Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Four Days on Fuerteventura 11th January 2018

Day Four

So our last full day of birding on Fuerteventura dawned. Last night over dinner we discussed what we would do today. There had been two long staying Hoopoe Larks, a major rarity on Fuerteventura, residing on the furthest southwest point of the island at a remote spot called Punta Pesebre. Although they had not been reported for some time, someone claimed to have seen them a day or so ago although the report was not verified. As Badger had never seen a Hoopoe Lark we decided to take a chance and try to see them as there had also been a report from there of another rarity, a female Desert Wheatear, but again that was a few days ago and no further information had been forthcoming since our arrival on the island.

It was a long but pleasant drive on modern new roads that were relatively free of traffic as far as Morro Jable, a large town by the sea with huge hotel complexes set on the coast before the town and others forming a massive backdrop to the seafront, while the whole seafront itself had that bright busy air of cafe life and boutique shops and even encompassed an open air market. 

A section of Morro Jable seafront
We drove down the wide boulevard with statuesque palms spaced evenly alongside, passing between the hotels and the seafront and then drove out of the town, climbing into the surrounding hills and moving from a tarmac road to an unsurfaced track that wound upwards in sinuous curves following the contours of the rising slope. It was truly spectacular on a day that sparkled in full sunshine.

To our left was a wide expanse of barren plain sloping down to the sea cliffs and the huge expanse of the Atlantic whilst to our right the land rose upwards into towering mountain tops and as we slowly ascended, the panorama became ever more rugged and spectacular. There were very few cars on the road but Badger noticed that we only had a quarter tank left of fuel. We were in a quandary as we did not know if there were any more petrol stations on the route to Punta Pesebre. We consulted the map and it certainly looked like there were no  more towns between us and Punta Pesebre, not even the occasional small village.

We could not take the risk of running out of fuel and so returned to Morro Jable to fill up the tank. This took a little time as we searched for a garage in the town but eventually we found one and all was well. We set off again and followed the now familiar dirt road as it wound ever onwards towards the end of the island. 

The unsurfaced road to Punta Pesebre through Jandia National Park
We were in Jandia National Park and from afar we could see the lighthouse that marked the furthest southern point of the island. Just a few kilometres west of there, along the coast, was Punta Pesebre.

We followed the stony dusty track out to the Punta Pesebre which, when  we arrived, we had entirely to ourselves An insignificant signboard was all that marked the point but this was the correct spot for the Hoopoe Larks, assuming they were there, as it was confirmed by the Google Maps app on my phone.

Punta Pesebre is a location that I can only describe as being a place of beautiful desolation encompassed by a wild and rugged juxtaposition of land and sea. The huge blue swell of the Atlantic pounded into the shore under the low cliffs as great white crested waves rose up and rolled in swollen, terrifying force towards the point. I become enervated in locations such as this where the elemental forces, untramelled by human interference take on a force and energy entirely unknown in more prosaic areas. I want to shout into the wind and yell to the sky above the roaring sea  as if becoming raw and elemental myself, throwing off  the restrictions and petty conventions of my human existence.

Punta Pesebre
The sun bore down dazzlingly white, the sky was blue and the wind beat against our bodies as we looked out onto the endless motion of the sea. A pure white seabird, tiny against the sea's heaving backdrop, lifted on the wind and we had seen our first and only Sandwich Tern. Away to the north the coastline consisted of huge mountains and cliffs, frilled at their base by white surf and that became hazed and indistinct with distance, while behind us lay a huge expanse of stony sandy desert with  many low growing knee high bushes of some hardy shrub growing all over it. This was where the Hoopoe Larks had been seen. It was daunting as the area to be searched was huge but we separated and quartered the ground as comprehensively as we could. It seemed to go on forever with the sun blinding as it reflected from the almost white sand and stones but we persisted, undaunted. 

Hoopoe Lark habitat Punta Pesebre
After an hour and a half we had to concede the birds were probably not here. Badger however redeemed the situation by finding not the Hoopoe Larks but the female Desert Wheatear,  well inland from the track on which we had left the car and flying from low bush to low bush, using them as a vantage point to pick off prey from the ground. Its plumage almost matched the sandy terrain but was a richer, golden colour. It was confiding to a degree and allowed me to approach quite closely but eventually tired of my presence and flew a good distance from me.

Female Desert Wheatear
We gave ourselves another half an hour of searching and then finally conceded defeat as far as the Hoopoe Larks were concerned. We were pretty certain they were not around as we had covered a very large area searching for them but there is always that small percentage of doubt. But we had done our best and could do no more and were content with our efforts.

