Thursday, October 28, 2010

Black Vulture

On Saturday 23rd October I was on my daily afternoon walk around the Ria when I became aware of a huge commotion amongst the several hundred roosting gulls on the 'salinas'. These birds were in the air and savagely attacking a huge raptor which I immediately recognised as a Black Vulture (Aegypius monachus). I have seen many before in the Alentejo and on the Portugal/Spain border but always soaring effortlessly at a height with no hint of a wing-beat.

Why this bird was here I do not know; it was a juvenile/1st winter bird well away from its normal territory and may have just become disorientated. Whether it had descended after seeing a carcass I do not know but the gulls were giving it a really hard time and the vulture was having to perform extreme aerobatics to evade them. The vulture eventually landed on the Ria about 100 metres off-shore and was a rather pathetic sight  -  flapping its wings which were getting more and more waterlogged to the extent that I thought it was going to drown. 
I took my dog home and quickly returned with the camera to find that the vulture had made it to the shore and was spread-winged drying itself in the afternoon sunshine:

Whilst I had been away a small group of onlookers had assembled and someone had had the sense to actually call a vet. My concern was that the bird might have eaten some poisened animal, but I think that the "fight" with the gulls had simply rendered it exhausted (it might also have been starving and weak as a novice youngster).

It dried off very quickly and was obviously "perking up" by the minute and was seen to fly off before the vet arrived.

To be this close to such a magnificent bird (and it really is HUGE!) is both frightening and humbling.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Autumn Migration

The Spring migration in SW Iberia is always very poor except for birds which are arriving to breed here. Those moving into central and northern Europe tend to cross the Straits of Gibraltar at Tarifa and move on immediately propelled by hormones and the urge to breed. The autumn migration is normally much better with huge numbers of both passerines and raptors drifting more slowly down the west coast of Spain and Portugal towards Cabo de São Vicente (the most south-westerly tip of Europe) where they tend to linger and feed before moving east to Tarifa for the final "jump" to N Africa. In previous years the raptor movement (from the traditional watch-point at Cabranosa) has been fantastic  -  I recall being there one day in October a few years ago and seeing 1,900 Griffon Vultures in one flock with a supporting cast of flocks of Short-toed Eagles, Booted Eagles, Honey Buzzards, etc all in good numbers.

Shots of two juvenile Winchats (taken through the window while sitting at my desk!).

This autumn the migration has been the worst I can recall in fourteen years here. I spent two mornings at "The Cape" searching for the elusive Dotterel which I knew were there (but failed to find) and during that time the only raptors I saw were Common Kestrels (probably resident, although migrants from N Europe do pass through). Closer to home (my garden, and local "patch" at Ria de Alvor) there has been a dearth of passerines. Pied Flycatcher is usually the commonest passerine at this time, but this year there were very few. The low numbers is confirmed by the captures at the ringing station at A Rocha.

Northern Wheatear in agressive posture  -  I was too close.

Northern Wheatear, probably of the Greenland/Iceland race leucorhoa.

There was a brief "window" at the beginning of October when there was a rush of Pied Flycatchers (I counted about twenty in my garden one morning) and a very large number of Northern Wheatears. Whinchats (mainly juveniles) were present in smaller numbers, and what a delight they are.

This marked reduction in numbers of birds compared to previous years is a cause for concern  -  I wonder what the cause is?

Monday, October 18, 2010

Mid-summer Madness

Like many birding Bloggers I am overcome with a sense of apathy with the arrival of summer (late June to end of August here in Algarve).  Birdlife has more or less been replaced by human (and often inhuman) activities. The past year has had the most extreme weather conditions since records began 160 years ago; after the wettest winter, with almost three times the average annual rainfall (we had four months when it rained every single day) we then had the hottest summer with temperatures hovering around 40 ℃ for much of July and August (I recorded shade temperatures of 42 ℃ on several days in my garden). To go out birding in these temperatures is crazy, and photography is impossible because of the heat haze.

A Dornier (DO80 - WWII cargo plane), one of the noisiest machines in the world, transporting sky-divers to jump over Ria de Alvor; one of the best "bird scarers" ever invented.

