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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Canary Islands

2014 Narrative

Starting in Fuerteventura we explored a series of habitats from the sandy and rocky plains in our search for Cream-coloured Courser (including finding a pair with a delightful tiny chick) and also the endemic race of Houbara Bustard, which is becoming so hard to find elsewhere in its North African range due to overhunting. Even on Fuerteventura it is becoming scarcer and it was only during our very last stop to look for it that we finally found two of these superb birds, giving fine views, though the searches also produced insularum Stone-curlews, Black-bellied Sandgrouse, Lesser Short-toed Larks, ‘Desert’ Grey Shrikes and the almost omnipresent Berthelot’s Pipits, found just about everywhere except the humid forest areas. The plains and mountains here are also carved through by rocky flanked gulleys, and very locally where these hold water they also house permanent cover in the form of palms and bushes, and consequently more small birds, often coming down to drink at the few pools of water naturally present. The scarce and endemic Fuerteventura Chat was watched well at one of these sites, plus our first degener African Blue Tits, but also Trumpeter Finches, several Hoopoes plus a couple of Spectacled Warblers of most note. A few dragonflies characteristic of North Africa are typical of these spots and included the recently established Long Skimmer, numerous Epaulette Skimmers, the impressive Blue Emperor and in one seepage line, dozens of the diminutive Sahara Bluetail damselflies.

The numerous holiday developments, associated attractions for mass tourism, and the presence of water and permanent vegetation, especially along the coasts, has also allowed the establishment of a number of exotic species. The pair of Red-vented Bulbuls at our hotel (these have been established for c. 10 years now) and perhaps the unringed near-adult Yellow-billed Stork on a rocky promontory overlooking the zoo were treated as escapes, along with the Senegal Parrot seen later! But perhaps the stork was wild and the first will surely go onto the Spanish list shortly? Even the parrot has bred on the islands in the past and may be established. There was plenty of other wildlife in these flowery areas, thanks in part to the innumerable introduced plant species, including almost side-by-side views of Plain Tiger and the superficially similar Monarch, as well as the introduced Geranium Bronze butterflies, and dragonflies included gaudy Red-veined Dropwing and Broad Scarlet males fighting for their respective territories. Quality birds as we travelled the island more widely seen included groups of Ruddy Shelduck (even on the golf courses given the availability of permanent water), adult Egyptian Vultures of the rare endemic resident race, a few Barbary Falcons, our only Black-winged Stilts, 3 Laughing Doves, the first of numerous canariensis Common Ravens and the numerous Spanish Sparrows.

Moving to Lanzarote, we took a short break after arrival and just had time to drive to a fine viewpoint where ‘on cue’ a superb Eleonora’s Falcon appeared, and despite carrying its dinner, quickly rose up into the sun and disappeared into billowing cloud! We returned in good time for a decent night’s sleep in preparation for the long ferry journey to Tenerife the next day. This provides one of the best opportunities to see the highly pelagic White-faced Storm-petrel and Bulwer’s Petrel, and indeed they performed beautifully, with double figures of both seen, along with hundreds of Cory’s Shearwaters and, shortly before arrival in Tenerife, a brief Macronesian (= Barolo’s) Shearwater. The various large whale blows seen were sadly too distant to identify or see the whales themselves, though during one short period period I saw 3 beaked whales at the surface, though again the speed of these big stable ferries is too great in most cases for easy identification. Far more comfortable than being bobbed around on a much smaller vessel though, and the occasional flying fish and Loggerhead Turtle seen kept us on our toes!

A small cloud of trilling Plain Swifts greeted us on arrival in Tenerife and were the first of hundreds seen throughout our stay; indeed I can’t remember seeing so many before during my multiple visits. Perhaps the thick cloud and rain which greeted us at our hotel had something to do with this, though as we walked out and round the corner later to a superb local restaurant, a calling Long-eared Owl chick was very welcome recompense! Indeed, unusually cool conditions throughout our stay may have had something to do with this, plus the remarkable numbers of Common Kestrels and Barbary Partridges also seen during the remainder of the tour. It may also have been a spin-off of the wet winter, with the countryside looking superb and despite the plants being mainly leafless given their adaptation to being summer dry, the hillsides were more colourful than normal with the greys and greens of the predominant tabaiba bushes and cacti-like species of Euphorbia which have radiated into numerous endemic species across the islands, giving more colour than usual at this time to the mountainsides throughout.

