Birdwatching in Hungary in Spring-Summer

Why Hungary?

With a scenic landscape of wooded hills and endless flat plains, dotted with reed-fringed lakes and cut by the mighty Danube River, it is not surprising to find that Hungary is one of Europe’s best wildlife destinations.

It has abundant and varied birdlife, and also has much to offer in terms of butterflies and other wildlife. 

And then there is a rich folklore, culture, wines and food.

In early May the resident birds are joined by migrating waders, warblers and raptors on their way further north and the woods are alive with birdsong.

While there is plenty to explore, for those on a time-limited trip, probably the best places are the forested Zemplen Hills and the Bukk National Park in the north-east, and the lowland steppe, grassland and farmlands of the Kiskunság and Hortobágy National Parks.

Kiskunság National Park

Just an hour’s drive from Budapest, the Kiskunság National Park is a tranquil lowland region of steppe, sandy dunes, farmland and wooded copses. It is one of Hungary’s most important areas for the great bustard, which should be displaying in April and May.  Collared pratincoles breed here, whilst the ponds and gravel pits attract three species of marsh terns, plus red-crested pochard, ferruginous duck, garganey and pygmy cormorant. The reedbeds are home to moustached, Savi’s and great reed warblers, whilst overhead you can see Montagu’s harrier, saker falcon and red-footed falcon. Keep an eye on utility wires for roller and lesser grey shrike.  An evening walk could well produce scops owl, long-eared owl and nightjar.

Eagle Owl

Zemplen Hills

North-east of Kiskunság, the Zemplen protected landscape is characterised by dense broad-leaved forests, traditionally farmed fields, flowering meadows and vineyards. Nine species of woodpecker (including the rare white-backed woodpecker) can be found here. This is the best area for Ural and eagle owls. It is also rich in other birds of prey, with goshawk, eastern imperial, short-toed and lesser spotted eagles all breeding. While corncrakes are more likely to be heard than seen, there will be many more obvious birds to enjoy such as woodlark, red-backed shrike, black redstart, barred warbler and golden oriole to name but a few.

Lesser Spotted Eagle

Bükk National Park

The hills and forests of Hungary’s largest national park include important geological features, as well as some 90 species of breeding birds.

In the abandoned, uneven-aged forest, woodpeckers and flycatchers are common.  Eight species of woodpecker are resident here including Syrian, lesser-spotted, middle-spotted, white-backed, grey-headed and the mighty black woodpecker, and wrynecks are now back from their wintering areas.  Other species include hawfinch, turtle dove, yellowhammer, corn bunting, both short-toed and common treecreepers, Eurasian tree sparrow, marsh tit, the white-headed form of long-tailed tit, serin, barred warbler and black redstart. This area is remote and unspoiled enough to have black stork, saker falcon, and imperial, golden, lesser-spotted and short-toed eagles breeding. White storks are obvious on their huge nests in villages while black storks are a little harder to find.  Evenings sounds are dominated by owls, especially the crooning of Eurasian eagle owls.

And of course, there are plenty of plants, butterflies and other wildlife too.

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker

Hortobágy National Park

Probably the best-known of the Hungarian National Parks, the Hortobágy is the foremost wildlife region of the country and one of Europe’s most valuable ecological areas. It is a flat land of distant horizons, small woodlands and reed-fringed fish ponds, but dominated by the lowland semi-steppe and grassland known as the ‘puszta’.

The grasslands are home to an abundance of small mammals, including the souslik (a kind of ground squirrel) and insects, making this an excellent area for long-legged buzzards, imperial eagles, Montagu’s harriers and saker and red-footed falcons.  Great bustards, stone curlews, collared pratincoles and white-winged terns can be found here. White storks nest on the roofs of cottages, flocks of gaggling white geese, shepherds with their scruffy ‘puli’ dogs, are all part of the atmosphere of the puszta, an area which is steeped in folklore and myth.

The huge complexes of fishponds that dot the Hortobágy are rich in breeding marshland birds and are a magnet for migrating waders and passerines. In May, the reedbeds are a cacophony of song, from the loud, harsh notes of great reed Warblers, to the sweeter, mellow songs of marsh and moustached warblers and the reeling of Savi’s warblers. Adjacent to the fishponds are sedge beds which are also home to the beautiful, but sadly declining, aquatic warbler. By early May the herons and egrets are nesting in their large raucous colonies. As well as spoonbill, great egret, purple heron and glossy ibis, the secretive bittern also occurs, and can often be heard booming from the surrounding reedbeds. Other interesting species include whiskered tern, black-necked grebe and pygmy cormorant.

