Special Protection Area (SPA) Castro Verde in Baixo Alentejo, Portugal - May 2012
The Castro Verde is an absolutely magical area. The rolling Steppe habitat comes to life in Spring and a whole range of colours can be seen. The landscapes are open and rolling, making the sky look big and wide. The region does not receive many visitors and are very tranquil. In spring the land comes to life with the sound of Blackbirds, Calandra Larks, Quail too name but a few. I was lucky to see Great Bustard, Little Bustard, Spanish Imperial Eagle, Lesser Kestrel, Lesser-Short-toed Lark, Thekla Lark, Nightingale, Melodious Warbler were just some of the birds I added to my list in this region. I also saw an Iberian Hare. It is a great place to relax in.
1. Special Protection Area (SPA) Castro Verde
This vast area (790 square kms) of rolling steppe land is a complete contrast to the Algarve and highly recommended for a day trip, being only around an hour’s drive north. Comprising the largest expanses of the steppic grassland plains in Portugal that form a mosaic with wide savannah-like open Holm Oak montado woodlands. Throughout the year the whole area is absolutely enchanting, both for its birds and the outstanding scenery that never fails to induce a vow to return. This seemingly never-ending wilderness is lush and liberally coated with wildflowers in the winter and spring, while in the summer and autumn the area becomes extremely arid and often desert-like. The SPA Castro Verde is one of the most important areas in Europe for sought after species like Lesser Kestrel, Great and Little Bustards and Black-bellied Sandgrouse. The area also supports a great diversity and high density of raptors, which includes nearly all of Portugal’s breeding species.
What to see when, around Castro Verde
During spring and early summer the best grasslands resound with the impressionable sound of Calandra Larks and the incredibly abundant Corn Buntings, while Montagu’s Harriers, Lesser Kestrels and Black Kites arrive to breed in quantity and become common birds in these pristine habitats. Great and Little Bustards display in early spring the latter being at its easiest to see at this time of year. Short-toed, Booted and Bonelli’s Eagles all breed in the general area and use the grasslands as regular hunting grounds. Other species that breed in this region include Stone-curlew, Great Spotted Cuckoo, European Roller, European Bee-eater, Pallid Swift, Woodlark, Short-toed, Crested and Thekla Larks, Tawny Pipit, Crag Martin, Black-eared Wheatear, Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin, Cetti’s, Great Reed and Melodious Warblers, Woodchat and Southern Grey Shrikes, Golden Oriole and Spanish Sparrow as well as the omnipresent Azure-winged Magpies and Hoopoes.
Both Collared Pratincole and Gull-billed Terns occur in the area regularly and sometimes breed, depending on the water levels at key sites. In an undisclosed area Spanish Imperial Eagles have recently set up territories and by employing great care and patience they can often be seen soaring over the area. Simon supplies all his observations to the team that is monitoring this exciting re-establishment. Eurasian Black and Eurasian Griffon Vultures use the area almost daily on their searches for carrion, involving birds of a non-breeding age and one cannot help but prophesise the eventual colonisation of the Eurasian Black Vulture in this admirably suitable area.
Outside the breeding season the absence of the summer visitors is compensated by the arrival of an array of winter birds that join the many attractive resident species, including the omni-present bustards, Black-bellied Sandgrouse, Calandra Larks and resident raptors. Red Kites occupy in considerable numbers and its not at all unusual to see over 30 individuals are in a day, Hen Harriers hunt over the grasslands in good numbers too while the occasional Peregrine or Merlin add further interest to the raptors. Eurasian Black and Eurasian Griffon Vultures are more regularly seen outside the breeding season, as are Spanish Imperial Eagles due to dispersal of younger birds from Spain. Golden Eagle is more wide ranging at this time of year too and 1st year birds are often recorded. Large numbers of wintering Lapwing and Golden Plover settle here and Skylarks and Meadow Pipits become truly abundant. Around 1000 Common Cranes occur, often feeding on fallen acorns in the open Holm Oak woodlands from late October to March (the highest count in the winter of 2007-8 revealed 1300 inds)
This region is well worth visiting all the year round but during the incredibly hot July and August, when birding is often uncomfortable and the heat-haze can make for frustrating viewing, seriously early starts are recommended. On these days we can include a short afternoon visit to Castro Marim (see “Wetlands”). For the most enthusiastic, a 2-3 day tour is ideal and can be easily arranged together with attractive and economic accommodation in the area. This will give ample time for the more difficult species and permit a deeper appreciation of this superb area.
