This blog is about seabirds and what I consider to be the best and most exciting pelagic trip in search of seabirds on this (eastern) side of the pond (North Atlantic) and is about the series of three
pelagic trips from Madeira, that little volcanic lump stuck out somewhere in the Atlantic, which some friends and myself did on 14, 15 and 16 May.

It all actually started last autumn when Madeira Wind Birds, with whom I had sailed in their yacht Gavião to the Desertas islands back in autumn 2008, put out an advertisement for the first three series of three day trips out in to the Atlantic in search of the Zino's Petrels at sea in spring 2010, this following on from work done by themselves and Hadoram Shirihai.
So, knowing that they had located the general pelagic area, not small, where the Zino's showed a tendency to congregate before flying inland after dark, I signed up p.d.q. and booked flights for this first-ever pelagic in search of this near mythical species - and then I told my wife.

After this, in a bout of unaccustomed generousity,
I posted the news on the Spanish seabirds forum forogiam and in a short time no less than seven of us had signed up.

The owners of Madeira Wind Birds are Catarina Fagundes (l) and Hugo Romano (r), Catarina being the fully qualified skipper of their 11.5m RIB (Rigid Inflatable Boat), constructed in Vigo, Galicia, and which is powered by 2 x 200hp Yamaha outboards, a vessel which although open to the elements is extremely stable.

This vessel
is very aptly named Oceanodroma, the scientific name of some of which species we hoped to see, not to mention lots of other seabirds that one rarely sees unless one ventures well out in to the open ocean and with which I hoped to renew aquaintance, but of those, more anon.

The target species was the Zino's Petrel, one of the world's rarest seabirds with a total breeding population of approximately 80 pairs and which has been saved very largely through the efforts of the late Alec Zino and his work is being carried on by his son, Frank. These 80 pairs first breed at 5-6 years old on the very top of Madeira at the Pico de Areeiro. By daylight, it is a stunning place and as nocturnal visits are possible spectacular to hear their cries and see occasional shadowy shapes flit past. Note that these nocturnal expeditions are for the fit and not those with cardiac problems or knees (like me) and/or hips which do not work well.

Currently, the Portuguese government in its wisdom and probably NATO inspired in its desire to extend its defensive capabilities is building an enormous radar station on the top. It remains to be seen if this, as seen in the official artist's impression, will interfere with the nesting of this incredibly rare species. Note also the hypocrisy of the impact statement and constructing company.

So, knowing through Catarina and the publication of information by Hadoram Shirihai that they had located the general pelagic area, not small, where the Zino's showed a tendency to congregate before flying inland after dark, I signed up p.d.q. and booked flights for this first-ever pelagic in search of this near mythical species - and then I told my wife.

At the same time the rest of the Spanish contingent firmed up with the addition of (l-r) Raimundo Martín, Javier Ferreres (who replaced Gorka Ocio as he had to work), Oscar Llama, Andrés Requejo, Andrés Bermejo, Paco Chiclana (in disguise in case his wife found out where he was) and a poor copy of the Old Man of the Sea (dixit Andrés R.).

So, reservations of flights all made and with an assembly date of Thursday 13 May on the island, and the rooms booked at the highly recommendable
White Waters hotel in Machico, literally 5 minutes drive from the airport and a great choice, for all of us. Meanwhile, a volcano with an unprounceable Islandic name decided to erupt and scatter its ash all over a major part of western Europe, thus disrupting flights of every airline it could think of and putting in danger our trip, which would have constituted a disaster of cosmic magnitude. Fortunately, the London met. office VAAC (volcanic ash alert centre) gave excellent forecasting of what they thought would happen and the ash threat slowly moved away, leaving the island and Spanish airfields open to flights.

So, come 13 May, we converged on Madeira from various points of Spain, nearly all via Lisbon, from Málaga, Faro, Oporto, Barcelona, Madrid. On the approach to the rather interesting runway, one can see the Desertas islands, and understandably the pilots make very circumspect finals for which passengers who have been there before, like myself, are most grateful. The main road from Funchal to Machico and Caniço actually runs underneath it as the runway is built on piles!

