TRAVELLING NATURALIST TRIP REPORT
Saturday 11 - Saturday 18 September 2004
Extension to Tuesday 20 September 2004
Saturday 11th September
Those of us flying out from Gatwick today had a short delay to our departure but soon we were heading for Lisbon on a smooth and relaxing flight. We landed just 10 minutes late and were pleased to see a Little Egret along the side of a taxiway and a Common Kestrel perched on a sign. The latter bird was on the ground when we took off for Horta about 75 minutes later.
Before our departure we met up with Brook and Heather Philips and they had spent a couple of days in Lisbon and there had seen Pallid Swifts and Willow Warblers or Chiffchaffs (or both) and another unidentified warbler species. There was some debate as to whether these birds should be included in the species list
Following another smooth flight we landed on Faial where we were greeted by Andy Jones. A short taxi ride took us to our hotel in Horta where we where soon settling in and taking a well-earned rest. Later we took a short walk past Porta Pim and up the hill to Monte da Guia.
As we passed Horta harbour, there were a few Yellow-legged Gulls flying around and at Porta Pim there were 3 or 4 Common Lizards along the sea wall, a couple of Common Terns in the bay and many Corys Shearwaters passing by out at sea. We passed close to the old whaling station and began the gentle walk up Monte da Guia. There were a few small birds feeding in a recently cut field. Most were House Sparrows but amongst them were a couple of Island Canaries and a Common Chaffinch. In the channel between us and the island of Pico we could see many more Corys Shearwaters and along the roadside verge were 3 species of butterfly, Clouded Yellow, Painted Lady and Long-tailed Blue.
Further up the hill was obtained even better views of Island Canaries and we caught brief glimpses of a Common Blackbird and a Blackcap. From the top the view over the Caldeira do Inferno, an unusual double crater, was impressive and from where we stood we added 5 Grey Herons and 3 Common Buzzards to our list. On the return walk we did have really good views of a Buzzard perched on a telegraph pole and a Common Greenshank flew past as we neared the bay.
Back at the hotel we had a fine buffet-style evening meal during which we compared our wildlife watching with 2 or 3 Azores Noctule Bats.
Sunday 12th September
After a fine breakfast we set off at 9 a.m. to head for Caldeira, the highest point on the island. Near Espalamanca we paused at a viewpoint and had excellent views back to Horta. The monument at this location held its own wildlife no doubt as a consequence of it having been illuminated the previous night. There was a fine Convolvulus Hawk Moth on the statue and on the pillar beyond we found a couple of Stick Insects. A short distance on, we stopped to admire a windmill where we heard the distinct call of a Common Quail.
We completed the drive to the volcano and as the mist/cloud cleared from inside the crater we could see the distinct secondary cone and smaller crater that had formed long after the first eruption. Birds in the area were found when we took a walk up the main crater rim and they included Island Canaries, Chaffinch, Goldfinch and a Grey Wagtail. Gradually the weather closed in and by 11.45 we were heading for the islands north coast. Five minutes later it began to rain, a good example of the meticulous planning by the Iceland Naturalist and Travelling Naturalist that goes into these tours!!
Just before we reached our lunch stop at Praia do Norte, we saw a couple of Common Buzzards that were out in the improving weather and during lunch we saw a couple more. Along the journey to Ponta dos Capelinhos, a few more of the same species were seen.
Once at the Ponta we could see where the new piece of land had formed in the 1957/8 eruption. Two of the three stories of the lighthouse keepers cottages had been buried in volcanic ash! From the top of the beach we could see a flock of perhaps 150 Common Terns and in among them were at least 10 Roseate Terns. Off shore, numerous Corys Shearwaters were passing throughout our stay and at some considerable distance, a group of perhaps 300 could be seen. Some of the group took it easy and continued sea watching in the hope of spotting some cetaceans while the more energetic folks clambered up the slope to see the volcano crater. Here they found some Stags-horn Plantain and a species of Grasshopper with bright blue wings.
After a brief stop at the small museum that has a video and lots of photos showing the eruption, we drove back to the hotel seeing little on the way except a Ruddy Turnstone in the bay at Porta Pim.
Monday 13th September
After an early breakfast we headed for Horta harbour to catch the 07.30 sailing to the island of Sao Jorge. On the way we saw large numbers of Corys Shearwaters and perhaps a few dolphin splashes. After two stops on Pico, we reached the port of Velas at about 09.30. A refreshing cuppa followed and from the hotel we saw a few dolphin fins break the surface and the animals themselves made bow waves but were not progressing in the normal dolphin style. From this, Andy, who had not seen them, suggested that they may have been Rissos Dolphins but officially they remain unidentified.
