Birders Big Brother House (Casa Monte da Eira) Portugal
20 - 25 September 2018
Tour Group: Alison Joseph, Brian Buffery, Carol Elliott, David Hovell, Fiona Smith, Jane Watkins, John Garbutt, Kathy Piotrowski, Keith Watkins, Les Cuthbert, Mervyn Jones, Paddy Shaw, Steve Piotrowski and Stevie Howell.
Birding Location: We were based in the village of Giões, roughly an hour’s-drive from Faro Airport. Giões is a freguesia (civil parish) in the municipality of Alcoutim (Algarve, Portugal) and hosts a population of about 250 people. It is an ideal birding location being relatively close to the bird-rich coastal saltpans and centered in an amazing wildlife area. It is within four km of Lavadoura (Riberim-do-Vascao) Nature Reserve and close to huge expanses of Montados, an area of Mediterranean woodland of Holm and Cork Oak, which is exceptionally good for wildlife.
Accommodation: We hired a self-contained villa, Casa Monte da Eira, which was situated on the edge of the town in beautiful countryside. It had all the facilities that were needed, including a very large kitchen and dining area, six bedrooms (all but one air-conditioned), spacious lawns and a swimming pool for sunbathing, a games room with a pool and table-tennis table.
Thursday 20th September
Casa Monte da Eira
Ten of us (Alison, Stevie, Jane, Keith, David, Lez, Brian, Paddy, Kathy and me) from East Anglia landed at Faro following an uneventful flight from Stansted and were united with Mervyn and Fiona who flew in from Liverpool. Our trip list was already underway before the plane landed with Yellow-legged Gulls and Greater Flamingos seen clearly as we flew low over the saltpans on the approach to Faro Airport’s runway. This was certainly a sign of things to come!
After collecting our hire vehicles, we made our way along picturesque back roads (N124), via Sao Bras de Alportel and Barranco do Velho, to our villa. We took in a few birding stops between Barranco and Cachopo in the Algarve Hills, along with a trolley dash at a local supermarket to collect provisions. Those who stayed with the minibus (whilst Kathy led the trolley dash) located a small colony of Lang’s Short-tailed Blue butterflies feeding on a lavender patch. A superb Goshawk took pride of place in the bird stakes, but the wooded slopes also hosted Nuthatches and there were plenty of Red-rumped Swallows around. As we negotiated the endless windy roads, Kathy spotted a Common Cuckoo flying alongside the bus and we then received news that John and Carol had arrived and were enjoying a welcome glass of chilled Sangria with the proprietors Ana and Jose. We were all hoping that there would be some left for the rest of us! John and Carol had taken a ferry crossing from Portsmouth to San Malo in France and then driven from there through Spain and Portugal to our villa, Casa Monte da Eira, in the village Giões.
We all met up at our villa and were shown to our living quarters. As we off-loaded our cases, our attention was drawn to a small pond in the courtyard in front of the villa that was hosting two spectacular dragonflies. One was bright red and immediately identified as a Broad Scarlet, but we were puzzled as to the identification of a similar-sized blue one! Brian took a series of photographs, and after a good thumb through the books, we found that this was an Epaulette Skimmer – a new dragonfly for most of the party. We then made our way to Mertola for some late-afternoon’s birdwatching and a further supermarket stop. Huge flocks of Spotless Starlings and Azure-winged Magpies together with two Spotted Flycatchers were in the grounds of the villa and we were able to scope an Iberian Shrike, our first of many for the trip. On our way to Mertola, several Red-legged Partridges, Wheatears, Crested Larks and more Iberian Grey Shrikes were noted. We scanned the castle and bridge area from outside the town but, unfortunately, the Lesser Kestrels that breed in nestboxes fixed under the bridge had already left Portugal for their African wintering grounds. We did see a Kingfisher perched beside the river and flocks of House Martins overhead.
