So sometimes you have to do something spontaneous. My plan for last week was just to chill in East Hampton but, after a mellow weekend I got yanked back to the City for meetings on Monday and Tuesday and rather than head back out for July 4th, I decided I wanted to go somewhere different. After sifting through the available choices on Monday, I hit the phones and the internet and booked tickets to Madeira hoping to pick up some life birds and in particular ... a Zino's Petrel.
I had the flights and the hotel but no firm birding plans so I stalked the folks at Madeira Windbirds hoping to charter a boat for a pelagic trip and figuring I could also add some endemic land birds over the weekend. After a few false starts Catarina Fagundes from Windbirds called me back and said they could shuffle their schedule, get me out on a boat (if they could get their hands on 60lbs of fresh chum) and also offered a couple of land bird excursions where I could could join scheduled trips and see all the good species and sub-species on the island. It sounded good so I wired some money for boats and chum, cancelled the rental car I'd booked and jumped on a plane on Tuesday night.
Settling into the somewhat over-formal Reid's Palace Hotel in Funchal - Churchill hung out there apparently and it looks like they're still dressing for dinner as though they're expecting him to show up at any moment - I took some quiet time before the birding started the next day. After recovering from my jet-lag on Thursday morning, I joined Catarina and her partner Hugo Romano to get started on the birding on Thursday afternoon, local and endemic land birds were promised, and I was excited to see something new.
|'Madeiran' Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs maderensis) the local, and blue-ish race of|
Common Chaffinch (and not yet split).
|European Robin (Erithacus rubecula microrhinchos) - not sure this is a good sub-species?|
|Berthelot's Pipit - a regional endemic which occurs on Madeira and on the Canary|
|Bulwer's Petrel - first on the chum and with us for the whole trip.|
|White-faced Storm-Petrel - perhaps my favorite pelagic species.|
The trip out might have been choppy but it was also very birdy. We passed two large feeding groups of Cory's Shearwaters numbering several hundred birds, the first feeding over a group of Bryde's Whales (pronounced Broo-dah's) and Short-beaked Common Dolphins, the second feeding over a Sei Whale and a group of young Atlantic Spotted Dolphins. In the mix we also had some Manx Shearwaters and a single FEA'S PETREL (as much as a I wanted a Zino's this bird had a hulking great bill and flew like a Fea's - probably the locally breeding 'desertas' race who's island home was visible in the distance).
Once out in the chum slick we spent the time waiting, waiting, waiting with nothing but BULWER"S PETRELS for company. We always had a couple in the slick but nothing else came to join them until around 8pm when the sun started to get lower and suddenly Storm-Petrels appeared. First up was a WHITE-FACED STORM-PETREL which danced it's way up and down the slick for an hour or so, then a visit from a MADEIRAN PETREL (nice to get Band-rumped Storm-Petrel at a breeding island) and then a late EUROPEAN STORM-PETREL. Not a bad haul of chum birds, but even though we stayed out so late that we ended up coming back to land in complete darkness, we did not luck out with a Zino's ....
Saturday was a full day looking for land birds. TROCAZ PIGEON was a life bird for me, the first one in over a year. I'd expected to have to go to the Laurel forest for them but we went first to a cliff site where we could scope them high on scrubby trees on a relatively sparsely forested slope (although we did see on later at the Laurel Forest site). An interesting single-island endemic, with perhaps 2,700 birds left on the island (and in the world).
Interestingly it seems that it's ancestor was the Common Wood-Pigeon and that that species apparently arrived and evolved separately on the island on two separate occasions. The first invasion produced the Trocaz Pigeon, while the second (presumably later) invasion evolved into a distinct sub-species of Wood-Pigeon (Columba palumbus maderensis) which went extinct in the early part of the 20th century. Who knows, maybe Wood-Pigeon will colonize again (there have been some recent records) and start a third species? Island endemics, and Island Biogeography are endlessly fascinating ....
There is also apparently and endemic dragonfly, no doubt some endemic butterflies, etc. and for a while I was wishing I had more time to explore the non-vertebrates on the island. I did see a lot of the endemic Madeiran Wall-Lizard (Lacerta dugesii) though so at least I got one new non-bird for the Life List.
The afternoon saw us birding at Ponta do Pargo, again a grassland area where we added Pallid Swift, Red-legged Partridge, several calling Common Quail and the local sub-species of Spectacled Warbler (orbitalis) and Common Buzzard (harterti). Then after a quick stop for Common Waxbills it was time to go back to the hotel for dinner and a nap before round two with the Zino's Petrels - if the Zino's wouldn't come to me, then I'd have to go to the Zino's ....
Back in the van at 9:30pm for a drive to the Pico do Arieiro - jagged mountain tops 6,000 feet above sea level and well above cloud level that night. Once we cleared the clouds we were presented with a truly awesome sight, ragged mountain peaks floating above the island under a sea of stars and bathed in silver moonlight. Truly quite an awesome place to go look for birds. Hugo and Catarina offer the Windbirds Night Trip for Zino's Petrel during the breeding season and, as it was my best and only chance to actually see one, we were soon hiking off along steep moonlit trails along the mountain tops to one of the few known breeding colonies of this rare seabird.
As luck would have it though, we weren't done yet. It turns out that we weren't alone on the mountain that night and as we came back up towards the parking lot (several hundred steep steps that were a bit easier going down earlier) we bumped into some researchers who were trying to band and radio-tag petrels. We'd left them alone earlier but, as they were packing up for the night, we went over to talk, and just as they were taking their nets down, a petrel flew into the mist net (!). Once they'd processed the bird, they were kind enough to let us see one in the hand - truly an honor - sometimes life just works out perfectly. And yes, based on what I'd seen so far that night, and seeing this bird go into the net, I did add ZINO'S PETREL to my life list. One of the best natural history experiences I've had in years.
Back at the hotel - and watching a Barn Owl hunting around the hotel grounds at 2:30am - I had a chance to reflect on the trip. Very glad I came, a truly wonderful break and great experience - even if they do speak Brazilian poorly here. Hugo and Catarina are real pros and highly recommended. Definitely a weekend trip to consider if you find yourself in range of Madeira (it's only 12 hours from New York!).