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Birds and Butterflies on La Palma, 18 February – 10 March 2008,
The advert said ‘New for Winter 2007 - La Palma - with direct flights from the UK’. For us that was too good to be true as my wife, Anne avoids boats like the plague; so we booked then and there. We knew La Palma to be lusher than many of the Canary Islands with a good coverage of Laurel forests, and with speciality birds and butterflies. With relatively little available information the challenge of a new place to explore excited us.
La Palma isn’t a large island, being 64kms North/South by 40kms East/West. The population is around 70,000, of which 18,000 live in and around the capital, Santa Cruz. We hired a car for the middle week of our 3-week stay to explore the island. The main roads are in good condition but be prepared to be going uphill or downhill around bends all the time. The other two weeks were spent around our resort, Los Cancajos, and Santa Cruz. At all times (during the day) we had our binoculars with us and I carried my butterfly net.
We travelled on a package deal through Thompson staying at the Hotel p0 Taburiente Playa in Los Cancajos. We hired a car at the resort from Europcar, sourced through our Tour Rep.. We had a Seat Cordoba for seven days costing 209 Euros (with no excess). Lead-free petrol cost .84cents/litre.
Many of the roads on the island have been recently updated and re-numbered. Whilst my map was dated 2005 this was out-of-date. Basically the main five roads are LP1 which makes a northern loop round La Palma, LP2 makes a southern loop, LP3 crosses the centre east/west, LP4 gives access to the international astrological observatories in the north, and lastly LP5 goes from Santa Cruz to the airport. Two other roads worth mentioning are the LP20, a new by-pass for Santa Cruz, and a new by-pass for Los Llanos (number not known).
A line of volcanoes runs down the spine of the island, the highest point being 2421m. This makes the weather on La Palma interesting. Usually cloud builds-up during the day and dissipates during the evening. The temperature was fairly even during our stay with day-time temperatures about 21 deg.C and night-time temperatures about 17 deg.C. In the sun temperatures rose to the high 20’s. The prevailing wind was from the north-east. Even when strong there was little wind-chill. Whilst we had a lot of cloud, we only had one wet day and a shower on another two occasions.
For research we used ‘A Birdwatcher’s Guide to The Canary Islands’ by Tony Clarke and David Collins. We also carried Collins Bird Guide by Mullarney, Svensson et al, Collins Butterfly Guide by Tolman and Lewington, and Historia Natural de las Islas Canarias by David and Zoe Bramwell. This last book is written in Spanish and the bird illustrations are somewhat dodgy, however the distribution information for butterflies, dragonflies, mammals and reptiles was extremely useful. I am also grateful to Guy Padfield for butterfly assistance.
We stayed at the Hotel p0 Taburiente Playa, which is located on a headland next to the small resort of Los Cancajos. To the rear of the hotel lies a large area of well-vegetated scrub backed by a green escarpment. I used part of this area as ‘my patch’ for regular checks. The area was a triangle measuring about 150m x 200m with a barranco (rainwater channel) down one side. Most visits turned up Canary, Canary Islands Chiffchaff, Sardinian Warbler and Blackcap together with Monarch, Canary Blue and Canary Speckled Wood butterflies.
The rocky escarpments were home to many pigeons. Some were clearly Rock Doves but the majority were Feral Pigeons. The escarpment was also home to a family of Kestrel.
There is a good promenade past the resort and along the rocky sea-front. Atlantic Yellow-legged Gulls and Lesser Black-backed (graellsii) Gulls were present throughout, however the high-point was from 2nd March when Cory’s Shearwaters appeared opposite the hotel and showed between 100m and 400m from the shore. The highest ‘single scan’ was 174 birds on 4th. It was enlightening watching them patrolling and flock-feeding when a shawl of fish was found. Manx Shearwaters were also present but in smaller numbers, and one Little Shearwater was seen. From the hotel we also saw Bottle-nosed and Common Dolphins.
Santa Cruz was a pleasant 3km walk along the seafront from the resort. The walk passes a high rock escarpment and Common Buzzard, Kestrel and Peregrine were regularly seen. The path goes past Los Cuarteles Industrial Units and this is the only place we saw Canary Gecko, whilst Canary Lizards were common everywhere. On separate occasions we saw Sandwich and Common Terns in Santa Cruz Harbour.
The most numerous bird species on the island was Canary which were often found in flocks of 10 to 20. Spanish Sparrows were scarce with only 2 to 4 seen around the resort.
During our week with the car we visited a number of areas covered in the Clarke and Collins Guide. The references below relate to sections in the book.
Punta Fuencaliente – We visited this site twice. The road down from Los Canarios passes through an arid area and this is one of two places we saw Berthelot’s Pipit. We also saw Barbary Partridge here. There is a lighthouse at the point and on a sea-watch we saw Cory’s and Manx Shearwaters, together with 3 Minkie Whales. Next to the lighthouse is the Salinas (Salt works). Access is welcomed (local salt products on sale) and on the ponds we saw Sanderling, Redshank, Ruddy Turnstone, Common Sandpiper and Grey Plover.
