The naturalist in France in winter

The naturalist travelling through France in winter can expect bleak weather with little sunshine and drizzly, icy rain. 

Paris, for example, sees an average of 37°F (3°C) and two inches of rain in January. You’ll find colder, snowier temperatures in the northeast of 37-43°F (3-6°C), and in the mountain regions of the south. However, it is milder along the coasts, 43-46°F (6-8°C) on the Atlantic (west coast) and 48-55°F (9-13°C) in southern France (Mediterranean coast).

As with most of northern and central Europe, the most obvious winter features are the birds. Large areas of water both inland and along the coast attract vast numbers of wintering wildfowl. However, a few mammals can be seen, especially in the mountains.

Common Cranes

Lac du Der-Chantecoq

Lac du Der Chantecoq is the second-largest artificial lake in Europe. It was dammed in 1974 as part of the plan to reduce the flooding further downstream in Paris. Der is from the Celtic word for Oak, and Chantecoq was the name of one of the villages now submerged. It is now an internationally recognised place for wintering wildfowl, as well as for the thousands of common cranes (above) that stop by on migration.
Information for visitors

Wigeon

La Brenne

La Brenne is an area dominated by some 3,000 lakes (actually Medieval fishponds) to the south-west of Paris. In winter, it is home to vast numbers of wintering ducks. Gadwall, shoveler, wigeon and teal mingle with scarcer species such as smew, red-crested pochard and ferruginous ducks. Up to 4,000 cranes also spend winter in this area. Information for visitors Downloadable leaflet in English

Dark-bellied Brent Geese

The north and west coasts of France in winter

The Atlantic coast of Europe is part of a major flyway for birds moving from eastern north America, Greenland, Iceland, northern Europe and Russia to wintering areas further south. The mudflats in the wide shallow estuaries, and lagoons formed by sandbars, provide stopping-off places for these migrants to rest and refuel. Some are also major wintering sites for thousands of waders (shorebirds), wildfowl and other water-birds. Where you have waterbirds, you have predators, and there seems to be an abundance of marsh harriers at most of these sites. The best wintering sites along the French coast include:

Baie de Somme – the largest natural estuary in northern France. Its vast sand, mudflats and grassy areas provide refuge during cold weather events, especially for waders and ducks. During the average winter, the Baie de Somme is internationally important as it holds over 1% of the individuals of the biogeographic populations of pintail, shoveler and common shelduck. Information for visitors

Knot

Baie du Mont Saint-Michel – has the fifth largest tidal range in the world, and includes sand/gravel beds supporting large bivalve (shellfish) populations.  Up to 100,000 waders winter at the bay, including over 1% of the populations of oystercatcher, knot, and dunlin. Marine mammals such as bottle-nosed dolphins and common seals also visit the site. Information for visitors

Golfe du Morbihan – A large, almost enclosed, estuarine embayment and saltmarsh complex at the mouths of three rivers. Vast mudflats support large areas of eelgrass (Zostera species) and an extremely high density of invertebrates. Up to 100,000 waterbirds winter annually at the site, and numerous species of migratory waterbirds stop by in spring and autumn, and nest in the area. Information for visitors

Baie de Bourgneuf, Ile de Noirmoutier et Foret de Monts – a complex site of of sands, mudflats, saltpans, marshes, reedbeds, oyster basins, saltmarsh, dunes, etc. More than 60,000 waterbirds use the site in winter. Information for visitors

Marais du Fier d’Ars –  Another coastal complex with more than 31,000 waterbirds using the site in winter. Of particular importance for dark-bellied brent geese, avocets, dunlin and black-tailed godwit.

Greater Flamingo in winter

Camargue

The Camargue, the Rhône River delta, is the premier wetland of France. It comprises vast expanses of permanent and seasonal lagoons, lakes and ponds interspersed with extensive Salicornia flats, freshwater marshes, and a dune complex. It is of international importance for nesting, migrating and wintering waterbirds. Tens of thousands of ducks, geese, swans and other water birds, including greater flamingo, occur in winter.  Other birds present include great spotted and white-tailed eagles, and penduline tit and moustached warbler – the latter apparently easier to see at this time of year.
Information for visitors

Click here for a flavour of the area from Luca Boscain

Eagle owl

Les Alpilles

Les Alpilles (the Little Alps) are easy to access – and not often snowy!  This limestone ridge provides good flying conditions for raptors at any time of year, so eagles can be seen.  But more importantly, the village of les Baux attracts wallcreepers, blue rock thrush and eagle owl (try behind the Hotel Mas de L’Oulivie) and citril and snow finches can also be found. Wallcreepers head back into the high Alps for the summer so their time in the lowlands is limited. Tourist information

Mountains

High mountains are often not the most exciting places for wildlife in winter. The sub-zero temperatures limit plant growth and insect activity. Birds often migrate to the lowlands or to warmer climates. On the other hand, there is likely to be a concentration of food around human habitation, and ski resorts can provide interesting bird-watching. Alpine choughs, alpine accentors and snowfinches, for example, forage around ski resorts, and can be observed at close quarters.

Alpine Ibex

Mammals often move to the lower slopes or seek shelter in woodlands. However, mammals may also be easier to find as their tracks are more obvious in the snow, or in muddy areas. And it’s often easier to see into the distance when vegetation isn’t in the way. This Alpine wolf-tracking holiday in France is an example of the specialist trips available.

Chamois inhabit both the Alps and the Pyrenees. They spend summer above the tree-line, but descend to around 800m to live in pine forests during the winter. In the Alps, Ibex are also found high in the mountains, Females spend the winter mostly on slopes that are too steep for snow to accumulate. However, males sometimes come down to valleys during the late winter and spring.


Bookshop

Click on book cover for more information about these books which give much more detailed information about these and many other sites

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.


More places to go nature-watching in winter

The Lauwersmeer in winter

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

Winter birdwatching in Bulgaria

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


Pin for later

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 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

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

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