Friday, March 24, 2023

Tropicbird twitch!

I watched last year with incredulity the photos appearing from birders visiting Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands of a Red-billed Tropicbird visiting an ornamental pool at the Atlantico shopping centre on the coast at Caleta de Fuste – the views were evidently mind-blowing. But I couldn’t engineer an opportunity to go. Nor could I use the endemic chat as a further draw, as I had seen that on a Canaries trip in March 1999 with Paul and Judith Chapman and Greg Brinkley – a week on Tenerife with an overnight stop on Fuerteventura specifically and successfully aimed at seeing the chat and the likes of Houbara Bustard, Barbary Partridge, and Cream-coloured Courser. Back then the tropicbird was not a regular visitor to the Canaries, though a few have colonised Lanzarote and Fuerteventura in the last decade or so.

When it became clear in January of this year that the tropicbird was still regularly visiting Atlantico, I vowed to make an effort to get to see it, though once again I could not go at the time. With more gen, available time, and affordable flights from Bristol, I finally took the plunge for a couple of days.

The flight on 20 March didn’t land until after 6 pm, so I knew I wouldn’t see it that day (it had been coming in to roost at the ornamental pool at around 3.30 pm), but after a bit of hassle picking up the hire car I made it the short distance to the Atlantico for dusk as a reccy visit, and also picked up a few Cory’s Shearwaters passing by offshore. A quick stop for water and snacks later, I booked into my hotel, the Aparthotel La Piramide, just 10 minutes up the coast. It’s only a 2-star hotel, and it shows, but on my previous visit there were far fewer hotels that catered for less than a week’s package holiday, and the one we found (also near Caleta de Fuste) had only one room left, so Paul and Jude had that and Greg and I had to sleep in the (small) hire car. So it was an improvement on that at least, and perfectly adequate for a two-night stay. Also, that evening I heard a Long-eared Owl calling a few times somewhere nearby.

I was back at the Atlantico at first light just in case the tropicbird left roost then, but no sign by 8.30 am, so it presumably went out to sea in the dark (as many seabirds do, of course). The trip list at least went up, with multiple Blackcaps and Spanish Sparrows, a few Sandwich Terns, Yellow-legged Gulls, and Cory’s offshore, and a pair of Ruddy Shelducks and a Common Sandpiper on the pool itself. Off then to the famous Barranca de la Torre, only a short distance down the coast. Sardinian Warblers were active near the seaward end, then a short walk up the trail where the ‘road’ bends off into private property produced good views of a few Spectacled Warblers, several Trumpeter Finches, and a couple of the local koenigi race of Great Grey Shrike (its exact taxonomic position is uncertain as that whole complex is currently under review). Non-avian highlights were a few Monarchs and Clouded Yellows, and a large, very fast dragonfly that I think was a Vagrant Emperor.

A quick drop in back at the Atlantico produced nothing new, so I headed off again, this time towards Triquivijate. My notes from 1999 mention this as being largely a dirt road, but not now – a pristine ribbon of tarmac, but with few places where you can pull off safely. I found one near a small barranco, so had a quick look, disturbing a Common Buzzard of the endemic Canaries race insularum. The tropicbird had been known to show at lunchtime on some days, though not recently, but I dashed back to the Atlantico just in case. (Nervous, moi?) I counted 152 Sandwich Terns on the rocks just offshore, then bumped into Dave Mack’s mum and dad and gave them the gen I had on the tropicbird. About 1pm I returned to Barranco de la Torre and added great views of a calling Barbary Partridge and 3 Egyptian Vultures, then got really windy about being away from the Atlantico, so returned and settled in for a wait, keeping myself amused by watching the Barbary Ground Squirrels scampering around on the rocks.

A few Turnstones and Sanderlings on the beach later, it had got to about 2.45 pm when I decided it was prudent to go for a loo break before the timing got critical. Happily it didn’t take long to find the loos in the shopping centre, as when I came back out at 2.52 pm (I checked the time on my phone) and looked out over the pool there was a tropicbird circling over it! F**king hell, what a bird! After a few circuits of the pool, it headed in to land and went straight to its roost hole. I legged it back to where I’d parked the car and found Dave’s mum and dad there – they’d had stellar views and even got a short video. The bird’s tail streamers were still visible from there for a few minutes before it shuffled further in. A flurry of messages followed (including Dave’s totally gripped reaction to finding out even his mum had seen it). After a while I looked up from these to see the tropicbird had come out again! Sadly, all too quickly it flew off out to sea, so again I missed the opportunity to get a photo, but the views were simply gobsmacking!

I waited until nearly 4 pm to see if it came in again – no joy, but a Spoonbill flew in and went to sleep on the rocks. I then wandered a short distance up the beach to look unsuccessfully for the unusual-looking Oystercatcher that has been about in recent weeks there. No sign of the tropicbird at 4.20 pm, so time to move on, very much elated. About a 45-minute drive inland saw me at Los Molinos Reservoir – partly another unsuccessful search for Fuerteventura Chat (officially Canary Islands Stonechat as it was once found on other islands, but now endemic to this island alone), but also the long-staying drake Lesser Scaup was still present, along with about 25 Ruddy Shelducks (plus about the same number of ducklings), and 4 Black-winged Stilts. A few roadside Berthelot’s Pipits and a flyover Black Kite had enlivened the drive out there too (though everything this trip was now definitely gravy). I made it back to the coast before dusk and saw the Oyc briefly on the rocks just north of the beach bar. Then back to the hotel and beer. Great day!

A totally unexpected start to the day on 22nd, as an escaped Crimson Rosella was calling and showing round the hotel. I only had a few hours to play with, so started back at Barranco de la Torre, walking further in response to recent gen received (and also being much more relaxed). Opposite the quarrying works I saw a family party (a female and 2 juveniles) of Fuerteventura Chats. Egyptian Vulture, Spectacled Warbler, Trumpeter Finch, and koenigi Great Grey Shrike were also seen again, the latter very vocal, as were the several Ruddy Shelducks flying around. 

The Common Sandpiper was still at the Atlantico, and the obligatory Cory’s was offshore from near La Piramide after checking out. Last new bird of the trip came in the form of two Plain Swifts that whipped past the airport terminal just after I’d gone through security. The trip list was only 33 species (not counting the Rosella), but the quality was high, and all in less than 20 hours of daylight on the island. Given that the trip was all about the tropicbird, the rest were a big bonus, and it was a huge success – my third and last tropicbird species, completing the family, and my 700th Western Palaearctic species to boot!