ALGARVE BIRDWATCHING
Day trips & tours in southern Portugal
 
Highly experienced bird guiding
throughout the year
 
 
   
  Introduction  
  Western Algarve  
  Sagres Migration  
  Algarve Wetlands  
  Baixo Alentejo  
  Algarve Butterflies  
  Algarve Orchids  
  Photograph credits  
  Contacts  
     
Algarve Wetlands
   
Purple Swamp-hen Porphyrio porphyrio made a dramatic comeback quite recently after suffering extinction as a breeding bird in the Algarve – now there are in excess of 20 breeding pairs in at least 4 sites
The Algarve’s coastline boasts an array of wetlands that are of international significance, either for their birdlife or for their important plant communities. Many different habitats occur - both salt and freshwater types that provide the suitable niches for a large variety of waterbirds. The conservation of these sites, for the refuge and replenishment of migratory species, both winter visitors and passage migrants is paramount. Most species of west European waders occur in large numbers, especially during spring and autumn migration when the Algarve’s wetlands become vital refuelling grounds for these birds arriving from or leaving to African wintering areas. Breeding species are not lacking either, with many of the Mediterranean specialities being well represented. Furthermore, many of the sites boast peripheral habitats, like scrubland or woodland that add further interest for the birdwatcher. Visits are rewarding throughout the seasons and contact should be made with at least some of the more bird-diverse sites when staying in the area.
     
   
The discreet Purple Heron Ardea purpurea breeds at a small number of sites
Resident breeding species of particular interest that can be targeted on visits to one or more wetland sites throughout the year include:

Little and Cattle Egrets, White Stork, Red-crested Pochard, Common Pochard, Water Rail, Purple Swamp-hen, Little Bustard, Black-winged Stilt, Kentish Plover, Yellow-legged Gull, Hoopoe, Common Kingfisher, Green Woodpecker (Iberian race sharpei), Crested and Lesser Short-toed Larks, Zitting Cisticola, Cetti's, Sardinian and Dartford Warblers, Short-toed Treecreeper, Southern Grey Shrike, Azure-winged Magpie, Spotless Starling, Common Waxbill, Serin, Corn Bunting.

Migratory breeding species of particular interest that can be targeted on visits to one or more wetland sites include:

Purple heron, Little Bittern, Little Tern, Collared Pratincole, Red-necked Nightjar, Alpine and Pallid Swifts, European Bee-eater, Short-toed Lark, Red-rumped Swallow, Common Nightingale, Reed, Great Reed, Melodious and Spectacled Warblers, Woodchat Shrike,
     
   
The Black-winged Stilt Himantopus himantopus is perhaps the most symbolic of Algarvean waders
Passage and wintering birds of particular interest that can be targeted on visits to one or more wetland sites (in addition to the resident breeding species):

(Northern Gannet, Balearic Shearwater, Common Scoter – offshore), Greater Flamingo, European Spoonbill, Shelduck, Wigeon, Gadwall, Common Teal, Pintail, Garganey, Shoveler, Red-crested Pochard, Common Pochard, Ferruginous Duck (rare), Tufted Duck, Osprey, Booted Eagle (occasional), Marsh Harrier, Common Buzzard, Stone-curlew, Ringed Plover, Kentish Plover, Golden and Grey Plovers, Lapwing, Knot, Sanderling, Little Stint, Curlew Sandpiper, Dunlin, Ruff, Snipe, Black and Bar-tailed Godwits, Whimbrel, Curlew, Greenshank, Redshank, Common Sandpiper, Turnstone, Mediterranean Gull, Audouin’s Gull, Sandwich and Caspian Terns, Water Pipit, Bluethroat, Penduline Tit, Spanish Sparrow (occasional),

Below is a round up of the most important wetlands that can be visited throughout the Algarve;

     
Parque Natural da Ria Formosa    
Greater Flamingos Phoenicopterus ruber occur commonly on the saltpans and saltmarshes of Ria Formosa in large numbers
The famous “Ria Formosa Natural Park” on the southern coast of Portugal is made up of 18,000 hectares of tidal marshes protected by a spectacular 60 km long system of sand-dune islands and that separate the land from the continuous advance of the ocean. Under constant threat from man, it becomes increasingly difficult for nature to maintain this delicate balance. Due to its geographical location, natural richness & high biodiversity the area is vital for wildlife, especially for waterbirds. Reflecting its international significance, Ria Formosa is included in the prestigious Ramsar Convention, a status given only to the most important wetlands around the world. Furthermore, within Europe, the "Ria" has been declared an IBA (Important Bird Area) and is included in the Natura 2000 network of specially protected sites. Apart from more than 200 species of birds that visit the park regularly, there are over 300 species of molluscs, 11 amphibians and 15 reptiles, including the endangered and extremely localised Chameleon. Of the various mammals that haunt these wetlands the most popular must be the charismatic Otter, which is common throughout the park.
     
