Western Portugal

Iberia's Atlantic seaboard
17 - 24 March 2002

Teresa Farino

This was the first ever Travelling Naturalist trip to the Lisbon area, and as such was somewhat 'exploratory' for both leader and clients alike. Despite the need for some fine-tuning, especially with respect to the length of days in the field, we feel that it was fairly successful in terms of the wildlife encountered in a wide range of habitats, not least the spectacular views of Bottle-nosed Dolphins in the Sado estuary.

In total we tracked down 96 species of bird, with highlights including Greater Flamingo, Eurasian Spoonbill, Black-shouldered Kite, Montagu's Harrier, Avocet, Mediterranean Gull, Hoopoe, Southern Grey Shrike and Azure-winged Magpie, plus 22 of butterfly, notably Spanish Festoon, Scarce Swallowtail and Geranium Bronze. Among the plants, we recorded almost 300 species, including 14 members of the Liliaceae and 18 orchids, with a remarkable eight in the genus Ophrys. The weather was also very kind, especially towards the end of the week, which also helped!

The following report limits itself to recording some of the highlights of the trip, rather than giving lists of species seen on each day, which I hope will make for more interesting reading. I also hope that it brings back some happy memories of your trip to western Portugal.

Sunday 17 March     transfer from Lisbon airport to Zimbros

After a punctual arrival at Lisbon airport and swift recovery of baggage, we climbed into our 'duck-egg-blue' minibus and made our way to the Zimbros - our hotel for the week - located on the limestone plateau which links the Serra de Arrábida with the headland of Cabo Espichel. En route we travelled through groves of cork oak Quercus suber and maritime and stone pines (Pinus pinaster & P. pinea), before stopping briefly at the Lagoa de Albufeira, where a group of Cattle Egrets was coming in to roost in the reedbed, accompanied by small flocks of Spotless Starlings. Once at the Zimbros, we settled into our comfortable rooms, then convened in the bar for an aperitif and 'orientation', which was followed by a delicious meal of grilled swordfish or steak.

Monday 18 March     Estuário do Tejo: Alcochete/Hortas/Pancas

We awoke to find thick mist swirling in off the sea over the edge of the plateau, and so decided to try and find better weather by heading north to the southern edge of the Tejo estuary. Following the scenic route northwards past the Lago da Albufeira, we made an impromptu stop in a maritime pine plantation to track down a small group of Azure-winged Magpies which had flown across the road in front of the minibus. Although the birds quickly disappeared to the back of the forest, most of us managed to get brief views, and in the process also turned up a Whinchat chasing after cockchafers, spotted by Martin, as well as listening to the songs of Firecrest and Serin. Just before returning to the minibus, Mary pointed out a couple of spikes of tassel hyacinth Muscari comosum, almost in flower.

In Alcochete, a coffee stop provided an introduction to the architecture of coastal Portugal, with ceramic-tiled house-fronts providing blazes of colour throughout the town. The early arrival of spring to this part of Europe was reflected by a busy House Martin colony on the side of the church, although the large number of waterbirds on the adjacent mudflats reminded us that it was still really winter for most. A host of Lesser Black-backed and Black-headed Gulls was in residence around the jetty, with the mudflats providing good views of Little Egret, Avocet, Grey Plover, Redshank and Common Sandpiper. Dick and Rosie, equipped with telescope, spotted a group of eight large, long-legged white birds on a distant patch of saltmarsh, which turned out to be our first Eurasian Spoonbills.

Moving the short distance to Hortas, we explored the sandy soils behind the estuary while waiting for the tide to rise and bring the birds closer. Here we found a colourful array of small-flowered catchfly Silene gallica, narrow-leaved and yellow lupins (Lupinus angustifolius & L. luteus), the handsome, yellow-flowered winged vetchling Lathyrus ochrus and the much smaller, purplish-flowered Lathyrus angulatus, purple viper's-bugloss Echium lycopsis, the slender, yellow-flowered toadflax Linaria spartea, crown daisy Chrysanthemum coronarium, the superficially similar Coleostephus myconis and the shrubby marigold Calendula suffruticosa. As the sun came out, we started to see the first signs of the afternoon flowering among the abundant Barbary nut irises Gymnandriris sisyrinchium (much better after lunch!), but these were quickly abandoned in favour of a veritable host of delicate three-leaved snowflakes Leucojum trichophyllum.

Saltmarsh vegetation, in all honesty, excites only the most ardent plant-lovers, but in passing we did note such typical halophytes as shrubby orache Atriplex halimus, sea-purslane Halimione portulacoides, shrubby sea-blite Suaeda vera, the bluish-leaved wormwood Artemisia caerulescens, golden-samphire Inula crithmoides, the frilly foliage of the sea-lavender Limonium ferulaceum and the arrowgrass Triglochin bulbosa, as well as a number of naturalised species: Hottentot fig Carpobrotus edulis, buttonweed Cotula coronopifolia and the composite Arctotheca calendula, all of which hail from South Africa.

As we plant-hunted, the explosive calls of Cetti's Warblers and the scolding of Sardinian Warblers emanated from the densest vegetation, while the air was filled with the songs of Fan-tailed Warblers, Goldfinches, Greenfinches and Serins. Common Chiffchaffs fidgeted within the larger bushes, Meadow Pipits foraged among the brackish grasslands and a sole Common Snipe sped off across the saltmarsh when disturbed by us wandering naturalists. Crossing a small bridge we encountered a dead Viperine Snake (although in such good condition that some of us thought it was merely sun-bathing until Teresa prodded it!), and the flowery banks beyond provided us with our first butterflies of the trip: Red Admiral and Small White. Overhead we were entertained by the leisurely flight of a couple of Marsh Harriers, then Patricia pointed out another raptor which turned out to be a fabulous pale-phase Booted Eagle, and at quite close quarters.

