13 Feb 2009

2 Feb 1989 - Caspian Terns

When we arrived here Peter said it was a good two hour walk to go around both the marshes along the sea walls. Today we actually make it the whole way round ‑ it takes eight hours! There are just too many things to stop and look at.

The first excuse for a stop is Jim scoping the estuary while I photograph more flowers ‑ algarve toadflax, salad mustard, asphodel, etc, where they grow behind a bush and are sheltered from the wind. The estuary birds are much as usual, but no sign of raptors today.

We stop frequently to scan the marshes. Some chiffchaffs are feed­ing on insects over the drainage channels. Some seem to be taking insects off the surface too. I notice one place where a bird regularly uses a perch just below where we stand. After a while I climb half-way down the bank and sit with the camera aimed at the perch. The chiffchaff seems to patrol about fifty metres of channel, using four or five perches along the way to watch for insects. It ignores me as I climb on down to the bot­tom of the bank and take photo­graphs from there. Beyond the ends of its territory there are other chiffchaffs in their territories.

Jim concentrates on watching the Caspian terns fishing. One bird flies into the strongish east wind, often hanging or hovering before flex­ing its wings and plunging vertically, disappear­ing in a splash of water. At the end of its run it flies back with the wind and repeats the pro­cess. It catches two items and dips its bill in the water three or four times after each. The third item proves to be quite a mouthful for, ten seconds after swallowing, it brings the fish up again, attracting the attention of black-headed gulls. It downs the prey even­tually but this time doesn’t wash its bill after­wards. Another bird also has three consecutive successful dives and flies off looking decidedly heavy in the crop.

Terns are the focus of our attention for the rest of the walk. There is one roosting on its own out on a sandbank with nothing, not even a gull, for size comparison and the sun is behind it. The bird appears buffy-pink under­neath and when it shows its head the forehead was white and the bill long and dark, though it looks reddish with the sun behind. It is difficult to work out whether the tail or primaries extend furthest ‑ I think it is holding one wing lower than the other just to confuse the issue. We decide it is a sandwich tern ‑ definitely not a Caspian and the other species should not be here yet anyway ‑ but it high­lights more gaps in our knowledge.

On another sandbank off the western marsh holds a roost of gulls with half a dozen Caspian terns. The terns are either in pairs comprising an adult plus a juven­ile, or as single adults. The juveniles occasionally turn face to face with their parent and beg half-heartedly ‑ they remain partly dependent for up to eight months. We do not see a youngster actual­ly being fed but they still give whistling begging calls in flight as well as on the ground. They are all in different scruffy stages of moult, show­ing some dark-marked feathers on the tertials, coverts and secondaries. Although they do not breed until three or four years of age, the juven­iles attain adult non‑breeding plumage within a year and are then indistinguishable from their parents except in the breeding season.

1 Feb 1989 - Bird ringing

The storms have passed leaving us with fairly clear sunny weather again. Peter has the mist nets up in the area where we watched for hawfinches yesterday ‑ he hopes to net one so that we can see it close up. When a single bird flies off, he is fairly certain its mate has been caught as they are usually seen in pairs.

Having caught the bird, Peter is very careful in handling it ‑ the huge bull designed for crack­ing cherry stones was quite capable of exerting the same pressure on human fingers or anything else that came close enough. This individual is a female, indicated by the greyish edges to her secondaries, which have a short blocky shape pecu­liar to hawfinches. She gets her revenge ‑ manag­ing to bite Peter's finger as he releases her ‑ then she sits and sulks in a nearby tree for a while.

There is a variety of birds in the mist nets, and Peter again explains things about plum­age that can be seen only with a bird in the hand. In northern Europe juvenile passerines undergo a partial moult in the autumn and through their first winter are distinguishable from the adults by their juvenile flight feathers. How­ever, in the warmer south, the young birds have a complete moult in the autumn so that it can be difficult for ringers to age them with any certainty. Peter shows us several birds that have retained just a few primary or tail feathers, or primary coverts from their juvenile plumage. Other birds show abrasion of the white tips of the flight feathers so that the ends looked distorted ‑ extreme cases were probably southern birds, as the strong sun weakens the feathers.

In the field it is usually difficult to see the colour patterns on individual feathers and therefore to appreciate just how the overall markings are made up. In the goldfinch, for example, the golden wing-patch is not formed by solid yellow marks right across the flight feathers, but by the outer edges of the feathers having a yellow stripe. The inner part of the feather is pale. On the female greenfinch the relatively pale primary panel is formed again by a yellow strip on the outer edges of the feathers while the male's brighter panel is formed by the yellow strip extending to the feather shaft.

