Monday, July 4, 2016

Birding Southern Portugal

Monday, July 4, 2016
European bee-eaters—freshly arrived spring migrants —n southern Portugal following a winter in Africa.
At the start of April I found myself on a plane flying from Tel Aviv, Israel, to Istanbul, Turkey. Ataturk Airport in Istanbul was just a short layover stop before flying to my eventual destination of Lisbon, Portugal. I had been in Israel for the Champions of the Flyway bird race in which teams of birders from all over the world compete during a 24-hour period to see the most species. Our team, the Way-Off Coursers, sponsored by Bird Watcher's Digest and Carl Zeiss Sports Optics, didn't win the birding competition, but we did win prizes for doing the most to promote the event and for raising the most money (our team raised more than $12,000!) to support the efforts of BirdLife International in combatting the illegal killing of birds in Greece. I'll post more about Champions of the Flyway in the future here on BOTB.

I was a tad weary from a week of heavy birding in the desert, and now I was headed (and happily so)  to another week of birding, but this time in Portugal—a new country for me.

My friend João Jara, of Birds & Nature Tours in Portugal, had invited me a few times to visit his country, but our schedules had never meshed. This past spring they did, and what a trip it turned out to be!

I was looking forward to a relaxing week of birding in warm, sunny Portugal. Little did I know, my spring 2016 streak of bringing crappy weather with me wherever I went was to continue for at least another month. And I was about to get the mother of all colds from a sneezing seatmate on the flight. But enough of my whining!

João met me at the airport at mid-day and we drove in the rain, across the Tagus Estuary to a small town opposite Lisbon known as Alcochete. I settled in to my charming room in a small hostel and then we headed out for a bit of afternoon birding on the Tagus Estuary. What followed was a week of stunning looks at amazing birds delivered by the expert guiding skills of João. While many of the birds were not lifers (in other words, I'd seen them before, elsewhere) most of the looks I got were the best ever. And there certainly were a number of ossum life birds, including blue rock thrush, azure-winged magpie, Iberian imperial eagle, rock bunting, and little bustard, to name a few.

João Jara at our first birding stop, a cork oak grove on a farm along the Tagus Estuary.ã
The week passed in a happy blur, despite my horrible cold and the windy, rainy, unseasonably cold April weather. João kept apologizing for the weather but there was no need. The birding, the food and wine, the people, the landscape, and the cultural history kept me enthralled with Portugal.

We birded three main regions in southern Portugal: The Tagus Estuary, the Alentejo, and the Algarve. We started with the Tagus Estuary, which is just a 30-minute drive across the river from Lisbon. The Tagus is one of Europe's most important bird habitats, lying as it does, along the primary Eurasia-to-Africa migratory flyway. We saw huge flocks of greater flamingos, all manner of shorebirds, ducks, and wading birds such as storks, herons, egrets, ibises, and bitterns.

View of the Tagus Estuary at dawn from Alcochete.

Mixed habitats along the Tagus include farm fields, riparian areas, and salt pans with a rich variety of birds.

After spending two days birding the Tagus Estuary region, we drove about an hour south into the rolling plains habitat of Alentejo. This massive steppe region is home to some of Portugal’s most sought-after birds: the great bustard, little bustard, black-bellied sandgrouse, plus a spectacular guild of raptors.

We soon found ourselves in the wide-open spaces of the Alentejo, scanning the wildflower-adorned fields for great bustards. 
Great bustard habitat in the Alentejo. The white dots are displaying males.

We found more than 20 of them, mostly males, displaying in a low swale, out of the wind. This fantastic bird stands more than three feet tall, and when a male is displaying for watching females, he lowers his head and flattens his tail along his back, exposing and flaring his undertail feathers. He then walks around slowing in this jouncy, foamy-looking display mode hoping to impress the ladies.
Male great bustard.

While in the Alentejo, we toured a large ranch where the crops are being planted and managed to attracted bustards and other special birds of southern Portugal. Joao's friend George specifically caters to birders and bird photographers by putting up nest boxes for European rollers, little owls, and Eurasian kestrels, and putting up hides (blinds) near lekking areas for bustards and near feeding areas for vultures.

Speaking of feeding, I probably gained 10 pounds in Portugal. But it was worth it, because the food was that good. The Portuguese people put great emphasis on food and I felt it was only polite of me to sample as much of it as I could, being an invited foreign guest.

Our breakfast most days was some fantastic baked pastry and a serious cup of coffee.
Fresh-caught fish on display for dinner in Mértola.

Small fried fingerling fish, a delicious appetizer in Tavira.

Our home base while in the Alentejo was the ancient river town of Mértola. This town has been home to Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Visigoths, Moors, and Christians and the architecture, culture, and people reflect this history. Dig a foot or so into the earth anywhere in town and you're almost certain to find some of the town's past. 

A view of Mértola.
We toured ancient ruins being excavated and restored  inside the citadel, a combined church and castle that looms on the mountain high above the town. While touring we encountered lesser kestrels, blue rock thrushes, white storks, little owls, pallid swifts, and many other birds—perhaps the modern-day relatives of birds that nested here thousands of years ago.

Walking up the road to the church in Mértola.

Our final day was spent in southernmost Portugal in a coastal region known as the Algarve. It was here that Portugal's close relationship with the sea was most evident. Salt pans, where seawater is drawn in and evaporated off to gather the salt left behind, were everywhere. Those pans not being worked by humans were full of shorebirds and waders. A brief drive along the oceanfront got us a number of new species including great skua.

Our lodging near Tavira in the Algarve, was in a former tuna-canning factory now transformed into a luxury hotel. The hotel was surrounded by salt pans and a small tidal river basin with both working and pleasure boats swaying in the tide.

Alas, we soon had to head back north to Lisbon for my return trip home. João treated me to a short city tour of Lisbon the morning of my flight, further impressing me with the rich history and culture of his native country. I was only in southern Portugal for a week, but those days were ample time to land this country on a short list of places I am eager to visit again.

Here are a few other images and birds from Portugal...

Birding the mountains outside Mértola.

The hoopoe is the one bird most of João's clients wish to see.

Little bittern in a wetland complex in the Algarve.
The landscape in Portugal is incredibly alluring. This is from the Alentejo.

Blue rock thrush digiscoped at the Wolf's Leap near Mértola.
BT3 and João Jara, along the Guadiana River, near Mértola.

If you've read this far and are interested in taking a tour with me and Bird Watcher's Digest to Portugal in 2017, please visit this link at the top of our Reader Rendezvous page to sign up for our events notifications. We're planning four to six Rendezvous in 2017—one of which is an 11-day birding tour of southern Portugal with João Jara. Registration details will be available soon, so please add your name to the notifications list so we can keep you in the loop! 


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