It’s usually guaranteed when I travel to mainland Europe that I’ll struggle to see even the odd buzzard, kestrel and, if I’m lucky, kite or harrier … but my latest trip (accompanied by my wife Meryl and sister Corinne) was to Portugal and turned out to be something of a raptor-fest.
Not that raptors were the only birds of interest on my ‘seen’ list. For the first time in Europe I topped the 100 mark, and notched several ‘lifers’ which was particularly pleasing.
We’d been to Portugal two years earlier, using the lovely eastern Algarve town of Tavira as our base, and saw plenty of waders, gulls, herons and other species befitting a coastal area with plenty of marshes and lagoons. In 2016 we made only one sortie inland, as far as Mertola on the edge of the Alentejo region, but realised that this was an equally rich area for birdlife and worth investigating.
So, this time we followed a week in Tavira with six nights ‘up country’ – two in Alcoutim and four in Mertola, both pretty whitewashed towns on the banks of the River Guadiana that for 30-40 miles north of its mouth in the Med represents the border with Spain.
From Tavira, Corinne and I (Meryl isn’t really interested in birding, so we have to choose our moments!) made two morning trips to specific locations – the Ria Formosa HQ reserve on the edge of Olhao and the Castro Marim reserve just a few miles from the Spanish border – the rest of the time footling around the varied coastal highlights around nearby Tavira itself.
All the old favourites were in the ‘salinas’ (salt marshes), just a few hundred yards from our apartment – Greater Flamingo, Black-winged Stilt, Avocet, Black- and Bar-tailed Godwits, Whimbrel, Redshank, Spotted Redshank, Little Stint, Dunlin, Common and Curlew Sandpipers, and Ringed and Grey Plovers – while Crested Larks, Corn Buntings and Serin were everywhere and Fan-tailed Warblers pinged above our heads.
Colourful Hoopoes were seen most days and wherever there was water combined with tall reeds and compact vegetation, those consummate songsters the Nightingales trotted out their flutey, non-stop signature tunes (I woke up one night and heard one singing at 3.45am!) – and in Alcoutim it was quite a sight to see 40-50 Bee-eaters swarming over the exact same fields I’d seen them two years earlier.
A regional specialist is the attractive Azure-winged Magpie, which ironically was one of the most common birds where we explored, along with House and Spanish Sparrows and Collared Doves. Another daily sighting was White Storks: these are impressive birds, often seen soaring high in the sky and mistaken at a glance for raptors. We had seen them regularly enough during the first week, but inland they were on virtually every roadside pole and chimney as well as many precarious rooftop positions.
Though we didn’t see quite so many birds in total during the second half of the holiday, there were some spectacular sights in the Alentejo, where Corinne and I spent two mornings scouring the rolling, green and often sparsely vegetated planes of this distinctive area.
Among the big birding prizes in the Alentejo are Great and Little Bustards, Black-bellied Sandgrouse, Calandra Larks, Spanish Imperial Eagles and Rollers – none of which we’d seen before our final full day, but all of which we’d notched by the end of it.
Our earlier sortie a couple of days before had included Black and Egyptian Vultures, Black Kite, Lesser Kestrel and Montagu’s Harriers, which offered superb close views as they quartered farmland just yards from the road we were travelling along.
So, along with a Short-toed Eagle and Buzzards and Common Kestrels seen early in the holiday, this late rush raised my raptor total to nine!
In Mertola, a quick stroll to the castle revealed Blue Rock Thrush and occasional short-lived views of Lesser Kestrel, together with smaller birds such as Blue and Great Tits, which are much scarcer in southern Portugal.
Gosney’s guide to this area was a useful aid to finding the best sites (we’d never have found the Bustards without going to one of his more out-of-the-way suggestions), and it’s always worth reading up other people’s birding reports from similar times of the year. Another informative place was the headquarters of the LPN – Portugal’s organisation for protecting nature that maintains a number of large reserves in the area – which is situated a few miles north of Castro Verde (albeit tricky to find!).