As we returned to the minibus to collect lunch, we were briefly distracted by a flight of Greater Flamingos, looking for all the world like winged walking-sticks. We settled down on the edge of the saltmarsh, to feast on local cheeses, a Portuguese (and rather inferior!) version of tortilla de patata and delicious chilled, sparkling rosé from the local Fonseca wine cellars. Although we found several thick, asparagus-like spikes of Cistanche phelypaea here, parasitising the sea-purslane and promising a fine display for later in the year, our attention was largely fixed on the ever-changing panorama of waterbirds directly ahead.

Bar-tailed Godwits were spread among the Black-tailed (the former generally much smaller, and many of the latter already boasting chestnut necks and upper breasts), with a smattering of Grey Plover, Dunlin, Redshank and Greenshank adding to the diversity, but most memorable were the close-up views of a feeding Eurasian Spoonbill in the river immediately in front of us.

Changing the scenery and habitat, we next explored an area of salinas converted into fish-ponds alongside the N-118 to the east of Alcochete. Hollow-stemmed asphodel Asphodelus fistulosus was the only plant of note, but we had good views of Black-winged Stilt and Common Sandpiper in the shallower pools, with Sandwich Terns fishing noisily in the deeper ones, as well as of an extremely well-marked male Marsh Harrier.

We then jumped back in the minibus and headed a little further north into the Pancas cork oaks, where we were rewarded with half a dozen spikes of violet limodore Limodorum abortivum, sadly not yet in flower, as well as an abundance of palmate anemone Anemone palmata and drifts of sky-blue Scilla monophyllos. Birdwise we added only Long-tailed Tit and a calling Green Woodpecker to the list, thus proving that the middle of a sunny afternoon is not ideal for birdwatching, but our foray was enlivened the passage of a herd of several dozen 'Lippizaner-type' brood mares, moving at a fast trot through the forest, some accompanied by chestnut foals.

Tuesday 19 March     Pinheiro/Açude da Murta/Península de Tróia

Once again we were surrounded by thick mist when we awoke, this time accompanied by rain. We drove first to Setúbal, to make arrangements for the following day's dolphin-watching, and then, as the weather hadn't improved, opted to explore another area of cork oak forest, this time at the eastern edge of the Sado estuary, near Pinheiro.

This proved to be a good decision, as we escaped the worst of the weather coming in from the west, such that the sun had come out by the time we arrived. We had to walk quite a way into the forest in order to pick out the birdsong above the traffic noise from the N-5, but were quickly rewarded with a singing Woodlark, which we tracked for some time in an attempt to clap eyes on it, before it finally flew off overhead, giving us diagnostic views of its very short tail. Stonechats, Serins and Wrens were the commonest birds around, but we also encountered Nuthatch and most of us got good views of Short-toed Treecreepers, which were surprisingly abundant on this occasion. Although Crested Tits were heard on and off throughout the morning, we were frustratingly unable to lay binoculars on one, either today or during the whole trip. In the meantime, Maurice was absorbed in waiting for a Garden Dormouse to re-emerge from an old tree-trunk, while Lin and Teresa briefly glimpsed an Iberian Hare as it dashed off through the undergrowth.

As the air warmed up, so butterflies started to put in an appearance, mainly Small Coppers, Green Hairstreaks and Speckled Woods. On the plant front, the main attractions were Nonea vesicaria, with deep-crimson flowers, and more palmate anemones, three-leaved snowflakes and Scilla monophyllos. As we emerged into the adjacent damp pastures along a small stream, Egyptian grasshoppers Anacridium aegyptium buzzed through the streamside brambles, Dick and Rosie spotted some Iberian Pool Frogs in a puddle on the track, and Lin located a pair of mating Western Dappled Whites, which posed beautifully for photographs. Clouded Yellows and Cleopatras added to our enjoyment as we lunched on the edge of the forest, while White Storks and Common Buzzards sailed overhead.

Our next stop was the small freshwater reservoir of the Açude da Murta, and although the egret colony was not yet in residence (both Little and Cattle - up to 3,000 pairs - but possibly not every year), we saw plenty of old nests clustered among the willows, plus 13 Little Egrets perched on a dead tree in the centre of the lake. We also had very clear views of a pair of Common Waxbills among a clump of bulrushes. Tree Frogs were calling from the surrounding vegetation, but whether Common or Stripeless we couldn't tell, as they inexplicably lost their voices whenever we approached!

Plantwise, it was too early in the year to appreciate the rich aquatic flora of Murta, although we did note great fen-sedge Cladium mariscus, bog myrtle Myrica gale and white water-lily Nymphaea alba. Among the pines, we encountered bushes of Halimium halimifolium, just coming into flower, and Corema album - a dioecious, Afro-Iberian member of the crowberry family - as well as a few more clumps of three-leaved snowflake. Lang's Short-tailed Blue was the butterfly highlight here, while our foray was also punctuated by the 'scuttlings' of Large Psammodromus lizards, although few of us got really good views as they bolted for cover.

