Ecologist - Writer - Photographer

Ecology: Life on the Edge

Rock, sea, sand
February, for me, is marked by the Edinburgh Napier University Applied Terrestrial Ecology field course. Our Animal Biology and Environmental Biology undergraduate students spend a week in the Algarve region of Portugal studying the ecology of the area. We cover sampling and taxonomy, observational and experimental research, team dynamics, plant, invertebrate and vertebrate ecology. I have written about our field course in a previous Blog: By the Seaside on the Algarve.

In this Blog, I want to explore the theme of life on the edge. Whilst the field course is terrestrial, we focus on marginal habitats throughout. Firstly, the majority of our locations are coastal. We collect invertebrates from shrub and tree habitats on the Albufeira headland of the sea (the Atlantic Ocean, with current from the Mediterranean Ocean contributing). We conduct a visual bird census from inland rural agricultural land at Cruzinha (A Rocha) to the shoreline at Ria de Alvor. In the Monchique Mountains, bird vocal point counts are applied within a eucalyptus plantation (highly humanised) and a less intensive cork oak forest (managed for sustainable harvest of bark for cork to cap wine bottles filled with wine produced by local vineyards). At the Ria de Alvor Nature Reserve dune system we observe snail orientation. Finally, our student teams conduct research projects in the Albufeira area on, amongst other things, sparrows, ants, wading birds, lagoonal wetland birds, and the stress ecology of meadow vegetation. The latter two locations continue the edge/marginal theme – the lagoon is a freshwater system rich in water birds that adjoins the sea at Praia dos Salgados. The vegetation study, and a bird temporal activity project, take part at a highly-vegetated oasis of semi-natural habitat within the architectural sprawl of Albufeira that we unfairly refer to as the ‘waste ground’.

Whether naturally, where land meet sea, or mountains meet lowlands, or lowlands meet ocean, there is a wealth of ecological gradients and steps out there, to which plants and animals are adapted or visit. When we bolt on the direct impact of humans, via agriculture, development, the effects are mixed. Whilst many habitats are negatively affected by human influence, e.g. the biodiversity-light eucalypt monoculture, and the habitat lost to tourist accommodation, others (habitats and species) show more resilience. The cork oak forest, whilst managed by humans, it is by a sensitive hand that allows a mix of tree species, and an undergrowth of understorey, to support a diversity of wildlife. The ‘waste ground’ which shows abandoned development construction (roads, pavements and power points), contains a diversity of vegetation and wildlife that has reclaimed recent disturbance. The Lagoa dos Salgados (Pêra Marsh) has received recent positive human impact – protecting and restoring the habitat.

Even within the highly humanised environments, some species take advantage of the opportunities available. In the Eucalyptus forest, we observed fungal fruiting bodies, and mustelid scat. In amongst the streets and stacks of white apartment blocks and resorts that fill the strip of land behind the beachfronts, house sparrows and yellow-legged gulls abound, happy to profit from waste food and leftovers, and blackbirds benefit from the increased food available via the vast green lawns and exposed soils within the manicured gardens.

I am grateful that patches of natural land and biodiversity persist in the face of human pressures, and that there are species either robust to or benefiting from human influence. Nevertheless, society must continue to conserve and encourage biodiversity as well as to appreciate it. This applies not only to the Portuguese Algarve, but to all parts of the world, because nature is being pushed to the edge and marginalised globally.

Below: images from the Algarve, Portugal. Click on an image to read more about it.

Big sky on the Ria de Alvor dunes

Edinburgh Napier University Terrestrial Ecology field course to the Algarve. Measuring snail orientation at Ria de Alvor Nature Reserve, Algarve.


A flock of sanderlings, Calidris alba, scampering to avoid an incoming wave on the beach at Praia Santa Eulália, Algarve.

Algarve aloes by night

American aloe, Agave americana, framed by the trunk of Corsican pine Pinus nigra at night, Alfagar, Albufeira, Algarve.

A gathering of coot

Coot, Fulica atra, at Lagoa dos Salgados, Algarve.

Millipede trackway, Praia da Gale

Millipede trackway on the beach. Praia da Gale, Algarve.

Coastal rocks

Sea, rock and sky, by Praia Santa Eulália, Algarve.

Larus michahellis on the beach

Yellow-legged gulls, Larus michahellis, at Praia Santa Eulália, Algarve.

A Rocha field study centre, Cruzinha, Algarve

Edinburgh Napier University Terrestrial Ecology field course to the Algarve. At A Rocha field study center, Cruzinha, Ria de Alvor Nature Reserve, Algarve.

Sunrise over Faro

Sunrise over Faro, Algarve.

Clifftop pines and aloe, Praia Santa Eulália

Pines and aloe on eroded sandstone clifftop behind Praia Santa Eulália, Algarve.

Mummified rat

Mummified rat, abandoned land, Algarve.

Rock, sea, sky

Sea, rock and sky, by Praia Santa Eulália, Algarve.

River tunnel, Albufeira

River tunnel, Albufeira, Algarve.

Curlew on Ria de Alvor

Eurasian curlew, Numenia arquatus, Ria de Alvor, Algarve.

Under the sun: Ria de Alvor, Algarve

Edinburgh Napier University Terrestrial Ecology field course to the Algarve. Professor Mark Huxham and class at Ria de Alvor Nature Reserve, Algarve.

The lead image (click key [355842] doesn't existBlog and scroll down if you cannot see it) shows sea, rock and sand from the coastline by Praia Santa Eulália.


Algarve Wildlife

Sand dune country report Portugal

Algarve Surf and Marine Activities Association

Also see By the Seaside on the Algarve Blog.