Visit your favourite destinations
|A Report from birdtours.co.uk|
Canary Islands (y un poco de Espana) October 27 - November 3, 2001,
The trip actually began last June when I purchased a roundtrip on Spanair from Washington Dulles to Tenerife in the Canary Islands. I got the tickets from Expedia.com for about half the price I could get them on the Spanair website. All was well (I thought) until a week before departure (October 20) when I checked the Spanair website to see if the departure times were the same as indicated on my tickets. Hmmmmmm....when I punched in Dulles - Madrid on October 27, Spanair gave me an itinerary on Scandinavian Airlines via Copenhagen. Then when I went to Expedia.com, they gave me the same SAS itinerary plus one on Lufthansa via Frankfurt. Something was definitely wrong here.
I called Spanair and said I wanted to reconfirm my departure times. Spanair said, "when are you flying, sir". I said October 27, and they came back with "ah, sir, hasn't anyone called you yet?" I asked "called me about what?" and it was then I learned that Spanair was suspending service from Dulles (and the United States for that matter) effective on October 25. Spanair gave me several options for flying over the pond and I selected British Airways since I'd never been on them, I needed London-Heathrow airport, and you can get American Airlines miles by flying with the Brits. Like every other time in travel, no matter how bleak it looks, everything always works out.
October 27 - I caught the Washington Flyer bus from West Falls Church metro to Dulles (IAD) for $14 round trip (substantially cheaper than taking a cab and a lot cheaper than paying for daily parking at Dulles for a week). I had been advised to check in for British Airways 216 no later than 3:00 pm because the lines to get through security at Dulles become horrendous after that time. I checked in at about 2:30 pm. The sister of a colleague at work is the Station Manager for BA at IAD, so I was able to get upgraded to Business Class for the flight across the pond tonight (thank you Carol Powers!!). Carol had also arranged for me to have a pass to the British Airways lounge on concourse D so I hung out there for 3 hours waiting for the flight. Security at Dulles was most impressive. I have carried a small (2.5 inch) jack knife with me everywhere I've traveled for the last 20 years. It was in my toilet kit. Security found it and confiscated it. I'm glad they are that thorough. Four very well armed National Guardsmen were standing by the security checkpoint I went through. I hope they keep the safety off on their M-16s on days when Saudi Arabian Airlines has a flight out of Dulles.
The fully-packed 747-400 lifted off from IAD at 6:31 Washington time for the scheduled 7 hours across the pond. It took me a couple hours to correct my ears for understanding the Queen's English. They served sea bass for dinner. Service on BA was very professional and most impressive (they have a convert now for trips across the pond). Its definitely a "first class" experience.
October 28 - We had strong tail winds that helped us get to Heathrow at 4:52 London time (6 hours 21 minutes in the air). By far this was the fastest I've ever crossed the Atlantic going east bound. I didn't have to clear customs because I was a connecting passenger so I caught the bus to Terminal 1 and waited for the departure of BA 456 to Madrid at 7:20 a.m. The Airbus A320 was maybe one-fifth full. We took off to the east just as the sun was rising. The initial line of flight was straight toward downtown London. We made a gradual climb out to the right that afforded me great views of the River Thames and Big Ben. I looked down and wondered if Prince Chuck was on the phone with Camilla right then, again telling her that he still wanted to be her tampon.
BA fed us a cheese and mushroom sandwich for breakfast. It wasn't your typical British breakfast and I actually missed the beans that usually are served. I stayed awake until we were along the coast of the Bay of Biscay then zoned out until we were just north of Madrid (MAD). We landed in MAD a little ahead of schedule and as we taxied to the gate we passed a Royal Jordanian Airlines that was being loaded with the faithful to take them to Amman, Jordan. Too bad there wasn't room on the plane for all of them everywhere.
Customs in MAD was simple; only a passport stamp and no examination of baggage. I changed money at a cambio ($1 US = 183 pesetas). On January 1, 2002, the peseta becomes history as the much ballyhooed Euro takes over as the monetary unit for many European Union countries.
I checked in with Spanair for their 1:30 departure to Tenerife- Norte (TFN) airport in the Canary Islands. We lifted off into perfectly clear skies but as soon as we crossed the south coast of Spain there was constant cloud until just north of Tenerife. I had hoped for a glimpse of Morocco (which I want to return to badly) but no such luck today. Service on Spanair was very good helped, in part, but several classically stunning Spanish flight attendants. It had been four years since I had been in Spain so I had forgotten just how good Spanish wine is with a meal. Two glasses made it even better.
We landed to the west at TFN with Pico Tiede looming off to the southwest. At over 10,000 feet elevation this is the highest peak in the Canary Islands and, ostensibly, in Spain if you want to stretch your imagination to believe that geographically the Canaries are a "part" of Spain. Avis car rental at TFN was a snap and I was out of the terminal in < 5 minutes. Walking to the car I heard an unfamiliar (but soon to become incredibly familiar) bird voice that turned out to be Canary Island Chiffchaff. This was the first bird of the trip, and one of the CI endemics. I'd soon learn just how common this bird is on Tenerife.
