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.

Wildside Holidays website provides information about the Iberian Wolf and the Iberian Wolf Visitor Centre in La Garganta, as well as links to the Wild Wolf Experience mentioned above.

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

Pin for later

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.

Buying books through these links brings me a small commission (at no extra cost to you) that goes towards the maintenance of this website.

Pin for later

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.

Loading…

Something went wrong. Please refresh the page and/or try again.

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.

Bookshop

Click on the covers for more information

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

Pin for later

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.

Train on the Algarve

Winter bird-watching along the Algarve railway

The Algarve has a railway line that conveniently connects some excellent bird-watching sites. At least, they are good for bird-watching in winter, and for general wildlife and plants for most of the rest of the year.

We try, where possible, to take trips to places where there is good public transport to visit interesting sites. And while the Algarve Railway does not get us to ALL the good bird-watching sites, it provides enough to get through a two-week trip easily. If you have a bicycle, that will extend the distance you can cover easily from the train stations. And, of course, there are buses and taxis that will take you further.

Vila Real de Santo Antonio station

Situated at the very eastern end of the Algarve, this station gives access to the Guadiana River. Walking south, follow the road more or less alongside the river down to the break-water and navigation light at the entrance. This can be interesting in stormy weather with seabirds such as shearwaters and little terns passing close. Gulls follow fishing boats going in and out of the towns. At low tide there are often gulls and waders sitting out on sandbanks, or feeding in the silt.

The forest on the inland side of the road protects the town from sand blown in from the shore. It’s good for bird-watching – with crested tits, shrikes, gold and firecrests, among the attractions, and much more at migration time. The network of paths is used by athletes training at the nearby sporting complex, so expect to see a lot of joggers and cyclists too. You can meander through the forest, and/or along the beach and dunes, then end up at the station at Monte Gordo (it’s 1km north of the holiday village).

North of the Vila Real station is the traditional fishing harbour, which again provides options for viewing the river. Walk along the road on the north side of the tracks to overlook the saltmarsh and creeks of the Carrasqueira Creek. This is pretty good for waders at low tide, but anything can turn up at any time. On the west side of the main road, the creek broadens out and always holds water as it is more-or-less dammed by the road. Lots of coot – often hundreds in winter – along with grebes and other waterbirds spend the winter here. It’s also good for Caspian terns – I’ve seen one on most visits.

Flamingos at Castro Marim
Greater Flamingos at the Castro Marim reserve

Reserva Natural do Sapal de Castro Marim e Vila Real de Santo Antonio

The official title is quite a mouthful, so it’s often just referred to as the Castro Marim reserve. The Carrasqueira Creek forms the southern boundary to this huge area of saltpans – some commercially active, others abandoned. The reserve also includes saltmarsh, fishponds and muddy creeks, bordered by pasture and orchards, and the town of Castro Marim itself.

From Vila Real, follow the busy main road north towards Castro Marim. Then it’s a relief to turn onto a track going west past ruined farm buildings. This is really the only official public access through the reserve away from the road. It takes you past the active saltpans to a minor road on the other side where you can walk south to the Castro Marim station, or north to Castro Marim town. There can be huge numbers of birds here, including flamingos and black-winged stilts. However, if the weather is calm and the tide is out, a good proportion of the birds will be feeding out at sea or on the Rio Guadiana margins. If the weather has been wet, the track can be very slippery, and the salty silt surface sticks to your shoes.

The reserve continues north-east of Castro Marim, but access is more limited. A south-facing pasture near the village is a good place for stone curlews and Iberian hares. Black-winged stilts, black-tailed godwits, curlew sandpipers and other waders feed or roost in the saltpans. There is a reserve information centre not far from the bridge across the Guadiana, but it is not always open. We took a taxi here from Castro Marim, and walked back along a track next to stone-pine plantations.

See also Nature-watching in the Eastern Algarve for more details


Bird hovering in the Algarve
Black-shouldered kite hunting near Cabanas de Tavira

Conceição station

Conceição station serves the community of Cabanas de Tavira, which has a small holiday resort area next to the creeks at the eastern end of the Rio do Formosa Natural Park. You can walk through the town to reach the shore, and access the offshore sand-bars. Or you can follow the track eastwards on the south side of the railway line into the Tavira saltpans. The pans themselves hold large numbers of a variety of waders (shorebirds) in winter, and small birds such as bluethroats and Sardinian warblers occupy the scrubby areas. The tracks will take you eventually to the railway station at Porta Nova – about 5km by the shortest route, but it can take all day if you meander around the saltpans. The black-shouldered kite (above) was hunting over fields just north of the station.


Fuseta-A station

Easy access along roads/tracks by the saltmarsh and saltpans along the coast to the west. However, I have not explored this area yet.


