Birdwatching on Portugal’s Castro Verde Steppes

    Jorge, our guide, certainly knew where to find the birds. And when. He had convinced us to abandon the comforts of our hotel at 7 am, and had negotiated with the management to provide us with a packed breakfast to bring with us. In the light of early morning, even the white storks that nested on the hotel rooftop seemed lethargic.

    We had enjoyed two very warm days on the Portuguese west coast, observing large numbers of wetland birds. Now, we had moved inland, the temperature had fallen significantly and a strong wind caused us to wrap up well. Between the hotel and the nearby village of Albernoa, we passed wheatfields, vineyards and olive groves. On the road south toward Castro Verde, the trees gradually thinned and the low hills slowly transformed into grassy plains.

    After a few miles, we turned onto a side road, and almost immediately stopped to watch a pair of Montague’s harriers circling over an adjacent field. But that was only the start. Crawling along the road, we spotted a stonechat, colourful bee eaters and birds I was seeing for the first time, such as azure-winged magpies, a roller, a woodchat shrike and a calandra lark. Then came the one we were hoping to see.

    Jorge stopped the car suddenly and leapt out, carrying his telescope. He pointed across the grasslands toward a distant hill. Even with binoculars I could only make out a pale brown object that could have been a rock. Through the telescope, however, it became Europe’s heaviest bird, and one of the largest flying birds in the world, a great bustard. These huge, rare and endangered birds are wary of humans, so that these open, sparsely populated grasslands are ideal for their breeding. They can also hide effectively amid the tall grasses, and so are not easy to spot.

    Before stopping for breakfast, we even saw its smaller relative, a little bustard, at closer range, poking its head above the grasses of a meadow it shared with a small number of cows.

    We continued south for another few miles, and detoured into the Vale Goncalino Biodiversity Station, where we became fully aware of the true extent of the Castro Verde grasslands. The Education and Visitor Centre stood on a slight rise overlooking an undulating expanse that resembled a prairie. There were no hedges and very few, widely scattered trees. Yet this seemingly natural environment was created entirely by agriculture.

    The primeval Mediterranean forests that once covered the area gave way to pasture land on which many generations of sheep were grazed. During the 20th century, the government decided that the land should be used for the growing of cereal crops. This led to traditional rotation farming, in which the cultivation of wheat and oats alternated with the land lying fallow. The result was the pseudo-steppe that now lay before us. Though the agricultural methods employed lack a modern efficiency, this ecosystem is ideal for the birds such as those we had seen earlier, and in 1999, the steppe was designated a Special Protection Area.

    We followed a footpath down from the centre, past a nesting tower perforated by more than twenty holes. These were occupied by a surprising selection of birds that clearly did not object to each others’ company, a lesser kestrel, a roller, starlings and pigeons. Two black-bellied sand grouse flew over the plains, while a pair of kestrels mobbed a booted eagle.

    Despite the cool breeze, a heat shimmer rippled the ground. We moved uphill to a huddle of abandoned farm buildings, beyond which the land rose gently to the skyline, on which stood our second great bustard.

    We adjourned to the town of Castro Verde for lunch, then drove to Sao Pedro das Cabecas. We paused by a river to watch some terrapins basking on the rocks, then carried on to a hilltop that commanded a superb view over the whole Castro Verde region.

    The summit itself was occupied by a small hermitage, built in the 16th century to commemorate the Battle of Ourique, fought in 1139, in which the Christian forces of Prince Afonso Henriques defeated a much superior Moorish army, a victory that led to the creation of the Portuguese state.

    The only notable bird we saw from the summit was a short-toed eagle that circled over the eastern slope, searching for the snakes that were its main prey. Among the grass and flowers, however, was a beautiful swallowtail, one of the largest butterflies in Europe.

    We spent the rest of the afternoon meandering along side roads farther east, before heading back toward Albernoa, adding a black vulture, red-legged partridges, a black kite and grey shrike to our bird total. And on the final stretch, a little bustard flew in front of the car, then hid from us amid the flowers and tall grasses of a roadside meadow.

    The next day, we left the hotel after a more leisurely breakfast, and drove east from Castro Verde. Abandoning the main road, we entered the Guadiana Natural Park, along a narrow, twisting road that ran over and around a maze of hills and valleys, clothed with pine and holm oak woodlands. It is into these woods that it is hoped to re-introduce the Iberian lynx from a Spanish breeding population during the next five years.

    Quite early on, we spotted the bird that we had decided was to be our target species for the day, a Spanish Imperial eagle. We watched it circling over a nearby hill for about two minutes, until it flew away to the north. A short distance farther along the road, we stopped to watch a juvenile golden eagle, just recognisable in the distance above a conifer wood.

    We passed through a gate onto an unsurfaced road, and walked the last few hundred metres downhill to the spectacular Pulo do Lobo, or Wolf’s Leap waterfall. Here, the broad river squeezed through a narrow gorge and crashed over a 20-metre drop, the highest in South Portugal. Even on our rocky viewpoint above the river, we were drenched by the spray.

    This gorge is a nesting place for black storks and rock buntings, but though we saw neither, we were compensated by the presence of a beautiful blue rock thrush that perched on a crag above us.

    We drove through the historic town of Mertola, that seemed to cling precariously to steep slopes above the river, and continued eastwards, taking another narrow side road through the village of Corte Pequena. We walked down a track to where the Guadiana again flowed through a rocky gorge.

    As we approached a weir at the bottom of the track, a grey heron flew away to the far bank. The reason for his interrupted vigil became quickly apparent, as we saw numerous fishes leaping into the air trying to clear the weir. Some landed on the rocks to the side and flapped in panic as they tried to regain the river. No doubt the heron would return as soon as we departed. And while we watched this spectacle, a golden eagle circled high above us.

    Our final detour brought us to a small lake, and though no birds graced its surface or shores, a stone curlew and a hoopoe flew across the track into the surrounding scrub.

    From a high point on the road, we looked east to the Spanish border, which was being washed by heavy rain showers. The sun, however, stayed with us, and on our return to the hotel, I had the time, before dinner, to swim a few lengths of the open air pool, watched by the storks nesting on the roof and a pair of azure-winged magpies in the surrounding trees.

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