Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Birding in Southern Portugal 12th – 18th April, 2011

In his final instalment, Chris Hall recounts his time spent birding in Southern Portugal with a tour group in April this year.

Our first port of call on the south coast of Portugal is Pera marsh, where statuesque Purple Herons are followed by Woodchat Shrikes, Bee-eaters, Crested Larks, Northern Wheatears, Azure-winged Magpies, jangling Corn Buntings, a puffy-throated Hoopoe calling repeatedly from a dead tree branch, a delightful male Pied Flycatcher, obligingly perching on the same branch between short sallies for flies and a Zitting Cisticola which insists on perching right in front of us as we scan the lagoon, which is awash with birds such as Spoonbills, Flamingoes, Purple Gallinules, Collared Pratincoles, a drake Garganey, Yellow-legged Gulls, Caspian, Sandwich and Whiskered Terns and a feast of waders, side by side as if in the pages of a fieldguide, including loads of Black-winged Stilts and Avocets, plus Ringed, Kentish and smart black-bellied Grey Plovers, along with Sanderling, Dunlin, Common, Wood and Curlew Sandpipers, Whimbrel, Greenshank and Spotted and Common Redshanks; and all this before lunch on our first outing! Further west at the Alvor estuary, the wader gang is joined by Turnstone, Knot, Bar-tailed Godwit and a lone Oystercatcher, among plenty of Mediterranean Gulls. Back at the villa, in the back garden, the roll call of the day’s birds is interrupted by a calling Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, and once scrambled with our bins, we soon have the red-capped ‘little pecker’ in our sights, drumming on the top of a wooden telegraph post.

Along the coast to the east on the border with Spain, is the Castro Marim nature reserve, where the first bird we see is a Marsh Harrier being mobbed by Black-winged Stilts. Next we find Little Ringed Plovers, smart male Stonechats and a Bonelli’s Warbler singing in the small pines outside the visitor centre, while highly polished Spotless Starlings whistle from a pan-tiled rooftop. Meanwhile, a Spectacled Warbler puts on a spectacular show, singing from low bushes right beside the nature trail. Further on we scope a mixed colony of panting yellow-throated Spoonbills, finely- plumed Little Egrets and tasty looking cinnamon-coated Cattle Egrets, while a couple of Stone Curlews shelter sensibly in the shade of the very same tree. Lively Little Terns and elegant Slender-billed Gulls also make an appearance this afternoon.

This morning we begin a walk from the beautifully decorated shrine of Our Lady of Fatima in the small village of Penina. A Nightingale serenades us on our way up to the Rocha de Pena, which is a glorious rock garden of wild flowers in April, with stunning views of the surrounding scenery down below. On the descent we enjoy the song displays of rival Blue Rock Thrushes parachuting from the summit, while a superbly marked Rock Bunting sings for us from a nearby tree, and after a well earned drink in the village bar, a Short-toed Treecreeper also sings and shows nicely.

Down at sea level, at Quinta do Lago, the tide is well out, the crabs are waving at each other out on the mud banks and we watch a Greenshank grapple with a tiny flatfish, before gulping it down to leave quite a bulge in its throat. Meanwhile a Wryneck calls from a clump of pines and we soon have it pinpointed in the scope, even though it is perfectly camouflaged against the cracked grey bark. Plenty of waders in the salt marsh give really close views in brilliant light including Little Stint, Dunlin and a reddening Curlew Sandpiper, all feeding together, and then a charcoal Spotted Redshank shows up before being moved on by the Black-winged Stilts. At the famous golf course pool, home to an abundance of Little Grebes, ginormous Purple Swamphens and handsome drake Red-crested Pochards, there are even Black-headed Weavers building neat round nests in the reeds, and at one point a male weaver puts on a superb puffed up wing-flapping display next to his neatly woven basket nest. Other stars of the golf course include dazzling Hoopoes and Azure-winged Magpies.

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 a male Little Bustard, standing proud, and throwing his head back each time he calls. The same narrow road also produces singing Calandra Larks, and also Great Bustards in flight, which are awesome to watch. Back on the main road, a clump of Eucalyptus trees is home to nesting Black Kite, White Storks and heavily streaked Spanish Sparrows. A fabulous male Montagu’s Harrier, making slow progress against the wind, sweeps low over the plain, where we also find two Great Bustard cocks strutting their stuff, while a third male shows off his full blown fluffy white ‘foam bath’ display. Next Georg suggests we inspect a nearby nestbox for Rollers, but as we approach, a Little Owl peeps out at us! Georg now takes us to a chapel on a hill top with panoramic views, which makes an excellent vantage for a picnic lunch, and on the way we pass a massive flock of Spanish Sparrows in their hundreds! After lunch a Black-winged Kite glides gracefully by and perches in a tree top and at our next stop we find Tawny Pipit, Black-eared Wheatear, a gorgeous Roller looking as blue as the sky, several Lesser Kestrels, and a single Black-bellied Sandgrouse looking just like the stony ground, while lots of his mates are flying around in flocks. In the distance, White Storks resemble sheep and an apparent rock becomes a Black Stork, thanks to its long red legs! Suddenly all the storks take flight, flushed by a huge slow flapping raptor, a magnificent Imperial Eagle, with the blonde upperparts of an immature bird bleached by the sun. Moving on to an idyllic spot with a bridge over a small river, we add Crag Martin to our list, followed by Pallid Swift, and then our next great sighting is a Great Spotted Cuckoo, which after a bit of coaxing, eventually perches on a small bush right in front of us!

With most of the region’s fantastic birds now seen superbly well, it seems impossible to single out just one star of the show.

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 or look out for availability at Villa da Oliveiras on Bidabooking.