European Robin from Darren Bellarby

Autumn migration

October. The avian world is in motion.

16 Oct , 2015  

We finally take out our winter blanket and complain about how we are not ready to leave the Summer behind. We start to forget the beaches but maybe it is still too soon to think of firewood and electric heaters. The melancholy of the season is already undeniable, but that new warm evening light is overwhelmingly comfortable and peaceful. The part of us that is still in contact with the natural world feels this transition, which can be verified by paying attention to bird movements.

One of the most dramatic transformations in the Portuguese bird cast takes place along October. While most of the trasaharian migrants is already South of the Sahara desert (most of them crossed in August and September), there is an increase in bird movements that arrive to spend the winter. Coming from further North, these are migrant birds that reach us in their search for food, the most valuable resource that has started to become scarcer in their breeding grounds.

The small migrants still present in relatively high numbers are Willow Warbler Phylloscopus trochilus and Pied Flycatcher Ficedula hypoleuca, but it can still be possible to sight the last Winchats Saxicola rubetra and Subalpine Warblers Sylvia cantillans, as well an occasional scarcer or more elusive bird like Ortolan Bunting Emberiza hortulana. These last transaharian travelers will soon be gone to take advantage of the resource boom available after the tropical rainy season.

Willow Warbler in bushes at Ponta da Atalaia, Sagres. Nuno Barros

Willow Warbler in bushes at Ponta da Atalaia, Sagres. Nuno Barros

Maenwhile back home, we start to watch other birds (which some of us terribly missed) which we associate to wintertime, and to the comfort and beauty that the following months will bring. However, most of our wintering species are not exclusively migratory. Most of them are resident in the South of their breeding range and migratory in the Northern most regions. Therefore, by this time of the year, migrant populations head South to join our resident populations. This is the case with most Thrushes, Finches (Goldfinches, Chaffinches and alike), Corn Buntings and many others.

Due to its strategic geographical position and topography, the SW coast of Portugal and Sagres peninsula in particular, constitute an effective “barometer” of migrant bird movements.

In October 4th, after the first Autumn rains, I saw in Sagres the first Chiffchaffs Phylloscopus collybita and Blackcaps Sylvia atricapilla (2 of the most common winter birds) of the season, new-comers from the previous night. They were perched in the same bushes that in the previous evening hosted only Willow Warblers and Spotted Flycatchers Muscicapa striata (2 of the most common transaharian migrants), birds that left the area that same night.

Male Blackcap. Ron Knight.

Male Blackcap. Ron Knight.

In October 6th, I detected the first Oystercathers Haematopus ostralegus feeding at dusk in the low tide at Monte Clérigo beach, where they would roost – a small group of 3 birds. In the peak of Winter, this roosting site can harbor as much as 70 birds.

In October 8th, I watched again Lapwings Vanellus vanellus – also known as “Ave-fria” (bird from the cold) due to their association with cold weather coming – over the coastal fields by the Cape S. Vincent, a timid flock of 5 birds. During the Winter, Lapwingd will be one of the most common species of our pastures and meadows.
There are more and more White Wagtails Motacilla alba coming in, and in the more forested areas the call of the European Robin Erithacus rubecula starts being heard a little bit everywhere.

This transition is also noticed in the cast of Raptors passing through the peninsula. There are still quite a few Booted Eagles Aquila pennata coming in, as well as the last Black Kites Milvus migrans, but the numbers of Short-toed Eagles Circaetus gallicus and Common Buzzards Buteo buteo – late migrants are rising. One of the most impressive and iconic movement of birds in Sagres happens around this time of the year as well, with the arrival of the first big flocks of Griffon Vultures Gyps fulvus of the season.

Migrating Griffon Vultures

Griffon Vultures, Sagres. Nuno Barros

October is a month of abundance and diversity and a fascinating time for birdwatchers, but more is yet to come. Here in the “end of the world” birds never stop coming and going, annunciating and celebrating the constant transformation of the natural world.

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