Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Lisbon revisited

Cork oak woodland at the Sado Estuary near Lisbon.
I first stayed in the Portuguese capital back in June 1993, and from there birded my way across the rich plains of the Alentejo to the Algarve in the south. Fond memories of that trip include Great and Little Bustards, Black-bellied Sandgrouse, Red-necked Nightjar and Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin, among many other exciting species.

Most subsequent visits have been all-too-brief transit stops en route to and from the Azores, but back in 2012 I had the opportunity to make the most of a longer airport lay-over by teaming up with João Jara of local specialists Birds and Nature Tours Portugal. A few very worthwhile hours on the Tejo Estuary produced some excellent birds on that November trip, not least Greater Flamingo, Black-winged Kite, Iberian Grey Shrike and two countable ‘Category C’ species, Black-headed Weaver and Yellow-crowned Bishop, for which the Tejo's rice fields and marshes are well known.

Crested Myna - an established exotic restricted to the Lisbon area.
Last weekend I was back in Lisbon, this time for a Portuguese Rarities Committee meeting, and my schedule again meant that I had some time to spare beforehand. João arranged a local itinerary to make the best use of this opportunity, and Helder Cardoso was my guide. We started off in the south of the capital where another Category C species, Crested Myna, can be found – the Lisbon area is the only place in the Western Palearctic where this Asian exotic has established itself. A roadside verge near a popular beach soon produced the myna, while Pallid Swift and Red-rumped Swallow overhead were more typical of the Mediterranean species most birders target in Portugal.

One of many Purple Herons encountered at close range around the Tejo Estuary.
From there we headed upriver along the Tejo, and worked an extensive area of rice fields and marshes close to the estuary. Although it was the height of summer and temperatures were touching 100 degrees Fahrenheit there were still plenty of birds, including good numbers of White Stork, Purple Heron, Glossy Ibis and Eurasian Spoonbill, with passerines including Short-toed Lark, Great Reed Warbler and some dazzlingly colourful male Yellow-crowned Bishops. One field held a large flock of immature gulls, the great majority of them Lesser Black-backeds, but prolonged scrutiny produced a few Yellow-leggeds and what was eventually confirmed as easily our best bird of the day – a first-summer Audouin’s Gull, a major rarity in Portugal away from the Algarve (more photos and some comments on the ID on.my eBird checklist here).

Second-calendar-year Audouin's Gull - a rarity this far north in Portugal.
After lunch in the impressive reserve centre at Leziria Grande, which laid on Collared Pratincoles outside the window while we ate, it was time to move on to the Barroca d’Alva area. Here we noted more bishops and a good mix of wetland species, including two unseasonable Green Sandpipers, while on a private estate nearby – access being one of the benefits of using Birds and Nature – Little Bittern, Black-crowned Night Heron, Booted Eagle, Hoopoe, Short-toed Treecreeper and Iberian Magpie (now split from Azure-winged) were among the numerous additions on the day list.

Male Yellow-crowned Bishop feeling the midday heat as temperatures hit 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
At a final stop at the Sado Estuary we managed to catch up with Melodious Warbler, along with a flock of Scaly-breasted Munias. This is not – yet – the ‘countable’ munia species in Portugal: that used to be Black-headed Munia, but the past tense seems appropriate as the species has apparently disappeared from its former haunts in the Tejo Estuary and its Category C status may prove  premature. In contrast, as our flock of nine birds demonstrated, Scaly-breasted Munia is more numerous and widespread, and potentially a strong candidate for upgrading from Category E to Category C.

A party of Scaly-breasted Munias. Another naturalised exotic, this species is a potential addition to Category C.
As with my previous outing with Birds and Nature Tours Portugal, the experience was extremely rewarding. I could have rented a car myself and gone birding, but with limited time, lack of knowledge of local sites, and the need to travel around, out of and back into the Portuguese capital to find my hotel, I could not have made better use of the available time. Importantly, it's also good to support local ecotourism businesses that offer great service and value for money. I'd thoroughly recommend Birds and Nature Tours Portugal to anyone birding in the Lisbon region, and for that matter anywhere else in Portugal.

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