Thursday, 24 December 2015

Fuerteventura - 3

We visited most of the island’s recommended birding sites seeking out our ten target species.

The Barranco de la Torre is described as the best site on the island for Fuerteventura Chat and we saw several of them there.  It was another place that we saw Barbary Partridge and we photographed Spectacled Warbler and Southern Grey Shrike there.  Again, with the shrike, we were looking at an endemic subspecies koenigi; they proved to be reasonably common in most areas that we went, often heard before they were seen.

Barranco de la Torre

 Barbary Partridge

Southern Grey Shrike - subspecies koenigi

 Spectacled Warbler - subspecies orbitalis

Berthelot’s Pipits and Trumpeter Finches proved to be common and widespread but with our remaining two target species we just got lucky.  We saw only one Barbary Falcon, which we watched for just a couple of minutes when we had stopped to look at something else and it was quite by chance that we came upon a small mixed party of Plain & Pallid Swifts when heading back late one afternoon to Caleta de Fuste.  They were circling quite low over the small town of Tetir and we had time to compare the two species.

 Berthelot's Pipit

Trumpeter Finch

We made just one trip to the south of the island to the Costa de Jandia, which sounded much better in the books than it proved to be on the day we went.  We assume that accounts of exceptional numbers of waders in pools along the beach refer to migrants in the late summer and autumn and not to wintering birds in December.

While we were ‘down south’ we crossed to La Pared on the opposite coast where Black-bellied Sandgrouse reputedly come to drink.  Not while we were there, they didn’t!  Nor were we successful in the area between La Pared and Costa Calma, which is supposed to be good for desert species.  Probably we weren’t persistent enough having already seen all the species in question near Tindaya.

The most common birds seen almost everywhere were Eurasian Collared Doves and Spanish Sparrows.  Ravens were widespread and wherever there was water, there were Ruddy Shelducks.  The Ravens are of the subspecies tingitanus that also occurs in North Africa.

Spanish Sparrow

 Common Raven - subspecies tingitanus

Barbary Ground Squirrels were quite common but the only other mammal species seen were a single Rabbit and several Algerian Hedgehogs that were ‘ roadkill’.  All of these have been introduced to the island.

Barbary Ground Squirrel

In total we saw only 52 bird species during the week, although with a bit more effort that number could no doubt have been improved on.  However, there seemed little point in spending time searching out common species that we see regularly and we very much concentrated on our targets.  We didn’t even go and look for the Yellow-browed Warbler that was reported from Costa Calma while we were there!

Monday, 21 December 2015

Fuerteventura - 2

During our week on Fuerteventura we were based at Caleta de Fuste, a tourist resort situated only about 10km from the airport and no more than an hour’s drive from any of the birding sites we planned to visit.  It proved to be a good choice.

We had prepared for the trip by reading various tour reports published on the internet and by talking to friends who had been to the island.  We took with us Finding Birds in The Canaries by Dave Gosney and A Birdwatchers' Guide to the Canary Islands by David Collins and Tony Clarke both of which proved helpful.

We particularly wanted to see ten species that would be new for us: Fuerteventura Chat, Houbara Bustard, Plain Swift, Barbary Falcon, Barbary Partridge, African Blue Tit, Berthelot’s Pipit, Canary Islands Chiffchaff, Trumpeter Finch and Atlantic Canary.  In the event, we managed to find nine of them.  Some sources suggest that the Canary doesn’t even occur on Fuerteventura and we might now be inclined to agree with that!

We also wanted to try and photograph Cream-coloured Courser, Black-bellied Sandgrouse and Lesser Short-toed Lark.

 Cream-coloured Courser

 Black-bellied Sandgrouse

Lesser Short-toed Lark - subspecies polatzeki

We went twice to the reservoir at Los Molinos, where Ruddy Shelducks outnumbered all other birds put together!  We counted about 200 of them.  Unfortunately, the high water level resulted in very little shoreline for waders but this was one of the places we saw Fuerteventura Chat and Egyptian Vulture and we also had good views of the dacotiae race of Common Kestrel and the insularum race of Common Buzzard.

