Monday, 31 July 2017

Canary Islands (4): Lanzarote

I had only added Lanzarote to my trip itinerary as part of a last minute revision. I did this mainly because flights into Arrecife were for some reason much cheaper than flights into Fuerteventura, and with an onward ferry to Tenerife equally as easy to arrange from either port, it made little difference which of the two I flew into first. I chose to return from Arrecife, too, in order to allow myself one night at the endemic race of Barn Owl Tyto alba (but with my expectations of seeing this bird low), and also to give me a second chance at any desert birds I may have missed on Fuerteventura. As Fuerteventura had been quite woeful in this regard, it was as well I did as it became all or nothing for Houbara Bustard Chlamydotis undulata on the plains at Famara, which I had read were no longer as good as they once had been, but which I also knew still held Houbara as they were being reported from there on eBird. I arrived at Playa Blanca at about 15:00 and once again had trouble finding the bus station! As I had a scooter arranged for pick up in Puerto del Carmen some distance away, I gave in and paid for a taxi all the way up to Carmen (only to drive past the bus station some 200 metres after getting in the thing). The drive up to my accommodation was a really a rather nice one, and, as I passed Famara on the way, I gave it a cursory once over en route but failed to see much. When I arrived at my accommodation, I was asked by the owner if I needed anything else, to which I jokingly replied a site for an owl. Quite astonishingly, he informed me that a German guest who had stayed there recently had spent much of the night down in the valley looking for a night bird, but that he had no idea what that night bird was. I gave it a look at dusk, and whilst I did not get my Barn Owl, I did get my second Long-eared Owl Asio otus of the trip! (To add a few notes about the accommodation, Casa Mil Palmeras was a basic fit for purpose homestay in the north of Lanzarote. It receives five stars from me for its location, as the sleepy town of Haria (with some nice little restaurants) was much more my kind of thing and was by far the nicest place I stayed the whole trip; really something of a hidden gem on such a touristy island. The owl was also present on my second night there (when two), hunting in the gully at grid reference 29.146709, -13.492907, an easy site for this species).

Dawn and I was at Famara with my arms raised skyward praying for a result. After my failures on Fuerteventura I was quite apprehensive, but it was immediately obvious that I would be dealing with a much smaller patch of desert at Famara which was cause for greater hope. A second cause for hope came from flushing a Stone Curlew Burhinus oedicnemus literally the second I pulled off onto one of the dirt tracks to cross the desert; so at least this desert did have birds!

After leaving the Stone Curlew and running into a few more, about 500 metres down the track I came across two Houbara Bustards on the road. Hooray! Finally, success with this very big target bird. These sloped off rather quickly into the desert where they just disappeared, but did at least allow me record shots of what was perhaps my most wanted bird from this trip to the canaries.

I spent the rest of the morning at Famara, recording a further five Houbaras, either flying or at range, together with a large but distant flock of Cream-coloured Coursers Cursorius cursor. It was early in the morning when I first ran into them, but towards noon they had moved far to the north and were next to the road, giving me the opportunity finally to photograph this little gem, too.

I spent the afternoon driving around the north of the island seeing what I could pick up. I was optimistic of running into Eleonora’s Falcon Falco eleonorae at Mirador del Rio, but as this was all in cloud it was not to be. My travels did get me a nice European Turtle Dove Streptopelia turtur (a bird I won’t see in England this summer given its decline) which was welcome, together with more African Blue Tits Cyanistes teneriffae and Berthelot’s Pipits Anthus berthelotii.

En route north from Famara, I also came across a further three Houbara Bustards on the plain below Los Valles. These were flushed, but were so close to the road that I felt they might be an easier prospect to photograph there the following morning than any would be at Famara.

Thursday was my last day on the Canary Islands, and I was presented with the choice of exploring the north coast or trying to get better photos of Houbara. I chose the latter, and after a relatively late start, rolled up at Los Valles where I had noticed a few individuals close to the road the previous afternoon. As I looked around the small plain at Los Valles, I could see at least eight birds, mostly at the far side of the plain where there appeared to be one or two farm tracks dotted about. I drove around to the far side of the plain at Teseguite and located the tracks, and once on the plain was able to get the kind of photos of Houbara I had scarce dreamed of before I had set off!

With at least the one Houbara being so uncharacteristically confiding, I spent around fifteen minutes or so on it before deciding I should leave it alone and left the area completely. This area was absolutely tiny, and contained a minimum of eight birds (certainly more), all easily visible from the road and approachable in a few cases. I’ll leave the exact grid reference off for this site, but it would not take much wit to find the place! On leaving Los Valles and descending through Teguise, I was also able to add Pallid Swift Apus pallidus to my trip list, a small number of which were hawking above the town. The last bird on to my photographed list was Cattle Egret Bubulcus ibis, worth getting as the more familiar coromandus is often regarded as monotypic, though I have no idea why (sadly, the only adults I saw were before I had come across Houbara, and I had paid them little attention in my rabid attempts to connect with the former).

After a fairly fruitless circuit of the fringes of Famara, I returned to Puerto del Carmen to return my scooter and head off to the airport, and thus ended my trip to the Canary Islands. It has to go down as a successful one, with little if anything missed and most species photographed. I'd also made all my connections, missing any one of which could have thrown a massive spanner into the works at any given moment! Things would have been much easier with a car, which can be hired at airports and at all hours, unlike scooters which necessitate waiting for stores to open. It was also a bit knackering cramming so many islands into such a short space of time, but had I added any more days to my itinerary I would only have found myself somewhere on Gran Canaria anyway! Above photos taken on Lanzarote, Canary Islands 25-27/7/17. 

