Southern Portugal: Dec 2013

Some group members arrived a day or so early, so it was on 23rd that the remaining group members met Stuart and Jill at Faro Airport after their flight from the UK. With it being a late afternoon flight, the only birds we could muster en route were a few Cattle Egrets flying over, probably to roost nearby. We arrived at the Hotel Memmo Baleeria, Sagres, mid evening.

Day 2 Tuesday 24th December

Dry and bright with a stiff breeze

The day started with a leisurely breakfast overlooking the harbour. Black Redstart and Common Sandpiper pottered about on the lawn and a couple of Chiffchaff joined the local Sardinian Warblers as they fed amongst the Red-hot Pokers outside the restaurant.

After breakfast, we drove the short distance to the open steppe area near Sagres Farm. No sooner had we stepped outside the vehicles when a superb male Hen Harrier appeared and showed well to us all and a little further along the track we enjoyed great looks at 4 Red-billed Chough and a male Peregrine. There were plenty of passerines in the open grassland including Goldfinch, Corn Bunting and Linnet, as well as the ubiquitous Crested Lark.

Driving east for roughly an hour we reached Pera Marsh. Here we enjoyed watching Greater Flamingos, a single Caspian Tern with 3 Sandwich Terns, and a comical Purple Swamphen clambering around the reeds. Waders were well represented with Sanderling, Dunlin, and Curlew Sandpiper joining Kentish Plover, Black-winged Stilt and Common Snipe, all feeding in the vicinity of the large pool.


© Naturetrek December 2013 1

Portugal - The Algarve at Christmas Tour Report


We had our packed lunch while sitting on the very well positioned benches at Pera Marsh before heading off to Ria Formosa National Park. Here we studied a roost of egrets with hundreds of Little and Cattle Egrets huddled together and more flying in, almost resembling a snow scene, whilst hundreds of Mediterranean Gulls, several Pintail, Wigeon and Gadwall swam around on the enclosed lagoon. Nearby in strengthening winds we had good but brief views of Short-toed Treecreeper, Firecrest and Crested Tit in the Pine woodlands.

Day 3 Wednesday 25th December

Overcast, gale-force winds and some rain

Christmas Day dawned with a bang. Overnight gale-force winds had whipped up a huge sea and gusts so strong you could hardly stand up. We tried birding around Sagres Pousada but the wind nearly blew the group back to the hotel!

As we headed towards Cabo San Vicente it was obvious that there were literally thousands of Gannets moving offshore. It was then I had the idea of trying a seawatch. Getting everyone out of the wind and within the cover of the lighthouse wall we commenced our collective stare out over the sea - this proved to be a good move and we were rewarded with over 60 Great and 10 Pomarine Skuas, 20 Balearic Shearwaters, 30 Kittiwakes and as previously mentioned, thousands of Gannets as they were pushed ever closer to the cliffs! The skies got blacker though and the heavens eventually opened - time to move on!

After a leisurely lunch at the hotel we set out to explore the west coast. The rain had stopped and although still very windy we were keen to see what we could find. Taking a narrow coast road we soon found ourselves at Carrapateria headland; the Gannets were still moving in huge numbers but were 3 or 4 times closer than at the Cape. Another seawatch for those keen to get blown inside-out produced much closer views of another 50+ Great and 10 Pomarine Skuas, at least 30 Balearic Shearwaters, 20 Sandwich Terns, 30 Kittiwakes, 3 Puffins, 2 Guillemots and, perhaps best of all, 2 lingering Leach’s Petrels which most of the group managed to see.

We worked our way back to the hotel via a pool full of Iberian Water Frogs, well to be more accurate, a pool full of invisible Iberian Water Frogs. It sounds daft but we knew they were there as we could hear them croaking!

Day 4 Thursday 26th December

Warm and sunny

Today saw us head inland to the Alentajo region, famed for its Bustards and Sandgrouse. I just knew today would be a good one when Helen found a superb Black-shouldered Kite perched atop a roadside bush 10 minutes into the journey!

Reaching Castro Verde around two hours later we headed for a village called Sao Marcos. Stopping to check out some close White Storks we discovered a flock of 33 Great


© Naturetrek December 2013 2

Portugal - The Algarve at Christmas Tour Report


Bustards feeding with 4 Cranes only a few hundred metres from the roadside. Parking the vans nearby and walking back to the spot we then enjoyed a real ‘purple patch’ with 19 Little Bustards, Black Vulture, Booted Eagle, Black-shouldered Kite, Peregrine, Red Kite and another 18 Great Bustards flying in, all in the space of an hour!

Moving further down the valley through Cork Oak forests and into more dehesa to enjoy lunch and a coffee, our next stop produced 4 Hoopoes, several dozen Iberian Magpies and great close up views of Southern or Iberian Grey Shrike. Working our way to the open steppes we flushed 9 Little Bustards from the roadside, pulling over to watch them flying past then flushed another 4 Little Bustards, followed a few moments later by calling Calandra Lark overhead. Our most exciting few minutes were still to come when Simon’s group radioed to say they’d found a Great Spotted Cuckoo whilst looking for our Little Bustards, this in turn caused us to walk back up the track which produced no fewer than 15 Black-bellied Sandgrouse and a distant flock of 50 Little Bustards. As we were watching the sandgrouse, Julie and Jean called a flying raptor, ‘definitely an eagle!’ was the cry - expecting a Booted Eagle I had to do a double take when it banked and showed us it was actually a young Spanish Imperial Eagle - well done ladies!

