Maps: We used an AA 1: 300,000 map which was a work of fiction rather than fact with much lack of detail. I suggest you look for another one.
Books: Dave Gosney’s Guide to Southern Portugal was useful but rather out of date.
A Bird Watcher’s Guide to Portugal and Madeira by Moore, Elias and Costa. This was useful, but directions to sites were not very clear and some information was wrong.
Roads are well signposted but road numbers did not correspond to those on the map, making navigation a haphazard affair. To add to the confusion, many small villages are not named on the ground.
31st October Easyjet flight Milan to Lisbon. We stayed 3 nights in the Novotel in Setubal
1st November: Cabo Espichel and Arrabida mountains, Sado estuary at Alcochete
2nd November: A circuit of Sado Bay
3rd November: North side of Sado Bay, drive to Evora
4th November: Evora and Elvas areas
A good start to the trip with a pair of Common Mynas seen from the hotel then we set off for the westerly point of Cabo Espichel for a spot of sea-watching. On the way through the cork oak and olive plantations we picked up large mixed flocks of Goldfinches and Chaffinches with a few Linnets. Black Redstarts were common on house roofs, as were Crested Larks and Stonechats on any patch of rough grass. Fan-tailed Warblers were easy to spot on the damper areas.
Capo Espichel is easily reached by taking the N10 east from Setubal, following the signs for Lisboa, then at Vila Nogueira de Azeitai take the 379 towards Sesimbra. When you get to Sesimbra, the Cabo is clearly signposted. The Cabo is an excellent place for sea watching especially when there is a westerly wind blowing.
As you arrive on the Cabo you will see the ruined convent in front of you. Park in front of the buildings. The cliffs at the back of the buildings are a good place to scan the sea and the bushes on top of the cliffs hold interesting migrants and residents. Views from the lighthouse to your left allow you to see a little further south down the coast. You can drive on a dirt track right up to the lighthouse and park in front of it. If you have a 4x4 you can drive to the ruined gun emplacement on the edge of the cliff.
There was an orienteering event just about to start at the ruined convent, so we quickly scanned the area, seeing many Gannets diving over the sea, 2 Shags on rocks, and 2 Great Skuas tormenting a flotilla of about 200 Cory’s with a sprinkling of Balearic Shearwaters. Later we had superb views of the flock of Cory’s Shearwaters all heading north – well over 300 birds in total. Lesser Black-backed, Black-headed and Herring Gulls were all common here.
Crowds of runners were gathering so we beat a strategic retreat to the light house Scanning the area around the buildings added Blue Rock Thrush, Peregrine, Wren, Sardinian Warbler, Northern Wheatear, Common and Spotless Starlings and Kestrel to the list. This is a great place to spend half a day – scanning the sea and searching the bushes for residents and migrants.
Retracing our steps inland from the point along the 379, we headed off to the Arràbida mountains. The road was well signposted from the east side of Azoia. At this time of year there was little traffic but I imagine that it would get very crowded in the summer. We had hoped for Bonelli’s Eagle in the mountains, but the high wind and rain showers weren’t encouraging them to fly and the best we could manage was a group of Crag Martins hunting over the mountains.
There was just time to have a squint at the Tagus estuary so we returned to Setubal via the N10 and then took the motorway (A12) north. We exited at junction 1 (Montiji) and followed the signs for Alcochete. Just as you enter Alcochete, there is a sign on the right pointing to a nature reserve (look for the green and brown sign). Follow the road to the end and park. This is a reserve right on the estuary with some disused salt pans. You can walk through (3Km) to more salt pans, but we didn’t have time to do this.
This was an excellent area and Cetti’s Warbler, Spoonbill, Black-shouldered Kite and Marsh Harrier were feeding on the salt marsh. Incidentally, we found Black-shouldered Kite very easy to see at almost all the sites we visited.
The tide was high on the estuary and waders were roosting in the moored boats: Turnstones were bickering with each other as they jostled for space among the Dunlin. A pair of Common Sandpipers and 2 Grey Plovers were feeding at the water’s edge while Black-headed Gulls and Sandwich Terns were flying up and down. Shoveler, Mallard, Grey Heron, Little Egrets and a group of Flamingos completed the list.
We then spent a frustrating and fruitless time trying to find a site mentioned by Gosney. We failed to get to Pancas as the sandy track had big No Entry signs across it. However, we did pick up Little Grebe, Cattle Egrets (very common) and Common Waxbill. Giving up on Pancas, we returned to Alcochete and found the disused saltpans to the west of the town without too much trouble. There is only one small area that you can actually scan over as the road is blocked after 100m. Even so, the part that we could see was full of birds and we added Kentish Plover, Avocet, Black-winged Stilt, Greenshank, Spotted and Common Redshank to the list.
