Monday, 23 December 2013

Avian Adventures tour in Ethiopia

Here are just a few photographs from the recent Avian Adventures tour in Ethiopia.  It's pleasing to report that the accommodation and the food were both improved since our last tour there and we even managed to have much better weather than last time!

 Gelada - often referred to as Gelada Baboon - spends most of its time sitting eating grass. Apparently it's not really a baboon at all but it certainly looks like one.  It can only be found in Ethiopia.

 Spot-breasted Lapwing - an Ethiopian endemic, not difficult to find in the highlands above 2,500m.

Black-headed Siskin or Ethiopian Siskin - another Ethiopian endemic and common, sometimes abundant in the highlands.

Ethiopian Wolf - now listed as Endangered by the IUCN, on account of its small numbers and fragmented range. Threats include habitat loss and fragmentation, diseases and hybridisation with domestic and feral dogs.  We saw about ten of these fox-like animals, which feed mainly on rodents, notably Giant Root-rats.

Abyssinian Catbird - also an Ethiopian endemic, its song is reminiscent of a Nightingale and it looks somewhat like a Grey Catbird of North America but is no relation.

Stresemann's Bush-crow or Ethiopian Bush-crow - also endemic to Ethiopia and in some ways the country's star bird.  It's confined to a very small area but within that area is quite common.  It bears a striking resemblance Clark's Nutcracker.   

We have another tour to Ethiopia scheduled for December 2014.

More photographs later.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Birding around our local patch(es)

Today was our last day this year birding together in the Algarve as Peter heads off tomorrow for more or less back to back tours for Avian Adventures, first to Ethiopia and then to Florida.  What a contrast those promise to be!

We spent the morning at Castro Marim.  We hoped we might catch a glimpse of the unseasonal Great Spotted Cuckoo that was reported there yesterday or that maybe we could re-locate the Yellow-browed Warbler that was seen on Saturday and Sunday but unfortunately we saw neither of those.  We did see a nice selection of birds though, including an Osprey, Iberian Grey Shrike, Crag Martin and Barn Swallow, Water Rail, Bluethroat, Caspian Tern, Marsh Harrier and plenty of waders.  A Common Snipe posed for a photograph.

It was a sunny morning with an almost clear sky but it started cold (by Algarve standards!) and we needed several layers of clothes.  As it warmed up we began to see a few butterflies including a Small Copper.  On the way back we stopped at Altura tank where insects were definitely in abundance over the water attracting both House Martins and Crag Martins.

This afternoon we spent a couple of hours around Tavira, mostly along the road to Quatro Águas.  We increased to 23 our total of wader species for the day and to six our tally of gull species, we saw another Bluethroat and a Dartford Warbler but mainly we concentrated on trying to read colour rings.  Those on Audouin’s Gulls were easy enough but we struggled with the Spoonbills, which were just that little bit too far away.  We finished up with details of just four Spoonbill rings but there were at least a couple of others that even with Swarovski help we couldn’t be sure of.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Yellow-browed Warbler at Castro Marim

On a cold and damp morning our thoughts were more on shopping and housework than they were on birding but a message from Filipe Moniz at Castro Marim quickly brought us to our senses! He had had a brief view of what he thought was a Yellow-browed Warbler on the reserve at Castro Marim but he had to go to work and wasn’t able to spend any time with the bird. Did we want to go and check it out? Did we!

We got there as soon as we could; by this time it wasn’t just damp, it was raining. We met Dinis Versa Silva and Sao Gomes and the four of us spent an hour or so searching in the area that Filipe had described. Chiffchaffs appeared from time to time to raise our hopes briefly but regrettably there was no sign of any other Phyllosc.

Understandably, Dinis and Sao decided that enough was enough - conditions were starting to be fairly unpleasant! They left and it was almost inevitable that no more than 10 minutes later, having widened our search, we re-located the target bird in trees by the visitor centre. We were able to watch it from close range for several minutes and even managed a few photographs.

Yellow-browed Warblers are more or less annual visitors to Portugal but this autumn has been exceptional with several records from further north being followed by at least three here in the Algarve. This one was our first ever in Portugal and for Filipe a ‘lifer’, which we hope stays around for him (and Dinis and Sao) to see on another day.