It was anticipated that this year tourism in the Algarve would be much reduced due to the recession. There was a notable decrease in British, German and Dutch visitors but this was more than made up for by a huge invasion of Spaniards as well as larger numbers of people from the north of Portugal who would have holidayed in more exotic places such as Brasil in better times. Congestion on the roads was unbelievable and since most of these people were sun-seekers the beaches looked like Blackpool on a sunny Bank Holiday.

Wind-surfers and Kite-Surfers are O.K. in small numbers but having 100+ racing around the Ria at the same time causes considerable stress to gulls and waders roosting on the sandbanks. Worst of all are the Jet-Skiers who should be shot on sight.

The last weekend in August is blissful relief  -  all of these human intruders disappear virtually overnight and the Ria de Alvor begins a slow recovery to its tranquil normality.

One of the most recent scourges to the Algarve  -  "Para-planing". A mindless moron with an inflatable kite and a petrol-engined propeller strapped to his arse enables him about 30 minutes airbourne in which to "buzz" flocks of roosting birds  -  Greater Flamingos are a favourite target. And speaking of targets....!!!!!!!!!!!

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Lesser Kestrel (Falco naumanni)

Getting access to the LPN controlled breeding colonies of Lesser Kestrel and Roller (where a ruined farm has been modified and a series of artificial walls with breeding holes has been created) is impossible  -  the birds are viewable from the Castro Verde - Mertola road (EN123) but they are distant.

I was told a couple of years ago that both species breed in the ruined railway station buildings near Casável, north-west of Castro Verde. On the 24th May we had the possibility of good weather so I put all the "gear" in the Land Rover and decided to go.

The trip along the A22 and then up the A2 (Portagem  -  "Toll Road") is effortless but the "fine detail" at the other end is another matter as the roads around Castro Verde - Almadovar - Ourique are changing at such at a pace that published maps are useless. Fortunately, I had obtained a grid reference of the locality from Google Earth and entered this into my Tom Tom Satnav - without that I would probably not have arrived (only got lost once at Ourique which is beautiful beyond description).

Casével station appears rather abruptly at the end of a progressively deteriorating metaled road which then becomes a dirt track. It is beautiful but very overgrown and really out of another age.

I went over the railway crossing and slowly approached the station building (together with more outbuildings and some adjacent agricultural buildings) and was simply amazed at the number of birds  -  I calculated that there were 20+ pairs of Lesser Kestrel nesting and at least six pairs of Roller. Because of the state of the overgrown vegetation (particularly the Fennel) it is very difficult to move around the site and setting up a tripod with a long lens is very difficult. For photography, you need to be on the south side side of the buildings which means standing on the railway track (the only "clear" and horizontal surface)  -  and, guess what? the line is still in use with local trains (almost silent diesel engines) coming through very fast.

The Rollers are very "spooky" although at first they were more concerned with stealing food from the kestrels (and "rolling" magnificently, something I have never seen before and impossible to photograph). In very harsh light I managed a few shots of the Lesser Kestrels which appeared all to be feeding young and bringing in mainly Cicadas and Scorpions.

Setting up a portable hide here is very difficult, as is shooting from the jeep, but I will go back  -  it is a special place.

Whilst there is no evidence of active management, the site is clearly monitored and "looked after" (to an extent!!) as there are artificial nest boxes on several of the buildings.

If YOU go on the basis of what I have written here please be careful  -  this is, I think, a "sensitive" site.


Thursday, May 27, 2010

Breeding Flamingos in Algarve?

The Algarve is host to large numbers of Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus) which are mainly juveniles and sub-adults (Flamingo take four or five years to reach breeding age). Many birds are ringed proving that they come from southern Spain (a lot from Doñana) and the Camargue, and one dead bird from as far away as Iran.  These birds are highly mobile depending on water levels and food sources at appropriate Algarve wetlands, with most occurring at Castro Marim in the east, adjacent to the border with Spain, with lesser numbers at Lagoa dos Sagados (1,000+) and Ria de Alvor (300+ in autumn).

In 1987 a Dutch friend of mine and frequent visitor to Algarve, Willem Scheres,  found and described two "nearly fledged" chicks on the salinas at Castro Marim; the record, which would have been the first proven breeding of Greater Flamingo in Portugal, was rejected.