Olhao - a good place for winter birdwatching via the Algarve Railway

Olhão station

Olhão is a town without any obvious nature interest, but follow the track 2km east of the station (all along paved roads) and you come to the headquarters of the Ria Formosa Natural Park at Quinta de Marim. An alternative route via back roads and past the harbour is do-able if you have a map of the town.

The quinta is described as a microcosm of the natural park, with pinewoods, saltpans, saltmarsh, grassland, a freshwater pond, and mudflats. In one corner, the animal hospital takes in injured birds for rehabilitation to the wild. A large building houses exhibitions and offices, while an old mill on the tidal embankments provides a reminder of life in the past.

We’ve seen 50-60 species of birds here on each of our visits, and in February-March a variety of plants and butterflies too. If you are very lucky (and we haven’t been, so far) you may see a chameleon hidden on a pine tree.


Faro Station

The broadest part of the Ria Formosa Natural Park is adjacent to Faro. You can overlook it from Faro Station, or follow paths either way along the shore. If the tide is out, birds can be difficult to see in the channels. The best time is when the tide is rising and pushing birds closer to the shore. Or as it falls and the birds move from their roosting places back out onto the mudflats.

Cormorants at Faro
Large flock of cormorants fishing at Faro

In January 2019, we watched a flock of about 350 cormorants moving out to feed. Those at the front of the flock landed on the water and dived, the next few landed ahead of these and dived, the pattern continuing as the first cormorants surfaced, took off, joined the crowd and flew to the front to repeat the process.


The stations between Faro and Portimao are further inland, and while there is probably some birding interest around them, they are not prime watching sites.


Portimao

The railway line runs past saltpans and saltmarsh near Portimao and Ferragudo, but I don’t know how accessible any of it is on foot/bicycle without being on very busy and fast roads.


small bird in the Algarve
Zitting cisticola – a commonly seen and heard little brown bird.

Mexilhoeira Grande Station

Probably my favourite walk in the Algarve is around the Quinta da Rocha peninsula in the Alvor estuary. From the station, you just follow the tracks westwards, alongside the western marshes, down to the saltpans, and up through the farmland, past the A Rocha environmental education centre at Cruzinha, and back to the station. You can expect to see 50-60 species of birds during a day here, with a few plants, butterflies and other critters even in January. Ospreys, Caspian Terns, Spoonbills, Zitting cisticolas (above), stonechats – just to give an idea of the range of species (and sizes).


Lagos Station

Upstream of the station you come to tidal marshes and old saltpans occupied by stilts and storks and other wildlife. Once you get away from the busy main road, it is quite pleasant. We spent some time in a small marshy area known as Paul de Lagos, listening to Cetti’s warblers, reed warblers, corn buntings, and watching marsh harriers, among many others.

Downstream, the road goes past the marina, and along the canalised river. Terns and cormorants are most common here, but in stormy weather there can be other seabirds. Continue along the road and through the town for about 4km to Ponta da Piedade for more birds and some spectacular coastal scenery.

Another route takes you along the beach (or through the valley behind the hotels) eastwards to Meia Praia station – and beyond that to a shallow lagoon just west of the Alvor Estuary, where we came across over a hundred Mediterranean Gulls feeding. Iberian magpies (below) are abundant in this general area.

Iberian magpie in flight

Lagos is the last station on the line, but a short walk into town will take you to the bus station where you can continue to Sagres and Cape St Vincent – the most south-westerly points of mainland Europe.


Bookshop

Over the last few years, local birdwatcher Goncalo Elias produced am excellent series of birding hotspot books, each covering a particular area of the Algarve. You can still buy these individual volumes, but they have now been combined into a single book.

Each chapter begins with a two-page introduction, which highlights some interesting birds that can be seen in each area and how the hotspots look like. After that, detailed information is provided for each hotspot: a brief description, a list of the most interesting birds that can be found there, and some suggestions on how it can be explored.

The original series certainly allowed us to find more sites and birds in each area than we had previously been aware of.

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

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

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

More nature-watching in the Algarve


Madeira – The Laurel Forest at Ribeiro Frio

Pinterest

Click here to see on Map

The Island of Madeira is a popular stopping point for cruise ships, but where does the naturalist go to make the most of a day ashore?

If the weather is at least reasonable, I’d recommend taking a bus ride north to the mountain village of Ribeiro Frio.  The route winds its way up through Funchal, through commercial forest, then the edge open plateau of the top of the island, then down into the Laurel forest and the village.  

Best to leave the bus at the restaurant at Ribeiro Frio (just south of the village) from where there are several options for walking, birdwatching and botanising.

If this area is in the clouds, you might prefer to continue on the bus to Santana or Porto da Cruz on the north coast.