I spend the afternoon in a hide hoping to photo­graph some small birds but without success. Jim walks out along the east marsh and returns with tales of an adult spoonbill and an eagle. He took detailed notes of the latter ‑ ginger head with white marks on either side, white belly and under­wing coverts, dark flight feathers, brownish mantle and scapulars, extensive black on tail, white rump etc ‑ after waiting so long to see an eagle he wanted to be able to identify it proper­ly. It was, in fact, a pale-phase booted eagle. A few of these winter in southern Portugal, or perhaps it was a migrant returning from Africa.

Walking through the vineyard this even­ing, we flush two quail - close enough to see their stripes. One flies into a barbed wire fence in its haste, hopefully it is not badly hurt for it continues on its way with a whir of wings. Our sojourn is made to the accompaniment of mole crickets and marsh frogs.

31 Jan 1989 - Cape Hares

As we headed back to the Quinta da Rocha last night, the rain bucketed down. Rain, thunder and lighten­ing continued well into the night, and returned intermittently until three o'clock this afternoon. We spent this morning in the common room, talking to Peter and reading some of the few books he has been able to collect about natural history in Portugal. One of his problems in trying to teach people about conservation is the lack of reference books, even decent field guides, about the countryside. Books in Portu­guese are as thin on the ground as books in English; no wonder we had very little success in finding information before we left Britain.

When the rain eventually stops we take a short walk along the east marsh, stopping to look for the hawfinches and bluethroats that Peter says aere to be seen in the area. We have no luck with the finches but one bluethroat shows itself briefly; it flies away from us showing its orange tail patches, and lands on a bush with the characteristic tail flicking behaviour before diving for cover.

Perhaps because the marshes are nearly flooded after the rain, today we have especially good views of about half a dozen hares in the open fields beyond. These are cape hares, they replace the brown hare throughout Iberia, although until recently they were considered to be just a sub-species of it. Perhaps the most obvious dif­ference between the two species is the large amount of white on the belly and legs and on the ears of the Cape hares. A dog chases one across the marsh but without a hope of catching it.

Often we hear foxes barking at night, this evening there is one out in the open like the hares. It is dark grey in colour.

We are curious about where the stone curlews go to feed at night, so we stay down by the marsh at dusk to see in which direction they depart. A dozen or so fly overhead towards going northeast, but in the twilight we can’t see how far they go. Meanwhile sixteen common sandpipers gather to bathe and call on the mud at low tide

30 Jan 1989 - Serra da Monchique

The Serra de Monchique comprises two peaks some 900m high overlooking the western Algarve. The exposed granite‑like rock becomes white and crum­bly as it weathers into clays; rainwater perco­lates through and gives the many springs a dis­tinctive mineral composition rich in chlorides and sulphides. The Romans turned the place into a health spa and the bottled spring water is now sold for drinking in the local towns.

These mountains form one of the classic bot­anical localities of the Algarve, though most of the original oak forests that clothed the hills has been replaced by extensive plantations of Eucalypt and pine. Olive groves and cork woods are grown to an altitude of 550m, while there is still some chestnut coppice in a few areas. In between the trees are the luxury homes of north European expatriots and Algarve businessmen, and the roadsides carry the colours and scent of in­troduced Camellia and Acacia trees.

It is too windy and grey to attempt to phot­o­graph the spectacular displays of lusitanian heath and Erica hibernica which try to brighten the hillsides. Another colourful plant, Rhodo­dendron ponticum, which is invading many upland areas in Britain, is a native here; and the straw­berry tree also groes luxuriantly; a brandy is distilled locally from its berries.

Perhaps the birds have also decided that it is too cold and windy, and have gone into hiding for there are few to be seen, and then only briefly.
The winter bird atlas produced by A Rocha Trust mentions scops owl in the foothills of Monc­hique and Jim is determined to try to hear them. I had my doubts, but am pleased to be proved wrong. We drive along a dirt road and stop near an orange orchard. At about 6 pm Jim picks out an un­fam­­iliar sound amongst the cowbells, caterpillar tractors, barking dogs etc. We lis­ten closely and time the calls to every 5 or 6 seconds; then another joins in. The calls seem to come from some trees about 100 m away. Suddenly the calls come from much closer: two birds with different voices ‑ male and female duetting. The original callers can still be heard in the dis­tance.

29 Jan 1989

Going for a walk this morning is quite a peaceful affair after yesterday, birds on the west marsh are similar to those of the previous few days with the addition of two white storks. Numbers of some species are fluctuating noticeably, in part­icular black‑tailed godwit, as flocks pass through on their way back to the north.

