I had never been to the Canary Isles before and, as I needed some rest & relaxation, I decided it was the perfect opportunity to add some of the islands' endemics to my list. The trip was a standard package for one week with hire-car. I chose the resort of Las Caletillas on the east coast because it was advertised as being quiet. Quiet it certainly was. Unfortunately it was very quiet in terms of wildlife as well. I never found a local patch worth returning to. In fact, only 4 species were seen in the vicinity: Spanish Sparrow, Yellow-legged Gull, Feral Pigeon & a single Ring-necked Parakeet. The lack of local interest wasn't really a problem however. Being on my own, I was free to visit more profitable locations whenever I wished.
For those not familiar with the term, Macaronesia is the name given to the biogeographical region of eastern Atlantic islands. It includes Madeira, the Azores & the Cape Verde Islands, as well as the Canaries.
Descriptions & directions for most of the sites can be found in the Clarke & Collins guide and especially in Del Rey's book (details given in bibliography), so I will only provide additional information that may be useful.
I spent my first full day exploring the north-east of Tenerife. The weather was warm with periods of sunshine interspersed with a few heavy showers as clouds rolled in from the north on the Trade Winds.
First stop was Los Rodeos Airport. The road along the southern perimeter fence produced a pair of Goldfinches (ssp. parva) in a flock of Linnets (ssp. meadewaldoi), a few Corn Buntings and a couple of Canaries, but no Lesser Short-toed Larks. The fields beyond the military base were home to a flock of Spanish Sparrows, where I also got good views of a male Spectacled Warbler (ssp. orbitalis).
From there, I drove north for a quick look at the Valle Molina Reservoir. I didn't have a scope and the complete lack of access had not changed since the books were published. The only viewing point I could find was on the road high up the hillside above the southern end of the lake. I could make out a few Grey Herons and Coots. Some other birds were present but too distant to identify.
I moved further north to Tejina Ponds, where I left the car to explore on foot. But my exploration was curtailed by the heavy grey soil that had been soaked by a thundery shower and clung to my boots in large lumps like quick-drying cement. Nevertheless I managed to see a Common Sandpiper, several Moorhen and Coot and a couple of Grey Wagtails (ssp. canariensis). Canary Islands Chiffchaffs were much in evidence singing noisily in the bushes. Small White butterflies and Canary or Firebrand Lizards made an appearance to enjoy one of the day's warm sunny spells.
Next I tried and failed to find the reservoirs in the La Barranquera area. The coastal plain here is obviously fertile with numerous banana and sugarcane plantations.As I drove around the narrow winding lanes, I saw my first 'Canaries' Kestrel, a subspecies that would prove to be present all over the island; also a pair each of Spectacled & Sardinian (ssp. leucogastra) Warblers, more Chiffchaffs & Grey Wagtails, a male Blackbird of the Macaronesian subspecies cabrerae and a couple of Tenerife Blue Tits. The latter are quite distinct compared to their European cousins with almost black crowns and no wing-bars. When I reached the coast at Baya de Isquierda, there was little of interest apart from a single Sandwich Tern, a flock of apparently pure Rock Doves and several Yellow-legged Gulls, the latter being ubiquitous around the island's coast.
Hoping for more coastal species, I decided to finish the day further east at Punta del Hidalgo. Del Rey warns that the area of fields once good for passerines, as described by Clarke & Collins, has largely been destroyed by development and that seemed to be the case. I followed the beach road to the lighthouse and then a rough track to where the impressive cliffs began. The intertidal area of sand and rocks proved quite fruitful with Little Egret, Ringed & Grey Plovers, Turnstone, Common & Wood Sandpipers, Sandwich & Common Terns, and lots more Yellow-legged Gulls.
My verdict on all these sites is that they are worth no more than a quick visit, though no doubt regular watching would produce a reasonable list, especially perhaps the latter one.
