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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Canary Islands

2018 Narrative

Day 1: The early arriving clients had a light morning’s birding with me at a variety of spots near the southern end of Tenerife. A pre-breakfast watch in the garden and over the surrounding areas yielded a good 14 species, with an early pair of noisy Common Ravens - a good start, and a brief calling Barbary Partridge heard - a good finish. Our first Canary Island Chiffchaffs, Atlantic Canaries, teneriffae African Blue Tits and a scolding male Sardinian Warbler, plus the first of several canariensis Common Kestrels for the day were all welcome in the surprisingly cool conditions. Two separate juvenile Southern Grey Shrikes, a few Spanish Sparrows and a couple of fluffy juvenile Little Ringed Plovers at a reservoir were added en route towards the coast, while a walk to a pool on the beach ‘only’ yielded a single Berthelot’s Pipit.

After changing the vehicle and a coffee break, followed by transfer part of the way up Mount Teide, we enjoyed a sit-down lunch, shaded in the early afternoon heat before taking our first look at the Canary Pine forest. One spot was better for dragonflies, with Red-veined Darters and some stunning Red-veined Dropwings of most note, while nearby, as we contemplated some truly huge pines, a ‘Tenerife’ Robin appeared, followed by a couple of flighty canariensis Great Spotted Woodpeckers and a Tenerife Blue Chaffinch sang, unseen, high up the slopes. Two of these lovely endemics then flew high over, but we decided to return to the hotel, as we arrived and met two more of the group who’d flown in from the US, and then had a short break before I went down to the airport again to pick up the final two members of the party who’d come in from Italy! After a great paella dinner (or veggie rice alternative), we bedded down early to get a good night’s sleep before we started in earnest the following day.

Day 2: With only 2 days available for birding on Tenerife during the tour, after a pre-breakfast wander in and close to our rural hotel, we headed off north to look for the all key species! The 24ºC en route was replaced by a windy and drizzly 15ºC in the ancient laurisilva, but the birds were great! A superbus ‘Tenerife’ Robin was feeding beside the bus as we parked and a whole flock of canariensis Common Chaffinches materialised and fed around us, sometimes down to within inches as we walked out into an opening in the forest. A pigeon clattered off from a canopy, with two more crossing in flight, though when one reappeared shortly afterwards it, it didn’t stay long enough for the ‘scopes. However, another sat immobile in the mid height of the bushes near a small rock face, readily allowing us to see the neat band through middle of its tail, indicating it was a fine Bolle’s Pigeon. A brief Tenerife Goldcrest was only noted by one or two, amongst the blowing leaves, so we decided to move on.

A roadside stop under some cliffs revealed a number of great birds. First, a Barbary Falcon wheeled overhead, pushing some of the passing Laurel Pigeons down lower than usual, one passing low over our heads! Most of the pigeons stayed high up the slope in the trees, though with ‘scopes, we had excellent views of up to three perched at a time, and plenty in flight showing the broad pale tip to the tail. The numerous Tenerife Lizards sunbathing on the walls provided further entertainment!

After lunch nearby we backtracked a little before climbing slowly but surely up the mighty Teide volcano. Pausing a few times near the upper limit of the cloud, we came across a flower-rich spot, complete with 5 Canary Red Admiral butterflies feeding on Teide Scabious. Two endemics in one! In the sunny and very arid Canary Pine forest however, a special spot quickly produced a few Tenerife Blue Chaffinches and a canariensis race juvenile Great Spotted Woodpecker, which also came down to drink (heavily!) in front.

Driving over the atmospheric Teide caldera, with appropriate stops for the views and photos was well appreciated by all, with a short ice cream stop a good move! A Southern Grey Shrike was noted on some bushes, but it wasn’t until we were much lower down that we stopped again, this time to contemplate some wonderful and enormous specimens of Canary Pine, with a heavily moulting Tenerife Goldcrest right in front a bonus, and a couple of us also had the great fortune to see a Ringed Cascader dragonfly hawk overhead a few times before moving on.

