RSPB Pulborough Brooks

“Ooh, it’s a wonderful place.  I used to live there, we took the (school) kids there for days out, even before it was a reserve.  There’s a wonderful cafe – people often go there just for the cafe . . . ”  Trixie was gushing, she had been a teacher in the village school, and now that I’d mentioned I had been there, she was really selling it to me all over again.

The reserve covers 256 ha of wet grassland, woodland, hedgerows, meadow and heath and is located within the South Downs National Park. The wet grassland has SSSI and Ramsar status and is part of the Arun Valley SPA and SAC in recognition of the important populations of overwintering wildfowl, and the specialist plants and invertebrates in the ditches. 

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) bought the land in 1989, thanks to a generous bequest from a member who had lived in the area.  Winifred Smith Wright wanted the brooks to be restored to the wildlife-rich landscape she remembered from her childhood, and the RSPB has been working towards that end ever since.

The meadowland had been drained for farming, but the RSPB has now blocked the drains, realigned the watercourses from straight narrow drains to shallow meandering ‘grips’ (streams) and pools, and now controls the overall water levels to suit the waders and wildfowl that are there from autumn to spring – with a few remaining to breed in the summer.

But the RSPB isn’t just about birds.  Under the slogan Give Nature a Home, they make provision for other wildlife too.  The water vole above was photographed in this grip in front of Nettley’s Hide.  And meadows, scrub and woodland provide habitat for a host of plants and invertebrates.

About the Water Vole Arvicola amphibious

The water vole is widely accepted as the fastest declining mammal in Britain. Population estimates were around 8 million in the 1960s, 2.3 million in 1990, and probably less than a quarter of a million now.

Reasons for the decline include unsympathetic management of waterways, water pollution, changes in farming practices, and the depredations of the American mink. Populations of the latter have grown since their escape/release from fur farms in the 1960s and 1970s, and their habits make them difficult to eradicate.

But there is hope. Water vole populations are increasing in some areas – canals around cities seem unattractive to mink. Increasing otter populations also seem to help – otters will prey on mink. They will also take water voles, but unlike the mink, are too big to follow the voles into their bank-side tunnels. And there are re-introduction projects in areas where the habitat is now considered suitable for them – particularly on nature reserves.

The water vole is found across Europe, though Russia to Lake Baikal, and from north of the Arctic Circle to parts of the eastern Mediterranean. It is an adaptable species, found in rivers, streams and marshes in both lowlands and mountains. In some areas, they live away from watercourses during the winter months. They are mainly vegetarian, feeding of lush vegetation in summer, and roots and bulbs in the winter, but they also take some insects, molluscs and small fish.

On the continent, the water vole has a different set of problems. It co-evolved with the European Mink, and does not suffer the same depredation as where there American mink has been introduced. However, it does face competition for food and space from the introduced American musk rat. In some areas it has even been considered an agricultural pest, for example in the rice fields of Macedonia in the 1980s.

While it seems unlikely it will become common again in Britain in the near future, efforts to conserve and expand the existing populations should help it survive here in the long term.

Watch a video of water voles here

Human visitors are well-catered for.  As well as the cafe (which was as good as Trixie said), there is a circular trail of about 3.5km (2 miles) which takes in views across the pools, stops at four hides, and several seats where you can just sit and soak in the atmosphere, as well as the other habitats.  Children’s playgrounds and educational trails, a visitor centre, a program of activities and events, all make this a popular spot.

And anywhere along the trails, you are likely to come across these small signs with information about a plant, insect, bird etc that is likely to be seen nearby.

There is relatively little bird activity at Pulborough (or anywhere else) in July – midsummer is when youngsters are finding their feet/wings and the adults are keeping their heads down while they are in moult (they can’t fly so efficiently when they are missing a few feathers).  But that doesn’t mean there is nothing to see.

The beetle above is a hornet longhorn beetle Leptura aurulenta.  The first impression you get of it buzzing around is that it is a hornet.  Once it settled, however, it is clearly a beetle with long antennea.  This species is widespread in central and southern Europe, but in Britain is confined to the south, and is considered Nationally Notable A, which basically means it is pretty scarce.  It can easily be confused with the much more common and widespread four-spotted longhorn Leptura quadrifasciata which has black legs and antennae. The larva develops in the cambial layer (the layer just under the bark) of large sections of freshly dead broad-leaved trees. The adult is usually found on oaks, and rarely occurs on flowers – though the individual in the photo obviously hadn’t read the book because it was flying around a wildflower meadow, and photographed while it explored a ragwort plant.

The marbled white butterfly Melanargia galathea is a much more common and widespread species, occurring as far north as Yorkshire.  But for some reason it is rarely seen in my home area of west Wales.  So it was a delight to see and photograph at Pulborough.  In Britain there is a single species of marbled white, which also occurs across central Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean. In northern Spain there are four species, plus this one which is found only in the western Pyrenees there.  The adults, which fly in June-July in Britain, show a liking for the nectar of blue and purple flowers, such as this creeping thistle Cirsium arvense.

The bright orange upper-side of the Comma butterfly Polygonia c-album makes it easy to mistake for a fritillary species when in flight. In fact, it is related to the tortoiseshells, red admirals and painted ladies. You can just about see the comma-shaped white mark on the underwing here.  Although in recent years it has been abundant and widespread, fifty years ago it underwent a massive decline.  It overwinters as an adult, and probably the relatively mild winters of the past twenty years have helped its recovery.

Marshes and woodland at Pulborough

Oh, yes, this IS a bird reserve. And on this particular visit we did see 40 species – nothing special or spectacular, but a steady selection of the birds we’d expect to see in July at a wetland site.


What’s nearby?

As Pulborough Brooks is only a 45 minute drive from Gatwick Airport, it can be a handy stop en route to elsewhere.

It’s also only a 20-minute drive from the Wildfowl and Wetlands reserve at Arundel, just a few miles downstream.


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Watching Wolves in Europe

Seeing wolves in the wild in Europe isn’t easy. Mostly, we have to make do with finding signs of their presence.

Wolves are now protected in most European countries.

Eurasian wolf packs and individuals have now been spotted as far west as the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg, although their strongholds are still in the north and east. In total, the grey wolf population in Europe is estimated to be around 12,000 animals (excluding Belarus, Ukraine and Western Russia) in 28 countries. (Info from Rewilding Europe)

Top photo © Christels/Pixnio Creative Commons Licence, bottom photo Photo User:Mas3cf, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Magura National Park in southern Poland was our best bet for seeing wolves. It was an informal trip, organised by someone who had been there several times, and had seen wolves a couple of times. But, as with all wildlife, there were no guarantees. It was a new place for us, so somewhere to be enjoyed, regardless.

We set up trail-cams. One for each member of the group, variously overlooking ponds and wallows – wild boar were another possibility here. We took long walks, looking at birds, plants, reptiles, and anything else. We had hot scorching days, we had terrific downpours.

One day, we (just the two of us) walked along the Poland/Slovakia border – once a no-man’s land with fences and border guards, now part of a long-distance trail through the forest. We were told to stick to the trail because there were probably still land-mines in some areas of the woods. But even so, we were still vulnerable. Bears and wolves were known to be in the area, even if they were infrequently encountered. What should we do if we did encounter them? Bears were usually solitary, or mother and cubs. Wolves were pack animals, and we could be surrounded without realising it. We kept going, sort of hoping not to see any.

What we did see from time to time, were large carnivore scats – piles of droppings that were too big and coarse for domestic dog, but too small for bear. And always these scats were surrounded by butterflies and other insects, mining the scats for minerals and salts they needed to survive and produce eggs. Perhaps not what you expect of beautiful insects, but part of their survival strategy anyway.

At the end of the week, the trail-cam results were disappointing. Between us, we had the odd wild boar, deer, owls, and a badger. At least the beavers living in the stream near the village obliged every evening.


Improving your chances

So, are there any way of improving your chances of seeing wolves? I’ve scoured the internet, and found the following ‘wolf-watching’ trips. Generally, you will be tracking wolves and learning about them and their interactions with other animals and the environment. Actually seeing a wolf, or even hearing one, is the icing on the cake. The exception is the Norway trip, where you are taken to meet a semi-wild pack in a very large enclosure.

I have not used any of these companies, and have no affiliation with them. This is simply a round-up of possibilities. The brief comments are taken from the company websites.


Bulgaria

It is now possible to organize unique tailor-made wolf tracking holidays in Bulgaria. These wolf tracking holidays are particularly rewarding during the winter months when the mountains are covered in snow, and the wolves and their ungulate prey can be tracked on foot, often with the aid of snowshoes.


Finland

Responsible Travel: With a 100% success rate in photographing wild brown bears & wolverines and over 80% chance of photographing wolves, this is the best tour for anyone wanting to see and photograph some of Europe’s largest and top predators.

Wildlifeworldwide: Join award winning wildlife photographer Bret Charman or Emma Healey on a five-night tour to northern Finland’s remote boreal forest in search of Europe’s large predators.

Wildlifeworldwide: You stay at two carefully selected locations equipped with purpose-built hides, where you keep a night vigil with a local guide to see brown bears, wolverines and wolves lured by carrion. In the day there are nature walks in the vicinity or optional trips further afield.

Finnature: In Finland, it is possible to see wild Wolves at special wildlife watching sites. At these sites, predators are attracted in front of viewing hides with food. Comfortable viewing hides are excellent places to watch Wolves safely. While Brown Bears and Wolverines are regular visitors at these sites, Wolves come around more rarely. This is because Wolves avoid conflicts with other carnivores, but also because they have larger territories. We at Finnature can help you to choose the best sites for Wolf watching. The best time for Wolf watching is from spring to autumn.

WildTaiga: Overnight stays in a photographic hide watching for carnivores


France

Undiscoveredmountains: Your high mountain guide and tracker, Bernard has been following the colonisation of the wolves in the French Alps for 20 years. With a wealth of local knowledge and access to a network of other local wolf enthusiasts, you won’t get a much better insight into these elusive animals. He will take you on a 4 day adventure following tracks and signs of wolf activity in the area and give you a rare insight in to the lives and behaviour of the other animals as they live under the threat of the wolf. This is a tracking holiday so we will be following signs of wolves and spending some time wildlife watching and interpreting what we see. However, it isn’t a wolf park and the territory of each pack or solitary wolf is enormous. So, please be aware that although you may be lucky and find signs straight away, you may not find anything and there is no guarantee you will see or hear a wolf.  