Frogs call from the wet areas amongst the sharp‑pointed rushes towards the southern end of the marsh. Jim investigates but finds instead a large brown grasshopper hiding behind three stalks of rush. It tries to hide by manoeuvring to keep the stalks between us and itself. When it feels that ploy is no longer effective, it creeps surrept­itiously backwards down the stems until lost in the heart of the plant. It is quite mottled brown and buff, with bands on the hind femora which are also red on the inside; probably an Egyptian grasshopper.

The stone-curlew are sitting out in the open on the east marsh ‑ we wonder if the stone in the name refers to their statue‑like habits during the day. Jim goes back in the evening to see if they really do move then. Their activity is at first limited to short bouts of preening, and one bird head-bobs between preening bouts, then inactiv­ity returns. As dusk falls birds became more active with lots of wing stretching and waving, showing off the pale underwings and white upperwing markings. Some birds run and jump but there is no calling. Activity intens­ifies as the birds became more restless, eventual­ly they take off and fly north, low over the marsh, presumably to feeding grounds.

3 Feb 2009

28 Jan 1989 - Quinta da Rocha

Quinta da Rocha II Jan 28

Early morning and late afternoon are relatively windless times of day here, in between there are strong offshore breezes. I wanted to photograph some plants and 9.30 ‑10.30 am proves to be just right with the sun high enough to persuade the asphodel blooms to open but not so harsh as to burn the dew off. Mediterranean catchfly in part­icular dries out and wrinkles up once the dew is gone.

Corn buntings are birds we have seen and heard little of since leaving Oxfordshire (1984) but here we are becoming reacquainted. Their key-jangling calls are distinguishable from those of the serin by being lower pitched and less musical, and their song is preceded by several tk‑tk‑tk notes which we have not heard from the serin. Crested larks, which are also quite common here, make calls that seem less musical and flatter toned than either skylark or woodlark.

When staying at a place like Cruzinha, one can find oneself doing rather unexpected things. Today is an open day for members of the Interna­tional Church and about fifty people are expected. The itinerary includes a nature walk around Quinta da Rocha and Peter asked if we would help as fifty was rather a large number for two people to cope with.

We readily agreed to help although taking other people around an area you hardly know is a somewhat daunting prospect. Nevertheless it all seems to go quite well. Jim almost gets carried away with trying to convince people that those grey and white birds are not just seagulls ‑ caspian terns are the stars there ‑ while my group seems happy to look at less mobile things such as plants, herons, egrets and a small copper butterfly.

The visitors are mostly British expatriots, but they do not seem to appreciate that they are part of the demand for the golf courses etc. that is swallowing up the wetlands here.

27 Jan 1989 - mole crickets

Back at the A Rocha centre we are intrigued by a loud trilling sound that fills the air. Jim tracks it down to a small area of soil in the vineyard, but there is so sign of life there. Peter explains that the sound comes from a mole cricket which has built itself a resonating cham­ber, a horn‑shaped underground megaphone, in which it sings. The noise was so loud it was painful to listen to close up. In fact, one species of mole cricket produces a sound which reaches 92 decibels one metre above the chamber, and it can be heard, on a still day, up to 600 metres away!

27 Jan 1989 - Baragem da Bravura

During the afternoon we visit the Barragem da Bravura, one of the larger reservoirs built to alleviate the water shortage in the rapidly ex­panding tourist towns of the coast. The reser­voir is situated at the western end of the Serra de Monchique, part of the range of mountains separat­ing the Algarve from the rest of Portugal. This area has the highest annual rainfall of the Al­garve and the abundant water available from peren­nial springs has led to the building of many rich irrigated terraces.

Above the terraces the land has been over-used in the past and the vegetation has degraded to a sea of gum‑leaved cistus. This plant has no economic value, although local peasants used to cut and dry it to use as fuel. Now it is being ploughed up by huge machines on caterpillar tracks to make way for Eucalypt plantations. As Portugal industrialises, it is developing a vast appetite for paper, and, to meet this need, the EEC is giving 100% planting grants for forests of this fast-growing species.

The water in the reservoir is red from the silt washed off the ploughed slopes by the recent rains. It looks an awfully barren land­scape with the only sign of life being about 200 cattle egrets foraging on the newly turned soil. We don't stay long.

