We decided to have a late winter break in Portugal. We flew by Easyjet from Edinburgh to Luton and then to Lisbon. We pre-booked some accommodation in advance, but left some nights unbooked to give us some flexibility. We used car trawler to get the best hire car deal, which we got through INTERRENT, which appeared to be linked to Europcar. The basic rental cost was only 32Euro for the 8 days, but had to pay 85Euro for a full tank of fuel, which was a bit of a rip off, and return it empty. There was also a charge of 12Euro for the toll charge logger. I had looked at a few trip reports to get details of birding sites, including my notes from a previous visit last spring, and also Gosney’s “Where to watch birds in Southern Portugal” – but it is getting rather dated.
26th February. Arrived 1600 collected car and were on our way over the Vasco da Gama Bridge heading for Alcochete. It was a fine evening so as we approached Alcochete we followed the signs for Samouco. This eventually took us alongside the old saltpans. From the roadside we could see groups of feeding waders such as Common Sandpiper, Black-tailed Godwit, Common Redshank, Spotted Redshank, Greenshank, Ruff and Common Snipe. Small groups of Greater Flamingo and Spoonbill were also visible. Raptors included some Marsh Harriers and three Black-winged Kites. The surrounding fields held Crested Larks, Meadow Pipits, White Wagtails, Zitting Cisticolas, Spotless Starlings and Corn Buntings.
We arrived at Hotel Foz in Alcochete and were surprised to find Pete Potts at the reception desk. He was staying there with a few other wader ringers, so we went out that evening to a local restaurant with the group for a nice meal.
27th February. Arranged to go out at first light with Pete and Daphne Watson to check the shoreline and try and read some wader colour ring combinations. First stop was at the ‘harbour’ in Samouco. The tide had turned and there were large groups of Kentish Plover, Ringed Plover, Dunlin, Sanderling and Turnstone on the beach, with smaller numbers of Grey Plover and a few Greenshank, Whimbrel and Little Stint. Further out were lots of Lesser Black-backed Gulls, Black-headed Gulls and a nice adult Mediterranean Gull. Most birds were too far out to read ring combinations to we headed back towards Alcochete and turned down left to the reserve area. Here on the adjacent beach we read several sanderling combinations.
We then drove into the reserve itself (Pete and co assist with the wader work based on the reserve). On the pools were good numbers of Black-winged Stilts, and some impressive flocks of Avocet and Black-tailed Godwits. The lagoon edges held Great Cormorant, Grey Heron, Little Egret and a Sandwich Tern. Amongst the White Wagtails was a single Pied Wagtail. We also had Hoopoe, Black Redstarts, Stonechat, Blackcap, Sardinian Warbler and lots of Common Chiffchaffs. It was a good bright, sunny morning as we headed back for a rather late breakfast.
We checked out and followed Pete out of Alcochete to the roundabout just before the dual carriageway. We took the fourth exist – via a small village and drove down towards an old bridge. We checked the lagoon on the right below the main road where amongst the Common Coot, were two Red-knobbed Coot. The lagoon also held a few Little Grebes. We said goodbye to Pete and co and returned to the roundabout, this time taking the 3rd exist, following the signs to Barroca d’Alva . We stopped by the narrow bridge over the reedy channel. In the adjacent damp fields were Lapwings, Common Snipe and a Green Sandpiper, along with Mallard, Grey Heron, Little Egret, Cattle Egret and a Great White Egret. I walked up the muddy track adjacent to the channel. Had a noisy sky-dancing male Marsh Harrier overhead, as well as feeding flocks of Barn Swallow, House Martin and Sand Martin. Along the channel were Moorhen, singing Cetti’s Warblers, Reed Buntings, a single winter plumage Yellow-crowned Bishop and a female Black-headed Weaver.
After lunch we left and started our journey north up the A1 toll motorway, then east along the A23 electronic toll motorway. As we drove it was getting cloudier, then started to rain. At junction 19 we turned down to Vilha Velha de Rodao and headed through the village for the viewpoint at the gorge. There were a few Griffon Vultures on perches and more sitting low on nests. Had a Hawfinch fly by and several Crag Martins, but as the rain got heavier and the light poorer we decided to leave and drove on to Castello Branco, where we checked in to TRYP Colina do Castelo Hotel.
