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|A Report from birdtours.co.uk
Madeira, Sept 1999,
This report covers the period of a family holiday. A lot but by no means all of my time was spent birding. As a result of this I decided that certain species would be relegated to a lesser priority as I wanted to be sure that I maximised my time on seabirds and the endemic species and recognisable subspecies. The subsequent species list and numbers seen reflects this. I did not actively search for Pallid Swifts so they may still have been present. The same applies to Spectacled Warbler on Madeira although I did see one on Porto Santo. I did search for Rock Sparrow on Ponta de Sao Lourenco without any success. They were certainly not evident around the immediate area of the car park as suggested in some earlier reports but there is a lot of habitat so I may merely have missed them. Canaries are both common and extremely vocal and I made no attempt to try to sort out the calls of Linnet and Greenfinch from amongst them. The numbers of seabirds should have been reducing towards the end of the month and this did seem to be the case. This rule did not seem to apply at Porto Moniz, however, where the numbers of birds moving on the first day of October were undiminished in total though different species were more prominent.
Getting around and Sites
Getting around Madeira and seeing the land birds is quite easy. I have not included a personal itinerary as it would provide very little useful information. The best "sites" have been published elsewhere in reports and books that are readily available so in order to avoid repetition I have commented under individual species where I believe I have something new to add. The exception to this is sea watching where I have added a separate heading.
Previous reports give the impression that the eastern end of the island is richer in birds than the rest. This is an exaggeration presumably bought about by the fact that historically travelling to the west of the island was difficult and time consuming. In general all that is needed to see the specialties is to be able to recognise the habitat they prefer. As there are relatively few species there is limited competition and relatively high numbers of individuals.
As there is no standing fresh water of any size (except on Porto Santo) associated birds are few in number. There are three pools on Porto Santo that I had expected to find relatively easily but failed. I later bought a 1:50000 map which had them shown. My major regret is not having that map with me when was on the island.
There are many headlands on the island that look as they should produce good views of sea birds under the right conditions. The current knowledge suggests that they are mostly disappointing. The best and most consistent of these according to the book and most reports is Ponta da Cruz, the most southerly point of the island. The grounds of the Carlton Palms Hotel are put forward as the most southerly point and the best place to watch in some reports. The actual point is to the west of the hotel. It is reached by turning of the Estrada Monumental along the Rua da Ponta da Cruz. Travelling westwards from Funchal this is the left hand turning immediately after the sign for the Hotel Duas Torres. Park in the small car park opposite the Modelo supermarket. You can watch from the shade of the Date Palms here or, preferably, walk eastwards along the cliffs on an area of derelict land that looks as though it will soon be built upon. You will pass a metal cross set in the rocks below after which you soon reach the extremity of the point. Here a westward movement in the morning and an eastward movement in the evening should be visible representing birds traveling to and from the Desertas. During my stay there was no evidence of this happening. This, presumably, is related to the time of year. Winds were predominantly onshore during the first week on the south side of the island and birds were more numerous during this time. Towards the end of the second week the more normal northerlies resumed and the numbers of birds reduced noticeably. Whether the time of year or the wind direction or both are the governing factors it was difficult to say. Other than Cory's Shearwater, which could be seen off most headlands, I saw 1 Little Shearwater, 8 Bulwer's Petrels, 2 Mediterranean Shearwaters and a possible Long-tailed Skua at Ponta Da Cruz. This represented a poor return for the amount of time I spent there.
Sea watching elsewhere was even less productive with the very notable exception of Porto Moniz. I managed to sea watch from here on two days (a third being written of by fog). Each occasion was outstanding. On both days I watched from late morning to midday and from the middle of the afternoon to an hour before dusk. As well as the local feeding flocks of Cory's Shearwaters there was a very obvious movement of birds from east to west which decreased notably at midday and around 7:00pm. The earliest I started watching was 10:30am and 3:30pm, at both times the movement was fully underway. This was the only place that I saw any Fea's Petrels or Madeiran Storm Petrels from the land. The direction of the wind did not appear to make any difference to this movement although its strength did alter the manner in which birds flew. I found the best place to watch from was the end of the coach park that overlooked the natural swimming pool. There is a tall Island off Porto Moniz which restricts the view to the east but I found it not too much of a problem as I was able to use it as a point of reference and still see birds before they were past me. With time and a little research it may be possible to land on this island greatly improving the viewing conditions. A previous trip in the first two weeks in August also found this to be the best sea watching point. Whilst Madeira is renowned for its seabirds I was left with the very strong impression that its full potential was far from fulfilled. I had expected that two weeks on the island would leave me feeling that I had seen almost all that I could. The reality was in fact totally the opposite and I left with the greatest reluctance.
