We saw only five all day!  Little Bustards are no better; in spring they are everywhere, displaying and drawing attention to themselves; in winter, they are in flocks, now they are more or less invisible.  We saw just three of them.

The day’s bird list also included Black-bellied Sandgrouse, Spanish Imperial Eagle, Griffon Vulture (70 of them, on the ground), Short-toed Eagle, Bonelli’s Eagle, Lesser Kestrel and Blue Rock Thrush so it wasn’t a disaster but it’s not good for the nerves when you have the responsibility for finding these birds.  People say it must be nice to have a job that you enjoy and without any pressure – they just don’t know the half of it!

Eurasian Griffon

Yesterday was entirely different.  We had just a morning’s birding around Tavira, probably no more than three hours during which we saw 50 species, 18 of which were shorebirds.  We say shorebirds rather than waders because, as on Sunday, we were accompanied by visitors from the USA.  In the USA, waders are long-legged birds like herons, egrets and storks.

Black-tailed Godwit

Anyway, they were two contrasting days but both enjoyable in their own way – good birding, pleasant company and super fine weather, too!

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Migrants everywhere!

Another busy week has seen us visit Castro Marim, Ludo, Quinta do Lago, Olhão and, of course, our local saltpans around Tavira and Santa Luzia.  We’ve also had brief looks at Altura ‘tank’ and the Vitacress site near Almancil where last year we found a Pectoral Sandpiper.

Star bird for us has been the juvenile Red-necked Phalarope that was found here in Tavira on Monday.  It was the first of this species we have seen in Portugal, mainly because the last five that have occurred in the Algarve have somehow all contrived to turn up at times when we have been elsewhere!  It was found in one of the saltpans along the Estrada das 4 Águas and was last seen on Thursday.  At no time did it threaten to come within range of a camera!

Elsewhere in the Algarve, and much rarer, a Lesser Whitethroat found in Vale Santo, near Sagres on Wednesday was the cause of much interest, although unfortunately not seen by anyone other than the finder.  There has been only one previous record in Portugal of this species.  At around the same time a Lanner Falcon was also reported from Vila do Bispo, a species not yet formally admitted to the Portuguese list although there are several records pending.  Not surprisingly, like the one we saw some years ago, it was said to be of the northwest African race erlangeri .

Here in the Eastern Algarve, we have had to content ourselves with more common migrants such as Northern Wheatears, Pied Flycatchers, Chiffchaffs and Willow Warblers.  European Bee-eaters have been heard most days as they’ve passed high overhead and on a couple of days we have seen hundreds of Red-rumped Swallows on the move.  Popular birds with our visitors have been a very obliging Little Bittern, a Wryneck, Stone-curlews, Caspian Terns, Glossy Ibis and Slender-billed Gulls.

  Slender-billed Gull 

Of course, in the Ria Formosa and at Castro Marim, we’ve got thousands of gulls and waders, Spoonbill numbers are also increasing and already a few Northern Shovelers, Eurasian Wigeon and Teal have arrived.

Lesser Black-backed Gulls adding flavour to the salt

A really Black-bellied, Grey Plover

 Little Stint

Also notable this week has been the return of one of the hybrid Little x Western Reef Egrets that have been a feature of the Tavira area for several years.  We went months without seeing one and had assumed that the regular birds had perished but it looks as though one has survived and may be going to spend another winter here.

Looking ahead, apart from guiding, there is fieldwork to be done for the Portuguese Atlas of Wintering and Migratory Birds, there will soon be a pelagic trip, some time will be spent with ringers and some will be devoted to photography.  It’s going to be busy and it’s going to be exciting!  Oh, yes, we almost forgot – June is going to Colombia on Tuesday!

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Back in the Algarve

This is only our third day back in the Algarve and already our birding has taken us to Quinta do Lago, the Parque Ambiental de Vilamoura, the Castro Marim Natural Reserve and the saltpans of Tavira and Santa Luzia.

In rarity terms, the star bird so far has to be the Marsh Sandpiper that June found among the thousands of birds at Castro Marim when we were helping with the monthly high tide wader count.  This is a species that occurs here most years at this time and Castro Marim seems to be the most likely place to find one.  We also found one there in September 2009.  The Tringas are definitely amongst our favourite birds and it was unfortunate that this one was a very long way off and well out of camera range.

At Vilamoura, we enjoyed seeing five Ferruginous Ducks, not exactly rare but a species that seems to favour that particular area and one which we seldom see anywhere else in the Algarve.

However, it’s not all about scarcity!  It’s just very nice to be back amongst the huge numbers of birds, especially waders, gulls, terns and, of course, Greater Flamingos that occur here.  Yesterday, for instance, on just one saltpan we saw in the region of 1,000 gulls and today we counted 400 Audouin’s Gulls at Santa Luzia. 

Audouin's Gull - this one ringed in the Algarve

Santa Luzia saltpans

Inevitably, we have spent some time looking for any colour-rings that we can read.  So far in three days we have read and reported 37: 1 Black-winged Stilt, 2 Lesser Black-backed Gulls and 34 Audouin’s Gulls.  We haven’t even looked yet at the Flamingos and we know that there are rings on some of the Slender-billed Gulls if only they would get out of the water and let us see their legs!