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Canary Islands (3): Fuerteventura

Of the three islands I was set to visit his trip, it had been Fuerteventura that had had me salivating the most. Having read somewhere that his was now the best place in the Western Palearctic to see Houbara Bustard Chlamydotis undulata, I was expecting to encounter them with ease, as well as be tripping over Cream-coloured Coursers Cursorius cursor, Black-bellied Sandgrouse Pterocles orientalis, and various other desert birds. And then, of course, there was the endemic Fuerteventura Chat Saxicola dacotiae, reason enough itself to want to visit the island. I landed at about 21:00 from Tenerife and bussed it up to Corralejo in the far north of the island. This bus ride all went swimmingly for a change, until I missed my stop in Corralejo and was then left at the wrong side of town late at night looking for a hotel that was at the other side of it. I found it in the end (Villa Sea Dogs, cheap for Corralejo, and fit for purpose), but there being a dormitory attached it meant more socialising and once more a later bed time than I had been hoping for! Still, I was up early to pick up a scooter in Corralejo, and en route through town also managed to get the best photos I would manage of Southern Grey Shrike Lanius meridionalis this trip.

Scooter in hand, it was off into the desert areas around La Oliva and El Cotillo, both of which proved to be disappointingly poor. It was not until I reached the well-publicised ‘barranco’ (which I know better as 'wadi') about three kilometres south of El Cotillo (at grid reference 28.621932, -13.997668, and which I understand always has some water) that my fortunes would change, as the tiny puddles here were attracting all kinds of small stuff to them to drink, best of all my first (albeit a worn female) Fuerteventura Chat, obviously the biggest target from this particular island.

Other species using these pools were Lesser Short-toed Larks Alaudala rufescens (at least one hundred), Trumpeter Finches Bucanetes githagineus, Spanish Sparrows Passer hispaniolensis, and Eurasian Linnets Linaria cannabina. The latter two of these were weirdly shyer than the former, and I only managed to put two species on my camera from this spot (by hiding in the bushes next to the pools), despite repeat visits to the area. There were also Berthelot's Pipits Anthus berthelotii around, which appeared somewhat greyer here than they had done on Tenerife.

Another bird present in this barranco was Spectacled Warbler Sylvia conspicillata, which seemed to replace the Sardinian Warblers Sylvia melanocephala of Tenerife as the common Sylvia species on Fuerteventura. Common Buzzards Buteo buteo were also a permanent feature overhead.

Happy with the start, I then began flogging desert areas around La Oliva in the hope of larger desert birds, though would fail to find any whatsoever. The only birds of note were the occasional Egyptian Vulture Neophron percnopterus passing overhead, with adults all high and in haze, but one second-calendar year type low enough to claim to have shots of one ‘in focus’.

Having failed completely with desert birds on my first day, I made a very early morning trip to Tindaya, ‘Houbara Central’, or so I had been lead to believe. I would fail once more to find any bustards, though did at least see my first Cream-coloured Coursers of the trip, almost a kilometre away and running away from my position to boot. The most interesting birds in the desert further north at El Cotillo and La Oliva were the heaps of Yellow-legged Gulls Larus michahellis, which quite surprisingly seemed to enjoy sitting in desert areas inland.

All of the adults were well on with their primary moults (with all of them up to P5 at least), so little to ‘examine’ in the wings with the most interesting feathers already dropped. A Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus with one of the flocks at La Oliva was more interesting, as this had only just begun replacing P1-3, indicating a bird of more northerly origin.

The only bird I was in fact having any success with on my travels was Fuerteventura Chat, with many more turning up on my wanderings, including a nice pair just south of La Oliva.

My last morning on Fuerteventura seemed to leave me with few options. I could either continue the seemingly fruitless search for Houbara, or return to the pools in the barranco where there were at least birds to look at. I chose a mix of both, with the first hour at La Oliva fence producing two fly-by Black-belied Sandgrouse, my only ones of the trip, but once again no bustards. The barranco produced the biggest surprise of the morning, a Melodious Warbler Hippolais polyglotta, obviously a very early returning migrant (though I would find a second bird on Lanzarote).

After a couple of hours in the barranco, I returned to the spot where I had photographed the pair of Fuerteventura Chats (either side of the road at grid reference 28.595782, -13.905984, with Barbary Partridge Alectoris barbara also in this area) as I did not really have good shots of male up to that point. In fact, there were at least three males in this area as I began poking around, and rather more females, meaning that this may be a reliable spot to quickly pick up the species. I also got a few bonus Spanish Sparrows Passer hispaniolensis from this area.

With decent male on my camera, I returned to Corralejo to check out and hand in my scooter in time for a 14:00 sailing to Playa Blanca on Lanzarote. Whilst I had done well very with the chat and with other small stuff in the north of Fuerteventura, I was really quite alarmed that I had missed the bustard, a massive 'want' on any visit to this island. I was now worryingly left with the plains at Famara, my next destination, as last chance for this very big target. Above photos taken on Fuerteventura, Canary Islands 23-25/7/17.