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A Report from

Wild Canaries,

Chris Hall

We woke up on Tenerife with a dawn chorus of Chiffchaffs, the Canary Island species, which does not sing "chiff-chaff" at all. After breakfast, we explored an arid rocky landscape of xerophytic scrub, where the tall cacti, sprouting like candelabras, are favourite perches for numerous Kestrels, which are very common in the Canaries. More exotic species here included Hoopoe, Southern Grey Shrike, Spectacled Warbler and endemic Berthelot's Pipits, which seem to go round in pairs. Reaching the rocky Punta de la Rasca, the shore produced Little Egret and Yellow-legged Gull, while Cory's Shearwaters sailed by close enough inshore to give our best ever land based views of these large yet elegant cruisers. That afternoon during a swim in the sea, the birding continued without binoculars, as a Sandwich Tern fished in the bay, while on the palm fringed landward side, a squawking flock of twenty or more bright green feral parakeets, probably Ring-necked, flew back and forth in tight formation.

Next day we had the wind in our sails aboard a forty foot yacht in search of Pilot Whales, which live offshore of the south coast of the island. Within little more than half an hour, we spotted several strongly curved black dorsal fins arching clear of the deep blue water. At one point we had three whales in our bins as a Cory's Shearwater swept across their bows! As they swam closer to the vessel, one could hear each snorting blow and see the water evaporate from their fins each time they surfaced. In fact one actually swam alongside the yacht, while we looked down on its fifteen foot streamlined form just inches below the surface. An unforgettable experience.

On the subject of unforgettable experiences, the highly convoluted road to Masca, in the far northwest of Tenerife, inches its way through some incredibly stunning scenery of towering vertical cliffs, where soaring Kestrels and Buzzards are mere dots in the sky. At one of the several remarkable viewpoints here, we picked up the twitter of something singing like a canary. In fact, this was the real thing, the wild Canary, unique to these Atlantic islands, looking like a cross between the Serin of Europe and our own Greenfinch, rather than the bright 'canary' yellow of its cage bird descendents. In the right bushy habitat, dozens of these delicate finches filled the air with their delightful songs every morning and evening. Along this stretch of road we also found our first Sardinian Warblers of the trip. Onward to Punta de Teno, we tracked down another of our target species, Rock Sparrow, hundreds of them, in a post breeding flock, recognisable by a conspicuous stripey head and white-tipped tail.

Driving from sea level up the steep slopes of the enormous volcanic massif of Mount Teide, one passes through a crown of pine forest known as the Corona Forestal. This is the home of the Blue Chaffinch, which lives only here and in similar forest on Gran Canaria, so it must be one of the world's rarest birds, and yet we were soon starring at a group of four, perched at head height barely twenty yards away, and not at all bothered by us. They made a wonderful sight in their slatey blue suits, with white eye rings and undertails, a chunky silver bill and heftier build than the 'usual' Chaffinch. The Great Spotted Woodpeckers here are also very tame and approachable. Above the forest crown, one enters an awesome unearthly landscape of lava flows and strange rock formations, below the volcanic cone of Mount Teide. Here only highly specialised plants and animals flourish in such an arid environment, where the daily temperature goes up and down like a yo-yo, and yet there are still plenty of Kestrels.

Well chuffed with Blue Chaffinches, we took the ferry west to La Gomera. This crossing is a well known pelagic, which produced dozens of Cory's Shearwaters at very close range. The beautiful island of La Gomera is a pigeon fancier's paradise as the native laurel flora, which hugs the steep misty slopes like Andean cloud forest, is home to two endemic species of pigeon, though both are exceedingly difficult to track down in the dense evergreen foliage. The best approach is to simply stake out one of the many miradors, which overlook the laurel clad slopes down below, and wait. After a short watch, a Laurel Pigeon broke cover with a flash of its whitish tail as it disappeared into the Atlantic mist, whereas the dark tailed Bolle's Pigeon eluded us until the second day of our visit. These forests are also a good place to seek out the tiny Tenerife Kinglet, an endemic relative of the Goldcrest, with bolder crest markings, though a Long-eared Owl, captured in our headlights en route to a restaurant, was an unexpected bonus.

The beauty of the Canaries is the remarkable variety of stunningly spectacular landscapes in such a small area, combined with the prospect of finding some of the world's rarest birds. Thanks to their long term geographical isolation on the fringe of the Western Palaearctic, even the common birds like Robin, Blue Tit and Chaffinch have evolved distinctive racial types as if diverging into separate species. The Robin has a smaller but deeper red breast and an unfamiliar song, the Blue Tit has a smart black cap and blue-grey rather than green mantle and the Chaffinch is most handsome with a slate blue mantle and apricot rather than pink underparts. Such a delicious blend of ingredients is an irresistible recipe for any birder.

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