Friday, 22 November 2013


Ospreys are birds that we seem to see with increasing frequency here in the Algarve.  Breeding birds from Northern Europe pass through the Iberian Peninsula in the autumn and spring on their way to and from wintering areas in West Africa and there are a few that seem happy to stay with us here through the winter.  As a result, Ospreys are seen here from September through to April and we also have several records for May and June.

Osprey - Santa Luzia, Nov 2013

Ringing, wing-tagging and particularly satellite-tracking have all helped to give a fairly detailed picture of Osprey migration routes.  They are said to be an exception among raptor species in that they migrate on a broad front and are capable of flight over long stretches of water but there does nevertheless seem to be a tendency for satellite-tracked birds to cross the Mediterranean close to its narrowest point and that probably means that the majority of migrating birds pass some way to the east of here.

Osprey - Santa Luzia, Nov 2013

The situation here may be complicated to some degree by the fact that a project was started in 2003 to re-introduce Ospreys to breed in Spain with the nearest site being only about 50km across the border at the Marismas del Odiel.  Possibly the birds we have seen in May and June at Castro Marim have been wanderers from there.  Or they may of course have been sub-adult non-breeders from Britain or Scandinavia that had no reason yet to go further north.

Osprey - Tavira, May 2011

A further possible complication is that in 2011 similar attempts to re-introduce Ospreys to breed in Portugal were started at the Alqueva Reservoir in the Alentejo region, although news of that project seems for some reason hard to come by.  Ospreys last bred here in the Algarve in 1997; the female of the last remaining pair died and although the male occupied the territory in subsequent years and females were seen, there was no further breeding.

Osprey - Tavira, Dec 2012

Although we are lucky enough to come across them relatively often, there is still something special about seeing Ospreys.  Maybe it is the fact that not so long ago they were genuinely rare birds in the UK and we can still recall the excitement of seeing them at Loch Garten in the early days of their re-colonisation.
Currently we are seeing birds at Ludo and around the Tavira/Santa Luzia area.  The Ludo bird has a red ring on its right leg but we haven’t been able to get anywhere near to it to read an inscription.  Maybe it is from the UK.  We have been lucky to see the Tavira bird at quite close range but of course that one doesn’t have a ring!

Osprey - Tavira, May 2011

Until quite recently, Osprey was considered to be a single species with a worldwide distribution and four recognised subspecies.  However, some authorities now regard one of those subspecies as a separate species, Pandion cristatus or Eastern Osprey.  That would leave us calling our birds Pandion haliaetus or Western Osprey.  Well, you might want to call them that but we'll just stick to Osprey!

Foz do Almargem

We were at Faro airport early yesterday and then spent the morning birding around the Foz do Almargem and Trafal.  We might normally have gone to Ludo or Quinta do Lago but a report a few days ago of a Red-knobbed Coot and a Little Gull at Foz do Almargem was enough for us to opt for a change of scene.  It was a cool morning with 100% cloud cover.

Based on past experience, both of the ‘target’ birds were ones that were likely to stay for a while.  Last year’s Little Gull here in Tavira was in the area for at least a week and a Red-knobbed Coot, once settled, might remain throughout the winter.

Our confidence was justified!  There were several hundred gulls bathing and splashing, Lesser Black-backs, Yellow-legged and Black-headed, but the tiny Little Gull was easy to find, bobbing about on the water appearing from a distance almost like a phalarope. 

 Little Gull

There were about 80 Eurasian Coots in a flock and we set up the ‘scope to search through them.  Again it didn’t take long - even in very poor light, the pale blue bill of the cristata made it very obvious amongst its more common pinkish-billed cousins.

One of each - Eurasian and Red-knobbed Coots

Other birds on and around the lagoon included Red-crested Pochard, Purple Swamp-hen, Black-tailed Godwits, Sanderling, Common Sandpiper, Dunlin and Kentish Plover.


We walked to Trafal where a Black-winged Kite was sitting on top of one power pole and on the side of another a Great Spotted Woodpecker was immediately replaced by an Iberian Green Woodpecker.  Between the poles, four Hoopoes were perched on a cable, at least one of them calling loudly.  A couple of Barn Swallows flying through seemed particularly unseasonal on such a drab day.

Out over the sea, Gannets were numerous and a flock of about 100 Common Scoters got up and flew a short distance when disturbed by a passing boat.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Vulture rescue

It is well known that in October most years hundreds of Griffon Vultures congregate in the Sagres area at the south-west tip of Portugal.  Recently there was a report of 740 birds seen between Sagres and Vila do Bispo and this is not exceptional.

