The Canary Islands part 1: Gran Canaria and Fuerteventura: 29/01/18 – 01/02/18   Leave a comment

This post and the next one cover a recent week-long trip to the islands of Gran Canaria and Fuerteventura. The first describes our first full day on Gran Canaria and our two days on Fuerteventura. The next will cover our final three days, all on Gran Canaria.

We were looking for somewhere to have a quiet week together without long flights, having to travel to Heathrow etc. It seemed a good idea to take a break during the winter as we had few other commitments at this time of year. Gran Canaria was an obvious choice, partly because I had never been there but mainly because the Blue Chaffinch on that island has recently been split from the much commoner and easier to find Blue Chaffinch on Tenerife, which I saw back in 1984.

We chose a package deal that flew from Hurn Airport (now often called Bournemouth Airport in spite of the fact that it’s at Hurn and not Bournemouth) and booked a hire car for the week. As well as some birding we hoped it might be warm enough to go to the beach and maybe even take a dip.

On the birding front things became more complicated when a Dwarf Bittern from tropical Africa turned up on nearby Fuerteventura. Although I had seen this species in Uganda it was only a flight view and besides, it would make a good Western Palaearctic tick. In addition, on my 1989 trip to Fuerteventura our view of Houbara Bustard was very distant. This didn’t bother me at the time as I had seen it well (or so I thought) in Israel in 1982. However in the 90s the Asian and the African forms of Houbara were split and I was left with just this unsatisfactory view of the African form.

Logical thing then was to fly from Gran Canaria to Fuerteventura for a couple of days, even though this meant doubling up on hotel and car hire costs.

All in all it was a successful trip, however even for experienced travellers like us, this ‘easy’ holiday threw up a number of pitfalls.

 

The Canary Islands, also known as the Canaries are an archipelago and autonomous community of Spain located on the Atlantic Ocean, 100 kilometres west of Morocco at the closest. The seven main islands are (from largest to smallest in area) Tenerife, Fuerteventura, Gran Canaria, Lanzarote, La Palma, La Gomera and El Hierro. The archipelago’s beaches, climate and important natural attractions, especially Maspalomas in Gran Canaria and Teide National Park and Mount Teide (a World Heritage Site) in Tenerife (the third tallest volcano in the world measured from its base on the ocean floor), make it a major tourist destination with over 12 million visitors per year, especially Gran Canaria, Tenerife, Fuerteventura and Lanzarote. (Information copied from Wikipedia). I visited Tenerife and La Gomera in July 1984 and Fuerteventura and Lanzarote in February 1989.

 

The recent split of the critically endangered Gran Canaria Blue Chaffinch meant that seeing it was the top priority on the trip, but with four days at our disposal I didn’t think it would be a problem. However we came out of our hotel on the first day and found our hire car had gone. Apparently they had tarmacked the area in front of the hotel overnight and had towed our car away! The drive to the forest of Pajonales near El Juncal took far longer than I expected due to steep and winding roads, so it was about 1000 by the time we arrived. Although it was obviously going to be colder than the coast, I hadn’t expected it to be 4c, thick mist and heavy rain and we weren’t really dressed for those conditions. Given the late hour and the dreadful weather I concluded that today would be just a recce …

 

… however just 200m from the car I was pointing out at Great Spotted Woodpecker (endemic race) to Margaret when she said ‘what’s those small birds above it?’ Yes, they were the Blue Chaffinches. They are separated from their cousins on Tenerife by the dark band over the bill, white wing bars, greyer plumage and quite different call note – a monosyllabic uit compared to a disyllabic tchap-chie. Photo credit: see below.

The song of the two species is very different too.

Here is the Common Chaffinch like song of Gran Canaria Blue Chaffinch taken from Xeno Canto: https://www.xeno-canto.org/356448

And here the song of the Tenerife Blue Chaffinch:  https://www.xeno-canto.org/354887

 

Here is the female. Our birds were not colour ringed (apparently many are in order to aid ongoing research into the survival of this threatened species with an estimated population of just 200 individuals). Our initial views were quite poor as the birds were high in the tree and our binoculars soon got covered with rain but about 500m further on we saw them (or another pair) again, this time lower down and we were able to scope them. Of course given the conditions I didn’t get any photos, so these two shots have been copied from Wikipedia and were taken by Miguel Angel Pena Esteve.

 

Another species we were to see in the Pajonales was the African Blue Tit. A recent split from Eurasian Blue Tit, it is comprised of four races in the Canaries and two in North Africa. Two of the races, the one on La Palma and the one in NE Libya have been tipped as possible future splits. The La Palma form could easily be seen in the future but getting to NE Libya safely might be a different matter. The races on the central Canaries differ from the others by the lack of a wing bar and also, in the case of the the La Palma birds, by the lack of a white belly. Again conditions were too poor for photos so this is taken from the Internet Bird Collection and was photographed by Erkki Lehtovirta on Gran Canaria. https://www.hbw.com/ibc

 

Once we were away from the forest the weather improved somewhat. It seems like the valley was channeling up moist air from the Atlantic and dumping it as rain on the forest. Perhaps this is why it remains the largest area of surviving pristine Canarian Pine forest on the island and why nearly all of the Blue Chaffinches are found here.

