The Algarve's wetlands a haven for birds and bird-lovers
By Karin Schumann Nov 22, 2011, 3:06 GMT
Castro Marim, Portugal - Things get pretty crowded and hectic in the Reserva Natural do Sapal. In the autumn, some 150 species of birds gather there in the nature preserve on the Algarve's eastern coastal region, either to spend the winter or to rest awhile before flying further southwards.
Hundreds of flamingos alone will be staying until the following April in the some 2,000-square-kilometre sanctuary in the delta of the Rio Guadiana river. The season is the ideal time, and the preserve the ideal spot, to go bird-watching - whether on foot, by bicycle or by boat.
In order to ensure that the birds' habitat - located in one of Europe's most important river-and-ocean wetland regions near Castro Marim - is disturbed as little as possible, ornithology-inclined visitors are permitted to walk only on the marked trails. These paths, ranging between two and 10 kilometres, lead past salt works, surrounded by earthen walls, whose operation dates back to the Roman times.
Salt production continues in Portugal today, with salt being an important export product. And it is in salt that the favourite fish of Portuguese cuisine, bacalhau (stockfish) is preserved.
As a result, it's still produced in the salt works at Aroucas in the old traditional method in which shallow basins are repeatedly flooded by ocean water. When the water dehydrates in the basins, it leaves behind the layers of salt which are piled up in mounds and exported to all the corners of the globe.
The trail running through the sensitive eco-system of saline ponds, brackwater and mudflats is not to be recommended in the summer. The sun beats down mercilessly from the sky and there are neither trees nor shrubs to provide any shade. And besides, there aren't all that many birds to be seen.
But in the main season starting in the autumn, one should take binoculars so as better to be able to watch the noisy crowds of birds as they pick and pull clams and snails from the ground, clean their feathers and forcefully defend their turf, menacingly waving their beaks.
Especially impressive are the flamingos, balanced majestically on one leg or strutting through their nesting areas. But any number of other birds can also be spotted - storks, sandpipers, avocets, European spoonbills, grey geese and seagulls of all kinds. Even ospreys feel at home in the nature reserve.
For those who find the trek too long, they can take to the trail on bicycles. The river delta is ideal terrain. Or, one can comfortably go by boat to observe the birds' habitat in the backwaters.
Further west, between Tavira and the Faro airport, there lies a second important eco-system, the Ria Formosa Nature Park, a land- and seascape of lagoons, sand dunes, islands and narrow strips of land in the estuarial region of a number of small rivers in the Olhao area.
The area emerged from the last major oceanic earthquake of 1755 and has been a natural park since 1987. What is an el Dorado for aquatic birds is also the breeding grounds for a great portion of the North Atlantic fish population. In some approved areas marine salt is produced. There are also fish-breeding areas and clam and oyster beds.
Some two kilometres east of Olhao, at Quinta de Marim, is the environmental training centre CEAM (Centro de Educacao Ambiental de Marim).
Ecology-minded tourists are given leaflets and a map of the grounds. There are 20 signposts along the way, in Portuguese and English, along a three-kilometre-long nature trail on which visitors can learn about rare local animals such as chameleons, the Mediterranean seagull, and the natural park's emblem, the rare purple gallinule.
Also worth seeing is a tidal mill dating back to 1845, along with a tuna fishing boat and a bird-breeding and sanctuary station. From an elevated perch, visitors can watch - and hear - the 20,000 birds there.
Boating excursions are also offered for the Ria Formosa, the timetable of the rides from one sand dune island to the next determined by the tides. Storks, cormorants, cranes, herons, flamingos and many other aquatic birds can be observed during a hike on the Ilha da Culatra, which can be reached via ferry from Olhao.
Those who visit Ria Formosa should take the opportunity to get to know yet another rare species: the Portuguese water dog. This canine race is bred near Quinta de Marim. One Portuguese water dog has achieved fame: 'Bo,' the Obama family's 'first dog' in the White House.