After a typical British spring and early summer we needed to get away from the rain and get some sun on our backs, so, after a break of 8 years, we decided to return to Portugal and the Algarve. This was to be a family holiday so, for once, birding took second place. We did however manage several trips to revisit old favourite haunts and to try a couple of new sites.
FLIGHTS, CAR HIRE & ACCOMMODATION
Making arrangements about two months before departure meant getting cheap flights was not really an option, but we still decided to go with EasyJet from Liverpool as the flight times were not as early as others from Manchester and, therefore, much more convenient. We arranged a suitable villa and car hire via our old friend Barbara Read. We stayed at Casa Kivi at Cama da Vaca, halfway between Luz and Burgau, with transport courtesy of Luz Cars.
Collins Bird Guide for ID; Dave Gosney’s Finding Birds in Southern Portugal, Birdwatching Guide to the Algarve by Kevin & Christine Carlson and web research to update our knowledge from past trips. See resultant site update.
Tide Tables for Faro – Particularly useful when visiting coastal sites such as Alvor Estuary and Quinta do Lago.
DIARY & SITE DESCRIPTIONS
Tuesday 31st July
Arriving on schedule just before lunch time, we were soon leaving the airport in our hire car on our way west from Faro, enjoying the sunshine and clear blue skies. After dropping our cases at the villa and visiting the supermarket in Lagos for supplies, we had a quick lunch and set off to explore Burgau Marsh/Budens Marsh, or as it is known locally, Boca do Rio, just west of Burgau between the town and nearby Salema. The habitat comprises of marshy river valley, an old reed bed, scrub and some mature trees and in the past has been good for a number of species. We were to get our first taste of what general birding would be like on the Algarve in August. We spotted several small warblers flitting about in the long grass and nothing else. The reed bed was unusually quiet, apart from a small party of young Goldfinch and appeared to have almost dried up. Birds were definitely at a premium and, after a very dry winter, so was water. As we approached Salema we spotted a few Crag Martin amongst other hirundines but, again, the whole area appeared almost devoid of birdlife, unlike spring and autumn, when we had previously visited. Returning to the villa we watched the resident Red-rumped Swallow pair, still feeding young, a pair of juvenile Stonechat and a marauding party of c20 Iberian Magpie in the adjoining vineyard. Looking across the cliffs there was a regular passage of Yellow-legged Gull and a lone Gannet flying west whilst a Peregrine came in off the sea and flashed over the villa. We had seen several Red-legged Partridge wandering around the vineyard during the late afternoon and as we settled down for a glass of wine after dinner in the gathering dusk, a family of five juveniles, with their parents, flew on to the lawn about 5 metres away and began hunting for insects. A full moon rose slowly over the cliffs, silhouetting the palm trees and casting a glow over the water – an excellent way to relax and begin our non-birding family holiday.
Wednesday 1st August
As we finished breakfast on the patio I heard an unmistakable call from the other side of the villa and as I walked around to the front door, two Bee-eaters landed on the telephone wires nearby. We spent the morning around the villa and after lunch decided to head for the Alvor Estuary. We visited the west bank first, but as we struggled to find a way from Meia Praia through to the estuary, high tide had arrived and not many birds remained on the steep banks, with a single Whimbrel and a handful of Turnstone. The small gull flock loafing on the water and boats anchored by the river banks contained a couple of Mediterranean Gull and several Sandwich Tern. The road from Lagos via Meia Praia and Palmares golf course is now blocked and the easiest access is from N125 at the east end of Odiáxere; head for Vale da Lama and after a few kilometres take the track on the left across the railway line towards the fish tanks and estuary.
Undeterred, we retraced our steps to the N125, enjoying a low-flying Short-toed Eagle overhead and drove around to the central portion of the estuary, passing the A Rocha ringing station which only opens on Thursdays from 10:00am. Little has changed here in the last eight years: the central salt marsh and salt pans appear untouched and the wooded hillside behind the car park is still fenced off with no further development apparently taking place. As we were leaving we met a local birder, Colin Key, and he confirmed that migration had been strange over the last couple of years as weather patterns had varied dramatically; once common breeding birds such as Kentish Plover, Little Tern, Red-necked Nightjar, Stone Curlew and even the previously guaranteed resident Little Owl had all but disappeared. Bird numbers and variety of species were certainly down on our previous spring and autumn visits, but we did manage c12 Grey Heron, c15 Whimbrel, c6 Turnstone, c12 Dunlin, c30 Redshank, 2 Greenshank, 3 Ringed Plover, c8 Black-winged Stilt and a single Common Sandpiper as we walked around the salt marsh. A large mixed gull flock roosted on the salt pans and, despite our best efforts, we could not improve on Black-headed, Western Yellow-legged and Lesser Black-backed. However, we did spot a lone Little Tern and a group of c10 Oystercatcher to provide a bit of variety. Around the edges of the salt marsh we saw 3 stunning Monarch butterfly, a few Zitting Cisticola and a single Yellow Wagtail Sp. The inland fields behind the salt marsh contained several Little Egret, c10 White Stork, a few Cattle Egret and a single Hoopoe & Serin: not the feast of birds we had hoped for, but it was the height of summer after all.
