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

The Lauwersmeer in winter

It was cold, bitterly cold.  The Dutch birdwatchers apologised for the cold – it wasn’t usually like this in November.  The gas stove in the camper froze overnight and I had to wait for the sun to warm things up, just to get a cup of coffee. But, it was the cold that brought the barnacle geese southwards to winter here.  And that was what I had come to see. (November 1989)

Why the Lauwersmeer in winter?

  • 68,000 barnacle geese
  • 25,000 white-fronted geese
  • 33,000 greylag geese
  • 650 Bewick swans
  • 2,450 pintail
  • 1,350 shoveler
  • 5,700 gadwall
  • 2,350 black-tailed godwit
  • 1,200 spotted redshank
  • 380 Eurasian spoonbill

The spectacle of the geese alone is enough of a reason to visit, but there is plenty more to see. Those listed are present in internationally important numbers, and the numbers are the average peak between 2006-2010.

This has also been designated a ‘Dark Skies’ area, so if there is a reasonably strong aurora borealis, there is a good chance of seeing it here in winter – if there is no moon or cloud.

History of the Lauwersmeer

With much of the Netherlands at or below sea-level, repeated flooding was a common occurrence throughout history, especially as sea levels have changed naturally.  The Lauwerszee formed after a flood in 1280, and took its name from the river Lauwers that used flow through the area. Since Medieval times, farmers have reclaimed bits of this flooded landscape on a piecemeal basis. It was only after the disastrous floods of 1953 that a large scale scheme for the area became a reality.

The options were to reinforce the existing 32km of dykes around the Lauwerszee, or to build a new 13km dam to separate it from the vast mudflats of the Waddenzee.  Local people preferred the latter (more expensive) option. The new dam, incorporating a new harbour at Lauwerzoog, was closed on 25th May 1969.

Since then, it has been called the Lauwersmeer, which is more appropriate for a freshwater lake.  New flora and fauna moved into the site, and to protect this new nature area, the Dutch authorities declared it a national park in 2003.

Teal – Anas crecca

Ecological development

Within a few years Salicornia had covered over half of the of the 5000ha of sand-flats around the Lauwersmeer.  This provided a huge stock of food for autumn waterfowl. Up to 60,000 teal Anas crecca (photo above), 65,000 wigeon A penelope, and 50,000 barnacle geese Branta leucopsis took advantage of the bounty each autumn in the 1970s.

In addition to providing food for wintering and migratory wildfowl, the Lauwersmeer has become an important breeding area for many waders.eg lapwing Vanellus vanellus, avocet Recurvirostra avosetta, black tailed godwit Limosa limosa and redshank Tringa totanus, and for raptors such as kestrel Falco tinunculus, short eared owl Asio flammeus and marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus.

As the level of salt in the soils fell, so the vegetation changed. Perennial grasses replaced much of the Salicornia by the 1980s.  In autumn this provided food for the 30,000 greylag geese Anser anser (below) which pass through on migration. They strip the seed-heads but left the grass blades untouched.  Then they moved on south, leaving the grasslands to the barnacle geese.

Greylag Geese – Anser anser

Some of the brackish areas were extensively colonised by Phragmites and Salix as they dried out. Nowadays management is aimed at a fairly constant high water table with much of the area flooded during the winter. Waterfowl and breeding waders don’t like this taller vegetation, so cattle graze the area to to keep the vegetation open and low.

As the creeks and channels of the old inlet became fresh water, water plants such as Potamogeton pondweeds start to colonise. Coot, wigeon and gadwall consume the leaves and seeds of this submerged vegetation. Then, in mid October, up to 600 Bewick swans Cygnus columbianus (below) arrive in the area to feed on the tubers, before moving on to farmland to feed on the remains of sugar beet and potatoes after harvest.

Bewick/Tundra Swans (Cygnus columbianus

Arrival of the Geese at Lauwersmeer

Now, in November, huge flocks of barnacle geese begin to arrive from the north.

The Barnacle geese had previously wintered in western Germany, despite being hunted there.  However, increased disturbance plus drainage of their traditional wintering grounds forced them to move.  Damming the Lauwersmeer created a large area of suitable grazing, so the geese, sensibly, moved to the Netherlands, where they were protected.

The geese can recognise the most nutritious vegetation, perhaps by its colour, and so large flocks will descend on the best fields available.  You’d think you were looking at a domestic flock in a field surrounded with wire netting. . . . Until they take flight.

Barnacle geese, with their small bills, graze on short grassland that is regularly cut or grazed in summer.  They like the fine leaves of meadow grasses, but feed principally on stolons of clover (starch rich storage roots), probing their short bills into the mat of grass stems for the stolons lying beneath.

Barnacle Geese – Branta leucopsis

Geese of all species commonly graze young sprouts of autumn grown cereals, moving onto such fields as soon as growing shoots are a few centimetres high.  After a few days a field appears brown, but the crop is not destroyed –  the shoots sprout again, often more strongly than if geese had not been there. Sheep grazing and mechanical rolling have the same effect, so the geese are saving the farmer a job!.  If grazing takes places later when the plants are taller, the crop can be set back permanently but, fortunately, geese are less attracted to taller growth.

When the other species of geese have finished with arable crops they, too, switch to grass. As the grass is hardly growing at this time of year, they cause little damage, but it is common practice for farmers to fertilise a few fields each winter to encourage early growth.  Such fields look brighter green and the geese recognise them as good feeding, then there is conflict between farmer and goose.

It is not easy to assess damage to crops; experiments use domestic geese penned on plots to simulate effect of wild flock.  The results show no measurable differences when the crop starts growing again. Much of the vegetation passes straight through the bird and back onto the ground, with only a small amount digested and the rest recycled as fertiliser. 

Often several thousand geese occupy in a single field, though counting is next to impossible when you are faced with such a seething mass.  They keep up a constant bickering, threatening any neighbour that comes too close.  The birds on guard duty (usually males) watch carefully as other large birds flew overhead. They believe in safety in numbers, so if one bird is spooked, the whole flock is spooked.  It is much more difficult for a predator to pick a victim out of a moving flock.

Barnacle geese in flight.

Watching Geese at the Lauwersmeer

It is possible to drive all the way around the Lauwersmeer, sometimes in sight of the water, sometimes just through farmland. However, the geese spend a lot of the day on the fields, away from the water, so can usually be seen quite easily from the road.

And if you are on the road across the dam, look out at the Waddenzee to, as the mudflats teem with birds – probably best watched on an incoming tide.

Other skeins of barnacles flew in, the groups getting larger as the light faded. Eventually the cold got the better of us again and we prepared to leave.  Suddenly the noise increased and half the flock took to the air in a swirling cloud, victims of their own nervousness.  Within a few minutes, they settled back into the field to feed again.


Lauwersmeer: resources for visitors

Bookshop

A Birdwatching Guide to the Netherlands

With information to over 100 sites, this is a complete guide for birdwatchers visiting the Netherlands.

PS. I haven’t seen this book myself, but it is the only one I can find in English. And also www.birdingholland.com recommended it on their facebook page.

Note: 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.


Other Barnacle Goose winter sites

  • Barnacle geese breed in four main areas: Svarlbard, Greenland, Arctic Russia, and the Baltic.
  • They move south in winter with the main areas being the Waddensee (including Lauwersmeer) for the Russian birds.
  • Other populations head for the Solway Firth (eg Caerlaverock) and Islay in Scotland, the RSPB Ynys-hir reserve in Wales, and the north-west of Ireland. 
  • You can also see smaller numbers elsewhere in Britain and Ireland, and across the northern and central Europe.

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 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

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

Pin for later