Germany

Biosphere Expeditions: wolf conservation expedition. Elaine gives an account of her experience here


Norway

Arctic holiday: This arctic animal-orientated journey packs in the mesmerising Northern Lights and a thrilling dog sledding ride. You will also visit the Polar Park and meet the local wildlife, like lynx and reindeer, and last but not least; Arctic Wolves! All this, while travelling through stunning arctic landscapes and enjoying local food along the way.

Polar Park is the world’s northernmost animal park & arctic wildlife centre. Animals you’ll see include wolves, lynx, moose, bears, wolverines, and muskox. They look especially great in their natural habitat with thick coats in winter! These predators live in wilderness enclosures with massive spaces to roam, so you may need all day to see all of them.

Photo User:Mas3cf, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons


Poland

Responsibletravel: Bieszczady belongs to the lowest mountain ranges of Carpathians (max. 1346 m/4416 feet). Scarcely populated and largely forested these mountains are now teeming with wildlife and have become the most important Polish refuge for Brown Bears, Wolves, Lynx and even Wild Cats. Moreover, there is a large herd of wild European Bison living here as well as plenty of Beavers and we will aim to see them all.

Naturetrek: This unique winter wildlife holiday focuses on the large mammals that are rare or extinct in western Europe, but still flourish in the remoter eastern corners of the continent. This holiday explores the meandering rivers of the Biebrza Marshes and the extensive forests of Bialowieza, including the primeval ‘Strict Reserve’. Within this snowy landscape live Elk (Moose), Red Deer, Beaver and a variety of birds, along with the impressive European Bison. There will also be the opportunity to listen for wolves howling in the forest.   


Portugal

European Safari Company: Faia Brava reserve is the first privately owned natural reserve in Portugal. It is bordered by the Côa River, and it is part of the Archeological Park of the Côa Valley, a UNESCO world heritage site. Oak forests and former cropland returning to nature are home to griffons, Egyptian and black vultures, golden and Bonelli’s eagles. In this experience you will learn how to track wolves, enjoy hikes around the private reserve of Faia Brava, and get to know the rich cultural and historical heritage of the Côa Valley. The accommodations are charming family-owned guesthouses in which you will feel like home sitting with a glass of some of Portugal’s finest wines and enjoying delicious local cuisine and a beautiful view.


Romania

Responsible Travel: A 6-day long private trip in Transylvania, with 4 days (morning and evening) focusing on wolf watching and tracking with a wildlife researcher. We’ll also take the opportunity to visit Bran Castle (aka Dracula’s Castle), enjoy the medieval town of Brasov with the most Eastern Gothic church, the Black Church, as well as the unforgettable sceneries of the Carpathian mountains in search of wolf tracks. Wolves are very shy animals due to the numerous persecutions from people, who learned the art of camouflage the hard way. This trip gives you the opportunity to look for wolves in their natural habitat, at safe distance to minimize the negative impact of our activities on these magnificent carnivores.


Spain

Naturetrek: This tour offers a chance to look for three of Europe’s most iconic mammals in contrasting habitats in northern Spain – the Bay of Biscay, Somiedo Natural Park in the western Cantabrian Mountains and the rolling hills of Zamora Province. Our holiday begins with a ferry trip to Santander across the Bay of Biscay, where we’ll watch for whales, dolphins and seabirds. On arrival in northern Spain we head to the heart of Somiedo in search of bears, before transferring to our second base in Zamora for two days of wolf-scanning. There’ll be some special birds too, including plenty of raptors, bustards and other mountain and steppe birds. We finish the tour with a little light culture in Santander.

Wild Wolf Experience: The Sierra de la Culebra hosts the highest density of wild wolves in Spain, but any sighting has to be regarded as a bonus when spending time in this area of wolf country. We do have a high success rate of sightings of these iconic predators, but at least be assured, if you haven’t seen them… they have seen you! Our Watching for Wolves tour operates throughout the year and is based in our home area of the Sierra de la Culebra in the far north west of Spain. The Sierra de la Culebra has recently been declared a Biosphere Reserve, which also includes the Duero Gorge.

Visit Andalucia gives some hints about the best places to see wolves in the province


Sweden

Responsible Travel: Join a tracker for a day out in wolf territory. Tracking wolves is always exciting! During this trip we travel together by foot and by van in small groups in one of Sweden´s wolf territories. You will have good chances to track Wolves and feel their presence.

Responsible Travel: Sweden wildlife tours over a long weekend uncover an inordinate amount of animal life with moose, beavers, foxes and red squirrels all to be found if you know where to look. Following a guide on a four day Sweden wildlife tour lets you learn as you explore with bird calls deciphered and animal tracks uncovered, especially when tracking through the realm of the wolf.

Naturetrek: In the beautiful forests of central Sweden some of Europe’s larger mammal species, long since extinct in the British Isles, still outnumber the human population. On this short break we’ll search for Elk, Beaver and learn how to track Wolves amidst the scenic lakes and dense forests of Sweden’s Bergslagen region. Based in a lakeside guesthouse, inside a forest, we’ll make evening excursions to look for Elk and Beaver. We’ll track Wolves and our guide may even demonstrate how to attract their attention – by howling! 


Photo (c) Malene Thyssen, CC BY-SA 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/, via Wikimedia Commons


Wolf distribution and population in Europe 2019.

Wolves have now been found in low (often very low) density across much of Europe. The brown areas on the map show where they (or signs of them) are most frequent.

A larger version of the map can be seen here

© Sciencia58, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons


Related post

Bear-watching

A round-up of opportunities for watching and photographing bears in Europe

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Lanzarote walking

Friends visiting Lanzarote in December told us of the magnificent wild-flowers there. A check on the internet indicated that February was the best time for flowers. What we didn’t know, until we got there, was that there had been no rain since Christmas, and most of the flowers had died off. We persevered, using the bus routes and footpaths, and eventually managed to photograph over 100 species. The bird-watching was good too, but butterflies were hard to find.

Puerto del Carmen to Playa Quemada

The book described it as “Easy rather than spectacular, this route provides a good introduction to the island’s countryside, and is ideal as a stroll out taking a drink at the new marina then continuing to Playa Quemada for a relaxed lunch, Repeat the procedure on the way back for a laid back day’s walking.” It sounded ideal for our first full day on the island.

Of course, it didn’t quite go to plan.  We should have left by 9am.  By the time we had sorted out what to take,  what to wear, what to leave in the safe, etc, etc, it was nearer 10:30. 

Then there were two parakeets to photograph in a nearby garden, and a brief stop at the tourist information centre to ask about bus times – no printed timetable available, but you can check the times on the screen, or photograph the timetable with your phone (at the time, I didn’t have a smart phone).

The walk starts from the old port at the eastern end of Puerto del Carmen, we had checked where this was the previous afternoon, but had failed to factor in this extra 3km from our hotel to the port – a mistake I would pay for later.

We take a leisurely stroll through the harbour, stopping to watch the large fish and the ducks and little egret watching them. A broad, rope-handled, zig-zagging stairway leads to the start of the coastal walkway.

The photo shows the view back over Puerto del Carmen.

At the top of the stairway, there is a broad pavement, which continues beyond the residential area as a broad dirt path, heading out into the countryside. It’s well-worn enough to be easy to follow, though the white-painted posts are reassurance that we’re on the right track as the path swings inland to cross a rocky inlet – a small barranco.

Aizoon canariensis: this Macaronesian species has now spread through the world, The creeper can grow up to one metre; its tiny flowers – just a few millimtres in size – open in strong, direct sunlight.
Southern Grey Shrike

We find the odd wild plant here and there, photographed some, identified fewer, and kept walking.  As is our habit, we took twice as long to do sections of the walk as the book suggests – it would have been even slower if there had been more flowers.  And from time to time, a bird hangs around for a photo too.

Ahead is the new village of Puerto Calero: a marina full of expensive-looking boats, the Paseo Maritima – a promenade with shops for tourists, and hotels overlooking the sea. Midday is long-past, and we find a café for a late lunch – a rather expensive menu del dia – and a reminder that the first course is usually larger than the second, which is unlikely to include vegetables. 

Canary palms Phoenix canariensis provide welcome shade in the otherwise treeless landscape.

Continuing westwards, we track through an almost barren landscape. It looks like it hasn’t rained here for months (we learn later that it hasn’t rained for two months), and plants with flowers are few and far between.

The dusty track takes us into a more undulating landscape. The tracks seem more complicated, the area being popular with quad-bikers. White markers are less frequent, and on occasion, the instructions in the book are more than a little helpful in keeping us on the right path. Basically, we are following the coast via a series of gentle ascents and descents to head westwards, eventually leading to Playa Quemada, a tiny coastal hamlet of a few houses and a couple of small cafés.

Here, things liven up as linnets, trumpeter finches and Spanish sparrows (above) feed on the seeds of scrubby plants between the houses. There are bees on some of the few remaining flowers, but they are no easier to photograph than the birds – and will be more difficult to identify.

It’s already 4pm, so a stop at the café for a drink and cake is welcome.

Monumento Natural de Los Ajaches

Behind and beyond Playa Quemada is an ancient volcanic landscape. Some geologists think these hills were probably around 4,000m high, but 11 million years of erosion have reduced them to mounds of around 500m. There are fossils here dating back to the Lower Pleistocene (up to 2.5 million years ago).

As well as being a Natural Monument for its geological and paleontological features, lost Ajaches has been declared a special protection area for birds ( ZEPA ), in accordance with the provisions of European Directive 79/409 / EEC on the conservation of wild birds.  There is a network of trails for hiking/biking/running, more information on the alltrails website, though roads for cars are fortunately few and far between.

Los Ajaches covers some 30 sq km of the western end of Lanzarote, and we did explore other parts – around Yaiza and across to the salt flats of Janubio – on other days. If you stay in one of the south coast resorts, such as Playa Blanca or Playa Mujeres, you have Los Ajaches on your doorstep.

Goats (accompanied by goatherd and dogs) graze the dry vegetation. Puerto Calero beyond, and Puerto del Carmen in the background.

The journey back

Then it’s time to return, following the same tracks, but now with the sun behind us. (There is a bus service if you time your arrival correctly, but it wasn’t a consideration for us this time).

On the edge of Puerto Calera, I stop to photograph a few plants – I’d ignored them earlier, to make sure we had time to finish the whole walk. By the time we leave Puerto Calero, it is 6:30 and the sun is sinking behind the western hills. The walk becomes a route march to get back to the streetlights of Puerto del Carmen while we can still see where we are going.

