MADEIRA BIRDING TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY
Madeira: Day 1 Our tour begins late this afternoon at Funchal from where we will proceed to the quiet and attractive coastal town of Machico for a five nights stay. Cory’s Shearwaters (now treated as a separate species to Scopoli’s Shearwater that breeds in the Mediterranean) nest above the hotel and in the evening they can be seen flying over uttering their strange cries.
Madeira: Days 2-5 Madeira’s star attraction is its breeding seabirds, and our stay on Madeira is designed to give us time to conduct enough pelagic trips to give us an excellent chance of finding all of the key seabirds and to make sure we really get great views of the key species. Our days will be structured around these pelagics, and we intend to conduct three, which will run from mid-afternoon until dusk, and there is a contingency day to account for a day when conditions are unsuitable (too windy or even too calm!). The rest of the time we have to recooperate between pelagics and also to explore the lush interior of the island.
During our time at sea, we will be prioritising the two endemic breeding Pterodroma petrels, a group that are always exciting to see! The endangered, breeding-endemic Zino’s Petrel, was only relatively recently recognized as a distinct species, and indeed all three forms (this along with Desertas and Fea’s Petrels) were formerly lumped with Soft-plumaged Petrel of the Southern Oceans. Thanks to careful studies by the Zino family, its specific status and ecology was discovered. It is now reduced to a tiny population of perhaps 80 pairs which breed high in the remote central mountains of the interior of Madeira where conservation measures (such as restricting rats in the area of the colonies) has helped to stabilise the population. With the specialist local knowledge of our guides, we will put our boat into the path of the birds returning to their remaining colonies and we can expect good views of the ultra-rare seabird!
The arid Desertas, stark rocky scraps of land almost devoid of vegetation situated to the southeast of Madeira, are now free from rats and goats after an eradication campaign and set to enjoy a massive increase in the number of breeding seabirds. These rugged islands are a spectacular sight, rising steeply from the ocean like bare mountain tops that seemingly might have emerged from the deeps just yesterday. Not far offshore, the floor of the Atlantic is over 1000m deep and seabirds gather where there are upwellings along the edge of the much shallower shelf that connects the Desertas to Madeira. Off the island of Bugio we should see good numbers of Desertas Petrels, a species (now also treated as distinct from Fea’s or Cape Verde Petrel) that breeds only on the Desertas, admiring their rapid, bounding flight action that gave rise to the name ‘gadfly petrel’ for the genus Pterodroma.
During our boat trips we should also encounter 100s of Cory’s Shearwaters and good numbers of Bulwer’s Petrels, both often at close range. Madeiran (or Band-rumped) Storm-Petrel also nests in the Madeira group and we have a good chance of encountering this species. Splitting the Madeiran (or Band-rumped) Storm-Petrel complex may gain wider acceptance in the future, and there are both summer and winter breeding populations in the Madeira group. With a bit of good fortune, we will also see the fast-declining Barolo’s Shearwater, a species now restricted to this part of the North Atlantic following taxonomic reorganization of the ‘Little Shearwater’ complex, as well as small numbers of Manx Shearwaters, and we may also come across less regular species such as Great Shearwater and the attractive White-faced Storm Petrel, and maybe the odd rarity such as a South Polar Skua. Numerous gulls will also be attracted to the chum, mostly the local atlantis Yellow-legged Gull but with a few over-summering immature Lesser Black-backed Gulls. As we will be using chum throughout the pelagics, the views of many of the seabirds can be excellent and man y of the species that would at best be dots from land can give excellent photographic opportunities.
Cetaceans are sometimes sighted, with the most frequently encountered species being Atlantic Spotted, Short-beaked Common and Common Bottle-nosed Dolphins, but we also have a reasonable chance of larger species such as Short-finned Pilot Whales or even Sperm Whales.
During our time on land, we will explore the attractive interior of the island of Madeira, which well deserves its reputation as a beautiful, verdant, easy-going, subtropical hideaway far out into the Atlantic. Here everything seems to grow with a greater profusion than on the mainland and the riot of greenery and wildflowers adds to the feeling that one has reached an island especially favoured by nature. To our west, a wall of peaks loom high above Funchal, the capital and the only town of any size. Rising almost straight out of the Atlantic, the volcanic mountains of Madeira reach to 1862m at Pico Ruivo, the island’s highest point, and the deep, precipitous canyons that have formed over aeons of time make Madeira’s scenery something really spectacular. Whilst on dry land, we will explore a number of spectacular areas where pockets of the impressive native laurel forests survive, such as the dramatic canyon at Ribeiro Frio. Here, as we walk along a path next to a ‘levada’, one of the many small irrigation canals painstakingly built along the sides of Madeira’s canyons to take water to cultivatable areas, we shall enjoy some of the finest views in the island (with the highest peaks of the island towering above us, providing it is clear). The two endemic landbirds are relatively easy to find and indeed the Trocaz Pigeon can now even be seen in Funchal. It should be easy for us to see and photograph this impressive beast alongside the diminutive Madeira Firecrest which is itself a delightful and fearless little bird. We will also hope to find the local forms (either endemic to Madeira or Macaronesia) of various species such as Common Buzzard, Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Common Kestrel, Eurasian Blackcap (there is an uncommon dark morph of the local subspecies), Common Blackbird, Grey Wagtail, and Common Chaffinch (the latter is very distinctive and a potential split).
We will also explore the highest parts of the island around the spectacular Pico do Arieiro. Here the views down into the incredibly deep and precipitous canyons are truly amazing. In this area, we will look for some more special birds including two more Macaronesian endemics, Plain Swift (which often fly by at eye-level) and Berthelot’s Pipit. Also here is the Atlantic form of Spectacled warbler as well as introduced Red-legged Partridges and some spectacular flora including endemic orchids and the amazing Pride of Madeira, an endemic Echium.
In the coastal plains, closer to our base, we will find another Macaronesian endemic, the smart Atlantic Canary, whilst in the arid plains at the east of the island, we may also encounter Rock Sparrow, a species which is far more common on the adjacent island of Porto Santo. We will also make an effort to see smart breeding Roseate Terns at one of their haunts on the north coast of the island.
For those that wish, we will also make a nocturnal pilgrimage to Pico de Areiro to listen for the Zino’s Petrel near to their breeding colony. The weird bubbling hoots are somewhat reminiscent of a Tawny Owl, and in the right conditions, we may even glimpse the birds flying over us in the moonlight. It is quite an eerie and atmospheric experience! We can also make an attempt to see the endemic form of Western Barn Owl, though they are not always easy to find!
Other common and widespread species on the island include Grey Heron, Common Moorhen, Eurasian Coot, Eurasian Collared Dove, European Robin, European Goldfinch and the introduced Common Waxbill.
For those that are interested in other aspects of natural history, there will be ample opportunity to explore during our downtime between the pelagics. Indeed just during our birding walks, we are likely to encounter much of the endemic flora, endemic butterflies such as Madeiran Grayling, Madeiran Cleopatra and Madeiran Speckled Wood, the endemic Madeiran Wall Lizard. All in all, we will make the most of what is on offer on this lovely island.
Madeira: Day 6 The tour ends this morning at Funchal Airport.