Photos with this report (click to enlarge)
Madeiran Wall Lizard
This was a two-week family holiday with my wife Gerda and brother Tony to escape the rain and gales in Cornwall. We often go to the Canaries at this time of year, driven by the dreadful weather back home but none of us had visited Madeira before so promises of Trocaz Pigeon and Madeira Firecrest as well as other island endemics provided a further attraction in addition to the promise of better weather. We were not to be disappointed.
Madeira, like the Canaries is a volcanic island but after its birth c14 million years ago, several volcanic eruptions have eradicated any central cone that may have once existed and although rising 6km from the ocean floor only 1km of it sits above sea level. At 90km east-west, it is 30km longer than volcanic Lanzarote in the Canaries (which was born around the same time) and much more mountainous. It is also 200km north of the Canaries so a bit cooler and of course with its own endemic flora and fauna. It is situated 935km due west from Morocco so is hardly on any bird migration route. Consequently, any spring migrant is a welcome surprise...and so it proved to be.
By comparison with the Canaries, this was a much cheaper holiday for us. We flew from Bristol to Funchal, Madeira with EasyJet for £533 (£178 ea including extra baggage allowances) and picked up our 4-door hire car (a Mitsubishi Space Star) for two weeks from Zest Car Rental at the airport for £239 incl. insurance, unlimited mileage and free additional driver. As it turned out we didn’t take advantage of the latter; neither my wife or brother fancied driving on the narrow twisty roads that crisscross the island. Their decision may have been influenced by Yours truly almost writing the car off on the first day when I misjudged the width of the concrete road above our apartment resulting in the front offside wheel dropping into the hidden (that’s my excuse!) ditch bordering the road. It took several large boulders and Madeirans to help raise the wheel so I could drive the chassis up off the concrete. Apparently, this had happened before so after that I just took more care. Although not as warm as the Canaries, the weather was great: between 19-21 degrees every day although cooler, often misty in the hills. Of course, I was hoping for rain to bring in some migrants (I was alone in this regard) but other than some slight drizzle on the return to the airport, it was sunny and dry every day.
We concentrated our efforts around the coast in western Madeira so this report is really based on there and in particular only two main areas: Ponta do Pargo and Fajã da Ovelha. I wanted to be close to the lighthouse at Ponta do Pargo in case it attracted any migrants (it did) or seabirds off the headland (it didn’t). We based ourselves at Fajã da Ovelha just a nine-minute drive away in a magnificent 3-storey house on a hill overlooking the town and sea for just £19/night for the three of us. However, with additional cleaning and Airbnb fees etc we paid £480 for the 14 nights – still very good value for what we had and cheaper than anything we looked at closer to Funchal.
Ponta do Pargo. This is the most westerly point in Madeira and on the map looks good for seawatching – although I had read it was otherwise due to the height of the cliffs there @ 447m with no access to a lower elevation for seawatching. As somebody used to seawatching off high cliffs in Cornwall, this didn’t put me off but even so it was surprisingly devoid of seabirds and I soon gave up looking, concentrating instead on the bushes and open ground behind the lighthouse which looked great for passerines – and they were. The Government had plans to turn the whole area here into a golf course and it is already shown as such on the map I had bought so I was (pleasantly) surprised when I couldn’t find it! I contacted a local naturalist, Catarina Correia-Fagundes of Wind Birds (see their excellent website for up to date news on sightings and guided trips around Madeira for birds, plants, butterflies etc: https://www.madeirawindbirds.com/ ) and Catarina told me the plans for a golf course had been dropped. Unfortunately, the Government now have plans for building holiday homes instead.
