This was planned as a short relaxing autumn break with my wife Sara, with the emphasis on an easy pace rather than dawn to dusk birding. To minimise costs we decided on a package tour to the Algarve, although with hindsight it would probably have been cheaper and more convenient to have done it as an independent tour.
I have travelled fairly widely in Europe, and consequently the number of lifers on offer was rather limited. Nevertheless, I was very pleased to come away having seen 4 life birds, although rather disappointed to have failed to see a fifth. The total number of species seen was 90, which wasn't too bad at all given the relaxed nature of the birding and the time of year.
What would I do differently next time? Two things really:
We booked the holiday with Sunworld through Orchid Travel in Southampton. It was a self-catering holiday, staying at the Bemposta Apartments in Alvor. Flights were with Sunworld's in-house airline, Flying Colours, from Cardiff to Faro, and the flight times were excellent, such that we in fact had nearly 8 full days in Portugal. Flight times were as follows:
|Outwards||Depart Cardiff 19.9.99 06:20, arrive Faro 19.9.99 08:45|
|Return||Depart Faro 26.9.99 17:10, arrive Cardiff 26.9.99 19:30|
The cost of the trip was UK£352 each. This was the cheapest deal available at the time of booking (12 July 1999), but with hindsight, I still feel that it was quite expensive. It should certainly be possible to get a charter flight from Cardiff to Faro for under UK£200 each, and accommodation, at least away from the coast, was very reasonable - UK£10 per person per night should comfortably cover it, unless you want to stay in the posh resorts!
Car hire was arranged with Europcar, booked in advance with Suncars. The car was an Opel Corsa (Group A), and cost UK£135 for the 8 days. This reduced the excess liability to about UK£200, but I reduced this to nil at Faro, by paying an additional ESC 6,552 (UK£22). The car was small and a little under-powered but perfectly adequate for our needs, despite covering some 2,600 km. Petrol cost about ESC 169 per litre (UK£2.50 per gallon) - cheap by UK standards.
Portuguese driving is certainly interesting! Overtaking seems to be the norm absolutely anywhere, and you'll have to get used to other cars inches from your rear bumper, even at high speeds. On the other hand, everyone seems very good natured about it - some of the manoeuvres I witnessed which were just ignored would have resulted in a road-side punch-up in the UK!
One last point - I don't think I've been anywhere where police patrols were more visible, and road signs all along the coastal N125 advise that speed limits and traffic regulations are strictly enforced, so keep an eye on your speed.
The currency in Portugal is the Escudo, usually abbreviated to ESC, PTE or $. In shops etc, 3,000 escudos, for example, would often be shown as 300$00. The exchange rate during the time of our visit was approximately UK£1 = ESC 306, and this is the rate of exchange I have used in translating costs throughout this report.
Visa and Mastercard appear to be widely accepted in hotels, restaurants, shops, petrol stations etc. As a holder of an Eurocheque card I was able to draw local currency from ATM machines, which was extremely useful. I think other similar cards like Delta also have this facility.
We stayed most nights at the pre-booked Bemposta Apartments in Alvor. However, we did stay two nights away at small pensions, which were perfectly satisfactory and extremely good value for money.
We stayed at the following establishments:
19.9 - Bemposta Apartments, Alvor
20.9 - Bemposta Apartments, Alvor
21.9 - Bemposta Apartments, Alvor
22.9 - Bemposta Apartments, Alvor
23.9 - Residencia Pedras Negras, Elvas - ESC 3,000 (UK£9.80) for single occupancy of very nice en-suite double room
24.9 - Bemposta Apartments, Alvor
25.9 - Residencia San Remo, Mértola - ESC 4,000 (UK£13) for double occupancy of double room.
Definitely one of the highlights - consistently excellent local food widely available and very reasonably priced. If staying in the Alvor area, I highly recommend the road-side Restaurant 125 on the main road N125 just west of town - superb food, and great value with main courses ranging from ESC 800 (UK£2.60) to about ESC 1,500 (UK£4.90). The café Cegonia Branco in Mértola was also excellent value.
Lunch generally consisted of either food bought from the small grocery shop on site, or the ubiquitous mixed cheese and ham sandwich (Sandes mista queijo e fiambre) sold by bars and transport cafes almost everywhere. Tasty, but the novelty had well and truly worn off by the end of the week!
The weather was pretty mixed during our trip. It was warm throughout (around 25°C), but often cloudy, and with several heavy showers. It was quite a bit colder early in the morning out on the steppes and in the Serra do Monchique. Dawn was around 07:00 and dusk at about 19:00.
None obtained before the trip, although there are probably a few out there. [Editor's note: Of course, right at this site! UG]
I bought the Globetrotter 1:175,000 map of The Algarve before I went, but was extremely disappointed with it. Many roads weren't shown at all, while the actual layout of other roads was completely different to those shown. On the whole, a complete waste of time.
Luckily, and rather surprisingly, the free map supplied by Europcar on collecting the vehicle was superb, showing all roads, including minor gravel roads, and appeared to be very accurate. I had no trouble at all finding my way around with it.
In respect of getting around the birding spots themselves, the maps in Gosney & Oliver were invaluable.