27 Jan 1989 - Ponta da Piedada

The weather looks too nice for sea-watching today, but we go to the Ponta de Piedade anyway as it is quite close to Quinta da Rocha. There are a few each of Balearic shearwaters, skuas and gannets, lots of herring and lesser black back gulls and one little gull. On land, birds are noticeably in pairs ‑ fan‑tailed and sardinian warblers and stonechats especially. Even the herring gulls on the stacks are standing around in twos. The cliff top vege­tation is dominated by foreigners ‑ prickly pear, century plant, and bermuda buttercup.

26 Jan 1989 - Quails etc

There was a terrific thunderstorm overhead during the night and it rains hard on and off this morn­ing. We go with Sara (Peter's assistant) to Portimao for shopping; she shows us a pleas­ant indoor market. Vegetables and bread are a little more expensive here than in Setubal, but still very cheap by northern European standards. There seems to be better quality produce in market places, in small shops you just take pot luck with what they have, and they might have had it for a week or so. In the markets it all looks fresh and appetizing.

Two days ago Bella (Peter's dog) flushed a quail from the vineyard near the camper. Jim and Bella go through the crop again at lunchtime today and flush another; Peter thinks there are probab­ly one or two pairs to each vineyard here. There is a good population of red-legged partridge too, in the even­ings we often hear their 'chuffa chuffa chuffa' terri­torial calls.

This afternoon we go walking with Sara to look for plants in bloom. As she has been here only since last June many of the flowers were new to her too, and she takes notes from which to iden­tify them later. Wall brown, clouded yellow, green‑striped white and painted lady butterflies are all on the wing.

We stop in a field overlooking the east marsh, Jim has the telescope out and finds some stone-curlew standing out in the open. Their peculiar hunched posture, yellow bill and eye, and black lines on the coverts are all clea­rly visible. There seem to be several groups of four or five just standing around doing nothing much.

Small numbers of swallows pass by going north, then suddenly the sky is filled with house and crag martins apparently going south ‑ do they know something we don't? Later there was a com­pact flock of 40 ‑ 50 black‑headed gulls moving overhead, gliding in anticlockwise circles on a thermal as it drifts across the sky.

On the leaf of a white arum lily that I was trying to photograph, I find a small, long, narrow cricket ‑ it is well camou­flaged by standing along a vein on the leaf and I'm sure I would have missed it if I had not been peering through the camera viewfinder. From the grasshopper field guide we identify it as Phane­roptera nana.

25 Jan 1989 - bird ringing

Winter is trying to catch up with us again, today is overcast and decided­ly chilly with a cold easterly wind.

We have long been waiting an opportunity to be trained as bird-ringers, but at home in Pem­brokeshire there are only two trainers and they are busy with other trainees. Peter is not qualified to train anyone, but, to our delight, he was happy to show us birds in the hand, and explain what he was doing to them. In fact, ringing as a method of teaching people about birds has proved most useful here in Portugal where few people have seen binocul­ars, and those that were interested in birds tended to look for the more spectacular ones, such as raptors. To us it is a pleasure and privilege to see the birds close up, but to many of the Portuguese students and teachers who come here, it is a rev­elation.

Peter is already doing the rounds of the mist nets by the time we have finished breakfast, business is slow and most of the customers are chiff-chaffs, blackcaps and Sardinian warblers. Some of these had been netted last winter or even the winter before.

There is a limit to how much feather detail can be seen through binocul­ars or telescope, espe­cially on a uniform coloured bird like a black­bird. Peter shows us one which looks like an adult with yellow bill, eye-ring and body feathers, yet retains juvenile tail, primaries and coverts, and some secondaries. One of the chiff‑chaffs has plumage in excellent condition, considering that its last moult would have been about four months ago: only two of its tail feathers show any signs of wear!

The western marshes

The western marshes of the Quinta da Rocha are different in character to the eastern ones: there are more salt pans, more open water and areas of rushes, as well as extensive salicornia and sueada fields. Birds are still difficult to see unless they fly, which the 3‑400 lapwing, and forty or so black tailed godwit often do al­though we could not see what disturbed them. Peter had mentioned the lack of records of jack snipe this winter, however a dog running across the marsh ahead of us flushes a couple so we can confirm their pres­ence as per normal.

Out on the mudflats two little stint looking minute compared with the dunlin they were feeding with. The two birds bump into each other, then have a bathe before something disturbs the whole group and they all fly off.

The wind blows decidedly cold across the marsh and we head home in the shelter of the peninsular. Serins make a lot of noise in the orange groves, two males in parti­­cular are trying to attract one female. They try to out‑­sing each other with wings drooping and tail flic­king to show off the bright yellow rump patch. Sometimes they face one way and sometimes the other, but she appears unimpressed.

