Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Madeira & Desertas Islands - A Seabird Extravaganza! - 11th-15th June 14


Weather: Misty build-up early on, leading to much hotness during the rest of the days.

Wildlife seen:
Birds: Cory's Shearwater; Fea's Petrel; Zino's Petrel; Bulwers Petrel; Madeiran Storm-petrel; Little Egret; Kestrel; Quail (H); Moorhen; Western Yellow-legged Gull; Lesser Black-backed Gull; Common Tern; Feral Pigeon; Trocaz Pigeon; Plain Swift; Whimbrel; Berthelot's Pipit; Grey Wagtail; Robin (H); Blackbird; Blackcap; Madeiran Firecrest; Rock Sparrow; Madeiran Chaffinch; Goldfinch; Atlantic Canary; Common Waxbill.
Plus: Loggerhead Turtle; Madeiran Wall Lizard.
Plus: Bottle-nosed Dolphin, Spotted Dolphin, Bryde's Whale, Short-finned Pilot Whale, Mediterranean Monk Seal,.
Plus: Brown Trout, Atlantic Flying Fish.
Plus: Small White, Speckled Wood, Monarch butterflies.
Plus: Chequered Beetle; Southern Green Shield Bug; Hairy Shield Bug; Spider Wasp.
Plus: Rock Orchid, various flowers including a few endemics.

Places visited:
Funchal; Seixal; Chao da Ribeira; Laural Forest; Ponta da Sao Lornco; Desertas Grande; Pico do Arieiro mountain.

'Generally, I like all islands. There, it is easier to rule.' Albert Camus

'We're from Madeira, but perfectly respectable, so far.' George Bernard Shaw

'A European says: I can't understand this, what's wrong with me? An American says: I can't understand this, what's wrong with him?' Terry Pratchett

'My mind dances then wanders, filled with hopes of days and special moments, of sun-filled glades, and sweet Madeira wine.'

A sea-bird enthusiast’s paradise, the Madeiran Islands are located in the middle of the North Atlantic some 560 kilometres off the coast of north-west Africa. Affectionately known as the 'Atlantic's Floating Garden', the archipelago consists of five larger islands and a few small islets. Of the larger islands, only Madeira and Porto Santo are inhabited. The Desertas Islands, situated 25 kilometres south-east of Madeira, are designated as a Special Protection Area on account of their internationally important sea-bird populations and are, arguably, the ultimate destination for anyone with an interest in the sea-birds of the Western Palearctic.

The alluring ‘llhas Desertas’ are barren, devoid of both permanent human habitation and fresh water. Officially protected since 1990, the area is now a nature reserve comprising the islands themselves and the surrounding sea to a depth of 100 metres. There is a permanent research station on Deserta Grande with a few wardens the only human inhabitants of the islands today. Viewed from Madeira, the islands look small; approached by boat, however, they are imposing, rising majestically from a crystal clear sea.

Desertas Islands!
We were sitting on the rocks, listening to the waves crash up onto the beach. It was around midnight and we were straining our eyes looking out for Bulwer’s Petrels; Cory’s Shearwaters and Madeiran Storm Petrels as they arrived back after a day's fishing out at sea. The full moon lit up the area and every now and then a dark shadow flew past, prompting one or all of us to point up and shout 'There's one!'.

A few days earlier I had set off, just before midnight, for the long-ish journey to our destination, the Islands of Madeira. Train; coach and plane got me to Funchal late morning, to be met by first, Luis Alves and then Martin Beaton, our tour guide leaders for the trip. It was also here that I got to meet the other 11 members of our party - 'We meet as strangers but leave as friends' - as the saying goes. We were a pretty mixed bunch, seemingly from all corners of the UK. There was even one guy from the US.

A short coach ride to Funchal and to our hotel, the Residencial Pina Guest House, a family run, 3-star hotel where we were staying for 3 nights. I managed to blag a top-floor, twin-bedded room which afforded a terrific view of the town, all the way down to the seafront. A quick 15 minute freshen up and, after unpacking and setting up my day-pack gear, I headed back down to the bar area where we were to be given our itinerary for the trip.

