Tuesday, 23 August 2011
I recently spent 10 days on Madeira, from 5th – 15th August. Admittedly it was a holiday with the Mrs. rather than an all-out, non-stop birding extravaganza, but I still managed to accommodate plenty of birding time - and as there aren’t that many species to see there the pressure was off the both of us!
After flying into Funchal with Jet2 direct from Manchester on Friday afternoon we picked up the hire car and headed over to the hotel on the western outskirts of Funchal. Before going to Madeira my only previous experience of Macaronesia was a lads’ holiday to Gran Canaria (optics not taken!) so it was nice to finally have good views of Atlantic Canary and Plain Swift, both seen easily around the hotel.
We stayed near the Lido area, only a short walk down to the promenade. On Friday evening an introductory seawatch was deemed necessary to get my eye in - during which large numbers of Cory’s were seen (easily the commonest seabird of the trip), while the first Bulwer’s passing east to their breeding colonies on Ilhas Desertas were teasingly distant. Common Terns and Yellow-legged Gulls were closer inshore, a schmitzi Grey Wagtail was calling from the rocks and family parties of Plain Swifts chased each other around the small rock stack in the bay (interesting that Collins states that the calls of this species and Common Swift are virtually inseparable, but the Plains sounded noticeably different in the field to my ears).
Next morning another quick seawatch yielded the same two species as the previous evening, but heading west instead to feed out in the ocean. A single Fea’s (Desertas) Petrel also passed by and was my first of the trip.
After exploring the island a bit a seawatch later in the afternoon off Porto Moniz on the north western tip of Madeira gave closer views of Cory’s and Bulwer’s (both species were to become a daily feature) while a juvenile Pomarine Skua lumbered west. By far the best bird though was a Little Shearwater, which fluttered west a bit further out, my only one of the trip and apparently a tricky species to see around Madeira these days after a recent population decline. While seawatching I met four lads from Switzerland who were spending a couple of weeks birding the island (aka Crex Crex Power Birders!) These guys gave me plenty of gen, including news of a Green-winged Teal just down the road. On arrival at the site the Teal (a moulting drake that has been here for four years) was soon found just metres away and sat with a motley collection of giant Mallard-types and Muscovys, presumably wondering where it all went wrong. Another schmitzi Grey Wag was vocal here and several Plain Swifts swooped around the rock stack.
Dusk found us at Funchal’s marina hoping for the long-staying Yellow-crowned Night Heron to appear. The Swiss crew were also on site and said that they had seen it fly in the previous evening while eating their dinner in an adjacent restaurant, so hopes were high. Two Common Sandpipers flying around the harbour were thoroughly grilled but remained as Commons. Several Little Egrets flew over before it grew dark and there was no sign of the YCNH, presumably due to the high tide covering much of the rocks used as a feeding area.
A visit to the centre of the island on Sunday took us away from the blue skies into cloud and drizzle but a search down a rough track at Faja do Noguiero revealed a Trocaz Pigeon (endemic to Madeira) sat in the open on a dead branch, while at least two others flew over the top of the laurel forest.
On the eastern side of the island, the first Berthelot’s Pipits were seen feeding on the rocky Ponta do Sao Laurenco near Canical. A seawatch offshore revealed the usual Cory’s plus two Fea’s (Desertas) Petrels, that appeared to be feeding in the area.
Before going to Madeira we had booked a visit to Pico do Areeiro (only known breeding site of Zino’s Petrel) with Madeira Wind Birds. A rocky path leads to the steep, barren slopes of the breeding area but a permit is required for anyone visiting the site at night. We were picked up from our digs at 9pm and joined a small international group, consisting of single Belgian, German and Italian birders plus our Portuguese guides. Heading ever higher on twisting mountain roads we left the clouds far below and arrived at the summit by 11pm, under moonlit, starry skies. A short walk with head torches took us to the vantage point, with tiny villages and clouds far below us.
After a few minutes wait with the torches off we heard the first Zino’s start to call from the dark shadows; an eerie hooting noise similar to a male Tawny Owl. At this time of year the Zino’s have hatched their single egg and are busy feeding the chick - after hearing that only one young bird is thought to have fledged last year it’s hoped they have more success this year! We heard that a spiteful shepherd had set fire to the area a couple of years previously which hadn’t helped the cause.
Soon many other Zino’s had joined in the wailing chorus and, looking to the north through the bins, grey shapes could be seen hurtling into the valley from the ocean. As it was such a moonlit night the birds favoured the shadowy areas where it was darkest but it was still possible to see them as they whizzed to their nest sites, including some just below us; some called overhead as they flew in. With the stunning moonlit views and stark landscape it made for a magical experience and we left hoping that the Zino’s do better this year.
