Saturday, 13 January 2018

Four Days on Fuerteventura 8th January 2018

Day One

Scrolling through my RBA (Rare Bird Alert) app. for records of birds currently being found in Britain I came across an intriguing report of a Dwarf Bittern that had been found at Barranco de Rio Cabras which is located near to a town called Puerto del Rosario on Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands. Now, although nowhere near Britain, RBA do occasionally publish records of birds whose extreme rarity they know will be of interest to British birders.This was one of them.

This Dwarf Bittern was only the fourth record for The Canaries, the second record for Fuerteventura and the fifth record for the Western Palearctic, so it would be a very good bird to see indeed. Dwarf Bitterns normally inhabit tropical and sub tropical Africa all year round, with the northernmost and southernmost populations being migratory in the dry season. The only one I have ever seen before was very briefly, many years ago, on my honeymoon at Lake Kariba in Zimbabwe so it would be very nice to get a much better and prolonged view of this particularly showy individual, as they are an attractively plumaged member of the heron family and normally very secretive.

I have also long harboured a desire to go to Fuerteventura as it contains other good birds, most notably for me, with a more than passing interest in stonechats, the endemic Fuerteventura Stonechat. (See 'Stonechats. A Guide to the Genus Saxicola' which I wrote).  As the days passed and I saw brilliant pictures of the Dwarf Bittern and read the reports  that regularly appeared on the internet from other British birders who had made the visit, it became apparent that the bittern had taken up long term residence in its favoured barranco and was unlikely to move  in the near future. I began to form a plan.

There was little I could do before Christmas due to personal and work commitments and only a short period was available during January. I proposed my still, admittedly vague plan, to my good friend Badger just before Christmas and after due consideration he decided to join me. The main criteria was to keep the cost down and I managed to come up with a total cost of around £270.00 for each of us including flights, four nights accommodation and car hire. This meant we could spend four days on Fuerteventura from the 8th to 12th January, hopefully seeing the Dwarf Bittern on the first day and then go on in the ensuing three days to find as many of the other Fuerteventura bird specialities as possible.

I downloaded several trip reports by other birders to give us details of other sites to visit and another good friend and Oxonbirder Pete Barker, who knows Fuerteventura well, gave me specific directions for Tindaya Plain which is good for Houbara Bustards and other desert specialities, while Peter Law also an Oxonbirder, who had visited Fuerteventura some two weeks earlier to see the bittern, gave me a detailed map showing precisely where to find the bittern, so I was pretty well primed with up to date information.

I collected Badger from his home in Abingdon on Sunday and we made our way to my sister's house in Harlow, Essex to spend the night there as she had very kindly agreed to drive us to nearby Stansted at 3am on Monday morning to catch a four hour Ryanair flight  to Fuerteventura, departing from Stansted at 6.30am.

In a daze we negotiated the automated baggage check without mishap and then endured the indignities of the security check to finally come to rest and sit semi comatose in the departure lounge along with hundreds of other bleary eyed early morning travellers. The Ryanair flight was bearable, as by the time I boarded the plane I was so tired I slept most of the way.

What a change greeted us as we departed the cramped plane at Fueteventura airport. From cold, dark and grey climes at Stansted we were now in a balmy, sunny mid morning with light winds and a pleasant temperature of just above 20C. There was no queue for passport control just a cursory check of our passports and, even better, we were able to make an immediate collection of our hold luggage so in a very short time we were stood in a queue waiting to get our hire car from Goldcar.

An interminable wait ensued as two ladies in front of us asked a million questions of the clerk but eventually after some confusion and the inevitable extra costs that no one ever tells you about, we got our key and were given vague directions as to where we would find our car. Another wander about the car park ensued as with precious few directions and with no sign of the promised person to meet us and show us to our car we had to work it out for ourselves.

We made the decision to check into our accommodation first and then get down to some serious birding so made the very short car journey to Puerto del Rosario to find a huge complex of apartments in blocks, each with an identifying name. Ours was La Piramide. Our room was not ready but we were told we could leave our bags in a back room and check in later. Thus we were finally birding at around noon.

Fuerteventura is the second largest of the Canary Islands, situated in the Atlantic Ocean and although  just 100km off Morocco is politically part of Spain. It was declared a biosphere reserve by UNESCO in 2009 and in size the island is only 100km long by 32km wide

My first impression of Fuerteventura was of how depressingly barren and stony it was. The whole landscape was an uninspiring arid brown, the drabness only offset by the magnificent mountainous topography surrounding the  barren plains. Puerto del Rosario, which is the capital, added to my decidedly underwhelmed impression as the arid land all around was being rapidly built on, with  bleak, unattractive apartment blocks seemingly being placed at random to cater for, presumably, the tourist trade. This part of the island was certainly not my idea of the ideal holiday destination but for many others it most definitely was.

Greenery in the form of vegetation was in very short supply and the majority of the greenery we did encounter was of palm trees, cactus and succulent plants, testament to the arid nature of the land. Where there was fresh water, such as in a minority of the barrancos, there was green vegetation in the form of various unidentifiable plants, bushes and the occasional small tree.