If the weather is good, another option is to get off the bus at Poiso, and walk the 4km to Pico de Arieiro near the top of the island – best in clear weather.  But leave enough time to walk back to catch the bus back.

The Madeira Islands were known to the Romans as the Purple Islands. It is likely that the Arabian sailors knew about the archipelago in the 14th Century – it appears on a 1351 Florentine map named as “Isola de Lolegname” (Island of Wood).  The official date of discovery is 1419 by Portuguese seamen.  And within the next ten years most of the endemic forests were burnt away to make room for agriculture. Some forest still remains on the steep slopes on the northern half of the island.  This woodland is most easily accessible at Ribeiro Frio.

Ribeiro Frio

Just below the bus stop a track is signposted to “Balcões”  (Balcony or viewpoint) and an easy half-hour walk leads to a magnificent view over a valley.  Alongside the path is the Levada (water channel) do Faial, and a selection of laurel forest plant species, such as Madeira mahogany Persea indica, Bay tree Laurus axorica, Madeira orchid Dactyloriza foliosa, and Yellow foxglove Isoplexis isoplexis.

The balcony itself (a viewpoint) juts out over a 200m drop. If you have visited the site in the past, and been put off by the rather rustic and fragile-looking wooden railings, you’ll be pleased to know they have been replaced by much more sturdy iron ones. Here is probably the best place for birdwatching – the endemic races of sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus granti, kestrel Falco Tinnunculus canariensis, buzzard Buteo buteo harterti, blackbird Turdus merula cabrerae, chaffinch Fringilla coelebs madeirensis, and firecrest Regulus ignicapillus madeirensis and the endemic Trocaz pigeon Columba trocaz can all be seen from here.  However, nothing is guaranteed except perhaps the chaffinches, which have learned that tourists mean food.

The Madeiran chaffinch is similar to the European chaffinch, but the male has much more blue on its flanks. The birds at the Balcões are very tame, and easily bribed with seeds or apples.

On clear days, you can see the the island’s central chain of mountains – Pico de Areeiro, Pico do Gato, Pico das Torres, Pico Ruivo and Achada do Teixeira. Even a cloudy day may allow occasional glimpses:

In the valley below is the Ribeira da Ametade, and it is possible to walk along the track at the bottom from a point some 7km north of Ribeiro Frio. There is no direct way down from the viewpoint.  This whole valley is a protected area within the Madeira Natural Park. 

Trocaz pigeons keep their distance, but can be seen with luck and patience. We saw as many from the restaurant as we did from the Balcões. They are found only in the laurel forest, and numbers are low.

This bright jewel of a bird is the Madeiran firecrest, weighing only 6g (1/4 ounce).  It is continuously active, often hidden in the vegetation, but can be very confiding, as was this individual foraging in the heather by the Balcões.

Adjacent to the gift shop and restaurant is the government trout farm, where the fish are reared to restock the rivers, as well as for food.  Here there is a break in the forest, allowing growth of flowers such as the native Erysimum bicolour to attract butterflies like the Madeiran Brimstone Gonopteryx maderensis 

On the opposite side of the road to the trout farm is the Parque Florestal (Forest Park) – a botanical garden of Laurel forest plants. Over 100 flowering plants are endemic to the island, many of them hidden within the Laurel forest. The Parque Florestal is best visited in late spring and summer, and is especially useful if you don’t have time to look for the plants in the wild, or want to check the identity of something, as most are labelled. It’s open all day, every day, with no charge for entrance.

Madeira has three species of endemic cranesbills, all with large pink flowers from spring to winter. The Madeiran cranesbill Geranium maderense (above) is endemic to the island’s Laurel forests and has flowers of 3 – 4cm diameter.

By the trout farm, concrete steps lead up to a levada path which takes you to another kind of forest – full heather trees.

Tree heath Erica arborea (above) has small leaves and white flowers with red anthers and stgmas.  It grows well above 700m, and old specimens can be 5m tall.  It was formerly used for charcoal-making, becoming quite a scarce plant.

Besom Heath Erica Scoparia maderincola (left) also grows to tree proportions, and these two species are often found growing together.   Besom heath has broader, longer needle-like leaves, and reddish bell-shaped flowers. It grows from sea level to to 1400m, and plays an important role on the island, condensing the mist into small drops that feed the water tables.  Its wood was formerly used in furniture-making, and it is still used to make brooms (hence the name besom) and fencing hurdles.  The latter are especially characteristic in the landscape around Port Moniz in the north-west of the island.

Going west from the Ribeiro Frio restaurant, is the Levada do Furado to Portela (above). This 12km hike is considered to be one of the best on the island, but involves steep drops and rock-cut tunnels, so is not for the faint-hearted.  

