27 Jan 2009

23 Jan 1989 - towards the Algarve

There is a slight frost this morning but the sun soon burns that off. We walk around the camp­site and see similar birds to yesterday. A stonechat sitting on top of a bush singing. The dis­tinctive calls of hoopoes provide an unusual background noise, and we track them down to three birds engaged in some sort of display of pecking order or pairing up, almost camouflaged against an orange-red roof. As male and female are almost identical it is difficult to work out who is doing what to who. After about five minutes they disperse.

Moving on south towards the Algarve, we pass huge rolling fields of cultivation, or sparse grass and cattle. It looks ideal habitat for bustards, sandgrouse, and stone curlew; we stop a few times to look for them but with no luck. Lapwing are more in evidence than anything else, but where there are trees or scrub we find blue and great tit, finches, thrushes, etc.

There is space to park next to a bridge across the Rega do Torgal, and we look down into the valley where blackcaps, chiffchaffs and tits are busy. On alder trees near the bridge a flock of siskins are attacking last year's cones, their movements shaking pollen off the nearby catkins to blow about onto this year's cones.

The Algarve

Although we have been driving along a major route, the road was no better, and often worse, than a 'C' road in Britain, with very little traffic. However, along the coast of the Algarve, west of Lagos, it turns into a major highway with a smooth surface and lots of cars. We head for the Praia da Rocha, near Portimao, where we had been told of a cheap campsite, but the town is more like a building site of hotels and the campsite is even less impressive. We also have the address of an 'ornitho‑religious centre' called A Rocha, so we thought we would try it for local birding information and perhaps they would know of a campsite.

After asking a few times we find the place and are made most welcome by Peter Harris who runs the centre, the only educational residen­tial centre for natural history in Portugal. There were Pem­brokeshire connections too, for Peter had been on Skokholm and spent time at 'the Hookses' on Dale airfield, and his wife Miranda is from Newport, Pembs. They have four children ‑ Bethan, Elspeth, Jeremy and Jo.

22 Jan 1989 - Lagoa de Santo Andre

We say a final goodbye to Setubal this morning, then cross the Sado estuary again to follow the coast southwards. In places the road over­looks the mudflats, and with the tide only half way up there are numerous waders feeding busily. For a change we are on a road with room to pull off to the side, though the weather is so hazy we cannot see far.

The road goes through sand dunes planted with maritime and stone pines, olive groves and some cork oak. Further south there are areas of eucalypt plantation which are well enough estab­lished to have been coppiced ‑ two to four thick trunks are allowed to grow from each stool. There are also saltpans and rice fields with a few white storks and lots of egrets.

The Lagoa de Melides seems deserted except for twenty or so black-headed gulls and two cattle egrets, so we continue to the Lagoa de Santo Andre which is much larger and has a con­venient, though expensive, camp­site on its shore. There are plenty of stone and maritime pines in the campsite and lots of birds, including black­birds and serins in song, and green woodpeckers and hoopoes feeding on the abundant ants.

The hoopoes did not seem approachable for photography, but as we watch the lake from under trees a total of seven birds come to dust bathe and feed in a sunny area about forty metres away. Some are slightly nervous of us but the fact that so many turned up suggest an evening ritual. They all freeze when a pair of green woodpeckers fly over calling noisily, then resume activ­ities. They leave more or less together, and in the same direction, perhaps going to roost.

The lagoon itself is brackish, with vast expanses of reedbeds, and surrounded by dunes, pine and oak woodland, and farmland. A single connection with the sea is opened once a year to lower the water level, then the sand‑dunes are reformed by the wind and sea and the opening closes up again. There were other human in­fluences too: some of the reed and sedge beds were cut and burnt for pasture; there was pollution from urban effluent and the lake was intensively fished. Nevertheless breeding birds include a variety of herons and terns, and there is good passerine migration.

Even in winter the lagoon is not quiet, there are scores of little grebe trilling away, and good populations of coot, moorhen and water rail added their voices. Cattle egrets gather on a marshy area, eighty of them at the final count before they all fly off together to their roost site, which could be up to 10 km away. Little owls become more active and noisy as the evening wears on.

20 Jan 1989 - Arrabida

The Parc Natural da Arrabida comes with quite a reputation ‑ 108 sq km of limestone outcrops on coast, with steep shrub-covered slopes up to 500m. It is rich in western Atlantic plants, with over a thousand species recorded in the park.

Actually it is a whaleback of a mountain, about 55 km long, running parallel to the coast and falling in scrub‑covered cliffs to the sea. To the north are the low alluvial lands around the Tagus estuary. Just offshore are a group of islands which form a zoological reserve, the bree­ding grounds of a number of seabirds. Being close to the large urban centres of Lisbon and Setubal, the Serra is a popular recreation area, and attracts a great many visitors. Quarrying and second‑home developments are degrading some areas, and plant collecting is not uncommon.

A road climbs steadily to about 400m from sea level near Setubal. Along the highest part of the road there are pull off places and lookout points, and the scenery is beautiful. This is our first proper look at the Mediter­ranean maquis vegeta­tion, and Arrabida is considered the best deve­loped example in Portugal. There are few plants in flower at this time of year ‑ rosemary, straw­berry tree, kermes oak, sweet alison, french lav­ender and the ubiquitous bermuda buttercup. Most plants are evergreen shrubs that have to be identified by their leaves, among them phoenician juniper, Smilax aspera and various cistus species.

I don't think I’ve seen any plant here which I have seen wild in Britain, but the same can’t be said for birds. At our first stop we are surrounded by chiff‑chaffs, blue and great tits, green‑, gold‑ and chaffinches; the only 'foreign­ers' are serins, sardinian warblers, and a distant blue rock thrush. As the day wears on we see less and less birdlife, insects are limited to a few locusts, bees and a painted lady.

Mammals have been few and far be­tween, but the fox across the valley is worth waiting for. It looks a good healthy specimen, but definitely not red, except in name. It is mostly black and grey with some sandy colour on the head, flanks and shoulders, and, unfortunately, it is much too far away to be photo­graphed. Its progress through the scrub is punc­tuated with stops to scent mark territory and investigate anything that seems worthy of note.