Later we walked from the hotel up the nearby hill of Morro Grande. This proved most interesting and gave us superb views over the town and also out to the islands of Pico and Faial. Wildlife seen on this walk, included Migrant Hawker dragonfly, House Sparrows, Island Canaries, a Robin or two and a Rabbit. One of the most unusual moments was when a mating pair of rather large Grasshoppers landed on the leg of Jills trousers!!
After lunch and a little shopping in town, we boarded a fleet of taxis and were driven to the north-west end of the island. Here the Punta dos Rosais lighthouse stood somewhat derelict but again the views were very special and we saw lots more Corys Shearwaters out at sea and then a couple of Common Buzzards as we drove back to Sete Fontes.
Here we had good views of a male Grey Wagtail and in the pools were a number of Marsh Frogs. Chaffinches and Island Canaries were well seen as we walked up the hill beside the woodland which held a family group of Goldcrests. Further up the hill, another Goldcrest gave excellent views and a couple of Blackbirds were also seen. Various flowers along the roadside spurred us on and we soon reached another good viewpoint from where we could see Pico, Velas and Pico da Esperanca. Back down in the wooded area a small pond held a couple of Muscovy ducks and some others of dubious parentage! No matter how much the clients pleaded, these two were not added to the final species tally (and the editors decision is final in this matter. Nor correspondence will be entered into!)
Back at the hotel some of the group went exploring some nearby rock pools with a snorkel and began a fish list seeing Blue Mullet as well as Wrasse and a Blenny species to add to the Flying Fish we had seen from the ferry earlier in the day. Despite some thorough subsequent searching, only one person saw a Common Octopus and as that was one of the leaders then it regrettably couldnt be included in our official list!
We walked into town for a delicious meal and during the return walk; we could see and hear plenty of Corys Shearwaters flying overhead with some of them being illuminated by the street lighting. The clear skies enabled us to see masses of stars in the Milky Way and also a passing satellite.
Tuesday 14th September
Before breakfast, a couple of clients and Mike saw a group of 20-30 Common Dolphins passing between the islands but unfortunately they could not be relocated later.
Later we set off along the coast and at Urzelina, we paused by a windmill to overlook the sea. A Blackcap was singing regularly and out on the sea there were large flotillas of Corys Shearwaters plus a few flying around but despite considerable searching, no cetaceans were found. Urzelina was badly affected by a volcanic eruption in 1808 and we examined the area which included the church badly damaged in the event. During the onward drive to Lourais, a Common Buzzard (incidentally, all the buzzards are a distinct sub-species (rothschildi, only found in the Azores) was seen and one group member saw some Dolphins in a bay (perhaps the Commons from earlier in the day?).
From Lourais we began the walk to Faja do Sao Joao. This has been described as one of the classic walks in the Azores. Thankfully in the increasing heat and still conditions, most of the walk was down hill though at times the track did prove somewhat awkward on the loose gravel. More Common Buzzards were noted early on, as were a group of Common Starlings and a few Grey Wagtails. Island Canaries and a few Chaffinches were in some fields and along the roadside verge were some Small Blue butterflies. We also saw Vaccinium cylindraceum, one of the Azores special endemic plants.
We managed to find a little much-needed shade for our lunch stop during which a couple more Common Buzzards were noted high above us and 2 Goldcrests flitted around for a while before perching in full view at the edge of a maize field. An Azores Noctule Bat, Chaffinches and a Goldfinch were also noted during this stop.
In the heat of the early afternoon we saw little as we completed the walk and we were pleased there was a bar/cafe at the end where we could purchase some well-earned liquid refreshment and ice cream.
To complete the days outing, we visited a couple of spectacular viewpoints on the north side of the island. Though we saw little wildlife of interest except many more Common Buzzards and a few Yellow-legged Gulls everyone felt that the views alone were worth the drive.
We returned to the hotel and after resting for a while, we headed out to the local Agricultural College Restaurant for a fine and tasty evening meal.
Wednesday 15th September
This is our last morning on Sao Jorge and from the hotel we see many Corys Shearwaters as we do from the ferry to Pico a little later. There are also Common Terns and Yellow-legged Gulls to be seen but the best sightings were the 3 groups of Common Dolphins some of which jumped well clear of the sea.
We were greeted by the usual fleet of taxis and in heavy rain showers, were taken across to the southern side of the island to our hotel at Aldeia da Fonte. After finding our rooms and settling in for a short while, we went for a short walk to overlook the ocean and to search for cetaceans but sadly we did not find any. However there were the usual Corys Shearwaters and Common Terns over the sea and a pair of Common Buzzards over the land.
