Saturday, 29 December 2012

Alentejo Day

Yesterday we decided to spend one of our last birding days of the year in the Alentejo.  Our intention was to explore some areas that we don’t often get to and maybe find places that might be worth visiting in future to bring some variety to our regular trips into the area.

It was still early when we crossed the Ribeira do Vascão that forms the border between the Algarve and the Baixo Alentejo.  And it was cold!  And, worse still, it was foggy!

An hour or more later, it was still fairly murky when we encountered the first of the day’s notable birds, two Spanish Imperial Eagles (Spimps as we call them), presumably a pair.  The difference in size between the two of them was immediately obvious, as was their behaviour; the larger female quickly took flight but the male seemed quite relaxed and waited several minutes before joining her, giving us chance to grab a few photographs as it remained perched on a power pole.

Spanish Imperial Eagle is one of the world’s rarest raptor species but the frequency with which we see them in the Alentejo has increased to the point where we now come away disappointed if we don’t come across them.  In 1974 the population had fallen to only about 50 pairs (all in Spain) and the outlook was grim but since then there has been a remarkable recovery with more than 250 territories now occupied.  This increase has seen the birds re-colonise Portugal and several pairs are now reported to be breeding here with others wandering across the border in the autumn from the species’ stronghold in Extremadura.

The Species action plan for the Spanish Imperial Eagle commissioned by the European Union has as its goal the restoration of the population to a favourable conservation status; its target is to ensure a stable or increasing population of at least 1,000 mature individuals by 2018.  It would be marvellous to think that could be achieved.

Our objectives for the day were certainly met as we climbed to a new (for us) raptor watchpoint, located the site of a Lesser Kestrel colony that will give us another option for seeing these birds when they return and finally looked in more detail at an area that we regularly pass through where we have often seen Golden Eagles.

Bustard country

It was a busy day during which the weather slowly improved and by lunchtime it was bright and sunny.  We also looked around some of our regular haunts and saw plenty of Great Bustards, Little Bustards, Common Cranes and Black-bellied Sandgrouse as well as a sprinkling of the usual raptors, which, incidentally, included a third Spanish Imperial Eagle.

We very much enjoy the wetlands of the Ria Formosa with their Greater Flamingos, waders and gulls but it's very nice to have the wide open spaces of the Alentejo as an alternative for a day out within easy reach of our base in Tavira.

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Colour-ringed Gulls

At least one Short-eared Owl is still an attraction hunting over the local saltpans here in Tavira but the last few days have seen us giving more attention to the many gulls that have been loafing in the same area.

Mediterranean Gull

In particular, there are currently about 300 Mediterranean Gulls using the same bund every day and, of course, we’ve been reading and reporting colour-rings.  Green ones, white ones and red ones – so far we’ve been able to read 20 of them and although we’ve not yet had any details confirmed it looks as though we’ve got birds from Belgium, France, Hungary and Poland.

We’ve also managed to read a couple of Lesser Black-back rings.  One of them is a bird that was ringed here in the Algarve after being ‘rescued’ but we believe the other is from Norway and we’re looking forward to receiving confirmation.

While we were looking at the gull flock on Thursday afternoon the whole lot took flight and cleared off when an Osprey flew over, presumably the same bird that we had been so pleased to see a few days before but which now had brought to a premature end our search for rings.  Briefly, we were a bit annoyed but the mood quickly changed when we noticed that there was in fact a single gull remaining.  It was a first-winter Little Gull, not a very common bird here and only the third we have seen in the Algarve in December.

Little Gull

At a different site nearby there are still more than 100 Audouin’s Gulls, which like the Meds are faithful to one particular area day after day and therefore easy to see.  Again there are rings to be read and recently these have included several birds from the colony on the Ilha da Barreta here in the Ria Formosa as well as the usual birds from the Ebro Delta in Spain.

Audouin's Gull

Slender-billed Gulls are another story!  There are about 15 of them here currently but they seem to spend all of their time on the water with legs submerged giving only an occasional glimpse of a ring.

Slender-billed Gull

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Projecto Arenaria 2012/13

Yesterday morning was perfect for a walk on the beach – an almost cloudless sky, the temperature reaching 23ºC and virtually no wind.

Surprisingly, it wasn’t something that seemed to have occurred to anyone else!  We walked for about two and a half hours and saw only four other people, all of them local fishermen wading into the surf.

Ruddy Turnstone (Arenaria interpres)

Of course, we weren’t just out for a walk; once again we were taking part in Projecto Arenaria.  We’ve blogged about it before here and here, so if you’ve been keeping up you’ll know that it is a survey of Portugal’s non-estuarine coastal birds, an attempt to fill a gap in the knowledge of bird populations using the Portuguese coastline.

As previously, we were asked to count birds on the Ilha de Cabanas and, following our plan from last winter, we took a boat to the island rather than risk wading across the channel at low tide.  Thanks again for that to Henrique at Segua Tours.

The birds were unremarkable.  We found one Mediterranean Gull and 11 Audouin’s Gulls among the hundreds of Lesser Black-backs; what few waders there were thankfully included a few Ruddy Turnstones, the species that gives the project its name.

