Gloucester Pendulines with Badger and Andy – 31st Jan

In the week since returning from my winter break abroad there hasn’t been much that was new and different on RBA to tempt me out from home. But today I found myself unwittingly part of a covert Oxonbirder sortie into neighbouring Gloucestershire to track down that county’s wintering Penduline Tits.

Two groups of this attractive and fascinating bird had remained in England throughout my time away. I had already devoted a whole day to a threesome in Hampshire in December last year, eventually being rewarded with distant views of a male at Titchfield Haven. Two more males at a site by the A417 / A40 Gloucester bypass (pictured below) seemed like an easier task, and so on this grey and drizzly morning I decided the 50-mile trip west would break up the day nicely.

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Penduline Tit site outside Gloucester

Andy being an occasional travelling companion, I sounded him out but after an hour there was no reply. “Probably not up yet,” I thought and so headed off. Then half way along the road to Gloucester a text came in from Badger saying they were heading back from the Forest of Dean and would meet me on site. On arrival at the intriguingly named Horsbere Flood Alleviation Pool I could see my two Oxon birding friends mingling incognito with a small number of locals, and this group clearly were all watching the birds.

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Male Penduline Tit © Andrew Last

From a layby opposite a Premier Inn motel a muddy track led down to a reed fringed pond that looked ideal habitat. Andy immediately put me onto one of the Penduline Tit (pictured above) that were both moving around nimbly in the reeds at fairly close range. The views today were as good as at a Bedford site 13 months ago (see here).

This was my fourth sighting of a species that is resident in southern Europe but migratory further north. All those seen have been wintering birds in England. The two males were sharing the Gloucester site with several Long-tailed Tit, Goldfinches and two Chiffchaff. The three of us stood around chatting and observing these birds for around an hour, then headed back east and home. And so my afternoon was filled most congenially.

Video courtesy of Megabrock

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Alpine Accentor, Wallcreeper and Euro Eagle Owl at Les Baux de Provence + Spotted Eagle – 22nd & 23rd Jan

No trip to Provence would be complete without visiting the cliff-top fortress village of Les Baux. Here in winter it is reported that confiding Alpine Accentor may be encountered in the streets, while the south facing inland cliff on which the seriously spectacular heritage site sits is a reliable place to view Wallcreeper. I had been here on both of my previous Provence trips but not found either bird in March 2013.

Having had such a good experience of Wallcreeper a day earlier, I focussed on the Alpine Accentors this time. Arriving at around 11am I walked the narrow cobbled streets for a while but decided the most likely place to find them would be within the castle (pictured below). I hadn’t been inside here before for fear of either the crowds or the Mistral, but now in January with few visitors the superbly landscaped tourist attraction impressed me. The entry fee is 8 euros. I met an English birding couple who had seen an AA and a few Cirl Bunting mixed in with a Serin flock 45 minutes earlier before the whole lot were flushed over the edge of the cliff.

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Medieval castle of Les Baux

Searching around the place and concentrating on the more open areas, there were only Black Redstarts, Sardinian Warblers and a Crested Tit. After two hours I started to feel despondent, deciding I might as well do the history and explore the castle ruins. Then around the foot of a stairway up to the highest tower, la Tour Sarrasine a first Alpine Accentor appeared, buzzing about around me and perching on various walls and ledges. I kept still and this bird came lower and lower as my camera went into overdrive. Before long it was joined by two others and I observed all three birds down to five metres at times.

These birds seemed to have no fear of my presence, flitting from perch to perch in between feeding busily on the ground. Eventually they seemed to have gone and I climbed up to the top of the tallest castle tower from where the vistas in all directions were stunning. When I came down again the AA experience got even better. There were now five birds feeding on the ground and totally unconcerned by my interest in them. I started to see just how close I could get, walking amongst them and getting better if not sharper pictures than I could have dreamed of. Excuse me if I indulge this a little.

