Europe’s south-westernmost country, Portugal, is synonymous with bird-watching – the two go hand-in-hand. Rich in both salt and freshwater wetlands, not to mention two exotic Atlantic archipelagos, the country has a great abundance of bird-life all year round, some of which is considered very rare.
The combined characteristics of the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts attract a wider variety of species than many other southern European destinations. Indeed, it’s a preferred place of permanent habitation for many birds and an ideal spot for extended stopovers for others during migration.
In the mountainous north and more central parts of Portugal (from Trás-os-Montes to Serra da Estrela), it’s possible to find nesting birds like the Montagu’s harrier, short-toed snake eagle, red kite, Bonelli’s eagle, golden eagle, Eurasian eagle owl, red-backed shrike and wryneck. At higher altitudes there have been frequent sightings of the tawny pipit, rock thrush, ortolan bunting and subalpine warbler.
In the cold, clear waters of the region’s many rivers and streams, spotting the resident dipper and visiting alpine accentor is a distinct possibility. There have also been regular sightings of choughs and bullfinches in this part of Portugal.
Many parts of this vast area of southern Europe have already been identified as good spots for bird-watching by the Portuguese Society of Bird Studies (SPEA), in particular Albufeira do Rio Azibo in the heart of the Nordeste Transmontano region, which is set high on a plateau bordered by the majestic mountains of Serra Bornes to the south and Serra da Nogueira to the north. With its abundance of oak and chestnut trees, Serra de Montesinho has been identified as a good place to spot the tawny pipit.
Serra do Gerês is well-known for its micro-climate influenced by both the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. More than 140 species have already been spotted there, including some 100 nesting birds. The most common are the golden oriole, rock bunting and quail, along with plenty of buzzards, Montagu’s harriers and sparrowhawks.
Persistent watchers will eventually be rewarded with a rare sighting of the whinchat, the only one of this species to nest in Portugal. The slopes of the Douro Valley are one of the best places in Portugal to observe birds of prey, many of which nest in this region, including the griffon vulture, Egyptian vulture and red kite. It’s also possible to see black storks and eagle owls.
Portugal’s central coastline, especially the Ria de Aveiro estuary where there are large areas of low-tide muds, reeds and salt-pans, is home to a good variety of water birds such as the purple heron, marsh harrier, Kentish plover, dunlin, black-tailed godwit, redshank and greenshank. The wetlands of the Lower Mondego region in the valley of the River Mondego, most notably the marshes of Madriz, Arzila and Taipal, are covered by large areas of reed where great numbers of water species can be found. Among the birds commonly seen here are the little bittern, purple heron, marsh harrier, mallard, pintail, teal and Savi’s warbler.
Travelling further south brings us to the Tagus and Sado estuaries, both very popular winter wetlands for must-see water birds like the greater flamingo. These areas also attract unusually large numbers of nesting water birds, namely the black-winged stilt, collared pratincole, Kentish plover, little tern, little bittern, purple heron and red-crested pochard.
Down the Alentejo coast towards Portugal’s southern coastline – the Algarve, which includes Cabo de São Vicente, the south-westermost point on mainland Europe – Lagoa de Santo André and the forested peaks of Monchique and Caldeirão harbour significant numbers of birds during the migration season. Here you’ll find numerous birds of prey such as the Egyptian vulture, booted eagle, sparrowhawk and the honey buzzard. These areas are also important nesting places for the short-toed eagle and the peregrine falcon.
At the other end of the Algarve, particularly around Castro Marim and Ria Formosa (indicated on the map below), is a popular gathering ground for all types of nesting, migratory and winter water birds, including the black-winged stilt, avocet, Kentish plover, little tern and Audouin’s gull. This part of the country is graced by the purple gallinule, an emblematic species that resides in the area, plus it is the only known nesting place of the lesser short-toed lark in Portugal.
With its vast plains, the Alentejo is characteristic for its large areas of parched land and high summer temperatures. Castro Verde is considered by many bird-watchers as one of southern Europe’s most important dryland areas for species like the great bustard, little bustard, calandra lark and black-bellied sandgrouse. Castro Verde is equally notable for the fact that it houses Portugal’s most extensive colony of lesser kestrels, and in winter it is also possible to see groups of cranes in the region’s reservoirs and plantations.
These days, the temperate subtropical archipelago of Madeira is as popular for its bird-watching potential as it has always been for its famous fortified wine, most notably the nearby Ilhas Selvagens (Wild Islands) which boast the largest nesting colonies of rare sheerwaters and storm-petrals. Kestrels, wagtails and swifts are also a regular spectacle around the islands’ cliffs and along the Funchal seafront, especially at dusk.
Located way out in the Atlantic, roughly midway between Lisbon and New England, the Azores likewise is globally recognised as a fist-choice bird-watching destination for certain species. A growing number of ornithologists are now flocking to the islands to spot scarce residents such as the Azores bullfinch and Monteiro’s storm petrel. The autumn migration is a particularly rewarding period, especially on the remote islands of Flores and Corvo.