We also found a few Sea Urchins and Jellyfish washed up on the sand.  Mostly we just enjoyed being out on such a beautiful morning on what almost seemed like our own private beach!

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Tavira - Owls & Raptors

We’re now regularly seeing Short-eared Owls here in Tavira.  We love just to sit and watch them hunting over the saltpans but if we get a chance we also like to try and photograph them.  There are only two of them so far and they range over quite a large area, so it’s not easy!

In past winters photographing Short-eared Owls has also been difficult because the birds haven’t normally been active until quite late in the afternoon.  By that time the light has faded to the point when we need to resort to high ISO settings and our Canon 50D starts to produce some fairly unsatisfactory, grainy images.

Recently, though, we’ve started to see the owls out hunting much earlier and we could even persuade ourselves that they have started to become accustomed to seeing us and our car.  Certainly they seem to be coming closer to us and when they’re perched they haven’t seemed concerned by our presence.

When we’re waiting for the owls to perform there are inevitably a few distractions.  There’s a Little Owl that sits on the roof of one of the buildings.  We’ve seen it so often that we feel we know it personally!  On several occasions recently we’ve seen a Hen Harrier passing through the area which we suspect has been going to roost on the nearby Ilha de Tavira.  It has flown by quickly, staying low and perhaps hoping to surprise an unwary Little Stint or Dunlin.  A couple of weeks ago a Merlin was seen that presumably had the same intention and it isn’t unusual to see a Black-winged Kite hovering or perched on top of a distant tree.

Yesterday, however, was exceptional!  By 2.30pm the two Short-eared Owls had already had a fly round and had found resting places less than 100m apart where we could see them both.  We were watching and waiting to see what they would do next when an Osprey appeared carrying a fish.  It landed on top of a pole about 250m away where it really didn’t look very comfortable, but it didn’t matter as after just a few minutes it was disturbed by a passing cyclist and took flight.  Fortunately, it came towards us and we were able to get a series of flight shots before it disappeared.

Very soon after that we were hoping for repeat success when a Marsh Harrier came into view.  It was quartering the saltpans in typical fashion and just for a minute it threatened to come within camera range.  Soon, however, it was like all the other Marsh Harriers we see here and heading off into the distance!

Then, suddenly, the Marsh Harrier was forgotten as we became aware of two large birds having some sort of skirmish high above us.  As we have seen it happen before, our immediate thought was that the two owls were having a territorial dispute but we quickly realised that only one of the birds was an owl.  So, what was the other?  The Osprey returned?  No, it was a Booted Eagle!  Their disagreement didn’t last long and the eagle quickly went on its way but it rounded off a remarkable couple of hours for us and we were left reminding ourselves that this is December in the Eastern Algarve!

Friday, 14 December 2012

Diverse divers

We know that even in December there can be rarities here in the Algarve.  We think particularly of Portugal’s only Moussier’s Redstart that was present throughout December 2006 near Sagres and we recall finding a Long-tailed Duck at Castro Marim in December 2007 that was only the fourth for the Algarve.  It’s not really a month, though, when we expect to record species that we have never before seen in Portugal, so it’s been a surprise for us to have enjoyed two such birds within the space of a week and to have missed seeing a third!

Last week we had a very pleasant and relaxed day birding around the Ludo and Quinta do Lago areas.  We managed to find 84 species during the day, a total that included an Osprey, eight Booted Eagles, two Black-winged Kites, a Marsh Harrier, a Glossy Ibis, four Little Bitterns and a Wryneck.  However, the day’s rarity came when we went for a morning coffee break to Praia de Faro.  There, from the car park, we looked out to sea and saw just one bird – a Great Northern Diver!  It was too far away to photograph but through the Swarovski easily recognisable and we assume that it was the same bird that had been reported a few days earlier from the nearby Ilha do Farol.  Although Great Northern Divers are annual visitors off Portugal’s west coast, there are only three previous records for the Algarve.  So that was our first ‘new’ bird.

Our second ‘new’ bird was also a diver, this time a Red-throated Diver and even more of a rarity.  It was found by Thijs Valkenburg and João Tiago Tavares in the mouth of the Guadiana River that separates Spain and Portugal.  By the time we got there the bird had moved up river and we were actually in Vila Real de Santo António when we watched it slowly drift further away until it was definitely on the Spanish side of the river.  This was only the second record for the Algarve, the previous one, coincidentally being off Praia de Faro in 2006.

Great Northern Diver - Chasewater, Staffordshire, 2008

Red-throated Diver - Moss Landing, California, 2009

No photographs from the Algarve but two from elsewhere to illustrate the differences between the two species, particularly the size and shape of the bill.

The third rarity, the one that we haven’t seen, was also in the mouth of the Guadiana River; it was a Brent Goose, a species for which there are only a handful of records here.  Maybe it will stay around.   

Saturday, 8 December 2012

New Ramsar site in the Algarve

We were pleased to see recently the report that two new Ramsar sites have been designated in Portugal, bringing the total in the country to 30.

