• Welcome to BirdForum, the internet's largest birding community with thousands of members from all over the world. The forums are dedicated to wild birds, birding, binoculars and equipment and all that goes with it.

    Please register for an account to take part in the discussions in the forum, post your pictures in the gallery and more.
ZEISS DTI thermal imaging cameras. For more discoveries at night, and during the day.

Algarve trip report 7-15 January 2013 (revised) (1 Viewer)


Well-known member
This is an account of an English birder's first experience of southern Portugal, being based in Albufeira. It updates the interim report previously posted and incorporates comments on that draft kindly received.

As well as detailing species seen and not seen, I have included observations on getting around and itinerary planning, and impressions of sites visited,which I hope may be of interest to other first time visitors.

Day 1 – Monday 7th January: Castro Marim
This was a rather frustrating day in which not enough was achieved, with a certain amount of living and learning, though I did get a prime trip target at the end of it. There is a situation here where the toll system introduced on the A22 E-W motorway does not cater for hire cars, and tourists experience difficulties paying locally, so I decided to just use local roads.

I had decided to start with the Castro Marim wetland, which was possibly unwise being the furthest location East from Albufeira. So off I set at 10.30am in an unfamiliar car, with my relatively unfamiliar new SatNav that constantly tried to put me on the A22. Hence I abandoned my planned route and followed the N125 E-W route by road signs instead, which was rather arduous as I had read, and took two hours each way.

Arriving in Castro Marim it immediately looked an excellent birding area, but I knew there wouldn’t be time to do it justice. On minor roads, the first thing I came across was a flock of Common Waxbill, one of the naturalised African species here. I then found Gosney’s site 1, where there was a good variety of common waders and other birds, but nothing new. Unfortunately, on the way out, I put the car in a ditch and was got out again by a couple of farmers using impromptu and ingenious means, losing another hour.

Gosney’s site 2, Sapal Venta Moinhos is now a major saltmarsh reserve, and would need at least half a day to cover properly. Arriving at around 4pm, I therefore concentrated on locating Portugal’s only population of Lesser Short-toed Lark which live here, which I found in the described habitat of perennial glasswort. A lot of other small birds were around, so a return visit in better light would be in order. There is also a second reserve area, the Cedro do Bufo (Gosney site 5), which I passed the entrance to and must also be visited.

Back at base, the first thing I did after dinner was to find the SatNav’s avoid toll roads setting (lesson learned). It gets light here at about 7:30am and dark at 5:30pm, giving 10 hours potential birding time in a better organised day. Hopefully there have been a few lessons to that end today, and at least I have sussed out the coastal road and all points East from here.

Day 2 – Tuesday 8th January: Lago de Salgado
After the stress of yesterday, I decided to do the nearest site to Albufeira today: Lago de Salgado. This is a well-developed coastal reserve behind sand dunes, which there is currently a campaign to save. It is said to be under threat from draining to irrigate the adjacent golf course, but the lagoon looked full enough to me. The first other birder that I talked to explained this by saying it has been re-filled with sea water recently. He also told me about Thursday club day where the Brits all gather at the next reserve west on the Alvor estuary, which I had half a mind to go on to in the afternoon.

Lago do Salgado was a very pleasant experience on a sunny morning with a cool breeze. There were lots of birds but nothing I haven’t seen before:
  • Common Mediterranean warblers: Fan-tailed, Sardinian, Cetti’s, Chiffchaff, and a reeling sound from the golf course side that sounded like Grasshopper (seems unlikely) but could have been something mechanical
  • Other small birds: Stonechat, Whinchat, Linnet, Meadow Pipit, Robin; and Larks (Skylark and Crested)
  • Southern wetland species: Spoonbill and Greater Flamingo, plus Cattle Egret on the golf course. Also Grey Heron and a distant Common Buzzard
  • Most common wintering wildfowl, lots of Gulls, Moorhen, Coot and Little Grebe

Half a day was quite adequate to do this reserve, which struck me as an excellent patch, unless I wished to set up a chair and scope and see what came in. That struck me as a potential long wait, and I haven’t got a chair here anyway. I decided that like yesterday, if I went on to Alvor there would not be time to do that reserve justice; and Thursday seemed the better option there anyway. So I decided to suss out Monchique, the highest point in the Algarve. On the way there though I could see dark rain cloud sitting on it, so I took a pretty route back East to Albufeira up into the hills and back on the IC 1 route. The only really identifiable birds on this drive was a group of several Azure-winged Magpie, and a number of Kestrel none of which were seen clearly or long enough to check for Lesser.

