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A Birding Trip on the Plains of Portugal

Alentejo landscape, Portugal

The mist is still hanging low over the lake as we climb into Frank’s 4 wheel drive and head off along the dirt track to connect with the tarmac at the ‘top of the world’.  Frank obviously knows the dips and bends well driving confidently into the swirling, white vapour.  We have a little way to go to the plains of the Alentejo so I settle back to enjoy the ride along empty roads.  Beside one stretch there’s a double line of telegraph poles, new ones designed to prevent storks building nests on top next to old with a stork in residence on nearly every pole. White Storks are a protected species in Portugal, Frank explains, and the nests – big untidy looking affairs of twigs – are reused and added to each year, hence this dual arrangement.  Gradually as we go east greener semi-forested landscape opens out into fields and grassland; the mist is beginning to burn off promising a hot day.  We skirt the town of Ourique – it’s mooted that the battle in 1139 in which the Moors were defeated and Portugal came into being as a Kingdom was around here – and a bit further on make a timely stop at a cafe for a tall glass of milky coffee to perk us up after the early start.

A day's birding in the Alentejo, Portugal

A day’s birding in the Alentejo, Portugal

Now the birding starts in earnest with windows down and eyes peeled.  The first stop is at a pond in a field; three Red-knobbed Coots, not usually seen in this part of the world, have been sighted, a couple in a pond elsewhere and one for some reason on its own here.  Frank pulls off onto the verge and we make our way across a dew laden field to the artificial pond, cautiously clambering up the raised banks to peer over the top across the reeds.  The coot is there amongst its Eurasian relatives just made out from the flashes of red on its head.  While Ian and I adjust binoculars and get focused Frank circles the pond and manages to get a photo.

Birds of the Alentejo, Portugal: Bee-eater, Hoopoe, Crested Lark and Red-knobbed Coot

Birds of the Alentejo, Portugal: Bee-eater, Hoopoe, Crested Lark and Red-knobbed Coot

This is the start of a magical day, a combination of stunning countryside – undulating plains dotted with shade giving Holm Oak trees under a blue sky, Frank’s intimate knowledge of the region and seeing so many birds we have never seen before at home, so to speak, doing their thing.  As the sun rises higher we traverse the landscape on red dirt tracks, fording streams and rivers along the way.   We follow a kettle of vultures circling high in the sky over wheat fields; see Great Bustards walking in stately manner across the grassland; flashes of russet as Red-rumped Swallows swoop under a bridge; coast down an open road to catch a glimpse of Black-winged kites nesting in trees nearby; eat lunch in a shady grove with a dapper Hoopoe sitting on the fence nearby … there are many more sightings, colourful Bee-eaters, a Little Owl, a Crested Lark …

Birds of the Alentejo, Portugal

Birds of the Alentejo, Portugal: Little Bustards, Stork, Little Owl, Great Bustard, Red-rumped Swallow

Turning homeward in the afternoon we stop at the castle crowned town of Mértola, perched above the Guardiana River. Lesser Kestrels nest here, while we’re scanning the roof tops and walls of the town for them from across the river an Azure-winged Magpie sets down on a rock nearby – Frank’s pleased to get a shot,  commenting that he often sees flocks of these attractive birds around the Quinta but they’re skittish in that environment and don’t hang around.

There are a few more spots to check but in the heat of the day the birds are staying closer to the ground. “Not too tired?”, asks Frank at one point.  Far from it – I don’t want the day to end.

View the video for a taste of the day’s birding

Birding Holidays

Frank offers Birding Holiday Packages based at his lakeside Quinta in Southern Portugal – it’s unique and very peaceful.

We stayed at the Quinta do Barranco da Estrada and went birding courtesy of Frank McClintock

The plains of the Alentejo