   
The saltmarshes around Quinta do Ludo hold much wintering wildfowl, Eurasian Wigeon Anas penelope is one of the more abundant
Quinta do Ludo and Quinta do Lago

This area just has to be the most rewarding area in the PNRF for the birdwatcher as it encompasses all of the available wetland habitats as well as some interesting Stone Pine woodland, farmland and scrub. Within just 2 or 3 hours one can cover these parts satisfactorily and find a large variety of species along the way. A wide cross-section of waterbirds inhabit the area, as both freshwater and saline habitats occur, which produces a density of birdlife practically unmatched in the rest of the natural park.

     
   
Numbers of breeding Kentish Plovers Charadrius alexandrinus swell in the autumn when they are joined by countless wintering birds
Waders are always present around Quinta do Ludo, even in the summer when numerous Black-winged Stilts and Kentish Plovers settle to breed while the timing of the first or last of either southbound or northbound migrant arctic waders practically overlap. In the winter many thousands of waders from northern climes congregate at high-tide roosts, often on the large saltpans and then disperse across the extensive areas of exposed mud on the natural saltmarshes at low-tide between here and the sand dunes. However, the largest numbers occur during spring and autumn passage periods when the great majority of European wader species can be seen. The wader enthusiast should keep their eyes peeled for the area has turned up quite a few accidentals in recent years, including Cream-coloured Courser, Sociable Lapwing and Upland Sandpiper. This area is also one of the most important sites in Portugal for wintering Greater Flamingos, which are actually present here all year round, although the larger counts of over 2000 birds are made between August and March.
     
   
The splendid Red-crested Pochard Netta rufina is an easily seen duck here at its only breeding site in the Algarve
Just to the West of Quinta do Ludo one finds a sizeable freshwater lake on the southern edge of the famous luxury estate of Quinta do Lago. Birdwatchers often refer to the rather bizarre sight of Purple Swamp-hens feeding on the adjacent golf course whenever this lake is mentioned. This freshwater is a true magnet for many species and is an important breeding site for Red-crested Pochards, a rare bird in the Algarve. Little Bittern and Purple Heron can usually be seen too as can the naturalised Black-headed Weavers. Little Terns and the odd marsh tern often fish in these waters and Glossy Ibis is a regular visitor, strangely rare in the remainder of the Algarve. The open saltmarshes near here are worth a search for Audouin’s Gulls and Caspian Terns as well as for many species of waders and wintering Bluethroats. The reedbeds hold Penduline Tits occasionally in the winter too while apart from the regular Marsh Harriers and Ospreys, Booted Eagles have become reliable visitors in small numbers in recent winters.
     
   
Migrant waders resplendent in summer plumage, like this Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa stop off to refuel. The Algarve’s wetlands, especially saltpans are also a vital winter refuge for this species
Other sites of special interest in the PNRF

Further East one finds other important sites, including Fuseta near Olhão that often boast large numbers of Greater Flamingos and wintering waders. Near Tavira, saltpans attract many of the park’s species and are well worth a visit, especially for waders like Avocets, Black-winged Stilts and Black-tailed Godwits – many others feed here on passage and its not uncommon to achieve a long list including some less common species. Slender-billed Gulls put in an occasional appearance, this being one of only two sites with anything like regular records of this national rarity. Recently, here and in the saltpans of Castro Marim, Audouin’s Gulls have been present most of the year and have even bred in small numbers, which is a first for Portugal. SPEA, Portugal’s Birdlife partner is closely monitoring the progress of this small pioneering population and it must be stressed that would-be observers should maintain a respectful distance from this rare and beautiful gull that is still recovering from an almost catastrophic decline. As recently as 20 years ago this species was considered the rarest gull in the world when its population reached as low as around 5000 pairs, all of them in Spain. Now, thanks to concerted conservation efforts the population is up to close to 20,000 pairs, the vast majority in Spain.
     
