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June 2009

The Yellow-legged Gull
is a common bird of the Canary Islands  


List of Birds & Other Nature during the FONT tour in the Canary Islands - June 2009

Cumulative Lists of Birds & Other Wildlife of the Canary Islands

Cumulative Lists of Birds & Other Wildlife during FONT Tours in Spain & the Canary Islands

Upcoming FONT Birding & Nature Tours in Europe

The Canary Islands is an archipelago of 7 main islands, off the northwest coast of Africa, but part of Spain. Africa, however, is 10 times closer to the Canaries than is the Iberian Peninsula. 
But a part of Spain the Canaries are, having been so since the 15th century. 

Those who lived on the islands prior to that were known as the Guanches. When the Spaniards arrived, the native people put up a fierce fight but were eventually subdued. Some were deported. Some intermixed with the Spaniards. Little trace is left of them today.
All that's known has been gleaned from archaeological remains or the written journals of the conquerors. It is not known where the Guanches came from, or why in the 15th century they still lived in the Stone Age.
They were close to 7 feet tall. To them the use of metal was unknown, and they know nothing about boat building.
Theories say that they were fair-complexioned Berbers from Africa. But what can not be explained is how they would have arrived by sea without boats. Another theory claims that the Canary Islands are the peaks above water after the continent of Atlantis sunk. So, with that, the early inhabitants, mountain people, would have been stranded in an ocean environment and naturally would have known nothing about sea travel.             

Now, let it be said that the Canary Islands are, these days, visited by many people known as tourists, who travel from mostly throughout Europe. 

For us, it's the diversity of the nature of the archipelago that's the main attraction. The flora has been evolving on the islands for millions of years, and now there are a large number of plant species found nowhere else in the world. 
Fossil evidence shows that on the Canaries the legendary Dragon Tree, Dracaena draco (one of which was said to be 6,000 years old, prior to perishing in a hurricane in 1867), the Canary laurels, and some indigenous fern species have been there up to 20 million years! Their nearest relatives are found today in South America and Africa.
Two species of birds, endemic to the Canaries,  have lingered on during the many years since the Age of the Dinosaurs, only occurring in the laurel forests of the islands. Both of them are Pigeons, the Bolle's and the Laurel.       

The total flora of the Canary Islands numbers some two thousand species. A number of these, as just noted, are relics of a previously much more widespread vegetation, which has gradually shrunk, due to the drying out of the area now occupied by the Sahara Desert (only about 80 miles from the easternmost of the Canaries), and the southward movement historically of a glacial climate caused by the Ice Ages.

Currently, the 7 main islands of the Canarian archipelago are each quite different from each other. In general, the eastern islands are more arid, and the western islands are more lush. 
Much of the eastern island known as Lanzarote is volcanic (more about this follows). 
Much of the other sparsely-populated eastern island called Fuerteventura is desert. 
To the west, the island of Tenerife has a completely different profile, from the rocky shore up to a layer of cloud, that lies like a collar, around the magnificent peak of Monte Teide, over 12,000 feet above sea level. That mountain is higher than any in mainland Spain. Its slopes are famous for its unique alpine flora.
Birds on Tenerife are notably different than those on other islands in the Canaries, particularly those on Lanzarote and Fuerteventura to the east. 
On Tenerife, in various habitats, including the pine and laurel forests, there are these species of birds, either endemic to the Canaries themselves, or to the Macaronesian region: 
the attractive Blue Chaffinch, the Canary (the wild descendent of caged Canaries), a kinglet or goldcrest type of bird, a local resident Chiffchaff, a swift, and the two species of wild pigeons already noted.
There are endemic subspecies also on Tenerife. including those of the European Robin, European Blackbird, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Chaffinch (1 of 3 distinctive subspecies in the Canaries), and the African Blue Tit (1 of 4 subspecies in the Canary Islands).    

Of the 4 Canarian Islands that we've visited during FONT tours (Tenerife, La Gomera, Fuerteventura, and Lanzarote), it is perhaps Lanzarote that is the most exotic, or it might even be said, sensational. Without any hyperbole, that distinctive island is certainly interesting.
Much of it is a "desert" of black volcanic ash, where the ground still smolders beneath the surface. Parts of the island are treeless - a lunar landscape.
This desolate, yet majestic terrain is the result of 18th and 19th Century volcanic eruptions that covered much of the small island in lava and ash and left it as a desert. It was in 1730 that a succession of violent eruptions began that lasted for 6 years, and left the burned-out husks of volcanoes that dot the plain to this day. 
Today, it requires a considerable effort to conjure an imagination to picture a fertile agricultural plain that existed in the area before 1730.     
One would think that animal and plant life could not possibly survive in such inhospitable surroundings, lacking water and buffeted by desert winds (as noted Lanzarote is only about 80 miles from the African Sahara). And yet, life does exist.
The people of Lanzarote created an ingenious system to make life possible on the island. They observed how the volcanic ash absorbed the early morning dew. Plowing the earth with the aid of dromedaries (one-humped camels which are the island's typical beast of burden), they planted crops and covered the ground with a layer of volcanic ash. They dug shallow holes into the bleak earth (adding man-made craters to the already crater-pocked island) and planted grape vines, once more carefully spreading black ash over the earth. Then they built miniature stone walls around each plant to protect against the winds. And then the crops thrived. The labor has been a work of art with no mechanical aid.
Today the blackened earth of Lanzarote alternates with vineyards and plantings of melons, figs, and tomatoes to create at places away from the volcanic rubble, "a sea of green".      
Flat-roofed, all-white houses, in the scattered small villages, stand out in stark contrast to the dark terrain of the land. Along the coast, the hulls of the fishing boats are also white.

