Canary Islands part 2: Gran Canaria: 2nd – 5th February 2018   2 comments

The last post dealt with our first day on Gran Canaria and our two days on Fuerteventura. This post covers our remaining three days on Gran Canaria and is mainly concerned with sightseeing although a few bird photos, both wild and captive, sneak in.

 

We were using Tony Clarke and Dave Collins’ Canary Islands book as a site guide, but it was published in 1996 and is out of date for some areas. They gave details of a tidal lagoon in Maspalomas known as the Oasis which often hosts waders. However all we found in this area were posh hotels and this concrete canal. However the palm trees near the hotels contained large numbers of Rose-ringed and Monk Parakeets and the scrub surrounding the canal held Sardinian Warblers whilst a number of near-endemic Plain Swifts and a single Barn Swallow zoomed about overhead.

 

We also saw a few of the introduced Common Waxbills in the area.

 

We thought we would visit the ‘bird park’ at Los Palmitos some way up in the mountains, partially to see the captive birds and partially because birding was said to be quite good in the area. The scrub around the car park held a number of species including the trips only Blackcaps (of the non-migratory race heineken which ‘refreshes parts other Blackcaps cannot reach’). From Blackcaps in the car park we moved to white Peacocks in the park itself.

 

I didn’t take many photos of the captive birds as I hate to see photos with bars in the background, but this rare Helmeted Guan from Venezuela proved an exception …

 

… and I couldn’t resist a close up of the facial features of Saddle-billed Stork.

 

We also went to a flight display of various birds such as this Red-legged Seriema but it started to rain and the handler said that all the flying displays would have to be cancelled because the birds of prey in particular wouldn’t fly in the rain.

 

The park has obviously diversified into a small zoo with quite a few mammals on display, an orchid house …

 

… and an aquarium, I don’t know what this bizarre species is …

 

…. but these days, after an entertaining cartoon film, most of us are familiar with Clown Fish!

 

But the most popular and most entertaining show was at the Dolphinarium. Six Bottle-nosed Dolphins (one is underwater) put on an excellent show with their trainers …

 

… catching balls …

 

… lifting their trainers up out of the water …

 

… or propelling them underwater …

 

… or into the air.

 

Two young girls in wet suits were taken around the pool on a raft (I don’t know if they were related to staff or volunteers from the audience) but they must have got a surprise when two dolphins leapt over their heads. This was all very entertaining and enjoyable but I’m not sure that keeping animals like dolphins (or any cetacean) in captivity is ethical. I know some people are very opposed to dolphinariums and I tend to agree with them. They told us that the dolphins were all captive born, I’m convinced they are well looked after and have a lot of stimulation in their lives and they do give many people a chance to see these lovely creatures that otherwise would have no encounters with them at all, but they are very intelligent creatures and the pool is a poor substitute for the open sea.

 

The following morning we drove into the mountains but soon got waylaid by an attraction that tried to recreate the Neolithic (late stone age) living conditions of the Guanches, the original inhabitants of these islands. Phoenician, Carthaginian, Greek and Roman sailors seem to have landed in the Canaries in antiquity (the Romans in 1st C AD) and reported buildings, yet saw no people. The Romans encountered dogs and named the island Insular Canaria after them. Clearly the dogs didn’t swim on their own accord from Africa and indeed archeology places a date of around 1000 BC for the initial colonisation of Berber-like people from North Africa. Spanish colonisation in 15th C led to wars and the annihilation of the Guanches. The tourist site was nicely set out but the information boards were poor (the English translation looked like it had been done by ‘Google Translate’) there was little mention of the origins of these people, no timeline and the disappearance of the Guanaches was put down to the arrival of ‘later invaders’!

 

The site was quite good for birding though and I was able to photograph several species. A common bird in the area, indeed throughout the Canaries was Collared Dove. In my two visits to the islands in the 80s I didn’t see a single one, now they are everywhere.

 

The Canary Islands are one of the few areas where Spanish Sparrow rather than House Sparrow is the common species (a few House Sparrows, probably ship assisted, occur around Maspalomas but we didn’t see any). Spanish Sparrows are far from common in mainland Spain. The male Spanish Sparrow is a handsome beast, much more strongly marked than House Sparrow …

 

… but the female Spanish Sparrow can be hard to tell from it’s House Sparrow counterpart. Well marked individuals such as this one are paler with a whiter belly, have well-marked streaks on the mantle, a narrower and more distinct supercilium and better marked pale fringes to the wing coverts.

 

Berthelot’s Pipits were common in the area …

 

… and we had great views of Atlantic Canary, the bird that derived its name from the islands, not the other way round.