Collared Pratincoles

Fertő-Hanság National Park

Fertő is the Hungarian name for the Neusiedler See (Tő = Lake).  The two national parks are part of the same ecosystem – based around the lake and the surrounding landscapes. The reedbeds are extensive, and good for a variety of heron species. Shoveler and ferruginous ducks breed there, as do black-tailed godwits and Kentish plovers. Reedbed warblers are common, and it’s probably the best place in Hungary for moustached warblers which may stay right through until October. National Park website


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.


Resources

Hungarian Tourist Information

Hungary travel guide (Wikitravel)

Birding Pals in Hungary – links to local birders

Hungarian-based websites/tour operators

Farm Lator is an eco-friendly farmhouse accommodation & campsite located in North-eastern Hungary. It is run by an English-speaking wildlife guide offering various nature holidays for independent travellers and groups. They cater for birdwatching, butterflies and moths, general natural history, wildlife photography tours/workshops, mammal trips and family holidays.

Hungarianbirdwatching.com is an association of young, enthusiastic birders who organise birding tours and birdwatching holidays in Hungary and in Budapest. Their birding tours are highly customised to your needs.

Birding Hungary – for bird sightings

Ecotours organise a variety of natural history tours in Eastern Europe. Their Kondor EcoLodge offers a unique place at the westernmost edge of the Eurasian Steppe to discover the special mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, butterflies, moths, dragonflies, other invertebrates, wildflowers and other natural values of the “Hungarian Puszta” or flat grassland.

Saker Tour specialise in bird and bird photography holidays in Eastern Europe – their blog gives an idea of what you are likely to see from their photography hides in the Hortobágy

The Axios Delta National Park

Or, to give it its full title: The National Park of the Deltas of Axios – Loudias – Aliakmonas

Why visit the Axios Delta?

Being close to Thessaloniki, it is fairly accessible

  • 299 species of birds, in other words 66% of the species observed in Greece today, of which 106 nest
  • 350 species and subspecies of plants
  • 40 species of mammals
  • 18 species of reptiles
  • 9 species of amphibians
  • 7 species of invertebrates
  • 25 habitats, of which two are priority habitats on a European level

About the delta area

Given its location on one of the main migratory routes in Europe, it’s not surprising that thousands of water birds stop in this wetland in order to feed and rest. Important numbers of waterbirds (at a European level) gather here during the winter. It’s not just the sheer number of individual birds that is impressive. A total of 299 species of birds have been documented in this area – that is, 66% of all bird species observed to be present in Greece. Of those 299 species, 106 nest here.

Parts of the area were designated a Ramsar Site in 1975 – when it was described as an extensive river delta including brackish lagoons, saltmarshes, and large areas of mudflats. Vegetation consists of scrub, riparian forest, wet meadows, reedbeds, and halophytic communities. 30 freshwater fish species occur in the river. An extremely important area for nesting and migrating waterbirds.

Thanks to its considerable ecological importance, this area is included in the Natura 2000 network of European ecological regions. The largest part of this protected area has been listed as a National Park since 2009 – it comprises 33.800 hectares, including the deltas and the estuaries of four rivers, the Lagoon of Kalochori and the Alykes Kitrous, the wetland of Nea Agathoupoli and the riverbed of Axios, reaching upstream to the Elli dam.

The importance of the delta area goes well beyond just the wildlife. It offers multiple benefits to man, for example a water for water supply and irrigation, it protects the inhabited and rural areas from flooding, regulates the climate, provides food, as well as allowing for research, education and recreation.

There is a lot more useful information on the Axios National Park website.

The red pointer is the location of the national park information centre. Alyki Kitrous is at the bottom (left of centre).

When to visit

Winter and spring are generally considered the best times to visit for birds. However, the autumn period is great for passage migrants – I visited in September, and it was pretty spectacular – 100 species in four days of just enjoying being there rather than trying to see as many species as possible. The greatest numbers of birds are seen in winter. The rice fields are flooded in late spring, providing food for the breeding birds, especially herons, egrets and cormorant. Avoid the summer it can be blisteringly hot, and generally unpleasant except at dawn and dusk.

There was certainly an abundance of dragonflies, mostly Sympetrum species, in September. However, the best time for plants, butterflies and insects in general is probably a bit earlier in the year.

At almost any time of year, the weather can change between hot and cold from one day to another. The Meltemi, a cold wind coming off the mountains to the north, is responsible for this. While the Meltemi can make the heat more bearable, at other times a warm and windproof coat is worth packing.

