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 about nature-watching in the Algarve


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

Other posts about nature-watching in Portugal