These birds arrive at the extreme point in mainland Europe and find themselves with nowhere left to go!  By taking advantage of updrafts and making use of rising columns of warm air vultures can sustain flight for long periods without even flapping their wings.  However, they can’t cope with long flights over the sea.  If they want to go to North Africa, Sagres definitely isn’t the place to set off from.

Griffon Vulture

Eventually, perhaps partly driven by hunger, the vultures head east from Sagres.  The shortest crossing to Africa is, of course, at Tarifa in Spain, across the Strait of Gibraltar, and that would certainly be a more sensible departure point.

During the last two days several hundred Griffons making this adjustment to their migration route have passed close to Tavira.  We have enjoyed the same spectacle in previous years at this time, on one occasion even watching them directly over the town.  Unfortunately, with insufficient food available around Sagres to sustain hundreds of birds, some become tired and weak and it isn’t unusual for a few individuals to require help.  Only a few days ago one of the local newspapers reported that two had been rescued by the police and taken into care and it happens every year.

Taken into care means being taken to RIAS (Centro de Recuperação e Investigação de Animais Selvagens), the wildlife rehabilitation and investigation centre of the Ria Formosa, located at Quinta de Marim, near Olhão.  RIAS has been in existence for more than 20 years but since October 2009 has been taken over and managed by ALDEIA, a non-profit environmental organisation.

Currently, RIAS have six Griffon Vultures in their care (and one Black Vulture) but looking after vultures is just a small part of their work.  During a typical year they will deal with about 1,000 cases of sick and injured birds and also mammals, reptiles and amphibians.  The vast majority are birds, some like the vultures, are taken there as a result of natural causes but many have been shot or trapped or are victims of fishing hooks and the like.

Griffon Vulture

Eurasian Black Vulture (or Monk Vulture)

We visited RIAS recently to see them in action.  They are a dedicated team (including some volunteers) that works under difficult conditions with their equipment and facilities badly in need of updating.  Although a healthy proportion of their funding is secure for at least four years through an arrangement with ANA Aeroportos de Portugal, money is inevitably an issue and among their fund-raising ventures is a sponsorship scheme.  Members of the public are invited to sponsor individual animals in the centre in return for a Sponsorship Certificate, a photograph of the sponsored animal, news of its progress and an invitation to its eventual release.

Montagu's Harrier

We made a donation that we earmarked for the care of a beautiful Montagu’s Harrier, a bird that will need to re-grow its flight feathers before it can be released and which in the meantime will need to be provided with food.  We have had a huge amount of enjoyment watching Montagu's Harriers this year and we hope that we will eventually get to see this one returned to the wild.

If you would like to sponsor an animal or make a donation, you may contact RIAS at

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Falcated Duck

Among the countess numbers of birds that arrive here from the north in the autumn are many thousands of ducks.  The most numerous are Eurasian Wigeon, Northern Shoveler, Gadwall, Northern Pintail, Eurasian Teal and Mallard but Tufted Duck and Common Pochard also occur and from time to time there are surprises.  In November 2007, for instance, we found a Ring-necked Duck at Altura; in 2009 we saw a Blue-winged Teal at Castro Marim and in 2010 a Green-winged Teal was found at Lagoa dos Salgados - three rarities presumed to have originated from North America.

About ten days ago there was another surprise with a report that a drake Falcated Duck had been seen at a wastewater treatment pond near Faro.  This is a species that breeds in central and eastern Siberia and winters in China and Japan.  It is an attractive bird, popular for inclusion in waterfowl collections and so the origin of the few birds that occasionally show up in Western Europe is always the subject of debate.  Are they long distance travellers or simply escapees from somewhere relatively nearby?  Over the years there have been records in the UK, The Netherlands, Austria, Ireland and Sweden among others, including one previous bird here in Portugal, in 1995.

Not surprisingly, that 1995 record resulted in Falcated Duck finding its way only as far as Category ‘D’ of the SYSTEMATIC LIST OF THE BIRDS OF MAINLAND PORTUGAL, a status reflecting the possibility or perhaps likelihood that the bird originated in captivity.

