Gonçalo Elias, the co-author of the classic A Birdwatchers Guide to Portugal, kindly offered to accompany me, Ray Tipper and John Edge, here for a Christmas break from Liverpool, on a circuit of Castro Verde. Several of the places on the route carefully prepared by Gonçalo were new to me and even Ray, who knows the area well. Included for habitat diversity were several small reservoirs and it was expected that we would record about 80 species. In the event, we noted exactly 80 in the Alentejo. But for mist patches around dawn on 15th December, the weather was near perfect. Bright and sunny with very little wind – sharply cold at first with evidence of overnight frost in sheltered places.
Just after dawn, we crossed the River Vascão and entered the Alentejo. Our first stop was west of Mértola at the abandoned Água Santa Morena Mines, where a quiet country road crosses the River Oieras. Here we followed a lovely riverside walk and recorded species that eluded us for the rest of the day – Long-tailed Tit, Cetti’s Warbler, Dartford Warbler, Blue Rock Thrush, Dunnock and a star bird – Hawfinch. A huge flock of Wood Pigeons was something that we do not see in the Algarve. I pointed out fresh Wild Boar tracks.
Throughout the route we stopped at stream bridges and found new species. It was soon obvious that we would see many Northern Lapwings, Hoopoes, White Wagtails, Iberian Grey Shrikes, Common Buzzards and Common Kestrels. Huge flocks of starlings whirled around, with good numbers of Common Starlings among the many Spotless Starlings. The main floral elements were swathes of Field Marigolds and Winter Chamomile.
We crossed the Almodôvar road and continued northwards through the hamlet of Corte Pequena. On the vast plain ahead, John spotted a fairly close line of Great Bustards, while the rest of us excitedly picked out Common Cranes in flight. I screeched to a halt on the thankfully quiet road and as soon as we had mounted our telescopes, twelve much sought after Black-bellied Sandgrouse flew low over our heads. We counted eleven Great Bustards and well over a hundred Common Cranes and in crane terms some landed close enough to provide superb views. These were the first wintering cranes that I’d seen in southern Portugal.
A short way further north at Vale de Açor we scanned the reservoir at Herdade dos Lagos. Apart from attracting birds, this winery produces a good selection of midrange red wine. The environs of the reservoir provided another fifty or so Common Cranes, a selection of waterfowl and the first of a good number of Red Kites. Backtracking, we headed for São Marcos da Ataboeira and had good views of an immature Spanish Imperial Eagle circling with a Hen Harrier. In a small park in the centre of Entradas, an attractive and typically Alentejan settlement, we looked in vain for a roosting Long-eared Owl that had become a town character.
At Carregueiro another reservoir beckoned. Here we hit the duck jackpot with a fine selection, including a drake and two female Red-crested Pochards, five Tufted Ducks and a rare drake Ferruginous Duck. A Marsh Harrier was a bonus.
Our tosta mistas (huge toasted cheese and ham sandwiches dripping with butter and made with delicious Alentejo bread) beckoned in Castro Verde but before the break we followed up another lead for a roosting Long-eared Owl. In the middle of the town is a street lined with Pepper Trees Schinus molle and the gen that Gonçalo had was that we should look in the tree next to the second green rubbish bin! No luck, but I thought that two more mature trees on the other side of the street might be a better choice. And bingo! Gonçalo quickly found, just above our heads, two delightful and curious Long-eared Owls. They just stared down at us, seemingly just as pleased to see us, as we were to see them.
While we ate our late lunch, Christmas carols emanated from a huge Santa and his sleigh bouncy castle outside. Castro Verde’s toddlers were having much fun and apparently all thanks to the generosity of the town hall. This is an isolated but very special town.
After such a wonderful morning, the afternoon would have to be an anticlimax and in any event on this midwinter’s day there was not much light left. Nevertheless, just outside of town, the Horta da Nora, another reservoir, attracted more duck, Eurasian Spoonbills, several Common Snipe and a Common Kingfisher. Close by were huge flocks of Northern Lapwings and European Golden Plovers. At least one Stock Dove (a rare bird here) was seen well enough in distant oaks. While we were counting, I was amazed to see ten Santas cycle by – Castro Verde had certainly caught the Christmas spirit.
To finish, we headed westwards on minor roads and made various stops including the spectacular viewpoint of São Pedro das Cabeças. Legend has it that here in 1139 at the Battle of Ourique, D. Afonso Henriques defeated the armies of five powerful Moorish kings. History apart, we were surprised to see huge flocks of several hundred Spanish Sparrows and record a high count of Skylarks.
During the hour’s drive back to Tavira on the eastern Algarve coast, there was time to reflect on a truly memorable day. A real Christmas treat and Castro Verde always deserves a day out from the Algarve.
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