Monday, 14 October 2013

Trip Report - Portugal 10th-12th October 2013 including crossing the Bay of Biscay on 7th October 2013. 

I had the opportunity to visit Portugal which involved driving a van to the Algarve for an event run by my family’s business and as a reward I had an expenses paid opportunity to stay on for two or three days to do some birding, which I accepted without hesitation. I was away for seven days and include below the sightings from the non-birding days, because, well there is no such thing as a bird-free day if you’re a birder is there?

I travelled with my non-birding companion on the Portsmouth-Bilbao ferry which departed at 22:00 on Sunday 6th arriving in Bilbao on Tuesday 8th at 07:45. For some reason, the ferry called in at Roscoff in northern France on the Monday morning to pick up passengers. This gave the opportunity to scan the harbour for gulls where there was an adult Mediterranean Gull with the Herring, Lesser Black-backed and Great Black-backed gulls as well as two Shag. There was also some visible migration with c40 Meadow Pipits passing over head in a southerly direction, along with two Grey Wagtails.

We left port and headed westerly along the Brest coastline where 1 Guillemot, 2 further auk sp. and several Gannets were added. The vis-mig of Meadow Pipits continued until about 11:00 am with small groups of birds flying westerly close to the ship. Although none alighted on the ship it seemed they were approaching it (as a landmark?), with most outpacing the ship and heading determinedly westwards and not towards France! A Manx Shearwater was added as the only one of the trip and the first cetaceans were sighted when 8 Common Dolphin appeared at 12:00. This was to be the first of many Common Dolphin sightings during the day, but along with 5 Bottle-nosed Dolphin seen about an hour later were the only two cetacean species during the trip. This was partly due to both seasonal and daily timing. October is quite late for the migrating large whales and the most productive deep waters of Biscay were traversed during the hours of darkness. However, since Killer Whales were seen in Biscay in recent weeks I was ever hopeful (in vain).

The rest of the trip across the relatively shallow shelf area of north-eastern Biscay produced an abundance of common dolphins with a total of 102 seen in continuous small groups.

Common Dolphins, Biscay

Other sightings included an un-expected Great Shearwater which was flushed by the ship in flat-calm conditions, several Bonxies and a surprise Song-Thrush which appeared to alight somewhere on the ship but not in a publicly accessible area. There were also three butterflies and a moth, none seen well but the butterflies were possibly Red Admirals.

We arrived in Bilbao on Tuesday morning in darkness facing a 12 hour drive to the Algarve. The focus was on the driving but inevitably a few birds were seen including many Common Buzzard and Red Kites along with about 100 Griffon vultures at different locations. There were many tantalising views of distant raptors which is the norm when driving across Spain. Clouded Yellows were amongst the most apparent butterflies seen during the rest-stops with various species of  mainly blues (I had no butterfly id guide with me, and decided not to test the patience of my co-driver by chasing around the scrub after insects while he made the essentials brews!)

Wednesday was the final non-birding day but the hotel grounds, perched on a cliff-edge, produced Yellow-legged gulls, a Peregrine, Wheatear and Sardinian Warblers as new birds for the trip, along with several Cory’s Shearwater offshore. Wheatear was to become the bird of the trip as everywhere I went there were immaculate juveniles in large numbers, some of which gave excellent photo-opportunities. 
Wheatear, Cabo de Sao Vincente, Portugal

Thursday 10th October

The first birding day proper involved a frustrating delayed start as I couldn’t pick the hire car up until lunchtime. However as I was at Faro airport, Rio Formosa west was the obvious first stop. After seeing a flock of Azure-winged Magpies in some pines I eventually reached an area of marshy open wetland where an Osprey was perched distantly on a telegraph pole. The first open water, in sight of Faro airport, delivered Greater Flamingo, Black-winged Stilt, Cattle Egret and Cetti’s Warbler along with a decent selection of waterfowl including Red-crested Pochard, Gadwall, Coot, Mallard, Shoveler, Wigeon, Little Egret and Great Crested Grebe. An Osprey seen over the salt-pans was presumed to be the earlier bird.

I then headed inland to Fonte Benemola, which with hindsight was a mistake. It was an incredibly hot afternoon, and although this green river valley added a few common birds to the trip list it was hard going in the heat with most birds skulking in the dense shrubbery. Also no raptors were seen during the 90 minutes there. I am sure this would be a great location in spring, but on a hot October afternoon was frustratingly unproductive, so I headed back to the coast.

The next stop was Pera Marsh, which was one of the highlights of the trip. Although much of the marsh appeared to have been drained (and there was some “habitat improvement” work being undertaken), there was enough open water and mud to hold an excellent selection of birds which included; White Stork, about 150 Glossy Ibis, Cattle Egrets, Little Egret, Grey Heron, Dunlin, Little Stint, Spotted Redshank, Black-tailed Godwit, Golden Plover, Kentish Plover, Ringed Plover, Snipe, Knot, Sanderling, Avocet, Black-winged Stilt, Black-headed Weaver, Little Grebe along with gulls and wildfowl already seen. The gulls were scanned for Audouin’s and Slender-billed, but none were found either here or anywhere else during the trip, but both apparently occur.

Friday 11th October
I headed to the southwest corner of Portugal today and first stop was the watch-point at Sagres. Although this area gets good numbers of juvenile raptors that have mis-navigated and are too far west for Tarifa, my morning visit proved quiet, as it had been the previous day according to other observers there. The three hours spent there produced up to eight Booted Eagle, Griffon Vulture, Egyptian Vulture, several Sparrowhawk, Peregrine, and a small flock of Red-billed Chough.