To the east of the maquis is an area of cork oak where the ground under­neath has been recently ploughed and is providing a good supply of earth­­worms etc for cattle egrets, white wagtails and meadow pipits, and about 40 azure-winged magpies which look far more colourful and spectacular in the sun than when we first saw them in overcast conditions.

Later our attention is taken with hirun­dines flying over the hills ‑ crag martins. After hawk­ing for a while they fly over our heads and off into the sunset.

19 Jan 1989 - Cabo Espichel

We check out of the Setubal campsite this morn­ing and head west through the Serra de Arrabida to Cabo Espichel, a remote western promontory with windmills and small white houses, marble quarries and donkey carts, and small stone‑walled fields of beans and corn. The hamlet of Cabo Espichel itself comprises two rows of houses facing each other across a large rectangle with a church at the far end. Behind the church are some curi­ous 'totem' poles of blocks of stone, some with carved patterns, and one pole topped with a stone head. The blocks are fairly recently cut, making the poles look even more peculiar.

The Cape area is mostly open rolling land­scape of stony fields with fairly sparse vegeta­tion at this time of year. On a fence post not far from the road, a little owl enjoys the sun, and further away a medium sized glossy black but untidy-looking bird with yellow bill and orange legs sings to the world ‑ a spotless starling.

The cliffs here are over a hundred metres straight up and not ideal for sea watching. Things might be better the other side of the light­house, though we do not check there. Watching, under the right weather conditions, is said to be good, but, in today's calm sunny weather, we see only a few gannets, herring gulls and razorbills.

Jim sees a peregrine sitting on the cliff, and keeping an eye on us; the buff edges to its mantle, scapular and tertial feathers gave it a mottled appearance - it is probably one of last summer's chicks.

A sardinian warbler flies into a bush about four metres from us and feeds quietly amongst the foliage without coming into the open to be photo­graphed. A butterfly patrols the cliff top and doesn’t settle to be identified properly, though we believe it to be a green striped white.

Most of the birds around us are black redstarts and stonechats, with a few linnets, gold­finches etc. Two birds fly in and land in front of me, I just get the binoculars on them when Jim speaks ‑ about something through the tele­scope in another direction ‑ and the birds fly off with a loud and unfamiliar call. I am left with the impression of something resembling the field guide picture of calandra lark. From then on we check almost everything that moves but see nothing more of these birds.

There is one bird that did turn out to be something new ‑ a male blue rock thrush. It stood more upright than a blackbird, had drooping wings, a shorter tail and a dark bill. It kept disap­pearing behind a strange-looking building - Senh­ora do Cabo's sanctuary, I think - and then reap­pearing near to where we first saw it. We went round behind the building hoping for a better look but without success. Later we saw both male and female blue rock thrush fly past us.

Having been warned about bandits and break‑ins, we have always made a point of leaving nothing of value in the camper and locking it properly. Since we were out of tourist season and out of tourist areas, there had been no problem, but that changed here at Cabo Espichel.

There had been a policeman here this morn­ing, and the camper had been quite safe. In the after­noon we set off for another walk, but after a while Jim sees a guy walking towards the van; next time he looks the guy is trying to force a lock. Jim whistles loudly, and the guy looks around. At the second whistle he saunters off, not quite sure but not wanting to take a risk. We lose nothing except the confidence to leave the van unattended.


The map shows a lagoon at Albufeira a short way northwards along the coast. The AA book says there should be an open campsite there, but as happens so often, we find several campsites all closed. The lake is disappointing too. The marshy inland end is fenced off with no obvious access points, and nowhere along the road where we can stop and scan it.

18 Jan 1989 - locusts

Later we go up the hill behind the campsite to a rather different habitat. This is open ground with bermuda buttercup, old thistle stems and friars cowl forming the ground cover. Bermuda buttercup is a relative of the wood oxalis, and was introduced from South Africa. It is a smothe­ring plant that has invaded grasslands along the west coast of Iberia. Friars cowl is native, a diminutive relative of the wild arum.

Insects proved to be of great interest, in particular a large green grasshopper that flew past us several times but which we have great dif­ficulty in locating when it landed. Eventually we track it down to within photo­graphic distance and identify it as the solitary phase of the migratory locust. The climate here does not favour develop­ment of the migratory phase, and the insect does not reach plague proportions. It is difficult to find on the ground because it dives in behind vegetation and then creeps out to keep an eye on the world from where it is well camou­flaged against a leafy back­ground. There are other grasshoppers too, and a few butter­flies, particu­larly the Mediterranean form of the speckled wood, which, at first glance, resembles a wall brown.

Wrens have been conspicuous by their absence for the last couple of weeks, but today we hear them singing from a park in Setubal where there are tall canary palms, and we also hear them from olive groves.

At last we have the van back in working order. It seems the garage was taking advantage of the insurance situation, and making sure they got as much out of the deal as possible. We are just looking forward to a comfortable night.

18 Jan 1989 - Octopus

Having survived a night of sleeping on compacted sand ‑ sleeping bags do not give much cushioning ‑ we spend the morning watching and trying to photo­graph the dolphins as they come fairly close in, and also watching some fishermen. In one small boat there were two of them plus a dog. One man was in charge of the oars, the other had two lines baited with a fish about 15 cm long and a weight inside. The dog watched patiently from the bows. The lines were lowered and moved slowly on or near the bottom, then hauled in, often with an octopus attached.

In the dolphin study mentioned previously, there was an interesting account of a dolphin that had caught an octopus. The octopus reached with its arms up to the dolphin's blowhole, effectively suffocating it. The dolphin was obviously in distress but eventually dislodged the octopus by hitting it hard against the water surface. Local fishermen had told the research­ers that the dolphins did not prey on octopus, because the octopus would drown them. I doubt if that dolphin tried it again!

26 Jan 2009

17 Jan 1989 - Troia again

Having taken the van into the VW garage to get the clutch fixed at last, we take ourselves to Troia again in the company of the Swedish couple. We have quite a pleasant walk along the beach seeing common sandpipers and turnstones, cuttlefish bones and jellyfish washed up on the sand, white broom and bermuda buttercup in flower and a thorny plant with fruit that none of us had seen before: bitter apple, a poisonous member of the gourd family.

