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BIRDING TRIP REPORT:

Fuerteventura, Canary Islands

5 - 12 February 2011

By Stephen Burch, England

Introduction
This is an illustrated trip report for a 7 day holiday on Fuerteventura, which is one of the eastern, desert like Canary Islands. The main birding specialities of this island are Houbara Bustard, Cream Coloured Courser, Black-bellied Sandgrouse, Fuerteventura Chat and Trumpeter Finch. To be able to cover as conveniently as possible most of the key sites on the island we decided to divide our time between Caleta de Fuste which is centrally placed on the east coast, and Costa Calma to the south. For this trip I was accompanied by my semi-birder wife, which meant substantially less than 100% dedication to birding and increased emphasis on walking.

General
Flights and car hire
We flew with EasyJet from Bristol. The flights were fine and bang on time, but I was not impressed by Bristol Airport which seems to have outgrown itself. Holiday Autos provided a less than memorable but quite cheap bright-red hire car via Hertz. For the significance of the colour, see below!

Maps
The 1:50,000 Kompass map was remarkably detailed for a holiday destination and useful for walking. It was so large as to be quite difficult to manage at times, and the smaller free map provided by Hertz then came into its own.

Birding information
The key book is "A Birdwatchers' Guide to The Canary Islands" by Tony Clark and David Collins. Although this dates from 1996, it was still very useful and describes well the main sites. In addition, there are plenty of trip reports to be found on the Internet for this popular birding destination, some of which proved quite useful. The Sunflower Guide was marginally useful for walking, but we had more success finding our own based on the red paths marked on the map, many of which actually existed on the ground. Some were even marked with signs and the occasional post. Remarkable!

Weather
The weather was mostly warm and sunny - a huge contrast to the England we left behind, and has to return to a week later! It gradually warmed up during the week, and reached the mid 20's C. One night there was a little rain, with lightening around dawn, but even that day it quickly brightened up. However there had clearly been plenty of rain on Fuerteventura this winter, including some very recently. It was encouraging to see both reservoirs full, and there were plenty of standing shallow pools of water around. The flora was clearly taking advantage, with many low green plants some in flower. The desert, while not exactly blooming, was certainly showing a greenish tinge.

Photos
All the pics shown below were taken with my DSLR equipment - Canon EOS 50D with EF400mm/f4 DO lens and x1.4TC, usually mounted on a tripod - apart from the flight shots. All pics were taken in RAW format, and I use NeatImage for noise suppression, with PhotoShop Elements 3.0 for subsequent processing. For further details see the equipment and image processing pages elsewhere on this website.

I now describe the main sites we visited, in approximate chronological order.

Caleta de Fustes
Shortly our arrival at the Sheraton Hotel at Caleta de Fustes (see end of this report for comments), we walked out of the grounds for a short stroll along the sea shore. Waders included Sanderling and a close Whimbrel (but no camera). Not a hint of any chats in the grounds (mentioned in another trip report), though, which in fact looked most unpromising for that species.

Barranco de la Torre
This site is within easy reach of Caleta de Fustes, so we tried it on the first morning. According to the book, the usual approach in down a track off the main road, about a km west of the salinas. Just to be different, we parked at the Salinas instead, and walked along the coastal track. At the beach there was a ruined building containing an approachable breeding colony of Spanish Sparrow - a species we saw widely thereafter. We then turned right up the very obvious track which runs along the barranco. This turned out to be a pleasant spot, with plenty of water around in various pools, no doubt from the recent rains. Ruddy Shelduck were very obvious, but wary. There were plenty of Spectacled Warblers, the odd Sardinian and quite a few Trumpeter Finches - one tick safely in the bag early on! But there was no sign of any Fuerteventura Chats, which seemed strange as this was reputed to be an easy site for them. Maybe they occur further up the valley than the km or so that we penetrated. Returning the same way, we found our first Berthelot's Pipit of the trip (again seen frequently thereafter). Despite it being only February, it was good to find an early dragonfly on the wing - an Emperor.

The Salinas del Carmen held only a few Redshank, but the adjacent coastal rocks were slightly better with 3 winter plumage Sandwich Terns, Grey Plover, Little Egret etc.

Trumpeter Finch Ruddy Shelduck

El Cotillo and La Oliva
For our first afternoon, we headed out for a trip in search of desert species, principally Houbara Bustard. We had no joys at Tefia, Tindaya nor the rough track south of El Cotillo, which did however produce a Barbary Partridge. Nevertheless, I had intentionally left the best site until last. As dusk was approaching, we found with a little difficulty the track on the western edge of La Oliva described in the book. It is a sharp turn to the left with little warning, opposite the last house in the village (if you are heading west that is). This runs down a slope towards a cultivated area called Rosa de los Negrines. Scanning the hillside above and to the left of the track produced the object of our search - two very distant Houbara Bustards! We watched them for some time as the sun set, but they got no closer and just disappeared over the skyline just before it got dark. Despite this success, there was no sign of the other desert species here, though.