From the airport I tried in vain to find the birding areas on the northern peninsula mentioned in Tony Clarke's excellent birding guide to the Canary Islands. However a screwed up body clock, little sleep, and saggy eyes prevented me from finding many areas. I was able to get to the ponds at Tejina. The first one, by the Bar/Restaurante El Puente was quite low on water (I'd later learn that it hadn't really rained in the Canary Islands for three years!) but it held a couple Common Moorhen. Walking around the pond I found still more Canary Island Chiffchaff, the leucogaster subspecies of Sardinian Warbler, the canariensis race of Gray Wagtail, and some Spanish Sparrows. By now I had not really slept well in 28 hours so I got on the Autopista Norte and made the fast trip west to Puerto de la Cruz and the Gran Hotel El Tope. (To find the hotel, exit the Autopista where the sign says Puerto de la Cruz "Por El Botanico. Follow signs for the Botanico then go through about 4 stop lights to the Hotel Melia Puerto De La Cruz. Turn right and go down the steep hill to the entrance to the El Tope).
This is a very nice hotel that I found on the Internet. I'm not sure of the "star" value but this must be a 4 star hotel. I got it for $41 US per night including breakfast and dinner. Unfortunately I never used it for dinner because a sign at the entrance to the restaurant very prominently reminds caballeros that long pants must be worn for dinner. Since this was an island, and I refuse to wear anything other than shorts on an island, I was not able to try it for dinner. After checking in I walked back up the hill to the main street I'd driven in on. Turned right, walked maybe 100 meters and crossed the street to the Restaurante Paso Doble. I had the Langostinos de la Plancha for dinner washed down with a couple bottles of Dorada - the locally produced beer. Eventually I at all my dinners at this very highly recommended (and cheap) restaurant.
October 29 - I don't remember my head hitting the pillow last night about 8:30 local time (3:30 p.m. back "home" time) but the 6:00 a.m. wake up call jolted me back to reality. I was out the door and on the road to Parque Nacional El Tiede by 6:30 following the precise directions in Clarke's book. Climbing above La Otavala in the predawn light (and occasional mist) I stopped at the first extensive area of endemic Canary Pine forest about 7:15. The first voice I heard sounded like a kinglet and when I tracked it down I saw Canary Island Goldcrest (a.k.a Tenerife Goldcrest) my second life bird and second endemic of the trip. There were also several European Blackbirds singing nearby. Climbing a little higher and out of the cloud I came across a cacophony of voices so I pulled over to explore. First to be identified was the Tenerife race of Blue Tit followed by up close and personal looks at more Canary Island Chiffchaff. Another unfamiliar voice turned out to be the gaudy and conspicuous Blue Chaffinch (another life bird and another endemic). Once I learned its voice I found them very commonly in the Canary pine forest no matter where I stopped.
Eventually I got to the Centro de Visitante's for Parque Nacional El Tiede. Clarke's book says that Island Canary can be found in the garden behind the center and once again he was correct. I found a flock of 31 Island Canary singing, preening, and chasing each other around maybe 100 meters south of the Visitor Center. Walking up the little trail past the weather station I heard a Loggerhead Shrike-like voice that was the koenigi race of Southern Gray Shrike. Its bill was massive compared to the Southern Gray Shrike's I remember from Morocco four years ago. Returning to the Visitor Center I heard a pipit-like voice that belonged to Berthelot's Pipit, a Macronesian endemic that occurs in the Canary Islands (everywhere in the Canary Islands!), in the Azores, and on Madeira. The pipit landed maybe 5 feet from me and began searching for breakfast.
From the Visitor Center I drove through the moonscape-like countryside below the peak of the volcano and then turned left toward Vilaflor and followed this road to the much written about Zona Recreativa Las Lajas. On entering, my first bird (actually 5 birds) was the canariensis race of Great Spotted Woodpecker. During my time in the campsite, I saw at least 8 Great Spotted Woodpecker. I wish they had been this easy to find in mainland Europe or in North Africa. To me, its call is surprisingly similar to Hairy Woodpecker. Also at Las Lajas were more Island Canary, Common Raven, Berthelot's Pipit, Canary Island Goldcrest, and the superbus race of European Robin. From Las Lajas I continued southeast on TF-21 to Vilaflor where Rock Petronia was on the wires as Clarke predicted. In a dry Barranco below Vilaflor I found a Corn Bunting and many Blue Tit.
I continued south on TF-21 from Vilaflor passing through Granadilla and San Isidro to El Medano where I hoped to find some shorebirds but got a goose egg instead. However the orbitalis race of Spectacled Warbler was a nice consolation. I followed the road south through El Abrigo to near Reina Sofia Aeropuerto. Its greatest claim to fame (other than the landing site for 25,000 tourists per day) is the crash of a Pan Am 747 with another 747 (KLM?) In the fog here a long time ago. This tragedy turned out to be the single most deaths in a plane crash in history.
I found the entrance to the Amarilla Golf Course and followed Clarke's directions. On one of the fairways I found 3 Red-throated Pipits at what has been called the westernmost regular wintering area for this species. >From the golf course I returned to the Autopista Sur and beat a fast track to Los Cristianos where I picked up my ticket (4623 pesetas roundtrip) for the 2:00 p.m. Transmediterana ferry to La Gomera. I grabbed a quick lunch in the Terreza bar and saw a Common Tern patrolling the harbour. The ferry departed 5 minutes early. Almost immediately out of the harbour I started to pick up Cory's Shearwaters and at mid-crossing there was a flock of 21 Cory's resting on the water. Later, about 25 minutes from La Gomera harbour I found 2 Little Shearwater's in a flock of about 12 Cory's. The seabird scene was really disappointing going over to La Gomera.