I got back to the hotel with two hours of daylight remaining, and at last have had the time and clear head to plan the rest of this week. The Tourismo de Portugal Birdwatching Guide to the Algarve, which I downloaded in pdf form but didn’t study in any detail at home, is very good and much more up to date than Gosney with better trail maps; though the latter is of course much more portable. With hindsight, I should have done these first two days the other way round, with the nearest reserve first after the late start. It would have been difficult to do all three Castro Marim sites in one day, though Gosney site 1 where the accident happened was probably the least important one.

Day 3 – Wednesday 9th January: Castro Verde plains
Heading north to search for Portugal’s famous steppe species, this was an excellent day in which I ticked perhaps my top trip target of Black-winged Kite. Traffic on the IC 1, the main N-S non-motorway route between Albufeira and Lisbon, was very light making for a pleasant journey through stimulating scenery. At one point a juvenile Bonelli’s Eagle went up to one side of the road, a beautifully marked bird with russet upper parts and grey tail feathers.

Turning off this road past Ourique onto the IP2 towards the town of Castro Verde, I stopped at a location described in Gosney opposite a village Aldeia dos Grandaços. I then walked for some distance up a dirt track through the described habitat of steppe with well-spaced Holm Oaks. The fields were teeming with small birds, all of which went up from ground cover into the trees as I approached but none of which perched. I avoided the temptation to try to build the trip list with common species and concentrated on the main targets, but without a sniff of any. The most interesting birds seen were Nuthatch and Hoopoe, I was surprised to find Fieldfare this far south, and there were Redshank and Snipe in wet patches.

It was clear that if I kept stopping and walking like this, I could spend a lot of time finding not very much. So I put Mertola into the SatNav, then just south of Castro Verde headed SE up a promising looking minor road and just followed where the SatNav took me. Along this route I saw 10 separate Iberian Grey Shrike, which my research had indicated can be abundant in this region. I also saw several Azure-winged Magpie, the most frequent raptor was Red Kite, while White Stork and Spotless Starling were everywhere. Near a village Namorados, a bird went up from one side of the road that could only be Black-winged Kite. Removing all doubt, I followed it along the road for about 1km as it kept a certain distance ahead of me offering superb views, soaring and hovering. It twice settled on cable poles though for not long enough to photograph, before flying off again into the steppe.

The landscape was samey but very pleasing in an understated sort of way, and quite unlike anything I have experienced before. Eventually I entered the Parque Natural do Vale do Guadiana, and stopped for a sandwich and coffee at Mertola, a town with a hilltop castle where there is said to be a breeding colony of Lesser Kestrel. Whilst appreciating it’s probably too early for them, I did keep an eye open while walking once around the old part of the town, not seeing anything. It was very characterful and Portuguese, the first such place that I have found. Things had become distinctly overcast by now, as it has in the late afternoon each day up until now on this trip, but it has yet to rain.

I returned to Castro Verde by a more northerly route along the N122 and 123, and was often the only car on the road. At one point, what looked like an Eagle landed on a pole just as I drove past. I turned round and on approach saw it being dive-bombed by a Kestrel, but I couldn’t make out whether the latter was a Lesser or what the larger bird was before both flew off. The final Shrike count for the day was 16. I made a fast drive back to Albufeira on the A2 motorway, a spectacular structure of many viaducts, for which a ticket is taken on entry and the toll paid at exit booths. I suppose that unlike the A22 this was designed as a toll road, but there was hardly another vehicle on it.

Driving on minor roads while rubber necking for birds requires some care, because carriage ways are generally narrow with often quite marked ditches right at the edge, and/or small embankments with no crash barriers at the top. So what happened on Monday or worse still could easily happen again. A lot of Portuguese drivers don’t seem to understand why a car on rural roads should suddenly stop or even proceed slowly, staying behind me waving their arms in the air instead of just going past, though there are a lot of no overtaking signs in this country. I have not encountered much bad driving here though, and people don’t seem to make contact much either to thank or rant.

