Seeking the Birds of Portugal’s Castro Verde Steppe

Great Bustards (Photo credit - Jorge Safara)

Great Bustards (Photo credit – Jorge Safara)

Jorge, our guide, certainly knew where to find the birds. And when. He had convinced us to abandon the comforts of our hotel at 7 am, and had negotiated with the management to provide us with a packed breakfast to bring with us. In the early morning light, even the white storks nesting on the hotel rooftop seemed lethargic.

We had enjoyed two very warm days on the Portuguese west coast, observing large numbers of wetland birds. Now, we had moved inland, the temperature had fallen and a strong wind made us wrap up well. Between the hotel and the nearby village of Albernoa, we passed wheatfields, vineyards and olive groves. On the road south toward Castro Verde, the trees gradually thinned and the low hills slowly transformed into grassy plains.

After a few miles, we turned onto a side road, and almost immediately stopped to watch a pair of Montague’s harriers circling over an adjacent field. But that was only the start. Crawling along the road, we spotted a stonechat, colourful bee eaters and birds I was seeing for the first time, such as azure-winged magpies, a roller, a woodchat shrike and a calandra lark. Then came the one we were hoping to see.

Jorge stopped the car suddenly and leapt out, carrying his telescope. He pointed across the grasslands toward a distant hill. Even with binoculars I could only make out a pale brown object that could have been a rock. Through the telescope, however, it became Europe’s heaviest bird, and one of the largest flying birds in the world, a great bustard. These huge, rare and endangered birds are wary of humans, so that these open, sparsely populated grasslands are ideal for their breeding. They can also hide effectively amid the tall grasses, and so are not easy to spot.

Before stopping for breakfast, we even saw its smaller relative, a little bustard, at closer range, poking its head above the grasses of a meadow it shared with a small number of cows.

In Your Bucket Because

  • The almost treeless grasslands of the pseudo-steppe comprise a rare environment, with an unusual scenic beauty.
  • Many of the birds that breed here are found in few other parts of Europe.
  • Ideal for people who want to leave the crowds behind and enjoy the thrill of seeing uncommon birds.

Vale Gonçalino Biodiversity Station

We continued south for another few miles, and detoured into the Vale Gonçalino Biodiversity Station, where we became fully aware of the true extent of the Castro Verde grasslands. The Education and Visitor Centre stood on a slight rise overlooking an undulating expanse that resembled a prairie. There were no hedges and few, very widely scattered trees. Yet this seemingly natural environment was created entirely by agriculture.

Vale Goncalinho Steppe (Photo - Anthony Toole)

Vale Goncalinho Steppe (Photo – Anthony Toole)

The primeval Mediterranean forests that once covered the area had given way to pasture land on which many generations of sheep had grazed. During the 20th century, the pastures had themselves yielded to the growing of cereal crops. This led to traditional rotation farming, in which the cultivation of wheat and oats alternated with the land lying fallow. The result was the pseudo-steppe that now lay before us. Though the agricultural methods employed lack a modern efficiency, this ecosystem is ideal for the birds such as those we had seen earlier, and in 1999, the steppe was designated a Special Protection Area.

We followed a footpath down from the centre, past a nesting tower perforated by more than twenty holes. These were occupied by a surprising selection of birds that clearly did not object to each others’ company, a lesser kestrel, a roller, starlings and pigeons. Two black-bellied sand grouse flew over the plains, while a pair of kestrels mobbed a booted eagle.

Despite the cool breeze, a heat shimmer rippled the ground. We moved uphill to a huddle of abandoned farm buildings, beyond which the land rose gently to the skyline, on which stood our second great bustard.

Sao Pedro das Cabecas

We adjourned to the town of Castro Verde for lunch, then drove to Sao Pedro das Cabecas. We paused by a river to watch some terrapins basking on the rocks, then carried on to a hilltop that commanded a superb view over the whole Castro Verde region.

Roller (Photo - Brian Henderson)

Roller (Photo – Brian Henderson)

The summit itself was occupied by a small hermitage, built in the 16th century to commemorate the Battle of Ourique, fought in 1139, in which the Christian forces of Prince Afonso Henriques defeated a much superior Moorish army, a victory that led to the creation of the Portuguese nation.

The only notable bird we saw from the summit was a short-toed eagle that circled over the eastern slope, searching for the snakes that were its main prey. Among the grass and flowers, however, was a beautiful swallowtail, one of the largest butterflies in Europe.

We spent the rest of the afternoon meandering along side roads farther east, before heading back toward Albernoa, adding a black vulture, red-legged partridges, a black kite and grey shrike to our bird total. And on the final stretch, a little bustard flew in front of the car, then hid from us amid the flowers and tall grasses of a roadside meadow.


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