We then whizzed round to the Tróia sandspit, where the lee-shore saltmarsh turned up more Dunlin and Redshank, as well as Sandwich Tern and Great Cormorant. Here too we found numerous small bushes of Santolina impressa, a Portuguese endemic lavender-cotton, which was studded with hundreds of inch-long stripy crickets, unfortunately impossible to identify given the lack of field guides (but I took some photos, so . who knows?). A transect of the dunes from the stabilised sands in the centre of the spit to the Atlantic shore started from the road, lined with a colourful display of glorious blue Anchusa calcarea, the fluorescent-pink-flowered Silene littorea and sand stock Malcolmia littorea.

In blazing sunshine the dune flora was impressive indeed; many will take home memories of the vivid contrast between the golden-flowered bushes of the 'sun-rose' Halimium calycinum and the azure blooms of the scrambling gromwell Lithodora diffusa ssp. lusitanica. Moving into the dunes we encountered a mosaic of shrubby species such as lentisc Pistacia lentiscus, French lavender Lavandula stoechas ssp. luisieri, Phoenician juniper Juniperus phoenicea and Phillyrea angustifolia, in the shelter of which were thriving the robust stonecrop Sedum sediforme, navelwort Umbilicus rupestris, the climbing snapdragon Antirrhinum majus ssp. linkianum and annual valerian Centranthus calcitrapae.

Approaching the main crest of the dunes we came across a rather different assemblage of the Iberian endemic pink Dianthus broteri, the sticky, yellow-flowered restharrow Ononis ramosissima, the buckthorn Rhamnus lycioides ssp. oleoides, the everlasting flower Helichrysum italicum ssp. serotinum and sea wormwood Artemisia campestris ssp. maritima.

Once over onto the seaward side of the crest, the flora changed again, this time dominated by spiny thrift Armeria pungens, the fleshy-leaved Iberian endemic thyme Thymus carnosus, the succulent figwort Scrophularia frutescens (another Afro-Iberian endemic), the umbellifer known as pseudorlaya Pseudorlaya pumila, and southern birdsfoot-trefoil Lotus creticus, which took us down to the embryo dunes, colonised by coastal crucianella Crucianella maritima, sea spurge Euphorbia paralias, cottonweed Otanthus maritimus, sea-holly Eryngium maritimum and sea knotgrass Polygonum maritimum, although none of these was in flower so early in the year. Here too, we all photographed a robust toadflax Linaria sp. with dense, ovoid inflorescences of yellow flowers striped with purple and rather fleshy leaves, although Teresa has not managed to identify this yet. On the way back to the minibus, Martin spotted the cistus parasite Cytinus hypocistis, not quite in flower, as well as a Mother Shipton moth.

Having acquired a ferry timetable from some handy workmen, we realised that there was not such a mad panic to get to the end of the spit as we had thought, so we took time out to refresh ourselves from the cold-box. The queue for the ferry, while meaning that we were rather late back to the hotel, did afford us our first views of Bottle-nosed Dolphins, as most of the resident pod passed in front of the jetty on their way out of the estuary, whetting our appetites for the following day! Once aboard, we were also treated to magnificent close-ups of Sandwich Terns plunging into the water only metres from the boat.

Wednesday 20 March     Estuário do Sado dolphins/Serra da Arrábida

At last a change in the morning weather around the hotel, and we headed off in sunshine to Setúbal for our date with Pedro, who was to take us in search of the Sado estuary's resident population of Bottle-nosed Dolphins (32 individuals at the last count; which has remained fairly stable over the last five years). A quick 'loo stop', under the guise of coffee, was essential for most, then we headed down to the harbour where we donned fluorescent orange life jackets and boarded our RIB (rigid inflatable boat).

The airspace over the port was teeming with scavenging Lesser Black-backed Gulls and fishing Sandwich Terns as we headed out into the vast expanse of the estuary. For a while things looked rather unhopeful, although we did spot three Mediterranean Gulls in full summer plumage by the shores of the Tróia peninsula, and then headed towards a sandbank in mid-estuary, beyond which we located a small group of Red-breasted Mergansers. After this, the dolphins came thick and fast, although as they were busy feeding there were no aerial acrobatics on this occasion. Identifying the dolphins by their dorsal-fin profiles, Pedro estimated that at one point we were in the midst of some 15 individuals, both adults and young, although at any one time we could only see six or seven, variously surfacing in groups of up to four.

Following the almost obligatory purchase of dolphin postcards, we drove along the spine of the Serra da Arrábida, pausing to take photos of the Sado estuary to the south in a lay-by surrounded by a colourful array of grey-leaved cistus Cistus albidus and shrubby scorpion-vetch Coronilla glauca. Lunch was taken at a viewpoint overlooking the sea-cliffs, where we disturbed a Blue Rock Thrush from the adjacent quarry on arrival, which perched briefly on a prominent lookout before disappearing round the corner. Our meal was enlivened by a Peregrine, spotted by Martin, several Swallowtails and a pair of Wall Browns, while Mary found a delightful little patch of the slender, white-flowered Omphalodes linifolia, yellow gromwell Neatostema apulum and shrubby pimpernel Anagallis monelli, and Rosie some flowering wild jasmine Jasminum fruticans.