Access in the SPA Castro Verde
Important information (particularly relevant to the observation of Great Bustard):
It is thanks to the Liga da Proteção da Natureza (LPN www.lpn.pt) for the continued existence of high quality steppic habitats in this region. In 1993 the LPN purchased 5 properties in this area (total: 1700ha.) at a time when the whole region was under imminent threat of becoming forested with non-native eucalyptus forest. This would have meant the loss of one of the most important areas of its kind in Europe. Not only did the LPN manage to prevent this from happening on land they purchased but also, through a successful lobby, actually caused a complete turn around within the government and achieved SPA status for the whole area in 1993. The LPN continue to work with the implementation of wide-ranging nature protection projects, notably a long-term program centred on the conservation of the pseudo-steppe habitats within the SPA; “ O Programa Castro Verde Sustentavel”.
Unfortunately, excessive pressure from visiting birdwatchers in recent years has driven the LPN to prohibit free access onto their land (all entrances have large green gates labelled LPN and usually clear signs depicting a design with a Little Bustard’s head and a tractor). These gates should always be closed but as some local farmers tend to leave them open it encourages un-informed birders to just drive in. (Always close them if you see them open!). Due to the increasing numbers of visiting birdwatchers and the proximity of the tracks to Great Bustard leks some disturbance has been unavoidable. Sadly, a few people have even walked across managed habitats in the breeding season, usually in attempts to get closer photographs. Because of this, the LPN have desperately been trying to halt access onto their land - this has been difficult because of lenient Portuguese laws and also because local farmers need to have access to their land by thoroughfare. There has even been a recent case of attempted egg collecting (not birders), which was investigated by the local police and Interpol.
Great Bustards will just not tolerate approach within at least 500 metres and if they are displaying any disturbance of this nature will cut down display time and consequently, reduce their breeding success. As the LPN is almost solely responsible for the dramatic increase in this, by far the largest Great Bustard population in Portugal, these recent trends have become a cause for concern and are counter-productive to their ongoing habitat management etc. Understandably, some birdwatchers just do not realise the consequences of pushing too close and making these creatures fly - just once a day in the breeding season can have a marked effect on their population. The great majority of birdwatchers don't mean to be selfish but in actual fact one cannot closely approach these birds without disturbance. If you should be lucky enough to encounter Great Bustards outside of the LPN land, please observe the following:
Great Bustard observation code as practiced and encouraged by the LPN
1.Keep to an absolute minimum distance of 5-600 metres when at all possible.
2. Stay part of the car - ie; get out but don’t separate one-self visually.
3. Stay on tracks
4. Keep movements very gentle and be very quiet
5. Keep observations to less than around 20 mins
6. Drive away slowly
In this way one can enjoy the Great Bustards without making them nervous
LPN Castro Verde Environmental Education Centre:
“Centro de Educação Ambiental de Vale Gonçalinho”
Simon strongly suggests to anyone visiting the area for the first time to make a visit to this centre; it’s an ideal way to start the day being only some 10 mins drive north-east from Castro Verde.
Tel: (00351) 286 328 309 (Usually closed on Sundays and Mondays).
One can visit this centre freely from 9am - 5 pm. There are free walking trails here that are very good for Little Bustard, European Roller, Lesser Kestrel and Calandra Lark and to a lesser extent, Great Bustard and Black-bellied Sandgrouse. The charming staff speak excellent English and will give birdwatching advice for the whole region, including details of recent interesting sightings.
Books and T-shirts etc. are available for purchase in the small
shop, as well as a selection of free informative leaflets (donations welcome!).
At the centre one can easily become a member of the non-profit making LPN and help them with their many conservation projects. Through advance booking, the LPN will take small groups (up to 6) to see the wildlife of the region including the Bustards etc. Note that as over the years Simon has led voluntary trips for members of the LPN and SPEA and regularly supplies data from the region, he has a special arrangement for entering some LPN land in the SPA Castro Verde.
To reach the Centro de Educação Ambiental de Vale Gonçalinho:
Take the Beja road (IP2) from Castro Verde - soon one will see an adjacent (the old road) road to the right. Get on this at the first opportunity at around 2.5 kms from Castro Verde. Continue in the Beja direction and after around another 2 kms a well-made track to the right is clearly signposted for the centre. Drive down here for approx 1 km (looking out for Calandra Larks and Little Bustards!)
until you come to a long white building - you are at the centre.