The nosepad on my now four-days old glasses fell off in mid-crossing so I spent my time in La Gomera looking for gluica. Nobody had any. Finally a woman in a little kiosko gave me some scotch tape (cinta adhesivo) so my new $463 glasses became held together with scotch tape! I think I'm going to have a chat with my optometrist the first work day I'm back in Virginia.
The 5:15 ferry back to Los Cristianos left on time. We were maybe 10 minutes out of La Gomera harbour when we ran into hundreds of Cory's Shearwaters. For the next 35 minutes I was not out of sight of Shearwaters. Where had they been 2 hours ago? I also found 2 Little Shearwaters (the same ones?) on the return. There were also two Pilot Whales and about 6 or 7 porpoise (Bottlenose?) seen on the return. The Los Cristianos-La Gomera ferry is an excellent way to find seabirds. Every report I read from earlier trips said that the last ferry of the day is the one to be on to find lots of birds. My experience was the same.
We returned to the marina at 6:40 p.m. and I then got on the Autopista Sur for the hair raising 1 hour 20 minute drive back to Puerto de la Cruz. I had dinner of Paradilla de Marisco and 2 Dorada's to celebrate the five life birds today. A gorgeous Spanish blonde at the next table was wearing brown leather pants that had to be painted on. She made it difficult to focus on eating food.
October 30 - My last day of being 49. I had breakfast at 7:30 then took off west on the Autopista Norte for Icod de los Vinos and eventually Erjos. The winding roads up the side of the mountain here reminded me very much of Corsica. Directions for finding the track into the laurel forest that are provided in Clarke's book are very exact. From the Casa Forestal, I walked the 5 kilometers to the prominent rock with a rain gauge on its top. En route I found several Canary Island Kinglets, Blue Tit, European Goldfinch, Canary Island Chiffchaff, European Blackbirds, European Robin (my most favorite European songbird) and surprisingly I flushed a Eurasian Woodcock (a nice bonus and only the second one I've ever seen). I also flushed several pigeons of some species, but there was no way to identify them with such fleeting glimpses. I also heard pigeon voices but this was soon becoming similar to looking for Pacific Imperial-Pigeon on Fiji!
I got to "the rock" and climbed on top to get an excellent view of the valley below and also off to the west. From the rock I saw at least 3 and maybe 4 Eurasian Kestrel, and one European Sparrowhawk. I easily saw at least 5 Bolle's Pigeon from here but the Laurel Pigeon remained in hiding. About noon a group of 8 very noisy and obnoxious German's walked up to the rock. I sat quietly on the rock behind a bush so they couldn't see me and had fantasies of being an American sniper in the Black Forest during the Second World War as they talked and yelled and laughed beneath me. They eventually walked down a small trail below me, talking and laughing as they went (this was not conducive to seeing pigeons, I figured) but luckily their noise caused one Laurel Pigeon to flush from the vegetation and make a sweeping run over the valley in front of me and showing off its white-fringed tail.
I left the rock at mid afternoon and slowly made my way back to the car. I followed the directions to the Erjos ponds, but both of them I came to were bone dry. Retracing my path I returned through Icod de los Vinos (a city that prominently advertises its Mariposa de Drago - a butterfly zoo). Along the Autopista back to Puerto de la Cruz I found one insularum race Common Buzzard sitting on a wire. Back at the hotel about 5:00 p.m. I was given directions to an Optica in the large shopping center at the base of the hill. However I was told "no tenemos torques pequenas" so with out little screws there was no way my nose pad could be put back on my glasses.
October 31 - Happy (??) 50th Birthday? I was up at 5:00 and en route to TFN at 5:30 to catch Binter Canarias flight 214 at 7:30 to Fuerteventura (FUE). I gave myself extra time for the drive because of unfamiliar parking at the airport. I checked in for Binter's flight at Iberia Airlines. We left the gate 20 minutes late (oh well, its an island). This turned out to be an omen when the first flight of the day is late departing.
We arrived FUE 20 minutes late where I grabbed my over-priced rental car from Hertz. On leaving the airport I followed the road signs south (away from Puerto del Rosario) toward El Castillo and Caleta de Fustes, a large, unattractive tourist time share development, to Barranco del Torre. Using the directions in Clarke's book rely on the symbol for the building on the south side of the road. The "no entrada" sign is inconspicuous and sun-faded. I walked south on the track past what remains of the no entrada sign and then climbed down into the Barranco. The first bird I found here was Canary Island Chat, the single-island endemic that everyone goes to FUE to find. A nice birthday present! I walked out of the tamarisks and followed the rocky south edge of the Barranco where I found Trumpeter Finch and flushed four Barbary Partridge.
The online version of USA Today's weather report for FUE on October 31 said "cloudy". More appropriately it should have read "sandy". As I was walking back to my car the wind picked up and I could see sand in the air off to the west. I left the Barranco and made my way to Betancuria where I found the degener race of Blue Tit (a candidate for full species status apparently) in some trees by the church.
