Introduction (by Keith Dineen)
The School of BEES gives 3rd-year students an exciting opportunity to study the engrossing ecology of the Algarve. Alvor was to be our temporary home for our week-long trip, located in the southern region of the Algarve, which is in stark contrast to the environmental conditions experienced in Ireland. High temperatures and low annual precipitation are to be expected in this Mediterranean climate, and the astonishing biodiversity deserves to be witnessed up close.
Bags packed, planes caught, our very eager and excited group landed in Faro, all hopeful of a magnificent and once in a life time trip ahead. Our first morning in Alvor, after settling in, was spent down by the pool for our trip briefing with our very own lecturers, Emer Rogan, Fidelma Butler, Javier delBarco-Trillo, John Quinn and Ruth Ramsey, and the technician Luke Harman, all enlightening us with what we could expect and most importantly what they expected from us regarding CA and our trusty field notebooks – our bible. We also had a fascinating talk from guest lecturer Matthijs Schouten and Moniek Nooren.
Day 1: Fiddler crap behaviour by Evan Hickey
Our first taste of the Algarve came with the fiddler crab. This was a great way to kick off the trip, to see these crabs in action, as their distinct behaviour has been mentioned on several occasions during the course. Once we had spotted these creatures along the wooden walkway, floundering through the mudflats became a much more rewarding task. Observing their animated courtship displays could sway even the most vocal opponent to things that creep and crawl. Any sudden movements could cause a mass of individuals to hide in their burrows, so sitting patiently was rewarded with a unique experience. Indeed, if you put in a little effort when observing fiddler crabs, you get so much in return.
Day 2: Saltmarsh relevees and Rocky shore diversity by Keith Dineen
Our second day of field work saw us travel to Aljezur, where we were to study the vegetation of three different zones down by an estuary: saltmarsh, embryonic dunes, and stable dunes. We took a quadrat at each zone and recorded the different species of plants, height and soil type for our relevee analysis. It soon became apparent that there were fewer species closer to the water, as one or two species are dominant due to salinity adaptations.
After we had our relevees done it was time for a 20 minute walk up to where we would be doing our rocky shore analysis but first it was time for a lunch break at a lovely café overlooking the sea, where coffee, ice cream and one or two pints of super bock were enjoyed before it was time to get back to the job at hand. The rocky shore provided students with excellent opportunities for candid photos of the landscape and each other! We spent just under two hours at the rocky shore foraging for all sorts of rare finds and recording them down, to be analysed later that evening by the pool.
Day 3: Salgados by Keith Dineen
Our third day saw us head to an interesting area of a mix of abandoned farmland, lagoon, dunes and beach on the southern coast of the Algarve. First part of the day was a briefing from Matthijs on the importance of sand dunes and the impact of human development on them. After this we split up into two groups to do either Bird watching with John, Emer and Luke or to do some Habitat mapping with Fidelma, Matthijs, Moniek and Ruth. After lunch we swapped groups.
The habitat mapping involved walking through the different zones and looking at which species were dominant in the zone and recording a new zone when the dominant vegetation changed. We also recorded the level of human disturbance, soil type and vegetation height.
During bird watching, we were marvelled with the wide diversity of bird species before our eyes, with greater flamingos a plenty along with coots, pochard and black winged stilts to name just a few.
Day 4: Monchique by Killian O’Sullivan and Adam Geaney
A few tired heads were seen on the 30-minute bus to Monchique mountain range, but everyone was refreshed at our first stop; the garrigue zone at the base of the mountain. Matthijs spoke about mountain zonation, soils and vegetation. We listened for bird calls in the area, and John Quinn told us more on what we were hearing. We heard multiple calls including calls of the nightingale. We were then back onto the bus for a short trip to the town of Monchique. A lovely view was had from the bus stop looking out on the coast, and the different vegetation at the different zones was easily seen. Matthijs spoke about the cork oak that surrounded us in the area. John (surprise surprise) spoke about birds, notably the eco engineers in the area: the green woodpecker and the lesser spotted woodpecker. We searched for and investigated the flora and fauna around us. For example, Barry Cronin was seen studying a venomous centipede.
We then went back onto the bus for a third stop, heading up towards the mountain’s peak. We stopped into an eucalyptus plantation. Here Matthijs enlightened us about the many problems associated with the non-native Australian eucalyptus. He also informed us on the scrubs in the surrounding area, the matos. We then searched for scorpions but were unsuccessful, although we observed many other species. One final climb on the bus brought us to the peak of the mountain, 902 meters above sea level. On the search for snakes at a pond, we were welcomed by green frogs. We searched for snakes for roughly 30 minutes, but our search was fruitless. That concluded a day which was thoroughly enjoyable, in which we gained useful knowledge for the future.
Days 5 and 6: Research Projects by Keith Dineen, Kate O’Regan, Rosalind Graves, Evan Hickey, Christina McKiernan, and Lydia Elliot
Sunday saw our group of 41 split into different groups to work on separate projects which we had chosen the night before. There was a wide variety of projects on offer for us students to chose from: Terrapin behaviour with Ruth Ramsey, invertebrate biodiversity also with Ruth, beetle behaviour with Fidelma Butler, fiddler crab behaviour with Emer Rogan, plant-insect interaction with Matthijs Schouten and Moniek, and avian behaviour with John Quinn.
