Southern Portugal: Birds & History May 03—14, 2014

Posted by Rafael Galvez


Rafael Galvez

Rafael Galvez has been birding and illustrating birds since childhood, a dual passion that developed when his family moved from Peru to South Florida. Always with a sketchp...

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VENT’s first ever Southern Portugal: Birds and History tour was a great success, granting participants countless encounters with the unique avifauna of the Iberian Peninsula in a variety of scenic habitats, complemented by visits to many historical sites, and fantastic traditional food and wine. Not only did we see 153 bird species – some of which can only be found in this region – but we also visited Roman temples, Palaeochristian ruins, Moorish castles, and strolled through the characteristic white-washed streets of provincial Portugal.

Pallid Swifts over the Ermida de Nossa Senhora das Neves.

Pallid Swifts over the Ermida de Nossa Senhora das Neves.— Photo: Rafael Galvez


The tour unraveled in three chapters, in correlation with the three provinces that were the focus of our journey. We started off in the Estremadura province along the coastal west, focusing on visits to two major estuaries, the Tagus and the Sado. The second leg of the tour took us eastward to Alentejo, where we visited extensive plains as part of the pseudo-steppe country that rolls from the heart of Portugal into neighboring Spain. And finally we visited the Algarve to the south, exploring coastal flats, lagoons, and forested areas. Throughout the entirety of the trip, we were blessed with warm and even-tempered weather, and no rain to interrupt our outings. Our time in the field was interspersed with four history sessions: one in the capital of Lisbon, two in Alentejo, and one in Algarve. For each of our history sessions, we met with an expert who guided us through sites and museums while relating their importance and historical relevance.

During the first four days, we were based out of the city of Setúbal, on the banks of the Sado River Estuary. Although less than 30 miles south of Lisbon, our hotel was in intimate surroundings, affording beautiful views of the estuary to one side, and forested hills to the other. Streams of cheering Pallid Swifts were a common sight from our balconies, and in the morning we were serenaded by the bountiful songs of Eurasian Blackbirds and Serins. This location allowed us close proximity to some of the most important wetland habitats in Western Europe.

Greater Flamingos in the Algarve.

Greater Flamingos in the Algarve.— Photo: Rafael Galvez

Our first visit was to the wonderful Atalaia saltpans where we got our first taste of Iberian specialties, such as Black- winged Kite, Greater Flamingo, Azure-winged Magpie (Iberian Magpie), Red-rumped Swallow, Zitting Cisticola and Spotless Starling. While meandering along the edges of saltpans and into the shade of Cork Oak groves, we had encounters with several iconic Western Palearctic species. European Bee-eaters – with every color in the spectrum and then some – perched at the edge of the forest, darting off in pursuit of insects. A Squacco Heron with its golden body reminded us that we were in the warmer reaches of Europe. Nearby, a lanky Purple Heron wrestled with an eel it had just caught – its face and neck gracefully delineated with rufous, black and white markings. In the distance, the shallow pans shimmered with the movement of feeding Eurasian Spoonbills and other waders. It was only our first afternoon outing, and there was no doubt we were in bountiful Portugal. In the following days, we were to become well-acquainted with all that the saltpans had to offer.

During our second day out of Setúbal, we ventured towards saltpans on the outskirts of Alcochete, by the extensive Tagus Estuary. There we found an abundance of shorebirds, ducks, and herons. Feeding flocks of Curlew Sandpipers – many in red alternate plumage – intermingled with Dunlins and Common Redshanks. We saw seventeen species of shorebirds, including many staple European migrants such as Greenshank, Black and Bar-tailed godwits, and others. One Reeve was seen briefly alighting in a mixed flock, before getting lost in a swirl of wings. Perhaps the biggest highlight was a female Red-necked Phalarope, an unusual species for Portugal, with under a dozen records. We would inch ever closer to flocks of numerous Greater Flamingos – an experience that would grace us time and again throughout this tour. Kentish Plovers were not uncommon along the saltpan banks. From this point on it was apparent that Sardinian Warbler – a bird of limited distribution to Southern Europe – would be a common encounter.

Monument depicting heroes from the Age of Discovery at the Padrao dos Descobrimentos, Lisbon.

Heroes from the Age of Discovery, Lisbon.— Photo: Rafael Galvez

Our first history session took place that second day, composed of visits to sites in the city of Lisbon. After climbing and winding through the narrow streets of old Lisboa, we reached the Castle of São Jorge – a fortified medieval citadel built during the period of Moorish dominance. Perched on a hilltop, we could see much of the city from the castle’s terraces. After sightseeing through the city, we stopped at the Church of The Lady of Belem – or the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos – a beautifully ornamented monastery from Portugal’s Late Gothic period. Birds were never too far, for Black Redstarts gleaned from the reliefs, Blackcaps were in nearby gardens, and Yellow-legged Gulls and Crested Mynas perched atop the church’s turrets. Our final visit in Lisbon was to the Padrão dos Descobrimentos, an ambitious monument that celebrates Portugal’s Age of Discovery during the 15th and 16th centuries. While standing on the adjacent fifty-foot world map – an intricate marble mosaic – it was a marvel to ponder the lives of those depicted in the massive sculpture, including giants such as Henry the Navigator, Vasco de Gama, João Gonçalves Zarco and many others. Standing at the very port from where European ships first sailed to establish trade routes to the Orient, and eventually the Americas, the world momentarily felt small and intimate.