Antti suggests we go on ahead as he wants to rest, we think his arthritis might be giving him problems. They never catch up with us and we find their tracks heading back to the ferry. (They tell us later that Antti had felt ill, so they turned for home - for the next few days he was very sick with fever and diarrhoea).

The tide is quite high and there is too much water in the inlet to find many birds there, so we walk along the beach round Troia towards the Atlantic. A long sandspit lies at the mouth the estuary with a deep channel on the Setubal side and a shallower one near Troia. Several hundred gulls roost there with a dozen sandwich terns. A few sanderling race back and forth along the water's edge.

There are a number of people on the beach in snorkelling gear. Each carries an inflated inner tube with a net and rope attached, and some have a small spear gun too. They go out, some in boats, about a hundred metres offshore, and begin diving. The inner tubes act as marker buoys and also keep the keep‑nets afloat. We later learn that they are diving for 'flatfish' and that this is the only legal way to hunt them.

The camper is not ready when we call back at the garage, so we take the tent and sleeping bags to the campsite, and have to explain to curious fellow campers that our vehicle is sick ‑ I'm sure some of them think we have crashed it.

Not having our own cooking facilities avail­able, we take the opportunity to eat out. We want a Portuguese style meal ‑ whatever that might mean. The waiter, who speeks excellent eng­lish, serves us with bread and sheep's cheese, followed by vege­table soup. Jim chooses prawn omelette for his main course, while I take pot luck on whatever fish they recommended. It is sea bream, which tasted superb, but is probably one of the more expensive kinds. The whole meal, including a bottle of wine, costs us 2,000 escudos ‑ about £8.

15 Jan 1989

We walk about a kilometre east of the campsite to a small beach, stopping on the way to look at the huge saw‑toothed leaves of the agave or cen­tury plant. This American cactus spends most of its life as a rosette of long, spiny‑ended fleshy leaves which contain a store of water. After ten or fifteen years it sends out an extremely long, thick flowering spike. The flowers are yellow, but they quickly develop into tiny plantlets which drop to the ground to replace the parent plant which dies soon after.

Jim picks up some of the large stones on the beach and crabs scuttled away from under­neath. They are dark brown with fine pale vermiculations and hairy legs. We don't have a field guide to crust­aceans or seashore life.

There don’t seem to be many birds around: herring and black-headed gulls, and sandwich terns over the sea, black redstarts, house sparrows and chiffchaffs on the beach ‑ one of the latter picking things off algae covered rocks, possibly small flies. When the tide goes down we are able to walk back to the camp­site along the shore, and on the way see black­caps, sardinian warblers, finches and thrushes in the scrub up on the cliffs.

14 Jan 1989 - Setubal Saltpans

There are extensive saltpans to the east of Setu­bal, and fifteen kilometres of flat coast road is no problem for the old clutch; we stop where the road degenerates into a bumpy dirt track, though the saltpans extend some dis­tance ahead.

There are plenty of Kentish plovers feeding as the tide recedes, but with far fewer ringed plover to harass them here. Other waders include a lame greenshank, a quiet and unob­trusive group of knot, and two little stint.

In one of the salt pans a dozen little grebe are putting on a peculiar display: every so often they all disappear underwater with a splash of wings then bob up again within a few seconds with their plumage puffed up. They do not move far in these submersions, but gradually the dives become less frequent and less synchronous, and the birds eventually disperse. It may be connected with some crows flying and calling over­head.

Having found bluethroat to be secretive skul­king birds, we are pleasantly surprised to see two out in the open. First a female advert­ising from the top of a bush, and later a male feeding along the muddy edge of a saltpan. He has a dart­ing, decisive action as he tugs out a few worms.

Chiffchaffs and robins are singing from the eucalypt and pinewoods behind the saltmarsh. Plants in flower include ramping fumitory, stink­ing mayweed and other compositae, and broad‑leaved stork's-bill.

13 Jan 1989 -Swimming Sandpipers

When we got back to the campsite yesterday, the Swedish couple were keen to tell us about a small wader they had seen swimming underwater ‑ twice!! We were mystified, waders swimming on the water we knew about, but swim­ming underneath? They insisted that it was the common sandpiper we had pointed out to them yes­terday. It had walked to the edge of the water, opened its wings as if to fly, but gone into the water and swum underneath, returning to the sea wall some distance away.

We spend some time this morning watching along the sea wall and find a common sandpiper along the shore and a razorbill fishing close in and coming up close to the edge.

We consult BWP and eventually find that common sandpipers are indeed capable underwater swimmers in an emergency, and young chicks will swim to escape predators. We approach the sand­piper several times, but are unable to recreate the emergency that had caused it to swim yester­day.

A purple sandpiper seems to find the algae-covered 45 degree angle of the sea wall a bit too much at times. Nevertheless it works its way along, pecking here and there and occasionally pulling out a large worm. It hides in holes while preening or resting.

Also in the holes in the wall surface are crabs which come out as the tide falls and feed either on the algae or on other things on the algae. Whenever a large gull flies over, or a person walks by the railing, they scuttle back to the safety of their holes.

12 Jan 1989 - Day trip to Troia

On the other side of the Sado estuary is the holi­day town of Troia, connected to Setubal via a cheap car ferry service, so we take advantage as foot passengers. A few hundred metres from the jungle of tourist facilities we found a tidal inlet with lots of wader activity. The tide is out when we get there, exposing muddy sand covered with green algae. Dunlin, kentish, ringed and grey plovers and redshank, with cattle egrets and hundreds of gulls were all settled in.

The Kentish plover are charming to watch. They use the typical plover peck and run feeding action, but seem to crouch when running, and look about to overbalance.

The ringed plover are quite aggressive towards their smaller cousins, frequently chasing them. One jumps on top of a kentish, which calls and crouches before running off with the ringed plover in hot pursuit. Another nearby kentish crouches as if to hide, then resumes feed­ing as the ring plover leaves the area. Chases can be over just a couple of metres or much longer, in which case they are less intense. Yet sometimes both species are feeding close together without any obvious aggression.

A noise like falling pebbles ‑ a Kentish plover threat call ‑ called our attention to three birds in some other kind of dispute. A rather large male kentish (with feathers fluffed up to increase his apparent size) in breeding plumage repeatedly charges at a female/first winter bird trying to get too close. Another similar bird watches quietly from nearby. Eventually the second bird gets the message and goes off to feed.

