Monday, 22 October 2012

Recent highlights...

So what exactly constitutes a highlight?  Well, the Aquatic Warbler that was ringed at Vilamoura on 12th October was the first of that species in the Algarve since 2005, it was the first that either of us had seen in Portugal and it was the first that June had seen anywhere.  That was probably enough to make it the highlight of that day and possibly also the highlight of the month!

Aquatic Warbler

Very often at the end of a day’s birding one of us will ask the question: what was your bird of the day?  The answers are sometimes surprising but just as often there will be a standout candidate that we agree on.  Maybe it will be that we have witnessed some unusual behaviour.  Sometimes it will be a common bird that we have seen somewhere unexpected or out of season.  Occasionally it will be a single bird that has brightened an otherwise mundane day.  Frequently it will be a bird that has given particular pleasure to someone who has been with us, maybe a bird that we ourselves take for granted.

An example in the last few days would be the single female Great Bustard that we eventually found in the Castro Verde area at 5.30pm in the late afternoon after searching all day.  Great Bustards can be difficult to find at this time of the year and on a day when it seemed that every farmer in the Baixo Alentejo was out ploughing and there was disturbance everywhere, it seemed that our 100% record in finding this species was in serious danger.  The bird that saved our bacon was definitely a candidate for ‘bird of the day’.

If that Great Bustard was ‘bird of the day’, then ‘species of the day’ was definitely Spanish Imperial Eagle.  Never have we seen quite so many of them!  Although, to be fair, we don’t know how many different individuals we saw.  On at least five occasions during the day, we got out of the car and looked up to see two or sometimes even three of these magnificent birds.  We were often able to watch them for several minutes and on one occasion were close enough to hear the harsh, barking call of one.

Spanish Imperial Eagle

Recently we spent a day doing survey work for the Atlas of Wintering & Migratory Birds.  We always say that Atlas work gets us into areas where we probably wouldn’t otherwise go and that’s true.  Unfortunately, that’s not necessarily a good thing!  We were out all day, visited six widely separated tetrads and saw no more than about 35 species in total.  Eventually, we got to some water where we found as many as five Green Sandpipers.  After counting so many Corn Buntings and Azure-winged Magpies, Green Sandpipers were definitely that day’s highlight even if we do see them most days at this time of year.

Green Sandpiper

Purple Swamp-hens are common at several sites here and hard to miss at Quinta do Lago.  Finding them here in the Eastern Algarve is a different story!  We have about half a dozen sites east of Tavira where we have seen them but few are reliable and easily accessible.  So it’s been good these last couple of weeks to have one that has been easy to get to and co-operative.  When you rely on being able to show birds to people, these things are important!

Purple Swamp-hen

On several occasions, at the same site, we have also seen one or more Ferruginous Ducks, a species unusual enough in these parts to be a highlight some days, whereas it probably wouldn’t be if seen at one of the more regular sites such as the Parque Ambiental de Vilamoura.

Ferruginous Duck

Little Bittern is a species that we have seen in every month of the year at Quinta do Lago.  Sometimes they are hard to find, sometimes they are hard to miss but always they are popular.  This one posed for several minutes in front of the hide, illuminated by perfect late afternoon sunshine, and brought real pleasure to those few who were there to enjoy it.

Little Bittern

In the category of unusual behaviour, we recently watched a Black-winged Kite that was apparently ‘fly-catching’, making short flights from the top of a small dead tree presumably to take dragonflies or similar before returning each time to the same perch, much in the manner of a Spotted Flycatcher.  It continued like this for all of ten minutes.  We are seeing Black-winged Kites with increasing frequency but can’t recall seeing this feeding method before.

Currently we have a reasonably reliable Water Rail that we can sometimes to show to people and several Bluethroats are now established in winter territories around Tavira.  Any one of these birds that performs when required is potentially the day’s highlight!

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Salgados update

Yesterday, we were among a crowd of about 250 people, predominantly Portuguese, who gathered at Lagoa dos Salgados to support the continuing opposition to the planned hotel and golf course development that threatens to severely impact on and probably destroy one of the Algarve’s best birdwatching sites.

The main speaker was Domingos Leitão from Sociedade Portuguesa para o Estudo das Aves (SPEA) who described at some length the importance of the area for birds, the need for water level management and the problems that have been experienced over several years as a result of the neighbouring golf course management at Herdade de Salgados diverting water for their own use.

Frank McClintock, who set up the 'Save Salgados' petition on the Avaaz website (and has done much more for the campaign besides this), provided short summaries in English and explained that the petition is to be handed in to the Ministry next month.  To date it has attracted more than 17,500 signatures, many of them from outside Portugal.  Frank recognised that most if not all of those present had already signed but urged everyone to continue publicising the petition in order to maximise its effect.