Thursday 2nd August
Today we decided to visit Cape St Vincent and set off west mid-morning. Initially we took the coast road through Burgau and Boca do Rio, which was as quiet as our previous visit. From Salema we headed inland, back towards the N125 and past Quinta dos Carricos water treatment works. Water levels in the lagoons were very low and, only being able to view the distant pools from around the perimeter fence we couldn’t see any birds. Cape St Vincent itself was very quiet, apart from all the tourists and the market stalls. It was very windy and even the swifts seemed to have packed up their bags and left for more friendly spots. As we returned inland we took the track on the left, just before the Taverna de Beliche. Both tracks here were deeply rutted and with no birds in sight, (no doubt deterred by the wind), and not having a 4WD, we took an executive decision and returned to the main road. We retraced our steps a short distance, back towards the Cape and went up the main track, which is now tarmac as far as the dilapidated farm buildings, where it turns east and heads inland towards Vila do Bispo. At the start of this track, before it widens out into the flat terrain typical of the area, a couple of small birds flitted amongst the roadside Cistus, looking just like Dartford Warbler, but too quick altogether to confirm ID. We have previously driven this track on many occasions and always found the area to be very productive, but today the most common species were Yellow-legged Gull and Feral Pigeon, with only a handful of Chough dotted about here and there. We did manage a Tawny Pipit in the parched roadside grass, several Stonechat, a large flock of Spotless Starling feeding on the flower spikes of a strand of Aloes and a solitary Southern Grey Shrike. Earlier, as we had approached Vila do Bispo, a Black Kite had drifted overhead across the road.
As we left Sagres on the N268 towards Vila Do Bispo we turned right to Martinhal, previously on of our favourite lunch spots with the beach bar Nortada. The area is now much more built up with developments having mushroomed over the last 8 years. The small tidal pool behind Nortada, which previously contained brackish water was completely dry and appeared to have been this way for some time. There were no birds about at all and, disappointed, we decided to head back to the villa for lunch and a lazy afternoon around the pool.
Friday 3rd August
Early morning around the villa saw much the same species as previously, including 2 Bee-eater, with Hoopoe and Crested Lark being new. We decided to visit Barranco Joao Vaz near Raposeira. There are a number of roads and tracks leading to beaches here. The drive down a river valley passes through a number of diverse habitats, leading eventually to a deserted sandy bay. However, the road was blocked a little over half way to the coast with what appeared to be temporary building work taking place. Woodchat Shrike and Zitting Cisticola were the only birds of note, together with a Short-toed Eagle which flew low over the N125 as we approached Raposeira. With few birds about we set off for Sagres to visit a small piece of woodland on the right just after the island by the Sagres fort on the N268. On the way we spotted c10 Chough in the roadside fields, but when we arrived we were surprised to find the wood fenced off and seemingly inaccessible. There is now what appears to be a failed development on the Sagres side of the wood and a track here leads down to a small, almost unoccupied development at the back of the wood. We walked down the track and into the wood, but apart from Greenfinch and Collared Dove, everywhere was quiet. Another once productive site seemingly no longer! Back to the villa once more.
Saturday 4th August
After breakfast we decided to go to Pera Marsh (aka Lagoa dos Salgados) to see whether or not a change of habitat would produce more birds. Shortly after leaving the villa we were surprised to see an Alpine Swift fly low overhead, across the N125 near Luz. As usual, several White Stork were on their nests on the outskirts of Lagos and Cattle Egret were evident in roadside fields. East of Alcantarilha at the first traffic light junction on the N125, we took the road to Armação de Pêra and almost immediately turned left across a narrow bridge on a minor road heading towards Pêra. Once over the bridge we veered right and followed this road around the outskirts of the town, going up a slight incline to an “island” at the top of the rise and turned right taking the small road down to the beach and Pera Marsh. With drought over the winter months and tourist numbers in the area being down on previous years (the marsh is fed by the local water purification plant) water levels were low and the surface area of water was less than two thirds of that on our previous visits. However there were still large numbers of birds about, with waders being mainly Dunlin and to a lesser extent Redshank. There were good numbers of Kentish Plover, Black-winged Stilt and Avocet, with the occasional Little Stint, Ringed Plover, Common Sandpiper, Sanderling, Turnstone and Curlew Sandpiper adding interest. A few White Stork, Greater Flamingo and Little Egret were dotted around the marsh whilst groups of c5 Spoonbill were on either side of the water. A huge flock of gulls had settled at the landward side of the marsh and after much searching we managed to locate a single Audouin’s Gull amongst the Yellow-legged, Black-headed and Lesser Black-backed. Hoopoe and a few White Wagtail were the only other species of note.
