Ah, the anticipation of some early spring sunshine after a dark dank winter in Cumbria! We have packed our shorts and tee-shirts and sandals in anticipation of this as the weather in Southern Portugal has been warm and sunny in the few days before we travel. Fingers crossed this continues.
After a quietly uneventful and efficient flight on Ryanair and a very prompt car rental pickup from the Europcar desk at Faro Airport, we hit the road to the west and arrive at the Carvoeiro Club reception in time to collect the keys to Casa Borboleta, our very comfortable base for the coming week. After settling in we take a relaxing stroll down into the village to find it very quiet, as Easter is still some weeks away so the place has yet to come to life.
A bright and sunny start to the day and breakfast in the conservatory makes us feel very relaxed. We decide that a short excursion would be a good idea after Saturday’s travelling, so we trundle along the N125 towards Pera where we turn for the coast at Salgados. Despite the extensive holiday resort developments that almost smother the Algarve coastline, this area of wetland has survived past threats of golf course expansion and now provides excellent wildlife watching.
The open lagoons are packed with birds, with many ducks of various species including a pair of Red-crested Pochards, a few Greater Flamingos and a number of Glossy Ibis. Recently arrived Swallows, House Martins and Sand Martins swoop over the water, and a pair of Red-rumped Swallows satisfies our desire for the exotic! The fringes of the lagoon have a number of waders, with lots of Black-winged Stilts and Avocets, while a solitary Purple Swamp-hen scrambles its way among some broken reeds, dwarfing a near-by Moorhen!
The dry grassland and abandoned olive groves that lie to the west of the wetland are very popular with local walkers today – dog walkers, runners, and some horse-riders are all encountered, but rather strangely there is nobody obviously looking for wildlife! We wander around this wild area and are rewarded with some very close views of Crested Larks and numbers of Swallowtail butterflies. Most exciting are the three Hoopoes, which we creep up on as they feed close to some ancient olive trees. Here a Cuckoo briefly lands having just arrived on its migration from Africa, but this quickly moves on as a troop of horse-riders thunders by!
One of the main reasons to visit the Algarve at this time of year is to search for and enjoy the spectacular orchid flora, and in the afternoon we decide that it is time to visit one of our favourite orchid spots to look for these lovely plants. This area lies just to the east of Benagil and is another thankfully undeveloped part of this busy coastline.
We park carefully by the roadside and wander into the thorny scrub, and are immediately rewarded with finding what must be the biggest Naked Man Orchid ever (Italian Man Orchid if you prefer!) and one of Jane’s favourites. The flower spike is getting on for 40 centimetres tall, while the individual florets are close on 2 centimetres across. The cameras start clicking wildly! The site continues to deliver pleasures with swarms of the lovely Mirror Orchid in perfect condition, good numbers of the Yellow Bee Orchid (my favourite!), Bumblebee Orchid, Sombre Orchid, and a solitary Woodcock Orchid (my favourite!).
We walk down the path to the coastal cliffs where we are rewarded with a magnificent view of the spectacular Algarve coast to east and west, where the soft limestone cliffs have been sculpted into coves and arches by the action of the waves. There is clear evidence of a major cliff collapse since our last visit. Such collapses are a natural process that moulds this landscape but one which only adds to the mounting pressures on the rich wildlife of these coastal areas, by annually losing large portions of habitat into the crashing waves, while development and human encroachment squeeze the same habitat from the landward side. The air is full of swooping Alpine Swifts, Common Swifts and Pallid Swifts, all of which nest in natural crevices on these cliffs – they seem unperturbed!
A very satisfying first day, and we return to Casa Borboleta laden with provisions from our first ‘Pinga Doce’ supermarket shop of the week – chiefly several kilos of oranges which will provide the delicious freshly-squeezed juice with which we begin each day of the holiday. Perfection!
The weather forecast predicts the lovely sunny weather is due to move away, and that cooler showery Atlantic winds will set in by the end of the day. However, we bravely don tee shirts and shorts yet again as it is still nice and warm, and head out for our first major excursion of the week. This is to one of the most tranquil valleys we have found in our many visits, just to the east of Querenca on the N396.