Our first day concentrated on the north of Tenerife, and indeed we saw the last species on the ‘wanted’ list during a series of great observations. Looking up the cliffs into some trees on steep cliffs produced the wonderful sighting of adult Laurel Pigeon and a juvenile Bolle’s Pigeon almost shoulder to shoulder on a bare bough, though the first of innumerable Canary Island Chiffchaffs heard calling over the next few days and a scolding teneriffae African Blue Tit only showed briefly. A series of pools were next, though these were shrouded in thick blowing cloud and light rain, and at just 15ºC had to be abandoned, but not before a calling male Barbary Partridge was watched as a teneral Island Darter dragonfly and several Canary Blue butterflies were flushed as we walked along some tracks. So in stark contrast to most mountain areas, we went much higher up into the Canary Pine zone. Here, as expected, brilliant sunshine bathed us and pulled the temperature up to a perfect 22ºC, where hundreds of Plain Swifts were feeding across the entire ‘forest’. The views were fabulous too as we could see the peaks of both La Gomera and beyond with La Palma rising above the thick ‘sea of cloud’ lying below us. But within seconds of getting out of the car a male Blue Chaffinch flew in close to take a look for food! A short walk around and patient watching revealed that there were about half a dozen present, with a few very discrete Atlantic Canaries, calling but unseen African Blue Tits and finally a couple of mobile Great Spotted Woodpeckers, with a male of the canariensis race giving excellent views in the end.

After lunch and back down the mountain, where the views were again off-white, we headed back to the northeast to see if that area was any better. A strong wind gusted down into our valley cloaked in laurel forest, but with patience we again found a number of small birds, including good numbers of canariensis Common Chaffinches, a couple of very mobile ‘Canary Island’ Goldcrests, adult and juvenile teneriffae African Blue Tit, and lots of Canary Island Chiffchaffs to round off a remarkable day. Except for a superb dinner again, that is!

An early start the following day saw us taking the La Gomera ferry to spend the day on the island, though we didn’t actually now ‘need’ to go! The very calm conditions and ‘slick’ sea surface at the start of the crossing aided viewing a number of Long-finned Pilot Whales lolling at the surface and a small pod of fishing dolphins plus a single White-faced Storm-petrel, apart from the usual abundant Cory’s Shearwaters. With thick cloud cover we stayed low most of the time, except for a superb lunch in the laurel forest, and the rewards kept coming. Two Alpine Swifts powered along some cliffs and a Common House Martin fed amongst the abundant Plain Swifts, while in a deep rocky valley, the numerous small fields and vineyards, mango groves and palms provided excellent cover for numerous small birds including our first Grey Wagtails, Blackcaps and Common Blackbirds, amongst Island Canaries, African Blue Tits and Canary Island Chiffchaffs.

Some small reservoirs and small channels of water further ahead were ideal for a range of dragonflies and a few butterflies, plus numerous Common Coots and Common Moorhens, plus a patch of grass full of Stripeless Tree Frogs, though it wasn’t until we climbed into the laurel forest that we struck really lucky. Seeing a female La Gomera Brimstone receive a glancing blow from a car, we stopped and I rushed across to save it from further traffic. The sun was very warm through the cloud, and the very light breeze meant the forest was relatively very active, from the numerous ‘Canary Island’ Goldcrests through to numerous La Gomera Brimstones and Boettger’s Lizards, to a couple of dragonflies. Bill walked to a nearby viewpoint and back, and then I followed suit. I was just turning round when a stunning Ringed Cascader dragonfly drifted past and then turned as it searched for prey on the wing. This species is infamous for never stopping in view, so it tried to take a few pictures in flight as it cruised back and forth, but as the cloud thickened, so it suddenly came in and landed in full view. OK, so I had to climb a wall and negotiate around the painfully large spines of a few Agave rosettes to get close, but it allowed a really close approach and a few decent pictures before we left it in peace! This was the second time I’ve seen it in fifteen years, and was only the second individual. Now that’s luck! The laurel forest was clear when we arrived but shrouded in billowing cloud by the time we’d finished another fine meal in a local restaurant. We headed down and returned on an uneventful crossing in good time to check-in to our last hotel. A large flock of European Turtle Doves and another flock of Island Canaries, constantly calling Canary Island Chiffchaffs plus a female Barbary Partridge leading her lone chick along a wall as we entered our rooms meant we felt very comfortable here!

The remainder of the time on Tenerife was spent looking for a few new birds, and checking some old sites as well as returning to one or two old ones, with just a handful of new species added. We saw Blue Chaffinches and other Canary Pine forest species again, checked the pools of the first day again, finding a superb perched granti Eurasian Sparrowhawk and a large flock of Barbary Partridges as the principle rewards, popped into laurel forest again for more views of the goldcrest and also noted a few butterflies, including Canary Island Speckled Wood, and excitingly, a Canary Island Large White, which is far rarer on Tenerife than the only other island it appears to still occur, La Palma. With time to spare we even took a return ferry journey as foot passengers, just to look for seabirds, adding the penultimate new bird for the trip in the form of single Common Terns on both outward and return legs. Having seen two Whimbrel plus single Ruddy Turnstone and Common Ringed Plover on a rocky bit of coast early one morning, in a concerted effort to see at least a few more waders – coincidentally passing through a band of air at just 7ºC that dawn (!) – the final tally of birds had risen to a very respectable number.

A final parting shot was when we took a more hopeful than realistic look for possible Corn Buntings near the airport, and were surprised instead with excellent views of a passing dark-morph Eleonora’s Falcon, one of three we then discovered were present. Another check of some more ponds then revealed two roosting Black-crowned Night Herons, our last new bird for the tour which brought us up to a total of 68 species.

Created: 01 September 2014