Flamingos at Castro Marim

Nature-watching in the Eastern Algarve

Why the eastern Algarve – and where is it?

The eastern end of the Algarve in southern Portugal is the quiet end – away from the main tourist areas. However, it is also a good area for birdwatching in winter. The Castro Marim saltpans on the Spanish border are of international importance for wintering birds, as are the Tavira saltpans in the middle. At Olhao to the east of Faro is the headquarters and visitor centre of the Rio Formosa Natural Park and at Faro itself there are mudflats and saltmarsh, Add to this the woodlands, scrub and long sandy beaches – and what more could you want!

All in all, a great variety of habitats for plants, butterflies, other invertebrates and mammals as well as for birds. Even in January there is plenty to see, though the heat of the summer is to be avoided – even the wildlife doesn’t seem to like it much.

Monte Gordo is a typical small holiday resort almost on the Spanish border. It’s based on an old fishing village, and is surrounded on three sides by pine forest that were planted to stop the sand dunes engulfing the town of Vila Real de Santo António and the important salt pans to the north. It attracts a lot of Dutch visitors – evidenced by the number plates of cars and the names of some of the eateries. It also attracts a lot of fitness fanatics, providing a base for students, professional teams and others using the international sports facility in Vila Real. For us, it proved to be an excellent base for a week of nature-watching – without needing a car as the Algarve railway has a station there.

Tavira de Cabanas is another small holiday resort, just east of the very popular and busy city of Tavira. Again, easy access to the railway, the Tavira saltpans in easy walking distance, while the shore has the saltmarsh and sand bars of the Rio Formosa Natural Park. We were based here for a different trip.

View of the boardwalks and beach from our hotel window at Monte Gordo

Best sites for birdwatching in the Eastern Algarve

The beach at Monte Gordo

Pedestrian walkways – 3km of boardwalk opened in July 2017 – allows direct access to the car parks in the bathing areas, as well as to the beach cafes and facilities, while safeguarding the dune fronts along the beaches. (In theory – although a lot of damage seems to have been done in creating the boardwalks in the town area).  The beach continues in both directions from the town. 

To the east, we walked to the breakwater at the mouth of the Guadiana (the river that separates Portugal from Spain here).  There is rough road out to the end of the breakwater where you can watch gulls coming in with the fishing boats – not very exciting in calm weather.  But if it is stormy, then Balearic and Cory’s shearwaters, little and Sandwich terns, common scoter, razorbills, bonxies and various other seabirds are likely to be around.

From here, the road goes back to Vila Real (good for coffee shops) or you can walk back along tracks through the forest.

The way-marked forest trails provide shelter from the wind and sun, and there are plenty of birds to be heard and seen.

Mata Nacional da Dunas Litorais de Vila Real de Santo Antonio

The National Forest of the Coastal Dunes extends its 434 hectares from just west of Monte Gordo to the Guadiana River.  The forest was planted in the late nineteenth century to stabilise the dunes and prevent the offshore winds blowing them over the town of Vila Real de Santo Antonio.  Despite its human origins, it is considered to be a dune ecosystem of high importance, with several scarce/endemic plants.

The sandy soil is now covered almost exclusively by Maritime pine Pinus pinaster and some localized spots of Stone Pine Pinus pinea, which attract a variety of birds, especially during migration periods.  Some small lakes attract waterfowl, including grebes and ducks.

Vila Real is host to an international grade sporting complex.  The trails through the forest are well-used for both professional and pleasure jogging, walking and cycling.  The birds don’t seem to mind.  Crested tits, southern grey shrike, hoopoe, short-toed tree-creeper and many others live amongst the branches.  This is also the stronghold of the chameleon – most likely to be seen in autumn when the females come down from the trees to lay their eggs in the ground.

The Carrasqueira Creek – upstream of the road between Vila Real and Castro Marim

Esteiro da Carrasqueira (Carrasqueira estuary)

The Carrasqueira Creek or Estuary lies just north of Vila Real de Santo António, and is effectively the southern boundary of the Castro Marim reserve. The best observation points are just north of the railway crossing, where there is a car park on the west side, and a new road on the east side. The east side is tidal, and is good for waders (shorebirds) such as godwits, and plovers (including Kentish), feeding on the mudflats exposed at lost tide. The west side is effectively dammed, and the resulting lake is populated by large numbers of mallard, shovelers, coot and little grebes amongst many others. It’s one of the best places to see Caspian Terns in winter.

Walking west along the dirt tracks gives further (but not so good) views across the estuary. We walked back to Monte Gordo this way on several occasions.

Rio Guadiana at half tide from the breakwater of Vila Real Harbour. Waders feed on the mudflats. The suspension bridge crosses to Spain.

The harbour at Vila Real de Santo António

Follow the road east from the Carrasqueira viewpoint, and you’ll come to the harbour. This is the harbour used by fishermen and locals, as opposed to the marina for pleasure boats half a kilometre to the south. From the outer breakwater, you have views across the Guadiana to Spain. Any bit of mud exposed at low tide is likely to have birds on it. They often move to the sandbanks on the Spanish side, or into the salt pans, at high tide.

