Monday, 30 May 2011

A refreshing pint of beer!

Madeira, 21-23 May 2011

Yellow-crowned Night Heron, Funchal Marina, 21 May 2011 (Can you see it?)

I had added a couple of extra days after the pelagic dates to allow for any cancellations in the event the weather was too good (you need a reasonable windspeed to get the birds moving around). This meant I had a couple of days to dry out and relax with Mandy before heading home. There had been a Yellow-crowned Night Heron, a very rare visitor from America, around Funchal since at least February. We had looked for it earlier in the holiday without success, but Hugo had told us that it roosted in the boats and the Spanish guys had seen it on the evening before the first pelagic. Therefore we had a relaxed start to the day and caught the bus into Funchal early afternoon. We had a light lunch in the marina-side restaurants and were not surprised to meet Bob and his wife Mandy, together with Brent walking past as we finished up. We had a look and agreed it was best to try nearer to dusk, so while the others went for a beer overlooking the Marina, me and Mandy headed into town for a browse. Luckily Brent took my mobile number, because no sooner had he sat down and sipped his beer the bird jumped up from its hidden roost and sat on top of a boat. We headed back in time to see the bird - which then flew up onto the nearest street light. Our antics with our cameras caused considerable interest in the restaurant. Luckily as I was saying that it often fed on the rocks below us the bird dropped down. A short dash down to the quayside and I was within twenty feet of the bird, carefully using the marina wall to hide behind and get a decent shot.

We all relaxed at the restaurant and enjoyed a few more beers, as the bird headed back to the boats, disturbed by a passing fisherman. Brent had been keen to see a Roseate Tern and returning to the table for my cold beer (thanks Mandy F) I spotted one out in the harbour entrance. Fortunately after disappearing it flew right through the Marina and gave Brent a good view. Bob then said he knew a nice little restaurant in town and with the sun shining overhead we sat outside in an old Funchal street enjoying local wine, good food
and great company. It had been an absolute pleasure to spend the last few afternoons with two such knowledgable sea birders and it was a great way to say goodbye. Thanks guys - really enjoyed your company and learned a lot from you both.

Sunday 22 May 2011 - Our last day on the island. We decided to finish as we had started with a long walk. We trekked from Machico up and over the hill and along the beautiful coastal path to Canical, ate lunch and retraced our steps. Along the way we saw a few new birds for the trip, including several singing Spectacled Warbler (Sylvia conspicillata) and a flock of Spanish Sparrows on the edge of the town.

I was surprised to hear a Quail calling from a small meadow in one of the valleys, but Hugo informed me that they are quite common in the right habitat. Butterflies were also much in evidence with Painted Lady, Clouded Yellow and several Monarchs.

The walk back up the hill was tough but rewarding, and Mandy was very pleased when we got to the top - though she hadn't quite bargained for the short-route back down the other side!

At 21:30 Hugo and Catarina picked Bob and me up from the hotel for the final part of the Zino's Petrel saga - a visit at night to the mountain top breeding colony at Pico de Areirio. The weather was not great and we drove through thick low cloud and drizzle. We walked the narrow paved footpath sometimes struggling against the fierce wind, our head torches barely lighting the way. Eventually Hugo asked us to turn off the torches and we stood in silence in the dark night. Through the cloud from the valley below came the loud, weird, eerie wails of the Zino's Petrels. They gave a fantastic performance, calling continually over the next hour. Occasionally the swish of their wings could be heard as the careened overhead through the cloudy darkness, and once or twice their outline was just visible. The cloud cleared to reveal the most awesome star scape, unobscured by the usual competing light pollution. After a much appreciated cup of tea and a cookie we headed back down the path at the end of a most memorable evening.

The price of Petrel!