Note that most of the area is farmland criss-crossed with dykes and dirt roads used by farm vehicles. Most of the roads are drive-able in dry weather, but can be slippery (and treacherous) after rain, and there is a good chance of getting bogged down after prolonged wet weather. Even those that have tarmac are often damaged by heavy tractors and farm machinery.

Sousliks are a kind of ground squirrel. They fill a similar niche to rabbits in western Europe and marmots in the Alps, in terms of eating grass and digging burrows. They were once widespread across eastern Europe, but are becoming scarce. The Axios Delta is one of the best places to see them.

Best places to visit

Kalochori Lagoon

Kalochori village is easily accessible by bus from Thessaloniki, and footpaths lead from there to the lagoon. In winter there are flamingos, great flocks of them. And from autumn to spring there are plenty of waders (shorebirds) too – avocets, black-winged stilts, Kentish plovers, to name just a few. In recent years, water buffalo have been introduced to the area.

Gallikos river estuary

Avocets, black-winged stilts, common terns and little terns breed on the Gallikos estuary, which is accessible via footpaths from the Kalochori area, or further upstream. It also provides breeding areas for smaller birds – Cetti’s and other warblers – and herons. Ospreys and other raptors, and a whole variety of waders stop by on migration, and then there are wildfowl in winter.

White-tailed eagle

Axios RiverMavroni river mouthLoudias EstuaryAliakmonas Delta

As I was researching this area, making notes from my experiences and trying to update them from various websites, I discovered a page on the Axios Delta website that suggests several worthwhile routes through this main expanse of the delta, and what you might see on each.

Most of it is a rice-growing area. Rice fields attract lots of amphibians and fish, and these in turn attract lots of herons, as well as other waterbirds. The herons are particularly numerous – a census in 2015 estimated that this mixed colony of little egrets, night herons, squaccos, as well as cormorants, pygmy cormorants, spoonbills and glossy ibises (below), held over 2,500 nests!

Glossy ibis

Nea Agathoupoli

Nea Agathoupoli is at the western end of the main part of the national park. From the village, a track leads north to an observation tower from where you can overlook the Aliakmonas delta.  The tower is open only for limited periods, but there is plenty to be seen from the track as you pass scrub, salt flats, drainage channels, orchards, and a variety of other crops.  Beyond the tower, the track links with a network of other tracks (of varying quality) across the area, so plenty of opportunity for finding birds and other wildlife.

This area is host to thousands of mallard, teals, pochards, wigeon, mallard, pintail, gadwall and shoveler in winter. Herons, glossy ibis, shelduck, Kentish plover, Dalmatian pelican and white-tailed eagle are also seen here. And it’s also good for spur-thighed tortoises, water snakes, green lizards and dragonflies.

Common pratincoles are a regular attraction at the Alyki Kitrous

Alyki Kitrous

Alyki is Greek for saltpans, or salinas. The lagoon and saltworks at Kitrous are some 20km south of the main part of the national park. This site seems to be particularly good a migration periods. Access to the actual saltworks is limited, but you can walk around the lagoon and along the shore.

The park boasts eighteen species of reptile, including a large population of Hermann’s tortoise near the Alyki Kitrous.

So, there you have it

My guide to the Axios Delta National Park.

For my first visit in 1989, I had only sketch maps provided by other birdwatchers – in particular, Dave Gosney’s Finding Birds in Northern Greece. The book has been updated since then, but now, with the availability of Google maps and aerial photos, I get a much clearer image of where to go and what I missed previously.

The area was declared a national park in 2009, and now has a national park information office and visitor centre at Chalastra, so I expect that on my next visit, I’ll learn a lot more about the place.


Bookshop

There are a few books available that are specific to Greece. Birding in Greece is about bird-watching sites produced by the Greek Ornithogical Society. The finding birds book is the updated version of the book I used on my initial travels. (click on the cover for more information)

Most of the other books I have used are now out of print, but the general ones for Europe, shown below, are perfectly adequate.

This is the standard flora for Greece.

First published in 1987, this guide lists many of the richest plant-hunting areas in southeast Europe at first hand, and each description is accompanied by several line drawings.

Names and describes almost 3,000 species of flowering plants in the region.

However, it is a key, and if you prefer to ID your flowers from pictures, then there are other books that might suit better, but are not as comprehensive.

Note that buying books through these links earns a small commission (at no extra cost to you) that goes towards the cost of maintaining this website.


Other posts about Greece

Nature amongst the ruins at Delphi

Delphi may be best-known for the ruins of an ancient Greek settlement, but it is also a wonderful place for plants and insects. Best to visit in spring, before the vegetation is strimmed and tidied-up for the summer visitors.