After discovering Ponta do Pargo, we visited the area every day. It is still very undisturbed with some great habitat for migrants as well as breeding Red-legged Partridge, Spectacled Warbler, Berthelot’s Pipit, Blackbird, Blackcap, Canary and other finches which seemed rare elsewhere such as Linnet, Goldfinch and Greenfinch. We also had the place to ourselves and never met another birder (anywhere on Madeira in two weeks) and day-trippers seldom arrived before 10am, by which time we had mostly surveyed the place. The only disruption to our routine came on a day the army arrived and turned the site into a firing range – maybe 100 soldiers already camped and scattered across the headland before we got there. Birding to the sound of gunfire (including machine guns and goodness knows what else!) was quite unsettling especially as we didn’t know if the ammunition they were using was live or blank! Gerda stayed in the car on this occasion as Tony and I split up but within minutes he was captured and escorted back to the car. I pretended not to see the soldiers shouting and waving but when a jeep with soldiers started towards me, I decided to hide as I had just seen what I thought were two Tawny Pipits flying up to a nearby hillside and I was in hot pursuit. The status of Tawny Pipit is given as ‘One record’ for Madeira prior to 1995 so I had to nail these! Unfortunately, the army reached the summit before me and must have flushed them as I never saw them again...until three days later. Luckily, the soldiers had left the following day. Judging from the areas of burnt vegetation they left behind (and I was worried about the nesting species mentioned above) in retrospect I think their ammo must have been live!?
Fajã da Ovelha. Our house was situated >1km from the sea and about as high as the cliffs at Ponta do Pargo but with the telescope set up on the balcony we enjoyed views of Cory’s Shearwater every day, their numbers increasing as the time went on with up to 400 towards the end of our stay. They must have been c3km distant but if you’ve ever watched them off Porthgwarra, Cornwall, that’s close! The hills here offer some great walking and we had Trocaz Pigeons most days, even from our balcony. The village itself is very quiet and peaceful and like the towns, completely free of litter and dog-mess in sharp contrast to home. We found the whole of Madeira so clean and free of these aspects which blight our lives in the UK. Feral cats seem to be widespread across the island so presumably must be having an impact on bird populations but we saw no evidence of hunting. With no foxes or deer (of course) I don’t know what quarry species, if any, would be targeted by hunters. We didn’t even see a rabbit. The absence of a common bird species such as Woodpigeon, coupled with the steep mountainous terrain probably makes hunting unattractive.
For daily sightings and news of events, tours etc: https://www.madeirabirds.com/
For status of individual species: https://www.madeirabirds.com/madeira_birds
For full checklist and historical data: ‘Birds of the Archipeligos of Madeira and the Selvagens II – New records and checklist update (1995-2010)’ by Hugo Romano, Catarina Correia-Fagundes, Francis Zino and Manuel Biscoito.
Species Checklist. We saw 52 bird species, one lizard, one frog, ten butterflies, two dragonflies and one mammal (Common Dolphin).
Cory’s Shearwater. Seen daily from our balcony at Fajã da Ovelha with rafts of birds over 200-strong on the sea in the evenings. At Porto Moniz, an hour’s seawatch 12:00-13:00 on 14th produced a count of 39 birds moving east.
Manx Shearwater. A single bird off Porto Moniz on 14th and 9 off Fajã da Ovelha on 21st, the latter too far away to rule out the much-hoped for Barolo’s but on balance they looked like Manx to me.
Gannet. Four sightings of adults off Fajã da Ovelha and Ponta do Pargo of birds all moving north. Recorded status ‘occasional’ in Madeira.
Cormorant. A 2nd cal year bird at Porto Moniz on 18th. Recorded status ‘occasional’ in Madeira.
Grey Heron. An immature at a park in Funchal 16th, the only sighting.
Teal. Three on the small reservoir at Achada do Bardo, Poseira on 23rd.
Mallard. Four in a park in Funchal of dubious origin.
Mute Swan. Ditto Mallard!
Sparrowhawk. Of the Macaronesian endemic subspecies A.n.granti, whose status is recorded as a ‘rare breeding bird’ in Madeira. Seen on seven dates with max 2/day at 5 locations.
Common Buzzard. I can’t disagree with the recorded status as a ‘common breeding bird’ as they seem to be everywhere. I counted up to 30/day when I first arrived – pairs calling and displaying all round the coastal belt.
Kestrel. Of the Macaronesian endemic race F.t.canariensis. Very common. In stark contrast to the UK where our Kestrel populations are in decline, in Madeira they seem to be everywhere, no doubt boosted by the high population of lizards which surely must be an important food resource?
Hobby. One over the cliffs south of Ponta do Pargo on 13th made several unsuccessful attacks on a Plain Swift before giving up and heading off south, mobbed by the local Kestrels.