 

A male Sardinian Warbler was singing and I think I got some of my best ever views of this common but inveterate skulker.

 

With a range from the Canaries across southern Europe and North Africa as far east as Turkey, ‘Sards’ are common in scrubby habitats, but all is usually seen is a small bird with a long tail diving into cover.

 

Surprisingly the wind was now dropping and the sun was shining.W e wanted to pay at least one visit to Maspalomas and Playa del Ingles famous beach so headed back down the mountain …

 

… and went for a walk on the edge of the mighty sand dunes. The towers of the church at Oasis de Maspalomas can just be seen rising above the sand.

 

Any hopes that the weather was improving were short-lived. The wind increased, whipping sand into our faces and it was far too cold for those traditional beach activities like sunbathing or going for a dip. However one or two brave souls were in the sea!

 

We retreated to a nearby covered area for lunch, although gusts of wind blew over stall holder’s stands and caused chaos among the assembled holidaymakers. Later following up a suggestion from the Clarke and Collins guide that the Playa de Arinaga and Playa de Pozo Izquierdo areas might hold Trumpeter Finches we headed north-east.

 

You knew the area was usually windy from the plethora of wind turbines …

 

The promenade at Playa de Arinaga was battered by the waves …

 

… these guys just avoided getting wet whilst photographing the waves …

 

… unfortunately I didn’t!

 

Local surfers were taking advantage of the powerful surf …

 

… including this young guy who seems to have mastered the art perfectly.

 

We found no finches of any description but did locate these salinas. Commercial salt pans often are havens for shorebirds in arid areas but we only found two individuals, single Grey Plover and Sanderling although both were additions to the trip list.

 

On our last full day on Gran Canaria we drove north to the capital Las Palmas and then westwards along the northern shore. Our destination was the north-western tip of the island (in the distance in the above photo) where we might see some newly arrived Cory’s Shearwaters back from their wintertime pelagic wanderings. We were probably a month too early as we didn’t see any, indeed the whole area was of little interest, just a far from completed tourist complex in the middle of a banana plantation. Stopping briefly at a small harbour on the way back I noticed this cat staring wistfully out to sea. Remembering Meryl Streep on the Cobb at Lyme Regis in Dorset at the start of the 1981 film adaptation of John Fowle’s book, I have titled this photo ‘The French Lieutenant’s Cat’.

 

Having had little success in the north-west we headed inland. The views of the north-east towards to Las Palmas were impressive. Margaret’s daughter and two grandchildren used to live on a yacht in the marina and we had wanted to see where that was. However once there we found no easy parking in the area so just did a drive by. As a result our only photos of the capital were from this vantage point and from the plane as we left the island.

 

The outer islands of La Palma, El Hierro, La Gomera and Tenerife (plus Madeira) have extensive areas of the type of laurel forest that once cloaked much of North Africa. However on Gran Canaria the only remnant left is in this valley and that is pretty degraded.

 

But we did see some new birds including the endemic races of European Robin and Common Chaffinch. The latter, pictured above is quite different from European races and many have wondered why like the Blue Chaffinches they haven’t been split. Recent genetic work has shown a complex picture of repeated colonisation of the Atlantic Islands by European and/or North African birds leading to a confused picture with no clear-cut division into species.

 

Normally receiving more moisture than the south, the northern slopes were greener more cultivated than the centre of the island or the south. As we climbed we left the grey skies of the north behind and saw the clouds spilling over into the drier centre and evaporating.

 

It was now a glorious day, the best of the trip. We drove southwards until we reached Artenara, the point where we turned off westwards on our first day. Unfortunately the road to Tejeda was closed and we had to make a big detour. However I don’t know if the word ‘unfortunate’ is really applies to driving for another hour in such wonderful scenery!

 

In the distance we could see the rock stack of Roque Nublo ….

 

… whist we got a lot closer to Roque Bentayga.

 

Deep barrancos ran westwards towards the Atlantic Ocean ….

 

,,, where winding roads connected remote villages.

 

Further south still we came across areas of Canarian Pine forest …

 

… and photographed the Gran Canaria endemic race of Great Spotted Woodpecker (although it didn’t look that different from the ones we see at home).

 

The final descent into Maspalomas and back to our resort was through the arid hills of the southern slope.

 

Well that was it for our week-long adventure in the Canaries. A few mishaps in the earlier part of the trip but great birds and wonderful scenery. The following day we left mid morning for the airport and were back at Hurn by late afternoon. Here is a view from the plane just after take off …

 

… and one of the peninsula of La Isleta in the north-west and the capital Las Palmas de Gran Canaria.

