Did you grow up with an appreciation for birds? Was there a particular species of bird that got you started in birdwatching, a ‘spark bird’?
I grew up enjoying nature and my parents encouraged this passion. My grandparents lived in the countryside (they had a farm), and I would spend most of my holidays there, and also every Wednesday, as it was a day off at school. There was not a ‘spark-bird’ but a ‘spark-book’. When I was 10 (I think), my school entered a contest and we won books. One of my colleagues was asked to call us one by one and we would pick the book on the top of the pile. She thought it would be nice for me to have a book about nature and when I was called, the book on the top of the pile was about birds. That was how everything started.
Why did you choose Portugal, and more specifically the Algarve, as your home away from home?
I came in 2008 as a volunteer through a European scheme called ‘EVS’. I enjoyed the place and the people I was working with, and so we kept in touch. In 2009, I came back for holidays and was asked if I would consider coming back to work here, which I did. What I enjoyed the most in the Algarve was the diversity and quantity of birds, and that I didn’t have to travel very far to have a nice morning or afternoon birding. Here, I often see 50 species or more in only a few hours.
You are a very experienced birdwatching guide in the Algarve and Alentejo. In your opinion, what skills does a good birdwatching guide need to have?
He obviously needs to know the birds but also admit when he does not know them. Moreover, he should adapt himself to the people’s objectives and knowledge level: some people just want to enjoy nature and birds, while others have a specific list of wishes that we try to fulfil whenever possible. Also, people should feel good and safe during the trip.
In very general terms, regarding the Algarve and its birdlife, what kind of feedback do you get from birdwatchers arriving from other countries?
They are usually amazed by how much they can see and how easy it is to find the birds. However, they usually have a negative view of how nature is treated here and how easy it seems to destroy it. I sometimes take people watching orchids and they usually tell me (especially Britons): ‘In our country, this would be protected – there are so many orchids here!’
In the Algarve or Alentejo, are there any birding sites that have been oddly overlooked by birdwatchers?
The interior of the Algarve is a bit overlooked but the access is usually more difficult than on the coast. About the Alentejo, at least in the areas where I usually go, I don’t think so.
What could be done by local authorities to improve the experience of birdwatchers across the Algarve’s main birding sites?
Better observation conditions. Sites with good bird hides are scarce in the Algarve. Also, in some places, people go where they should not go, mostly because the indications are bad or absent and nobody is there to ensure these indications are respected. The presence of rubbish in some places is also a problem.
What kind of advice would you give to birdwatchers wishing to visit the Algarve and the region’s birding hotspots?
Avoid summer since it is very hot and there are fewer birds to see. It is quite easy to go to many places without a guide. However, for some species or places, a guide will help a lot.
The Algarve has become a well-known birding destination on the back of events like the Sagres Birdwatching Festival. According to your judgement – and given that you have honed your birdwatching skills across several countries in different continents – are there any other factors that set the Algarve apart from similar birding destinations?
The weather surely encourages people to visit the Algarve. It is rare to have a full day of rain and usually the weather is great for birding (even though it can be too hot in summer). The other reason is the diversity of birds and landscapes. We have almost everything: cliffs, beaches, marshes, saltpans, ricefields, farmland, woodland… This translates into a high level of biodiversity. In a week of birding, it is possible to see more than 120 species. Being compact is also an advantage of the Algarve. Within a 1 hour drive from Mexilhoeira Grande, where we are based [near Alvor], I can be at Sagres, or in the mountains of Monchique or in the Ria Formosa. The Alentejo, where the landscapes and birds are very different, is also only a 1 hour and a half drive away.
Have you found any rarities in the Algarve? What rarity has made your heart beat a bit faster?
I found a few rarities over the years. They all made my heart pump faster but maybe the first Little Swift that I’ve found was the ‘more special’. This is an African species but a few breed in Southern Spain and maybe already in Portugal. I remember looking at a flock of Alpine Swifts in October. Some swallows were with the swifts and then I spotted a different bird: a Little Swift! This bird did not stay long but stayed long enough to see all its characteristics. I have seen more since (and also in Africa) but it is always a treat to find one of these.
In your opinion, what birds best represent the Algarve’s birdlife? What would you say to persuade foreign birdwatchers to visit this sunny corner of Portugal?
The Iberian Magpie (an Iberian endemism) is, probably, one of the best representations of the Algarve’s birdlife. It is easy to find, quite widespread, and it is one of the species people want to see. The Purple Swamphen is another one. It is a pretty common species in the region’s wetlands, and the Algarve still (but for how long?) has nice wetlands. Besides how easy it is to get from site to site, and in addition to the diversity of landscapes and birds, birders from the north of Europe can also see many species they are not used to. Besides that, orchids are quite common in spring and there are still many butterflies flying around.