Our route from Carvoeiro takes us through Silves with its wonderfully native Algarvian feel and magnificent castle, towards Salir along the peaceful N124 – a pleasant route which passes through a gentle pastoral landscape of the Algarve countryside. A few kilometres before we reach our tranquil valley, near Fonte Benemola we come across a horrific moonscape of destruction where whole hillsides are in the process of being re-sculptured into …well, what? A large sign proclaims that this is to be a splendid recreational development which will re-invigorate the poor land away from the rich coastlands, and will benefit the natural splendour of this part of the Algarve. All we can see is huge earth-moving machinery, much dust and the destruction of Wild Algarve! We fear for our tranquil valley, but thankfully find it as untouched by the ravages of development as ever it was.
We park in a small lay-by just off the N396 and follow the minor road which meanders along the south side of the valley. It is warm and sunny and a few butterflies are on the wing, including a very smart and fresh Spanish Festoon. Bird song is not too evident except for some recently returned Chiffchaffs. In past years on visits later in the spring we have been serenaded by numerous Nightingales, Iberian Chiffchaffs, Golden Orioles and Orphean Warblers along this road. We stopped briefly to listen for more birds, and are struck by the intense stillness and serenity of the place – nothing but the natural sounds of the stream trickling through the reeds, some bumblebees buzzing in a flower-laden Viburnum bush, a few birds singing and…nothing else. Such a rare experience in today’s over-busy world.
This route is lightly wooded and reasonably protected from the fierceness of the Algarvian sunshine, and plants persist in good condition where on more exposed sites they have long since shrivelled away. We are rewarded very quickly with our first orchid fix of the day, a spectacular Sword-leaved Helleborine, and again the cameras start clicking away! We come across many more of these on the walk, but the first one always seems to be the best.
Other delights include some lovely Champagne Orchids, several swarms of Man Orchid, and the largest swarm of Naked Man Orchid we have ever seen - there must be over 3000 of these pink beauties in a small sheltered location just off the road behind some willow trees. This site also sports the fascinating if somewhat smelly Red Cage fungus which Pat O’Reilly would certainly enjoy. A perfect spot to have our picnic – a fresh bun stuffed with local ham and some very smelly local sheep cheese….Mmmm! Our daughter Gilly would have loved to be with us, although she would not have approved of the smelly cheese or perhaps of the even smellier fungus!
Browsing a local magazine the previous evening, we came across some references to a wonderful European LIFE project which has been set up to restore the very rare Iberian Lynx to its native haunts in Spain and Portugal. This iconic top predator has lost out because of major changes in the Iberian landscape, which have significantly reduced the lynx’s major food source of rabbits! Thought to number only 100 individuals in 2002, this animal was then classified as the most endangered feline in the world, but numbers have thankfully grown with the support of this project. It is exciting to read that a centre for this project lies just to the west of Sao Bartolomeu de Messines which lies on our way home from our tranquil valley. Directions to this location are not terribly obvious, but we start to look for this place with some hope and not a little disbelief that we will be successful. A direction sign up an unmetalled road is nearly missed, but a timely handbrake turn and we are heading up through vast areas of flowering Gum Cistus toward the Barragem do Funcho which holds back the upper waters of the River Arade. A couple more direction signs are thankfully not missed and we eventually find ourselves at a small viewing platform on the very top of the hill looking down into the Valley of the Lynx.
The viewing platform is furnished with a very good telescope through which we can scan the lynx breeding complex about a kilometre away. This complex serves to bring on captive lynx to a time when they can be released into the wild. Contact with humans is kept to the absolute minimum so the animals remain truly wild, and numbers have now been released into former territories in Spain and Portugal where wild prey systems have been restored to support lynx. Unfortunately, we see no lynx in the complex – they must be having their late afternoon siesta – but we come away tremendously heartened that such a project is underway and that Iberian Lynx might once more roam through this spectacular and hopefully more rabbit-filled landscape in the future. What a good reason to have a European Union which can provide the necessarily vast amounts of money to support such an ambitious project through its visionary LIFE concept.