Day 1, 14 May
The trip was under way and it was not until breakfast that we all met up. We also had the opportunity to meet two fellow expeditionaries, Steve Howell from California, a highly experienced seabirder, and the very brave Elaine Cook (anyone who joins a load of Spanish males on a birding trip has got, by definition, to be brave!).
We also learnt that Hadoram Shirihai, another incredibly experienced seabirder who has been working on Zino's Petrels with Madeira Wind Birds for the past two years, would also be with us for at least the first two days and we all benefitted from his experience, I know that I certainly did.

As the expedition was not due to leave the hotel until13.30, the Spanish contingent went off to Ponta da São Lourenço and the twitchers got their first ticks of the trip. Then it was time for an early lunch, something which went down like a ton of bricks with the Spaniards as lunch for them starts about 14.30. However, advised wisdom is that going to sea on a full stomach can prevent seasickness (which I proved wrong!) and we had our first contact with RIB Oceanodroma and set off out around Ponta da São Lourenço - actually not around but through a narrow cut before the end which has horribly choppy short seas from all angles as the sea funnels through and there is backwash from the steep cliffs on each side - and out in to the open ocean, heading way out off the north side of the island.

Hardly surprisingly, the first real seabirds to be seen en route to the area where we hoped to see Zino's Petrels were the omni-present Cory's Shearwaters which breed on the Desertas in not inconsiderable numbers, several of those black - acually a dark chocolate brown - oceanic gliders, the Bulwer's Petrels, plus a couple of Manx Shearwaters. We also saw the first of 4 Sperm Whales seen during the three afternoons at sea. We are told they are big and the guides give measurements, but until one has been within 25m of one at sea, not a big male either, you don't realise just how big they are!

Once the main area of hope had been reached, the chumming started. This somewhat disgusting mix had been frozen, which means that its release is slower than just dumping a liquid slush over the side. After that it was simply a question of bobbing up and down on the ocean, keeping relatively close to the chum and watching and waiting, which was when, after a couple of hours, I did my own personal chumming act. More Bulwer's and Cory's everywhere. What is probably my favourite seabird, a White-faced Storm-petrel, the first of many in the next two days put in an appearance (I make no apologies for the number of photos of this enchanting little stormie) and delighted all with its peculiar kangaroo bounding action.
A British/European Storm-petrel was seen, we saw very few over the next two days but I was struck by the quantity of white on the underwing coverts,much more than those further north and in the Mediterranean. And then someone, Hadoram I think, called the magic word, 'Petrel!'
To a seabirder in the eastern North Atlantic, where there are only two species, this has a special meaning, it's a sort of ornithological seabirder verson of the Holy Grail. Long-winged, slender-bodied, elegant and fast with often a sweeping and towering flight over the waves, they are a sort of Formula One of the seabirding world. I have already mentioned the rarity of the Zino's and the other is the Fea's (which breeds on the Desertas island of Bugio and is sometimes known as Bugio Petrel). And to make life difficult, separating them at sea is not easy although there are pointers but they move so fast and following them with binoculars from a moving platform is not easy, it's the theory of relativity applied to birding at sea. Hadoram and Steve used very expensive cameras and lenses to help with identification and even then it's often not a cut and dried identification. Throughout the afternoon, we saw a total of 6 Pterodromas, 3 Zino's (jubilation was the order of the afternoon), 2 Fea's and one which was one or t'other and not separable. The photos on the left below are of Fea's Petrels, and Zino's on the right.

The appearance of a splendid adult Sabine's Gull in full breeding plumage heading north, a species which at any other time would have raised the blood pressure of many, was given an almost blasé treatment.

The complement of Oceanodroma on 14 May (l-r) : Rai, Javier, Steve, Oscar, Elaine, Andrés R., Andy, Paco and Hadoram (not visible, Andrés B.).

I don't think that it's too much of an understatement to say that there was a pretty high state of excitement amongst most of us, especially as several were seeing new species, whilst I was just enjoying seeing known ones again, often at extremely close range and only too soon it was time for us to set course for Caniçal.

