La Gomera, Canary Islands, 24th-31st October 2003

 

Participants: Ken Hall, Lys Hall

 

Most birders seem to base themselves on Tenerife with a day trip to La Gomera when trying to see the various endemics of the western Canary Islands. But I couldn’t see why one shouldn’t try to do it the other way round, especially as Lys and I were particularly keen to stay at the parador on La Gomera, which looked (and proved) to be a restful and attractive place for a holiday. So when we found a week’s package tour there, flying from Birmingham, with all flights and transfers included, and a hire car thrown in, we signed up immediately. I should add that this was not designed to be an intensive birding thrash, as we were both in need of a rest and some warm sunshine. The following account is not an exhaustive list of everything we saw, but hopefully gives the key details of the main birds and sites that others might be interested in.

We hadn’t planned the trip particularly thoroughly, but had the Birdwatchers’ Guide to the Canary Islands by Tony Clarke and David Collins (C&C) and a useful trip report by Niklas Holström and Lena Thurang (H&T), a couple from Sweden who had stayed on the island from 1st–8th December 2002. We found the Sunflower Landscapes guide, Southern Tenerife and La Gomera, by Noel Rochford, useful for route planning and maps.

24 October

The flight from Birmingham on the 24th October took just over four hours, getting us to Tenerife South airport at 14.00, where a waiting taxi drove us the short distance to the ferry port at Los Christianos. The next ferry was not leaving until 17.30, so we got our Tenerife list underway with Yellow-legged Gull, Collared Dove, Feral Pigeon and three Sandwich Terns fishing in the harbour. All these, and distant singles of Kestrel and Buzzard, could be seen easily from the bar above the ferry terminal, a convenient and relaxing viewpoint.

The 17.30 ferry turned out to be one of the fast ones, with the only outside access being a platform at the back mostly occupied by smokers who presumably could not survive the 45 minute crossing without lighting up. The boat certainly went at speed, but despite the clouds of spray I got good views of at least 30 Cory’s Shearwaters during the crossing, often very close to the boat. We picked up our hire car at the dockside in San Sebastian de La Gomera, and made the five-minute drive up to the parador, which is on a clifftop overlooking the harbour, with wonderful views back to Mnt Teide on Tenerife. We immediately notched up our first endemic in the form of a Gomeran Gecko, which lived on the ceiling of our room and which we saw daily.

Mnt Teide from La Gomera parador at sunset

 

 

25 October

On the 25th we did not leave the grounds of the parador, just lazing about and wandering round the gardens. Nevertheless, endemic bird number 1 was easily found – Canarian Chiffchaff – probably the most numerous bird on the island, as we heard its distinctive calls and song almost everywhere we went. A pair of Kestrels roosted on the cliffs here, showing the barred backs distinctive of the canariensis race. We had excellent views of a couple of Spectacled Warblers in the garden of the parador, a pleasant surprise as this is not usually the easiest sylvia to see, and we heard a Blackcap give a brief snatch of song. The gardens also attracted several impressive Monarch butterflies, and plenty of Painted Ladies, which we saw daily throughout the island. A couple of Sandwich Terns fished in the harbour, and Cory’s Shearwaters could be seen distantly offshore in small numbers, particularly in the evening.

Parador on La Gomera

 

 

26 October

On the 26th we decided to make an early start, even earlier than we planned as we’d forgotten that the clocks went back an hour and wondered why there was no breakfast at ‘7.30’ as advertised. As the sky was cloudless, we headed into the hills and through a series of tunnels to the Bar Carbonara, the first well-known laurel pigeon stake-out. However, this now seems to be a private house, with its entrance chained off, and although there is another small pull-in on the opposite side of the road a short way back towards the last tunnel, we decided to head on up the steep road towards El Cedro. There is a small layby/mirador called El Rejo towards the upper end of the road, and a second larger parking area further on, with a short walk leading to the mirador of El Bailadero. The primary habitat of the two laurel pigeons is the dense laurisilva forests on the steep northern slopes of the island, and El Rejo is in the middle of one of these slopes.