During lunch at the hotel we are able to see a Goldcrest in the surrounding trees and afterwards, from another nearby lookout point, we spent a couple of hours watching for cetaceans but again we are unsuccessful. Meanwhile, Andy climbed down some of the cliffs and did some checking of the area to see if there were any Corys Shearwaters breeding there were and we arranged to come back after nightfall to see if we could see or hear the returning adults.
We took some relaxation time before dinner during which we saw a couple of Azores Noctule bats. Then later we took a torch-light walk to the lookout point hoping for views of Corys Shearwaters coming in to feed their young but unfortunately views were poor though we did hear several birds.
Thursday 16th September
After breakfast we headed to Lajes and, following a briefing, we headed for the boats to go whale watching. As we left the sheltered harbour there was a Whimbrel on the rocks. When we reached the open ocean we realised that we were in for a rough ride. To say the sea was bouncy (on this occasion) would be an understatement. Plenty of Corys Shearwaters were flying around and soon we saw a group of about 10 Common Dolphins.
When we reached about 4-5 miles from shore we encountered our first Sperm Whale. We were guided to the location by on-shore lookouts who had spotted these leviathans of the deep from that distance! In the end, we saw 10-15 individuals. It is always difficult to know exactly how many are seen as they can dive for anything up to one hour! We had splendid views and felt really privileged to be so close to these magnificent creatures.
After staying with the whales for some time, we headed closer to the shore where we saw a group of about 20 Rissos Dolphins. Again, we spent some time in their company before we headed back to Lajes where we had a leisurely lunch.
Later, we strolled along beside the sea where we saw plenty of resting Common Terns, a Turnstone and a juvenile Black-headed Gull. The latter species is quite a rarity in the Azores. From here we walked up the hill to one of the whale lookout towers. Despite gazing at the sea for some considerable time, we saw nothing except passing Corys Shearwaters. This certainly underlined the skill of the whale finders who had earlier directed us to our whales.
We walked back to Lajes and then were driven back to the hotel where we found a European Robin, Blackbird and Goldcrests. As the weather was so calm and warm, we decided to have dinner outside and this enabled us to see an occasional Azores Noctule and just one Corys Shearwater. The latter species was illuminated by the exterior hotel lighting!
Friday 17th September
Due to our briefing the previous day, we do not need to be at the whale-watching place quite so early. Once in Lajes, we prepare for our departure and the first part of the group are soon underway. We see a group of about 10 Common Dolphins but our captain is much more intent on finding whales and does not stop despite their closeness. After much searching for some considerable time, we are many miles along the coast and about 5 miles out. As we near some boats that are obviously in the company of whales, a Great Shearwater drifted in front of the boat and this was almost immediately followed by a sighting of 2 Little Shearwaters that took off from the sea and flew alongside the boat for a while.
Eventually we sight the Sperm Whales but as we rev up to approach them a little more closely they submerge and we loose them for a while. Once relocated we keep a fair distance from them and we realise that there are more than we originally thought. In total there were probably 15-20 individuals in 3 groups. All were heading in roughly the same direction and we stay with them for a while. At the furthest point we were about 16 miles along the coast and 6 miles out from shore. Needless to say, we had no time to stop for anything else once the captain decided to return to base.
It was at this time that Roma Slater tripped and injured her leg and was, most regrettably, no longer able to take part in the tour get well soon, Roma! After lunch at the same restaurant as the previous day, we go to the museum and while some view the exhibits, others go to the shore where a Knot is a good find. Other members of the group soon join us and we also obtain good views of 2 Grey Herons, a Greenshank, 3 Whimbrels and about 8 Ruddy Turnstones.
After this we returned to the hotel with good time to relax before dinner.
Saturday 18th September
Today, those from the group who were not on the bullfinch extension had to make their way over to Faial island to catch their flight homewards. During the early taxi journey to Madelena, at least 20 Azores Noctules were seen and at the harbour there were a couple of Sanderlings, a Dunlin as well as the usual as well as the usual Yellow-legged Gulls and Common Terns. Needless to say, we saw many Corys Shearwaters during the actual crossing.
For those going on the extension the day went as follows:
It was an early breakfast for those departing for the UK in order to travel to Horta for their flights to Lisbon and London. These of us lucky enough to be travelling to Sao Miguel Island had a more leisurely start, though very heavy rain soon stopped and several clients took a walk along the coast to see if there were any cetaceans offshore. There were
At least four Sperm Whales were seen, relatively close to shore, as well as a group of dolphins sadly too far away for positive identification. There were, of course, lots of Corys Shearwaters as well together with just one Great Shearwater. Two of the group (no names no pack drill!) chose to relax in the wonderful grounds of the hotel and were rewarded with Sperm Whale sightings looking out from their room window.