Once back at Casa Monte da Eira, Kathy had cooked us a superb dinner, which we enjoyed with a few beers or glasses of wine and were serenaded by the calling of Little Owls. It was a clear night and the stars were amazing and through our ‘scopes we looked in amazement at the planets with Venus, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter all showing clearly.
Friday 21st September
Castro Verde Plains
Most of us awoke before first light to explore the villa grounds and we then enjoyed a hearty breakfast before setting off to the Castro Verde area to look for Great Bustards, one of our main targets for the trip. At the villa, we enjoyed excellent views of singing Woodlarks, Hoopoe and several Corn Buntings and then the debate started as to whether the larks present and singing everywhere were Crested or Theklas!
We probably stayed too long at Casa Monte da Eira as the sun was beating down as we left and it was getting rather hot. Missing the turn off for the N123 didn’t help much either as this almost doubled our journey time but, as we negotiated the N122 in the direction Beja, we had a pleasant surprise. We pulled off the road onto a side track, at a site north of Alfarrobeira de Cima, as someone had spotted a raptor from the minibus. Almost immediately three fury mammals trotted across the track in tandem and these were identified as Egyptian Mongoose that have become well established in South Portugal in the past 35 years. We searched the area and noted Sardinian Warbler beside the road and then Jane spotted an eagle perched on a telegraph pole. It was a superb Short-toed eagle.
We did a circuit around Castro Verde and watched a Booted Eagle soaring and then five Griffon Vultures at a bridge south of village of Geraldos. As we were watching the Booted Eagle, Alison drew our attention to some Iberian Hares that were sitting in the shade under a tree. There were a number of trip ticks by the bridge including Crag Martin, Little Grebe, Common and Green Sandpipers and Cetti’s Warbler. The bridge gave the dragonfly enthusiasts a chance to search for insects and Lesser Emperor, Western Willow Emerald, Blue-tailed Damselfly and more Broad Scarlets were logged.
Moving on, there were several flocks of Cattle Egrets amongst herds of cows alongside the road. We stopped for lunch by the water tower close to the village of Santa Barbara de Padroes and scanned the plains for Great Bustard. Most of us had just about given up when Mervyn spotted two magnificent Great Bustards slowly walking through grassland close by. We were all delighted with our scope views and now one of our key targets was in the bag. Alison suggested that we should have a celebratory coffee stop in the next village, which is unheard of judging from previous WBC tours, but we stopped at Guerreiro where it was ice-creams all round! On leaving the village we located another three Great Bustards and we then scanned prime steppe habitat from the minibus with the hope of finding sandgrouse and perhaps more bustards. The heat of the day was now beginning to become unbearable with the minibus thermometer now reading 33 degrees C., so we decided to abandon ship at Figueirinha crossroads and return to Casa Monte da Eira.
We had a bit more shopping to do, so we stopped at a supermarket in Castro Verde on our way back. Again, Kathy had cooked us a scrumptious meal, which we enjoyed al fresco style around a long table under moonlight skies. The evening’s entertainment concluded with the chocolate cup competition, which involved drinking local cherry liquor from a cup made entirely from dark Belgian chocolate. If you didn’t want another drink, you ate your cup and the competition was to see who was the last man or women standing! A melted or damaged cup resulted in immediate disqualification, and after several rounds and quite a few retirements, most realised that Paddy was going to win come what may, so the remaining contestants ate their cups to allow him to be crowned as champion with none of us too worse for wear!
