Algarve Field Course (Part 3)

Liam Murphy writes from the Algarve for the third part in our series from the field. You can also read Part 1 and Part 2 of the series.


It has been only three full days here in the Algarve but it has flown past in what seems like a blink of an eye.

With the fatigue of the past two long days setting in, it was a real struggle to get out of bed this morning and get ready for another early bus journey; however my enthusiasm levels jumped as we arrived once again in the Salgados. I had been looking forward to today’s first exercise of identifying and counting birds on the lake and wetlands before observing the birds¹ behaviours since the beginning of the trip. As a self-confessed birdwatcher, I can only guess why someone could describe this as work.
Once the group got moving down the lush lakeside, the variety of birds became apparent with purple heron skulking in the emergent vegetation alongside moorhen while pochard and the shrill calling little grebes dived in the deeper open waters. From the beautiful vantage point of a raised platform we counted all the observable birds on the main part of the lake.

Soon after getting back onto the boardwalk, the really exciting twitches started to be made. From afar, I had seen the rather striking purple gallinule but it was a real surprise to have one pop up only metres away from the entire group. This was followed by a basking stripe necked terrapin on an island (the first native terrapin seen in the lake by the resident reptile expert Dr. Ruth Ramsey in all the years she had been to the area). Not more than ten minutes later, I spotted a real jewel in the form of the elusive little bittern perched on nearby reeds.
After finishing our focal sampling of the flamingos on the lake, a small group of us were treated to the fantastic sight of ten spoonbills circling the lake for a couple of minutes before disappearing.
In the afternoon we moved on to Faro and the Rio Formosa Park to apply our focal skills on fiddler crabs. Luckily I was part of a first group that was whisked away to visit an aquaculture lab run by the local university. As well as being a welcome break to hide from the intense early afternoon sun, we got the chance to finally see such a lab and hatchery in action. We got unique views of rare seahorses, endearing cuttlefish and a plethora of fish species that can regularly been seen on a restaurant menu.

Once back on the shore side, we settled into doing instantaneous scans (noting what all the individuals are doing at one time) and focal sampling (recording how long an individual carries out certain behaviours).
In the bright sun and cosy heat, this exercise became very soothing and therapeutic almost.  Although they are extremely shy, the fiddler crabs are great to watch with their easily identifiable behaviours such as courting (the males wave their over-sized claws to
attract a mate) and combat. Along with a couple of lizards in the undergrowth, it was a thoroughly interesting afternoon session.
Back at the hotel,the course work is all the more bearable when it’s done poolside in the sun. For anyone considering zoology/ecology, this really is the good life.

Watch Prof. Gavin Burnell talk about Fiddler Crabs and the Algarve Field Course:

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