Western Algarve
Sagres peninsular and its hinterlands
Starting the day on the Sagres peninsular we will look for an often surprising selection of seabirds and other coastal birdlife and move close by for local breeding, wintering or migrant land birds, depending of course on the season. More species, including many rarities, have been recorded around the Sagres area than probably any other site in Portugal. Due to the heightened interest at autumn migration time it is likely that the whole day will be taken up within the peninsular. During the remainder of the year however, other key sites within around 25kms will be visited in the afternoon to take in a greater variety of habitats. The diversity of birds that can be seen in this region is often underestimated and this itinerary will maybe reveal a few surprises.
The European Bee-eater Merops apiaster is an easily seen species between April and August in much of the Algarve
A short walk through the incredibly bio-diverse Cork Oak woodlands and their associated scrublands will produce additional some species not seen around Sagres. Later we can drop in at a little-known area of reedbeds and saltpans known as Paul de Lagos that has always proven worthwhile and is a personal favourite (Simon has recorded 190 species here including a number of national rarities). To round off the day, and if time permits a short visit to the western side of the Ria de Alvor or even to IBA Lagoa dos Salgados should reveal a few other waterbirds to add further to the day’s list. We will take things at a steady pace to give time to reveal the more sought-after birds and the day will be moulded to suit your wishes. The weather conditions will also dictate the itinerary. This trip presents an ideal opportunity for appreciating the rich and valuable flora of the extreme southwest of Europe, especially during spring.
In late winter and on through the spring singing Hoopoes Upupa epops resound from the countryside, resolving the riddle of their name in many languages
What to see and when?
The southwestern Algarve is worth visiting throughout the year, even during the high summer due to the cooling effect of the predominating Atlantic air-stream. It is to be expected however, that fewer species will be seen from late June to late August, especially during the middle of the day. A wise recommendation at this time of the year is that full advantage be taken of the early light so that a good few hours birding can be had before lunchtime. All seasons have their own particular species and in an Algarve context there are always a number of specialities very unlikely to be seen elsewhere.  Spring brings the summer breeding visitors and some signs of migration, especially the waterbirds that pass through in appreciable numbers. The autumn migration period from late August to mid-November is much more evident and includes large numbers of seabirds, raptors and passerines – for more details please see the page devoted to migration at Sagres.
Often overlooked but not uncommon, the resident Rock Bunting Emberiza cia is by no means limited to rocky areas – it loves open scrublands in the hills near Cork Oaks
Breeding birds
As is to be expected most of the region’s nesting species are best seen during the spring with all the migratory breeders on site by mid April. Some such as Short-toed Eagle, Spectacled Warbler and Iberian Chiffchaff have often returned by as early as late February while later arrivals, such as the Melodious Warbler normally arrives only from mid-April. On the other hand, the breeding season starts in winter for some of the residents - as early as late January some Hoopoes and Stonechats are already nesting. For maximum species diversity though, April to June is the best time to search. At this time of year the sound of singing Nightingales resounds from almost anywhere inland while another revered songster, the stunning Golden Oriole is more difficult to come across. Sites special to this sought-after bird often reveal other difficult-to-see species such as Hawfinch and Lesser Spotted Woodpecker.
Blue Rock Thrush Monticola solitarius, a shy resident of wild sea-cliffs in the western Algarve
The whole of the Sagres peninsular is edged by tall cliffs, which provide nesting sites for an unusual collection of breeding birds. A population totalling some 140 birds of the utterly charming Red-billed Chough survive here. These are completely isolated from the other 4-5 sites far away in northern and central Portugal where their numbers are much more depleted. Large numbers of Pallid and Alpine Swifts breed in many colonies around the peninsular together with their counterpart, the Common Swift. On calm spring and summer mornings many hundreds of these three species can be seen hawking insects low over the nearby grasslands which provides an entertaining opportunity to see them all at close range and in excellent lighting.