Our remaining days birding along the Tagus and Sado estuaries solidified our list of waterbirds. A visit to Barroca D’Alva during our third day granted us excellent marsh-side encounters with elusive passerines, including Cetti’s Warbler and Eurasian and Great reed-warblers. At a wooded lot nearby, we had our sole encounter with a Melodious Warbler. Great and Blue tits were easily visible in a tree nearby, and we had best looks at Common Nightingales. Nearby, we also had our first of many views of Little Owl. That afternoon we visited fields on our way towards the Evoa Tagus Estuary Birdwatching Center – with its impressive interpretive facilities. We came upon Greater Short-toed Larks for the first time, and a very memorable display flight by a singing Skylark. With our eyes set overhead, raptors made their appearance, including a very close Short-toed Eagle, Booted Eagle, and multiple Eurasian Marsh-Harriers, Black Kites, and Common Buzzards.

Little Owl in the Algarve

Little Owl in the Algarve— Photo: Rafael Galvez

We left the estuaries on our fourth day and proceeded towards the pseudo-steppe of the Alentejo. Here we came into the realm of many new species, some of which are found only in this corner of Europe. Rolling hills led the eye to extensive vistas that seemed endless. From days four through seven, we spent plenty of time traversing Castro Verde and large portions of the Guadiana Valley Natural Park. Some of our favorite birds were found in this region. Great Bustards could be seen, strolling through vast grasslands in loose groups. From not far, the croak of Little Bustards betrayed their location, their stout black and white necks craning over swaying stalks. Collared Pratincoles rested in the grassy edges of a small pond – their red-based bills contrasted the earthy tones of their plumage and surroundings. It was a treat to watch them in aerial pursuit with streamlined wings. We also had close views of nesting Eurasian Thick-knees – almost perfectly concealed in the pattern of grasses; their huge yellow eyes watched us intently. The Alentejo also gave us a number of encounters with one of the rarest raptors in the world, the Spanish Eagle. This endemic of the Iberian Peninsula was once extirpated from Portugal, but rehabilitation efforts allowed it to recolonize the Alentejo. During the tour, we saw a number of juveniles soaring overhead, yet the prize came when we saw a young Spanish Eagle resting on a snag barely over the pasture, its overall color quite rusty. Other raptors captured our attention in this region; powerful Bonelli’s Eagles were seen patrolling the gorges, Golden Eagles nested along the Guadiana River, and groups of Lesser Kestrels hovered in unison near their colonies in just about any human settlement.

Eurasian Thick-knee in Castro Verde.

Eurasian Thick-knee in Castro Verde.— Photo: Rafael Galvez

In the Alentejo, we were based out of the fortified town of Mértola, strategically built as a control point for ships entering the Guadiana River during Antiquity. Its surrounding stone walls were built by Romans, and then enhanced by Moors when Islamic Iberia was in rule. From our hotel in this enchanting town, we could see stone ruins lining the river, where Blue Rock-Thrushes perched, while the towering castle loomed above us as the highest point in the surroundings. We were treated to two history sessions in this region, the first of which was a visit to ancient Évora. Within medieval walls, this whitewashed city encloses a Roman temple, cathedrals, a chapel ornamented by human bones, and streets with a provincial flare. Vendors proudly displayed an assortment of cork-made products, so valuable to the region. Our history guide first led us to the Igreja de São Francisco, built during the 15th and 16th centuries. Its tremendous vaulted nave leads to a highly ornamented altar, composed in Renaissance and Baroque styles, and tiered with an eastern flavor; its opulence may not be what first comes to mind when thinking of Saint Francis. More memorable was perhaps one of its chapels, with inner walls decorated by thousands of human bones, layers of carefully arranged femurs and skulls creating a macabre mosaic. It is said monks took on this endeavor in criticism of societal deviances. A sign above the entrance greeted us: “We wait for your bones to join us.” Another notable visit in Évora was a Roman temple from the year 32 A.D., of which remain the stepped foundation and Corinthian columns, with intricately ornamented capitals depicting Acanthus leaves.

Blue tilework (azulejos) on a side altar at the Igreja de Sao Francisco in Evora.

Blue tilework (azulejos) at the Igreja de Sao Francisco, Evora.— Photo: Rafael Galvez

The highlight was a hike up to the Cromlech of the Almendres, an elliptical installation from the Neolithic period, composed of 100 megaliths – tremendous oval stones in erect posture – positioned in relation to the cyclic movements of the sun and moon. There was a serene quality to the sloped plain on which the stones stood, overlooking the city well below the forested hills. From the trees nearby, Chaffinches called and Short-toed Treecreepers gleaned.

