On Wednesday of this week we made our first trip of the autumn to Sagres. The lighthouse at Cape St. Vincent is the southwesternmost tip of mainland Europe and to get there from Tavira requires a drive of 150km each way. It's a journey that we will no doubt be making on several occasions in the coming weeks. We are grateful for the A22 Via do Infante de Sagres, the motorway that takes us most of the way there although like most people here we do rather resent paying the tolls that were introduced in 2011!
Our first birding of the day was in a small wooded area not far from the town of Sagres where in the trees we quickly found both Pied & Spotted Flycatchers, a Subalpine Warbler and several Chiffchaffs, while overhead a pale morph Booted Eagle circled. This was certainly a promising start and we were encouraged to think that there might be more migrants to come as we made our along the peninsula towards the lighthouse.
Just then the phone announced the arrival of a text message! At times like this when you are in a remote part of the Algarve you hope it's going to be a message urging you to shop at one of the local supermarkets, Jumbo or Continente, but no, instead it was news we didn’t really want. A rarity, a Marsh Sandpiper, had been found at Castro Marim, a two-hour drive away near the border with Spain. What could we do about it? There was only one thing to do - ignore it!
We carried on birding, checking out the coastal bushes and finding a Wryneck, a couple of Whinchats, more Chiffchaffs and a Willow Warbler. A Blue Rock Thrush was perched on a ruin. We saw Rock Doves and Black Redstart on the cliffs, an Iberian Grey Shrike and a couple of Ortolan Buntings but sadly there was little in the way of seabird passage other than some very distant Gannets and Cory's Shearwaters.
Eventually we made it to Cabranosa, the popular raptor watch point, where a small group of birders were gathered, some of them well known to us. Apparently there had been a few Honey Buzzards earlier and it wasn't long before we saw two or three more Booted Eagles and a Common Buzzard but clearly it wasn't looking like a great day for raptor passage. We stopped there for half an hour or so during which time we were rewarded with a Short-toed Eagle directly overhead, an Egyptian Vulture and briefly a Honey Buzzard but then we decided that our time would be better spent elsewhere.
Lagoa dos Salgados
From Salgados we went to spend the last hour of the birding day at Quinta do Lago. From the hide there we watched Little Bitterns, Purple Swamp-hens, Black-headed Weavers, Kingfishers, Little & Great Crested Grebes and a flock of gulls that included a few Meds and a dozen or more Audouin's. We were in the hide watching a dispute between two Little Bitterns when one of them broke away and flew a short distance landing in the lagoon. It then proceeded to swim to the nearest stand of rushes about 20/25 metres away. We have never before seen a Little Bittern take to the water and swim like this and it isn’t something that we can find recorded in the literature. We have found a report of a Little Bittern swimming on a canal near Exeter in the UK in March 2002 but that was a bird that was said to be in very poor condition and it died the following day after being taken into care. Our bird appeared to be perfectly healthy and as far as we could tell resumed its normal activity once out of the water.
Great Crested Grebe
The following morning there was only one place we were going to be and that was Castro Marim where the Marsh Sandpiper was easily located in a mixed flock of waders that included Black-tailed Godwits, Avocets, Common Redshanks, Dunlins and Ringed Plovers. Although it’s classed as a rarity, Marsh Sandpiper occurs here most years and Castro Marim is the most likely place to find one. It must be possible that some records have involved birds returning in successive years although that’s hard to prove. An Osprey and several Caspian Terns were also present.