Terrapin behaviour. Four of us were lucky enough to get to do a behavioural study on a freshwater turtle species in the Algarve (Mauremys sp.) Despite their slow reputation, the turtle population we studied showed a variety of behaviour and activity. Our study of them involved sitting down by the pond and watching the turtles and noting their behaviour, trying to feed them, and running around the man-made pond waving at them to test how they respond and recover from human disturbance. We often felt like we were the ones being studied, half expecting one of the turtles to take out a notebook and record our behaviour.
Marine invertebrate diversity. With a very early start in the morning, our group of nine dragged ourselves to the local harbour area of Alvor. After a brief discussion with Ruth and Javier about the multitude of topics we could focus on relating to marine biofouling in the area, we were left alone to conjure a half-decent project. Between our groggy selves, we decided to focus on a simple investigation as to whether invertebrate diversity varies from natural substrates (such as rocks) to artificial structures (like that of slipways and pillars). With the lecturer’s help we devised a protocol, and we set off in threes to identify and count organisms found on surfaces across the beach, from the infra- to mid-littoral zones. With the incoming tide soon ending this search, we were forced to wait until the early afternoon to complete our data collection. In the end, with a wide variety of results gathered, we pooled every species found and their abundance into an Excel datasheet to be analysed later on.
Beetle behaviour. Several students had chosen to observe beetles at Alvor beach and answer questions about their behaviour and assemblages. Two species were commonly found at our study site. One of these beetles, Erodius tibialis, has a subtle golden band between its head and thorax. During our observations we also found Odonotoscelis fuliginosa, a rare beetle with three distinct markings on its back. We also placed pitfall traps at the site to see if the assemblage changed at different times of the day. My personal highlight was uncovering the traps the following day to find another beetle species, Scarites sp., a predatory beetle that is well concealed during the midday and the largest species we saw at the beach. Their behaviour was very different from the other beetle species found, as they were aggressive towards any beetle species that was within their surroundings, including conspecifics. The beetle behaviour project has shown me that there is a lot more going on under the surface once you start paying attention!
Fiddler crab project. For the fiddler crab project, we went back down to the Alvor saltmarsh near to our apartments. This time we had some new work to do however, as we investigated correlations between burrow size, mudball size, mudball distance from the burrow, and how these correlations might differ in relation to gender.
Plant-insect interaction. Eight of us left the apartments at 10am. After strolling over to the site we would be working on, we constructed an experimental design. Firstly we divided the site into 3 areas (Woodland, scrubland, and grassland), then working in small groups we took notes on each habitat and the vegetation which is found there. On the second day we returned to each habitat to find as many invertebrates species as possible using sweep nets, bashing, ground searches, and soil searches. The invertebrates were then identified by Matthijs and Moniek. We used these data to compare the relationship between species type and vegetation structure. This project was thoroughly enjoyable and didactic, although I would recommend bringing insect repellent.
Avian Behaviour. This project involved 7 of us students, John and our driver supreme Luke Harman, leaving our apartment at 7 am and driving to the town of Castro Verde some hour an half away from our apartment. The morning sky was filled with fog, not great weather for birding, so naturally we decided to go for coffee, which John Quinn so kindly bought for us all. After this it was still not clear of fog, so… we went to a different coffee shop to chill out some more. After this it began to brighten up and we drove onwards for another 10 mins to a protected farmland landscape where we started to get excited at the slightest flutter in the distance. As we drove on slowly down the road it seemed our luck with the birds increased: corn buntings, partridges, black kites a plenty. Eventually we drove down a small road towards the visitor centre where it seemed we became surrounded with little bustards and great bustards all around us. We were treated to hearing the mating calls of the little bustards, which even John admitted he had never heard before. After this we spent over 2 hours walking around the tracks along the meadows in 30 ℃ heat spotting all sorts of wonderfully amazing birds: Kestrels, more bustards, hoopoe, bee eaters, little owl, vultures, black kite, golden eagle, imperial eagle, and two pairs of rollers. After this we happened to get lost a few times along the way to the national park, getting stuck behind a marching band and going up hills where mini vans like ours didn’t belong and even making a slight detour to visit the castle in Mértola. We decided to start our journey back to Alvor stopping off in a few places along the way, slowing down every now and then so not to run over the partridges on the road, spotting all sorts of birds including a short-toe eagle. We eventually arrived back at the apartment 12 hours after we left all delighted with a great day of bird watching completed.
Day 2 of bird watching saw us having to start our project work. We headed back down to Salgados to study flamingo behaviour, where we took focal samples on their feeding behaviour to determine whether density of individuals was impacting their feeding lengths. Of course, not completely giving up on our birdwatching roots, we also spotted: grey heron, spoonbills, black winged stilts, coot, glossy ibis, among many other species. Birds aplenty!