Keep reading

Albania in Spring

Why Albania

Despite being a small country, Albania, especially in spring, displays huge biodiversity. The countryside is alive with plants, birds, insects, mammals, rivers, lakes, green countryside

I have not yet been to Albania, though I have looked across the border from Greece, Macedonia and Montenegro (top photo). That was back in the day when Albania was closed off from the outside world, when Communism was the order of the day in the Balkans, and the internet did not exist.

Now, things have changed. Albania is emerging as a tourist destination, and for its natural values as well as for the cultural aspects of the country. This post was prompted by somebody sending me a link to a brochure on issuu.com. That led me to a few more booklets of various kinds stacked here

According to the Natura.al website:

Although a small country, Albania is very rich in biological diversity. The tremendous diversity of ecosystems and habitats supports about 3,200 species of vascular plants, 2,350 species of non-vascular plants, and 15,600 species of invertebrates and vertebrates, many of which are threatened at the global or European level.

Albania has recently made significant progress in expanding the network of protected areas from 5.2% of the country’s territory in 2005 to 16% in 2014. The 799 protected areas cover about 16% (4,600 km²) of its territory. The majority of them have been designated in the category nature monument (750) and are mostly quite small in size.

Recommended places to visit

Wikipedia gives information about 14 national parks and one marine park. One of these, Prespa National Park, is shared with Greece and Macedonia.

Subalpine Warbler

Divjaka-Karavasta National Park is halfway along the coast. It includes the 4,000-hectare Karavasta lagoon, the largest in the country with 5% of the world’s breeding Dalmatian Pelicans. Elsewhere marshes and shallow pools are teeming with other life. Garganey and greater flamingoes can be present in their hundreds. Pygmy cormorants, marsh sandpipers and Caspian terns, to name but a few. The surrounding pinewoods are home to collared flycatchers, subalpine warblers (above) and nightingales.

Kentish Plover

The Vjosë- Nartë protected area south of Karavasta comprises a huge complex of saltpans and coastal dunes around the Nartë lagoon. It’s a magnet for migrating birds and can offer some of the best wader-watching in Europe, with black-winged stilts, avocets, spotted redshanks, Kentish plovers (above), stints and sandpipers in abundance. You can also expect to see slender-billed gulls, collared pratincoles, stone curlews, bee-eaters and hoopoes.

Green-winged Orchid. Anacamptis morio

The Valbonë Valley National Park lies in the Albanian Alps and next to the border with Montenegro. It is another area with a wealth of natural history, and some good mountain hiking. Brown bears and wolves are present, but elusive and hard to see. Chamois, hazel grouse, rock partridge and black woodpecker are rather more obliging. This area is also wonderfully rich botanically: meadows of green-winged orchid (above), beech woodland with Coralroot and Bird’s-nest Orchids . . . and the list goes on.

Desarashimi1, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Dajte National Park

The Dajti National Park (above) lies to the east of the capital, Tirana. It is an extensive, forested mountain range featuring waterfalls, canyons & caves. A bus ride, followed by a fifteen-minute scenic cablecar ride takes you from the capital to the park. A new visitor centre welcomes tourists and visitors at the “Natural Balcony of Tirana”.

“Preserving natural resources and raising awareness about the rich biodiversity of Albania is fundamental for the development of a more environmental-friendly tourism model and culture. The kind of tourism that builds on nature conservation to support sustainable development,” stated Ambassador Soreca during the inauguration ceremony.

“Dajti Visitor Centre is the seventh centre built around Protected Areas in Albania. They are serving not just as information centres but as communication bridges which will support sustainable tourism development,” said Minister of Tourism and Environment Blendi Klosi. (This was from a news release on the NATUR.AL Website)

So, the government is taking nature tourism seriously, and that effort will probably only be sustained if it is supported by people visiting these places.

Bookshop

Click on the covers below for more information. There are few books specifically about Albanian nature. Books about the Balkans or the eastern Mediterranean areas in general will help. Also check the Albania nature website for booklets and leaflets in English which may be relevant.

Albania book cover

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 resources

  • To understand more about travelling in Albania, here is a blog post (with links to others) that is well worth reading.
  • If your trip includes time in the capital, Tirana, here is a blog post full of suggestions for things to do there
  • Kami provides some useful tips for travelling in the country
  • Chasing the donkey blog has a post on the national parks of Albania
  • Wikitravel also has a lot of background information for independent travellers
  • Responsible Travel has plenty of ideas for more organised trips and eco-volunteering
  • Naturetrek offers two tours – one in April which is more bird focussed, while the late May alternative has more botanical and butterfly interest.
The Golden Eagle is the national bird of Albania

Vultures at the Hoces del Duratón

Why visit the Hoces del Duratón Natural Park?