The victorious male goes into a channel to bathe, yawning frequently ‑ a sign of nervous­ness. The third bird, presumably his mate, joins him and they alternate sessions of 15 ‑ 20 seconds of just lying belly deep in the water with bouts of normal bathing. The female leaves the water first and preens close by, often jumping into the air as she shakes herself. The male comes out a few min­utes later and preens briefly before they both resume feeding a metre or two apart.
Another pair of Kentish plovers land about ten metres away and start feeding. The two pairs seem to ignore each other for a few minutes, then taking up a hunched posture with his body parallel to the ground, head sunk into his shoul­ders and feathers of back and crown erect, the first male makes a long run straight toward the second male. Then we hear the rattling pebbles call again, and the first male stops, backs off and leaves second male alone. The second male has brighter, almost orange, head colouring, perhaps an indication of greater age or domination.

A redshank stands by a puddle screaming its head off ‑ a hissing scream repeated several times - then it resumes feeding quietly. The redshank, like the Kentish plovers, spend long periods just lying still in the water in between bouts of regular bathing. Perhaps the warmer water in this climate allows them to bathe more thoroughly.

Small flocks of gulls roost on sand bars in the inlet. They include a dozen each of adult and first winter Mediterranean gulls, individuals of which are liable to march over to a black‑­headed and peck hard just once to displace it, then settle down to roost again nearby.

A male clouded yellow butterfly pauses to feed on a roadside plant. This species hiber­nates successfully in southern Europe, and migrates northwards in spring to reach the rest of Europe by June.

10 Jan 1989 - Mediterranean Gulls

The rain does eventually stop and we walk to the harbour where a hundred or more gulls are flying around fishermen throwing bait out. The gulls are mostly lesser black‑backs in a variety of plumages, and about 30 black‑headed gulls (five or six to one in favour of adults). We search the group care­fully and find a few Mediterranean gulls; they seem to finish feeding as a group and then sit on the water as a loose flock so allowing a head count: twelve first winter, one second winter, and five adult winter.

In comparison with the black‑headeds, the med gulls seem to search the water surface more thor­oughly, dipping down more frequently and verti­cally almost with petrel‑like action. They seemed to have a feeding run, flying into the slight breeze and dipping to the surface for 40 ‑ 50 metres then flying back to the start and repeating the manoeuvre.

10 Jan 1989 - Markets

It’s raining when we wake up and still raining at 3 pm. so we don't get much watching done. It was a reasonable excuse to get caught up on more notes and drawings.

Despite the rain, I walk to the market in Setubal. Since our arrival in Portugal, our eating habits have undergone a profound change: a change for the healthier, cheaper, and more in line with our change in lifestyle.

I had always resented the time taken to pre­pare fresh vegetables, hated the amount of waste that seemed to end up in the bin, was unimpressed with the washed out-flavour, and dreaded seeing food go off before the next shopping day. Salva­tion had come in the form of a freezer and once a month shopping ‑ no waste and hardly any prepara­tion time. With frozen or tinned vegetables gen­erally available in northern Europe, I had taken the same line, and anyway, with limited space in the camper I did not want the hassle of preparing fresh vegetables.

In northern Portugal we had seen people sit­ting by the side of the road selling veg­etables and fruit. Jim persuaded me to buy some. I think we just had onions, carrots, potatoes and cauliflower at first. We could not spare water, or gas, to boil them, so I experimented. Take a plateful of veg­etables and slice thinly, wipe a non‑stick pan with a smear of oil and put every­thing in over a high flame, put on the lid, turn down the heat, shake the pan frequently to prevent burning, and let the food cook in its own steam. Within ten minutes it was all cooked, and ready for a sprinkling of salt and herbs. We agreed they were the best vegetables we had ever had, and I'm still cooking that way.

I even got to like shopping in markets. There is an incredible array of fruit and veg­etables available and, in fishing towns like Setu­bal, an incredible variety of fish too. We really need a field guide to the fish of market stalls! Squid and octopus do not appeal to us, but we often have sardines at twenty pence a kilo.

Having time to wander around the market, and finding food so cheap that it did not really mat­ter which stall it came from, made shopping more pleas­ant. By buying only one or two items from each stall, I could keep track of what I was spend­ing ‑ at 260 escudos to a pound sterling, prices could get confusing. Language was no problem, it was just a matter of pointing at something and asking for half or one kilo.

9 Jan - Breakdown

This morning we intended visiting the nearby Serra do Arrabida, but soon after leaving the campsite the van starts suffering with a slipping clutch. So it’s back to the VW agent at Setubal. The local VW agent doesn’t have a replacement clutch and we soon discover that while there are plenty of transporter type vans around, they are generally Japanese makes, and most VW vehicles were small cars. We phone Avonaid continental breakdown, and they arrange for a replacement clutch to be sent out from Britain. Meanwhile, we have to wait.

Being 'grounded' has the advantage of making us look more thoroughly at the locality we are in. At the far end of the campsite there is some scrubby ground with fan‑tailed warblers. Higher up the hill there are some large palm trees with a heavy load of orange palm nuts being feasted on by blackcaps. The birds strip the orange flesh, leaving the nuts to fall to the ground where brown rats collect them. Sardinian warblers feed on the flesh of any whole fruit that fall. The blackcaps seem to have two calls ‑ the familiar 'chack;' and a squeal that we have not heard before.

8 Jan 1989 - Bottlenose Dolphins

A day of catching up with bits and pieces. Nature watching is not entirely neglected as we spend much of the afternoon watch­ing a pod of dolphins in the mouth of the est­uary.

There are about a dozen of them, large and dark with a prominent, slightly backward bent, dorsal fin. Mostly they swim near the surface with only the dorsal fin and back showing, but sometimes they dive, showing tails above the surface as they go down, and usually staying sub­merged for several minutes. Often they blow water spouts when they returne to the surface.
Occasionally one breaches, leaping out of the water and falling back in with a splash, show­ing off a pale belly. There are two sizes, perhaps adults and youngsters.

