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.