 Los Molinos Reservoir

 Ruddy Shelducks

Common Kestrel - subspecies dacotiae

Egyptian Vultures - subspecies majorensis

We made two visits to the plains around Tindaya and La Oliva.  On the first occasion we saw Houbara Bustard, Cream-coloured Courser and Black-bellied Sandgrouse.  They all took a bit of finding and the birding was ‘hard work’ but we enjoyed it so much that we went back there on our last day simply for a second helping!

Houbara Bustard - subspecies fuertaventurae

The water level at the Las Peñitas reservoir was also very high and it was hardly worth going there.  However, on the walk along the mainly dry river bed we did see a Grey Wagtail and our first African Blue Tit.  Nearby we spent some time in the attractive little town of Betancuria.  Founded in 1404 this was the original capital of the Kingdom of the Canary Islands and while there we slipped into ‘tourist mode’ for a short while.  It was also there that we had our best views of African Blue Tit and we also saw Canary Islands Chiffchaff and Monarch butterflies.

 Iglesia Catedral de Santa Maria de Betancuria

 African Blue Tit - subspecies degener

 Monarch Butterfly

More from us about Fuerteventura to come shortly...

Saturday, 19 December 2015

Fuerteventura - 1

We’re just back from a week-long stay on Fuerteventura, the second-largest of the Canary Islands and the nearest of them to the coast of Morocco.

Although the name Fuerteventura is said to derive from the Spanish ‘viento fuerte’ meaning ‘strong wind’, the island enjoys year-round pleasant weather and it is only a four-hour flight from Birmingham.  It’s not difficult then to see why it’s such a popular holiday destination, particularly for those seeking winter sunshine.  For keen birders, however, it’s maybe a place to visit just once!  When it comes to birds it’s very much a question of quality rather than quantity.  In fact, we’ve seen more species in a morning around Tavira than we saw in the whole of our week on Fuerteventura.

The island is volcanic with extensive lava beds resulting from eruptions that reportedly last took place about 4-5,000 years ago.  It is essentially a desert island with rather little vegetation although there are areas with some trees and these attract migrant birds in spring and autumn increasing species diversity.  With an area of 1,660 square kilometres it is about the size of Surrey; the distance by road from Corralejo in the north to Punta Jandia at the south-western extremity is about 135km.

The ‘star’ bird is the Fuerteventura Chat (Saxicola dacotiae), which now occurs only on Fuerteventura and is the only species with that distinction.  It looks a lot like a Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola) but the male has a pure white supercilium reaching behind the eye, a narrow white throat and white sides to the neck; the breast is a light orangey-chestnut becoming duller and paler on the underside towards the whitish belly; there is also a white wing bar.  The female is similar to a washed-out version of the male, with a brown, black-streaked head and no white neck patches.  The bill is noticeably long compared to that of Stonechat.

We saw quite a few Fuerteventura Chats without much difficulty, one of them within sight of the airport.  We have heard it suggested that you could easily fly in, add the species to your life list and fly out again later the same day.  That seems a bit extreme but certainly with a bit of luck you could expect to find most of the islands bird species in a couple of days.

The Fuerteventura Chat was only one of the reasons for our choosing the island for a rare week’s holiday.  There are several other species there that we had never seen and some that we had seen but not been able to photograph.  Also, as might be expected on an island, there are a number of subspecies that were interesting to see.

There will be more from us about Fuerteventura very soon…

Friday, 4 December 2015

Projecto Arenaria 2015/16

Earlier this week, we spent a morning counting the waders and gulls along the Algarve’s easternmost stretch of beach near Monte Gordo.  We walked from the Guadiana River to Praia Verde, a distance of about 7km and then back again to the car.  We were taking part in Projecto Arenaria, a survey of the birds of Portugal’s non-estuarine coast.

Looking west towards Monte Gordo
Gulls feeding on the falling tide

We have taken part in Projecto Arenaria in previous years and blogged about it here, here, here and here.  It is similar to the BTO’s Non-Estuarine Waterbird Survey, which grew out of the Winter Shorebird Count of 1984/85 but it has been difficult to think of any day this week as winter - in fact, we could hardly have wished for better weather for a walk on the beach.  There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and it was warm enough for people to be sunbathing!