As I was driving into this beautiful village a tourist bus pulled out into the road and blocked my lane. It was on a curve in the road making it a tad dangerous to swing past the bus, but I did. And as I swung past it, I gave the driver the finger. A little later, after I had turned around in Betancuria and I was making my way back south, I came onto the same bus driving north. Seeing my car, he swerved to run me off the road! I gave him the finger again.
From Betancuria I traveled north through a building sand storm that reminded me of one I'd gotten into at the edge of the Sahara desert near Zagora, Morocco four years ago. Eventually I found the road west and visited the Embalse Los Molinos that Clarke says is the only reservoir on Fuerteventura that "never dries up". Well, he should see it now. There isn't even mud left! I found 3 Lesser Short-toed Larks and several Berthelot's Pipits along the entrance road to the Embalse but nothing else. The desert in this part of Fuerteventura reminded me a lot of the rocky desert (can't remember its Arabic name) in central Morocco (I guess that should be surprising since Morocco is only 60 miles east).
Hertz gave me a car with a half empty gas tank so I stopped in La Olivia to fill up and paid 97 pesetas per liter (about $1.75 per gallon). The Canary Islands must have the cheapest gasoline (and diesel for the car on Tenerife) I've seen anywhere in Europe or North Africa. Compared to the US $4.25 a gallon I paid for gas on Corsica and in the south of France, gas prices here are a steal.
From La Olivia I headed west to El Cotillo on the west coast where I followed Clarke's slightly altered directions to the track leading south from the village. There were tons of surfer's on the beach and as I drove south on the track I was engulfed by a huge Saharan-like sand storm. I just turned the car around, pointed the radiator away from the blowing sand, and waited out the storm. Once the sky cleared I moved south finding more Lesser Short-toed Larks and finally one fuerteventura race Houbara Bustard. I tried in vain to find Cream-colored Courser and the local race of Eurasian Thick-knee. Oh well, maybe next trip. The view of the Houbara Bustard wasn't the spectacular up close view I had of this species last year in Israel, but it was close enough to identify with certainty.
Leaving El Cotillo I stopped briefly at La Olivia but found only more Berthelot's Pipits in the cultivations south of the village. From here I beat a fast track south, past the airport to the turning to Las Salinas near Barranco del Torre where I hit the jackpot on shorebirds. In fact, all the shorebirds on the Fuerteventura list at the end of the report are from the salinas. There were also about 10 Cory's Shearwater's offshore here darting around in the fantastic winds.
I returned my car to the airport and checked in at 5:35 p.m. for what turned out to be British World Airways (life airline) flight to Gran Canaria at 6:40. The departure sign said we would board at 6:20, but there was no plane there at 6:20, or at 6:40 or at 6:50 or at 7:10. We finally boarded at 7:30 (50 minutes late) for Gran Canaria where I had originally had 40 minutes between planes back to Tenerife. We arrived Gran Canaria at 8:15 where I asked the dispatcher to check to see if my 8:00 flight had left on time. It had. However Naysa Aerotaxi (another Iberia affiliate) had an 8:30 departure and it was the next plane over. I asked if I could just walk to it and was told to go in the terminal and up to the gate. What I didn't realize was that to go "up to the gate" meant I had to go into the arrivals lounge, up some stairs to the main terminal, through security again, then run down a long corridor to the gate, give them my ticket, run down the departure steps, catch a bus and get a ride to the plane -- and it was only 100 feet from where I started this little jaunt.
As I was walking up the steps to the plane an absolutely perfect (and highly grabbable) butt was walking up the steps ahead of me. I'm now going to have to consult with Jon Andrew on the dividing line between a killer butt and a cute butt after walking behind this woman. She was definitely a size 5 thong, but with an astronomically high grabability quotient.
We took off 5 minutes late for the 20 minute hop over to Tenerife Norte. I got off the plane and liked to have frozen. God it was cold compared to the desert heat just 45 minutes further east on Fuerteventura. Unfortunately for me (and every other male on earth) the owner of the killer butt was met by her boyfriend when we got in the terminal (the lucky bastard). He was twice as big as me and about a foot taller also. Oh well, c'est le vie.
Tonight for dinner I had the Salmon al Grill that was absolutely to die for. While eating dinner I overhead five Brits talking at the next table. After finishing I stopped by to chat with them. I thanked them for being willing to help with Dubya's "so-called war" on "turism". One of them, Andrew, said "well something has to be done to stop those god-damned ragheads. I'm glad we can help." They invited me to sit with them and when I told them it was my birthday Nigel (the other husband in the group) bought us all a round of Dorada's to celebrate. We sat around talking about dry British humor and the subject turned to Monty Python. We then tried to out compete each other with imitations of their skits. I told them the first Monty Python I'd ever seen was the one where they had the "Twit of the Year" competition. Nigel repeated it almost exactly.
November 1 - After breakfast I left to bird the areas north of the airport that I had been too brain dead to find my first day. First I followed directions in Clarke to the Embalse de Valle Molina. Coming from the south after taking the road signposted "Tegueste" in El Portezuelo, its exactly 3.8 km to the entrance/road to the Embalse as Clark states. The sign "Deposito Regulador de Valle Molina" is still there but its sort of smashed up against the rocks and not at all conspicuous. I'd suggest that its best to set your trip odometer to 0.0 when you turn off in El Portezuelo and go exactly 3.8 km. If you get to the small school mentioned, turn around and go back maybe 70 meters to the entrance road. Although the Embalse has hosted a variety of good birds in the past, today only a Yellow-legged Gull and a Little Egret were present.
