Tuesday, 2 June 2015

A slice of Madeira

Never was a holiday so badly needed. Leading up to it both Polina and I were so busy and stressed that we almost thought of cancelling at the last minute but in the end we went and are both very glad we did.
Despite some interesting endemic species and sub-species, not to mention rare seabirds, our trip to Madeira was not going to be about birds. However I did manage to have one full day of birding around the island and a further half a day to myself which I spent around the grounds of our hotel photographing Firecrests. So this blog entry is not an extensive and comprehensive trip report, just my account of the brief slice of Madeiran birding that I sampled.
I was picked up at our hotel by Hugo and Catarina of Madeira Wind Birds, both experienced, knowledgeable and professional guides who have been running the well established Madeira Wind Birds for eleven years now. I was joined by a couple from Birmingham (Pat and Brian) and so with Polina sitting it out by the pool for the day, that made five of us.
First stop was at the north of the island to look for Trocaz Pigeon. We scanned along a cliff face and Catarina soon located a perched bird. We spent twenty minutes or so in this spot and had two or three more in that time. Sadly a bit distant for photos though.

Trocaz Pigeon, Madeira, 23rd May 2015
We stayed around the same area (Sao Vicente.....I  think?) where we had several Common Terns but no Roseates though.

Common Terns, Madeira, 23rd May 2015
A glance out to sea produced a few Manxies (been a while seen I've seen these) and slightly further out some Cory's Shearwaters. The only gulls were Yellow-legged (though Nearctic gulls do turn up so always worth checking).
There was also a pair of Grey Wagtails present. I've included the record shot below because it shows this bird is clearly darker around the head than the nominate Grey Wagtails I'm used to seeing in Britain or Ireland. The supercilium is much narrower and the yellow colour of the under-tail coverts is deeper too. This is a subspecies called schmitzi and is unique to Madeira.

Grey Wagtail - Motacilla cinerea schmitzi
We also watched a Kestrel chase a Sparrowhawk along the cliff face. Again, the Kestrels in Madeira are also a sub-species (canariensis) - smaller and darker than the nominate race.

Looking west along the north coast of Madeira - slightly more 'wild and craggy'' looking than the pretty south coast!

From there we moved to a spot for Madeiran Firecrest, we did eventually get good views of  this most interesting Regulid but photo opportunities were scarce. However I more than made up for that a few days later as you will see.
We continued along the north coast of Madeira heading in a westerly direction until we reached Porto Moniz where we stopped for a fine lunch.
Re-fueled and rested we continued on in our westerly direction stopping at a spot whose name escapes me (Hugo and Catarina please feel free to remind me). The wind was strong and the area exposed but we were fortunate to come across a group of at least ten Red-footed Falcons. These had been present for several days at least and were the first record of the species in Madeira since 2008 (I think). It seems there has been a westerly displacement of RF Falcons of late for some reason with individuals making it as far west as the Azores. Photographically I was working with 700mm lens on a monopod so in the wind it was difficult, but such great birds to watch as they hovered above the  meadow, dropping down every so often to pick up some insect prey from the long grass.

Female Red-footed Falcon, Madeira - 23rd May 2015
Having watched the falcons for a time, we pulled the car around to the opposite side of the field and walked along a dry stony track and out onto some suitable looking habitat for both Berthelot's Pipit and Spectacled Warbler. Sadly the strong wind kept the warblers down and we saw none at all. So having missed these twice in Mallorca and last year in Norfolk too, they still elude me. It'll be all the sweeter when I eventually do see one. However, Berthelot's Pipit was a lot easier and we had several birds in this area.

Berthelot's Pipit, Madeira, 23rd May 2015
Before heading back in the Funchal direction we stopped to take in the views, I'm not great on heights but the cliffs were impressive.

En route to Funchal we made a final stop at a small brackish pool just on the opposite side of the sea-wall. At first glance the pool appeared benign enough, just a few Coots and scruffy looking Muscovy Duck. However, given Madeira's position geographically, you could imagine that as a local patch, it'd be one of those places that ninety-nine times out of one hundred it would have just Coot and Muscovy Duck, but that one hundredth time could produce a decent Nearctic wader or Duck. And as Hugo confirmed, it has done just that, holding records of Buff-breasted, Solitary and Pectoral Sandpiper, Lesser Yellowlegs, Green and Blue-winged Teal, American Wigeon and from the opposite side of the globe, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper. I'm sure there's more besides but that's an impressive list to start with. We had been watching the pool for around fifteen when a couple of Squacco Herons rose up out of the reeds, flew a wide circle out over the sea before returning to pool and settling along the opposite edge to fish. Record shot territory once more but still cracking birds.

Squacco Heron

A second Squacco Heron

iphone shot of the pool - can you spot the Squacco Heron?
By then it was past 5pm, I'd had a great day birding in great company (thank you Hugo, Catarina, Brian and Pat) and so in the words of the late Bill O'Herlihy, it was time to say "we'll leave it there folks"!
I thought that was it for holiday birding, but Hugo had advised me to check for Firecrests around the hotel grounds itself. Later that week, Polina had decided to have a "pool day" and I was advised to go birding :-), no second invite needed!
I didn't need to look too far and found a Firecrest within twenty yards or so of our hotel room. At first glance Madeiran Firecest would appear to be a very close relative to Common Firecrest. However, at a molecular level it differs from Common Firecrest considerably (cytochrome b distances between the two are as high as 8.5%). Genetically, morphologically and vocally they are different and as such a separate species with a separate evolutionary history going back roughly 4 million years!
I spent several hours trying to photograph Madeiran Firecrest. In that time they really grew on me, interesting vocalizations and a different yet just as striking head pattern as Common Firecrest. All in all, bird of week for me!

Madeiran Firecrest, Choupana Hills Hotel, Madeira

I think Madeiran Firecrest is an example of what is so interesting about Madeira's flora and fauna. Obviously the island is famous for rare breeding pterodromas and other interesting petrels but the endemics and sub-species that occur there and the subtle differences between them and the races that occur on mainland Europe are fascinating. For example, Blackcaps were numerous throughout the parts of the island I visited. The race Madeiran heineken is supposedly darker than the nominate race, however without a side by side comparison, that was difficult to assess. Yet it was the vocalisation that I found most fascinating. The song is instantly recognisable as Blackcap but there was something different. I listened to the song of nominate race Blackcaps on xeno-canto and would suggest that the Madeiran birds sing in shorter phrases of around two seconds apiece as opposed to nominate race Blackcaps that appear to sing in phrases that are at least four seconds long and often longer. Robins and Blackbirds too had subtle differences, Robins looked paler, Blackbirds seemed bigger with a heavier bill. As my old biology teacher used to tell us, "mother nature doesn't do things for fun" - all of these differences are for a reason, helping the bird to occupy and thrive within a certain biological niche.

Female Blackcap, Choupana Hills Hotel, Madeira

So, that's it. A pity I didn't see Spectacled Warbler and a pity not to get on a pelagic, but you have to leave something behind so you have a reason to go back. And I would certainly go back to Madeira, beautiful island, very friendly people and fascinating birds.

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