 

But I’ll conclude with another panorama from the mountainous centre of this spectacular island.

 

2 responses to “Canary Islands part 2: Gran Canaria: 2nd – 5th February 2018

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  1. Susana and I were on the Canaries from 6th Feb Ian- a walking holiday on Tenerife and Gomera. Really enjoyed your review. We also caught the unusually chilly weather, but it hardly detracted from the trip. I had five world lifers but no Bolle’s Pigeons, which will have to wait for a visit to La Palma, which we’d like to visit at Carnival time, having seen all the white-clad partygoers sleeping it off on the floor of the morning ferry that called in at Gomera for our return journey to Tenerife airport.
    Which scientific paper were you refeering to on recent Canaries avian taxonomy?

    • Hi Steve,

      I guess you meant the paper Common Chaffinch taxonomy. It wasn’t that recent (how time flies) Martin Collinson: Evolution of Atlantic Island Chaffinches British Birds 94 121-124 March 2001.

      European coelebs appears to be closely
      related to africana.This does not, of course,
      preclude the possibility that the two belong
      to different species. The big surprise,
      however, is that africana’s neighbour, the
      morphologically similar spodiogenys,is
      genetically divergent. A spodiogenys mtDNA
      sequence was found in a previous study to
      be intermediate between that of other
      Chaffinches and that of the Blue Chaffinch.
      If, as has been proposed, africana
      Chaffinches were to be split from coelebs
      because they are ‘obviously different’, then it
      is uncertain that spodiogenys could be
      uncritically included in the same species as
      africana, even though it is ‘obviously
      similar’. This is a cautionary tale for the ‘if it
      looks different, split it’ band of birder-taxono-
      mists.
      It should also be noted that the study
      does not prove anything. For example, the
      evolution of these Chaffinches has taken
      place against a background of seven or eight
      glacial and interglacial periods, and there is
      any number of reasons why several colonisa-
      tion and extinction events may have taken
      place which left no trace in the limited
      number of genes examined in this study. If
      there were ever short periods of extensive
      gene flow among the different Chaffinch
      races, then we might get a false picture of
      the length of time which has elapsed since
      these races first diverged. On the basis of the
      available genetic evidence, however, the
      most likely scenario outlined by Marshall &
      Baker, which involves fewest assumptions
      and guesses, is as follows:
      1. The spodiogenys haplotype, from Nezfa,
      Tunisia, is the remnant of an ancestral
      lineage linking Chaffinch with Blue
      Chaffinch.
      2. About 600,000 BP, ancestral Chaffinches
      colonised the Azores, presumably from
      Iberia.
      3. Shortly afterwards, a glacial period
      pushed all or part of these populations
      out of Iberia, with subsequent recolonisa-
      tion from Africa during the interglacial
      (this would explain why africana and
      coelebs are so closely related).
      4. Chaffinches quickly radiated out from the
      Azores, to Madeira and the Canary Islands,
      forming different subspecies as a result of
      founder effects, or natural selection, or
      both. On Gran Canaria and Tenerife, they
      would have met the Blue Chaffinch, the
      product of an earlier invasion (it has been
      suggested that the smaller, narrower bill
      of canariensis Chaffinches is a result of
      character displacement which avoids
      niche overlap with Blue Chaffinch).
      References
      Collinson, M. 2001. Shifting sands: taxonomic changes
      in the world of the field ornithologist. Brit. Birds
      94: 2-27.
      Cramp, S., & Perrins, C. M. (eds.) 1994. The Birds of
      the Western Palearctic.Vol. 7. Oxford.
      Grant, P. R. 1979. Evolution of the Chaffinch, Fringilla
      coelebs, on the Atlantic Islands. Biol. J. Linn. Soc. 11:
      301-332.
      Grant, P. R. 1980. Colonisation of Atlantic Islands by
      chaffinches (Fringilla spp.). Bonn. Zool. Beitr. 31:
      3-4.
      Lynch, A., & Baker, A. J. 1993. A population memetics
      approach to cultural evolution in chaffinch song:
      meme diversity within populations. Am. Nat. 141:
      597-620.
      Marshall, H. D., & Baker,A. J. 1999. Colonization history
      of Atlantic Island Chaffinches (Fringilla coelebs)
      revealed by mitochondrial DNA. Mol. Phyl. Evol. 11:
      201-212.
      Shields, G. F., & Wilson,A. C. 1987. Calibration of mito-
      chondrial DNA evolution in geese. J. Mol. Evol. 24:
      212-217.

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