Bernardo Barreto picked us up in his dark Ford at 7:30 from the Hotel Berna. We drove northeast out of Lisbon, crossing the Tagus on what might be called the third bridge, upstream from the 25 April bridge, half closed for a film shoot. The Saturday was cloudy and cool, but we knew it would not rain.
The first bird Bernardo identified for us was a zitting cisticola, a warbler with a wren-like tail at an angle to its body as it flitted in the dead reeds of the estuary. Its little body was vertically striped brown on tawny in a beautiful way just between the delicate wing shoulders. Would we ever have figured it out without Bernardo? Perhaps we would have because we had lots of chances to see it skitter and to hear it zitting.
Lisbon tourists take the yellow boat tour. They see the castle on the hill and wander the Alfama. They make take in some melancholy Fado, reminiscent of US country music. They eat grilled sardines or a soupy seafood rice dish. They go to the Calouste Gulbenkian and stare back at Rembrandt, or wonder what that Lalique dragonfly would look like in their hair. They squeeze into those open air taxis to see the sights before heading up to cool Sintra or down to the Algarve and its English beaches. But how many take the time to find a local birdwatcher willing to show them Portugal and its birds? How many spend the night across the river in Alcochete and eat eel or black boar and frothy green wine from a tap in Victor’s, a place so local they try to insist they are full, ineffectually denying our insisted upon reservation?
We saw several exotic birds well established here, common waxbills in post breeding flocks, a glorious yellow-crowned bishop weaver and a pair of black-headed weavers shyly nesting in a small colony of woven ball nests tucked down in the vegetation of an irrigation canal. I try to think fairly of the exotics, for after all, isn’t that what we are, pushing all across the globe and breeding like starlings, now with noisy flocks of teenagers? But of course Portugal is a place our species has been a lot longer than St. Louis is. It also has those hot dry summers that Jared Diamond says favored the growing of heavy seed crops and civilization. It felt good to be in this part of the cradle of humanity and witnessing the climate that let us store and thrive.
I could keep this to being a story of only exotics and ponder the noisy abundance of the waxbills in contrast to the sparseness of the weavers. I could relive those moments when I first saw the bright yellow male cautiously dropping deeper in the gloom as the dull female stood forward, yet both meters down from their precious green ball of young, hanging over the water, visible not to the cars driving past, but only to the birder stopping to check for just such a small colony. Don’t worry, still birds, we’ll leave now. You will be undiscovered until Bernardo or João brings another carload of eager birders.
But there were other birds not yet returned to African wintering grounds, or already back from northern breeding grounds and these were well worth seeing. As always, it is behavior, even the snippets one sees on a driving birding trip, that attracts me most. Feeding, nesting, and hanging out with mates are the commonest acts one sees and this trip was no different. Less compelling is the bird sitting there looking at you as you look at him, desperately matching eye circle or wingbar to the drawing in the book.
The white storks had huge stick nests on platforms high up the electrical lines sparking power into Lisbon. These towers had platforms for storks, as many as five of them, and slow spinning groups of three small spheres to keep them away from the dangerous areas of current.
The collared pratincoles were motionless on clumps of newly plowed field, but their less cautious and uncollared babies screeched for food anyway. They tied with the lapwing perhaps for most elegant bird.
As we finally left the northern estuary for the cork tree meadows, sighting a booted eagle stopped us, rabbit in talons. She sat on the bare mudpan, attracting flybys from carrion crows before soaring high with her soft prey.
Drink more cork ! These trees are harvested only every 9 years, by hand as the outer layer is peeled to the russet cambium and a number is painted on indicating the year of harvest. Only the bottom 4 meters or so of trunk is cut, making the trees look like they have entered on some sort of tree diet that involves carrot consumption. Older trees nearing harvest with numbers like 8 from 2008 are black barked, the thick cork cracking and fissuring in places. We passed a cork factory and an outlet mall, but nowhere to buy a cork trivet as a souvenir.
The penultimate sight of the day was a colony of bee eaters, brilliantly colored, improbably level flights. We could only see abandoned holes in the sandbank. Apparently the active ones were on the cliff on our side, which we did not approach. Nor did we approach the lone hoopoe, apparently on assignment for bird watchers, complete with a languid crest lifting.
The day ended where some of the best birding for us began, on mud flats, tide out, could be Bolivar flats in Texas with the spoonbills, herons, godwits, mallards, and coots. But the species were largely different, and the little fishing boats contrasted with the Galveston cargo boats.
You know I won’t tell you how many species of birds we saw. I have to wonder why you even want to know. You are not asking how many families of birds I saw, or even what the total count of individuals was, just what that great year, big day, birding challenge number was. What I will tell you is that birding, feeling the wind, watching the tide, seeing the estivating snails was the best day in Portugal yet.