Even back at the hotel, six Barbary Partridges flew over the pool after sneaking into the garden for a drink! But it still wasn’t over! The long hailed lunar eclipse, or ‘blood moon’ was due, this being one of the longest in living memory. And amazingly, the cloud held off and three of us took up the challenge and headed off up the road to a clearer viewpoint. The local mosquitoes took good advantage, but as we descended, having thought it was already finishing, we enjoyed tremendous views of this remarkable spectacle, later even working out how to take pictures successfully in the low light. WHAT A DAY!

Day 3: Early breakfast and a pretty clean run down to and through the Los Cristianos area for a slow ferry to La Gomera. A fine pod of Short-finned Pilot Whales, numerous Cory’s and especially a couple of Macronesian Shearwaters on the cruise were a very good haul. 

Short stops en route to the higher parts of the island revealed Gomera Grayling as well as a Barbary Partridge plummeting down one of the steep hillsides calling noisily as it went. A group of sheep scattered up a seemingly unscalable cliff revealed why native vegetation is still lacking in some middle height areas.

A stop at a bar for a drink was a great choice with a dark-backed granti Eurasian Sparrowhawk sparring with a similarly dark canariensis Common Kestrel over the cloud forest, while our first Grey Wagtail picked its way alongside a small stream. Lunch at a remarkably public site during the heat of the early afternoon was accompanied by at least three Tenerife Goldcrests, a horde of canariensis Common Chaffinches, any number of Canary Island Blues and also several very fine and impressively large and attractive Gomera Brimstones.

A long detour en route took us to some sea cliffs ‘on spec’.  Here we found a group of 11 feeding Trumpeter Finches on the top of the sea cliff and a couple of Pallid Swifts rose up the cliff face before moving off inland – so it was a good choice to check the site out! A short stroll around a town park in the afternoon heat turned up the hoped-for Monarch butterflies, with at least three present, giving terrific views. The ferry ride back, despite being on a delayed and semi-fast ferry, produced another Macronesian Shearwater, tantalising views of an all-dark storm petrel, and even a presumed Hammerhead Shark cruising along the surface, with dorsal fin and tail tip out of the water!

Day 4:  After a relatively leisurely start we took two flights to Fuerteventura, and then faced delays getting the hire vehicle. To save time, lunch was taken while I queued!

The drive to the hotel was designed to try for one of the key species of the tour, and indeed, in a rather more grassy than expected valley, a pair of Fuerteventura Stonechats were spotted off to one side, and we got out, so enjoying the male, the first of three along this stretch of road! A couple of Berthelot’s Pipits, and some flighty Spectacled Warblers added to the variety, as did a couple of Southern Grey Shrikes - so much commoner than on Tenerife!

Plenty of moulted adult insularum Common Buzzards were very obvious too, perhaps given the terrific numbers of Barbary Ground Squirrels present virtually everywhere! And even a couple of majorensis Egyptian Vultures, put in a quick appearance - the first of a few during the afternoon.

After checking in to the hotel, and taking a short break to let the temperature cool, we headed off towards the coast. A stunning pair of Cream-coloured Coursers ran across the desert, and even the road, just in front. A gulley in the desert nearby holds a series of tiny pools from a brackish spring, and despite disturbance from a camper van, a short wait produced a fine group of Trumpeter Finches coming down to drink, and Spanish Sparrows in the bushes.

The main reasons for visiting the area were actually still pending though! So we continued to some cliffs, and finally, with patience and some persistent watching, the area came up trumps.  A fine Red-billed Tropicbird, albeit with rather short central tail streamer, came in high from the ocean and flew around in circles in front of the impressive cliffs as we watched with the our ‘scopes. Part of a tiny colony of the species on the islands, we felt justifiably honoured to have seen it.

Far from the end though, the return trip took us through an area of patchily bushy semidesert, and after contemplating a terrific flock of Lesser Short-toed Larks ‘rolling’ across the plain, a superb Houbara Bustard appeared close to the road on our left, feeding on the buds of shrubs. And then another to our right, which finally walked up to and then, after a little hesitation, crossed the road in front of us before wandering off. With a third, further ahead, we returned slightly later than planned, but obviously elated!