The sixteen-kilometre round trip route from the port to Playa Quemada and back, with the additional 3km to and from our hotel is now taking its toll on my feet. I am already looking forward to an easier day tomorrow!


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Books about the natural history of Lanzarote were hard to come by. The standard flora is out of print – but was only any good if you were already familiar with all other Mediterranean species.

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More about the Atlantic Islands

Botanising on the Great Orme

The Great Orme isn’t quite an island, the town of Llandudno occupies the low-lying land between this spectacular limestone headland and the main part of north Wales.

The word Orme is thought to derive from a Norse word meaning a sea serpent, and this lump of rock apparently resembles the head of the creature. Perhaps that depends on which direction you approach it from. The photo below was taken from a boat to the west. 

The geology of the Great Orme is distinctive and affects the habitats found on the headland. These habitats support an abundant, varied and unique flora and fauna, and so most of the Great Orme has been designated a Special Area of Conservation (SAC). It is also managed as a Country Park and Local Nature Reserve by Conwy County Borough Council’s Countryside and Rights of Way Service to ensure that all of these natural elements can co-exist successfully with the thousands of people who visit the area each year. 

There is a nature trail, and a visitor centre on the top, with a cable car and a tram to take you there from the town. The Marine Drive (top photo) is a drivable narrow road (one-way system) all the way around the edge. For the history buff, there is evidence of neolithic burial chambers, a bronze-age mine, Roman and Medieval enclosures, as well as a Victorian-style resort and a modern interpretive centre. 

Personally, I just went for the flowers! 

The botanical delights of the Great Orme

For most of the summer the dominant colour in the grasslands is yellow. This is due mainly to the flowers of the common rock-rose Helianthemum nummularium. There is another helianthemum – hoary rockrose H. oelandicum on the limestone pavements, though this is much less conspicuous.

There are several very rare (in British terms at least) plants on the Great Orme, described here, but either I’ve not been there at the right time, or I haven’t looked in the right place! Probably the former, as there is a small botanical garden containing some of the rarer plants so they are easier to see.

Common rock-rose is the foodplant of the silver-studded blue butterflies on the Great Orme. See below.

The limestone grassland on the Orme is made up of various grass and sedge species, and a wide variety of wildflowers. It is of great botanical importance, and is one of the reasons for the Special Area of Conservation (SAC) and Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) designations on the Great Orme. Grasslands are maintained by grazing and browsing sheep, rabbits and goats. 

Limestone Cliffs The Great Orme’s cliffs are home to some very rare wildflower species. Smaller rocky outcrops and scree patches associated with the cliff habitat support small flowering plants and mosses. 

Bloody Cranesbill Geraniuim sanguineum provides splashes of colour along the Marine Drive – from the flowers in summer, and the leaves which turn bright red in autumn. Wild cabbage Brassica oleracea is a speciality of limestone and chalk sea-cliffs.

Although not strictly a plant of the limestone cliffs, small pockets of common butterwort Pinguicula vulgaris can be found where water keeps the soil wet in shallow hollows in the cliffs. This was along the Marine Drive on the shady north tip of the Great Orme. This carnivorous plant has slimy leaves to catch the insects on which they feed.

Limestone heath forms swathes of purple (heathers) and gold (gorse) in late summer. It usually occurs where there is a layer of clay over the lime. Like the grassland, it is an internationally important habitat because there are few places with the specific conditions it needs to survive. It requires cutting to boost regeneration, and to maintain the structural diversity of the shrubs.

Bell HeatherErica cinerea

Western GorseUlex gallii
Where horizontal limestone strata are exposed to the elements, it develops into limestone pavements. This is made up of grykes, the cracks within the rocks, and clints, which are the rocks surrounding these cracks. Leaf-litter and other debris accumulate in the grykes and other crevices, eventually breaking down to form soil. The buildings on the horizon include the visitor centre.

Seeds germinate, but as the soil is relatively shallow, there isn’t much nutrition for growth. Trees such as this yew Taxus baccata (right) do their best, but between the lack of nutrients, and the lack of shelter, they rarely manage to poke their heads above the level of the rock. Grykes are home to ferns and woodland flowers, whilst the clints are important for mosses and lichens (the orange and grey bits of rock surface in the photo). 

Spring sandwort Minuartia verna is a dainty, often downy, mat-forming perennial that likes dry rocky and sparsely grassy places. Wild Thyme Thymus polytrichus also likes dry grassy places, though not confined to limestone. It will find a foot-hold in a small crevice with a little soil in it. Some areas of pavement have been fenced to exclude grazing animals to see what will grow.

Butterflies

Silver-studded blue butterfly - female
Silver-studded blue butterfly – female. The silver studs are not always as obvious as in this photo

Common rock-rose is the foodplant of the silver-studded blue butterflies on the Great Orme. The subspecies here also differs from other Silver-studded blues by being smaller, and the females more colourful.

Like many other blue butterflies, the caterpillars depend on ants (in this case black ants) for protection while they grow.

The Kashmir Goats of the Great Orme

The feral Kashmir goats with their white, shaggy coats and impressive horns are the most spectacular mammals on the Great Orme. They are descended from a pair of goats from the Windsor Royal Herd, acquired by Major General Sir Savage Mostyn around 1880. The herd flourished and was released on the Great Orme 20 years later. The goats have been roaming wild ever since. 

The goats are useful for conservation grazing as they feed mainly on scrub such as gorse, brambles and hawthorn. Keeping these shrubs in check enables the less competitive wildflowers to flourish, and because of their climbing ability, goats can also graze in areas that sheep can not reach. However, by 2002 the number of goats had increased dramatically with the herd consisting of over 200 individuals. Many of the nannies (female goats) have been implanted with progesterone (a birth control hormone) over the last few years. The effect of these implants lasts for up to three years, therefore helping to decrease the birth rate. By 2008 the total number of goats recorded on the Great Orme was down to141 – well on the way to the target population of around 100 animals. 

As a result of the goats grazing on the Great Orme, a huge number of wildflowers thrive there including spiked speedwell, thrift and common rockrose, so the goats are actually important for the silver-studded blue butterfly, too.

Incidentally, these goats gained considerable notoriety during the first Covid Lockdown in 2020. With no visitors to the Great Orme, and few people out and about (only locals – no tourists), the goats came down into Llandudno and explored the streets and gardens.

The Great Orme Tramway provides an easy route from the town to visitor centre.

Birds on the Great Orme

The Great Orme isn’t really the place to go if you just want to watch birds. Yes, there are seabirds, mostly concentrated on the cliffs under the lighthouse, but you only see them from a distance. We did see fulmars and choughs on the cliffs along the Marine Drive, and a scattering of birds elsewhere over the Head. But really, you’d be better off at RSPB Conwy reserve to the east, or RSPB South Stack on Anglesey to the west.


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Resources

Website – Great Orme Country Park

Website – Visit Wales

Website – National Trust – owners of the farm on the Great Orme

Website – Llandudno.com – local tourist information

Website – Plantlife – some important plants on the Great Orme

This video by David Lewis on YouTube will give you more idea of the scenery.


Environmental volunteering

Environmental volunteering is a great way of getting to know more about a place or a species. It can be done quietly on a local level, or by joining a working group or a vacation.

Visiting Skomer Island in Pembrokeshire

Skomer Island off the coast of Pembrokeshire is a fantastic place for puffins and other seabirds, seals, plants, and a generally good day out. This article is about how to get there.

Parque Natural do Alvão

The Parque Natural do Alvão is a protected cultural landscape near the town of Vila Real in the Trás-os-Montes region of north-east Portugal.

It comprises 72.2 sq km of mainly granitic mountain. Because the farming practices are traditional, the land still supports a wealth of plants, birds, invertebrates and mammals.

Best to visit in the spring or autumn, when the weather isn’t too hot or too cold!

Trás-os-Montes – “Behind the Mountains” – is the name given to the north-east corner of Portugal. Long isolated by the mountains, it is probably one of the least-developed areas of the country. 

The Peneda-Geres National Park creeps into the extreme north-west, the Montesinho Natural Park lies in the north, the International Natural Park of the Douro lies along the River Douro in the east, and the Natural Park of Alvão lies in the south-west. In between are ancient towns and cities, dating back to Roman times, vineyards, olive groves, chestnut groves, almost orchards, and generally low-intensity agriculture. 

Three of us from Pembrokeshire visited Vila Real for a workshop at the University in October 2013, then stayed on for a few days intending to visit at least Alvão. The weather was against us. Sunshine during the workshop gave way to mist and rain. Alvão was sometimes just visible from the hotel window, sometimes not. 

The park information centre in Vila Real gave us little information – a glossy guide-book to the exhibition area which was closed for the season. Yes, the park was good to visit, and yes, there were places to walk, but there was virtually no public transport (one bus a day through the park). We would have to use a taxi, or a hire car. The tourist information centre didn’t add much of use – just a few snippets of information here and there. 

With the weather showing no signs of improving, we decided our best bet was to find a guide who could show us the park in one day – our final full day. The Tourist Information Centre found us Antonio Lagoa and Ana Noga. Antonio was the naturalist, while Ana spoke excellent English and had a car. We squeezed in and out of this small car, and learnt far more about the park than we would have by going it alone (even if we three naturalists had managed all three days there) despite the mist and drizzle.

Landscapes within the park are a mixture of woodland, moorland, rock and water, with a small amount of cultivated land and ancient villages. Of the broadleaved woodland, Pyrenean oak dominates (86% with 13% English oak, and 1% cork oak). Antonio stopped here to show us some fungi – but villagers must have got there first, as he didn’t find what he had hoped to show us.

The local Maronés breed of cattle is quite distinctive with its dark brown coast, white-edged nose and lyre-shaped horns. It is hardy, being adapted to the mountains, and has been used for pulling carts and ploughs as well as for meat and milk. It also has a ceremonial place, being dressed up and decorated for local festivals. 

Lamas de Olo

At 1000m, Lamas de Olo is the highest village in the park. Most of its traditional thatched roofs have been replaced with pantiles. The utility cables and satellite dishes add to the sense of mixed modernity here. The houses are small – one or two rooms above the barn at ground level. 

Espigueiros might look quaint, but have been a part of life here since the 18th century when maize was introduced from North America. The autumn rains meant the corn would not dry properly in the fields, so the espigueiros with their slotted sides were constructed to dry and store the cobs. This one is stone with wooden slats, but elsewhere they were made entirely of wood.