Fantastic scenery looking into this 25km long miniature ‘Grand Canyon’ in the middle of Spain – Hoces = gorges/canyons

  • 400-500 pairs of red-billed chough
  • 500 pairs of griffon vultures
  • golden eagles, peregrine falcons
  • Summer visitors include Egyptian vultures, goshawks, booted and short-toed eagles, and bee-eaters
  • Blue rock thrush, eagle owl,
  • Herons, kingfishers and dippers along the river
  • Dupont’s lark and black wheatear on the plains above the gorge.

Easy walking along the river

Abundant flowers and butterflies in the spring and summer

About the Hoces del Rio Duratón Natural Park

Along some 27 kilometres of its course, the Duratón River cuts through the limestone rock, reaching a depth of over one hundred metres in some places. The cliffs hosts huge population of cliff-nesting birds. An area of over 5000 hectares was declared Natural Park in 1989 to protect these birds. It is a Special Protection Area under the European Birds Directive, and is included in the Natura 2000 network.

Hoces del Río Duratón Natural Park lies about an hour’s drive to the north of Segovia, or two hours north of Madrid.

The canyon of the Duraton has been dammed to provide water for Madrid.

How to enjoy nature at the Hoces del Duratón

Information centre in Sepúlveda

I’d usually start by visiting an information centre, but I was with an organised group and local guides, so did not need to visit. There are mixed reviews of the Casa del Parque de las Hoces del Río Duratón in the Iglesia de Santiago (separate to the Sepúlveda tourism information centre), and the website is in Spanish only. You have to go there to get a permit for hiking through the restricted areas in the vulture breeding season. They do provide maps, leaflets, and guides on-line as well as at the centre itself. Displays include information about the geology and nature of the park, and in particular of the griffon vulture, or the EL BUITRE LEONADO as it is called in Spanish.

From Sepúlveda it is a 20 minute hike to the Puente de Talcano – an old Roman Bridge – from where you can join the footpath alongside the river. The landscape here is pleasant, the walking easy, and there is plenty for the nature-watcher to linger over. The path goes 10km to the Puente de Villaseca where there is a cafe, and then you return via the same route.

The Puente de Villaseca.

Of course you can do the above walk in reverse, starting at the Puenta Vellaseca. Or you can take a shorter hike along the Senda de la Mollinilla further downstream from here. There is limited parking space, so our coach dropped us here, and went off somewhere else for most of the day.

It was amazing to get out of the coach and be face-to-face with a griffon vulture (above) – almost too close to photograph with a long lens. It was probably a young bird, inquisitive about the world around. When it flew off, it tried landing in a tree, and found itself stuck there amongst the branches for a while, but eventually managed to escape.

The area between the bridge and just beyond the cafe is more open, and is an excellent area for plants, butterflies and other insects.

View of the 12th century Romanesque chapel of San Frutos

The Hermitage of San Frutos

Watching the vultures at the Hoces del Duratón Natural Park is easy, even if you don’t want to hike along the river. Further downstream, and not far from the dam across the Rio Duraton, an ancient hermitage sits on a rock promontory. It overlooks a look in the part of the canyon and the views are fantastic. It is a popular place for general visitors, so a large car-parking area has been provided about 1km away.

Cardinal Butterfly Argynnis pandora

The track from the car park proved to be good for butterflies. This Cardinal was the biggest of them. Unfortunately at the end of October, most were looking quite worn and tatty. Nine species (including hermit, Bath white, mallow skipper and Spanish chalk-hill blue) during our short visit is surely an excuse to go back for more. There were few flowers to provide nectar at this time of year, but a visit earlier in the year will be productive.

But the real stars of the show were the griffon vultures. They flew above the cliffs, below the cliffs, and zoomed past at head height almost close enough to touch. Some cliffs still held nesting pairs – or at least the chicks that were now almost full grown. It was very hot, with hardly any wind, so the cliffs were baking. For the vultures, the best place to be was high up, circling in the thermals, reaching for the cooler air at higher altitudes.

A kettle of vultures, circling overhead

If you’ve never seen a griffon, or any other vulture, close-up, this is the place to come. You won’t see them fighting over carcasses because the food is out on the plains. They can travel vast distances in search of food, and will return to the nest with as much as they can carry in their crops (this is a chamber in the throat – so they don’t carry food in their talons/feet) to feed the chicks.

