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Birdlife

Bird life in the western Algarve

Forming the south western tip of Europe, the strategic location of the western Algarve makes it one of Europe’s principal migration spots, for both land and seabirds. Bathed in a Mediterranean climate, with a benign year-round marine influence, the area is excellent for bird watching in all seasons. Situated in the heart of the Western Algarve, AlmaVerde is ideally positioned for the birdwatcher. With the Parque Natural de Sudoeste Alentejano e Costa Vicentina (PNSACV) on its doorstep and other interesting sites nearby, a great variety of species can be seen, including a wealth of rare and highly sought for birds. The Costa Vicentina has recently been designated an IBA (Important Bird Area), a world-wide network implemented by Birdlife International. In addition, two important European conservation statutes have been applied: the entire area is designated as an SPA (Special Protection Area) for avifauna, and the area north and west of AlmaVerde is part of Nature Network 2000.


Thanks to fieldwork carried out recently for the new Portuguese breeding bird atlas Novo Atlas das Aves que nidificam em Portugal (New Atlas of Birds Nesting in Portugal), a more complete picture of local breeding birds is now emerging. The co-ordinators of this mammoth task are SPEA (Sociedade Portuguesa para o Estudo das Aves). SPEA is a Birdlife International partner and the Portuguese equivalent of the RSBP. Employing over one hundred ornithologists, the methodology used for collecting and analysing data for this work was identical to that used for the Atlas of Breeding Birds in Britain. As birds are excellent indicators of the state of any eco-system and its trends, this publication is an invaluable tool for evaluating all aspects of conservation and the environment in Portugal and its islands.


Atlas field studies were carried out using 10km X 10km quadrants divided into twenty-five 2km X 2km squares, called tetrads. The quadrant in which AlmaVerde is situated was covered between April and July 2000, and an impressive 71 breeding species recorded. In and around AlmaVerde, the following can all easily be seen: Short-toed Eagle, Red-legged Partridge, Bee-eater, Hoopoe, Red-rumped Swallow, Crested and Thekla Larks, Woodlark, Fan-tailed, Melodious, Sardinian and Dartford Warblers, Nightingale, Southern Grey and Woodchat Shrikes, Azure-winged Magpies and Serins.


AlmaVerde is also on the edge of large territories of Bonelli’s Eagles. This magnificent eagle, one of the rarest and most endangered species of birds of prey in Europe, can be seen with perseverance by scanning with binoculars to the north. The Western Algarve represents a stronghold for this resident raptor, containing a large percentage of its significant Portuguese population.


Locally, within a few minutes’ drive, an interesting variety of habitats can be found. One of the best areas within walking distance is the nearby marshland Lontreira (after Portuguese for Otter, and yes, they live here), leading to adjoining Boca do Rio. Another area of interest is the cork oak woodland and farmland just west of Barão de São Miguel. Slightly further away (around 5 km) are the hilltop grasslands west of Figueira and north west of Budens.


Among the more attractive breeding species found in these areas are: Little Bittern, Little Bustard, Stone Curlew, Wryneck, Green and Great Spotted Woodpeckers, Short-toed Lark, Tawny Pipit, Cetti´s, Great Reed and Subalpine Warbler, Iberian Chiffchaff, Crested Tit, Golden Oriole, Hawfinch, Cirl and Rock Buntings.


Further afield, but within twenty minutes’ drive of AlmaVerde, the woodlands between Bensafrim and Pincho repay investigation. See Inland Southwest Algarve. These woods hold all of the Algarvean woodland birds. They also represent an isolated pocket for Redstart and Spotted Flycatcher, two species at their extreme southern limit in Europe, where their distribution is extremely fragmented. Lesser Spotted Woodpecker and Wryneck are common, as are the other two Portuguese woodpeckers, the Green and Great Spotted. The scarce Subalpine Warbler is found here, as well as Cirl and Rock Buntings, Nuthatch, Short-toed Treecreeper and all Algarvean tits, including Crested Tit. Raptors seen regularly are Short-toed and Bonelli´s Eagles and Common Buzzard. The elusive Goshawk and Sparrowhawk are also seen occasionally, both comprising only a handful of pairs in southern Portugal.