Building permission has previously been granted around Pera Marsh and a few months ago an online petition was instigated to fight the proposals. When we were talking to Colin Key at Alvor we mentioned the Pera situation and he was of the opinion things had been blown out of proportion by a recent article in the local press. To his knowledge the original planning permission has not been varied and there have been no recent changes as both the developer and the adjoining golf complex at Salgardos have gone bust.
As we approached the villa on our return, late in the afternoon, a Hare was a surprise find in the fields surrounding Cama da Vaca and a stroll around the vineyard and cliff top produced 4 Linnet, Hoopoe, Blue Rock Thrush, Southern Grey Shrike and Spotless Starling, with a lone Gannet joining the Yellow-legged Gull flying west off-shore.
Sunday 5th August
A post breakfast stroll around the villa added Serin, Zitting Cisticola and Sardinian Warbler to our “garden” birds list. Today we had decided to drive inland and up the west coast to try our luck. We started off just down the road at Almadena Sewage Works. There are 8 settling pools right by the roadside here: although we had driven past on a number of occasions and not noticed any birds, we decided to stop and have a closer look. Much to our surprise we had 2 Little Grebe and 3 young, Black-winged Stilt plus 2 juveniles, 2 Common Sandpiper, 2 White Wagtail and a pair of Moorhen.
We took the N120 main road from Lagos to Aljezur before cutting across to the N268 north of Carrapateira where in suitable habitat by the roadside we have previously seen Cirl Bunting on most trips. Not this time however.
We had heard of a site just north of Aljezur which we had never visited before. The valley of the Ribeira de Aljezur is signposted from the N120 about 1 km north of Aljezur for Praia Amoreira. The left turn is at the side of the Swimming Pool/Leisure Centre (Complexo Desportivo) and the road follows the valley for c5km through farmland, orchards, river-bank scrub, gallery forest, scrub covered hills, water meadows and saltpans to a tidal lagoon, extensive dunes and a broad sandy beach: An excellent assortment of habitats holding great promise at the right time of year. With elsewhere very quiet we managed to pick up Green Sandpiper, Alpine Swift and Orphean Warbler, whilst we heard an elusive Great Reed Warbler which was very vocal but would just not show itself. A flighty pair of doves would not settle long enough to get them in the scope, but we were pretty sure they were Turtle Dove. The road down to the beach was very busy with locals making the best of their week-end off and when we got there, the beach was absolutely hammered. 3 Curlew and a couple of Greenshank were at the edge of the tidal water meadows and Black-headed Gull loafed around the saltpans. We left the crowds behind and headed back to the peace and quiet of the villa where we added Greenfinch, Goldfinch and Woodchat Shrike to the “garden list”.
Monday 6th August
Most of the day spent around the villa with Hoopoe and Blue Rock Thrush being the main highlights and Cattle Egret added to the “garden list”.
Tuesday 7th August
After breakfast a Peregrine dashing over the villa was an early highlight. We then had a family trip out to visit Cape St Vincent and its market stalls & Sagres fort. At the Cape a female Black Redstart flitted around the back of the stalls whilst the fort was more productive with Alpine Swift overhead and both Common and Pallid Swift flashing by at eye level as they cruised the cliff faces, whilst a pair of Rock Dove flew in and out of crevices way below. Walking around the fort we came across c4 Black Redstart, Stonechat, Linnet and Crested Lark. We returned to the villa for a late lunch and after a lazy afternoon went to Lagos in the evening for dinner.