First up was a choice of having a relaxing afternoon after the journey or a zodiac ride out in the bay to search for whales and dolphins. Being a fully paid-up member of the WDCS I figured there was only one choice. So, after a brisk 15 minute walk down the hill to the bay we were given a quick talk on what to expect, given a life jacket to wear, mine being a smaller one to accommodate the camera and then we were all sitting comfortably in the zodiac. As we moved off from the quayside a Little Egret, fishing onshore, watched us sail by.

For the next 3 hours or so, we were treated to lots of sea-bird action, mainly Cory's Shearwaters, their acrobatics above the waves amazing to watch. But the stars were the Spotted Dolphins, swimming along beside us, as they do, giving us some great entertainment. We also spotted some Bryde's Whales and Short-finned Pilot Whales breaking the surface before diving deep.

It was quite a feat to hang onto my camera and binoculars whilst also trying not to be bounced out of the zodiac as it scythed through the choppy waves. This, of course, consequently made it extremely difficult to get anything like a decent photo, but it was great fun trying.

Radios between the boats squawked out possible sightings and everyone keep a lookout for anything that moved, someone, somewhere always calling out. The hot sun was beating down on us from above whilst also reflecting up from the sea, confirming it was a very good idea to smother myself in Factor50! What with all the great weather and the great sea-life, it was all terrifically, entertaining stuff and I was enjoying myself immensely already.

But, all too soon, the fun came to an end and we headed back to Port. The same Little Egret was still there, welcoming us back. Climbing off the zodiac onto dry, firm land took a few minutes to find my land-legs and, after handing back our jackets and bidding farewell to the boat crew, we made the first of many tortuous climbs up the steep hill back to our hotel. Needless to say, after a few of these climbs, I was feeling a little fitter when I eventually left the Islands. Although it didn't seem like it at the time.

Martin had suggested we all have dinner together in the evening, to break further ice and so, after a quick change I found myself sitting outside our hotel bar, ice cold beer in hand, looking up to see screaming Swifts bisecting the skies above, looking every bit the Spitfires of the birding world. The general consensus of opinion was that they were all Plain Swifts as opposed to Pallid, which were also supposed to be around. Looking around the area, we could see plenty of basking Madeiran Wall Lizards, fighting for the best sun spots, their bodies showing off a bit of metallic green in the sun. I idly wondered if they also used Factor50.

We had a really nice dinner, in my case a peppered steak, washed down with some really cold beers. There were murmurs of satisfaction from all around me and it was generally agreed that, for the price, it was a very good choice of restaurant. Although we were from all over the UK the general topic amongst everyone was the one thing we all had in common: wildlife.

A taxi back upto the hotel was touted, a few people taking up the offer. Most decided to walk, which persuaded me to give it another go. In fact, it seemed easier second time around, possibly because I knew where the hard climb started but possibly because I needed to walk off the excellent meal. Maybe the beers helped a bit. Anyway, 15 minutes later I was again sat outside the hotel bar with another beer in my hand, looking out over the town, the skies darkening around us. It was a perfect end to a perfect first day. I slept very soundly that night.

On this particular holiday our breakfasts were usually around 7.30, a very respectable time of the morning. As opposed to other trips, where we were up before dawn, birding for a couple of hours beforehand. Being closer to the equator, Madeira's dawn and dusk appeared quicker than the UK, twilight being almost unheard of. Currently, dawn in the UK was appearing just before 4, whereas here it didn't brighten up until around 6.

After a typical Mediterranean breakfast, rolls and croissants, which made a nice change from a fry-up, we headed off to Madeira's Laurel Forest, a type of subtropical forest, characterised by broad-leaf tree species with evergreen, glossy leaves. It's now been designated a Special Protection Area. High in the cloud forest we were after the endemic Trocaz Pigeon, one of two specialities of the Islands. The journey took nearly an hour, threading our way up and up, through numerous tunnels, until we found ourselves parked up near a working farm. Being higher up it was also cooler and we all quickly donned our fleeces. You could almost touch the moisture in the air.

Where's that Pigeon?
We didn't venture too far, we didn't have to. With the cloud forest all around us we all looked skywards to see who would be the first to spot a pigeon. Now I'm not really known for my spotting, especially in the air as my eyesight isn't the best. I could just about make out the high mountains around me let alone specks in the sky. So I started looking down and soon saw a small butterfly fluttering lazily past. To my delight it settled a few yards away and was soon identified as a Speckled Wood, a bit brighter than our own back home.