Madeira WindBirds Pelagic, Day 3
20 May 2011
Cory's Shearwater, at sea off Madeira, 20 May 2011

Third and final day of pelagics off Madeira with Madeira WindBirds. The northerly was still blowing but had eased to about a force 4 overnight. This meant we could head back into the Zino's Petrel zone for hopefully some more Pterodroma action. I guess we were well prepared for the journey, but it was noticeably less bumpy and wet, which was great. However as we headed away from the island it was also noticeable that birds were less numerous. The numbers of Cory's Shearwaters (Calonectris diomedea) that had accompanied us two days ago were gone. After about an hour we came across a wheeling mass of birds suggesting cetacean activity. As we neared the birds were clearly dispersing, with a flock of some 50 Cory's and 5 Manx Shearwaters (Puffinus puffinus) loafing on the water. This gave a great opportunity to approach very closely, but with no sign of the cause we continued out into the deeper ocean. After almost two hours we finally saw a Bulwer's Petrel (Bulweria bulwerii), and shortly later we deployed the first chum block. A couple of Bulwer's were quickly on the scene and giving great views, though the light was not so good as yesterday. Cory's soon joined them, though seldom stopped. The wind continued to ease and the number of birds consequently was much reduced on previous days.We enjoyed great views of a small group of 7 Manx Shearwaters. The next few hours were fairly slow, allowing time to really study the birds feeding around the chum.

Manx Shearwater, at sea, N of Madeira, 20 May 2011
A_White-faced Storm Petrel (Pelagodroma marina) arrived at the far end of the slick and over the next hour sometimes came very close.

They really are delightful birds and I was grateful for the time to watch and study their feeding behaviour in detail. The way they literally hop over the water surface was reinforced by Hugo's story of one seen a few days earlier that had passed over the boat bouncing off each row of seats on its way!

The calm as suddenly broken when a Pterodroma was seen heading in towards the chum. This time we were perfectly positioned and it gave three rapid passes allowing a few images to be captured. This bird showed a significant white panel up the centre of its underwings along the secondary coverts, forming a broad block, as well as a the now expected narrow bill of Zino's Petrel (Pterodroma madeira). This was to be our last daytime encounter, but a show to remember before it headed off to the east.

By now we were well into the evening and while it had been a great day, it hadn't quite delivered the excitement of the previous two. The White-faced Storm Petrel re-appeared and was joined by the first European Storm Petrel (Hydrobates pelagicus) of the three days. There has been some discussion recently about the birds seen in Madeiran waters as they seem to show a more extensive white bar on the underwing than those in more northern waters, so I was quite excited to see the bird and to get excellent views as it fed up and down the slick, but never came too close to the boat. It was now about 19:45 and heading towards the time we were due to return. Hugo handed out the evening meal (these guys really look after you on these trips) and Brent and me tucked in, while others opted for taking theres ashore.
European Storm Petrel, At sea, N of Madeira, 20 May 2011

Half-way through the prawn pasta salad Danny shouted that another storm petrel had appeared back up the chum slick , and he thought it was a Madeiran. Catarina turned the boat and we rushed to eat the remaining food as we moved back up the chum line. As we arrived just north of the block I saw the petrel flying away and it was soon lost in the waves - typical castro!

We drifted slowly down the chum slick thinking yet again that we were unlucky to be at the wrong end when the good bird appeared. Suddenly Daniel called out that the Madeiran Storm Petrel was back on the slick, so Catarina again re-poisitioned us above the block. This time all eyes scanning we picked up not one but two Madeiran Storm Petrels and they appeared to be sticking around the slick. They are powerful flyers and would perform a large loop before returning, but gradually started to perform. The feeding style was seen well and was quite different to the other storm petrels. Due to their very short legs they did not patter on the surface like White-faced or Wilson's, but instead would fly in and sit on the surface using their little legs to paddle while they floated. Once in the air they lost the incongruity and became elegant, capable flying machines. Over the next few minutes another three Madeiran's appeared on the chum, together with a second European Storm Petrel and a second White-faced Petrel, before Daniel called two Wilson's Storm Petrels coming up the slick - eleven storm petrels of four different species feeding within feet of the boat! What an end to the trip!

Madeiran Storm Petrel, Oceanodroma castro, at sea, off Madeira, 20 May 2011
The journey back with the wind and current behind us was rapid and smooth, assisted by Catarina's excellent helming. We managed to pass back through the channel, my experience of the last three days making me lift me feet just as a big wave broke over the bow and washed down the deck. As we turned west along the leeward side of the island the sea was flat and calm enabling a smooth run into the marina.

