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.

Friday, 20 September 2013

Travels Up North - 1

When we came to Portugal it was our plan to spend most of our time here in the Algarve but also to use Tavira as a base from which to explore the rest of the country and also some of the nearer parts of Spain.  For a variety of reasons this hasn’t really happened.  We have got to know parts of the Baixo Alentejo very well but trips further north have been few and far between.  We have been birding around the Tejo Estuary and we have been to Lisbon but that’s been about it - until last weekend!

We have just returned from a very enjoyable four day visit to Porto and Northern Portugal where we were hosted by the local Tourism Board and the Porto Convention Bureau.  We were accompanied throughout by José Aragão from Turismo de Portugal, local guide Monica and driver, Ricardo.

Our lunchtime flight from Faro to Porto with Ryanair was very convenient and a perfectly satisfactory experience.  We arrived in the country’s second-largest city with time for just a short tour around the old and narrow streets.  Porto (sometimes seen referred to as Oporto) is a city with tremendous historical interest; it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.  We will have to go back to fully appreciate it and do it justice.

Porto and the Douro River

One feature that we did get to see was the historic São Bento Railway Station, well known for its tile (azulejo) panels depicting scenes of the history of Portugal.  The tiles are said to number 20,000 and date from 1905–1916.

São Bento Railway Station

After the city tour we went to the Cálem port wine cellars where we saw and heard about the production of tawny and ruby ports, LBVs, Colheitas, etc.  We also got to sample a couple of them, something that became a recurring theme of the trip!

Cálem port wine cellar

Dinner was enjoyed at the D. Tonho Restaurant where our outside table overlooked the Douro River and the famous Dom Luis Bridge.
Dom Luis Bridge

We very soon heard about the nickname given to the people of Porto: tripeiros, people who eat tripe!  This refers to a period in history when higher-quality cuts of meat were shipped from Porto with their sailors, while off-cuts and by-products, such as tripe, were left behind for the local citizens.  Although tripe is still a popular dish, neither of us was tempted to try it, probably having been put off by what we have seen on sale in butchers’ shops in the UK.

We stayed overnight at the Vila Galé Porto which is located within easy walking distance of the city’s main shopping area.

The following morning we travelled north by minibus to the Peneda-Gerês National Park, which is the only national park in Portugal and actually straddles the border with Spain.  We met with Paulo and Isobel, guides from Portugal Green Walks, in the town of Ponte de Lima and after stopping off to look at the historic espigueiros in the village of Soajo and a very pleasant lunch, we walked part of the Glacier and Alto Vez trail.  There were 24 espigueiros looking almost like a small cemetery; they are grain stores, constructed from local granite, some dating back to the 18th Century and still in use today for storing and drying maize.  An interesting feature of the walking trail was the grooves that had been worn in the rocks by years of use by heavy ox-carts.


 Peneda-Gerês National Park...


Did we see any birds?  Well, yes we did see quite a number but of the species that we hoped to find in the north of the country, i.e. those that don’t normally occur in the Algarve, we caught just a glimpse of a Coal Tit!

We spent the night at the beautifully located Aquafalls Hotel in S. Miguel da Caniçada, about 30km from Braga.  As so often on these trips, there wasn’t time to sample its many facilities and we even went out to dinner, to the Pousada Santa Maria do Bouro, a 12th Century Cistercian monastery, which was well worth the drive not just for the food but for the ambience and the whole experience.

More to follow...

Friday, 13 September 2013


Dotterels are scarce birds here in the Algarve.  They seem to occur most years in September or October but only in very small numbers, sometimes just single birds, but they’re not guaranteed to stay around for more than a few days.  The regular site for them is the Vale Santo, near Cabo de São Vicente at the extreme south-west of the country and that’s where we were yesterday.

We had seen reports that four or even five Dotterels had been seen earlier in the week and realising that we hadn’t managed to see one here since 2007, we decided to give them a try.  We set off early from Tavira, along with Ray Tipper, hoping that the birds would still be there - it would be a long way to go and not see them!

It turned out to be a bright, sunny day (no surprise there!) but it was also quite windy and although we did eventually find three Dotterels it took us some time as they were hunkered down, getting what shelter they could in the sparse vegetation.  Even from just a few metres away they remained almost invisible and we might easily have given up.  But that’s the nice thing about Dotterels, as well as being really lovely birds, they’re also very confiding and with patience they can be approached quite closely.

But we weren’t just there for the Dotterels.  The Sagres peninsula is particularly well known for raptor migration at this time of the year and so we also spent some time at the popular watch point, Cabranosa.  It wasn’t a vintage day by any means but we did see a Short-toed Eagle, two Ospreys, a Goshawk, one or two Montagu’s Harriers and Peregrine Falcons and several Honey Buzzards - a nice variety even if the numbers were small and even if we did miss seeing an Eleanora's Falcon.

Among the passerine migrants in the area were Tawny Pipits, Whinchats, Spotted & Pied Flycatchers, Northern Wheatears, Yellow Wagtails, Short-toed Larks, Woodchat Shrikes, Willow Warblers and Chiffchaffs, all contributing to a most enjoyable day that was well worth the long drive. 

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Lesser Flamingo!

Our first day back in the Algarve and already a rarity!  Not for the first time our reward for helping out with the monthly wetland bird count at Castro Marim was seeing something unusual.

