Thursday, August 04, 2011


I am starting to write this post on the 1st of August and the weather is horrendous  -  lead-grey skies with continuous thunder and lightning and very heavy downpours all day. In fifteen years here I have never seen a drop of rain during August. I would not be surprised to hear that July was the coldest on record; we have had lots of sunshine but the constant strong NW winds, almost gale-force at times, have kept temperatures well below the seasonal average. This time last year it was a scorching 40+℃.

The breeding season is virtually over and on my local "patch" (Ria de Alvor and Quinta da Rocha) the only species still feeding unfledged young are a few pairs of Little Terns which are probably on second broods.

Little Tern

This has been the worst breeding season I can recall here. The early breeders, Black-winged Stilts and Kentish Plover, had their nests destroyed by an artificial raising of the water level on "the flood" (a mixture of shallow waterways, expanses of mud and littoral vegetation which becomes tidal if the local fishermen illegally open the sluice gate).

Black-winged Stilt

Kentish Plover nest which failed due to flooding

Equally worrying is the lack in numbers of what were formerly common birds in this area, something which has been commented on by other resident and visiting birders. Species which "buck" this trend are Bee-Eaters and hirundines (Red-rumped Swallows seem to be doing especially well), but although Woodchat Shrikes arrived in good numbers, and three or four pairs nested around my land, they have now disappeared and there is no sign of any juveniles which are normally very obvious and vocal in their demands for food even after fledging. Many resident species have also decreased dramatically. As an example, Sardinian Warblers could be seen and heard throughout the day around the house and several pairs nested in my garden. It is two years since I have seen or heard one locally.

Male Sardinian Warbler

Other species which come to mind are Serin and Blackcap, both of which were garden nesters and now absent; the Blackcaps song is especially missed. Common Waxbill nested all year round here, in fact the local bird observatory and ringing station used to send visitors in the direction of my garden as being the best locality to see this species in sometimes large (30+) flocks, but they also have disappeared.

Adult and juvenile Common Waxbills

The reasons for these declines could be many-fold and complex but I doubt whether climate or availability of food are factors. There is, however, a COMMON ENEMY to all other bird species from the diminutive Waxbills to raptors the size of Short-toed Eagles:  this is the Azure-winged Magpie. 20 years ago when I came on holiday here for three weeks every year this was a scarce bird and I was lucky to see half a dozen during my stay. Now, this species has increased exponentially; they are in and around my garden every day with their annoying "squawking" calls and it is not uncommon to see post-breeding winter flocks of several hundred birds. Although they are attractive birds they are 'corvids' and have the typically malicious behaviour.

Azure-winged Magpies

Although BWPi states that their main diet is fruit, seeds and insects (and yes, they do eat the Leather-jackets off my lawn), they are omnivorous; I have witnessed them taking eggs and young from Blackbird nests, and also pulling down House Sparrow nests from my Yuccas and Palm trees and devouring either eggs or young. Apart from this predatory nature it is the fact that they exhibit antisocial behaviour to any other species which enters their territory, driving other birds away by their attacking behaviour. Last year, a pair of Golden Oriole built a nest in my mature Pepper Tree but were ousted by the magpies and never laid eggs.

Maybe time for a local "cull"?

Tuesday, May 24, 2011


In the Spring of 2005 (see post "Garden Breeders 2005" - September 11th 2005) a swallow's nest began being constructed in the passageway between the house and the garage/workshop. Both Barn Swallows and Red-rumped Swallows had been observed investigating this site but when we realised that it was the latter which were building we were 'over the moon'. Twenty years ago the only reliable breeding site for Red-rumped Swallows in this area was beneath the lip of the dam at "Barragem da Bravura" north of Odiáxere, but with the building of the A22 "Via do Infante" motorway and all its viaducts in this undulating terrain this species seems to have increased in numbers due to suitable nest sites.

The "Rumpies" have nested every year since then, in some years producing three broods and an estimated seventeen chicks in a single year  -  the "crooning" sound of these birds (two metres from one of our bedroom windows) has been magic to the ear.

Last year the ubiquitous House Sparrows (I have several dozen nesting around the house) took over the nest and broke off the "entrance tube" (this has happened to several neighbours who also had Red-rumped Swallows nesting at their properties); I "evicted" several broods (eggs as well as young) but these tenacious blighters are irrepressible.

Eventually the nest crumbled (helped, I think, by Azure-winged Magpies attacking the sparrows) and fell to the ground.

This year the nest site was again investigated by both Red-rumped and Barn Swallows but it was the latter that began to reconstruct the nest. Four adults (presumably non-breeding siblings of the breeding pair) built the half-cup nest in a few days (actually adding mud while the female was laying and sitting) and although we had one mortality (just fell out of the nest) the pair have produced three healthy offspring which have just fledged and flown.

So, they are only Barn Swallows instead of "Posh Swallows", but it has been nice to observe and I hope they produce another brood.

As a post-script, the Blackbirds which have nested in the Brugmansia just by my front door seem to have produced two healthy, fast-growing chicks; I fear that some of them might have fallen prey to the Azure-winged Magpies when they were much younger.


Monday, May 02, 2011


Despite the vile weather, the three bird species which for me characterise the Algarve and herald the onset of Spring and early Summer have arrived here from their wintering grounds in Africa.

Woodchat Shrike (Lanius senator) first seen on 11th March

Bee-eater (Merops apiaster)  heard on 29th March and seen the following day in large numbers

Golden Oriole (Oriolus oriolus)  -  the unmistakable song first heard on 13th April

The order of appearance of these three "jewels" is always the same but this year the dates were about one week to ten days later than normal. There is a huge supporting cast of other species such as Iberian Yellow Wagtail, Melodious Warbler, Little Tern and many rarer species, but these "three" are not only beautiful birds but so typical of the Algarve  -  when they leave their breeding ground here in the autumn to return to Africa I feel a real sense of sadness.

Sunday, May 01, 2011


Today is the first day of May, supposedly the beginning of summer in Algarve;  we have thunderstorms, torrential rain and it is cold (we have had the wood-burning stove on for the past two days). Maximum daytime temperature today was 15℃. Last weekend (Easter weekend) London was 27℃, the hottest capital in Europe.  What is going on?

Storm clouds over Ria de Alvor

The winter of 2009/10 was the wettest on record (i.e. for 160 years) with almost three times the average annual rainfall. The past winter (2010/11) has not had the same volume of rain but there have been more rainy days  -  in fact, with the exception of a fine spell of weather at the end of February when temperatures reached 25℃, we have had precipitation almost every day since last October.

The reservoirs ("Barragem da Bravura" at Odiáxere) are full........

..... to overflowing

The land cannot take any more water  -  my gardener José João tells me that most of the spring crops (beans, peas, garlic and onions) have failed because they have just rotted in the ground.

Birding and photography have been "off the menu" for the past six months  -  I lose interest when the weather is like this and the light has been abysmal for photography. I believe that the end of this horrendous weather is in sight  -  let us hope so.