Sunday, 18 December 2016

Our birding week

There's been some fairly mixed weather this week but that’s what we expect at this time of the year.  We’ve had warm sunshine, we’ve had storms with strong winds and torrential rain and one morning we had to change our plans because of thick fog.  At least it hasn’t been too cold.

We helped out with the monthly count of wetland birds at Castro Marim on Monday.  In addition to the Cerro do Bufo area and Sinexpral, we also covered the Esteiro da Carrasqueira with the whole count taking four of us almost four hours.  Cerro do Bufo is a huge area which held close to 3,000 birds.  Counting them without disturbing them is a challenge and on this occasion we weren’t help by the presence of a couple of Marsh Harriers, an Osprey and a Peregrine Falcon that caused panic among the ducks and waders whenever they appeared.  The Shelducks were particularly flighty and we have to admit that our total count of 364 might not be the most accurate.


Greater Flamingos (700) were the most numerous species; there were 18 wader species, seven duck species; 112 Cormorants and 70 Black-necked Grebes.  A single Great Egret was the nearest we came to seeing anything unusual.

Black-necked Grebes

At Sinexpral we found around 1,300 birds more than half of which were Dunlins; there were about a dozen Curlew Sandpipers amongst them.  In fact there were more than ten times more Dunlin here than there had been at Cerro do Bufo and lots more Ringed & Kentish Plovers, a pattern we have seen before.

Easily the most numerous species of the day were the Eurasian Coots on the Carrasqueira, about 900 of them.  On another day we might have searched through them for a Red-knobbed bird but we have to be in the right mood for that sort of thing and this wasn’t the time.  About a dozen each of Great Crested & Little Grebes were with them plus just a handful of ducks and gulls.

Great Crested Grebe

As well as Marsh Harriers and Peregrine Falcon we saw an Osprey, a Sparrowhawk, a Common Buzzard and a Common Kestrel – a six raptor day!  The following day at Quinta do Ludo we beat this with seven raptor species.  These included a Black-winged Kite, a Hen Harrier and no fewer than ten Booted Eagles.

Black-winged Kite

We always enjoy Ludo but for some reason on Tuesday it wasn’t at its best.  There was a marked lack of waders on the saltpans and an almost complete lack of ducks on the Ribeira de São Lourenço.

Thankfully, when we reached the lagoa de São Lourenço it was a different story - there were lots of birds to sort through and to photograph in the really nice afternoon light.   On the way there, we saw a Water Pipit, which wasn’t unexpected and a Woodcock, a species we see only rarely which was certainly a surprise!  Unfortunately, the Woodcock was dead by the roadside, probably hit by a car.

Eurasian Wigeon

Lagoa de São Lourenço is well-known as a place to see Little Bitterns and although this is a species that is considered to be a trans-Saharan migrant, it’s usually possible to find them here through the winter.  Today we saw three different birds.
Of course, this is one of the best sites in the Algarve to get close to and to photograph various common duck species and also Western Swamp-hens (a name, incidentally, we are still struggling to get used to).  Glossy Ibis and Black-headed Weaver are species that we expect to find here and in recent times we have regularly seen Water Rails.

Western Swamp-hen

Hoopoes are fewer here in winter but can usually be found on the neighbouring golf course, which is also the favoured feeding area for Mistle Thrushes.


Mistle Thrush

We got our required wader fix first of all in the Ria Formosa at Praia de Faro and later, on the way home, at saltpans near Olhão.  We often find a few Knots here and on this occasion were able to more or less walk up to one for a photograph.  This is also a regular place to find Slender-billed Gulls and we weren’t disappointed.

 Olhão saltpans

Red Knot

We finished the week with a trip west to Sagres and this turned out to be another six raptor day with Short-toed Eagle and Red Kite amongst them bringing the total of raptor species for the week up to eleven.

Short-toed Eagle

This was planned to be mainly a photography day and we hoped to find Alpine Accentors, Rock Pipits, Ring Ouzels and Purple Sandpipers.  As it was we had to settle for Cormorants, Black Redstarts, Thekla Larks and other more common species but had an enjoyable day in spite of that.

 Great Cormorant

Black Redstart

In fact we had a very pleasant week, dodging the worst of the weather and enjoying a great variety of birds.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Book Review: Algarve Wildlife - the natural year

Written 'mostly' by Clive Viney with photographs 'mostly' by Ray Tipper, this is the second edition of a title that first appeared in 2009. It is a much more substantial volume than the original with a hard cover and text that has been both revised and considerably expanded. There are also many more photographs, almost 500 in total.

As previously, the core of the book is the bimonthly accounts of the Algarve’s wildlife.  The year is divided into 24 half months and for each period there is a description of the various wildlife features that might be encountered at that time of year.  Although birds and wild flowers predominate there is something for everyone in these sections with mammals, butterflies, dragonflies, fungi, trees, fish, reptiles and amphibians all receiving due coverage.  On average each half month is given about seven pages with variation depending on the number and size of the photographs.

As an example, the section dealing with the current period, 1st to 15th December, makes reference to the unpredictable nature of the weather at this time; there is a list of some of the plants and trees that are in flower; several butterfly species are mentioned and illustrated; a whole page is devoted to two conspicuous fungi (Oyster Mushroom and Fly Agaric); birds that are referred to range from the very common Chiffchaff to the extremely rare Sociable Lapwing and there is a paragraph detailing the seasonal occurrence of hirundines in the Algarve; finally there is the suggestion that this would be a good time of the year for a coastal walk or a visit to Rocha da Pena.

Inevitably, dividing the year in this way results in some statements which, taken in isolation, could be misleading.  For instance, the first half of December may well be a good time to see Caspian Terns but is it really the best time to see a species that is fairly common here outside the breeding season?  Also, although visiting gulls at this time certainly do include Audouin’s Gulls and Slender-billed Gulls in reality both species are present more or less throughout the year.

Whereas in the first edition the bimonthly wildlife descriptions accounted for about 85% of the book, in this new version they are only about 60% as a result of several new chapters being added which cover geology, mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians, butterflies, dragonflies and mosses and liverworts.  There are lists of the English, scientific and in some cases the Portuguese names of the flora and fungi that are mentioned in the main text and a gazetteer with brief information about the many place names featured and a map showing their location.

Naturally, it was the chapter on birds that we turned to first.  It is in the form of an annotated list mostly of species that occur annually but also a few others including, somewhat bizarrely, Small Button-quail that hasn’t been recorded in Portugal since the first half of the last century!  Most (but not all) species are given a code to denote the likelihood of seeing them but, unfortunately, the three categories described really don’t work at all well giving rise to much scope for debate.  In several cases (e.g. Red-billed Chough, Slender-billed Gull and Spectacled Warbler) the brief descriptions of the status of a species seem at odds with the category code that it has been given.  In several instances, the status descriptions suffer from brevity.

The scientific names, English names and taxonomy are said to follow the British Birds list of Western Palearctic Birds but it is the 2013 version that is used.  The impression given is that the authors may not entirely accept the taxonomical changes that were made in the 2015 version.  They have, however, elevated to full species status Iberian Green Woodpecker, Western Subalpine Warbler, Western Olivaceous Warbler and what they call Iberian Azure-winged Magpie but have chosen not to recognise Iberian Grey Shrike.

The chapters on mammals, reptiles and amphibians and on butterflies are also in the form of briefly annotated checklists, while that on dragonflies is little more than a list of the 55 species that have been recorded.  These chapters will be a useful reference for visitors and residents alike and they underline just how much wildlife interest there is in the Algarve.