Laurisilva forest on La Gomera. Tenerife in the background

 

 

El Bailadero is on the ridge, where the habitat changes very sharply to the drier woodland/heath and scrub of the southern slopes. H&T had seen both species from the latter, so we concentrated on this first, especially as it was warmer than the more shaded road up. We had good views of Raven, Sparrowhawk, Kestrel and Buzzard (this last often giving a louder and more piercing call than one normally hears – perhaps it was amplified by the cliffs), plus the other two endemic reptiles, Canary Lizard and Canary Skink, among the warm rocks. After about half-an-hour a dark-winged pigeon with a pale-ended tail whizzed past, so that was Laurel Pigeon ticked, though not very satisfactorily.

As the sun had moved round, we decided to try El Rejo again, and following a couple of very brief flight views and also after hearing a few calls I started slowly scoping the higher woodland slopes in the valley to the right (as you look towards the sea). I managed to locate three perched birds by doing this, so at last had a decent view of what they really looked like, down to bill and eye colour. Back at El Bailadero a flock of pigeons wheeling back and forth around the hillsides below us turned out to be over 40 Rock Doves, all in ‘pure’ plumage. I can’t recall seeing such a thing before – usually there is at least one ‘feral’ bird in any such flock.

We moved on up the road and turned down the paved (literally) road through the laurel forest to El Cedro, where there is a small campsite, bar and restaurant. The road is narrow, and the last few hundred metres are unsurfaced, with a ford to negotiate. It might be a bit tricky in wet weather. The cultivated ground and trees around the bar yielded two more ticks in the form of Tenerife Goldcrest and Canary, both of which were rather elusive.

Restaurant & bar at El Cedro

 

 

In the afternoon we returned to the two viewpoints, we saw at least a dozen pigeons flying over the higher forest above El Rejo, five being positively identifiable as Laurel Pigeons, as were two seen from El Bailadero. Other people have noted the same thing – that they seem to be more active in the late afternoon, presumably moving to roosting sites. But after a whole day devoted to pigeons, we still had not positively seen a Bolle’s – just one possible in flight among the dozen this afternoon.

27 October

The 27th was also cloudless, so we headed back to El Rejo and El Bailadero where an hour’s wait produced yet another good flight view of Laurel Pigeon from the latter spot but not much else. I noted, incidentally, that there is another viewpoint giving similar views to El Rejo, accessed about 300 metres along a rather slippery track through the woodland, starting from the ‘saddle’ a short distance beyond the El Bailadero mirador. If El Rejo is ‘full’, that provides an alternative viewpoint.

We moved on a short way and took a walk along the upper end of the road to El Cedro, with excellent views of Tenerife Goldcrest and the very beautiful teneriffae race of Blue Tit. By walking within the forest (here and elsewhere) one could get good views of these small birds, which from their calls were, like the Canarian Chiffchaffs, clearly very common in the woodland. But although we heard a few coos, any pigeons we disturbed just crashed away virtually unseen. We moved up to the ridge road where the Mirador de Tajaque, near the highest point, afforded wonderful views over the drier slopes to the south, the habitat change indicated by the fact that we located a couple of Sardinian Warblers here.

Other viewpoints were few, so we moved on to another pigeon stake-out, the chapel, fountain and bar at Chorros de Epina. We scanned the wooded slopes above the chapel, but nothing much was moving so we continued via Vallehermoso and on to the Garajonay Park visitor centre at Juego de Bolas near Las Rosas. The scenery en route was impressive, but the road was under serious reconstruction, with no surface in places and lots of heavy machinery, so we didn’t linger along the way. The visitor centre is well worth a visit for background information on the geology and natural history of the area, and we had our best views so far of Canaries feeding in the gardens. We took a minor road that runs up through the park to Laguna Grande, stopping first at the Lomo del Dinero viewpoint, from which large areas of laurel forest could be seen. We didn’t locate any pigeons, but had excellent views of another target species, Plain Swift, 20 or 30 of which were feeding over the forest, so that we could actually look down on them at times. It might have been worth staying longer here, as it was good potential pigeon habitat, but we continued through the forest, with no more useful viewpoints until we reached the ridge road near the Laguna Grande picnic site.

A short way east of this were a couple of pull-offs on the left, where you could park in the first and walk to the second and look out over the forest from a low stone wall, the latter incidentally being home to a huge number of Canary Lizards. By scanning the woodland carefully I eventually located a pigeon in a treetop directly below, and the scope showed the distinctive banded tail of Bolle’s Pigeon – at last! We watched it for about half an hour, during which time it turned round a couple of times, so we got all the plumage details apart from a flight view. It was still there when we left for the parador and a celebratory meal.