Sites visited were as follows:
|19.9.99||Alvor Estuary at Quinta da Rocha|
|20.9.99||Serra de Monchique, Cabo de São Vicente|
|21.9.99||Castro Verde, Pêra Marsh|
|22.9.99||Quinta do Lago|
|23.9.99||Castro Verde, travel to Elvas|
|24.9.99||Elvas and southwards to Castro Verde|
|25.9.99||Castro Verde, Mértola|
|26.9.99||Penilhos, Quinta do Lago|
Once again, many people provided a great deal of help during the planning for the trip. Very special thanks are due to William Oliver for the detailed advice and assistance provided throughout the planning stages. Thanks also to Gonçalo Elias, Nuno Luzia, Mark Bolton, Steve Preddy, Bjørn Einar Sakseid, Diederik Kok, Javier Falcó, Joan Thompson, Nick Montegriffo, Kjetil Johannessen and Tony Forster for all their assistance.
Note - the letter "h" in the "Birds recorded" section denotes that the bird was heard but not seen.
Arrived at Faro airport at about 09:00 in pouring rain after a pretty rough flight, and a very hairy landing at the second attempt - the first was aborted a few feet above the runway! After completing the formalities and picking up our hire car, we drove out west towards Alvor. Progress was quite slow in almost monsoon conditions, but the rain eased off and stopped as we reached the outskirts of Alvor at about 11:00. Unfortunately, on arriving, we found that our room wouldn't be ready until 15:00, so Sara's hopes of an early sunbathing session around the pool were dashed.
As consolation, we headed off to the nearby Alvor Estuary at Quinta da Rocha for an afternoon's birding! This site is reached by driving back to the main N125 road, and turning west. Carry on until you see a turning to the right signposted to Mexiloheira Grande. Opposite this you will see a garden centre selling palm trees, and a rough dirt track running down alongside it. The track quickly crosses the railway line, and continues down to the beach. After half way down, you will see signs to the right to the Christian run A Cruzinha ringing and field study centre. This is run by Mark Bolton, an excellent local birder, who very kindly gave me some local info on Red-necked Nightjars when I phoned him later in the week.
Virtually the first birds seen were a lovely pair of Little Owls right along the roadside, which then flew up to a nearby tree and spent the next five minutes bobbing anxiously - great views. We then continued to the end of the track - it reaches a T-junction near the end, where you turn left and park at some bluffs overlooking the sea.
Above these bluffs is a small pine wood, which apparently is an excellent spot for Red-necked Nightjar. Unfortunately, this area has very recently been fenced off, and there was no obvious access point. According to Mark, it is still possible to hear these birds in spring and summer from the car park, and they might even be visible hawking over the trees on a moonlit night, but they were predictably quiet in late September. The bluffs to the east of the parking area is also a good spot for Black Redstarts - these are of the very attractive Iberian and North African aterrimus race which differ from birds elsewhere in western Europe by being much blacker in overall colour, with a distinctive paler grey "skullcap" - well worth seeing.
The parking area overlooks an area of marsh to the west, which is circled by a path along the raised dyke. At their north-western end, a further track leads northwards between an area of salt pans and the small river Odiaxere. I started walking along this path from the parking area and quickly spotted another birder coming towards me. Amazingly, this proved to be Gonçalo Elias, a Lisbon-based birder and EBN subscriber who had provided me with assistance during my planning of the trip, and who was in the area for a weekend's birding and pelagic trip.
The birding in this area was fairly unspectacular, but provided a good variety of waders, including one Curlew Sandpiper and several Kentish Plovers. The first of many Little and Cattle Egrets for the trip were also dotted sparingly around, while interesting passerines included a Sardinian Warbler, several Fan-tailed Warblers (heard but not seen in very windy conditions) and many Crested Larks, although they may also have included Thekla Larks - my patience in splitting out all these birds ran out very quickly, indeed just as soon as I had positively identified one of each!! I also had great close-up views of a pair of Kingfisher sitting on one of the mud dykes surrounding the marshes.
After this brief introduction to Algarve birding, it was time to return to the apartment, and Sara's spell by the poolside, while I sorted myself out for the following day.
Birds recorded: Alvor Estuary at Quinta da Rocha - Cormorant, Little Egret, Cattle Egret, Grey Heron, Moorhen, Black-winged Stilt, Oystercatcher, Kentish Plover, Black-tailed Godwit, Ruff, Greenshank, Common Sandpiper, Redshank, Dunlin, Curlew Sandpiper, Black-headed Gull, Yellow-legged Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Sandwich Tern, Little Owl, Kingfisher, Hoopoe, Crested Lark, Swallow, House Martin, Fan-tailed Warbler, Sardinian Warbler, Blackbird, House Sparrow, Goldfinch
An early start today, so as to be on the summit of Fóia shortly after dawn. This is the highest peak in the Serra do Monchique, themselves the highest range of hills in the Algarve. Fóia reaches the respectable height of 900 metres (3,000 feet), and so offers a range of species difficult to find elsewhere in the Algarve.
It is reached by driving northwards from Portimão (east of Alvor) on the N266 towards Monchique, from which you head west on the N263-3. This road winds up to the very top of Fóia, the summit of which is dominated by an enormous restaurant and radar station. I parked at the T-junction at the top, with the restaurant on my left, and the radar station on my right. In front of me was a rocky vegetated depression, extending as a small valley down the hillside. This area, and the area around the restaurant car park provided some excellent birding during the two hours or so that I stayed there, although it was very cold and foggy early in the morning.
The first birds picked up in this area were a pair of Subalpine Warbler, which obligingly perched in the open singing for several minutes - a big difference from almost every other Sylvia warbler seen during the trip! Several Stonechats were also in this area. A walk around the edge of the restaurant car park soon produced excellent close-up views of a very nice Tawny Pipit, and some Linnets briefly got me excited at the thought of the hoped-for Rock Buntings. Eventually, a pair of the buntings duly appeared and landed on the nearby telegraph wires. Over the next half an hour they usually disappeared into the scrub to feed but frequently flew back onto the wires during this time.
