Madeira Trip Report

This last week I’ve been in Madeira, and below is a bit of a trip report of the wildlife seen. It was a general, not a specific nature-watching, holiday, but nonetheless some good stuff was still seen.

It’s worth noting Madeira really is quality over quantity when it comes to wildlife – you could scour the island for all breeding species and still end up with a smaller tally than a good afternoon at a UK wetlands site… but there are three endemic species, a few more endemic to Macaronesia, and several unique subspecies to the region. It’s also a lovely place to visit, full of of beautiful plantlife, laid-back people, and good wines and beers!

Birds

Mute Swan - Presumed ornamental birds at Monte Tropical gardens and the Municipal Gardens in Funchal, the latter with cygnets.

Muscovy Duck - Some feral birds seen at Ribeira da Janela, and some presumed ornamental(!) birds at Monte Tropical Gardens.

Bulwer’s Petrel - The second most common bird seen out to sea during boat trips out of Funchal, after Cory’s Shearwater, with probably 15-20 seen on one of the trips.

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Fea’s/Zino’s Petrel - No, we didn’t see any of these! Sadly a planned trip to the Fea’s breeding ground of the Desertas Islands (where one school of thought is it’s a third unique species – Desertas Petrel) was cancelled due to high winds round the islands.

We did visit the 1818m high peak of Pico do Arreiro, breeding ground of the endangered endemic Zino’s Petrel, where we visited the Madeira Petrel Centre, which told the history of the discovery, rediscovery and conservation of the species. As they only visit their burrows at night, we of course didn’t see any, but it was great to see the beautiful area they inhabit, way above the cloud layer.

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Cory’s Shearwater - Very common out to sea, with many seen from all three boat trips we made, including some flocks numbering over 30 birds. Looking for excited groups of shearwaters seemed to be a good way of finding dolphins!

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Kestrel – Seemingly common throughout, and of the subspecies canariensis, which is noticeably darker, especially in the females. Several could be seen swooping through Funchal, with great views had from the Funchal Cable Car.

Yellow-Legged Gull - Very numerous, especially around Funchal Harbour, with some even found at 1,500m asl plains at Paúl da Serra. The birds were of the atlantis subspecies (which we know as Azorean Yellow-legged Gull), which have darker backs (almost as much as British LBBGs) and are more heavily streaked on their heads in winter.

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Lesser Black-backed Gull - One at Funchal (ssp unknown).

Roseate Tern - At least one among Common Terns at Funchal Harbour.

Common Tern - Very common around the coastline, with biggest concentrations seen around Funchal Harbour and São Vicente.

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Feral Pigeon – Very common throughout.

Trocaz Pigeon – Unfortunately a trip to the Balcões viewpoint at Ribiero Frio to find this endemic species was scuppered by a thick layer of fog (see below)! I did get three large pigeons flying high over the mountains later while travelling, somewhere near Faial, but as I don’t want to tick distant birds from coach windows I’m going to chalk this up, sadly, as a probable/possible…

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Collared Dove - I saw one on wires near the Marina in Funchal, and sadly didn’t give it the second look it deserved. Collared Doves are apparently rare on the island, and lack of scrutiny means I’m not sure if it was a Eurasian Collared Dove, an African Collared Dove, or a feral Barbary Dove (domestic form of African Collared Dove).

Ring-necked Parakeet - An unexpected sight! Three flew noisily round Funchal on several nights. Truly feral birds or someone’s pets getting some exercise?

Plain Swift - These dark swifts are endemic to Macaronesia, and were common, especially in Funchal where several could be seen screaming overhead virtually all the time. I tried and failed to find a Pallid amongst them!

Madeira Firecrest - An endemic it actually was easy to find! These were found easily at both Monte and Ribeiro Frio, making themselves known by call on arrival, and good views had at both sites (although they didn’t stay still long enough for a photo…), including one perched a couple of feet from my head at the Monte Tropical Gardens cafe.