Flora

Within the park, there are about 486 plant species, of which 25 are Iberian endemics, 6 are Portuguese endemics, and 23 species have a conservation status – meaning they are rare or vulnerable. Highlights include the paradise lily Paradisea lusitanica, heath spotted orchid Dactylorhiza maculata, an endemic germander Teucrium salviastrum, Arenaria querioides, and the carnivorous common sundew Drosera rotundifolia. October isn’t the best month for flowers, so we saw only a few species, including the marsh gentian Gentiana pneumonanthe (see Alcon Blue below) and some autumn-flowering bulbs.

The upland pastures are permanently wet, with distinctive vegetation of high conservation value, and a variety of invertebrates too. Lameiros are irrigated upland meadows – a distinctive form of land-use in the Portuguese mountains. A network of ditches carries water to provide moisture in summer and keeps the water moving in winter to prevent it freezing. The meadows have a high biodiversity that includes several of those species of plant endemic to the Iberian peninsula – such as the Paradise Lily (which flowers from May-July so we didn’t see it). The hay from these meadows is needed to feed the cattle in winter. Where crops are grown, they follow a two-year cycle. Rye is grown in year one, fodder crops in the winter and spring, potato and maize the following summer. This preserves the soil fertility, soil moisture, and fits in with the availability of irrigation water. 

Invertebrates

A bush-cricket prowls through the scrub, looking for food. This is a Uromenus species – one of several similar species found in Iberia. 

Alcon Blue butterfly Phengaris alcon 

The Alcon blue is a medium-sized blue-brown butterfly that is widespread across Europe, but only in localized colonies. Its full range isn’t well known yet, so the Collins 1997 field guide doesn’t show it is being in Portugal. However, there are now known to be several colonies including here in Alvão. 

Like some other species of Lycaenidae (blue butterflies), its caterpillar stage depends on support by certain ants. Here, the butterfly lays its eggs onto the Marsh Gentian Gentiana pneumonanthe (in some other areas, a different species of gentian is used). The caterpillars eat no other plants. The eggs are laid on or near the flower bud, sometimes singly, sometimes a dozen or more on a clump of buds. 

The eggs are tiny – look for the white dot below the centre in this photo. Alcon larvae leave the food plant when they reach the 4th moult, and wait on the ground below to be discovered by ants. The larvae produce chemicals (allomones) similar to those of ant larvae, causing the ants to carry the Alcon larvae into their nests and place them in their brood chambers, where they are fed by worker ants and where they devour ant larvae. The larva pupates, and as soon as it hatches, the adult must escape the ant nest. The ants recognise the butterfly as an intruder, but when they go to attack it with their jaws they can’t grab anything more than the abundant loose scales that protect the butterfly. 

The Alcon larvae don’t have it all their own way, though. They are sought underground by the Ichneumon eumerus wasp. On detecting an alcon blue larva the wasp enters the nest and sprays a pheromone that causes the ants to attack each other. In the resulting confusion, the wasp locates the butterfly larva and injects it with its eggs. On pupation, the wasp eggs hatch and consume the chrysalis from the inside. Our guides explained that this particular field in Alvão was managed specifically for the Alcon blue.  Butterfly Conservation Europe had organised work parties of volunteers to cut the scrub back. The farmer had only three cows to graze the field. The ideal conditions for the butterfly require plenty of vegetation on damp soils, but not so much vegetation (especially scrub) that the soils become too cold and wet for the ants. 

Bilhó

The weather got worse during the day. We had an excellent lunch at the Tasquinha da Alice in Bilhó (Tasca da Alice in Bobal – to give the anglicised version of the name) – it’s just outside the park, and provides great local cuisine). Visibility was almost non-existent. Bilhó is a small parish – with less than 600 inhabitants – but I was surprised to see later on the aerial map that there were houses near the Tasquinha. All we saw was this tiny Ermita (hermitage) and Celtic cross by the roadside. It looked hardly big enough to stand up in, and possibly the slit in the side suggests it was more of a confessional (or perhaps a prison) than anything else. But you get the idea about the weather!

Waterfalls

Five or ten minutes of driving took us to the Bilhó Cascade – the main attraction for the village. The River Cabrão cascades down a steep slope, then through a culvert under the road before continuing down and out of sight – at least, we couldn’t see anything more of it.

Annual rainfall in the area is around 1200mm (46 inches) so there is usually plenty of water around. Summers, though, can be hot and dry.

Fisgas de Ermelo

Another 15 minutes or so of driving along roads that switched back and forth along the hillside brought us to another waterfall. Actually, it was several hundred metres in the distance, and we had to wait for breaks in the mist in order to see anything. The Fisgas de Ermelo is not directly accessible by road, but you can hike there from the village, or from the viewpoint.

There was little else to see, but the delight of the day was a brief glimpse of a wall-creeper flying past the overlook. 

Ermelo

Ermelo itself is further along the narrow mountain road. This 800 year-old village has many buildings with traditional slate roofs – but the slates are huge and irregularly shaped. While some of the buildings are clearly in a state of disrepair, others are well-maintained. Points of historic interest are marked, with some information boards too. 

Crag martins breed in the area, and were flying around over the river, swooping after insects, and landing on some of the buildings – huddling together in to roost in the rain in the evening. 

Videos

Here are a couple of video about the Parque that I found on YouTube. The narration is in Portuguese, but you can just enjoy the visuals if you don’t understand the language.

Lots of useful information on the Parque Natural do Alvão website

The Portuguese flora website is useful for checking the distribution, flowering periods, etc of the wildflowers of the country.


Bookshop

Click on covers for more information. Books about the butterflies, dragonflies and other groups seem to be out of print, so general books about these groups in Europe are the only ones I know of.

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More about nature-watching in Portugal

Watching Wolves in Europe

A selection of organised trips (eco-volunteering, guided vacations and single day/night opportunities) for watching wolves in Europe.

Winter birds at the Tejo Estuary

Some 70,000 water birds spend their winter on the Tejo estuary near Lisbon in Portugal. That can mean some serious birdwatching there.

Winter birds on the Gulf of Morbihan

The ‘Mor-Bihan’ – which means ‘little sea’ in Breton – lies on the southern coast of Brittany.

The ‘Golfe du Morbihan’ comprises 12,000 hectares of the Atlantic enclosed by land except for a 1km wide bottleneck, through which the tide comes and goes. 

Due to its location along the Atlantic coast flyway, and its high diversity of wetlands, the Gulf of Morbihan is one of 20 major sites for waterbirds in France

About the Gulf

The term ‘gulf’ was traditionally used for large highly-indented navigable bodies of saltwater that are enclosed by the coastline. So basically, a gulf is a large inlet from the ocean into a landmass, typically with a narrow opening to the sea – which is what the Morbihan is. However, the name Morbihan is given to the département, and so the embayment is referred to as the Golfe du Morbihan.

The Mor-Bihan was filled by Atlantic waters several thousand years ago, when the rising sea-levels (after the last Ice Age) flooded the existing river valleys. The result was a huge shallow pan of water, with some 500km of coastline and around 60 islands which vary in size from rocky islets to large enough to support whole villages. 

Over time, the Gulf developed a range of natural habitats and rich biodiversity. It is a designated Natura 2000 area and is also protected by various international and national regulations including Ramsar (for the protection of wetlands), decrees on biotope protection, and its designated statuses as a natural reserve, protected area and national heritage site. Processes are now underway to declare the area a Regional Natural Park. 

The area around the Gulf of Morbihan is densely inhabited with 230 inhabitants per km² which is twice the national average. Yet the natural beauty and tranquillity of the Gulf attract two million visitors each year, making tourism is the main economic activity. Other major economic activities include oyster farming (with 1,600 hectares given over to this activity) fishing, and agriculture (in decline). The area around the gulf is home to an extraordinary range of megalithic monuments. The best-known is Carnac, where the remains of a dozen rows of huge standing stones can be followed for over 10km. The passage tomb of Gavrinis, on a small island, is one of the most important such sites in Europe. There is more information on the tourist website for the area

In the Gulf itself, Huge areas of mudflats are exposed at low tide and there are saltmarshes and numerous islands, channels and lagoons as well as arable farmland, shingle beaches and rocky shores nearby. This makes it an extremely important stopover and wintering area for waders and waterfowl, with tens of thousands of birds present from Autumn to spring.

Winter Birds

Morbihan is the principal French haunt of dark-bellied brent geese from Siberia – some 20,000 over-winter here. 

From October to March, it also supports high numbers of Eurasian Wigeon, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail and Common Teal as well as Common Shelduck, Red-breasted Merganser and Common Goldeneye. 

Waders include most of the regular species of north-western Europe and other species found here in winter include Little Grebe, Great Crested Grebe and around 1000 Black-necked Grebe. 

By summer, most birds have left for their northern breeding grounds, but a few remain to breed. These include Little Egret, Kentish Plover, Black-winged Stilt, Pied Avocet and Marsh Harrier while Eurasian Spoonbill occurs regularly in some numbers during both passage periods. A passerine speciality of Morbihan is Bluethroat which breeds at the Reserve Naturelle de Sene near Vannes and can also be found at the Marais de Suscinio to the south of Sarzeau. 

The land surrounding the Golfe has extensive pinewoods with a good range of bird species including Black Woodpecker, Green Woodpecker and Great Spotted Woodpecker, Short-toed Treecreeper, Crested Tit and various warblers. 

The site regularly exceeds the threshold of 20,000 birds counted simultaneously during the winter (October to February). This makes it of International Importance for its bird populations. However, the total number of migratory and wintering birds (waterfowl and shorebirds) is between 50,000 and 100,000 individuals

Dunlin

Maximum counts for winter 2011-12 (the most recent figures I can find on-line)

  • Pintail 1285
  • Brent Goose 16,594 (20-yr average 20,000)
  • Shelduck 4249
  • Shoveler 669
  • Wigeon 5395
  • Merganser 1231
  • Pochard 53 (20-yr average 664)
  • Black-necked grebe 938
  • Spoonbill 50 passage
  • Avocet 1400
  • Lapwing 5441
  • Ringed Plover 839
  • Grey plover 1784
  • Black-tailed godwit 3660
  • Curlew 710
  • Spotted redshank 104
  • Redshank 1500 passage 463 winter
  • Dunlin 20305
  • Turnstone 238 (20yr average 91) 

Morbihan is also important for its breeding birds: 

  • Lesser black-back gull 400 pairs
  • Common tern 100 pairs
  • Avocet 150 pairs
  • Marsh harrier 6 pairs
  • Oystercatcher 50 pairs
  • Little Egret 100 pairs
Redshank

Bird-watching places around the Morbihan

We camped overnight at Kerhillion Plage, and did some early morning sea-watching, then wandered around the area for a while before moving east to the Morbihan itself.