28th February. We returned to the gorge at Vila Velha de Rodao. It was a brighter day and dry, though with a cold NE wind. Lots of Griffon Vultures were heading out as we arrived. After a while we took a walk through the pine forest just above Vilas Ruivas, where we found lots of song-flighting Serins, along with Crested Tit and a nice Firecrest. We then drove into Vilas Ruivas, parked the car and by bearing left all the time started walking down a track towards the Tagus river. The fields by the track held Robin, Blackbird, Song Thrush, Meadow Pipit, Black Redstart, flocks of Chaffinch with Serin and Goldfinch. In the wooded bits were Wren, Blue Tit, Great Tit and Wood Pigeon. We eventually ended up in a nice sheltered spot by the railway line just above the river, getting a nice view of the gorge. Watched from here for about three hours. Had distant view of a Bonelli’s Eagle over the crag. We got closer views of a soaring Sparrowhawk and a pair of Black Stork and had lots of Crag Martins and House Martins overhead.
Returned back to the car and I checked out a scrubby area just beyond the village where I had good views of a Dartford Warbler and a pair of Long-tailed Tits. Returned to the observation point above the gorge getting more close views of Griffons.
1st March. A bright clear sunny day as we returned to Vila Velha de Rodao. We scanned the gorge from the layby just up from the level crossing. There were about 30 Griffon Vultures sitting sunning themselves on prominent perches. Later many were flying up to land in trees and pull of twigs with their beaks. We drove on to Vilas Ruivas, parked in the village and walked out through the fields and woodlands on the south edge of the village. Saw several Jays, along with Nuthatch and a Woodlark and in the scrub Blackcaps and Sardinian Warblers. As we walked back down the track to the river heard and then saw a singing Short-toed Treecreeper.
Spent a glorious three hours by the river watching the gorge. Much more raptor activity today with a Short-toed Eagle, Sparrow Hawk, Common Kestrel, but highlight was appearance of three Black Vultures, which soared up over us along with about 30 Griffons. The Black Stork pair were joined by a 3rd bird, which resulted in much fighting, some of it in mid air above the river. Along the riverside were many flycatching Black Redstarts and a Grey Wagtail.
2nd March. Another visit to Vila Velha de Rodao. It was back to cloudier, cooler, windier conditions. From the observation platform got good views of the Bonelli’s Eagle, as well as four Hawfinches and on top of the fort a male Blue Rock Thrush. Returned to Vilas Ruivas and checked out the fields either side of the road just before the village. Large flocks of House Sparrows, Serins, Chaffinches with Greenfinches, Goldfinches, a few Siskin and two Cirl Bunting. Also a few Stonechat, 5 Woodlark, a Hoopoe and flushed a pair of Little Owl from an olive tree.
Walked back down the track, the only bird of note being a Great-spotted Woodpecker. Did another watch from the railway line, but relatively little activity today. Checked once more from the observation platform but still no sign of the Ruppell’s vulture, very disappointing.
3rd March. We decided to give up on the vultures and head south today (a mistake as we later found out, as according to Netfugl the Ruppell’s turned up and was seen today). We stopped just east of Evora by a roadside lake. In the shallows were lots of Gadwall, with Shoveler, Teal, a pair of Egyptian Geese and 8 Spoonbill. Out on the water a few Great-crested Grebes. Nearby a Black-winged Kite and our first Red Kite. We continued on towards Beja, where as we approached the town we began seeing Southern Grey Shrikes on the roadside wires. We also had a pair of Raven and a nice male Montagu’s Harrier.
Arrived at Castro Verde to find it was raining. Checked in to Hotel Aesteva. As it started to brighten up I went back out and drove back north for about 4km then turned right down a track. Continued towards a distant farm building, getting out from time to time to walk down side tracks, or through fields. There were big flocks of Skylarks, with smaller groups of Thekla Larks and the occasional pair of Calandra Lark, along with lots of Corn Buntings and Meadow Pipits. Small groups of Golden Plover were also present, with a few Lapwing. Found a couple of small pools that held Gadwall, Shoveler, Teal, Mallard, Coot and Little Grebe, with Common Snipe in the margins. Raptors included a couple of Red Kite, Common Buzzard and a first-winter Spanish Imperial Eagle. Got good views of it perched on a rock being mobbed by a pair of Carrion Crow and then a Magpie.
