Trip Report: Portugal, March 20-28, 1999

Tom Harrison, La Canada, California, USA;

Have you ever heard the saying in the legal field that a lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client?

I have a corollary: When I bird alone in a different part of the world, I am birding with an idiot.

Oh, I know sometimes it can't be helped. You're in a strange city or country with no birding contacts, or maybe you have just a few hours to sneak off to bird. We've all done that, and it can be great. After all, a bad day birding is better than a good day working, right?

But I'm talking about serious birding. Power birding. Turbo-birding. Where you want to see the most species possible in a new area. Even after you study the field guides and the "where-to-find-birds-in __________" books, in my view, there's no substitute for an experienced local birder as a companion. Anything less and you're asking for trouble.

Which brings me to my trip to Portugal.

I flew to Lisbon last week (March 20, 1999) for a business conference and was delighted to be able to wangle three free days to bird after my meetings. After consulting numerous resources, I planned a day at the Tejo estuary (just outside of Lisbon), a day at the Sado estuary outside Setubal (about an hour south of Lisbon), and a day near Castro Verde (2 hours south-east of Setubal).

A word about resources: ABA's Birding Magazine had a helpful two-part article on birding in Portugal (April and June 1995), and I looked at the Where to Watch Birds in Spain and Portugal book. I thought Dave Gosney's pamphlet, Finding Birds in Southern Portugal was helpful. But by far, the best resource is a relatively new book (1997) called A Birdwatcher's Guide to Portugal and Madeira, by Moore, Elias and Costa. I highly recommend this as the only guidebook you'll need to bird Portugal.

As for field guides, I've always used Peterson's Guide to the Birds of France and Europe, but since it's in French it can be tedious translating between French, English and a third language (like Portuguese) with the help of Latin. I get a headache just thinking about that. So I bought Lars Jonsson's Birds of Europe and am delighted with it - especially the large, clear paintings.

Prior to going, I posted a notice on Birdchat asking for advice or local connections. As always, Barbara Passmore came through. She connected me with Gonçalo Elias, a Lisbon-based birder and, as it turns out, one of the authors of A Birdwatcher's Guide to Portugal and Madeira. Gonçalo kindly provided helpful information to me by e-mail and, because he was tied up with Bird Atlas fieldwork, he introduced me to fellow-birder, Miguel Lecoq, who agreed to bird with me over the weekend.

So far, so good, right?

My meetings in Lisbon went well, and I was even able to get a life bird, a Blackcap, in the garden of my hotel (Hotel da Lapa) and another, Yellow-legged Gull at the Hotel Albatroz in nearby Cascais.

The morning after the meetings ended, I hopped in my Europcar rental car at first light and headed for Setubal, about 45 minutes south of Lisbon where I dropped my luggage at the Pousada Sao Felipe. This remarkable hotel is actually a castle overlooking the city and the ocean. There was a Black Redstart singing outside the castle door.

With binocs, scope, maps, articles and books in hand, I set out to bird the Sado estuary just outside Setubal. First stop: Gambia.

Even with good maps, it's remarkable how quickly and easily I can get lost. OK, I admit it: I get lost a lot at home, too. But here I speak the language. Sorta. My Portuguese is kinda rusty. OK, I don't speak a word of it.

Fan-tailed Warblers (aka Zitting Cisticola), Eurasian Hoopoe, European Serin, Eurasian Siskin, Little Egrets, and Sardinian Warblers soon made me forget I was lost. And then I saw them: a flock of Greater Flamingoes! I bumped along a soggy dirt road to the end of the estuary and got great looks at the Flamingoes along with some Pied Avocets and Gray Heron.

I was feeling pretty proud of myself: alone in a foreign country actually finding target birds and being able to identify them. That was when I noticed that the front wheels of my Fiat Brava had -- how shall I put this? -- sunk in the mud. Deep. I spun it a little deeper just to be sure. Yep. Stuck.

But I used to live in Chicago. Wind. Ice. Snow up to your armpits. I know how to rock a car to get it un-stuck.


I got the jack out of the trunk and tried to raise the wheel out of the hole. This is especially difficult when the frame is sunk pretty darn close to the ground itself. Interesting thing about mud: as I jacked, instead of the car going up, the jack itself actually sunk in the mud.