The place is huge, by the time you’ve added the marshes, sand dunes, salt pans and islands to the sea area, you are talking about some 23 square kilometres (8 square miles). Then the indentations of the coastline plus the narrow roads mean that you can’t really race around it in a day. If, like us, you enjoy watching birds, rather than just ticking them off a list, then you need several days. And if it is sunny, then you have to take that into account, as the low winter sun bouncing off the water isn’t pleasant. Oh, and don’t forget the tide. When it is out, there isn’t much to see on the mudflats unless you have a telescope

Toulvern: a wooded peninsula in the north-west corner of the Morbihan, with the Etang de Toulveryn on one side, and more tidal flats on the other. Lots of access points and a seafood restaurant at the end. Coots, teal, shoveler, mallard, shelduck, grebes, and spoonbills can all be seen here – and a telescope is useful. 

Le Marais de Pen in Toul: a mix of salt- and freshwater habitats, this is the largest marsh in the west of the Morbihan. It has been protected since the late 1990s. There is a useful viewing platform located on a water tower, overlooking the marshes, and a walking route of about 3.5km. The area is freely accessible all year round. 

Ile de Berder: from a small parking area close to the island, it is possible to observe Roseate Terns, especially in September and October – but they were long gone by our visit in late November. The terns often land on the oyster barges that are in the cove. Also good for goldeneye and red-breasted merganser who regularly feed on the plentiful oyster beds here.  You can cross to the island, but the road is submerged at high tide (so we gave it a miss because of not knowing the tide times).

Pond Pump: at Le Moustoir along the D316 which connects Larmor-Baden in Arradon. Gulls and plovers especially gather on the edge of this private pond – but be aware of the heavy and fast road traffic (we didn’t stay there for long) – though there is now a cafe – La Chaumière de Pomper – nearby that might provide a parking place if you eat there, and also the old mill – Le Moulin de Pomper that has been turned into an antiques shop. 

The banks of Vincin: sandwiched between the suburbs of Vannes and the muddy shores of the Riviere duVincin this is easily accessible by coast path (wheelchair-friendly) from the town, or from the le Conleau campsite, or the best Western hotel on the Lily de Conleau. Going east from any of these takes you past the golf course to the Pointe des Emigres. It can be disappointing when the tide is out, but it is home to large numbers of ducks, such as mallard, teal and shelduck.

Shelduck feeding as the tide rises

Séné Marshes

From Vannes, go south on the D199 to the village of Séné. From there, the reserve is signposted. The entrance fee is about €5 and that gives access to the visitor centre, two footpaths, five hides, information from ornithological guides, and the chance to watch a film about the reserve.  However, the reserve centre is closed from mid-September to the end of January so during this time you’re limited to a free access trail in one part of the reserve.

The reserve covers 410 hectares, and is located on the river Noyalo. It was declared by Ministerial Decree of 23 August 1996. It comprises a section of the estuary with mudflats bordered by vast salt marshes, tidal creeks, channels and ponds. These marshes are in fairly good condition, some being replaced by areas of wet meadows, hedgerows and fallow land. 

Some 220 species of birds have been observed on this reserve, including the 76 that nest there regularly. It is a migratory stop-over used by almost all shorebird and wildfowl species regularly seen in Western Europe. It is also a haven for amphibians, reptiles, dragonflies, butterflies and a quarter of the plant species found in Brittany have been recorded here.

The reserve website (in French, but google did a reasonable translation to English) includes a library of videos about the marshes

Wigeon and other winter waterbirds

Noyalo bridge: On the opposite of the Chanel de Saint-Leonard is the village of Noyalo. There are a few places where you can stop along the D780, and the bridge at Noyalo proved interesting even though the tide was still low – shelduck, avocets and curlews, various gulls, several marsh harriers, egrets, etc.

At le Hézo people seemed keen to point us in the right direction to see birds, although it wasn’t until the tide was coming in that we fully appreciated the place. The road runs alongside the mudflats near the old mill – the Moulin à marées du Hézo – and there is a footpath from the parking area there, and another along the old saltpans just to the south. We watched waders pushed along in front of the rising tide, looking like a necklace along the water-line at dusk. As with many of the large semi-enclosed embayments, the high tide seems to last a long time. The next morning (obviously it had been out again during the night) we had to wait for it to go down a bit before we could walk the shore behind the houses. Here we found large numbers of the Brent Geese that the area is known for, and amongst them was a black brant – the Canadian sub-species rarely seen in Europe.

Lasné Marsh is just south of le Hezo, and can be partially circumnavigated by following the coastal path. Part of it is a quiet zone, closed to the public. Avocets and terns are very easy to observe during the breeding season at Saint-Armel. In addition, the coastal path opens directly onto the mudflat east of Tascon, which hosts one of the largest concentrations of birds wintering in the Gulf of Morbihan. Then there is another marshy area between Lasne and Saint-Colombier

Dark-bellied Brent Geese

The Reserve of the Pointe du Duer is just south of Saint-Colombier.  Old salt pans dating from the 15th century and in use until the 1950s are now managed to provide safe roosting places for wading birds in winter and on migration. In spring and summer black-winged stilt, common tern and shelduck breed here. Two hides and a small pine plantation provide shelter, and various pathways leading to them. The footpaths are laid out to allow access without disturbing the birds. Again, large numbers of birds can be seen from the tower hide, especially at high tide.  Some 160 species have been recorded here, including resident black woodpeckers and crested tits.

If you continue along the southern edge of the Morbihan, you find more places to watch birds on the mudflats – for example the Rue du Pont du Lindin is recommended for a variety of waders including grey plover, and from the Port du Logeo you can see groups of red-breasted mergansers and black-necked grebe (especially in January and February) – though a telescope is recommended. 

The marshes of the Château de Suscinio are near Sarzeau on the south side. Just follow signs towards the castle. Once there, turn right towards the sea and park your vehicle in the car park. The marshes spread along several hundred meters in both directions and are very attractive to birds which can be observed from close-by, especially in the morning. 


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Other places to go bird-watching in winter

The Lauwersmeer in winter

The Lauwersmeer National Park, in the northern part of the Netherlands, provides a fantastic winter feeding ground for geese and other birds that breed further north.

A winter day at Santoña Marshes

The Santoña, Victoria and Joyel Marshes Natural Park is probably the best, and most easily accessible, wetland in north-western Spain.

Winter birdwatching in Bulgaria

The northern-most part of the Black Sea coast (near Romania) has been dubbed Bulgaria’s ‘Geeseland’. Tens of thousands of geese and other wildfowl spend the winter here, where the Black Sea keeps the climate is a few degrees warmer than further inland. Here are some suggestions for the best places to visit.


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Nature along the Dorset Coast

Why the Dorset coast

Spectacular Jurassic limestone scenery

Lots of large nature reserves

Plenty to see at any time of year

Best place for Lulworth Skipper, great raft spiders, smooth snakes and others

The section of coast between Poole Harbour and Exeter is popularly known as the Jurassic Coast, for its abundance and variety of fossils laid down in the Jurassic period – 200-145 million years ago. However, the geological time period of the rocks also covers the Triassic (250 – 200 million years) and the Cretaceous (145 – 60 million years ago). The Jurassic Coast website gives plenty of information for visitors interested in the prehistory of the area.

There is, however, much more to this section of coast than just the geological spectacle. The South-West Coast path provides a walking route from end to end – and beyond. It offers the hiker stunning views of many coastal features, from the sheer cliffs and limestone formations such as Lulworth Cove and Durdle Door (top photo) to a great range of birds, flowers and butterflies including the rare Lulworth Skipper Thymelicus acteon (well, rare in Britain as it is only found in this area, although widespread and even common in parts of central and southern Europe).

The Lulworth Skipper is like a large skipper (with the orange patches on the wings) but is much smaller.
The Essex skipper is like a small skipper but has black-tipped antennae

Poole Harbour

Just inland from the sea is a series of nature reserves. Many of these are associated with Poole Harbour, providing refuge for a variety of birds during winter. The harbour itself is a huge shallow bowl with a relatively small outlet to the sea. It has double tides, which means lots of shallow water over mudflats, and lots of food for waders and wildfowl. On the west side, there are several heathland nature reserves which include the shoreline eg Studland Heath and Arne.

Dark -bellied Brent Geese at Poole Park in January

On the east side is the town of Poole – an extensively built-up area with considerable boating and recreational activity on the water. Nevertheless, Poole Park, an area of municipal parkland between the harbour wall and the town is excellent for birdwatching – with a large flock of dark-bellied Brent geese Branta bernicla among the other wintering wildfowl and gulls.

Brownsea Island, within the harbour is important for its red squirrel Sciurus vulgaris population. The island is owned by the National Trust, with managed forestry and heathland areas, as well as parkland.

Avocets in the lagoon at Brownsea Island in January

The northern part, however, is leased to the Dorset Naturalists Trust. Here there is a large lagoon surrounded on the outside by a high sea wall, areas of alder carr and other wet woodland, and generally much more natural habitats. The lagoon is frequented by waterbirds, especially herons, egrets and spoonbills Platalea leucorodia, and holds Britain’s largest single wintering flocks of avocets Recurvirostra avosetta and black-tailed godwits Limosa limosa – over 1000 birds of each species at times. Within the harbour are a number of small gravel islands, used by terns and gulls for nesting.

The RSPB reserve at Arne has been in existence since 1965. Like the nearby Studland Heath National Nature Reserve, it is important as one of the main sites to see all six species of British reptiles – adder Viperus berus, grass snake Natrix natrix, smooth snake Coronella austriaca, slow-worm Anguilis fragilis, common lizard Zootoca vivipara, and sand lizard Lacerta agilis.

Rare plants on the site include Dorset Heath Erica ciliaris (left), while the freshwater pond is one of only three sites for the great raft spider Dolometes plantarius in Britain. The wasp spider Argiope bruennichi is also found here (below – photographed in July).

The heathland provides a breeding stronghold for the secretive Dartford warbler Sylvia undata, as well as European nightjar Caprimulgus europeaus, woodlark Lullula arborea, and stonechat Saxicola rubicola. Waterbirds commute between the shore here, and Brownsea Island lagoon.