Despite spending the day dodging showers, we had some excellent birding. At first light, while we were still in the hotel car park, a couple of Siskin were feeding in the pine trees above the car. We drove down to the harbour and caught the car ferry across to the peninsula which blocks most of the entrance of Setubal Bay. If you suffer from travel sickness, close your eyes: the ferries are painted puke green. The short trip across to Troia was enlivened by picking out a few Mediterranean Gulls from among the hundreds of Black-headed.
A lot of the peninsula is now protected from further development and sandy areas within the built up area have been cordoned off to traffic. This means that you either have to walk or cycle to get into the pine trees to look over the estuary. While it means that the fragile habitat is safe from damaging cars and motorbikes, and most people won’t walk far, it is frustrating for birders! We asked permission to park in the golf club car park and walked across the narrow strip of sandy forest so that we could scan the estuary. Take insect repellent with you! There was a good selection of waders including Curlew, Ringed Plover, Dunlin, Little Stint and Marsh Sandpiper. A short stroll through the pines yielded Short-toed Tree-creeper and Greenfinch.
Continuing to drive south east along the peninsula we picked up the first of many Southern Grey Shrikes.
We stopped at the beginning of the village of Comporta to admire a large group of White Storks feeding in the fields. There were even some birds still on nests, even though no young were visible. Adults went through the motions of bill-clattering as they arrived at the nest. Marsh Harriers were everywhere you looked – adults and young and there was a ring-tailed Hen Harrier. A flash of blue heralded a pair of Common Kingfishers.
On the opposite side of the road 70 Avocets were feeding from the surface of the mud, rather than sweeping their bills through shallow water.
The rice fields had recently been harvested and they were many White Storks, herons and egrets feeding on newly revealed prey. Tree and House Sparrows were enjoying the spilt grain.
Take the first road on the left at the start of the village. (The restaurant mentioned in some reports no longer exists.) The sandy track runs out into the rice fields and if you turn left after a large concrete irrigation ditch, you can get all the way to the estuary. Although the track is sandy, I would guess that it floods after heavy rain, so use your common sense about driving on it. You may have a long walk to go and get help if you get stuck.
We used the car as a hide and had stunning views of over 300 Glossy Ibis. The cut rice fields were full of birds, including many Fan-tailed Warblers, several Black-shouldered Kites, dozens of Marsh Harriers, a few Hen Harriers, Green Sandpiper, Snipe and numerous Tree Pipits.
The reedy pools at the edge of the estuary no longer exist as they seem to have been drained for more rice fields. There were Bar-tailed Godwits feeding on the estuary and a pair of Black-necked Grebes in the deeper water.
Away from the rice fields and back to relatively dry land, we stopped at the east end of Carrasquira to look over the estuary. There were more Bar-tailed Godwits and Whimbrel, new for the list.
Our next stop was Lago do Murta, east of Carrasquira on the N253. It is easy to find, being the only reedy area for miles. Other than 12 Azure-winged Magpies and a Crested Tit, we saw little of interest. Gosney mentions a heronry but there was no sign of one. I suspect that the many fallen, dead trees in the lake are all that remain.
Then there followed yet another pointless search to get to Pineiro, mentioned both in Gosney and in Moore’s book . Since Gosney failed to get into Pinheiro from the north side, we attacked it from the south, following the signposts from the N10. The road quickly became a dirt track with splendid groves of olive and cork oaks. The area might be worth scanning in spring for migrants. However after 4km we arrived at a gate with “Keep Out” notices.
Our last day in the Setubal area and we headed off towards Evora, calling in to several more sites along the north edge of the estuary on the way.
We took the N10 east out of Setubal and stopped at yet more disused saltpans (why are they all disused?) at Pontes. These were easily visible from the N10 and we just took any likely looking small track on the right hand side of the road to scan over different areas.
There were good numbers of Black-tailed Godwits, Redshank, Avocet and Stilts and a few Greenshank, Kentish Plovers, Common Sandpiper and Grey Plover. A “Willow Chiff” was feeding in the bushes on the salt marsh but since it was mute, we were unable to say whether it was Iberian or Common.
A site not mentioned in any of the books or reports we had seen is the reserve at Mouinha do Mouraio. It is clearly signposted from the N10 just west of the business park at Mouraio. Once off the N10, take the first road to the left and follow your nose down to the estuary. A lot of EU money has been spent to restore an old mill, driven by the movement of the tidal waters and on a splendid new hide. Unfortunately, the hide was in entirely the wrong place, overlooking an old salt pan with nothing in it. But perhaps I am being unduly critical – maybe it is used for roosting at hide tides. However, we walked on to the jetty to the left hand side of the mill and scanned the estuary, picking up Common Sandpiper, Grey, Ringed and Kentish Plover, Stilts, Little Egret, Greenshank, Redshank, Avocet, Cormorant, Curlew, Dunlin, Little Stint, Turnstone, 2 Kingfishers and a pair of Black-necked Grebes. A Sparrowhawk caused a flurry as it flew over. There were also Mediterranean and Black-headed Gulls
To the east of the mill is a track leading to the usual disused salt pans and again, there were good numbers of waders.