Despite our hopes, the weather has taken a turn toward being British! A strong westerly breeze laden with bright sunshine and heavy showers means we have to don our rain jackets for the first time this week (though the shorts are still bravely worn!)
Another of our favourite places is the coastal wetlands and dunes at Boca do Rio, to the east of Sagres. Although a new car park and recently upgraded roads means it now attracts more people than in the past, there is still enough wild land to lose ourselves and enjoy the wildlife.
Our first foray is to the ancient dunes just up from the car park where a colony of Naked Man Orchid never disappoints, and today is no exception with hundreds of fresh blooms in flower amongst the low gorse and other dune vegetation. From here we wander up the now well-marked coastal path toward the site of the ancient Roman settlement at the top of the hill. A pair of Chough is a delight to find as we have previously only seen these at Cape St Vincent. Attempts at getting close views of these birds as they feed on the low vegetation by the cliff path are thwarted by a vociferous band of walkers vigorously striding, heads down, towards Salema and lunch several kilometres to the west. The Choughs fly off.
There are still good numbers of birds to enjoy, including Crested Larks, the very smart Iberian form of Stonechat, and flocks of Linnets and Goldfinches. Full reward for our morning excursion comes with the discovery of our first Sawfly Orchid of the week (my favourite) on the edge of the rubble road back down to the car park. Here we are further rewarded by a very accommodating Subalpine Warbler flitting with a Melodious Warbler around the bushes right next to the numerous camping vans parked in the car park. The afternoon is spent in wandering around the dry hill slopes to the north of Boca do Rio, above the extensive dry reed bed where the wild squealing of Water Rail and the explosive song of Cetti’s Warbler are to be heard. Two female Marsh Harriers circle effortlessly over the reeds under a clear blue sky. The hillside provides more orchid experiences, with hundreds of the lovely little Bumblebee Orchid literally underfoot, while some obliging Swallowtail butterflies pose briefly for the cameras.
On our way back to the motorway, we see signs at Barao de Sao Joao for the National Forest of the Algarve, and we decided to stop off and see if it is worth a future visit for wildlife spotting. Unfortunately, we are thoroughly disappointed to find that the forest celebrates commercial forestry in the Algarve, and a dense thicket of Eucalyptus means we quickly curtail our walk. There is no bird song, and there are no butterflies….
Another ‘British’ weather day! Strong cool winds off the Atlantic and frequent showers mean we have to plan an excursion that allows for us to run for shelter! We put the shorts to one side and wear our long trousers today, and decide to head for the scenic village of Alvor, sitting at the mouth of the magnificent Rio de Alvor estuary. The town is designed to accommodate the vibrant tourist trade in the summer months, from the nearby resorts of Praia da Rocha and Portimao but today it is very quiet, with the shops and restaurants all seemingly in practise mode before the Easter onslaught.
We head for the extensive sand dune system which occupies a three kilometre long sand bar across the mouth of the estuary to the west of the town. Here there is a long boardwalk and track system which is very popular with both tourists and locals, but also affords easy access to some excellent wildlife. Zitting Cisticolas (formerly known as Fan-tailed Warbler) fly up into the sky from their song posts, and parachute back down on open wings and tail, singing their ‘ziz-zit-zit-zit’ song all the while. Crested Larks are everywhere and sit tamely on the wooden supports of the boardwalk handrails, but the wind is too cool and strong so other birds like Spectacled Warbler that we had hoped to hear are not picked up. Out on the waters of the estuary numbers of migrating Sandwich Tern are fishing while on the exposed sandbanks flocks of Yellow-legged Gull sit out the high tide.
We decide to look for more wildlife elsewhere after lunch, and head inland along the back road that follows the River Odelouca and River Arade to Silves. This rural back road has always provided road-side treats for the orchid spotter, and screeching the car to a halt to take a closer look is a safer manoeuvre here than on other busier roads!
Today proves to be memorable for different reasons. A large pink blob on the verge demands an emergency halt in a convenient layby and we leave the car with some expectation, only to be immediately attacked by several fierce honey-bees whose hives are just next to the lay-by! We flee from these monsters and find the pink blob which proves to be another fine Naked Man Orchid. It takes a few minutes of clothing preparation before we run the bee gauntlet back to the car, and make safe ground without further attack.