The photographs are mostly of good quality and some are really excellent but others suffer from their small size and several from a printing process that has rendered them somewhat darker than they might have been.  The choice to include comparatively large photographs of Ruddy Shelduck and Calandra Lark is a bit odd given the status of these species in the Algarve.  There is nothing amiss with having more than one photograph of the same species in different sections of the book (e.g. Bee-eater) but presumably it wasn’t intentional to have the same photograph of Caspian Tern on pages 66 and 205.

We will certainly recommend this book to anyone who expresses an interest in any aspect of the Algarve’s wildlife. The bimonthly sections give a very good indication of what to expect and look out for at any given time of year.  It may not help much with identification issues but it will in many cases point towards which species are likely to be here and thus narrow down the choice from those presented in say a field guide covering the whole of Europe.

Saturday, 10 December 2016

American Herring Gull at Portimão

How many bird species have you seen?  How long is your life list?  Whatever your answer, these days it will need to be qualified – you will have to make clear which checklist it is that you are working from.  Taxonomy definitely isn’t an exact science, it’s very much a matter of opinion and when it comes to lists of the world’s birds, there are quite a few versions to choose from.

It doesn’t seem so very long ago that the number of bird species in the world was reckoned to be about 8,500.  Now, according to BirdLife International there might be as many as 11,000 but different authorities have differing totals and they are changing all the time.

As our knowledge of birds increases so we learn about the differences between them, how they look, how they sound and how they differ in their DNA.  How much do they need to differ before we regard them as separate species?  Well, that really is the big question and why it is that we are faced with a choice of checklists and why there are differing totals.  Simply, there is no agreement on the matter, no standard to be reached. 

A case in point this week has been a bird here in the Algarve that is treated as a separate species, Larus smithsonianus, by BirdLife International, the British Ornithologists Union and most others but is still regarded by the American Ornithologists’ Union only as a subspecies, Larus argentatus smithsonianus.  It is, variously known in English as American Herring Gull, Arctic Herring Gull or even Smithsonian Gull and in Portuguese as Gaivota-prateada-americana.

Although previously regarded (still by the AOU) as a subspecies of European Herring Gull, we are told that DNA studies show smithsonianus to be more closely related to California Gull, Iceland Gull and Glaucous Gull.  Who would have thought that?

It was found at the ‘docapesca’ (fishing dock) at Portimão last Sunday.  It seems to be only the second occurrence of this taxon in the Algarve and as such it attracted a small number of admirers during the following days.  It appears to be a bird that is in its fourth winter, close to being full adult.  Those who found and identified it did very well as the plumage features aren’t particularly striking when seen amongst the many and varied gulls that gather at this site.  The streaking on the head, neck and sides of the breast and the various dark markings in the wings are all pointers as are the pale eye colour, the pink legs and the bill pattern.

There doesn't seem to be any doubt that this bird is distinctive enough to be called smithsonianus.  However, whether smithsonianus is different enough to be regarded as a separate species is still open to debate.  It probably depends on whether, by nature, you are ‘a splitter’ or ‘a lumper’.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Red-breasted Merganser in Tavira

Red-breasted Merganser is a scarce winter visitor to the Algarve and one that we have never seen around Tavira so it was a surprise to hear that one had been seen this week from the Estrada das Quatro Águas.

 Red-breasted Merganser

The bird, a female, seemed quite settled in a deepwater pan and we watched it feeding successfully for about 20 minutes during which time it didn’t seem at all bothered by our presence.  At one point it actually flew for no apparent reason and came to rest back on the water quite close to where we were standing.

Red-breasted Merganser - swallowing a large fish

For months the Estrada das Quatro Águas was subject to road improvements and other redevelopment works, most of which were completed earlier this year.  It seems odd that we have ended up with a very wide pedestrian pathway and a rather narrow road between the town and the ferry.  Parking by the roadside is now impossible and the days of driving along this road and birding from the car are well and truly over.  It really is a pity that no birdwatchers were consulted during the planning stage of this work.  We might well have done things differently!

