After a short night´s sleep, I woke up to verify that I was still rather ill with a cold. I got up and left. The day had dawned cold and dry, and the clean January air invited me out. Today I was going to the mort remote and rugged shores of Vila do Bispo, to count shorebirds for Project Arenaria – a voluntary wintering coastal bird survey which this year I coordinate, with the ambitious goal of a nation-wide shoreline coverage.
I had studied the charts the day before and realized that the Southern part of this quadrat hosted shores only visited by barnacle harvesters. In other words, beaches without an obvious path down, used almost exclusively by professional gatherers and bold fishermen – Mouranitos, Mirouço and Manteiga – 3 beaches so nearby and yet so off the map, where I had never been before.
I got off the main road, into the dirt tracks that cross the Natural Park. A timid sun made the morning condensation shine, and all around me flickered White Wagtails Motacilla alba, Meadow Pipits Anthus pratensis, Stonechats Saxicola torquata, Corn Buntings Miliaria calandra, Serins Serinus serinus, Skylarks Alauda arvensis and Thekla Larks Galerida thekla.
Here in the coastal plateau, the landscape is mostly softly cambered hills of a schist and raw soil, covered mainly by Gum Cistus Cistus ladanifer, boiling with potential energy. A scene that has as much of desolation as of quietness, that appeals both to refuge and desertion. Looking aware of all this, Monchique mountain chain rose in the background, ever-present in the morning mist.
Before I got to the shores I had never seen, I noticed a Mistle Thrush Turdus viscivorus in a wire (strange place for one) and a half asleep Buzzard Buteo buteo on top of a rickety pine tree shaped by the north wind. I finally reached the cliffs on top of Mouranitos beach to begin the count.
In this middle of nowhere there were a lot of cars, all belonging to these rough men of the cliffs. I could see some down there, in two teams or three, jumping in the sharp rocks with ropes and “arrilhadas” – their proper and traditional harvesting tools. Not long after another one approached me, already suited up, and saluted in what I believe was a natural softness, repressed by the sea and tides. The beach was beautiful of course, embedded next to an impressive and rounded cliff, painted in elvish greenish grey this time of the season. There were remains of a distant fireplace. But few shorebirds, just two Yellow-legged Gulls Larus michahellis and one Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus.
I kept going to the next viewpoint, south of Mirouço, through hills and valleys. Amongst all the Gum Cistus I noticed a proper seasonal pond, a priority habitat around here, unfortunately usually very poor for birds. A single Great Grey Heron Ardea cinerea was resting, dwarfed in its’ shore. Along the track, I could hear the calls of Robins Erithacus rubecula, Fan-tailed Warblers Cisticola juncidis and Dartford Warblers Sylvia undata (these coastal valleys are na oásis for this elusive species), and occasionally a Song Thrush Turdus philomelus would fly in the bushes. When I reached the top I found a Blue Rock Thrush Monticola solitarius on top of a landmark, one of the greeting cards of this part of the world.
It was an astonishing place. The soil was covered in yellow lichens and Sweet Alisson Lobularia maritima. Small flocks of Linnets Carduelis canabinna and Goldfinches Carduelis carduelis flew across the stone grey of the cliff. It even smelled like Winter. It was a magnificent natural viewpoint, and I had trouble not lingering around, but afterall, I was there to count shore birds. Another half a dozen Gulls and two Turnstones Arenaria interpres.
Manteiga beach is a kind of short spiral cove, contained in a raw stretch of shore. In the tidal zone, three more men and a lonely European Shag Phalacrocorax aristotelis (a scarce and localized resident) where fishing each in their own world. The brief sub-song of another Blue Rock Thrush could echoed in the cliffside, and the sun was starting to warm up. Eight more Turnstones were feeding in the dark rolling stones beaten by the waves.
Amado beach was the first “vistable” place in the quadrat, and quite a different landscape. The road to the beach crossed another king of scrublands, not do dense and somewhat gentler, punctuated by Junipers Juniperus turbinata and Mastic Pistacia lentiscus, where it would be predictable to find bird more characteristic of forest areas. Among others, Winter Wrens Troglodytes troglodytes, Blackcaps Sylvia atricapila and Chaffinches Fringilla coelebs where calling.
The beach itself was asleep. The restaurant and surf schools were obviously closed, away from the busy summer days. Another handful for the field form.
I began the path of Pontal da Carrapateira – land of rugged scrubland and battalions of fishermen in the cliffs. The goal was to scan the shores and count Seagulls, Cormorants and Shags on the rocky islets. The first viewpoint was the iconic Ponta do Castelo with its´ ruins of a Moor season settlement from the XII century, where fishermen and shellfish harvesters sheltered for parts of the year. Imagine how though these people were to choose this harsh place.
From cliff to cliff I counted seven European Shags (a nice surprise), four wintering Cormorants Phalacrocorax carbo, and some twenty more Seagulls. Flocks of Jackdaws Corvus monedula and Spotless Starlings Sturnus unicolor were flying between the mainland and the islets, and another Blue Rock Thrush was flickering nearby.
The count was over. I noticed two Shags close to each other, one of the with its´ breeding crest already fully developed, defending its´ territory from some Jackdaws. Probably already in courtship for these birds are quite asynchronous in their breeding seasons.
The village of Carrapateira shone in the background, a Sea Thrift Armeria pungens was blooming nearby and a Black Redstart Phoenicurus ochrurus was singing for the rising tide. I wanted to stay for a while to feel the place, but the truth was I was indeed with a cold, and my senses were clouded by the remains of the nights’ dreams and the intense beauty of the morning, itself also quite onyrical.