In our former lives on Padre Island off the coast of Texas, one of the things we enjoyed most were the sea birds we could see in the wetlands near our house on a canal. We never failed to be thrilled by the V formations of twenty to thirty brown pelicans skimming close to the waves at the Padre Island National Seashore or the sight of a brown pelican streaking by outside our living room window and plunging into the water to catch a fish. From our deck, we could see the birds feeding in the nearby wetlands: regal snowy egrets, white ibis, and gangly, great blue herons along with the roseate spoonbills that arrived each winter. Among our favorites were the huge, American white pelicans that circled around our green-light that rested on the canal bottom near our dock, dipping their heads under the water and hunting for easy pickings in the fish the light attracted. The miles of beaches nearby always had an abundant variety of birds for us to watch and be entertained by: black skimmers, long-billed curlews, sanderlings, various plovers and terns, cormorants and the beach cleaners, turkey vultures who floating lazily overhead on the lookout for dead and tasty morsels. And hundreds of laughing gulls, squabbling, arguing noisily amongst themselves and hovering overhead when we opened our lunch cooler; fearless enough to snatch a sandwich from your hand if you weren’t careful.
However, we were never serious birdwatchers and, when we were selling all we owned to set off on our full-time travels in 2012, we never gave a thought to shedding ourselves of the heavy, bulky binoculars and the bird guide books we’d accumulated over the years. Through Mexico, Central and South America, we occasionally missed our binoculars when we spotted exotic and colorful tropical jewels like toucans, motmots, macaws, parrots, tiny hummingbirds and, another favorite of ours, the Montezuma oropendola with its pendulous, hanging woven nests dangling from a tree limb looking like something from a Dr. Seuss book. And, on our visit to the Galapagos Islands, we really wished we could get an up-close-and-personal chance to study the blue-footed boobies, the (two) Galapagos penguins that graced us with a sighting and the magnificent frigates with their brilliant puffed out red throat pouches. We would try to remember things to help us identify the mystery birds when we thought to look them up later while on our computers but rarely had much luck.
And now, here in Portugal, coming up on our two-year anniversary since we arrived to take up full-time residence, we’ve found our bird watching interest awakened once again. Maybe it’s the multitude of enormous storks’ nests on rooftops and chimneys in Lagos and around the Algarve and the exhilaration we still feel when we see these huge, fabled creatures from old-time storybooks gliding by overhead. It could be the flocks of azure-winged magpies alighting briefly in the tree outside our bedroom window, the yellow-legged gulls which are much larger than the laughing gulls we’d been used to in Texas or the sporadic sightings of a hawk. We long to put a name to the multitude of small and medium-sized birds with varying beak and tail shapes, a mix of differing markings and an array of colors that we see on the outskirts of towns, beside rural roads and walking in the countryside.
It was the hoopoe sightings though, that finally convinced me it was time to up our game and outfit ourselves with binoculars (a starter-priced pair bought in a local sports shop) and a used bird guide, Birds of Britain and Europe, that I found at an English bookseller’s shop here in Lagos. This spring and summer, I’d occasionally catch sight of a peculiar bird darting across a path, seeking cover under the low-hanging branches of a tree or flying not-so-gracefully between the low scrub bushes. I’d catch a fleeting impression of a long beak, the stark contrast of black and white stripes and (maybe?) a crest. However, when I’d describe these briefly snatched glimpses of the bird to Richard, he’d laugh at my attempted verbal sketch of a slightly ridiculous, mythical creature: a ‘zebra-striped bird with a mohawk and a sneaky scuttle.’ A bird book would definitely have saved my credibility because I could have theatrically pointed out the hoopoe with a ‘there!’
