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Wilderness, endemics & cocktails – Fuerteventura’s birds

November 18, 2016

This article was originally commissioned by Birdwatching Magazine in 2015. 

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Cream-coloured Courser

A wild adventure to a remote volcanic island, or a cheap and cheerful package deal to a popular holiday hotspot? Both will do just fine, as Mark James Pearson soon discovers on the Canary Island of Fuerteventura

With another bountiful autumn inexorably fading into a deep, dark winter up here on the Yorkshire coast and with the light at the end of the tunnel growing weaker by the day, thoughts turned to a temporary escape plan doubtless familiar to many readers: avian adventures in more exotic climes, and a much needed dose of off-season Vitamin D.

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Barbary Ground-squirrel

On a restricted budget and a tight schedule (a week in December), choices of suitable destinations with easily accessible, top quality birding were naturally limited. We soon found one that emphatically ticked all of those boxes, however, and a few more besides – Fuerteventura, a place with a tantalising roll-call of endemics, near-endemics and local specialities that were sure to keep the blood flowing and the notebook busy.

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Black-bellied Sandgrouse

Part of the eastern group of the Canary Islands archipelago off the Atlantic coast of Africa, Fuerte is both the oldest (born of volcanic activity some 20 million years ago) and the closest to the mainland. As a popular destination for (mainly western and northern) European tourists, flights and package deals were easy to come by, and while hardly inspiring culturally (beyond the occasional picturesque church), we resolved to make the most of the basics: a comfortable hotel with as much free food (and refreshment) as a bunch of pasty Brits abroad could realistically consume (without impacting on the birding, of course) – and first and foremost, the island’s rich natural history.

The two were instantly combined when, as we unwound with a fine range of said refreshments after our journey, an Algerian Hedgehog snuffled unassumingly past our pool table – a rarely seen and perfect omen to kickstart the trip list, and even better than a thousand free mojitos (believe me, we should know).

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Algerian Hedgehog

As you’d expect from a small, long-isolated island, Fuerte doesn’t have the kind of native diversity that demands months of pre-trip research, but what it does have is invariably pretty special. Hence our hit list consisted of a must-see Top Ten (or thereabouts), a second tier of bonus collateral species, and a range of non-avian specialities to spice up our time in the field.

Many of Fuerteventura’s star birds have requirements that depend on the island’s dramatic landscapes, which are invariably not only productive for wildlife, but a sight to behold in themselves. Perhaps the most striking of these are the lava fields, reminiscent of sci-fi film sets and hostile alien planets. Above the barren, mildly psychedelic terrain (think multitudinous meteorites pelted with powder paints), the ridges and open skies are patrolled by Egyptian Vultures of the endangered, endemic race – an unmistakable local speciality and one of the few soaring species occupying the island’s airspace.

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Egyptian Vulture

Towns and villages are hubs of not just human but also avian activity, and can host both target species and wildcards – any artificially-created greenery acts a magnet, particularly for passerines. The picturesque village of Vega de Rio Palmas, for example, offered both the ultra-bright Fuerteventura Blue Tit at very close quarters and a small, hitherto unknown population of Laughing Doves (a recent Fuerte coloniser) within seconds of pulling over by the bridge.

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Fuerteventura Blue Tit

Another case in point is the small park by a busy roundabout in the resort town of Costa Calma. Goldfinches, Linnets (of the endemic local subspecies), Chiffchaffs and Spanish Sparrows were augmented by a few wintering Robins and Blackcaps, and best of all, no fewer than four Yellow-browed Warblers tsooeting cheerily from tamarisks and palm trees. Hard to believe I was welcoming these Siberian sprites onto the cold, wet and windswept environs of Filey Brigg just a few weeks previously, and a thrill to find them actively wintering under the African sun.

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Yellow-browed Warbler

The same park also hosted many Haria Lizards (the island’s commonest reptile), Red Admirals (both Eurasian and Indian), Painted Ladies and point-blank Monarchs among other highlights. Similarly approachable but much more widely distributed across the island, Southern Grey Shrikes of the endemic koenigi race were great value, often found loitering on the fringes of human habitation – the same areas where the both Kestrels (of the endemic local race) and Hoopoes can be found with relative ease.

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Southern Grey Shrike

Numerous barrancos (ravines) cut through the islands’ rocky slopes and meander down towards the sea. Often dry and sparsely vegetated, the more modest examples appear almost lifeless, but the few birds that do manage to scratch a living from these challenging environs are suitably special: this is where the majority of Fuerteventura Chats – the island’s only (widely recognised) endemic species, and thus top of the list for most visiting birders – can be found.