Ramsar sites are wetlands of international importance.  Ramsar is the city in Iran where a meeting was held in February 1971 that resulted in The Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, now generally known as the Ramsar Convention.

The Convention is an intergovernmental treaty that embodies the commitments of its member countries to maintain the ecological character of their Wetlands of International Importance and to plan for the "wise use", or sustainable use, of all of the wetlands in their territories.

The Convention eventually came into force in December 1975 by which time seven nations had signed up to it.  It was several years before Portugal joined, its first two Ramsar sites being designated in 1980.

The two new sites are Pateira de Fermentelos Lake and Águeda and Cértima Valleys in the Região do Centro and the Ribeira do Vascão in the Algarve (in part, forming the border between Algarve and Alentejo).

The Ribeira do Vascão is the biggest river in Portugal without any artificial interruptions such as dams or reservoirs.  It is said to support high concentrations of threatened species of freshwater fishes such as Jarabugo (Anaecypris hispanica), European Eel (Anguilla anguilla) and Sea Lamprey (Petromyzon marinus).

We know it as an attractive landscape feature and stretches of it as good bird habitat and birdwatching sites.  One of the squares that we are covering this year for the Atlas of Wintering and Migratory Birds is bisected by the river.

The Ribeira do Vascão is the fourth Ramsar site to be designated in the Algarve after Ria Formosa (1980) and Sapais de Castro Marim and Ria Alvor (both 1996).  Clearly designation brings no absolute guarantee of protection or that strict planning controls will be enforced but it does ensure international recognition of a site's importance.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Back into Algarve birding

After quite a lot of rain at the end of October and in early November, there’s a fair amount of water lying on the ground here, the rivers and streams are flowing again and many of the saltpans are now flooded to a level that makes them unsuitable for short-legged wading birds.  There has been very little rain these last two weeks but, by Algarve standards, it’s been cold, often with a stiff wind that has had us wearing as many as four layers of clothing!

The numbers of some bird species, Spoonbills and Black-tailed Godwits for instance, have now reduced quite noticeably as they have continued their migration to West Africa, encouraged no doubt by the drop in temperatures and a following wind from the north.  However, the total number of birds remains high as thousands of gulls have arrived and there are Chiffchaffs wherever you look.

Black-tailed Godwit

Searching through the gulls isn’t everyone’s idea of fun but there are occasional rarities to be found and there are colour rings to be read.  A Ring-billed Gull was seen at Sagres at few days ago and two Great Black-backed Gulls were found at Quarteira but here in the Eastern Algarve we have so far had to content ourselves with the regular six species.  However, the numbers of Audouin’s and Slender-billed are now much lower and we have heard that Audouin’s colour-ringed this year in the colony in the Ria Formosa have been reported recently from The Gambia.  A colour-ringed Mediterranean Gull from Italy has been our best find this week.

Audouin's Gulls

We’ve been twice in the past few days to Castro Marim where there is now much more water in the Cerro do Bufo saltpans than we would wish for.  Notable sightings there have included as many as 200 Common Shelducks and close to 100 Black-necked Grebes.  Common Shelduck is a species that bred for the first time in Portugal as recently as 2000 but seems to be doing remarkably well.  Back in the summer we saw more than 100 young ones at a site near Faro but a winter flock of 200 is a record as far as we are concerned.

Common Shelduck

 Black-necked Grebe

Waders can still be found in good numbers and variety around the Ria Formosa.  In fact we have recorded 25 species locally in the last few days.  For us, one of the attractions here is how close we can get to them and, of course, we enjoy trying to photograph them.  Some are easier than others!

Little Stint

Other species that have proved popular with visitors recently have been Greater Flamingo, Bluethroat, Glossy Ibis, Little Bittern and Caspian Tern, all of which we expect but never tire of seeing and showing to people.

Caspian Tern

Less predictable are the hirundines, but at the moment we seem to be seeing Crag Martins just about everywhere (including from our window) and yesterday we saw Red-rumped Swallows.

The Algarve isn’t particularly noted for its birds of prey but in the last few days we have seen several Booted Eagles, an Osprey, Hen Harriers, Marsh Harriers, Common Buzzards, Common Kestrels, Black-winged Kites, a Merlin and an Egyptian Vulture.  And we can add to these the Red Kites, Golden Eagle and Spanish Imperial Eagles that we saw during our day in the Castro Verde area of the Baixo Alentejo.

Booted Eagle

In the Alentejo, as well as the raptors, it was good to see Great Bustards in reasonable numbers and we managed to get quite near to a flock of 100 or more Common Cranes.  On a particularly windy day we struggled to get good views of Calandra Larks or Black-bellied Sandgrouse but the Spanish Imperial Eagles made up for any disappointment; we watched three of them, all young birds, first on the ground and then all together in one tree.  It might have been nice to see them through a telescope but not really necessary as they were close enough that if we had got out of the car they would undoubtedly have flown off.

November was good, December has started well and today the wind has dropped and the temperature has risen.