Canary Lizard on La Gomera

 

 

28 October

The 28th was mostly spent seeing the sights of San Sebastian, a town of which the guidebook says, ‘even tourism has passed it by’ – which I think of as a recommendation these days. At dawn I had made the effort to confirm that the sparrows roosting outside our hotel room were in fact Spanish Sparrows – they disappeared all day, and even the ones in the town mostly remained hidden in the palm trees, as also noted by H&T. In the late afternoon we drove out to the lighthouse just east of the parador, and caught up with Berthelot’s Pipit at last (so not ‘invariably seen every day’ as C&C say, although to be fair we hadn’t been in suitable habitat much of the time so far). The scruffy fields here also held a flock of Linnets, and there was a Spectacled Warbler in the scrub by the lighthouse. The only birds offshore were yet more Cory’s Shearwaters, though this looked to be a good seawatching spot.

29 October

As it was quite windy, from the north-east (the standard direction all week in fact) in the morning of the 29th, we returned to the lighthouse first thing, but again only Cory’s Shearwaters and Yellow-legged Gulls seemed to be passing offshore. We got even better views of several Berthelot’s Pipits in the nearby fields, plus another two Spectacled Warblers – it was turning out to be a good trip for these.

We then decided on another tour of part of the island, this time via the Bar Carbonara (where there was a Sardinian Warbler but no sign of any pigeons), then past Hermigua and Agulo to Juego de Bolas. Once again, much of the route was plagued with construction traffic widening the coast road, so fairly slow progress at times. We stopped at the Lomo del Dinero viewpoint once again, where the flock of Plain Swifts was once again feeding over the woodland. By this time in the afternoon, the clouds had started to drift in, obscuring the higher slopes, and most of the route on up and past the higher viewpoints was shrouded in swirling mist. No chance of seeing any pigeons today, and we realised that we had been lucky the first few days to have such clear conditions – it’s obviously worth heading up onto the higher ground on any days when the tops are cloud-free as one never knows how long this may last. We returned to San Sebastian, not seeing very much, and in fact the lack of numbers of ‘common birds’ was a standard feature of the island – one could go for miles seeing and hearing very little. Today, for instance, we had noted a couple of Sardinian Warblers, 3 Buzzards, a Kestrel, a Grey Wagtail, a Blackbird and a scattering of Canarian Chiffchaffs during the middle period of the day. Perhaps the fact that it was autumn and song was reduced made a difference, but we got the feeling that La Gomera was quality rather than quantity as far as birds were concerned. An evening seawatch produced just more Cory’s Shearwaters passing north offshore, despite the continuing strong wind.

North coast of La Gomera. Mnt Teide in the background

 

 

30 October

On the 30th it was again fairly windy with cloud over the higher slopes. In principle, we would have liked on one day to have taken a boat-trip to look for seabirds, especially as the land-based watches hadn’t produced much variety. The Swedish couple (H&T) had taken a day trip on the ferry to El Hierro and back for seabirds but, as far as we could tell, at this time of year these boats only went after dark. We had also investigated the fast ferry (Garajonay Express) which goes from San Sebastian to Valle Gran Rey and back again, but as you are not allowed on deck on these boats, we had not bothered with that either. We also toyed with the idea of taking one of the tourist boat trips that leave Playa de Santiago and/or Valle Gran Rey in the morning, sailing along the southern and western coast of the island to view the rock formations (Los Organos) on the northernmost point, and possibly doing a total circuit to return to the starting point. However, these trips are clearly designed for people who want to have a swim at a remote beach, with the possibility of a bit of fishing, and a picnic on the boat, and take most of the day.

If we had been staying longer we probably would have gone, as theoretically they ought to provide a reasonable chance to see some seabirds as well, but although we drove to Playa de Santiago first thing this morning, it was with a bit of relief that we saw the boats sailing off just before we arrived! We felt that it would have been a pity to spend our last full day tossing about on a chilly boat with a lot of tourists not interested in the same things as us on the offchance of seeing a Bulwer’s or Madeiran Storm-petrel. While having a look at the boats in the harbour, I glanced up to see a couple of Peregrine-type birds circling over the cliffs. Before they whizzed off west, I managed to see that one at least had an ashy-grey back and upperwing coverts, with darker wingtips: was it a Barbary Falcon or just a migrant Peregrine? Luckily I’d seen the former before in Morocco, so did not feel pressed to come to a firm conclusion on this one.