I headed south on my second day, firstly to El Fraile Reservoir. Along the dirt track from the village of El Fraile, there were a couple of Kestrels and numerous Berthelot's Pipits. The reservoir itself was rectangular, ugly & wholly artificial, surrounded by a high concrete wall with regular openings just wide enough to focus binoculars through. There was a locked gate at one end that allowed a more unrestricted view. Despite its relatively small size (you could walk round it in 15 minutes if you didn't stop), it held a surprisingly rich bird life. Of the 14 species present, the highlights included Black-necked Grebe,Spoonbill and Spotted Redshank. There was no sign of Trumpeter Finches, which allegedly come to this site to drink. A noteworthy sighting was 3 Greylag Geese. Both Clarke and Del Rey give this species an accidental status, so this trio was either genuinely vagrant or perhaps domesticated. The reservoir is definitely worth a visit, in winter at least.
My next destination was nearby Punta de la Rasca. Rather than leave the car by the reservoir, I doubled back & parked by the banana plantation on the access track to the old lighthouse. The plan was to look for roosting owls in the grove of laurel trees described by Clarke & Collins. Unfortunately, Del Rey's warning about the deteriorating condition of those trees proved all too accurate. The trees in fact were gone & so too were the owls presumably. I carried on down the track to the lighthouse through euphorbia scrub. Berthelot's Pipits were again numerous and there were quite a few Painted Lady butterflies on the wing. I also saw a single Green-striped White butterfly. That was an intriguing sighting for this sea-level site. The books describe subspecies eversi being found only at altitude on Tenerife, while subspecies hesperidum is found at lower levels but only on Gran Canaria & Fuerteventura. So the question is: does eversi also occur at lower levels or does hesperidum also occur on Tenerife? Unfortunately, my observations were insufficient for an identification by appearance.
All the butterflies soon disappeared with the sun as clouds rolled in from the north-east and it began to rain heavily. There was no shelter until I reached the lighthouse where a ruined outbuilding was already occupied by a bird-watching couple from the Netherlands. While hoping the weather would soon clear, we chatted about what we'd seen. The rain did stop before long and we went to the seaward side of the lighthouse on the edge of the cliff. There were no seabirds to be seen, though I did get a brief glimpse of a pod of Pilot Whales. On the way back to the car, I went off the track into the euphorbia scrub hoping for Stone Curlews. Be warned: it's very tough terrain and there were no birds at all apart from the ubiquitous Berthelot's Pipits. Perhaps this area would be more fruitful during passage season, but unless you're a dedicated sea-watcher (which I'm not) I wouldn't bother.
Hoping to finish the day on a better note, I decided to stop off at El Medano on my way back to the hotel. Amidst the dunes, some Ringed and a pair of Kentish Plovers were feeding around the shallow margins of La Mareta, a brackish lagoon. This place would probably merit frequent attention during passage season. On the sandy beach, there was a small flock of Sanderling and further along there were a few Turnstone on the rocks. The rocky hills to the south were devoid of vegetation and of birds apart from, you guessed it, Berthelot's Pipits. Trumpeter Finches & Lesser Short-toed Larks were conspicuous by their absence. The weather didn't help of course. By then, the Sirocco was beginning to blow from the east and the evening sky was golden with sand from the Sahara.
The next morning was sunny & warm. There was sand everywhere. Indoors, a layer of fine gritty dust covered the floors. Outdoors, it was like the aftermath of a blizzard, except that the snow was gold. Thick heaps had drifted up against walls. Moving cars had left their tracks on the sandy road and parked cars, including mine, were caked in the stuff. I had to scrape it off the windows like people at home might be doing with ice. It was incredible to think that just a few days ago all that sand had been lying in the middle of the Sahara Desert. I learned later that the beach I had visited the previous day at El Medano owed its existance to the gradual accumulation over the years of such wind-blown African sand.