The flamingoes laughed at me.

As I set off on foot to find help, I recalled that I hadn't seen a human being or another vehicle for the last 30 minutes of my drive. What was I doing alone, lost out in the boonies with my car buried in mud? Repeat after me: When I bird alone in a different part of the world, I am birding with an idiot.

I walked on.

Wait -- I heard a motorbike! Salvation! I started jogging hopefully toward the sound. Would you believe it was a Common Raven? They sound totally different in Europe from our American ravens.

I was surrounded by wonderful pine groves alive with birds (lifers, I'm sure) that I couldn't identify by sound. I couldn't spot the darn things either. Plus I was a bit preoccupied by my predicament.

I walked on. And on.

Finally, a man in a pick-up truck came up the road. I pantomimed the situation. He got a good laugh out of it and, saint that he was, drove me back to my car. Together with the jack and some boards and some muscle, we freed the car. In all, I wasted two hours of prime birding time, but felt quite lucky to be back on the road.

The salt pans near Zambujal were alive with Common Redshank, Common Greenshank, Ruff and Black-winged Stilt. Four Mediterranean Gulls were on the shore of the estuary. Osprey, Common Buzzards and Western Marsh-Harriers flew overhead. I was back in business. But I was also conscious of the number of birds I was missing. I hate to admit it, but they were all around me. Quick little suckers. I figure I was maybe identifying half of the birds that I could see and none of those I could hear. What a waste.

I got back on the main road and headed to Pinheiro, the next birding hotspot on the estuary, and I resolved to stay out of the mud.

Within 10 minutes of my turn-off, I was hopelessly lost on a sandy road. I did get some good birds including Little Grebe, Chaffinch, Blue Tit, Stonechat and Woodchat Shrike, but I was really lost in a maze of crisscrossing sand tracks through the woods. Writing this, it's hard to capture that building sense of panic you get when you're lost and sense you may be going in circles. I started wondering if I'd ever get out.

By the time I did, it was mid-afternoon and I was resolved not only to stay off mud, but to stay off sand and maybe just to stick to the main roads. I pushed onward. And to make a painfully long story less painful, I got lost again. This time I asked for directions to the ferry boat and was told "No ferry boat." I gave up and drove back to the hotel the way I had come (skipping the mud part).

I had 50 species under my belt, including 10 lifers, but let's just say I did it the hard way.

Saturday morning at 5:00 am, I met up with Miguel and my trip took a decidedly positive turn. What a difference it makes to be with someone who knows the roads, knows where the birds are and how to identify them! Miguel has a great eye and a great ear. Being with him made all the difference in the world.

We set out for Castro Verde in the beautiful Alentejo region, where we hoped to see the birds of the plains. Corn Buntings were singing on the roadside and I begged to stop and see one. Miguel laughingly assured me they'd be one of the commonest birds of the day. To humor me, we pulled over to study a Corn Bunting, and a male and female Montagu's Harrier began mating display. Then there were two more. Then a flock of Azure-winged Magpies flew over us and landed right near us.

Just as Red-tailed Hawks occupy the phone poles in the Western U.S., it's White Storks that grace the utility poles of Southern Portugal. Nestled within some of the stork nests were large flocks of Spanish Sparrows (another life bird).

We stopped at one of Miguel's favorite spots where we had a pair of Stone Curlews (aka Eurasian Thick-knee), and where Miguel gave me an excellent lesson in lark identification. We had Wood Lark, Calendra Lark and Thekla Lark (and the next day we had Sky Lark and Crested Lark). A Great Spotted Cuckoo landed 30 meters away. I was in heaven. And even Miguel was surprised that the little lagoon we scoped boasted five Red-crested Pochards (4 males and 1 female).

Portugal is one of the only places in the world where the exclamation, "He's a Little Bustard" isn't an insult. Sure enough, Miguel turned up a large flock of Little Bustards. Moments later, he brought us to the top of a crest where we looked out on a flock of Great Bustards (the heaviest bird of Europe) with one of the males in breeding display. Fifteen minutes later we were observing a colony of Lesser Kestrels. We had Pied Wagtail, Meadow Pipit, Red-rumped Swallow and we had good close-up views of Red-legged Partridge in a dozen different locations.