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Five Alpine Accentor seen down to 5 metres

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Occasionally other visitors would approach and as quickly go on their way, totally unaware of these treasures in their midst. I left at around 3pm, stopping to tell the belle mademoiselle in the entrance hall that I had found the birds I told her about earlier. She took an interest so I explained that some people do come to the castle just to see the Alpine Accentors.

Time still remained for a quick walk along the path below the southern cliff face to try to spot a Wallcreeper. In the event this proved to be easy but then I am on a roll this week. A short distance along the path I picked up the now familiar pink and grey shape below the tallest tower. In 2013 I had sat and scanned the rock faces here with my scope for a long time while sheltering from the Mistral. Now I could see this bird with the naked eye. A young French couple stopped to ask what was there and were delighted by the bird too.

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The Alpine Accentors were most active around the flat area with the stocks

It was very satisfying to have located a Wallcreeper at this classic site. After all, some English birders come down to Les Baux especially to see them. It now remained to try for the locality’s famous pair of European Eagle Owl and I moved on to the site 3km to the south west of Les Baux behind the Hotel Mas de l’Oulivie, that is visited by all the birding tour companies. Setting up here an hour before dusk I was joined by the English couple from the castle, and so we watched, chatted and waited.

I have seen this species once before, in Portugal with a professional guide, and so knew what to listen for. At 5:45pm a male began to call behind one of the two cliff faces that these Owls favour. Soon the quieter call of the female could also be heard but these sounds seemed to be coming from some way off. Then my day’s birding colleague spotted the female sitting on a boulder atop the right hand cliff face. There she stayed for some minutes, ears pricked in the failing light and turning her head from side to side. She was facing away from us, presumably in the direction of the male, then she dropped down over the far side of the cliff and out of sight.

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It would have been pointless trying to photograph the Eagle Owl at that distance in the gloom. But to prove I was there here’s a picture of the red hydrant of internet fame that marks the viewing place. To it’s right is a clump of orchids that my companion said were probably Giant Orchid. This is a very early flowering species but he had not seen them before in January.

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On my last day in Provence (23rd) I returned to the track north of Cacharel in la Camargue to seek the final trip target and third lifer, Spotted Eagle. Around midday I came across two French birders, one of whom confirmed this was the right location. For the next hour I sat in my hire car scanning to the horizon to the west of the track while keeping an eye on my companions’ body language. Then I engaged with the English speaker of the two to find out more about what I was looking for.

He said up to three Spotted Eagle or possibly greater / lesser hybrids are present here, as they were last winter too and that early afternoon is the best time to see them. While we talked the other birder was watching something intently in his scope that he then showed his colleague. When I too picked up these two distant raptors I was assured they were Spotted Eagle. Though usually reluctant to accept far off sightings on other birders’ assurance, in these circumstances it seemed rude not to. Being thus polite of course also meant a 100 per cent success rate with my trip targets. So that was everything!

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Yes I’ve been to the Camargue and seen the Flamingos

Goldcar eventually charged me 60 euros to clean up the Renault Captur. But it would have cost a lot more to have hired a 4X4 for the four days. As an extra cost of adding Provence’s difficult Pin-tailed Sandgrouse and Spotted Eagle to my life list it seems worth it though still irritating. This car was no dirtier than any other I’ve returned after a birding trip.

Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, Wallcreeper and Rock Sparrow in Provence – 20th and 21st Jan

Not many regularly occuring birds remain on my southern Europe wish list now but of the lingerers, three – Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, Rock Sparrow and (Greater) Spotted Eagle – all winter in Provence. Finding a £53 flight (luggage included) from Lisbon to Marseilles with the Portuguese airline TAP meant I could add a winter visit here to my Algarve break. And so the opportunity to find these birds has arisen.

My base is the cheap and cheerful, self catering Top Motel in Istres. I find this arrangement ideal because French breakfasts aren’t worth their cost and evening meals also become more affordable. Then there is the essential of tea and coffee whenever I want one, that isn’t possible in a budget chain hotel unless a kettle is smuggled in. Oh, and this establishment in a secure compound behind the 3-star Ariane Hotel is also hard by the Plaine de la Crau Sandgrouse site, and conveniently placed to visit birding sites in les Alpilles and la Camargue.