With the weather being good, I decided it was time to head for the hills and concentrate on finding some endemics. The first stop was Las Lagunetas, a large clearing in the pine forests of the north-eastern foothills. It was a bit tricky to find. There's nothing wrong with Del Rey's directions, just bear in mind that there are quite a few tracks leading off the road into the forest. The correct one is the only one where buildings are visible from the road. Del Rey warns that it can often be shrouded in dense mist and he was right. When the cloud periodically rolled across, visibility reduced to a few metres and it became damp and freezing cold. It moved quite quickly however and the sun would return with its warmth for a while. During my couple of hours wandering around the fields and peering into bushes, I saw 7 species. That did not include Tenerife Goldcrest, an alledged speciality of this site. It did include a Sparrowhawk (ssp. granti), numerous Canaries Chiffchaffs & Tenerife Blue Tits, a few Canaries, and a couple of Robins (ssp. superbus) with breasts a much deeper red than those in Britain. This place is certainly worth a visit, but be prepared for the freezing fog.
After that, I followed the same winding mountain road and stopped briefly at Mirador de la Cumbre. This site is no more than a small parking space on the edge of a precipice. The sun was out and the view was extraordinary. Looking south-west, the pine-clad, rugged mountains stretched into the distance until Pico del Teide reared its snow-capped cone into the sky. This is the island's central volcano, which is currently inactive I hasten to add. There were no Blue Chaffinches to be seen or indeed any other birds. Nevertheless, its worth stopping for the view alone.
I continued to follow the road south-west. There was some snow on the ground as the altitude increased. After skirting the eastern slopes of the volcano, I headed down the northern foothills to La Caldera. Despite Del Rey's warning about the prevalence of mist at this location, it was a warm and sunny afternoon. There were quite a few people around, so I was pleasantly surprised by how many birds were to be seen at the picnic area and in the surrounding woods. There were numerous Common Chaffinches (ssp. tintillon) with blue mantles rather than the chestnut of the nominate form. The highlights were a few Tenerife Goldcrests with their black foreheads and a pair of Blue Chaffinches. Endemic Chiffchaff, Blackbird, Blue Tit and Robin were also well represented. In fact, now that I think about it, every single bird seen here was a form unique to Macaronesia. The site is a must.
To round off the day, I drove a few kilometers further west to Ladera de Tigaiga in search of endemic pigeons. It was evening by then, supposedly an ideal time, but there was no sign of them. In fact it was generally very quiet with only one new species for the trip, a Blackcap. Perhaps this site would be more reliable during the pigeons' breeding season. At any time of year, I would not advise a visit if you suffer from vertigo. The track into the laurel forest clings precariously high up on a very steep hillside.
My target for this day was Barbary Falcon in the north-west of the island. Del Rey warns that the coast road beyond Buenavista can be dangerous and indeed road-side signs indicated that it may be closed during bad weather. Being a warm sunny day, it was open on this occasion fortunately, though at various places the metalled surface was strewn with small rocks that had fallen from the cliffs above. At Punta del Fraile, I initially stopped at the main parking place where the road goes through an arch in the cliff-face. The only falcon to make an appearance was a female Kestrel and there was very little else of interest. I decided to try my luck further on. Parking was a bit tricky on this narrow winding road high above the sea, but eventually I was rewarded with both an immature and an adult Barbary Falcon. The adult in particular showed very well and I watched it for about half an hour as it soared along the cliffs, frequently perching on prominent rocks to watch for prey. Its plumage was very distinctive with pale grey upper-parts and rufous areas on the head.
Further west, the Isla Baja proved quite productive, especially around the tomato plantations and the abandoned fields beyond. Highlights included Barbary Partridge, Spectacled Warbler, a flock of 20+ Canaries and a few Rock Sparrows (ssp. madeirensis). A group of Swallows swooping around were interesting to see. I wonder if they had wintered on Tenerife or were early migrants heading north. It was also here I saw the only terrestrial mammal species of the week, in the shape of some Rabbits.
