Algarvean Blue PimpernelAt first glance, the cliff tops between Sagres and Cape St Vincent seem stony and arid and vegetated only by prickly scrub, but closer examination in spring will reveal an extraordinarily rich flora, including species found nowhere else in the world. At least three are named after the cape: Scilla vincentina, Centaurea vincentia and Biscutella vincentia. Tiny crevices and shallow depressions with almost no soil manage to support vivid blue shrubby pimpernel (Anagallis monelli ), tiny yellow hoop-petticoat daffodils (Narcissus toltocodium ) and clumps of thrift (Armeriapungens). At the end of summer when all the other wildflowers have withered, white sea daffodils (Pabcratium maritimum ) stage a colourful finale. It will not be long before the show starts again in early spring with Asteriscus maritimus daisies. This is rich hunting ground indeed for the botanist.

You do not need to be an ornithologist or an experienced birdwatcher to appreciate the bird life in this area. In spring and autumn, the headlands offer an ideal vantage point from which to observe seabird migration. With patience and a keen eye you may be fortunate enough to see huge numbers of seabirds in passage between the Mediterranean and north-western Europe flying northwards towards their breeding grounds in January, February and March, southward to their winter haunts in September, October and November. The most easily recognisable and the most spectacular to watch in passage is the gannet. Gannets are large, oceanic birds with snowy white plumage and extensive black wingtips. Immature birds are dusky brown all over in their first year, mottled pied in their second and third years. Their flight is quite different from gulls, which in any case are smaller. When looking for food, gannets wheel in the air or beat upwind on stiff wings with their beaks pointing down. On spotting a fish, they go into a slanting or vertical dive with their wings angled back. On their way down, they adjust their position minutely by moving their wingtips, rotating their bodies slightly, using their tails as a rudder and their feet as flaps. They plunge like a torpedo into the water directly on top of their target sending up a plume of spray. By the time they surface a few second later and take off again, they have already swallowed their prey, usually a large mackerel or herring. While in passage but not hunting for food, their flight pattern is quite different. Then they generally skim fairly close to the surface with a flapping flight interspersed with glides. The line of flight is direct and purposeful.

gannett.jpg (15870 bytes)Two-thirds of the world's gannets breed on 14 gannetries around the British Isles, most notably on St Kilda in the Outer Hebrides and on Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth. As soon as the chicks are ready to leave the cliff ledges and fend for themselves, the crowded, raucous colonies split up and the breeding cliffs are deserted. Juvenile birds set off for more bountiful fishing grounds as far away as the equatorial waters of West Africa. Adult gannets rarely travel so far. Large numbers of juveniles, young adults and fully mature birds favour the Mediterranean and the waters off the Algarve's south coast. In September, October and November they make their way down Portugal's west coast, travelling singly, in pairs or more usually in small squadrons. Their flight lines are exactly parallel to the commercial shipping lanes. Anyone fortunate enough to be watching at the right time as gannets are rounding the Cape St Vincent and Sagres headlands will be given a rare insight into just how precisely birds are able to navigate during long-distance migration. Having flown more than 1,500 miles (2,400 kin) from their breeding grounds, passing many rocky headlands on the way, gannets arrive a few hundred metres out to sea off Cape St Vincent. Instead of carrying straight on in the direction of Casablanca in Morocco, theyturn and put themselves in line to pass a few hundred metres off the Sagres point. Once there, they turn again. They are now flying a course roughly parallel to the Algarve south coast. As they approached Cape St Vincent they were flying almost due south. As they leave the Sagres headland they are flying almost due east. They move through this 90 degree change of course without the slightest hesitation. There is no confusion, no dithering even among unaccompanied juvenile birds which have never passed this way before.

On good days, gannets pass within normal eyesight range at a rate of many hundreds an hour. Sandwich terns, though never in such large numbers, hug the shore more closely. Puffins and razorbills as well as cory and Balaeric shearwaters pass much farther out and are usually seen only with the aid of binoculars. Experienced birdwatchers may spot the occasional pomarine and arctic skua. Farther out still, on the edge of the Continental Shelf a couple of hours' boat ride away, Wilson's petrels and sooty shearwaters pass on their round-the-world wanderings from the Antarctic and the islands of the southern oceans. They circumnavigate the world with an apparent ease which would have truly astounded Henry the Navigator.

The most characteristic land birds of the Cape are black redstarts, spotless starlings, blue rock thrushes, rock doves, jackdaws and the odd breeding pair of peregrine falcons. Alpine accentors are unusual visitors which move about the cliff scree in winter. Choughs congregate in winter and disperse again in spring to breed on the west coast cliffs. It is possible you will catch sight of the chough's larger cousin, the raven. There was a time, according to legend, when you could not have failed to see at least 10 ravens.

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