Day 2, 15 May
After a morning's bird¡ng around Caniçal and taking some photos of the Madeiran Yellow-legged Gulls (darker mantle and smaller than ours in the Med.), at 13.30 it was time to set off for the same area as the previous day.

Again we hit the jackpot with no less than 3 Zino's Petrels and 2 Fea's,
with Bulwer's passing back and forth and even seen foot-pattering the surface like a storm-petrel.

We also saw no less than four species of storm-petrel that afternoon, rather unexpectedly dropping on Leach's.

A Wilson's Storm-petrel which performed splendidly (2 photos below), even allowing brief glimpses of the yellow of the webs of the feet.

There was one, perhaps two, Madeiran Storm-petrels but these gave little chance of photography - the photo (right) is not good but does show the long-winged, more Leach's type wing, and the single European Stormie seen followed its example, but this was amply compensated for by the show put on by the White-faced (below) as it kangaroo-bounced from wave to wave on wafer-thin legs.

The final touch was the presence of a
Grey/Red Phalarope in breeding plumage which sat around the chum gorging itself most of the afternoon.

I think that it must go down as best afternoons of seabirding that I have ever enjoyed, for variety and visibility of the vast majority of birds.

16 May, Sunday:
After a morning look at Funchal harbour where there was a single imm. Sandwich Tern, at least 3 Common Terns and a couple of Roseate Terns, a nice little selection to soften us up for what was to come.
Afternoon : We left Caniçal for the sea around 14.00L as usual but without the company of Hadoram who had stayed ashore. The aim today was to go out on a different track (see the map), chum (hopefully with no personalised stuff), and then spend the last hour or so before sunset in the less of the Desertas and listen to the Cory's calling as they came in to the cliffs, and and then motor back in the darkness, arriving in rather on the late side, somewhere between 00.30 and 01.00. The first impressions were that the sea was somewhat rougher and the sky certainly rather greyer.

As the afternoon wore on it became obvious that in spite of the attraction of the chum (to which I provided nothing personal this time!) there were, apart from the ubiquitous Cory's, fewer birds around overall. In spite of this lack, we still managed to notch up a Great Skua, a couple of Arctic Terns heading northwards in to the vastness of the ocean and also a pair of Common Terns.

One of the few British/European Stormies seen on the trip showed briefly and there were occasional Manx Shearwaters (or the same one revisiting the slick) although we decided that there were probably at least 17 birds involved, plus a few Bulwer's. It was then decided to head in towards the Desertas.

From a distance, especially from the low levels of a heaving sea, the three islands appear uninspiring, but once close up against them the cliffs are awe-inspiring. On the run in we ran into several small flocks of a Cory's Shearwaters resting- rafting as it is usually known - on the sea awaiting sunset and their entry to the nesting holes, the sound of which being our objective.

So, anchored in the lee of the cliffs by the huts of the wardens and any visiting biologists, we awaited the sunset and as the light went so the first eerie calls were heard from high on the cliffs beside us, leaving us all wondering how the blue blazes these birds not only made it to the cliff and landed without breaking their necks but finding the correct nest hole in the near vertical rock face. Occasionally a darker shadow lfitted past over our heads but the experience was purely aural. At least, it was aural until we started the run back to Caniçal in the dark.

That was another experience and I take my hat off to Catarina for her skill in getting us home safely with what appeared to a strongish wind and the sea on the forward starboard beam with unforeseen drops of anything up to 2m off the top of waves, thus prompting screams of 'mis huevos!', about which Elaine later wrote she wasn't sure about the meaning but could guess!

The result of the sea and wind state was that very large portions of the North Atlantic appeared to fall on all of us, I know that they did so on myself and water got in everywhere, and pointed up to the fact that total marine clothing with waterproof bags for optical gear is an absolute essential. The fact that apart from being wet to the skin (see note below on clothing!) only my notebook suffered and that I spent a happy(?) hour teasing pages apart and pushing sheets of absorbent toilet paper between them at 02.00 on the Monday morning in order to unstick them speaks for itself, but I didn't lose a single stuck page or runny notes.