Day 5: A short pre-breakfast excursion took us to look for, more in hope than with expectations, a Dwarf Bittern, which hadn’t been reported for a month, but which had been on the island since the winter and was probably still present. However, as we arrived, two majorensis Egyptian Vultures sat on pylons, two Black Kites were resting on the desert, at least 4 insularum Common Buzzards sat on power lines, a male dacotiae Common Kestrel passed and even a superb Barbary Falcon juvenile sped low across the desert beside us, meaning just the drive had been more than worth it! A brief Eurasian Hoopoe and a pair of Fuerteventura Stonechats in the Río Cabras gorge were excellent additions for some, but it was remarkably quiet by the trickle of water, despite a few wild type Rock Doves occasionally clattering off from the cliffs. No bittern, but seeing even more Egyptian Vultures and Common Buzzards as we left, was still welcome!

After a fine breakfast we headed off to one of the only permanent freshwater sources on the island, encountering not only a number of excellent birds en route, such as a family of Cream-coloured Coursers beside us, and a mixed flock of migrant Common and Pallid Swifts, plus a couple of Common House Martins over a river gorge nearby, but a good variety on the reservoir itself. Over 50 Common Coot, 51 Ruddy Shelduck, 12 Grey Herons, 4 Little Egrets, 27 Black-winged Stilts, 3 Eurasian Spoonbills plus single numbers of Common Greenshank and Common Sandpiper were certainly good, but the greatest surprise were the numbers of Black-bellied Sandgrouse flying off from a drinking area. Three big flocks (over 200 each), plus two good flocks (totalling just under 300) and a few more much smaller flocks suggested that perhaps almost the entire island’s birds were here drinking! Diminutive Saharan Bluetail damselflies reminded us we were close to Africa, too.

We drove up high to one of the prettier villages on the island for lunch, enjoying the landscape, architecture and food (again) as well as a few birds and other wildlife, including even more Egyptian Vultures, a few pairs of European Goldfinches, our only degener African Blue Tit of the tour, Blue Emperor, Broad Scarlet and Long Skimmer dragonflies and a male Southern (Common) Blue butterfly amongst others, though the heat finally drove us out as it approached 30ºC in the shade, and we headed back for a short siesta.

A local excursion later that afternoon near the hotel ended up being mainly very quiet, though a single Eurasian Stone-curlew off to one side of a busy road was seen by most as we drove back and returned twice (being unable to stop there) and our first live European Rabbit was out in the bushy semidesert.

Day 6: A busy day, leaving Fuertevenura early on a ferry and heading into cloudier and cooler conditions on Lanzarote. Driving across the extensive lava fields in the south of the island took us quickly to the salinas where, unexpectedly, four breeding plumaged Black-necked Grebes bobbed in the centre and numerous Berthelot’s Pipits fed around the edge. Also unexpectedly, only one corner held a few shorebirds, but nine Common Redshank were a further welcome addition to the growing list.

Just a couple of target birds remained, and after a drinks break at a true locals’ bar in another white-washed town and in the still cloudy conditions, a large area of blown sandy dunes criss-crossed by tracks was our focus in our search for Eurasian Stone-curlew. Indeed, we finally found a fine flock almost beside the track, plus five separate Houbara Bustards during the search. We noted a few passing Pallid Swifts and, just for variety, helped dig a stranded young Polish girl’s car out of deep sand, and even had to listen to the veiled threats regarding access and birdwatching in the area from an expat Brit who was “just giving helpful advice”. I felt for his clients as he drove off into the dunes in a small hire car leaking a significant trail of oil, but was gone before we could warn him.

A rather slow but still good lunch was taken near the coast and we then headed to a fine lookout point above towering seacliffs for our final bird. It was perhaps a shade earlier than usual and we had to wait a little, enjoying the extraordinary views north towards and over the cluster of islands of La Graciosa and Montaña Clara. Suddenly, above us, glided a gorgeous Eleonora’s Falcon, heading towards the breeding cliffs. Another appeared moments later, then every few minutes, another, followed by another, until after enjoying eight, we decided to call it a day! Fabulous birds in a fabulous setting.

Once settled at the hotel, we decided to take the 15 minute walk to the town breakwater. Walking out, we could barely see a bird, despite it being high tide and I assumed that the shorebirds would be roosting out on the small rocky islands left exposed. However persistence and getting progressively closer meant we finally teased out five new species! Double figures of Whimbrel were the most obvious, with two small groups of Ruddy Turnstones and half a dozen Common Ringed Plovers hiding amongst the rocks, while a single Dunlin disappeared almost as quickly as it had appeared. Three Kentish Plovers, including two juveniles on a small sandy beach rounded off an excellent hour!

