HOTSPOT FACTSHEET: VALE SANTO
Location: Vale Santo plain; Vila do Bispo municipality, Western Algarve | Coordinates: 37° 2′ 55.1574″, -8° 58′ 1.182″ (Lat/Long); 37.048655 N, -8.966995 W (decimal degrees) | Code: VB1 | Completion Time: up to 12-16 hours, for the three Sagres Peninsula hotspots and adjacent areas | Best Time for Birdwatching: April-June and September-November are the best periods; all seasons offer birding opportunities | Protection Status: Natural Park; Biogenetic Reserve; Important Bird Area (IBA); Special Protection Area & Special Area of Conservation (Natura 2000) | Activities: birding; nature walks; cycling, running & other outdoor activities; sightseeing; cultural travel; extreme sports;
[PLEASE CHECK VALE SANTO’S BIRD SPECIALITIES AT THE BOTTOM OF THIS PAGE] Here, the plateau is dominated by a mosaic of grass, scrub and agricultural land, and it’s precisely along the edge zones (in ecology, ‘edge effects‘ arise when two different environments within the same ecossystem superimpose – edge zones allow more habitat structure, increasing biodiversity) between those components that birders should try to find the ground-dwelling species, and above all the Little Bustard. Throughout Sagres Peninsula, this near-threatened bird encounters all the types of habitat it needs for nesting and sheltering. Their cryptic plumage makes steppe species usually harder to find when on the ground; however, attentive birders will have no problems finding the resident Thekla Larks, which are much more common in the Peninsula than the similar-looking Crested Larks. The lark party is greatly augmented by the Greater Short-toed Lark from early Spring to September-October, the same months that register the appearance of the Tawny Pipit and of the much scarcer Richard’s Pipit, a species that travels all the way from Mongolia and Siberia.
From afar, distinguishing these different pipits based on specific markings or anatomical features might be difficult; however, Richard’s Pipit frequently hovers just before touching down, whereas Tawny Pipits usually do not. Between August and December pipits join other trans-Saharan migrants on their way to nearby Africa. Among the first to arrive are the Western Bonelli’s Warbler and that famous French gastronomic delicacy, the rather timid Ortolan Bunting. One other migrant is not so shy, but it is generally much rarer: the strikingly azure Roller is sometimes found perched on poles, wires, or exposed branches while carefully scanning the ground for the next meal, much like the resident Southern Grey Shrikes. Vale Santo is also the best place in Portugal to observe the trusting, but hard to pin down, Dotterel; this unusual plover stages in exposed sites with a short grassy cover, ploughed areas and fallow. Sometimes, the Dotterel seems to be absent from the Peninsula. In September, the already varied warbler contingent sees another addition when the resident Dartford and Sardinian Warblers are joined by Subalpine Warblers; this passerine is just a transient migrant, contrary to the Spectacled Warbler, a species that nests throughout the Natural Park in open areas with few scattered bushes and trees. Where trees and bushes become more prevalent, birders may hear the lovely babbling song of the Melodious Warbler, another breeding species that arrives in April, together with the colourful Bee-eater. In early Spring, as the first flowers start to blossom and pollinating insects become active, a few of those Bee-eaters join the large gatherings of Alpine and Pallid Swifts over the thriving grassland tapestry.
A few raptors, like the Peregrine Falcon, the Kestrel and the Buzzard can also be seen crisscrossing the pristine atmosphere above the low-flying swifts and martins. Crag Martins, despite being a resident species, only move to the more agreeable coast in the Autumn, when some of them depart from Algarve’s hilly interior. Merlins, Hen Harriers and Short-eared Owls also winter in the Peninsula. In contrast, the joyous Red-billed Choughs can be seen year round in Vale Santo. This is an endangered species in Portugal due to habitat loss and fragmentation: choughs are rupicolous birds (those inhabiting rocky places), needing both the presence of rocky landforms – such as coastal cliffs – and short grazed, semi-natural pastures. Present in the same grass and pastureland habitat across the plateau, Stone-curlews are probably more abundant than Choughs, but their mimetic plumage and nocturnal habits hinder their sightings. Much more easier to identify are the tiny Zitting Cisticolas, the Spotless Starlings and the quite abundant Serin. Country and local rarities identified in Vale Santo include, among others, the American Golden Plover, Rosy Starling, Sociable Lapwing, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Ruddy Shelduck, Lesser Whitethroat, Buff-breasted Sandpiper and Lesser Redpoll.