Satisfied, it was time to search for one of my target birds for the trip - the Southern Iberian race of Long-tailed Tit. This is a very distinctive race of this bird, with streaked cheeks, and an overall paler and greyer appearance than British birds, and with much less pink evident in the plumage. The dark head made the bird look even more different from the white-headed Scandinavian and Eastern European race birds.
I had no specific site information for this bird, other than that they were fairly common in the wooded foothills of the Serra do Monchique. I therefore returned to Monchique, turned back southwards towards Caldas de Monchique, and then west at Nave on the N267 towards Aljezur. I drove slowly along this road, looking for a suitable-looking area of woodland with convenient parking, and eventually found such a spot 1.5 km west of the village of Casais. This was a nice looking area of cork oak woodland on either side of the road, where a dirt track angled away from the left hand side of the road, just after a white bus stop. There was just enough room to park one car at the start of this track.
I started walking slowly along this track and almost immediately heard a Long-tailed Tit calling nearby. Sure enough, the bird was quickly located on an overhead branch and gave excellent views - a very smart bird indeed. Brief views were had of a Great Spotted Woodpecker, and even briefer views of a Dartford Warbler in nearby thorn scrub.
By this time, mission accomplished, it was time to return to the apartment at Alvor for lunch with Sara. After a few hours relaxing in the resort, we decided on a late afternoon trip to the very scenic cliffs of Cabo de São Vicente, at the extreme western end of the Algarve. Take the N125 west from Alvor through Lagos to the town of Vila do Bispo, and then the N268 south to Sagres. The whole stretch of coast west from Sagres to Cabo de São Vicente is spectacular, and a stop anywhere along here is worthwhile, if just for the views.
A random stop a couple of kilometres west of Sagres produced good views of a Fan-tailed Warbler, frustratingly brief views of a Black Redstart, real wild Rock Doves and plenty of Yellow-legged Gulls. We continued to the lighthouse at Cabo de São Vicente, a spot which reputedly has Choughs and breeding Pallid and Alpine Swifts. However, we were too late in the year for the last two species, and the throngs of tourists in this area was enough to put off any self-respecting Chough. In truth, the Cabo itself was pretty tacky, despite the very interesting fort and lighthouse - as with so many such places it was spoiled by loads of tourists and far too many stalls selling cheap clothes and souvenirs.
Returning back eastwards from the Cabo we made another stop by a small fort-like structure and this time got much better and longer views of another Black Redstart. There were also a number of Spotless Starlings a little further along around a restaurant on the north side of the road.
Fóia, Serra do Monchique - Tawny Pipit, Subalpine Warbler,
Willow Warbler, Stonechat, Rock Bunting, Goldfinch, Linnet.
Casais - Great Spotted Woodpecker, Dartford Warbler, Long-tailed Tit, Chaffinch
Coast between Sagres & Cabo de São Vicente - Shag, Yellow-legged Gull, Rock Dove, Spotless Starling, Jackdaw, Fan-tailed Warbler, Stonechat, Black Redstart
Up very early this morning, for a 04:30 departure for Castro Verde, reached by heading east on the N125 towards Albufeira. On reaching the town, turn northwards on the E1 main road to Lisbon. Continue along this road for about half an hour, until you get to the town of Ourique, where you turn north east on the E802 to Castro Verde.
This area is covered in some detail by Gosney & Oliver in their guide, and the maps in particular are excellent. My first destination was the area around the small village of Rolão. To get there, drive east from Castro Verde on the N123 towards Mértola. This road can be a little difficult to find, especially in the dark. From Ourique, drive east towards Castro Verde. On reaching the town, follow the new by-pass to the north of the town, towards Beja. You will eventually reach a junction, signposted for Aljustrel to the left, and Castro Verde to the south. On entering the town you go straight through a series of small roundabouts (2, I think) passing a petrol station on the right, and a transport café on the left. At, I think, the third roundabout, Mértola is signposted to the left. Take this turning, and almost immediately look for a further left hand turning down the hill, again signposted towards Mértola. This turning can be easy to miss, and I managed to do so on my first 3 visits!
Follow the fairly rough N123 to the east for maybe 15 km, passing a turnoff to Geraldos to the right. Shortly after the small village of Galegunha, look for a turn-off to the right towards Santa Barbara de Padroes, via Rolão. This road passes through some excellent area of steppe, which is reputedly great bustard country. It is however very narrow, with occasional passing places, and other cars always seem to come along just when you've found something interesting.
I Arrived there at 06:00 which was when I expected sunrise. Sadly, I'd got my sums wrong, and it wasn't light enough to see anything until about 07:00, leaving a very frustrating hour in between which I spent almost entirely wishing I'd had another hour in bed! I parked up at the very start of this road and waited for the sun to rise. During this time, Red-legged Partridges called incessantly, and a bird was eventually spotted on the ridge to the west of the road. There were plenty of small brown birds flying around in the adjacent fields, mainly to the east of the road, but were difficult to identify looking into the sun. Short-toed Larks, Corn Buntings and "crested" larks were eventually confirmed, as well as several Stonechats. A Southern Grey Shrike also gave excellent views perched on a nearby fenceline.
I drove slowly along the road, approaching Rolão, carefully scanning both sides of the road. Then, just as I reached the village itself, I picked up 4 large birds flying towards me along the ridgeline to the right - Great Bustards! I leapt out of the car (having just about remembered the handbrake first!), and watched them through binoculars as they flew over the ridge and appeared to land, frustratingly, just out of sight. Good views but, having unsuccessfully chased this bird for about 15 years, all too brief, and despite driving backwards and forwards along the road, I just couldn't get a view of where they'd landed.
