Fourteen secrets of a Portuguese bird guide

IMG_7240 IMG_7241 DSC03499 DSC03456 DSC03429 DSC03424 IMG_7205 IMG_7233 IMG_7295 IMG_7292 IMG_7248 IMG_7253 IMG_7219 IMG_7223 There are many reasons to bird Portugal. We were lucky to have Bernardo Barreto as our guide. As always with birds, we learned more about life than just about birds.

  1. Look under every bridge, into every thicket, and at every rock pile.
    1. The black-headed weaver shyly nests in a small colony just over the rice field irrigation ditch nearly covered with vegetation, but visible from the bridge.
    2. Across the cork forest by the pond we saw a European kingfisher glint past.
    3. Two little owls peered out of a collapsed stone shed, just visible.
  1. A bird that was there last visit is likely to have remained.
    1. The collared pratincoles were still feeding their babies in the dry field.
    2. The red-rumped swallow babies had fledged but were still flying about the tiled home.
  2. Consider the tide, the light, and the wind.
    1. When the tide went out we saw the blue-winged stilts, lesser black backed gulls, black-headed gulls, purple herons, greater flamingoes, European spoonbills, redshanks, black-tailed godwits, dunlins, curlew sandpipers, Kentish plovers, and green sandpipers in the mud flats.
    2. With the clear light of early morning we saw a golden eagle soaring.
  3. Check every bird in a flock.
    1. First we saw only pallid swifts in the morning light over an old breached dam on the Gaudiana, but then we saw a few rare white-rumped swifts.
    2. Lesser black-backed gulls were less common on the marsh than were the black headed gulls. A careful scanning revealed a curlew sandpiper, and a green sandpiper.
  4. Remain at each place at least half an hour for the shy birds to be revealed.
    1. We had nearly given up at the spot where a rufous bush robin had been sighted above a pond when out he came, singing, hopping, and spreading his long, patterned erect tail.
  5. Eat an excellent lunch.
    1. If possible lunch at Cecília’s, in tiny Alcaria Ruiva, on pork and clams, garbanzos and hare, grilled black pig, or sardines, with home grown tomatoes, Alentejan wine, espresso, and aguardiete, at least for your clients, and hope Cecília will also sing for you.
  6. Never guess the identity of a bird.
    1. Not all birds can be known. Some are too young, too similar, too hidden, or too far away.
  7. Don’t stop pointing out new individuals of species you have already seen.
    1. It is hard to understand a bird at first sighting. Only after seeing many do their posture, their habitat, their flight pattern, and their sociality become clear so later they can be identified at a glance. We saw buzzards, woodchat shrikes, European bee eaters, rollers, red-legged partridges, house martins, carrion crows, little egrets, cattle egrets, and many other birds over and over, finally getting them down easily.
  8. Describe the behavior, ecology, migration, and invasion status of each bird.
    1. The common waxbills are numerous and noisy, invasive from Africa as are the less common yellow-crowned bishop, or black-headed weaver.
    2. We saw few endemics, perhaps the Iberian gray shrike, probably no surprise for the dry, rolling Alentejan plains, or the estuaries.
    3. Many species flock together and some are social nesters like the lesser kestrels and the European bee eaters.
  9. Look at that griffin vulture roost from many different angles on different days.
    1. We never did see a griffin vulture, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. We saw the guano stained cliffs from far to the west, from far to the east, and from far to the north. We spent many minutes staring at the skies around the roost. We heard the story of the dead sheep with many griffin vultures kept back until another more dominant species numbering only two had their fill.
  10. Never count on seeing a bird later if it might be seen here.
    1. We sneaked, engine off, car doors left open, up to see the first European bee eaters at their colony, finally spying three, though deeper into the Alentejo they were common and we probably saw over a hundered.
    2. With our binoculars we followed the first Montague’s harriers across the marsh, but later saw many.
  11. Point out conservation efforts and actions.
    1. There are platforms for the storks on the electric towers and spinning balls where they should not venture.
    2. The electric wires have tassels or colorful wire loops at intervals so birds don’t crash into them.
    3. City hall in Mértola has boxes for nesting lesser kestrels.
    4. Some of the salt pans are maintained just for the birds.
    5. Three enormous private farms are joined to conserve the great bustard.
  12. Appreciate the rare surprises. They are always likely to involve behavior.
    1. At the edge of the marsh a booted eagle pounced on a rabbit, sitting on it for minutes before soaring off with its furry prey.
  13. Look for the rare feature, water in the plains, solid ground in the water, sun in the forest, shade on the prairie.
    1. We stopped at a drying depression before reaching Mértola with maybe a thousand cattle egrets, a hundred little egrets, 50 carrion crows, 10 spoonbills, a coot, 3 little grebes, a stork, 30 black-winged stilts, 2 common sandpipers, 1 green sandpiper, 5 little ringed plovers, a gray heron and 5 house martins flying around.

About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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1 Response to Fourteen secrets of a Portuguese bird guide

  1. Trileigh says:

    What a great blog, Joan! (I know this sounds like standard spam, but truly, I’m a real person!) I also teach slow natural history, particularly slow birding, at Seattle U, and am delighted to discover a kindred spirit. Would you be willing for me to add your blog to my own blogroll? Take a look (, and let me know if that’s OK with you.

    In the meantime, I’ve subscribed to your blog and will be looking forward to upcoming entries!

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