We left Aldeia de Fonte and Pico Island later in the afternoon for our 40 minute flight to Sao Miguel Island. Clear skies over neighbouring Sao Jorge Island allowed us great views and we could clearly see the areas where we had been walking a few days previously.
Our flight arrived on time and we were quickly transported from Ponta Delgada, the capital of the Azores to our next hotel at the town of Furnas roughly an hours drive away.
One the journey we encountered the largest flock of Goldfinches we had seen so far estimates put this charm at about 150 birds.
Furnas is located on the floor of a volcanic crater and is in a very beautiful part of Sao Miguel. Our hotel, The Terra Nostra, has its own arboretum, geothermal pool and easy access to the nearby hot springs and fumaroles. We look forward to our exploration of the island the following day.
Sunday 19th September
It was a beautiful day bright, sunny and distinctly fresher. We first visited the crater rim at da Vara. This allowed us stunning views of the surrounding area and produced, amongst soaring buzzards, a new species for the trip, a solitary Lesser Black Backed Gull. We also recorded Blackcap in the area before travelling on to the Salto do Cavalo and another perspective on the Furnas caldera. It was easy to see the steam rising from the geothermal area good evidence of the still active volcanicity of the region.
We descended to the islands North Coast and it was difficult dragging ourselves away from viewpoints scattered along this stunning coastline. The journey produced, for some of us at least, a rabbit scurrying across the road. At just about every stop there were bats and buzzards to see. After a coffee at Nordestinho we started our ascent up the Pico da Vara, this was our prime destination for the day and the chance for us to search for the incredibly rare Azores Bullfinch. The region is now a Specially Protected Area, both for the mix of plants (many endemic to the Azores) and, of course, the Bullfinch. Current estimates put the Azores Bullfinch population at just 120 pairs. It only occurs in areas with the Azores laurel, holly and tree heathers and is at very real risk of extinction.
We travelled the remote Tronqueiria road and at a viewpoint stopped for our picnic. The conditions were wonderful clear skies and great views of the mountains all around.
We heard a strange call and several of the group were quick enough to raise their binoculars and see two Azores Bullfinches flying across the valley beneath us. We had reasonable, if distant, views before the birds flew into trees on the opposite side of the valley and regrettably didnt reappear.
We set off on some walks along the forest trails and a little later we heard two bullfinches calling. This was quite some distance from the initial sighting and we felt justified in deciding these were two different birds. Its sobering to consider that in the space of just three hours we had seen or heard a not insignificant proportion of all of the Azores Bullfinches that exist.
A very close view of Common Buzzard brought our mountain expedition to a close and we descended to the Island' SE coast and the town of Povocao before returning to Furnas. We wandered around the hot springs and fumaroles and watched maize being boiled in one of the springs. Several of the group just had to sample some!
All agreed it had been a great day.
Monday 20th September
Another bright day, there was time in the morning for a stroll around the hotels impressive arboretum, or a dip in the geothermal pool, before driving to Ponta Delgada. On the journey we saw lots of the, by now, familiar birds of the islands buzzards, canaries, goldfinches as well as the magnificent scenery of this, the largest, island of the Azores.
All good things come to an end, however, and the time soon came to board our return flight. I think I can safely say this had been a splendid holiday and Im sure youll have many fond and happy memories of these delightful islands.
Corys Shearwater Seen every day in good numbers.
Great Shearwater One seen on the outward boat journey to go whale-watching on 17th with another seen during the rather speedy return journey that day.
Little Shearwater 2 seen close to the whales on 17th.
Grey Heron Noted on 4 days with the most being 6 on the day we arrived on Faial.
Little Egret A single bird was seen at Lisbon airport on the outward journey.
Common Buzzard The Azores sub-species of the Common Buzzard was quite numerous with up to 15 seen in a single day (14th). Perhaps the most worrying feature of seeing this bird were the 6 birds circling near the runway on Sao Miguel, did it signify their superior knowledge of our pilots ability?!!
Common Kestrel A single bird was perched on a sign beside the runway at Lisbon airport on 11th.
Common Quail Heard on 12th and 13th on Faial and Sao Jorge respectively.
Whimbrel 1 on 16th and 3 on 17th a Lajes do Pico.
