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Autumn migration

Tales from a birding afternoon

18 Oct , 2015  

October 13th. The rain poured gently down all morning, I got tied up in domestic tasks, and by lunchtime I has bored to say the least. But by 15h the weather cleared, I teamed up with my friend João and we drove to Sagres for what proved to be a memorable birding afternoon. There are rumors of at least 1 Pallid Harrier Circus macrourus – a rare migrant from the steppes of Asia – and 2 Yellow-browed Warblers Phylloscopus inornatus – a tiny vagrant from the Siberian taiga – wandering around.

Along the way we noticed large thermal of gulls circling and feeding on flying ants and other insects that boom after the rains. We followed the back road from Vila do Bispo. It soon became clear that the most abundant small transaharian migrants were Willow Warbler Phylloscopus trochilus and Pied Flycatcher Ficedula hypoleuca. By mid-October, most of these long distance travelers in already South of the Sahara, and wintering birds from further North are starting to dominate the local bird movements. Nonetheless, we saw as well some Northern Wheatears Oenanthe oenanthe, 1 Winchat Saxicola rubetra, and 1 elusive Bluethroat Luscinia svecica.

Northern Wheatear, Santo António fields, Sagres. João Guilherme

Northern Wheatear, Santo António fields, Sagres. João Guilherme.

We heard the unmistakable metallic call of the Red-billed Choughs Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax and halted the car on a plowed hill top where we sighted a hovering flock of about 65 of these magnificent birds. Further ahead in Vale Santo, we would watch another flock of around 60 birds, feeding alongside some 25 Jackdaws Corvus monedula, making a total of mora the 120 birds in the peninsula – the highest number I´ve ever reached around here. Scanning the nearby the skies, we found 2 Bonelli´s Eagles Aquila fasciata – 1 juvenile and 1 immature, most likely dispersing birds from nearby territories – some Booted Eagles Aquila pennata, 2 Common Buzzards Buteo buteo, a few Kestrels Falco tinnunculus and 1 Black-winged Kite Elanus caeruleus – a somewhat uncommon bird in Sagres, but it is normal for these birds to move around quite a lot during the non-breeding season. Some occasional Red Admiral butterflies Vanessa atalanta fluttered by.

Red-billed Choughs near Belixe, Sagres. João Guilherme

Red-billed Choughs near Belixe, Sagres. João Guilherme

Before we reached the fields around Cape S. Vincent, a flock of some 70 or so Linnets Carduelis canabinna passed us by. Around October, migrant populations of finches (Goldfinches, Chaffinches, Linnets and alike) arrive from further North to join the local resident populations. About a month ago it would be highly unlikely to watch such a flock, only smaller ones. I watched as well those that for me were the first Meadow Pipits Anthus pratensis of the season, a species that will soon be one of the most abundant in the area. All of these are signs that winter is coming. In the next act, it will be time for Song Thrushes Philomelus philomelus and others to come in strong.

Santo valley

Vale Santo (Sagres) fields in Wintertime. Nuno Barros

The afternoon wore on, the sun lingered down, and raptors were losing height. As soon as we got to the famous “hedge” of pine trees that leads the way to Cabranosa – most likely the most emblematic raptor observation spot of the country – a Common Cuckoo Cuculus canoros, lifted off from the trees in front of us. It was my first one for Sagres, and it was rather late in the season – the species’s post-breeding migration can pass quite unnoticed, however the vast majority of these birds have left us by late September.

But there were more birds in the sky. We watched 5 Short-toed Eagles Circaetus gallicus, 1 Black Kite Milvus migrans, 2 more Booted Eagles, 2 more Common Buzzards, 1 Sparrowhalk Accipiter nisus, and… ”hello…what do we have here?”…a suspicious Harrier. It was a little far away, but looking good. The bird kept circling, got mobbed by the Sparrowhalk (these fearless little birds will mob pretty much every bird larger them them), kept coming closer…and we were able to confirm the identification – it was that long awaited Pallid Harrier, my second – the first had been in the exact same spot, a little short of 4 years before.

Pallid Harrier. Zob Zweers - CC (taken in Holland)

Pallid Harrier. Zob Zweers – CC (taken in Holland)

We ran to the car hoping to swiftly get to the hill top at Cabranosa for a closer view. We never got to see the bird again, but this historical landmark of Portuguese ornithology was about to immerse us in all it´s potential. It was pass 17.30h and there was nobody there. A warm light and a strangely quiet feeling embraced a windless evening. There almost as much Chiffchaffs Phylloscopus collybita – newly arrived wintering migrants – as Willow Warblers – some of the last transaharian migrants coming through. Some of these birds were so tame, they would let as come as close as 2 m. Possibly we were the first people the birds had ever came across in their yet young lives, which began far away from Sagres.

Shortly after we had reached the hill top, we watch a very tiny bird flickering around a close by pine tree – it was the second suspicious figure of the afternoon. If didn´t take long until it was clear from the pine needles and beautifully shown through our binocular lenses – it was a Yellow-browed Warbler – also my second. Silent, extremely small, greenish and with all the proper stripes and patterns, newly arrived form lands were few of us will ever go, the distant and endless taiga forests of Siberia.

Yellow-browed Warbler. Rob Zweers (picture taken in Holland)

Yellow-browed Warbler. Rob Zweers – CC (taken in Holland)

Our chests and souls were filled, the moment was not tailored for words, and we started listening. We were surrounded by foreshadows of winter. European Robins Erithacus rubecula were calling all over the pine wood. Small flocks of Goldfinches Carduelis carduelis and Chaffinches Fringilla coelebs kept flying across Cabranosa. In a noteworthy record, a flock of some 150-200 Rock Sparrows Petronia petronia – a species more inland king of bird – passed us by. A Goshawk Accipiter gentilis hovered close by, over the denser pine patch.

Out of the blue (or of the green), comes a Merlin Falco columbarius – our smallest flacon, and a rather scarce wintering visitor – in fast pursuing flight, chasing a Thekla Lark Galerida theklae. The 2 birds dance in front, and for brief seconds we witness in wonder that rare moment. The Lark hesitated in which direction to take next, and that proved fatal to it.

Merlin chasing Thekla lark, Cabranosa. João Guilherme

Merlin chasing Thekla lark, Cabranosa. João Guilherme

The light was dimming and getting warmer in frequency, while reflecting our feelings. An immense calm, and an overwhelming privilege of having witnesses so many wonderful things in little more than two hours. We had almoust 50 species of birds, 2 of them rare. There were no more raptors airbourne, and the evening was becoming silent. Cape S. Vincent has showing behind the pines, and in one of them a Great Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopus major was pecking in the dimming sunlight.

Sagres is an unique place every day, magical in October, and there is not much more to say.

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