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Pin-tailed Sandgrouse © rights of owner reserved

The resident Pin-tailed Sandgrouse had huge lifer status for the usual reason that I had not found the species on two previous visits to Provence in May 2012 and March 2013. Doing so was my top priority this time. Trip research had revealed a hitherto untried access point to la Crau, at the north-western end near the town of St-Martin-de-Crau, that appeared to be a good PTS location. This is the reserve Peau de Meau, managed by a regional association for nature conservation, CEEP (Conservatoire Etudes des Ecosystemes de Provence). After getting a permit dutifully from CEEP’s Ecomusee de la Crau in Saint-Martin, I arrived on site late on Wednesday morning (20th), having first seen to buying provisions. Stomach again, call myself a birder?

After 2013’s visit I had concluded the best way to find PTS would be driving slowly around the flat, stoney “Coussoul” habitat of la Crau in a 4×4 seeing what goes up. This time my car hire company substituted a chunky, diesel-engined Renault Captur for the small car I had booked – almost a 4×4 then and at no extra cost. Their £12/day insurance package had no deposit and no excess, so if I wrecked the vehicle I’d be covered. “I won’t even look at it when you bring it back,” the lady said. Well, I needn’t be too squeamish about where I take it then!

Peau de Meau has a 5km waymarked trail around it’s perimeter, but first I set off in the car along a rough track for some distance beyond the reserve. After all I had been wanting to do that for the past three years and there was nobody there to stop me. Seeing only Pipits, Skylarks and corvids I returned to walk the full distance of the trail, but still no Sandgrouse. So I applied my usual solution to a no show, deciding to return early the next day. But first I took another drive through the rough roads of la Crau eventually reaching the N508 road that runs north-west between the Plaine and the neighbouring Camargue. Guess what? At track’s end was a roadside notice proclaiming access to this military land is prohibited. Oh well!

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La Plaine de la Crau

Thursday 21st dawned cold and bright and I arrived back at Peau de Meau at 8am. For the sake of doing things differently I set off the other way around the trail, then took a track across the reserve towards the large barn in the picture. All that went up were Skylarks and frustration was setting in. Then continuing north-eastward along the main trail from the barn, two birdy events occured in quick succession. Buses!

First, away to my left four Little Bustard went up before seemingly vanishing into thin air. Quite an achievement for such a large bird but a not unusual experience for the species. That also maintained my 100% record for it at this site. Then away on my other side, five Pin-tailed Sandgrouse at last flew across the sunny morning expanse of the Coussoul. Mission accomplished! The middle distance flight view was pretty much what I had expected. I have seen some good birds in the past at la Crau: Little Bustard, Stone Curlew, Red-backed Shrike, Tawny Pipit, Melodious Warbler and a possible Spotted Eagle that I didn’t put on my life list. Now having gained the elusive top prize I felt very relieved not to have to re-visit this flat and otherwise dour landscape unless I choose to.

It was now mid-morning and my next target, Rock Sparrow was at a roost site. I felt little inclination to drive around the Plaine again illegally in the low sun, and so moved on to reconnoitre a previously unvisited area of la Camargue on the western edge of l’Etang’s de Malagroy and Vaccares. I found out about this location through an online trip report that said Greater and Lesser Spotted Eagle were both present in January 2014. From Cacheral on the D85A road I followed a rough track NNE all the way to the D37 that skirts the Etang de Vaccares’ northern side.

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Great White Egret

It was now a perfect cold, sunny winter’s day and the abundant Greater Flamingo all looked very splendid in their finery. In places there were almost as many white Egrets: Cattle, Little and occasional Great White’s (pictured above), emphasising just what a concentration of large water birds dwell here. Where Eagles were concerned I came across a good candidate for Spotted and also observed two of the Buzzard-sized Booted species. There are extensive reed beds in this area and many hiking trail signs.