And that really ends the seabirding part and I think that all of us, except Andrés B., would vote it an outstanding success - so much so that ideas are being sounded out about going to Cape Hatteras next year - look out North Carolina!

With regard to the seabird trip, many of the Spanish contingent saw 5 or 6 new species although I saw none but renewed old friendships with the delightful White-faced Storm-petrel, a photo of which being the last of this blog.

Useful links
It is essential to check out the following blogs/web pages (mine here, of course, being the most useful!).
My grateful thanks to Elaine for her additional comments.

First, go to this page of Madeira Wind Birds with links therein (you will have to copy and paste all links) and it is all highly recommendable and recommended reading if do go :

Then this of Hadoram's on their activities at sea until the day before we arrived :

Where to stay
This will be arranged by Madeira Wind Birds if you so desire. We elected to stay at the exceedingly quiet and pleasant White Waters Hotel in Machico, not far from the airfield (we found that Steve and Elaine were there too) or from the base port of Pterodroma at Caniçal. The owner and his wife are exceedingly helpful and the two girls who appeared to alternate in reception were equally charming and helpful, speak excellent English and the staff were invariably pleasant, the coffee very good indeed, the food too, and the rooms beautifully clean, and tastefully furnished and it is only a short walk from the sea front, where we saw a single Cory's over-flying the park area in the darkness on my first and last nights! What they thought of us all, I daren't think! But they survived us.


If you are prone to seasickness, hard luck!! I thought that I wasn't ('What never? Well hardly ever' - H.M.S. Pinafore) and then managed to add my personal chum the first two days, that in spite of taking dramaine as per the instructions, just in case.

However, as the dramaine patently didn't work Hadoram gave me the following tip: (1) ignore the instructions about taking the pill an hour before sailing, (2) start at least 24 and preferably 36 hours before, morning and evening, so the effect builds up in your system, which is what I then did, so perhaps that is why I didn't chum the third and worst day.

Elaine too goes for Hadoram's system and writes: My recipe for seasickness is that on the night before the trip, the first pill gets taken at bedtime – which is BEFORE 10.00 pm. Assuming that the boat leaves the dock around 8.00 am – a hearty breakfast (not too greasy but lots of carbs – in the US pancakes or French toast are perfect, with sausages for a bit of protein) and take another pill at the end of breakfast. Then keep your fingers crossed.

Clothing, etc.
Don't think that what might suit on a wet day on the hills in northern Europe in winter will keep you dry - it won't. You need marine specification clothing and waterproof bags for optical equipment. Sea water has a peculiarly invasive quality lacking in its fresh version. Elaine has kindl provided the following link: http://www.over-board.co.uk/catalog/

Elaine's definition of what is needed is as good as I have ever seen: There’s a subtle difference between water-repellent and water-proof! If a piece of waterproof clothing says it is “breathable” it will NOT be waterproof! Standing under a shower for 15 minutes at full blast makes a useful test.

Use a high protection level sun screen and a lip salve which you must remember to renew, it's no use in your hotel room as my lips discovered.

Sunglasses These are essential, even if there is bright overcast. Just remember to take normal prescription glasses along too for after dark. Some manage without, I can't. Elaine says that she uses polarized sunglasses and considers them her most important piece of seabirding kit.

Use a high protection level sun screen and a lip salve which you must remember to renew, it's no use in your hotel room as my lips discovered.

Elaine also adds the following points: Other useful things are (1) some way of fastening your hat so when (not if) it comes off your head, you can retrieve it, (2) a damp cloth in a plastic bag so you can clean the dratted sunscreen off your hands, (3) several little cloths for cleaning your bins and spectacles.

So, go on, be a real seabirder and go and enjoy three fabulous spring days at sea enjoying superb birding! I'd also be tempted by possible migrant seabirds in late August and September, which could be very interesting but money only goes so far.

P.S. We had all, of course, gone off in search of resident passerine endemics but of those, more later in an annexe blog.

1 comentario:

Russian food dijo...

Wow! I know its quit an old post. But I must say you have a great time on your posts and the images are wonderful. Birds are beautiful and they fly so high that you can't even imagine of reaching them. thanks for sharing such a wonderful ideas. Thanks!