Falcated Duck

Against this background then we didn’t feel the need to immediately drop everything and go looking for the Falcated Duck when we first heard about it.  However, yesterday, along with our friend, Ray Tipper, we made one of our occasional visits to the site where it had been seen and much to our surprise found that it was still there.  It was with a flock of about 2,000 Gadwall, a species to which it is closely related and which it resembles somewhat, although at a distance it might more easily be mistaken for a Northern Pintail.  Where it has come from we'll probably never know but the chances seem slim that the Portuguese Rarities Committee will accept it as being a vagrant from the Far East.  

Already searching through the ducks when we arrived were João Tiago Tavares, Fábia Azevedo, António Cotão and Thijs Valkenburg.  Earlier they had seen another rarity, a drake American Wigeon among the flock of several hundred Eurasian Wigeon that had been present.  Unfortunately, all of those birds had been disturbed and headed off to the Ria Formosa but hopefully, this latest visitor from North America will stay around through the winter and we can find it on our next visit.     

Sunday, 27 October 2013

That was the week...

We’ve just spent a week with two friends from the UK who are keen and widely travelled birders but making their visit to Portugal.  It was a shame that their arrival coincided with a spell of unsettled weather, including a couple of days of rain, but we did our best to show them why it was that we decided to make our base here in lovely Tavira.

Sunday, 20th
Just a half day around the Tavira and Santa Luzia saltpans where the usual selection of waders included one or two Ruff but the highlight for us was seeing Common Redshank H19 for the first time this autumn.  We have written before here about this Dutch-ringed bird, which was back in its usual spot where it has been seen regularly through the last three winters.
There are lots of Audouin’s Gulls here still and we couldn’t resist jotting down a few ring numbers.

Monday, 21st
A full day in the Castro Verde area saw the best of the week’s weather - warm and sunny with just a gentle breeze.  With persistence and a little luck we were able to find most of the target species, including both Great Bustard and Little Bustard, Spanish Imperial Eagle, Black-bellied Sandgrouse, Griffon Vulture, Black Vulture, Stone-curlew and Calandra Lark.  A Hen Harrier was our first of the season, Red Kite numbers had increased from a week ago but the day’s only Black-winged Kite disappointed by quickly disappearing from view.

Tuesday, 22nd
A dark and dismal morning with persistent rain found us at Castro Marim birding just from the car.  We saw barely 30 species in the hour or so before we saw sense and headed back home!

Wednesday, 23rd
Most of the day was spent around Ludo and Quinta do Lago where early morning raptors included four Booted Eagles, an Osprey, a Marsh Harrier and a Black-winged Kite.  We saw what were probably three different Little Bitterns and as well as the usual Purple Swamp-hens it’s nice that a Water Rail has recently taken to appearing from time to time in front of the hide.  Several Red-crested Pochards, Glossy Ibises and Black-headed Weaver completed the area’s ‘must see’ species.  Two Cetti’s Warblers put on a memorable and uncharacteristic show for us, displaying and chasing about in open view, lots of White Storks were back on their nests, the wooded areas provided Crested Tits, Iberian Green Woodpecker and Great Spotted Woodpecker but for some reason not Short-toed Treecreeper.  Two Common Scoters off Praia de Faro at lunchtime were a bonus.
We rounded off the day back in Tavira where three Bluethroats in view simultaneously could hardly have been bettered.

Thursday, 24th
When the forecast shows wet and windy weather approaching from the west, it’s best to head east!  We went to Doñana for the day and although we didn’t see much sun we did stay dry.
At La Dehesa de Abajo there were fewer birds than we saw on our last visit there two weeks ago mainly because Glossy Ibises and White Storks were mostly absent.  There were still 1,000 or so Greater Flamingos and probably twice that number of Northern Shovelers.  Among the hundreds of Black-winged Stilts, one with a colour-ring obligingly walked past the hide two or three times.  Two Black Terns, two Pallid Swifts and several Red-knobbed Coots were also notable and there were large numbers of hirundines feeding over the water.  After all that we enjoyed an excellent lunch in the visitor centre.
In the afternoon, we headed off to explore other parts of Doñana where the numbers of Marsh Harriers, Great Egrets, Grey Herons and Common Kestrels were particularly impressive.  We saw Griffon Vultures and Calandra Larks, on several occasions we had good views of Black-winged Kites but the highlight was probably seeing four Black Storks at close range, birds that we don‘t often see on the ground in the Algarve.

