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A Report from

Wild Canaries ~ Birds & Landscapes 2nd to 9th January, 2005,

Chris Hall

A cloudless cobalt sky and freshly chilled crisp clean mountain air, in the pine forest crown, which encircles Mount Teide. The perfect setting, for watching Blue Chaffinches, the first bird of our trip. Happy with the 'blues', we were soon into close encounters with Great Spotted Woodpecker, Raven and lovely yellow-green wild Canaries, feasting at the picnic tables. Moving on from the pines of Las Lajas, we took the convoluted road to Masca, through a spectacular landscape of precipitous cliffs. Here we watched Buzzards, the first of many Kestrels, and even Barbary Falcon in level flight as well as a breathtaking stoop. Spotting this rarity was a real stroke of luck. Further exploration of the Teno peninsula produced a confiding male Sardinian Warbler, with bright red eyes starring from a black face, an impressive eighteen inch Tenerife Lizard, with blue ocellations and Jurassic-style folds of skin, hanging from its neck, dumpy Rock Sparrows among flocks of Canaries and Canary Island Chiffchaff, which should really be called a Chiffchiff, judging by its song.

A mid morning flight took us to Fuerteventura, a starkly barren desert island. Along the shoreline near the Toston Lighthouse, we discovered a bounty of waders including Turnstone, Whimbrel, Bar-tailed Godwit and a busy flock of Sanderling, as well as Grey, Ringed and delightful little Kentish Plovers, distinguished by their small size and rich rufous neck patch. Little Egret, Yellow-legged Gull and Trumpeter Finches also showed well here. A little way inland along the El Cotillo track we spotted one of the island's specialities, a Houbara Bustard. By stalking the bird, we managed to get close enough for excellent scope views, as it quietly pecked at the scrubby barbed wire bushes, revealing a long black and white neck, vermiculated sandy upperparts and yellow eye. Soon after we also had a brilliant view of a well camouflaged Stone Curlew, skulking in the scant vegetation.

An early start to stake out a Houbara display site produced only distant views of birds in flight, as the blowing gale must have put the wind up them. Blowing for the rest of our time on Fuerteventura, it did not help the birding, but we still had some good results. At Los Molinos, the goat farm was alive with flocking Lesser Short-toed Larks and rosy flushed Trumpeter Finches with bright orange 'wax' bills. In the stream bed we found White Wagtail, Little Ringed Plover, Common Sandpiper and a very smart Hoopoe, while the reservoir produced a Marbled Duck and a trio of beautiful Ruddy Shelduck. Along the Barranco de la Torre, posers included handsome Spanish Sparrows, a singing Spectacled Warbler and a very obliging Fuerteventura Chat, one of the world's rarest birds, perched just twenty yards in front of us!

Next day on Fuerteventura, we had perky little Barbary Ground Squirrels eating out of our hands, while Berthelot's Pipits and a Southern Grey Shrike, with a devilishly hooked beak, looked on at point blank range. After lunch on the beach, we scoured the plains near La Pared. With small parties of Black-bellied Sandgrouse flying in all directions, a patient search eventually yielded unbeatable views of these superbly marked birds on the ground, with their grey heads, rusty orange throats and plump grey and cream breasts.

Returning to Tenerife we revisited the pine forest for more 'Chiffchiffs' and the Goldcrest-like Canary Island Kinglet. Over lunch outside a bar in these beautiful woods, we were joined by a distinctive Canary Island Blue Tit, right above our table, showing off an inky blue cap, a more contrasting black and white face pattern and a blue rather than green back, with a different voice to match. Higher up the slopes of Mount Teide, we could not resist another fix of Blue Chaffinches, again at ridiculously close range. For most of us, the gorgeous blue-grey males with their pointed silver beaks, white eye rings and clean white bottoms were the bird of the trip. That afternoon, we explored the amazing unearthly landscape of the volcanic caldera, below the peak of Mount Teide with its dusting of snow.

On the fast ferry crossing to La Gomera, a pod of some five or so Pilot Whales were spotted, breaking the surf with arched grey backs and curved dorsal fins. La Gomera really is a super island with stunning landscapes at every turn of the twisting roads. Here the vegetation varies markedly with the aspect. The arid slopes are dotted with cacti and other xerophytes, while the slopes facing the prevailing moisture laden winds are cloaked in dense evergreen laurel forest, one of the world's rarest floras. Walking through these tranquil woods, with shafts of cool sunlight glinting off the waxy laurel leaves, a chorus of Blackbirds gave a vernal feel to the day. The sight of a male Chaffinch resplendent in the blue-grey and peach colours of the Canarian Tintillon race was an added joy. By late afternoon, with Plain Swifts swirling to and fro, our quest for the rare and elusive endemic pigeons reached a climax at the mirador of El Bailadero, when we were treated to a fly past by a pair of Laurel Pigeons with their distinctive white tipped tails, quickly followed by a Bolle's Pigeon with a dark and light banded tail. Our last stop before rejoining the ferry back to Tenerife, was the El Rejo mirador. Looking down on the laurel forest below, we were lucky enough to see a Bolle's Pigeon fly and land on a branch protruding from the dense canopy, so that we could actually train the scope for a fantastic bird's eye view. We now had all the endemics 'in the bag'.

On the last morning we had time for a pleasant stroll to the Rasca lighthouse. The candelabra cacti and various xerophytic shrubs produced a very attractive rock garden setting for nice views of Spectacled Warblers, but bird of the day, coming in at number fifty on our list, had to be the Long-eared Owl, roosting in a small tree just above head height. Who could ever forget that wonderful full frame portrait with those two liquid amber eyes starring straight back at the scope?

Christopher Hall,


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