Los Molinos
The reservoir at Los Molinos is described in the book as the best birding site on the island, and the general area actually did us quite well in two visits. Approaching along the track from the north, we were surprised to find a Ruddy Shelduck perched conveniently on a rock next to the goat farm - it even let itself be photographed at quite close range (see below). Further on, we had an Egyptian Vulture over the barranco below the dam. At the dam itself we stopped and met an another birding couple, who helpfully put us onto a pair of Fuerteventura Chats - seen from the edge of the barranco from the approach track a hundred metres or so before the dam. They also mentioned a pair they had seen distantly over at an inlet on the far side of reservoir. Eager to get closer for some pics, we walked round there, but they were very wary and uncooperative.

We then had a pleasant but quite bird-less walk up the adjacent hill by means of a clear track - Motro del Sol (dotted red on the map - only some of them exist!). There were plenty of Painted Lady butterflies around, though. We returned around the southern end of the reservoir, which held only plenty of very wary Ruddy Shelduck and some Yellow Legged Gulls.

Back at the car, we tried descending the track below the dam into the bottom of the barranco. Here we got a little closer to the chats seen earlier, and also came across a Little Ringed Plover. There were several Trumpeter Finches around as well.

Heading back in the car, we stopped for a scan from a high point which gave a good view of the surrounding plains and were rewarded with extremely distant 'scope views of another target species - Cream Coloured Courser. So 4/5 now "bagged" in the first two days, although views of two of them had been pretty poor.

A brief return to this site the next morning produced a very distant Houbara Bustard from exactly the same spot, but no more Cream Coloured Coursers.

Ruddy Shelduck
Ruddy Shelduck - click to enlarge Spanish Sparrow

Trumpeter Finch

Betancuria
Betancuria is village with some tourist pretentions, in a picturesque spot, surrounded by hills. This area was much greener and better vegetated than most of the rest of the island, so it must get more rain. We did an excellent circular walk from the village up into the hills, including Montana Tegu at 645m (using solid red tracks on the map, most of which are actually marked on the ground as well!). In the outskirts of the village we came across a family party of the smart local race of Blue Tits feeding their fledged young. Later we also came across another pair bringing food to a nest, both of which presented photo opportunities (some reward for lugging the DO around everywhere!).

Higher up there was a Southern Grey Shrike, and a Monarch Butterfly (not listed as occurring on this island in the book). Trumpeter Finches, pipits and the odd Lesser Short Toed Lark were also seen. Along the ridge there were numerous small yellow butterflies (see pic below) which turned out to be the very local and poorly named Greenish Black Tip.

Blue Tit (degener sub species)
Blue Tit (degener sub species) - click to enlarge Juv Blue Tit (degener sub species)

Las Penitas/Rio del Palmas
We visited this site, which is south from Betancuria on the strength of information from the British couple we had met at Molinos who reported approachable chats. A footpath heads down a river bed towards a reservoir. Towards the end of the afternoon this was a pleasant spot, with plenty of warbler song, and a reasonably obliging Barbary Partridge. A purring Turtle Dove reminded me of Otmoor in May, but I was suprised to find this one didn't mind a quite close approach. There was no sign of any chats though. Further south from here the roads winds through the mountains and we found an amazingly tame pair of Ravens in a lay-by - presumably used to begging food off passing motorists.

Turtle Dove (click to enlarge) Greenish Black Tip butterfly
Turtle Dove (click to enlarge) Greenish Black Tip butterfly
Raven close up! Barbary Partridge

Catalina Garcia
According to some, this small reservoir towards the south is one of the best birding sites on the island. It wasn't when we visited en-route to Costa Calma! It was windy and lacking in anything very interesting. A walk round the perimeter produced little of note, apart perhaps from a fly over Eqyptian Vulture. The water held only a load of Coot, some wintering Snipe, Teal and Wigeon, plus a few Black-winged Stilt. Anyway, surely most birders coming to this island are after desert species not water birds for which there are numerous better sites in Europe? The margins also had the odd Red-veigned Darter dragonfly.

Costa Calma/La Pared
For our last three days we stayed in Costa Calma which allowed a couple of early morning visits to the nearby plains. On the first morning I was up on a pre-dawn prowl first looking unsuccessfully for sandgrouse on the pools behind the beach at La Pared (mentioned in another trip report). But driving along a track in the same general area I came across a strange dull silver car with blanked out windows. Moments later I spotted 2 large lenses protruding from the other side! I then saw what they were interested in – a displaying Houbara Bustard right by the track! Despite my bright red car without any window blanking, this splendid bird tolerated a close approach and I managed to get some quite reasonable shots. However the conditions that morning were dull and the photos lacked contrast. This was a remarkably lucky find, although it seems the other birders probably knew about this site already.

