Madeira - November 2004
by Teus Luijendijk & Adriana Contin
A week late November 2004 was chosen for a short trip to island of Madeira. Since I had not had any opportunity to travel for two whole years, it was about time! However, it was also something to be careful about, as I had experienced some problems with my heart disease last time when I was out birding abroad.
Therefore it was to be a relaxing holiday, without the usual hurried 'cleaning-up' of new bird species. Made no difference whatsoever, as Madeira (like the Canaries) offers easy birding without any trouble to go through.
As Adriana expressed a general interest in the island and doing some walks there, it seemed nothing could really go wrong when birding was mixed with the more common kind of tourism.
I brought several birding reports, taken from the excellent website http://madeira.seawatching.net, managed by Niklas Holmström; particularly the ones that described birding in autumn had my attention, as most birders visit this destination during (late) summer. These reports were also promising, as they described the finding of some nearctic rarities like Spotted Sandpiper Actitis macularia, White-rumped Sandpiper Calidris fuscicollis and Ring-billed Gull Larus delawarensis. So hopes were high of finding something special!
There are many good hotels and especially if you travel off-season (like us) it shouldn't be too difficult to find something you like. For some recommendations, see the previously mentioned Madeira site. We had arranged a package including a hotel in Caniço (or better: Garajau) from where we could actually see the Ponta do Garajau Christo Rei statue. For hardcore seawatchers an absolute must is to stay in the Residencia Calhau in Porto Moniz, where you can observe several species of shearwater from your balcony.
After a good day's birding you wish to have a good meal. As there are tourist areas almost everywhere, you will easily find some place to eat. Fish is well represented on the menus (and usually very good). Plenty snackbars where you can find 'faster food', too. We were fond of having a pastel for lunch, but good pastelarias strangely enough seemed to be scarce.
Prices are generally low, although there are some more expensive restaurants. Whether or not they are so much better, I don't know. In Garajau, we particularly liked a very good pizzeria called la Carbonara.
We arranged in advance a car at the airport (from Brava cars). We drove a Fiat Punto which was doing well. Take full insurance, though (you never know, and it's not expensive). No hassle whatsoever with the company; just sign the contract and pay and off you are!
You can still find the old road (antiga) here and there, but most parts have been transformed into tunnels. This has improved transport enormously. You can still experience how it may have been before, in the less densely populated W part of the island, where hardly any tunnels have been constructed. The new tunnel from Ribeira Brava towards São Vicente means an enormous improvement in the north-south connection. You could very well stay in Funchal and drive early every morning to Porto Moniz for a decent seawatch and be back in time for breakfast! It takes only 45 minutes now.
I just took the Collin's guide. It could be useful though to bring Shorebirds and, if you are fond of gulls, the book by Klaus Malling Olsen. I forgot to bring the butterfly guide, but apart from using it to check the Madeira Speckled Wood Pararge xiphia, there is no real need for it, as I knew the other species that were possible. I also forgot to bring a cetacean guide, but as usual on my trips I only saw one species (and it's always the same!): Bottlenosed Dolphin Tursiops truncatus.
Very quiet and sunny during the first few days, but a gradually thickening cloud cover and more wind later on. The day on Porto Santo was the worst, with almost gale force wind and heavy (though short) showers. Temperatures more or less constant at 17°C.
Some bird pictures are included with this report. They were either taken from video recordings or with our digital camera. I used a Sony TRV-11E miniDV camera, equipped with a 2× converter and a Canon Powershot G2.
ITINERARY & LOCALITY INFO
Arrival in Madeira, after an OK flight leaving early a.m. from Amsterdam. Picked up the car, checked in at the hotel, and went for a ride to the São Lourenço peninsula. While Adriana went to walk a bit of the trail towards the lighthouse I stayed near the car as my condition was not optimal at the time. A flock of Meadow Pipits Anthus pratensis was present here and also 8 Sky Larks Alauda arvensis showed themselves well. Chiffchaffs Phylloscopus collybita seemed to be coming in from the east, heading for the first bushes near Prainha. On our way back we stopped at Machico, where we enjoyed the seaside. Here some waders were present, as well as a (surprising) Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo and a first-winter Common Gull Larus canus. Then drove to Funchal harbour, where I found another Common Gull!
Trocaz (or Long-toed) Pigeon Columba trocaz was one of the few target species, so we drove to Ribeiro Frio to check out the 'traditional' Balcões watchpoint. No real need to bother, though, as the first pigeon was already found up in a tree over the souvenir shop here. Excellent views, and also heard cooing very well (though very soft and therefore unrecordable as the stream here makes a lot more noise). No need to wait long for the second target species either, as we got Madeira Firecrests Regulus madeirensis flitting around our heads before we knew. We counted at least 25. The Balcões watchpoint is really stunning, but I failed to find any more pigeons. The urge to do so was also a bit lower now!
We drove down the northern slope from Ribeiro Frio and took the road towards Fajã Nogueira. Now this was beautiful! You find yourself here down in the valley that is overlooked from Balcões, and it is very quiet here. We saw several Trocaz Pigeons flying by and after turning one corner (near the end of the valley) we flushed a whole group from a nearby field! This corner is situated at N32°44.473' W16°54.160' and it is the corner (to the left) when you have passed crossing a small side valley with one house. It could be useful to stop before this corner, coninue slowly on foot and check out the fields below.
