Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Lisbon lay-over

Black-headed Weaver seems to be thriving in the marshes of the Tejo Estuary near Lisbon.
With a morning flight from Terceira in the Azores to Lisbon but then a five-hour delay before the connection back to London Heathrow, I had some time in mainland Portugal crying out to be put to better use than the food hall of Terminal 1. And what better way of achieving that than hooking up with João Jara of local tour company Birds and Nature.


Lisbon is within a stone's throw of some great birding sites, notably the Tejo (or Tagus) Estuary, and it's hard to imagine anyone knowing them better than João. A former member of the Portuguese Rarities Committee whose time ended just before mine began, he greeted me with the news that he'd recently found Lesser Flamingo and American Golden Plover on the estuary. Our planned targets were rather more prosaic, with Black-headed Weaver and Yellow-crowned Bishop being two locally established - and therefore 'countable' - Category C species which are difficult (if not impossible) to see elsewhere in the Western Palearctic. But equally, I was also hoping for a quick fix of mainland Iberian birds.
Doubtless stunning in full plumage, male Black-headed Weavers are still arresting when moulting their black and lemon-curd yellow breeding garb.
In neither case was I disappointed. João sped us across the impressive Vasco da Gama bridge to a favoured area for both species near Alcochete, and pretty quickly a female Black-headed Weaver popped up in a reedy ditch. Soon there were other more, and we had excellent views of many birds close to the road - mainly juveniles, but also a few females and one moulting male. In terms of views and photo opportunities the Yellow-crowned Bishops were less co-operative, having now formed into swirling flocks in the rice fields, but even at range their short-tailed silhouettes were quite distinctive.

Juvenile Black-headed Weaver: note the pale gape line and dark iris.
The same habitat hosts many other species, with Great Egrets and White Storks scattered around the rice fields and a couple of sentinel Squacco Herons in the marshy areas. A smart male Marsh Harrier and a perched Osprey were pleasing but not as impressive as the Black-winged Kites that hovered in their unique way rather more distantly. Black Redstart, European StonechatZitting Cisticola, Spanish Sparrow and Corn Bunting, here a very common bird, further boosted the rapidly growing list.

Among numerous heron species present along the Tejo marshes was Squacco Heron.
In a nearby area of a private estate to which João has access, we added plenty more, among them Greater Flamingo and Spotless Starling. But time was marching on so we made a make-or-break dash to another part of the estuary to see if the Lesser Flamingo and American Golden Plover were still present. This was another restricted site where João is able to roam, but so too - unfortunately - are cattle. Usually in fenced fields, the aggressive bovines had smashed their way out and were standing on the dirt road between us and the flamingo area, looking somewhat displeased at our presence. After considering the limited options there was only one sensible choice - a tactical withdrawal. At least, however, that gave me my first Southern Grey Shrike for some years.

Before I knew it our time was up and João whisked me back to Lisbon, airport bang on schedule. We had seen a great deal in a short space of time, and I knew it was just a taste of what would be possible on a longer trip around the area. I'll certainly aim to hook up again for more top-drawer Portuguese birding when in Lisbon in future, and thoroughly recommend Birds and Nature for anyone else thinking of doing the same.

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