Red-legged Partridge. Up to 6 pairs at Ponta do Pargo, where seen daily. Heard also at Calheta.
Quail. One flushed at Ponta do Pargo 15th.
Whimbrel. One at Calheta 11th.
Common Redshank. One at São Vicente 18th. Recorded status ‘occasional’ in Madeira.
Green Sandpiper. One at the small reservoir at Achada do Bardo, Poseira on 23rd. Recorded status ‘occasional’ in Madeira.
Common Sandpiper. One at Calheta 13th.
Turnstone. One Calheta 13th with 3 there 16th.
Lesser Black-backed Gull. Single adults of British race, L.f.graellsii at Port Moniz 14th and Fajã da Ovelha 22nd.
Azores Yellow-legged Gull. Of the Macaronesian race L.c.atlantis. Seen in small numbers around the coast. Maybe 100 at Funchal on our only visit there on 16th.
Common Tern. Three off São Vicente 18th and a single at Calheta 21st.
Trocaz Pigeon. It was a relief to see so many of these! A concerted effort at Fajã da Ovelha on our first full day yielded 18 birds and we saw this species on 9 dates altogether at various locations – even on the sea cliffs at São Vicente (a pair on 18th). Always shy and often hidden in trees they could be overlooked but we saw them at any time of day. Beware the smaller, shorter-tailed and much commoner Feral Pigeons which dominate the island, some of which are similarly plumaged.
[Feral Pigeon. Very common and widespread.]
Collared Dove. Still surprisingly uncommon (especially with so many in the Canaries). The local status was given as ‘Vagrant bird with only one record’ in 1995, then upgraded to ‘Rare breeding bird’ in 2010. We found six pairs: Ponta do Pargo (2), Estrela (1), Amparo (1), Lombo (1) and Vitoria, west Funchal (1).
Rose-ringed Parakeet. Single bird heard calling from palm trees in Funchal on 16th.
Plain Swift. Seen on 5 dates with max 40 at Fajã da Ovelha on 17th.
Alpine Swift. A single bird at Ponta do Pargo 18th feeding over cliffs. Recorded status ‘occasional’ in Madeira.
Hoopoe. A single bird looking exhausted spent 15 minutes resting on the Mole island off Port Moniz on 14th sheltering from the wind. Recorded status ‘common breeding bird’ in Madeira, although as it only breeds on Porto Santo, our bird was probably a migrant.
Eurasian Skylark. At Ponta do Pargo we had up to 4 birds on 5 dates. Recorded status ‘occasional’ in Madeira.
Barn Swallow. Recorded at Ponta do Pargo most days and Fajã da Ovelha with peak counts of 40 at the former on 18th and 10 at the latter 24th.
Red-rumped Swallow. A single at Fajã da Ovelha circling valley with House Martins for 5 minutes on 16th. Two birds at Ponta do Pargo with other hirundines 18th for an hour at least.
House Martin. Small numbers on 7 dates at Fajã da Ovelha and Ponta do Pargo with max c30 at the former on 24th.
Sand Martin. Given that the recorded status in Madeira is ‘Exceptional’, I was surprised to see so many; it must be a good year. All records listed: At Ponta do Pargo 3 13th, 1 14th, 2 17th, 2 18th, 1 19th and 24th. At Fajã da Ovelha a huge flock of 25 feeding over the valley on 22nd with 8 there 24th.
Berthelot’s Pipit. Of the island endemic race, A.b.madeirensis. Only found at Ponta do Pargo where at least 7 breeding pairs.
Tawny Pipit. Two together at Ponta do Pargo 23rd (possibly since 20th when distant flight-only views obtained) with a Northern Wheatear. Up until 1995 only one record had been accepted for the island but Catarina informs me they have been more regular since.
Grey Wagtail. Of the Macaronesian endemic race, M.c.schmitzi. Present in most of the river moths we visited eg. Calheta (4 pairs), Fajã da Ovelha (1 pair), São Vicente (4 pairs), Funchal (1 pair) and at the small reservoir at Achada do Bardo, Poseira (1 pair).
White Wagtail. At Ponta do Pargo 8 18th, 5 20th and 4 23rd-24th.