For steppe species inhabiting the Peninsula, nesting occurs on the ground between February and August. Some of these birds have a near-threatened status, or occupy a relatively small natural range. It is therefore of the utmost importance that visitors refrain from hiking across grass and scrubland areas during the aforementioned breeding period. In fact, roadsides are the best places from which to observe introverted species like the Little Bustard, the Ortolan Bunting and even the Eurasian Thick-knee. Contrary to the other two hotspots in the Peninsula, Vale Santo is not a viewing point, being a wide area instead. There’s latitude to explore several options, including a visit to the little gorges and valleys around Praia do Telheiro and Ponta Ruiva. These are excellent places to observe species like the Blue Rock-thrush, the Dartford Warbler and the Ring Ouzel (see also Cape St. Vincent birding site). If you want to cross the plain by foot, from Beliche Beach it is a 2.5 km (1.6 miles) hike until you reach the seemingly abandoned farm buildings (a place out of a Western Spaghetti) in Vale Santo. Several dirt roads radiate from that eerie site, providing ample opportunities to travel around the Peninsula. Instead of following the two parallel trails heading north to Monte da Cabranosa, divert slightly to the left, heading northeast (please see the map above). However, you may also drive from Beliche all the way to Vila do Bispo, or vice-versa. From Beliche Beach, the way to Vila do Bispo is a bit further along the road towards Cape St. Vincent. Another option is to hike through the Vale Santo pinewoods, or along its edge; actually, in Autumn – when there is a lot to cover – the best option is to alternate between the three main hotspots throughout the day. Image: Renato Pacchioni
Budens Marsh (Paul de Budens): extending for about 1.3 square kilometers between Salema and Burgau, this little known marshy area is located at the mouth of the Vale Barão Stream, on Boca do Rio Beach. The freshwater stream widens considerably just before reaching the secluded beach, creating a small alluvial fan. In the past, this fertile plain was in reality a large rice paddy inhabited by otters; these days, however, the vegetation cover is mainly composed of reeds, bulrushes (genus Typha) and sedge, whose soft colour contrasts with the backdrop of ochre and dark green hills. There you’ll find the Mediterranean Turtle basking in the sun, as well as passerines like the Iberian Chiffchaff, the Great Reed Warbler, the Waxbill, the Zitting Cisticola and the Sardinian and Melodious Warblers. Budens Marsh is one of just a few locations in Algarve where Savi’s Warbler is found on a regular basis. It is also believed that the Little Bittern and the Purple Heron occasionally nest on this marsh. Please check directions to this birding site on the map above by zooming out.
Torre de Aspa: at almost 160 meters – about 525 feet – Torre de Aspa has some of the highest sea cliffs in the Algarve. This place offers a great panoramic viewing point over a large stretch of the Vicentine Coast. Not long ago – as far as 60-70 years – the Algarve was still a remote and scarcely populated region within the Portuguese context. The great, deserted Alentejo plains and the rugged Algarvian Serra landscape were formidable obstacles for those wanting to reach – or to leave – the Algarve (in fact, Portuguese Kings traditionally held the title “King of Portugal and the Algarves“, a fact demonstrating the region’s distinct status). That goes to say that oftentimes the people of Algarve had to take care of themselves, practically alone, when under attack. Military reinforcements would not come speedily and easily. As expected, the most serious threats were assault parties coming from the sea, and that’s why there are so many fortresses along the coast. Cities were also quite small, and it was not infrequent that attackers often outnumbered defenders. Arab corsairs, Spanish troops and English looters, all harassed the Algarve throughout the centuries. For instance, Sir Francis Drake pillaged the village of Sagres in 1587, killing many of its inhabitants at a time when Portugal was part of the Iberian Union, and therefore considered as an enemy for breaching the Treaty of Windsor. Torre de Aspa was a fundamental part of the large defensive network protecting the Algarvian shores. There are no traces, however, of the original 16th century lookout structure. At the time, a big fire was lit whenever enemy ships were sighted; today, there are still some remnants of those huge campfires. On the massive cliff there is also an old trig point and a coastguard house rendered obsolete by the Portuguese Navy modern technologies. However, from that vantage point you will clearly realize why Torre de Aspa was such a great lookout: the horizon is boundless, the light intense, the Winter winds may knock you to the ground, and you’re just a tiny speck on a colossal rock. The dirt road leading to Torre de Aspa is quite rough, but the viewing point is easily and safely reachable by car. When enjoying the landscape, always keep a safe distance from the edge of the cliff. Please check the map markers above to get directions. See also Castelejo Trail.
Ponta Ruiva Beach (Praia da Ponta Ruiva): just north of Telheiro, with its half-moon shape, the pretty bay where this unblemished beach is located creates very reliable surf conditions at all stages of the tide. It is also a somewhat remote (and, some say, hard to find) place. No wonder then that most of year Ponta Ruiva is totally deserted, apart from one or two die-hard surfers. Its Portuguese name (“Red Headland Beach”) originates from a reddish sail-like rock landform composed of Triassic sandstone. The dirt road leading to the beach is more suitable for off-road vehicles than regular cars, but there’s always the option to just hike when the going gets rough; it is also a steep way down from the top of the cliff to the actual sand strip. Please keep in mind that there are no toilettes, no bars, no lifeguards. Nada, only raw nature.
Greater Short-toed Lark
Southern Grey Shrike
Western Bonelli’s Warbler