After lunch we walked along the road, examining the surprising diversity of evergreen shrubs so typical of this Mediterranean vegetation en route, namely holly oak Quercus coccifera, Mediterranean buckthorn Rhamnus alaternus, lentisc, shrubby hare's-ear Bupleurum fruticosum, myrtle Myrtus communis, Mediterranean mezereon Daphne gnidium, Phillyrea latifolia, P. angustifolia, strawberry-tree Arbutus unedo, butcher's-broom Ruscus aculeatus and common smilax Smilax aspera, with colour provided by flowering laurustinus Viburnum tinus, rosemary Rosmarinus officinalis, Iberian milk-vetch Astragalus lusitanicus and tree heath Erica arborea. Taller trees turned out to be western holm oak Quercus rotundifolia, while a shady rock-face produced several spikes of two-leaved gennaria Gennaria diphylla and rusty-back fern Ceterach officinarum.

We climbed the steps towards the series of extraordinary chapels on the hillside above the ex-Franciscan Convento da Arrábida, where we located many Lusitanian oaks Quercus faginea ssp, broteroi and small Montpellier maples Acer monspessulanum, sheltering a mass of alexanders Smyrnium olusatrum, Spanish bluebells Hyacinthoides hispanica and western peonies Paeonia broteroi, a couple of the latter just coming into bloom. Maurice and Teresa then went back for the minibus while the others returned to the road by a different route, the highlight of which was a Hoopoe foraging on the path ahead of them for several minutes.

Thursday 21 March     Altiplano de Azóia

The fine weather continued, so at long last we were able to explore the limestone plateau around the hotel. Corn Buntings trilled from perches all around us and a few Cattle Egrets were foraging in the nearby fields. Even though it was only 9am, Lin and Martin spotted a Scarce Swallowtail zooming by, and we soon noted a fine pair of Southern Grey Shrikes using an overhead wire as a vantage point.

However, the wealth of plants soon diverted attention with new species of orchid coming thick and fast: bumble-bee ophrys Ophrys bombyliflora, yellow ophrys O. lutea, sawfly ophrys O. tenthredinifera, the rather inaccurately named dull ophrys O. fusca and naked man orchid Orchis italica. Here too we noted the star-of-Bethlehem Ornithogalum orthophyllum, rosy garlic Allium roseum, spotted rock-rose Tuberaria guttata and the dwarf, pink-flowered knapweed Centaurea pullata.

As we walked south towards the high point of the plateau, we traversed a thick scrub composed mainly of cushions of Ulex densus (endemic to the central Portuguese coast), plus lentisc, wild olive Olea europaea ssp. sylvestris, rosemary, French lavender, holly oak, narrow-leaved cistus Cistus monspeliensis and Cistus crispus, although we didn't see the lovely deep-crimson blooms of the latter at any point during the trip. Lurking amid this evergreen scrub were numerous nodding southern daisies Bellis sylvestris and the robust, shiny leaves of sea squill Drimia maritima, the latter occasionally topped by a 60cm-high dead flower stalk (this attractive species blooms in the autumn).

As we approached an area where jagged limestone pavement protruded through the scrub, the plant-life suddenly improved enormously, with colourful patches of a particular large-flowered form of common centaury Centaurium erythraea ssp. grandiflorum, Mediterranean spurge Euphorbia characias and the extremely fetid fringed rue Ruta chalepensis catching our eyes. Here too were drifts of Barbary nut, a few late-flowering plants of hoop-petticoat daffodil Narcissus bulbocodium ssp. obesus, southern red bartsia Parentucellia latifolia, asterolinon Asterolinon linum-stellatum, pale flax Linum bienne and sweet alison Lobularia maritima, while Patricia and Rosie found several spikes of Orchis conica. This Orchis tridentata group is extremely confusing, with one local book saying that toothed orchid O. tridentata proper occurs in the study area, another that it is in fact milky orchid O. lactea. However, Delforge says that recent studies suggest that only the conical orchid O. conica (a third member of this difficult group) is considered to occur in Iberia, so that is what we shall call it!

In an around the limestone pavement we located sad stock Matthiola fruticulosa and the diminutive Valeriana tuberosa, then Patricia then spotted some champagne orchids Orchis morio ssp. champagneuxii, and we were also rewarded by numerous pink butterfly orchids O. papilionacea, swiftly followed by woodcock ophrys Ophrys scolopax and a rather poor specimen of O. dyris.

Faunal interest was added by swooping Barn Swallows, some very red-breasted Linnets, Common Waxbills in a stand of bare-branched eucalypts, a hunting Common Kestrel and numerous Stonechats, Fan-tailed and Sardinian Warblers, Goldfinches, Greenfinches and Serins. Many butterflies had been tempted out by the warm sunshine, including Swallowtail, Western Dappled and Large Whites, Clouded Yellow, Cleopatra, Green Hairstreak, Red Admiral and Wall Brown. Heading back to the village, a fallow field gave us reasonable views of Crested Larks, and then as we embarked on our walk along the cliffs, we all had excellent views of several Dartford Warblers.

The composition of the scrub changed somewhat as we descended towards the sea, with more typically calcifuge species appearing, notably gum and sage-leaved cistuses (Cistus salviifolius & C. ladanifer), green heather Erica scoparia and Phoenician juniper (the local name for which is zimbros, after which our hotel is named). We also came across common asphodel Asphodelus aestivus and several spikes of wild gladiolus Gladiolus illyricus.

