Thursday, 5 March 2015

Great Bustards on the Alentejo cereal steppe-land in Portugal.

Our journey to Castro Verde out on the cereal growing steppe land of the Alentejo, will need a night stop, we decide to head for the Barragem (reservoir) Monte da Rocha.
For many a year we have made the journey to Castro Verde in the search of steppe-land birds, especially the Great Bustard.
Although we have always managed to see them, photographs have been a problem as they are so shy.
The last visit was blighted by heat haze a huge problem out there on the steppe, and magnified when using large lenses on the camera. 

The sunset at Monte de Rocha

As the sun starts to rise in the early morning so does the mist.

Within minutes it resembles a sunset rather than sun rise, as the mist thickens.

This is a typical view of Alentejo steppe. The noticeable lack of trees or scrub. The soil is very poor and clearly dominated by dryland arable crops.
In fact the soil is so poor that rotation is needed, for long periods the land is fallow, in these times it is used as natural pasture.

The winter water courses and lagoons are havens for birds such as Snipe, Herons, Black and White Storks and obvious watering grounds for many more birds and stock.

There are few large trees growing out here, in the main you find Eucalyptus trees grown around farm buildings that make excellent nest sites for the increasing population of White Storks. Holm Oaks are the other tree species to be found in any number. 

White Stork, a popular bird with the Portuguese people. Here one is welcomed back to the nest site by it's partner, the nest built on a derelict wind driven water pump. Although the wind pumps stand rusting the wind still blows out here in winter, the days warm and clear but the nights cold.

We travel many small roads, once cobbled and now a coating of macadam on them, still  looking for the elusive Great Bustards and come across travellers. Life on the steppe has changed little!

We pass through the lovely white and blue villages. There seems to be few people around.

On hillsides Holm Oaks and derelict farms. Wild flowers growing in their thousands make a good meal for the sheep, late January it is a picture!

In this vast area even the Shepherd and his dogs are motorised.

Among the roaming stock, Cattle Egrets look for food.

A Corn Bunting but still no Great Bustards!

Then we stop to photograph over wintering Lapwings, in the distance we see between fifty to sixty Great Bustards descending. We are excited to see so many.
This area holds most of Portugal's population, said to be about one thousand individuals.

The Great Bustard is one of Europe's largest birds and also one of the World's heaviest flying birds.
Getting close is impossible, they see you from afar. Some of the birds have landed on our side of the hill crest enabling distant photographs.

We sit tight for along time, hoping they may come closer. Then we are rewarded, further along our little lane the flock are flying across to another hillside.

The Great Bustard is threatened (status vulnerable) and has already disappeared from several Countries.

It is only found in extensive cereal-growing steppe-land, and highly dependant on traditional cultivation practises.

As said before these birds are heavy, one Spanish bird weighed in at 42 pounds.

The life span average is about 10 years some to 15years,
 the oldest recorded is a staggering 28 years. 

As we watch the final birds fly across the lane we reflect how lucky we have been to see so many gathered together in their winter flock.

The elusive Great Bustard. At last, photographs!

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