A kilometre along the road, we spot a poor dead Hoopoe lying at the edge of the road and decide to stop by a farm entrance and take a closer look. We walk back to the poor dead thing – it is so sad to see such a beautiful bird as a lifeless corpse which will no longer grace the landscape with its looping flight and evocative call. The bird is surprisingly small with its very delicate long bill, and we gently place it deep into the undergrowth for the ants to tidy away. We then turn to go back…to find that two large farm dogs have sneakily taken position between us and the safety of the car! They look like surly beasts and not likely to take prisoners. I am just looking for a handy cudgel with which to protect Jane, when a rare stream of vehicles passes by and scares the cowardly curs back to the safety of their farm on the other side of the road. This brief relief allows us to run to the car, slam the doors and zoom off, laughing at their frenzied barking at the loss of their prey. Having survived two failed attacks by local stock, with some relief we head for the slopes around the traditional white windmill to the east of Silves. This fine old building is no longer working but it sits proudly on its own hilltop and is as much a feature of this lovely town as the nearby castle and cathedral. The approach road is somewhere through the eastern outskirts of the town, and we only get lost once before finding the right way. Many of the slopes here are former pastoral land long since abandoned and now reverted to dense cistus scrub. However, there are still a few open areas where plants can be found, and we locate a field that we found on a previous visit and which held a lot of orchids along its wet flush. Today we find large numbers of the lovely Green-winged Orchids, as well as a few Tongue Orchids and Small-flowered Tongue Orchids. Lower down the slope near the back road from Silves to Monchique we find a small but very rich area for orchids, which holds some of the finest Sawfly Orchids of the week. We adopt the accepted stance of the adoring orchid seeker – cameras down at ground level and bottoms up in the air - and Rob receives a gratifying beep from a passing motorist!
The cool weather continues, but we cast all care aside despite the now bitter northerly wind and the shorts are on again! We decide to head for Foia, the highest point of the Algarve. We know it will be windy, but there is a very cosy café on the top so at least we can get a hot drink.
Stopping off in the cork oak woodland south of Monchique, we find one of the Algarve’s special orchids, Helleborine tremolsii, as well as some fine Single-leaved Squills. The cold wind is keeping the birds quiet, but a solitary Swallowtail butterfly and the sight of several citrus orchards with trees laden with lemons keeps our spirits up.
On to the road out of Monchique and up to the summit of Foia we pass a large area bearing the signs of a recent wildfire. Here the scorched hillside is devoid of the cloaking cistus scrub, but the ground is already sprouting with fresh growth and spring flowers.
At the summit the wind is fierce and very cold and there are little mounds of ice pellets from recent hail storms along all the bay markers in the car park, so there is no chance of looking for Foia’s bird specialities of Blue Rock Thrush and Rock Bunting.
The choice of shorts is now deeply regretted, and we make a necessary purchase of a woolly hat with warm ear flaps for Jane in the tourist shop. The coffee is very welcome, but we decide against the cakes today – we are still digesting breakfast and the slices look particularly massive, though no doubt as delicious as ever. We think it is a good idea in such weather to take a road trip in the warmth and comfort of the hire car, so we head east along the back road towards Aljezur. However, it seems we always have Foia on our left wherever we drive along this road which is getting narrower and rougher. We realise that an unwitting mistake in map reading has meant we have taken the very small road which skirts the mountain along its northern and western slopes, and which joins the main Monchique to Aljezur N267 road just to the west of Monchique. Definitely not a short cut!
The main road to Aljezur passes through a landscape of eucalyptus plantations, and it is a relief to finally reach the richer natural landscape which graces this western coastal area of the Algarve, perhaps the loveliest part of the region. Aljezur is quiet, and we take a small road just south of the town which will take us to the coast at the mouth of the River Alfambres.
What a spectacular place this is! In glorious spring sunshine, the raging Atlantic breakers provide a wild backdrop to the magnificent estuary and its sand dunes, and we park at the very end of the road next to a superb area of the Atlantic coastal garrigue unique to this south-west corner of the Algarve. We have seen such habitat at Cape St Vincent in previous years, but this area seems even richer!