Saturday, 28 May 2011


Madeira WindBirds, Pelagic Day 2
19 May 2011
Wilson's Storm Petrel (Oceanites oceanicus), at sea off Madeira, 19 May 2011

The northerly winds increased further prompting a decision to head south today - to The Desertas. These are a chain of three long and narrow islands running to the south of Madeira - Chao Islet, Deserta Grande and Bugio. They host significant populations of seabirds, including Desertas Petrel (Pterodroma deserta) a close relative of the Zino's Petrel. Our hope was to encounter Desertas Petrel as a comparison to yesterdays Zino's sightings, however they only arrive back at the breeding colony towards the end of May, from wintering areas as far south as the Brazilian coast, so nothing was certain.

Our journey out was distracted slightly by a distress call reporting two fibreglass boats or windsurfers coming together in our path. With rescue boats heading out we were on the lookout for floating debris - which was handy as we soon found a superb Loggerhead Turtle floating motionless not far from the boat. It didn't notice us approaching until we drew alongside giving great views of its orange coloured shell, and scaled head. A pod of Short-beaked Common Dolphin joined us for a time giving classic views from the bow. Fortunately the distress call turned out to be a hoax, but not before the police boat came over for a chat with Catarina and Hugo.

We continued south until parallel with the most southerly Deserta, Bugio. Here we dropped the chum and began drifting along the slick, in much calmer waters than yesterday. The beautiful sunlight refracting on the water created some stunning patterns and made photography even more interesting. A couple of adult Sabine's Gull flew north past the boat, but did not stop at the chum, but a third arrived later and spent over an hour feeding and loafing near the boat.

Its plumage caused a little debate; although apparently adult, it seemed late for its head to still be in moult? Sabine's Gulls breed in Arctic tundra in Canada and Arctic Russia so it also seemed a little late for it to be hanging around in the mid-Atlantic. According to Olsen & Larsson birds in their second summer appear 'as adult summer; birds with pale-spotted hood and immature traces of second-winter probably second-summer (may be advanced first-summer)'. So our thoughts appear to be confirmed. The other two birds were too distant to confidently age them, both appearing as summer adults. Sabine's Gulls are one of the more attractive species of gull; even Bob (he dosn't usually acknowledge gulls) thought it worthy of a look or two!

Sabine's Gull, at sea, South of Madeira, 19 May 2011
A call went up that a storm petrel was approaching the boat. It was quickly identified as a Wilson's Storm Petrel (Oceanites oceanicus) a southern-hemisphere breeder that visits the north in small numbers through the summer months. I was surprised to see one here in May, but apparently they frequent the Canaries current and it is not unusual. This bird gave incredibly close views as it fed, using its long legs to dip its yellow-webbed feet into the water surface, and picking food items as it ran along the water.
Wilson's Petrel, at sea, south of Madeira, 19 May 2011
The Wilson's stayed on the chum slick for a a couple of hours, so when I called 'Storm Petrel' approaching the boat everyone assumed it was theWilson's reappearing. However as the bird reached us and the chum block Bob and Brent simultaneously realised it was actually a Madeiran (Oceanodroma castro). This species is notorious for only very short visits to chum slicks and is not known to follow ships, so there was a major panic with cameras to capture the moment. I fired two shots as it fed momentarily on the chum, neither great but at least showing a number of distinctive features, including the more extensive white on the rump sides, pale upperwing panel only extending to the carpal, slightly indented tail and its very short legs.
Wilson's Petrel, at sea, South of Madeira, 19 May 2011
Madeiran Storm Petrel, at sea, South of Madeira, 19 May 2011
Madeiran Storm Petrel, at sea, South of Madeira, 19 May 2011
The next call was for a pterodroma picked up by Bob behind the boat and approaching the chum block at the other end of the slick. A rapid re-position and the bird was already moving away, but luckily turned back for a second pass. This time we were all ready and the bird gave superb views as it sheared around the boat. We all expected it to be a larger, bulkier, thicker-billed bird compared to those seen yesterday, but somehow it looked just like the Zino's. Photos were studied and sure enough it was indeed a Zino's - slight, slim, long-tailed and thin-billed and showing a significant amount of white on the underwing coverts. Apparently once the Desertas arrive Zino's do not visit these areas.
Zino's Petrel, at sea, South of Madeira, 19 May 2011
Throughout the afternoon and evening we enjoyed excellent views of over 100 Cory's Shearwater (Calonectris diomedia) and at least 200 Bulwer's Petrel (Bulweria bulwerii), which breed down on the Desertas.
Cory's Shearwater, at sea, South of Madeira, 19 May 2011
Cory's Shearwater
Cory's Shearwater

