Gran Canaria Weekend

Ingrid and I had planned a post-Christmas long weekend in Gran Canaria to unwind, grab some winter sun and give me the opportunity to see one of the world’s rarest birds <500 individuals); the recently split Gran Canaria Blue Chaffinch.  We flew from a cold grey Stansted on the afternoon of Friday 11thJanuary (Ryanair FR8132 ) and four hours later arrived in Canarian air space as the sun was setting.

The view of Mount Tiede on Tenerife from the plane as we approached Gran Canaria

Collection of the pre-booked car from the highly recommended, an inexpensive, Autoreisen was straightforward and we were soon speeding south on GC1 towards Maspalomas before climbing the twisting, but well surfaced road `(GC60) to the small mountain village of Fataga where the charming and well appointed Finca Tassomio would be our base for the next three nights.

The following morning after a leisurely breakfast I spent some time in the Finca garden enjoying the local village birds (eBird list here) before we headed to higher elevations and the remaining extensive areas of Canarian Pines where GC Blue Chaffinch can be found.  There are essentially two areas in which birds are seen without too much difficulty. The first is the NE section of Inagua forest and the other a more fragmented area of pines around the tourist attraction of Rocque Nublo. More information about the recovery plan for the GC Blue Chaffinch can be found here.

Ingrid enjoying the Finca Tassomio garden
African Blue Tit of the race hedwigii are regular visitors to the Finca garden

We headed to the former by carrying on up GC-60 from Fataga as far as the junction with GC-606 and turning immediately on to GC-661 which we took to the settlement of El Juncal de Tejeda and followed the road through the village and over the baranco until the pavement runs out.  The dirt road which continues through the Inagua forest to GC-605 is perfectly drivable, but in deference to Ingrid I chose not to walk and walked the road as far as the point at which the WP Big Year team saw GC Blue Chaffinch in 2017.  Apart from the many vocal Canary Island Chiffchaffs birding was hard work (eBird list here) although there were impressive views across the west of the island towards Tenerife. Interestingly as I gained altitude the amount of broom, on which the Blue Chaffinches forage, in the understory increased and I suspect if I had carried on I would have found more and better habitat.

Canary Islands Chiffchaff
Looking towards Mount Tiede

After a couple of hours we had had enough and we headed back down GC-60 towards Fataga stopping en route for a late and leisurely lunch at one of the many roadside eateries. By the time we got back to the Finca it was too late to head back up to try a different area and I decided to leave another attempt until the morning reassured by a message from Phil Abbott who had seen Blue Chaffinches around the picnic site at Llanos de la Pez.

Sunday morning saw me having breakfast at 8.30 am sharp whilst Ingrid enjoyed a lie in. Again I took GC 60 but this time turned off onto GC 600 (signposted for Roque Nublo). After gaining more altitude and driving for about 2.5km beyond the Roque Nublo car park I  unfortunately mistook a camping area on the right for the picnic site and parked there about 800 m short of the picnic site itself! This caused me some problems especially when I found myself more than 1km from Phil’s coordinates and the batteries in my GPS device getting very low. As I reorientated I flushed a pair of RL Partridges and started to see more African Blue Tits and CI Chiffchaffs. I hit the S51 circular trail and headed South, away from the picnic site, and at the t-junction turned East and followed the trail for about 300 m along the edge of broom filled gully where I tracked down an unfamiliar high-pitched tick to the endemic sub-species (or possibly species) of Robin.

European robin (ssp marionae)

After getting some images I followed the trail back to the picnic area which was by now filling up with visitors and their sound systems and worked my way across the hillside to Phil’s coordinates, an area of pines with extensive broom understory, which gave an excellent view of the canopy. Lots of the local race (ssp canariensis) of Chaffinch and a Buzzard flew over head, but still no sign of my target bird and my morning pass was rapidly running out. Resigned to failure I dropped down the hillside and walked along the edge of the picnic area just 50m or so from the road where I disturbed a small flock of Atlantic Canaries foraging in the broom.