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Magnificent Pont du Gard at dusk

In the afternoon I drove north to the Roman aqueduct of Pont du Gard, a UNESCO world heritage site between Nimes and Avignon. This 360 metre long three tier structure is the tallest bridge in the Roman world at 50 metres. Straddling a gorge through which flows the River Gardon, it is a well developed tourist attraction and also a winter roost site for Rock Sparrow. I arrived early to get my bearings – there is a car park on either side – then after a sandwich break returned at 4pm

Stone staircases lead up to just below the top tier at both ends and the question was at which one to set up my scope. I decided the western one had the better views and watched and waited. At 4:45pm a Wallcreeper flew in three arches away that I watched foraging for food for the next 20 minutes. This delightful bird, my second ever proved quite a distraction but then I recalled what I was meant to be doing and scanned to the far end of the aqueduct.

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Slightly less blurry Wallcreeper than at Dinant

Small birds now appeared to be flying straight in to the structure but were actually entering cracks and cavities of any kind in the top tier. These were indeed the Rock Sparrow I had come to see. Some would fall out of their hiding places again, flying downwards while others perched on the parapets or clung Wallcreeper-like to the vertical surface. The head pattern was plain to see even at that range, then zooming in with my eyepiece on one bird I picked out clearly the yellow breast spot of a male.

There was still enough daylight time left to cross over to the eastern side but once I got there the activity had largely ceased. But the Wallcreeper was still busying itself, now on the upper tier as well. This experience was well worth the 12 euros admission money to the site and I felt very satisfied to have added Rock Sparrow to my life list at the first attempt.

 

Mount Foia re-visited – 12 & 13th Jan

With four days remaining of my stay in Lagos, the hitherto wintery weather turned sunny, cool and dry yesterday. So things were at last right for some walking in the Monchique mountains that was a high priority for this trip. I can see the twin summits of Foia and Picota from my apartment and the tops have not been cloud free until now.

The views from what is the Algarve’s highest land are said to be breath-taking when conditions are right. I had been up to reconnoitre anyway on Sunday to find things cold, grey and windy: the other side of the coin and true of mountain tops anywhere I suppose. But I had been very struck by this location in fair weather on my first visit three years ago and jumped at the chance to return now.

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Me at the summit of Mount Foia

There are also some good birds up there of course. Call me a fair weather birder if you will but I did come here to escape the English winter. My satnav took me up to the summit of Foia by a minor road that joins the broader one from the town of Monchique near the top. Along this route I disturbed a small flock of Rock Bunting at the road side, the first time I have seen more than one of these.

At what local birders call the “ugly coach stop and restaurant” small numbers of tourists were hanging about without venturing far from the car park. I walked around to scan the immediate vicinity, coming across another, rather approachable Rock Bunting (below) that was the morning’s highlight.

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Rock Bunting

Then I walked along the metalled road across the summit where two English birders in a car stopped to talk to me. They had also had a close Rock Bunting encounter and seen some other good birds around the coach stop earlier. So I went back for another look, finding a Blue Rock Thrush on one roof and picking out a Dartford Warbler.

By midday the bird activity along the summit road seemed quieter. A lot of Wren and Dartford Warbler inhabit the scrub up here, the latter all intent on offering only glimpses of themselves. I heard more of them than I actually saw. The “oh no not another one” species was Stonechat of which there seemed to be almost as many as there are pictures of them on Oxon Birding.

As on my 2013 visit, southward towards the coast the outlook was very hazy. But tourists were still taking photographs with their phones directly into the sun. The views northward are altogether more pleasing and I fired off a lot of pictures as the light continually changed. This sequence (below) conveys the general impression.

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Half way along the road I followed a way marked path downwards until it was blocked by a strategically placed dead tree. I could see where the continuation reached another road but opted for the easier climb back up and retraced my steps. That other accentor, Dunnock now provided this trip’s fifth Portugal list addition, yes really! The Alpine variety are said to favour the area around the car park. Indeed I have gained an impression that the best birding is to be had there and so today (13th) I returned early.