I decided to press on, in the hope that other birds might be present further along. In Rolão, I saw a flock of Spotless Starlings on the wires, and a Hoopoe in flight. I pressed on to the T-junction at the end of the road (at a village, the name of which escapes me), and turned left for a short distance. The area of steppe to the left of this road is suggested by Gosney as a good area for bustards, but no luck. A swallow flew past the car and proved to be my first Red-rumped Swallow of the trip - a bird I had thought I might be too late to see.
I turned around and headed back to Rolão, where a quarter of an hour scrutinising the many "crested" larks finally produced one with nice crisp clean breast markings on a whitish breast. This gave nice comparison opportunities with an adjacent bird which had much more smudgy spotting on a buffish background, and it was enough to satisfy me that I was watching a Thekla Lark (former) and a Crested Lark (latter). At the same time, I also decided not to bother trying to specifically identify any further birds, as it was making my eyes water!
Having failed to relocate the Great Bustards, I decided to try a couple of the other sites recommended by Gosney & Oliver. Back to Castro Verde for a look around the small reservoir north of the town, on the road towards Entradas. Head (slowly!) north on the dual carriageway E802 towards Beja, and keep an eye open after 3 km for a turning to the right - you won't get much warning, and it's a long way to Entradas and back if you miss it! This crosses the old road and enters an area of steppe. It quickly swings round to the left, then right again. Continue to the right of the first large barn, then take the left hand fork to the right of the next building. Shortly afterwards, take the next left hand fork, to the left of some trees, and continue to the vicinity of a small reservoir.
As I reached the reservoir area, I saw 2 more Great Bustards, flying off to the left, and across the E802. Again, only flight views, and although slightly longer in duration than the first sighting, still not enough to satisfy me! This area is also suggested by Gosney as a site for Little Bustards and Black-shouldered Kite, but seemed pretty birdless during my brief visit, except for some "crested" larks.
I returned to the E802 and turned right (you can't go left!) towards Entradas. On reaching the turning to the right to that village, I turned left instead, on the new road towards Carrogueiro, which again passes through some excellent bustard habitat. After about 3 km you will see a track to the right (north-east) towards "Monte Cumeada Nova", a white farmhouse on top of the hill. A little further along, a track leads to the left (south west), signposted to "Monte de Hortinha". This track is a little rough, but passable in a saloon car with a little care.
I started to drive along this track, towards a white "chimney pot" on top of the hill. I had only got about 500 metres along this road, when 4 Great Bustards lifted off a couple of hundred metres in front of me - I hadn't seen them in time! However, rather than flying away, these birds turned and flew lazily right past the car, at a distance of about 100 metres, north eastwards, and over the hill behind Monte Cumeada Nova. Again, the birds were only seen in flight, landing out of sight over the hill, but this time gave amazing views, lasting about 30 seconds as they flew past. I turned the car around and drove back towards the Entradas - Carrogueiro road, and just then a fifth bird flew from the east and landed in the shelter of a cork oak on the hillside to the left (north west) of Monte Cumeada Nova. At last, a bird on the ground, and although distant, with the heat haze starting to pick-up, it gave good and prolonged views as it fed slowly under the oaks. A Southern Grey Shrike was also seen well around the farmhouse.
Eventually satisfied, I got back into the car, and continued towards Carrogueiro, where I turned south on the N2 (the Castro Verde - Aljustrel road) back towards Castro Verde, intending to check out a site recommended to me for bustards by Gonçalo Elias. This area is a track to the west, adjacent to a white house, some 8 km north of Castro Verde. This again looked like a good area, but only produced a Kestrel. Along the road south towards Castro Verde, two White Stork nests on roadside telegraph poles were scrutinised and produced colonies of Spanish Sparrows. These were very frustrating birds, leaving the next, and flying off towards the nearby trees as soon as you approached! This, and the glare from looking upwards into the sky, made viewing very difficult, and this meant that it took some time to confirm the identification, especially in their relatively drab winter plumage.
By now it was midday, the heat haze had become too much of a nuisance, and it was time to head back to the apartment at Alvor. On the way back I decided to check out Pêra Marsh, recommended by Carlson & Carlson. To get there, take the N1 back to Albufeira, and the N125 west back towards Alvor. As you approach Alcantarilha, there is a turning to the left (south) towards Pêra. Follow the road through the village in the direction of the coast, and you will eventually reach a car parking area in the dunes adjacent to the marsh. Some Fan-tailed Warblers were present in the bushes near the parking area, and several wheatears were seen in the open areas either side of the approach track. On the open water in the marsh were a few water birds, including Shoveler, Little Grebes and Black-winged Stilts. Several Cattle Egrets were feeding in the surrounding grassy areas, and a few Yellow-legged Gulls were also present. After about an hour here, I returned to the apartment for a relaxing non-birding afternoon.
Rolão - Red-legged Partridge, Great Bustard, Hoopoe, Short-toed
Lark, Crested Lark, Thekla Lark, Red-rumped Swallow, Southern Grey Shrike,
Spotless Starling, Carrion Crow, Stonechat, Northern Wheatear, Corn Bunting.
Geraldos - Cattle Egret.
Castro Verde Reservoir - Great Bustard.
Entradas - Great Bustard, Southern Grey Shrike.
Carrogueiro - Kestrel, Spanish Sparrow.