So now we made the long journey back to Morro Jable, passing back through the spectacular scenery of Jandia National Park, home to the highest mountain on Fuerteventura, Pico de la Zarza at 807m. Thank heavens this area, declared a National Park in 1987, has been saved for posterity. It really is the most wonderful place.

As we proceeded back down the boulevard along Morro Jable seafront we decided to park and check out the wide expanse of dry bushes that separated the seafront promenade from the beach itself. There had been a report of Plain Swifts from here so there was a chance that they might still be around.

We got out of the car and watched two Gannets cruise past the beach. We crossed the road onto a grassed area and found three swifts flying low over what looked like a dry saltmarsh beyond. The problem is that both Pallid and Plain Swifts are present on Fuerteventura and in the strong sunlight it was very difficult to discern which species they were. In the end we settled for Pallid Swift which is by far the more usual swift found on the island. Just as we were watching the swifts some raucous cries came from the palms spaced along the seafront and a party of Monk Parakeets left a palm and swooped low and fast towards us as we arrived in a small play and seating area, adjacent to a long wooden boardwalk leading down to the beach.

Yes I know that the parakeets may have been introduced some time in the past and are not truly native but to all extents and purposes they are living wild, are very pretty birds and highly entertaining, as all psitticines are. They are very tame and people both local and visiting come to feed them sunflower seeds and peanuts. To feel their sharp claws grasping your skin and the gentle weight of their bodies on your arm is a charming and almost unique experience. What better way to introduce someone to birds, be they child or adult, than allowing them the experience of these parrots clambering up your arm totally trusting of your good intentions.

Monk Parakeets
Both Badger and myself indulged in the Monk Parakeet experience and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. Spanish Sparrows helped themselves to left over sunflower seeds on the ground and another Berthelot's Pipit joined the throng of parakeets and feral pigeons at our feet.

Male Spanish Sparrow
After about an hour we decided to move on but the swifts were troubling us and after about 10km driving out of the town we turned back to see if we could make a positive identification of the swifts. Sadly, having parked the car roughly where we had before, we found the swifts had departed. So we would never know for certain what they were although I believe they were Pallid Swifts.

Crossing the grassed area we noticed a huge mounted skeleton of a whale and at first I assumed it was either a sculpture or an imitation but a display board informed us it was the genuine skeleton of a Sperm Whale that had washed up on the beach. 

Sperm Whale skeleton
Badger on the Boardwalk
This time we walked down the long wooden boardwalk as two Cattle Egrets were hunting lizards and insects in the saltmarsh by the boardwalk. We followed them as they assiduously checked each and every clump of vegetation and one finally caught a lizard which, with some difficulty, it swallowed whole, the unfortunate reptile distending the egret's neck as it slipped down.

Cattle Egret
Perhaps the most entertaining thing were the ridiculously tame and abundant Barbary Ground Squirrels, who obviously knew tourists were a soft touch for food and would approach you with careless abandon in the hope of some tit bit. They are not unattractive  and have the same superficial appeal as our Grey Squirrels but, like them, they are an introduced species, not native and are a threat to cultivation and the island's native fauna. They have colonised the whole of Fuerteventura, the entire population apparently deriving from two animals brought to the island as pets and released in 1965.

Barbary Ground Squirrel
Badger had a field day attracting them to his phone and getting all sorts of comical close ups as the inquisitive beasts snuffled around his phone and feet.

We had to go as there was one more really good area to check on our route home, called Costa Calma. There is a Facebook page called Rare Birds of the Canary Islands and we used this to alert us to any good birds that had been found on Fuerteventura. Today, someone posted a report of a Little Bunting and an Olive backed Pipit in 'Costa Calma Park.' We had little idea where this was as all the trip reports we had read referred to 'Costa Calma Forest' which runs along each side of the main road and is pretty obvious as it is the only extensive area of green for miles or should I say kilometres. It can hardly be called a forest either as it is just a strip of woodland no more than fifty metres wide on either side of the road and runs for approximately one kilometre.

Unsure of what to make of this we followed our instincts and found ourselves parking by the woodland on the southern side of the road. It was pot luck if we were in the right place or we were not. There was only one way to find out. Leave the car and start birding!

The woodland consisted of pines, palms and exotic shrubs such as bougainevillea, artificially watered to maintain it.There were tarmac paths to which most people kept but as birders we walked through  and under the trees as this is where the birds were most likely to be, due to the regular disturbance from people out for a stroll or using the woodland as a shortcut to a nearby shopping centre or housing.