Then we headed off for Gambia. Coming from Setubal, take the 2nd turning on the right pointing to a campsite. There is a warren of tiny tracks here and we had trouble finding the estuary. When we eventually arrived, it was well-worth the trouble: since as well as the usual collection of waders, an adult and juvenile Bluethroat showed well. On the bushes on the marsh there was a group of Serin, Tree Pipits, Crested Larks and Black-shouldered Kite.
Back to the main road and then we took the turning down to Zambuijal. You can no longer reach the village from this side of the river as the makeshift bridge mentioned by Gosney had been shut to traffic. Some enterprising locals had thrown some planks across a ditch dug over the road, so you could continue on foot. Scanning the river Marateca from the bridge added 4 Great White Egrets to the list. There were also 30 Flamingos, 25 Spoonbills, Bar-tailed Godwits and a good numbers of the usual waders. A Marsh Harrier was also hunting over the area.
We took the A6 motorway signposted to Espanha (Spain). Away from the estuary, the land was mostly cultivated with scattered cork oaks.. We had hoped to see some steppe grassland but EU money had obviously been used to fund ploughing up huge expanses of this habitat. Red Kites were surprisingly common over the fields and Cattle Egrets were keeping close to the cattle grazing on “improved” grassland. Black-billed Magpies were another addition to the list.
We left the motorway at the Evora exit and followed a small road signposted to Torre del Coeheros. Corn Buntings were everywhere and we were surprised to see large flocks of Lapwing. Other passerines included Tree Pipits. A Great Spotted Woodpecker was busy knocking holes into a telegraph pole, 2 Southern Grey Shrikes were scanning from telegraph wires and 4 Hoopoes were feeding.
Returning to the main road, we took the N114 towards Mourao - signposted “Espanha”. This carried a lot of traffic which made birding difficult so after 7km we headed south towards Portel. Wood Lark was heard and we saw another large group of Azure-winged Magpies and Tree Pipits.
We took the road towards Portel which gave good views over the Barragem des Abretos reservoir, allowing to enjoy an Osprey preening after yet another downpour, and a surprise party of 4 Ferruginous Duck.
We woke to a massive thunder storm with torrents of rain. It was so heavy that the hotel dining room flooded.
We ventured out once the downpour lessened, taking the ring road around the south of Evora then following signs for the airport on the N254. The road was quiet enough to allow us to stop frequently to scan: Corn Bunting, Cattle Egret, Lapwing, 2 Black-shouldered Kites, 2 Red Kites, Buzzard, Hen Harrier, Kestrel, 2 Southern Grey Shrikes, Stonechat, White Storks and a distant view of 8 Great Bustards.
Considering the poor weather, the number of raptors was amazing. On a good day I expect it would be even better.
We then retraced our steps back to the N256 in the direction of Mourao getting a fly- past of 10 Red-legged Partridge en route. A short detour following a signpost to the Montenovo reservoir allowed us to add Barn and Red-rumped Swallows to the list while listening to the lovely, liquid song of a Wood Lark.
Just before the town of Mourao, we turned left on a side road, overlooking the reservoir. Sadly, there were several groups of hunters out, but this didn’t stop us from seeing some great birds: 13 Cranes, 4 Greylags, Reed Bunting, Southern Grey Shrike, Hoopoe, Tree Pipit, Teal, Willow/chiff, Black-shouldered Kite, (getting boring!), Red Kite, 3 Red-legged Partridge, and 5 Little Bustards overhead.
We carried on over the border into Spain and stopped to scan. There were 2 groups of a total of 22 Cranes and 2 Red Kites. We then turned north as soon as we could following the sign to Cheles and picked up another 16 Cranes feeding among the Cork Oaks and a flock of 60+ Serins. Just south of Cheles, a Griffon Vulture floated across the road.
Turning left on the EX 105 after Olivenza we crossed back into Portugal just south of Elvas where we followed the triangular route suggested by Gosney. (Take any of the small roads leading south-east from Elvas then follow your nose, ending up back in Elvas). Once again, none of the steppe grassland remained, but we still had some good birds, including 100+ Spanish Sparrows, 10 Little Bustards, 30+ Stone Curlews, Marsh Harrier, Black-shouldered Kite and Red Kite.
Time was running out so we tore ourselves away and off to the airport. Overall an excellent 4 days in an area which does not seem to be explored very extensively. Many of the areas looked excellent for migrants, so a spring trip could be even more productive.
Alison and Colin Parnell