Working our way back to the open area we eventually saw the Great Spotted Cuckoo, along with a few more sandgrouse, another 15 Great Bustards, 2 male Hen Harriers and a Merlin. Well who can top that? Well actually we can, as a few miles later as dusk drew in, we also had another perched Black-shouldered Kite - our third of the day!

Day 5 Friday 27th December

Heavy rain, dry for a while then rain again

Our first stop today was the mountainous area of Monchique. As we wound our way up the twisty roads towards the summit it was clear that the wet weather was set in for the day. This did not deter us however and after some warm drinks and a look around the souvenir shop we headed out into the rain. The only birds active in the poor weather were a pair of Rock Buntings which showed briefly before taking cover. The weather then closed in, giving us the choice of standing in in the pouring rain, sheltering in the cafe or heading down and into the fine weather visible in the distance - only 1 choice then!

Heading down from the summit we stopped once we hit some dry weather. A 30 minute wander around a wooded valley produced Bonelli’s Eagle, 20+ Crag Martins, 2 more Rock Buntings and a flock of rather mobile but nonetheless entertaining Common Waxbills.

Heading down to the coast we had our lunch and then spent the next hour drying out and enjoying some quality birding at Quinta do Lago. This produced great looks at many shorebirds including both godwits, Spotted Redshank and numerous Kentish Plovers. Just as we’d well and truly dried out the heavens then again opened, soaking us all and leaving us lusting after hot showers and a nice meal. Back to the hotel we went and the hot showers showed well as did the excellent meal.


3 © Naturetrek December 2013

Portugal - The Algarve at Christmas Tour Report


Day 6 Saturday 28th December

Warm and sunny with light showers in the afternoon

Today we woke to bright sunshine and a blue sky! We started at the excellent limestone gorge at Rocha de Pena where we saw a couple of Blue Rock Thrushes, a few butterflies including Small Copper and Clouded Yellow together with a few floral highlights, most notably Friar’s Cowl, looking, well a bit like a Friar’s Cowl! Nearby an Iberian Green Woodpecker called every so often but refused to come and show himself. When we left to head south, some lucky group members then saw (from the bus) another Iberian Green Woodpecker fly over the road just outside the village.

We headed down to Quinta do lago to finish off our birding there after getting so abruptly soaked the previous day. Quinta golf course pools proved very productive with Purple Swamphen by the dozen, Cetti’s Warbler singing, Hoopoes strutting about on the putting greens and Serins singing from the Pine trees. Best bird here however were the 3 Little Bitterns which showed well in the reeds.

Turning our attention to the saltmarshes we got great views of Greater Flamingo, Black- winged Stilt and both Bar-tailed and Black-tailed Godwits. Nearby, we searched along the muddy edges for the elusive Bluethroat. After brief views of a female, a male perched up for a few seconds and gave us all a great view of his pale blue throat, bordered by a black and white necklace and rich reddish-brown breast band. He soon dived for cover, not to re-emerge, so we called it a day and worked our way back to the hotel.

In the evening we were treated to a wonderful selection of local food as we moved from one restaurant to another, finishing up with a wonderful meal - a great way to end our final full day by drinking a toast to the Algarve at Christmas.

Day 7 Sunday 29th December

Warm and sunny.

Our final morning had come and what better way to enjoy it than a visit to the fortress at Sagres Pousada and then to the farmland where we had actually started the tour exactly one week ago.

Arriving at the fort we were informed that it was free to enter on Sunday mornings so we had a leisurely stroll around the open scrubby areas situated inside the fort. Over the next hour or so we saw some quality birds including a very confiding Zitting Cisticola, several feeding parties of Serins and a gorgeous glossy black male Black Redstart. Checking out the nearby buildings we got great views of a single Red-billed Chough when two thrushes flew out of nearby scrub. One was definitely a Song Thrush as the characteristic nervous ‘tik’ was heard but the other thrush dived into cover before we could confirm it was just another Song Thrush.


© Naturetrek December 2013 4

Portugal - The Algarve at Christmas Tour Report


Helen walked gently into the scrub whilst we all waited for movement, suddenly a thrush flew out and onto a nearby bush, a Song Thrush for sure, it was followed seconds later by a darker thrush which also perched up - not another Song Thrush but a superb Redwing!

Following our very enjoyable hour at the fortress we headed to the nearby farmland. Jill & I commented to the group that on our pre-tour recce we’d watched a Little Owl dozing in the sunshine on an open tiled roof. Driving along the track and scanning ahead of us I saw a small ‘bump’ protruding from the roof on our left, getting a scope on it confirmed that our Little Owl was back and once again enjoying a few rays after the last couple of windy and wet days.

Driving along the sandy track down to the sea we checked out the cliffs to find a beautiful powder-blue Blue Rock Thrush atop a rocky crag - this seemed a fitting way to end our birding, to head back to the hotel, pack and depart. Travelling to the airport a few White Storks soared over the motorway and the odd Iberian Magpie was seen as we stopped at junctions or traffic lights, however it was soon time to check-in and head back to wet and windy UK, but as we did so we reflected on an enjoyable and relaxing weeks birding in the Algarve - The perfect destination for Christmas!

On the final day Stuart asked all of the group members to send him their vote for bird of the trip. After all 15 votes were cast, there was a tie for first place between Great Bustard and Little Bittern with Bluethroat as the runner-up. 

Sample from Southern Portugal: Dec 2013