Friday, 27 May 2011

Azores and Madeira: part 1

The trip started well with the rediscovery of one of last winter's vagrants, this Pied-billed Grebe in the marina of Terceira's capital city, Angra do Heroismo.

Unless confined to a cave for the past 10 years, there can scarcely be a serious birder on this side of the Atlantic who hasn't noticed that the Azores hits the headlines with emphatic regularity every autumn. Such is its reputation that even those with troglodyte tendencies may be aware too. Winter birding has also come on the radar in recent years but, with a couple of exceptions, there has been very little birdfinding effort made in spring.

Ilheu da Praia is one of only two confirmed breeding sites for Monteiro's Storm-petrel, an Azores endemic.
This is all the more surprising given that one of the archipelago's two endemic bird species, the recently described Monteiro's Storm-petrel, arrives to breed in May. Next year, in addition to the regular transatlantic vagrants tour in October, I will be leading a new holiday for Sunrise Birding which will target Monteiro's and the other local endemic, Azores Bullfinch, as well as numerous seabirds including Barolo Shearwater before moving on to Madeira and its own full suite of endemics and seabirds. Scheduled for June 2012, I decided to get ahead with the planning and do some groundwork in the field last week.

The location and date of this storm-petrel, at sea off Graciosa in mid-May, fit Monteiro's, but the tail appears square-ended rather than slightly forked, and the bill is also perhaps on the small side. My view was that it was probably best to put this one down as 'just' a Madeiran, in the general, pre-split sense, but Joël Bried has commented: "It is true that the tail looks squared rather than forked, but ... there is an overlap between the two species, and I have seen (in the hand) a few Monteiro's Storm-petrels with rather squared tails. In addition, the small bill and the complete plumage point towards Monteiro's. A Madeiran Storm-pterel should be moulting its primaries in May." Thanks also to Magnus Robb for his helpful comments on this bird.
So first up, the Azores. I visited three islands, checking known and new sites for seabirds and migrants. Despite rather adverse weather and rather limited time, pelagic efforts proved successful and Monteiro's Storm-petrel was seen at both attempts; at a more leisurely pace next year I'm hoping to enjoy even longer encounters with this rare seabird. Another Oceanodroma storm-petrel I photographed could also be this species but, with no visible tail fork and a rather small bill, may possibly be a Madeiran. In among the abundant Cory's were also Barolo, Manx and an early Sooty, with quite a few Roseate Terns at one of their colonies in the islands.

This Sooty Shearwater at sea off Graciosa was earlier than the expected August-October passage period.
Migration proved surprisingly productive given the isolated position of the Azores from the rest of Europe - more on this, including a new species for the islands, in my next post. In the meantime, for some relevant offline reading, my feature 'Unexplored Azores' was published in May's Birdwatch (see pages 36-39).

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