By Car and the Roads
Car hire was reasonably cheap at around £130 per week (300$ to the £) for a Renault Clio, which seemed to be the most popular choice for the hire companies. The roads outside of Funchal are mostly narrow, steep and winding. A larger car would have been a disadvantage although a more powerful engine and air conditioning would have been useful. The "Rapido", a fast dual carriageway system, is partly complete along the South Eastern side of the island. This serves to make any journey into Funchal relatively quick and despite the other roads it makes access to the whole of the island very easy. New roads are being built and others improved so this situation should improve further.
Parking everywhere is difficult so the Madeirans park just about anywhere so long as other traffic can pass them. Most visitors find this irritating but for birders it's a useful advantage.
Madeira is a small island so in the two weeks I only used four tanks of petrol. Petrol was much the same price as in England. I didn't travel more than 180 km in any one day and usually a lot less. The nature of the terrain, however, means that the fuel efficiency, had I worked it out, would have been low.
A lot of reports and books talk of the Madeirans being crazy drivers who overtake recklessly. This is not true. Overtaking is not simple on the mountainous roads but if it is not done in a positive manner and at every reasonable opportunity there would be huge traffic jams everywhere. The rules seem to be read the road ahead, do it fast in a low gear and use your horn to let people know where you are. If you are being overtaken or are part of the oncoming traffic make it as easy as possible for the overtaking car. I saw no one being aggressive in the negative sense and after I had learnt how to drive the Madeiran way I felt a lot safer than I do on English roads.
Maps and Navigation
None of the maps I found were completely accurate and the road signs could at best be described as occasional. This was particularly true around Funchal. Any journey that involved Funchal thus required a good deal of guessing and common sense. Madeira is too small for you to get truly lost in but until we learnt our way around we took quite a few unplanned detours.
To get the best out Madeira's seabirds it necessary to get out onto the sea. The easiest way to do this is to take the ferry to Porto Santo. At this time of year the "Lobo Marinho" sails every day at 7:30 am and returns at 5:00pm. The journey takes 2.5 to 3.0 hours. There were birds to be seen for the entire crossing with lots of them close to the boat. This is supposed to be the best way to see Fea's Petrel but I was unfortunate. Tickets were easy to buy from one of the many offices and kiosks on the side of the small marina inside the main harbour. The ferry itself sails from the end of the main harbour wall where you can also park your car for free (the ferry spends the day in Porto Santo so it is not immediately obvious from where it sails and directions at the offices can be misleading). We went as foot passengers but the ferry also took vehicles at a set price for all its occupants which may be a viable proposition for a group.
There are many boats in the marina which offer tourist cruises. These are usually advertised on boards next to the boats mooring place with details about how to book. They are also featured in the kiosks and offices alongside the marina. One boat offered a day sailing to the Desertas with a stop over for lunch. This was called the "Ventura". This is the option we took. The journey took 4 hours each way and stayed on Desertas for 1.5 hours. The skipper was quite knowledgeable about the birds and very helpful. He predicted exactly where we would see Fea's Petrel. He also was friendly with the wardens on the Island and showed us the nests of Bulwer's Petrels. Unfortunately the birds had left that week but previous trips had been more fortunate. The number of seabirds begin to decline towards the end of the month so this combined with the low elevation of the boat meant that the number of birds we saw was less than from the ferry but the quality of the views were excellent.
The other option available would have been to use one of the many big game fishing boats which were for hire. Other reports suggest that they give none fishing passengers a reduced rate. I didn't test this option but it did occur to me that there must be the possibility of a group of birders being able to afford to charter one of these boats solely for the purpose of birding. They are reasonably large and very fast. They must also have little problem with providing chum as they presumably do it for the fishing. Their knowledge of where to fish and where commercial boats are fishing must be relevant to where to find the birds.
Madeira has a temperate climate and it should be easy to watch birds all year round. We had three days early in the holiday with persistent rain which, whilst it was not cold, did require some form of waterproof clothing. We were told that this sort of weather was more typical of October/November. After this unusual spell it was usually warm and dry though the nature of the terrain meant that it was always possible to run into localised rain cloud and fog.
Weather maps and forecasts are displayed at what I took to be the harbour master's office in the marina. This I found most useful.
A Birdwatchers Guide to Portugal and Madeira - C.C. Moore. G. Elias & H. Costa
Describes most of the "sites" and how to get there and includes a species list with an indication of status. It also provides some information on the specialities.
Collins Bird Guide - Mullarney, Svensson, Zetterstom and Grant.