 

We soon came across our first Canary Islands Chiffchaff. When I visited Tenerife in the early 80s this was just a race of Chiffchaff and was undoubtedly given little attention. With species status comes critical examination and it was great to note the very different song, brown colouration with paler underparts, long thin upturned supercilium, very short primary projection (the birds are of course non migratory so evolution will favour a shorter wing) and as a result the comparatively shorter tail.

More from Xeno Canto:

The familiar song of Common Chiffchaff: https://www.xeno-canto.org/396148

The call and then song of Canary Island Chiffchaff: https://www.xeno-canto.org/45371

 

Although the rain had eased our time in these scenic mountains was still hampered by low cloud.

 

Occasionally the spire of Roque Nublo would appear through the mist.

 

Other birds we saw in the mountains included Berthelot’s Pipit which is endemic to the Canary Islands, the Salvages and Madeira …

 

…. and of course the Atlantic Canary which is endemic to the Azores, Madeira and the Canaries. It is generally thought that the name Canary Islands derive from these birds, but that is untrue. Roman sailors who landed on Gran Canaria in the 1st C AD found many dogs (although apparently they didn’t find the dog’s owners who must have remained in hiding) and they named the island Insula Canaria or ‘Isle of Dogs’.

 

Eventually the sun broke through the clouds giving views of the volcanic spires and buttes. The Canaries are, of course, of volcanic origin and three islands Lanzarote, Tenerife and La Palma still show some activity today or in the recent past.

 

Small towns and villages nestled on steep slopes were the norm.

 

We debated whether to return the way we had come from the south (as there were a number of scenic lookouts that we had just driven past without stopping) or to continue northwards to Artena and then descent to the west coast. We chose the latter.

 

The westward descent through the Barranco de la Aldea was long and tortuous …

 

… with many towering side canyons and increasingly arid conditions.

 

So steep was the barranco in places …

 

… that locals had cut directly into the cliff face to build their homes.

 

However there were a number of reservoirs in the valley but we found nothing on them except a few Coots and Yellow-legged Gulls.

 

Eventually we saw the Atlantic ocean ahead of us and in due course we arrived in the town of La Aldea de San Nicolas.

 

If we thought that was the end of our mountain drive we were mistaken, the onward road to Mogan involve numerous steep climbs and hairpin bends, albeit on a wider road.

 

Beyond Mogan we were able to pick up the GC1 motorway and return to our resort. It had been a long but very rewarding day. Only about 120km of driving, but with the exception of the last bit on the motorway, almost all of it in second and third gear. That evening we checked if resurfacing was going on tonight as we had an early departure. We were advised to put the car in a pay and display car park that wouldn’t be resurfaced. However on our return from a meal in town we found they were closing the entire access road to our resort. ‘Closed until 0700’ was the answer to our inquiry, we would have been in the air by then. We had to move the car but all parking was taken up a km away.

 

The following morning we had to get up at 0350, walk with all the gear to the car and drive to the airport. Of course we got there in good time but you never take chances with being late when you’re flying. We arrived on Fuerteventura just as it was getting light and set off in search of the Dwarf Bittern.

 

After some driving over fairly rough terrain we arrived at Barranco de Rio Cabras, a dry vegetated wadi or gully that runs to the sea just north of the airport.

 

In places the barranco has been dammed producing some semi-permanent pools.

 

Unfortunately our time there was far from comfortable, during the first three hours we were hit with three heavy downpours, the sort that you can see and hear sweeping towards you across the desert. During one of them this Common Buzzard of the endemic race insularum was forced to land and seek shelter.

 

More notable was multiple sightings of Canary Island Chat. This bird really should be called Fuerteventuran Chat as it is found on this island and nowhere else.

 

This is a male, the female is a rather nondescript brown.

 

Fuerteventura still has a population of Egyptian Vultures. This species, like most vultures, has seen a huge decline in recent years.

 

There were quite a lot of birds on the pools in the barranco, Black-winged Stilts, Green Sandpipers, Common Snipe, Little Ringed PLovers plus a couple of Hoopoes. The ones that surprised me though were Ruddy Shelduck, this species was only a vagrant to the island when I visited in 1989, now I understand they are quite common wherever there is water and have been breeding here since 1994. However try as we might we couldn’t find the Dwarf Bittern. After getting wet for the third time we opted to return to the car, dry out and eat some lunch. Unfortunately Margaret fell on the now slippery rocks and so decided to stay at the car and rest. Crossing the barranco was tricky too as the dry bed had now become a river!

