One of several endemic birds on the islands, the distinctive Blue Chaffinch. Photo: John Muddeman
Politically part of Europe, but lying off the northwest coast of Africa and on the edge of the Western Palearctic, the Spanish Canary Islands are in a remarkable location in terms of biodiversity. Indeed, their sub-tropical climate, ameliorated by cooling sea breezes, and volcanic origins have, over millions of years, enabled the evolution of a remarkably wide range of endemic fauna and flora.
Dense clouds often shroud the precipitous slopes and peaks of the central and western islands. These are created by the trade winds bringing in moisture-laden air and have allowed for the establishment, diversification and survival of ancient evergreen laurel forests - the laurisilva – which are so special to these islands and which come complete with a unique suite of birds and insects in particular. In contrast, the eastern islands closest to the African mainland are much drier with desert-like habitats. During the tour we’ll visit both sides of the archipelago to seek out the still rich and relatively well preserved bird life present on the islands. In addition, given the high quality but low variety of birds generally present, we’ll have plenty of time to also look at the commoner reptiles, butterflies and some of the flora and other fauna as we travel.
Day 1: The tour begins with a flight from London to Tenerife. After arrival there may be time to explore part of the island. Here our first birds should include some of the most widespread, but still sought-after endemic species, ranging from the rakish Plain Swift to furtive Canary Island Chiffchaff and perhaps Atlantic Canary, a colourful, but still rather dowdier wild version of the familiar yellow cagebirds. Night on Tenerife.
Days 2-3: We’ll spend our time not only exploring Tenerife but also making a crossing to the island of La Gomera. Tenerife is dominated by the massive volcanic peak of Teide, which rises to a lofty 12,198 feet above sea level. This is the highest mountain peak in Spain and the third largest oceanic volcano in the world, and is in some ways the crowning glory of the island, being literally ringed below the bare summit by the endemic Canary Pine forest. In the arid scrubby lowlands we’ll be looking for some widespread species including the local races of African Blue Tit, Spectacled Warbler, and Sardinian Warbler amongst the extraordinary endemic flora. We should also see perky Berthelot’s Pipits, while a search of the higher fields and grassy mountainsides might produce some of the rare and declining population of Rock Sparrows. We’ll also visit the fascinating Canary Pine forests for another Tenerife speciality, the canariensis race of Great Spotted Woodpecker, though the star here is undoubtedly the emblematic Blue Chaffinch.
A particular feature of Tenerife is the clear zonation of habitats. These range from the arid lowlands, through the more humid middle mountains in the north to the very dry high peak of Teide. A remarkable range of Euphorbia spurge plants are present, ranging from tall cacti-like species to the low, bushy fat-stemmed tabaibas, and with luck we may also see the stunning spikes of the Red Viper’s Bugloss, which may still be blooming in the Teide crater and a member of another genus which has radiated into numerous species across the archipelago.
Man-made wetlands in more arid areas not only attract resident and stray migrant birds, and we’ll drop into one or two during our travels, but might reveal the rare and recently discovered Ubiquitous Bluetail amongst commoner dragonflies, and the endemic Tenerife Lizard is also more abundant near these water bodies.
On one day we’ll take our vehicle on the ferry over to the beautiful island of La Gomera. This takes us into the realm of the laurisilva – the rich laurel forest and its associated species as we visit one of the best examples of this habitat on the islands. Several birds are all but exclusive to the habitat and we´ll search for flighty Bolle’s and Laurel Pigeons, the diminutive ‘Tenerife’ Goldcrest, colourful local races of Common Chaffinch and European Robin, as well as the decidedly uncommon granti race of Eurasian Sparrowhawk. The flora here is very diverse and walks along tracks and roadsides will allow us opportunities to enjoy this variety and also some of the butterflies present, which can include Gomera Brimstone, Canary Speckled Wood, Canary Island Blue and Canary Red Admiral, as well as perhaps the rarer Canary Island Large White. With water constantly available in the reservoirs and irrigation tanks on these more western islands, a few interesting damsel and dragonflies are also present, including the endemic Island Darter, large Blue Emperor, plus showy Broad Scarlet and Red-veined Dropwing.