A couple of years ago I was told by Joã Ministro (Almargem) that the salt workers at Castro Marim had found a cold, abandoned egg. The vastness of the salinas at Castro Marim and the lack of public access (and therefore disturbance) was always considered to be the prime possible nesting locality of this species.

On 6th May this year I met a visiting birder, Dennis Wilby, who told me that there were two adult Flamingos apparently sitting on nests at Lagoa dos Salgados. I visited Salgados two days later, 8th May, and saw both of these birds clearly sitting on nest mounds  -  one of the two briefly stood up to reveal a single egg.

A resident birder Rudolf Muller took these two photos (I am posting these without his permission  -  I hope you do not mind Rudolf, they were forwarded to me in an email by Frank McC.):


The two "sitting" adults

Unfortunately, five days later, the nests were abandoned and the egg, or eggs, had disappeared. I do not know the precise cause but I predicted that the number of feral dogs running loose at this site would be a major problem.

This potential first proven breeding of Flamingo in Portugal made headline news in both local and national press as well as on television, but as far as I know no attempts were made to protect these birds. Compare this to the level of protection currently being given to a pair of Purple Heron breeding at Dungeness RSPB reserve in the U.K.   -   not only are wardens continuously monitoring the site but the Kent Police are giving round the clock protection to keep away egg collectors.

We have a long way to go in Portugal!!!
Great Northern Diver (Gavia immer)

This spring has given me a "hat trick" of "Loons" (how I hate that word!). Red-throated and Black-throated Divers were present in the tidal lagoon at Ria de Alvor for one day only but too distant to photograph.

On one of my early morning dog walks around the Ria I saw a Great Northern Diver close-in to shore and had good enough views to age it as a 2nd c.y. juvenile. The tide was falling and by the time I had got home and returned with the camera the bird had receded into deeper water  -  this is a heavy crop of an image taken at about 200 metres.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010


If Woodchat Shrikes are the indicators that Spring is here (see previous post), the arrival of Bee-eaters to me suggests that Summer is not far behind; the day-long "trilling" call of these gorgeous birds is one of the pleasures of living in the Algarve.

I heard and saw my first Bee-eater on 27th March this year which is rather early for western Algarve (first week in April is more normal).

Many of the established nesting colonies near me have been destroyed by this winter's torrential rain with the low earth banks with nest holes collapsing due to water-logging.

The bird in these photos, and its mate, were photographed on 5th April while they were excavating a new nest hole on the edge of my land (the earth on its bill is clearly visible). Since then the weather has deteriorated again and we have had torrential rain, hail, thunder and strong winds. The birds appear to have abandoned their new home.

This really is the worst winter I can ever remember here.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

A Sign of Spring

The winter of 2009/2010 has been the worst on record here in Algarve. We have had lower temperatures, heavier rain and stronger winds in previous years but this winter we have had a miserable three months of continuous rain.

For me, the indication that "spring is here" is the arrival of the Woodchat Shrikes. I saw my first one this year on 3rd March which is a few days later than usual, and they appear to be present in lower numbers than previous years.

In previous years I have had a pair nesting in a Pomegranate hedge in my garden and one or both birds arrived on 28th February every year except in a "Leap Year" when they arrived on the 29th!!! Regrettably, they have not been here for the past two years.

This female actually perched on my shoulder for a few seconds whilst I was working in the garden  -  total magic.
One Good "Tern" Deserves Another!

The very heavy rain in the early part of this year has meant that the water coming down from the mountains via the Odeaxere and Alvor rivers has been the colour of hot-chocolate and made fishing in the Ria de Alvor very difficult for species which hunt on "sight".

An over-wintering Osprey was reduced to running around in shallow water chasing very small fish because he simply could not see his usual prey of Grey Mullet and Sea Bass.

One of a dozen or so Caspian Terns was very resourceful: I saw it hovering over a group of Cormorants which were feeding communally in a loose circle and diving simultaneously to feed on their "corral" of small fish. As the water "boiled" with escaping fish the tern dived in to take advantage.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Red-rumped Swallows

Not much "birdy" news at the moment (weather in Algarve is still appalling and looking to get worse for the next ten days  -  never seen so much rain, and I come from the Lake District in Cumbria!!), except that my Red-rumped Swallows returned on Friday the 19th February (my earliest record for this species).

