Trip Report: Canary Islands, June 4-14, 1994

Mark Oberle, 2690 Briarlake Woods Way, Atlanta, GA 30345-3906, USA;

I spent a week teaching at the Facultad de Ciencias de la Salud at the Universidad de Las Palmas on Grand Canary Island, thanks to Jose Cordero. The organizers put us up at the Hotel Sansofe Palace, a fancy hotel on the Playa de las Canteras. I was able to take a few days off to bird on Grand Canary, Fuerteventura, Gomera, and Tenerife Islands.

A lot has changed in the last 5 years on the 7 main Canary Islands, due to 3 developments. First, the European Community farm policy has transformed agriculture, so there are few goatherds and many greenhouses. Plus a lot of the steeply terraced, and often eroded, farmland is reverting to its natural state. The greenhouses are an eye sore, as in southern Spain (approaching Gomera Island by ferry, the earliest landmark visible through the mist is the reflection of the giant greenhouse roof: it must be visible from space). Second, the EC has lent the Canaries $200 million (or some such large figure) for infra-structure. So there are constant road work delays, and the maps from previous visitors' trips are no longer accurate. Finally the war in Yugoslavia and terrorism in Tunisia, Egypt, and Israel have set off a construction boom to accommodate EC tourists.

Most Canarians assumed I was German and were surprised when I spoke Spanish. These islands have a lot in common with Hawaii, except that the tourist invasion is German and British, not Japanese. Like Hawaii, there is a lot of coastal construction, and many exotic plants. New World Opuntia cacti, which were cultivated for dye from their insect parasites a century ago, are now one of the most common desert plants. Following is a brief description of my trip and some detail on reference books and travel tips, since I found these hard to come by in the USA.

Abbreviations: Tenerife (TF), Fuerteventura (F), Gran Canaria (GC), Gomera (G). Exchange rate; 133-136 pesetas = US $1.00.


Around the hotel I daily saw Yellow-legged Gulls (is this where the Washington, DC bird came from?) and flocks of the endemic Plain Swift ("Vencejo unicolor", Apus unicolor). I rented a Ford Fiesta from a local agency, OCA, and left an hour before sunrise on June 5 for Tamadaba forest, west of Tejeda. A few blocks inland from the hotel strip is the red light district which was more active at 6am than in the evening. Many of the streetwalkers assumed I was a customer, and the traffic jam delayed my getting onto the highway. The 4-lane highway west through the old city soon becomes a winding, but recently paved road. I got lost twice. At Km 23 (3,000 feet) I stopped and listened to Greenfinch and the varied songs of Island Canary ("Canario", Serinus canaria). In the towns along the way there were Spanish Sparrow ("Gorrion moruno", Passer hispaniolensis). The pine forest at the beginning of the one-way loop road at Tamadaba was actually the most productive. There were endemic Berthelot's Pipit ("Bisbita caminero", Anthus berthelotii) singing from the treetops, European Goldfinches, Great Spotted Woodpeckers, Canaries, Chiffchaff, and the distinctive race of Blue Tit. I may have heard the Blue Chaffinch once, but the bird moved downhill quickly. Much of the pine forest on GC has been heavily grazed, so the understory may not be adequate for the chaffinch in many areas. I took a nap and was awakened by the growing volume of afternoon traffic. I had hoped to look for Blue Chaffinch at Pinar Pajonal SW of Cruz de Tejeda (where Rock Sparrow is also found) or Pinares Inagua [sp?], but had to get back to town to prepare my classes.

On the way back I stopped at a service station soft drink dispenser for a Coke. It seemed expensive at 100 pesetas ($0.75), but then I saw the can: it was half the size of a US Coke can! A young hitchhiker told me that the higher elevations on GC get several inches of snow in winter, and the populated mid-elevations get some sleet. In Las Palmas, some streets had colorful sand and flower-petal paintings which lasted a few hours until a Corpus Christi procession walked over them. The beach promenade had a Spanish feel, with Africans ("mauritanios") in colorful robes mixing with a few British and German tourists. A pair of hang gliders were a show stopper as they hovered over the beach for a long time at the level of the street lamps.


After class on June 7, I took Binter airlines (an Iberia affiliate) to the airport south of Puerto del Rosario on Fuerteventura Island. The two easternmost islands are only 60 miles west of Morocco and have a very dry climate. Some of the sand was blown over from the Sahara, and in fact there was usually a haze of suspended, fine dust particles ("calima") that sometimes reaches the Caribbean. I waited at the airport meeting point for the OCA rental car rep to show up. I only heard German spoken in the crowd.

Due to highway construction, the sign for Barranco de Rio Cabras no longer exists. But just 0.7 Km north of the airport entry gate the highway dips into a dry ravine. There was parking on the right (a service station is just beyond the ravine on the left). The barranco has a trail going about 2 Km to a silted-in dam. I saw nobody in the ravine (although apparently it is busy with hunters on fall weekends), but there were big construction vehicles dumping construction debris onto the southwestern slope of the barranco. At 7pm, within 5 minutes' walk from the car I saw the first of eleven Canary Islands Chats ("Tarabilla canaria", Saxicola dacotiae). The birds were flycatching from bushes and sticks at the only sand dune in the barranco. This is the only endemic species in the Canaries that occurs on only one island, and the barranco is the only place I saw the bird. Two flocks of noisy African Trumpeter Finches (Rhodopechys githaginea) were just up the valley. An Egyptian Vulture and some Common Buzzards soared overhead. At the cliff below the dam, there was a European Kestrel and rock doves (the 2 common species at any cliff in the island). In the taller brush below the dam were several Spectacled Warblers ("Curruca tomillera", Sylvia conspicillata). Hoopoe, Northern Shrike and Berthelot's Pipit were conspicuous in the barranco. There were two pools of water in the ravine where sandgrouse might come in at dawn and dusk, but I didn't stay long enough for them.