The return ferry crossing to La Gomera will also give us our first real chances for pelagic species. Cory’s Shearwater is abundant, while the much smaller Bulwer’s Petrel occurs in small number and the rare and declining Barolo’s Shearwater is still most regularly observed in the archipelago between Tenerife and La Gomera. There’s always the outside chance of even rarer species, such as Red-billed Tropicbird which has begun to breed on the islands, or perhaps other storm-petrels, while part of the large Short-finned Pilot Whale population inhabiting the seas around the islands is likely to show itself as well. Nights on Tenerife.
Day 4: After more birding in the morning on Tenerife, we take a fairly short flight across to Fuerteventura. Very different in nature to the Central and West Canary Islands, Fuerteventura and Lanzarote are very much older volcanic islands, and in part consequently much lower and more arid. Combining this with their closer proximity to the African mainland one can immediately understand their truly semi-desert nature. We’ll try quite close to our hotel for two of the most sought-after birds in the islands this evening: the endemic race of Houbara Bustard and that other classic bird of open deserts, Cream-coloured Courser. The open semi-desert areas these inhabit is also home to roving flocks of Lesser Short-toed Larks and a few Southern Grey Shrikes of the koenigi race (which is commoner here than further west). Night on Fuerteventura.
Day 5: We have all day to explore the island where we’ll be covering semi-desert and mountain areas looking for a variety of birds, plus a visit to any freshwater wetlands which may still hold water. Raptors could include the endemic majorensis race of Egyptian Vulture as well as Barbary Falcon. Out on the more open plains we’ll be searching especially for the Houbara Bustard, as the evening before, but also for buzzing Trumpeter Finches and ‘bubbling’ Black-bellied Sandgrouse. However, the highlight of our visit to Fuerteventura will undoubtedly be the Canary Island Stonechat, a dainty species found only on this one island. We’ll also be on the look out for the eastern islands’ races of various other species including Eurasian Stone-curlew, Spectacled Warbler and African Blue Tit, plus Ruddy Shelduck and Laughing Dove. Exotic species such as Red-vented Bulbul and African Sacred Ibis have a strong foothold in parts of Fuerteventura, and although these are all originally escapes from collections, they do provide further variety to our birding, along with the long-established but still scarce Barbary Partridges. Watered gardens and parks around holiday complexes act as magnets to off-course migrants as well as providing habitats for interesting butterflies such as the incredible Monarch and its look-alike, the Plain Tiger. Good populations of the attractive Atlantic Lizards, diminutive Saharan Bluetail damselfly, and the introduced but often amusing Barbary Ground Squirrels will also keep us occupied during our searches for birds. Night on Fuerteventura.
Day 6: After the early morning spent looking for any species we may have missed, we take the short ferry crossing to Lanzarote. First we visit an area of working salinas to look for any shorebirds which may be around, and then drive to the northern tip of the island to see the views over La Graciosa and watch for birds from the clifftop, which can include Eleonora’s Falcons. The evening can be spent either with a seawatch from a coastal viewpoint, where shorebirds such as Bar-tailed Godwit, Whimbrel, Ruddy Turnstone, Grey, Common Ringed and Kentish Plovers and ‘peeps’ also concentrate, or perhaps if needed we could visit the sandy Famara area, famous for Houbara Bustards and Cream-coloured Coursers, but also holding a full suite of desert species. Night on Lanzarote.
Day 7: Today we travel by ferry to Tenerife, for the last full day of the tour. This long journey travels via Gran Canaria, and gives us an unparalleled opportunity to look for any pelagic species which are at their most numerous at this time of year. Cory’s Shearwater should be abundant, but the real attraction of this ferry route is that it takes us over particularly deep water and it is here where we stand a chance of seeing the graceful Bulwer’s Petrels, while the gorgeous White-faced Storm-petrel is also regularly observed over the waters crossed by this route. These large ferries offer much greater stability and comfort for observation than small charters and alongside the birds, we might also see Short-finned Pilot Whale, Bottle-nosed, Atlantic Spotted and Rough-toothed Dolphins amongst a wide variety of possible cetaceans. While Loggerhead Turtles and even Hammerhead Sharks are occasionally seen, flying fish are also regularly observed. Night on Tenerife.
Day 8: After perhaps a chance for a final look around Tenerife, we’ll connect with a return flight to London where the tour ends.
Updated: 31 August 2016