Perez's Frogs could be heard calling away nearby and then the first shout went up. A pair of Trocaz's flew high up, from one side to the other. Disappointingly they landed back down in the lush forest, behind several broad-leafed branches, as did further sightings. Some of us then went for a wander, with some finding interesting fungi and lichen.

Then Luis scoped a Pigeon, fairly high up, on a branch and, more importantly, out in the open. Described as a Woodpigeon with attitude, it's a mainly grey bird with a pinkish breast. It was initially threatened by the arrival of humans and nearly disappeared due to habitat loss and hunting but has since been downgraded to 'Least Concern' as its numbers increased.

Martin informed us that the Trocaz Pigeon was primarily responsible for the creation of the Cloud Forest here, by bringing in seeds and, in turn, the Forest now sustains them. A great example of mutual back-scratching! There was more to the story but it started to drizzle and, fearful of a wet camera, I ducked under the nearest tree for shelter.

Not long after, we decided to head back down the mountain, having seen at least 20 or so Pigeons. It was time for another speciality of the Islands, a Levada Walk. And no, it's not a Latin dance. Levadas are not unique to Madeira but are famous for their accessibility. There are over 1300 miles of channels to explore and search out the beautiful and fabulous flora and fauna. We didn't do the complete walk, far from it! Instead we opted for a short, 3-5km walk, traversing the 'mini-canals', irrigation systems developed to distribute water from the rainfall regions on the north of Madeira island to the drier sun parched regions of the south.

Almost immediately we spotted the second speciality species, our first Madeiran Firecrest, right above us, perched on an overhanging branch. Although it was too dark for a photo, it gave everyone present good views before flying off. It was also here that we spotted the Madeiran Chaffinch, a subspecies of the common Chaffinch. Martin, being an expert Botanist, pointed to various trees and shrubs, some of which were endemic. Along the mini-canals we could see lots of Brown Trout swimming against the current, breaking the surface every now and again, gulping in air. And, when we returned to our starting point we found some of the endemic Rock Orchids, growing right beside the road.

After a very nice lunch we drove to the 'Vereda da Ponia de Sao Lourenco', which is a popular area for hikers. Although we weren't there to hike. In fact we 'hiked' about 50 metres. Off the beaten track. The reason being this was an area where Berthelot's Pipit and Rock Sparrow could be found. Plenty of examples were flying around the area, plus a few Canarys. We also heard, but could not locate, a Common Quail, somewhere below us.

It was all good stuff but, for me, the highlight here was the discovery of some very interesting insects. I first spotted a large-ish, black insect fly past me and land on a nearby flower. Looking down at it, in the sunshine, I could see some purple reflecting off its' head and shoulders. It also had long yellow antennae.  It was later identified as a Madeiran Spider Wasp. And beside it, on other parts of the flower were some of my favourite insects, Shield Bugs. I could see at least 2 species, Southern Green Shield Bug and Hairy Shield Bug, with various other, early Instar variants. A couple of Longhorn Beetles were present too which were also later identified as Chequered Beetles. I had found myself in insect heaven.

My back soon began to ache and, as I stood up straight, I took a look around the landscape and its' intriguing geology formations. Quite stunning.

The archipelago itself is a series of oceanic volcanic islands that date back to the Miocene period, and were constructed from a hotspot in the Earth's crust. Fortunately for the people of Madeira the islands have not seen any volcanic activity in the last 6000 years or so. There were lots of examples of the geological history of the Islands all around, mainly on Desertas Grande. It was quite mesmeric. Well, to me anyway.

We eventually moved on, with me bidding a reluctant farewell to the bugs. We drove back to town and, before returning to our hotel, we stopped off at the quayside to look for any migrant Waders that may have flown in. But the chances of seeing anything on that particular day, at that particular time were very minimal. Although the birds we did see here were Little Egret; a family of Grey Wagtails and a very accommodating Western Yellow-legged Gull. With attitude.

But the star birds were a small group of Common Waxbills, high in a tree, right beside a main road. I had to keep an eye out for any cars whilst trying to shield the sun from my eyes, whilst trying to get a photo of them.

