Birdwatching in the Algarve – Part 1

Hoopoe at Ria Formosa National ParkHaving recently come back from an excellent birdwatching trip to the Algarve, in southern Portugal, I thought I’d give a quick summary of the places I visited and some of the wildlife I managed to spot in the hope of inspiring anyone else who might be thinking of a wildlife holiday in the region.

The hot, dry summer period is not usually the best for birdwatching – most birds have finished breeding, and it’s outside of the busy spring and autumn migration period – but there was still plenty of great wildlife to see. And some hot sunshine, sandy beaches and fantastic boat trips too! In fact, there’s so much to say about it that I’ve had to split this blog into two parts – watch out for the second instalment coming soon!

Casa Rosa – our base for the week

Before talking about the various reserves we visited, it’s worth giving a mention to the lovely villa where we spent the week. Located near to the towns of Moncarapacho and Olhão, Casa Rosa is a great central location within easy reach of Faro airport, the local coastline and even nearby areas of Spain, including Doñana National Park. They even have a website dedicated to local birding.

The pool at Casa Rosa, Algarve Habitat behind our room at Casa Rosa - red-necked nightjars called from here each night

We didn’t have to travel far to see some great wildlife – there were red-necked nightjars and little owls outside our apartment each night, and woodpeckers, azure-winged magpies, bee-eaters, egrets and swallows flying around during the day. A night walk even produced a garden dormouse climbing around in a bush!

The highlight of the week was a fantastic Mediterranean chameleon which our hosts kindly found for us on our very last day. After spending the entire week searching in vain for this small reptile, it was a real treat not only to see one, but also to see it change colour – it started out the same jet black as the bucket it was sitting in, but within seconds of being released it had turned pale green!

Mediterranean chameleon camouflaged black against bucket Mediterranean chameleon starting to change from black to green

Mediterranean chameleon on pipes Mediterranean chameleon on pipes, having changed to green  Mediterranean chameleon, close up

Ria Formosa Natural Park

We spent two great mornings exploring this park, which comprises a narrow strip of land running along the coast, separated from the sea by numerous sand dunes. The main entrance to the park isn’t that easy to find, but it’s very close to the town of Olhão. You have to park up and pay a small entrance fee before entering through a barrier. The map below shows the location for anyone struggling to find it!

Apparently there are chameleons in the park, but we weren’t lucky enough to spot one. We did, however, count plenty of bird species, including little terns, turtle doves, hoopoes, storks, red-rumped swallows (as well as barn swallows, common and pallid swifts, and house martins), crested larks, egrets, little grebes, and – after a patient wait by a freshwater pool on our second visit – an elusive purple gallinule. There were also various wading birds and dozens and dozens of crabs enjoying the mud!

View of the habitat at Ria Formosa Natural Park Freshwater pool at Ria Formosa Natural Park

Hoopoe taking off, Ria Formosa Natural Park Ringed storks at Ria Formosa Natural Park

Woodchat shrike, which we later saw feeding several demanding fledglings! Red-rumped swallow nest, Ria Formosa Natural Park

Crab at Ria Formosa Natural Park View of scrub habitat, Ria Formosa Natural Park

Quinta do Lago

We didn’t visit this great birding site until our last day in Portugal, but it was definitely worth the trip. It’s set in quite a posh area of golf courses and fancy hotels, and the watered lawns were in stark contrast to the dry, brown vegetation we had been seeing everywhere else. We were heading for a small lagoon next to a golf course, where there were a couple of hides. It was difficult to find – the whole resort area is a maze of roundabouts and roads, and the road to the parking area by the first hide was nearly impossible to locate, being a simple dirt track with no obvious signs. Again, a map might be handy for anyone intending to visit:

It’s well worth finding though, as the lagoon was alive with waterfowl and other birds (we even saw all the ducks on it from the plane as we came in to land at Faro!). Having spent ages patiently waiting for a brief sighting of a purple gallinule at Ria Formosa, it was amusing to find that they were easily seen here – we had several pairs out in the open, including one feeding its chick.

Purple gallinule or purple swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio) Purple gallinule feeding vegetation to chick

The area was also great for little bitterns (we had at least four flying around), glossy ibis, grebes, egrets, gulls and ducks, as well as the introduced black-headed weavers. On the nearby golf course and in the trees we also had hoopoes, crested larks, crested tits, serins and various dragonflies. It’s also worth checking out some watercress beds that you pass on the road in from Almancil, as we spotted a purple heron there, amongst other things.

Spot the little bittern! Little bittern amongst the reeds

Dragonfly at Quinta do Lago, Portugal Dragonfly at Quinta do Lago, Portugal

A Rocha

As Ed is a keen bird ringer in the UK, we wanted to get involved in some local bird ringing during our stay. To this end, we managed to make a trip to A Rocha Portugal, a Christian-run conservation organisation based in the Alvor Estuary, just east of Lagos. It was a slightly chilly, early start to the morning, but soon warmed up, and we were lucky enough to help with ringing a few juvenile azure-winged magpies, as well as numerous sparrows, blackbirds and other small birds.

During ringing, a small, numbered metal ring is put onto the bird’s leg to help identify it in future and allow data to be collected on its movements and life history. The birds are released unharmed as soon as this has been done.

After listening to the incessant begging of young azure-winged magpies outside our hotel, it was fascinating to see them up close!

Keep an eye out for Part 2 of this blog, coming soon!

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