On 4th May 2019, 32,800 birders participated in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Global Big Day. The objective was to record as many of the world’s bird species as possible on that day. Not only was it exciting and challenging for the participants but also all records were logged onto the eBird website and thereby will provide a valuable yardstick by which the state of the world’s birds can be judged. I decided that the somewhat ornithologically neglected eastern Algarve (the Sotavento) should contribute a piece to the jigsaw.
Fortunately, Mike Chalmers, an old friend and well-travelled birder would be in residence and one of Portugal’s top ornithologists, Gonçalo Elias, agreed to join us. There was a spare seat so another friend Steve Hencher, a geologist rather than a birder decided to join for the experience.
Just before five I collected Mike and Steve and as planned drove a short way to meet Gonçalo north of Tavira. It was clear and the forecast was good. Fortunately it remained fine all day and clouds kept the temperature at a comfortable level. On this busy stop-start round my elderly Land Rover performed well.
We needed to find night birds and early performers in the dawn chorus. Four nearby stops were made, where I blasted the call of the Red-necked Nightjar from the Discovery. I’m not sure what my neighbours made of this. Four distant nightjars, a Little Owl and a singing Woodlark were identified. Unfortunately, I could hear none of these. My hearing is limited and unbeknown to me my aids were hardly functioning. Steve looked bemused but singing Common Nightingales and Blackbirds we could easily hear.
I sped to Porto Carvalhoso in the Alportel Valley and we birded territory very familiar to me. Several stops were made along the track to Curral da Pedra. The sun had not yet hit the valley but nevertheless we recorded 34 species including several Turtle Doves, Wrens and Golden Orioles, a distant calling Common Cuckoo and a Blue Rock Thrush, Iberian Green Woodpecker, Short-toed Treecreeper, Blue Tit and Common Waxbill. A pair of breeding Eurasian Nuthatches performed well. At one point, Steve and I lagging behind had a good view of a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker ascending a branch. Unfortunately Gonçalo and Mike missed the bird and accordingly it didn’t make the cut.
Gonçalo had great faith in the Junqueira area of the Lower Guadiana Valley and here we made explorations of the deserted Sapal da Moita and whilst avoiding golfers, Quinta do Vale Resort. A handsome 54 species were listed. Among these, not seen elsewhere were Common Kestrel, Iberian Grey Shrike, Woodchat Shrike, Great Reed Warbler, Dartford Warbler and Linnet. I was especially pleased to have a superb view of a male Little Bittern. European Bee-eaters were obvious and Purple Swamphens expected but a Great White Egret and a Purple Heron were a welcome bonus. Spanish Sparrows bred in the understory of a stork’s nest. Impressively, Gonçalo could split Common Swifts and Pallid Swifts on call.
The tide was right so just north of Via Real do Santo António at Barquinha, we visited both sides of the road from Castro Marim. Here we quickly fattened the list with waterside birds and waders, including Greater Flamingos. A scheduled visit to the erstwhile fishing port was skipped. As it was our best chance for seabirds and roosting birds on sandbars, I insisted that we go to the end of the Guadiana Breakwater (Foz de Guadiana), correctly known as Ponta da Areia. The reward was our only Oystercatcher, a migrating flock of well over a hundred Red Knot, Audouin’s Gulls and seafaring Northern Gannets.
North of the N125, near Monte Gordo, a rough track runs through sapal (marshland) and then across a railway line to Aldeia Nova Aeródromo. Earlier in the year when a rare Moustached Warbler decided to sing there, a small freshwater marsh, dangerously close to the unfenced railway, received much attention from Portugal’s growing band of twitchers. We spent some time fossicking but our only reward was a squealing Water Rail.
The saltpans (salinas) and marshy areas at Cerro do Bufo form the huge core area of the Reserva Natural do Sapal de Castro Marim e Vila Real de Santo António. Time only permitted a short walk to view another freshwater marsh. In no time at all in the middle of the day 45 species were noted, of which Black-tailed Godwits, Caspian Terns and Glossy Ibises were only here.
We moved on to the Parque Natural da Ria Formosa. An attractive walk around old saltpan impoundments west of Olhão was new to me. This promising area provided good views of ducks, waders and gulls, including an attractive flock of resting Slender-billed Gulls. Gonçalo expected Avocets to be difficult but there were plenty here. Lots of people were walking and jogging, some with loose dogs in tow (one even swimming) but the birds remained remarkably tame – photographers take note.
Quinta do Ludo and Quinta do Lago could not be missed. We parked in the woods and walked to São Lourenço Lake and back. A Little Stint and two Greenshanks completed our shorebird list. On the lake among the Gadwall, Red-crested Pochards and Common Pochards was another diving duck, a late-staying female Tufted Duck. An unexpected bonus for us but visiting British birdwatchers in the hide could not understand why we were so excited. Reed Warblers sung around the lake and bright yellow Black-headed Weavers were obvious. It was a disappointing day for raptors but we scored here with a Marsh Harrier. Earlier we had seen Booted Eagles and Common Buzzards.
With only a couple of hours of daylight left, we agreed that our major gap was songbirds and Gonçalo advised that we should finish the day in easily accessible mixed woodland at Fonte Férrea, just north of São Brás de Alportel. His remarkable hearing added no fewer than seven species. Mike, who had so far recorded everything kept close tabs on Gonçalo and missed none of the calls and squeaks. Although most birds were beyond my aural abilities, I enjoyed good views of a Crested Tit and a smart breeding Grey Wagtail. While the other two chased whispering Iberian Chiffchaffs, Long-tailed Tits and Cirl Buntings, Steve and I relaxed with a couple of well earned beers in the friendly Avalanche Café, where most people were consuming huge plates of caracóis (snails).
Our final submitted list was 117, a personal Algarve day record for Gonçalo. Numbers don’t mean a great deal to me but I saw over a hundred species, which was most satisfactory.
Collectively, the Global Big Day tally was 6,833 species, which equated to two-thirds of the world’s birds. More than 1.85 million records were logged. Colombia, for the third year running, listed the largest number of species, 1,590. Peru was not far behind with 1,515. Both of these countries underlined the rich biodiversity of the Andes. Forty European countries participated. Spain topped the bill with 311. Portugal, for its size, entered an impressive 225, which beat the United Kingdom, France and Germany.
I look forward to participating on 9th May 2020 using my new state of the art Swiss hearing aids and, of course, the same team must be on board.
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