Sunday, 25 March 2012

Castro Verde, Castro Marim and more

March is a month when we expect to spend a lot of time in the Castro Verde area and we’ve had two more trips up there this week, making three visits in the past eight days. The number of species recorded on each visit has averaged 76 but these days in the Alentejo are more about quality than quantity. During these trips we have not just seen but had really great views of 16 species of raptors with Golden Eagle, Bonelli’s Eagle, Peregrine Falcon, Common Buzzard, Griffon Vulture and Black Vulture now added to the list that was included in our last report. We’ve watched countless Great Bustards displaying, almost seeming to turn themselves inside out and looking like big white powder puffs; some Little Bustards are also displaying now but many still seem to be in flocks. Other popular species have been Calandra Larks and Great Spotted Cuckoos, Black Stork and the numerous nesting White Storks.

Golden Eagle

Short-toed Eagle

Of course, we’ve also visited several of our favourite sites in the Algarve. At Quinta do Lago, we were pleased to get good views of a Purple Heron and a Little Bittern and once again a couple of Sacred Ibises were seen alongside the more familiar Glossy Ibises. At Ludo, we expected to find Booted Eagles and we weren’t disappointed.

Little Bittern

At Castro Marim, we had several encounters with noisy Great Spotted Cuckoos and at Aldeia Nova there was a Common Cuckoo. Last year we sponsored ‘Chris’, one of the Common Cuckoos that the BTO tagged and have been tracking by satellite throughout the winter months. It’s interesting that we have Cuckoos returning here now to the Algarve but ‘Chris’ and the other BTO Cuckoos, that are presumably going to return to the UK, are still in West Africa.

Great Spotted Cuckoo

Yesterday, during the high tide period, we were at Castro Marim again to carry out a count of the waders and other birds, mostly Greater Flamingos and Spoonbills, on the saltpans there. Avocets, Dunlins, Grey Plovers and Ringed Plovers were the most numerous species but the job wasn’t made any easier by a male Montagu’s Harrier that spooked the birds on a couple of occasions. Normally we love to see Montagu’s Harriers but when we’re half way through counting a flock of several hundred birds and they all take off in panic…well that does tend to change our views! It recalled occasions at Belvide Reservoir years ago when a Peregrine Falcon would often be the culprit that disrupted wildfowl counts.

Meanwhile, here in Tavira we’re starting to see a few more migrants. This morning we came across several Woodchat Shrikes, Greater Short-toed Larks and a Subalpine Warbler and heard the familiar calls of Bee-eaters. Our ‘bird of the morning’, however, was probably a lovely Black-necked Grebe in fine summer plumage. We have still been seeing Bluethroats this week but they will soon be on their way north. The Slender-billed Gulls that have wintered here will also soon be leaving; there are currently 14 of them. Only three years ago this species was classified as a rarity in Portugal but in the south-east of the country we go out most of the year almost expecting to see them and maybe it won’t be long before they join Audouin’s Gulls and breed here.

Woodchat Shrike


Slender-billed Gull

Friday, 16 March 2012

Bustards, Raptors and Lots More

Yesterday we drove just a short way north for another great day in the Baixo Alentejo. It was mostly cloudy and a stiff breeze made it quite chilly at times, so from a weather point of view it could have been better but the birding was excellent.

Our aim, as usual, was to get good views of as many of the areas special birds as possible rather than go for a long list but we still managed to record 77 species during the day. Inevitably, some of them, for instance Quail and Wren, were only heard.

Great Bustard is of course the ‘flagship species’ of the Castro Verde area and at this time of year they’re not difficult to find. We saw about 120 of them during the day. Little Bustards, although more numerous in the area, are much more difficult to see but although we managed only a handful there were some good views.

Little Bustard

There were plenty of raptors as usual. Not only did we see 10 species but we saw all of them very well - Marsh, Hen and Montagu’s Harriers, Red, Black and Black-winged Kites, Short-toed and Spanish Imperial Eagles and both Common and Lesser Kestrels. It was a particularly good day for Spanish Imperial Eagles; twice in the morning we saw two birds together and later three birds gave great views. We saw them from below, we saw one sitting on a fence post and, when we were on top of a small hill we even looked down and saw them from above! It’s hard to say how many different birds were involved in our three sightings; they were some distance apart but it seems unlikely that we saw seven birds.

Red Kite

Although the extensive grasslands were the main focus of attention, the area does have a number of lakes/reservoirs and small ponds. As a result, we saw quite a number of species that most people probably associate more with the Ria Formosa rather than the Baixo Alentejo. Most notable amongst these and a surprise even to us were three Greater Flamingos which looked completely out of place. Others at the same location included Spoonbills, Common and Spotted Redshanks, Greenshank, Northern Pintail, lots of Northern Shoveler and Gadwall and even a female Red-crested Pochard.

Many White Storks appear now to be sitting on eggs but there are still lots of them in the fields and there was one point in the afternoon when we were able to look around us and count 70 birds!

White Stork

Corn Bunting

But the day wasn’t just about the big birds. Corn Buntings are now singing from every roadside fence and we lost count of the Southern Grey Shrikes! We were also quite taken with a Water Pipit that was well into its pink summer dress, a common enough bird but looking very smart indeed. Great Spotted Cuckoos were also among the day’s more popular species, but maybe that's just because of how English people feel about the Common Magpies in whose nests they lay their eggs!