With grateful thanks to Peter Law who had provided us with the detailed map to the bittern's location,  we were soon driving off the tarmac main road onto an unsurfaced track leading towards Barranco de Rio Cabras, which was conveniently, not many kilometres from both our accommodation and the airport.

Despite Peter's map and maybe because of our tiredness we were still uncertain we were in the right place but driving to the end of the track we made enquiries of a friendly but armed security guard at a gate to a landfill and waste recycling site and he pointed  out the barranco off to our right. We parked the car back up the road and set off to walk the two to three hundred metres across barren and stony ground to the barranco's edge. Barranco is Spanish for ravine or gorge.Some are precipitous and steep while others are shallower. Many are dry but some do have water in them which can vary during the seasons.

Barranco de Rio Cabras did have water but only in very shallow pools and many parts were dry so we concentrated on those parts with water. It was also quite a deep ravine in parts, about a hundred feet with rocky bare slopes but where there was water there were greener patches of bushes and what looked like the occasional small mimosa or tamarisk tree but the overall sense of barren aridity was still very evident. The part of the barranco with standing water was where the bittern had been seen the most, so we concentrated our efforts there.

We were the only birders present and we could find no sign of the bittern. Panic had not yet set in but we were worried as we walked the edge of the barranco looking down for any sign of a diminutive blue grey bittern. There were plenty of other birds on the largest pool of water including six Black winged Stilts, a couple each of Green Sandpipers and Common Snipe, a Ringed Plover and a White Wagtail. Ravens came and went regularly overhead.

Black winged Stilts
A pair of Fuerteventura Stonechats, my first ever, flitted about in the sparse vegetation by the main pool or perched on the rocks. Collared Doves were everywhere and a pair  of very wary Ruddy Shelduck perched on the other side of the barranco, at the top, while a couple of Moorhens slipped in and out of the bankside vegetation below, but of the bittern there was no sign.

We walked along the course of the barranco covering all the areas holding water but could only find a Southern Grey Shrike, looking so much darker grey than those that winter in Britain, hunting from the rocks and boulders at the base of the barranco. I found a dead Grey Heron amongst the rocks but it had black legs and feet when normally they are greeny yellow so the question arose do Grey Herons on Fuerteventura have black legs or does the colour change in death? 

It was very steep here, the rock faces falling dramatically to the bottom where a trickle of a stream flowed through.We saw two other birders at the bottom sitting on the rocks having their lunch but it was obvious they too had not found any sign of the bittern. An immature Canarian Egyptian Vulture flew along a distant mountainside as we approached the hour mark in our so far fruitless search.

Very tired from our early start back in Britain it was inevitable that our spirits sank and our optimism became but a distant memory. We were now talking of coming back tomorrow but with one final throw of the metaphorical dice Badger suggested we drive further back along the track and cover another stretch of the barranco, just in case. We slowly trudged across the stony wastes back to the car and as we did an adult Canarian Egyptian Vulture, one of whose two threatened Canary Island populations is found on the island, was flying with a large number of Yellow legged Gulls over the landfill site.We watched it soaring and gliding and it commenced to come closer and closer and then even closer until it was virtually overhead.What a magnificent bird to see with its huge white and black wings spread wide to catch the warm air rising from the stony plain and its distinctive triangular shaped tail.This temporarily made us feel a little better about matters but only a sighting of the Dwarf Bittern could make our day truly complete and put our minds at rest.

Adult Egyptian Vulture

We duly drove a kilometre or so back along the dirt road and leaving the car once again by the road, made another three hundred metre walk back to the barranco and commenced another search. It was now quite hot but a constant light breeze refreshed us.

I decided to remain at the top edge of the barranco whilst Badger headed lower to try and reach the bottom and we lost sight of each other. Five minutes later as I peered over the drop and down into the barranco I saw the two birders we had seen earlier below me, and just as this happened a  small, dark, bow winged bird flew slowly past me and over the two birders below. It was the Dwarf Bittern, which flew towards the large pool, then turned sharply and appeared to land high up on the rocky face of the barranco. I yelled to Badger but got no reply so descended down to the floor of the barranco as fast as I could and with the other two birders, who were German, followed to where we thought the bittern had landed. We crossed, along the top of a small dam of stones, onto the opposite side of the barranco  to where the bittern had flown and scanned the rocky face opposite but had no luck in finding it. Badger had by now joined us and I told him of what had just happened. We ascended higher up the rock strewn slope of the barranco to get a better view of the opposite side and one of the German birders found the bittern perched high up on the rocks.

The tiny dam at the bottom of the barranco that we crossed
to view the Dwarf Bittern

.Our first view of the Dwarf Bittern

This was my first proper sight of this, the tiniest member of the heron family. It really was very small, only between 25-30cms in size and was a lovely slate grey colour on its head and upperparts, turning bluish in sunlight, and with boldly streaked creamy underparts, yellow legs and brighter golden yellow feet. The noticeable contrast between the body and wing feathers would suggest this bird is a second calendar year male, that is, it was born last year. A little gem of a bird, it stood motionless, as is their way, moving its head very slowly every so often to adjust its view. We stood with our German colleagues and enjoyed the not unwelcome sensation of having moved from despair to elation in just a few minutes.