I do not hold out much hope for their breeding success since an army of House Sparrows have taken over every available nest site.

What happened to the Cavalry?

The guy with the red asterisk above his head (no, it is not a halo and he is certainly not Simon Templar  -  aka "The Saint") is Aidan Lonergan, formerly Regional Director of RSPB Northern Ireland (posing with a bunch of grinning colleagues who are looking very smug for probably not having achieved anything at all).

The "top brass" at RSPB are allowed what is called a "sabbatical" every now and then in which they go off and do something totally different in order to refresh the brain cells and keep them motivated  -  you and I call it a "holliday".

Aidan Lonergan (formerly involved in RSPB "Overseas Operations") decided to take his sabbatical for a month (May 2008) to visit the Algarve with the intention of  "looking" at the problems facing Lagoa dos Salgados. He had been well briefed and managed to make contact with most people involved, including myself. I, and an equally involved friend of mine, received an email from Lonergan requesting an on-site meeting at Salgados. We honestly thought it was a joke: the man cannot write English, his grammar is appalling and use of  punctuation and upper and lower case letters non-existent. He came over as an idiot, and when we met him we were not disappointed.

This is the resumé of José Tavares' (RSPB Country Programmes Officer for Portugal) report on Lonergan's visit in his official update published in September 2008 on the SPEA website:

 RSPB sabbatical

In May, Aidan Lonergan, the Director of RSPB Northern Ireland, spent one month at
Salgados as part of his RSPB sabbatical, mostly working on two issues

a) Development of a concept for the interpretation centre (target audiences, mains
messages, types of exhibits, etc). 

b) Fundraising for Salgados Meeting with several company owners and wealthy
individuals, mostly British expatriates, who are very committed to Salgados, and
discuss and implement with them fundraising plans and strategies to get some
money for SPEA to continue with this campaign.

Aidan has met several of you. He is continuing to work on the issue, has made
connections with Academics from UCC in Ireland who have agreed to provide the
data from their field visits over many years and is currently working on getting more
RSPB staff out to Salgados to help with the work. 

Aidan Lonergan stated in subsequent emails that he thought that Lagoa dos Salgados was one of the best birding sites in southern Europe and most certainly worth fighting to preserve (i.e. to try and get SPA status). He vowed to return with a "task force" in the near future to resolve the problems. I could almost hear the trumpet sounding "Boots & Saddles" and expected the cavalry to ride in in a cloud of dust to save the lagoon from all the ills of the world.

That was almost two years ago now. In the meantime Aidan Lonergan has been promoted to "Director of Futurescapes" and is now based at RSPB HQ at The Lodge at Sandy, Bedfordshire. Salgados has been forgotten.

Need I say more?

Monday, February 15, 2010


In November 2009 my wife and I both resigned from the  RSPB because of their total incompetence over the Lagoa dos Salgados preservation affair. We had been members for a very long time and retained our membership after moving to Portugal thirteen years ago, even though we no longer partook of any RSPB facilities. There is no doubt that the RSPB has done some sterling work in the past, and may well do so again in the future (if they can stop Boris Johnson building another London airport in the Thames estuary I will applaud them again), but these are all "big ticket" campaigns and I now feel that the RSPB is neglecting more mundane projects.

I was incandescent with rage when I learned that Graham Wynne, RSPB Chief Executive Officer since 1998, was awarded a Knighthood in this year's New Year's Honours List; had I not already resigned, I would have done so immediately.


What has this odious non-entity done to deserve this honour? The "speil" states that it is "for services to conservation"  -  my arse it is. When he came into post the RSPB was growing (as it has since its formation) and had over 1.3 million members and was boasting of achieving 1.5 million in the near future. The membership now stands at just over one million, so what the grinning Sir Graham has actually achieved is to lose a third of the membership  -   and Her Majesty gave him a knighthood for it (remember it is the ROYAL Society for the Protection of Birds). What a f*****g disgrace!!

The RSPB do nothing to earn money, they rely on membership subscriptions, special appeals and legacies (the latter has been their largest income in most years). They should be much more accountable to their members but they are not. The society is "top heavy" with Presidents, Vice Presidents, CEO, Directors, Deputy Directors, Regional Directors, etc. all concerned with preserving their posts and final-salary pensions. As someone said recently: "The RSPB and the BBC have similar problems  -  if they were run as a business, more than 50% of them would get the sack".