The next morning we tried again a bit earlier – and arrived to find the Houbara Bustard again in exactly the same spot with no other car around. Again the bird tolerated our bright red car and open, un-blanked windows, but initial shots were a bit dull. However soon the sun’s first rays started to hit the bird with an immediate dramatic improvement in contrast. The bird did a few of its remarkable display runs - it looks like a demented headless chicken as it charges around with head tucked well back, with its white ruff to the fore (as the bottom right pic below)! Shortly afterwards the bird moved further away down the slope from the track, whereupon the other birders' vehicle arrived, too late – the bird then just moved further away! Within a few further minutes a couple of joggers ran by(!), and that was most definitely that for the morning. These few minutes with the early morning light on the bustard were definitely my highlight of this trip.

Houbara Bustard
Houbara Bustard
Houbara Bustard displaying at dawn! Click top left and bottom right to enlarge. The highlight of the trip.

These early morning joggers were symptomatic of the high levels of disturbance on the plain in the Costa Calma/La Pared area. There seemed to be locals all over the place from first light until dusk. Many were wandering about looking hard at the ground and carrying plastic bags to hold whatever it was they were finding. They used 4x4s to go everywhere doing this. Early evening (after work?) and early morning seemed particularly busy times. We don't know what it was they were after. Maybe bustard eggs?! Or more likely some special desert herb or other plant brought on by the recent rains?

In view of all this disturbance, it was perhaps not surprising that the rest of our time on these plains was quite disappointing. Despite walking over to the west coast and back one day, we saw no further bustards, no Cream Coloured Coursers, and had only very distant fleeting flight views of six Black-bellied Sandgrouse from the car in the outskirts of Costa Calma, just as we were setting off. So much for seeing them in hundreds. An early morning visit to some pools close to Costa Calma was completely unproductive, producing only dog joggers and more plastic bag merchants. Perhaps this human disturbance was to blame, or maybe the recent rains had led to the desert birds being less visible. Birds we did see were numerous Lesser Short toed Larks, and several Southern Grey Shrikes. Also the west coast had some very tame Barbary Ground Squirrels - begging for food.

Barbary Ground Squirrel Southern Grey Shrike

Barranco de Gran Valle
The Barranco de Gran Valle is not a birding site I've seen mentioned anywhere else, but it appears as a walk in the Sunflower Guide. This wide valley is a couple of km due west of Morro Jable. Shortly after the road turns to gravel, there is car park on the right side of the road with an information board. From here a well marked track goes up the valley, over the col and down to the west coast which would be a considerable return journey. We made it up to the col at 343 m and back. A Southern Grey Shrike was around at the start near the car park. Further up, we realised we had finally found a site where Fuerteventura Chats were both quite common (at least 4 pairs) and reasonably approachable. There were also plenty of Trumpeter Finches. Even the pipits seemed more obliging than elsewhere. All in all a pleasant walk, with good views from the col. No sign however of the hoped for Barbary Falcon.

Male Fuerteventura Chats
Berthelot's Pipit (click to enlarge)
Female Fuerteventura Chat Berthelot's Pipit (click to enlarge)

Summary
A sucessful trip, with all targets apart from the Barbary Falcon seen, although better views of the Cream Coloured Courser and Black-bellied Sandgrouse would have been nice. The undoubted highlight was the superb views of the displaying Houbara Bustard at dawn two mornings running, especially the second morning with the light from the rising sun striking the bird just before it moved off.

We were probably fortunate to find a relatively green and wet island, following what must have been significant winter rains.

Sunset from La Pared beach.
Note distant view of Gran Canaria to right of the sun. Left is a DO shot, right a Sony point & shoot one.

Accommodation Details

Place Comment
Sheraton Hotel, Caleta de Fuste A bit of a mixture. We were upgraded to a suite at no extra charge, but it turned out to be quite a walk from reception on the north facing side and never got any sun. Hence it was dark and cold, but we spent very little time there so not a major issue. The hotel itself had good facilities, and it was nice to have breakfasts outside. The evening buffet we had on the first evening was very expensive (35 euros each + drink) and not particularly good. There was a problem on checkout and we had to return later when their computer system was working again.
Sunrise Beach Hotel Resort, Costa Calma Quite a contrast to the more up market Sheraton! This turned out to be an all inclusive hotel, which included unlimited food (mostly quite good buffet) and more suprisingly free drink (but of generally poor quality). Something of a scrumage at the buffet dinner. I also got a stomach bug after the first night there, which put me right off the unlimited food on offer! Room was fine with sea view, and didn't require a hike to get to.

All pictures copyright Stephen Burch 

 

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