They stay in the estuary for at least sev­eral hours, moving to and fro between the estuary mouth and the western end of Setubal (the industrial port area), but prefer­ring to be on the far side, where the water is deeper. They seem to ignore boats of all sizes, but when a large con­tainer vessel gets in the way of our observations, the dolphins seem to disappear.

This evening we watch the dolphins again; they are sometimes in one group, sometimes in two and threes. Again, mostly all we see is the back and dorsal fin as they swim around and between the boats. As the light fades they came much closer than before and we are able to identify them as bottle-nosed dolphins.

Dolphins are said to have inhabited the estuary since ancient times, although the first written report of them was in 1863. A study done between 1981 and 1986 (ref: dos Dantos & Lacerda) showed that there was a more-or-less stable group of about forty bottle-nosed dolphins ranging along the coast between Sines and the Tagus estuary, and going up to 40 km upstream in the Sado Estuary. They could be seen at any time of the year, and at any time of the day or tide. Twenty-six of these animals could be recognised individually from scars and the shape of their dorsal fins.

The dolphins used the estuary for feeding, resting, travelling and probably general social interaction. Much of the behaviour observed during the study was similar to what we were seeing, except that it was often ob­served from a boat closer to the animals. The most common activity pattern was a compromise between travelling and feeding. The animals showed surfacing sequences which involved two or three short submersions (less than fifteen seconds) followed by a longer, deeper one of up to three minutes. Sometimes they travelled quite fast in one direction, sometimes they stayed in one area for some time if there was food there.

Their preferred foods were cuttlefish and mullet, but a wide variety of other species was taken when the opportunity arose. The mullet were likely to be chased, thrown up and caught in mid air, or, in shallow water, thrown onto the beach when the dolphins would partly strand themselves to get hold of the prey. Cuttlefish were caught and neatly broken in half with the cuttlebone half being rejected.

Another Swede staying in the campsite tells us that until about three years ago (ie the end of the above study) it was not uncom­mon to see lots of dolphins in the estuary (he thought two or three hundred!). Then the industry which grew up at the western end of the docks polluted the water to such an extent that, according to a local fisher­man, there had been thousands of dead fish float­ing on the water, or washed up on the beach. The fisherman blamed the EEC.

No fish meant no dolphins, and the local fishing industry was also in danger. Local laws were passed to control, or at least reduce, the pollution, and now the fish and the dolphins are back, though not yet in their previous numbers. Dolphins deserted the nearby Tagus estuary in the 1960s, and that estuary is thought by some to be so polluted that the dolphins will never return there.

16 Jan 2009

7 Jan 1989 - a day in the cork oak woods

After studying the tourist leaflets last night we decide to visit Pinheiro ‑ 'it is integrated in the Natural Reserve of Sado Estuary. From there you have splendid view over the estuary ...' etc. The Ria Sado estuary, 50 km south of the Tagus, also comprises vast mudflats and saltmarshes, with several small reservoirs for irrigation purposes, and extensive ricefields and saltpans. Up to 20,000 waders winter here.

The leaflet suggests a driving tour starting with Pinheiro but, as the road signposted to there is a dirt track, we keep going expecting to find a sli­ghtly better road. The next road looks better but goes to the village of Monte Nova. We take that and find ourselves going through several kilo­metres of cork oakwoods. We stop several times ‑ there is very little traffic to worry about, and see hoopoes feeding under the trees. On the other side of the road sheep graze the woods and a couple of cattle egrets hitch rides on their backs.

Cork oak is extensively grown in southern Portugal, which produces about one‑third of the world's cork supply. It is also grown in parts of Spain. The oakwoods often form open park‑like forests which may be regularly cultivated or grazed, as here, or a dense scrub may be allowed to develop among the trees, as we found in other areas. Many of the great cork oak woods were developed during the last century by large estates from waste land which was previously covered by matorral, a low‑growing mediterranean scrub habi­tat. The cork bark is harvested every seven to ten years, and the recently harvested trunks were bright orange and looked rather naked. Occasionally we came across a huge stack (fifty or more metres long by two metres high and five wide) of recently harvested cork. And there were large lorries carrying the bark to process­ing centres.

A flock of what look like grey parakeets fly ahead of us, but through the binoculars they turn into azure-winged magpies, their colour not showing well in the overcast light. They feed under the oaks, mostly on the ground but sometimes hover­ing to get at something just above head height. Although these magpies do not seem quite as noisy or quarrelsome as their common cousins, they do have buzzing contact calls which became a higher and higher pitched excite­ment call when a motorbike gets too close for their liking. They tend to fly through the canopy, rather than over or under, and their movements are not easy to follow.

Further along the road we stopped to watch another flock of about fifteen birds feasting on the fruit of prickly pear cactus which is fairly com­mon here. Cactuses were brought to Europe from America as ornamental plants in the late sixteenth century. The prickly pear grew so well and so thickly that it was used to make hedges that were impenetrable to both men and livestock. The thorns are actually leaves modified to discourage grazing animals, while the 'leaves' are really stems which have been modified into water storage organs. The fruit is purple and somewhat pear or fig‑shaped and spiny. It spread so fast in north Africa that later travellers thought it was native there and it become known, erroneously, as the barbary fig. It ripens at the end of summer and is edible for humans as well as magpies. Any bird on a fruit had to keep an eye on others hoping to usurp it, feeding was easier and more relaxed when each bird had found itself a meal.

While watching the magpies we become aware of other sounds nearby. Most of them come from a great grey shrike calling from near the top of a tree ‑ it is the first time we had heard any noise from them. The calls have a repet­itive rhythm, described as shek‑shek in the book, but include a variety of sounds from whistles to buzzes, and even a buzz-whistle.

Back onto the main road again, and this time we do take the dirt track to Pinheiro. It follows most­ly through oakwood and, since there is virt­ually no other traffic, we are able to go slowly and stop anywhere. After some kilometres we come to a small lake, well populated with mallard, coot and moorhen. A flock of a couple of thousand birds take off from the fields beyond ‑ they act like starlings but a close look showed them to be pigeons, we had not seen them in quite such num­bers before.

Even more surprising is finding crag martins hawking over the pond. Although many birds do remain in their mountain breeding habitat for the winter, some migrate to lowlands where they take up resi­dence in the vicinity of swamps, marshes and lakes. They have even been recorded dipping to the water apparently to take insects from the surface.

