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Western Canaries Tour 2016

All images taken on the 2016 tour and copyright Jeff Clarke 2016 (click on images to enlarge to full size)

As a wildlife tour leader I get to visit some really great locations and enjoy the fabulous natural wildlife spectacles they have to offer. I was particularly looking forward to this tour as it would include some whale and dolphin watching off the coast of La Gomera.

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Teresa Farino (far right) with part of the tour party in the 'badlands'

For this tour I was co-leading with one of my regular partners, Teresa Farino of Iberian Wildlife Tours a fabulous naturalist and preparer of incredibly lavish lunches. We convened at Tenerife South Airport as a party of 14 and we soon arrived at our first stop; the badlands of Los Galletas. The relentless warm wind in this dusty environment enhanced the impression of water starvation and the scant vegetation across the volcanic ash had many water retaining adaptations to preserve the precious H2O. Wildlife here is hard to spot but we turned over a few rocks and within a short time Teresa had uncovered a splendid Tenerife Gecko. Perhaps the most obvious bird at this locality was the rather distinctive West Canarian subspecies of the Common Kestrel.

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Canarian Gecko

After lunch and a bit more exploration of the badlands habitat that kept our botanical contingent happy, we headed over to the rather tidy coastal resort of Alcalá, in order to explore the rock pools at low tide. Here we found a fine selection of sea slugs and beautiful rock pool fish. Without doubt the most obvious and eye-catching creature of these rock pools was the large sea slug Aplysia dactylomela, many were larger than my hand and I haven’t got small hands! The most abundant fish was the Madeiran Goby Mauligobius madarensis. Though there were many others including Canary Damsel Fish and Peacock Wrasse.

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sea slug Aplysia dactylomela

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Mauligobius maderensis

By the time we reached our hotel in El Guincho, on the north coast of Tenerife, darkness had fallen.

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Canary Island Chiffchaff

The morning of day two was spent exploring the delights of the botanical garden in Icod de los Vinos, which is justly famous for its 1000-year-old Dragon Tree. Apart from the obvious plant interest the site is also a hive of bird activity. The Canary Island Chiffchaff was probably the commonest bird in the grounds and could be watched nectaring from many of the flowering plants.  The group also gained excellent views of a pair of ‘Canarian’ Blackcaps as well as the distinctive looking and sounding, Tenerife Robin, this is definitely a full species irrespective of what the current taxonomic status claims. A lucky few in the group caught sight of a fast flying Barbary Falcon. The cool cloudy conditions limited the butterfly activity, but three Monarch butterflies were tempted into view in the last few minutes of our visit.

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Tenerife Robin

In the afternoon we set off for Teno headland. We arrived in hot and windy conditions. The site is full of botanical treasures and pretty soon the group were dispersed across the volcanic terrain. On this hot afternoon most birds were keeping a low profile but the highlight was probably a male Atlantic Canary singing lustily atop one of the classic Canarian plants; the cactus aping Euphorbia canariensis.

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Atlantic Canary on Euphorbia canariensis

After dark at our hotel we spent a time picking out some of the moths attracted to the various lights. We also found a lovely ‘ghostly’ Gecko that we are pretty sure is Moorish Gecko, though this species is not on the Canary Island species list; it was hunting invertebrates in one of the hotel alcoves.

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A Moorish Gecko (probably) at our hotel in El Guincho

The better weather of day three tempted us to head for the heights. We stopped en-route at the Mirador de Chirche to enjoy the numerous Tenerife Lizards and invertebrate festooned Echiums. The Canary island form of the Common Buzzards soared overhead and Painted Lady butterflies repeatedly caught the eye.

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The summit of Mount Teide and the Canary Pine Forest

In late mid-morning we reached one of our major goals for the day; the Canary Pine belt that sits above the cloud layer of Mt Teide. The picnic sites here are a magnet for birds and two in particular are found nowhere else. The Tenerife form of the Great Spotted Woodpecker is one and the other is the stunning and endemic Tenerife Blue Chaffinch. We spent a couple of hours in their company before heading to the higher elevations, just below the peak of Mt Teide. A couple of stops here brought great views of large Tenerife Lizards, Spectacled Warblers and Bath White butterflies. The creature that really epitomised this rather open volcanic landscape was the Berthelot’s Pipit and we even had one perched in a small shrub, backed by the snows on Teide’s peak.

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Tenerife Blue Chaffinch

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Tenerife Lizard on Mt Teide

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Berthelot's Pipit

As we neared our hotel that evening we noticed a large number of Plain Swifts that had gathered over the small reservoir just inside the hotel grounds. We stopped to watch them for a time, alongside a pair of resplendent Grey Wagtails. Just as we returned to our vehicles we were stopped in our tracks by the spectacular sight of a pair Barbary Falcons in close pursuit overhead. The female was carrying a large item of prey which looked like a pigeon.

On day four we walked into the dramatic landscape of the Cuevas Negras near Los Silos. Without doubt the bird of the day here would be the lovely White-tailed Laurel Pigeon, of which we saw many.This cave riddled landscape is a favourite nesting area. We also had great views of another Barbary Falcon, several ‘Canary’ Buzzards and a pair of ‘Canary’ Ravens.

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Canary Speckled Wood

The area is good for invertebrates and the butterflies are prominent. Even on a relatively cool day like today Canary Large White, Canary Brimstone and Canary Speckled Wood were all observed.

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Tenerife Blue Tit

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Canary Foxglove

At the higher elevations we entered the Laurisilva zone, complete with delightful plants such as the Canary Foxglove and here forest birds abounded. A little high pitched ‘pishing’ tempted out, Tenerife Goldcrest, Canary Island Chiffchaffs, Blackcaps and Tenerife Blue Tit. On the return down we found our first Atlantic Darter dragonfly whilst watching more Laurel Pigeons commuting to and from their nest sites.