From the Embalse I continued on to the Tejina Ponds. The first pond, by the Bar/Restaurante El Puente had a lot more birds today than on Sunday. There were at least 12 Little Egret, 11 Common Moorhen, 2 Eurasian Coot and a Gray Heron present. Why the Gray Heron isn't a Great Blue Heron (and vice versa) is still confusing to me. There was also a Gray Wagtail here (the same one from Sunday?). This was the only place I saw this species on Tenerife. Canary Island Chaffinch, and Island Canary were vocally conspicuous in the vegetation surrounding the pond.
I then went 0.7 km further on this road to the second Tejina pond (on the left behind the Phragmites - not bamboo as Clarke states). There were only four Common Moorhen's present along with three Monk Parakeet. I drove further to the tracks by the Club Nautico where there was nothing exciting to report.
I then drove on to Punta Hidalgo and spent 30 minutes in the vegetation at the end of the road then returned to La Laguna. I followed Clarke's precise directions to the area for European Serin. I walked several blocks along this pretty street and enjoyed the Spanish women out jogging a hell of a lot more than I enjoyed the birds.
Leaving La Laguna I tried in vain to get on the other side of the Autopista to look at the fields south of the airport. Traffic, however, was horrific and slow so I bagged it and returned to Puerto de la Cruz. I spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying the female scenery along the Malecon in Puerto de la Cruz, and found myself wishing I was 30 years younger.
November 2 - I returned my car to the TFN airport about 6:00. AVIS isn't open then but someone on the inter-terminal bus said there is an Avis "buzon" in the main terminal where you can drop your keys. On entering the terminal from the parking lot side, straight ahead of you will be the counters for Air Europa and Spanair. As you walk toward the Spanair counter there will be some stairs to the planta primera and "Cafe Select". The drop boxes for Avis, Hertz, Europcar, and one other are directly underneath these steps against the wall. Tenerife Norte is building a new terminal so this information will be useful only until the new terminal comes into being.
After checking in for the flight I hung out in the waiting area. There were frequent announcements over the public address system stating "you are reminded that smoking in the airport is expressly forbidden by Royal Decree 19288, except in designated smoking areas." Apparently either 1) the entire airport has been designated a smoking area, or 2) nobody is very worried about the wrath of the King, because everyone and their dog smokes all over the airports (the same is true in Fuerteventura and Madrid airports- same announcement and everyone smokes everywhere).
Before entering the departure lounge I stopped at Cafe Select and grabbed some kind of pastry. Why is it the Spanish and the French really know how to make pastry that is to die for and in America we just don't get it?
Spanair 842 was actually an Air Balearecs 717 bound for Madrid at 8:10 a.m. This was another life airline (now up to 6 new airlines for the trip) and on an aircraft that I haven't flown on either. There may have been 30 people on the flight and we were airborne 5 minutes early. I sat next to a guy from Slovakia who was most aware of world events. Quizzing him further I learned that he is the founder and CEO of the Slovakia equivalent of CNN. That explained why he was so aware. I told him that I was embarrassed to admit that I didn't know the name of the capitol of Slovakia (Bratislava) and he said "don't feel bad, that poor excuse you have now for a President doesn't know the difference between Slovakia and Slovenia. I instantly knew we'd have an enjoyable flight to Madrid.
Before his current position, he had worked for the Prime Minister of Slovakia and his work had taken him to the United States on numerous occasions - to the point that he's been in all the U.S. except Alaska, Hawaii, and Louisiana. He'd been to Washington DC numerous times, had met Bill Clinton twice, and even knew where the East Falls Church metro stop is on the Orange Line.
We talked about the Middle East issue, and September 11 and I asked him what the solution is to the Middle East crisis. He said "there is no solution. The Arabs wont be satisfied until there is no more Israel." He told me the hair-raising story of a recent trip to the Gaza Strip where he smuggled a journalist past Israeli and Palestinian Authority guards while hiding this guy in the trunk of the car.
We landed in MAD 30 minutes early where I had 24 hours between planes before my trip back to the states began. Earlier I had planned this part of the trip for an assault on an area north of the airport to look for Great Bustard, one of the European bird species that had frustrated me on my previous attempts to find it. On entering the airport I had to search for the Hertz counter but finally found them. I grabbed my car and thank God I asked for some help for finding the Autopista south of the airport (the N-2). Hamlyn's book "Where to watch birds in Spain and Portugal" states on page 80 that to find the area near Valdetorres de Jarama you "take the A2 motorway east towards Alcala de Henares, taking the exit east of the airport. Head north on the C103 to Valdetorres." That sounds simple on paper, but in reality its a tad different.
Most importantly, Hamlyn doesn't say which first exit east of the airport because the first exit takes you to the "base aerea" where the Spanish Air Force isn't too happy about stupid lost Americans driving up to the front gate. Secondly, there is no exit from the motorway for the C103 (because the C103 is now the M103) and there is no exit for Valdetorres. After several frustrating adventures and a stop at a gas station near the airport, I finally figured out how to find this place.