You also need to be aware of the time in order to be sure of catching the bus back to Funchal at the end. If you suffer from vertigo, you can still do the first kilometre or so of the walk, then turn back to Ribeiro Frio when you’ve had enough.

Further information

Tripadvisor lists a number of tour operators who provide guided walking and driving tours which may include wildlife.

Wildlife specialist operators include MadeiraWindBirds. We went on a night watch with them to see petrels and shearwaters coming to their nests after dark, and found them to be excellent and helpful guides.

Bookshop

On our first visit in 1996, we found a few books about the cultivated plants on Madeira, but nothing about the natural history.  

In 2006 this had changed, with the publication of a delightful book called Madeira’s Natural History in a nutshell by Peter Sziemer and available in several European languages. Note that this book is probably a lot cheaper to buy in Madeira than from elsewhere.

Click on the book covers for more information. We have used the ones that were available at the time of our last visit in 2016. (Buying from this source earns me a small commission, at no extra cost to you, that goes towards the cost of this website)

Levada Walks

Walking the paths beside the levadas (water channels) is a popular past-time.  If you plan to take any of these paths, please make sure you have up-to-date information.  We followed one from a 1996 book, and found the end of it had changed due to building and road works.  Another one we had followed in 1996 and found a bit hairy then, was no longer considered a safe route in 2014.

The original Levada-walking guide was Landscapes of Madeira which is frequently updated, and is now also available as a pdf for use on tablets, etc.  We would recommend this, but have not tried any of the other books now on the market.


More about the Atlantic Islands

Parque Nacional del Teide

Mount Teide National Park, on the Canary Island of Tenerife, is the highest volcano in Spain, and in the Atlantic. Here’s how to get to the top.

Lanzarote walking

Walking from Peurto del Carmen to the Playa Quemada with views of the Monumento Natural de Los Ajaches.

Nature-watching in the Eastern Algarve

Why the eastern Algarve – and where is it?

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

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

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

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

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

Best sites for birdwatching in the Eastern Algarve

The beach at Monte Gordo

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

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

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

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

Mata Nacional da Dunas Litorais de Vila Real de Santo Antonio

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

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

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

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

Esteiro da Carrasqueira (Carrasqueira estuary)

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

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

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

The harbour at Vila Real de Santo António

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

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

Castro Marim Reserve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tavira Saltpans

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

Freshwater pool at Olhao, from the hide.

Rio Formosa Visitor Centre at Olhao

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

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

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

So there you have it

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


Books

Click on book covers for more information

book cover - Tavira

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Black-winged stilt flying across a salt-pan at Castro Marim reserve

More nature-watching in the Algarve

Flamingos at Castro Marim

Summer in the Algarve is hot

Summer in the Algarve is hot – temperatures in the forties in the shade – and any breeze is welcome though even that is likely to come from the hot Sahara to the south. Very occasionally, it rains.

Early mornings can be cool, even overcast and grey. Carpenter bees and bumblebees buzz around whatever flowers they can find. Purple bugloss Echium plantagineum, thyme Thymus spp, wild carrot Daucus carota, sea daffodil Pancratium maritimum, Sea Hollies Eryngium spp to name a few. But most seem to have gone to seed, or shrivelled up in the heat.

Most of the butterflies are browns – meadow brown, wall brown, southern gatekeeper, speckled wood, skippers – species that depend on grasses for the caterpillar food plants. The occasional flash of colour from an Adonis blue, a swallowtail, or even a Bath white is welcome.

Birds, too, are best looked for in the early morning – before the heat haze turns them into misshapen ripples of colour in the distance. On the saltpans and estuaries waders are returning south – the first wave being those adults that have failed to breed successfully and are now going south without youngsters in tow. Another few weeks and the family groups will appear.

Dragonflies mass around the shrinking pools and diminishing streams. The narrow bodies of these colourful jewels can be surprisingly hard to see amongst the browning stems and leaves of plants.

European pond terrapins coast themselves with mud to prevent sunburn – and as the mud dries, the evaporation of water keeps them cool.

Daytime is siesta time – for wildlife as well as humans. Nothing wants to move if it doesn’t have to. Out on the sand dunes, the heat is accentuated by the fragrance of curry – from the yellow flowers of the curry plant Helichrysum italicum. Holes, burrows, houses, anywhere that provides shade is cool – comparatively speaking. Sandhill snails Theba pisana move up the stems of plants to aestivate (wait out the hot dry period) away from the heat of the ground.

Inland, there is still a variety of small birds skulking in the olive groves, citrus groves and wherever else they can find shade and food. Finches appear magically as the heat goes out of the day, to feed on grass and thistle seeds. At dusk nightjars and owls still call in defence of their breeding territories.

Yes, Summer in the Algarve is hot. Very hot. And it’s probably best left to the tourists.

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

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

More nature-watching in the Algarve