The Bulwer's were noted on many occasions foot-pattering over the chum slick, a behaviour first noted just last year by Bob Flood. Bulwer's are like fighter jets - so fast, such agile flyers and to be out here among them in their domain was a real privilege. From a sea watchers perspective they can appear so different depending on their objectives: In direct flight they are long winged, fast flyers with rapid shears; when searching for food they change shape, often raising their heads above their bodies and look more Oceanodroma like; when feeding they become less dynamic and more poised, hanging over and tip-toeing through the water surface. Some of this is hopefully captured in the following shots, though stills never really do justice to such dynamism.

Bulwer's Petrel

Bulwer's Petrel
Bulwer's Petrel
Bulwer's Petrel
By 20:00 we had been drifting south on the current for about four-hours. We began our long journey back to shore, turning into the wind and taking on the might of the ocean waves. It was a long, hard, bumpy ride home and very, very wet. It came as some relief when we arrived in the lea of Madeira and the waves reduced, turning the boat to the east we raced over the waves, briefly joined by a small pod of dolphins. Bulwer's Petrels and Cory's Shearwaters were regularly encountered, until darkness drew in. As we pulled in to our mooring I was finally able to empty the contents of my very wet shoes! Walking into the hotel lift at 23:00 still dripping wet, in full wet weather gear drew some very odd glances, with other guests reeling backwards into the lift walls - very funny.

Already looking forward to tomorrow!!

Pterodroma Heaven

Madeira Wind Birds, 
Pelagic Day 1
18 May 2011

For three afternoons and evenings a group of nine likeminded sea birders, led by Catarina Fagundes and Hugo Romano of Madeira WindBirds would head out into the deep Atlantic Ocean surrounding the volcanic island of Madeira in search of some very special seabirds. Our primary target was to attempt to see the critically rare and endemic to Madeira, Zino's Petrel (Pterodroma madeira). For many years the only way to experience this enigmatic species was at night at their breeding colony at Pico de Areirio, high up in the centre of Madeira. However last year the WindBirds team, working with Hadoram Shirihai, located an area of ocean frequented by the birds during the daytime as they arrived back from feeding and awaited nightfall to return to the colony.

The team included six Spanish birders: Daniel Velasco, Guillermo Rodriguez, Antonio Ceballos, Juan Sagardia, Jose Pedro Portillo, and Ricardo Hevia; and two highly experienced and well known sea birders, Bob Flood (UK) and Brent Stephenson (New Zealand). Following introductions wet-weather/sailing gear and life jackets were put on and we boarded the purpose built 12-seater RIB 'Oceanodroma'. The Spanish guys seemed well prepared for what was about to come, as they made straight for the back of the boat, leaving the front three rows for Bob, Brent and me. I took the front seat, a position I kept throughout the three days... With Catarina at the helm and Hugo entertaining his now captive audience we headed out of Canical marina towards the very eastern tip of Madeira.


Into the open ocean...