Lots of jellyfish on the beach

Based on previous experience it wasn’t a surprise to find that there rather few waders on the beach.  The Ria Formosa and other tidal areas along the Algarve coast provide much better feeding and roosting places than the beaches.  We found just three species: Sanderling (39), Oystercatcher (9) and Kentish Plover (8).  It was disappointing not to find even one Turnstone, the species that gives its name to the survey.


We did, however, find some gulls.  Often they were quite mobile, disturbed by various walkers, joggers and fishermen and they were difficult to count accurately.  We counted each flock that we came across and tried as best we could to avoid including the same birds twice if they moved ahead of us.  In the end, we had a grand total of 1,050, mostly Lesser Black-backs but also a few Yellow-legged.

Lesser Black-backed Gull - ringed in Bath, England in June 2015

Not surprisingly we managed to find five Lesser Black-backs with colour-rings: two from the Channel Islands and one each from England, Holland and Denmark.

Lesser Black-backed Gull - ringed on Alderney in July 2014

We hoped that on the sea we might find some Common Scoters or a Razorbill but it wasn’t to be.  A couple of Cormorants flew by and there were plenty of passing Gannets but we saw no other seabirds.

As well as the birds, we were also required to count people (98), vehicles (2) and any dogs not on a leash (2) but we doubt that any of these had a significant influence on the numbers of birds we saw.

Our contribution to Project Arenaria was our last birding in the Algarve for a while but we hope to be reporting from elsewhere before very long.

Monday, 23 November 2015

Birding mostly around Tavira

For much of the last week or so our birding has been restricted to our local patch - the Tavira and Santa Luzia area.  With most of the time spent around the saltpans and along the edge of the Ria Formosa it’s not surprising that we have seen mainly wetland birds.

 Tavira saltpans

 Santa Luzia saltpans

Estrada das 4 Aguas - roadworks are still unfinished and
birding here will never be quite the same again

There are only relatively few Greater Flamingos here now and Spoonbill numbers have also dropped as birds have continued their migration south into Africa.  However, after a period of absence, White Storks are now quite numerous and there are plenty of Little Egrets and Grey Herons to be seen.

Little Egret

Wader numbers have also fallen but there continues to be a good variety of species although for some reason, Golden Plovers have been conspicuous by their absence.

Common Greenshank

Numbers of Stone-curlews seem to be fewer than in some previous years but at least 20 birds are regularly present.  Sadly, the area that they have usually favoured continues to be subject to disturbance and disruption.


It’s still easy enough to find six species of gulls in the area but the flock of 500 Mediterranean Gulls that we were seeing earlier in the month seem to have moved on.  However, we counted 50 Slender-billed on the 18th November, which is an increase.

Slender-billed Gull 

We expect to find Caspian Terns and Sandwich Terns at this time of year but a Little Tern has also been seen on a couple of occasions.  A few Little Terns usually spend the winter in the mouth of the Guadiana River but otherwise they are normally gone from the Algarve by the end of October.

Even more surprising was the Whiskered Tern that we found, also on the 18th and seen for at least the following two days.  This is easily our latest ever record and only our second in November.

Whiskered Tern

The low bushes around the saltpans provide insect food for numerous Chiffchaffs, Zitting Cisticolas, Sardinian Warblers; Stonechats are common and it’s not hard to find a Bluethroat or two.

Sardinian Warbler

Raptors seen in the last few days have been Black-winged Kite, Hen Harrier, Marsh Harrier and Common Kestrel. 

Yesterday, by way of a change, we spent a couple of hours in the morning at the wastewater lagoons near Faro, tempted by a report of a Terek Sandpiper being seen there the previous day.  A light northerly wind has dropped the temperature here in recent days (to a maximum of about 18ºC) but it was a very pleasant, sunny morning.