On Monday a cable car ride up to Monte and the tropical gardens enabled me to finally catch up with two Madeiran Kinglets, a juvenile and adult, and endemic to the island. While appearing subtly distinctive to Firecrest the calls were strikingly different, sounding akin to Siberian Chiffchaff at times with some wheezy calls also heard. Other birds seen included a pair of canariensis Kestrels from the cable car and a Pallid Swift with the Plain Swifts at the top cable car station. ‘Madeiran’ Chaffinches fed among the tables in the Tropical Gardens café.
Tuesday saw us up before dawn (wasn’t this meant to be a holiday?!) so that we could be at Funchal for the ferry to Porto Santo, an island 20 miles north of Madeira locally famous for its seven-mile beach. Being the only boat to Porto Santo that day it was somewhat busy on board but I soon found the Swiss crew at the port stern who I had arranged to meet up with for some seawatching en route - scopes set up and ready to go.
Highlight of the morning voyage were two Fea’s (Desertas) Petrels close to Madeira while some good, close views of Bulwer’s and Cory’s were much appreciated. On the island, a Hoopoe was added to the trip list, another Pallid Swift was found amongst the feeding Plain Swifts and Spanish Sparrows were logged (these being quite scarce on Madeira itself). We had high hopes for the return journey after hearing about the previous day’s Black-bellied Storm-petrel (seen during the three day Zino’s expedition run by Madeira Wind Birds). Unfortunately we weren’t so lucky and had to make do with grilling through large numbers of Bulwer’s and Cory’s instead.
For Wednesday we had arranged to sail to the Ilhas Desertas with Ventura do Mar to spend the night there; these islands include Deserta Grande (our destination) where Cory’s , Bulwer’s and Madeiran Storm-petrels breed and Bugio to the south where the Fea’s (Desertas) Petrels breed. On the quay at Funchal we met Benny (the Belgian birder we had previously met at the Zino’s site who had been granted some leave from his wife and kids back at the hotel) and a group of 7 mature British birders who had arranged their trip months in advance via a well-known nature tour company; they appeared a bit befuddled by the three of us interlopers who had rocked up at the last minute with just our overnight bags! (I later heard that they had apparently been escorted off Pico do Areeiro for attempting to visit the Zino’s colony without a permit and subsequently fined – d’oh) Just after we left the harbour a flying fish made me feel like I was inside a Dali painting as it glided past in a straight line low over the water on stiff wings. A fairly large Loggerhead Turtle also floated past the boat and provided some non-birding interest.
The usual seabirds were seen en route to Desertas, highlight being a Fea’s (Desertas) that gave us a very close fly by just off Funchal. Meanwhile great views were enjoyed of the now usual Bulwer’s and Cory’s. On arrival at Deserta Grande a walk around the research station area revealed some very obliging Canaries and Berthelot’s Pipits while a pair of Kestrels had raised young on the nearby cliffs –impressive considering there is no regular supply of water on the Desertas.
After the Ventura do Mar folks had made our camp we had a guided walk around the research station area (just about the only easily accessible place on these islands). The marine biologist showed as a Bulwer’s egg and then pulled out an even bigger surprise in the form of a Bulwer’s chick that had been resting deep in its nest hole. A Cory’s sat deep among the rocks on its nest was also pointed out, waiting for the cover of darkness and its returning mate. Unlike our seabirds most of the Madeiran species are still sitting on eggs or raising young at this time of year.
Next up was a spot of chumming off Bugio, to the south, in the hope of tempting in some Fea’s (Desertas) Petrels and maybe something else. On the way out a shout went up for Fea’s passing the port stern, I looked to my left and saw what appeared to be a Manx shearing straight past us. As I was about to call it as that a second shout went up for Little Shear and everyone else seemed happy to tick it off as this for their life lists, but I wasn’t convinced. The chum went out and eager eyes scanned the resulting slick. The only birds that ventured to it though were a Yellow-legged Gull and a couple of Fea’s (Desertas) Petrels, apparently the first time that the latter has done this on these trips. These birds are currently sitting on their single egg, which makes you wonder what the birds seen off SW Britain and Eire are doing if not on feeding trips. They’re currently being studied closely and we heard that they’ve been tracked dispersing post-breeding season towards Brazil and back. Several other Fea’s (Desertas) were seen close to the boat as we headed back to the welcome barbecue on Deserta Grande.