Atlantic Canary

I stopped to photograph a reasonably obliging male and turned to see more finches in the next patch of broom one of which gave the call that I had familiarised myself with over breakfast. The perpetrator flew up into a nearby pine and revealed himself as a GC Blue Chaffinch (WP#701). This was one of three birds in a loose mixed flock of finches which with some patience and despite the clock having turned red came close enough for me to get some images.

Gran Canaria Blue Chaffinch – the colour rings may indicate a bird introduced from the captive breeding project.
Gran Canaria Blue Chaffinch
The letter G marks the approximate location of my Robin and GC Blue Chaffinch sightings

More than content I returned to the car adding Raven and Great-spotted Woodpecker (ssp thanneri ) on the way to complete my eBird checklist. The traffic on GC 60 was not too bad and I arrived back in Fataga less than half an hour late and in good time to enjoy a lazy lunch on the terrace of one of the village restaurants.

Sunday lunch Fataga style

The rest of the trip was uneventful and relaxing and we returned to Stansted (as cold and grey as when we left) the following day (Ryanair FR8133) having thoroughly enjoyed the sun, scenery and food of interior Gran Canaria.

Fuerteventura Day Two

When we got up the forecast rain was already in the air. After grabbing a quick breakfast in a Tindaya bar we headed out onto the plains to make the most of the early morning light.  A Berthelot’s Pipit was feeding alongside the first rough track we explored, but we saw nothing else and returned to the tarmac when the track petered out.

Berthelot’s Pipit

A Great Grey  Shrike on a roadside post was typically nervous so we moved on until after a further 500 m we literally tripped over a party of 4 Houbaras; two of which walked across the road in front of us.  Taking Robin Chittenden’ s advice we parked the car, used it as a hide and simply allowed one individual to walk towards us until it was quietly feeding  just 50m away.

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Houbara Bustard of the

After 30 minutes spent feeding our memory cards we reluctantly moved on picked up some provisions and returned to the Barranco de Rio Cabreas for another go at the Dwarf Bittern. Perched up on the side of the gorge we waited for just 40 mins in deteriorating conditions when two recently arrived birders further down the ravine gestured that they could see our quarry.  After further gesturing and some frantic triangulation we located the bird and managed a couple of record shots before the heavens opened and we had to retreat to the car.

Possibly the worst photograph taken this winter of this WP rarity!

In an attempt to outrun the rain we decided to head South to the wood at Costa Calma and search for wintering passerines,  The car heater was  turned up to maximum in an attempt to dry outbut when we arrived in Costa Calma about an hour later we were still a touch damp.  The “wood” is in fact two strips of parkland each about 1 km long and neither more than 100 m wide that run parallel to the beachside hotels.  As we walked through the western strip we found a motley collection of refugees from the European winter including 15 Song Thrushes, 2 Siskin, a  Redwing and a Brambling (a Canarian rarity)  before encountering one of our target species; a group of 3 Little Buntings feeding on some dry under story.

Little Bunting

Walking to end of the strip we found a few more Song Thrushes and Chiffchaffs before turning back and bumping into a visiting birder from Gran Canaria who had seen a Yellow-browed Warbler and gave us directions to the Olive-backed Pipits which had relocated to the other strip.

Olive-backed Pipit

Following his directions we soon located a party of three OBPs which gave nice views despite the footfall through that section of the park.  By now the sun was out and with our mission accomplished we set off back off to the North West of the island.

Embalse de los Molinos

The Embalse de los Molinos is probably the largest stretch of fresh water on Fuerteventura and as such is something of a magnet for visiting birders.  As we got out of the car there were swifts, this time Pallid, overhead and a departing birder mentioned a Marbled Teal.  We eventually caught up with this duck at the far end of the reservoir along with ca 20 Common Teal, a couple of Mallard and a female Tufted Duck, but it was quitter hard work without in the strong wind and without a telescope.  Amongst the other common water birds, Coot, Little Egret and Spoonbill, were a few Greenshank, a couple of Common Sandpipers and a Black-headed Gull.  After an hour or so the sun was going down behind the mountains, it was noticeably cooler and time to go.  On the way home we chanced upon the very pleasant La Cancela Restaurante in the small town of Tefia where we enjoyed some local specialities.  Feeling better for something to eat will stocked up on supplies for the next day at a supermarket between La Oliva and Villaverde before heading back to the apartment for the night.