In the Algarve the fabulous Alpine Swift Apus melba is restricted to the western coastal cliffs
Colonies of Yellow-legged Gulls and Eurasian Jackdaws are dispersed all around the area as are the stunning Blue Rock Thrushes and the easier to see Spotless Starlings and Black Redstarts of the smart Iberian race aterrimus. Shags, which in the Algarve are only found in the far west, breed in the numerous caves near sea-level and can be easily seen. Abundant Rock Doves which are as near to pure as one can see in Europe provide an ample food supply for a few pairs of Peregrines. An unusually high density of Common Kestrels breed due to the multitude of nesting sites and the large reserves of small mammalian prey in the adjacent grasslands. In the cliff top juniper scrub Dartford Warblers are unusually common and Southern Grey Shrikes should be seen along the telephone wires together with the abundant Stonechats and Corn Buntings.
Peregrine Falco peregrinus
A spring visit to certain grassland habitats should produce displaying Little Bustards, which maintain small and endangered populations in just two small areas in the Algarve; here in the far west and around Castro Marim in the extreme east. A small population of Stone Curlews also breed around the peninsula. We will look for feeding Red-billed Choughs and other passerines like Thekla and Short-toed Lark, Tawny Pipit and Spectacled and Dartford Warblers. In this region breeding Skylarks occur too in an isolated population that reflects the cooler summer climate in this privileged area. The importance of avoiding walking across these grasslands cannot be over-stressed to anyone visiting these habitats during the breeding season (February-August) as most of these scarce or even endangered species are ground-nesters and are extremely sensitive to close approach. All the birds can be seen perfectly well from the roadsides and a trek across their territories will only prove counter-productive both for the birds and the observer.
Little Bustard Tetrax tetrax at the “height” of its display. This unique species requires large tracts of undisturbed grasslands away from the threat of intensive agriculture
Moving inland into Cork Oak lined valleys, other woodlands, scrublands and farmland the whole birdlife community changes – Bee-eaters, Hoopoes and Azure-winged Magpies become common while overhead a Short-toed Eagle or two are likely. Typical woodland species like Woodlarks, Nuthatches and Short-toed Treecreepers are common species and 4 species of woodpeckers breed, including Wryneck – albeit in small numbers. Turtle Doves, Cuckoos, Crested Tits and Cirl Buntings are not uncommon, while along even the smaller watercourses Melodious Warblers, Woodchat Shrikes and are quite easy to find. In Sun Cistus scrub covered slopes with scattered oaks Rock Buntings and Thekla Larks are at home and in favoured spots the more scarce Western Subalpine Warbler is to be found. With a little luck soaring Bonelli’s Eagles can appear over their large territories almost anywhere in the wilder parts of the inland southwest.  Scanning the skies from vantage points overlooking extensive hill country increases the chances of see this rare, endangered and very beautiful raptor.
Western Subalpine Warbler Curruca iberiae is a local breeding species in the Algarve's inland Cork Oak and scrub habitats and is a regular migrant on the coast.
The nocturnal Red-necked Nightjar and is a feature of late spring and summer evenings here in the southwestern Algarve. Extensions to day-trips can be organised to accommodate a vigil for this charismatic creature. This will mean late birding – up to 21.00hrs or more, depending on the time of year.
The fascinating Red-necked Nightjar Caprimulgus ruficolis perfectly camouflaged on its nest near Lagos in the Algarve
Resident breeding species of particular interest that can be targeted on this excursion throughout the year include: European Shag, Little and Cattle Egrets, White Stork, Bonelli’s Eagle, Peregrine, Water Rail, Little Bustard, Stone-curlew, Black-winged Stilt, Kentish Plover, Yellow-legged Gull, Hoopoe, Common Kingfisher, Green Woodpecker (Iberian race sharpei), Great and Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers, Skylark, Woodlark, Crested and Thekla Larks, Black Redstart, Blue Rock Thrush, Zitting Cisticola, Cetti's, Sardinian and Dartford Warblers, Crested Tit, Short-toed Treecreeper, Southern Grey Shrike, Azure-winged Magpie, Red-billed Chough, Raven, Spotless Starling, Common Waxbill, Serin, Hawfinch, Cirl, Rock and Corn Buntings.