Friday, 25th
Heavy overnight rain continued into the morning and we decided not to venture out birding until after lunch.  The afternoon was no better; we managed half an hour or so around Tavira, birding from the car but it was no fun and we did the only sensible thing, we packed up and went home.

Saturday, 26th
During a week’s birdwatching tour in the Algarve it would be unprofessional not to go to Sagres, particularly at this time of the year when there is a chance to see some raptors and other migrants.  The weather had improved and we enjoyed a mostly sunny day with very little wind.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t a great birding day - the birds just didn‘t turn up! 
We saw a few Cory’s Shearwaters, a tired-looking Garden Warbler and a Pied Flycatcher, Shags, Rock Doves and Crag Martins and a flock of what must have been 100 or more Red-billed Choughs but the only raptors were a Booted Eagle and a Common Buzzard.

On the way back to Tavira, we called in at Lagoa dos Salgados but it wasn’t a pretty sight.  Work is currently being carried out by Águas do Algarve, which it is said should provide enhanced nesting and feeding areas for birds, enable the water levels to be controlled and generally increase the lagoon's appeal to migrating birds to stop over, rest and feed.  If it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is!  We should remember that the head of  Águas do Algarve is that same person who was previously mayor of Silves council and was instrumental in granting permission to Finalgarve for the tourist development adjacent to the lagoon that has been the subject of an online petition and a complaint to the European Environment Commissioner.

So, that was the week - some very good days, one that was not so good and two that were washed out by the weather.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

La Dehesa de Abajo

We’ve been across the border to Spain a couple of times recently, to the Marismas del Odiel, to Doñana and in particular to La Dehesa de Abajo.

Usually our trips to Doñana are one-day affairs involving early starts from Tavira and returning late.  Our most recent trip was like that.  However, a few weeks back we had a leisurely journey, stopping off on the way for some birding at the Marismas del Odiel and then staying overnight in Aznalcázar at the very nice Hacienda Olontigi.

Our main reason for the overnight stay was to give ourselves several chances to photograph Iberian lynx.  We went with three friends from Tavira and in Aznalcázar we met up with Beltran Ceballos Vazquez and Sergio Asian González, both of whom are involved in the lynx re-introduction project and whom we know from previous trips to Andalucía.  This trip was the result of a conversation that we had with the two of them at the Birdfair at Rutland Water in August.

Sadly things didn’t work out quite as we and they had hoped.  Partly this was the result of the weather - there was persistent rain that really didn’t encourage us or any lynx to be out and about; also there was some bad luck in that we visited several potential sites and were simply at the right place at the wrong time.  While we were at Site A, what looked from the photos captured by a camera trap to be three different lynxes were at Site B!

In spite of some miserable weather and missing out on our main target, we had an enjoyable couple of days.  The birding at La Dehesa de Abajo was very good - thousands of roosting White Storks were quite a sight and there was a good selection of waders and ducks.  We also took the ferry across the Rio Guadalquivir at Coria del Rio and spent an afternoon in the Paraje Natural del Brazo del Este where Glossy Ibises were particularly numerous.  There were no rarities, just plenty of birds, amongst them Black Stork, Osprey, Great Egret, lots of Marsh Harriers and various common passerine migrants.

La Dehesa de Abajo

Last week, we didn’t take much persuading to go back to La Dehesa de Abajo just on a day trip.  On this occasion the weather was superb but we were there for the birds and there was no chance to look for any lynx.  If anything there were even more birds than earlier - just by counting five species (White Stork, Greater Flamingo, Glossy Ibis, Northern Shoveler and Black-tailed Godwit) we estimated more than 12,000 birds.  The departure from the lagoon of several thousand White Storks was followed by the arrival of wave after wave of Glossy Ibises, a spectacle that on its own made the journey worthwhile.  We also saw there a Red-knobbed Coot, a late Bee-eater and lots of waders that included several hundred Avocets; not too far away, we watched a Spanish Imperial Eagle.

Red-knobbed Coot - from a hide that faces into the light

It’s great to see the visitor centre at La Dehesa de Abajo open and being able to buy some lunch there made a change from the sandwiches that we’ve been having day after day.  The new regime has plans for more hides to be provided at some stage and it would be nice if there could also be some modifications to the two existing ones which like most hides in this part of the world are poorly designed and badly sited.