Some conservation dependent species of the SPA Castro Verde
The Castro Verde region is the most important area in Portugal for a number of rare and endangered birds that depend totally or partially on extensive steppic habitats. The sustainability of these depends largely on man’s influence. The major threats are; intensification of agriculture through modern farming methods, the reduction of traditional grazing pastures and afforestation. Below is some general information and up to date facts and figures about the conservation of some of the most important species that are found in the Castro Verde region and its environs.
According to an extensive and rigorous survey of the Great Bustard population in Portugal in 2005 this fabulous species recently suffered some small extinctions in a couple of areas but had increased overall. This increase is largely due to the existence of one large high-quality area – the SPA Castro Verde. Here the total number of 1,093 individuals counted in 2005 represents nearly 80% of the Portuguese total – a marked increase since the last major census in 2002 when 912 individuals were detected. Countrywide, the major threats to Great Bustard in Portugal were identified as; agricultural intensification, afforestation as well as collision with power lines, illegal hunting and road building. In the Castro Verde region, where the LPN works with local farmers to achieve environmentally sustainable agricultural practices and habitat management, the main cause for concern are power lines – 19 Great Bustards were found to have collided with them between October 2004 and September 2005. Undoubtedly the Castro Verde region is as good as anywhere in the world for observing this shy and vulnerable species although due to its extreme sensitivity, especially during the breeding season it is imperative that visiting birdwatchers respect access rules to private land and follow the observation code set out by the LPN (see above).
Citation: Leitão, D; Jolivet, C; Rodriguez, M and Tavares, J., eds Bustard Conservation in Europe in the last 15 Years: current trends, best practices and future priorities. Birdlife International, 2006.
The LIFE-nature funded project: “Project Tetrax – Conservation of Little Bustard in the Alentejo” included intensive surveys of both the breeding and wintering population. Also, and importantly, action plans with the co-operation of local farmers and central administration were developed. The breeding population census (2003-2005) showed that the SPA Castro Verde was by far the most important single area for this species, holding 3440 displaying males. Data collected also revealed densities as high as 9.8 males per 100 hectares, which is the highest recorded anywhere and further highlights the crucial importance the area has for grassland species in general. As this survey forms a baseline for future monitoring it is not yet possible to conclude an actual trend for the Little Bustard population in Portugal, although the initial results indicate a substantial increase in comparison to previous fieldwork. It is likely however, that the increased coverage and the high data quality collected during this project have largely clouded any reliable comparison with the past. As with many steppe-land species the main threats identified during Project Tetrax were agricultural intensification and afforestation. If these changes to land use are not halted it is believed, despite the present large population in Portugal that Little Bustard could be threatened with extinction in the short to medium term.
Citation: Leitão, D; Jolivet, C; Rodriguez, M and Tavares, J., eds Bustard Conservation in Europe in the last 15 Years: current trends, best practices and future priorities. Birdlife International, 2006.
Due to drastic reductions in the breeding populations of this charming falcon the Lesser Kestrel is considered an endangered species. The LPN has been working closely with this species throughout Portugal since 1993 when the national population had hit a low of less than 150 pairs. Now, thanks to the efforts of the LPN there are over 450 breeding pairs in Portugal and are still increasing. Presently, the SPA Castro Verde holds over 70% of the country’s population. Between 2002 and 2006 the LPN launched a Life-nature project: “Re-establishment of the Lesser Kestrel (Falco naumanii) in Portugal”. Among the many actions taken by the LPN the provision of new nesting sites and the improvement of old ones have benefited this colonially nesting species. Meanwhile, ongoing deals with landowners that promote friendly farming practices have substantially increased the amount of insect prey so important to this migratory falcon. During the project’s 4 years the incredible figure of 2797 juveniles were ringed and preliminary understanding indicates that most of these return to their birthplace.
Citation: Henriques, I & Alcazar, R. 2006. Um olhar sobre o Peneiriero-das-torres (Falco naumanii) do projecto LIFE-Natureza Peneiriero-das-torres – “Recuperação de Peneiriero-das-torres (Falco naumanii) em Portugal. LPN, Lisboa, Portugal.