Weymouth area

Some 35km (22 miles) to the west of Poole Harbour is the town of Weymouth, and another set of nature reserves. Within the town itself is the RSPB reserve of Radipole Lake – a long finger of open water and reedbeds. The southern end, with a small RSPB information centre, is next to the railway station, is very popular with families wanting to feed the ducks and swans, so the birds here tend to be quite tame and tolerant. Following the footpath to the north hide takes you to more secluded areas, often quiet in winter except for the explosive calls of Cetti’s warblers Cettia cetti. It is also a good place for bearded reedlings Panurus biarmicus again a species more often heard – pinging calls as they move through the reedbed – than seen.

It is also a good place for a variety of plants, dragonflies and butterflies in the appropriate seasons.

On the eastern side of Weymouth, is the RSPB reserve of Lodmor. This is an area of open water, saltmarsh, wet grassland and scrub, separated from the sea by a shingle embankment and road, and with the ever-increasing housing development of Preston on the north side (view from south side below).

Birds move between here and Radipole, so the species seen are similar. However, it does have one of the largest common tern Sterna hirundo colonies in south-west Britain, and autumn migration can be spectacular. On a rather blustery late August day, we saw more than 50 species easily from the footpath (wheel-chair and push-chair friendly). The last few common tern chicks were being fed by their parents, while large numbers of swifts Apus apus gathered with the swallows and martins preparing for migration south.

Sunburst over Portland Bill

Portland Bird Observatory

A programme of bird ringing (bird banding) has been carried out since the earliest days of ornithological exploration at Portland in the 1950s. Bird Observatory staff and suitably qualified helpers use ringing as a tool to assist research into the migration patterns, population changes, biometrics and longevity of birds. The majority of ringing is carried out within the grounds of the Bird Observatory, where over 225,000 birds of 200 species have been trapped and ringed to date. There have been subsequent recoveries of birds marked at Portland from as far north as Finland, as far south as Ghana and as far east as the Republic of Georgia in the former USSR. (from the PBO website)

Portland Bill is a narrow promontory at the southern tip of the Isle of Portland which is connected to the mainland by a shingle spit, the eastern end of Chesil Beach. Jutting out some 8km (5 miles) into the sea, it makes a convenient departure and arrival point for birds on migration, and also catches birds moving along the coast.

The Portland Bird Observatory occupies the Old Lower Lighthouse just before the Bill (tip) itself. The observatory is open all year round.

Back in around 1982, I visited Portland Bill in migration season, just because it was said to be good for birds. The first afternoon was pleasant enough, and somebody mentioned that a hoopoe had been seen. OK, so we kept a look out for it, but weren’t too bothered if we saw it or not – our philosophy was to enjoy the place, and the birds would be the icing on the cake. In the evening we pitched our small tent in a seemingly out-of-the-way place. The next morning we opened the tent only to find a dozen birdwatchers about 50m away, all looking through binoculars and telescopes at the hoopoe feeding right in front of the tent!

Chesil Beach

There are other places to watch birds, or just to enjoy the coastal scenery and plants, on Portland Island. Then just to the west is Chesil Beach – 30km (19 miles) of pebble beach, separated from the mainland by the Fleet Lagoon for most of its length. At the western end is the Abbotsbury Swannery which is the only managed colony of nesting mute swans Cygnus colour (above) in the world.


Bookshop

Click on the book covers for more information

This is the updated version of the book we used. Each of the sites mentioned in this article is given several pages of text and maps, It gives the history of sites, the location and access provision, what you will see in each season, and much more. We found it very useful and will be using it to find more sites on our next visit to the area.

Obviously, it is about bird-watching sites, but most sites will have other nature interest as well.

Buying books through these links earns a small commission that helps with the costs of this website.

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Adventures in French

As a thirteen-year-old, I swore I’d never go to France.  Nothing wrong with the country, or the people.  It was just the language – and my fear of being made a fool of because I didn’t understand the language.

Twenty years later, it was a different matter. I was in France, and definitely getting by in French (after a good bit of practice).

I’ve been interested in languages for as long as I can remember. While I was at junior school, there were Sunday morning language lessons on the BBC, repeated next Saturday and you’re ready for the next episode the following day.  I picked up a smattering of words, but not being able to afford the books that went with the courses, I wasn’t going to progress very far.  Spanish, German, Italian . . . I’m sure French was in there too, but I don’t remember it.

At the grammar school, I happened to be in a class that learned German – I wasn’t brilliant at it, but I enjoyed it.  After two years we had the opportunity to do a second language.  My father persuaded me to do Latin – he wanted me to be a doctor, and apparently that meant I had to learn Latin.  What sold it to me was that it was the root of several other languages, and in theory would make them easier to learn.  The Latin classes didn’t happen – not enough kids signed up.  So I went for French.

French classes were a nightmare.  After the precision of German pronunciation and grammar, I could not cope with the strange sounds, the letters that were silent in French or the different language structure.  It might as well have been Martian.  Nor did it help that most of the other kids seemed to have done some French in junior school, and I hadn’t.  This was the only subject that had me reduced to tears in class, and on more than one occasion.

Hence my teenage declaration about not visiting France.  The thought of making a fool of myself, or someone making a fool of me, was more than I could cope with.

Street market in le Mezieres

Roll on twenty years, and I was embarking on a year-long trip around Europe.  I hadn’t used my O-level German since the summer I left school, nor had any time or opportunity to learn any other language – just picking up a few words here and there from novels and magazines.  I felt I needed to be able to communicate at least at a basic level in other languages.  And that’s what the ‘Teach Yourself’ books were for. 

A combination of those books for German, French and Spanish (they are still sitting on my bookshelves) and a very basic computer with very BASIC programming, took up much of my spare time in the year leading up to the journey.  Computers in those days didn’t talk back – no sound, no pictures – just words on a screen.  I learned the words and phrases in the books, transferring them to the computer, having to spell everything correctly before the computer would let me move on to the next phrase.  I crossed the channel knowing words and phrases, but with no practice of hearing them, or knowing how to say them correctly.

And so it was that I eventually walked into a boulangerie, and asked the classic question ‘Avez-vous du pain, si’l vous plait?’.  The woman behind the counter looked at me and smiled.  She spoke slowly.  I believe the gist of her answer was ‘No, but you might get some from the mini-market down the road’.  Whew! I had survived my first foray into spoken French.  And yes, the little supermarket had some sliced white bread.

During the next three weeks, my confidence and speaking ability improved – so long as I didn’t have to try to understand more than one phrase at a time when someone spoke to me!  When the camper developed a knocking sound and I called out the breakdown people, I started off trying to explain in French, but was so relieved when the person on the other end asked if it would be easier to speak English.  Fortunately, most spoken conversations were pretty standard tourist things, and the rest was reading signs and information in visitor centres, etc.

I could tell a similar story about the next five months in Spain and Portugal, though on returning to France it took a while to remember to say Bonjour rather than Buenos dias, and Merci instead of Gracias.  But my language skills were certainly put to the test when the camper needed a service.  My husband at that time refused to communicate in any language except English.

Traditional ceremonial dress for town officials in le Mezieres

We knew, from a mechanic in Gibraltar, that there was a fault with the brakes, and this guy had shown us what needed to be done via the diagrams in the manual.  I attempted to pass this information to the French mechanic, and he said no problem.  When we collected the vehicle, he had tightened the hand brake cable so much that there was little difference between the on and off positions.  We were disappointed, but not surprised, when the cable snapped a couple of days later.  We limped back to the garage, and now the mechanic refused to speak any English.  He made it obvious that he wasn’t going to stand for a foreign woman telling him what to do.  At least he did fix the brake cable, but at a further cost.

The next potentially difficult situation happened a couple of weeks later.  We were driving along the Avignon bypass, when a car ahead of us suddenly left the road, skidded across a dirt track (where road widening work was going on) and disappeared down a bank.  If anybody else saw what happened they did not stop.  The car had come to rest on a steep gravel bank and the woman driver, without a seatbelt, had slid across to the passenger side where she sat crying.

We helped her get out, and led her back up the bank.  She realised we were struggling with French, and so told us in broken English that she wanted to be at the bottom of the bank, and later said she wished she was dead.  After asking if we had children, she said we were lucky, she had three but they and their father were not with her now.  A Frenchman stopped to see what was going on and offered to take her home ‑ it was probably easier for her to talk to him in French than to us in English anyway.  It was hard to tell whether she had been suicidal before, or if this was a genuine accident that had made her realise she had just come close to solving all her problems. 

As we got back to the camper, a police car pulled up – we were on a road where vehicles were not supposed to stop.  Neither of the officers spoke English, and I had to explain with a mixture of French words and actions what had happened.  Fortunately, they were happy with the explanation, and let us go without further ado.

Road signs are sort of multi-lingual!

Four months later we were crossing France on the way back to Britain.  Somewhere we stopped for supplies, and I went into a travel agency to ask about the car ferries across the channel.  Which would be the best port to aim for?  And what about the news stories (we could get Radio 4 on the longwave frequencies back then) of strikes causing chaos at the ports.  This conversation took place entirely in French – halting French in my case, but French none-the-less.  I was proud of myself.

I’ve been to France several times since then, including once to a conference (with papers presented in French, Spanish, and English).  I’ve even translated a paper from French into English – it helped that I had seen the illustrated presentation, and that I was familiar with the scientific terms about the subject.  The written language is still much easier for me to deal with than the spoken one.

There are two things I’ve learned from this experience.  One is that if you HAVE to and/or WANT to learn something, it is much easier than if you are casual about it – just thinking it would be a nice thing to do.  Secondly, that being immersed in a language – ie being where it is spoken all around you – makes it much easier than trying to learn from three or four lessons a week at school.

And in general, people abroad really do appreciate you making at least an attempt at the language, rather than expecting them to do all the work.

Bread on a market stall in le Mezieres
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More about France

Botany and Butterflies in the French Alps

The French Alps provide a wonderful backdrop for a botanical and/or butterfly trip. Here are some of my recommendations after a week at La Grave, near the Col du Galibier which is equally well-known for the tour du France cycle race.

The naturalist in France in winter

France isn’t an obvious place for nature-watching in winter, but there are plenty of birds, and even some mammals to see. Here are some suggestions of where to find them.

Environmental volunteering

According to Wikipedia:
Environmental volunteers conduct a range of activities including environmental monitoring (e.g. wildlife); ecological restoration such as revegetation and weed removal, and educating others about the natural environment. They also participate in community-based projects, such as improving footpaths, open spaces, and local amenities for the benefit of the local community and visitors. The uptake of environmental volunteering stems in part from the benefits for the volunteers themselves, such as improving social networks and developing a sense of place.

