TEXT ONLY VERSION
After some misgivings and misapprehensions about visiting one of the Canary Islands, we chose Gran Canaria for a walking based holiday after some research revealed some excellent potential for this, and also the finding of an excellent base in Puerto de Mogan. The birding option was never part of the decision process, due to the importance of the hiking, or a better option in the islands would have been Fuerteventura. Indeed, Gran Canaria is probably one of the sparsest of the islands for variety of birds and also endemic mix. Having already seen some of these Canarian endemics on an earlier visit to Tenerife, I didn’t feel the need to trudge around the island chasing ticks, and with most of the holiday being based around hiking, I was happy to limit specific birding to a couple of mornings, and to see what popped up while trudging the countryside.
We were based in the small fishing town of Puerto de Mogan. This is geographically one of the poorer locations to be based, since it is on the far South-western coast of the island, but the decision was driven by the wont for charm rather than distance. This is one of the few tourist spots along the coast which still retains some character – no high rise, no brash manufactured activities or loud bars, and no McDonalds! Result. For convenience, somewhere like Maspalomas is somewhat nearer the main arterial roads, and also the lagoon near the beach, but it all depends on the type of base that is required. We also booked our flights and accommodation separately, rather than a cheaper package, which gave us the benefit of a very comfortable and well located apartment. There is a good bus service around the island, but a car can be hired for a more than reasonable price (we paid £150 for 2 weeks on the internet beforehand). The roads away from the main coastal carriageway can be very winding and narrow which makes for a longer journey than would be predicted. It is worth getting hold of the Kompass 1:50000 map of the island – a German legend, but probably the best one available.
There aren’t a huge amount of birding specific sites on the island, and correspondingly not too many site guides. The most complete is the “Birdwatchers’ Guide to the Canary Islands” by Clarke & Collins, although its publication date of 1996 does mean that many of the locations have changed in character (such as the lighthouse at Maspalomas). There are one or two endemics on the island, and many of the species are a distinct subspecies, yet are well covered in the more recent editions of the Collins Bird Guide (Mullarney et al).
Hiking & Weather
The main objective of the trip was to cover some of the many walking trails in the mountains, which in itself should then uncover birds on the trails. We initially bought a copy of the Sunflower guide to Gran Canaria car tours and walks. This isn’t a bad guide, but we found what we felt was a much better publication from the website of the self styled Rambling Roger (at www.ramblingroger.com). He has produced a detailed and straight forward book outlining 25 mainly circular walks on the island, almost exclusively based in the interior. The book is apparently loose leaf, so that only the current walk needs to be carried. Of even more practical value is the PDF form which can also be purchased, and from this, again single routes can be printed off.
The Canaries are well known as having a warm and temperate climate all year round. We chose November in the hope of still warm but not too hot temperatures, and also a minimum of rain. Both were found – temperatures ranged from 14-28oC during the day (lowest was on one of the higher mountain walks), and with only the odd smattering of rain. Rain gear should still be packed for the higher altitudes in particular, since clouds seemed to threaten during the afternoon on many days.
Maspalomas (Day 1)
Parking seems to be a premium in the area of the Chaca (lagoon), in particular later on in the morning, so I was lucky to find one of the last spaces for on street parking adjacent to the oasis streets. This street cut through a few openings to find the lagoon directly in front of me. There were a few people around at this time of the morning, but not the crowds who would be more than an irritation later on. There is a boulevard which runs along the length of the lagoon, with the sand dunes on the opposite side. That side of the reserve is supposed to be off limits, bit that dictat was of course ignored by a wanderer disturbing the birds. The boulevard does give excellent views of the chaca, which is very good for wading birds.
The best part of two hours was spent just strolling up and down this section, scouring the surrounding vegetation and small enclosed “park” (adjacent to the boulevard) as well as the water and surrounding mud. Most common water birds were Coot and Moorhen, with supporting Greenshank, Little Ringed Plover, & Grey Heron, but I was surprised to find three species classed as accidental – 3 Spoonbills (2 juveniles and an adult), 9 Ruddy Shelducks (all together on the mud to the North of the water), and a juvenile Greater Flamingo, initially circling over, and then coming to rest at the sea end of the lagoon. I had expected this part of the reserve to be open to the tidal influence of the sea, which it probably once was, but the sandy beach now bars this action. As with all other parts of the island, the most common passerines were Canary Islands Chiffchaffs, calling constantly from just about any habitat, but a small group of Waxbills came fairly close to in the reeds after a single Sardinian Warbler. In the “park” opposite the wet chaca – not so much a park as more a collection of loose trees surrounded by a fence – a small group of Hoopoes were playing and chasing, with seemingly a lack of regard for my presence. Parakeets were also noisy residents within – Rose-ringed the most common and raucous, but a small group of Monk appeared, landing on a small fruiting tree to feed. I did walk a little further along to where the first bridge crossed the dry bed to meet with the camel riding area, but there didn’t seem to be much of interest here.