A few weeks ago we received news that a pair of Lesser Flamingos was breeding among the many thousands of Greater Flamingos at Laguna Fuente de Piedra in the Málaga province of Spain.  We know from colour-ringing that many of the Greater Flamingos we see in the Algarve originate from there so maybe then it shouldn’t have been such a surprise this afternoon to see a Lesser Flamingo among the many Greaters at Castro Marim.

Of course, today’s bird could be from somewhere else completely but it’s nice to think that it might have come from Laguna Fuente de Piedra and that it might stay in our area into the winter.  Even among the many hundreds of Greaters it should be easy enough to locate from its smaller size, all dark bill and generally pinker appearance.

We have only once before seen a Lesser Flamingo at Castro Marim; that was on 1st July 2007.  All records of this species are, of course, subject to scrutiny by the Portuguese Rarities Committee and even when accepted they are usually accompanied by a comment about the possibility of escape from captivity.  The breeding birds in Spain may well be from a wildfowl collection somewhere - who knows?

Lesser Flamingos are birds that we are more used to seeing in Africa mainly in the Rift Valley lakes of Ethiopia and Tanzania.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Autumn approaches

Where does the time go?  As our stay in the UK nears its end, we realise that we haven’t managed to do anything like as much birding here as we had hoped and intended.  However, as already reported, we have visited a number of the reserves that were previously our regular stamping grounds and in the process it has been good to meet up with quite a number of old friends.  Bittell Reservoirs have recently been added to the list of local sites visited and we also managed a few hours at Lakenheath Fen RSPB Reserve on our way back from a trip to the Norwich area.

Peter was born within walking distance of Upper Bittell Reservoir and Sunday afternoon visits there were regular long before he owned any binoculars.  In fact, his earliest visits, across the fields from what used to be known as ‘Groveley Corner’, probably involved him being carried by his parents!  Access to the reservoirs is rather more restricted now than it was in those days and although there are public footpaths that allow some views, it would certainly be necessary now to obtain permission from the owners, Barnt Green Waters Ltd, to cover the area thoroughly.  Without such permission our visit was a bit frustrating.

The website of Barnt Green Sailing Club has an interesting section on the history of the reservoirs, which owe their existence to the Worcester & Birmingham Canal, completed in 1815.  Apparently there was intense opposition to the building of the canal and the necessary Act of Parliament was not passed until the third attempt in 1791!  Who in those days could possibly have foreseen the importance that the reservoirs now have as habitat for birds and other wildlife - not to mention the sailing and fishing!

At Lakenheath Fen we managed to see a couple of Common Cranes, a Little Egret, an Osprey and a Marsh Harrier but few other birds of note.  However, as we have been pleased to find elsewhere, there were plenty of butterflies, particularly Small Tortoiseshells, which have been relatively scarce in recent years.  Our favourite bird organisation, the BTO, currently has a page on its website detailing records of Small Tortoiseshells provided by participants in BTO Garden BirdWatch.  These records show that numbers increased dramatically with the hot, dry weather of early July.  A number of possible reasons, including the weather, are suggested for the annual fluctuation in numbers of this most familiar of our butterflies.  For several weeks the Buddleias in our garden have been attracting them (along with lots of Large Whites), we now have one that seems already to be hibernating in our office and there seem to be others looking to find a way in!

 Lakenheath Fen (above & below)

Small Tortoiseshell

If you do go to the BTO website, also take a look at the latest news of the satellite-tagged Common Cuckoos.  Back in 2011 we chose well when we decided to sponsor ‘Chris’ which is now the only Cuckoo known to survive from the five that were tagged that year.  The latest signal received from ‘Chris’ was on 2nd September.  He arrived in Chad on 24th July and has remained there throughout August but based on his movements during the past two migrations, he can be expected to head soon for the Central African Republic and then on to the Congo Rainforest.  We will be following his progress and hoping that he makes it back to Thetford Forest in 2014.

Here in Stafford "barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day, and touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue" but Keats made no mention of those hundreds of Canada Geese that pass over the house each morning and evening!

Join us for a seabird trip!

Very soon we'll be back in the Algarve and we're very much looking forward to the autumn migration period when we'll hope to see a rarity or two appear among the regular species.  Raptor passage, best experienced in the Sagres / Cabo de São Vicente, is a particular feature during September and October and we will also hope to spend some time with the ringing group from the UK who will be at Vilamoura for a week.  Remember last year they caught an Aquatic Warbler and the highlights of their previous years' mist-netting sessions have included Common Yellowthroat and Common Rosefinch.  Around the Ria Formosa or at Castro Marim, another North American wader would be nice, maybe a Least Sandpiper or a Solitary Sandpiper!

Cory's Shearwater

Autumn is also the time for seabird passage and we have arranged a boat trip from Fuseta for Friday, 4th October.  We plan to be out for about 2½ - 3 hours and we'll hope to see Shearwaters (Cory's, Great, Balearic and maybe Manx or Sooty), Skuas (Great, Pomarine and maybe more), European Storm-petrel, Gannets, various gulls and terns, etc.  Based on previous experience of similar trips and assuming good weather, there should be good opportunities for photography.  If you're interested in joining us, please contact us via our website for further details.