Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Azores and Madeira: part 3

Common Quail are very audible at this time of the year on Terceira (where this shot was taken) and Graciosa.
It’s a while since I’d been to Graciosa. Quite a while, in fact, so this leg of the preparatory trip for next year’s Azores and Madeira tour was an important one – not just for locating the endemic Monteiro’s Storm-petrel and other seabirds such as Barolo Shearwater, but also to suss out opportunities on land.

I was met on arrival at the airport by my kind hosts Rolando, skipper for the pelagic trips, and Pedro from the Environmental Department. We set off on a brief tour of some spots in the north of the island, including Porto Afonso, a scenic spot with an offshore stack sporting a bustling tern colony. While watching the terns I became aware of a movement over the cliffs nearby, and was surprised to see several hirundines feeding actively along the cliff-top (surprised because there are no hirundines in the Azores). They proved to be House Martins, 25 in total – only the second record for the island, and one of the larger flocks to be seen in the Azores.

Record numbers of House Martins, a scarce migrant in the Azores, were seen on Graciosa and Santa Maria.
The appearance of unexpected migrants from continental Europe became a bigger theme the following morning. If anyone ever asked me to name a good raptor destination I have to confess that, as much as I love the Azores, it would be low on the list. The resident Common Buzzards are admittedly an endemic subspecies, rothschildi, but there are no other regular raptors in the islands. So I was stunned when, as I was driving over some high ground, a large, pale-headed and rather striking buzzard came up out of a field of long grass and quickly vanished behind a hillside. In that brief view of a few seconds, the pale head and suggestion of dark on the belly sides, as well as the pale outer primaries with dark tips, made me think it must be a Rough-legged Buzzard (or Nearctic equivalent), though what I couldn't fully make out the tail pattern. I wasn't able to chase it for photos then as I was on my way to join a pelagic trip, but when I got back ashore in the early afternoon I went straight inland to try and refind it.

This Black Kite was a welcome surprise on Graciosa. As well as being the second record for the Azores, it is perhaps also the most westerly record of the species anywhere in the world.
With no sign in the original area, I headed west a little and parked up on a hilly road with a panoramic view. Fairly quickly a raptor drifted into view, but that was immediately identifiable as a Black Kite – only the second for the islands. Somewhat gobsmacked, I watched this vagrant drift past and grabbed a few records shots, and then scanned again before locating two Common Buzzards interacting with a third buteo - what I took to be the mystery bird from earlier on, though I can't be sure it was the same individual. Several features were wrong for Rough-legged Buzzard, indicating that perhaps it was a different bird. It was chased off by the local buzzards which, as well as being almost invariably rather dark, were in comparison clearly smaller and shorter winged.

A vagrant buteo on Graciosa, but which one? Note the pale eye and tail barring, indicating the bird is a juvenile.
This poor record shot, taken at great distance and cropped right in, at least gives an idea of the patterning and wear on the upperparts, as well as the wing profile.
Parting shot: here the mystery buteo (left, in the distance) is seen off by a local rothschildi Common Buzzard (right, foreground). Note the clearly smaller size and shorter wings of the latter.
Two adult rothschildi Common Buzzards - the endemic Azorean subspecies - for comparison, with a darker bird ...
... and a slightly paler adult (most rothschildi seem similar to these two birds, with little variation in my experience).
After it was lost to view I headed back over the hill, and again picked up the Black Kite, flying east. To my astonishment it was then joined by another raptor, also a buteo, but this bird was strikingly white on the head, body, upperwing coverts and underwing. In the Azores, experience has shown that almost anything from virtually anywhere can turn up, so a sensible policy is to shoot first and ask questions later. I fired off a few frames before the bird departed and, with no raptor references to hand, picked up on the process of confirming identifications after the trip.

Juvenile white-morph buteo Common Buzzard - apparently a first for the Azores of the nominate subspecies.
Having considered my own views and contacted several others, the consensus on the white hawk is a juvenile white-morph nominate buteo Common Buzzard from continental Europe – apparently a first for the islands. Opinion is more divided on the other buzzard, with juvenile Common Buzzard (again nominate buteo) followed by cirtensis Long-legged Buzzard the most popular choices, but even a couple of suggestions for Red-tailed Hawk (eliminated by one raptor expert). More comments on this bird are welcome, and thanks to Dick Forsman, Bill Clark, Peter Alfrey, David Callahan and numerous others for feedback and references so far.

The second Black Kite of the trip was actually the first for the islands, this long-stayer lingering on Santa Maria.
As for Black Kite, by dint of a chronological quirk I went on to see the first for the Azores too – after finding the Graciosa bird, another individual I saw at the dump on Santa Maria two days later must surely be Alan Vittery’s first Azorean bird, originally found there in June last year and seen intermittently on many subsequent occasions. Santa Maria also produced more House Martins – many more, in fact, with a total of 162 birds including 97 together over Ponta do Malmerendo indicating a major displacement of this species (the previous all-island total was 234 birds). I even had a couple of Common Swifts in with one flock - a species rarer here than Yellow-billed Cuckoo (although I know which I'd rather have found!).

The first Woodchat Shrike for the Azores, a nominate male, appeared all too briefly on Santa Maria.
But the best was saved for last. On my final morning on Santa Maria, and indeed the Azores, I headed back to the airport to check on the Killdeer pair (see previous post). Yet again I was stopped in my tracks, as I could see what was clearly a shrike perched distantly atop a dead stump. Through binoculars it was immediately identifiable as a Woodchat Shrike, though almost as quickly it flew across the track and up onto a fence, then into a restricted area. I sped down the track and located just in time to grab a few record shots before it flew out of view, not to be seen again. Only subsequently did I discover that this was another first record for the Azores – a great way to end another superb trip to these birdy islands.

* Coming up: Madeira and the Desertas

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