There is a growing appetite amongst Naturetrek clients to get away to somewhere interesting at Christmas —our short-haul programme over the festive season often sells out months in advance! We look for a destination that combines some genuinely warm hospitality, and plenty of interest from a bird and wildlife perspective, and some decent December weather to boot ... and the Algarve fits the bill perfectly.
Lying at the far south-western tip of mainland Europe, Portugal’s beautiful Algarve region makes for an ideal short-haul midwinter getaway. Famous for its golf courses, beaches and winter sunshine, there’s another side to the Algarve, away from the high-rise hotels and beach-bound holidaymakers, and on this tour we’ll take you off the tourist trail, to the windswept cliffs, sand dunes and heaths of the west coast, the marshes and saltpans of the south, and the Cork Oak forests and wide open plains of the Alentejo. A relaxed pace of life prevails away from the tourist hotspots and we are sure that you will soon be seduced by southern Portugal — not only by its excellent birdwatching opportunities, but also by its beautiful language, charming people, and delicious food and wine.
Our base for four nights will be the wonderful Memmo Baleeira Hotel, situated just a stone’s throw from a fort which served as Henry the Navigator’s 15th century School of Navigation. Comfortable, clean rooms are enhanced by a breathtaking modern design and, with outstanding views over the Sagres coastline, this hotel provides a relaxing and welcoming retreat. We will also enjoy a special ‘dine-around’ one evening — a gastronomic walking tour of Sagres, sampling several local specialities in the process.
Close to our hotel are the spectacular cliffs and wild surfing beaches of Cabo de São Vicente — Portugal’s and mainland Europe’s ‘Land’s End’! Here, Little Bustard, Red-billed Chough, Peregrine Falcon, Blue Rock Thrush and Black Redstart are all resident, and in winter there are usually a few Alpine Accentors to be found. Sea-watching from the cliffs may reveal Sooty Shearwater, European Storm Petrel and both Great and Arctic Skua. Razorbills often winter in this area, together with the odd Puffin and Audouin’s Gull. Cetaceans are not as numerous as earlier in the year, but we will hope to see at least one of the following species of cetacean: Common Dolphin, Bottlenose Dolphin or Harbour Porpoise.
Our next base is up in the hills above Tavira, in the central Algarve. The Parque Nacional da Ria Formosa, just to the south, consists of coastal lagoons, vast areas of tidal-flats, saltmarsh and saltpans that are enclosed by a belt of sand dune islands and peninsulas. This is a great site for wintering birds from northern Europe, especially waders such as Black-tailed Godwit and Little Stint. Marsh Harriers are resident and Booted Eagles are regularly seen in winter.
The Castro Marim wetland nearby is a complex system of creeks and natural saltmarsh as well as man-made saltpans. This is an important site for wintering Greater Flamingoes and Eurasian Spoonbills, and it is perhaps the only site in Portugal where Lesser Short-toed Larks may regularly be found. Black-necked Grebes winter here, together with a few Stone Curlews.
Although further away, we may also drive north for a day to the wide plains of Castro Verde in the Alentejo. Within the Castro Verde Special Protection Area we’ll hope to see Europe’s largest flying bird, the Great Bustard, as well as Little Bustard and Black-bellied Sandgrouse. Several exciting raptors hunt over these open plains and we will survey the rugged steppe country from the region’s highest point, Sierra de Aracelis, for Black and Griffon Vultures, Hen Harrier and the magnificent Spanish Imperial Eagle.
Whatever birds we see, the hospitality of our hosts at this special time of year, together with a glimpse of winter warmth, should see us heading home with a healthy glow in our cheeks!