There are some strange looking pine trees in clearings amongst the oaks ‑ strange because they have short thick trunks and rounded or spread­ing crowns, these were stone or umbrella pines (not to be confused with the stone or arrolla pines in the Alps). The pine nuts are edible, and found as piñons especially in Spanish cuisine, and the cones may be used as fuel.

The road ends at the village of Pinheiro but are were tracks leading from the village along the estu­ary. Around the villages there are rice fields (it is an important crop in this area), reduced to stubble at this time of year. The stubble is left quite long and the main birds there seem to be gulls, egrets, storks, larks and snipe.

Passerines tend to stay well hidden, but we catch sight of a blue­throat feeding between the rows of stalks. It turns towards us and we see that it is a female before it flies off. The scrub along the edge of the fields holds sardinian warblers and waxbills.

We emerge on the estuary close to an area of saltmarsh standing just above the high tide. A marsh harrier, disturbed by our appearance, in turn disturbs thousands of waders in the salt­marsh. They are mainly dunlin and grey plover close to the shore, and curlew and godwit further away. As the birds settle again the smaller waders pile onto tiny islands of spartina, perching on stalks and on each other trying to roost. Somehow the saltmarsh soaks them up like a sponge.

Along the shore a flock of a hundred serins, goldfinches and linnets feed on the seeds of shrubby seablite, looking like yellow fruit weigh­ing down the branches.

As we pass a stack of cork by the lake on our way back along the track, there are two little owls on the ground nearby. They watch us for a couple of minutes, then one flies into a tree, while the other squeezes itself out of sight between the sheets of bark ‑ they must have had the best insulated home available!

6 Jan 1989 - a rainy day

There are no hunters around today, and peace prevails over the saltmarshes. The weather is generally overcast with quite a cold breeze and small birds aren't showing quite so well.

The tide still quite low when we arrive. Out on the flats are thousands of avocet and several hundred grey plover along with godwit, redshank, dunlin, etc. Curlew are not­able by their virtual absence. A few hundred teal move up with the tide, but mallard hide in the saltmarsh until marsh harriers put them up. The harriers also put up flocks of passerines feeding in the salicornia on the far side of the channel.

It starts to rain and we went back for lunch, it continues to rain and we try the nearby town of Montijo for a map of the area. No luck there but a travel agent comes up with a set of tourist leaflets ‑ in Portuguese English ‑ about the area, which may of some help.

On the way back to Setubal we make detours to wherever the road seems to go close to the estu­ary, at least according the maps on the backs of the leaf­lets. At Moita we find curlew and just north of Coina there were saltpans and salt­marshes that may be worth exploring in better weather.

5 Jan 1989 - Alcochete salt pans

At the village of Alcochete we take a right turn hop­ing to get closer to the estuary. The road turns into a dirt track after about a kilometre. We park, and have lunch, then take a walk.

Dense saltmarsh vegeta­tion grows between saltpans of varying stages of evaporation. The track crosses a muddy channel and from the bridge I idly looked at a small thrush flick­ing its tail, expecting it to be a song thrush. After a few seconds it turns my way, showing off a blue throat and breast with a white spot, then flies off. We search the muddy sides of the channel hoping it would return. A robin appears with its back to us, I dismiss it being smaller than the previous bird, but make a mental note to check on robins with orange undertail coverts. The bird turns, then flies off when it sees us but not before Jim sees its blue­throat. I had obviously misjudged its size the first time, and the orange flashes were actua­lly patches at the base of its tail ‑ a useful identification character when the bird is not seen properly.

After that we examine closely any 'robin' in the bottom of channels and dryish saltpans, and get one more brief sighting. Bluethroats gen­erally prefer moist or wet situations with ample cover so saltmarsh is ideal. Outside the breeding season they are generally unobtrusive and skulk­ing, moving about furtively in thick cover and slinking away when alarmed. When flushed they fly off low and quickly drop back into cover.

There are people with guns out by the estuary so we stay in the marshes, surrounded by fan-tailed, sardinian and Cetti's warblers, and chiff-chaffs, as well as serins and other finches. Whenever shots are fired, a cloud of waders move along the estuary together with egrets and a white stork.

As he checks another saltpan for blue­throat, Jim notices a strange wader between a couple of dun­lin on the far side. The bird is squatting down showing a large expanse of white chest and belly, brown upperparts, short dark bill and dark eye­stripe with pale supercilium meeting above the lores. When the bird eventually becomes active it shows dark legs and short brown lapels of a kent­ish plover. Its feeding technique seems to con­sist of paddling its feet then running to pick up whatever had come to the surface in response to the mini-earthquake.

Several chiff‑chaffs hawk for insects over the saltpans, one or two seemed to have dark faces and breast patches but otherwise are the same as all the others. Probably they have dipped their faces in the water as they pick prey off the water surface, then wipe their bill on their breast and left a wet mark there.

A couple of times small birds zoom past with a peculiar buzzing call, diving into the bushes as soon as we get the binoculars on them. Eventually some do show themselves on the top of the bush and are identified as wax­bills, Jim has renamed them as 'buzz-bombs'.

A sound like a curlew being strangled, announces the arrival of water rail, two of them, in the bottom of a channel. They seem to face up to each other, with some sort of head pumping dis­play, then moving a few steps back and forth as each tries to gain dominance. After a couple of minutes one flies into the vegetation at the top of the channel, closely followed by the other. They may be contesting feeding places. As we head back towards the van, we hear the strangled cries again.

After last night's disturbances we look for a more sheltered place to use as a campsite. There seems to be nothing suitable so we dare again to use the AA book which lists a cheap site in the town of Setubal (which we discovered is pronounced Sh'tu­bal). We spend what seems like an eternity trying to find our way out of a one‑horse village, the name of which is already forgotten. Then another eternity driving in circles around Setubal trying to decide which road might take us to the campsite. Eventually we see a sign which said 'English Institute', so we stopped and asked there. Fortunately one of the English teachers knows where the campsite is, and we are soon installed in a cheap but adequate site next to the Sado Estuary.

5 Jan 1989 - egrets in the mist

We breakfast to the sound of larks singing and gunshots in the distance (it is Thursday); it is misty and we drive slowly back along the tracks towards the main road, looking for birds as usual. Things are much the same as yesterday, with fewer starlings and gulls, and more egrets and golden plover, plus a corn bunting sitting on the barbed wire fence and seeming reluctant to move as we approached.

