Sunday, May 28, 2006

Lisbon and the surrounds

Lisbon and the surrounds – Sunday 16th April to Friday 21st April

Leaving São Brás de Alportel at lunchtime we had plenty of time to get to Lisbon so decided to take the slower N2 through some amazing countryside. We crossed to the A1 motorway from Castro Verde and there we joined 10 million Lisbonites returning from the Algarve where they’d spent the Easter week-end. In England this amount of traffic would result in gridlocked standstill traffic. But this is Portugal and the whole lot of bumper-to-bumper traffic was travelling at speeds of no less than 130 kmh (c80 mph). How we got to Lisbon alive, I’ll never know – but how we got through Lisbon alive was even more of a miracle.

Vitty and I both share an enjoyment of good food but apart from that, holidays can be difficult to agree as Vitty prefers architecture and cities while I prefer countryside and wildlife, especially the birds. To be fair, Vitty enjoys walks in the country too, but my inability to walk without bringing tonnes of birding/photographic paraphernalia with me and stopping every few seconds to look at birds tends to frustrate her a wee bit. Our last major holiday (California) was fairly bird-heavy so we tried to balance this one a bit more and these few days in Lisbon were planned with this in mind. We were very fortunate to be able to stay with our friend Zé who used to work with Vitty.

Vitty spent much more time than me in the city of Lisbon, although I did join her for a few things including a walking tour of the city which was quite interesting (despite the distraction of Pallid Swifts whizzing around).

Lisbon, 17-Apr-06
Praça dom Pedro IV

Lisbon, 17-Apr-06
pigeon's-eye view of Praça do Commércio

Lisbon, 17-Apr-06
Rua Augusta and the Arco de Rua Augusta

One day we spent touring a few interesting historical sites an hour or two north of Lisbon: Tomar, Batalha and Alcobaça. Tomar and Batalha were fabulous places, but by the time we reached Alcobaça we were a bit monastried-out!

Convento de Cristo, Tomar (Portugal), 18-Apr-06
Convento de Cristo, Tomar (Portugal), 18-Apr-06
Convento de Cristo, Tomar (Portugal), 18-Apr-06
Convento de Cristo, Tomar (Portugal), 18-Apr-06
Convento de Cristo, Tomar (Portugal), 18-Apr-06
Convento de Cristo, Tomar (Portugal), 18-Apr-06
Convento de Cristo at Tomar

Batalha (Portugal), 18-Apr-06
Batalha (Portugal), 18-Apr-06
Batalha (Portugal), 18-Apr-06
Batalha (Portugal), 18-Apr-06
Batalha (Portugal), 18-Apr-06
Batalha (Portugal), 18-Apr-06
The abbey at Batalha

Batalha (Portugal), 18-Apr-06
Pastelaria Oliveira at Batalha - surely the best hamburgers in the world!

Alcobaça (Portugal), 18-Apr-06
The monastery at Alcobaça

Óbidos (Portugal), 18-Apr-06
Óbidos castle

Another afternoon we headed out to Sintra, a place which came with endless recommendations. We arrived there a bit stressed following two encounters with the police and couldn’t cope with the zillions of Japanese tourists swarming all over the place so left without really seeing it. On the way we had stopped at Belém to get some cakes for lunch (the best custard tarts in the world), only I didn’t realise the parking spaces were reserve for the police and got moved on rather aggressively. Then we stopped at a car park at Carcavelos to eat them, a pleasant spot overlooking a beach and a nice old fort. Here I discovered some unfamiliar birds which turned out to be another introduced species, Crested Myna. These kept disappearing into the fort area and my attempts to view and photograph them soon caught the attention of the local police who insisted on a rigorous body and car search, and a careful check of the images on my camera. How was I meant to know it was NATO headquarters on red alert?!

Although this Lisbon-based part of the holiday was included primarily for Vitty’s benefit, I was able to enjoy some first class birding in the area too. Thanks to Flickr I have a number of contacts in the Lisbon area and one of these, Sparky Faísca, very kindly took me round all the local birding sites. I had a really wonderful day out with him and Julio Caldas, another friend from Flickr.

Three of my Portugese friends from Flickr
Sparky Faísca (back left), Julio Caldas (front left) and Jose Viana (right)

Details of the main places I went birding in the Lisbon area:

Barroca d’Alva. An excellent site for seeing some of the non-native, introduced species. These included Common Waxbill, Black-headed Weaver, Yellow-crowned Bishop and Red-headed Quelea. It wasn’t bad for native species either!

Red-headed Quelea, Barroca d'Alva (Portugal), 19-Apr-06
Red-headed Quelea - one of the more attractive introduced species

Pancas. Great site on the east side of the Tejo Estuary. A variety of interesting species seen including excellent views of Booted Eagle.

Ponta da Erva. This site provided some of the best birding of the holiday, as well as brilliant photographic opportunities. Collared Pratincoles are extraordinarily beautiful birds and a large colony here provided staggeringly good views. Black-winged Kite was a lifer for me here.

Cattle, Ponta da Erva (Portugal), 20-Apr-06
Beware the cattle at Ponta da Erva! A very concerned farmer made certain I pulled right in to the side of the road and stayed very calm while 100s of these stormed by

Collared Pratincole, Ponta da Erva (Portugal), 20-Apr-06
Collared Pratincoles - very smart birds and easy to observe at Ponta da Erva

Iberian Yellow Wagtail, Ponta da Erva (Portugal), 19-Apr-06
The distinctive Iberian race of Yellow Wagtail

Alcochette. On the south-east side of the Tejo estuary, the town itself didn’t hold much but there were large numbers of Greater Flamingos either side. Just to the east there were a few good birds at Hortas and there were loads of waders at Marinhas do Samouco to the west.

Lagne de Óbidos. Another Flickr friend, Nuno Barreto, had suggested this site, on the coast to the north of Lisbon. We popped in here on our way back from Tomar, Batalha and Alcobaça and it was indeed a good site. I’m used to seeing Brent Geese by the bucket load at home but in Portugal they are apparently a national rarity. Had I realised that at the time, I would have been more excited by the presence of 3 Brent Geese here (1 Pale-bellied hrota and 2 Dark-bellied bernicla).

Tomar, Batalha and Alcobaça. OK, not really birding sites, but they each held pairs of Crag Martins.

Crag Martin, Tomar (Portugal), 18-Apr-06
Crag Martin inside the Convento de Cristo at Tomar

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

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