As the sun set the first Bulwer’s flew past us as we were finishing our meal, fluttering over the rocks like a fruit bat. As darkness took over and the full moon appeared we set off for a walk with the torch and once again spent another magical night with the seabirds. Bulwer’s were streaming past overhead en route to their rocky nests and one bird was seen perched clumsily on top of a boulder next to the path before flopping down to its nest. As we stopped for a rest on a flat rock to watch a shooting star overhead another Bulwer’s was heard deep below us, a low chanting call reminiscent of a distant steam engine getting ready to set off. While wandering the paths Cory’s flew madly overhead cackling like crazy, drunken Kittiwakes as they crashed in and one bird was seen sitting on a quiet stretch of path, looking as though it had given up on finding its nest for the night and was content to stay put. More subtle were the calling Madeiran Storm-petrels, sounding a bit like a squeaky kiss or distant Oystercatcher, as they passed overhead, with some seen flying over and close to the beach near where the boat was docked in the bay. The activity eased back around midnight so I returned to the tent and sleeping bag that Ventura do Mar had lent us. The wind picked up in the night and after a fitful sleep I was woken just before dawn to a cacophony of Cory’s Shearwaters heading back out to the ocean.
Returning to Funchal next day the usual suspects were all seen, but the highlight was provided by some Atlantic Spotted Dolphins that bow-rode with us and could be seen well in the crystal blue water. Two more Loggerheads were seen, these being smaller than the previous one and presumably youngsters.
Friday took us over to the western side of Madeira and past Lugor do Baixo, a site that the Swiss crew had recommended and with a good past record for waders. Nothing unusual today but 8 Turnstones were feeding on the mud and a couple of Coots were in the reeds, a Madeira scarcity! Further along at the marina two adult and two juvenile Roseate Terns were resting on the rocks among the Common Terns; the former breed on Madeira but only in single pairs.
Later I had a decent seawatch off Porto Moniz from 18:00 – 20:30 during a good north easterly blow. The usual Cory’s and Bulwer’s were joined by at least 5 Fea’s (Desertas) Petrels, with one of these showing the paler underwing characteristic of Zino’s but too distant for any confirmation. Large numbers of Commic Terns were moving offshore with smaller numbers of what were presumably Sandwich further out. Among these a dark phase Arctic Skua patrolled and a pale phase bird passed closer in. An adult Long-tailed Skua passed close in, close enough to allow all the features of this elegant skua to be appreciated in the warm evening light. It was joined by another adult and these two were followed some fifteen minutes later by another 2 birds. Pleased enough with this I was then staggered to find 12 birds passing in a long drawn out line, coasting as they passed west and out to the ocean.
For the penultimate day I’d booked a day out birding with Hugo Romano of Madeira Wind Birds, who was still buzzing after the B-b petrel. I’d already seen the target species but was looking forward to a day out birding with a local seeing some new sites and enjoying the endemics one last time. I was joined be three other British birders and the first stop was the north coast near Sao Vicente. From the coast road we had great views of a Trocaz Pigeon as it perched out in the open and flew around the rock faces. On the beach nearby a Whimbrel was grilled but proved to have a white rump, while a Common Sandpiper and 4 Turnstones fed. Just round the corner the Green-winged Teal was still at Ribeiro de Janela but was much more distant than the previous weekend.
A foray inland revealed a juvenile Madeiran Kinglet although the adults proved much more elusive. Up on the Paul do Serra (an upland habitat resembling a moorland in north Wales) provided harterti Common Buzzard and Kestrel but the bella Spectacled Warblers failed to show in the wind. Two adult Roseate Terns were still hanging around at Lugor do Baixo marina.
After returning to the digs we headed into Funchal for dinner and I finally caught up with the Yellow-crowned Night Heron. It was feeding on the rocks along the western side of the marina at low tide and was surprisingly obliging. I checked again after the meal but there was no sign, presumably not in favour of a hip-hop festival that had started up across the harbour.
For the final full day on Sunday we had a look at Pico do Areeiro in the daylight, resembling a mini Grand Canyon with its varying colours and rock formations. A walk at Ribeiro Frio to the Balcoes lookout was very fruitful for Madeiran Kinglet, with plenty seen well along the levada walk, including adults feeding a youngster. Some Chaffinches showed well from the Balcoes viewpoint, showing a mix of African and European genes.
A final seawatch from Ponta do Sao Laurenco gave yet another Fea’s (Desertas), feeding in the southern bay, while an evening effort from the hotel revealed a large movement of Bulwer’s heading east to their nest sites on Desertas.
The final morning allowed just enough time for a last seawatch off the prom and a last chance to be complacent about the Cory’s and Bulwer’s. A surprise highlight was an adult Roseate Tern that flew in and perched on a rock stack close to shore, glowing pink in the morning sun.
Fea’s (Desertas) Petrel
Yellow-crowned Night Heron
Lesser Black-backed Gull (graellsii)
Yellow-legged Gull (some showing characters of atlantis, but others like nominate michahellis)
Berthelot’s Pipit (madeirensis)
Grey Wagtail (schmitzi)
Blackcap (heinekeni – heard, they sing all year round and have a slightly different song to the nominate birds)
Common Linnet (nana)