Day 4 – Thursday 10th January: Alvor estuary
Quinta da Rocha marsh on the Alvor estuary was a lovely site. I stopped first at the A Rocha field centre to be welcomed into the community of wintering retired Brits and others who gather there on Thursday mornings. Then I went down to the marsh and did a full circuit of the sea wall.

There were lots of common waders here including Greenshank, Whimbrel, Turnstone, Sanderling and Kentish Plover; and my first Shelduck of the trip. Sandwich Tern were flying up and down the open water to the West of the marsh, then on some salt pans in the NW corner I located the prime trip target Caspian Tern amongst some gulls. While I was watching and photographing this spot, this bird was gradually joined by five others which all settled down into a little group. An Osprey put in a couple of appearances overhead here, and other Brits on the marsh reported seeing Hen Harrier and Black-winged Kite while I had been watching the Terns.

This beautiful place is also said to be under threat from local entrepreneurs who see marshland only as potential resource to irrigate golf courses: what a terrible way to live! Afterwards, I drove around to the town of Alvor and made a brief and very pleasant walk out onto a dune system which has raised board walk access. I dare say this spot would repay longer inspection, but I didn’t see anything today.

Day 5 – Friday 11th January: Tavira salt pans, Castrim
Today I decided to concentrate on finding Audouin’s and Slender-billed Gulls, since completing the prime wetland targets would allow a change of emphasis to hill waking over the weekend. I drove first to Tavira marsh at the far eastern end of the Ria Formosa natural park. With the SatNav on the avoid motorways setting it followed the more inland route that I had wanted to go by on Monday. This was scenic in places and much less arduous than travelling on the N125.

The salt pans along a road Arraial Ferreira Neto just outside Tavira afforded some excellent photo opportunities in pleasing light of large birds such as Greater Flamingo, White Stork, Little Egret, Grey Heron and Black-winged Stilt. There were large groups of Godwit here and my first Avocets of the trip, but no speciality gulls.

From there it was on to the Cedro do Bufo area of Castro Marim marshes where I had been told that flocks of 400-500+ Audouin’s gulls are regular. First I explored the track that I had driven past on Monday (Gosney site 5), just SW of the Ponte Estevera on the N125-6. There was just one large pool here besides a salt works. It held a large and photogenic group of Greater Flamingo and nothing else, though the trip’s first Kingfisher put in an appearance.

I next drove round to the eastern side of the Cedro do Bufo, which is accessible from the N122 just north of Vila Real de Santo Antonio (Gosney site 3). Walking along the track to an extensive area of salt pans my first spot was an Iberian Grey Shrike posing on top of a bush, and a Hoopoe also went up. The salt pans themselves held large numbers of Greater Flamingo, two big flocks of Black-necked Grebe, lots of waders and another Avocet. Unfortunately, since the track runs along the north side of the salt pans, any likely looking fly-past gulls always flew into the low sun. The gulls on the ground were on the furthest pan from the road: all Yellow-legged and Black-headed, unless I wasn’t looking closely enough at the latter. I’m not a great one for long distance identification anyway.

At 3pm I arrived back at the Sapal Venta Moinhos reserve and its field centre. There were three people inside, none of whom attempted to engage me in conversation. The Lesser Short-toed Larks were relatively easy to find again in the same spot as Monday, by walking out onto the marsh past the field centre. There were also Meadow Pipit, Corn Bunting and a small group of Spanish Sparrow here for comparison. The trip’s first Marsh Harrier and a few Spoonbill put in appearances overhead.

There is a viewpoint on a hillock between this spot and the centre, which I walked up to on the way back. From that raised elevation a huge area of salt pans was laid out before me in a rather spectacular light, due to the now overcast conditions with sunlight bursting through in places. The pans held huge flocks of Avocet and Godwits, and here and there it was easy to pick out Caspian Terns due to their big red bills. There were reasonable concentrations of gulls visible but no Audouin’s. I concluded that if I could see Caspian Tern at that distance it should have been possible to identify Audouin’s Gull had any been present.