Reserva Natural do Sapal de Castro Marim e de Vila Real de Santo António    
Audouin’s Gull Larus audouinii is a welcome and very recent colonist of the eastern Algarve
The 2312 hectares of this highly protected nature reserve are flanked by the Rio Guadiana bordering Spain in the extreme southeast of the Algarve and can, in many ways, be considered as part of the large collection of Spanish wetlands that occur from Coto Doñana to the Portuguese frontier. Its proximity to these is reflected in its birdlife making this site quite unique in the context of Portugal. This extremely valuable area consists mainly of pristine, unaltered saltmarshes and transformed marshes, which in their major part are saltpans, many of them still active and producing high quality sea salt. Breeding birds are well represented and include important populations of Avocets, Black-winged Stilts, Kentish Plovers and Little Terns around the wetter parts. The saltpans are irresistible for hordes of migratory waders and terns with many species staying on in appreciable numbers through the winter while large numbers of Greater Flamingos and Spoonbills are almost ever-present. Recently Audouin’s Gulls have become a regular feature, with counts of over 500 birds realised in 2007- the highest ever made in Portugal. This rare gull has attempted to breed here in small numbers – successful breeding occurred near to Tavira, some 20kms to the west in 2007. Notably, due to being adjacent to the mouth of the Rio Guadiana flyway, the spring passerine passage is especially interesting and is possibly the most rewarding area for these northbound migrants in the Algarve.
     
   
Difficult to find and only present in small numbers, Little Bustard Tetrax tetrax haunt the dry saltmarshes of Castro Marim. Outside the breeding season they form an incredibly well camouflaged winter flock
The areas of saltmarsh that become dry in the spring and summer months (a habitat of conservation priority) have breeding Lesser Short-toed Larks at their only site in the country. In the same habitat Spectacled Warblers are quite common and can only be found at one other site at the opposite end of the Algarve near Sagres, as can a small population of Little Bustards. Stone-curlews also occur as do Short-toed and Crested Larks while in the hills bordering the reserve Woodlarks and Thekla Larks breed making this general area quite special for the family. Alas, the breeding Calandra Larks seem to have disappeared from the area, which has made it extinct in the Algarve.

The whole area has turned up a number of species with some regularity that are extremely rare at other sites in the country, including; Red-knobbed Coot, Temminck’s Stint, Red-necked Phalarope, Slender-billed Gull, White-winged Tern and the thunbergi race of Yellow Wagtail. Accidental species have included Long-tailed Duck, Wilson’s Phalarope, Forster’s Tern and Red-throated Pipit.
     
Lagoa dos Salgados    
Lagoa dos Salgados is a reliable breeding site for Little Bittern Ixobrychus minutus
This superb site (often tagged by visiting British birders as “Pera marsh”) was recently designated an IBA (Important Bird Area) by Birdlife International – a status the area wholly deserves. Laying some 3kms West of Albufeira it consists of a large brackish coastal lagoon that is protected from destruction from the ocean by the large adjacent dune system of the Praia Grande beach. This is the only breeding site in Portugal for the globally endangered Ferruginous Duck and a favourite haunt for nesting Purple Swamp Hens, Purple Herons and Little Bitterns. Other herons are usually present, as well as Spoonbills and Greater Flamingos in nationally important numbers as are many waders and terns. The lagoon attracts great clouds of hirundines and swifts, which often include most of the European species. For those with the bug for finding the unusual this area has turned up an impressive array of Portuguese and European rarities like for example Lesser Flamingo, Pacific Golden Plover, Pectoral Sandpiper, Long-billed Dowitcher and Chimney Swift and is a regular wintering site for Richard’s Pipit. The great variety and sheer quantity of birds make this area a must for any visiting birdwatcher.
     
Ria de Alvor    
Caspian Tern Sterna caspia is a regular non-breeding visitor and easily seen on the “Ria”
As known by the British, the “Alvor Estuary” is a beautiful protected lagoon system flanked by extensive sand dunes. It is a fundamental staging point for migrating waders and consequently has earned its status as a RAMSAR site that puts it on the World map as being critically important for refuelling waterbirds. The Ria de Alvor and its environs have also been recently designated as part of the of legally protected areas within the pan-European Nature 2000 network. This wetland is the most important in the western Algarve for migratory and wintering waders and attracts very large gull roosts that should be well scanned for unusual species. Notable amongst the many waders, Knot and Bar-tailed Godwits occur in late spring in numbers rarely matched at other sites in the Algarve and are gorgeous in their summer plumage. Apart from the shorebird diversity this area is one of the best places to see Caspian Tern, Audouin’s Gull, Water Pipit and Bluethroat in the western Algarve as well as holding regular wintering Ospreys. Breeding birds include Black-winged Stilt, Kentish Plover, Little Tern, Short-toed Lark and Spanish Yellow Wagtail.
     
   
At Ria de Alvor, the Little Tern Sterna albifrons has been a focus for long-term monitoring by A Rocha here at its western-most breeding site in the Algarve
The association A Rocha runs a field centre at Quinta da Rocha called “Cruzinha” right on the peninsula that segments the wetland into the eastern and western marshes. It is completely thanks to them that this lovely site has been recognised for its high natural values and so far, has resisted many of the impending threats of tourist development as well as producing numerous and wide-ranging studies of the flora and fauna of the area and beyond. This field centre was established in 1983 and has, since then, been operating a ringing station throughout the seasons. They can be visited by those interested in seeing ringing on Thursdays, which is open day; for directions and contact details see their website: http://en.arocha.org/portugal/ which is full of interesting information about the area and the extremely valuable work of A Rocha.

