Winter birding in the Algarve is never lacking in interest. Without too much effort our daily bird list, even in short daylight hours, usually extends to 90 or more species and often exceeds 100. No two winters are exactly the same and although huge numbers of birds migrate from Northern Europe to escape the cold, it is only extremely adverse conditions that drive some species this far south. Only rarely, for instance have we seen Snow Buntings or Long-tailed Ducks in the Algarve and when Redwings and Fieldfares arrive they are only ever in quite small numbers. Likewise, Short-eared Owls are irregular and unpredictable. This winter there have been more Siskins than usual, there’s been no shortage of Ring Ouzels in their usual haunts around Sagres and even a few Bramblings have been reported.
Perhaps not surprisingly the number of birdwatchers visiting the Algarve in winter is relatively small but those who do come are seldom disappointed. Species such as Alpine Accentor, Penduline Tit, Richard’s Pipit, Caspian Tern, Little Bittern, Bluethroat, Booted Eagle and Black-winged Kite are usually not difficult to find and most years there has been something unusual, like last winter’s Sora, the Bufflehead in early 2016 or the Red-breasted Flycatcher of 2014/15.
On 27th December a Pallas’s Leaf Warbler found at Fonte Benémola was just the third record for Portugal. It was seen for just a few days and then only with difficulty! It’s remarkable that the two previous records of this species, both in the Algarve, were on 27th December (1999) and 31st December (2002).
This winter has been exceptional for long-staying rarities and near-rarities. The star bird has been a Sociable Lapwing that was found at Lagoa dos Salgados in November and remained in that general area at least until last week. For several weeks a Marsh Sandpiper has been frequenting a site near Olhão and recently a Red-knobbed Coot has been faithful to the same corner of the San Lorenzo golf course.
And there have been a few birds that will have only been seen by those who were there at the time. We were lucky to get a very good but brief look at what could only have been a Little Swift at Lagoa dos Salgados on 2nd February and a Rustic Bunting was photographed near Sagres on the 7th. Neither of these birds was seen again. The same is true of a Red-throated Diver seen at the end of December flying out to sea from the mouth of the Guadiana River.
A few Greylag Geese often occur, most regularly at Castro Marim but otherwise geese are scarce here. Brent Geese sometimes turn up in the Ria Formosa or at Ria de Alvor and there have been records of Barnacle Geese but their origin is open to question. Ducks on the other hand are here in their thousands and have sometimes included American Wigeon, Ring-necked Duck and other rarities.
Finally we have to mention that thousands of gulls descend on the Algarve in winter. As well as the six regular species (Lesser Black-backed, Yellow-legged, Black-headed, Mediterranean, Audouin’s & Slender-billed) those among us who are prepared to put the time in scrutinising the flocks may be rewarded by finding a Great Black-backed, a Common, a Glaucous or even a Caspian or Ring-billed Gull. The recent storms brought a number of Kittiwakes into view and this week has seen the arrival of two or possibly three Iceland Gulls. Remarkably, one of the Iceland Gulls has been seen on the so-called Roman bridge over the Gilão River in the centre of Tavira.
As we see now the return from Africa of Pallid Swifts, Yellow Wagtails, Red-rumped Swallows and other migrants it would be nice to think that winter is over but in the wake of the destructive 'Storm Emma', the coming days see the Algarve once again on high alert as 'Storm Felix' approaches bringing who knows what new rarities.