I then went to the nearby lighthouse at Cabo de Sao Vincente, where among the Wheatears were two Black Redstart. A couple of hour’s sea-watching surprisingly produced very little apart from Gannets, and five Mediterranean Gull.

On the way back to the hotel I called in at the Alvor estuary. A good selection of waders, gulls (and Wheatears!) were encountered but only Bar-tailed Godwit was added to the list. The visit was ruined by a British ex-pat who let his large dog run out onto the salt marsh flushing the birds. I won’t print what I called him here, but as he was tattooed and bigger than me, I whispered it under my breath.

Saturday 12th October

The last day saw me inland at Castro Verde. Well, all I can say is what a magical place! My first stop was by the roadside when I saw a shrike, which turned out to be an Iberian Grey Shrike – the first of seven seen during the day. The obvious difference to the familiar Great Grey Shrikes seen during the winter in the UK is the darker tone of the grey mantle and head. I have only had one previous – five second- view of this species, in Spain, so to see seven in a day was excellent. My next stop was the LPN visitor centre (translated as the League for the Protection of Nature and the Portuguese equivalent of the RSPB). The centre was open, but I had to ring the door-bell for attention and I think I was the only visitor that day. The young lady present gave me some pointers for sites and suggested a walk around the reserve where I may see Great Bustard and Black-bellied Sand-grouse which was one of my two target birds. The other being Little Bustard which she informed me hadn’t been seen for some time. Ok, I thought, October is not the best time, but I set off on the walk optimistically nonetheless. Within 15 minutes an unfamiliar bird flew overhead giving an unfamiliar call, but was silhouetted so I didn’t get a great view. Stone-curlew came to mind first, but I knew it wasn’t. A minute or two later a small flock appeared giving the same call and this time I had great views of four Black-bellied Sand-grouse. A second flock appeared, again giving great views at which point I picked up another unfamiliar bird which I followed. The unmistakeable black and white wings and distinctive jizz gave it away as a Little Bustard! It gave sustained flight-views as it flew around me in a big arc and landed about 200m from the visitor centre buildings. Later attempts to relocate it on the ground failed, but I could not be happier with the excellent flight views it gave – surely better than on the ground views in this season anyway. More small groups of Black-bellied Sand-grouse passed adding to a total of 30. Little Owl was added to the list and distant raptors all proved to be Common Buzzards or Red Kites. Back in the car park, more Wheatears were joined by a Black Redstart.

After an exhilarating first hour I set off around some of the other sites in the area looking for Great Bustard and raptors. However, what started as a calm if cool morning became an even cooler and breezy afternoon. Despite extensive scanning of some great looking habitat I failed to see any Great Bustards, but a few more trip species such as Calandra Lark, Corn Bunting and two Hoopoe, along with the shrikes made the afternoon enjoyable.

Black Redstart, Castro Verde

 All too soon I had to head back to the hotel and the trip was effectively over. I missed a few target birds, but given the whistle-stop nature of the trip, trying to cram in as much different habitat as possible, as well as birding alone this was inevitable. The drive down through Spain took us through Extremadura and I was almost salivating at the habitat passing us by. After the experience of the similar terrain of Castro Verde, Extremadura will I think be on the agenda for next spring.

The Iberian peninsula is rivalling Scotland for my favourite birding location and the beauty of the Algarve is that there are some excellent sites close to the tourist resorts. So even if you are travelling with non-birding companions as is often the case for birders with non-birding partners, there is some excellent birding on offer even if you only have two or three days to spare.

I prepared for the trip with excellent Finding Birds in Portugal by Dave Gosney, which gives GPS co-ordinates for most of the locations and has been updated in 2013. I pre-programmed most of these into the sat-nav which made navigation simple. One word of advice for anyone visiting these sites in a hire car. Many of the tracks are rough and the potential for damage to the car bodywork is high, so I would recommend taking out the extra insurance cover if it is offered (it cost me an additional £14 for the three days).

Bird List 

Mute Swan,
Red-crested Pochard,
Common Scoter,
Cory’s Shearwater,
Great Shearwater,
Manx Shearwater,
Northern Gannet,
Cattle Egret,
Little Egret,
Grey Heron,
White Stork,
Glossy Ibis,
Little Grebe,
Great Crested Grebe,
 Red Kite,
Egyptian Vulture,
Griffon Vulture,
 Black Vulture * a potential bird seen at great distance, but not well enough to rule out Griffon,
Common Buzzard,
 Little Bustard,
 Black-winged Stilt,
Golden Plover,
Ringed Plover,
Kentish Plover,
Black-tailed Godwit,
Bar-tailed Godwit,
Little Stint,
 Green Sandpiper,
Spotted Redshank,
Great Skua,
Black-headed Gull,
Mediterranean Gull,
Lesser Black-backed Gull,
Herring Gull,
Yellow-legged Gull,
Great Black-backed Gull,
Black-bellied Sandgrouse,
Rock Dove,
Collared Dove,
 Little Owl,
 Iberian Grey Shrike,
Red-billed Chough
Azure-winged Magpie
Carrion Crow,
Calandra Lark,
 Crested Lark,
Crag Martin,
 Cetti’s Warbler,
 Sardinian Warbler,
Fan-tailed Warbler,
Spotless Starling,
Song Thrush,
Black Redstart,
Northern Wheatear,
House Sparrow,
Grey Wagtail,
Pied Wagtail,
Meadow Pipit,
Cirl Bunting,
Reed Bunting,
Corn Bunting,
Black-headed Weaver * one seen at Pera Marsh, part of the naturalised population there


Common Dolphin,
Bottle-nosed Dolphin


Clouded Yellow,
various species of blues and several moths species evident


Several species seen, but no attempt to id was made given the time constraints