Laguna de Barlovento - Again we made two visits here. The first time it was shrouded in cloud but the second time the weather was super with lots of local people in the adjacent recreational area. There is a café in the recreational area (closed Tuesdays). The laguna itself is viewable from two new viewing platforms. It is large, concrete sided, and full of gulls although in the surrounding greenery and recreation area we saw Trumpeter Finch, Greenfinch and Chaffinch together with Canary Island Brimstone and Small Copper.
Los Tilos – The valley at Los Tilos is the recognised place for many of the Island’s specialities and it didn’t let us down. There is a Visitor Centre and Café, however we were there on a Tuesday, the day the Café is closed. We were greeted outside the Visitor Centre by the local race of Chaffinch. After looking round the Centre we took a path signed ‘Camino al Mirador de Las Barandas’. The path climbs steeply then runs along the back of the Visitor Centre just above roof height but more importantly half way up the tree canopy. On this level stretch we saw Laurel Pigeon (at the top of the tree canopy), Bolle’s Pigeon (half way up the tree canopy and easier to see), and at eye level close to the path African Blue Tit and Tenerife Goldcrest.
The Airport Pools – A new Terminal Building is in the process of being constructed which will more than double the size of the old one. Guess where it is? That’s right – where the pools were.
La Palma Observatories
We took the LP4 from the northern side of Santa Cruz and wound our way through the Laurel then Pine forests, through the clouds above the tree line and up to the highest point on the Island at 2421m. When you get to the Astrological Observatories, take the road (gated at night) past the telescopes and it eventually leads to a small car park with an Information Hut at the top of the Island. There is a short path to a viewpoint into the Caldera de Taburiente volcano with stunning views. On the way up we passed a large flock of Chough and in the scrub at the top we found our only other pair of Berthelot’s Pipit. We chose to pic-nic at the car park and were amazed when a Raven came down, sat on the open car door and took crisps from my hand!
When crossing the island on the LP3 from Santa Cruz to Los Llanos you get to a large Visitor Centre and the map showed a road going to the southern rim of the crater with walks to viewpoints and pic-nic areas. Be warned that the road is gated. Only a limited number of vehicles are allowed at one time so you must call at the Visitor Centre, put your name on a list and wait. The twice we called there people had been waiting for over an hour so we left our vehicle in the car park and explored on foot rather than go to the top. There is a pleasant walk to the Ermita Virgin del Pino (small chapel) where we saw Kestrel, Chough, Canary, Canary Island Chiffchaff and Sardinian Warbler together with Canary Blue and Small Copper butterflies.
If you want lots of birds and butterflies then La Palma isn’t the place to go. We had to work hard to find birds even though the general habitat looks lush. Having said that the views were stunning, the people friendly and the island under-commercialised. The bonus being the endemics and sub-species.
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Systematic List of Sightings:
Cory’s Shearwater Calonectris diomedea – 1 on 25/2 and 2 on 28/2 at Faro Fuencaliente. Regular from the hotel from 2/3 to departure. Maximum ‘single scan’ count of 174
Manx Shearwater Puffinus puffinus – 2 on 25/2 at Faro Fuencaliente. Seen from the hotel on 2/3, 3/3, 4/3, 6/3 and 7/3. Maximum 12 on 2nd
Little Shearwater Puffinus assimilis – 1 from the hotel on 3/3
Little Egret Egretta garzetta - 1 on scrub behind hotel on 6/3
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea - 1 at Los Cancajos on 23/2, 3/3 and 8/3. I at Puerto Tazacorte on 2/3
Buzzard Buteo buteo insularum – Up to 4 seen regularly around island
Osprey Pandion haliaetus – 1 from the hotel on 5/3
Kestrel Falco tinnunculus canariensis – Seen regularly around island. Max. 10 on 25/2
Peregrine Falco peregrinus – 1 seen regularly between Los Cancajos and Los Cuarteles. 1 seen near Los Tilos on 26/2
Barbary Partridge Alectoris barbara – 2 near Faro Fuencaliente on 25/2
Grey Plover Pluvialis squatarola – 1 at Faro Fuencaliente Salinas on 28/2
