ALGARVE BIRDWATCHING
Day trips & tours in the southwestern Iberian Peninsula
 
Highly experienced bird guiding
throughout the year
 
 
   
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  Western Algarve  
  Sagres Migration  
  Algarve Wetlands  
  Baixo Alentejo  
  Coto Doñana  
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Sagres Migration
Passage migrants in Sagres    
Griffon Vultures Gyps fulvus
Although the Sagres peninsular brings rewarding birdwatching in the winter and breeding season, the area’s deserved claim to fame is for it’s remarkably strategic position as an autumn migration watchpoint. The area is under-watched in contrast to comparable migration sites in Britain for example and surely species fly by unregistered. Every autumn ten’s, maybe hundreds of thousands of seabirds fly past the headland, somewhere in the order of 2500 raptors circle the skies and major falls of southbound passerines occur. During spring, passage is usually weak however, as most species take routes much further to the east and on a wider front than in the autumn. An indication of these movements can be appreciated in southeastern Portugal, especially along the Rio Guadiana but it is in Spain and eastwards where significant movements occur. Spring seabird observation off Sagres can be very worthwhile though, when on some days strong northward movements are plainly visible. During the autumn however, it is always worthwhile to spend the entire day alternating between searches for migrating raptors, seabirds and passerines as well as for a few of the local residents.
     
Autumn raptor migration at Sagres    
The enormous Griffon Vulture Gyps fulvus is one of over 20 species of birds of prey recorded each autumn around Sagres
Virtually any species of western European bird of prey can and has been seen during excursions to this area from the end of August to early November. Consequently, at this time of year, much more time will be spent in the vicinity of Cabo de São Vicente, especially at Cabranosa, the most rewarding of the watchpoints. The peak period falls between the last week of September and the first week of October, when a maxim of 400 birds can be present daily. Throughout the course of October and into early November numbers gradually drop off to a handful of birds with the exception of the later arriving Griffon Vultures. This final period is often when many of the rarer species tend to occur. During the course of each autumn over 20 species of raptors are recorded and on occasions close to this amount can be seen in a single day.
     
   
Booted Eagle Hieraaetus pennatus, an eagle as close to guaranteed as one can get in the autumn
Booted Eagles regularly exceed 100 birds a day and are usually by far the most numerous species at peak time. Like the majority of the species occurring most are juveniles on their first inexperienced long-haul migration. Raptors do not cross to Africa from Sagres, as is often imagined but re-orientate and fly eastwards to the Straits of Gibraltar where passing numbers of Booted Eagles are less than 10% than that of the many 1000’s of Black Kites or Honey Buzzards, for example. It therefore seems clear that this a relatively poorly orientated species. Short-toed Eagles also appear in strength with often as many as 30 individuals registered in a single day. A feature from mid October and the 3 or 4 weeks following is the rather unreliable presence of very large parties of Griffon Vultures and in 2003 a record was struck with a count of 650 birds in one massive circling spiral. On an October day in 2005 however, the actual president of SPEA, and two of his colleagues put this figure deep into the shade by recording no less than 1800 birds in the skies of Sagres!
     
   
Red Kites Milvus milvus arrive in small numbers late in the migration season and occasionally overwinter
Raptors occurring in the largest numbers are; Honey Buzzard, Black Kite, Griffon Vulture, Short-toed and Booted Eagles, Sparrowhawk, Common Buzzard and Common Kestrel.

Other regular (daily or almost) raptors are; Red Kite, Egyptian Vulture, Marsh, Hen and Montagu’s Harriers, Hobby and Peregrine. (Well worthy of note are the frequent Black Storks that turn up almost daily during mid-autumn).

Regular but erratically occurring species are: Black-shouldered Kite, Black Vulture, Spanish Imperial Eagle, Golden Eagle, Bonelli’s Eagle, Goshawk, Osprey, Lesser Kestrel, Merlin and Eleonora’s Falcon. Recent records of Rüppell’s Vulture, Lesser Spotted Eagle and Lanner Falcon highlight the potential for the unexpected rarity.
     
Seabirds    
Wilson’s Storm Petrels Oceanites oceanites are one of the most “desired to be seen” of all the seabirds that occur in European waters
Contrary to some publicised literature seabirds can be viewed well from Cabo de São Vicente - watching from the northern side of the headland in the morning being the preferred strategy. A telescope is usually desirable but views are well compensated by the usually pristine lighting. Apart from easy to see Northern Gannets, Cory’s and Balearic Shearwaters most other north Atlantic seabirds have been seen from here. Regular species include: Sooty Shearwater, Common Scoter, Great, Arctic and Pomarine Skua’s, Kittiwake, Mediterranean and Little Gulls. Less frequently seen are Great, Yelkouan and Manx Shearwaters, Long-tailed Skua, Audouin’s Gull and Grey Phalarope. To see seriously pelagic species like Wilson’s and European Storm Petrels and Sabine’s Gull a boat trip is necessary. Travelling south from Sagres some 7 or 8 nautical miles is sufficient to obtain memorable views of these and indeed all seabirds in the area.