In one field there are some cows with very young calves, and also a number of cattle egrets hunched up against the morning. The egrets have a heavy‑jowled, grouchy appearance that is matched by their complaining voice and reluctance to 'get out of bed' at a decent hour. One calf, only a day or so old and not quite sure how far its nose is in front of its eyes, finds itself surrounded by egrets.

The calf tentatively tries to find its way out of the circle but the egrets are in the way. It approaches one egret, which shuffles off, making the calf jump back. It approaches another, which waves its beak threateningly and again the calf backs off. After several minutes ‑ in sheer desperation and probably with its eyes closed ‑ it charges back to mum, sending egrets scat­ter­ing faster than they wanted to go. Another calf, a day or two older and by now an old hand, charges around, threatening a few birds which shuffled out of the way in disgust at the disturb­ance.

The roads take us around the estuary to an area of cork oak wood pasture. A few horses graze the sparse grass and the sandy soil looks as though it could not support much more. There are also patches of heather and gorse, and a group of woodlark feed along­side a bare track through the pasture.

5 Jan 1989 - an interrupted night

We decided to stay in this area overnight, it is in the middle of nowhere with not a soul in sight. At about six‑thirty yesterday evening a police vehicle pulled up; no questions asked but we could stay there for one night only. Fine. At sometime in the small hours there was a banging on the camper door. It was the police again, the night shift wanted to know what we were doing. The guy with the torch asked if we spoke French, and his face fell when I said no (not at that time of night anyway!). We showed him our passports and the bird book, saying that we were looking for 'aves'.

This morning I check in the phrase book that I had the right word for birds, only to find that birds are 'pajaros' and 'aves' are chickens. The police must have had a good laugh at us, look­ing for chickens out here. But we are told later that aves is the scientific term for birds, so perhaps we impressed them instead.

The reason for our interrupted night, we think, is that there was a drug smuggling problem around Lisbon, and our stopping place for the night was at the end of the Tagus Estuary where a small boat could have brought in con­tra­band. Thus the police probably made a point of checking the area regu­larly.

8 Jan 2009

4 Jan 1989 - Tagus Estuary

Tagus Estuary

The Tagus estuary upstream of Lisbon is a vast intertidal zone of mudflats, bordered by 2,800 ha of saltmarsh, saline marshlands, mudflats, shallow lagoons and over 20,000 ha of reclaimed cultivated land. Beyond this is a hinterland of dry grass­land, cornfields, stone pine and cork oak wood­land. To the east some of this polder landscape has been somewhat modified by indust­rial and mili­tary instal­lations which pose a serious threat of pollution, but the estuary is still frequented in winter and migration time by over 70,000 waders including 75% of Europe's wintering avocet, plus calidrids and curlew and several thousand duck.

Some 22,850 ha of the saltmarsh, mudflats and islands are included in a reserva natural, where shooting and other forms of exploitation, except fishing, are forbidden. Access to the reserve for visitors is by road to perimeter then by footpath to points of interest, however there is no entry to three strict nature reserves ‑ Reserva Integral areas that are left for nature to get on with its own business and even scientists are allowed in only to monitor the situation.

We have a plan of action for the Tagus area, mapped out last night from the information in our books. Since we are coming from the north, we start with Lezeiroland, a vast area of cultiva­tion, and try to get to the estuary itself at Ponta da Erva. The road to this point is not signposted but we ask and are told we were going the right way. The road is a wide, solid farm track ‑ it needs to be for the tractors we meet on it are huge four‑wheel drive with double wheels affair, pulling an equally huge set of disc harrows. The farming here comes like a culture shock after several weeks of pocket handkerchief fields on mountainsides.

Cultivation is on a scale similar to East Anglia or the Netherlands, and the drainage ditches go hand‑in‑hand with huge irrigation sys­tems. Since Portugal joined the EEC in 1986 there has been a national urge to develop ‑ fast. The recent avail­ability of EEC funds now ensures the feasibility of many agricultural, industrial and other large scale development projects that could never have been attempted previously.

We keep following the track, guessing which way to turn at T junc­tions and, after about 10 km, we do reach the Ponta da Erva.

There are larks, finches and linnets in good‑sized flocks, plenty of house sparrows and thousands of common starlings. Snowstorms of gulls follow tractors in the distance. Half a dozen little egrets fly out of a ditch as we approach, and join others in the fields together with lapwing, golden plover and godwit. Three cattle egrets stalk through another field, occasionally one stops to stir up invertebrates with its foot, the way little egrets do in water. These birds have a peculiar rolling, goose‑like gait which distin­guishes them from little egrets at some distance.

A great grey shrike hunts from the tops of weed stalks in a dry‑look­ing pasture, and, having heard a crested lark call nearby, Jim studies the larks in that field until he finds it ‑ even with its crest down it looks a dumpier bird with buff outer tail feathers compared to the skylarks.

Until now we have seen cows used both for milk and as draft animals ‑ they don't bat an eyelid when traffic zooms past. Here we find bulls being reared for the bullfights and bull-running which are a traditional part of local fiestas ‑ and a field full of bull makes quite a lot of noise!

In one of the drainage channels we find moor­hen and little grebe, and near the sluice gate at the estuary end there is a kingfisher. Out on the mudflats are thousands of avocet, distinguishable in the evening gloom by their striking plumage, while other, browner, waders scurry about incognito.

4 Jan 1989 - Pinhal de Leiria

The coastal region of central Portugal forms a transition area between the Mediterranean flora to the south, and the north Atlantic flora to the north. In the Pinhal (pine forest) de Leiria we find more and more unfamiliar plants, and feel frustrated by the lack of a suitable field guide to identify them. This is entirely my fault, I wasn't expecting to see flowers in winter, so I did not look very hard for a field guide! The forest dates from the thirteenth century and yields turp­entine as well as timber. It stretches some 20 km along the coast and is up to five kilometres wide. It is rather differ­ent from pine plantations in Britain ‑ the trees are more widely spaced, and there is often a well devel­oped shrub layer of gorse and heather.

