There is an early morning frost in Vilaflor, Spain’s highest village, and yet it is 19 degrees Celcius by the time we are at the port in Los Cristianos, just half an hour later. On the ferry crossing to La Gomera, we pass half a dozen or so Short-finned Pilot Whales, floating lazily with sickle shaped dorsal fins protruding from the surface, followed by a nice show by a Cory’s Shearwater. Once on La Gomera, a stake out at the El Rejo mirador soon produces the elusive ‘pigeons’. Several white-tailed Laurel Pigeons and a pair of Bolle’s fly around below our spectacular viewpoint, and with the scope, we pinpoint four Laurel Pigeons perched on bare branches, occasionally fanning their white tails while preening. We even spot a Laurel Pigeon sitting two feet away from a Bolle’s! Front on they look quite similar, though the Bolle’s has an orange beak whereas the Laurel Pigeon’s is yellow, but once they turn, each shows its diagnostic tail, pale tipped on the Laurel Pigeon and dark banded on Bolle’s. With such a fabulous result so early on, we rest on our laurels and relax.
High in Garajonay National Park the sky is peppered with dozens of zooming Plain Swifts, with the hint of a swallow tail, while the dense laurel forest allows great views of Tenerife Kinglet, African Blue Tit, with a black and white face more reminiscent of our Great Tit, and a stunning male Canarian race Chaffinch, with air force blue back and flanks, an apricot breast and no hint of any brown or green. By now we had cleaned up on La Gomera’s specialities and so as we leave this wonderful island our star birds are Chaffinch, a blue tit and a couple of pigeons!
Flying on to Fuerteventura, we install at the Hotel Rural Mahoh, where garden birds include confiding Spanish Sparrows and a small dove with a blue-grey wing patch, spotted by John. Once pinned down with a lovely view in the scope we confirm our suspicions that it is the Laughing Dove, a recent colonizer from North Africa. After lunch in the fresh air at the hotel, a visit to Punta de Toston, pounded by big breakers, adds Little Egret, Yellow-legged Gull, Whimbrel, Common Sandpiper and Grey, Ringed and Kentish Plovers to our growing list, while the apparently barren stony desert landscape nearby is even more fruitful. Within minutes of our arrival, Bridget locates our first Cream-coloured Courser, not too far away, walking in quick bursts with an upright stance supported by a pair of bleach-white legs. Very close views of a pair of Berthelot’s Pipits and a Southern Grey Shrike, calling with a devilishly hooked beak, quickly follow the Courser, and then we spot our first Houbara Bustard, in a fluffy white display posture. Soon we have at least three of these spectacular birds at different angles, and at one stage we are torn between looking at them or our second Courser, at even closer range as it nestles down, so that the shape and colour of its sandy back perfectly mimics the adjacent stones. At such close range we see all the detail of its black, white and blue-grey stripy head pattern, plus the slightly curved beak and the dark twinkling eye. What a privileged view.
Today dawns with a crescent moon not far from Venus and Jupiter, still shining brightly after the stars have faded in the lightening sky. In the scope one can make out four tiny perfectly aligned pin pricks of light in Jupiter’s orbit, which are its largest moons. Back to the birding, and a scan of the desert not far from our hotel produces six Cream-coloured Coursers and two Houbaras, putting on a brilliant show like clockwork white cotton balls as they run erratically back and forth. After a late breakfast, a visit to the goat farm and reservoir of Los Molinos is very productive. Two Egyptian Vultures circle above and I try to turn a passing Peregrine into a Barbary Falcon but its moustache is too big. Other sightings here include Barbary Partridge, Little Ringed Plover, two Snipe, plenty of Lesser Short-toed Larks, our first Fuerteventura Chat, fabulous views of handsome pink-flushed male Trumpeter Finches with bright red beaks, and 89 Ruddy Shelducks!
The picturesque village of Betancuria is the venue for lunch, followed by a walk along the Barranco de la Torre, where we enjoy brilliant views of loads more Trumpeter Finches, a pair of Chats, catching big juicy bugs, and a superb posing Spectacled Warbler.
After two days in the wilds of Fuerteventura, we set out at dawn on ‘Operation Sandgrouse’, as we are still missing this elusive bird. Needles in haystacks spring to mind as we scour the stony plains, finding yet more Cream-coloured Coursers. As thoughts of breakfast grow stronger and hopes of success begin to fade, a pair of ‘grouse’ break cover and then land again in view, so we can get a fix on them. With this view in the bag, other birds fly and land and gradually we stalk them to within close enough range for a very good view of both sexes, but especially the male, who’s grey breast and orange throat patch are a perfect match for the grey rocks dappled with circular orange lichens. No wonder they are so hard to find.
After a late, but well earned breakfast, we head south to La Vega de Rio Palmas. In this rocky ‘North African’ landscape of palm trees, with Egyptian Vulture overhead, we find a calling Turtle Dove, a real Rock Dove and get close and personal with both Spectacled and Sardinian Warblers. Further south at a roadside viewpoint, very tame Barbary Ground Squirrels scurry to take food from the hand. With the Squirrels satiated, it’s our turn for lunch, on the beach, followed by a very lively dip in the powerful Atlantic surf. In the desert just inland, we enjoy the best possible view of a Houbara Bustard at such close range, its yellow eyes shine in the bright sun as it slowly moves through the scrub, pecking at the yellow flowers on each bush. With neck stretched skyward, like a Gannet about to take to the air, it then fans its black and white neck plumes into a spherical pompom, barely 100 yards away from us. By now we have been so lucky with Houbaras and Coursers they have become everyday birds while on Fuerteventura.
On the return journey north, we twitch a very smart drake Ring-necked Duck, on a small lagoon with some Tufted Ducks, and soon have it in our scopes, showing grey rather than white flanks, and a bump on its purple crown rather than a tuft. While at this nice little wetland we also add 11 other species to our trip list including Dunlin, Ruff, Greenshank, Spotted Redshank, three Spoonbills and numerous Black-winged Stilts.
Returning to Tenerife, we drive up to Mount Teide National Park, through the crown of pine forest, which encircles the volcano. This is the home of the rare and endemic Blue Chaffinch, but the first site we visit seems completely bird less at first, perhaps due to the strong breeze, which is blowing through the trees. Suddenly a lovely slate blue male appears, giving super views as it forages on the ground at close range. Incredibly this is followed by an even closer view higher up the road, during lunch in the back yard of the restaurant at El Portillo, where a ‘Blue’ hops around on the tarmac pecking up crumbs! The drive through the unearthly but dramatically scenic volcanic landscape of the national park, leads back into the pine forest on the opposite side of Mount Teide, where the Las Lajas picnic site produces more great views of Blue Chaffinches, as well as African Blue Tits, Great Spotted Woodpecker and numerous Canaries, “singing like Canaries”.
On the last day a thorough search of the spectacular plunging cliffs of the Teno Peninsula fails to find Barbary Falcon among the many Kestrels and Buzzards, but we do find several Rock Sparrows near the point, feeding in stubble with dozens of bright green Canaries, bringing our trip list total to a very creditable 67 species. Apart from the rare Barbary Falcon, we cleaned up on the Canary Island endemics and specialities, and what we had seen was seen really well, making this a very successful and enjoyable trip.