Common Greenshank 1 on 11th and 1 on 12th near Horta and then singles seen on 16th and 17th a Lajes.
Ruddy Turnstone Noted on 4 days with the most being 8 on Lajes on 17th.
Dunlin A single bird was at Madalena on 18th.
Knot One at Lajes on 17th.
Sanderling 2 at Madalena on 18th. Like the Dunlin, these birds were only seen by those not on the bullfinch extension
Yellow-legged Gull Noted every day.
Lesser Black-backed Gull A single bird was seen at da Vara on Sao Miguel on 19th.
Black-headed Gull A single juvenile was at Lajes on 16th.
Common Tern Noted every day except 19th and 20th.
Roseate Tern About 10 seen at Ponta dos Capelinhos on 12th with another seen on Pico the following day.
Common Woodpigeon 2 on Faial on 12th, 8 on Pico on 14th and 1 on Sao Miguel on 19th.
Feral Pigeon/Rock Dove Noted most days in town areas though they were at times quite numerous along the sea cliffs.
Grey Wagtail Noted every day except 11th on a wide variety of locations and habitats.
Common Blackbird Seen every day.
European Robin Seen or heard in small numbers on 8 days.
Blackcap Noted every day except 16th.
Goldcrest The first sighting was of a family group (1 adult and 3 recently fledged juveniles) on 13th at Sete Fontes and we then encountered the species on a further 7 days; a good showing for this species.
Common Starling Noted every day.
Common Chaffinch This Azorean sub-species (soon to be a separate species in its own right?) was seen every day.
Island Canary Noted every day in fair numbers with the most together being perhaps more than 100 at the start of the walk on 14th.
European Goldfinch Noted on 6 days with the most being at least 15 at Caldeira on 12th.
Azores Bullfinch 4 seen on the slopes of Pico de Vara on Sao Miguel on 19th.
House Sparrow Noted every day.
Azores Noctule Bat Noted every day.
Common Dolphin Possibly seen on 14th from our Sao Jorge hotel then definitely identified were 30 on 15th. 10 on 16th and 12 on 17th.
Rissos Dolphin Perhaps 20 seen on 16th after we had spent some time with the Sperm Whales.
Sperm Whale About 15 seen on 16th and 15-20 the following day during boat trips from Lages then 4 seen from the shore on 18th.
Rabbit 1 on 13th near Velas. Also noted on 15th and 18th.
Also noted were a few Brown Rats and a Polecat/Ferret but as these were all of the sub-species horizontalis (e.g. dead on the roads) they were not admissible to the list!
AMPHIBIANS & REPTILES
Marsh Frog At least 5 seen at Sete Fontes on 13th then noted on 19th and 20th on Sao Miguel.
Common Lizard Noted most days.
The following species were seen:
Convolvulus Hawk Moth
Other insects included a couple of Stick insects and 3-5 species of Grasshopper/Cricket.
In just six centuries the flora of the Azores has changed dramatically as a result of settlement and agriculture. Today there are perhaps 850-900 species of vascular plant on the Islands. Of these around 300 species are thought to be native including 50-60 species endemic to the islands. Species have been introduced here from all over the world and two in particular, Hedychium gardnerianum, the Kahili Ginger and Cryptomeria japonica, the Japanese Cedar have substantially altered the Azorean landscpaes. The conservation impact that these and other introduced species has had on the native vegetation is considerable with just small tracts of the once extensive evergreen forest remaining. The list that follows comprises those species that we recorded which are endemic to the Azores or Macaronesia.
Ilex perado azoricum Azores Holly
Laurus azorica Canary Laurel
Erica azorica Urze or Besom Heath
Juniperus brevifolia Juniper
Thymus caespititius Thyme
This was a most enjoyable tour with a wide range of wildlife recorded as well as boat trips, swimming in the central Atlantic and fabulous volcanic scenery. Andys geological background (no, I dont mean he is as old as the hills!) helped us to understand so much more about the formation of these lovely islands and his thorough knowledge of everywhere we visited borne of many years of visiting the Azores, were evident in his skilful leading. I therefore extend my grateful thanks to him for making this such an enjoyable tour to co-lead and for doing the write-up for the final two days.
On the birding side of things, we did the best ever for a Travelling Naturalist group here with a fabulous 32 species! It may not sound a lot but the huge distance between mainland Europe and these rather new (geologically speaking) volcanic islands has to be borne in mind. Only then do you begin to wonder how anything as small as a Goldcrest has every made it here in the first place.
I hope we will have the pleasure of your company again on another Travelling Naturalist holiday.
© The Travelling Naturalist 2004