Cape St. Vincent (Cabo São Vicente) and its wild hinterlands harbour some breeding species which are often difficult to find elsewhere in the Algarve. The rugged coastline with its tall cliffs is backed by heaths, grasslands and pine woods combining to produce a unique habitat of great appeal to the naturalist. The cliffs around the peninsula hold a few pairs of Shag, Peregrine Falcon and Red-billed Chough (the latter only to be found at three other sites in Portugal). White Stork nest on one of the islands visible from the cape, and large colonies of Alpine and Pallid Swifts (with fewer Common Swift) have large colonies on the more sheltered south facing cliffs. The stunning Blue Rock Thrush and the handsomely distinctive Iberian form of Black Redstart, whose songs ring around the cliffs, can be found easily in the abundant habitat.


The cliff tops are covered with a singular flora that includes a number of endemic forms and species. This low, wind-battered, heath-like scrub holds few breeding birds, but Thekla Lark, Stonechat and Dartford Warbler abound. Further back, this habitat gives way to extensive grasslands, some grazed, where the local Choughs can often be found feeding and the Peregrines hunting. A number of interesting, mainly ground-nesting species are also to be found. Unfortunately this region is all too accessible, and the visitor should keep strictly to the paths and tracks, especially between February and August, as some protected nesting birds can all too easily desert their eggs or even their young. Apart from this, disturbance often alerts predators to the location of the distressed parents’ nests. The key species are; Little Bustard, Stone Curlew, Quail, Thekla and Short-toed Larks, Skylark (a rare and localised breeding bird in southern Portugal), Tawny Pipit, Black-eared Wheatear and the Spectacled Warbler at one of its only sites in the Algarve. Good views of all the specialities can be had from the tracks that run north from the road connecting Sagres to the cape.


Migration

The Spring migration period is generally disappointing, except for local breeding birds, as the main flyways north occur in eastern Iberia and across the Mediterranean. The opposite is true in the Autumn, and from August to mid November the area is one of the most exciting areas in the whole of Europe for observing birds on their autumn migration. Birds of prey (raptors) from the whole of western Europe as far afield as Scandinavia pass by on their incredible journeys to sub-Saharan Africa. Crossing Iberia at altitude on hot thermals, often invisible to the naked eye, they aim for the short sea crossing at the Straits of Gibraltar. However, many birds drift too far west, particularly on their first migration, and, on reaching sight of the Portuguese west coast, are channelled south, ending up in the south west. Undoubtedly the best area to observe this impressive phenomenon is the Sagres peninsula. Raptors tend to congregate here at low altitude because of the relative lack of thermals, which is due to the oceanic influence. From here the birds are forced to fly east towards southern Spain, as a long distance sea crossing from Sagres would be suicide for these soaring birds.

Over twenty species of raptors are seen annually in the Sagres area (many can be seen over AlmaVerde). Reflecting its status as the most important migration watchpoint in Portugal, SPEA runs an annual raptor count daily from 15th September to 15th October, coinciding with the peak passage. Although seven observation stations are manned throughout the period, the most productive site is the centralised trig-point named El Cabranosa where the public are invited to join the experts. Here anybody can benefit from their experience and enjoy the use of telescopes and close views of these marvellous creatures.

 

El Cabranosa is easy to find. Drive from Sagres along the road to Cape St. Vincent and exactly half way, just after the bar O´Vigia (The Watchpoint), where there is the only public bird-log in Portugal, turn right up the track. After 200 metres bear to the right and follow the pine tree hedge for about 1km, turning right at the end. Here you will see the trig-point and the birdwatchers between 10am and 5pm. Upwards of 1,600 birds of prey are counted on this census every year.

 

Here are the results from a recent raptor watch: Booted Eagle 485, Sparrowhawk 295, Griffon Vulture 226, Short-toed Eagle 97, Egyptian Vulture 73, Honey Buzzard 56. Smaller numbers of the following species included Black Kite (seen in larger numbers before the census), Red Kite, Black-shouldered Kite, Bonelli´s Eagle, Spanish Imperial Eagle (1), "Steppe"Buzzard, Marsh, Montagu´s and Hen Harriers, Goshawk, Common Kestrel, Hobby, Peregrine, Eleanora´s Falcon and Merlin. On a good day it is normal to see upwards of 15 raptor species and of special note the Black Stork is commoner than White Stork, with 18 recorded in autumn 2000.

 

Another notable phenomenon is the appearance of large numbers of Griffon Vulture between mid October and mid November, with over 300 individuals registered annually. An exceptionally large flock of 470 of these huge raptors (wingspan 240 to 265 cm) spiralled the skies in the first few days of November 2000, directly over AlmaVerde. These are all young birds between one and three years old. They are not migrating as such, but dispersing from their breeding grounds in north east Portugal and northern and central Spain. It is believed that these young birds, below breeding age, make these movements in order to ensure an improved food supply for the adults, who remain in their colonies throughout the year.

