Head south for one of the best bird watching spots in the Med: the Parque Natural da Ria Formosa.
The Algarve is famous for its beaches, sunshine and nightlife. But – if you get your timing right – it does something else rather well too: wildlife.
The Parque Natural da Ria Formosa stretches for 60km along the eastern Algarve, from Manta Rota in the east to Anção in the west. It’s a colourful patchwork of lagoons, inlets, tiny islands and sand dunes covering some 18,000 hectares.
With its protected status, the reserve is a winter haven for birds from north and central Europe, as well as an important stop-over point for migratory birds travelling between Africa and Europe. It’s one of the best bird watching locations in Portugal.
There are many species to spot. Spoonbills, cranes, egrets and flamingoes are ubiquitous – and if you’re lucky you’ll spot a purple swamphen, rare in Portugal.
We stayed at Formosa Park Hotel, just outside Quinta do Lago on the western fringes of the nature reserve. It’s a good base if you want quick access to the reserve for dawn and dusk visits.
From the hotel, a pleasant five-minute stroll takes you down to Praia do Anção – an impressive, seemingly endless sweep of pale golden sand. When we visited in February the beach was almost completely deserted, with just a few local people walking their dogs along the shore.
If you’re not staying at Formosa Park, head to the large car park near the beach at Quinta do Lago (free October-May). From here two marked nature trails – with information about the various plant and animal species – lead off in either direction.
The paths wind between the inland waterways and some impressive luxury villas – some with gardens that seamlessly blend into the wild, Mediterranean plants of the reserve.
Plants include umbrella pines, dwarf fan palms and gum cistus – and in February there were colourful early spring flowers aplenty.
And of course there’s plenty of bird-watching action. Curlews and dunlins can be seen wading through the shallows, while gulls and little egrets soar overhead. The freshwater lakes here are also an important breeding ground for red-crested pochard.
For us, though, the highlight was a group of greater flamingoes, tucked away in a small rectangular inlet towards the end of the trail. By keeping very still and quiet we were able to enjoy their antics for ages.
Top: boardwalks lead to the beach; spring flowers aplenty; one of the nature trails
Bottom: pines alongside the trail; the seemingly endless beach
Further east, along the N125 just outside Olhão, is Quinta da Marim – headquarters of the Parque Natural da Ria Formosa. A three-kilometre nature trail wanders through pines and alongside saltmarshes and lakes, with opportunities to spot all sorts of birds from the hides. Look out for black-winged stilts, avocets, storks and little terns.
Here you’ll also find one of Portugal’s last remaining tidal mills – follow the boardwalk and be sure to check inside for informative displays and the (no longer used) millstones. Climb the stairs for great views of the lagoon and coastline from the roof – from here you get a birds-eye view of this very special landscape.
Green Adventures March 2015
WAY TO GO
Cheap flights from the UK to Faro in the Algarve are easy to find. Try Monarch (from Birmingham, East Midlands, Leeds Bradford and Manchester), Jet 2 (from Newcastle, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Belfast) or EasyJet (from Bristol, London Gatwick and Luton). Holiday Autos offers car hire from £10 per day.
Formosa Park Apartment Hotel is within easy walking distance from the nature reserve and the beach. Self-catering apartments have basic kitchen facilities and are pleasantly furnished. An excellent buffet breakfast is included.
One of the best ways to explore the coastal lagoon and its maze of narrow channels is to take a boat trip. Try Formosamar, who also offer kayak and cycling tours. www.formosamar.com