What are we doing on this deserted, windswept marsh? Don’t people come to the Algarve to laze on the beach?

Thankfully our guide and self-taught ornithologist Ricarda Knuth is about as far as you can get from the stereotypical ‘birder’. She’s tall, blonde and in her late twenties. She hands us all a pair of binoculars, while she carries
an enormous telescope.

The aim of this walking tour is to spot some of the 250 species of birds that are attracted to the area as a resting place on their way south to Africa. It’s not difficult – a flock of young white flamingos are strutting their majestic stuff right in front of us.

Ricarda tells us they are most likely migrating to Turkey or Spain. Ricarda also points out black wing stilts, avocets,
plovers, whimbrels and grey herons, occasionally consulting her birding bible to make a positive identification.

Her enthusiasm begins to rub off on us and before long we are nerdily able to tell the difference between a red shank with its spindly red legs and an oyster catcher with its long red beak.

Ricarda’s favourite bird is the bartailed godwit, but we don’t get to see any of those.

Then – to great excitement – someone spots an egret, one of those elegant white waders with the lovely S-shaped neck. The egret is nothing but a white splodge on the horizon so we all take turns of putting our eyes to the telescope to get a closer look and see a mass of white feathers huddled in the reeds where it’s scratching around for food.
But the best way to get close to the bird life is in a boat. So the next day we pile into two traditional fishing boats (powered by outboard motors) and chug out to the Ria Formosa Natural Park, which incidentally, is right next
to Faro airport (the lagoons are visible from the plane as you fly in).

“This is the only native reserve in Portugal that has its own airport,” quips Barbara Abelho, our guide for the afternoon. Incredibly, the big metal birds haven’t scared off the feathered variety, probably because the marshlands have been protected by the Government as breeding grounds for birds and fish since 1987.

With our newfound enthusiasm for ‘twitching,’ we’re all upbeat as we head for the inner channels among the islands where we immediately spy a white stork, considered endangered only a few years ago. Barbara points out a yellow-legged gull munching greedily on a fish. There are also sleek sandwich terns, gawky glossy ibis and a fierce-looking marsh harrier.

“This is a very good sighting,” Barbara says. “It’s one of the few birds of prey we have.”

But the undoubted highlight of the day comes when one of our group spots an osprey – another bird of prey and one most of us have never seen – perched on a dead tree. He watches us excitable, amateur birders with a wary eye momentarily, before taking to the sky in full magnificent flight.

» Alison Grinter travelled to Faro with the Portuguese National Tourist Office (0845-355 1212).

Getting back to nature in the Algarve

» Walking
With its untouched swathes of forest, eye-catching coastline and never-ending supply of sunshine, the Algarve is the ideal destination for those looking to flex their legs. The main walking path, the magnificent Via Algarviana, stretches 240km from the village of Alcoutim in the north-east of the region to Cape St Vincent at Vila do Bispo in the south-west, winding its way through many Natural Parks and linking up with other paths.

» Jeep Safaris
If you don’t have your own transport a Jeep Safari is a fantastic way to appreciate some of the Algarve’s stunning beaches. Particularly beautiful is the north-western corner of the Algarve known as Aljezur with its vertiginous white cliffs, pristine sandy coves and cobalt blue seas. There’s also plenty of beautiful Moorish-influenced villages to check out along the way.

» Lagos Zoo
“I know a lot of people don’t like zoos,” says Lagos Zoo owner Paulo Figueiras, but the self-confessed primate and bird lover believes his Zoo makes an invaluable contribution to wildlife conservation. Since he opened his dream project six years ago, Figueiras has created an animal sanctuary where exhausted birds stop off as they migrate south, and ‘handicapped’ birds are treated. Pets, which have been abandoned by their owners (such as turtles) or have been confiscated by authorities (like chimpanzees), have also become permanent residents here after being rehabilitated.
See www.zoolagos.com