We will be planning an early return to La Dehesa de Abajo and to other parts of Doñana.  It won’t be long before Common Cranes arrive!  And, of course, there’s also the lynx to be photographed.

Algarve Update

With scarcely a day off from birding in one form or another and lots of long days out to the Alentejo, to Sagres and to Doñana, regular updates to our blog have been impossible these last few weeks.

September and October are two of the best months for birding here.  It’s migration time of course and that means birds arriving, birds leaving and birds just passing through - raptors, passerines, waders, seabirds, everything.  We've been busy!

Among all these birds can usually be found a few rarities but we have to be careful when we refer to rarities.  In the last month or so there have been records here of American Golden Plover, Lesser Flamingo, Lesser Redpoll, Rüppell’s Griffon, White-winged Tern, Herring Gull, Brent Goose, Roseate Tern, Glaucous Gull, Chimney Swift, Long-tailed Skua, Yelkouan Shearwater and Long-legged Buzzard, all of which are subject to scrutiny by the Portuguese Rarities Committee but this list no doubt includes a few that you may not think of as rare if you live in the UK, for instance.  It will be interesting to see how many of them are eventually accepted. 

Other scarce (but not officially rare) species of local interest have included Western Olivaceous Warbler, Great Egret, Grey Phalarope and Ferruginous Duck, plus Eleanora’s Falcon, Spanish Imperial Eagle and several other raptors. 

Grey Phalarope

Here in Tavira, we did hear a couple of reports of a Western Reef Egret but they almost certainly referred to the presumed hybrid garzetta x gularis egret that has been mainly around the Forte do Rato area for several weeks.

Hybrid garzetta x gularis egret

In recent autumns at least some of the rarity records in the Algarve have resulted from ringing activity but as far as we are aware that hasn’t happened this year.  The group from the UK led by Colin McShane who in previous years have ringed Common Yellowthroat, Aquatic Warbler and Common Rosefinch among others, unfortunately chose to spend a week at Vilamoura that included the only few days in the last several months that proved to be unsuitable for ringing.  This was their seventh visit here and the total number of birds ringed, while they endured wind and rain, was their lowest so far.

The 4th Sagres Birdwatching Festival during the first weekend of October seems to have been a success both for the number of people attending and for the number and variety of birds that were recorded.  Some days at Sagres / Cape St Vincent birding can be hard work so it was good that those who travelled there just for the festival had plenty to keep them entertained.

This autumn we have managed only one ‘pelagic’ trip and really it wasn’t one of the best.  We went about 5 miles out from Fuseta but saw only Cory’s and Sooty Shearwaters, a Black Tern and Northern Gannets.  Probably we should have gone a week or two earlier but that wasn’t possible.

 Northern Gannet

Black Tern

Much of our birding has been in the Eastern Algarve, at Castro Marim and in the Ria Formosa.  The numbers of birds have been impressive - e.g. 1,700 Greater Flamingos, 1,350 Audouin’s Gulls and 900 Avocets at Castro Marim - and species such as Bluethroat, Glossy Ibis, Purple Swamp-hen, Little Bittern, Slender-billed Gull, Caspian Tern and Black-necked Grebe have been popular with visiting birders and mostly easy to see.

 Black-necked Grebe

 Glossy Ibis

 Caspian Terns

Little Bittern

As usual, we've been reading and reporting colour-rings.  Three Lesser Black-backed Gulls from the Netherlands and two from Belgium were all seen at Olhão.  We are still awaiting replies concerning a Black-winged Stilt, a Spoonbill and several Greater Flamingos and Audouin's Gulls.

In other news, television personality Bill Oddie has been birding in the Algarve and has expressed support for the campaign to ‘Save Salgados’.  You can read about that here and, if you haven’t signed the petition, it’s still available here.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Travels Up North - 2

Our third day up north saw us travelling from the Aquafalls Hotel to Quinta Nova de Nossa Senhora do Carmo in the Douro Valley.  The journey took us through Vila Real where we stopped for a coffee.  The mountains that overlook the city are the Alvão and Marão mountains, rising to 1,400m.

We passed by the Palácio de Mateus, an image of which appears on the labels of a range of wines that includes Mateus Rosé, possibly the best-known and certainly the best-marketed of all Portuguese wines.  The distinctively shaped bottle certainly stands out from the crowd of other standard taller bottles and this no doubt helped to raise its profile in the UK back in the 1970s when people made table lamps out of them.