At the end of the road, one reaches Punto de Teno, the most north-westerly point of Tenerife. This is allegedly a good sea-watching place but apparently not at this time of year, at least not on the day I was there. I scrambled across the arid terrain, which was alive with Golden Skinks, to the south of the headland as far as the cliffs where Ospreys breed, but there was sign of them - still a bit early in the season I suppose. Back at the lighthouse car-park, I saw a Red-veined Sympetrum dragonfly hawking around a water-filled oil drum, the only Odonatid of the whole trip. Also at the car-park, I met the Dutch couple again. I lamented my failure so far to see the endemic pigeons and they described a place where they had succeeded in seeing both species. As we were driving back up the road, we discovered a flock of 60+ Rock Sparrows in the abandoned fields.
It's definitely worth a visit to this remote corner of the island, for the Barbary Falcons alone. The spectacular scenery is an added bonus.
I decided that a visit to Tenerife would not be complete without a closer look at the volcano with its surrounding lava landscape. Few birds could be expected in that region, so I began the day with a visit to Las Lajas. This recreation area is in the pine forests of the southern foothills below the lava fields. Before I got there, I spotted a Barbary Falcon on the wing as I drove up the steep winding road from Granadilla. The site itself lived up to its reputation for endemics. Within a few minutes of arriving, I heard some unmistakable calls in the surrounding trees and then had good views of about 8 Great Spotted Woodpeckers. These were of the canariensis subspecies, the males of which appeared to have more red on the underparts than those in Britain. I think their calls were subtly different as well. Two male Blue Chaffinches were hanging around the barbeque area and allowed a close approach. Endemic Chiffchaffs, Blue Tits and Canaries were all numerous.
As expected, the volcanic high mountain zone was almost devoid of birds. I kept my eyes and ears peeled for Southern Grey Shrikes but to no avail. However the landscape of sandy desert, weird rock formations and solidified lava flows was interesting enough on its own. The cable-car up the cone of El Teide himself was inoperative but even from below you could see steam venting from the almost vertical snowy slopes.
In the afternoon, I headed down from the volcanic region into the north-western foothills. My destination was Monte del Agua near the town of Erjos. This was were the Dutch couple had found the endemic pigeons. Firstly, I had a look at Erjos Ponds - once I'd managed to find them, that is. On the stretch of road immediately south of Erjos village, there are 3 tracks heading off west. The most northerly, on the edge of the village, leads to the Monte del Agua laurel forest and the next one just leads to some cottages. The most southerly of the tracks also leads to some cottages but then continues down an overgrown lane to the ponds. These small bodies of water are flooded man-made pits. They are apparently best during migration season and indeed the ponds themselves were devoid of birds. The surrounding scrub & fields contained the now familiar selection of common endemic passerines.
It was time for those elusive pigeons. I headed down the track to Monte del Agua & parked when the going got too rough. Before I reached the laurel forest, I met a German naturalist filming Tenerife Bue Tits feeding on Prickly Pear, a favourite of theirs apparently. He claimed to have written a book about Canaries wildlife. Del Rey's book came up in the conversation, of which the German chap had a somewhat low opinion. Not for inaccuracy or anything like that, but rather because it was too detailed about some sensitive breeding sites and he felt that to publish such information increased their vulnerability. I have mixed feelings about that controversial issue but didn't wish to argue with the man, so I left him to his cameras.
About half an hour's walk beyond where the laurel forest starts, I found the viewing point described by my Dutch acquaintances. It was the only place where there wasn't a steep drop into the valley below. Instead, one can walk a short way through the trees on a narrow spur of rock jutting out from the hillside. A spectacular panoramic view then presents itself of rolling hills and valleys cloaked in forest. It was immediately apparent why an early morning visit was recommended as the late afternoon sun shone directly into my eyes. I persevered however and within an hour had seen a few pigeons flying rapidly past, but none landed within my field of view. Due to the unfavourable light, only one of these was reliably identified - a Laurel Pigeon with its distinctive white tail tip. I decided to continue along the track hoping for a vantage point not facing west but didn't find one before the sun set. It was very frustrating as I was frequently hearing the wing-clap of pigeons taking off disturbed by my presence but never got anything more than a brief glimpse. Tenerife Goldcrests seemed quite abundant here, as well as the commoner passerines and the trackside rocks were alive with the scuttling of Canary Lizards. As I walked back to the car in the rapidly gathering darkness, I determined to return the following morning as early as I could manage and spend the whole day there if necessary in order to see a definite Bolle's Pigeon.
