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Susana Wichels is a journalist and researcher at Coimbra's University.

Birdwatching with culture, horses and a picnic thrown in

One of the latest activities to take place at Herdade dos Grous is the birdwatching, and there's no doubt that the estate's 730 hectares form a privileged destination that offers various possibilities to enjoy a great biodiversity of flora and fauna.

This is a true opportunity to get reacquainted with nature at its best.

The birdwatching tours are led by Luís Salvador, a young biologist from the Alentejo with a degree from the University of the Algarve, who took me through meadows and crops, vineyards and lagoons, to unravel the secrets of the beautiful animal world. Join me as we admire native and migrating birds, as well as wild boar and deer, and even enjoy a luxury picnic on the Alentejo plains.

Luís Salvador is one of those special people who captivates us with his stories and his extensive knowledge of ornithology. At the tender age of 24, he has the notable skill of instantly being able to identify a passing bird and tell us its story and its characteristics.

The birdwatching experiences at Herdade dos Grous take place along a 9km walk, which can also be done by bicycle or even on horseback, along the water's edge. This is where most of the indigenous and migratory birds can be found, and the lagoons' marshes are home to several wading birds.

We also wandered through vineyards and meadows, and even through an area where a family of a dozen red deer (Cervus Elaphus) live happily. It's impossible not to admire the males' imposing antlers, intertwined like branches, and the poetic gentleness of the small foals. On our walk, we also came across evidence of the presence of wild boars (Sus scrofa) – traces of disturbed earth which they dig up with their snouts, scraped trees and footprints along the pathways.

Around 200 species of birds can be spotted here

During the birdwatching experience, I got the opportunity to see various bird species, but there were many others that I didn't get to see. A total of 128 different species have been identified at the Herdade, including some species of great ornithological interest. The 128th specie was identified precisely during my trip: the black-winged kite (Elanus caeruleus), a beautiful bird of prey with a light grey plumage, long black-tipped wings and a pure white head. A true wonder of nature.

We passed a family of red-legged partridges (Alectoris rufa) and spotted some examples of mallards (Anas platyrhynchos), Eurasian collared doves (Streptopelia decaocto), European bee-eaters (Merops apiaster), azure-winged magpies (Cyanopica cyanus), grey herons (Ardea cinérea), crested larks (Galerida cristata) and storks (Ciconia ciconia). Unfortunately I didn't get the chance to see any cranes (Grus grus) – the bird that gives Herdade dos Grous its name and which is born in northern Europe and spends long seasons in the Alentejo from October to March. As for the storks, they began nesting at the Herdade around nine years ago with a single nest. Today, sitting atop towers, old observation posts and trees, are more than 40 nests.

The best time of year for birdwatching at Herdade dos Grous is during the months between October and March, when the lagoons transform into a meeting point of thousands of birds. On my last visit, I remember seeing a family of flamingos (Phoenicopterus roseus), but this time, perhaps because it was the middle of August, I wasn't so lucky.

The magical treehouse

The birdwatching tour is complemented by various lookout points, including a charming tree house. The little house is made entirely of wood and is located at the top of a chaparro, the typical Alentejo word for a cork tree. The house, accessible via a winding staircase, is decorated tastefully, with a round hatch that offers views over the stone pines and a large terrace, also made of wood, from where you can look out towards the never-ending plains, the ideal location for spotting steppe birds. The experience was an enormous pleasure. The tiny house is so enchanting that I just felt like staying there. “Can I sleep here?” I asked with bright eyes. I suddenly felt like Alice in Wonderland.

Luxury country picnic

Right by the tree house, an unexpected surprise: a lovely picnic awaited me, set up in the shade of the cork tree on a traditional multi-coloured Alentejo blanket. Inside the wicker basket, covered with linen and lace cloths, sat an array of interesting delicacies. A selection of traditional sausages, such as paio and chouriço, black pig presunto (cured ham), Alentejo bread, various fruits including some handsome bunches of grapes from the Herdade, local goats' and sheep's cheese, cold salads of seasoned carrots, cod and chickpeas, and tuna, onion and beans. All these gastronomic surprises were washed down with fresh water and a good red wine (naturally, one of the bottles from Herdade dos Grous' wine portfolio).

What a delight to sit back on one of the colourful cushions in the shade of a tree in the middle of the Alentejo plains, close one's eyes and forget about the rest of the world. Here you'll find time for peace and quiet. A time for time itself. A time to be happy. The horses rested beside the tree. Even they took the opportunity to close their eyes for a moment. Maybe because I've never had much contact with horses, but I had never seen a horse have a nap. They sleep for a bit while standing, flexing one of their legs to have a rest.

What a luxury to find myself with this idyllic country picnic, served on Alentejo clay dishes, with Villeroy & Boch cutlery and crystal glasses, in the heart of the Alentejo.

The birdwatching tour continued a little while later, but all I wanted to do was to stay right there and spend the day enjoying the beautiful surroundings.

Photo hides

The birdwatching programme at Herdade dos Grous is extremely comprehensive. While it includes the traditional walking, cycling or horseback routes, with or without a picnic, it can also be a birdwatching experience at daybreak or a photographic safari. To ensure you spot certain species, such as the great spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos major), there are various shelters and hides in place, with bird-feeders and inviting hollow trunks that attract wild birds all year round.

Cultural circuits and birdwatching

Alongside this, and as there is a serious diversity of birds in the Alentejo, you can opt for a birdwatching experience outside of the Herdade, combined with an interesting cultural circuit. In this case, the biologist Luís Salvador joins the historian Bernardo to guide us through the historical centres of the beautiful towns and villages of the Alentejo. There's much to discover, from ancient Roman houses, towers, caves and museums to the arts and crafts of local artisans. On these tours, the birdwatching segment visits special protection areas where one can find bird species that are most representative of the region, for example the great bustard (Otis tarda), the black-bellied sandgrouse (Pterocles orientalis) and the little bustard (Tetrax tetrax).

The birdwatching experiences with cultural circuit can take place in Castro Verde, Serpa, Mértola or the São Domingos mines. Bird-spotting and the cultural visit can be further enriched with a lunch at one of the region's typical restaurants. Essentially, it is an immersion in the heart of Portugal, a return to the country's roots, its values and its customs.

 

For more information:

Herdade dos Grous
Website: www.herdade-dos-grous.com
E-mail: info@herdade-dos-grous.com
Tel: +351 284 960 000