You’ve been working since 2010 for A Rocha, a Christian non-profit association whose raison d’être is also to preserve the natural environment. In the meantime, owing to a decrease in donations, the association has started to organize inexpensive birdwatching tours by capitalizing on its scientific expertise and local knowledge. What were the main challenges you and your colleagues faced during this transition? Is marrying environmental sustainability with financial sustainability a difficult balancing act, or are these seemingly conflicting objectives not conflicting at all?
The main challenge for me was to think: ‘I’m going to work in tourism rather than in conservation or research’. However, these are not incompatible since all the sightings done during the tours are inserted on eBird, an online database which allows this data to be used. The other challenge was to actually start, getting the first clients in order to grow. The logistics was also different, as we had to accommodate the tours with other activities that may happen at the same time (mostly environmental education, which means sharing binoculars sometimes, since not all clients own a pair of binoculars). However, we are all adaptable and we managed.
In our case, it was not too hard to balance environmental sustainability with financial sustainability – this is something A Rocha, as an association, has always been trying to do. The birdwatching business was just a continuation of that. Unfortunately, in a place like the Algarve (with so much pressure on land commodification), this is something necessary, so the ‘deciders’ can see by themselves that even if a piece of land is not built up, this land still has value and it still can benefit the economy of the area.
Your birdwatching tours are offered through A Rocha Life. Your mission is to provide a unique birdwatching experience by combining ecotourism with scientific research, environmental education, and nature conservation. In practical terms, how do you achieve these goals? How do you combine such endeavours to offer a truly different birdwatching experience?
Firstly, for people booking for a full week, the accommodation is within the A Rocha Portugal facilities. This enables people to see the work carried out there and interact with the staff and volunteers. Then, access is free on Thursdays, as it is when A Rocha has its open morning. During this time, I am ringing and one of my colleagues is identifying the moths she trapped during the night. People can help with the moth identification and learn more about ringing birds. These are some of the scientific activities carried out by the association. People also join me on the bird count that I carry out every week. If they come in spring, people may also witness the work we are doing with local schools. Finally, all the observations made during the tours are shared on eBird and shared with the participants. People can play their part in science and conservation efforts, and be more than just passive spectators.
A Rocha Life’s profits are 100% reinvested back into nature conservation and environmental education initiatives. Can you tell us a bit more about such initiatives, and what have been some of their concrete results?
Well, that’s a tricky question! The plan is for the benefits to be reinvested in the association and used to buy equipment for environmental education initiatives (ranging from acquiring binoculars to buying something as simple as pens!). These benefits can also be used in the court fights over Quinta da Rocha, or to improve the conditions for the various surveys carried out by us. However, so far, the benefits have not been big enough for anything more substantial to be achieved and that situation may not improve for a while, unfortunately.
Recently, once again, some notable bird habitats have been irrevocably damaged in the Algarve. For instance, the grassy hills that formed the western side of the Castro Marim Reserve have been converted into a sprawling avocado monoculture. Do you think the Algarve will continue to suffer from the short-sightedness of the local authorities?
Unfortunately, I think the Algarve will keep suffering from these destructions. Ideally, all areas with natural interest should be protected and properly managed. However, the ICNF (the public Nature Conservation Institute) does not have the power or the will to do so, and money often speaks louder. Many people don’t come to the Algarve to see a coastline bordered by hotels, but rather to enjoy Algarve’s nature. I think it is also important to support the charities trying to protect the Algarve’s wildlife. As long as it is deemed more important and more lucrative to build a hotel or grow avocados than protecting an area for people to enjoy, I fear the destruction will continue.
Do you agree with the latest plans for the ‘requalification’ of Paul de Lagos?
I can’t answer this question since I don’t have enough elements. I have not read any details concerning this plan. I sure hope the area will be managed to improve the conditions for the birds and the birdwatchers.
Over the last decade, concerning the region’s environment, what was the worst news or developments that have impacted the Algarve? And the best ones?
This may not be the worst in terms of how spectacular it was, but the first which comes to my mind is how the area around Cape St. Vincent (Cabranosa and Vale Santo) has evolved, and not in a good way. The area around Cabranosa has been deteriorated due to overgrazing and exotic and invasive species are starting to grow there. The same happened with Vale Santo, where the area covered with Hottentot Fig is huge. This led to the decrease, and maybe to the extinction, of the Little Bustard there. Scrubby areas which Spectacled Warblers used to nest have also been destroyed. Another event, closer to us, was the wildfire that destroyed large areas of Mediterranean vegetation from Vilarinha to Budens, in 2020.
For the best news: maybe how Lagoa dos Salgados is being managed now, in a better way than in the recent past (even if it is not perfect), and the development of the Sagres Festival, which is a great success every year.
Thank you Gui!