Participation in such projects can be at a local level (even your backyard), or you can travel to the ends of the earth.  You can put in a lot of time and energy, or just a little time or energy, and you can do it for just a few hours, a few weeks, or for a few hours a week or month for several years.

Volunteering may mean getting close and personal with wildlife – perhaps a bit of radio-tracking work, behavioural observations, etc – but more often is about the interface between people and wildlife.  The bears in the photos are two of about 70 in a sanctuary in Romania where volunteers support local staff, allowing them time to do educational work and to rescue more bears.   

Other projects may involve the restoration of habitat, or building facilities so that visitors may enjoy and learn about wildlife.

But it is also possible to volunteer on your own, collecting data in your own time and at your own pace. Data that organisations can use chart changes in numbers over time, which can then be used to influence environmental policies.

Here are some examples of volunteering that I have been involved in, and some guidance from responsibletravel.com who advertise selected eco-volunteer holidays on their website.

This information is inevitably UK based – other countries will also have volunteer organisations and schemes.


Local volunteering – citizen science

Volunteering on long-term surveys such as a butterfly transect provides data for monitoring the distribution and population both common and rare species – the small tortoiseshell has declined in the past ten years.

The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) is the largest organiser of bird surveys in Europe.  Through the efforts of volunteers participating in BTO surveys, the bird populations of the British Isles have been monitored more effectively and for longer than those of most other parts of the world. This has produced a uniquely rich and detailed body of scientific work. This will help us to understand the complex challenges facing wild birds at a time of great change in the environment. 

The Wetland Bird Survey requires a day a month of counting birds on estuaries, lakes and reservoirs, while the Garden Bird Survey only needs you to look out of your window a few times a week.  Monitoring bird nests requires a little more skill (easily learned) and effort, while bird ringing requires a lot more time and dedication to learn the necessary skills before you are allowed to go and practice on your own.  See the website for the full list of surveys to get involved with.

This kind of voluntary work – which ultimately involves gathering data – is known as citizen science.  Other organisations such as Butterfly Conservation, the Botanical Society of the British Isles and British Dragonfly Society, also rely on members and enthusiasts to gather specific data to use for scientific or conservation purposes.  

An example of a short-period citizen science is the Bioblitz.  Organised at sites all around the country, these may be days when “expert enthusiasts” get together to find as many species as possible on that site, or they may primarily function as events to introduce the general public to nature.  

Sign up now!

How the information is put to use

Citizen scientists help uncover mysteries behind House Sparrow population declines

Although House Sparrows are conspicuous birds and can still be found cheeping away in many areas, their numbers have fallen sharply in recent years, leading to their inclusion on the Birds of Conservation Concern Red List. Declines are greater in urban than in rural areas, and in eastern and south-eastern Britain than in other parts of the country (where the population is stable or increasing).  A new study by the BTO has used data collected by volunteers participating in Garden Birdwatch (GBW), the Nest Record Scheme (NRS) and the Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) to investigate possible reasons underpinning these trends.

The research focussed on measures of breeding performance.  In keeping with population trends, GBW data showed that annual productivity was highest in Wales and lowest in the east of England, but that there was no difference between rural and urban areas.  The regional difference in GBW productivity was mirrored by NRS data, which revealed that House Sparrow clutch and brood sizes were significantly lower in the east of Britain than in the west.  The number of breeding attempts per year and post-fledging survival did not differ between regions, so are not thought to contribute to the differences in population trends.

The results suggest that the processes driving regional differences in House Sparrow productivity are likely to be complex and operating over a large-scale (e.g. climatic processes), but interacting with local factors (e.g. habitat changes). The absence of productivity differences between rural and urban areas suggests other factors contribute to the varying population trends in these habitats, for instance, differences in food availability affecting adult survival.  This work demonstrates the importance of large-scale datasets collected by citizen science projects in understanding drivers of population change, which is vital for implementing effective conservation measures.

More information about this and other science results on the BTO website


Germany, 1973

In order to maintain the heathland and its unique flora and fauna, trees have to be removed.

There were eleven of us – two Irish, one Norwegian-American, three German, three French, one English, one Turkish.  We did not have a common language though everyone spoke at least one (and mostly two) of English, German or French. We were all students, aged between 16 and 23.  None of us had any idea of what we were going to be doing – or any experience of eco-volunteering.

We were collected from Cologne railway station, and driven for a couple of hours to a forested area near Munster.  A large corrugated tin hut was to be our home for the next three weeks, and that – the leader pointed to a ramshackle assortment of logs and tarpaulin – was the washroom.  The toilets were two huts over pits in the ground.  By mutual consent, we hastily rearranged the bunks and cupboards in the hut so that girls and boys were in separate sections.  And then found a spare blanket to hang in front of the showers give some privacy from the rest of the “washroom”.

Looking back, our mission was clear.  We were clearing trees that were threatening to take over an area of heathland.  At the time, however, we were just following instructions.  I learned the names of trees in German before I knew them in English – Eiche, Birke, Kiefe (Oak, Birch, Pine).  I learned to use a machete and an axe – but was more than happy to leave the chainsaw to the boys.

This camp was one of many organised by the IJGD which was set up after WW2, and is still running camps today. The ethos of the organisation is based around getting young people to live and work together, organising their daily lives as a group (we had to organise our own shopping trips, do most of our own cooking etc) and undertaking ecological or social work under the guidance of a local leader.  We had one leader (who spoke only in German) for the forestry work, and another (who also spoke English and French) who was probably more of a liaison person with the local town council.  

The town council arranged various excursions for our spare time – we “worked” only an average five hours a day.  One day we had afternoon tea in the town hall, and a tour of the premises; another day there was an evening of music in a local tavern; a helicopter ride from the local army base; a ride in a small plane; a pony and trap ride; an afternoon of cycling to explore the countryside; a visit to a brewery to see how the local beer was made; etc.

But that was 1973 – I don’t suppose today’s economy would allow so many luxuries!


Skokholm, Wales, 1988-2018

Skokholm – the Wheelhouse in 2010 above, and 2014 below. Just some of the renovations carried out by volunteers for the love of being on this ‘Dream Island’.

Skokholm Island lies a short distance off the coast of Pembrokeshire.  Until recently there was no running water, no electricity, no telephone, no television.  I visited twice in the 1980s as a paying guest, and maybe twenty times since then as a volunteer.  Volunteering can be as simple as a day helping the wardens get themselves and their food and equipment to and from the island at the ends of the season, or it can be staying on the island to work.

Work usually includes scrubbing and painting the buildings at the start of the season in preparation for paying visitors, and then cleaning and storing stuff at the end of the season to keep it safe from the damp and the house-mice.  But it has also included upgrading the accommodation.  

For any place to accept paying guests, there are certain hygiene, and health and safety, requirements.  One year (early 1990s) we were told that food could not be cooked in the same room as it was served, so suddenly we had to convert the larder into a kitchen, and a small storeroom into a new larder.  The work was done by volunteers – one of whom was so keen to get started he was pulling walls down and creating dust before we’d finished washing the breakfast crockery – and by a group on a government youth opportunities program.  I was cooking that week, and had an assistant who insisted on putting either garlic and/or lemon in everything.

More recently, a considerable amount of work has been done to conserve (in some cases rebuild) and upgrade the accommodation.  Most of the work has been done by volunteers, although professionals have been brought in where necessary – where health and safety issues were concerned (eg roofing, and rebuilding the landing stage), or specific skills required.  

The island now has electricity, thanks to the advent of solar PV panels.  The buildings now have running water – previously it was pumped by hand from the well into plastic containers, and taken to the buildings by wheelbarrow.  The kitchen has a hot water supply thanks to solar panels, and the hot water supply has now been extended to the bedrooms, which also have a piped waste system (previously it was a bucket under the sink), and there are composting toilets which are much more pleasant to use (and to empty) than the old chemical toilets.

Puffins are one of the charismatic seabirds of Skokholm Island, along with razorbills, guillemots, Manx shearwaters and storm petrels.

All this work has been enthusiastically undertaken because people consider the island is a wonderful place to be.  In summer it is teeming with seabirds, in spring and autumn migrant birds of all sorts can turn up.  Despite the living improvements, it still retains its air of isolation and remoteness.  The weather is unpredictable,  the boat can’t always come and go on a regular schedule – often visitors have to wait a day or two to get on, and maybe have to leave a day early (or even stay an extra week) because the weather is bad.

We spent three weeks there in April 2012 – it was wet, windy and horrible a lot of the time.  On several days I found myself preparing vegetable soup for lunch wearing several layers of clothes, topped with waterproofs, wellies and a woolly hat.  

Conversely, we had a week there in September 2018 – a glorious week of wonderful weather, bird migration was slow, but there was a wryneck on the island.  One team of people were cleaning and painting the lighthouse, another team built a new hide overlooking North Pond.  Bob and I were part of another team on a long-term project to transfer all the island biological data from hand-written logs onto spreadsheets.

It’s an amazing place with amazing people.  There is nobody actually in charge, but a group of people who are here because they love the island.  They all have different skills, appropriate to the jobs this week.  There is a list of jobs that need to be done, and when anyone has finished what they are doing, they tick it off on the board, and pick another job to get on with.  And the amount of work that is being done is just amazing.  (Skokholm volunteer, 2012)

Skokholm Island is owned by the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales. There is accommodation and facilities for researchers, ringers, and for people who just want a quiet holiday on a lovely island. There are more opportunities for volunteers on the nearby Skomer Island.

The Friends of Skomer and Skokholm organised the work parties with help from local companies such as Dale Sailing.

The island has now regained its status as a bird observatory, and has full-time wardens –  See the island blog.

Skokholm accommodation and library block, with new roof and solar PV panels for lighting (no more gas or oil lamps). Comfort for volunteers, as well as for the paying guests that come to enjoy the puffins and other wildlife on this island. (2010 top and 2014 below)

Conservation and wildlife volunteering 

Article from Sarah Bareham of responsibletravel.com

With an ever-expanding array of volunteer opportunities available it can be increasingly difficult to understand which projects are of genuine value to conservation efforts,  which are having little impact and worse, those which work against community and conservation aims. However, with the right preparation and research well-intentioned prospective volunteers can ensure their time and effort will not go to waste, or cause harm.