We eventually made camp for lunch where fire had removed the dense vegetation, allowing us to perch on a series of limestone outcrops, amid drifts of Omphalodes linifolia and next to a single plant of dipcadi Dipcadi serotinum. As we were settling down, Martin spotted a Ring Ouzel on a nearby outcrop, which disappeared before any of us except Lin could locate it. After lunch we wandered over to the cliff-edge in search of the tree-spurge Euphorbia pedroi, unique to this locality, which was subsequently encountered growing alongside a fine display of cut-leaved lavender Lavandula multifida, Malling toadflax Chaenorhinum origanifolium, the Afro-Iberian endemic Withania frutescens and wild tulips Tulipa sylvestris ssp. australis. Patricia proved once again how sharp-eyed she is by spotting a Peregrine perched on the edge of the cliff, which we watched for some time before it swooped around the corner.

We followed the path westwards along the lower plateau, where Rosie found a few mirror ophrys Ophrys ciliata by the side of the track, then, after a last look at the sea, climbed back up to the upper plateau, where we were rewarded with a fine assemblage of man orchids Aceras anthropophorum growing together with more naked man orchids. Here we also turned up our only Green-striped Whites of the week, and Teresa spotted a Spanish Brown Argus, although it vanished - apparently into thin air - while Lin was trying to get a look at it.

Friday 22 March     Lagoa de Albufeira/Quinta da Serra

Again in hot, sunny weather we returned to the Lagoa de Albufeira, where no sooner had we disembarked from the minibus than we saw a female Marsh Harrier float across the reedbed. Water Rails squealed from the cover of the reeds, and in small pools secreted within we spotted Little Grebe and Common Teal. While everyone was studying a particularly fine Cirl Bunting, Teresa looked up to see a Purple Heron settling into the reeds, and although it immediately disappeared from view, she then located another perched amid half a dozen or so Grey Herons in the stone pines on the far shore.

Heading into the adjacent maritime pines, we tracked down the enormous leaf-rosettes of the Portuguese endemic mullein Verbascum litigiosum, whose flower-spikes exceed 2m in height, and then spotted a male Bocage's Wall Lizard; greenish with a short, deep head, which magnanimously allowed us to watch it through binoculars for some time. We emerged from the pines just in time to see a magnificent Purple Heron wheel over the reedbed before dropping out of view.

Our next stop was the beach at the mouth of the Lagoa, where the surrounding dune system was carpeted with an absolutely phenomenal display of southern birdsfoot-trefoil, Silene littorea, Anchusa calcarea, sea medick Medicago marina and more of the unidentified Linaria. Both male and female Common Blues were cavorting amid the flowers, as well as a veritable host of Swallowtails, and Martin, Lin and Teresa had excellent views of a particularly robust Large Psammodromus.

We decided to walk across the sand-bar that closes the mouth of the lagoon, pausing to examine several Kentish Plovers and a solitary Little Stint edge of the water and admire the Sandwich Terns once again. At the far corner of the lagoon we were surprised to encounter a lone Common Scoter, which was relatively unperturbed by our scrutiny, even emerging from the water at one point, but otherwise we had to content ourselves with a fine assemblage of cottonweed, sea medick, sea spurge and sea rocket Cakile maritima.

The extremely hot sun demanded that lunch be eaten in the shade, so we returned to a pinewood on the entry road to the lagoon, where we were entertained by a Lang's Short-tailed Blue, an Iberian Wall Lizard, which sat quite happily on Teresa's hand for a few minutes, and the calls of Long-tailed Tit, Firecrest and Great Spotted Woodpecker.

After lunch we made for the cool, shady cork oaks and stone pines of the Serra da Quinta, where a damp, humid trail was lined with a thick carpet of Mediterranean selaginella Selaginella denticulata and Iberian chiffchaffs sang from the surrounding trees. We were delighted to emerge into a sunny clearing to find a number of Spanish Festoons floating around in the afternoon sun, and as we climbed a small rocky outcrop a Peregrine circled overhead and a pair of Woodpigeons - the only ones of the week - dashed across the canopy. Before descending to the road, Mary spotted a small stand of tongue orchids Serapias lingua, with more pink butterfly orchids and bumble-bee ophrys nearby. Back in the shade of the trees we encountered the foodplant of the Spanish Festoon on acid soils - the birthwort Aristolochia longa - and as we walked along the road Martin and Teresa hung back to examine and photograph a Wood White.

A last-minute decision to take in the sunset at Cabo Espichel saw most of us dashing for the headland with only minutes to spare (as predicted by Dick's GPS). A glorious blaze of red and orange was set off to good effect by the late 17th-century church of Nossa Senhora do Cabo, whose pilgrim hostelry is now occupied only by Barn Swallows, Spotless Starlings and House Sparrows.

Saturday 23 March     Serra do Louro/Sesimbra Castle

Yet another fabulously sunny day, and we drove off to Palmela to walk west along the limestone ridge of the Serra do Louro. Teresa left the group examining the roadside flora - dwarf convolvulus Convolvulus tricolor and blue hound's-tongue Cynoglossum creticum were new here - while she left the minibus at a strategic point and walked back up the hill again.

Reunited, we walked up past the restored windmills (nowadays used to grind wheat to provide a local bakery), with Barn Swallows and House Martins cruising low overhead and Serins jingling from the scattered trees. Just past the last windmill, the flowers of an attractive Macaronesian Echium and a Judas tree Cercis siliquastrum attracted a number of violet carpenter bees Xylocopa sp., while a female Blackcap flitted through the trees behind. At about this point we also had excellent views - only a few metres away - of a pair of Common Waxbills collecting nesting material, while a Hoopoe flew along the north side of the ridge.

