Saturday, January 15, 2011

COASTAL BIRDS: where and what to see in winter

More than 60 species of birds are known to regularly inhabit or visit the coastal areas of the Algarve during the winter months. They are to be found in marshland and tidal estuaries, as well as in coves, bays and the open sea.

The best places to see coastal birds are the three areas that have been officially designated nature reserves. In the far east of the region, a salt-marsh area extends over some 2,000 hectares near Castro Marim and next to the Guadiana estuary. The shallow-watered Ria Formosa reserve, sheltered from the open sea by sand spit islands, stretches almost from Tavira all along the coast to Quinta do Lago, west of Faro Airport. The third reserve covers the whole of the west coast and the south-western tip of the region and features rugged cliffs and headlands. In addition there are excellent wetland birding spots among the golf courses at Vilamoura, at the Salgados lagoon between Albufeira and Armação de Pera, and next to the Alvor estuary.

What birdwatchers are on the lookout for, of course, is the unusual. There are plenty of species here that visiting watchers from the UK and other northern climes are unlikely to see on their home turf.

A cliff-top watch with a strong pair of binoculars from Cape St Vincent or Atalaia Point on the west coast, or better still, on a boat trip out of Sagres, may reveal a few Cory's Shearwaters. They sometimes keep loose company with more northerly-orientated Great and Manx Shearwaters, or even the occasional globe-trotting Sooty, but that is less likely at this time of the year. Cory's do venture as far north as south-western Ireland and England in winter, but they are mainly a southern species.

Cattle and Little Egrets are certainly southern birds and here they are plentiful. Cattle Egrets really do like feeding among cattle in dry fields. They also take advantage of tractor-ploughing activities. By contrast, their similar-looking cousins, Little Egrets, always feed in wet areas. Both species come together in the evenings at communal roosts on certain stacks along the western half of the south coast.

White Storks are familiar summer visitors over a huge chunk of continental Europe, from Estonia to southern Portugal. They mostly winter in Africa , but some hang around here throughout the coldest months. Sometimes you'll see a group of them feeding together in a marsh or wet field. Otherwise you'll see a lone individual or a couple soaring about without a care in the world, or sitting haughtily on a well-establish, but still empty, nest of sticks atop a high chimney.

Another very imposing species, especially when seen in flocks of up to several hundred feeding on a wide expanse of still water on a fine day in winter, is the Greater Flamingo. It's always an exotic sight. Flamingos enjoy it here away from the frantic atmosphere in their breeding grounds in southern Spain.

In contrast to viewing extrovert flamingoes, the Purple Gallinule is a bashful chappie who likes to keep out of sight. That said, quiet and careful observation should result in good views of this fine-looking fellow foraging on the edge reed-beds at Quinta do Lago and Vilamoura. The rich violet-blue plumage and bright red bill and legs are a give-away.

The Stone Curlew is even more secretive. While it is more often heard than seen in spring and summer, the numbers of these birds in sand-dunes and dry marshlands is boosted by winter visitors from outside the region. Your chances of seeing a Stone Curlew are severely limited by its dislike of human intrusion, its early-warning detection system and preference for making a run for it rather than flying.

The glamorous and often raucous Black-winged Stilt is a common breeding bird, particularly in the Castro Marim and Tavira areas. Get too close, especially during the breeding season, and they let you know about it loudly overhead. Many of them spend the winter in sub-Saharan Africa, but you are always likely to see some wading about in shallow water at Salgados, Alvor and elsewhere.

Spoonbills, Kentish Plovers and Black-tailed Godwits are among the other interesting species frequently encountered mingling with rafts of waterfowl and waders along the Algarve coast at this time of year.

That's the run-of-the-mill stuff. Serious twitchers will be on the look-out for far less common birds, such as Ferruginous Ducks, Audouin's and Slender-billed Gulls, Caspian and Gull-billed Terns and plenty more besides.

There are not many bucket 'n spade tourists around yet, but coastal birds are here in abundance.

NEXT BLOG: Inland winter birds

1 comment:

Len Port said...

Loads of birds at Salgados this morning (Sunday 16 January), including 30 Greater Flamingos, plenty of Black-winged Stilts, a particularly perky Purple Gallinule and a glorious view of a Glossy Ibis.