 

Raptors are by no means the only family of birds appearing in impressive numbers during autumn around Sagres. One of the most enjoyable sights is the major landfalls of passerines (songbirds) which occur regularly throughout the autumn. Radar investigation of nocturnal migration in southern Portugal has shown the south west Algarve to be the main departure point of nearly all trans-Saharan passerine migrants leaving the entire western half of Europe. The birds, on a south to south-south westerly course, will fly 500 km over the ocean before reaching the north west African coast and continuing across coastal or inland Sahara to arrive at their wintering grounds in the Sahel, Niger flood zone or even as far as South Africa.

Although the majority of birds overfly the Algarve, plenty of visible evidence of this phenomenon can be appreciated during most autumn days. When these mainly nocturnal migrants are at peak passage, usually during the first three weeks of September and especially in overcast conditions, the most spectacular mass arrivals happen. At its most intense in the far west, the Sagres peninsula becomes a fascinating bird watching venue. Everywhere one looks, migrants are busy feeding to increase fat reserves. Many of the species involved will be familiar to birders from northern Europe. Willow Warblers and Pied Flycatchers in their thousands are a regular occurrence, as are hundreds of Turtle Doves, Iberian, Blue-headed and Yellow Wagtails, Redstarts, Nightingales, Wheatears, Whinchats, Reed and Garden Warblers, Whitethroats and Spotted Flycatchers. Other species also appear in large numbers, for example, Wryneck, Tawny and Tree Pipits, Short-toed Larks, Black-eared Wheatear, Grasshopper, Sedge, Spectacled and Subalpine Warblers, Woodchat Shrikes and Ortolan Buntings. The most ardent birders might spot the odd Olivaceous or Orphean Warbler and Rufous Bush Robin. Bee-eaters are in large migratory parties now, and a few Rollers tend to drop in through September too.

 

Regular winter specialities include small numbers of the Siberian vagrant Richard’s Pipit on the grasslands and Alpine Accentors on the cape. Two kilometres north of the cape there is a traditional stop over site for the enigmatic Dotterel in mid-late September. Rare birds turn up anywhere in the area, especially later in the autumn. The Sagres peninsula is probably the best site in Portugal for finding national and European rarities from as far afield as Siberia and North America. Recent confirmed sightings around the peninsula include: Ruppell´s Vulture, Lesser Spotted Eagle, Red-footed Falcon, American Golden Plover, Sociable Plover, Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Glaucous, Audouin´s and Ring-billed Gulls, Chimney Swift, Little Swift, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Rose-coloured Starling, Snowfinch, Little and Snow Buntings. Other reported but unconfirmed rarities have included; Albatross sp., Pintado Petrel, Marabou Stork, Black Vulture, Royal Tern, Duponts Lark, Semi-collared Flycatcher, Barred, Hume´s Yellow-browed and Pallas´s Warblers, Steppe Grey Shrike.

 

Seabirds

The seas around Sagres are among the richest in southern Europe for seabirds. Many can be seen from the headlands, and in strong westerlies they pass close by, affording good views. Undoubtedly the most rewarding way to see true pelagic seabirds is by boat. The fishing vessel, Estrela do Rio, based in Sagres harbour, is highly recommended. Seabird enthusiasts are welcome to join the regular shark-fishing trips, and the necessary bait (chum) can be provided. The boat, which can comfortably accommodate 40 birders, also makes popular bi-annual ornithological trips. Sailing due south from Sagres avoids the strong currents, and a distance of 8 to 12 kilometres suffices to reach areas rich with marine life. There is no better area in Europe to see Wilson´s Storm Petrel. Normally only ever seen in single figures, even on prestigous sea trips like the famous Scillonian pelagic, this enigmatic and highly sought for globe-trotter has been seen on every one of these outings for the past fifteen years, and usually in numbers exceeding 50 individuals! Other regular seabirds seen on these trips include; Cory´s, Sooty, Great and Mediterranean Shearwaters, European Storm Petrel, Great, Pomarine, Arctic and Long-tailed Skuas, Grey Phalarope and Sabine´s Gull.

 

Whether you visit the area in winter, with its mild, spring-like days, or during the fabulous spring and summer, when the countryside is bursting with birdsong from southern species, or in autumn, when the kaleidoscope of long distance travellers is passing through, the south west Algarve is undoubtedly a birdwatchers’ destination par excellence.

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