Pêra Marsh - Little Grebe, Cattle Egret, Shoveler, Coot, Black-winged Stilt, Yellow-legged Gull, Fan-tailed Warbler, Northern Wheatear
This morning I decided to visit the Quinta do Lago area, a little to the west of Faro. This is a really great spot, possibly the best single site that I visited. It is a reserve which is actually part of and managed by the adjacent gold course, and which consists of a lake with reedbeds around the edges, some excellent areas of pine woodland and scrub, and some tidal lagoon areas, which represent the estuary of the Rio Formosa. There is also an area of saltpans, known as Ludo Farm, which can be viewed from the eastern end of the reserve.
To reach the area, take the N125 east from Alvor towards Faro. At Albufeira, remain on the old road to Faro, past Vilamoura rather than taking the new motorway. At the town of Almancil, look for a turning to the right (south) signposted for Quinta do Lago, and specifically for the hotel of the same name. On arriving at the very posh resort of Quinta do Lago, you will reach the first of 6 numbered roundabouts. Turn left at about 10 o'clock at this roundabout, and then progress straight through roundabouts 2 to 6, until you reach a free car park, adjacent to the Hotel Quinta do Lago, at the end of the road.
From here a long wooden footbridge leads out over the Ria Formosa to the adjacent barrier island and its beach. Good views over the estuarine mudflats can be had from this bridge. Alternatively, take the track to the left (east) from the car park along the edge of the golf course. This area was good for waders, with species seen including Kentish Plover, Ringed Plover, Grey Plover, Black-tailed Godwit, Whimbrel, Common Sandpiper, Dunlin, Sanderling and Turnstone. A group of 9 White Storks were also loafing around on the other side of the river, and many Yellow-legged and Lesser Black-backed Gulls were also present.
The track skirts the edge of the golf course, until it reaches a causeway between two arms of the estuary, at which time it swings inland, widening out and passing between the golf course and an area of scrub. Very soon, you will see a small pond on your left, with a larger lake a little further along, overlooked by a tower hide. This is reputed as an excellent spot for Purple Gallinule, and indeed this bird proved very easy to see here at 08:00. A total of 7 individuals were seen, both feeding on the edge of the golf course greens and fairway and on submerged vegetation in the lake itself. Apparently the birds are regularly seen on the golf course early in the morning before they are disturbed by golfers, and they gave superb close-up views.
As well as the gallinules, I was extremely pleased to find a Spanish Yellow Wagtail also feeding in the short fairway grass on the other side of the lake. This was one of my target birds for the trip, and I had been afraid that I might be a little late in the year for them. In the event, this was the only individual I saw throughout the whole trip. A Whimbrel was also feeding on the nearby green.
Having secured good views of the wagtail, I settled down in the hide for a careful scan of the lake and reeds. Several Cetti's Warblers could be heard calling in the reeds but remained obstinately out of sight. A great find here was a Glossy Ibis feeding very near the hide on the raft of half-submerged vegetation - this is a very localised bird in southern Iberia but is apparently regular in small numbers at this site. Waterbirds were also much in evidence, including both Great Crested and Little Grebes, Coots, Moorhen and several species of duck, but unfortunately nothing as exciting as a Red-crested Pochard, Ferruginous Duck or Marbled Teal, all of which have been reported.
From here the track continues along the edge of the course. Several side tracks wandered off into the golf course itself and crossed extremely attractive looking habitat, but there are signs everywhere strictly prohibiting entry. On the basis that the golf course company actually maintains and makes available to the public this excellent reserve, it seems reasonable not to abuse this situation by ignoring these signs, so I reluctantly resisted the temptation to explore further. However, even by sticking to the official trail, you will cross some great woodland and scrub habitat. Cetti's Warblers were calling from the undergrowth all along here, and eventually an individual gave great views singing from the floor under the shade of a bush, and then chasing another individual around the undergrowth.
Eventually, the path reaches its end at the Ludo Farm saltpans, with another "No Entry" sign prohibiting further progress. Scanning from here produced a flock of 17 Greater Flamingos, several Grey Herons and numbers of Black-winged Stilts. From here I wandered slowly back towards the car and was suddenly alerted as a flock of small finches flew past me and landed in some nearby bushes. These proved to be a flock of c. 20 Common Waxbills and showed very well. This bird has apparently colonised extensively in southern Portugal and is often found in such scrub vegetation adjacent to water.
Other birds in this area included small numbers of migrants such as several Willow Warblers and at least one Pied Flycatcher. A little further along, I became aware of some movement in the cork oak trees on the other side of the adjacent fairway. I stood and waited, and eventually the bird revealed itself as an Azure-winged Magpie. A little more patience was rewarded by several more of these wonderfully attractive and charismatic birds, which soon started flying backwards and forwards across the fairway. Getting an accurate count of numbers was difficult, but there were at least 8 birds present. Soon, several of these birds landed on the fenceline about 50 yards further along, in the vicinity of the large green sign, and gave superb scope views. To complete the picture, a Hoopoe also flew in and was watched in the same scope view as several of the magpies.
By the time I arrived back at the hide overlooking the lake it was 11:15, and I was curious to see whether the gallinules would be as co-operative, having read some reports that they could prove a little elusive after early morning. They certainly weren't quite so easy at this time, but 15 minutes waiting produced views of 3 individuals, including a juvenile being fed by an adult - possibly the ugliest bird I've ever seen!
Satisfied, it was time to head back to the apartment for a relaxing non-birding afternoon, stopping again on the way back to the car for more views of the various waders present on the mudflats.
