A Woodchat Shrike / Photo: RAY TIPPER

Ready, steady … twitch!

Sue Parker and friends look forward to the Algarve wildlife spring

The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven Upon the place beneath.
William Shakespeare

As I write, it is raining in the Algarve, and it’s the kind of gentle rain we love. It’s not the merciless kind – a torrential, short-lived shower which simply cascades off parched hillsides and into drains. It is the soft rain, of which we have had much in recent weeks, that soaks into the ground reassuring us, and the plants that have lain dormant throughout the punishing Algarve summer, that there will be life again.

Suddenly the parched brown landscape is transformed into lush green as grass gets going. This is quickly followed by the bright yellow of Bermuda Buttercup. Loathed by gardeners and farmers alike as an almost indestructible weed, nevertheless it excites those who love the beauty and wildlife of the Algarve with the prospect of less contentious, more colourful and exciting flowers soon to follow.

For my husband Pat and me, the Algarve springtime is particularly special since wildflowers (and wild orchids in particular) reach their peak flowering while there are still plenty of fungi in the very same places that flowers grow. In many cases, the fungi are as colourful as the flowers, refuelling our perennial argument as to whether flowers or fungi are the more beautiful.

Clive Viney and Ray Tipper, co-authors of the Algarve wildlife bible, Algarve Wildlife – the natural year, are equally enthusiastic about what is about to unfold as spring advances.

Clive, who has been living in the Algarve and enjoying its wildlife for decades, recommends taking a walk along the lovely nature trails at Fonte da Benémola and Rocha da Pena. He says: “I always thrill to hear the first cuckoo calling in March, but every year cuckoos are heard less and less. Similarly, I jump for joy at the quiet turr-turr of a turtle dove; but, like the call of the cuckoo, that too is heard less frequently. Cuckoos and turtle doves are declining alarmingly throughout Europe and may well vanish altogether within the next decade. Both undertake long and perilous migrations. Habitat changes and hunting are the two major causes of the decline of these special birds.

“The first of the special spring butterflies are the distinctive Spanish Festoons, and suddenly and briefly they are everywhere. Yellow Brimstones and Cleopatra butterflies also appear in numbers, and flowering bushes attract exotic Swallowtail and Southern Scarce Swallowtail butterflies too. In the spring sunshine, cold–blooded lizards and snakes warm themselves on stone walls and rocks and, early in the day, can be quite dozy and easy to see.”

For Ray, whose main interest is birds, it is the arrival of the early migrants that he most looks forward to: “These vanguard species – among them some of the most handsome birds – are prepared to take on the vagaries of unsettled weather to be the first to arrive on the breeding grounds to establish a territory in the best location. One of the most striking is the Western Yellow Wagtail, the brilliant males already sporting breeding plumage in late February. In March, Woodchat Shrikes and Black-eared Wheatears begin to arrive. Another early arrival is the Great Spotted Cuckoo, a bird whose timetable is geared to the breeding of its host species. Cuckoos cunningly lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, unwitting surrogate parents fooled into feeding and caring for these invaders until they can look after themselves.

“A bit more patience is required for the arrival of two of the most brilliantly coloured icons of the Algarve countryside. The gatherings of European Bee-eaters prospecting over the salt pans for nest sites in the earth banks do not occur much before the end of April/early May, and the fluty call of the European Golden Oriole is a signal that spring is nearly over and summer fast approaching.”

Another unmissable springtime sight (and site!) is Cape Saint Vincent with its incredible floral display.

Carla Cabrita, who runs Walkin’ Sagres and leads guided walks there, says that the earlier you visit the more likely you are to see some of the famous endemic plants of the region. For example, January and February are the best months for Shrubby Violet Viola arborescens (rather like a pale blue pansy), and Astragalus tragacantha, a curious white-flowered shrub reminiscent of a resting sheep.

Whether you are a keen naturalist eager to see special rarities, or somebody who just loves scenic beauty and glorious sunshine, the Algarve is one of the best places in the world to enjoy springtime.

For more wildlife walks in the Algarve, visit www.algarvewildlife.com

|| By Sue Parker
[email protected]
Sue Parker is a Director of First Nature, Publisher of Algarve Wildlife – the natural year; Wildflowers in the Algarve; and Wild Orchids of the Algarve – how, when and where to find them.

A Western Yellow Wagtail / Photo: RAY TIPPER
A Woodchat Shrike / Photo: RAY TIPPER
A Black-eared Wheatear / Photo: RAY TIPPER
Caesar’s Mushroom – Amanita ceasarea
A Bee-eater / Photo: RAY TIPPER
The Sawfly Orchid flowers in February / Photo: ROB PETLEY-JONES