We later drove to some more touristy stuff like Santana and Ponta de São Jorge, but this yielded little birding. A short seawatch from Porto da Cruz produced 8 Cory's Shearwaters Calonectris diomedea, but not much more. This site provides good views, however. It's probably not strategically positioned enough (like Porto Moniz is).
Via Funchal and Ribeira Brava we drove to the pass at Encumeada, where we had a spectacular view overlooking the mountains. From there we continued the road to Paúl da Serra, a sort of altiplano, which was very quiet (and therefore good for recording some Berthelot's Pipits Anthus berthelotii). We stopped at the road towards Rabaçal, but as this nowadays seems to be closed for cars, we didn't bother to walk to Rabaçal itself and do the walks there, but instead continued towards Porto Moniz. From Lamaceiros we walked a bit of the Levada da Central da Ribeira da Janela, which was very nice. It takes you towards laurel forest and it didn't take long before we saw a Trocaz Pigeon , albeit only briefly. Madeiran Firecrests were observed flowerpiercing here, something I had never seen 'our' Firecrests doing. Many dragonflies were depositing their eggs in the water; it took me some time to figure out that these were not Common Darters Sympetrum striolatum, but instead 'Madeira Darters' S. nigrifemur (I am not sure of the English name).
We checked out the N coast (Seixal & S. Vicente), then drove back to Porto Moniz for a late lunch and a seawatch. I sat near the old swimming pools (which were being restored) and had excellent views due to clear sky and lack of heat haze. A very calm sea (only 1-1.5 m swell) made me somehow expect little seabird movements, but this turned out to be wrong: a regularly increasing number of Cory's Shearwaters flew W, and surprisingly also 2 Sooty's flew by. A smallish shearwater was too far off for identification, but when I saw something else wheeling through my telescope view, I knew I had found a Pterodroma. A whitish tail and dark underwings were the only details I could see on this bird, but at least I had seen a Fea's/Zino's Petrel P. feae/madeira ! Fortunately later a second bird appeared and that seemed to be attracted by a large raft of approx. 180 resting Cory's Shearwaters, allowing good comparison. Although closer than the first bird, it was still more than 2 km away. Two skuas (Great and Pomarine) completed the watch, and at 18.00h I quit and we drove back to our hotel. The road Porto Moniz-Funchal is very fast, as the new tunnel between S. Vicente and Ribeira Brava provides a welcome shortcut.
This morning we drove to Curral das Freiras, the hiding place for nuns from Funchal when in 1566 French pirates looted the island during a two-week terror stay. It was very quiet when we arrived, and birds, too, were low in numbers. Noteworthy was a Chaffinch flowerpiercing, a behaviour from this species I hadn't seen before.
We drove down again and visited the Botanical gardens (Jardim Botânico). This was very nice, although I couldn't find any migrant warblers I had hoped for (apart from 2 Chiffchaffs). Note that Madeira Firecrest already occurs here (you don't really need to visit the higher-altitude forests). A Sparrowhawk apparently knew that, too, but its attack was unsuccessful (this time). We particularly enjoyed a part of the gardens where edible plants were grown: fruits of all kinds were ripening and we thus had a good lunch. Special recommendations: Anona, Macadamia nuts, Feijoa sellowiana (my favourite), pitanga Eugenia uniflora and Guava Psidium guajava.
In the afternoon we walked a bit of the Levada da Serra (N from EN202, N of Camacha), but this wasn't any good: very quiet Eucalyptus globulus forest and no particular views.
Went down to Funchal again and arranged tickets for Saturday's ferry to Porto Santo (departure 08.00h, return at 19.00h). The ticket office is the little shabby building on the right hand side just before you go through the harbour tunnel under Loo rock. The ferry does not leave Funchal on Friday mornings, but in the evening instead. It returns the same night, in order to pick up passengers Saturday morning. Note that there may also be a fast connection (using a catamaran), which is of no use at all for birders.
Checked out Ponta da Garajau, which we could see from our hotel was in our vicinity. Some wintering (or just late) Plain Swifts whooshed around the cliff and a pod of approximately 40 Bottlenosed Dolphins already made my day, although attempts to show them to Adriana failed. Next time we bring 2 telescopes!?
Later we drove the south coast road heading W, visiting Calheta, Jardim do Mar and Prazeres. We walked a stretch of the Levada Nova (heading NW), which was OK, but not very special. Some butterflies (among others a nice male Long-tailed Blue Lampides boeticus) enlivened our walk.
We continued our way north and visited Ponta do Pargo, which did not produce very much, apart from many Desert Locusts Schistocerca gregaria (large pink migratory grasshoppers). Later we heard these would invade the Canary Islands in high numbers a few days later.
