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Algarve and southern Portugal

August 2007

By Stephen Burch, England

This is an illustrated trip report on the birding and dragonfly highlights from a two week family holiday to Praia da Luz, Algarve in August 2007. With limited time available for birding etc, my focus was on connecting with my target lifers and getting some photos, not rushing around numerous different sites building a long list. Nevertheless, my final list was c. 70 species, which I didn't think was too bad for an August visit.

The Algarve is not somewhere we have been before, and this destination was inspired by a posting on by Marc Buzzard from August 2006. The highlight of his trip had been a boat trip which produced Wilson's Petrel at close range, and I was very keen to try to repeat his success! I also planned to try the inland trip to the Castro Verde for Great Bustards.

August is probably not the best month for the Algarve, but I hoped it would produce at least 3 lifers (the above mentioned species, plus Azure Winged Magpie).

Apart from one day, the weather was almost uniformly sunny and quite warm, getting up to the high 20's. For August, we were told this was unusually cool, but it was quite hot enough for us!

Sources of Information
I managed to obtain the booklet "Finding Bird in Southern Portugal" by Gosney and also "A birdwatching guide to The Algarve" by Kevin & Christine Carlson (second hand, as it is now out of print). Both are quite dated. There is also plenty of information on the web, with numerous trip reports, although not many for August - it seems most birders go in winter or spring.

For maps, the 1:100,000 Rough Guide Map to the Algarve was OK, and for the Castro Verde the 1:200,000 GeoCenter map "Algarve Southern Portugal" was quite adequate.

Castro Verde
This is a well known site for Great Bustards, and prior to the trip I had gathered information about the best locations from the web and the Gosney book. However some accounts were quite vague, and some reported no success at all. Hopefully the map shown here will be useful to others, in connecting with this ace species.

We were off from our villa by around 05:30, with the aim of reaching the area by around 07:00 - which was sunrise at this time of year. In the event, with quiet roads, the drive up the IP1 toll (5 Euro each way) took only a bit over a hour from Praia da Luz to the Castro Verde exit (despite a wrong turn up the similarly numbered IC1 on the way north). We were then driving along the N123 east of Castro Verde just after 07:00 by which time the sun was beginning its climb into the sky. Southern Grey Shrikes were very evident along this road in the early morning light. When we reached the village of Sao Marcos, we were confused to find no road opposite to the south, only a track with a gate across it, and a sign indicating the area was probably a reserve for Great Bustards. It seems the map in Gosney is a bit inaccurate, and the road south to Rolao leaves the N123 a few km west of Sao Marcos.

Retracing our route a little way on the N123, we then did the circuit shown in purple on the map given here. We proceeded south to Monte dos Viseus, but plenty of scanning produced no sign of Bustards. We then turned east and passed the tower described by Gosney, although there now seems no access to it from the road - plenty of keep out signs all around. Still no hint of Bustards, but just east of Monte das Serrais we had another stop and scan, which hit gold in the form of a splendid if distant group of at least 8 Great Bustards - the location is shown approximately by the green spot on the map. Only around 08:30, and the main object of the trip achieved!

From then on, driving around the 'Great Bustard circuit', we then found well over 20 individuals in 5 - 6 different groups, including an obliging couple back on the Rolao to Monte dos Viseus road. Some were quite close to the road to start with, but would move off at a leisurely but surprisingly rapid pace when the car stopped. The approximate locations are shown by the other green spots on the map. I managed several DSLR pics, and tried digiscoping as well.

Other birds in the area included the Short-toed Eagle shown below (which flew off, flushing our second group of Bustards!), masses of Corn Bunting and Crested Lark, the odd Azure-winged Magpie but no Calandra Lark or Little Bustards (though I wasn't looking hard for the latter, as it wouldn't have been a lifer).

After this success, we drove back along the N123, stopping briefly at the river bridge mentioned in some accounts. This produced only Red Rumped Swallow, Cettis Warbler and Corn Bunting. We then tried the Entradas area north-east from Castro Verde along the IP2, but without much success. The minor road north west from Entradas produced little apart from some Wheatear, and another Short-toed Eagle. No sign of Black-shouldered Kite anywhere.