Ten minutes later the Germans bade us farewell and left us to ourselves. I suggested to Badger that we just remain where we were, sat still amongst the rocks on our side of the barranco and see if the bittern would fly down to the water below and commence feeding. Nothing much happened for fifteen minutes but then the bittern flew down to the water and did exactly what we hoped it would do. It clambered over the rocks to get to the water's edge and commenced to hunt, walking with exaggeratedly slow steps and cautious movements alongside the water. Every so often it would extend its neck and long bill like a dagger, poised to stab at a fish or other aquatic prey. Their diet is quite varied, ranging from grasshoppers, water bugs, spiders and snails, to fish and frogs.

We were surely in dreamland as we watched it feeding but then it flew up and perched on some adjacent bright green bushes which gave us an even better and closer view of it and where it remained for a few minutes before descending back to the water by running along a horizontal branch and then furtively creeping through the vegetation to the waterside. Everything was done with extreme stealth and economy of movement.

Then, for no apparent reason, it flew back up to the barranco's rock face for another spell of perching and immobility. We certainly had not disturbed it nor could I see anything else that would cause it concern. Other birders had said if the bittern was disturbed it disappeared into the surrounding vegetation but from what we were observing it looked more likely it flew up to the rock face. We sat stock still and after a few minutes the bittern flew back to perch within just a few metres of us on some large boulders in mid stream, then crept on its  enormous golden yellow feet from boulder to boulder before descending to the water's edge to again fish and hunt prey.

It had been an hour now of intensive bittern watching on our part and as we looked on, the bittern raised its head once more and flew back past us to the place from whence we had first encountered it. We left it at that, as there was no possible way we were going to improve on the experience of the last hour.

Our view looking down into the barranco and at the pools of water where the
Dwarf Bittern fed and wandered about

Badger videoing the Dwarf Bittern in the Barranco de Rio Cabras.Note the
steep rocky wall on the other side of the barranco
Badger decided to have a wander around to see what else he could find but feeling very tired now I remained sat on a large boulder waiting to see what else would come my way. I have often found this can pay dividends if you have the patience and time. There had been a pair of Fuerteventura Stonechats flying about earlier and I felt it would be nice to watch them for an extended period to study their plumage and behaviour. It took some time for them to come close but eventually the male flew to a perch just below me and here was my opportunity for some photos.The male certainly lived up to the name stonechat, often preferring to perch on the tops of boulders to fly up and seize insects although on fewer occasions it would perch on the spiky stems of dead plants and use them as a vantage point. Their behaviour is very similar to 'our' European Stonechat in Britain and so is their call.The male's song was also similar, being a series of inconsequential thin and insipid notes. In appearance when I viewed them, although superficially similar to a European Stonechat they look structurally different with their heads seeming just a bit too large in proportion to their body and tail. The male had a similar busby like, dark brown to black head but differed in having a prominent white supercilium and all white chin and throat  Its underparts were faded to a dull white with just a small area of orange or yellow buff on the upper breast. The female was quite pale overall, and had a buff and less distinct supercilium rather than the white of the male. The upperparts were pale greyish brown with darker streaks while the underparts were faded to buff white.

Male Fuerteventura Stonechat

Female Fuerteventura Stonechat
A male Spectacled Warbler briefly visited some very unfriendly looking thorn bushes and then chased a ChiffChaff at high speed around one of the mimosa trees. 

Male Spectacled Warbler
Trumpeter Finches fed on the rock face at the top of the barranco, their distinctive calls coming down from on high, betraying their presence and a Berthelot's Pipit came to drink from the water amongst the rocks. A goat from a nearby goat farm found a perilous resting place on the rocks just below the skyline, as a Hoopoe flew in to hunt amongst the rocks below and a Common Kestrel perched near to the goat. Badger returned from his wanderings and as the afternoon was now waning fast we decided that we had done pretty well for our first day on Fuerteventura. 

Common Kestrel of the endemic race Falco.t.dacotiae
As we left, another Southern Great Grey Shrike sang, if you can call it such, from its perch on a pylon and a Cattle Egret flew across the sky in front of us.

We returned to check in at La Piramide and finally found ourselves ensconced in our apartment which was a basic room with a bathroom and bedroom attached and that looked out onto a large swimming pool. It was far from luxury but was perfectly adequate for our needs. All we needed was a bed for each night, as for each subsequent day we would be out birding from dawn to dusk. Tonight we availed ourselves of La Piramide's restaurant buffet which cost ten Euros for all you could eat and drink with no questions asked.

Once we had eaten neither of us was in the mood for staying up late and we were probably asleep almost as soon as our heads hit the pillows, dreaming of our fabulous time with the Dwarf Bittern. 

It had been quite a day.

to be continued......................