By now I was wondering whether the sightings I had read about were of roosting gulls, so I went back to Tavira marsh to see what came in. On arrival there it began to rain for the first time on this trip. The consequently moody light made for more photo opportunities - particularly a group of six Spoonbill on one of the salt pans - with rainbow effects and eventually sunset, but still no target gulls. Despite missing those two prime targets, this was still a thoroughly enjoyable day on which I got into some wonderful places.

Day 7 – Saturday 11th January: Mount Foia
This was an experience, walking up to the highest point in the Algarve, and another fabulous day. The targets were Crested Tit, Rock Bunting and Alpine Accentor; but I didn’t find any of them. I followed part of walk 9 in the Cicerone guide Walking In the Algarve, starting on dirt tracks from a restaurant Jardim das Oliveiros outside Monchique. There was much more eucalyptus than pine woodland on this part of the ascent, so not very good for Crested Tit.

The logging tracks eventually reached the metalled road to the top, which I left by some ruined buildings on a hairpin bend to follow a track into a rocky area below the summit. This was the described habitat: blanket, knee-high ground cover with rocky outcrops, and I spent some time sitting and watching. There was a certain amount of buzzing, clicking and other bird sounds from the scrub, especially Wren. The first bird to show itself clearly was a Dartford Warbler with a white throat, which I took to be a female. As throughout this trip, there wasn’t a lot of perching going on by the other birds present, so I walked on to re-join the road. There was a lot of Dartford Warbler activity in this area, mostly offering very brief glimpses, but eventually I had a full-on view of a pristine male.

The scenery looking down the eastern slopes of Mt Foia was breath-taking, and there was only me there. The descent followed by the Cicerone walk looked much prettier and more bird friendly than the ascent, but also a long way from my car so I walked around the area below the summit a bit more. A female Blue Rock Thrush was now present but no target species.

Eventually finding the route back by which I had come, a lot of Crag Martin were hawking on the lower slopes. On this descent, a hazy landscape was laid out all the way to Portimao on the coast, and when I reached my start point I realised how far up the walk had been in the morning. Not bad for an asthmatic: an experience not to have been missed.

Day 8 – Sunday 13th January: Parc Ambiental, Vilamoura
This was the least evocative reserve visited so far, but with persistence it repaid close inspection and produced some good sightings. It was much bigger than I expected, with the main points of birding interest some distance apart amongst arable fields. I had anticipated a short walk out from the car as a morning stop on the way to Ria Formosa, but it took an hour to match the site plan in Gosney to the information board plans on site. What threw me was turning right at the first junction on the trail (admittedly the way mark pointed left), which took me the long way round a field that is off the Gosney plan. It was worth it though for the marvellous display put on by a Booted Eagle, a lovely bird that I kept seeing equally well throughout this visit.

Eventually I reached the first hide (Gosney point 3), where there was virtually nothing to see. After that I took another wrong turning and eventually arrived back near my start point having covered about half the site, almost losing my sense of direction in the process. This reserve would benefit from signs to hides stating distances. I decided that giving up and going on somewhere else would leave me feeling even more frustrated, and so set off again for the second hide (Gosney point 4). Everything fell into place now, and after turning left at the first junction the walk seemed more like I first expected.

I had been told at A Rocha to look for Penduline Tit and Black-winged Kite from the second hide, but didn’t see either. I did see Ferruginous Duck, Purple Gallinule and a first Great Crested Grebe for the trip. I next went up to and around a screened-off water treatment works where there were huge numbers of gulls, but couldn’t see any Audouin’s from the available vantage points. Walking back onto the reserve, the Black-winged Kite glided L-R overhead. I then re-visited the first hide, where there were a few Sand Martin amongst the many Swallow now on the wing, and a Marsh Harrier was also about. Azure-winged Magpies were gliding about here and there, and have been seen on most days now.

All over the reserve, hedges and trees seemed stuffed with small birds which often flew out as I approached, but once again it was next to impossible to identify anything. I suppose this is partly due to the pre-breeding season time of year, but birds still seem more prone here to keep in deep cover than I would expect. Any bird seen perching prominently is invariably a Stonechat. There must be a great abundance of many common species – Larks, Pipits, Corn Buntings, Finches, Sparrows, Pied Wagtails, southern Warblers etc – in southern Portugal at this time of year.