Great Bustards seen in the Castro Verde area Short-toed Eagle in the Castro Verde area
One of 25+ Great Bustards seen in the Castro Verde area Short-toed Eagle in the Castro Verde area

Lagos - Shark fishing trip
The first Monday of our holiday, we went down to the harbour/marina in Lagos to book a shark fishing trip (it is reasonably eco friendly - they only tag any large sharks caught). There were plenty of companies touting for business, but many were offering dolphin 'chasing' rides or gentle pleasure trips along the coast. We ended up booking with Pescamar Sport Fishing for the next available trip which was not until Saturday. This was cancelled due to bad weather (the only such day of the holiday!), but fortunately the captain ("Jacko") agreed to take us all out the following day, which was usually his day off. Pre-booking via their website might be worth trying. This was a 6 hour trip, starting reasonably early in the morning. It was apparent that this company was quite used to birders looking for the birds that 'walk on the water'! The boat took 8 passengers, and non fishers paid less. However, in the event this trip left something to be desired for both me and the other family members who came as well, as will be appreciated from the following account.

Fortunately the weather was good on the day of the re-arranged trip - almost too good with very little wind at all. The boat took about 1/2 hour to reach the allotted spot, which was only a few miles offshore. The fishing lines were then baited by the crew, and a bag full of sardine 'mush' lowered over the side. Within a short time, Petrels appeared as if by magic, but good views were difficult as a current must have taken the sardine bits well away from the boat in a direction into the sun. Nonetheless, I assumed (wrongly it turned out) these were all Wilson's, and concentrated on trying to get pics of any that approached the boat reasonably closely - not easy as the boat was moving around a lot in the swell, despite the lack of wind.

After about 1/2 hour, one of the lines produced a small Blue Shark - too small to tag. But thereafter, no further sharks were caught in the remaining 3+ hours - not very exciting for the other family members, although some smaller fish were caught on other lines to try to keep the younger members of the party happy. During this time, bird interest waned as well. All the Petrels disappeared for long periods, and due to the calm conditions very little was moving - apart from the occasional passing Cory's Shearwater.

Right at the end, the crew ditched all the sardine mush, and began to reel in the lines, whereupon two Petrels appeared and approached the boat quite closely, although annoyingly they were facing away from the boat when pattering on the water. Nevertheless I did get some reasonable pics - see below - some of which clearly show the diagnostic yellow webbing on the feet of Wilson's Petrel. This is apparently normally so difficult to see in the field that it has been omitted from some field guides (notably Collins).

Reviewing all my pics afterwards, it was evident that many (if not all) of the Petrels seem to start with were 'only' Stormies, not Wilsons! Just as well the last 2 appeared, right at the end. Others be warned!

Wilson's Petrel on Shark fishing trip off Lagos Wilson's Petrel on Shark fishing trip off Lagos
Wilson's Petrel on Shark fishing trip off Lagos - note yellow webbing on feet

Wilson's Petrel on Shark fishing trip off Lagos

Another Wilson's Petrel
Cory's Shearwater Storm Petrel off Lagos

Cory's Shearwater - the odd one passed by

Storm Petrel - many if not all of the petrels seen to start with were these

Alvor Estuary
The Alvor estuary is a well known birding site, and was within 1/2 hour's drive of Praia da Luz, so I visited it several times, including one productive early morning trip which produced some nice lighting conditions for photography. The tracks in the area were quite good, and using the car as a hide produced some of the results shown below. Species seen here included Woodchat Shrike (juv only), Azure Winged Magpie, Little Owl, Wheatear, Hoopoe, Waxbill, Stonechat etc.

At the end of the track, it was possible to do a circular walk along the sea wall and back along a dyke, around the outermost lagoon area (disused salt pan?). Obvious large birds in this area were single juv Flamingo in residence and a White Stork (on some visits). Waders included the omnipresent Black-winged Stilts, Kentish Plover (on the sea side), and migrants such as Whimbrel, Grey Plover, Greenshank, Black-tailed Godwit. So nothing to get the pulse racing, but a pleasant area.