One interesting development announced in the last few days is that the Government here has suggested that it might be appropriate for an environmental impact assessment to be carried out in relation to the proposed development project.  Better late than never you might think!  Maybe this is something that has been prompted by the formal complaint against the Portuguese State that was lodged with the European Commission by SPEA, Quercus, Almargem, and the League for the Protection of Nature.  What the outcome will be, of course, remains to be seen.

What remains unexplained is why Salgados, which is clearly an extremely important and valuable wetland for breeding, wintering and migrating birds, has no formal protection, why it isn’t a Special Protection Area under the 1979 EU Birds Directive and why it isn’t part of the Natura 2000 network set up by the 1992 EU Habitats Directive.  If it had been so recognised years ago and maybe also designated under the Ramsar Convention, then none of this would be happening.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Aquatic Warbler

Our return visit today to the Parque Ambiental de Vilamoura could hardly have been better timed!  The ringers were just starting to pack up after what had been a fairly unproductive morning when Colin McShane appeared with a bag containing one last bird to ring - a juvenile Aquatic Warbler!

So, as on Sunday, we saw only one bird being ringed but this time it was a genuine rarity, the first of this species we have seen in the Algarve and it seems the first anyone has seen here since 2005, although several birds have been trapped and ringed further north in Portugal at Salreu.

Late August is said to be the best time to see this species in the UK as birds migrate from their breeding grounds in eastern Europe to winter quarters in West Africa.  Similarly, previous records in Portugal all appear to have been in August and September so today's bird was very unexpected so late in the season.

The Aquatic Warbler Acrocephalus paludicola is the rarest and the only globally threatened passerine bird found in mainland Europe. Once widespread and numerous in fen mires and wet meadows throughout Europe, it has disappeared from most of its former range. Nowadays, its world population of only 12,100-13,800 singing males is said to be confined to fewer than 50 regular sites in only five countries (Belarus, Germany, Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine), with four sites supporting over 80 % of the global population.

On migration the Aquatic Warbler has been recorded in 13 European countries, mainly in the west and southwest of the continent. The species winters in West Africa south of the Sahara notably in the Senegal delta in and around the Djoudj National Park (Senegal).

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Avian Adventures Re-union

The Avian Adventures Re-union Tour took place here recently and more than kept us busy for a few days.  It brought to the Vila Galé Albacora Hotel in Tavira a group of 21 birdwatchers from the UK, 18 of whom had travelled with us on Avian tours to various parts of the world over the past 20 years.

Together with Ray Tipper (also Tavira-based and an Avian Adventures tour leader) we took the group to some of the Algarve’s best birding sites and, of course, the programme also included a day in the Castro Verde area.

A total of 126 species was recorded during the three days with a further nine species being seen by several participants who chose to stay on for a few days after the main tour.  However, this was always going to be a very relaxed tour and the number of species was never likely to be a major issue.

For most of us one of the main highlights was the sight of three Spanish Imperial Eagles together, tangling and tumbling in the air above the parched grasslands of the Alentejo.  They came into view at almost exactly the same time as a group of about ten Great Bustards, which for once and indeed for several minutes had to play second fiddle.

We were also quite pleased to see two Garganeys at Lagoa dos Salgados, a species that we have seen much less often in Portugal than Spanish Imperial Eagle!  Their presence together with so many other ducks and waders underlined the importance of Salgados and the uniqueness, in Algarve terms, of this shallow ‘fresh water’ lagoon.  Of course, we encouraged anyone who hadn’t already done so to sign the online petition to oppose the planned hotel and golf course development that promises to destroy this wonderful place.

 Lagoa dos Salgados

It was less of a surprise to see six Ferruginous Ducks at the Parque Ambiental de Vilamoura, a site which for some reason seems to be particularly favoured by this species.  They are far from being common birds in Portugal, however, and always nice to see.

 Ferruginous Ducks

Also at Vilamoura it was good to meet up again with Colin McShane and his group from the UK who were there for their annual week of ringing at this excellent site for passerine migrants.  As it was, the only bird we actually saw handled during our short time with the ringers was a Common Kestrel but based on what we saw around the area it would seem likely that Blackcaps, Bluethroats, Reed Warblers, Willow Warblers, Whinchats and Northern Wheatears would have been featuring in their catch.

 Young male Common Kestrel

Two years ago (on 18th October 2010 to be exact), this same team of ringers trapped and ringed what is still the only North American passerine to be recorded in mainland Portugal, namely a Common Yellowthroat.  By coincidence we had a couple of days out recently with two birders from California.  They were spending a short time here before joining a ship in Lisbon for a cruise back to the USA via Madeira and The Azores.  When they arrived home they emailed to say that three Common Yellowthroats had landed on the ship about 500 miles out from the US coast which then travelled the rest of the way with them back to land.  Just imagine what might have happened if the ship had been heading in the opposite direction?