This was probably my most patient day’s birding so far, and had I not been so thorough I probably wouldn’t have got the better birds seen, other than my best ever experience of Booted Eagle. I ended up spending just over five hours here, which left no time to do another site properly. The available guides talk about covering reserves in 2-3 hours, but that’s not enough time in which to stand a chance of getting good sightings.

Day 8 – Monday 14th January: Castro Verde plains, Guadiana national park
Today turned out to be something of a grand tour. I began with a second visit to the CastroVerde plains inland, heading NE on the IP 2 towards Beja to scan around for the big game species of the steppes. Shortly before reaching the town of Entradas, a flock of what must have been 20-30 Little Bustard went up then down again behind rising ground. Since this species isn’t a lifer I ticked it for the trip based on previous experience in France.

I then took a left turn at Entradas towards Carregueiro to see if these birds were visible along that road, and located a large group of Common Crane looking NW from a building Monte Cumeada Nova. This is the area described in Gosney, but access to it was all by dirt tracks that I didn’t want to attempt in a hire car. Eventually I turned back, and opposite where the Cranes had been a group of Great Bustard was now visible atop rising ground on the opposite side of the road. I have only previously seen one Salisbury Plain release scheme bird in my native Oxfordshire, so I suppose I should count this sighting as a lifer. The Cranes then flew W-E in several small groups, calling as they went: absolutely magical. So that was all three of the day’s prime targets seen by 11:30 am, which gave me the rest of the day to relax and seek the outside chance of a large raptor.

One of the Brits at A Rocha reported seeing Great Bustards and “a lot of raptors” along a turning off the N123 signposted Sᾶo Joᾶo dos Caldeirairos. So I next headed in that direction in bright sunlight out of a cloudless blue sky. Driving along the N123 I spotted another Great Bustard in flight, and a Booted Eagle with Kestrel persecutor, possibly the same two birds as on day 3. My day’s second group of 16 Great Bustard were fairly close to the road on the south side. The only raptors I saw after turning off the N123 were Red Kite, which we have dozens of in Oxfordshire so do not excite me.

I reached Mertola by 13:20 and decided to take a look at the Parque Natural do Vale da Guadiana. Driving at random to a village Corte Sines, this area struck me as a huge, samey landscape with no obvious places in which to stop and look for birds such as Rock Bunting or Crested Tit unless one knows exactly where to find them. Azure-winged Magpie seemed particularly plentiful here, and the day’s Iberian Grey Shrike count rose to 11.

I thus decided to end the day on the Ria Formosa at Ludo Farm, another potential Audouin’s Gull site, seeing more of southern Portugal along the way. The drive there along the N267 to Almôdovar was very bumpy, then the N2 road south tortuous and bendy which could explain why I was virtually the only vehicle on it. The latter road wound endlessly through vast forested areas with no obvious access in terms of forest parks or hiking trails, which caused me to reconsider the Algarve hills as an area with good walking potential. On arriving near Faro Airport, I found the area described in Gosney as Ludo Farm to be wild and undeveloped with only dirt track access and no signage. But I did take the opportunity to suss the area out a bit ahead of a planned final day’s visit tomorrow.

Day 9 – Tuesday 15th January: Ria Formosa (Quinta do Lago and Ludo salt pans)
Having left such a major wetland to the final day, I was not disappointed and felt that I could spend a lot of time here if I lived locally. Quinta do Lago is in my SatNav, which took me to the beach car park from where paths lead east and west into both areas described in Gosney. On arrival the tidal lagoon behind the sand bar held lots of common waders and a few herons, and I checked out two large gull flocks.

Walking west first, the lakes (Gosney point 1) held nothing of interest, and the salt pans (point 2) nothing at all, but in the dunes past there I met a couple who were watching Crested Tit. I would have felt a bit silly going home without seeing this prime trip target.

The path east first skirts around a golf course then continues on a raised causeway through Faro marsh as far as the road from the airport to Praia de Faro. This area held a great diversity of birds: some of the more interesting being Black-necked Grebe, Black-winged Stilt, Spoonbill, Pintail, Kingfisher, Snipe, Grey Plover, Avocet and Serin. I added Little Stint (of which there were quite a few) and Bar-tailed Godwit to the trip’s wader list, and also saw a Stone Curlew at one point. I could only imagine what this wetland must be like in the migration season. Azure-winged Magpies were present in large numbers here, especially around the car park.