There are flowers of every sort as far as the eye can see, from the spectacular pink Wild Snapdragon to the lowly parasitic Cytinus which grows on the roots of the low cistus bushes. We find even more orchids, including good numbers of Sawfly Orchid as well as a few spikes of the delicate green orchid Gennaria. An approaching storm blackens the wild Atlantic’s horizon and we regretfully leave this lovely place vowing to return another time, and make the long journey home along the motorway through a wintry hail storm.
This is to be our most adventurous excursion of the week, with a long drive up the virtually empty A2 motorway to Castro Verde and the vast southern expanses of the Iberian Steppes. These open grasslands are now carefully managed under another European LIFE Project, set up to restore the bird-rich landscape for its iconic birds like Great Bustard, Little Bustard, Black-bellied Sandgrouse and especially the extremely rare Spanish Imperial Eagle.
When we last came we were delighted to have seen all of these exciting birds, and we are slightly concerned that a return visit might not match that wonderful experience. How wrong we are!
We head for the visitor centre of LPN (Ligue por Protection de Nature) where the LIFE Imperial Project is based. This lies up a very minor road some 5 km north of Castro Verde. As we turn in at the sign of the Great Bustard - literally a large wooden silhouette of this huge bird - along the track that leads to the converted farm which serves as the visitor centre, Jane (always sharp-eyed) spots a large bird sitting not a hundred metres away in the low grassland. Binoculars up and we realise it is a grounded Griffon Vulture, sitting out the early morning until the first warm air thermals of the day will allow it to take flight. As we watch, a strange large-eyed bird rises from the ground in front of the vulture and slinks off – a Stone Curlew! We are the first visitors of the day and the pleasant young staff member welcomes us warmly and in her perfect English says she remembers us from our last visit a year ago! She gives us a brief idea of what to look out for, and we start along the way-marked path which ensures folks do not get lost in this featureless and wide landscape. Immediately our attention is taken by the numerous Lesser Kestrels which nest colonially in the several ruined buildings which are scattered across this wild place. Huge numbers of some spectacular slugs are covering the pathway in places – certainly very different from British slugs, so out come the cameras!
Jane’s spotting talents are so valuable here where even the largest of the world’s flying birds can easily be missed in the vast steppe landscape. She soon spots some large birds in a distant enclosure which turn out to be a group of fifteen Great Bustards, with several males engaged in their spectacular display when they appear to turn themselves inside out like a giant powder puff! We hear the strange fluting calls of Black-bellied Sandgrouse and a small group fly over our heads and away into the distance. A solitary male Little Bustard is uttering his engaging burp call which goes for his territorial song, while numbers of Calandra Larks fly up to the skies on their more musical song-flights.
The morning is moving on and the air is warming, so raptors begin to be more obvious. Several Red Kites can be seen spiralling on thermals and we briefly see our Griffon Vulture take wing and drift away to the south. More scanning of the skies and Jane picks out a large raptor soaring some kilometres away and very high in the sky, but thankfully it is coming our way. We realise with some excitement that it is a fine Spanish Imperial Eagle, which continues to approach us and then goes into a fine display of its looping sky dance. What a wild experience!
Later in the morning we move away from the LIFE project area to the Chapel of Senhora de Ara-Celli which is renowned as a good place to spot raptors. A pair of Black Kites noisily soar low over the scattered cork oak trees as we arrive and a solitary Short-toed Eagle eyes us with disdain from its perch on a nearby telegraph pole. The whole landscape has changed in the last hour as very large shower clouds begin to tower into the blue skies, and black sheets of heavy rain can be seen travelling slowly across the plain. Thankfully none come our way, and we have the treat of three more Spanish Imperial Eagles battling high in the blue sky above us, with two engaged in some spectacular talon grappling.