In the evening I decided to make an attempt at seeing Red-necked Nightjar. I had telephoned Mark Bolton at A Cruzinha asking for information, and he had kindly suggested a likely area for me. To get there, take N125 east to Portimão, then north on N124 towards Monchique. At Porto de Lagos, I turned right (east), again on N124, towards Silves. After a kilometre or two, and before reaching Odelouca, you will see a small bar on the left hand side, just before a bridge, with a dirt road running north between the two. This road runs through excellent Red-necked Nightjar habitat, and the birds can be seen sitting out on the road after dark. Eagle Owls are also apparently heard in this area.
I slowly drove for some distance along this road, for some 14 km to the village of Fornalha, and back, but without any luck. Unfortunately, it was quite a cool evening, with light drizzle, and presumably the road wasn't as attractive a proposition as on a warm dry summer's night.
Birds recorded: Quinta do Lago - Great Crested Grebe, Little Grebe, Cormorant, Little Bittern, Little Egret, Grey Heron, Glossy Ibis, Greater Flamingo, White Stork, Mallard, Gadwall, Shoveler, Pochard, Moorhen, Coot, Purple Gallinule, Black-winged Stilt, Kentish Plover, Ringed Plover, Grey Plover, Black-tailed Godwit, Whimbrel, Common Sandpiper, Dunlin, Sanderling, Turnstone, Yellow-legged Gull, Lesser Black-back, Hoopoe, Crested Lark, Spanish Yellow Wagtail, Azure-winged Magpie, Cetti's Warbler, Fan-tailed Warbler, Willow Warbler, Chiffchaff, Pied Flycatcher, Blackbird, Great Tit, Goldfinch, Common Waxbill.
By this time, the only bird left unseen on my target list was Little Bustard, and I decided to spend most of the rest of the week trying to find one. Having had no luck two days earlier at Castro Verde, and having got a bit fed-up of the touristy feel of Alvor, I decided to explore a little further afield. Sara was quite happy to stay behind at the apartment, so having spent the morning with her I set off again for Castro Verde. On arriving, I again took the N4 towards Mértola. On the way, having passed the turn off to the right (south) to Geraldos, I spotted a very promising looking track to the left 1 km further along. Sure enough, driving about 100 metres along this track produced a flock of about 7 Stone Curlew, which got the pulse racing momentarily.
I pressed on to the Rolão area, again finding Southern Grey Shrikes, Corn Buntings and more Stone Curlews, as well as a pair of Little Owls on a pile of rocks on the right hand side of the road in the middle of the village of Rolão itself. Red-legged Partridge were also heard in the area, but no sign of any bustards.
Having drawn a blank, I pressed on northwards on the E802 through Beja and Vidigueira. As I got nearer the town of Évora, I turned right (east) on the N256 through Reguengos de Monsaraz to Mourão. The area of road east of Mourão over the border to Villanueva del Fresno in Spanish Extremadura is strongly recommended by Gosney as an excellent bustard spot, but with darkness falling quickly I again drew a blank, although the habitat certainly looked excellent. This road was in the process of being upgraded, with lots of heavy machinery in evidence, and this probably dissuaded any bustards in the area from coming too near the road.
With dusk having passed, I decided to proceed to the town of Elvas to find somewhere to spend the night. I returned to Reguengos, and took road N381 northwards to Redondo, and then N254 to Vila Viçosa and Borba where I took the N4 east to Elvas. This journey was along some pretty minor roads and took much more time than I expected, so that I didn't arrive at Elvas until about 23:00, dinner having consisted of a hurried takeaway sandwich along the way.
Immediately I saw a likely looking small hotel (known in Portugal as a Residencia) on the left hand side of the road on the western outskirts of town, called the Residencia Pedras Negras. Luckily, they were still open for business, and I booked into a very nice double room, with a TV and enormous bathroom for the bargain price of Esc 3,000 (£9.80). Shattered, I took a quick shower, and collapsed into bed, ready for an early start the next morning.
Geraldos - Grey Heron, Stone Curlew
Rolão - Cattle Egret, Red-legged Partridge (h), Stone Curlew, Little Owl, Southern Grey Shrike, Corn Bunting
Dawn found me in place in the area of plains recommended by Gosney for bustards to the south east of the town. To reach this area, take the N4 out of Elvas towards the town of Badajoz in Spain. After leaving the town, look out for the first turning to the right (south), signposted for "T.re de Bolsa". This minor road continues for about 7 km, before reaching a T-junction at the end. If you turn left here, you can either proceed along this second road (the "bottom road"), which parallels the Rio Guadiana and the Spanish border, or take the next left which is another minor road paralleling the first, and eventually reaching the N4 about 3 km east of the first turning. This whole area is good for bustards as well as other steppe birds including Black-shouldered Kites.
Unfortunately, the weather was not to co-operate with me today, and dawn saw thick fog blanketing the area - I couldn't have seen any bustards if they'd been 10 metres from the road! Frustrated, I slowly cruised along the first road and very soon gained excellent compensation with wonderful close-up views of a Black-shouldered Kite on a roadside telegraph post. The bird eventually flushed and was relocated a little further along the road when it again flushed.
This stretch of road also produced what were surprisingly the only Magpies of the whole trip, as well as Southern Grey Shrike, Corn Bunting, Cattle Egret, Stonechat and Goldfinch. On reaching the T-junction, and turning left along the bottom road, the Black-shouldered Kite was again flushed from a roadside telegraph pole, and flew away south. A few minutes later, a second kite was located perched on farm machinery a few hundred yards north of the road.
