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.

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....!!!!!!!!!!!