The first of the orchids for which Louro is renowned soon appeared - swathes of yellow, bumble-bee and dull ophrys and naked man and man orchids - swiftly followed by a plethora of mirror ophrys. Plants new to us along the way included shepherd's-needle Scandix pecten-veneris, Phlomis purpurea, just coming into flower, sweet scabious Scabiosa atropurpurea and meadow saxifrage Saxifraga granulata, while among the butterflies on the wing were both Swallowtails in some numbers, Small Copper, Painted Lady, Wall Brown and Speckled Wood.

Martin, Lin and Teresa also spent some time pondering the identity of a small lycaenid rather reminiscent of a Lang's Short-tailed Blue, but with a marked chequered border. Unfortunately, it quickly made itself scarce when Teresa got the net out, and so it wasn't until she had a brain-wave while writing this report that she realised it was a Geranium Bronze: a South African species imported with Pelargonium spp. (of which the larvae are a pest) to the Balearic Islands in the 1990s, which has subsequently spread through much of the Iberian peninsula (and so not in any of our ancient field guides, but see Tolman & Lewington!).

Eventually we came across several large orchids which were new to us - giant orchid Barlia robertiana - although most had almost finished flowering by now, and we also had a rummage among the olives for early spider ophrys Ophrys sphegodes, which was duly located without much trouble. While we were slumped in the shade of the olives waiting for the plant photographers to do their stuff, we had our best views yet of Sardinian Warblers, clearly noting the vivid red eye-ring in both males and females.

Continuing along the top of the ridge we all heard a Common Cuckoo calling repeatedly from the wooded valley to the south, watched a pair of Common Buzzards perched in dead trees around a farm to the north, and came across our first Orange Tip: a freshly-emerged male. Teresa then left the group to go back for the minibus, while the rest continued, under Lin's guidance, down the trail to the road. We drove a little further west and had our last picnic lunch in the shade of an old olive tree.

The remainder of the afternoon was dedicated to strolling around the parapets of Sesimbra's Moorish castle, restored in the 18th century, whose walls were festooned with Malling toadflax, cut-leaved lavender, Antirrhinum majus ssp. linkianum and rusty-back fern, although the only bird we added to our list was a pair of Collared Doves on a wire next to the road up. Drinks and ice-creams on the shady terrace of a bar by the castle preceded a quick look at the quaint seaside town itself, and then we returned to the hotel to pack up ready to return to England the following day, this sad event was somewhat ameliorated by liberal quantities of Fonseca's finest brut champagne!

Sunday 24 March     Lezíria/return to Lisbon airport

While supping champagne the previous evening we had decided to make an extra early start in order to give us time to visit the Lezíria do Tejo before heading off to catch the plane. On the way, we were somewhat surprised to pass a male Pheasant in the pinewoods near the Lagoa de Albufeira, and then (by popular request) crossed over the Vasco da Gama bridge - constructed to facilitate access to Expo '98 - where Greater Flamingos and Black-winged Stilts were visible in the salinas below.

Once at the Lezíria, we set off through a vast expanse of rice fields and brackish meadows in search of birds, using the minibus as a hide. Corn Buntings, Fan-tailed warblers, Stonechats and Goldfinches were ten-a-penny, and the air was filled with the song of Skylarks, but more exciting were the vividly-coloured Yellow Wagtails (of the race iberiae) that perched on posts and fence-wires along the way. Even these were forgotten, however, when Teresa spotted what she had been looking for: a Black-shouldered Kite perched atop a crop-sprayer in a nearby field! Having spent ten minutes observing this preening bird, we had all but given up hope of any greater activity when it spread its wings and gave us the classic hunting flight, hovering with wings held in a deep 'V' before plunging down towards its prey. The manoeuvre was unsuccessful on this occasion, however, and the kite returned to its perch empty-taloned, so we left it in peace to continue to a small chapel on the northwestern edge of the Lezíria.

Another pause to examine a fine male Marsh Harrier also rewarded us with the unmistakable 'song' (if you can call it that!) of a Great Reed Warbler, which drifted in through the open windows of the minibus from a clump of reeds in the ditch by the track: a sure sign that spring was on the way. And even then, the trip still held one more surprise, in the form of an elegant male Montagu's Harrier, quartering the polders on our left, with all of us clearly able to see the dark bar on the secondaries which distinguishes it from the Hen Harrier. A far-off female harrier a little later was assumed to belong to the same species, although this was impossible to ascertain given the distance involved. And so, to the airport, with British Airways whisking the group back to England, and Teresa starting the long drive back to northern Spain.

Teresa would like to thank you all for your forbearance during this, the first ever Travelling Naturalist tour to the Lisbon area, and hope that you enjoyed it as much as she did. Your comments on the relative merits of the various activities were much appreciated, and - rest assured - will be taken into account when planning future trips.

Teresa Farino; April 2002



Little Grebe: Seen only at the Lagoa de Albufeira on 22nd.

Great Cormorant: Seen on 4 days, with especially large numbers roosting in estuaries.

Grey Heron: Seen on 4 days.

Purple Heron: Two birds at Lagoa de Albufeira on 22nd, with good views of a roosting bird (in stone pines) and a second flying in to land in the reedbed.

Cattle Egret: Noted daily, with a large roost in the reedbed of Albufeira at dusk on 17th.

Little Egret: Noted on 18th, 19th, 20th and 24th, usually in small numbers in estuaries.

Greater Flamingo: Good numbers on the Tejo and Sado estuaries, seen on 18th, 19th, 20th and 24th.