This is another scarce species that is entirely restricted to large and undisturbed areas of steppe-type habitats. Again this bird’s stronghold in Portugal is the SPA Castro Verde, which holds more than half of the total national population. There are now believed to be more Black-bellied Sandgrouse than previously thought in Portugal, although the population is almost certainly less than 1000 individuals. It is an extremely difficult species to census – a recent study in the region of Morão in central-east Portugal revealed that over 300 individuals are now known to be resident. A reliable census of their situation in the whole of Portugal is awaited. The Black-bellied Sandgrouse is a notoriously elusive species that demands, maybe more than any other in the region, previous experience in order to be seen. The usual view is of small groups in flight that are flushed unknowingly by the observer, their atmospheric flight calls giving them away. Views on the ground, if at all, are nearly always at great distance as this bird will usually get up and fly on approach to within 1 km. only to settle even further away!
The first Montagu’s Harriers return to the SPA Castro Verde to breed from as early as late February where they occupy most of this enormous area. From mid-March this easily seen raptor becomes quite literally abundant and due to its apparent lack of fear, delights observers as they quarter at low level over the grasslands and cereal crops of the region. In a single day it is not unusual to see 20 different individuals. Thanks to LPN’s efforts with the local farmers their habitat has improved in recent years and their nest sites protected from machinery during harvest time, which often coincides with the times that unfledged young are still in the nest. Interestingly, a pair of Marsh Harriers has been breeding in similar cereal-steppe habitats, which is quite normal in Eastern Europe but practically unheard of in the west where they are almost exclusively confined to reedbeds.
Only around 100 pairs breed in Portugal, being much more scarce than many visitors imagine. The European Roller has suffered considerable declines over much of its range and once again, the decline of suitable habitat due to modern agricultural practices is the key factor. This much sought after species is a staggeringly colourful migrant and flight views never fail to leave an unforgettable impression on the observer. The SPA Castro Verde has the highest density of breeding pairs in the country, partly due to the placement of nest boxes and breeding walls for Lesser Kestrel by the LPN in suitable habitat and partly because of the ideal conditions that this area presents. It is a fairly late migrant, the first birds tending to arrive around the 1st week of April with occasional sightings considerably earlier. The European Roller, despite its colours is not always easy to see and is absent from many apparently suitable areas. A visit to a known breeding site is the most reliable method!
This, the largest of all larks is another specialist of the interior arid areas of Portugal where it is rather patchily distributed. The winter flocks can comprise of many 100’s of birds while in late winter these split up to occupy favoured sites. Even in the breeding season Calandra Lark is gregarious – breeding in loose colonies when it is normal to witness the memorable sight and sound of various birds in slow-motion song flight at their favoured spots. Their distinctive sounds are an integral part of the best habitats in the region and one will find that their presence coincides with other sought-after species of the region. Short-toed Larks, Tawny Pipits and Black-eared Wheatears often occupy the same areas as this species.
A large proportion of the European wintering population resides in central-western Iberia with most occupying favoured areas in the Spanish Extramadura. Portugal receives its portion though, confined mainly to central-eastern areas on the Spanish border and around Castro Verde. Well over 1000 Common Cranes winter in the SPA Castro Verde, arriving in numbers around late October and leaving by mid-March. Despite their numbers it is rather difficult to find them in their preferred feeding areas below the extensive Holm Oak montado woodlands, where they feed on fallen acorns. The best strategy for success is to stakeout one of their roosting sites, with care not to cause any interruptions that can cause considerable stress when incoming groups are settling. The sight and sound of wild Common Cranes assembling to roost must be one of the most awe-inspiring spectacles that nature has to offer.
The stronghold in Europe for this enchanting raptor are the interior wooded plains of the western Spanish Extramadura and its natural continuation in Portugal’s Alentejo. In winter they can sometimes be seen hunting over the open plains of the Castro Verde region but this is not their breeding habitat. This is a bird of savannah-like Holm Oak montado-type woodland interspersed with cereal crops. This habitat forms a large part of the SPA Castro Verde and well-travelled visitors to the area in the dry season often comment on its uncanny resemblance to the African savannah. Although quite a common resident species it is becoming apparent that after the breeding season, many birds vacate the searing heat of mid-summer. It is then, that they often hunt in the periphery of wetlands and other cooler coastal areas of the Alentejo and especially, in the Lisbon region. By mid-autumn most of the local breeders are back in territory and are usually easily seen from then and to the end of the breeding season.