The São Jacinto Dunes Natural Reserve is located close to the city of Aveiro in northwest Portugal. The Reserve lay in between the Atlantic Ocean and the Ria de Aveiro coastal lagoon system. The Reserve covers 960 hectares, roughly 20% being marine areas, and 80% being terrestrial.
Interestingly the dunes are, geologically speaking, relatively young; they started separating the lagoon from the ocean between the 10th and the 17th century and until the 19th century the sand was in constant movement, which made it difficult for plants to build their roots. Towards the end of the 19th century a forest of maritime pines (Pinus pinaster) was planted to stabilize the sand and keep the lagoon protected from the ocean. Between 1981 and 1984 several ponds were created to support local wildlife, mainly ducks and herons. Today numerous aquatic birds frequent these artificial ponds.
This reserve is a fully protected area, where no destructive and extractive marine activities are allowed.
Why is it important?
The dunes protect the coastal lagoon and the land from the advancing Sea. Since the dunes were formed, many birds use the Aveiro lagoon as nesting and feeding grounds, as well as winter residence. The park aims to protect this habitat, as the dunes and their vegetation are very sensitive to trampling. We find an array of plant species in the dunes. In the roughest areas, we can find pioneer plants with extensive rhizomes to fix the sand (such as the grass Elysmus farctus, the European beach grass Ammophila arenaria and the sea spurge Euphorbia paralias).
In the forests where the sand has been fixed for a longer time, we find a higher plant diversity. The first trees that were planted were the Mediterranean pine (Pinus pinaster) and the fire tree (Mycica faya), but nowadays we can find a number of large trees like the grey willow (Slix atrocinerea), the black poplar (Populus nigra) or the common alder (Alnus glutinosa). This large diversity of plants and trees, combined with the man-made ponds are great refugees for a number of animal species, especially birds.
For example, the Kentish plover (Charadrius alexandrinuns), the crested lark (Galerida cristata) and the common linnet (Carduelis canabinna) are some of the birds that can be found nesting in the sand dunes.
The freshwater ponds can be considered the heart of the Natural Reserve, as it has become the countries hot spot for members of the Anatidae familiy (which include ducks, geese and swans). The mallard (Anas platyrhynchos), the Eurasian teal (Anas crecca) and the Eurasian wigeon (Anas penelope) can all be seen frequently during the winter months, after their migration from the northern nesting grounds. Throughout the year you can spot the Red-crested pochard (Netta rufina), the Northern pintail (Anas acuta), the common pochard (Aythya ferina) and the Ferruginous duck (Aythya nyroca).
The area around the ponds also makes good habitats for a number of reptiles, amphibians and mammals, although their numbers are still relatively low, but include lizards, snakes, frogs, toads, genets and foxes.
Grab your binoculars and check out those ducks! Head first to the visitors’ centre in the town of São Jacinto and then walk along the interpretive trails and wooden walkways over the dunes. You will have the opportunity to see large amounts of different duck species and if you want to make sure you don’t miss any you can arrange for a guided tour.
If you are in the area – head out to the Barra lighthouse. This lighthouse was constructed in 1893 and is one of the tallest in Europe, and the tallest in Portugal. It rises majestically 62 meters over the ocean where the Aveiro lagoon meets the Atlantic.