White Stork: Noted on 18th, 19th and 24th, usually on nests on pylons.

Eurasian Spoonbill: A single bird seen feeding from Hortas (Tejo estuary) on 18th.

Common Teal: Only seen at close quarters by Teresa and Lin at the Lagoa de Albufeira on 22nd; many distant birds in Tejo estuary on 18th.

Mallard: Noted on 4 days, generally in small numbers.

Common Scoter: Surprisingly, a single bird feeding at the seaward edge of the Lagoa de Albufeira on 22nd.

Red-breasted Merganser: Seen distantly in the Sado estuary during the boat trip in search of dolphins on 20th.

Osprey: Martin saw one on 18th.

Black-shouldered Kite: A perched bird on our last morning in the Lezíria, which later rewarded us with a superb view of its hovering hunting flight.

[Eurasian] Marsh Harrier: Seen well in the Tejo estuary on 18th, Açude da Murta on 19th, Lagoa de Albufeira on 22nd and the Lezíria on 24th.

Montagu's Harrier: Lovely views of a pristine male at the Lezíria on 24th, followed by distant views of a female.

Common Buzzard: Noted almost daily in small to moderate numbers.

Booted Eagle: A lovely pale-phase bird flew overhead on our first morning at Hortas (Tejo estuary; 18th).

Common Kestrel: Noted on 4 days.

Peregrine: Noted on 20th from our lunch spot overlooking the Arrábida cliffs, on 21st on the Azóia cliffs (perched then flying), and on 22nd, above Quinta da Serra.

Red-legged Partridge: Oddly, heard only on 18th, while exploring the Pancas cork oaks.

[Ring-necked] Pheasant: A male by the roadside near the Lagoa de Albufeira on 24th.

Water Rail: One+ calling at the Lagoa de Albufeira on 22nd.

Common Moorhen: Seen only at the Açude da Murta on 19th.

Common Coot: Only noted on 3 days.

Black-winged Stilt: 15+ in the old salinas at Entroncamento on 18th, plus several in salinas adjacent to the Vasco da Gama bridge on 24th.

[Pied] Avocet: Close-up views in the Tejo estuary, from both Alcochete and Hortas on 18th.

Grey Plover: Again on the Tejo estuary from Alcochete and Hortas on 18th, and a single bird in the Sado estuary during our dolphin boat trip on 20th.

Kentish Plover: Four or five birds along the seaward edge of the Lagoa de Albufeira on 22nd.

Black-tailed Godwit: Common in the Tejo estuary on 18th.

Bar-tailed Godwit: Also common; seen from Hortas on 18th.

[Eurasian] Curlew: A single bird in flight over the Sado estuary, seen from the boat on 20th.

Common Redshank: Common in the Tejo estuary on 18th, and also seen from the Tróia peninsula on 19th.

Common Greenshank: A couple seen from our lunch spot at Hortas on 18th.

Common Sandpiper: Seen at close quarters from Alcochete and probably in the Entroncamento salinas on 18th.

Common Snipe: A single bird seen at Hortas on 18th.

Little Stint: A lone bird at the seaward edge of the Lagoa de Albufeira on 22nd.

Dunlin: Common on the mudflats at Hortas on 18th, and also seen from the Tróia peninsula on 19th.

Mediterranean Gull: Something of a surprise, as it's supposed to be scarce in winter around most of the Iberian coast, though it has increased over the last 20 years or so. Several adults in full breeding plumage seen from the boat on 20th.

Black-headed Gull: Probably overlooked, but noted around the Tejo estuary on 18th..

Lesser Black-backed Gull: The commonest gull and very abundant on coastal and estuarine habitats in the area. Seen daily from 18th to 24th.

Sandwich Tern: Noted on 4 days, in the estuaries and over salinas, with excellent views of fishing birds from the ferry station in Tróia on 19th.

Feral Pigeon/Rock Dove: Small numbers noted on 4 days; all were Feral Pigeons.

Wood Pigeon: Surprisingly, seen only on 22nd, at Quinta da Serra.

[Eurasian] Collared Dove: Seen only on 23rd, on wires by the road up to the Sesimbra castle.

Common [Eurasian] Cuckoo: One bird heard from the Serra do Louro on 23rd.

Little Owl: Fleeting glimpse of a bird flying from a roadside wire on the way back from Cabo Espichel on 22nd.

[Eurasian] Hoopoe: Most of the group had first-rate views of a bird feeding along the track down from the Serra da Arrábida on 20th; also on 23rd, a bird flew below us on the Serra do Louro.

Great Spotted Woodpecker: Martin saw one on the far side of the Lagoa de Albufeira on 22nd; also a bird calling around our lunch spot on the same day.

Green Woodpecker: A bird calling on 18th in the Pancas cork oaks.

Crested Lark: Small numbers at various sites, including the Altiplano de Azóia on 21st.

Thekla Lark: Difficult to separate from Crested Lark, but possibly seen on 22nd and 23rd..

Wood Lark: A singing bird tracked down in the cork oaks at Pinheiro on 19th, although brief views only as it flew overhead.

[Eurasian] Sky Lark: Heard for the first time singing over the Lezíria on 24th.

Barn Swallow: Noted daily in small numbers.

[Common] House Martin: Best views of nesting birds on the church in Alcochete on 18th, but also seen over the Serra do Louro on 23rd.

Yellow Wagtail: Good views of several very yellow birds of the iberiae race on the Lezíria on 24th.

Meadow Pipit: Small numbers around the brackish pasture at Hortas on 18th.