Robin. Of the Macaronesian endemic race, E.r.microrynchus. Fairly common and widespread in the lower hills and wooded valleys eg. 10/day in the Fajã da Ovelha area.
Common Redstart. A male at Fajã da Ovelha on 18th. Recorded status ‘occasional’ in Madeira.
Northern Wheatear. At Ponta do Pargo, 2 19th, 3 20th with 1 remaining to 24th.
Desert Wheatear. The bird of the trip! A male at Ponta do Pargo for three days 18th-20th was the first for Madeira in 11 years – since one at the same site 30th April 2008. The comment then was “there have been fewer than five in the last 50 years”.
Blackbird. Of the Macaronesian endemic race, T.m.cabrerae. Common and widespread eg a count of 15 in the scrubby land behind the lighthouse (excluding village) at Ponta do Pargo on one day.
Spectacled Warbler. Of the Macaronesian endemic race, S.c.orbitalis. 5 pairs in the Ponta do Pargo area but not seen elsewhere.
Blackcap. Of the Macaronesian endemic race, S.a.heineken. Common and widespread with up to 10/day for eg in the Fajã da Ovelha area.
Madeira Firecrest. After finding two on our first full day at Fajã da Ovelha, I didn’t focus much time looking for this species thereafter so probably overlooked many.
Woodchat Shrike. A male at Ponta do Pargo for one day, 22nd in the same area as the Desert Wheatear had been. Recorded status ‘occasional’ in Madeira.
Common Starling. A single bird at Ponta do Pargo 19th & 20th.
Canary. Common and widespread with up to 100/day. The commonest land bird in Madeira (except maybe for Feral Pigeon)?
Greenfinch. Recorded status ‘Rare breeding bird’ in Madeira. Only found at two sites: two singing males at Fajã da Ovelha and three birds together at Ponta do Pargo.
Goldfinch. Maxima 16 at Fajã da Ovelha and 10 at Ponta do Pargo with fewer elsewhere.
Madeira Chaffinch. Of the island endemic race, F.c.madeirensis. Fairly common and widespread in the hills eg. Up to 15/day around Fajã da Ovelha.
Linnet. Of the Macaronesian endemic race, C.c.guentheri. Recorded status ‘Rare breeding bird’ in Madeira so I was surprised to find a flock of 55 at Ponta do Pargo on a couple of dates and pairs clearly breeding there on other days.
Mammals. The only mammals we saw were c30 Common Dolphins off Fajã da Ovelha on 21st. Given the amount of time I spent seawatching from our balcony I was surprised not to see more.
Reptiles. The Madeiran Wall Lizard, Teira dugesii is incredibly common and must be an important food resource for the island population of Kestrels and Buzzards. We saw a lot of larger more uniform coloured, often green, lizards with spots that I thought were Canary Lizards, Gallotia gallotia but apparently this species does not occur in Madeira and I am grateful to Catarina for putting me right – apparently these are just adult T.dugesii.
Amphibians. We found a small reservoir at Fajã da Ovelha with six Perez Frogs, Rana perezi which have been introduced to the island (as elsewhere) from southern Europe.
Dragonflies. Two species only: a female Emperor, Anax imperator ovipositing in the Levada Nova at Fajã da Ovelha and a male at Jardin do Mar. Up to 8 Island Darter, Sympetrum nigrifemur including some in tandem at the Levada Nova, Fajã da Ovelha.
Butterflies. Ten species:
Monarch. 13 in Funchal, 11 Jardin do Mar, 1 at Fajã da Ovelha.
Red Admiral. Up to 10/day.
Macaronesian Red Admiral. A few at Fajã da Ovelha.
Painted Lady. 1-2 per day.
Small White. Widespread. Up to 20/day.
Clouded Yellow. Common. Up to 50/day at Ponta do Pargo. Two white helice forms there.
Queen of Spain Fritillary. One on 15th at Fajã da Ovelha.
Long-tailed Blue. Mostly seen at Ponta do Pargo.
Speckled Wood. Common and widespread. Up to 60/day.
Madeiran Speckled Wood. This slightly larger and darker species is said to be declining due to competition with the above but we found it quite common around Fajã da Ovelha – maybe 20/day there.