A dipper in the stream at the bottom of the canyon

In search of other birds

Three main habitats dominate the area – the riverine woodland, the cliffs, and the plains above the canyon. In the spring and summer, the woodland is full of a variety of birds. Even in October, we managed a respectable list here – including short-toed treecreeper and dipper.

The open plains have a more specialist range of birds, including Dupont’s, Calandra and Thekla larks, stone curlew, and several kinds of wheatear. There is little shade here, except in the patches of pine and juniper woodland. But these woodlands do provide for hoopoes, owls, Iberian (azure-winged) magpies, amongst many others.

Theckla lark keeping an eye out for danger

So there you have it

We were in Segovia for a conference, and this trip to watch vultures at the Hoces del Duratón Natural Park was organised as part of that. However, it is easy to visit by car, and day trips by coach are available from Segovia and from Madrid – check at the tourist information centres.

Obviously, visiting under you own steam means you can do more exploring. Our guide pointed out the general area for Dupont’s larks – best looked for in spring when they are singing. We just missed the Egyptian vultures, as they were on their way south for winter. For these and the other summer visitors, we need to visit earlier in the year.

However, note that the main vulture breeding areas are not freely accessible from January to June. Contact the visitor centre in advance if you are planning to visit at this time. Of course, you’ll still be able to see the vultures in the air at any time.

November to March can be decidedly chilly. May to September can be hot. Even early October was hot. As we headed back to the coach at 5pm, the heat was going out of the day. More and more people were streaming along the path to the Ermita de San Frutos to look at the vultures.

Useful resources:

  • Local tour guides – Vultour Naturaleza – I don’t know anything about them, but their website suggests they could be worth trying.
  • Wingspan Bird Tours do short break trips from the UK to the Madrid area. Again I don’t know anything about the company.

Two excellent books (I have them both) about birds and nature, including Duraton. Click on the covers for more information.

Buying books through these links brings a small commission, at no extra cost to you, that helps with the maintenance of this website.

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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.

A winter day at Santoña Marshes

Coming off the ferry at Santander, you need a place to stretch your legs and get on with the birdwatching.  I recommend the Santoña Marshes.

The Parque Natural de Santoña Victoria y Joyel, to give it its full name, was designated in 1992. The 6,500ha (25sq miles) is an outstanding area of estuary, marshland, freshwater and other habitats – considered to be one of the wetlands of most ecological value in the north of Spain. It attracts more than 20,000 birds of 120 different species, as well as being home to small mammals and a unique flora. 

The winter birds include a good number that come from Northern Europe to escape the harsher winter weather. These include divers, grebes, cormorants, herons, spoonbills, geese, ducks, waders, gulls and terns.  

The best way to see the marshes is to follow the established route that runs over the docks of the Marsh of Bengoa, north of the town of Santoña and along a road that runs parallel to the C-629 road. This easy 2.3km route can be traveled in about 2 hours – depending on how often you stop to look at the birds! And then there are other, longer routes – we also took one of them and made a whole day of it.

Three fairly short rivers flow into the bay at Santoña and Laredo, and saltmarsh is creeping onto the mudflats exposed at low tide. Sheltered from Atlantic storms by the limestone massif of Monte Buciero at the harbour mouth, the bay attracts sun seekers in summer and flocks of migrant wildfowl and waders in winter.

Spoonbills (above) stop here on migration, and shelduck have taken a liking to the place in recent years, though there were none of the latter to be seen today. The marshes are the principal site on the north coast for grey plover, dunlin, greenshank and curlew. The most numerous species that we saw was wigeon (top photo) – thousands of them – settled quietly on the water.

We parked in Santoña and walked. About half way along there was an area surrounded by a dyke and partly drained.  It had a few healthy-looking ponds and willow scrub in the wetter part

Eucalyptus

A small eucalyptus plantation occupied the drier area. The trees were regenerating, but there was no under-storey since the ground was carpeted with slow-decomposing eucalyptus leaves which inhibits the growth of other species.

Eucalyptus was introduced to Europe in 1804, within a few years of the discovery of Australia.  It was soon found to grow well on deforested land where the soil was so thin and badly eroded that few other tree-species could find sufficient sustenance. Throughout the nineteenth century it spread on eroding, near-desert, lands around the Mediterranean, serving as windbreaks, providing welcome shade and stabilising the soils. It is only relatively recently that its use in forestry has become important, the wood is ideal for pulping to make paper, and on less impoverished soils the trees grows very quickly.

Like most introduced species, the eucalyptus has a reputation for being no good for birds: and the few birds that we did see or hear were well-hidden by the evergreen (or should that be ever-grey) leaves.