I found this book to be excellent giving all the information I needed particularly with the seabirds. Its only weakness was in its treatment of the gulls. I wish I had done a little more preparation on Yellow-legged Gulls before I left.
Various reports are available on the internet. I used a selection from the following: -
Dutch Birding Travel Report Service
I assume that all the birds that I saw were Fea's Petrel. The idea of standing on a mountain looking for flying shapes in the fog that I could call Zino's Petrel did not appeal to me. One seen from a boat close to Madeira at 7:00pm 27/9 was the closest I came to a possibility.
In total I saw 18 birds.
5 - Porto Moniz 25/9 between 11:00am and 12:15pm. 4- Boat trip to Desertas 28/9. 5 - Porto Moniz 1/10 between 11:00am and 12:00 noon. 4 - Porto Moniz 1/10 between 4:30pm and 7:00pm.
Of all the common local seabirds Fea's Petrel appears to be the one with the most marked tendency to stay clear of land. At Porto Moniz several birds gave satisfactory views but the majority were distant. Fortunately they are quite distinctive with their dark underwings contrasting sharply with their white bodies. They also appear strangely short tailed from above as the grey upper tail is difficult to see at a distance. When they turn over the white of the under parts reflects far more light and the real shape of the tail can be seen. In a slack wind the flight is like a Cory's Shearwater but with more wing beats and shorter glides. In a brisk wind their flight is incredible with huge arcing shears with the bird at times reversing the direction of the arc flying back on itself in a figure of eight.
By far and away the best views are obtained from boats. Whilst they do not follow them they show no concern about flying close. The skipper of the Ventura predicted that we would see start to see "Freira" about three miles from Desertas. I had just seen my first one when he put his head out of the cabin to tell me we were three miles from the island.
These petrels leave their breeding grounds around Madeira at the end of September. On our stay on Desertas (28/9) the skipper of the boat showed us several empty nest sites where adult birds with large young could be seen the week before. Compared with reports in August the numbers of birds seen were relatively small.
In total I saw 30 birds at sea from both headlands and boats.
6 - Ponta Da Cruz 20/9 11:00am to 12:00 noon and 1 6:00pm to 7:00pm. 7 - Ferry to and from Porto Santo 21/9. 1 - Ponta Da Cruz 22/9 6:00pm 7:00pm. 6 - Porto Moniz 25/9 11:00am to 12:15pm and 5 - 5:00pm to 8:00pm. 1 - Very close on boat trip to Desertas 28/9. 2 - Porto Moniz 1/10 11:00am to 12:00 noon and 1 4:30pm to 7:00pm.
Birds feeding and resting on the water can be seen almost everywhere particularly from headlands and during the ferry trip to Porto Santo. I made no attempt to count how many I saw but it would be in the thousands. This is by far the most common and widespread sea bird.
1 - Porto Moniz 1/10 4:30pm to 7:00pm.
I would not be surprised if closer attention to the more distant large shearwaters did not produce more records.
1 - 25/9 Porto Moniz 5:00pm to 8:00pm.
As this is a breeding bird I was surprised that I did not see more. They may, however, have already moved away from the island.
1 - Ponta Da Cruz 20/9 6:00pm to 7:00pm. 1 - Ponta Da Cruz 22/9 6:00pm to 7:00pm.
60 birds were seen in total with the movement off Porto Moniz in the late afternoon and early evening producing 60% of the numbers.
1 - Ponta Da Cruz 20/9 11:00am 12:00 noon. 1 - Ferry to Porto Santo 6 - Return ferry to Madeira 21/9. 7 - Porto Moniz 25/9 11:00am to 12:15pm 23 - 5:00pm to 8:00pm. 1 - Very close boat trip to Desertas 28/9. 4 - Porto Moniz 11:00am 12:00 noon 17 - 4:30pm to 7:00pm
Madeiran Storm Petrel
This bird is reputedly seen only rarely from land and the Porto Santo Ferry despite it having a protracted breeding season (one population in the summer and another during winter) in the archipelago. It apparently has no tendency to flock together at sea and disperses widely outside of the hours of darkness. It was with much surprise and delight therefore that I found significant numbers to be passing westwards off Porto Moniz on 1st October. In all I saw 15 birds but as there was a heavy swell and the birds flew close to the water it is likely that these represented only a small proportion of the total number of birds involved. I saw birds at regular intervals all during the day. At first I was concerned that I could be misidentifying the more distant birds. They bore a similarity in shape and flight to Leach's Storm Petrel but the white rump, despite being obviously narrow, was easily visible even at long range. I soon realised that this was because the white extended well onto the flanks and was in view however much the birds banked from side to side. Several birds eventually flew close enough to ensure absolutely that my identification was correct.