 Estrada das Quatro Águas - photograph taken March 2016

This a favourite area for roosting Audouin's Gulls

Our visit to see the Red-breasted Merganser again highlighted the fact that in future it will be necessary to bird this area on foot.  We don’t mind walking, in fact we enjoy it, but now it will take much longer to cover the area and no longer will we be able to sit in the car and watch Bluethroats or read the rings on the Audouin’s Gulls and that's a pity!  

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Bad light fails to stop play!

After an enforced absence from the Algarve that lasted several long weeks, we returned to Tavira on Monday evening.  Those unproductive and frustrating weeks with very little birding or photography are the main reason why there has been no recent update here on the blog.

On Tuesday we managed a couple of hours birding around Tavira and Santa Luzia and it was good to see all the familiar species still in their regular places.  When we are here all the time it is easy to take for granted the Spoonbills, Greater Flamingos, Slender-billed, Mediterranean & Audouin’s Gulls, the Bluethroats and Caspian Terns but a few weeks away gave us a fresh appreciation of them.  We sat and watched Dunlins, Little Stints and Greenshanks and even took a few photographs!


Yesterday, we spent the day in the Castro Verde area where we saw most of the species that we might have hoped for.  Great Bustards and Black-bellied Sandgrouse were easy to find but we didn’t see Little Bustards until three were flushed by a Red Kite.  That was one of perhaps thirty or more Red Kites seen during a day when raptors of one species or another were in view most of the time.

Great Bustards

We have seldom enjoyed a day with so many sightings of Black-winged Kites and after all the talk and debate in the UK about Hen Harriers it was good to have several opportunities to actually watch them.  It was also a treat to be able to watch a Golden Eagle but sadly there was no Spanish Imperial Eagle on this occasion.

 Black-winged Kite

Golden Eagle

Hen Harrier

It was reported here last week that a Spanish Imperial Eagle was one of the victims of a recent poisoning incident in the Castro Verde SPA.  Eight Red Kites were also found dead.  To say that this is disappointing is a massive understatement.  After being absent from Portugal for many years, Spanish Imperial Eagles have been making a comeback and they had become birds that we would expect to see on most visits to the Baixo Alentejo.  This latest one is the fourth to die there this year from poisoning.

Common Cranes

We went to the Alentejo particularly in search of Cranes and we were not disappointed.  They were difficult to count but there were more certainly than 1,000 of them.  Unfortunately, they were too far away for worthwhile photographs and the light was very poor but that was the story of the day so we’re already thinking about when we can go again!  

Monday, 26 September 2016

Back in the Algarve at last!

We’ve been back in the Algarve for just a week now and seem to have timed our return quite well.  The weather is very pleasant but no longer uncomfortably hot, children have returned to school and birds are migrating!

 Short-toed Eagle

Already we have been to Castro Marim, Ludo, Quinta do Lago, Parque Ambiental de Vilamoura, Lagoa dos Salgados (twice) and Sagres (twice) and seen more than 120 species.

Castro Marim, usually one of our favourite reserves, proved to be something of a disappointment.  There are plenty of birds there, particularly in the Cerro do Bufo sector but with access to the site restricted it is difficult to get close to many of them.  Highlights were Black-necked Grebes, Audouin’s & Slender-billed Gulls and of course there are hundreds of waders and Greater Flamingos but a telescope was definitely a necessity.  The salt harvest is in progress and it looks to have been a productive season.

 Salt harvest and Black-tailed Godwits

 Juvenile Greater Flamingo


There was also much salt-related activity at Ludo.  As so often, it was raptors there that proved most popular with five Booted Eagles putting on a show and a single female Marsh Harrier quartering the reedbed.

