23rd – 30th August 2014 – The Azores part one   Leave a comment

I visited the Azores in 1991 and although we saw the endemic Bullfinch and some cetaceans we didn’t see much of the islands pelagic seabirds. When I saw a one week trip advertised that comprised mainly of pelagic trips from the island of Graciosa, my friend Roger and I jumped at the chance.



It is only a four hour flight from Gatwick to Porto Delgarda, the capitol on the main island of Sao Miguel.


Our first day taken up with a tour of Sao Miguel led by local operator Gerbrand (Gerby) Michielsen in his customised van.


Much of the natural woodland of the sierras in the east of Sao Miguel have been replaced with Japanese Cedars.

IMG_5000 Azores Bullfinch

Here the endemic Azores Bullfinch can be found with a little persistance. Unlike its continental cousin there is little sexual dimorphism, a reduced white rump and the wings are shorter. Once critically endangered, the population has risen with protection to around 1000 individuals.


IMG_4990 Azores Bullfinch juv

The presence of several juveniles indicates that the population is recovering

IMG_5021 Azores Buzzard

Although the Bullfinch is the only endemic landbird species, the Azores has several endemic races such as the rothchildi form of Common Buzzard

IMG_5040 Canary

The Atlantic Canary, the ancestor of the domestic Canary is widespread. It is found in the Azores, Madeira and the Canary Islands. Contrary to popular belief the Canary Islands were named after the abundance of dogs and not after the birds.

IMG_5023 Sao Miguel

Pretty little towns nestle in green valleys all over Sao Miguel.


There are several volcanic calderas on Sao Miguel giving spectacular views from the rim.

IMG_5025 Azorean Eiders

Several lakes hold American wildfowl throughout the winter but none had arrived yet. All we could find were these mutants. Gerby said ‘they’re not domestic ducks they are ‘Azorean Eiders’!

IMG_5030 Azores YL Gull

The Azorean race of Yellow-legged Gull atlantis is very distinct with a hooded appearance when not in breeding plumage. It has been suggested that it deserves specific status but intermediate populations exist on Madeira and the Canaries.


At the town of Ribeira Grande we searched the foreshore for American waders but only found Sanderling which could have reached the Azores from the New or the Old World.

IMG_5033 Ringed Plover

Pulses increased when we found a ‘ringed plover’ on some short vegetation nearby but critical examination showed it was just a Old World Ringed Plover and not its Nearctic counterpart.

IMG_5047 Whimbrel

The following day we flew to the island of Terceira and met up with the rest of the group who had skipped the Sao Miguel option and gone straight there. We headed for the tidal pools at Carbo da Praia, here an old quarry is connected to the sea by cracks in the rock and pools form at high tide. This acts as a magnet for waders and with the proximity of the islands to America this is the best site for vagrants in the entire Western Palearctic. We found 14 species of wader there, four from the Nearctic, six from the Palearctic and four that could have come from either. There were ten Whimbrels (eight Eurasian and two Hudsonian). They are separated mainly by the rump colour, which isn’t much help here, but the lack of buff tones on the supercillium indicate this photo is of the Old World form.

IMG_5064 Ruff

Ruff winter in large numbers in the Niger inundation zone in West Africa so this juvenile was was a long way off its intended route.

IMG_5073 Semi-P Plover

As well as, the Hudsonian Whimbrel we also saw three other American waders, Short-billed Dowitcher, Semi-palmated Sandpiper and this Semi-palmated Plover. The fine supercillium, narrow black breast band and most importantly the small palmations on the toes.


In the late afternoon we took the ferry from Terceira to Graciosa. The crossing takes three and half hours, about the same as from Penzance to Scilly. We got our first taste of Azorean seabirds with Cory’s, Great and Sooty Shearwaters seen plus our first storm petrels

IMG_5110 Beaked Whales

We had great views of a couple of pods of beaked whales. A cetacean expert on board identified them as Sowerby’s Beaked Whales but photographs were circulated on line and other experts thought they might have been the much rarer Gervais’ Beaked Whale. Postscript: further circulation of my photos with cetacean experts confirms they are Sowerby’s.

IMG_5117 Santa Cruz, Graciosa

In the evening we arrived at Praia in Graciosa and transferred to the the little town of Santa Cruz (above).


Over the next four days we made a number of pelagic trips offshore, aiming where possible to reach the ‘bank of fortune’ some 23 nautical miles offshore.


In order to attract seabirds to the boat a prodigious amount of ‘chum’, a mixture of fish bits and cod liver oil was prepared on a daily basis.


This is the boat, we used, the little ‘Gobi’.


This wasn’t a very comfortable boat, kitted out as it was for scuba diving and not pelagic birding, and when all 13 birders plus the crew were on board it was rather crowded, but the low deck, just inches above water surface, allowed great opportunities for seeing and photographing  seabirds. Photographs of the species we saw will appear in the next post.


For some of the time during our pelagic outings we had lovely sunny weather with a calm conditions but at other times the black clouds rolled in …


…. and we endured some pretty rough seas.

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