Overlooking saltpans and stone pine plantations from the castle at Castro Marim. Stone curlews can usually be seen in the pasture behind the saltpans.

Castro Marim Reserve

The Reserva Natural do Sapal de Castro Marim and Vila Real de Santo António is a Ramsar site (important for its bird life) and the main attraction for birdwatching in the eastern Algarve. Fortunately its name is usually reduced to the Castro Marim Reserve.

It is a large protected wetland reserve of some 2,000ha, on the west side of the Rio Guadiana.  It was established in 1975 to protect the natural environment and landscape. There is a good variety of habitats including productive and abandoned saltpans, saltmarsh, tidal creeks, seasonally flooded pastureland and the tidal shore of the Rio Guadiana.  Enclosing and bisecting the wetlands are grassy hills, dry scrubland, farmland and orchards that significantly increase the biodiversity of the reserve.

Great spotted cuckoo – parasitises the nests of azure-winged magpies

It’s a great place for birds, but most of the reserve is private land – public access is limited and the birds are often distant.  Having a telescope helps, but it’s not essential.  Non-breeding greater flamingos occur throughout the year, often in good numbers.  Egrets, herons, storks and spoonbills are present and in winter, good numbers of grebes, cormorants, duck and small numbers of geese.  Then there are waders (shorebirds), larks, warblers and wagtails, to mention just a few.  The sheer numbers of birds can be overwhelming.  Personal highlights include great spotted cuckoos (late February), Dartford warblers, Caspian terns, etc.  And it’s not just the birds.  My best views of Iberian hares were here, and there are plenty of flowers and butterflies too.

Sometimes you can be in the right place at the right time, eg for a cape hare to show itself. But the more time you spend there, the more likely you are to see something interesting.

There is an Information and Exhibition Centre with a viewing facility in the northeast of the reserve, and you can pick up an explanatory and access leaflet (available in several languages) – opening times are erratic.  However, it is a pleasant hike from Castro Marim village to the centre and back (only a short section on the busy main road).

Cerro do Bufo is the working saltpan area, just south of Castro Marim village.  There is a public track through here, though I don’t recommend it if the weather has been wet.  The fine silt on the track surface becomes slippery, and sticks to your shoes.  But on a dry day, it is quite pleasant.  Best visited at high tide as birds are forced off the nearby Guadiana estuary and out of the muddy channels, and feed in the saltpans instead.

If you are coming from further afield, it is worth taking the train to either Castro Marim station, or to Vila Real station. Walk the track, and then get the train back from the other station. This reduces the time on the roads and less interesting parts of the route.

Dunlin and sanderling were amongst the many waders at the Tavira Saltpans.

Tavira Saltpans

If you are staying at Tavira or Cabanas, these saltpans are on your doorstep. These are all currently working commercial saltpans, so the water and saline levels vary from pan to pan. Access is somewhat easier and more extensive than for the Castro Marim saltpans, and it is easy to spend a whole day wandering around the area. This site has more waders, especially black-winged stilts. If you are visiting by train, you need the station at Conceição. Work you way westwards on the dirt roads on the south side of the railway track.

Freshwater pool at Olhao, from the hide.

Rio Formosa Visitor Centre at Olhao

Perhaps not quite eastern Algarve, but easy to visit on a day trip by train from Vila Real or Tavira. It is 2km from the railway station, but there are buses or taxis if you don’t fancy the walk.

The visitor centre shows off the habitats and wildlife of the Rio Formosa Natural Reserve in miniature. It includes old saltpans, pine forest, a freshwater lake, a meadow, a bird hospital and a tidal mill (for history/culture buffs). The main building also has displays and information about the area. There is easy birdwatching here, and a chance to find chameleons.

Greater flamingos are a feature of many of the wetlands. Here at the Castro Marim marshes

So there you have it

My recommendations for getting the best birdwatching experiences during a winter trip to the Eastern Algarve. It’s an area I keep going back to, because it is easy to access and the weather is generally pleasant. However, good weather is not guaranteed, but as stormy weather can bring extra birds close to the coast, that doesn’t necessarily matter.


Books

Click on book covers for more information

book cover - Tavira

Two of a series of very useful books about birding hotspots in the Algarve.

They give details of what to see and how to get to tucked-away places we had missed on previous visits.

Like the other guides in the Crossbill series, this gives a lot of background information including all aspects of ecology of the region covered. It’s a very useful companion for the naturalist in the Algarve

There is a big scientific tome – two volumes of which have been published so far – about the flora of the Algarve.

Fortunately this volume is a reasonable size for the visitor interested in only the flowering plants. Most plants are illustrated, and I managed to identify virtually everything I found.

If there was a book like this for every area I visited, I’d be a very happy camper. It takes you through the year in fortnightly chunks, with information about plants, birds, invertebrates, places, etc, etc.

It is a general guide to the most obvious bits of natural history, so if you are a specialist in birds, or botany, or butterflies, you’ll need a specialist book for that, and this will help with everything else.

P.S. Buying books through these links brings me a small commission (at no extra cost to you) which helps with the costs of this website.


Other posts about nature-watching in Portugal

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