The weather had been reasonable though a fairly stiff Northerly wind had blown up through the day - perfect conditions for pterodromas apparently. As we turned into the wind through the narrow channel I discovered why the Spaniards had been so keen to hide in the back seats. This is no voyage for the faint hearted and I was soon gaining confidence in the strength of the boat and Catarina's awesome driving ability. Fortunately the sea water was fairly warm and not too salty! Imagine flying off a 30ft wave crashing into the trough and being hit by the full force of the next wave - and we had a two-hour journey! Needless to say it was quite an experience and by the time we arrived at our chumming coordinates my waterproofs had been fully tested. I had done some research prior to the trip and put off by the weight of proper sailing gear decided to try some 'Gadget Show' advice. I thought their trial of light waterproof jackets, using the full force of a fireman's hose, was probably similar to the likely experience on the boat (in fact it came nowhere close) and chose the Gelert Hercules jacket. I was a little skeptical, it only cost £35 from Amazon, but it was light, easy to stow and if nothing else I could give it a thorough test. Amazingly after three days in extreme conditions I can report that it genuinely is fully waterproof - it never leaked once, anywhere - absolutely amazing! Unfortunately my choice of shoes was not so great and I soon had a very wet foot - unfortunately the waterproofing kept the water in rather than out! If you go buy a pair of rubber deck boots to go with your Gelert!

Manx Shearwater, at sea, north of Madeira, 18 May 2011
We soon started to see Cory's Shearwaters (Calonectris diomedea) and Manx Shearwaters (Puffinus puffinus), and after about half an hour were joined by a feeding pod of Bottle-nosed Dolphins that rode the bow wave so close I could almost touch them (if I had been willing to let go of the handle!). About an hour and a half out we saw the first of many Bulwer's Petrels (Bulweria bulwerii)- a species we would become very familiar with. After two hours Catarina decided we were in a good place and dropped the frozen chum block over the side, turning the boat away from the wind and drifting with the current. Almost instantly birds investigated including a brief Madeiran Storm Petrel (Oceanodroma castro) that took us all by surprise, but unfortunately my binoculars had taken a heavy bash during the bumpy journey and the focus cog had broken off. This left me unable to focus resulting in only poor naked-eye views. A few minutes of work had them repaired to a working level, just in time for the first of five pterodroma sightings - all thought to be Zino's based on structure, underwing patterning and the bill shape.

Zino's Petrel
Zino's Petrel

Zino's Petrel, at sea, north of Madeira, 18 May 2011
The Zino's seldom stopped for long after investigating the chum slick, and unfortunately birds twice arrived at the wrong end of the slick. By the time we relocated they were heading off into the distance. However photos were captured of each bird helping to confirm the identification, one showing a significant white stripe along the underwing, see images below, another pro-Zino's feature.

Zino's Petrel, at sea, north of Madeira, 18 May 2011
Between 4 and 6 White-faced Petrels (Pelagodroma marina) arrived at the chum slick and fed for some time giving exceptional views as the hopped and danced over the water surface picking small pieces of food. This was a species I really hoped to see and they certainly did not disappoint. White-faced Petrel is the commonest species of seabird around New Zealand, but Brent fortunately had a Yellow-legged Gull that had followed us out from the island to entertain him - weird, I could never bore of these little beauties.

White-faced Petrel, at sea, north of Madeira, 18 May 2011
White-faced Petrel, at sea, north of Madeira, 18 May 2011
White-faced Petrel, at sea, north of Madeira, 18 May 2011
That's how they can hop over the ocean...
Bulwer's Petrels (Bulweria bulwerii) showed well throughout the session with at least 40 birds, some feeding over the chum at close range. There was quite a swell throughout and drifting with the engine off the motion caused a number of the Spanish, despite their extensive pelagic experience, to be quite badly sea sick - adding useful substance to the chum. At 20:00 we headed back to land, the journey slightly less wet and bumpy with the wind behind us. Two more Zino's Petrels were seen on the homeward journey, one showing extensive white in the underwing, though both passed quickly by without the chum to gain their interest. Another encounter with Bottle-nosed Dolphins was equally exciting, and the views of Cory's Shearwaters overhead and alongside extraordinary, though Catarina's failed attempt to get back through the channel ensured we arrived back properly wet!

The end of the first day - incredibly we had seven sightings (all apparently different birds based on the photos) of Zino's Petrel, a bird numbering only 85 pairs in the World!