While the Algarve in summer is more renowned for its holiday beaches, increasingly it is gaining a reputation for the wealth of beautiful birds that also migrate here for the season – but unlike the majority of the holidaymakers, they arrive from the south and not from the north.
Several, such as the impressive Alpine Swift and its smaller relatives, the Pallid and Common Swifts, can be watched while prostate on the beach as they zoom around their nest-holes in the cliffs. Others, such as the delicate Subalpine Warbler or the striking Black-eared Wheatear, will take a more determined search inland, but more than repay the effort.
It seems as though the Algarve, particularly the west, sees little migration in spring once away from the estuaries and coastlines along which waders, terns and gulls are moving northwards until quite late in May. More notable are the sudden arrivals of summer birds that are absent one moment, and then everywhere the next. No one who has seen the abrupt return of a colony of Bee-eaters to their nest-holes in a sandbank will forget the spectacle. The air seems full of their thrilling calls, and the harlequinade of colours defies belief.
Similarly, the first fluting notes of the Golden Oriole, surprisingly difficult to see in the bright sunlight despite its brilliant colouring, are a magical sound as they filter through the young leaves of a fig orchard or lemon grove. Woodchat Shrikes, with their reddish cap and bold white wing bars can be seen perching on the poles of the vineyards or on telegraph poles, and it is worth looking out for them as March draws to a close, although the majority arrive in April.
Hoopoes, with their boldly barred black and white wings, and cinnamon head and breast are found throughout the year in the Algarve, but most of them leave in the autumn. Probing with their long, curved bills in soft ground, they are particularly familiar to golfers who share their preference for a well-watered sward.
Meanwhile on the estuaries and marshes, the calls of the remarkable Black-winged Stilt can be heard as birds pair up and defend their breeding territories. They have the longest legs in proportion to their size of any bird in the world and yet seem wonderfully graceful as they pick their way through flooded salt pans or shallow pools in search of shrimp or other prey. Sadly, their breeding habitats are diminishing in Europe as wetlands are drained, and the Algarve has been no exception with developments invading these areas that have such value for wildlife. Gradually, however, their importance is being recognised and steps taken to safeguard their future.
This is good news too for the Little Egret, a small white heron that is found nesting on cliff-stacks and islands all along the Algarve coast. While the other Algarve Egret, the Cattle Egret, feeds in the field, its buffish plumage and yellow bill distinguishing it as it follows the animals or the plough, the Little Egret needs wetter areas to find food. Of the other herons that can be found in the area during summer, only the Grey Heron is frequently seen, and most have left by the middle of May. The elegant Purple Heron has much more skulking habits and together with the Little Bittern is confined to the few remaining reedy areas along the riverbanks where occasionally towards dusk the Night Heron can be seen. All are very vulnerable to disturbance.
On the more open areas of estuary and coastline, the Kentish Plover, so pale in colouring that its American name is Snowy Plover, finds areas to breed on dryer ground and even in the dunes where disturbance is limited. Although it is present throughout the year, the striking chestnut crown of the male is only seen in the breeding season together with the bold bars at the side of the neck that give it its Portuguese name of Borrelho-de-coleira-interrompida. In common with all plovers, it has a characteristic stop-and-run manner of feeding, picking food off the surface of the mud rather than probing deeply like the Oystercatcher, which can also be found in small numbers throughout the summer, although it does not breed here.
An unusual wader that does breed here is the extraordinary Stone Curlew whose unearthly cries can be heard at night over a wide variety of dry habitats.
The Collared Pratincole breeds in one or two localities only, but with its graceful tern-like flight is always a delight to watch.
Early in summer in the fields and open areas the full song of the Great Lark can be heard. Unlike the Short-toed Lark that only summers here, the Crested Lark and the virtually identical Thekla Lark can be seen all year. Both have a heavy look in flight with a rather short tail, and on the ground a stubby crest – but distinguishing the two is a birdwatcher’s nightmare.
However, some practice of the sharper and more rapid song of the Thekla lark helps, and its plumage is more heavily marked on the spotting of the breast. Look for it in the stony and more barren areas. The Short-toed Lark is easier to identify with its sandy colour and jingling song in repeated phrases. On the ground it shows a broad pale band above the eye bordered by a darker line below, and dark patches at the side of the neck. In the same areas that hold breeding Short-toed Larks you may be lucky enough to find the Tawny Pipit which although it can look similar, has a longer tail and more slender outline.
Before leaving the small birds, two all year residents that are more conspicuous in summer deserve a mention. The Sardinian Warbler is found in any garden that can boast a few bushes, and with its bright red eye and black cap the male makes a fine sight perched on top in full song. The Serin, a member of the canary family, has a fine trilling song but will need a higher perch to sing it from. The bright yellow of the male is seen to full advantage during their butterfly-like song-flight.
A summer bird that even the totally disinterested cannot fail to notice is the magnificent While Stork. Until recently, it was fairly numerous in the Algarve but suffered a rapid and catastrophic decline. It is heartening to see chimney stacks being retained when factories are demolished so that the storks can still nest on them.
Birds of prey are nowhere very common in the Algarve, but the summer brings the possibility of a Montagu’s Harrier on its passage northwards, or maybe one of the eagles, Booted, Bonelli’s or Short-toed, the latter sometimes seen hovering majestically over the inland hills. The two kites, Red and Black, are also seen occasionally in early summer together with the Buzzard. The Lesser Kestrel, the male distinguishable from the Kestrel by its pale, brighter colouring and unspotted mantle, while both sexes show elongated central tail fathers, breeds in a few cliff sites, as well as occasionally in ruined buildings.
Look carefully at any small falcon in spring, early or late summer or autumn. The beautiful slate-grey Red-footed Falcon has been seen here, as well as Hobby, Merlin and even Eleanora’s Falcon – surely the most elegant of them all. Undoubtedly, the major threat to birds of prey here is the illegal shooting that takes place and many have been saddened by the sight of extremely rare raptors stuffed. Portugal’s most famous bird of prey is the Black-winged Kite, which in Europe nests only in Spain and Portugal.
The final mention must go to a group of birds that for northern Europeans symbolise the summer more than any other – the swallows. In the Algarve, some have returned from the south by the beginning of January.
House Martins can be seen around the same time. However, the less common Red-rumped Swallow, often nesting under bridges, is rarely seen before the end of March. Together with many of the Algarve’s special summer birds, its scarcity is part of its charm. We share a responsibility to ensure that as the Algarve makes space for more and more people, space is left for the birds to which the place belonged for thousands of years before the first plane touched down at Faro.
Peter Harris wrote this when Warden of A Rocha Field Study Centre and Bird Observatory. Copies of their annual Bird Reports, or information about visiting the centre can be obtained from The Wardens, Cruzinha, Mexilhoeira Grande, 8500 Portimão. Contact: www.arocha.org.
First published, July 2010