Sunday, 3 February 2013

Winter 'Big Day' in the Algarve

Which is the best time of the year to come birding in the Algarve?  It’s a question that we get asked from time to time but, of course, there’s no simple answer – it really depends on what you want to see.  If Bee-eaters, Golden Orioles and Collared Pratincoles are on your agenda, then you might be lucky in March but April, May and June would probably be the best months.  If raptor migration is what you’re hoping for, then September and October should be your choice and September would also be a good time to take a boat trip to look for shearwaters and storm-petrels.

Azure-winged Magpie

Surprisingly few birders come here during the winter months, which is a shame because they’re missing out on some really good birding.  We know that the weather can be an issue but it’s almost guaranteed to be better than it is in northern Europe.  Today it is cloudless and sunny with a forecast high temperature of 19ºC and that is typical of how it has been recently.  It’s very difficult to stay home and not go birding on days like this!

Black-necked Grebe

To demonstrate just how many bird species are here in the winter, we went out on 1st January 2009 and 2010 to see what we could find.  Anyone who has participated in such a ‘Big Day’ in the winter will know that it doesn’t always pay to travel long distances when daylight hours are relatively short.  Time spent in the car on the motorway is not likely to be very productive.  We restricted ourselves to visiting Ludo/Quinta do Lago, Castro Marim and Tavira/Santa Luzia and on each of those days we managed to find 106 species.  The following year we proved our point by also going to the Parque Ambiental de Vilamoura.  Only four days earlier we had seen four species of hirundines and some Penduline Tits there but on our ‘Big Day’ none of those birds were present and we simply wasted time by going there.  We finished the day having seen only 96 species.

Purple Swamp-hen

On 1st January 2012 we were in Arizona and this year we had already left the Algarve to start our trip to Colombia so we haven’t been able to continue the sequence.  However, we have just had quite a full day out, this one on 1st February.  This time we went only to Ludo/Quinta do Lago and to Tavira/Santa Luzia and the pace was quite relaxed; with the longer hours of daylight we easily managed to see 101 species.  There was time for us also to have gone to Castro Marim and had we done so it’s probable that we would have found at least another four or five species but on such days nothing is guaranteed; when we look at the final list there are always one or two species that it’s hard to imagine missing.  To illustrate the point, yesterday we saw Great Spotted Cuckoo, Short-eared Owl, Southern Grey Shrike, Lapwing, Mediterranean Gull and Pintail that we didn’t see the day before when we needed them!  And for some reason we haven’t been able to find a Linnet or a Jay for several days.

 Slender-billed Gull
Kentish Plover

In a week here at this time of year it should be possible to see around 140 species, maybe a few more with a day trip to the Castro Verde area included.  There are some that are only likely to be found at the far western end of the Algarve (European Shag, Red-billed Chough) and others that are only here in the east such as Slender-billed Gull, so some travelling is necessary if you want to see them all.

Little Owl

But it’s not just about the numbers of species; there are simply lots of birds here in the winter.  And if you’re a photographer, there is the promise of good lighting conditions.  

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