Booted Eagle

At Quinta do Lago, Little Bitterns were the stars.  We saw seven or maybe eight different birds.  A Water Rail showed well; a juvenile Black-crowned Night-Heron and a Whiskered Tern were unexpected treats.  We lost count of the number of Western Swamphens but nine of them were together, completely in the open on the golf course; two Glossy Ibises took off and left before we had much chance to look at them.  Five species of gulls were on the lagoa de São Lourenço and two or three Kingfishers were chasing each other about.

Lagoa de São Lourenço from the hide

The Parque Ambiental de Vilamoura has become a favourite place at this time of the year and it didn’t disappoint – it was full of birds!  Most numerous were Willow Warblers and Chiffchaffs and Yellow Wagtails with one or two Northern Wheatears and Pied Flycatchers but we know from past experience that all sorts of rarities can and do turn up here at this time of year.  We will be back for another look very soon.  A Black-winged Kite here was reasonably approachable.

Northern Wheatear

The water level at Lagoa dos Salgados was lower than we would have liked but still there were impressive numbers of birds.  Notable were a Marsh Harrier, an Osprey, a Black-winged Kite, at least four different Bluethroats, a Little Bittern, several Western Swamphens and what appeared to be a thunbergi-type Yellow Wagtail.  Waders included Little Stint, Bar-tailed & Black-tailed Godwits, Common Snipe and Wood Sandpiper.  We searched through hundreds of gulls without finding anything other than fuscus, michahellis and ridibundus.  Glossy Ibises were especially numerous and on our first visit we estimated that there might have been as many as 1,000.  We managed to read colour-rings on several of them, which identified their origins as breeding sites near Sevilla and Huelva in Andalucia.  Two colour-ringed Spoonbills had travelled further – one from France and one from the Netherlands.

 Common Snipe

 Lagoa dos Salgados

Glossy Ibis

Both of our trips to Sagres produced reasonable numbers of raptors and importantly there were good, close views of many of them.  Most numerous were Black Kites (31 on the first visit, slightly fewer the second time).  Also seen were Egyptian Vultures, Short-toed Eagles, Booted Eagles, Honey-buzzards, Common Kestrels, a Sparrowhawk, a Goshawk and a Peregrine Falcon.  Two Black Storks came close overhead.  We saw just a single Little Bustard and a couple of Red-billed Choughs, while migrants included a Wryneck, several juvenile Woodchat Shrikes, Common Redstarts, both Pied & Spotted Flycatchers, Whinchats and Northern Wheatears.

 Egyptian Vulture

 Black Stork

Little Bustard

So, not a bad start (for us) to the autumn migration period and still more than enough places to visit. 

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Birdfair 2016

We spent last weekend at the British Birdwatching Fair, generally referred to as ‘The Birdfair’ or simply ‘Birdfair’.  It’s one of the highlights of our year and we would hate to miss it.

As always, we were part of the Avian Adventures team, there to promote the company’s programme of birdwatching and wildlife holidays, some of which we expect to be leading in the months ahead.  Of course, we were also there to talk about birdwatching in the Algarve.

The Avian Adventures 2017 brochure

 On the Avian Adventures stand with Ray Tipper and Gerry Griffiths

Birdfair is held at Rutland Water and is jointly organised by the Leicestershire & Rutland Wildlife Trust and the RSPB.  It encompasses the whole spectrum of the birdwatching industry whilst at the same time supporting global bird conservation. This is the event of the year if you’re into birds and wildlife.
One of the main attractions of the Birdfair is the opportunity it gives us to meet up with the countless friends we have made over the years through birding, many of them from overseas.

Birdfair has raised astonishing amounts of money for a wide range of conservation projects (£320,000 in 2015).  This year’s beneficiary will be the national NGO Asity Madagascar, BirdLife in Madagascar, which has been working since 2005 to save Tsitongambarika Forest.  This forest was the subject of the Birdfair mural painted by various artists who were exhibiting their work in the Art Marquee.

