Birdwatching in Lisbon

By David Lindo

During late October I was having the time of my life in the Tagus Estuary within the Lisbon Region of Portugal. At more than 15,000 hectares it was easy to see why its mosaic of habitats that includes farmland, marshes, muddy channels, lakes, salt pans and cork oak woodlands is a birders’ paradise.

Almost every bush in this patchwork national park was heaving with amazing birds and amongst the abundance of Crested Larks, Skylarks, Southern Grey Shrikes and House Sparrows were large numbers of ‘Essex Birds’. I saw more Essex Birds in Portugal than I’ve ever seen in Essex!

An Essex Bird, I’ll have you know, was my adolescent name for the Corn Bunting. In those days, my trips to the Essex countryside were characterised by the sight and sounds of these drab-looking birds. I only seemed to see them easily in Essex. Since those heady days their fortunes in Britain have completely changed and their phenomenal decrease has been well documented. So I gladly took the opportunity to get reacquainted with this old friend.

Like many people, when I think of Portugal I immediately think of hot days in the Algarve, a round or two of golf (not that I play) and of course, the rich birding to be had. So a late autumnal trip to Lisbon was an interesting prospect for although I had missed the bulk of the migration perhaps I would be lucky enough to get the last proverbial squeeze of the tube.

I was a guest of the Turismo de Portugal and along with my guide, Joao Jarra, they were very keen to show me the hidden Portugal that lay in between Lisbon and the Algarve to the south. They were also very apologetic for the potentially lousy weather forecasted and for the prospect of not seeing many birds. The apologies were wasted on me as I was already in heaven!

After a few days touring some really fascinating areas outside of Lisbon, I finally ended staying in the Expo area of the city quite close to the estuary and the stunning Vasco da Gama Bridge (which at over 11 kilometres from end to end is the longest bridge in Europe). According to Joao, Lisbon itself is not a hotbed of urban birding and could only muster four sites worth visiting. Ordinarily, that kind of statement would have made me even more determined to eek out places to prove him wrong. But when you consider the city’s geographical position – right on top of one of the most important feeding grounds for waders in Europe – with such ornithological richness on your doorstep you didn’t need to go anywhere else.

However, we did visit Lisbon Gardens, a long thin stretch of reed bed and municipal parkland bordered by the long muddy foreshore of the estuary in the shadow of the Vasco da Gama Bridge. We watched countless Black-headed Gulls standing on the mud whilst joggers breezed past us along the boardwalk. The gulls were at fairly close range and were sharing their space with hundreds of Avocets, tons of Redshank, Curlew, Black-tailed Godwits and several hundred Greater Flamingos. We were in mid-count when an old man in a cloth-cap approached us to speak of his admiration for the flamingos as well as for the current Sporting Lisbon squad. The reedbeds, although rudimentary, hold an array of warblers during the summer months including Great Reed Warbler and, in winter, Bluethroats, with Dartford Warblers in the scrubby areas. It’s also a great place for finding passage migrants.

Lisbon Gardens was just the appetiser for what was to come when Joao and I crossed the bridge to enter the Tagus Estuary birding areas. The sights that welcomed us will stay with me for a long time. Scanning back across the estuary towards Lisbon I noticed a glistening distant thin pink line along the shoreline of the city. A cursory glance through my scope revealed that it wasn’t a weird heat shimmer but legions of Greater Flamingos. Some 5,000 choose to winter in the Tagus along with at least 15,000 Avocet, thousands of waders of several species, herons and egrets galore plus tons of Glossy ibis and White Stork.

Every field seemed to host a surprise. I came across one that contained at least 40 exquisitely concealed Stone Curlews whilst another patch of land hid around 70 Little Bustards that cautiously edged away from us. I looked at some bushes in one direction and counted around 30 Spanish Sparrows in a mixed sparrow flock and in the opposite direction were a few Rock Sparrows more Dartford Warblers with singing Cetti’s Warblers providing the background atmosphere.

Apparently, it gets pretty mad in the Tagus Estuary during the breeding season when the hordes of migrants arrive, including the obligatory Mediterranean specialities like Bee-eaters, Great Spotted Cuckoos and Nightingales. Joao took me down a track on which, during warm summer nights, both European and Red-necked Nightjars churr side-by-side. Wow!

During the day that Joao and I spent at this wonderland we even found two Portuguese national rarities; a Marsh Sandpiper and a moulting summer plumaged American Golden Plover. The opportunity for discovery is immense even ‘out of season’ and we never once met another birder.

As you can guess, if you like seeing Essex Birds and want to go birding far from the madding crowd, then a visit to the Tagus Estuary is a must.