We arrived back at our Hotel where Martin and Luis's run-down of the next day's activities gave me just 25 minutes to shower and change before dinner. In fact, I even managed a quick beer before we left. Dinner was at the same restaurant where I decided to try one of the local specialities, the Black Pig. Followed up with what tasted like raspberry cheesecake. Again washed down with a few beers. And again we opted to trek back up to the Hotel, this time walking past a large outdoor screen, showing a World Cup game. I can't remember who was playing. I managed to make it back to the hotel again, slightly breathless and rewarded myself with another beer or two before bed.

Breakfast the next morning was at a leisurely 8 o'clock. Today was to be the highlight of the trip - an overnight stay on Desertas Island. Our boat for the trip was the 'Ventura do Mar', a very comfortable 40 year-old, 50-foot long, twin-masted sailing ketch. The crew were very friendly and very accommodating.

The voyage out to Desertas took around 4 hours or so, due mainly to the fact that we made a few detours to try and get closer looks at the various sea-birds flying around but also to watch a large group of Bottle-nosed Dolphins accompany us for part of the trip. The water was very clear, it was very blue and it was packed with these fabulous marine mammals. It was very difficult not to think that they were enjoying themselves performing for us as much as we were watching them perform.

Although the birds were mainly Cory's again we did spot the odd Fea's and Bulwers Petrel. Lots of Lesser Black-backed Gulls were around the area as well, trying to imitate the Shearwaters, by gliding just above the waves. They were good, but they weren't as good as the Shearwaters, who, almost effortlessly, gave them and us a majestic flying display. Although clumsy on land they were obviously in their element in the air.

Unlike us, hanging on for dear life, fighting the very strong wind and choppy 'white horses'. At times the boat seemed to lurch right over until I was looking straight into the sea itself. It was just like one of those fairground rides, only much better. I had packed away my camera earlier as I found it almost impossible to take any worthwhile photos on the trip over.

The Islands soon came into view and we arrived at a little inlet where we could see evidence of human settlement. It was to be our base for the rest of the day and night. The crew ferried us all, in 3's and 4's, to the island. We were warned that it would probably be a wet landing so everyone removed shoes and socks. In the event the crew managed to get us ashore with hardly a splash. Top sailors!

I was one of the first ashore and, just as we landed, 3 Whimbrels sang out and then flew over us towards the nearby spit. We dumped our bags in the tents where we were spending the night. I was allocated a space in an 8-man tent, but in the event, there were only 5 of us, a few guys opting to sleep out, under the stars. I'm afraid I wimped out.

There soon followed a walk around the area - 'Keep to the paths!' - where we spotted a few nesting Cory's and quite a few endemic flowers of the area. Dinner was soon on the go and, whilst waiting to be fed, we set up our sleeping bags and went for further exploratory walks.

While we were having our dinner - a BBQ - the short twilight started to bring in the first birds. Cory's Shearwaters were the early returnees, their eerie calls sounding just like small, crying children. No wonder the early mariners thought they were hearing devils in the night. Then we could discern the soft, dog-like calls of Bulwer's Petrels followed shortly after by the cricket-like call of the Madeiran Storm Petrels. These were the birds that surprised me the most. I thought I was hearing crickets and grasshoppers when it was pointed out that they were, in fact, the Petrels. They also made sounds like rubber shoes on a polished floor.

Just before we were left to our own devices, the Wardens gave us a wonderful close-up view of some Petrels they were ringing plus a little bit of the history of the Island and the wildlife.

This was the part of the trip that I was really looking forward to. I have always wanted to experience the sounds of petrels and shearwaters in the night and so, armed with my head-torch I found myself, with 4 other happy campers, sitting quietly on the rocks around midnight, listening to all the birds flying in. I had a big, stupid grin on my face and I was pretty sure that the other guys did too. At one point I stood up, all of our torches had long been switched off and I could feel the wings of the birds fly so close to me that they almost slapped me in the face. I soon sat back down again.

Looking up into a cloudless night sky filled with a blanket of stars, the silhouetted birds could be seen flying over. Although it was around midnight it was still quite warm and I soon divested myself of my fleece. There was a slight breeze coming in off the sea but the sights and sounds of the sea-birds were hypnotic and haunting. Truly a life-time experience and it was with some regret that I made my way back to the tent to grab a few hours sleep.