Saturday 22nd September
Castro Marim saltpans and Tavira lagoons and beach
With some of us still suffering from the effects of yesterday afternoon’s blistering hot sun; we decided to look at coastal saltpans where it was hoped that a light and soothing sea breeze would refresh us! We started at Castro Marim Reserva National Visitors Centre. This was a pitiful place as a very plush VC had been abandoned and was closed to the public and the trees that surround the complex had grown up to block the view of the reserve. We ventured along a wide track which led to the reserve and managed to scan the saltpans form a vantage point on top of a bank. From here, the distant sea of pink was huge flocks of Greater Flamingos and there were groups of European Spoonbills on display. There was a good selection of waders included: Grey and Ringed Plovers, Black-tailed Godwit, Ruddy Turnstones, a single (colour-ringed) Ruff, Dunlin, Common Sandpiper, Greenshank and Common Redshank. There were also compact flocks of Pied Avocets (105) and more scattered groups of Black-winged Stilts (75). Several Mediterranean Gulls were picked out and there was a huge feeding flock of Slender-billed Gulls. We were all pleased to see our first White Storks, nine in total, as most had already left Iberia and were on their way to African wintering grounds and we noted at least four Western Marsh Harriers quartering the lagoons. Viewing the saltpans was quite difficult, so we retraced our steps and headed back to the minibus. We all enjoyed excellent views of a very obliging Red-backed Shrike near the car park and as we drove out, we watched two Yellow Wagtails feeding in a boggy pool.
Our next stop was Cerro de Bufo saltpans, which involved an 800-metre walk down a track in the heat of the day. Some of us decided to seek shade under a tree rather than do the walk as our expected light and soothing sea breeze was non-existent. We noted Sandwich and Little Terns during our walk to the saltpans and, once there, we scanned through the waders and noted good numbers of Grey Plovers, Little Stints and Curlew Sandpipers. There were more Mediterranean and Slender-billed Gulls and then Stevie picked out a lone adult Audouin’s Gull. This was a tick for most of us in the party so, whilst most stayed to watch the bird, Carol and Steve returned to those sheltering to take them back by minibus along the lumpy track to the bird. We scanned the saltpans for some time noting many distant waders against the light and through shimmering sunshine, but we also picked up our first Osprey of the trip.
We took lunch at the beach area around the Hotel Albacora in Tavira and the plan was to walk the beach to view a set of lagoons. However, it was a hot Saturday afternoon and it appeared that the whole population of South Portugal had made for the beach. The area was packed with sun-bathers and due to the scorching heat we decided to cut our losses and return to Casa Monte da Eira. As we again passed over the Forte do Rato saltpans, a group of very close waders were seen feeding on one of the shallow lagoons. These were scanned from the roadway and we manged to get exceptionally good views of Kentish Plovers, Dunlin, Sanderling, Curlew Sandpipers, Little Stints, Common Redshank and Common Greenshanks. As we were leaving the complex, a raptor flew across the road and began to hover; this was our first Black-shouldered Kite of the trip.
Once back at Casa Monte da Eira, we were relieved to dip in the swimming pool to cool off. As the villa had a pool table, the Portuguese Open Championship was declared and Steve was confident of winning following last year’s championship win in the Grantown-on-Spey Open. The draw was made and Steve was paired against Fiona. Things started well for Steve as he swiftly pocketed his balls leaving only one to pot with Fiona’s balls remaining on the table! There was much hilarity and cheering as Fiona clawed her way back into the game with one spectacular long pot after another. Steve eventually avoided embarrassment by scraping through on a black-ball game.
Sunday 23rd September
Pulo do Lobo (Vale do Guadiana Natural Park) and Lavadouro Nature Reserve
It was time to change tactics if we were to avoid the heat of the day, so we got up at six a.m., had a light breakfast and left Casa Monte da Eira at seven in the half-light. Our destination was Pulo do Lobo where we walked a track from Corte Gafo de Baixo towards Ribeiro do Guardiana. This early-morning birding was invigorating and we located a number of birds that had so far eluded us including: Spectacled, Dartford and Subalpine Warblers, European Pied Flycatcher and Long-tailed Tit. A Cleopatra butterfly was the insect of the day. A small pool by a farm produced two Little Ringed Plover and both Common and Green Sandpiper. There were several larks perched alongside the track that gave us the chance to study them carefully. We walked a good mile along the track, before deciding to retrace our steps, so we didn’t get caught in the heat as had happened the previous two days.