Next morning, I was up before the sun and down for a quick breakfast as soon as the restaurant opened. Then I hit the road early enough to avoid the rush-hour traffic (yes, even Tenerife suffers from that modern curse in & around its largest towns). It was an overcast day and I was concerned that Monte del Agua would be shrouded in cloud. But no, I'd timed it just right. The last of the morning mist was dissipating as I arrived at the same vantage point as the previous evening. With the light now behind me, conditions were almost perfect. Pigeons began shooting across the tree-tops almost immediately and although I never got a perched view, within half an hour I had a definite Laurel and a definite Bolle's. In addition, a Peregrine soared around obligingly for a while, high above the trees but at eye-level to me. A single Plain Swift also put in a brief appearance. So, if you're patient and prepared to make an early start and don't mind the heights, this site is a must for the pigeons and the scenery. I cannot comment on the alleged breeding of Manx Shearwaters here as it was the wrong time of year and I discovered no suitable habitat.
Having seen my pigeons, I didn't hang around for long. It was my last full day on the island and having managed to get up early I wanted to make the most of it. I headed south through Santiago. On the steep winding road down the mountains towards the west coast, I spotted a Raven in flight and nearly drove over a precipice. It was presumably of the tingitanus subspecies and was the only corvid of the week. I followed the coast all the way. There's some spectacular scenery here with huge cliffs plunging into the ocean and the island of Gomera visible in the distance.
My next stop was at Armeñime for the reservoirs. I didn't bother with those designated A and B by Del Rey, as the former sounds unattractive and the latter requires a scope. The two ponds designated C were mostly disappointing as the whole area was a construction site - yet another tourist complex. The ponds themselves were host to a grand total of 1 Yellow-legged Gull. A couple of Berthelot's Pipits and a couple of Spectacled Warblers were clinging on in the little remaining scrub. The big surprise however was a Lesser Short-toed Lark, which I first heard singing and then had a short view of on the barren ground. It is not mentioned by Del Rey for this site but I assume based on habitat that it was the endemic subspecies polatzeki. Despite the latter little gem, I do not advise a visit to this building site, which will only get worse as development progresses.
The south coast provided my next site at Las Galletas. By now the weather had taken a turn for the worse. The clouds had thickened up, patchy drizzle was falling and a strong breeze blew from the south-west. It was just right for a bracing walk on the beach, like being back in Britain, apart from the lava reef with waves crashing over it. The birds too were a selection of those one might see on a British shore: Little Egret, Ringed & Grey Plovers, Turnstone, Whimbrel.
Not far away was Amarilla golf course, which would be my final visit of a busy day.
As the afternoon faded into evening, the weather gradually brightened up. The small reservoir by the approach road yielded Little Egret & Common Sandpiper and the pond by the golf course entrance a pair of Little Ringed Plovers. Sadly, the stony plain east of the golf course renowned for pipits was another construction site. The most productive area was the western fringe of the golf course with the adjacent abandoned fields and stony scrub-land. A Skylark sang briefly but evaded my eyes, a mixed flock of Swallows and House Martins hawked around for insects and the inevitable Berthelot's Pipits were numerous. Stone Curlews were elusive once again.
The final day of my holiday arrived with a flight home scheduled for the afternoon. I was up reasonably early again with a visit to the Pyramids of Güímar planned on my way to the Aeropuerto del Sur. Prior to that, I decided on a quick return trip to Los Rodeos Aeropuerto hoping for Quail and the rare nominate race of Lesser Short-toed Lark. The same array of passerines were on display as on my previous visit and before long I heard a lark singing, but before I could locate it torrential rain began. The Trade Winds were sweeping in from the north once more. After a while, there was no sign of the downpour easing so I gave up and headed south. I can only assume that, based on location and habitat, the lark had indeed been of the rufescens subspecies. Recent news has sadly reported that no breeding pairs were discovered during the 2003 season, so I was lucky to even hear one.