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Fuerteventura Chat

These strikingly smart little chats are thinly scattered across the island in suitable habitat, although are not always easy to pin down; in fact we found them most approachable on the stony banks of Los Molinos reservoir, where several pairs seemed better adjusted to a human presence. The neighbouring goat farms here were also great value – almost all the target passerines were easy to find, and we luckily coincided our visit with that of several Black-bellied Sandgrouse flocks.

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Spanish Sparrow

The unmistakable rattle of Sardinian Warblers is commonplace, and where thick, low-level vegetation occurs, very accommodating Spectacled Warblers can also be found. Both were well represented at the lush and especially productive Barranco de la Penitas, where we also had close-up Common Buzzards (of the endemic race insularum), Haria Geckos (in the dry stone walls), Epaulets Skimmer and Sahara Bluetail (among other quality odonata), numerous Greenish Black-tips and Monarchs, more Fuerteventura Blue Tits and another Yellow-brow in the tamarisk thickets.

The few examples of open water attract wildfowl and waders, with perhaps the most visible representative being the Ruddy Shelduck (a local rarity not so long ago, but now hard to miss). Popular freshwater spots include the aforementioned Los Molinos in the west and the Caleta de Fuste golf courses in the east, but we preferred the modest but tranquil Salinas Del Carmen, with Audouin’s Gull and a Danish colour-ringed Spoonbill among surprises there.

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Atlantis Yellow-legged Gull

Plenty of low-lying, arid, poorly-vegetated areas across the island are easily accessed from the roadside, and some of the key species are much less choosy than others. Berthelot’s Pipits, for example – tame, widespread and particularly sharp-dressed endemics of the Canaries and Madiera – pop up pretty much anywhere, and even those with an Anthus aversion would struggle to deny their charms.

Less reliable but still well distributed in similar environments are Lesser Short-toed Larks and Trumpeter Finches, often encountered in nomadic feeding flocks; they’re the kind of species that you can spend days working hard to get anywhere near, and then find yourself a couple of metres from without trying. Both are well worth the effort, however, and Trumpeters in particular perfectly evoke the peach-toned landscapes they frequent.

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Berthelot’s Pipit

Similarly unpredictable were our encounters with Barbary Partridges, which we found in a variety of open areas; smart birds if you like that sort of thing (of another endemic local race), and another species best stumbled upon while scanning at the roadside. Just the case, too, with Barbary Falcons – even less predictable but, luckily for us, in the mood to stage a couple of dramatic fly-bys in the pursuit of prey.

But it’s the shimmering, sandy plains which provide the evocative backdrop to many of the islands true specialities, and it’s here where we revelled in Fuerte at its finest. Memorable hours were spent in two particularly productive areas – one just south of El Cotillo in the north, and the other at the base of the Jandia peninsula in the south – and both provided unforgettable birding experiences.

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Plain Swift

In terrain criss-crossed with tracks (or, at least, suggestions of) varying greatly in navigability, a vehicle is not only strongly recommended – ideally a practical, high-clearance model – but is also hugely beneficial as a mobile hide; with target species often widely scattered across the plains, covering plenty of ground (but rolling along slowly and making regular scanning stops) is the most productive strategy.

Elegant, always beguiling Cream-coloured Coursers – arguably the birds of the trip – were especially accommodating, and we enjoyed many a fine show from pairs and small parties feeding, interacting and even displaying together. The same habitat hosted bug-eyed, often statuesque Stone-Curlews, equally well-camouflaged Black-bellied Sandgrouse, over-friendly Ravens, roving lark and finch flocks, ubiquitous Berthelot’s Pipits and more; but for for sheer entertainment value, there was only ever going to be one winner.

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Stone-curlew

Quintessential poster-birds of Fuerte’s plains (and again of an endemic subspecies), Houbaras sat at or near the top of our most wanted list prior to arrival, inspired by stories (and photos) of birds apparently very close to observer’s cars; others reported distant glimpses or complete no-shows, however, and thus we resolved not to count our, er, bustards before they’d hatched. We’d no reason to worry though, and while they were far from plentiful, we were treated to the kind of show that we won’t forget in a hurry.

Crawling slowly along a track through the Cotillo plain, we found ourselves right alongside a bird, just metres from the car. After a temporary stand-off soundtracked by the machine-gun fire of our camera shutters, the Houbara eventually blinked first – but instead of fleeing, decided to display at us in maximum impact comedy pomp: think ‘Get It On’-era Marc Bolan atop a malfunctioning remote-controlled kids toy, and you’re halfway there. Ten minutes later and with the crazed pom-pom performance having finally subsided, we still weren’t sure whether to carry on admiring or laughing, and so settled for a bit of both instead.

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Houbara Bustard

Over the course of our trip we’d satisfyingly connected with all our targets and more, and a full week allowed us the luxury of taking our time and truly soaking up Fuerteventura’s unique and impressive natural history without having to break a sweat. Highly recommended.

Mark James Pearson

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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