Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Bird Watching in Southern Portugal 4th – 11th April, 2011

Following on from last weeks post Chris Hall provides us with a full review of a recent birding tour in the Algarve, Southern Portugal. 

Neighbourhood birds around the ‘block’ include Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Red-rumped Swallow, Azure-winged Magpie and tinkling Serins. To the west along the coast, our arrival at Pera marsh is greeted with point blank views of a Zitting Cisticola perched on a vine right beside the track, with a smart Woodchat Shrike on guard on the other side, while a Little Owl dozes in a nearby fig tree. A fall of blue-headed Yellow Wagtails in their dozens drops by, as a handful of low-flying Alpine Swifts zoom in low before disappearing over the horizon. Iberian Hares bound to and fro, with several Crested Larks chasing around, while the lagoon is very busy with numerous Black-winged Stilts, Avocets and Flamingoes, as well as a few Night Herons, Spoonbills, Purple Swamphens, Kentish Plovers and stonking Caspian Terns. In the adjacent scrub, Corn Buntings jangle in every direction and stunning multi-coloured Bee-eaters stack up on a dead branch, while rival Sardinian Warblers chase each other around the same bush. Further west along this Atlantic coast, the Alvor estuary has many Mediterranean, Yellow-legged and Lesser Black-backed Gulls, plus a couple of Sandwich Terns and a passing Osprey, heading inland with a tightly gripped fish ‘take away’.

Aiming high, we head for Foia, the highest point in the Algarve at 2,959 feet, where ‘car park’ birds showing very well at close range include a very feisty Firecrest followed by Woodlark, Whitethroat, Linnet, Rock Bunting, and performing Stonechats, while a pair of Blue Rock Thrushes are a little shyer.

Down at sea level, at Quinta do Lago, a variety of waders feeding on the same area of mud lay on a fieldguide show, with everything from Dunlin to Whimbrel, including Kentish, Ringed and Grey Plovers, Sanderling, Turnstone, Redshank and Bar-tailed Godwit plus Spoonbill, Little Tern and a small flock of Collared Pratincoles. At the famous golf course pool, home to an abundance of Little Grebes, Purple Swamphen and handsome drake Red-crested Pochards, there are even Black-headed Weavers building neat round nests in the reeds, and at one point we manage to see a superb male weaver in the same view as a male Little Bittern! Other stars of the golf course include Hoopoe, Azure-winged Magpie, Short-toed Treecreeper and a busy flock of gorgeous little Common Waxbills. At the adjacent salt pans we are into our waders again with Avocet, Black-winged Stilt, Common Sandpiper and Greenshank, as well as Spotted Redshank alongside Common Redshank, which is darker, browner and also smaller in every way.

To the north, at Rocha de Pena, a Short-toed Eagle drifts right overhead; absolutely fabulous, just like the scenery. Further up the track, a Rock Bunting sings in full view, and as we near the very top, we spot a Blue Rock Thrush, sitting perfectly still on a branch down below, with a head as blue as the sky up above.

Way to the east on the Spanish border is the Castro Marim nature reserve, where the first bird we see is a magnificent male Montagu’s Harrier sweeping low across the marshes. Next we focus our optics on a Spectacled Warbler singing from low bushes beside the nature trail, while glossy Spotless Starlings whistle from a pan-tiled rooftop. Further on we scope a mixed colony of nesting Spoonbills, Little Egrets and tasty looking cinnamon coated Cattle Egrets. Bee-eaters and Marsh Harriers are all around and we flush a couple of Stone Curlews. We find the only Whinchat of the trip, followed by Slender-billed Gulls among a flock of Flamingoes, and then some Curlew Sandpipers alongside the smaller Dunlin.

On our last day out, on the plains of the Alentejo region to the north of the Algarve, we meet up with local expert Georg Schreier, who promises a “festival of birds”. As soon as we arrive in this wonderful area, awash with superb displays of yellow, white, pink and purple wild flowers, we spot an impressive male Great Bustard with head held high and tail fanned out, while a male Little Bustard is also standing proud, and throwing his head back each time he calls. The same narrow road also produces Calandra Larks, a Red Kite, a statuesque Peregrine, a lovely male Black-eared Wheatear, plus over-flying Collared Pratincole and Short-toed Eagle, calling Quail and plenty more Red-rumped Swallows, Bee-eaters, Stonechats, Crested Larks, Corn Buntings, five Montagu’s Harriers and a puffy white displaying Great Bustard; fantastic. Back on the main road, a clump of Eucalyptus trees is home to nesting White Storks and Spanish Sparrows, with Black Kite and Montagu’s Harrier on patrol over the plain, where we also find three Great Bustard cocks strutting their stuff, while their hens follow on nonchalantly. Next Georg suggests we inspect a nearby nest box for Rollers, and as we approach, a Little Owl emerges. As we watch the owl, two fabulous looking Rollers appear and pose for us on the adjacent fence posts. Soon after, in an area of tree savannah, we find a pair of Black-winged Kites perching in the tree tops. Georg now takes us to a chapel on a hill top with panoramic views, which makes an excellent vantage for a picnic lunch. During the picnic, a Cuckoo flies by and in the distance we spot soaring vultures coming down to land. The hunt is on as we try to track down the vultures on the ground and after a bit of searching we find the spot where twenty one Griffons are gathered around a carcass, some with reddish heads and standing around apparently satiated. Among the melee are a couple of larger Black Vultures, and as we watch, more appear out of the blue and soon there are five of these huge birds. In the opposite direction, we spot a Short-toed Lark and even pinpoint three Black-bellied Sandgrouse, with orange throats that match the colour of the bare earth. Moving on, our next great sighting is a Great Spotted Cuckoo on a roadside wire, and at an idyllic spot, with a bridge over a small river, we add Crag Martin to our list which completes the set of five European hirundines. With most of our targets now seen superbly well we head for Mertola, where the castle that looks down on the river below offers the chance to compare Common and Lesser Kestrels and we enjoy brilliant views of a male Lesser Kestrel with lovely apricot underparts.

What a fabulous time we had in southern Portugal, with so many top birds in a list of 124 species seen, along with beautiful displays of wild flowers under glorious blue skies.

Chris Hall Operates New Horizons bird watching tours and courses. and has kindly agreed to provide us with several articles relating to Birdwatching holidays in Portugal. Over the course of the coming weeks we will post Chris' report on his most recent trips to the Algarve. 

For more information on Birdwatching holidays in Southern Portugal, visit their site www.newhorizonsonline.co.uk or look out for availability at Villa da Oliveiras on Bidabooking.