Fuerteventura Day One

Family commitments had made it impossible for me to join the steady stream of Western Palearctic listers who, since December, had made the trip to Fuetereventura to twitch a Dwarf Bittern (a tiny African heron that is incredibly rare in our region) and enjoy some Macronesian endemic and scarce wintering species in the sun.  The first weekend in March was my best chance and despite the efforts of the “Beast from the East” and Storm Emma to derail the plan I had a straightforward, if bitterly cold, journey down to Barton Mills in the early hours of 2nd March to rendezvous with  Sue Bryan and then on to Stansted. Our Ryanair flight, reassuringly dripping with antifreeze, departed more or less on time and by midday we were in the warm Canarian sun collecting a hire car, which was a definite upgrade on the requested Ford Fiesta.

Definitely not a Fiesta!

After a brief stop for fuel and water we headed North-West to the segment of the Baranco de Rio Cabrea that had hosted the Dwarf Bittern for almost three months.  The car was parked by the entrance to a land fill site that was swarming with Yellow-legged and Lesser Black-backed Gulls with a supporting cast of Common Ravens Common Buzzards, Egyptian Vultures and Grey Herons.

Egyptian Vulture of the Canary Islands race majorensis

We tramped 300m across a stony plain flushing a pair of Lesser Short-toed Larks as we went before locating the breeze block cairn that marked the path down to the bottom of the barranco.   As we descended into the gorge there were Ruddy Shelducks in the stream below and Trumpeter Finches calling everywhere..

The vegetated floor of barranco was very birdy; Hoopoe, Green Sandpiper, Little Ringed Plover, and a pair of indigenous Fuerteventura Chats  that were actively collecting food for their brood.

Male Fuerteventura Chat

After a couple of hours I picked up a tiny heron flying towards us that had been flushed by two birders working the upper part of the Barranco. The Dwarf Bittern carried on past us and dived into a thick clump of tamarisks.  We relocated to the opposite side of the gorge. As we waited we noted African Blue Tit, Spectacled Warbler and a noticeably green and yellow Phylloscopus warbler with contrasting white underparts and yellow supercilium that appeared a good candidate for Iberian Chiffchaff. This species is not on the Canary Islands list and unfortunately it was silent and I got no images.  Even more unfortunately the Dwarf Bittern didn’t emerge until the couple who had originally disturbed it  approached our vantage point and inadvertently flushed it again this time out of view from us and none of other three observers were able to see where it landed.  By now it was now late afternoon and after one more brief search overseen by a party of Plain Swifts we decided to cut our losses and head over to the Tindaya Plains to search for Houbaras.

Shortly after leaving the village of Tindaya we located a single very distant male Houbara displaying in the rapidly dimming light. As we continued further down the track four Black-bellied Sandgrouse crossed in front of us offering close views.

Male Black-bellied Sandgrouse

Content we pressed on a further a 200 m or so when Sue picked a Cream Coloured Courser in the gloaming which turned out to be one of three birds. Repositioning the car allowed for a short high ISO photography session with the closest individual before the light packed up it was time to go and find our digs in nearby La Oliva.

Cream-coloured Courser – for the technically minded this image was taken at ISO 5000 and is a tribute to the low-light capabilities of the Canon 5Dmk4.

After checking into our accommodation we walked into time to find something to eat only to find the local pizzeria was shut.  A local bar doubled as a greasy spoon and although the food was indifferent there was cold beer to toast an excellent first afternoon! Feeling better for something to eat and drink we returned to the apartment where I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow impervious to the sound of Stone Curlews in the surrounding fields.