Convento São Francisco de Mértola
In the tradition of the Franciscan monks, the Convento grounds remain a haven of tranquillity for wildlife. Through determined preservation measures by de Zwanikken family and sponsorship provided by Birding Company, Quercus, and the Guadiana Natural Park and the European organisation LIFE, the Convento has been successful in increasing the numbers and varieties of bird species within the grounds and the surrounding area. Given the remarkable diversity of flora and fauna, the Convento is increasingly being recognised as an ecotourism destination. Bird species most likely to be seen are Bee Eaters, Kingfishers, Hoopoes, Spanish Sparrows, Azure Winged Magpies, Golden Orioles, White Storks and Jackdaws. A project to assist the threatened Lesser Kestrel’s has been successfully established. Guests are able to pay day visits, or to stay overnight at the Convento.
Since 1985 a nature conservation project has been in operation at the Convento to support Lesser Kestrels. The population of these small, gregarious falcons has been diminishing across the whole of Europe. Once a common sight in many Portuguese towns, now the only surviving urban population is situated in Mértola.
Much of the effort to assist the dwindling population has been to provide more nest sites. Birds returning in March from their winter migration in sub-Saharan Africa have been provided with specially constructed falcon towers, an idea formulated by Geraldine Zwanikken to build “Living Sculptures”. Numbers have increased from just a few pairs to a colony of 65 pairs.
The project has been so successful that it has attracted funding from several environmental sources.
A new scheme to build redesigned – snake proof – accommodation commenced in 2005 with expertise and money provided by LPN (Nature Protection League). This is part of a wider initiative to save the Lesser Kestrel that commenced in 2002.
The grounds of the convent and suitably secluded observation points, enable bird watchers to enjoy the expanding colony. Access is available on Sundays but potential visitors should ring in advance.