Chasing Eagles, Vultures, Kites, Shearwaters, and Storks in Portugal

By Tim Gallagher, editor of Living Bird magazine
Raptor watchers at Sagres Peninsula, Portugal. Photo by Tim Gallagher.

As I write, the temperature outside my office at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology hovers at 4 degrees Fahrenheit and is expected to drop to -8 tonight, not counting wind chill, so perhaps I can be forgiven for daydreaming about birding in warm places, where people (and birds) flock to escape the ravages of winter. One such place is Portugal—a tiny nation at the far southwest of Europe, which I was fortunate enough to visit this past October.

As a birding destination, Portugal has been greatly neglected. (Just ask any Portuguese birder or tour guide.) The problem is that the vast majority of tourists opt to visit the country’s nearest neighbor, Spain—which is too bad, because Portugal has a lot to offer, especially for birders. Don’t get me wrong: Spain is wonderful. But it’s a huge country, taking up more than 75 percent of the Iberian Peninsula, which it shares with Portugal. To see all of Spain’s avian specialties, you need to cover a lot of miles, whereas Portugal is tiny and shares most of the same birds.

I’m writing a feature about birding in Portugal for an upcoming issue of Living Bird, but I thought I’d offer a sneak peek at the article in this blog post, covering a few of the places we visited—just in case any of you are looking to take a midwinter trip to a warm and very bird-rich place.

Mertola is a spectacular hilltop town in southwestern Portugal, right in the heart of great birding country. It’s Moorish and Roman ruins illustrate a fascinating history going back over 1,500 years. Photo by Tim Gallagher.

I had a very able host in João Jara—one of the country’s preeminent birders and nature guides. He invited me (along with Matt Merritt, editor of the popular British magazine, Bird Watching) to spend a week traveling with him through southwestern Portugal, sampling its abundant birdlife. What amazed me most after João picked us up at Lisbon Airport was how quickly we were in the field birding. Less than 30 minutes after loading our luggage into the back of his car, we arrived at the edge of a tidal mudflat in the Tagus Estuary, one of the most important wetlands in Europe.

João stood like a statue at his spotting scope—scanning shorebird flocks with all the intensity of a microbiologist peering through a microscope at swarms of bacteria, trying to spot one that’s slightly different. It has definitely paid off for him. Over the years he has turned up an amazing array of rarities—for example, the first Surf Scoter ever recorded in Portugal and numerous second, third, and fourth sightings for the country, such as Black-throated Diver, Slovonian Grebe, Common Goldeneye, Blue-winged Teal, Pink-footed Goose, Marbled Teal, American Golden-Plover, Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Lesser Yellowlegs, etc., etc., etc. (He also found Portugal’s first nesting pair of Glossy Ibis.)

Bonelli’s Eagle can be seen year-round in Portugal. Photo by J. Muchaxo.

On this day, João quickly pointed out a Marsh Sandpiper—an eastern European species that usually has only two or three sightings a year in Portugal. A short time later, we headed to a nearby semi-open area with numerous cork trees and enjoyed close-up views of a Black-shouldered Kite. We then moved farther up the estuary, which abounded with Greater Flamingos, foraging in the shallow water and flying past overhead. We also encountered a Bonelli’s Eagle, which made a spectacular diving attack on a Northern Lapwing, and barely missed capturing the bird. But some of our best raptor sightings took place a couple of days later in the steppe country near Castro Verde.

Driving there, we entered a land of parched, rocky hills, covered with dry grass, which reminded me of parts of Central California, except that all of the birds were different. On this day, often driving on dirt roads, we searched for Great Bustard, Black-bellied Sandgrouse, and various raptors. (I should admit here that I’m a complete raptor freak!) We checked several places and finally heard a sandgrouse calling. An instant later, a flock of 17 flew past us and landed nearby. (We didn’t find any Great Bustards until the following morning.)

A Spanish Imperial Eagle, one of Portugal’s most impressive raptors. Photo by P. Brueckner.

Then we got into raptor-search mode. João drove us to a place across from a vineyard, a high hill with rocky outcroppings on top—the known territory of a Spanish Imperial Eagle pair. We waited for half an hour in the blazing sun without a sighting, but João was sure something would happen soon. And it did. A pair of the spectacular eagles came soaring in at the top of the hill. We heard the female’s call, sounding almost raven-like, followed soon after by the male’s, which reminded me of the bark of a small dog. We gazed upward at the soaring male for a long time, and also had a flyover by a Bonelli’s Eagle. It was all good—but it soon got better.