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Greenovia diplocyla

After a short late afternoon excursion to the cliffs at Teno, for botanical delights such as Greenovia diplocyla, we returned to pack, ready for our transfer to La Gomera on the following day.

On route to our ferry we stopped at the badlands of Palm-Mar. It was here that most of our group finally caught up with Spectacled Warbler and Barbary Partridge. One of our party who struggled to walk, stayed near the vehicles and was rewarded with a Hoopoe. Meanwhile the botanists were soon finding some choice plants including the extraordinary looking Ceropegia fusca.

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Ceropegia fusca

As we waited in the que to enter the ferry we were entertained by Spanish Sparrows, and some colourful fish in the harbour including Golden Mullet. Out to sea scores of Cory’s Shearwaters escorted us across the straits to the lovely island of La Gomera and eventually we also had three pods of Atlantic Spotted Dolphin and a couple of pods of Short-finned Pilot Whales.

Lunch was taken in a mountain lay-by stop en-route to Hermigua. This productive plot gained us Plain Tiger, Canary Skipper, many Bath Whites and a stunningly fresh Barbary Spurge Hawkmoth.

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Barbary Spurge Hawkmoth

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Bath White

The following morning, we headed straight for the Garajonay National Park Visitor Centre, the gardens here are full of Echiums attractive to bees and butterflies, like Canary Speckled Wood and La Gomera Brimstone. Many birds are also attracted including the rather beautiful Western Canary form of the Common Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs canariensis considered a full species by some authorities. In the scrub above the centre we teased out a few Sardinian Warblers.

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female Sardinian Warbler

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West Canary Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs canariensis

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La Gomera Brimstone

The walk down to a nearby reservoir was very productive and more invertebrates became prominent as the day warmed up. Dragonfly-wise we found Atlantic Darter, Epaulet Skimmer and Blue Emperor. The find of the morning by Teresa was undoubtedly some almost full grown Barbary Spurge Hawkmoth caterpillars. On our return the sun had tempted out many La Gomera Skinks and Boettger’s Lizards, whilst Canary Red Admirals and Monarch butterflies were gliding around the centre’s gardens.

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Barbary Spurge Hawkmoth caterpillar (late instar)

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La Gomera Skink

Lunch at a Mirador overlooking the Laurel forest provided stunning close-up views of Tenerife Goldcrest and a few brief, but good, sightings of the elusive Bolle’s Pigeon.

It was now time to explore the gloomy depths of the Laurel Forest for which the Garajonay National Park is justly famous. The forest is incredibly atmospheric but spotting wildlife is not easy and only the super-abundant Common Blackbirds are prominent.

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The Laurel Forest of El Cedro

As we entered the restaurant later that evening for our delicious meal we could hear the squeaky gate calls of young Long-eared Owls above the deafening chorus of Stripeless Tree Frogs. I was most surprised later on to find an adult owl sat in the road giving me my first ever view of this small dark, highly nocturnal, sub-species.

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The traditional canarian wooden fishing boat of Oceano-Gomera

The following morning, we headed for Valle Gran Rey where half the group would join up with Oceano-Gomera to go whale and Dolphin Watching. (Luckily for me Teresa hates boats, so I would get to go out twice!) Teresa took the remainder of the group to a nearby barranco finding lots of wonderful plants and invertebrates, including Plain Tiger. I however set off into the big blue. The airspace above the water was full of Cory’s Shearwaters. Cetaceans were thin on the ground this day but we did eventually find three. They were a bit special being Blainville’s beaked-Whales. The views were fairly brief and a little distant but we were happy.

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Cory's Shearwater of La Gomera

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Valle Gran Rey Gomera Giant Lizard breeding centre

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A nine year old male Gomera Giant Lizard

We repeated the exercise the following day for the other half of the group, though prior to this we all fitted in a visit to the nearby La Gomera Giant Lizard breeding centre. The ocean is never the same two days in a row. This time we had not been out long when I spotted a large, ‘exploding,’ splash off in the distance. Another much closer boat had also spotted the same big splash and got their first. It was a big whale ‘lob-tailing’. The demostrative behaviour, fluke shape and the small stubby dorsal fin suggested Humpback, a real rarity in these waters, but so it proved to be. Before we got particularly close the whale disappeared for a time. A blow some 800 metres away brought it back the surface. We eventually caught up with this fast travelling whale (clearly on migration) I was disappointed to see that the other boat operated by ‘Excursiones Amazonia’ kept tailing the whale and getting far too close. The whale soon let them know and thrashed its tail at them in annoyance. We cruised along in parallel with the whale for a few more minutes, at one point it rolled on to its side and waggled its mighty left pectoral fin in the air. Eventually it rolled away under the other boat and I then saw it sounding a few hundred metres distant and that was that. A thrilling but slightly bittersweet encounter.

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Humpback lob-tailing off La Gomera

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Humpback blowing off La Gomera

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Short-beaked Common Dolphin off La Gomera

We resumed our cetacean searches and were soon rewarded by an incoming pod of Short-beaked Common Dolphins, they rode our bow a few times over the next twenty minutes giving intimate views of one of the most beautifully marked of all cetaceans.

Our final dolphin encounters would come the following morning as we once again boarded the ferry at first light on-route to the airport. Views were distant but we did eventually get some wake-riding Atlantic Spotted Dolphins and a handful of Short-finned Pilot Whales. Any day with a cetacean is a good day and so a fitting finale to our West Canarian Adventure.

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