Friday, 27 March 2015

Two days in Doñana

We can always find more than enough in Portugal to keep us interested and occupied but now and again we do like to pop across the border into Spain, usually to the Doñana area in Andalucía.

It takes only a two-hour drive from Tavira before we can be through Villamanrique de la Condesa and heading for the Dehesa de Abajo or to the José Antonio Valverde Visitor Centre.  We usually see a few bird species in Doñana that are seldom found in the Algarve or that occur in Doñana more frequently or in greater numbers than they do here but as much as anything it’s nice to have a change of scene occasionally.

 Doñana has huge numbers of Glossy Ibises

Our visits to Doñana are usually day trips, which limits how far we can travel so it was nice this week to have a two-day trip over there with an overnight stay in El Rocío.  This gave us time to have a look at sites that we have been to less often and some we haven’t visited for quite a while.

We saw exactly 100 species over the two days.  The highlights were probably White-headed Duck and Red-knobbed Coot, simply because they are birds that don’t occur very often in the Algarve but it was good to see our first Northern Wheatear, Sedge Warbler and Collared Pratincole of the year and to hear our first Nightingale and Savi’s Warbler. 

Red-knobbed Coot

Another highlight was to look out of the window of our hotel room and see Greater Flamingos, Spoonbills, Glossy Ibises, Common & Red-crested Pochards, Northern Shovelers and Black-tailed Godwits.  We fell asleep to the ‘honking’ calls of Flamingos and the croaking of frogs!  The shallow lagoon and marshes right beside the village of El Rocío make a marvellous sight at this time of year with countless hundreds of birds.  It does seem strange that the place is best known for the annual pilgrimage that attracts one million or more people in May every year.  The object of the pilgrimage is a 13th-century statue of the Virgen Del Rocío and you can read more about it here.  Suffice to stay that it is a date that is always in our diary…as a time to stay well away from the area!

 Ermita de la Virgen del Rocío

 Las Marismas Del Rocío

The view from our hotel room

Close to El Rocío is the La Rocina Visitor Centre where the boardwalk trail known as the Sendero Charco de Boca was well worth the visit and nearby the Palacio del Acebrón has an interesting exhibition depicting the history of rural life in the Doñana area.

 Palacio del Acebrón

Inside the Palacio...

...and on the roof

Taking the little ferry across the Rio Guadalquivir, we made the long drive to the Bonanza saltpans and the Laguna Tarelo and we also managed to spend an hour or two at La Dehesa de Abajo Visitor Centre where it’s nice that you can now get food and drink.

 Bonanza saltpans

Other than Great Flamingos, Slender-billed Gulls were the most numerous species at Bonanza

La Dehesa de Abajo has a huge breeding colony of White Storks

Two days were better than one but still nowhere near enough to fully explore this wonderful area.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Déja vu (again)!

Although they are still regarded as very rare birds in Portugal, the appearance last Thursday of two Little Crakes at Quinta do Lago could hardly be called a surprise.  In fact, their arrival was somewhat predictable given the pattern of occurrences of this species in recent years.  We wrote about it here at this time last year.

Now, once again, we have a male and a female being seen close to the hide that overlooks Lagoa de São Lourenço.  We were there yesterday for about two and a half hours and during that time were able to watch the birds for several minutes and even photograph them, although from quite a distance and in very poor light.

We arrived at the hide half thinking that it might be full of twitchers but then remembered where we were!  As it was, while we were waiting for the Little Crakes to show, we spoke to half a dozen or more people who came into the hide but none of them was even aware that these rarities had been reported.  They certainly showed interest when we told them the story but they all seemed just as keen to see Bluethroat, Glossy Ibis, Little Bittern, Common Snipe, Yellow Wagtail, Purple Swamp-hen, Black-headed Weaver, Cetti’s Warbler and several other species that were frequently visible only a few metres away.  And why not - and what a great place that hide is from which to see such a variety of species so well.  Perhaps the Little Crakes will attract more attention over the weekend but there are plenty of other birds to see while you’re waiting!

Anyway, what we would like to know is this.  Are these Little Crakes the same individuals that have occurred in exactly the same location and circumstances in previous years; where have they come from and where do they breed?  Any suggestions?

Interestingly, there has been a belated report of another Little Crake in the Algarve, at Paúl de Lagos on 5th March, and another was seen yesterday much further north near Óbidos.  If only they weren’t so secretive and such difficult birds to see maybe there would be a few more records not only in Portugal but elsewhere in Western Europe.

Friday, 13 March 2015


Peter writes:
I’ve recently returned from Honduras where I was leading the first Avian Adventures tour in what is still a relatively unvisited country as far as European birders are concerned.  Several UK companies now offer tours there but these are mostly short, one-centre trips based at The Lodge at Pico Bonito.  During our tour we spent six nights at Pico Bonito but also travelled south to the country’s capital, Tegucigalpa for two nights and then had two nights at Panacam Lodge in the Cerro Azul Meamber National Park.

Keel-billed Toucan

Honduras covers an area of 112,492 square kilometres; it’s a bit bigger than Portugal and a bit smaller than England.  Its bird list has about 730 species, about the same as neighbouring Guatemala but fewer than the better known Costa Rica and Panama to the south.