Dawn rose earlier than I did and, after packing everything back up again, it was soon time for breakfast. Whilst we were eating, a Berthelot's Pipit stopped by to look for any handouts. It gave everyone some wonderful photographic opportunities as did the plentiful Atlantic Canarys. And the rock formations here were even more impressive than elsewhere. There were also more Madeiran Wall Lizards here, up and about, trying to soak up the warming sun.

As we were waiting for the crew to pack and load everything back onto the boat, we could hear another Whimbrel. We soon picked it up and saw it land by the spit again. Then someone saw one of the very rare Mediterranean Monk Seals fishing just offshore. It dived and surfaced every few minutes. A Pinniped, there are now only around 450-500 remaining around the world, with only about 20 or so here and are unfortunately one of the most endangered mammals in the world. We were very lucky to see one.

Just before we embarked Martin took me for another walk around the area, pointing out the fabulous flowers, some of them endemic to the island. But, all too soon, we were called down to the 'Departures Lounge' for embarkation. In 2's and 3's most of us managed to avoid getting our feet wet and soon we found ourselves back aboard the boat. Two of our party had decided to sleep on-board and welcomed us back with navy-like whistles and 'permissions to come aboard'. We were soon on our way back to the mainland.

Departures Lounge!
On the way, again braving the choppy seas, we were soon pointing out shearwaters and petrels. It was even hotter on the trip back and the sun soon found places which my sun-cream failed to shield. But at that point I didn't much care, I was having too much fun. Some of the other highlights of this particular journey, for me, were sightings of Atlantic Flying Fish, looking like dragonflies, floating over the sea and a couple of Loggerhead Turtles swimming lazily by. We also spotted some Short-finned Pilot Whales, just before they spotted us and dived, never to be seen again.

We arrived back at the harbour around 2-ish. And, with wobbly legs, made our way to a nearby restaurant for lunch. The staff here weren't as clever as the other place and, with some confusion, managed to finally take our orders for food. And beer. I even had the odd refreshing glass of wine.

This time we were spared the walk up the hill, being ferried back by bus and arrived back at the hotel around 4. We were given a few hours off to prepare for our last excursion later in the evening. I had a quick change and, bearing in mind that if I lay down on the bed I would fall asleep, headed back down to the bar area. Others had the same thing in mind and we sat there spotting more Swifts screaming overhead again, hearing a lone Kestrel and then a Blackcap singing out, while also spotting more basking Lizards.

At 8 everyone was ready and we were soon heading off to Pico do Areeiro for another highlight - listening to the Zino's Petrels coming in to roost to their breeding sites. Pico do Arieiro, at 1818m high, is Madeira Island's third highest peak. So the views up here were fantastic. We had arrived just in time to see the sunset behind the distant hills. After a quick talk, describing the area and the birds, it was headlights on and we walked the footpath northwards towards Pico Ruivo, which is the highest peak. It took about 30 minutes and, in complete darkness and silence we started to hear the birds arriving. In ones and twos then more, they flew around us singing out their eerie song. It was just too spectacular for words.

Unfortunately, the Zino's Petrel is predictably classed as another endangered species and this is the only known breeding area in the world. But, thanks to the efforts of the Freira Conservation Project there are now thought to be around 65-80 breeding pairs.

We spent about an hour here before reluctantly making our way back. The walk back was mostly uphill and I admit to struggling a bit by now. I was definitely looking forward to another beer. The journey back down to the hotel was quicker and I was soon sitting outside the bar again, beer in hand. It was gone 1.30 in the morning before I fell into bed. Another magical day.

Breakfast was at 8 again and the talk over the food was of the events we had all experienced in the last few days, everyone trying to choose their favourite moment, which was quite impossible.

Back to the room and packed, ready to go, it was unfortunately time to leave. We bade farewell to Luis and 5 others of our group who were staying on for a few more days and headed to the airport for our flight home. Another uneventful journey got me back home around 9.30.

It was a brilliant trip, leaving me with wonderful memories and photos.

Thanks for persevering this far! If you spot any omissions or glaring errors, please let me know.

For more photos of this trip please visit my Photobox site!
For more of my photos please visit my Flickr site!