Palms and Bougainevillea in Costa Calma Woodlands
Some Goldfinches were twittering in one of the trees and I found a couple moving near the top of a tree. Badger had wandered further and told me he had flushed a Song Thrush.These were the first of either species we had seen on this trip. I saw another small bird fly up from the ground under some pines but could not re-find it to identify. Some Linnets flew over calling but that was about it.

Badger, further down the woodland path, encountered two German birders who told him they had seen a Blackcap but also, and much more interesting, a Little Bunting and an Olive backed Pipit. They told us that they had seen these two birds in an area of close growing pines, where it was darkest, so we made our way back to the pines that consisted of a number of parallel and closely planted rows, their foliage intermeshing to create a gloomy understorey. I walked between two rows of the pines and five small birds, all the same size, flew up from under one of the trees just ahead of me. I alerted Badger and we waited for the five birds to descend but after fifteen minutes when they still had not re-appeared Badger went for a closer look and found a Little Bunting sitting motionless in a tangle of twigs and needles below the canopy of one of the pines. It was directly above where the five birds had flown up from and one had to assume that the other four were also Little Buntings and were also hidden in the foliage, as a few days prior five Little Buntings had been reported from here.

Badger went back for my camera and his video that we had left in the car while I maintained a vigil, trusting the Little Buntings would soon descend to the ground. On Badger's return, when we checked if the Little Bunting was still there we found it had disappeared. They had given us the slip and we never saw them again despite extensive checking.

We carried on 'walking the wood' finding at least two, possibly three Hoopoes, vigorously probing for prey around the bases of the trees and shrubs. 

We separated again and in an open area under a small tree Badger flushed three Olive backed Pipits. He called me to join him and we waited for the pipits to drop down from the tree they supposedly flew up into but they did not re-appear. Tired of waiting we moved along a little way and flushed two Olive backed Pipits which promptly shot back up into another tree!

We could hear them calling and one even descended again but just as it did a passer by spooked it and it flew back into the tree and that was the last we saw of them too.

There were at least half a dozen Chiffchaffs flitting around and I heard one singing which confirmed its identity as a Common Chiffchaff. We also heard but did not see a Blackcap, warbling a quiet sub song to itself in the trees.

We remained here until almost dusk and then set off for our accommodation at La Piramide. We treated ourselves to another Chinese meal in the huge complex of hotels apartments and restaurants, cleared the car in readiness for returning it tomorrow and then it was bed for the last time in Fuerteventura.

Tomorrow morning we were going home and back to the cold and grey skies of Britain. It had been a great four days but all good things come to an end and we were left with the distinct impression that Fuerteventura was a very good birding destination indeed and had a great potential for turning up some really rare birds.

The End

Monday, 15 January 2018

Four Days on Fuerteventura 10th January 2018

Day Three

It rained overnight. Not that we would have noticed, being dead to the world during the night due to our dawn to dusk birding exertions. The tiles outside, between our room and the pool, were slippery as we left at 7am, in the dark, for another trip back to Tindaya Plain. There was still a few spots of rain falling but the skies were clearing and soon it would be dry and sunny.

I am getting used to the Fuerteventura weather now, where it clouds over in the evening, gets colder and the wind increases and then in the morning the clouds mainly disperse, the wind drops and the land warms again. Probably it is not always like this but it has been a consistent pattern during our stay.

We followed the now familiar route back to El Cotillo and the Tindaya Plain, the mountain tops on the way now shrouded in cloud. By the time we were venturing out onto the main track through the plain it was sunny, the land being suffused with a soft golden light that is only ever evident in the early morning as the rising sun just clears the mountains and before it gets too high in the sky.

Badger stopped the car shortly after we headed out on the track, as four small waders were running ahead of us. Pale fawn above and white below they ran like miniature clockwork toys, their black legs a blur of motion, as they sped along the sandy track. They were Kentish Plovers, four of them, impossibly cute and a little uncertain about the car, running off the road a little way to stop, look at us and bob in anxiety. We stopped too and slowly they regained confidence and returned to the track. Beautiful little things, the male especially attractive with his pale ginger crown, a black smudge across his forehead and black stripe from bill to eye.

Female Kentish Plover

Male Kentish Plover
We drove on deeper into the plain and stopped at the small ruined building by the track that marked the best place to scan for bustards. We scanned  and at first it was another depressing blank but off to our right between the car and the beach I could see a number of Yellow legged Gulls wandering about in the stones and low vegetation and then further to their left, a larger and taller shape with a long neck and legs became apparent. It was a Houbara Bustard, a little distant but unmistakeable. We watched it moving quite rapidly, feeding as it went, stooping to the ground to catch I suppose some form of invertebrate prey.