We arrived in time in Porto Moniz, for Adriana to take a jump into the natural swimming pool at Residêncial Calhau, for me to take position to do another seawatch. This was, however, a bit more monotonous than the first one, with a steady stream of Cory's Shearwaters heading W, and nothing else. Until ... I noticed an odd shearwater, which turned out to be a Great P. gravis ! I had seen this species before (and a lot) during my 2002 Atlantic Odyssey tour and visit to Tristan da Cunha, but now I got the opportunity to see them side-by-side with Cory's. And what a difference they make! Their flight action is so much different, much less leisurely, and with regular turns, wheels and whatever other sudden changes in direction. A second bird appeared and this even came a bit closer, allowing confirmation of the white rump-band and well-demarcated dark cap. Notice that seen from a distance, the underwing appears to be somewhat dark, only to light up when they come closer.
In the evening, after return to our hotel, I went to have a look at Ponta da Garajau, to listen to any possible (sea-)bird calls. Most I heard was a dog barking for the whole 40 minutes I was there and the (quite strong) breeze howling around the statue, but I did manage to hear 1 or 2 Barn Owls. Suddenly a weak but clearly audible cackling call sounded and I tried to transcribe this in my notebook. Upon returning home, I checked a recording of Madeiran Storm-petrel Oceanodroma castro and it actually did match quite well. However, given the time between hearing and checking the sound, and the fact that I heard it only once (although very clearly), this should not be considered a definitive record.
Arrived in Funchal at 07.30h to catch the ferry to Porto Santo. In low season the price for 2 persons is just € 4.70 lower than for a car with 2 persons (€ 99.50), so the choice was easy! This allowed us at least to see all of Porto Santo, instead of having to walk a lot.
The boat trip with the Lobo Marinho is OK, but the ship's vibrations do not allow you to use a telescope and even simple bins are difficult to hold still. A very good watchpoint is on deck 6, almost as close to the bow as you can get. Here vibrations are much less compared to the stern. The top deck is useless as you only see lifeboats on both sides. Best place is in front of the first-class lounge, but we were unfortunately not allowed to stand there.
The first part of the trip brings you past the Madeiran south coast, and not much is going on here. But look out for dolphins! We saw a splendid pod of 10 to 12 Bottlenosed Dolphins playing with the waves created by the ship. Even the tourists on board saw (and enjoyed) them! As soon as you see the Ponta de São Lourenço disappearing in the distance, it is time to really concentrate on seabirds. Within a short span, I saw 2 Fea's/Zino's Petrels and after reading the descriptions in Ned Brinkley's notes on recognition of Zino's Petrel at sea, I was pretty confident that the birds I saw were Fea's.
A little later no less than 5 Great Shearwaters flew by (heading SW) and close to Porto Santo we saw 3 times a big species of flying fish emerging from the water disturbed by the ship, and fly approx. 20-30 m before splashing into the water again. We then arrived at the island and soon after we were heading for the Tanque pond. This was not very easily found, as I thought it was just S of the airport terminal. Suffice to say it isn't: take the road towards Camacha and after a while you will see it appear on your left hand side. The pool was very (but not completely) dry and a surprising number of birds were foraging on the mud. Most noteworthy were 4 Dunlins that probably were of the nearctic race hudsonia, and a female Brambling Fringilla montifringilla, quite out of its normal habitat here! This pond definitely is a rarity trap, as previous finds include Spotted Sandpiper Actitis macularia and White-rumped Sandpiper Calidris fuscicollis.
The rest of the island did not produce much, but that was probably more due to the gale force wind and rain than to the lack of birds. We just toured the island, walked the beach, had a drink at Ponta da Calheta and took the ferry back to Madeira at 19.00h. No more birding, as by this time it was pitch dark. Too bad, as this crossing seems to be the best opportunity to see Madeiran Storm-petrel.
Woke up with the sound of strong winds and rain. This somewhat improved though, so we set out for a walk along another Levada. We chose something near Encumeada, but miscalculated the rainfall higher up in the mountains, so we continued towards São Vicente instead to visit the (volcanic) caves. Very nice, albeit somewhat different from the caves most people are used to: there is no calcium in the soil and these caves are just remnant lava tunnels, approx. 400,000 years old. Still quite impressive.
On our way back (again taking the antiga), we surprised a Trocaz Pigeon sitting next to the road. I pulled over and the bird was apparently flabbergasted as it stayed put at 2 m distance! It only took of after my attempts to reach for my camera....
Back on the S coast we drove to the Lugar de Baixo pond (following the perfect explanation from the Madeira website). Here we had a little lunch and counted the waterfowl present. Gadwall Anas strepera and Northern Shoveler Anas clypeata were newly listed rarities to our trip list and a number of Dunlins (now of the 'normal' type) foraged on the mud. A Cattle Egret Bubulcus ibis popped up and that was probably the same bird as had been reported during the weeks before. This site is definitely a must for visiting birders: anything might turn up here, not only in the migration season!
The afternoon was spent walking a stretch of the beautiful Levada do Norte, which we did NW-wards from the village of Boa Morte. No special birding here, but very nice views, and nice weather as this levada is at lower altitude (550 m).
Time to fly home, so we delivered our car and took our flight, which led us via Faro (ooops, yes, we dared to fly Transavia to Faro!) to Amsterdam.
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Copyright ©Teus Luijendijk 2004