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Tavira photographs

We popped down the road with the camera for a couple of hours late yesterday afternoon. We were hoping to photograph one or more of the newly arrived Yellow Wagtails but failed completely. However, all was not lost as instead we found a reasonably co-operative Greater Short-toed Lark.

No more than 100 metres away from the lark we were then able to re-locate a Ruff (or maybe a Reeve) which June had seen the day before.

Again it was a very obliging bird, moving out of the shadows and feeding quite unconcerned at close range. “How many photographs of a Ruff do we need?” June was soon asking!

June’s next question was, “Why don’t you photograph this Short-eared Owl instead?” Sure enough, close to where we had earlier been with the Greater Short-toed Lark, a Short-eared Owl was now hunting, presumably the same bird we had seen briefly in the same area last week. Surprisingly, when the owl dropped into the grass, we were able to approach it quite closely and it seemed quite relaxed.

When it did finally fly off, there was just about enough light remaining to get at least a record shot of a Northern Wheatear that had come within range.

Earlier in the day we had seen Great Spotted Cuckoos, Pallid Swifts, Purple Herons, Barn Swallows and House Martins. At last, the migrants are returning!

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Bluetail Tale

Regular readers of this blog will know that we are always on the lookout here for birds with colour-rings and that we have reported many Greater Flamingos, Spoonbills, several species of gulls, Black-tailed Godwits and various other waders. The total is close to 250 birds which have come from Belgium, England, France, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, Scotland and Spain.

This week we have added two more countries to that list with details received of a Ringed Plover found here in Tavira that was ringed in June 2008 at Stykkishólmur in NW Iceland and a Greater Flamingo seen at Olhão that had been ringed in July 2009 in Algeria.

Greater Flamingo from Punta de la Banya, Delta de l' Ebre, Tarragona in Spain

Not yet on our list of countries is Sweden but it’s one that has featured in an interesting story that has been running here for the past few weeks. It concerns a bird that had apparently been killed by a local near Boliqueime in the Algarve on 19th January. It was a bird that was found to have been ringed in Sweden but by the time it came to the attention of someone here who knew what to do, all that remained of it, apart from the ring, was a leg!

However, the ring was duly reported to the Swedish ringing centre and much to everyone’s amazement it turned out that the bird had been a first-year Red-flanked Bluetail (Tarsiger cyanurus), which had been trapped and ringed on 15th October 2011 at Utklippan Bird Observatory in the province of Blekinge. Only 32 Red-flanked Bluetails have ever been ringed in Sweden and this was the first ever recovery! Not only that, but this would also be the first ever record of Red-flanked Bluetail in Portugal.

Straightaway there were people here pointing out how mistakes have sometimes been made in the past during ringing and in the recording of ringing data and that without a description of the bird or a photograph it would not be safe to accept the record and add a new species to the Portuguese list. What if it was a clerical error and the bird was really a Robin (Erithacus rubecula)?

It was looking like the Portuguese Rarities Committee were going to have a big decision to make although as no birder had seen the bird alive they weren’t going to upset anyone whatever their conclusion! But in effect the decision has been made for them. Thanks to Júlio M. Neto and the wonders of modern science, the identification has already been confirmed by sequencing a DNA sample from the bird. Apparently it was a perfect match with a Red-flanked Bluetail from Vietnam! How recently is it that we couldn’t have imagined such a thing being possible?

It’s a surprising record and a remarkable sequence of events and of course the chances are that the bird had been here undetected for weeks before meeting its end! It just goes to show that there are probably always rarities out there if you keep looking...

Saturday, 3 March 2012

A Redshank's Story

We first saw this colour-ringed Common Redshank (ring no: H19) at Santa Luzia saltpans on 13th March 2011. We saw it on several further occasions over the next few weeks, the last time being on 5th April.

Subsequently we were able to find out that the bird had been ringed as a pullus in May 2010 at Westerland in the municipality of Wieringen in North Holland in the Netherlands. Later we also learned from the ringer, Wim Tijsen, that having left the Algarve it had returned to the area where it was raised, arriving there on 21st May. Apparently it is typical for young birds to arrive late on the breeding grounds like this; they are too late to breed but maybe they can find a mate for the following year. The site is a wet grassland, a set-aside meadow near the Waddensea that during the freezing winter was full of water and used for skating! Little wonder then that a Redshank wouldn’t want to stay there year round!

It is well known that many (most?) migrant waders, including Common Redshanks, return each year to spend the winter in the same area. We have records of colour-ringed Black-tailed Godwits, for instance, that we have seen in successive winters in exactly the same saltpan here in Tavira. So it was only natural that we should expect H19 to show up here again. The first sighting was on 31st December and since then we have seen it (her?) on about half a dozen further occasions, always in the same saltpan and seldom far from what seems to be the favourite corner of that saltpan. It was there again yesterday and we will be keeping watch to see whether we can establish at least an approximate departure date, which we might expect to be earlier than last year if it is going to breed. We have been told that H19’s father (H16) was back on the breeding grounds by mid-March last year so H19 might soon be heading north. We will also hope for confirmation that H19 is indeed a female.

Black-tailed Godwit - they also show a tendency to return to regular wintering sites

It’s interesting that there is also a Spotted Redshank occupying the same saltpan. It doesn’t have a ring on it but we do wonder whether it is the same Spotted Redshank that spent much of last winter in the same place. What do you think?

Spotted Redshank - probably the same individual that was here last winter