We followed a track running off into the plain in the bustard's vague direction but it got us only marginally closer so we gave up and returned to the main track. A Lesser Short toed Lark was singing loudly from a stone by the track but moved off a little way when we stopped to look at it.

Lesser Short toed Lark
We took another track into the other side of the plain and Badger by some miracle of detection found a beautifully camouflaged Stone Curlew, standing in that somnolent inscrutable way of theirs by some bushes. A couple of the inevitable Ravens flew over. No day would be complete without them putting in an appearance.

We returned to the main track once more and commenced another scan for bustards but there was no sign. 

The main track across the Tindaya Plain
I cannot recall how many times I scanned, but always in vain, then just on the point of giving up two sickle winged birds flew fast and furiously across the skyline. At first I though they might be swifts due to the erratic course and speed of their flight and the difficulty of relating size of bird to the vast contours of the landscape but it almost immediately became apparent these were not swifts at all but distant raptors, one being pursued by the other, with the one doing the chasing larger than the one being pursued.The chasing bird broke off the pursuit and proceeded to fly in our direction and still relatively distant came past us in a long, fast and continuous glide, coming lower and lower to the ground before finally pitching up to perch on a cairn of stones someway off across a shallow and dried out barranco. Although distant we could discern from its paler plumage and small size that it was very likely to be a  Barbary Falcon.

It looked very much like a Barbary Falcon to me and we were ninety nine percent convinced it was. The other bird I thought might have been a Kestrel but frankly all our attention was now fully focused on the perched falcon on the other side of the barranco as this would be a real find but we had to be absolutely sure. There was no other choice but to head over the barranco and try and get as close as possible to confirm the identity.

Adult Barbary Falcon
We walked down into and up out of, the dry and shallow barranco whilst the falcon thankfully remained perched on its pile of stones. 

Badger walking the edge of the barranco
We got reasonably close and I took as many photos as possible, reasoning we could check on them to see that our assumptions that the raptor was a Barbary Falcon, were indeed correct. We edged slightly closer but this was too much for the falcon which took to the air and in a wide upward sweep passed back around us, high in the sky and disappeared back towards the distant hills from which it had originally come.

Back at the car, we looked at the images on the back screen of my camera.The first were inconclusive as the range they had been taken at made them slightly blurry. My heart sank and then immediately leapt, as up came an image clear enough to show that, clearly visible was rusty brown colouring on its head, and also there was finer and less extensive barring on its flanks. All concerns about Peregrine Falcons were banished. Here was incontravertable evidence that we had seen a Barbary Falcon. 

The distant mountain beyond our hire car is where the Barbary Falcon emerged
chasing a Kestrel
This had made my day and also Badgers. An unexpected delight and more than adequate compensation for our lack of bustards. After this minor triumph we decided to head back to El Cotillo and as we drove along the track I saw a movement out on the plain. A quick request to Badger to halt the car resulted in my confirming I was looking at the distinctive profile of another bustard. Still a little distant but closer than the previous one. It was close enough to be able to discern all its plumage features and to watch it for a few minutes before it too, like all the others, headed deeper into the plain and away from the track.

Houbara Bustard
At my request, and after a brief stop at the supermarket, we headed back to the goat farm at La Parcelas. I was hoping to get a better photo of the Black bellied Sandgrouse, as the morning light would be better and the sun behind us. My hopes were dashed however as there was only one sandgrouse present and that was way over the other side of the goat enclosure. However the Trumpeter Finches were still on the wires closest to us so I concentrated on them instead and latched onto a beautiful male, all pink of breast and with a sealing wax red bill. 

Male Trumpeter Finch
A Berthelot's Pipit put in a guest appearance as did a small flock of Spanish Sparrows. The males when seen close are really quite special with a lovely chestnut crown, white eyebrow and pure white cheeks contrasting with a broad black bib on their chin and rows of black chevrons on their breast and flanks. They are so much brighter in colour than our lowly male House Sparrows in Britain. The females conversely are virtually identical to female House Sparrows.

Berthelot's Pipit

Male Spanish Sparrow
While watching these birds a Southern Great Grey Shrike arrived, literally out of the blue, and proceeded to give us wonderfully close views as it hunted  insects and beetles on the ground from its perch on the wire fence. Its black bill and highwayman's mask gave it a formidable presence as it swung its long tail to balance on the thin wires and poles it preferred.