Wednesday 8th August
After a lazy morning around the villa we decided to visit Quinta do Lago immediately after lunch to sample some more water birds. Taking Junction 12 from the E1/IP1/A22 Motorway we followed the signs for Almancil and then Val de Lobo/Quinta do Lago. We turned left at the t-junction for Quinta do Lago and followed this road all the way to the Golf Complex and Shopping Mall (where there are public toilets) and the road merges into the Ave André Jordan. The beach car park (fee €1.10 per hour) at the end of Ave André Jordon is quite convenient. The wind had dropped today and temperatures were soaring. With little or no shade, we walked left at the end of the car park, by the boardwalk across the salt marsh and followed the track around the edge of the golf course. The tidal mud flats held good numbers of waders and gulls including Black-tailed Godwit, Dunlin, Curlew Sandpiper, Kentish Plover, Ringed Plover, Curlew, Whimbrel, Sanderling and Redshank. There is now a new hide overlooking some of the lagoons as well as the hide at the golf course lake. There were only a few birds on the lagoons when we arrived, but when we returned almost 90 minutes later the tide was coming in and numbers had increased significantly and included several breeding plumaged Grey Plover and a hunting Purple Heron, whilst a single Sandwich Tern flew overhead. The golf course lake was, as usual, quite productive and held good numbers of ducks including two Ferruginous Duck, Little Grebe, Great Crested Grebe and Moorhen. Huge numbers of Coot were also present but we only managed 2 Purple Swamphen and then only fleetingly, just before we left. There were a few herons and egrets around and we briefly saw 2 Kingfisher in flight, but the stars of the show were 2 female Little Bittern hunting around the reeds immediately in front of the hide for about half an hour. Two male Little Bittern also flew over the reed bed at the back of the lake and a Glossy Ibis briefly flew in front of the hide. The large gull flock on the lake was joined by at least 4 Little Tern and several Village Weaver were conspicuous around the edges of the reeds.
We briefly followed the track leading from the golf course (beyond the lake hide) towards Ludo Farm and picked up Serin, Crested Lark and Hoopoe, but with temperatures still around 36°C we decided to head back to the car and eventually the villa as a cold beer was calling. Walking back past the hide we came across the Glossy Ibis we had seen earlier, as it sat out in the sunshine preening.
Thursday 9th August
We decided to visit the Alvor Estuary again today to see if anything new had turned up. Dunlin were still the most common wader and had been joined by 2 Curlew Sandpiper, whilst 2 Monarch butterfly still fluttered around the scrub on the edge of the marsh. With the day heating up and little new about we decided to head back to the villa on the track around the edge of the marsh after spotting 3 Woodchat Shrike and a Kestrel over the fields behind the car park. There was much more activity on and around the track than when we drove down an hour earlier, with c6 Hoopoe, c4 Bee-eater and c10 Waxbill being the pick of the bunch. Back at the villa Blue Rock Thrush was again in evidence, but by far the star bird was a juvenile Golden Oriole in the bushes at the end of the vineyard, where it stayed for about half an hour as it was harried by the local Azure-winged Magpie flock. We returned to Lagos once again for dinner.
Friday 10th August
With Aljezur & Praia Amoreira having been so busy on Sunday, we decided another quick visit might prove worthwhile. As we entered the valley a Short-toed Eagle drifted overhead and a Green Sandpiper was again on the river. We had been hoping to pick up the Great Reed Warbler but today all was quiet and the water meadows were also deserted. As we returned back up the valley we spotted several Turtle Dove, having seen a bird earlier on the roadside telephone wires, north of Carrapeteira. We returned to the villa for lunch and as the heat of the day began to decline at c4pm we set out for the nearby Barragem de Bravura. Leaving the N125 at Odiáxere we headed inland under the motorway where we were surprised to see 2 Honey Buzzard floating lazily overhead. At the dam it was very quiet with very few species around; we did however locate a Grey Wagtail in the virtually dry stream bed at the foot of the dam. We returned to the villa for an early evening barbeque and then visited Lagos for a stroll around the town and to soak up the atmosphere on the streets.
Saturday 11th August
Another non-birding day today as we spent the morning in Lagos and all went for a ride on Segway machines. This was great fun and we can thoroughly recommend it. We returned to the villa for lunch and spent the afternoon around the pool.
Sunday 12th August
We decided to have another lazy day around the villa today and in the evening we returned to Lagos for dinner. We had heard of a new freshwater wetland at Paul de Lagos but had been unable to find its exact location. This small area is described as situated just northeast of Lagos. The reedbeds here are said to hold a number of birds that are usually more difficult to find in other areas, such as Penduline Tit in winter and Great Reed Warbler in the breeding season as well as a range of migrants and commoner breeding species. On our last stroll by the marina in Lagos we spotted a booth offering guided boat trips around the reedbeds. The web site appears to have fallen into disuse but other contact details for anyone wishing to try a boat trip are +351 967 221 483 or +351 967 528 500 and also email.
Monday 13th August
Just the usual suspects at the villa and on the way to the airport this morning as we returned to Faro for our lunch-time flight back to Liverpool.
Although we only managed to see 91 species (plus 1 heard only) we achieved our main objective with a super family holiday, some sun and plenty rest and relaxation (= good food, a few beers and several bottles of wine!). There has been a lot of urban development in the years since our last visit to the Algarve and a number of our previous favourite sites have changed dramatically. On this occasion we did not expect, or indeed set out to amass a huge list and a visit in Autumn, or better still, in Spring would still be our preferred choice for a birding holiday here.
Portugal Site Guide (our most recent research and directions)
David & Amanda Mason