Some particular places on Lanzarote are as striking as the general scene on the island.
In the Timanfaya National Park (whose symbol is a menacing devil), there's the Montana de Fuego (or "Mountain of Fire"). In the 18th Century, it unexpectedly arose from the earth in a tumultuous eruption of molten lava. Today, although the volcano is now dormant, the searing heat just a foot or so below the surface is enough to vaporize water, fry an egg, or light a fire. A restaurant on that mountain serves food grilled with volcanic heat.
The summit of that mountain can be reached on camelback (or more precisely, on the one-humped dromedaries already mentioned). Those who'd dislike the swaying gait of the camels can walk.  
From the summit one can look at an amazing sight of more than 30 volcanic cones whose craters glow with iridescent light and glittering hues of pastels, ochres, and blues created by the soil's iron particles.

Those more than 30 volcanoes (actually 36) are within a triangle of 8 kilometers (5 miles). Colors were just mentioned, but to say again: one of the volcanoes is yellow, another is red and the ground is black or burnt sienna. The shadows of the deepest craters are an intense purple. But not a green leaf is visible in the area, just the gray-green of lichen on some northern slopes.    

Seaside, not far from the "Mountain of Fire", there are salt pans that contrast strikingly with the blue sea and blackened hills. Along the edge of the coastal lagoon by those salt pans, we saw Black-winged Stilts (apparently nesting there), a Eurasian Oystercatcher, Kentish Plovers,  Southern Gray Shrike, and Berthelot's Pipit. Also, there, running so quickly on the dry ground from one low bush to another, a diminutive animal, the Canary Shrew, was seen.

Shrews are fascinating little animals. They evolved, it's been determined, 45 million years ago, and have remained unchanged for at least 10 million years. They are among the most ancient and widespread of the world's mammals. There are, in all, 335 species of shrews. Many of them are localized, as is the Canary Shrew, which occurs only on 2 of the Canary Islands: Fuerteventura and Lanzarote.

At the north end of Lanzarote, there's a wondrous cave, called in Spanish "Las Cuevas de los Verdes". In it, there's an all-white and blind 1/2 inch-long crab, Munidopsis polymorpha, which has not been discovered anywhere else in the world. 

It's in northern Lanzarote where the majority of the island's rare and endemic plant species can be found, notably the highly restricted Echium decaisnei purppuriense and the composite Argyranthemum ochroleucum, which is endemic to Lanzarote and resembles a ragwort.
At sea level on the island there are two yellow-flowered members of the daisy family which are confined to the two eastern Canary Islands (of Lanzarote & Fuerteventura): the fleabane Pulicaria canariensis, and Astericus schultzii.
Cliff-tops in northern Lanzarote harbor the umbellifer Ferula lancerottensis, found only at one locality, and the more widespread lavender species Lavandula pinnata.       

A particularly spectacular spot at the north end of Lanzarote is called "Mirador del Rio". There, at the top of a very high seaside cliff, it's not a river below, but a strait between Lanzarote and the offshore island called Isla Graciosa.
It was at that high cliff where we saw a quick-flying Eleonora's Falcon. And a Bulwer's Petrel was seen there in flight at daybreak. They nest in that area, as do Cory's Shearwaters and Madeiran (or Band-rumped) Storm Petrels.
Along a small country road atop the cliff, also early during the morning when we saw the Bulwer's Petrel, we saw, walking ahead of us on the road, an Algerian Hedgehog.

Other notable bird sightings during our June 2009 tour in the Canary Islands included:
3 Houbara's Bustards on Lanzarote, with Stone-Curlews nearby,
a family of Cream-colored Coursers on Fuerteventura (2 parents and their 2 nearly-grown offspring), and Egyptian Vulture and the rare Canary Islands Chat also on that island,  
while back on Lanzarote, there were dozens, yes a few dozen, Barbary Partridges one morning at a golf course. Also there at that golf course, we saw Hoopoes and numerous Berthelot's Pipits on the "greens" (at a habitat quite unusual on that dry island). 

Another bird with the adjective "Barbary" was seen, and enjoyed, during our '09 Canary Islands tour:
at a high cliff on the island of Tenerife, we saw the rarest of the raptors of the islands, the Barbary Falcon. So dramatic it was in flight as it appeared to go without effort from the base to the top of the large cliff. 

At the beginning of this narrative, there's a link to a complete listing of the birds and other nature that we saw during our June '09 tour in Canary Islands of Spain, off the northwest coast of Africa. What a place!   

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