Blackcap - Seen or heard in a variety of locations, including loud singing from trees in urban areas of Funchal, and a pair in the hotel gardens. The birds were of the subspecies heineken, which is browner above than the nominate.

Blackbird - Very common, including a nesting pair in the hotel gardens. Of the subspecies cabrerae, these birds were smaller and darker than mainland birds.

Robin - Seen or heard at Monte and Ribeiro Frio, seemingly shier than British birds. This was the nominate subspecies (as mainland Europe, but not Britain).

Grey Wagtail - Common around rivers and inlets, with the biggest concentration seen being four at São Vicente. The birds were of the Madeiran endemic subspecies schmitzi, which is darker backed.

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Berthelot’s Pipit - Two birds seen at Paúl da Serra, and one at Pico do Arreiro. I only got brief views, but pipit ID was made easy due to the island only having one species! The call was almost sparrow-like, initially making me think I’d found Rock Sparrows at Paúl da Serra. The species is endemic to the Canaries and Madeira, and the subspecies maderensis only found on Madeira, the Desertas Islands and Porto Santo.

Chaffinch - Not found in urban areas, but common (and very tame!) in the wooded tourist areas including Monte and Ribeiro Frio, including a female eating cake crumbs from our table at the cafe at Monte Tropical Gardens. These birds are of the distinctive endemic subspecies maderensis, with males particularly striking.

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Atlantic Canary - An endemic to Macaronesia, this was the default small bird in most areas, with particular concentrations around Funchal and Santana. The call was surprisingly Goldfinch-like at times.

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Greenfinch - Only has a small distribution on the island, but one was singing at Monte Tropical Gardens (presumably of the southern European subspecies aurantiiventris).

Mammals

Sperm Whale - Two seen on the first (of three) whale-watching cruises we did.

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Spotted Dolphin - Seen on two out of three whale-watching cruises we did, the second being a pod that probably totalled about 15 dolphins, giving excellent views by the boat.

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Brown Rat - One particularly large specimen at Funchal harbour!

Reptiles

Madeiran Wall Lizard - Very common! This species is endemic to Madeira, although has also got a naturalised population on The Azores. They’re very inquisitive lizards, and will often come and check you out it you put a hand near them, smaller ones sometimes climbing on your hand, although larger lizards will tend to nip you instead if you try the same trick!

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Loggerhead Turtle - Seen on two out of three of the boat trips.

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Amphibians

Perez’s Frog - Heard calling at a number of sites, including Monte.

Butterflies

Monarch - Common. Great to see!

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Speckled Wood - Tried to string it into the endemic Madeiran Speckled Wood, but couldn’t! Fairly common in wooded areas, with largest concentration seen at Monte Tropical Gardens.

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Long-tailed Blue - Blue butterfly seen at Monte. Presumed to be this species based on most likely options.

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Small White - Seen frequently.

Dragonflies

Darter sp. - One seen from a bus window in Funchal – I’m not going to try to ID that!

Notable fish

Flying fish sp. - The most notable fish we saw was a Flying Fish during one the boat trips – a remarkable sight!

So as you can see above, it wasn’t a huge list tallied in a week. Bird-wise, there were a few we could have got with a few more visits to other locations – including Spanish Sparrow, Rock Sparrow, Goldfinch, Buzzard, Common Waxbill, Spectacled Warbler, Pallid Swift and Hoopoe. More dedicated seawatchers will get much more out of a trip to Madeira – including Fea’s/Zino’s/Desertas Petrels, Little Shearwater, White-faced Petrel, Madeiran Storm-Petrel and others, and during passage you get the impression it’s an underwatched island where anything can turn up. A more dedicated birding trip at the right time of year could do a lot better in terms of number of species than I did with this trip.

But in my week’s experience, Madeira really isn’t a place to go for a big list, but to soak in the spectacular views, look for the endemics and near-endemics, and just enjoy yourself!

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