Tuesday was cut short by an allergy attack that in the afternoon turned into a real humdinger. When this chronic affliction strikes so badly the only thing to do is lie flat out and wait for it to see itself out. By morning the worst had passed and at dawn I could see that the mountain tops were clear. I set off a little reflectively after reading on my computer of another rock n’ roll death. They so often occur in threes and after Scott Weiland and Lemmy (Bless ’em both!) it was now the superstar David Bowie. Who would have thought it?

But I digress. Arriving on site at 8:30am I had the summit of Foia to myself, save for a person who I assumed to be the local herdsman. The first birds I saw were inevitably Stonechat. Then Dartford Warbler began to show themselves and I managed some shots (below) in which my camera’s autofocus clearly hadn’t fixed on the bird.

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Dartford Warbler

Though conditions were clear overhead, the vistas on all sides of the summit had a hazy blue uniformity with the sun still low in the sky. As I circled the ugly coach stop and its car park, the Blue Rock Thrush appeared in exactly the same place as a day earlier and eventually I spotted another Rock Bunting. So that was all the site specialties seen over again except for Alpine Accentor, though not necessarily better views than on my first visit.

Where the last named is concerned there’s a lot of habitat here in which they can conceal themselves. So if it had been difficult to locate them at Cabo de São Vicente it could be many more times so here. Hence I didn’t search too thoroughly. Feeling I had done Mount Foia justice both in birding terms and scenically, I left at 10:15 and returned to Lagos for the fun of a boat trip and just to relax in the winter sun.

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My location at Lagos

 

Alpine Accentor and Red-billed Chough on Sagres peninsula, Portugal – 5, 6 and 9th Jan

Should any regular visitors in God’s own English county, Oxfordshire have wondered at my silence in the past week, the answer could be a combination of iffy wi-fi, iffier weather and some difficult birds that I wish to add to my Portugal list. Prominent within the last-cited reason has been the tiny colony of Alpine Accentor that winter on the cliffs at Cabo de São Vicente, Europe’s south-western extremity. Local populations of Red-billed Chough and Little Bustard have also drawn me to the Algarve’s Sagres peninsula in an attempt to squeeze more meaningful wildlife experiences out of my wintering ground of recent Januarys.

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Lagos

My base for this trip is Lagos where I have rented a studio apartment overlooking the bay. I can tell why tours come here from the Algarve’s concrete jungle resorts because this place has character, charm and most unusually history. The town centre has a pleasing ambience but there I would have the opposite side of a narrow street for an outlook. Investors in the neighbouring megabucks apartment complex in my location also look out on the next block. So where a holiday let is concerned this (below) is what I regard as landing on my feet.

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Room with a view

Having made a day one exploration of Lagos on Tuesday. in the afternoon I set out on a first reconnoitre of the Sagres peninsula 30 km to the west. After a cool, sunny morning the weather turned showery during this drive. Upon arrival at Cabo de São Vicente a gale was blowing as it often does there. The Alpine Accentors inhabit rocky bluffs on either side of a lighthouse, where they creep about unobtrusively in the montane vegetation and are generally difficult to locate. But I could see little reason why these birds should want to be here, given the disturbance from selfie-taking tourists clambering about the place. A dawn visit therefore suggested itself as offering the best chance of success.

Waking early on Wednesday I decided to go straight for that dawn attempt. Several fishermen were at Cabo de São Vicente before me taking up precarious perches on the cliff tops from which I learned subsequently they do occasionally fall to their deaths. But there was now no other disturbance and for the next hour I just sat or moved around the bluffs on the southern side of the lighthouse. There were birds here at this time – Sardinian Warbler, Stonechat and Black Redstart – and I just watched and waited. Kittiwake were amongst the gulls offshore and Northern Gannet were flying further out. But after mis-identifying a female Black Redstart for my target momentarily I gave up the quest.

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The Alpine Accentors winter here. Got a head for heights?