On day seven, the last one in the Alentejo, our history guide took us through a complex of sites where a Roman Acropolis and then Palaeochristian sanctuaries were built. Baptismal galleries held intricate mosaics depicting animal forms, mythical and religious imagery, and portrayals of aristocratic life. Nearby, a 12th century mosque remains largely intact, now in the form of a parish, Christianized after the Conquest by the Order of Saint James. We were led through several galleries at the Mértola Castle, the Palaeochristian Basilica and the House of Bragança, where we had the opportunity to admire many wonderful artifacts, including Roman statues, coins and relics depicting the importance of the region to trading routes for the ancient empire, and the most important collection of Islamic art in Portugal. Most memorable were several plates from the 11th and 12th centuries, some of which depicted stylized Great Bustards – imagery that to this day symbolizes the region and continues to be replicated in wine labels and public art.

Other highlights in the Alentejo included exquisite traditional food and wine, and the warm hospitality of its people. However, birds never ceased to impress us, and notable sightings included Cinereous Vultures gliding among flocks of Griffons, numerous Red-legged Partridges, Thekla Larks – an Iberian specialty – bright blue Rollers, and the countless nests of White Storks – huge structures of sticks atop posts and chimneys, often serving as foundations to colonies of Spanish Sparrows. Azure-winged, or Iberian Magpies were never far from view. Targeted stops gave us rewarding views of Black-eared Wheatears and Rufous-tailed Scrub-Robin.

Polychromed ceramic plate from 11th or 12th century, depicting a zoomorphic figure reminiscent of a Great Bustard, at the Islamic Art Collection from the Mertola Museum, Alentejo.

Polychromed ceramic plate from 11th or 12th century. — Photo: Rafael Galvez

The Algarve was the final region we visited. In this southernmost province of Portugal, we spent plenty of time around the Ria Formosa, a system of barrier islands, lagoons and mud flats that proved to be excellent for wading birds, shorebirds and a number of regional specialties. Based just outside the city of Tavira, we had quick access to widespread saltpans and flats. There we found highly sought-after gulls, including Audouin’s – a localized species, distinct with its red bill, dark eyes and grayish legs. Along pan edges, we found several elegant adults and a few immatures amidst other species. Here we also found Slender-billed Gulls – one adult was first seen swimming, while holding its long neck out; then more were discovered within a flock of Black-headed Gulls. With some scrutiny, even a Mediterranean Gull was pulled out of a mixed species group.

Our final history session was composed of visits to a number of sites in the coastal city of Tavira, one of the first settlements of Phoenicians in the region. The general vicinity toggled from prosperity to decline under the Roman Empire. When the Moors conquered Iberia, they established much that can still be admired in Tavira, including the architecture and culture, and the importance of agriculture to the region. While walking through the white-washed streets of the city, it was fun to observe the elaborate chimney designs, made individually out of terracotta, each with a unique pattern of cut-outs and openings – a custom also of Moorish influence. One of our memorable visits was to the Paróquia de Santiago, built in the 13th century. Gilded side altars along the nave dated back to the 17th century, distinct in their use of blue paint to contrast the gold-leaf ornamentation – a trait particular to Portugal and echoed in the use of azulejos in churches. A number of the churches we visited during this tour employed blue-glazed ceramic tiles to depict elaborate imagery, an art form introduced by Moors. The cool light they cast in enclosed church halls is refreshing against the lavish sculpture of the altars. This blue tile work can also be seen decorating the facades of some houses, and the foyers of buildings.

Great Spotted Cuckoo in the Algarve.

Great Spotted Cuckoo in the Algarve.— Photo: Rafael Galvez

Although this region gave us better and closer encounters with the likes of Greater Flamingo, Pied Avocet and several shorebirds, it also presented some unique opportunities. We saw Red-necked Nightjars while waiting their passage one evening on a clear slope near Tavira. And the marshes at Quinta do Lago were a fantastic way to wrap- up the tour, for they offered plenty of intimate settings: Common and Red-crested pochards – the latter with faded rust-to-gold heads and red bills – swam nearby Little and Great-crested grebes, both of which had chicks. Little Bitterns darted often to and from the reeds – one immature bird perched very close to us, allowing great views. Purple Swamphens were obvious as they fed along pasture edges. And European Hoopoes – favorite of many – were closer than ever; one individual spent plenty of time feeding near us, picking out grasshoppers from a clearing. In the Algarve we were also granted looks at a group of young Great Spotted Cuckoos, some of which perched in trees adjacent to our vehicles. By the tour’s end, we had tallied 152 bird species, spent time in vast stretches of countryside, visited beautiful cities and historic monuments, and had been wined and dined without reservation by our wonderful hosts. Portugal gave us a wonderful experience we won’t soon forget!