The correct way to find this area for Great Bustard is: Come out of the Madrid Airport and follow signs for Zagora. The Autopista is signed N-II (roman numeral 2 not the number 2). Had Hertz not told me this I would have it was the N-eleven. Get on the Autopista headed east toward Zagora (its confusing but you'll figure it out). Go about 8 km to exit 17 signed for Torreon de Ardoz and Ajalvir. (There are no road numbers on the exits just the town names). Follow signs at the various roundabouts for Ajalvir. This is highway M108. In Ajalvir look for signs to Cobena. Get on the road to Cobena (This is the M114). In Cobena (a pretty little village) follow signs for Fuente el Saz. Go through this village and follow signs for Valdetorres de Jarama. Somewhere along here the M-114 turns into the M-103 (its NOT the C103 as stated in Hamlyn). On the north edge of Valdetorres (by the last house on the right) there is a dirt track that goes east into wheat fields (we'll come back to this track in a minute). About 1 km north of Valdetorres there is a traffic circle (roundabout) with some commercial buildings to the right. Go 100 meters north from the traffic circle and there is another dirt track that goes off to the northeast. I took this track and went about 500 meters from the M103. I stopped and scanned to the south and saw 2 Great Bustards (life bird #10 for the trip) foraging at the edge of an apparent winter wheat planting. Looking beyond these two I found 36 Great Bustards foraging in the field. What a fantastic bird
I watched these Bustards for awhile and then returned to the M103. Here I turned right and drove toward Talamanca de Jarama. On the south edge of the village there is a traffic circle. The first road off the circle to the right (signed, simply, "Camino") is asphalt as far as a house (with a couple intense dogs behind the fence) but then it becomes dirt. I followed this track for about 3 km until I came to a Barranco. The highlight here was a Red-legged Partridge so close to the edge of the car I could have spit and hit it. Also present were lots of Crested Lark and Thekla Lark, a couple Sky Lark, and some Cattle Egret.
I turned around at the Barranco and went back to the M 103 and turned south (left) toward Valdetorres. I turned left at the track on the immediate north edge of the village (mentioned earlier) and followed it through harvested wheat fields for 2.8 km to an inconspicuous lesser track intersecting from the left (north). I turned on this track and followed it to the crest of a small hill. My approach flushed 6 Great Bustards straight ahead of me. Stopping to look at them, I saw ahead of me a field that was crawling with Bustards. Scanning through them I counted 137 Great Bustard and 4 Little Bustard. (173 Great Bustards in this area!!!) Even more surprising than the hordes of Bustards was the single adult Common Crane foraging among them. I had seen a Common Crane in Nebraska in 1999. It was most appropriate to finally see this species in Europe where it belongs.
I sat on the crest of the hill and watched the Bustards foraging for maybe an hour. On several occasions I saw small groups flying (its hard to believe a bird this big can fly). Their flight movements (wing motion mainly) reminded me of Sandhill Cranes on final approach to landing in a field along the Platte River. While enjoying the Bustards I saw 3 Red Kite (my most favorite European raptor), Northern Harrier, Montagu's Harrier, 5 Black-bellied Sandgrouse, Eurasian Stone-Curlew, Calandra Lark, Woodchat Shrike, Eurasian Magpie, Carrion Crow, Common Raven, and a European Greenfinch in a little bush.
The harvested wheat fields were crawling with larks and pipits. I should have spent more time looking through them but I couldn't take my eyes off the Bustards. I stayed here until the sun was getting ready to set about 5:15 then returned to the Madrid airport to drop off the car (now considerably dirty after having driven over these dirt roads all afternoon). According to the car's trip odometer, it was 38.2 km from the intersection of the dirt track with the M103 to the Hertz rental car return area across from Terminal 1 (the international terminal) at MAD.
This was a fantastic way to spend an afternoon between planes picking up one life bird (the Great Bustard) and adding several species to my Spain list. NOTE: When returning from Valdetorres to the Madrid Airport do not take any of the several exits you will see for Madrid before you get to Ajalvir. Those Madrid exits before Ajalvir are for Highway N-1 that will take you to downtown Madrid not back to the airport.
After dropping my car I caught the shuttle bus for the L'Hotel Sofitel Madrid Airport where I crashed in luxury for the night.
November 3 - I checked out of the hotel at 7:45 and caught the 8:00 bus to the airport. British Airways wont let you do advanced seat assignments in Europe; you can only get a seat assigned on the day of departure. Thus with visions of being stuck in a middle seat for the ride back across the pond I got to the British Air counter 3.5 hours early. The BA gate agent recommended that I take their 8:45 departure to London Heathrow because "there is a touch of fog in London and planes will be running late" (British understatement?), so I took it. The pilot came out at 8:30 and told us that we would board at 9:00. Before we boarded the pilot made the rounds of the departure area and talked to every one of the passengers. Pre-September 11 I would have ascribed this to him being friendly, but I can't help but think he was checking out everyone to see if there were any Islamic wacko's flying with him today. As he was talking to me I said that his voice "sounds a lot like Monty Python" and he said "Ah, yes, the Ministry of Silly Walks - I shall remember that" whereupon he walked away from me doing one of John Chlese's finest silly walks.
