Madeira - A Seabird Extravaganza!

David Holloway travelled on our 'Madeira & Desertas Islands - A Seabird Extravaganza!' holiday and submitted this entry to our writing competition.



For years I’d fantasised about seeing Madeira’s rare, endemic birds, and marvellous sea life. Arguably the biggest jewel in Madeira’s crown is the mythical Zino’s Petrel. Zino’s is a Holy Grail for birders, ticking all three boxes that get birders’ juices flowing: it’s pelagic, an island endemic and globally rare.

So, on 11th June 2014, I joined an eclectic, optic-laden band at Funchal Airport, Madeira for Naturetrek’s ‘A Seabird Extravaganza’ tour.

Martin, our Naturetrek guide and Luis, our local wildlife guide, commenced to preside over some first-class birding for the next few days.

Early arrival on the first day meant an extra boat trip was available that afternoon.

Bouncing the waves on a high-speed rib with the spray in your face is exhilarating enough. However, when a 200-strong school of Atlantic Spotted Dolphins is leaping all around you, while hundreds of Cory’s Shearwaters slice the air in every direction, the experience transforms into the euphoric.

Other highlights included the pod of Short-finned Pilot Whales and the Bulwer’s Petrels (a lifetime’s dream fulfilled for trip member Brian). And, as if we had not had enough treats, the afternoon culminated with the surfacing of a Bryde’s Whale!

Who said there are no guarantees with nature? I had just got my three target cetaceans in the first afternoon! Welcome to Madeira!

Day two found us in a minibus to-ing and fro-ing the island on a quest for some land-based specialities …

The Laurel Forest on the north side of Madeira gleaned several Trocaz Pigeons. However, the levada walk caused me some anxiety. Everyone but me had seen a Madeira Firecrest and now we were nearly back at the minibus. Even the Madeiran Chaffinch sightings could not console me. Then I heard Luis’s voice in the wilderness, ‘I’ve got a Madeira Firecrest!’ ... and then so did I. What a little gem!

The rugged landscape of the eastern peninsula turned up more riches in the shape of, Berthelot’s Pipit and Rock Sparrow.

Day three and we were boarding the ketch, Ventura do Mar. Next on the sensational itinerary, an overnight stay on the Desertas Islands: the lonesome trio of islands south of Madeira, inhabited only by a few researchers and thousands of seabirds!

Shortly after leaving Funchal we were again escorted by schools of Atlantic Spotted Dolphins, followed by tremendous views of a Bryde’s Whale and her calf! Again our aerial escort consisted of Cory’s Shearwaters, the most numerous seabirds there, and the more distant Bulwer’s Petrels.

Despite the rough conditions further out, I was delighted to catch a fleeting glimpse of an Atlantic Flying Fish - like a huge silvery dragonfly skimming the surface.

Like a carrot and stick, the Desertas drew us closer …

And with them came our first tantalising views of some Pterodromas! Frustratingly too far away to tell if they were Desertas or Zino’s Petrels, nevertheless, they still hinted at what we might get, if we were good.

After, the precarious landing on Deserta Grande by dinghy, we returned to the Ventura do Mar for our evening jaunt off Buggio. Back on the boat we saw one of near extinct Mediterranean Monk Seals we were told we probably wouldn’t see!

The turbulent waters off Buggio gleaned more Cory’s and Bulwer’s, my first sighting of Loggerhead Turtle and - given the time of day and our proximity to Buggio, the only location they breed - good views of Madeira’s other fabled Pterodroma, Desertas Petrel.

Back at camp came one of the most surreal, amazing experiences of my life. Not wishing to slight this miracle of nature but, rising from the dark came what is arguably the most ludicrous call of any bird, the demented cackling of Cory’s Shearwaters returning to their nests. The night sky became full of thisWacka-wacka-wacka-weeee’ noise!

A torchlight walk along the designated path revealed more delightful oddities: Bulwer’s Petrels lumbering across rocks and barking boulders! The latter turned out to be Bulwer’s on the nests under the boulders. Finally, at around midnight came the Madeiran Storm Petrels, fluttering like bats around our heads in the dark.

Words failed me as I pondered how privileged I felt to witness all this.

Next day, another long crossing in heavy seas, filled with ubiquitous seabirds and Loggerheads, found us exhausted but replete, back in Funchal.

However, it wasn’t over yet …

Imagine standing on a narrow mountain ledge, overlooking the jagged dragon’s teeth mountains of the Picos, by moonlight, waiting to hear the ghost-like calls of one of the world’s rarest seabirds.

Then it started, the plaintive, eerie calls of the returning Zino’s Petrels welled up around us. Despite the clear moonlit skies I struggled to see any birds. I threw my head back-and-forth as sightings were called along the ledge.

Then, as quickly as it started it was time to go. I had to control my crushing disappointment; after all, by all accounts, sightings had been mere fleeting silhouettes.

Nevertheless, this had been a trip of a lifetime and the slim hope of seeing Zino’s Petrel would give me the excuse to return one day.

Read more about our 'Madeira & Desertas Islands - A Seabird Extravaganza!' holiday.