Tenerife is the largest of the Canary Islands, which were formed from volcanic sea mounts and sit in the Atlantic Ocean some 100 km off the coast of Morocco. Tenerife is home to a limited variety of birds, but many of these are exciting species endemic to either the island, the Canaries or Macaronesia. The most sought-after of these endemics include the Tenerife Blue Chaffinch and the two pigeons which live exclusively in the rare laurel forest habitat found in the Canaries – the White-tailed Laurel Pigeon and Bolle’s Pigeon. The relative small size of this island and the short-but-special list of target birds makes it a perfect place for a short weekend trip – which is exactly what my friend John and I did.
We decided to go for three days, leaving Saturday evening and returning Tuesday night; we didn’t anticipate anything going wrong on such a short, simple trip. But, although almost all the birds played ball, certain other aspects didn’t. It went wrong the moment that the Easyjet flight out was delayed by a good half-hour for no obvious reason. It escalated from there and to cut a long, tiring story short we were unable to get into our booked accommodation and ended up spending three and a half hours in the middle of the night looking for a hotel with a room. By 02:30, almost at our wits end, we found a hotel with a twin room available – suffice to say we didn’t quite manage the early start we had planned the next morning.
Once we had dragged ourselves out of bed it was all go with the birding, we even saw our first few endemics from the hotel balcony – a Canary Islands Chiffchaff was flitting about in trees along the street and Plain Swifts were flying about overhead. A note on Plain Swifts: they are well named, looking practically identical to the Common Swifts found in the UK although perhaps a shade (on very close viewing in good light) lighter brown. It took us a few encounters to be absolutely confident that we were looking at Plain Swifts and not migrant Common Swifts – the most distinctive feature being their habit of flying very close to the ground and right through tree-tops, something other Swifts don’t do; we even had some fly within inches (and I mean literal inches) of our heads.
We were using the great Dave Gosney’s guide to the Canaries to lead us to all the best spots for our target birds; the very first site that we visited being the famous Las Lajas picnic site situated quite high up the slope of mount Teide – above the cloud layer on this occasion. The site lived up to its reputation as the best place in the world to see Blue Chaffinches – we saw them hopping around the picnic tables within seconds of getting out of the car. These azure members of the Fringilla genus have a global range restricted to the Canarian pine forests and have recently been split into two species – with one found only on Gran Canaria and the other on Tenerife.
These gorgeous birds are larger than Common Chaffinches, with longer, thicker bills and obviously an almost all-blue plumage with some white and black. They are really quite different to any bird I’ve ever seen, but what I wasn’t expecting was how tame they were – these ones came within a few feet of us seemingly unconcerned and were clearly used to the noise and activity of local visitors and tourists. At the same site we also had our first views of Atlantic Canary; the original and wild version of the familiar yellow songster and companion of miners. These had a pleasant, if somewhat typical finch song and were a mixture of streaky brown, dull green and bright yellow, they were very common.
The local subspecies of Great Spotted Woodpecker was also common and tame at the picnic site, with greyish-buff colour on the breast and more extensive red on the vent. The ever-present Canary Islands Chiffchaffs were also calling in the area and we saw our first African Blue Tits, a bluer and more boldly coloured version of the European Blue Tit. On our drive back down the mountain we saw a couple of Kestrels of the Canarian subspecies flying over the terraced slopes.
We then visited the desert-like area around El Madano on the southern coast where we saw little except some Berthelot’s Pipits, a species endemic to the Macaronesian islands, which – as most pipits do – looks like every other pipit. We did manage a spot of seawatching from the beach here which produced one species only, but it was a lovely first for me in the form of Cory’s Shearwaters – a large brown and white seabird that breeds in the Canaries.
Our last site of the day were the local golf courses, which held a good number of species including; six Whimbrels on the greens, Grey Wagtails, Spanish Sparrows, Moorhens, Little Egrets, a Cattle Egret, a Black-crowned Night Heron and a flyover Barbary Falcon. This last species is essentially the desert form of the Peregrine Falcon and considered by some to be a subspecies of it. We also explored a rocky, scrubby gully next to one of the courses and were very pleased to see our only Spectacled Warblers of the trip – a bird I have never seen before, they look rather like bigger, better versions of Whitethroats.