This fall, we met full-time travelers and passionate birding enthusiasts, Beth and Joe Volk, who write a blog at Simple Travel Our Way and made Lagos their home base for the month of September. It was impossible not to get bitten by the birding bug when listening to them animatedly talking about birds they’d seen during their travels and one early morning we caught the bus to the nearby Alvor Estuary. Here we spent several hours strolling the boardwalk that runs between the Atlantic and the area’s marshes, mudflats, saltpans and dunes. A perfect, stand-out day with the sky a deep blue and the sun shining brilliantly overhead, the temperature exactly right, glimpses of a deep blue sea in the background, white sand drifting and forming continuous patterns and the golden grasses ruffled by the wind. Beth kindly shared her binoculars with me while she and Joe paged occasionally through the bird guide they’d brought and wrote down the species we saw in a small notebook: great blue herons, kingfishers, crested larks, stonechats, spotted redshanks and on and on. Serious birdwatchers indeed, but how fun to have someone put a name to the birds we saw and share a lesson on spotting the distinctive as well as the subtle features important in identifying each species. My personal favorite of the day was the group of Eurasian spoonbills we watched for a while, sweeping their characteristic spoon-shaped bills from side to side for the day’s catch.
From August to November, the Sagres peninsula is a major migratory route for many species of birds leaving their European breeding grounds for the warmer climates of Gibraltar and Africa. Here is where Europe’s southwestern-most point, the west and south shorelines of Portugal, meet at Cabo de Sao Vicente (Cape Saint Vincent). Lucky for us, Lagos is a mere half-an-hour drive away and we made a couple of visits to the town of Sagres (with a permanent population of 2000 wind-blown souls) during the annual 4-day October Birdwatching Festival. With us were our good friends, Kiki and newly minted residents of Portugal, Anne and Tim Hall (check out their blog, A New Latitude) who also love to share their bird questing knowledge with us. (Incidentally, it was Tim who knew exactly what bird I was talking about when I rambled on about my mystery bird sightings.) One of the activities during the festival was a discounted off-shore excursion with a marine biologist with the pamphlet saying we’d look for “wild and free dolphins, seabirds, sharks, turtles” and maybe even whales. We were stoked!
Arriving at our meeting point early in the morning, we set off on a three-hour tour with seven passengers – and the theme song from the old TV show, Gilligan’s Island, ear-worming through my mind. As we left the harbor heading out to sea, we saw a few birds perched along the rocky outcroppings and the red lighthouse marking Fortaleza de Sagres high above on the cliffs like a good omen. The sun shone, the water sparkled and a not-too-freezing wind blew by as the boat increased its speed with us continuously scanning and searching for sea creatures. Before long, however, I was forced to lower my binoculars as they seemed to up my nausea quotient about 100-fold despite the magical sea-bands I was wearing on each wrist and a hefty dose of Mexican meclizine. And then, a single dolphin broke the water on our side. Soon enough, we were seeing one, two and three at a time keeping pace with us and then disappearing. The boat stopped occasionally as the marine biologist pointed out a storm petrel here, a shearwater there and (those in-the-know with a book in hand) debated the differences between a European and wilson’s storm petrel and if the shearwaters were corey’s, greats, sootys or manxes. Eventually we saw them all along with the ubiquitous gulls, great skuas, northern gannets and European shags. The sea rocked the boat in the ocean swells and, as we picked up speed with the occasional hard thump where we met the water, the first passenger leaned over the rail to get rid of her breakfast, followed a short while later by the French couple (whose names we never learned) on either side of the boat. And then, we were shadowed by an enormous cloud of birds circling overhead and suddenly we were in the midst of them: diving into the water, floating the waves and taking off to circle overhead again. Hundreds and thousands of birds it seemed, in a feeding frenzy accompanied by scores of dolphins (the biologist later estimated we’d seen at least two-hundred) in twos, threes and fours: swimming in choreographed rows around and under the boat, leaping in synchronized arcs, their curved fins breaking the water then disappearing. Below, the deep blue, seemingly opaque water showed its clarity as we watched bubbles appear, floating lazily to the water’s top and dolphins several feet underneath the surface gliding by silently. Minutes ticked by slowly until time mattered no more.
Perhaps the attraction of bird watching is capturing those perfect moments in time where you are truly present and delighting in the gifts of nature’s winged beings, the great outdoors, a dazzling blue sky overhead and the sun shining. Some days cost little but the time that comprises them and the appreciation for those moments they’re made of – perfect gems that make us absolutely certain that we are right where we want to be.
By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash