Sunday 14 January 2018

Four Days on Fuerteventura 9th January 2018

Day Two

Today was to be a drive to Tindaya Plain to look for another speciality of the island, namely Houbara Bustards. Although they can be found at other locations on the island the plains, which are situated beyond El Cotillo, are the favourite spot to look for them and most visiting birders will head there first.

We left our apartment at La Piramide at 6.30am and drove steadily northwest but in essence we had left too early and it was still only half light as we neared our destination after driving high up through a winding pass guarded by looming extinct volcano's including the iconic Tindaya Volcano and then descending down onto the plain at La Oliva. Here we pulled over onto some waste ground to await the approach of dawn.

A strange call from a palm tree turned out to be our first bird of the day. It was a Southern Great Grey Shrike. As the light increased we completed the rest of the short journey to El Cotillo in good time and leaving the tarred road behind the town turned onto the wide dirt track that led out onto the barren wilds of the Tindaya Plain. The accepted custom is to follow this track in your car as it runs parallel to the coast, scanning either side for Houbara Bustards, and if you are lucky you might find one close to the road.

The Tindaya Plain is a vast sandy, scrubby expanse of wilderness bordered on one side by huge mountains and on the other by the Atlantic Ocean. I liked its empty loneliness, sense of desolation and timeless feel, dominated by the brooding presence of distant vast mountains and hills sweeping up to the sky.

The Tindaya Plain in the early morning
Our expectations were high but sadly reality did not meet our expectations. At the first point along the track where Pete Barker had suggested we scan for bustards we were dismayed to see a lone figure walking across the plain in the middle distance. To leave one's car is definitely not the way to go about looking for bustards as they will just crouch, hide and then fly away if you actually get anywhere near them. The car should be used as a mobile hide and you just have to hope you can get close to the bustards by driving and remaining in your car on the main track or one of the lesser tracks that cross the plain.With this person wandering about there was no chance whatsoever of seeing any bustards here.

We drove the whole length of the main track and found precisely no bustards, just a Southern Great Grey Shrike, a Raven and the occasional passing flock of Lesser Short toed Larks. Naturally we were a bit downcast, as from all previous reports everyone seems to see the bustards. Maybe we were just unlucky. Maybe the lone figure had disturbed them. Maybe the microlight that flew over had spooked them. Who knows, but they were certainly not visible. Badger eventually found a very distant bustard in his scope, plucking at the shoots of one of the low growing bushes that extend across large areas of the sandy, rocky plain. I then found another equally distant bustard running up and over a small sand bank but that was as near as we got to them this morning. We drove along various tracks leading off the main track but found nothing more than a big locust sunning itself on the ground, a couple of Stone Curlew and three Black bellied Sandgrouse. Not even a Cream Coloured Courser showed itself to us. We gave it a couple of hours but then as it got progressively hotter we abandoned our mission and resolved to return in the late evening to try our luck then.

Peter Barker had suggested that we try a dry barranco that was at the end of the plain so we moved on to there but frankly, although it harboured some greenery in the form of small trees and palms, it was dry with no sign of water and a bit of a disappointment with only a Spectacled Warbler, some Berthelot's Pipits and a flock of Spanish Sparrows to show for our efforts. Three Barbary Ground Squirrels, an introduced species that has taken to Fuerteventura with gusto, were a new find for me as they sat atop a circular old brick building that was obviously home for them. We wandered up to a farm with the obligatory barking dog but then thought better of it and retreated out of the sun and dust and back to the car.

Locust sp.
We returned to El Cotillo and visited the local, well stocked supermarket, to buy some provisions for the rest of our stay and for our lunch later in the day. I rather liked El Cotillo, a pleasant, small and spacious town of predominantly white buildings by the seaside and popular with windsurfers, holidaymakers, hang gliders and the like but because of its spaciousness and the adjacent barren plain never seeming crowded.

So what to do now? Looking at the various trip reports we decided on heading for Los Molinos Reservoir which was not too far away. On the way there was a goat farm at Las Parcelas  where we turned off from the tarred road onto a track to the reservoir. A couple of trip reports suggested that there were good birds to be seen from the track by the farm.

It was going to be much hotter today than yesterday with the sun beating down and little wind to cool us. We ascended the pass though the mountains once again on a lonely but well surfaced road and passed the extinct Tindaya Volcano now looking rather splendid in the sunlight of late morning.

The road between La Oliva and Tindaya with the volcano in the far distance

The Tindaya Volcano
Following the map we arrived at the village of Las Parcelas and duly turned off onto the track leading to the reservoir. A man was feeding the goats at the farm resulting in no birds being present so we carried on to the reservoir, resolving to return to the goat farm later.

The reservoir at Los Molinos

Badger on the dam wall
Arriving at the reservoir we found we were not alone, with two other birder's cars already parked there. One birder was walking across the dam wall and  three other birders were walking the nearside of the reservoir and annoyingly flushing all the birds on the reservoir in the process. 

There were many Ruddy Shelduck here, well over a hundred and they flew in noisy wary flocks  or pairs around the reservoir to land on the surrounding bare hillsides. We decided to have our lunch here and wait to see if the other birders departed. It was then as I was cutting up the baguettes and slicing the tomatoes with my Swiss Army knife I realised that inadvertently I had left the knife in my camera bag that I took on the plane. Security at Stansted had never spotted it!

Ruddy Shelducks
The birder on the dam wall returned and departed so, finishing our lunch, we walked across the dam wall to find two male Fuerteventura Stonechats having an argument, chasing each other around and along the fencing on the wall. They were briefly joined by a Berthelot's Pipit whilst a White Wagtail fed in the stream below the dam wall. Ravens, as ever, flew over kronking. They seem to be ubiquitous and we find them everywhere we go.

Berthelot's Pipit
Apart from the Ruddy Shelducks there were other birds in and around the reservoir. Little Egrets, Black winged Stilts, a Common Sandpiper and a Grey Heron fed along the shoreline whilst out on the reservoir Yellow legged Gulls and a small flock of Common Coots sat on the water and a ChiffChaff fed in some spindly saplings at the water's edge. We walked along a narrow track running around the far edge of the reservoir to an inlet and found a flock of Common Teal and four Eurasian Spoonbills.

That was about all we could find so we returned back across the dam wall to the car, meeting the German birders who had been flushing the birds from the other side of the reservoir. Two distant Egyptian Vultures soared across the mountain slopes and a female Common Kestrel landed on the dam wall railings.

We decided to return down the track to the goat farm which promised a chance of Black bellied Sandgrouse which we had heard and seen passing overhead whilst at the reservoir. Black bellied Sandgrouse have a lovely bubbling call, vaguely similar to a Red Grouse but much more liquid and melodic and utterly distinctive as they pass high across the sky. Badger drew up the car by some ancient wire fencing and we surveyed the fenced area containing a lot of goats of all  colours and hues. 

The Goat Farm
It was obvious that this area, strewn with hay and seeds was attractive to birds. Many feral pigeons, Collared Doves and possibly even a genuine Rock Dove or two were feeding amongst the goats. Badger then found some Black bellied Sandgrouse also feeding amongst the goats; up to nine were shuffling their stout bodies along on their short legs, with three reasonably close to us but almost impossible to photograph due to the heat haze rising from the ground and a sun that was shining directly into our eyes.Two pairs of ever wary Ruddy Shelduck were also standing amongst the goats

Black bellied Sandgrouse

Ruddy Shelduck
A flock of up to ten Trumpeter Finches were more obliging, perching and resting on the wire fence close to us, before flying down to feed on the ground and they were joined by a few of the ubiquitous Spanish Sparrows.

Trumpeter Finch
Male Spanish Sparrow
We were quietly settling down to watch the sandgrouse when the German birders arrived and parking near to us a lady immediately got out of the car with a camera and promptly flushed everything.They were pretty hopeless and obviously knew nothing about birding etiquette. I was fuming but what can you do? They left soon afterwards never even having seen the Trumpeter Finches close by our car but we remained and thankfully the sandgrouse returned but settled further away than before which was annoying.

A Hoopoe landed by the farm buildings so we moved the car closer but it flew across the road onto some wires. We got out to follow it and discovered this area was full of birds. Nothing special but a large flock of over a hundred Spanish Sparrows was impressive and Collared Doves were everywhere. The most noteworthy birds however were two Common Starlings which are very scarce on the island.

Time was moving on and the heat of the day was dying down and, as seems to happen every evening, the skies began to cloud over. It was time to head back to the Tindaya Plain for another tilt at the Houbara Bustards. When we arrived at the plain we were confronted with a remarkable difference to this morning. Many more people and cars were evident but fortunately they were all concentrating on the beaches  near to El Cotillo and after a few kilometres driving into the plain we were alone again.

Sadly there was still no sign of any bustards although we drove the whole length of the track. All we saw this time were two Common Kestrels. When we got to the end of the main track we turned onto a small track running at an angle into the centre of the plain but this proved fruitless too but as we returned a microlight flew low over the plain, very close to us, and flushed a bustard that took off and flew past us on long, slow beating wings showing distinctive large white flashes at the black tips of the wings. It flew a long way towards the beach. Then another was flushed by the microlight and took off in the same direction. We returned to the main track and tried to follow to where we thought they had gone but as we did another walked across the track in front of us. Clearly spooked it was not hanging around but I managed to get some grainy images of it in the fading light of evening. It walked steadily out and away from us into the depths of the plain but we watched it for some time and at last I felt I had seen a Houbara Bustard well enough to be satisfied. 

Houbara Bustard
They are big and satisfying birds and the race that occurs on Fuerteventura is different in being more strongly marked on the upperparts than those found elsewhere. Their long grey neck has a black inverted v at the back encompassing a pale buff triangle which is very noticeable as they walk away.

That was it, dusk was approaching and birding was to all extents and purposes over for the day. We decided that we would give it another go on the Tindaya Plain tomorrow morning.

Tonight, back at La Piramide we went for a Chinese meal at a restaurant within the vast complex surrounding where we were staying. Somehow and with no real justification the day seemed slightly disappointing but then it could hardly top yesterday and the Dwarf Bittern experience.

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

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