Darren Rees working on the Birdfair mural

Birdfair can be a serious threat to the bank balance!  There are hundreds of stands selling the latest products for wildlife enthusiasts. From scopes to sculptures, binoculars to bird food, eGuides to eco-holidays, you can find almost anything you can think of.  Books tend to be Peter’s weakness, while June this year again came away with several items of clothing, mostly in her favourite colour – khaki!

Books - hard to resist!

A brand new book that seemed to be particularly well-received was Britain’s Birds: An Identification Guide to the Birds of Britain and Ireland, published by WILDGuides.  We haven’t always been keen on photographic guides but this one really is good with lots of useful text on identification features and there are surprisingly few missing species that will affect its use in Portugal.

Chris Packham was just one of several television presenters who were there, some giving talks, some signing books.  Chris took part in a well-attended debate about the issue of Hen Harrier persecution associated with driven grouse shooting and was promoting the petition that it is hoped will result in getting this subject a debate in Parliament.

Because we’re usually too busy talking, we don’t manage to find much time at the Birdfair for actual birdwatching.  We did see a Great Egret while trying out a Swarovski telescope but we can’t wait now to get back to some proper birdwatching in the Algarve. 

Monday, 4 July 2016

The Farne Islands, Northumberland

“There is something really special about colonies of breeding seabirds and no matter how many times one sees them on film there’s nothing like actually being there to experience firsthand the wonderful smell and the noise.”  That’s what we wrote five years ago (!) when we visited Bempton Cliffs RSPB reserve in Yorkshire.


Ever since then it has been our intention to visit another seabird colony with Skomer Island and the Farne Islands at the top of our list.  However, crossing to offshore islands to see breeding seabirds isn’t entirely straightforward, particularly if your starting point is in Portugal!  We needed to find an opportunity during what is always a busy time of the year and then we needed some settled weather for the boat crossing.

Atlantic Puffins - very cute!

Finally, this year, we made it.  After just a few days back in the UK we headed north to Northumberland and the Farnes.  Located just off the coast near Bamburgh, the Farnes are well-known as the home of thousands of breeding seabirds and were featured recently on the BBC Springwatch programme, so they need little introduction from us.

Arctic Tern

We spent just three days in Northumberland visiting Holy Island as well as the Farnes.  Our trip to the Farnes was on a boat from Seahouses operated by Billy Shiel.  We landed on Staple Island and on Inner Farne and had a little over two hours on each.

Bamburgh Castle - we stayed nearby

Seahouses harbour

Puffins (about 40,000 pairs) and Arctic Terns (about 2,000 pairs) are probably the main attractions but in recent years there has been a big increase in the number of Guillemots with more than 50,000 individuals counted.  What a nightmare it must be counting that lot - we have difficulty counting just two or three thousand birds at Castro Marim!  In all, about two dozen species nest on the islands, a total that includes several passerines.

Grey Seal - one of the many hundreds

Guillemot - numbers have increased dramatically in recent years

Northern Fulmar - Found only on St Kilda until the 1900s, now 500,000 pairs nest around the British coast

European Shag - the name apparently means 'tufted'

Rock Pipit feeding young

Common Shelduck - just a pair or two breed

Razorbill - one of the world's less numerous auk species

Settled weather and a healthy supply of food are the two important factors that lead to breeding success and from all the signs the auks were doing well.  All three species were bringing in plenty of their staple diet of sandeels.  Arctic Terns, on the other hand, were having a more difficult time finding food, we were told.  What the eventual outcome of the season will be only time will tell.

Atlantic Puffin with sandeels

Arctic Tern - the longest of long-distance migrants

Eider Duck - about 600 pairs breed

Black-legged Kittiwake - said to be the world's most numerous gull species

Red Squirrel - not on the islands but not far from Bamburgh

Being in such close proximity to so many birds (and hundreds of Grey Seals) was a memorable experience and we won’t want to leave it another five years before we enjoy again that distinctive smell and the constant calling of Kittiwakes.