TO FARO & TAVIRA
Our autumn birdwatching tour to Portugal begins with a flight from London Gatwick to Faro. We transfer east to our first hotel, adjacent to the coast at Tavira - a journey of around 45 minutes.
Situated right at the heart of the Ria Formosa Natural Park in Portugal’s popular eastern Algarve region, the comfortable four-star Vila Gale Albacora Hotel will be our base for the first three nights of the holiday. Depending upon flight schedules, there may be time to enjoy our first Portuguese birding close by the hotel this afternoon. Night Tavira
Days 2 - 3
ALGARVE WETLANDS & ALENTEJO STEPPE
The Algarve’s varied landscape and appealing climate give added zest to a week of first-class autumn birding - one that has a definite ‘Mediterranean’ flavour, although here we are of course on Europe’s Atlantic shore!
Over these two days we will explore the Algarve’s premier coastal wetlands, ranging from the bird-rich Lagoa dos Salgados and Quinto do Lago in the west, to the islands and inlets of the Ria Formosa in the east. Spotless Starlings and Serins frequent the villages and gardens, and Cattle Egrets are a common sight in the fields. Little Egrets and Western Swamphens stalk the reedbeds at favoured coastal wetlands, and an October visit may well produce something scarcer, such as Little Bittern, Squacco Heron, Ferruginous Duck, Red-crested Pochard or Caspian Tern. Over the years, our groups more unusual ‘finds’ here have included Glossy Ibis, Spotted Crake, Lesser Yellowlegs and Pectoral Sandpiper.
Stretching for more than 50km along the coast (from Tavira in the east to Ancao in the west), the Ria Formosa can be a terrific spot for birds in autumn. This linear natural park safeguards almost the entire Formosa estuary and comprises a narrow strip of land separated from the sea by a barrier of protective sand dunes, behind which lies a labyrinth of lagoons and sandy islands, mudflats, marshes and canals. Greater Flamingo, Black-winged Stilt and Kentish Plover find a home here, along with Audouin’s, Slender-billed and Yellow-legged Gulls. Belts of fringing scrub and pine harbour Sardinian Warblers and endemic Iberian Magpies, and more or less any patch of coastal scrub might conceal passage migrants such as Whinchat, Common Redstart and Pied Flycatcher. We've often been lucky to find Bluethroat here in autumn, too.
North of the Algarve, the undulating steppe grasslands of Portugal’s superb Alentejo region are the westernmost extension of Spain’s Extremadura province. This sparsely populated plain is a major stronghold for Great and Little Bustards, although the post-breeding flocks of both species can sometimes be tricky to find amidst the seemingly endless fields! White Storks breed in big numbers in the peaceful Alentejo - in places, it seems just about every roadside telegraph pole is adorned with a nest - and Southern Grey Shrikes perch boldly on roadside wires. We’ll listen out for the tell-tale ‘chuckling’ of Black-bellied Sandgrouse as they scud rapidly over the autumnal grasslands and it is here that we have our best chances of finding Calandra and Thekla Larks, Lesser Kestrel and the scarce Black-winged Kite. Two further nights Tavira
Days 4 - 7
MONCHIQUE, CAPE ST VINCENT & SAGRES PELAGIC BOAT TRIP
Having explored the Algarve’s principal wetland sites, we leave Tavira today and travel west along the coast to our second hotel, at Sagres.
We spend four nights here, staying at the stylish Memmo Baleeira, a contemporary four-star hotel overlooking Sagres harbour and magnificent ocean views. In autumn, the cliffs of nearby Cape St Vincent (just 10 minutes drive from our hotel) are a major migration hotspot
Along the way today, we may take a detour off the highway, up into the hills inland of the coast. The wooded hillsides around the upland village of Monchique hold Dartford Warbler, Black Redstart, Crested Tit, Firecrest and Short-toed Treecreeper. Cirl Buntings also breed on the sunnier south-facing slopes and, higher still, we can check a couple of likely haunts for Rock Bunting, a scarce and localized bird in these parts. At this time of year, there’s always the chance we could encounter the odd pocket of migrants, too: Ring Ouzel, Common Redstart, Spotted Flycatcher and Garden Warbler are among species we’ve seen here before. If time allows, we will continue up to the summit of Foia - at 998m (3250 feet), the highest point in the Algarve - to savour the panoramic views from the top back down to the coast.
The port of Sagres sits right outside our hotel. During the 15th century, Henry the Navigator chose this as the location of his famous school of navigation, which produced such nautical alumni as Ferdinand Magellan and Vasco da Gama, legendary Portuguese explorers whose impact on the world is still felt today. Although we won’t be embarking on such great voyages of discovery ourselves, if conditions are suitable during our stay we will enjoy either a morning or an afternoon pelagic boat trip in search of seabirds off the spectacular coast.
In autumn, good numbers of shearwaters congregate out to sea beyond the cliffs - and, with any luck, it won’t be long before we spot our first Cory’s Shearwater beside the boat! The presence of trawlers can attract crowds of Gannets and Yellow-legged Gulls, which in turn lure passing Great Skuas looking to steal an easy meal. Our October 2015 group also encountered more than 30 Great Shearwaters, two Wilson's Storm Petrels, 8 European Storm Petrels and a Grey Phalarope. The discovery of a lone Scopoli’s Shearwater on our 2010 tour was the first record for Portugal, while on another trip a pod of 100 Common Dolphins raced alongside our boat and it was thrilling to see them jumping in the air as they ploughed their way through the crystal clear blue water. Though we can’t guarantee that we’ll be as lucky every year, we have good chances of seeing exciting seabirds and cetaceans close up.
Sitting at the extreme southwestern tip of Europe, a visit to Cape St Vincent is a ‘must’ in autumn. Blue Rock Thrush, Black Redstart and Red-billed Chough are resident on the rugged sea-cliffs, with the likes of Cory’s and dusky Balearic Shearwaters possible offshore. Early October also sees peak numbers of birds of prey moving through southwest Portugal and the jutting Cape acts as a focal point for these. Over the years, our tours have encountered as many as 14 different species of raptor here, including Black Kite, Egyptian and Griffon Vultures, Hobby and Short-toed, Booted and Bonelli’s Eagles. If conditions are right, falls of passerine migrants can bring warblers, wheatears, chats and flycatchers, too.
Like any European headland worth its salt, an autumn visit is enhanced by the prospect of stumbling across the unexpected. Each year will be different of course, but surprises from our previous visits here have included Rüppell’s Vulture, Red-footed and Eleonora’s Falcons, a melanistic Montagu’s Harrier, Little Bustard, Black Stork, Hoopoe, Wryneck, Short-toed Lark, Tawny Pipit, Spectacled Warbler, Iberian Chiffchaff and juvenile Rosy Starling. Rarest of all, our October 2015 group found and photographed Booted Warbler - the first record for Portugal!
Although primarily a birdwatching tour, this holiday has much to offer those with a more general wildlife interest. Iberian Hare, Large Psammodromus, Moorish Gecko and Iberian Marsh Frog, along with several species of Praying Mantis and late-flying dragonflies and butterflies are among the many other fascinating creatures seen by our groups. On more than one occasion, we have even been lucky to find the exquisite Two-tailed Pasha and migrant Monarch butterflies, too. Four nights Sagres
TO FARO, FLY LONDON
If flight schedules permit, we will enjoy some final birding in the Algarve today as we make our way back to Faro - though we can't promise to find anything quite so rare or unexpected as the Rüppell's Griffon Vulture seen by one of our previous October groups!
Return flight from Faro to London Gatwick, where our autumn birdwatching tour to Portugal concludes.