 

I returned, but after another hour there was still no sign of it, then a tour group (from the company Heatherlea) appeared on the far side of the barranco and after a while found the bittern. It must have sheltering so close the south wall that it was invisible from above. Try as I might I still couldn’t see it but by returning upstream to the crossing point and then following the rim until I joined them I could make it out sheltering in a bush. It then crossed to our side ….

 

…. and gave some great views. I understand that this bird wasn’t seen after today until the day we departed (5th Feb) probably because there were many other wet areas for it to explore upstream and down. As I said earlier this is a very hard bird to see well in tropical Africa and birders have flown from all across Europe to see this individual, apparently the 6th for the Canaries and for Spain.

 

Margaret opted not to join me back at the barranco so I returned to the car and we set off for the rocky Tindaya plain in the north of the island.

 

Initially apart from a few Berthelot’s Pipits and Lesser Short-toed Larks there was little showing but as late afternoon approached we drove slowly around the tracks looking for Houbara Bustard.

 

 

As I indicated earlier my previous views of this species were pretty distant. Populations east of the Nile Valley have been separated as MacQueen’s Bustard (or Asian Houbara) and I have seen them in Israel where they are resident, western India where they winter and Kazakhstan where they breed. Although I am sure that I did see a Houbara in 1989 on Fuerteventura I have always wished for a decent view and to be able note the differences between it and its Asian cousin.

 

The differences between the African and Asia species are small but significant, involving the crown and black neck feathers and there are differences in the nature of the display and vocalisations during display. It is thought that due to these differences that although birds from each species could cross the narrow habitat divide of the Nile Valley they would not interbreed with each other if they did. We only saw one Houbara whilst a friend of mine who went recently saw up to 12. I wanted to stay on till dusk in the hope of finding more but Margaret wisely said we should find our hotel and return at dawn for more views.

 

We found a supermarket to the north and stocked up on food for breakfast and lunch. Whilst Margaret was inside shopping I was in the car park photographing Spanish Sparrows …

 

… and Laughing Doves, a recent colonist from Africa.

 

Nearby we had excellent views of Algerian Hedgehog at the side of the road.

 

With dusk coming on we drove to our booked accommodation just east of the village of Guisguey. Trouble was we just couldn’t find it. We drove up and down the narrow roads, were threatened by one local and graciously helped by others but nobody knew where it was. It didn’t help that phone reception was poor and maps and booking.com who we booked via were no help at all. After an hour or more we decided it was a scam (I think now it was just a case of very bad directions) and opted to look for a hotel in the capital Puerto del Rosario. Trouble was that the rain was now torrential and in the dark it was hard to see the car in front of you let alone find a hotel. We later found that the capital city has only two hotels neither of which were signposted or visible on my phone app!

 

Unfortunately most Fuerteventuran accommodation is in the form of holiday apartment complexes like this, rather than hotels that provide a one-night stay.

 

We found ourselves well south of the capital and south of the airport (photo taken the next day as it was now dark) …

 

… fortunately about 8pm, having been searching for several hours we found this hotel with an all-inclusive dinner and breakfast. Hardly surprisingly we didn’t get to the Tindaya plain for dawn!

 

However we did return as early as we could and saw several Southern Grey Shrikes …

 

… the unusually small but surprisingly common endemic race of Northern Raven …

 

… and the delightful Cream-coloured Courser. This desert bird can be found from the Canaries and Cabo Verde in a band across the desert to western India. It has even turned up in the UK.

 

The right-hand courser might be a little out of focus but the left-hand one shows the remarkable pattern on the nape.

 

We birded at several other localities on the island including the reservoir at Los Molinas where Ruddy Shelduck were abundant and we also saw four Spoonbills …

 

… before calling in at some salinas which have now been turned into a ‘salt making museum’. But at least this means that the Barbary Ground Squirrels habituated and are hand tame.

 

Introduced from North Africa these cute critters seem to be doing well, not surprisingly as all the tourists feed them tit-bits.

 

We also had great views of Southern Grey Shrike. A study some years ago showed that from a genetic basis the ‘great grey shrike’ complex could be split into multiple species, one of which would be endemic to the Canaries. However genetics and morphology don’t really match and no firm decisions have been made. IOC currently recognised four species but this could change in either direction in the future.

 

We got to hear this one sing, something I have never heard with north European Great Grey Shrikes.

 

Well it was now time to head to the airport and return to Gran Canaria, passing over Puerto del Rosario as we did.

 

Although the light was fading we could see the shoreline and the barrancos of the northern part of the island …

 

… before the plane turned to the west revealing the whole western coast of Fuerteventura.

 

So ended our short visit to Fuerteventura, like my 1989 visit before it, it was marred by bad weather. The main draw back was the problem with the accommodation, we really thought we would have to sleep in the car that night. However we saw the birds we came for (other rare migrants remained unseen but we didn’t have time for them) and we saw some dramatic scenery.

We were back at our hotel at about 8 o’clock. With the main birds under the belt we opted to spend the remaining three days sightseeing and that will be the subject of the next post.

 

 

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