Eventually an equally well-defined track headed inland into the Ludo salt pans where in mid-afternoon there were fewer birds around than on the marsh, but I picked out more Caspian Terns. Other highlights here were a Greenshank and the trip’s first Tufted Ducks on the tidal channel that flows through the pans. I walked all the way to some buildings from where I worked out where I had been yesterday evening, then re-traced my steps to Quinta do Lago. By now a large gull roost was assembling as the tidal channel filled, but like the gull concentrations I scanned earlier there was nothing that looked like Audouin’s or Slender-billed.

So that’s it folks: a wonderful trip with a perhaps modest species count of 110 of which 6 were lifers (7 including Great Bustard). 10 days hasn’t been nearly enough time to cover southern Portugal adequately, but this was intended as a taster and I will definitely be back in the future.
"a reeling sound from the golf course side that sounded like Grasshopper (seems unlikely) but could have been something mechanical"

Mole cricket ?
Hi Peter,

I'm glad that you connected with the Common Cranes, They have been occupying areas areas a few kms south of their usual hangouts this year (kms along muddy tracks) so have been a lot more visible to visitors - great.

There is a situation here where the toll system introduced on the A22 E-W motorway does not cater for hire cars, and tourists experience difficulties paying locally, so I decided to just use local roads

Peter, I think important to mention the following as I would hate potential visitors to be deterred from visiting this wonderful area:

Many hire companies offer ways of using the A22 and make the payments easy. I would recommend that anyone who hires a car here sticks to companies who offer a solution to avoid headaches. If they don't mention it - bring it up before hiring ;)

Any car inc hire cars (without a transponder device) can freely use the A22 motorway. The hassle is though (and its really not that bad) that one can only pay after 48hrs at any Post Office (Correios) - there are many of them all over the place. I would suggest the smaller ones that don't usually have a queue - outside the main tourism season its not a big issue really as one is likely to be staying or driving by one. All you need to do is state or (write on a piece of paper) your number plate.

The only inconvenience is that if you use the A22 to get to the airport or use the A22 in your last 2 days you cannot pay in 48hrs - now that is a big mess I know but one could avoid it.

The damned A22 toll situation is an irritating headache and a great inconvenience for those that live here and used to use it for commuting especially as it works out expensive.

For a visitor though, one is unlikely to spend much if you use it for half a dozen trips. I certainly wouldn't worry about it and let it put you off coming here!

Best wishes

Last edited:
The damned A22 toll situation is an irritating headache and a great inconvenience for those that live here and used to use it for commuting especially as it works out expensive.

The whole toll-system on the ex-SCUT (= ex-free motorways) is stupid. I have never heard of any other service where one cannot pay in cash |8(|
The whole toll-system on the ex-SCUT (= ex-free motorways) is stupid. I have never heard of any other service where one cannot pay in cash |8(|

I agree entirely, I myself have let a couple too many days pass (just busy and forgetful) on a couple of occasions and have had to pay stupid fines. I myself refuse to have a transponder as I don't want more things to do in my bank account - especially something so banal as driving down a motorway.

I'm totally against these toll fees as is everyone but I wish there was an easier system - like for example a card you can buy in any petrol station that can be topped up like a mobile phone at a cashpoint or payshop. I understand that having pay booths (like on the A2 - Algarve-Lisbon motorway) is impractical on the A22 due to too many exits and the investment and upheaval involved.

This whole A22 toll thing was a ridiculously poor decision and extremely bad timing - for sure it has had a negative effect on tourism - now that was terribly stupid of the authorities. The great majority of the locals (who now do not use the A22) rely directly or indirectly on tourism so its a no brainer, really!

Nevertheless, its a real shame if folks decide not to visit the Algarve because of "toll fear" - as I have said earlier, if you do want to use the A22 there are ways around it and one is unlikely to spend more than the cost of one meal at a restaurant on a weeks holiday.

For commuters here, its another matter though :(
Last edited:
Warning! This thread is more than 11 years ago old.
It's likely that no further discussion is required, in which case we recommend starting a new thread. If however you feel your response is required you can still do so.

Users who are viewing this thread