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.

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