As we were driving to another area, a juvenile Golden Eagle emerged on our right from the valley below, barely above eye level at first as it circled upward on a thermal. We parked and stood outside the car with our binoculars trained on her as she soared higher and higher in the warming afternoon air. Suddenly a Spanish Imperial Eagle came diving down with a great swoosh to drive off the intruder. After a couple of skirmishes high in the sky, an enormous Eurasian Black (Cinereous) Vulture appeared nearby, which was more than the Imperial could stand. Breaking away from the Golden Eagle, it plummeted downward, making a spectacular stoop across the sky at the huge vulture, which was almost as large as an Andean Condor. And then three Griffon Vultures materialized in the open blue sky. We were ecstatic as we followed the action unfolding above us—an angry eagle with bunch of big raptors to chase. As I told João and Matt, for me, raptor watching doesn’t get any better than this—so many birds, so much beautiful flying in such a short space of time. But then, a couple of days later, we headed to Sagres, the southwesternmost tip of Europe, and I had to eat my words.

On the Sagres Peninsula, concentrations of soaring birds gather looking for the best route across the sea to Africa. Here, a Eurasian Black Vulture circles overhead. Photo by A. Ferrer-Correia.

Sagres is a narrow peninsula where southbound migrating raptors congregate before attempting to fly across the sea en route to Africa. The only problem is, there’s too much water for them to cross at this point—some 400 kilometers of open sea—and the birds have to circle back and find their way south to the Strait of Gibraltar, the closest point between Europe and Africa, where the water crossing is only about 14.3 kilometers (8.7 miles) wide. So you get great concentrations of soaring birds. This day was no exception. We drove out a long dirt road to a semi-open area with a scattering of small conifers. As the morning warmed up, the skies filled with soaring raptors—Booted Eagle, Eurasian Black Vulture, Egyptian Vulture, Bonelli’s Eagle, Black Kite, Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Common Buzzard, Honey Buzzard. We stood with a dozen or more other birders, intently scanning the sky above us with binoculars and scopes.

Of course, it wasn’t long before João came up with another rarity: a Pallid Harrier—a species of eastern Europe and Central Asia that virtually never shows up this far west. Photos of the bird have been submitted to the country’s rarities committee, and if the sighting is accepted, it will be only the fourth or fifth record of the species in Portugal. Score another big tick for João!

A close-up flyby by Great Shearwater. Photo by Tim Gallagher

We decided to spend the last afternoon of our Portugal adventure going on a half-day pelagic birding trip from nearby Sagres Harbor. We sailed aboard a large inflated craft—basically a huge Zodiac with a row of forward-facing saddles on each side. And it was amazing, at times like a wild bronco ride as we bucked the waves en route to and from the continental shelf, about 10 miles out. But it was well worth it. We saw a scattering of Northern Gannets soon after leaving the harbor, but it got better and better the farther we went from shore. Soon we were getting close-up flybys by Wilson’s Storm-Petrels as well as Cory’s, Balearic, and Great Shearwaters, as Matt and I fired away happily with our cameras, nailing numerous full-frame pictures. As a bonus, we also saw (and photographed) numerous marine mammals, such as harbor porpoises, bottle-nosed dolphins, and even a minke whale.

White Storks used to be considered only summer residents, but in recent years, some have been staying in Portugal over winter. Others return from their African wintering grounds starting in February and March. Photo by Tim Gallagher.

As the winter weather turns ever colder in Ithaca, I find myself daydreaming more and more about Portugal, where the days are balmy and filled with opportunities to see all the great birds that have fled from the frigid climes of northern Europe. For many aquatic birds, such as flamingos, spoonbills, ibises, waders, herons, egrets, cormorants, ducks, geese, coots, and gulls, winter is a peak time to see them in the wetlands of southern Portugal. Some birds traditionally considered summer residents—White Stork, Black-winged Stilt, and Hoopoe—have been wintering there in recent years. And many summer species— Lesser Kestrel, Great Spotted Cuckoo, Yellow Wagtail, Black Kite, Short-toed Eagle, Booted Eagle, Montagu’s Harrier, Black Stork—begin arriving from Africa in February and March, so it’s definitely not too early to think about taking an impromptu birding excursion to Portugal.

For more information about birding in Portugal:

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