All this by noon! Since we had our target species for the area, Miguel suggested that rather than complete the circuit of Castro Verde-Mertola, we change our plans and head for Barrancos on the Spanish border. A long drive, but with the possibility of some good raptors.

Our destination was a fabulous ancient castle (Noudar) on a hilltop overlooking the Ardilo River, the border with Spain. You want raptors? They got raptors!

On our way up the winding, climbing road to the castle, we had a good look at a Short-toed Eagle. Five Black Storks rode the thermals in the distance. As we entered the castle, a Cinereous Vulture (aka Black Vulture, the largest bird of Europe, which bears no resemblance to the Black Vulture we have in the U.S.) flew right over us. A Eurasian Griffon and a European Honey-buzzard soared nearby. A Black Stork flew right over us. Eurasian Crag-martins and Common Swifts darted about. Eurasian Linnet and European Greenfinch were in the parking area just outside the walls of the castle. One of the best birds of the day was the Black Wheatear, which displayed on the roof of one of the smaller buildings within the castle walls. Noudar Castle was definitely worth the trip - and on the way out we stopped at the church in Barrancos to get Palid Swifts.

A red letter day which, thanks to Miguel, ranks among the finest birding experiences I've ever enjoyed.

Sunday morning Miguel and his girlfriend, Theresa, took me to Tejo, the huge estuary just north and east of Lisbon. It was fantastic. We added Purple Heron, Black-shouldered Kite, Booted Eagle (both dark and light phases), Spotted Redshank, Little Stint and Little Owl. We had a number of good heard-only birds there including Nightingale, Common Cuckoo and Common Quail. We had quite close-up looks at flocks of Flamingoes and Eurasian Spoonbill. Cetti's Warblers serenaded us everywhere and we were lucky enough to get a good look at one of these secretive birds. We had Willow Warbler, Chiffchaff, Waxbills and a Crested Tit.

Totals: 115 species (of which 37 were lifers for me) plus one BVD - a rare Greater Spotted (aka Pomerine) Eagle that was only a silhouette bird to me.

Portugal is a delightful country with a proud history. The scenery is terrific (mountains, rocky coast lines, plains, wetlands). And the birds were fantastic. Downsides? Well, if I had to find any I'd say that the city drivers there are like kamikaze pilots, and the food wasn't anything to write home about (although the port wine is exquisite), and, overall, the prices weren't nearly the bargain I had been led to expect. But the bottom line is that it was a great trip and, most important, the people were wonderful.

Which reminds me: most of my best birding experiences have been when I was able to team up with an experienced local birder to spend a day or two together. Floyd Murdoch on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake. Mark Kuiper in Holland. Karen Johnson in Southern California. Michel Bertrand in Montreal. Mike Wile in Seattle. Van Waffle at Point Pelee. Stacy Peterson at the Salton Sea. And many of those connections are thanks to Birdchat. Better still, many have evolved from a birding outing into good friendships.