 Northen Pintail

 Peregrine Falcon

 Eurasian Wigeon

We didn’t find a Terek Sandpiper but can hardly say we came away disappointed when we saw Peregrine Falcon, Marsh Harrier, Glossy Ibis (20+), Spotted Redshank, Greenshank, Green Sandpiper, Common Snipe (c.6), Common Sandpiper (c.12), Black-winged Stilt (c.15), Spoonbills, Greater Flamingos, Water Pipit, Bluethroat and Audouin’s Gull, plus hundreds of Gadwall, Shoveler, Pintail and Wigeon and more than 50 Cormorants.  We particularly enjoyed watching the Peregrine as it flushed more and more ducks from unseen ponds in the surrounding area.   

Sunday, 15 November 2015

St Martin's summer

A severe storm on 1st November brought torrential rain to the Algarve and was followed by more rain the next morning.  The area between Quarteira and Portimão was reported to be the worst affected and there was severe flooding in the popular resort of Albufeira where sadly one person died as a result.  For some of the coverage see here and here (which includes some aerial footage taken over Lagoa dos Salgados).

Since then we have been enjoying a St Martin’s summer - for almost two weeks we have had sunshine, mostly cloudless skies and temperatures reaching a comfortable 23°C or even higher.
During this time we have mostly been visiting our usual haunts along the coast of the Eastern Algarve but there have also been longer excursions to Sagres and Cape St Vincent and inland to the Castro Verde area.

Part of the Castro Verde / Mértola plains

 The coast at Cape St Vincent

In the Baixo Alentejo, Common Cranes have arrived to spend the winter and both Great & Little Bustards are now much easier to find than they were before the rains.  Red Kites and Hen Harriers have now replaced the Black Kites and Montagu’s Harriers that were here for the breeding season.  On one trip up there we were surprised to find four Mute Swans on a reservoir where just a couple of weeks earlier we had seen two of these unexpected visitors.  We were almost as surprised to find four Great Egrets at another lake nearby but at least we could think that they were truly wild birds.

Little Bustard

Inevitably, we have made multiple visits to Quinta do Lago where Purple Swamphens and Little Bitterns are so easy to see and sometimes to photograph and there are also opportunities, if you are lucky, to photograph Common Snipe and Kingfisher.  While waiting for these birds to appear, it’s hard to resist filling up the memory card with a variety of duck species!

 Common Snipe

 Northern Pintail

 Purple Swamphen

 Eurasian Teal

Little Bittern

Nearby at Ludo we have been seeing Booted Eagles and Black-winged Kites and this is one of several places we’ve seen Firecrests.

 Booted Eagle


We also had a morning at Rocha da Pena where a long uphill walk to the summit at Talefe (479m) provided marvellous views over the surrounding countryside and a modest selection of birds that included a single Ring Ouzel, which was our main reason for being there.  Ring Ouzels are regular autumn and winter visitors here and Rocha da Pena is always a good bet when it comes to finding them.

 Rocha da Pena

As to be expected, rarities have been fewer but there were several reports of Grey Phalaropes after the storm and a drake Long-tailed Duck near Faro was a good find (by Thijs Valkenburg).  We wonder whether it was the same bird that was briefly at the same site in February.

Long-tailed Duck

In Tavira we have been reading colour-rings, mostly those on Mediterranean Gulls but also on Audouin’s, Lesser Black-backed & Slender-billed Gulls.  There have been as many as 500 Meds on the saltpans by the Estrada das 4 Águas and they have come from Belgium, Holland, France, Germany, Spain, Poland and Hungary.  Some of them are birds that we have seen here in previous years.  There have been Lesser Black-backs from Belgium, Iceland and Alderney while the Audouin’s have been from Spain (Ebro Delta and Mallorca) and from the local colony on the Ilha da Barreta in the Ria Formosa.

Mediterranean Gull

 Marsh Harrier ready to be released

Finally, we should mention the visit we made to our friends Fábia and Thijs at RIAS (the Centro de Recuperação e Investigação de Animais Selvagens) at Quinta de Marim.  It is the season for them to be taking into care any Griffon Vultures that are too weak and hungry to continue their migration but we were there to be involved in a happy outcome, the release back to the wild of a Marsh Harrier.  Fortunately, this bird had not been badly injured and was fully recovered after just a short stay.