By the time I had reached this bottom road, the fog was much thinner, but unfortunately the habitat looked nowhere near as good as it was further up the first road. Thinking that it might have cleared somewhat, I backtracked, only to find that it was as bad as ever higher up. I therefore returned back to the junction and turned left.
Having passed the junction for the second road, the bottom road crosses a culvert over a small stream. Here I was pleasantly surprised to find a number of Red-rumped Swallows feeding low over the ground, and passing very close to my car - great views. However, the best surprise was still to come. Some way further along the road, I approached a barn on the left hand side (the first on that side of the road). At this point a small dark bird flew in and landed in the long roadside grass. I got my binoculars on it, and to my great surprise it proved to be a Red Avadavat, a bird I hadn't even intended to look for.
This bottom road eventually rejoins the N4 just before the border with Spain, and here I crossed over into the Extremaduran town of Badajoz, intending to try some steppe areas recommended by Rose. I took the road south from Badajoz towards the town of Olivenza, looking out for a turning to the right (west) for Albalá after 12 km. On approaching this junction, a flock of c. 20 White Storks flew overhead.
The area around Albalá is recommended by Rose for Little Bustard, but the area was much more heavily cultivated than the areas across the border in Portugal. I again failed to find any bustards here, although I obtained great views of a female Lesser Kestrel on a roadside telegraph post, and on the ground beneath it. Other birds here included Buzzard, Southern Grey Shrike and Northern Wheatears, which I tried hard to turn into Black-eared Wheatears!
I continued down the road towards Olivenza, finding several White Storks on nests on roadside electricity pylons. Continuing further south towards Alconchel produced a fly-over Hoopoe, as I continued towards the town of Villanueva del Fresno, for another search of the stretch of road between that town and Mourão. Again, however, no birds were forthcoming, and work was again progressing on upgrading the road.
I decided to try one more area, before a final search around Castro Verde, and so headed west from Mourão, on the N258 through Reguengos and on via the E802 to Évora. On the outskirts of Évora I took the N254 towards Viana do Alentejo, in order to check the area of steppe in this area, again recommended by Gosney. Unfortunately, at this time, the weather conspired against me for the second time, and the heavens opened with sheeting rain. After half an hour of this torrential downpour I gave up, and headed back south on the E802 to Castro Verde.
On reaching Entradas I decided to try the Monte de Hortinha track where I had enjoyed such great views of the Great Bustards a couple of days previously. This time, I got no more than some 300 metres along this track before 3 Great Bustards lifted off the ground about 100 metres ahead of the car - yet again their wonderful camouflage had meant that I had failed to detect them before they flushed. However, to my enormous delight, on this occasion they didn't immediately fly off over the horizon but alighted again about 200 metres further along, and gave fantastic views over the next half an hour as they strolled majestically across the grasslands - an ambition fulfilled most comprehensively.
On the return trip to Alvor I mused on the fact that my overnight trip still hadn't managed to produce a Little Bustard, but there was adequate compensation in the form of the Great Bustards, the Black-shouldered Kites and the beautiful little Avadavat.
Elvas - Cattle Egret, Black-winged Kite, Red-rumped Swallow, Swallow,
Southern Grey Shrike, Magpie, Stonechat, Corn Bunting, Goldfinch, Avadavat
Albalá (Spain) - White Stork, Buzzard, Lesser Kestrel, Southern Grey Shrike, Northern Wheatear
Olivenza (Spain) - White Stork
Alconchel (Spain) - Hoopoe
Entradas - Buzzard, Great Bustard
On arriving back in Alvor the previous night I had been greeted by Sara with the news that she too had by now tired of the resort and wanted a change of scenery. We therefore decided to spend our last night away and decided on Mértola as a suitable destination.
Coincidentally (?!), the journey again took us through the Castro Verde area, and although I didn't want to inflict on Sara several hours of car-sitting among, for her, desolate empty grasslands (= wonderful bird-filled virgin steppelands!), it gave me an opportunity for roadside birding as we passed through more great steppe between Castro Verde and Mértola. More White Stork nests produced small colonies of Spanish Sparrows, and the seemingly ubiquitous Southern Grey Shrike was also seen, together with Grey Herons and Cattle Egrets.
Rather than proceeding immediately to Mértola we decided to spend the afternoon in the beautiful countryside of the Parque Natural do Vale do Guadiana north of the town, and specifically the gorge area of Pulo do Lobo. When the N123 reached the N122, take the minor road to Corte Gafo de Cima, where a Hoopoe again flew over the road, and then northwards through the village of Amendoeira following signposts for Pulo do Lobo.
I didn't make any particular efforts at birding here, spending most of the time sitting in the car in the shade of a thorn tree watching a pair of Hoopoes working on improving a nest hole in a nearby tree - great laid-back birding. Small birds in the surrounding trees included both Spotted and Pied Flycatchers and the only Blue Tit of the trip.
Having thoroughly relaxed here we pressed on to Mértola, and booked into the Residencia San Remo. This is found by driving into the town and turning right at the first roundabout before you reach the old part of town. The residencia is on the right hand side, in a building shared with a driving school next to the Restaurant Cegonia Branco. We had a pleasant clean double room for Esc 4,000 (£13) per night. The only drawback was that it didn't have a private bathroom, but the clean communal bathroom was right next door.