A short drive to another bustard hotspot near Guerreiro and we are treated to wonderful views of a superb male Little Bustard not fifty metres away, happily burping his territorial call, while a flight of Great Bustards crosses our view and flies away towards Castro Verde. How can these huge birds fly, and fly so well! Regretfully we decide it is time to leave for home, but we have a final treat as a male Montague’s Harrier crosses the road in front of us as we head into Castro Verde and the motorway back to the Algarve.
Our last morning in the Algarve and we regretfully prepare to leave Casa Borboleta. It is so comfortable and is such a wonderful base from which to explore this magnificent region. We have particularly enjoyed the new pictures of Algarve wildlife specialities which adorn the living room, while the orange squeezer has been our faithful servant each morning as we prepare our daily dose of Vitamin C!
Having left the keys at Carvoeiro Club Reception and said goodbye to the wonderful staff, we head for the motorway and Faro. However, we still have several hours before we are due to fly home and we decide to try and find the Visitor Centre for the Rio Formosa National Park, which we are reliably informed lies near Olhao just to the east of Faro town. Unfortunately, the notes we are following to guide us to the visitor centre are a wee bit out of date, and new road layouts and a general lack of useful road signs mean we end up at a rather dodgy looking scrapyard instead! Not all is lost, as we do know of a wonderful area for wildlife just to the west of Faro Airport which will more than adequately fill our remaining time and should provide some satisfying wildlife for us to enjoy. This is a complex of salt pans and lagoons with a very handy coastal path along the seawall that leads ultimately to the lake at Sao Lourenceo near Quinto do Ludo and which should give us a nice walk and hopefully some new birds and plants for our weekly tally.
Parking is easy here, either on the side of the road to Playa do Faro, or in the huge new car park just along towards the road bridge which crosses the lagoon to the beaches. The path starts on the west side of the road, directly under the flight path of outgoing aircraft – thankfully not many today. It is very popular with local walkers and cyclists (all most courteous) as well as visiting wildlife watchers.
The first bird we find is a magnificent Greenfinch in full song and in superb plumage and a delight to see - even familiar birds can be magnificent.
The salt pans have a big flock of roosting Avocets in the distance, but Jane then spots a large bird sitting on one of the many posts that are placed in the lagoon. An Osprey presumably taking a rest on its journey north, perhaps to Britain and even to South Cumbria? We quickly realise that it is not on its own, as another Osprey is sitting not fifty metres from the first. As we watch, one bird takes off and within minutes has caught a large fish from the lagoon!
A deeper lagoon further on provides a treat of ducks, and we have very nice views of Pintail, Mallard, Common Pochard, Red-crested Pochard and Teal up-ending and diving in the water as well as a magnificent pair of Garganey, the male gorgeous with his very bold white eye-stripe. A Purple Heron briefly makes an appearance before landing some distance away and out of sight of our binoculars.
As we approach Sao Lourenco lake, the back ditch by the sea wall provides us with some very close views of a fairly confiding juvenile Spoonbill. He is not quite as smart as adult with his grubby white plumage, although he is clearly adept at using his uniquely shaped bill.
Our final objective is Sao Lourenceo lake next to its golf course which has proved fruitful on visits in past years, and we are not disappointed today. There are several Purple Swamp-hens in the lagoon, and even some grazing on the fairway of the adjacent golf course, unconcerned by the golf balls whizzing overhead and the golf buggies zooming up the fairway. It seems strange that the golfers themselves seem equally unaware of these magnificent large birds which are sharing their ground. We spend a few minutes in the hide that overlooks the pool. This structure is not really necessary to hide us from the birds which seem so unconcerned by all the humans on the adjacent path, but it is a nice place to rest after the long walk!
Purple Swamp-hens squabble with the Coots and Moorhens about which bit of broken reed belongs to whom, while a tranquil group of Spanish Terrapins basks in the sunshine next to their noisy neighbours. A friendly British birdwatcher asks if we have seen it…. Seen what, we say? The Little Bittern there, says he! This super little bird with its long olive green legs and pied plumage quietly stalks in to the reeds, giving us a thrilling end to a hugely satisfying week in the Algarve.
A walk back to the car, and we enter the hurly-burly of the airport and are brought back in contact with the harsh reality of everyday life… and it has been snowing at home in Cumbria.
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