As time progressed, the tourists and weirdos became a lot more abundant, along with a more than comfortable amount of exposed flesh that was more suited to being covered up making their way to the lure of the beach. So I decided to have a look around the lighthouse, which was at one time reported to be a good area for specialities such as Lesser Short-toed Lark. Predictably, the whole of the promenade following the sea from the lighthouse West has been built on, replacing the once rocky area with shops and restaurants. Unfazed, I set up the telescope seawards, and turned up a small group of Cory’s Shearwaters circling what may have been a shoal of fish. Perched on some of the rocks were Whimbrel, Herring Gull, Ringed Plover, Sanderling and single Grey Plover. I did return again to the lagoon, but the masses of tourists were quite an annoyance by then.
To try again for Lesser Short-toed Larks, I drove about 4km West out of Maspalomas towards Punta de las Carpinteras, and parked up next to a stony area which looked like suitable habitat. None were found, but I did turn up 4 Southern Grey Shrikes, Kestrel and Common Buzzard.
Maspalomas (Day 2)
The return here had an unexpected first hour or so. I arrived at the on street parking just after 7am, and decided to walk along the seaward end of the lagoon towards the sand dunes (and ranks of sun beds on the adjoining beach). They at first look like the imposing strength sapping mounds of sand, but a few minutes trudge towards the interior reveals a relatively well vegetated base with quite hard compacted ground to walk on. I had been excited by the (albeit unlikely) potential of such birds as Cream-coloured Courser here, due to signs next to the boulevard seemingly indicating a possibility of reintroduction or even re-colonisation. The reality may be that despite the potential which was apparent, and the presence of commoner birds such as Sardinian Warbler, Chiffchaffs, Canaries, Kestrel and Hoopoe, I also suspect that this is heavily trafficked by tourists, witnessed by the amount of footprints and waste bins throughout.
An hour or so back at the chaca followed. The Greater Flamingo present the previous visit seemed to leave seawards earlier, but was back again at its favoured spot at the sea end of the lagoon on my return. Predominant birds were again Coot (lesser numbers of Moorhen), but the Ruddy Shelduck were back on the exposed mud (with an increased number of 11) and stayed around this time. There was only 1 Spoonbill with the 5 Grey Herons and single Little Egret, but there were slightly more waders – 8 Greenshank, 2 Curlew Sandpipers, and 6 Little Ringed Plovers. Surprisingly, the only new trip species was a single Swallow flying over the lagoon – still no sign at any part of the island of any swift species, which may indicate that they are more of a breeding visitor than the books would indicate. Only 1 group of 4 Rose-ringed Parakeets flew through, but the Spanish Sparrows and Waxbills were again in the reeds next to the boulevard fence.
With the tourists at Maspalomas starting to proliferate, I drove a short way further North-east to the rocky area just South of Castillo de Romero. According to some of the reports, this was a potential area for Lesser Short-toed Lark. After finding a parking spot next to here, I began to track over the very rocky ground, noting that there was a line of coastal scrub dividing this plain of rock and the shingle of the beach. I headed towards and behind a pink and green building, skirting the scrub, to find a semi tidal lagoon further on, which was surprisingly quiet apart from a quartet of Sanderling. However, despite the absence of the larks, there were many Berthelot’s Pipits, and a Southern Grey Shrike next to the building. Nevertheless, a couple of surprises were unearthed – the low scrub was a good area for Spectacled Warbler, and an Osprey was found on one of the telegraph wires with a fish that it had presumably just caught from the sea. All in all a worthwhile visit here, and the potential for Lesser Short-toed Larks can clearly be seen, but there is a chance that they are now not here or move around outside of the breeding season.