Having enjoyed 15 previous birding tours in Central America and seen around 670 species, I wasn’t expecting to see many new birds; my guess was that there would be no more than ten or a dozen ‘lifers’ for me on this trip.  I was more than a little surprised therefore to find that after the first full day birding close to Tegucigalpa, mostly along the entrance road to La Tigra National Park, I had already seen six species that I hadn’t seen before!  These included Green-breasted Mountain-gem, Red-throated Parakeet, Blue-and-white Mockingbird and Sparkling-tailed Hummingbird.

Of course it couldn’t continue at that rate and in the end my original estimate was about right (I finished up with 13 lifers in total) but it was interesting that this area near the capital, which most tours don’t visit, was where I saw around half of the birds that were new to me.

The second area we went to was the Cerro Azul Meambar National Park, which lies just to the east of Lake Yojoa, roughly midway between Tegucigalpa and the country’s second largest city, San Pedro Sula.  Panacam Lodge proved to be an excellent place to spend a couple of nights and we saw lots of birds here, including what for me was probably the ‘bird of the trip’, a Ruddy Crake.  Amongst the other birds seen at the lodge were Black-crested Coquette, Keel-billed Motmot, Mottled Owl, Collared Forest-Falcon, White-bellied Emerald and more Blue-diademed Motmots than I have ever seen anywhere.  Down at the lake, Snail Kites and White-throated Flycatcher were the main attractions among a nice selection of wetland species.

Blue-diademed Motmot
 Snail Kite

The rest of the tour was spent at the very nice Lodge at Pico Bonito, located near La Ceiba on the Caribbean coast.  The lodge is situated between the Corinto and Coloradito rivers at the edge of Pico Bonito National Park and has extensive grounds with forest trails and observation towers that could have kept us occupied for several days without going elsewhere.  Toucans, tanagers, euphonias, hummingbirds, cotingas, woodcreepers, woodpeckers and more - there was always something to see and it wasn't only birds, there were Coatis and Agoutis and several different lizards.  However, like most birders who come here, we also went out on excursions to Cuero y Salado Wildlife Refuge, the Rio Aguan Valley, Rio Santiago Nature Resort and the Lancetilla Botanical Gardens.

Anole Lizard (Norops sp.)

Cuero y Salado was a fun morning involving a short train ride to get to the refuge and then a boat trip through mangrove forest.  The train was a rather old, narrow-gauge affair with just two open carriages.  It was the first time I had been on a train when the driver was not only looking for birds but actually stopped the train so that passengers could see them better.  At one point he even put the train into reverse for a better view of a Bare-throated Tiger-Heron!  From the boat we saw the expected kingfishers and herons but also a Northern Potoo and two White-necked Puffbirds.

Bare-throated Tiger-Heron
 Birding train
 Birding boat
 White-necked Puffbird
Northern Potoo

One of the highlights of the whole tour was the long day out to the Rio Aguan Valley, which required departure from the lodge at 4.00am.  Honduras has only one endemic species, the Honduran Emerald, and this was our only opportunity to see it.  Although it has only a small population and a very restricted range it proved quite easy to find but it was rather eclipsed by the much more interesting Lesser Roadrunner that we found along the same trail!  The day was also memorable for two burst tyres on the Toyota Coaster that we travelled in.  Fortunately, the second one that resulted in us being stranded and having to wait two hours for a rescue vehicle was on the way back and didn’t affect the birding!

Honduran Emerald

Rio Santiago Nature Resort is best known for the dozens of feeders in the gardens which attract a wonderful variety of hummingbird species.  We saw only nine species in the short time we were there but twice that number have been recorded.  There are also trails by the nearby river where we managed a brief glimpse of Sunbitterns.

Rufous-tailed Hummingbird

On the morning of our last day we went to Lancetilla Botanical Gardens about an hour away from Pico Bonito.  We spent only about three hours birding here and barely scratched the surface but it was easy to see its potential and it would have been good to spend more time.  Great Antshrikes, Smoky-brown Woodpecker, Rufous-tailed Jacamars and a Yellow-bellied Tyrannulet were just a few of the birds seen.  For lunch we went to the nearby seaside resort of Tela where Royal Terns and a Magnificent Frigatebird were seen while we were eating.

The beach at Tela

As we travelled around Honduras of course we saw extensive cultivation of sugar cane, palm oil, coffee, bananas and pineapples but agriculture is restricted by the fact that so much of the country is mountainous and this is undoubtedly a country with great biological diversity with much more to see than we could manage during our short tour.   

It’s worth mentioning that it might easily be possible to be put off visiting Honduras by looking at the advice provide by the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office, which majors on the high levels of crime.  I can honestly say that at no time did I feel nervous, uncomfortable or unsafe and I will have no hesitation in returning there if and when the opportunity arises.  After all there is more to travel and to birding than just ticking off new species - I certainly won’t be expecting many next time.

Thanks are due to James Adams at The Lodge at Pico Bonito and to guides, Alex Alvarado and Santos Calderon for all their help with the tour.