There is something quite magical about an autumn or spring evening walk in the salt pans and marshes, especially if you get your timing right.
By timing though I am not just referring to the magical of sunsets. The other key factor are the tides. During high tides in the spring and autumn months large flocks of waders can be seen, initially flying in across the estuary and then whirling around the skies above the salt pans. If you are in the right place, such as Snettisham on Norfolk’s west coast in the autumn or the spring, then you will see tens of thousands of birds. Where we stay in the Ria Formosa the birds are in their hundreds rather than thousands but even so their arrival at their roosts can be spectacular.
You many think that the roost sites are determined by where the birds happen to be that evening, however research has shown that is only part of the story.
A good roost needs to be sheltered, safe from predators, close to feeding areas and away from disturbances such as humans. If waders have to fly long distances to roost and/or are regularly disturbed by human activity this will have a detrimental impact on individual birds and even more worryingly on the wader populations as a whole. This is why it essential if you choose to take a magical walk near an estuary that you keep to designated paths away from the birds, are as quiet as you possibly can be and very importantly keep dogs on a lead. And just as important that we do what we can to protect roost sites from development. It is not enough to have one roost site in an area to sustain bird populations.
It is one of the reasons we have been so worried about the development and increased human activity in and adjacent to the salt pans to the immediate west of Olhão da Restauração. Research from other roosting sites has demonstrated that changes will impact on both the local bird populations and migrating bird life.
On the eastern side of this Algarvian fishing town things are better, and it is here – Parque Natural da Ria Formosa – where I urge you to walk instead. Not only is it much prettier, but the park has shielded the lagoons and roosting ponds from the paths with hedges and fences, and provided hides for photographers and birders. A win for win for everyone.
The birds though will still though suddenly take to the skies. No one really knows why it could be because they were spooked, it is the best way to exchange information or maybe the arrival of a couple birds leads to the whole flock taking off. Whatever the reason a wader murmuration is a wonderful thing to observe when you know you are not the reason for it occurring!