A flock of fifty or so spotless starlings commute between a tree and the ground and back again. They act much like common starlings and the sound is similar too, but it includes a gras­shopper‑like rattle and a few rhythmic higher pitched noises. There aren’t any telephone imitations though ‑ perhaps because there are not many telephones here.

After a couple of months of wondering where first winter black‑headed gulls have gone, we now get an the answer, they come to the Algarve. Jim estimates the proportion of youngsters here at 15 ‑ 20 %, compared to the one or two per cent we have seen elsewhere.

When we walked into the village for bread and milk this morning we saw further signs of migra­tion: a dozen or so house and crag martins hawked for insects around the church, then moved off after a short while, heading north. On the way back we saw a couple of swallows

24 Jan 1989 - Quinta da Rocha

The Quinta da Rocha (Farm on the Rock) is the study area of the A Rocha centre (the house itself is called Cruzinha). It comprises a peninsular of high ground with a marsh on either side separ­ated from estuaries by sea walls, and beyond that the salt­marsh and mudflats of these estuaries. Compared with the huge estuaries we have seen so far, like the Tagus and Sado, this area looks insignificant. However, although it supports only 1.1% of the total Port­uguese winter wader population on wet­lands, it does have a greater number of species than any other wetland, and is 7th highest in terms of total number of birds present. But, like many other small wet­lands along this coast, it is under threat of drainage for tourist developments such as golf courses.

The area is of national importance for its wintering lapwing, stone curlew and greenshank. We are particularly interested in the stone cur­lew: about forty overwinter in the east marshes and Peter says we are almost certain to flush them out as we walk along the sea wall. As they get little distur­bance from anything else, and it is not breeding season, he doesn’t think that a few birders walking around is any problem to them. They will just fly a hundred metres or so and land again.

As we walk along the sea wall and see how extensive the marshes are, we have more doubts about finding them than disturbing them. Our first sighting is of a dozen or so strange shaped birds flying low on the far side of the marsh with the sun behind them. They land within a short distance, but all we see through the tele­scope are grey plover and lapwing. The second sighting is simi­lar. By the third sighting we have walked far enough for the light to be more in our favour and as the birds land we see their gold­en‑brown colour with white marks on the wings. Once in the vegetation they are again well hidden from us.

Out on the estuary itself are other exciting birds. As I lay flat out trying to photograph small flowers, Jim shouts 'Osprey', and I have to hurriedly rearrange myself and my equip­ment. The bird sends waders scatter­ing and is mobbed by greenshank and black-headed gulls. It quarters the water and three times dives to the surface but without catching anything. It is the first record here for two years and, being such a spectacular bird, it makes a good point for conserving the area. However, as far as local hunters are con­cerned it is just another bird to shoot at.

Although the shooting of raptors (and the destruction of eggs, nests and young) has been illegal since 1974, it is still the dream of most Portuguese hunters to have a stuffed trophy, and they don't seem to mind taking risks in shooting a for­bidden species. Since 1986 there has been an exam­ination for applicants for hunting permits, so new hunters should, hopefully, be better educated about their quarry and understand the reasons for conser­vation.

Out on the sea wall, Jim says to look out for large terns, and by scanning with the telescope he finds some ‑ caspians that dwarf the sandwich terns and have big dagger-like red bills. They take to the air as the incoming tide swallows the mudbank they have been standing on, and we watch one fishing for a while. It quarters the water, sometimes wheeling and plung­ing, hitting the water harder and with more of a splash than a sandwich tern; if it catches anything it swallows it before leaving the water. For birds that seem so bulky on land, they look buoyant and elegant in flight.

It is hard to think in terms of migration and nesting at the end of January but such things are already happening here. We see a half-dozen swal­lows and two house martins flying along the est­uary, and some black­-­tailed godwit high overhead. The Mediterranean gulls and spotted redshank are also migrants. Many resident small birds are singing or carrying nest material and little owls are crooning noisily.

Bird ringing

Peter is netting passerines in fine black nets this evening and shows us some of his 'catch'. Each bird is weighed, measured and given a ring with a unique number on it. The progress of indi­vidual birds can thus be followed ‑ resident birds may be caught several times in the garden during their lives, while migrants might be caught somewhere else and add to our knowledge of their routes and habits.

Peter shows us that, on average, blackcaps are putting on weight, especially the males which are preparing for migration north, females stay around for an extra week or so and their weights are still normal. Chiffchaffs were also showing a weight increase, but they are recover­ing from losing a gram or so after two days of heavy rain last week had made feeding conditions difficult for them ‑ their normal weight is only about seven grams!