Sunday, May 28, 2006

The Alentejo

Alentejo – Friday 21st April to Wednesday 26th April

We thought Évora would be a good base for a couple of nights as I would be able to head out to Mourão for birding while Vitty could stay and enjoy the town. We stopped off at Arraiolos on the way, a place famed for its wonderful hand-woven carpets. The Pensão we stayed at in Évora was disappointing. We chose it because it had parking, only we couldn’t park there because they locked the gates overnight so I wouldn’t be able to get out early in the morning. In fact I couldn’t get out anyway, as despite telling me they wouldn’t, they locked the internal doors as well as the external gates. I shan’t be in a hurry to return here, but having woken up the staff two mornings in a row at 6.00 am to let me out, I don’t suppose they’ll be too keen for us to return anyway! It didn’t help that the one full day we spent here was a complete wash-out with heavy rain all morning and most of the afternoon.

Évora (Portugal), 22-Apr-06
Évora (Portugal), 22-Apr-06
The cathedral in Évora

Évora (Portugal), 22-Apr-06
Roman temple in Évora

We popped into Monsaraz one afternoon - nice little town on a hill with a wonderful view:

Monsaraz (Portugal), 21-Apr-06
view from Monsaraz (Portugal), 21-Apr-06
Monsaraz and its view

The following night we spent at the Sâo Joâo de Deus Hotel in Elvas. In stark contrast to the Pensão at Évora this exceeded our expectations by miles and we wished we’d spent longer here. Although only a little more expensive, this place was really luxurious and we couldn’t believe it was as cheap as it was.

Elvas (Portugal), 24-Apr-06
Elvas (Portugal), 24-Apr-06
Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Assunção at Elvas

Elvas (Portugal), 24-Apr-06
A pelourinho at Elvas - they used to hang criminals from this!

From Elvas we went south to Mértola where we stayed two nights at a nice enough hotel, the Residencial Beira Rio, overlooking the river. At 45€ a night it was the cheapest hotel we stayed at but more than adequate. In fact I thought it was quite a nice place to stay, although from my point of view it helped that it had a Scops Owl calling behind it one evening, the only Subalpine Warbler of the trip outside the front door and Golden Oriole and Bee-eaters from the bedroom window.

The countryside in the Alentejo was fabulous with miles and miles of wildflower meadows a very prominent feature:

flowers, Mértola - Castro Verde, 24-Apr-06
Wildflowers, Mértola - Castro Verde (Portugal), 25-Apr-06
Wildflowers, Mértola - Castro Verde (Portugal), 25-Apr-06
Wildflowers, Mértola - Castro Verde (Portugal), 25-Apr-06
Wildflowers around Mértola

The birding was brilliant too and these are the main sites I visited:

Mourão. Although the village is in Portugal the area I spent most of the time at was a couple of miles east of here across the border into Spain. Fabulous site with loads of interesting birds including lots of Little Bustards and my first Great Bustards. My main target here was Black-bellied Sandgrouse and with heavy rain stopping play on the main day I had allocated we had to change plans slightly and revisit the following day. This was successful and five of the Sandgrouse were seen in flight. Other good birds here included Lesser Kestrel, Roller, Black-eared Wheatear, Calandra Lark, Rock and Spanish Sparrows, Great Spotted Cuckoo, Gull-billed Tern and Black Stork.

Crested Lark, E of Mourão (Spain), 21-Apr-06
Crested Lark - a very common bird in Portugal

Roller, E of Mourão (Spain), 22-Apr-06
Roller in the rain. Another colourful Mediterranean species - most spectacular in flight (and in sunshine)

Great Bustard, E of Mourão (Spain), 23-Apr-06
Great Bustard - one of my main targets on this trip

Elvas. I concentrated on the area between Elvas and the River Guadiana and this produced many good birds. Southern Grey Shrikes were everywhere and down by the river I eventually found 6 Red Avadavats, another non-native but naturalised species. A pair of Glossy Ibis flew over and there was another colony of Collared Pratincoles here. We bumped into a couple of Danish birders who had just seen 3 Black-winged Kites, but I didn’t see these.

Kestrel, Elvas (Portugal), 23-Apr-06
Kestrel munching on a House Sparrow - one of my favourite photos from the trip, even though it's a species common at home

East of Mértola. Good area for scrubland species and the first place I really began to get to grips with the identification of the troublesome Thekla Larks. Unfortunately I couldn’t find the Orphean Warblers which are supposed to occur in the area.

Thekla Lark, Mértola (Portugal), 25-Apr-06
Thekla Lark - an identification challenge

Mértola to Castro Verde. A extensive area of rolling hills and wildflower meadows, filled with birds. A loose flock of 16 Great Bustards was impressive while Little Bustards could be heard calling all over the place. More surprisingly I discovered 4 more Black-bellied Sandgrouse here (they’re supposed to have become very hard to find in this area). A party of 8 Griffon Vultures circled overhead and other species included Thekla and Calandra Larks, loads of Southern Grey Shrikes, Spanish Sparrow, Black-eared Wheatear and Great Spotted Cuckoo. A flock of 12 Lesser Kestrels was good value and they provided better views than they perhaps would have done if I had gone to the famous site for this species at the Convento de São Francisco at Mértola.

Lesser Kestrel, Mértola - Castro Verde (Portugal), 24-Apr-06 Lesser Kestrel, Mértola - Castro Verde (Portugal), 24-Apr-06
Lesser Kestrel - a scarce and declining species restricted to southern Europe

Little Bustard, between Mértola and Castro Verde (Portugal), 24-Apr-06
Little Bustard - something of an Alentejo speciality, although you do get them elsewhere

White Stork, Mértola - Castro Verde (Portugal), 25-Apr-06 White Stork, Mértola - Castro Verde (Portugal), 24-Apr-06
White Stork - in some areas nearly every telegraph post had a storks' nest on it

Click here for the last leg of the holiday - the eastern Algarve, or if you want to jump straight to the full details and photos of the birds seen, click here.


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