Reflecting the ornithological interest the area has to offer and of course the results of long-term ringing, rarities in this area have included; Great Northern Diver, Long-tailed Duck, Common Eider, Sociable Lapwing, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Ring-billed Gull, Royal Tern, Olive-backed Pipit, White-crowned Wheatear, Icterine Warbler, Dusky Warbler, Yellow-browed Warbler, Common Rosefinch and Rustic Bunting.
     
Paul de Lagos    
Little Bittern and Reed Warbler are depicted in this painting by Karen Phillipps of the reedbeds at Paul de Lagos
This small but intriguing area is situated just northeast of Lagos and only around 3 kms flight from the western reaches of the protected Ria de Alvor.  Its habitats differ greatly from the Ria, as it is known locally, and compliment its rich birdlife. Due to the existence of abundant freshwater and reedbeds a number of birds are found here that are usually more difficult to find in other areas, such as Penduline Tit in the winter and for Great Reed Warbler in the breeding season as well as for a range of migrants and commoner breeding species. With just nearly 2sq kms, this site was the focus of a year long study implemented by SPEA to define the present state of its wildlife to steer a proposed habitat creation opportunity supported by the local Lagos county council. Technicians from the RSPB confirmed that even in the summer, a daily amount of as much as 17,000 litres of fresh water was flowing out from the natural springs along drainage ditches to the sea, and could be viably harnessed for habitat creation.  It was therefore established that Paul de Lagos would be suitable for creating a large and self-sustaining fresh water lagoon that would transform this area into a site of major ornithological significance.  
     
   
Karen Phillipps’s representation of a future Paul de Lagos – let’s hope that habitat creation proposals go ahead
The study area was complimented with a small amount of adjacent Cork Oak woodland and a small limestone hill at the northern edge of the site. It was hence shown that as many as 190 birds species had been recorded in the 4 or 5 years prior to the study, which is quite remarkable given the size of the area and the paucity of birding visitors. Furthermore, the dense diversity of habitats support as many as 22 species of mammals, 8 of amphibians 9 of reptiles and 41 species of butterflies as well as nearly 400 vascular plants. These statistics reveal that the area undoubtedly deserves recognition as an important area for nature that should be conserved. Karen Phillipps, a renowned bird artist, made a contribution to promotional efforts for the site by producing some lovely paintings that depict the present and the possible future of Paul de Lagos.
     
   
Cetti’s Warbler Cettia cetti is an abundant bird at Paul de Lagos, although perseverance and good luck will be needed to obtain a view like this!
In 2003 an environmental education project was also executed for local schoolchildren, named “Projecto Pernilongo” after the Portuguese name for Black-winged Stilt, which breeds here in small numbers. The children benefited from learning much about this bird as well as about the importance of wetlands for biodiversity and all of them managed to observe a number of different birds. The project centred around the construction of mud islands to improve the breeding success on the disused saltpans, where predation and disturbance was a problem for them, because of nesting on easily accessible embankments. This project became a great success and was well celebrated in the media; even appearing in National Geographic magazine and being used as a case study for a publication published by Birdlife International intended to orientate teachers. This led to a further two projects in the following years involving Lagos schoolchildren, one focussing on the importance of Cork Oak woodlands for wildlife and the other around the importance of estuarine and dune habitats of the Ria de Alvor. In total close to 700 children participated in these 3 initiatives.
     
   
Kingfisher Alcedo atthis breeds at the Paul de Lagos
The present difficult access to parts of Paul de Lagos can make visits a little frustrating; nevertheless this charming site deserves more attention from the keen birdwatcher. Breeding birds total some 57 species, including Little Bittern (as yet not completely confirmed), Short-toed Eagle (nearby, often hunting over the site), Water Rail, Black-winged Stilt, Red-necked Nightjar, Kingfisher, Hoopoe, Bee-eater, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Cettis, Great Reed, Reed and Melodious Warblers, Southern Grey Shrike, Golden Oriole, Crested Tit and Hawfinch. The area is excellent for a number of winter specialities too, like Bluethroat, Penduline Tit and Water Pipit and is a magnet for reedbed migrants in the spring and autumn and in mid/late autumn raptors like Booted and Short-toed Eagle hunt over the area, often in some numbers. Rarities have included; Great White Egret, Lanner Falcon (race erlangeri), Wilson’s Phalarope, Lesser Yellowlegs, Pectoral Sandpiper, White-winged Tern, Citrine Wagtail and Richard’s Pipit (has wintered).  
     
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