Next I crossed the road and car park to the north-west facing cliffs (above). Here the bluffs just below the lighthouse are less accessible to people and the habitat looks more promising. There are also good lower vantage points from which to scan the location but again I picked out no Alpine Accentors. Now it was time to explore the flat, rocky land to the cape’s north-east. Red-billed Chough proved as easy as the Accentors were difficult. At a restaurant on the N268 a short distance from the lighthouse three of these corvids were perched on overhead wires.

A little further along the road back to Sagres a narow metalled road runs north to a nature reserve Vale Santo and farm of the same name. This is the migration watch point that draws birders in autumn, lured by sometimes large numbers of west European soaring birds that pass overhead. The landscape here looked excellent for Little Bustard, that as in the Baixo Alentejo special protection areas were no doubt out there somewhere. But I didn’t find the Sagres fragment population this time.

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Red-billed Chough

I did locate four more Red-billed Chough feeding in the middle distance on the western side of the road, and watched these for some time. This was only my second experience of the species, having observed them in mid-Wales in the early 1990s. Consulting my Collins the field guide cited these birds as being “often fearless and approachable”, so I gave it a go. The Chough did allow me to get quite near before taking exception to my presence and relocating a short distance away. I attempted some digiscoped images without great success. I also saw or heard more RBC around the farm (pictured above) from where rough tracks lead in various directions.

Returning to Lagos, in the afternoon I covered the area west of my apartment as far as a headland Ponta da Piedade. The coast here is characterised by orange-coloured cliffs, small coves, stacks and caves (pictured below); with little beaches to which steep staircases descend. Cliff top walks that start outside my door are both pleasant and birdy. The undeveloped parts hold local passerines such as Sardinian and Fan-tailed Warblers, Stonechat, Black Redstart and hybrid Sparrows. Crag Martin fly around the aforementioned apartment blocks, there is a Spotless Starling roost in trees behind my building, and large numbers of Azure-winged Magpie glide through at dusk presumably to their own roost sites. A lot of Northern Gannet are active offshore, being common around this stretch of coastline.

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Coastline west of Lagos

Success with Alpine Accentor came at the third attempt on Saturday. In the interim I had posted a request for information on Bird Forum and received guidance from a local expert. Two other Portuguese birders I met in the field on Thursday had also advised me to concentrate on the north-west facing bluffs. Arriving on site at 7:30 am I set up my scope on a rocky perch and began to scan the area below the lighthouse. This time there were no kamikaze anglers for company and I had the place to myself for the next two hours.

After 30 minutes an Alpine Accentor emerged from ground cover at reasonable distance and posed nicely but briefly on a rock. Then at 8:45 another movement caught my eye and possibly the same bird was visible again a short distance from the first sighting. On both occasions I could clearly make out all the plumage detail of this Skylark-sized passerine. I waited for another hour for it to re-emerge but was unable to obtain a photograph. Digiscoping is always a crude solution in the field and on this occasion proved totally inadequate.

In the interval between the two sightings a Merlin appeared overhead, a nice bird to see anywhere and another Portugal first. After leaving the cape I searched an area of Juniper scrub for wintering Ring Ouzel as I had been advised to do on Bird Forum. There is a lot of this habitat along the road to Sagres and I saw one likely looking candidate drop into deep cover behind the restaurant. From there I could see lots of corvids on the Vale Santo plain that had to be the Red-billed Chough again.

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Vale Santo with Red-billed Chough flock

Driving along the same northward road as on Wednesday I caught up with a 50+ flock of Red-billed Chough and watched these sociable birds going about their business for quite a while. This species is very localised in Portugal where it has endangered status. The cereal fields around Vale Santo in which the Algarve’s only population congregates to feed are the easiest place to find them. A pair of Bonelli’s Eagle were also active here. The rest of the day was spent driving around scanning for the Sagres Little Bustard flock, that once again eluded me.

My Alpine Accentor sighting is apparently only the second at Cabo de São Vicente this winter. That must demonstrate the difficulty in finding them here; it isn’t something that birders can just turn up and connect with. So I feel a great sense of satisfaction at having done so and one that makes the at times loneliness of these solo expeditions all so worthwhile.