Saturday, January 22, 2011

INLAND BIRDS: where and what to see in winter

Because of our Mediterranean-type climate, many species that breed in the Algarve are not so insistent as they might be in northern climes about spending winter elsewhere. Indeed, because of the relative mildness of our winters, some species are already well into their annual reproduction process.

While some of our birds have migrated to spend the cooler months in sub-Saharan Africa, others have just seasonally dispersed within Iberia, or gone further abroad only on a short term visit.

Among the larger raptors, for example, most of the Short-toed Eagles that nest in the hills across the north of the Algarve are now down sunning themselves in the African tropics, but a few have either stayed behind or have returned early. Rarer Bonelli's Eagles are usually steadfast residents who remain in our rolling hills all year round.

There are two lots of hills stretching east-west from the Spanish border almost to the Algarve's west coast. The Serra do Caldeirão range rises in the north-east of the province, a wonderful, widespread wilderness area. There is a gap at the town of São Bartolomeu de Messines, north of Albufeira, through which runs the Algarve-Lisbon motorway. West of there, it's back to nature in the well-wooded Serra de Monchique range, with a highest point of 900 metres at Fóia.

The easily accessible terrain on either side of the roads running northwards up into these hills from the coastal plain are excellent places to see birds. The Odelouca Valley, which starts west of Silves and climbs steadily and quite dramatically up to the village of Alferce, east of the town of Monchique, is usually bountiful for birdwatchers

But back to raptors.... Of the smaller ones, Kestrels and Peregrines are to be found in winter both near the coast and well inland. Of the owl clan, the Little Owl is the commonest. Because of its diurnal habits, it is frequently seen as well as heard. Often you have to look no further than the top of a nearby telephone pole. The hooty Tawny Owl will start making its presence known in woodlands from February. Meanwhile, not only is the mighty, deep-voiced Eagle Owl oo-huing, some are probably already passionately sitting on eggs.

Hoopoes are also already incubating, though the population of adults generally increases substantially in spring. In contrast to the Hoopoe's repetitive, sombre, double-syllable call, Crested and Thekla Larks are singing their little hearts overheard on open countryside. So is the melodious Woodlark that likes stony terrain with plenty of cistus undergrowth and scattered trees.

Of the aerial experts, Crag Martins - strictly winter visitors - will soon be replaced by House Martins and Swallows arriving from the south. One or two early swallows may not make a summer, but they are a sure sign that even though it is technically still winter, spring is already here. That is abundantly clear in the colour of our most characteristic trees. And that's the subject of my next blog.....

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