Boat trips can be arranged from the harbour at Sagres by contacting the highly recommended Mar Ilimitado, who although specialists in dolphins and other marine mammals are well-prepared for birdwatchers and will put chum to attract the Wilson’s Storm Petrels and other birds. This company is the only one in the Algarve that is led by experienced and qualified marine biologists amongst the plethora of dubious dolphin trips who rarely do little but create disturbance and contravene international dolphin tourism guidelines. Anyone interested can contact them directly via their website at: http://www.marilimitado.com/
     
   
The southern headlands in the vicinity of Sagres can often be even better than watching from Cabo de São Vicente when calm conditions prevail or the wind is in the south, particularly for producing close-up views of the shearwaters. These sites can be very rewarding during passage times of the critically and globally endangered Balearic Shearwater, which can occur in numbers exceeding 200 birds per hour. This species is being closely monitored by the Birdlife International partners in Portugal (SPEA) and Spain (SEO) on a regular basis to assess the movements to and from their breeding grounds in the Balearic Islands where numbers have decreased severely over the last years and are estimated to stand as low as around 1500 breeding pairs. The main reasons for this decline are predation from domestic cats, Genets and rats at the breeding grounds and problems at sea, like depleted fish stocks around the breeding grounds and long-line fishing techniques causing mass drowning. If this situation continues it is believed that the species could be practically extinct in just 3 generations. Balearic Shearwaters can be seen best around Sagres during peak passages during May and June (post-breeding) and October-December on their return to the Mediterranean – nevertheless birds can be seen any month of the year.
     
   
Cory’s Shearwater Calonectris diomedea is easy to see during much of the year over the sea around Sagres
Cory’s Shearwaters are by far the most abundant of the shearwaters around Sagres, best seen from October to March - although birds can be seen outside this period, being presumably non-breeding individuals. Very large numbers pass by, feed and roost off the Sagres headlands with rafts of hundreds regularly assembling in the area, often in the company of smaller numbers of Balearic Shearwaters - especially just south or west of Cabo de São Vicente. Comparing observations from other sites throughout the Algarve it becomes obvious that like many other seabirds the waters around the southwest are very attractive to this species. Although they do not breed in the area, Sagres is situated something like half way between the Mediterranean populations and those of the Azores, where the world’s largest colonies occur (close to 200,000 pairs in total).
     
   
Wilson’s Storm Petrels Oceanites oceanites - groups like these are easily attracted by chumming or with shark-bait on boat trips surprisingly close to land. August and September are the best months
One of the most desired to be seen seabirds in the North Atlantic is the Wilson’s Storm Petrel. This tiny and utterly charming ocean bird breeds mainly around Antarctica and is one of the few southern ocean seabirds that actually migrate into northern hemisphere waters (Sooty and Great Shearwaters are other notable examples). Taking a circular route around the Atlantic in a clockwise direction Wilson’s Storm Petrels pass Portugal from May to October on their way back to breeding grounds during our winter. It seems that a significant number of these spend a considerable amount of time feeding off southern and western Portuguese waters where observations of groups of up to 300 individuals have been noted. Comparing with well-known pelagic boat trips off southwestern waters of the British Isles it is clear that trips off southwestern Portugal are clearly more profitable, much cheaper and far less arduous too! Instead of just possible sightings of one or two individuals, here in the Algarve one can expect to see 10’s of birds on a half-day trip within 10 miles offshore. For a summary of all recent records in the area see the excellent article at; http://www.club300.de/ and look under publications – articles – Travel special: Wilson’s Storm Petrel Oceanites oceanites off Europe.
     
Autumn passage migrants on land    
Apart from the raptors and seabirds other autumn migrants are in evidence from the middle of August through to early December. The most noticeable are the 100’s and sometimes 1000’s of transaharian migrants, above all passerines, from Northern Europe that make a last call to feed and rest around Sagres before making the 400km sea crossing to North Africa.

The commonest and often abundant species are: Northern Wheatear, Short-toed Lark, Tree Pipit, Yellow Wagtails (3 races), Reed Warbler, Whitethroat, Willow Warbler, Pied and Spotted Flycatchers, Common Redstart and Whinchat.

     
   
Adult male Moussier’s Redstart Phoenicurus moussieri near Fortaleza de Beliche, Sagres, from 12th November 2006 until at least 14th January 2007. This was the first record for Portugal
Less common but often clearly in evidence include: Turtle Dove, Tawny pipit, Nightingale, Black-eared Wheatear, Sedge, Grasshopper, Subalpine, Spectacled and Western Bonelli’s Warblers, Iberian Chiffchaff, Woodchat Shrike and the rather elusive Ortolan Bunting. Rarities have included Chimney Swift (5 inds. together), Moussier’s Redstart, Red-breasted Flycatcher and Yellow-browed Warbler.

Species arriving in quantity from around mid October to winter locally, or in the Mediterranean basin include; Lapwing, Golden Plover, Woodpigeon, Skylark, Eurasian Crag Martin, Meadow Pipit, White Wagtail, European Robin, Song Thrush, Redwing, Blackcap, Common Chiffchaff and many finches.

The dry, short grasslands in the area are a traditional staging area for the enigmatic Dotterel, which has occurred in numbers of over 20 individuals, however some years they are not found. Rarities that have occurred in this habitat include American Golden Plover, Sociable Lapwing, Buff-breasted Sandpiper and Snow Bunting.

The peninsular is practically devoid of wetland habitat apart from a small saltmarsh and sandy and rocky beaches. Consequently the saltmarsh becomes a local magnet for waterbirds. This area is always worthy of inspection, especially after rain, and apart from attracting small quantities of most European waders rarities like Lesser Yellowlegs and Baird’s Sandpiper have revealed its potential for the unexpected. Sagres fishing harbour has produced other species rare in Portugal, like Glaucous and Ring-billed Gulls and Great Northern Diver.

Very few are the species on Portugal’s national list that haven’t turned up at on one occasion or other - the unexpected bird is a typical characteristic of the Sagres area as a whole. Examples of this include a Purple Heron perched up on a pine tree in dry grassland, 6 Spoonbills low over the roundabout in the town centre and Spotted Crake on the cliff-tops.
     
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