Responsibletravel.com’s main advice to any traveller looking for volunteer opportunities is to ask questions, and plenty of them. To be truly sustainable a project should be driven by the needs and expectations of the host community and for a conservation or wildlife project to be successful in the long term local people need to see the value in supporting it, they should be the ones which own and lead it, with volunteers providing support to help them meet their aims. For example, through its close work with local people this brown bear conservation project in Romania has started to change attitudes towards bear welfare among the general public, with more and more realising that capturing wild bears for entertainment purposes is not only a betrayal of animal welfare, but of the country’s own natural heritage. 

We encourage prospective volunteers to speak with their placement and find out what the long-term aims of the project are, and how their work will fit into this. Volunteers should have a clear and defined role, and should undergo a selection process that matches their skills to the opportunities available. It should be possible, upon questioning the potential placement, to find out more about the project’s history, how it is monitored, where your payment goes, what role the volunteers play and to be able to speak with previous volunteers to understand more about their personal experiences.

Conservation projects with long term sustainability at heart are also likely to offer education programmes for local communities and schools. Educating the younger generation as to the importance of the project, and engaging them at an early age increases the likelihood of long term success. Ask whether this is part of the work your prospective placement does. It may mean you will also be volunteering closely with local children – there are a number of issues to consider if this is the case. 

With wildlife rescue projects volunteers should be aware that the more contact wild animals have with humans, the less their chance of successful reintegration back into the wild. If the project you are considering aims to rehabilitate and release animals be aware that hands-on contact with wildlife will be very unlikely, reserved only for those with specific knowledge and skills, such as veterinarians. If you are invited to play with, interact and pet the animals it is unlikely that successful reintroduction into the wild is their real aim. The Born Free Foundation’s guidance notes on issues in wildlife volunteering, sanctuaries and captive breeding programmes for conservation are a useful resource for prospective volunteers. 

https://www.responsibletravel.com/holiday/33237/turtle-conservation-in-greece

All holidays and volunteering opportunities on responsibletravel.com have been carefully screened for their commitment to responsible tourism. We have also worked closely in the past with the Born Free Foundation and Care for the Wild, whose Right Tourism campaign holds a wealth of information on what travellers can do to ensure their work is contributing to the protection rather than exploitation of wild animals. The Born Free Foundation also has a Travellers Animal Alert system where volunteers concerned about the in poorly run sanctuaries can report the establishment for further investigation.

For carefully screened wildlife and conservation volunteer placements in Europe go to responsibletravel.com


Bookshop

These are just a few of the books based on data collected by volunteers who simply enjoy being out birdwatching, mammal-watching, moth trapping, etc. Click on covers for more information about the books


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Winter birds at the Tejo Estuary

The Rio Tejo (Spanish Rio Tagus) rises at the Fuente de Garcia in Teruel province, Aragon, Spain, flows 1038km (645 miles) across the Iberian peninsula to reach the Atlantic at Lisbon, Portugal. Its course has been dammed in several places for irrigation and water supplies. Just above Lisbon are the plains of Leziria, where the estuary itself has been drained, irrigated and planted on a huge scale.

To get to the estuary from the north, you drive along a broad dirt track. It seems unnecessarily wide, until you meet a tractor the size of a house trundling along it. The intensively cultivated fields eventually give way to pasture, grazed by the famous bulls used in bullfights. And at last, you reach the muddy creeks and channels of what is left of the estuary.

But the journey is worth the effort. This is the largest estuary in Western Europe, holding 54% of Portugal’s wintering waders, 30% of its wintering waterfowl, and 4% of its wintering herons. There are regularly over 50,000 birds in winter, and double that during the migration seasons.

About the Tagus Estuary Natural Reserve

Despite the 20,000ha of reclaimed land, the estuary upstream of Lisbon is still a vast intertidal zone of mudflats, bordered by 2,800 ha of saltmarsh (the largest in Portugal), saline marshlands, mudflats, shallow lagoons. Beyond this is a hinterland of dry grassland, cornfields, rice fields, 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 15% of western Europe’s wintering avocet, plus dunlin and curlew and several thousand duck.

Some 22,850 ha of the saltmarsh, mudflats and islands are included in a Reserva Natural, which was established in 1976 and covers an area of over 14,000 ha. 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.

The protected area extends from 10m below sea level to 11m above, and is important for marine life such as fish, molluscs, crustaceans, etc, as well as birds.

Fortunately, the powers that be have recognised the value of the estuary:

  • 1976 – creation of the Natural Reserve of the Tagus Estuary
  • 1980 – declared a Wetland of International Importance by the Ramsar Convention
  • 1994 – established as a Special Protection Area for Wild Birds, under EEC directive 79/409
Young bulls, reared for bullfighting, graze the pastures.

Through the farmland

There were larks, finches and linnets in good-sized flocks, plenty of house sparrows and thousands of common starlings. Snowstorms of gulls followed tractors in the distance. Half a dozen little egrets flew out of a ditch as we approached and joined others in the fields together with lapwing, golden plover and godwit. Three cattle egrets stalked through another field, occasionally one stopped 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 even at some distance.

A great grey shrike (below) hunted from the tops of weed stalks in a dry pasture, and a crested lark called.

January 5th, 1989

It was 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. No problem.

At some time 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 checked in the phrasebook 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 were told later that aves is the scientific term for birds, so perhaps we impressed them instead.

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.

Some of the birds

Avocet Recurvirostra avosetta

An elegant wader found in the intertidal areas and salt pans. It is most active at dawn and dusk, and also feeds by moonlight on insects and small crustaceans. It sweeps its up-curved bill through the water and mud, finding prey by touch. Seen mostly on migration and during winter, but also occasionally nests on the reserve. Wintering birds come from the Waddenzee area, and the Tejo estuary holds about 15% of the population that winters on the western European coast.

Black-Winged Stilt Himantopus himantopus

Found in saline lagoons and other wetlands, where its long legs enable it to feed in deeper water than other waders. It preys on floating or underwater animals such as tadpoles, water bugs, beetles and fly larvae. It is a common nesting species here, with some individuals staying over winter, however, most spend the winter in Africa.

Cattle Egret  Bubulcus ibis

In one field there were some cows with very young calves, and also a number of cattle egrets hunched up against early morning mist. 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 was in front of its eyes, found itself surrounded by egrets.

The calf tentatively tried to find its way out of the circle but always found its way blocked. It approached one egret, which shuffled off and made the calf jump. It approached another, which waved its beak threateningly and again the calf backed off. After several minutes, in sheer desperation (and probably with its eyes closed) it charged back to mum, scattering the egrets faster than they wanted to go.

Another calf, a day or two older and by now an old hand, charged around threatening a few birds which shuffled out of the way in disgust at the disturbance.

Dunlin Calidris alpina

Found mainly in intertidal areas where it feeds on invertebrates on the mud near the mud surface as the tide recedes. At high tide it roosts in salt pans or marsh-side banks. Common passage migrant, and winter visitor with over 1% of the western European population in some winters.

Redshank Tringa totanus

Found in intertidal zones with thin sediments, salt pans and waterlogged agricultural land. Also known as the sentinel of the marshes, this species is always on the lookout for danger, and noisily proclaims it. Usually feeds in loose flocks. Common winter visitor, with about 2% of the European wintering population on the estuary. Also seen on migration, and has nested occasionally.

Wigeon Anas Penelope

Found in intertidal areas, in the shallow waters of the Estuary and in Saragoça salt pan. Flocks lift off almost vertically and land again as one. Feeds on vegetation, both submerged and on the surface. Common winter visitor with about 1% of the European population recorded here.

Shoveler Anas clypeata

It is very active at night, sifting the upper layers of water and mud for freshwater fleas, mosquito larvae, and other invertebrates through the beak. Common winter visitor, with about 2.3% of the European population recorded here.

Marsh Harrier Circus aeruginosus

Male marsh harrier

Hunts over shallow, fresh or brackish waters, where there is emergent aquatic vegetation, and also over dense marshes. Spends the night on the ground or in marshes. Individuals spend the night in regularly-used roosts, which are located in marshes and reed beds. Nesting resident. Not common, but the reserve seems to support 40 to 50% of the national breeding population.

Black-tailed Godwit

Black-tailed godwits winter here in their thousands. Most of the birds breed in Iceland. They like to feed on invertebrates living in soft mud. So as well as the estuarine mudflats, you can find them on the rice fields. Their distribution depends on the timing of rice cropping, which in turn depends on the rainfall.

The Giganta rice paddies , located about 4 km southwest of Porto Alto, extend for several kilometres and are an excellent place to see birds at all times of the year;  In autumn and winter, when the area is covered with stubble flooded, the land is frequented by flocks of lapwing and, snipe as well as the black-tailed godwits. Occasionally flocks of flamingos appear here too.

EVOA

Espaço de Visitação e Observação de Aves (Bird Observation and Visitation Space)

These days, there is a delight at the end of the long road. The Tagus Estuary Bird-watching and Conservation Area provides a facility to attract birds to lagoons and scrapes in front of a visitor centre and a series of hides. There are a shop, café, exhibition centre, classroom, guided tours, and other activities on site.

The site opened in 2012, after my last visit to the area. Most reviews of the place are good.  Experienced birdwatchers have told me the birds are wonderful, but the guided tours etc are a disappointment.  But, as with most places trying to attract customers, the tours etc are designed for the general public and for educational needs, so that needs to be borne in mind.

The EVOA website is being updated and expanded, but offers plenty of information about the tours etc. in Portuguese, English and French, and also a calendar of what birds you are likely to see in each month. Make sure you choose the language from the menu bar, or you get some very strange google translations of bird names.

Visitor centre and lagoons at EVOA (c) EVOA

Getting there

If have a car, access is from the N10, across the river from Vila Franco de Zira. EVOA is signposted. Some of the dirt roads are accessible if your vehicle has reasonably good ground clearance. Other areas are gated off, but you can buy a pass that allows access. There is more information about access and a map on the Portuguese Birdwatching site If you have a car, you can take your time, drive slowly and stop almost anywhere to look at birds. But don’t forget those huge tractors and whatever huge farm machinery they may be pulling.

If you are staying in Lisbon, you can get to Vila Franco de Zira by train, but will need a taxi from there. Probably the best way to see the area is by using a local bird-guide – several are listed on Birding Pals.

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More nature-watching in Portugal

Parque Natural do Alvão

The Parque Natural do Alvão in the north-east of Portugal has Medieval villages, traditional farming, and a wealth of nature. Even through the mist, there was plenty of interest for a day out.