Seedlings in the clear‑felled areas do not appear to be in rows, perhaps pine seeds have been broadcast over the area rather than regeneration being left to nature. In between the seedlings are heathers, gorse, broom, hotten­tot fig, etc. In one area of pines about a metre high, the lower branches have been loped off and the gorse chopped down before it overwhelms every­thing.

In between the stands of pines are strips of cultivation, rye, potato and maize are the main crops here, and in some places are stands of enormous eucalypt trees, faster growing than the pines, but ecologically unsympathetic in this part of the world.

The birds of the low open scrub are dart­ford and sardinian warblers, wrens, robins, and stone­chats. The forest as a whole seems well populated with a variety of thrushes, tits and finches, and jays.

We follow a coastal road, stopping where poss­ible to look for birds. Sea-watching yields only gannets and gulls, or just patches of brown frothy water crashing against the cliffs below. Often the gannets seem to be in family groups of two adults and one juvenile. However, newly fledged gannets are usually solitary birds on the sea for a couple of weeks until they are strong enough to fly easily from the water surface. Then they latch onto any passing adults or join fishing flocks.

At one stop, a half dozen small birds fly into a bush in front of the van and stay just long enough to be identified as waxbills, a spe­cies introduced from Africa as cage birds. Escaped birds have set up colonies in the wild and are apparently doing quite well in southern Spain and Portugal. They are small finches with bright red bills, dark caps, red around the eye, pale throat and reddish bellies, rump and tail.

To reach the Tagus estuary we cross an area called Estremadura, a rolling landscape of red hills, vineyards, farms with bigger fields than we had seen for some time, and roads with better surfaces. In the Aveiro area houses were decor­ated with colourful ceramic tiles on the outside, here they are white-washed with red roofs. Away from the coastal pines, there are more plantations of eucalypts and the area has an aura of Mediterra­nean heat.

3 Jan 1989

There is a campsite ‑ open and with very hot showers ‑ next to where we were watching on the dunes yesterday so we made use of it. Jim spends this morning sea watching ‑ gannets, sandwich terns, two divers, common scoter, arctic and pome­rine skuas etc. Two arctics were harrying a sand­wich tern when a third arctic joined in, the tern does not give up anything. It seems an uneconomical way for skuas to hunt, but the more skuas there are, the more likely the victim is to give up a meal, so one at least is bound to be lucky.

Much of the rest of the day is spent talking to a German couple who had also stayed in the campsite. They are seasoned travellers and give us tips about getting the most out of camping in Portugal. In particular they warn us about bandits and break-ins in the tourist areas, and suggest we get any servicing or other work done on our van in Portugal where the labour is cheap, but the mechanics have still been trained by Volkswagen in Germany.

2 Jan 1989 - Aveiro Lagoon

Jan 2

The southern arm of the Aveiro lagoon is, like the northern end, the domain of thousands of gulls, mostly herring and lesser black-back, two of the latter chase a black‑headed gull which manages to swallow its meal in flight. There are a few sandwich terns flying over but most are out at sea, as are divers and scoter.

Further south we stop to explore an area of sand dunes. Small square fields have been levelled within the dunes and fertilised with seaweed for intensive vegetable production. In one apparently abandoned (or perhaps fallow) field there are a dozen golden plover feeding warily in long but sparse vegetation. Sometimes they take to the air and fly in nervous circles, melting into the background when they land again. Finches, warblers and skylarks are in abundance. Serins have a flight call which sounds rather like a wagtail, while a group chirruping in the trees sounds like corn-buntings.

Along the shore of the lagoon are a green sandpiper and two sanderling, the latter showing juvenile black‑centred wing coverts and tertials

1 Jan 1989

It may be sunny and even hot during the day but it is still cold at night and this morning there is a light frost.

Sundays (and Thursdays) are shooting days in Portugal, and, as we can hear shots from the marshes, we decide to visit the nature reserve of Das Dunas do San Jacinto. The visitor centre is locked up but a sign (in four languages) points to a nature trail, so we follow that.

Maritime pine has been extensively planted along the Portuguese coast to stabilise the sand dunes, but here the woodland seems ancient and natural. The trees are not planted in rows, many are stunted and twisted, and all are covered with lichens, especially on the west­-facing side of the trunks. Maritime pinewoods do develop naturally on sandy soils and dunes in warm oceanic climates, but they are frost-sensitive and require average winter temperatures above six degrees Celsius.

The forest floor is a blanket of pine needles with mosses, lichens and small fungi, and a sparse herb layer of heather. In more open areas there are well developed shrub and herb layers com­posed of plants typical of southern atlantic heaths: european gorse and heather mainly, but also a local maritime plant called Corema album (it does not have an English name). This is a low heather-like shrub with crowded whorled linear leaves and white or red berries.

Another local plant is Myrica faya, a small evergreen tree that is native but rare in southern Portugal, and may well have been intro­duced here to help stabilise the sand ‑ it grows mainly between the pinewoods and the beach. (Apparently It is more common on the Azores and other islands, and has been introduced to Hawaii where it is now a pest species.)

The woods are generally quiet as far as birds are concerned, with little pockets of activ­ity ‑ mainly crested and coal tits, fire­crests and chiffchaffs, and greenfinches.

The path leads us to a hide overlooking a small lake with some reeds around it. White wagtails work along a sandy shore; chiffchaffs catch insects flying over the water and occasion­ally seem to pick something off the surface. The birds use the reed stems as a base, flying out to catch one item at a time and returning to any convenient stem. They seem to prefer the far side of the pond, perhaps insects are easier to see against the sun, or maybe the birds are just aware of our presence in the hide. A robin and a dragonfly each put in an appearance close by.

Eventually the trail leads out to the shore where we spend a pleasant couple of hours in the sun, studying the birds of course, mostly common scoter, herring gulls and gannets. With the tele­scope Jim picks out more skuas and ident­ifies four arctics and two juvenile pomerines. The arctics chase sandwich terns which do not seem too keen on giving up any booty they happened to be carrying.

At dusk we watch over the marshes again hoping for owls but with no luck. There are, however, an immature male hen harrier, a buzzard and a sparrowhawk. Little egrets gather in groups of about a dozen, then fly off to their roost sites, their white plumage showing up smart­ly in the dusk.