It is difficult to speculate as to the cause of this movement. Whilst the wind was quite strong from a north easterly direction with a heavy swell the weather in general did not appear to be severe enough to cause any displacement. There had been a period of winds with a southerly component followed by a period of calmer weather prior to this day that may have been significant. It may also represent normal passage during that time of year, as I have been unable to find any information on seabird activity in October.
3 - Porto Moniz 1/10 11:00am 12:00 noon and 12 - 4:30pm to 7:00pm.
1 - near Calheta 22/9 flying along the beach.
I only saw two birds one of which perched within ten yards of me as it rested after chasing Canaries. It was a young bird. I was struck by its extremely dark sooty brown colouration and complete lack of a supercilium.
1 - Ponta Da Cruz 20/9. 1 Risco waterfall 29/9.
Widespread and conspicuous with birds being seen daily. They all appeared to be at the dark end of the range for Buzzard with very little variation.
Widespread and conspicuous.
1 - Funchal marina 26/9.
1 - Funchal marina 20/9. 8 - Porto Santo beach 21/9.
1 - 1/10 Funchal Marina.
1 - 26/09 Funchal Marina.
Probably the commonest migrant wader but still only in small numbers.
1 - heard calling over Ponta Da Sao Lourenco 23/9
Occasional birds in coastal localities.
The commonest wader found on Madeira. One or two could usually be found on rocky beaches and Harbour walls.
1 - Porto Moniz 25/9 5:00pm to 8:00pm. 3 - Porto Moniz 1/10 4:30pm to 7:00pm.
1 - juvenile flew along side the ferry 21/9. 1 - Ponta Da Cruz 23/9. 1 - adult Porto Moniz 25/9 5:00pm to 8:00pm.
Lesser Black-backed Gull
1 - 18/9 near airport. 3 - 2 adults 1 juvenile near Calheta 22/9.
It is likely that other birds went unrecorded in the flocks of Yellow-legged Gulls.
Common on the coast particularly around the Port at Funchal. Birds were also seen on the high plateau of Paul Da Serra.
Up to 30 birds roosted on the wall of the marina in Funchal. Small groups would be seen feeding close inshore from most headlands.
1 - adult joined the roosting Common Terns in Funchal Harbour 20/9.
A heavy passage of "commic" terns far out to sea off Porto Moniz 25/9.
I did not put a great deal of effort into trying to find "pure" birds but those on the higher rockier slopes looked like suitable candidates.
These were not uncommon in pure Laurel forests and some were even seen on the edge of Laurel and Tree Heath at the Risco waterfalls in what I would have thought was marginal habitat. The viewpoint at Balcoes is often quoted as the best site for this species. It does give you a panoramic view of some of the best habitat but only poor if any views of the birds. I found that the track to Faja Da Nogueira, which is the road that can be seen from Balcoes, to be more productive. I parked just before the road crossed the stream next to a small pink house and scanned the hillside. I saw 16 birds in around 30 minutes.
12 - Faja Da Nogueira 24/9. 1 - Balcoes 27/9. 2 - Faja Da Nogueira 27/9. 1- road to Risco waterfall. 3 - Risco waterfall 29/9. 1 - Prazeres 1/10.
Found in large numbers close to rocky cliffs and were a hazard when driving.
A common bird in any dry habitat including Desertas and Porto Santo. The car park at Ponta Da Sao Lourenco had a lot of tame birds.
Very common close to watercourses. As many streams run down the mountainsides even through Funchal this bird can be seen almost anywhere.
Common but shy over much of the island. The bird was more often heard than seen.
As with Robin a common bird more often heard than seen.
1 - Porto Santo 21/9
A common bird that has spread to fill the gaps left by the absence of other species. It was very strange to see them moving around in large flocks like Tits.
Very common in all woodland. It was best seen by walking along levadas through Laurel forest such as the walk to Balcoes, Risco waterfall and the Queimadas picnic area. Large mixed flocks of Firecrests and Chaffinches would soon be heard moving through the canopy avoiding the outer branches. As they crossed the path the chaffinches would drop out onto the ground to feed and the crests would feed above them showing little concern for observers.
I did not specifically search for this species and only saw it on Porto Santo where it is particularly common.
Found in association with Firecrests and very common. They were particularly tame at the Queimadas picnic site.
Common in dry areas and on cultivated land. A large flock on Ponta Da Cruz proved to be quite approachable
50 - Ponta Da Pargo 25/9.
Madeiran Speckled Wood
22 Briar Avenue
Tyne & Wear NE26 1RU
Tel 0191 297 1991
Flight Identification of European Seabirds