4th March. Got up to find it was very cloudy, very windy and starting to rain! After breakfast headed east along N123 to Sao Marcos de Ateboeira. From here we followed a track south across the grassland steppe. Unfortunately the rain started to get very heavy, making birding difficult. Despite this we saw many Red Kites, had flocks of Golden Plovers and eventually found a group of 10, then 12 Great Bustards. We passed through Guereiro and then over a ford to Tacoes, before reaching the tarred road, which we followed to Penilhos. Between Penilhos and Sao Joao dos Colleireiros we checked the fields and tracks either side of the road and despite the rain eventually found a pair of Stone Curlew and a rather bedraggled male Little Bustard. Drove on into Mertola, where we stopped in the large carpark on the south side of the town. From here I walked along a path on the north side of the Oeiras Gorge. Found a nice male Rock Bunting and in the pines above heard two Tawny Owls calling to each other. In Mertola got good views of a group of 12 Azure-winged Magpies.
Drove back west along N123. Between the Penilhos turnoff and Sao Marcos checked the fields and tracks either side of the road. Here were lots of White Storks with some doing up nests, Cattle Egrets and Southern Grey Shrikes. As the rain eased off the birds were getting a bit more active. From a track on the south side of the road, located another group of 11 Great Bustard, one of which started to display. Near a small wood had 12 Red Kites sitting on the ground or on posts and also two more first-winter Spanish Imperial Eagles, some Common Buzzards, a Marsh Harrier and lots of Common Kestrels.
Returned to Castro Verde, seeing another four Great Bustard on the north side of the road, and dropped Dora off at hotel. I went back north to Entrades, where turned left. Followed a track signed to Monte Paraiso. Lots of Red Kites, but highlight was a pair of Common Crane feeding in one of the fields.
5th March. Got up to find the rain had stopped and that it was quite a bright, sunny day. We decided to repeat part of yesterday’s trip to see the area in better conditions. Headed back east seeing a roadside Black-winged Kite. Due to the rain the track south of Sao Marcos was impassible at the first ford. We returned east and then followed the road south to Santa Barbara de Padroes, getting good views of four Stone Curlew and two Little Owls. Then drove east, the bright weather making the birding a lot easier than yesterday. There were pairs of Red-legged Partridges all along the roadside as well as lots of Stonechats, Southern Grey Shrikes and a few Spanish Sparrows. Towards Gueireiro had a group of 16 Great Bustard on a hillside north of the road and a near adult plumage Spanish Imperial Eagle.
We continued towards Penilhos. In one flooded field found a Green Sandpiper, then in a nice flower rich field three male Little Bustard, a Little Owl and a male Hen Harrier. In the field just before Penilhos a fantastic flock of 43 Little Bustards, including one male that briefly displayed at two females. We then drove north from Penilhos towards the N123, seeing our first Red-rumped Swallow en route. As we drove west towards Castro Verde had a first winter Spanish Imperial Eagle chasing a first winter Golden Eagle. Just over the river bridge near Castro Verde we turned right on a track that took us down to the river. In the trees found a pair of Great Spotted Cuckoo, whilst on the riverside a Stone Curlew and another Green Sandpiper.
Drove through Castro Verde and west to the IC1 and started heading north. It had started to rain again. At a brief lunchtime stop nice view of a hunting Black-winged Kite. Continued north, through very heavy rain. Stopped briefly by the bridge near Marateca. There was a huge flock of possibly 1000 Glossy Ibis, feeding in a flooded field along with masses of Black-headed Gulls and at least one Common Gull. We then followed the N5 to Montijo and on to Alcochete. Had a brief stop at the saltpans, where read some godwit colour ring combinations. Then finally stopped at the side of the Tagus estuary just east of Alcochete. Masses of waders, herons, flamingos and duck being pushed up by the rising tide, including a few Curlew and Common Shelduck, the last ‘new’ birds of the trip. It was still raining so we headed into Lisbon to check into the Holiday Inn Express, near the airport.
Despite the rather mixed weather we enjoyed our visit. We did 1420km and saw 129 species. Highlights were the varied raptors and the bustards. Biggest disappointment was missing out on the Ruppell’s vulture for the second year running.
Bob and Dora Swann (Robert.firstname.lastname@example.org)