It was also the only place where dragonflies seemed to be breeding, with tandem pairs of Red-Veined Darter and some Lesser Emperors around. The general abundance of dragonflies in the Algarve seemed surprising, given the lack of fresh water (virtually all rivers were bone dry - with the water held back by inland dams).

Grey Heron in the early morning

Little Owl in the early morning light

Grey Heron in the early morning

Black winged Stilts Click to enlarge Black winged Stilt. Click to enlarge
Black winged Stilts - tame enough to get close enough for these pics (click to enlarge)
 juv Woodchat Shrike Alvor Estuary Waxbill
juv Woodchat Shrike Waxbill
juv Flamingo Tandem pair of Red veined Darters
juv Flamingo Tandem pair of Red veined Darters

Silves - river Odekouca
On our final day, we had plenty of time to kill before our evening return flight, so we first drove up to look at the Barragem (dam) da Bravura. En-route I spotted a large soaring bird, which turned out to be a distant Black Stork! A quite unexpected bonus.

Later, we found ourselves driving along the road between the N124 and Silves, which is near the mouth of a largish river system (Odekouca). Here we were amazed to find large numbers of migrating White Storks flying over but at low altitude. They were passing over in 'waves', with groups spiralling around a thermal to gain some height, before soaring over us. I managed to take lots of pics, some of which came out OK - see below.

A bit further on, we found out why they were passing over so low - they were heading for a large group of others in a field across the river. There must have been several hundred all together. I presume they were en route to Africa, via Gibraltar. They certainly produced a very good end to our holiday - which required hasty unpacking of the camera!

Click to enlarge. White Stork Silves Portugal Click to enlarge
A few of the hundreds of migrating White Stork we found by chance (click top ones to enlarge)

Our comfortable and spacious villa, Casa Luisa, was rented privately and was good for both birds and dragonflies. With 'compact' but pleasant gardens, most of the birds were fly overs. On the very first morning, I had some interesting calls while lying in bed, and got up to find a Bee-Eater sitting on nearby wires. Grabbing the camera, I got the pic shown below! A loose group of over 10 appeared early morning for the next few days, giving some flight shots, but they then vanished completely.

Other species seen from the pool side included Hoopoe (early mornings best), one party of Azure-winged Magpie (at dusk), Red-rumped Swallow, Sardinian Warbler and the odd Waxbill over. During the heat of the day, dragonflies provided most interest with 4 species - Red-veined Darter, Scarlet Darter, Lesser Emperor and Iberian Bluetail.

Bee Eaters Praia da Luz Portugal
Bee Eaters from the pool side!
Scarlet Darter Red veined Darter

Scarlet Darter

Red veined Darter

Pera Marsh
This site was a reasonable distance from Praia da Luz, and I managed only one brief visit. There had been much develoment in this area, and it wasn't very easy to find. Following signs to Salgados beach led eventually to a large carpark, from which the marshes could be accessed by walking round an inlet behind the beach. There is a closer approach on the west side of the marshes, but I had no idea how to find this.

The most notable bird here was Flamingo - a flock of several hundred spread out over the water. Other than that, there was nothing very remarkable. No sign of Purple Galinule, reported by others, nor Spoonbill or Purple Heron. There were plenty of Little Egret, Little Grebe and Coot and Moorhen. On the adjacent dunes, I was fortunate to come across a settled Lesser Emperor dragonfly:

Lesser Emperor Pera Marsh

Lesser Emperor

Pera Marshes - the white dots are Flamingoes!

This is a 900m mountain with a road to the summit which has a radar station, shop and cafe etc. We had a walk along one of the small roads which leads away from the summit. No sign of Rock Bunting, but there were Blue Rock Thrush in the area, juv Woodchat Shrike, Dartford Warblers, Stonechat, possible Spectacled Warbler, Buzzard and a few Emperor dragonfly. A pleasant spot, with good views over the Algarve region.

All pictures copyright Stephen Burch

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