The writing is on the wall for them; the legions of "old dears" who had nothing better to do with their money than leave it to the RSPB in their will are quickly dying out and the current membership is rapidly jumping ship.

Do a "Google" for Graham Wynne to see what the general consensus of opinion is on this man.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Sociable Lapwing

On 17th December I received an SMS text from Peter Dedicoat and June Taylor saying that they had found a Sociable Lapwing (Vanellus gregarious) amongst a flock of Northern Lapwing  close to the village of Benviudo, just south of the EN.123 near Mertola.

I could not go at the time (lack of urgency since the bird was not a "lifer" or even a Portuguese "tick" for me) and following this find the weather in southern Portugal has been absolute crap  -  we have now had two months of almost continuous rain.

On 28th January we had a sunny but very cold day  -  I decided to put all my gear in the Land Rover and "go for it"  -  I had not been out  birding or doing any photography for weeks. The 140 km drive was well worth it, and I was onto the bird within minutes of arriving at the location (thanks to Google Earth, SatNav and Peter's directions).

The bird was about 80 metres away down a slope feeding actively with a Norther Lapwing with which it seems to have a close affinity (some interesting speculation there!!). I positioned myself with the sun behind me and, with the rig (Canon 1DMk3 with 500mm f/4 + 1.4TC) on my lap turned off the engine and began to gently roll downhill towards the bird.


 Sociable Lapwing (Vanellus gregarious)  -  1st winter juvenile

The bird was not too bothered by my presence as I got closer, but was mostly facing away from me. I decided to play the call on my MP3 player and the bird became very interested and not only turned around but actually began walking towards me. The shots I got were at about 35 metres range, but I was confident that at this rate I was going to get some frame-filling shots at 15 metres which would produce stunning images.

I had not reckoned on the local farmer pulling up behind me in his pick-up, tooting the horn and slamming the car door  -  the birds buggered-off across the main road into a fenced field and disappeared into foot-high crops.

What was ironic is that the farmer had just come to make sure that I had actually seen "his famous bird"!!!  What I said to him was not quite what was going through my mind.

Year of the Ibis

2009 was something of an outstanding year for the ibis genus; in the U.K. and other parts of Northern Europe the Glossy Ibis was seen in unprecedented numbers and this was reflected in a marked increase in large flocks of this species in Portugal. 


Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus)

Lagoa dos Salgados had numbers in the 40+ region, trumped by 400 or so on the rice fields north of Alcantarilha. On 13th December a flock of ca. 1,200 birds was recorded at Ponte do Zambujal in Palmela, near Lisbon.

Early in 2009 a group of nine Northern Bald Ibis (Geronticus eremita) turned up at the Herdade de Salgados golf course. These birds then vanished and re-emerged at a golf course at Vilamoura, but shortly afterwards six of the birds returned to Salgados where they took up residence with a flock of Common Coot close to the club-house and first "T".

Northern Bald Ibis (Geronticus eremita)

It became apparent that these birds were not only ringed but had satellite transmitters attached (notice the patch of ruffled feathers on the 'shoulder' of the bird in the above photo), and that they had been released from the Spanish "Proyecto Eremita" reintroduction programme in Càdiz Province. The birds had been hand-reared and proved to be very approachable, if not tame  -  I have seen visitors hand feeding the birds with sandwiches and on one occasion several birds actually wandered into the reception area of the golf club-house and crapped all over the floor!

One of the six birds was found dead on the golf course and the long-staying five are now reduced to two birds. The fact that they were so tame and were fed a load of unsuitable food might have been their undoing.



Let us just hope that the two remaining birds are male and female and that they manage to strike up more than just a "friendship" (and also lose their interest in golf!!).

Lagoa dos Salgados has also hosted a Sacred Ibis (Threskiornis aethiopicus) during 2009, an un-ringed bird which might be the same as the one seen further north, but undoubtedly an "escape" from a collection.

Sacred Ibis (Threskiornis aethiopicus)

This last species, White Ibis (Eudocimus albus), conveniently hiding its ringed left leg, is courtesy of Parque Zoologica de Lagos.

White Ibis (Eudocimus alba)