Day 7: The plan was for two trips on slow ferries to travel back to Tenerife via Gran Canaria. A change in schedule, to exit later than originally planned, made it easy for us to get to the dock in time and board, though it was immediately obvious that there were very, very few seabirds about. Indeed, in the just over 200km of the journey, just 100 Cory’s Shearwaters were seen, probably less than had passed offshore from the breakwater in an hour the evening before! However, the first of 26 Bulwer’s Petrels made a showing while still in sight of Lanzarote, with one even disappearing under the bow of the ferry briefly as it cruised and flickered over the ocean, using the wind diverted by the ferry. A single distant leaping Bottle-nosed and a fine close group of Atlantic Spotted Dolphins also brightened-up the watching, and a tiny black bird was spotted sitting on the ocean in front of the bow, which showed its white rump as it flicked off, this being a European Storm Petrel, but it was too quick for most. A shout, for a flock of birds moving higher up, was a surprise as we started approaching Gran Canaria. This was for the 36 Whimbrels in line as they headed south, ignoring Gran Canaria and not exactly on course for southwest Fuerteventura, either!

While we had been assured that we would arrive in time to catch for our original ferry, and which had even been rebooked a week earlier for a slightly later connection, due to late arrival of the first, we were still disappointed to see “our” ferry sail out in front of us while we were on dry land and despite having tried to get the company to hold it for us. We accepted the suggestion to continue to Tenerife on the next fast ferry instead, two hours later, finally made our arrival at our hotel at around 9 p.m., however we were still greeted by a set dinner table and superb reception and waiter service. At least we had a superb dinner and most of us slept very comfortably after a rather trying afternoon.

Day 8: With apparently high cloud and less wind, we headed back to the laurel forest we’d seen at the beginning of the tour, now putting it firmly into perspective after two and a half days on the semi-desert eastern islands, seeing a number of close Tenerife Robins and a few canariensis Common Chaffinches. However thick and chilly cloud was blowing in higher up again and at 15ºC we turned and headed down towards the coast instead. A couple of irrigation pools which hold permanent water often hold interesting birds, and indeed, after noting the first Common Moorhens for the majority of the group, the quiet waiting produced a series of fine birds. A number of Black-crowned Night Herons were roosting in the giant reeds at one end, while first a juvenile then a female and finally an adult male Little Bittern made flypasts for the group. A few Atlantic Canaries were our last, one of three calling Sardinian Warblers put in a brief show, a European Turtle Dove came down to think about drinking, a few Canary Islands Chiffchaffs fed in the bushes and even a Grey Wagtail called in the distance. Once back inside the bus, a Lang’s Short-tailed Blue feeding on flowers beside the bus was seen well, along with several Monarchs floating over the roads as we headed down to the Tenerife South Airport to drop off the first departures. Farewells made, the rest of us headed back off up towards the Canary Pine forest, noting more cloud than normal, and went for lunch on the terrace and gardens of a large hotel. The water features and pines attract a variety of the local birds, and couple of teneriffae African Blue Tits, a pair of Tenerife Blue Chaffinches, and a fine adult male canariensis Great Spotted Woodpecker feeding in an almond tree were all enjoyed. With numerous Plain Swifts feeding low over the forest, it was a classic selection of the island’s birds to enjoy along with a super lunch!

We finished with a last visit to one of the reservoirs in the south of the island, with two Southern Grey Shrikes en route, plus numerous Little Ringed Plovers, a single Grey Heron, Little Egret and Spanish Sparrow, a drinking European Turtle Dove, and several Blackcaps, Common Blackbirds and Canary Islands Chiffchaffs at the site made for a good finale, before we enjoyed a last drink on the way to the airport where we all said goodbye.

So, 76 bird species is a fine tally for 7 days in mid-summer around these islands, including all the endemics and the vast majority of the other characteristic and localised birds we could have seen. Several endemic Gallotia lizards, a gecko, butterflies and, of course, plants were enjoyed too.  And the very different four main islands we visited showed the variety in culture present too, from the relatively unpopulated and greener La Gomera to desertic Lanzarote with its characteristic white villages.

- John Muddeman

Created: 14 August 2018