We returned to the villa for brunch and then chilled out by the swimming pool during the heat of the day. A Common Redstart was watched as it made repeated forays from the shelter of a tree to a fence. The temperature soared and reached 39 degrees that afternoon and was still high at five o’clock. However, it was time to go birding again, so we visited the bridge over Ribeira do Vascao at the Lavadouro Nature Reserve, about four km north of Giões, the river forming the border between Algarve and Alentejo districts. The riverbed was almost dry, but there were a few pools that had become very attractive to birds and dragonflies alike. We spent quite a long time admiring the beauty of Violet Dropwing dragonflies that persistently returned to their favourite perches and then there was a shout of large eagle overhead. Stevie was certain it was an adult Spanish Imperial Eagle and this was confirmed as we systematically went through salient features. Wow – what a bird and another key species on our list. We then followed a track that led further down river where we added Great Spotted Woodpecker, Stock Dove and Grey Wagtail to our trip list.
Back at Casa Monte da Eira, Kathy was having troubles with the electrics as she tried to cook dinner and come what may we couldn’t get the power back on. We contacted Ana and she came quickly and soon had things working again. There was a bigger disaster approaching though as we had all but run out of beer and the supermarkets were closed on a Sunday! A rationing programme was discussed. Kathy again was getting on with dinner when bang the power failed again, on this occasion Jose simply arrived somehow aware that we again had a problem, but Kathy also told him about our dilemma with our beer and wine stocks and with smiley eyes he said “I think I can fix this”. Jose had a mate in Mertola who agreed to open his shop especially for us, so off went Jose to fetch two crates of beer and eight bottles of wine. Relief all round and obviously a big tip was given to Jose for helping us out in our hour of need! The pool competition concluded with the grand final between Keith and Steve with Steve easily winning to add the Portuguese Open to his long list of titles! As we still had a set of chocolate cups and another bottle of cherry liquor, Round Two of the chocolate cup competition was declared. This time Paddy succumbed early and other contestants quickly dropped away leaving Brian, Carol and Alison in the final showdown. Brian was determined to win, but was completely outflanked by the two ladies who declared themselves joint winners. Brian was most certainly the worse for wear but magnanimous in defeat and he soon slumped back in his chair and didn’t wake up till the morning!
Monday 24th September
Santa Luzia saltpans
This was to be our last full day in Portugal, so votes were cast as to where we should go birding. The choices were an 80-km drive inland to look over more montados or another look over saltpans this time at Santa Luzia, west of Tavira. Most chose the latter so again we left early and, after negotiating the back streets of Santa Luzia, soon found the saltpans. Splendid Greater Flamingo and Eurasian Spoonbills flocks were watched from one of the main tracks and there was an impressive array of waders. However, the most notable birds were a flock of 94 Audouin’s Gulls that were roosting on banks of the saltpans. After our lone bird earlier in the week, we now had the chance to study the species in its various ages and plumages. Several of the birds were sporting blue inscribed colour rings, of which eight were read. It is likely that these birds originate from the Bay of Roses Nature Reserve in NE Spain, but time will tell? The Audouin’s Gull was once Europe’s rarest breeding gull, but it has increased in recent years to around 13-14,000 pairs. Nevertheless, it is still vulnerable as 80% of the world’s population breed in two Mediterranean colonies!
The waders present were much the same as those we saw earlier in the week, although we were able to get exceptionally good views of species such as Kentish Plover, and Whimbrel was a new bird to our list. A small flock of Shelducks were the first for the trip and sparrow-like twittering along the fence line revealed a group of six Common Waxbills. All were able to scope a distant raptor perched on the boom of a crane, which was our second Black-shouldered Kite of the trip. On the butterfly front, we were able to identify a compact colony of tiny blues as African Grass Blues after comparing Brian’s photographs with plates in the book.