Southern Grey Shrike: A pair hunting on the Altiplano de Azóia on 21st.

[Winter] Wren: Recorded in small numbers on 19th, 22nd and 23rd, usually by song.

Blue Rock Thrush: Fleeting glimpses on 20th from the Arrábida cliffs viewpoint, and again on 21st from the Azóia cliffs.

Common Blackbird: Noted daily in small numbers, except 24th.

Ring Ouzel: A single bird seen only by Martin & Lin on the Altiplano de Azóia on 21st.

Song Thrush: Seen only on 18th, flying across the salinas at Entroncamento.

[European] Robin: A few individuals seen and/or heard on 4 days at widely scattered sites.

Whinchat: A single bird catching cockchafers in the maritime pine forest on the way to the Lagoa de Albufeira on 18th.

[Common] Stonechat: Common and noted almost daily in widely scattered sites with scrub.

Fan-tailed Warbler [Zitting Cisticola]: A widespread bird in small numbers in many damp and scrubby habitats, with large numbers at Lezíria on 24th.

Cetti's Warbler: Heard at wetland sites on 4 days, but never seen clearly.

Great Reed Warbler: One heard 'singing' from a small patch on reeds in a ditch on the Lezíria on 24th.

Common Chiffchaff: Seen in small numbers on 18th and 19th around wetlands.

Iberian Chiffchaff: Heard singing on 20th and 22nd.

Blackcap: A male seen in the scrub along the Entroncamento salinas on 18th, and a female from the Serra do Louro on 23rd.

Sardinian Warbler: Seen/heard almost daily, but difficult to see well; best views in the olives on the Serra do Louro on 23rd.

Dartford Warbler: Good views had by all (except Maurice) on the Altiplano de Azóia on 21st.

Firecrest: Heard only, on three days, but never seen: Pancas on 18th, Serra da Arrábida on 20th and Quinta da Serra on 22nd.

Long-tailed Tit: Seen/heard at Pancas on 18th, Pinheiro on 19th and Quinta da Serra on 22nd.

Crested Tit: Heard on three days in cork oaks and pine forests, but disappointingly elusive.

Great Tit: Only noted in small numbers in wooded habitats on 3 days.

Blue Tit: Only noted in small numbers in the dampest, well-wooded habitats on 4 days.

[Eurasian] Nuthatch: Seen only at Pinheiro cork oaks, on 19th.

Short-toed Treecreeper: Several seen in the cork oaks at Pinheiro on 19th.

[Eurasian] Jay: Just one noted in cork oak montado at Pinheiro (by Martin) on 19th.

Azure-winged Magpie: A small group in the maritime pines on the way to the Lagoa de Albufeira on 18th, but they soon moved away into the forest, giving only distant views.

Carrion Crow: Noted in small numbers almost daily.

Spotless Starling: Probably an oversight, but only recorded at dusk at the Lagoa de Albufeira on 17th, coming in to roost in the reedbed.

Corn Bunting: Noted singing around the hotel on a daily basis, as well as open habitats elsewhere, notably the Lezíria on 24th.

Cirl Bunting: Good views from under the stone pines at the Lagoa de Albufeira on 22nd..

[Common] Chaffinch: Small numbers at scattered, mainly woodland/montado sites on at least 3 days.

[European] Serin: Seen daily, except 24th. One of the commonest small birds in the region.

[European] Greenfinch: Seen in small numbers on 5 days.

[European] Goldfinch: Seen daily, often in quite large flocks.

[Common] Linnet: Seen on 4 days, notably at the Açude da Murta on 19th and the Altiplano de Azóia on 21st.

Common Waxbill: Seen on 4 days, and well viewed by most at fairly close range, especially on the Serra do Louro on 23rd, where a pair was collecting nesting material.

House Sparrow: Noted daily and in numbers, especially around the hotel, where they breed inside the sign!


Swallowtail: seen on 4 days, often in some numbers.

Scarce swallowtail: seen on 2 days, most spectacularly at Louro on 23rd.

Spanish Festoon: seen only at Quinta da Serra on 22nd.

Wood White: seen on 2 days, notably at Quinta da Serra on 22nd.

Orange Tip: a single male seen on the Serra do Louro on 23rd.

Large White: seen on 4 days.

Small White: recorded only on 18th.

Green-striped White: seen on the 21st only (Altiplano de Azóia).

Western Dappled White: seen on 3 days, notably a mating pair at Pinheiro on 19th.

Clouded Yellow: seen on 6 days.

Brimstone: seen only on 19th.

Cleopatra: seen on 5 days.

Green Hairstreak: seen on 4 days, particularly in scrubby habitats.

Small Copper: seen on 4 days.

Lang's Short-tailed Blue: a female seen on 19th at the Açude da Murta, and a male on 22nd during lunch.

Geranium Bronze: our mystery 'blue' on the Serra do Louro on 23rd.

Spanish Brown Argus: seen only by Teresa at the end of 21st on Altiplano de Azóia (Aricia agestis cramera).

Common Blue: both males and females seen in the dunes at the seaward end of Lagoa de Albufeira on 22nd.

Red Admiral: seen on 4 days.

Painted Lady: seen only on Serra do Louro on 23rd.

Speckled Wood: seen on 4 days.

Wall Brown: seen on 3 days.


Silver Y: seen on 22nd in dunes at Albufeira

Mother Shipton: on the Tróia dunes on 19th.

© The Travelling Naturalist 2002