Fishing – the human side

While the tide was low there were a number of people out on the marshes, variously fishing, digging or probing for whatever was there. We watched a couple of fishermen under a bridge. They baited a wok-shaped basket with a sizeable piece of fish.  Then they slowly lowered the basket, with the aid of a forked stick and a rope,  into the water and laid on a ledge or mudbank. After a few minutes it was slowly pulled out of the water and the catch of crabs and crayfish was emptied into another wicker basket.  Traditional methods of fishing are still allowed here since the marshes were declared a natural reserve in 1992.

The estuary of the Asón (the largest of the three rivers that flows into site) is also an important spawning/fishing area for sea ​​bass, red mullet, sea bream, sole and eel and Atlantic salmon. Shellfish are farmed here, and the development of the canning industry for anchovies and sardines is part of the economic activity of this area.

Birdwatching

It was mid-December, and our day at the Santoña Marshes was grey and murky with neither wind nor sun, but some drizzle in the afternoon.  At least we didn’t have to contend with the glare of the sun bouncing off the water

The tide was coming in and bringing with it a juvenile red-throated diver (above) and an adult great northern diver which we were able to study at much closer than usual quarters. The red-throated looked small and finely built compared with the heavy angular great northern. The latter swam mostly in a hunched posture, but then took to preening, followed by a fishing session. For this it swam around with its head and neck stretched along the water surface, then dived, sometimes coming up with a crab.

Four red-breasted mergansers flew in and spent most of the time vigorously stirring up the mud and shallow water. Eider and scoter also moved up-stream, some of the female and juvenile scoter looking almost chestnut in colour.

An adult Mediterranean gull roosted on the mudflat, then became active as the tide disturbed it. It walked a few metres and picked up an amorphous lump from the mud, took it to a nearby puddle and washed it thoroughly several times, then shook it vigorously for a few seconds before swallowing it whole. This species’ winter diet consists mainly of molluscs and marine fish.

Two little egrets fished close to the shore: one moving slowly and deliberately, stirring up mud with its foot, the other more energetic, rushing from side to side and flapping its wings to disturb prey. The first one seemed more successful. Later a dozen egrets joined a feeding frenzy of gulls, cormorants and herons. At high tide they all roosted together on a half-submerged wreck.

Among the waders common sandpiper and whimbrel were of particular note as we were now in their wintering areas. Some of the bar tailed godwit had cinnamon plumage on their necks, breast and scapulars indicating they were juveniles.

Out on the open channels, about forty black-necked grebe (above) were roosting or preening. As the tide brought them in, they dispersed into smaller groups and began feeding. Often a group dived together, leaving the water empty. They were quite noisy, calling to each other with high pitched whistles. If a bird surfaced alone, it sometimes got quite frantic, whistling loudly and paddling around to find its mates. Their rather contrasty plumage made the little grebe look quite drab.

A peregrine flew in, calling, and settled atop an electricity pylon to watch the world go by. We made our way back to the camper through drizzle.

Resources for visitors

Two excellent books (I have them both) about birds and nature, including the Santoña Marshes. Click on the covers for more information.

Buying books through these links brings a small commission, at no extra cost to you, that helps with the maintenance of this website.

The local tourist website has more information about accommodation etc, and a down-loadable leaflet about the reserve.  However, it is now available in Spanish only.

Brittany Ferries and others go to Santander – 15km to the west and the closest port to Santoña.  There is the chance of seeing cetaceans and seabirds as you cross the Bay of Biscay


Wikitravel For information about travelling in Spain

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


Winter birdwatching in Bulgaria

Why Bulgaria in Winter

Bulgaria in winter tends to be cold, with temperatures often a few degrees below freezing for days on end, and snow more likely than rain.  The climate along the Black Sea coast, however, tends to be less severe. So tens of thousands of geese and other wildfowl spend the winter here.

The greatest numbers of geese are seen in January and February, but January is still the hunting season, and the birds are often unsettled.  So, February is a better time for a visit.

The northern-most part of the Black Sea coast (near Romania) has been dubbed Bulgaria’s ‘Geeseland’. This is where the main roosts of the geese, the lakes of Shabla and Durankulak, are located. The southern Bulgarian Black Sea also provides wintering grounds for Dalmatian pelicans, pygmy cormorants, various species of ducks, shorebirds, gulls, raptors, owls, woodpeckers, and many smaller birds.

The less severe climate on the southern Bulgarian Black Sea also provides wintering grounds for Dalmatian Pelicans, Pygmy Cormorants, various species of ducks, shorebirds, gulls, raptors, owls, woodpeckers and many smaller birds.