Trip List

F= life bird

  Little Grebe              Tachybaptus ruficollis
  Northern Gannet           Morus bassanus
  Great Cormorant           Phalacrocorax carbo
  Eurasian Wigeon           Anas penelope
  Gadwall                   Anas strepera
  Green-winged Teal         Anas crecca
  Mallard                   Anas platyrhynchos
  Northern Shoveler         Anas clypeata
F Red-crested Pochard       Netta rufina
F Greater Flamingo          Phoenicopterus ruber
  Little Egret              Egretta garzetta
  Gray Heron                Ardea cinerea
  Purple Heron              Ardea purpurea
  Cattle Egret              Bubulcus ibis
  Eurasian Spoonbill        Platalea leucorodia
F Black Stork               Ciconia nigra
  White Stork               Ciconia ciconia
  Osprey                    Pandion haliaetus
  European Honey-buzzard    Pernis apivorus
  Black-shouldered Kite     Elanus caeruleus
  Black Kite                Milvus migrans
F Eurasian Griffon          Gyps fulvus
F Cinereous Vulture         Aegypius monachus
  Short-toed Eagle          Circaetus gallicus
  Western Marsh-Harrier     Circus aeruginosus
F Montagu's Harrier         Circus pygargus
  Eurasian Sparrowhawk      Accipiter nisus
  Common Buzzard            Buteo buteo
F Booted Eagle              Hieraaetus pennatus
F Lesser Kestrel            Falco naumanni
  Eurasian Kestrel          Falco tinnunculus
  Red-legged Partridge      Alectoris rufa
F Common Quail              Coturnix coturnix
  Common Moorhen            Gallinula chloropus
  Eurasian Coot             Fulica atra
F Little Bustard            Tetrax tetrax
F Great Bustard             Otis tarda
  Common Snipe              Gallinago gallinago
  Black-tailed Godwit       Limosa limosa
  Spotted Redshank          Tringa erythropus
  Common Redshank           Tringa totanus
  Common Greenshank         Tringa nebularia
  Ruddy Turnstone           Arenaria interpres
  Sanderling                Calidris alba
  Little Stint              Calidris minuta
  Dunlin                    Calidris alpina
  Ruff                      Philomachus pugnax
F Eurasian Thick-knee       Burhinus oedicnemus
F Black-winged Stilt        Himantopus himantopus
  Pied Avocet               Recurvirostra avosetta
  Black-bellied Plover      Pluvialis squatarola
  Common Ringed Plover      Charadrius hiaticula
  Snowy Plover              Charadrius alexandrinus
F Yellow-legged Gull        Larus cachinnans
  Lesser Black-backed Gull  Larus fuscus
  Black-headed Gull         Larus ridibundus
F Mediterranean Gull        Larus melanocephalus
  Sandwich Tern             Sterna sandvicensis
  Common Tern               Sterna hirundo
  Rock Dove                 Columba livia
  Common Wood-Pigeon        Columba palumbus
  European Turtle-Dove      Streptopelia turtur
F Great Spotted Cuckoo      Clamator glandarius
  Common Cuckoo             Cuculus canorus
F Little Owl                Athene noctua
  Common Swift              Apus apus
F Pallid Swift              Apus pallidus
  Eurasian Hoopoe           Upupa epops
  Great Spotted Woodpecker  Dendrocopos major
F Azure-winged Magpie       Cyanopica cyana
  Carrion Crow              Corvus corone
  Common Raven              Corvus corax
F Southern Grey Shrike      Lanius meridionalis
F Woodchat Shrike           Lanius senator
  Eurasian Blackbird        Turdus merula
F Spotless Starling         Sturnus unicolor
F Common Nightingale        Luscinia megarhynchos
  Black Redstart            Phoenicurus ochruros
  Common Stonechat          Saxicola torquata
F Black Wheatear            Oenanthe leucura
  Eurasian Nuthatch         Sitta europaea
  Winter Wren               Troglodytes troglodytes
  Bank Swallow              Riparia riparia
F Eurasian Crag-Martin      Hirundo rupestris
  Barn Swallow              Hirundo rustica
F Red-rumped Swallow        Hirundo daurica
  House Martin              Delichon urbica
F Zitting Cisticola         Cisticola juncidis
F Cetti's Warbler           Cettia cetti
  Willow Warbler            Phylloscopus trochilus
  Common Chiffchaff         Phylloscopus collybita
F Blackcap                  Sylvia atricapilla
F Sardinian Warbler         Sylvia melanocephala
F Crested Tit               Lophophanes cristatus
  Great Tit                 Parus major
  Blue Tit                  Cyanistes caeruleus
F Calandra Lark             Melanocorypha calandra
F Crested Lark              Galerida cristata
F Thekla Lark               Galerida theklae
  Wood Lark                 Lullula arborea
  Sky Lark                  Alauda arvensis
  House Sparrow             Passer domesticus
F Spanish Sparrow           Passer hispaniolensis
  Eurasian Tree Sparrow     Passer montanus
  Common Waxbill            Estrilda astrild
  White Wagtail             Motacilla alba
  Yellow Wagtail            Motacilla flava
  Meadow Pipit              Anthus pratensis
  Chaffinch                 Fringilla coelebs
F European Serin            Serinus serinus
  European Greenfinch       Carduelis chloris
F Eurasian Siskin           Carduelis spinus
  European Goldfinch        Carduelis carduelis
  Eurasian Linnet           Carduelis cannabina
F Corn Bunting              Emberiza calandra

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This page served with permission of the author by Urs Geiser;; April 12, 1999