Road N123 between Castro Verde & Mértola - Cattle Egret,
Grey Heron, Southern Grey Shrike, Spanish Sparrow
Corte Gafo de Cima - Hoopoe, Carrion Crow
Pulo do Lobo - Hoopoe, Pied Flycatcher, Spotted Flycatcher, Blue Tit
Our last morning in Portugal, and so one last chance to find that Little Bustard. Up again for a dawn start, and westwards along N267 towards Almodôvar. At the village of São João dos Calderros, I turned right towards the village of Penilhos, through some good steppe recommended by Gosney & Oliver for bustards etc. A small flock of Red-legged Partridge was found in the area, and others were heard, and a Southern Grey Shrike was seen.
I continued through Guerreiro, and then towards Santa Barbara de Padroes, before turning right towards Rolão and Galegunha. On reaching Galegunha, I turned left (west) on N123 towards Castro Verde, and almost immediately an Azure-winged Magpie flew across the road. I again tried the track northwards 1 km east of Geraldos, which produced more Red-legged Partridges, Little Egret, Corn Bunting and Southern Grey Shrike.
Sadly, the Little Bustards remained elusive to the end, and so it was on to Castro Verde to fill up with petrol, then back to Mértola to pick up Sara from the hotel at 09:30. We were due back at the airport to drop off the hire car at 14:30 and so decided to spend our last few hours at Quinta do Lago.
We headed south from Mértola on N122 towards Castro Marim and Vila Real de San Antonio, stopping briefly a few kilometres south of Mértola to enjoy another small flock of Azure-winged Magpies. At Castro Marim, it was west on the E1 motorway as far as the Faro & Loulé turnoff, south to the junction with the N125, and east again to Almancil, before following the road south to Quinta do Lago as before. We arrived at 12:00, which gave enough time for a quick trip to the area around the hide.
This area was again superb. The estuary area again held a nice variety of waders, including Kentish Plover, Grey Plover, Black-tailed Godwit, Whimbrel, Greenshank, Redshank, Dunlin, Sanderling and Turnstone. Black-headed and Yellow-legged Gulls were in evidence, a couple of Sandwich Terns were fishing in the river, and a White Stork flew overhead. On to the hide overlooking the lake, and a brief wait produced a close-up Purple Gallinule. This again gave great views and was watched for nearly half an hour, while it broke off and devoured a two metre long and inch thick stem of some water plant (phragmites?) - great to watch.
The Glossy Ibis was also located again, in front and a little to the left of the hide, and a Kingfisher flew in and fished in the open area on the right. Another Sandwich Tern was fishing further back on the pool, and the usual selection of water birds were present.
Time to turn my attention to the scrub and small pine trees behind the hide, and some patient waiting finally produced good views of a couple of Sardinian Warblers. A very brief view of another bird suggested that it just might have been an Orphean Warbler (I though I saw a pale eye), but it quickly dived into cover and didn't come back out.
A juvenile Woodchat Shrike was located sitting immobile on the end of a branch and was watched for some time. There were plenty of Pied Flycatchers in evidence, as well as a Willow Warbler. Finally, just as I had run out of time and was heading back for the car, a small bird flew into a nearby tree and landed flush against the trunk - at last, good views of a Short-toed Treecreeper. A nice end to the trip, as we got back to the car and drove back to the airport to fly home.
Penilhos - Red-legged Partridge, Southern Grey Shrike
Galegunha - Azure-winged Magpie
Geraldos - Little Egret, Grey Heron, Red-legged Partridge, Southern Grey Shrike, Corn Bunting
Road N122 southwards from Mértola - Azure-winged Magpie
Quinta do Lago - Little Grebe, Little Egret, Glossy Ibis, White Stork, Mallard, Gadwall, Moorhen, Coot, Purple Gallinule, Kentish Plover, Grey Plover, Black-tailed Godwit, Whimbrel, Greenshank, Redshank, Dunlin, Sanderling, Turnstone, Black-headed Gull, Yellow-legged Gull, Sandwich Tern, Kingfisher, Crested Lark, Woodchat Shrike, Cetti's Warbler (h), Sardinian Warbler, Willow Warbler, Pied Flycatcher, Short-toed Treecreeper
Please note: where I have not accurately counted the number of a particular species seen, I have preceded the location with 'n'. Numbers of each species seen are understated in many cases, especially regarding the commoner species - I'm not always as diligent as I should be in keeping numbers of species seen.
The letter 'h' denotes that the bird was heard but not seen.
The biggest miss was undoubtedly Little Bustard (Tetrax tetrax), for which I spent most of the week searching in vain. In spring, they are apparently very common in the whole Castro Verde area, as well as further north around Évora and Elvas, but I looked for hours without a sign. Disappointing, but another reason to return!
Red-necked Nightjars (Caprimulgus ruficollis) were apparently still around but silent, making it much harder to find them. They have a habit of sitting out on gravel roads in the right habitat (open woodland) soon after dusk presumably to benefit from the warmth absorbed by the road surface. However, both evenings I looked for them, it was drizzling and a bit cold, so presumably the attraction wasn't there, and neither were the birds. Several UKBN and EBN correspondents gave me site details for this bird, of which the two most commonly recommended were Quinta do Lago (which I didn't have time to try at the right time of day) and the pine plantation at the end of Quinta do Rocha. The latter site looked ideal, but unfortunately the whole area has recently been fenced off and is inaccessible. It might still be worth trying in spring, as the birds could be heard calling from the dirt road and might be visible hunting over the trees - try looking up from the parking area at the end of the road.
The other main misses were season-related. I was simply too late in the year for many birds like Montagu's Harrier, Short-toed Eagle, Alpine Swift, Roller, Bee-eater, Rufous Bushchat etc. I'm sure there were probably a few around, but they should be much easier in June or July.
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