Winging our way from...Portugal

Sonia Neves

Monday 17 June 2019

Migratory birds in a coastal landscape. RSPB migration stories.

Every spring and summer our skies become filled with the sight and sounds of migratory birds. Many of these feathered travellers have spent the winter in warmer climes further south on their ‘flyway’.

Sonia Neves from BirdLife in Portugal (Sociedade Portuguesa para o Estudo das Aves or SPEA) takes us back to Portugal in early spring to discover a special place for yellow wagtails - a migratory species that may make its way back to the UK to breed and spend the summer.

Just north of Lisbon, on the flats along the south bank of the Tagus, yellow wagtails are getting in a last meal before beginning their journey northwards into Europe. Some of these birds may reach the UK. They’ve spent the winter here in the ‘lezírias’ – the fertile plains at the start of the Tagus delta, where river, farm and sea meet in a riot of wildlife.

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Photo: The ‘lezírias’ – the fertile plains at the start of the Tagus delta. Credit: Richard Furtado.

A couple of months ago, tractors tilling the rice fields by the river looked like mother ducks; trailing behind them you’d see a procession of wagtails, gulls and ibises. As the warming weather is beginning to drive the wagtails northwards, other birds arrive. The woodchat shrike, with its distinctive rusty-brown cap, will soon be perching on wires. Another summer visitor is the collared pratincole, a wader that looks more like a seabird. With its rounded body, tern-like flight and black-tipped red beak, it acts as a reminder that the Atlantic is only a few miles away.

A stone’s throw from the river, the fields are beginning to turn green. Soon, the yellow specks in the scenery will be sunflowers and melons instead of wagtails. On other plots, bulls graze. Bred for bullfighting by Portugal’s equivalent of cowboys (the ‘campinos’), the bulls often have an entourage of cattle egrets feasting on the insects that buzz around them. Sit still by a ditch on a quiet day, and you’ll hear the plop of a frog or toad sliding into the water. These are also good spots to find traces of a larger – albeit more elusive – water-lover: the otter. You’re more likely to come across their tracks or their fishy-smelling spraint than to come face-to-face with an otter itself, but when you do get a glimpse of this slick mammal it’s always a treat. Wild boars also leave telltale signs of their presence here, as does a more exotic inhabitant of these fertile plains: the Egyptian mongoose, a speckled, weasel-like carnivore whose European population is confined to Portugal and south-west Spain.

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Photo: Tracks in a muddy ditch provide clues as to the mammals that visit this site. Credit: Richard Furtado.

Lift your gaze and, with any luck, you might just spot an osprey flying overhead, a dripping mullet in its talons. Like the wagtails, some ospreys will also fly to the UK for the summer. From September to April, though, they can occasionally be seen here, perched on electricity pylons. Handy as these man-made perches are, they can nevertheless pose a risk to osprey, Bonnelli’s eagles and other birds of prey. To prevent such birds from being electrocuted, the Portuguese Society for the Study of Birds (SPEA) works with the national electricity company to fit pylons with protective casings that prevent the current from harming the birds.

SPEA works throughout mainland Portugal as well as in the Azores and Madeira to protect birds and their habitats, and foster a healthy future for nature and people. SPEA will soon be launching tours and packages that will enable visitors to discover the wonders of places like the Lezírias and at the same time help contribute to protecting these natural treasures.

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Photo: River, farm and sea meet in a riot of wildlife. Credit: Richard Furtado.

For the best birdwatching spots in Portugal, and more, visit:

Find out more about bird migration.

Tagged with: Topic: Other migrants