We finally lifted off from MAD at 11:00 local time after sitting on the plane/tarmac for 2 hours waiting for the fog in London to lift. On our climb out we were given great looks at the plains of Spain (where it rains?). We intersected the Bay of Biscay directly overhead Bilboa then crossed the Brest Peninsula of France (some day I must visit Brest to see if it lives up to its name). As we started our initial approach into London we passed one of the Channel Islands (one of the cows - either Guernsey or Jersey - I wasn't sure which). We were put in a holding pattern over Brighton for about 30 minutes and I wondered if the Pinball Wizard was still down there somewhere. A couple years ago I followed the advice of The Who and searched "from Soho down to Brighton, I must have searched them all" but couldn't find him. One day I will. We landed at LHR at 11:45 a.m. local time after a great view of downtown London directly below on our final approach.
Security in Terminal 1 confiscated a 3-inch long pair of scissors I had in a sewing kit in my carry-on bag (I'd checked it at IAD but carried it on in Madrid). Its rather eye opening that security in Madrid didn't say a word about it. Of course Mohammed Atta had recently flown from Madrid to Miami so I guess Madrid's security really isn't that intense. Makes you wonder about wanting to go to Madrid again.
After catching the transfer bus to Terminal 4 at 12;30 I hung out in the airport for 3 hours. I checked several music stores in the terminal and found zero Jimmy Buffett for sale (but tons of the Beatles). This was sort of an outrage to me since Buffett was standing in Heathrow airport the day he first learned that "Come Monday" made it to the top 10 back in the States. Given Heathrow's importance in Parrothead lore you'd think they would have lots of his CD's for sale here.
London Heathrow is a great place to watch planes and read departure signs. My feeling of wanderlust was overpowering here as I watched planes taking off for Tokyo, Cairo, Nairobi, Beijing, Singapore, Cape Town, and dozens of European locations. The only new airline I'd not seen before was a Royal Brunei Airlines 767 taxing out to the runway.
BA 223 a fully-packed 777 lifted off at 4:00 pm for the flight back across the pond. We arrived IAD 5 minutes early where we were transferred in the people movers from Terminal 4 to Customs and Immigration. The INS agent asked me how long I had been out of the country and when I told him I asked if Dubya was still "president". With a smirk of disgust on his face he said "yes, the bastard's still here". Oh, well, not all birthday wishes can come true. I sailed through Immigration and Customs and commented to the Customs agent that its 10 times faster at Dulles than at Newark. That might be reason enough to do more trips from Dulles over the pond than connecting in Newark any more.
I caught the 7:15 Washington Flyer bus back to West Falls Church metro where I waited 2 minutes for the train to East Falls Church. I walked the mile back "home" and was here only 70 minutes after exiting the plane at Dulles. Brain dead from being awake and on the go since midnight Washington time I checked email, entered my bird sightings in Avisys, and crashed.
There are many things to enjoy about the Canary Islands and very few things not to like. Before going I was well aware of the importance of the Canaries as a package tour destination for Europeans. However it really didn't sink in until I got there. The Paso Doble restaurant I frequented each night for dinner had a menu in 7 different languages (including Finnish). I was surprised by the number of Canarios I met who started a conversation with me in German only to say when I spoke to them in Spanish, "oh, your English!" (I quickly cleared up that misconception). After 5 days in the Canary Islands it occurred to me that the next time the German's have visions of world dominance they should start by invading the Canary Islands since half of their population is here most of the time anyway.
Prices are very cheap by American or mainland European standards. I could have gotten by much cheaper had I eaten in the hotel each night because dinner was included in my very cheap ($41 per night US) hotel room rate. But because of my insistence on wearing shorts I couldn't eat in the hotel restaurant. Here, as I found out in Israel a year ago, shorts and a Jimmy Buffett t-shirt are not acceptable clothing for dinner everywhere.
I think that 99.9 percent of the people who come to the Canaries do so on an air-hotel package which is very popular in Europe. From the United States its another matter now that Spanair doesn't fly from Washington Dulles (and that means from anywhere in the states) any longer. Iberia may have packages to the Canaries but they fly only from JFK and Miami. British Airways may have packages also. According to the route map in their in-flight magazine they fly from about 20 US cities to London.
Before going on this trip I had a lesson in frustration trying to make my flight reservations with Binter Canarias for my day trip to Fuerteventura. They are an Iberia affiliate and eventually (finally) I was able to make a reservation on Binter with Iberia. I tried several travel agencies here (including AAA) and also with Spanair who I was supposed to go to the Canaries with originally, but none of them had ticketing agreements with Binter.
One day in frustration I went to the Internet and did a search for what I thought were travel agencies in the Canaries. I found one "Primavera Vacaciones" (www.primaveravacaciones.com) based in Tenerife (phone 34-922-370-434; fax 34-609-701-456). I sent an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) and asked for assistance. A few hours later I received a very courteous email from Ana Bencomo Reid who operates this company. Ana explained to me that she deals in time shares and other accommodation on Tenerife. She was not a travel agency but because I was on the other side of the Atlantic she offered to help even though she was not going to make any money/profit from helping me. Ana was so nice and concerned that she even emailed me after the September 11 attacks to make sure that I was ok. I never met her and never had a chance to speak with her on the phone but given her kindness and willingness to help someone from so far away (and not make a peseta to do it) tells me what kind of person she is. Someone that nice cant possibly be in business and have less than excellent accommodations for visitors. So, I want to encourage any European's thinking of a holiday on Tenerife to consider going through Ana for your accommodation. In one of our emails she mentioned that she was aware of how important the Canary Islands are to bird watchers and how many bird watchers come to the islands looking for birds. So, give her a try.