We decided to return via a different route, so drove off towards the airport, turning off for a time onto a side-road that led to a small cemetery. We were pleasantly surprised to locate a flock of 30 or so Trumpeter Finches feeding on the barren slope here – not a bird I was expecting, although they apparently do breed on La Gomera according the Spanish Atlas. Also in the same general area around the airport we saw three Ravens, a few Berthelot’s Pipits, some Linnets and two more Spectacled Warblers. As we passed the attractive village of Alajero a snatch of familiar song drew my attention to a party of at least seven Corn Buntings in some scattered trees, along with over 40 Canaries, giving our best views yet of this attractive little finch. The higher ground beyond here, right over to the Bar Carbonara, was shrouded in cloud, although I did manage to see an almost certain Bolle’s Pigeon in flight by looking up from the pull-in just before the first tunnel on the way back to San Sebastian. We spent the rest of the day around the parador, adding Little Egret to the trip list in the form of one bird which flew over the hotel in mid afternoon.

31 October

Because our return flight had been brought forward an hour, the tour rep. insisted that we would have to return to Tenerife on the 7.15 ferry, rather than the 11.30 as originally planned. Although it was a bit of a pain having to leave so early, we were at least taking the ‘slow’ ferry this time, with a better chance of seeing seabirds. So we left the hire car on the dockside (very trusting these Gomerans), and went straight to the upper deck at the front of the boat. We immediately saw a Cory’s Shearwater, a recently fledged one (by the tuft of down on the back of its head) shuffling around the deck in the half-light. It had presumably come on board the previous evening on the way over, and had not been able to get airborne from the smooth surface. I managed to pick it up, the ungrateful creature immediately grasping my fingers in its bill and drawing blood. It took some effort to prise its mandibles apart, before I could throw it over the side into the harbour – it fluttered down and swam off, hopefully to survive.

The ferry left on time, just as the sun was rising, and we were soon out among good numbers of more Cory’s Shearwaters, but again I could locate no other species. Just before we arrived at Los Christianos I spotted two Pilot Whales not far from the ship, a nice extra. As our flight did not leave until the afternoon, the tour rep. had arranged for us to be taken to the centre of Los Christianos and leave our luggage at a hotel there until midday.

Now we had eschewed the effort of taking the car on the ferry to Tenerife for the day during the week, and although Lys had been looking rather wistfully at the chaffinch plate in the fieldguide, I thought that spending over 100 euros (the return cost for two people and a car) on the offchance of seeing some more seabirds, and then hunting for a small passerine in a pine forest which, from what we could see most days across the water, was likely to be shrouded in mist, wasn’t worth the possible waste of a sixth of our holiday period – we were supposed to reducing our stress levels, after all. But as we now had this unexpected three hours to spare, and there was a taxi rank immediately opposite the hotel, we set off straight away up the mountain road to Vilaflor.

We got the taxi to wait five minutes at the ‘pino gordo’ picnic site, the first stake-out mentioned by C&C, but this produced only Canarian Chiffchaff and Canary, so we headed on another 8 km to the Las Lajas picnic area, blissfully empty of people at 10.00 in the morning. It’s a bit strange trying to find birds with a taxi meter running in the background, but it took only five minutes to locate a couple of Blue Chaffinches, first a distant female, but then an extremely obliging male which perched in the open on a low branch, preening himself in the sunshine. It lived up to all of Lys’s expectations, much more striking than I had thought it might have been. We heard a Great Spotted Woodpecker, and saw Berthelot’s Pipit and a Blue Tit before returning to the rather bemused taxi driver to drive us back to Los Christianos for another celebratory drink. The fare, incidentally, was 60 euros, definitely time and money well spent.

Actually the pine forest was not at all dense, and on checking later it appears that most people find the bird here without too much trouble. It would be easy to see from La Gomera if there was a lot of cloud on Tenerife before setting out, so the day trip should not be as big as risk as I had originally feared.

It only remained for a taxi to take us to Tenerife South airport for the four-hour flight to a cold, wet and windy Birmingham airport and the drive back to Bristol.

Contact

For more details, please contact Ken Hall, The Anchorage, The Chalks, Chew Magna, Bristol BS18 8SN, UK (see also http://www.kjhall.org.uk/lpo.htm where there is an e-mail address and other details).