Southern Great Grey Shrike
Half an hour had now passed and we discussed where to go next and thought we would try Caleta de Fustes which was near where we were staying and is mostly famous  for its golf courses which have some small lakes and where Plain Swifts had allegedly been seen recently. The less said about our attempts to get into the golf course the better. We just could not find the entrance although admittedly we were not that enthused about dodging golf balls and golfers so did not try that hard and decided we would give it another go  tomorrow. We did however manage to see many Ruddy Shelducks taking advantage of the greenest grass for miles around.

So then it was off to the nearby Barranco de la Torre, where, from the reports we had read there would be good birding. We drove through a pleasant small seaside village called Las Salinas and accessed the barranco from the beach end where there was ample space to park by a rocky bay with a couple of Yellow legged Gulls and a Little Egret standing on the black rocks. On the way in a very confiding Hoopoe allowed us to get very close to it by using the car as a hide, as it fed by the side of the narrow road. Sadly a truck coming the other way spooked it just as Badger was about to take some video of the bird. It does get frustrating sometimes when just as you are enjoying looking at a bird something or someone comes along to disrupt matters. It's no one's fault in this crowded world of ours but it is a pain nevertheless.

For me the barranco was a little disappointing although it extends for some kilometres and we only walked inland about a kilometre. You could spend a day here easily as there is some very good habitat over its entire length. Initially it had a lot of greenery in the form of dense bushes, tamarisk trees and palms but it was bone dry and there were not that many birds about apart from Collared Doves and Spanish Sparrows. Badger found a male European Stonechat but it almost immediately flew off and we never saw it again. Next up was a handsome male Sardinian Warbler  which gave us the runaround in some palm trees although we went on to find that there were two pairs here.

Barranco de la Torre
Spanish Sparrows, as I said, were present in good numbers, flying in noisy and excitable flocks to perch on the folded tops of the huge palm fronds above and look down on us, chattering to themselves. Collared Doves constantly crooned their monotonous calls, calling from their perches in the palm trees and from the overhead wires around some seemingly deserted farmsteads but then a different dove call, faster and more melodic came from the rocky wall of the barranco and we found our first Laughing Dove. Much darker and slightly smaller than the Collared Doves, the first one we found was being chivvied by its larger cousin. In the end we found three, possibly four Laughing Doves. Whether they can be regarded as truly native or are the result of earlier escapes or releases is open to debate but it was still nice to see them.

Two Southern Great Grey Shrikes  were using the sun dried, dead fronds of a palm tree as a vantage point to survey the ground below and I found three Linnets, which are of a different race here, and which promptly fled as a Common Buzzard flew over.

One last stop was on our agenda and entailed a reasonably long drive to a place called Vego de Rio Palmas. A trip report said this was a good location to find African Blue Tits. The African Blue Tits  in the Canary Islands have their own sub specific status and differ to those in northern Africa in that they lack a white wing bar.

The drive required another spectacular and winding ascent through a mountain range of yet more extinct volcanos before we descended down into the small and pleasant village of Vego del Rio Palmas and, following the directions in the trip report, we found ourselves parking just by a bridge over a small stream that ran though some comparatively luxurious green habitat.

Getting out of the car Badger immediately heard and saw a pair of African Blue Tits feeding on some seeding plants about fifty metres away from us. We approached them slowly and managed to get more than reasonable views of them before they flew further off into the greenery and were lost to sight.They are smaller in size than our Blue Tit and to my mind brighter coloured, looking almost exotic.Their crown is darker, almost blackish blue and their back is greyish blue without any of the green tinge that is seen on British Blue Tits

African Blue Tit
We followed the small track by the stream that wound through the vegetation and came out on a slope overlooking the stream. 

A rare sight of greenery by a stream at Vego de Rio Palmas
Collared Doves were again prolific but there were also some Laughing Doves here. I counted up to four but there could well have been more. A pair of Sardinian Warblers skulked and scolded, as is their way, at the  base of the thick vegetation and at least four Chiffchaffs were flitting around catching insects. Much to my surprise a Robin then popped out of the greenery to be followed by another a little later.

We spent an hour here and then it was time to go as the sun begun to slowly settle.There was just time to see a couple of Hoopoes perched on a telephone wire by the bridge and catch up with another or maybe the same pair of African Blue Tits, calling to each other and not sounding like a British Blue Tit at all but to my mind their call was similar to the tinkling notes of a Goldfinch. 

We returned to Puerto Rosario and our apartment the way we came, stopping at a, by now very windy and cold mirador (viewpoint) high up in the mountains and overlooking a  great sweep of land that panned away to a range of extinct volcanos, the craters clearly visible. 

Unfortunately it is our last day tomorrow and it has all seemed to have passed so quickly

To be continued.....................