Sanderling Calidris alba – 1 at Faro Fuencaliente Salinas on 25/2 and 28/2
Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus – 1 on rocks near hotel on 22/2
Redshank Tringa tetanus – 1 at Faro Fuencaliente Salinas on 28/2
Common Sandpiper Actites hypoleucos – 1 at Los Cancajos on 18/2, 19/2 and 20/2. 1 at Faro Fuencaliente Salinas on 25/2 and 28/2
Ruddy Turnstone Arenaria interpres – 7 on rocks at Los Cancajos on 21/2. 4 at Faro Fuencaliente Salinas on 28/2
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus graellsii – Regularly seen. Max 30 on 1/3
Atlantic Yellow-legged Gull Larus michahellis atlantis - Regularly seen. Max 60 on 1/3
Sandwich Tern Sterna sandvicensis - 3 at Santa Cruz Harbour on 4/3 and 6/3. 3 at Los Cancajos on 9/3
Common Tern Sterna hirundo – 4 at Santa Cruz Harbour on 9/3
Rock Dove Columba livia – A few seen which didn’t have any impurities. Max 3 on 27/3
Feral Pigeon Columba livia feral – Common and widespread
Bolle’s Pigeon Columba bollii – 2 at Los Tilos on 26/2
Laurel Pigeon Columba junoniae – 1 at Los Tilos on 26/2
Collared Dove Streptopelia decaocta – Common and widespread
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica – 3 on 22/2 and 8/3, 1 on 5/3 at Los Cancajos
Berthelot’s Pipit Anthus berthelotii berthelotii – 2 near Faro Fuencaliente on 25/2 and 28/2. 2 at the Observatories on 27/2
Grey Wagtail Motacilla cinerea canariensis – 1 at Los Canjacos on 18/2, 1 at Santa Cruz on 20/2, 4 on 28/2 and 3 on 2/3 at Puerto Tazacorte
Blackbird Turdus merula cabrerae – Common. Daily max. 6
Sardinian Warbler Sylvia melanocephala – Common. Daily max. 5
Blackcap Sylvia atricapilla heineken - Common. Daily max. 4
Canary Islands Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita canariensis – Common. Daily max12
Willow Warbler Phylloscopus trochilus – 2 on 18/2 and 1 on 3/3 on hotel scrub
Tenerife Goldcrest Regulus Regulus teneriffae – 2 on 26/2 at Los Tilos, 2 on 1/3 at Barlovento
African Blue Tit Cyanistes teneriffae palmensis – 4 on 26/2 at Los Tilos
Chough Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax – Common. Flock of 100+ on 27/2 on LP4, Flock of 80 at Barlovento on 1/3
Raven Corvus corax tingitanus – 3 on 27/2 at Observatories, 4 on 28/2 at Puerto Tazacorte
Spanish Sparrow Passer hispaniolensis – Seen regularly in Los Cancajos/Santa Cruz areas. Max. 6 on 9/3
Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs palmae - 12 on 26/2 at Los Tilos, 6 on 1/3 at Barlovento
Canary Serinus canaria – Common and widespread. Max. day count 100
Greenfinch Carduelis chloris – 2 on 1/3 at Barlovento
Trumpeter Finch Bundanetes githagineus amantum – 3 on 26/2 at Barlovento
Canary Islands’ Large White Pieris cheiranthi – 1 at hotel scrub on 22/2 and 24/2. 1 at Barlovento on 26/2
Small White Artogeia rapae – common and widespread. Max. 6 on 26/2 and 27/2
Clouded Yellow Colias crocea – 1 at hotel scrub on 23/2 and 8/3. 1 at Barlovento on 26/2
Canary Island Brimstone Gonopteryx Cleopatra palmae – 1 at hotel scrub on 23/2, 5/3 and 6/3. 6 at Barlovento on 1/3
Small Copper Lycaena phlaeas – 1 at Barlovento on 1/3
Canary Blue Cyclyrius webbianus – Up to 6 regularly seen in hotel scrub. 1 at Ermita Virgin del Pino on 29/2
Canary Red Admiral Vanessa vulcania – 1 at hotel scrub on 19/2 and 3/3
Painted Lady Cynthia cardui – 1 at hotel scrub on 22/2 and 8/3
Canary Speckled Wood Parage xiphioides – Up to 4 seen regularly in hotel scrub. 10 at Barlovento on 1/3
Monarch Danaus plexippus – Up to 3 seen regularly in hotel scrub
Emperor Anax imperator – Singles regularly seen
Scarlet Darter Crocothemis erythraea – 3 on 27/2 near the Observatories
Red-veined Darter Sympetrum fonscolombei – Male and female seen regularly in hotel scrub
Canary Lizard Gallotia gallotia palmae – Common and widespread
Canary Gecko Tarentola delalandii – 1 seen on 4/3, 6/3 and 9/2 at Los Cuarteles
Rabbit Oryctolagus cuniculus 1 in hotel scrub on 5/3 and 8/3
Minkie Whale Balaenoptera acutorostrata – 3 off Faro Fuelcaliente on 25/2
Common Dolphin Delphinus delphis – 2 from hotel on 4/3
Bottle-nosed Dolphin Tursiops truncates – 8 from hotel on 20/2
Black Crab Grapsus grapsus – common on shore rocks
Long-spined Urchin Centrostephanus longispinus – 2 in Puerto Tazacorte on 2/3
Bluefin Damselfish Abudefduf luridus – 10 in Puerto Tazacorte Harbour on 2/3
Atlantic Damselfish Chromis limbatus – 6 in Puerto Tazacorte Harbour on 2/3
Blue Sand-grasshopper Sphingonotus caerulans – Common on hotel scrub