Finding Fea's Petrel off The Deserta Islands - October 22nd 2004

Published by Surfbirds Admin (surfbirds AT

Participants: Mark Riley


Fea's Petrel

A visit to Madeira in October offers excellent possibilities to see Fea's Petrel in it's own backyard. I knew that to see this species would require some thought and planning if it was to be seen well and not as a distant fly-by off some headland.

Of course the Madeiran endemics were interesting, however the main priority was seabirds and particularly Fea's Petrel. October is too late for Bulwer's Petrel and that proved to be the case.

As we were staying in Funchal we were near Ponta da Cruz the southern most point and sea watching, early morning before breakfast, was easy. Throughout the week south-west winds predominated which should have been favourable. However, apart from a single Gannet, Common and Sandwich Terns the only birds of note were the ubiquitous Cory's Shearwaters. Indeed, wherever I stopped to look along the coast these could be seen. The paucity of other species at Ponta da Cruz was a surprise in view of the conditions.

Other 'sought after' species in addition to Fea's /Zino's Petrel were Madeiran Storm Petrel and Little Shearwater. It was obvious that chances of seeing these would be enhanced by getting out to sea. Porto Moniz is well worth a check for these species with regular records. However in three hours watching I only had several Cory's Shearwaters. For this site I believe the winds were the problem as it has a northern aspect. No doubt, as others have found, it can prove productive if conditions are right.

I felt that the chances for Fea's Petrel would be good as the Maderian race nests from mid July to mid August. This is much later than Cape Verde birds. Maderian Fea's do not fledge until December-January. This means that those seen in Northern European waters like Britain and off North Carolina during summer are likely to be from the Cape Verde population.

The choice came down to the ferry to Porto Santo, with the advantage of looking for land based species before the ferry returned in the evening, or the Ventura do Mar, a sailing boat providing a pelagic to The Desertas. These are about 17 miles to the south-east as the 'gadfly' petrel flies. It was no contest in the end as the Ventura do Mar provided ten and a half hours at sea for only 75 Euros including a very good lunch and an early afternoon swim off The Desertas. The ferry would only have produced four hours or so, as its return is partly after dusk. Having said that I nearly missed out due to the above normal swell and the cancellation by four passengers. Normally the Ventura do Mar require seven passengers, but with two late bookers our numbers were made up to five. Filipe who makes the arrangements for birders made a concession on this occasion and confirmed the night before that the trip was on. Do make your plans sure and try to arrange a trip early in your stay, in case of disappointment with the weather or sea conditions.

A word about the boat and crew. The skipper, Luis, a marine biologist, although not a birder is knowledgeable and supportive of our needs. He probably sees more Fea's Petrels than anyone else does. He was somewhat taken aback when I suggested this to him. However, unless there are regular trips off the Cape Verde islands, (I have not heard of any) he sees Fea's most weeks for much of the year. Indeed he reported one the day before on a trip to the west of the island which was a general tourist trip. He has a quick eye and can be relied upon for common sense observations and comments. The boat left port using a diesel motor and was sound but somewhat unstable due to the abnormal swell. However things improved when the sail was released and the boat stabilised. At no time did we feel unsafe.

We departed at 9.00 am and after one and a half-hours started to leave Madeira behind. First the gulls dried up, then the number of Cory's Shearwater diminished to only an occasional sighting. Eventually we left a parallel position with the airport, a good land mark for anyone heading to The Desertas. This was important as we now entered the most reliable area for 'gadfly' petrels (according to Luis). It should be called 'gadfly alley' as Luis rarely misses them here.

I wondered whether, with only two birders on board, Luis tied up with the pressures of sailing and having a lot of sea to look at, we might miss them. I need not have worried as, at about 11 am or just after, a 'gadfly' petrel appeared to the north-east of our position, 200 metres away. It seemed to appear from nowhere, it's wings were long and pointed, dark underside, very different from the white undersides of Cory's. It's head appeared capped, the strong dark eye-patch adding to this impression. The jizz was different too. Smaller than the Cory's it seemed effortless, in it's more buoyant flight. I would have to confess that the subtle 'W' observed in some conditions and the bill size and shape escaped me.

After reading Michael Tove's article in Birding World (August 2001) this was what I expected a Fea's to look like. Having not seen a Zino's, it did not seem to fit Ned Brinkley's excellent description of what he perceived to be a Zino's in the spring at almost at the same location (See Birding Madeira website). The wings did not appear to have the breadth and shortness suggested for Zino's. The neck was thickset.

Two to three minutes later in a more south-easterly position a more distant gadfly petrel that could not be identified was seen. By now even the non-birders attention on board was being held.

Just as we were beginning to settle down I noticed a shearwater siting on the sea, bobbing in the swell just 30 metres or so away south-west of our position. I nearly dismissed this bird when its white face caught the sun. A closer inspection revealed it's small size, a Little Shearwater at close range.

Shortly after this, with the excitement waning, we anchored in five fathoms of water right under the imposing cliff face of Deserta Grande the nesting ground of Bulwer's Petrel. Luis pointed to nearby caves as being the nesting site of Madeiran Storm Petrel. I did not think to ask him whether this was the spring, or winter breeding population.

Bugio the most southerly island was a short distance away being the site for the entire Madeiran population, 150-200 pairs of Fea's Petrel. We did not see any birds of note around the islands on this trip, nor should we have expected to. Although on Bugio they would have chicks in the nest by now, the adult birds spend all their time at sea in the daytime, only returning at night

The trip back started with high expectations but nothing happened until around 4.30 p.m. Two Little Shearwaters appeared, again close by, but this time ahead of the boat. One hour later another was seen. The flight was characteristically fast with shallow, stiff wing beats followed by a glide. The 'baby faced' appearance was clearly visible. Our boat put up all the Little Shearwaters seen in the afternoon.

Around 6.00 pm, between the airport and Garjau and not far from land (perhaps 400 metres) Luis called another 'gadfly petrel' - this time displaying a more hurried flatter flight. Again we noted the dark underwing, but could not get enough on it in the poorer light to attempt to identify it. Luis suggested that the birds close to Madeira could be Zino's as they breed there. Who knows?

One week earlier, to the day, Luis had seen a Madeiran Storm Petrel under the statue of Christ at Garajau, they are thought to breed hear. In the inky-blue colour of the sea and the fading light, we did not see any. An observation this close to land is certainly encouraging for future trips. I could not help but wonder if chum used further out, rather like that used on the Scillonian, would have helped with this species. Who knows what else it would throw up? Luis had seen White-faced Storm Petrel several weeks earlier.

We birthed at the Marina bang on 7.30 p.m. feeling pleased to have seen so much.

The next day we flew home. However, while viewing The Desertas for the last time from the departure lounge I could not help but notice an excellent spot just below, next to a hotel with parking facilities. This looked south-east and was not too high above sea level. More importantly it was not too far from the position where we had seen our last gadfly petrel close to land. I am sure this area is under watched and should be considered for future trips.


Birding World Volume 17 Number 4- Birding Madeira. James Siddle.
Birding World Volume 14 Number 7- Verification of suspected field identification differences in Fea's and Zino's Petrels. Michael Tove
Birding Madeira Website - Fea's vs. Zino's in flight. Ned Brinkley

Finally thanks to Paul Whiteman for his observations.

Mark Riley