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!

13 tips for learning bird ID…

P1150102I’ve been hanging round a couple of bird ID forums recently, and it’s got me thinking about tips I’d give new birders who are struggling to get to grips with bird ID. This isn’t to say I’m anything of an expert – I still make some hilarious mistakes, as does everyone. And some of the tips below are stuff I aspire to, rather than always 100% practice, but here are some pointers for those starting out. Hopefully someone out there will find it useful…

(Pics Chiffchaff and Willow Warbler… but which one’s which?!)

1. Buy a book

Many new birders start off by asking for ID help on Internet forums. This is fine to a degree, but it can lead to a habit of simply relying on other people IDing birds for you. It sounds obvious, but you need to get a bird guide for your own reference.

But which one? The best guide is undoubtedly the Collins Bird Guide, but this can be a daunting and confusing book for beginners due to the large range it covers (the whole of Europe, and parts of North Africa and the Middle East), and the sheer volume of species. While I would always recommend buying a copy, absolute beginners should consider making their first port of call a UK only guide, because you won’t be confused by rare vagrants or birds that simply do not occur here. A good one is the RSPB Handbook of British Birds, which not only has good identification advice, but useful information about habitat, breeding, range and ecology.

2. Get out there!

It’s always good to do your research, but there’s only so much book-learning you can do. Not only make a special effort to go birding, but always watch birds in your garden, your local park, on your way to work, in your lunch hour… birds are everywhere and try and put a name to every bird you see to build up your skills and confidence.

Watch the familiar birds you see and imprint them on your memory – how they move, how they behave, what they sound like. Then you’ll start to notice birds that are out of ordinary, even if you don’t know immediately what they are.

3. Learn the common stuff first.

Don’t try and learn everything in one go, as you won’t take it in. Try and work out the birds you’re likely to see, and focus on them when you’re starting out. Working out what you may see can be  sometimes be quite tricky, though, so bear in mind the following couple of points…

4. Learn what’s local.

First of all learn what you’re likely to see in the UK, and then whittle it down to your local area or place you’re visiting. If you’re unsure what’s likely where you are, get hold of a local ornithological society’s annual report, which will give you a good idea of all the species that can be seen, their status, and even particular locations that are good for them. You may, for example, learn that Marsh Tits are very rare while Willow Tits are quite common, or Nightingales simply don’t exist in your area. It gives you a more nuanced picture and removes confusion species from the equation.

5. Learn about habitats.

Knowing habitats is also very important. Obviously birds fly, and many migrate, and they do turn up in usual or unexpected places. But generally birds are specific to certain habitats. A brown warbler in your suburban tree is pretty unlikely to be a Reed Warbler or a Grasshopper Warbler, and you can discount Wood Warbler from singing from a patch of bramble on a moorland edge. Once you get this sort of information down you can visit an unfamiliar site and realise it “looks good” for a certain species, and often get proved right.

6. Learn about movements.

Many birds migrate, which can remove confusion species at certain times of year. The “little brown job” checklist is vastly reduced in winter, for example, with Spotted Flycatcher, Nightingale, Reed Warbler, Willow Warbler, Tree Pipit and many others removed completely from the equation as they’re strict summer visitors! You can also learn finer details than that, knowing that you’re unlikely to see a Spotted Flycatcher before the very end of April or early May, although you may see a Willow Warbler by the end of March. Likewise some birds – such as Redwing, Fieldfare, Waxwing and Brambling – don’t occur (or only occur very rarely) during the summer.

Knowing these movements can help a lot in whittling down the likely species even further.P1150088

7. Learn songs and calls.

I cannot stress how important this one is. There are some tricky visual IDs out there – Willow Warbler/Chiffchaff, Marsh Tit/Willow Tit and Meadow Pipit/Tree Pipit are among the most familiar. These pairs have very different songs and calls, however, and knowing these can make ID simple, even if you don’t see them!

Learning songs and calls isn’t always easy, and some people find it harder than others, but it’s essential for a full appreciation of birds. It will help you locate interesting species that are initially hidden from view, help you ID tricky species, and allow you to realise how abundant certain species are. Once you get your ear in, you’ll be shocked how many Willow Warblers, Wrens and Robins there are around!

As with all ID, it’s best to start learning the species you’re most likely to encounter. Also consider starting learning in late winter, when few species are singing, building up week by week as the spring arrives and new birds pipe up and others arrive from migration. There are plenty of CDs and websites available, including the excellent Xeno Canto site.

8. Get a camera

A camera can, of course, help you get an ID, either by closer examination with reference books later, or sharing it with friends or on online forums for their opinions. But be wary that this does not take over from the above points, and remember an unclear photo will not be identifiable for definite by anyone. You can also spend too much time trying to fiddle getting a record shot that you forget to actually look at the bird properly in the field, meaning you have a terrible photo and no clear memory of the bird’s salient features either.

Saying that, if you do see a rare bird, a photograph may be necessary to get the bird accepted as a record.

9. Always ask questions.

Always question what others tell you. For example if there’s someone holding court in a hide pointing out species to others, don’t presume they’re right! I remember being in a hide hearing a fella proudly and confidently showing everyone there a Peregrine sat on a fencepost – except it wasn’t… it was a handsome female Sparrowhawk. The Internet’s even worse, with many convincing sounding “experts” making claims with absolute certainty which are often not as correct as their confidence suggests…

Always think for yourself, and don’t be afraid to (politely) ask why a bird is what people say it is if you have doubts. You may learn something new, or it may be the other person who learns something!

10. Apply “Occam’s Razor”…

As many of the above points suggest, knowing what’s likely to be seen is the key to ID. There are almost 600 birds on the British list, but that doesn’t mean you have to consider them all as likely candidates.

Always start from the position that a bird is going to be the one of the most common possibilities, unless you have good reason to think otherwise. Always ask… why isn’t it the common option instead?

11. …but be prepared for the unexpected!

But saying that, and as I’ve already touched on, always bear in mind birds can be unpredictable beasts and can show up in odd places, at odd times, and do odd things. There’s nothing to stop you finding a rarity or an anomaly, at any level of birding, but knowing how to discount the common and likely stuff first is essential before you can convince yourself and others that you’ve seen something unusual.

12. Don’t be scared to make mistakes.

Don’t be scared to get it wrong, and be prepared to admit when you have. If you’re not sure, ask someone, as most of the time birders are happy to help. If people are sniffy or snobbish when you make a mistake, that’s more their problem than yours. Everyone has to learn the basics, and everyone IS still learning, even experts. Be wary of anyone who thinks they know it all, and feels the need to sneer at the abilities of others.

But saying that, don’t take it personally if people are skeptical about any finds you think you may have – sometimes the odds of an inexperienced birder getting an ID wrong is far more likely than a rarity turning up.

13. Always be prepared to let one go.

Sometimes you can’t be sure of an ID no matter how hard you try, and you have to be prepared to shrug your shoulders and let it go. Don’t get too hooked on listing in your early days, as you’ll find yourself too keen to hammer square pegs into round holes to get a “tick”, and don’t get too hung up on the “ones that got away”. We’ve all had them…