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Birdwatching in the Ria Formosa

13 July 2017

Discover 200 Species of Bird in One of Portugal’s 7 Natural Wonders

Whether you’re a veteran ornithologist or a birding beginner; the Ria Formosa Natural Park is a certified paradise for close encounters of the bird kind - with some 200 species making their home among the labyrinth of marshes, pine woods, lakes and lagoons that comprise these vital and voluptuous wetlands.

Quinta de Marim

Municipality: Olhão | Duration: 2-3 Hours | When to Go: All Year Round

For the best possible exploration of Quinta de Marim, depart early in the morning - when the sun is soft and tourists are scarce - to catch the proverbial worm; as the Algarve’s feathered friends abound at dawn to catch non-proverbial worms.

The easiest way to navigate the diverse ecosystems of Quinta de Marim is to follow the signposted trails - first steering you through verdant Iberian woodland; where Penduline Tits, Sardinian Warblers and Dartford Warblers chatter away in the dense undergrowth. Azure-winged Magpies and the distinctive crested Hoopoe also flourish in the pine forests of the Ria Formosa; occasionally accompanied by the shy Great Spotted Cuckoo - an admirable addition to any birding itinerary.

Penduline Tit 530 x 300
Penduline Tit

As you continue along the trail, pine thickets give way to saltwater marshes and freshwater lagoons; where you can acquaint yourself with the regions waders and aquatic birds. Here the likes of Little Bitterns paddle in shallower waters, while Mallards and Little Grebes glide majestically across the shimmering surface of the lagoon. Ria Formosa’s most famous inhabitant - the Purple Swamphen - can also be observed among the towering reeds, situated at the lagoons edge.

While Quinta de Marim’s birdlife is the irrefutable icing on the cake, further treats are afforded with sightings of the harmless viperine snake, heavy-handed fiddler crabs (when you see one you’ll understand) and the endangered Mediterranean chameleon. A literal highpoint can also be appreciated from atop the Tidal Mill - disclosing picturesque panoramas over the patchwork of ecosystems; where flocks of Flamingos, Spoonbills, Pied Oystercatchers and White Storks can be seen feeding from afar in the shallow salinas.

Santa Luzia

Municipality: Tavira | Duration: 1-2 Hours | When to Go: All Year Round except June, July, August

Situated between the sleepy fishing village of Santa Luzia and the mouth of the Gilão River; discover the saltpans of Santa Luzia late in the afternoon - when Stilts, Herons and Waders gracefully forage in the shallow saltpans, to the backdrop of the steadily setting sun.

Given there are no signposted trails or information boards across the extensive saltworks and surrounding marshland; Santa Luzia is perfect for exploration off the beaten path. However, a good starting point is Centro de Saúde de Tavira - where navigable paths can be located immediately to the south and west of the building.

After a short walk along the roughhewn dirt tracks, your arrival at the brackish bird-filled basins of the saltpans will feel like you’ve stepped into a long-legged convention; with wonted waders like the Spoonbill, Spotted Redshank, Sanderling, Black-winged Stilt and the Greater Flamingo seemingly queueing up to be photographed.

Spoonbill 530 x 300

The saltpans of Santa Luzia are also the solitary habitat of more camera shy birds; namely the Western Reef Heron - seldom seen at low tide when the ashen Ardeidae stalk their prey in the shallow saltpans. Conversely, a visit at high tide will acquaint you with swooping seabirds like Little Terns and Audouin’s Gulls; infrequently joined by the Slender-billed Gull, as they plunge into the flowing waters in search of fish.

Quinta do Ludo & Quinta do Lago

Municipality: Faro and Loulé | Duration: 4-5 Hours | When to Go: All Year Round

For sheer birding bliss, no area compares to the contiguous regions of Quinta do Ludo and Quinta do Lago - housing nearly all 200 species of the Algarve’s birdlife within their network of niches. Discover the Ria Formosa’s crowning jewel at any time of the day; although birdlife is at its most active during dawn and dusk - when fewer tourists and scarcer sunlight entices birds to feed in the open.

Getting to secluded bird sites is almost as exciting as finding birds in Ludo - venturing through the labyrinth of landscapes toward the brackish lagoons, saltpans and saltmarshes; where the blue-green basins are overrun year-round by the subtle rose pink of the Greater Flamingo and the black and white amalgamation of Avocets, White Storks and Black Terns. Sounds of songbirds also rise from the reedbeds that align the lagoons; where pocket-size Penduline Tits, Waxbills, Black-headed Weavers and Great Reed Warblers can be seen darting in and out of the thick vegetation.

After acquainting yourself with waterfowl and waders; swap the water for woodlands and journey towards Pontal Forest - where undulating Umbrella Pines and dense Mediterranean shrubbery sustain a sanctuary for tree-dwellers. The distinctive calls of the Red-necked Nightjar and Iberian Green Woodpecker provide the archetypal sounds of the coppice; while Bee-eaters bring splashes of colour to the verdant landscape. Pontal Forest is also a primary hunting-ground for the regions predators; where Black-shouldered Kites and Booted Eagles soar overhead, ruling over the skies.

Further wanderlust awaits in the west; through the beauteous blend of backdrops toward neighbouring Quinta do Lago - where feathered friends gather by the regions freshwater lake. Ducks, like the golden tufted Black-necked Grebe and occasionally the Blue-winged Teal abound at all hours; while early (and late) birders can see Squacco and Black-crowned Night Herons fishing in the freshwater at sunrise and sunset. For sightings of the emblematic Purple Swamphen - wait in the spacious bird hide and look to the reeds by the lakes ledge.

Purple Swamphen 530 x 300
Purple Swamphen

Especially scenic - and bountiful - is the São Lourenço Trail; where birdlife can be discovered along the winding path through the wetlands and woodlands of Quinta do Lago. Visit shortly before sunset to see the first Red-necked Nightjars of the ensuing evening; while sprightly Serins, Willow Warblers and Tawny Pipits pursue insects overhead. The quiet and cover of dusk may also coax Purple Swamphens from their reedy sanctuaries - occasionally leaving the lake to graze on the lawn.

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