The Douro Valley has been described as one of the most beautiful wine regions in the world and it certainly has its attractions.  It seems that almost everything that happens there is connected in some way to the production of wine.  The names of well-known producers can be seen everywhere.

Our time spent at Quinta Nova de Nossa Senhora do Carmo was most enjoyable and a lot of fun.  The vineyards and cellar date back to 1764 but the ‘rural hotel’, formerly an 18th Century manor house, was established only in 2005.  We took a tour of the cellars and saw some of the wine-making process but the highlight came when we were given the opportunity to create our own individual blends of wine.  We were given three bottles, each of them already containing a blend of two or more wines, and then, using flasks, measuring cylinders and pipettes and guided by the Quinta’s Susana Pinho, we each set about making a new unique blend which we then bottled and brought away with us.  We took it seriously but the fact that we regularly tasted the mixture as we refined it ensured that there were plenty of laughs during the process.  We’ll be keeping ours for a special occasion, such as West Bromwich Albion and Birmingham City both winning a match on the same day!
June, the wine maker

Showing off the new wine blends

Quinta Nova

Quinta Nova

After lunch we visited the railway station at nearby Pinhão, another one that like the São Bento Railway Station in Porto is decorated with azulejos.  The station is a major tourist destination in the Alto Douro Wine Region.  The azulejos date from 1937 and depict landscapes, and customs of the Douro Region, including the harvest.  Travelling to the Douro Valley by rail looks like it could be a nice option.

Pinhão railway station


Also in Pinhão, we came across the MV Spirit of Chartwell, a hotel barge owned and operated by Portuguese holiday company Douro Azul for luxury cruises along the river.  This is the barge that formerly operated on the River Thames and carried the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh on the Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant on 3rd June 2012.

MV Spirit of Chartwell

Our last stop of the day was at Quinta da Pacheca, one of the best known wine producers in the Douro Valley and apparently the first to bottle wine under its own brand.  Unfortunately, we were a few days too early for the start of the harvest so although we had a tour of the place we missed out on the chance to actually tread the grapes.  We were told by our charming host, José Serpa Pimentel, that one million bottles of wine were produced here last year and it was good to hear also that every one of them had a traditional cork stopper.

Quinta da Pacheca

As well as wine production, Quinta da Pacheca has a very nice hotel where we spent the night and an excellent restaurant where we had dinner and breakfast.  It also has a shop that, as well as wines, sells jams and other regional products.  June came away with a bottle of rosé and a jar of tomato and orange jam.

Dining room at Quinta da Pacheca

Most of the last day of our trip was devoted to visiting Arouca Geopark, part of the European Geoparks Network that was created in 2000, now has 54 member sites and about which we were previously completely ignorant.

Arouca Geopark is primarily of geological interest but it covers more than 300 sq. km. and is being developed for tourism based on archaeological, ecological, historical, sporting and cultural activities and there is a network of walking trails.  We visited the Frecha da Mizarela waterfall, Portugal’s highest but not at its best at this dry time of year.  We had been told that there was the chance here for us to go canoeing, which seemed a bit unlikely, but in the event we were offered canyoning, which may sound similar but is something entirely different!  We declined and instead spent a couple of hours birding.

Also in Arouca we were shown trilobites, fossils of extinct marine arthropods very similar to the Dudley Bug that we both know from the Wren’s Nest National Nature Reserve.  Some of these Portuguese ones were of a particularly impressive size.

Probably the best known attractions of the Arouca Geopark are the Pedras Parideiras, the “rocks that give birth to new stones”, which are thought to be unique in the world.  Disc-shaped biotite nodules (stones) occur in the granite (rocks) and are released as a result of erosion.  Not only did we see these, but in the interpretative centre at Castanheira village we watched a 3D film about them!

Ready for the 3D film

Hearing about the Pedras Parideiras

We spent our last night back at the coast in the very nice Hotel Solverde Spa & Wellness Centre at Espinho.  For dinner at the nearby PraiaGolfe Hotel we were joined by Helena Gonçalves, Executive Director of the Porto Convention Bureau to whom we are most grateful for having had the opportunity to at last visit to some new and very different parts of Portugal.  At times, it was easy to imagine that we might be in a different country from the Algarve.