Southern Grey Shrike Lanius meridonalis, a conspicuous bird of open country. Now widely recognised as a separate species to its northern counterpart the Great or Northern Grey Shrike Lanius excubitor
Migratory breeding species of particular interest that can be targeted on this excursion from April onwards include: Short-toed Eagle, Little Tern, Red-necked Nightjar, Alpine and Pallid Swifts, European Bee-eater, Wryneck, Short-toed Lark, Tawny Pipit, Red-rumped Swallow, Common Nightingale, Black-eared Wheatear, Reed, Great Reed, Melodious, Western Subalpine and Spectacled Warblers, Iberian Chiffchaff, Woodchat Shrike, Golden Oriole.
Red-rumped Swallow Hirundo daurica in spring, its colours fade from early summer
Winter visitors
From the end of September through to mid-November the winter birdlife settles in southwestern Portugal. Almost uncannily, the abundant Willow Warblers on migration to Africa “turn” into wintering Common Chiffchaffs around the second week of October when hordes of Skylarks, Meadow Pipits, Robins, Song Thrushes, Blackcaps, and various finches also start to appear. October is possibly the most active month at Sagres with birds on the horizon at every glance as summer migrants, including raptors, are also still passing in numbers. From the onset of cooler, wetter weather the grasslands and farmland of the Sagres peninsular is home to a few hundred Golden Plovers and sometimes more Lapwings while the local population of Red-billed Choughs congregrate more and form flocks of over 100 birds. The peninsula’s Little Bustard population congregate to form a difficult to find winter flock and Stone Curlews from further a field join the residents. A few Hen Harriers and occasional Merlins and Short-eared Owls move in for the winter as do the much more abundant Common Buzzards.
Golden Plover Pluvialis apicaria populate wild open grasslands and estuary margins, sometimes in considerable numbers Unfortunately this species of conservation concern is still a legal target for hunters
Seabirds are well in evidence through the winter and the observant will usually be rewarded with views of at least Northern Gannets and Great Skuas while winter sightings of Cory’s and Balearic Shearwaters amongst others are not infrequent. Other more unusual winter specialities in this area include a small population of Alpine Accentors that arrive in mid-November, probably from the high Pyrenees. Preferring the shady north facing cliffs they feed unobtrusively amongst the wind swept montane-like vegetation. Although the vicinity of Cabo de São Vicente is a well-known wintering site for this elusive high alpine bird, visiting birders often miss them. This is due mainly to the fact that they are so well camouflaged and are faithful to localities with difficult access. Most years the cliff top juniper scrub is home to variable numbers of Ring Ouzels. Small numbers of Richard’s Pipits, a rare visitor from Siberia, have wintered regularly around Sagres in recent winters, inhabiting low open scrub and grassland.
Wintering Alpine Accentors are at home in niches around the Sagres peninsular where dew lasts most of the day
In winter the evergreen Cork Oak woodlands are well worth time spent, holding all their residents and a few extra common winter visitors. The fresh and brackish marsh of Paul de Lagos provides habitat for easily seen species such as Little Egret, Black-winged Stilt and Kingfisher and is an excellent site to see wintering Bluethroats and for finding find the charming Penduline Tit. Cetti´s Warblers and Water Rail should be heard at least while a visit to the charming nearby woodland might well show Firecrest, Crested Tit and Hawfinch.

Wintering birds that can be targeted on this excursion (in addition to the resident breeding species): Northern Gannet, Balearic Shearwater, Common Scoter, Booted Eagle (occasional), Hen Harrier, Common Buzzard, Golden and Grey Plovers, Lapwing, Ringed Plover, Whimbrel, Snipe, Turnstone, Greenshank, Redshank, Common Sandpiper, Sanderling, Great Skua, Audouin’s Gull (occasional), Sandwich and Caspian Terns, Richard’s Pipit (difficult), Water Pipit, Crag Martin, Alpine Accentor, Bluethroat, Ring Ouzel, Firecrest, Penduline Tit, Spanish Sparrow.

For passage visitors see Sagres migration
The scarce Penduline Tit Remiz pendulinus - Bird artist Karen Phillipps made this sketch when inspired by a visit to the Paul de Lagos
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