The scenery of Tenerife is spectacular. In many instances the winding roads, fantastic mountain and ocean vistas reminded me of being in Corsica. I now have a vision of Pico Tiede permanently etched in my mind. One thing to keep in mind is that despite Tenerife (and Fuerteventura to an extent) being islands, there is no such thing as island time like in the Caribbean, and that is especially true on the highways. Everyone seems to have an extra dose of testosterone in their right foot when they get behind the wheel of a car. The mountain roads have a zillion sharp turns. Canarios seem to view them as a way to defy the laws of physics and live to tell about it. Drive very cautiously in the mountains and be especially alert around buses on mountain roads. Also, the Autopista Norte and Autopista Sur have a maximum speed limit of 120 kilometers per hour day and night. Its a rush!
For future birding trips, I'd recommend three days on Tenerife. Spend the first day in the pine forest on Pico Tiede for Blue Chaffinch and Canary Island Goldcrest. Devote the second day to a leisurely hike on the trail from Erjos to the Laurel forests for the two endemic Pigeons. The third day can be used for the Los Cristianos to La Gomera ferry to look for seabirds. Quite honestly, you have to put out zero effort to find the Canary Island Chaffinch. In fact, if you go to Tenerife and don't see it, you never left your hotel room, and while in your hotel room you never opened the window and listened and looked outside.
As everyone has written earlier, the last ferry of the day from La Gomera to Los Cristianos is the trip to be on for seabirds. A number of interesting species have been seen from this crossing including Bulwer's Petrel and Band-rumped Storm-Petrel in the summer. One strategy would be to fly to La Gomera (Binter has two flights per day; one at 8:00 a.m.). Bird the mountain forests on La Gomera during the day looking for the two pigeons, then catch the last ferry of the day from La Gomera to Los Cristianos. Of course this leaves you with your car about 100 km away at TFN airport. However, there are numerous buses you can use to get back from Los Cristianos.
My single day on Fuerteventura was sufficient for getting the Canary Island Chat. In fact, some people have flown to Fuerteventura on the first flight of the day. Walked to the Barranco 1 km from the airport, found the Chat and flown back to Tenerife a couple hours later. I would have liked to have spent more time on Fuerteventura. Its landscape is sort of surreal and deserving of more exploration. The Costa Calma is the place to see the Bustard, Courser and Black-bellied Sandgrouse but I didn't have time to go that far south. El Cotillo was sufficient for my goal of the Bustard. Perhaps had the sand storm not blown in I could have seen the Courser and Sandgrouse, but oh well.
The temperature difference between Tenerife and Fuerteventura was dramatic. I wore a sweatshirt on the plane in Tenerife because it was actually chilly. Yet, on arrival in Fuerteventura, I was sweating by the time the plane taxied to the gate. You certainly know you're close to Morocco when you're here.
Lonely Planet and a couple of birder trip reports lamented (and cussed) the rank and unplanned development for time share's on the south coast of Tenerife. After being there, all I can say to those authors is "you've not seen Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; Ocean City, Maryland; or the New Jersey shore"! Believe me, the south coast of Tenerife ain't half bad.
The only books you will need for a trip to the Canary Islands are the Lonely Planet travel book (like American Express, don't leave home without it) and Tony Clarke's excellent birders guide to the Canary Islands (Bill Murphy's Birders Guide to Trinidad and Tobago is the only bird location guide I've used that is more precise than Clarke's). Some of the information in Clarke's book is a bit dated now even though the book is only 5 years old - development marches on.
There are too many Internet resources to list here. I'd recommend just going to www.yahoo.com and doing a search on "Canary Islands" or "Tenerife" or "Fuerteventura" or whatever island you want to visit and take it from there.
Puerto de la Cruz is an ideal location for birders wanting to maximize their time on Tenerife. From here you have easy access to Pico Tiede, to Erjos and to the Tenerife Norte Airport. The scenery is spectacular and the setting of the city is most pleasing.
There are recognizable subspecies of several European species on Fuerteventura, Gran Canaria, Tenerife, El Hierro, La Gomera, and La Palma (and even a separate race of Blue Chaffinch on Gran Canaria). The ferry system connects all of the islands (Gran Canaria and Tenerife are the hubs) and Binter Canarias goes to all the islands from Tenerife Norte. With a lot of time on your hands you could island hop by ferry to each of the islands to look for subspecies and probably score some good seabirds in the process. It would probably take 10 days maximum to do all the islands justice and that would be expensive. But I guess that is why winning the lottery was invented.
Falls Church, Virginia, USA
Bird Species Observed in the Canary Islands - October 28 - November 2, 2001
Common Ringed Plover
Little Ringed Plover
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Great Spotted Woodpecker
Lesser Short-toed Lark
Canary Islands Kinglet
Canary Islands Chiffchaff
Canary Islands Chat
Southern Gray Shrike
Also - Monk Parakeet
63 Species Seen
44 Species on Tenerife
30 Species on Fuerteventura
9 Life birds