Red-breasted Goose

Shabla Lake complex

Located on the northern part of the Black Sea coast, the Shabla Lake complex is of  European importance for the conservation of rare and endangered habitats.  The coastal freshwater and brackish lakes, sandy beaches and reedbeds are used by thousands of birds as roosts during migration or while wintering.

Located on the Via Pontica – a major bird migration route in Europe – the lake complex attracts a huge number of migratory waterfowl. It is famous for the huge concentrations of red-breasted geese and greater white-fronted geese. These come from the tundra of Europe and Asia to overwinter. The mild winters, coupled with safe roosting lakes and large arable areas where they can feed, bring in about three-quarters of the global population of red-breasted geese (up to 30,000) for the season.

The migration of red-breasted geese is currently being studied by satellite tracking. Several birds have been fitted with GPS devices that transmit information every day. This allows their movements to be followed in detail – through Georgia, Kazakhstan, and then north to the Russian Arctic coast. This also encourages interest in local wildlife in schools etc en route. For more information, check the project website.

For more information, see Shabla Lake – Important Bird Area

Geese flying out to their feeding grounds at sunrise

Lake Durankulak

Like Shabla, Lake Durankulak is a haven for thousands of migratory birds passing each year on the way to their breeding territories or remaining to spend the winter. In winter the variety of waterfowl is incredible: Black-necked Grebes, Pygmy Cormorants, Mute and Whooper Swans, Pochards, Tufted Ducks, Red-breasted Mergansers, Yellow-legged Gulls etc. but especially the tens of thousands of mostly White-fronted and Red-breasted Geese.  But the top attraction is the flocks of many thousands of wild geese flying off the lake at sunrise. 

For more information, see Durankulak Lake – Important Bird Area

White-headed Duck

Burgas

The wetlands around the city of Burgas form one of Europe’s richest bird areas. One of the biggest attractions in winter however, are the flocks of Pygmy Cormorants and Dalmatian Pelicans resident there, and the hundreds of White-headed Ducks wintering almost every winter on Vaya Lake. Some of the other species expected there are Whooper Swan, Tundra Swan (ssp. bewickii), White-tailed Eagle, Bearded Reedling, Smew, Pallas’s Gull, Slender-billed Gull, Mediterranean Gull and other more common wintering waterbirds. Nearby there are coastal riverine forests and the Eastern Balkan oak forests, which are very good sites for Grey-headed Woodpecker, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Middle Spotted Woodpecker, Short-toed Treecreeper, Hawfinch, Cirl Bunting and Sombre Tit.

The Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds manages a small reserve and visitor centre at the Poda Reserve where there are trails and hides.

Cinereous (Eurasian Black) Vulture

Eastern Rhodopes

The Eastern part of the Rhodope Mountains is locked between the valleys of the big rivers Arda and Maritsa in southern Bulgaria, near the border with Greece. This area hosts exceptional biodiversity – a result of the mixture of Mediterranean and continental climates. This is the realm of the wolf packs, as one of the densest populations of the Wolf in Bulgaria is found here. The most spectacular birds of the region in winter are the vultures – Eurasian Griffon and Cinereous (Eurasian Black) vultures, which are attracted to a feeding station in the Potochnitsa Hills.


Visiting the area

While Bulgaria is fairly easily accessible, the main problem for the independent traveller is that road signs are in the Cyrillic alphabet (although on major roads, some may have Latin script too). And then you have to remember that a shake of the head means ‘yes’ and a nod means ‘no’.

Finding wildlife, especially if you have limited time, may therefore be best achieved by joining an organised tour.

Neophron Tours provides a bird-guide service to these sites in Bulgaria. I haven’t used them myself, but they were recommended by friends.

Birdwatching Bulgaria is a branch of a Danish tour operator, and offers a limited range of tours.

Branta Tours is another company based in Eastern Europe. It also operates the Branta Bird Lodge and conservation centre close to the Durankulak Lake Protected Area.

Wild Echo is a Bulgarian company that has been operating for 15 years, and provide a variety of standard trips as well as tailor-made trips.

Many nature tour companies based outside of Bulgaria also use guides provided by one of these companies.

Wikitravel provides a lot of information for the independent traveller to Bulgaria, and includes a section on the Black Sea Coast


Bookshop

Click on the covers for more information.

Malcolm Rymer’s fascination with waterfowl draws him to coastal Bulgaria each February to study the geese on their wintering grounds.

Many thousands of European White-fronted geese, wintering wildfowl, grebes, divers, larks, woodpeckers, owls, swans, pelicans, buzzards and eagles all feature in these videos.

Video
Video

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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