The weather improved in the lee of the mountains as I had hoped. By the time I reached Güímar halfway down the east coast, the rain had lessened to a misty drizzle.
The pyramids are of the stepped variety, more reminiscent of Central America than Egypt. Controversy surrounds their age, origin and function; whatever the truth of the matter they are fascinating. As for birds, a substantial flock of Canaries drifted around the ancient site and, despite the drizzle, a mixed flock of Plain Swifts and hirundines were obviously finding plenty of food in the air above.
It was lunchtime and there was still a couple of hours before I had to head for home. For a final foray, I chose Toledo Chicken Farm as it was very close to the southern airport from where my flight would depart. This unlikely-named site, in the middle of a relatively fertile region, is described by Del Rey as reliable for wintering Cattle Egrets. It is tricky to find as there is a maze of narrow roads and tracks through the surrounding farmland, where Chiffchaffs, Canaries and Berthelot's Pipits were common. The nearby small reservoirs held only Little Egret and Yellow-legged Gull. I finally located the chicken farm itself when I saw a couple of egrets in flight, too distant to be sure if they were Little or Cattle; so when they landed out of sight, I followed a track in their direction. The first confirmation was the smell, which grew to an overpowering stench. Adjacent to the buildings, there was a yard and field with huge mounds of chicken bones, feathers and droppings. This was naturally a magnet for flies, beetles and other invertebrates. The mounds were heaving with maggots. Such a rich food source had not gone unnoticed. A dozen Plain Swifts swooped gracefully above while White and Grey Wagtails dashed about at ground level. But best of all was a loose flock of 25 Cattle Egrets, in both winter and breeding plumages. I daresay many more species would be attracted here, but you'd require a gas-mask if you were going to stay any length of time to see them. After watching the egrets for as long as I could bear the stink, I headed for the airport.
As a final wistful reminder of how ubiquitous Berthelot's Pipits are on Tenerife, there was one trapped inside the terminal building. No doors or windows that opened were in the vicinity and it would have been impossible to catch it anyway, so I had no choice but to leave the bird to its fate.
My total of bird species seen (or heard) was 61. Not particularly impressive perhaps, but it includes the following endemic totals:
Macaronesian species 3
Macaronesian subspecies 6
Canary Islands species 7
Canary Islands subspecies 8
Tenerife subspecies 2
In my opinion, a car is absolutely essential. Many of the birding sites are in quite remote areas and there seemed to be very few buses apart from in & around the larger towns. Few of the sites are of large enough size or range of interest to spend an entire day at. Many would probably reward regular watching, especially during passage season. On the subject of timing, winter is definitely worthwhile for the endemics, though the wintering visitors are mostly familiar to those of us from north-west Europe. By all accounts, spring and autumn migration provides the most diverse range of species, including quite a few rare vagrants.
Where to Watch Birds in Tenerife by Eduardo García del Rey
(2000, Publicaciones Turquesa, Santa Cruz de Tenerife)
A Birdwatchers' Guide to the Canary Islands by Tony Clarke & David Collins (1996, Prion, Perry)
Historia Natural de las Islas Canarias by David & Zoë Bramwell
(1987, Editorial Rueda, Madrid)
Collins Bird Guide by Killian Mullarney, et al
(1999, Harper Collins, London)
Mammals of Britain & Europe by David Macdonald & Priscilla Barrett
(1993, Harper Collins, London)
Butterflies of Britain & Europe by Tom Tolman & Richard Lewington
(1997, Harper Collins, London)
The Dragonflies of Europe by R.R.Askew
(1988, Harley Books, Colchester)
I have been unable to find a book that adequately covers the reptiles of the Canary Islands. Basic distribution details are given by Clarke & Collins.