We stopped for coffee in Tavira and returned to Casa Monte da Eira to chill by the pool and see out the heat of the day.
We undoubtedly owed Kathy a night off from cooking after she had provided some wonderful meals during our stay, so we booked a table for all at the highly-recommended O Brasileiro restaurant in Mertola that specialises in Portuguese traditional food. All enjoyed a wonderful meal and there was an unexpected bonus on our way home. As we neared Casa Monte da Eira, a nightjar that was resting in the middle of the road flew in front of the minibus headlights and then alongside us eventually disappearing into the scrub. It appeared much larger than the European Nightjars that breed in the UK and we concluded that it was a Red-necked Nightjar that nests in Iberia and NW Africa.
John G. is an accomplished singer and guitarist and, as he and Carol had completed most of their journey here by road, they had been able to bring his guitar along with them. So our final evening together ended with a singsong, the highlight being “Kathy’s Song” by Simon and Garfunkel as a thank you to Kathy for looking after us all so well. A most memorable occasion!
Tuesday 25th September
Lavadouro Nature Reserve, Faro Airport and home
This was our last morning in Portugal but, as our plane didn’t take off until the evening, we had a chance for some final early-morning birding before heading to the airport. We again visited the nearby Lavadouro Nature Reserve at Giões, but this time ventured further downstream. We noted a number of new species to our trip list including Blue Rock Thrush, Blackcap, Willow Warbler, Eurasian Wren and a nice flock of about seven European Serins. There were also a couple of Pied Flycatchers and John G. noted a family party of five Moorhens. However, the highlight of the morning, and perhaps of the whole trip, were two immature Golden Eagles that flew over so low that you could see every detail and we watched them as they turned their heads from side to side as they watched us! Keith and Jane noted an adult Golden Eagle further down the valley.
Dragonflies were abundant on the small shallow pools that had formed in the dry and stony riverbed with good numbers of Western Willow Emeralds, Broad Scarlets, Violet Dropwings and Lesser Emperors being noted. However, Blue Emperor and Common Blue Damselfly were new to our dragonfly list. Bath White, Brown Argus and Clouded Yellow were the butterfly highlights and Mervyn and Steve independently saw medium-sized lizards, Large Psammodromus, which are native to this area, scurrying through ground vegetation. A crayfish noted at the edge of one of the pools was identified as the introduced Red Swamp or Louisiana Crayfish. Its fast-flowing river location made us think that it could have been the White-clawed Crayfish, but sadly this was not the case as Iberia is also suffering from highly invasive colonists from North America that are depleting natural populations as we are in the UK. Another spectacular insect seen was a Mole Cricket, which had become engulfed in a swarm of ants. A debate ensued as to whether we should rescue the stricken animal from its captures, but we decided against. Would we take a Zebra from a Lion – we think not!
We returned to Casa Monte da Eira mid-morning for final packing and Kathy had bought some custard tarts and some teabags from the local café to go with our final breakfast. Then came the final swimming shorts debate! Someone had left a pair of rather fetching shorts on the linen line and no one wanted to claim them. Steve spoke to everyone and even threatened to remove every gent’s trousers to see who they fitted. With no one claiming them we left them at the villa, said our goodbyes to Ana and Jose and were off to Faro Airport.
The ladies had voted to leave the villa a bit early to allow for a shopping spree in Faro before we took our plane journey home. This they did leaving the boys in a lovely café in the old town. They eventually returned with armfuls of touristy stuff. By now we had all but switched off from birding and we were contemplating our trip home. Except Stevie Howell that is who still had his eyes peeled and managed to find a flock of five Chaffinches in the town – our last trip tick of the tour! It was then the final leg to the airport and, on our way, Steve remembered that the swimming shorts were none other than his new ones that Kathy had bought for him just before we left the UK. No wonder that no one wanted them nor had Steve recognised his own clothing!