The next day we headed north to the laurel forests near the town of Erjos. There is a track and viewpoint in the forest here and one of the first birds we saw were the Tenerife subspecies of Common Chaffinch – quite a different looking bird from UK ones and they even had rather different songs and calls. From the viewpoint which overlooked the huge picturesque forested valley we somewhat surprisingly saw our very first White-tailed Laurel Pigeon – a single bird that flew right past the viewpoint and was only in view for a few seconds.
We then moved on to the Ruiz Gorge, which turned out to be one of the best sites of the trip. The gorge is big, steep, full of laurel forest and cuts through the northern coast right down to the sea. From several viewpoints along the gorge we had numerous and good views of Laurel Pigeons as they flew from tree to tree below us – a pair even flew across right in front of us at one point. These are attractive birds with a white band on the tail and dark purple-pink plumage and a red bill – we also saw some Bolle’s Pigeons too, which are largely a bluish-grey with dark bands on the tail and a red bill. Both are endemic to the Canaries.
We ended the day at the north-western headland of Punta de Teno, a surprisingly busy spot with lots of tourists that you reach by driving along a perilous road that winds along enormous, sheer cliffs. The headland is essentially a big lump of cooled larva and it offers sensational views south to the absolutely vast cliffs of Los Gigantes that plunge vertically into the sea from an incredible height. We saw few birds here except Plain Swifts and many hundreds of passing Cory’s Shearwaters – some of which were fairly close-in.
On our last day we decided to revisit the laurel forest at Erjos in the hope of seeing both the Tenerife Goldcrest and Tenerife Robin (both endemic subspecies) and maybe more views of the pigeons. This turned out to be a lovely idea as the long walk around the valley was very pleasant and we saw several Robins and a couple of Goldcrests – although these proved tricky to spot in the dense canopy. Upon reaching a superb rocky vantage point overlooking the valley we saw a few Laurel Pigeons and also had good views of multiple Bolle’s Pigeons – which was good as views of this species at the gorge had only been distant.
In the afternoon we drove all the way back to the southern end of the island, near the airport, in the hope of finding the two birds we had so far missed – Great Grey Shrike (Canary subspecies) and Barbary Partridge. It took a dusty, hot walk through what I can only describe as a Mad Max wasteland near the town of El Fraile to find the Shrike, but at least we saw one and it was a gorgeous bird, perched atop a cactus amidst discarded masonry and porcelain toilet bowls.
We then returned to the scrubby gully next to one of the golf courses in search of the Partridge, we spent ages looking and wandering about like lost souls but found none whatsoever. But it wasn’t all bad as we were amply compensated by unexpectedly finding a load of Laughing Doves – this delicately beautiful bird has a range that extends from the Middle-East to Morocco and is usually found in desert oases, it looks a little like a Collared Dove but is a dark musky greyish-pink with white corners to its tail and a gold and black ‘gorget’ about its throat. On top of that we also came across a pair of Turtle Doves not far away!
By the time we had to go to the airport we still hadn’t seen a Barbary Partridge, so it seems that will have to wait for another day. Otherwise it was a total success with 38 species seen in all, 12 of which were lifers for me and we managed to see all of the endemics. The landscape was quite fascinating and often dramatic, it is also quite varied with desert-like conditions in the south and greener forested areas in the north – and a whopping great volcano in the middle. We also saw lots of lizards and colourful butterflies and bright exotic flowers and John managed to spot some dolphins, which I missed. If you do visit I would recommend the Gosney guide to get you around and if you find a local bakery it is well worth buying some of the sweet Spanish pastries.
If you would like to read my comprehensive, detailed trip report, in pdf format, then you can simply click this link: http://bit.ly/TenerifeTrip18