Instead I drove to Tindaya and asked about the road along the dry plains to El Cotillo. I never did get all the way to Cotillo, but here are the directions for the Tindaya-Lajares road: go to the west end of Tindaya to a white building that houses an electrical substation near some high tension wires; take a hard right for one block to the end of a dirt road, then turn left. After 1 Km bear left at a fork near a quarry; after 2 Km, bear left at a fork at a farm (within this farm complex is a left turn that looks like a driveway: that may be the bad road to El Cotillo); after 3.5 Km there is a small dam with some pools where Snowy Plovers were active; at 5 Km bear right at two forks in a quarry complex. The road then crosses a high plain where Houbara Bustard has occurred. It is possible to rejoin the main paved highway at several points by turning right, but I birded on the dirt road until reaching the highway just south of the lace-making village of Lajares. Some 5.8 Km north of Tindaya, a flock of spectacular Cream-colored Coursers ("Corredor", Cursorius cursor) flew low over the road and landed. I got great views of an adult and 2 immatures. Farther along the road a flock of Lesser Short-toed Larks flew over the road ("Terrera marismenna", Calandrella rufescens: 2 subspecies, C.r. rufescens on Tenerife and C.r. polatzeki on Lanzarote, Gran Canaria, and Fuerteventura). I didn't have any camping gear, so I drove to Hotel Gorriones, a windsurfer destination in Gran Tarajal. Actually it was 20 Km south of the town of Gran Tarajal, but the directions, as usual, just listed the municipality. An Andalucian worker I picked up hitching told me the hotel was even farther than it was. The hotel was closing down for the night early. The only guests seemed to be Germans.

On June 8 I left early for El Corralejo to look for bustards. I spent the morning birding three locations: the brush behind the dunes west of the huge hotels south of town (Hotel Tres Islas and Olivas Beach), the brush behind the dunes about 2 Km south of the hotels, and the brush west of the traffic roundabout just north of those hotels. At the latter spot there was a well just south of the road, about 1 Km west of the roundabout. The well had a leak some years ago that attracted many birds, but the leak had been repaired. The most interesting birds in these locations were 7 Stone Curlew (Thick-knees), close approaches to Lesser Short-toed Larks, and Spectacled Warbler in the taller brush. Others have reported Houbara Bustard, sandgrouse, and Barbary Partridge in the area. Although the area is posted as a national park, I don't know whether goats and hunters have reduced these species' numbers. An interesting snail species was attached to the bushes, waiting for the next moisture.

I spent the afternoon along the dirt road south of El Cotillo (taking a left at a three way intersection) as far as a farm along a dry stream bed. Since some tourists who drove farther south told me the road was impassible, I didn't go beyond the farm. Bird species were the same as near Tindaya. In mid-afternoon, 6 truckloads of German tourists woke me from my nap when they parked along side of my car. I drove back to El Cotillo and offered a ride to a German whom I had seen walking across the desert. He had lived there for 10 years and had apparently had some pre-cancerous skin lesions removed from his face recently.

I birded Barranco de Rio Cabras in late afternoon before flying back to Las Palmas. In Las Palmas I paid only 200 pesetas for a regular bus from the airport to town, about one tenth of the taxi charge.


After finishing my class on Friday, June 10, I took a Binter flight to Los Rodeos airport in northern Tenerife. I drove up the center of the island past La Esperanza. At Km 15 where Blue Chaffinch had been reported, I heard Blue Tits and Chiffchaff. I stopped at El Portillo to watch the little pool adjacent to the visitor center and saw Chiffchaff, canaries, pipits and endemic lizards up close, but no chaffinch. I drove through the spectacular national park where the chairlift to El Teide volcano was closed because of eruption danger. The Parador Los Roques was a spectacular restaurant location. At Boca del Tauce I turned left toward Villaflor and stopped at the Las Lajas recreation area, the most reliable spot for the endemic Blue Chaffinch. Within a few minutes amid the pines in the picnic area I saw an adult male Blue Chaffinch at 7 PM (Pinzon azul, Fringilla teydea teydea; F.t. polatzeki on Grand Canary Island). It was feeding on fallen pine cones and occasionally pushed off an immature male.

I then drove to Erjos, a laurel forest area between Tamalmo and Icod, and walked the dirt road until dusk. Had a pleasant dinner at a roadside restaurant about a kilometer south of Erjos and then drove an hour to my hotel in Los Cristianos. Again, I was sorry I didn't bring my camping gear.

The morning of June 11 I drove back to Erjos. The dirt road into the forest starts to the left of the sign marking Erjos as you approach on the highway from the south. The road is just opposite a forest service post, the first building right on the road as you approach the town. The dirt road forks fairly soon (the right fork goes to some lower fields), and just beyond this is the only rough spot in the road. Although it might be driveable, it is better to walk the road and bird along the way. I started at dawn (3,120 feet). After 50 minutes of walking I reached a small weather station on the right (2,780 feet). A short trail takes off downhill to a small overlook above a cliff. I sat here for an hour and had sightings of 31 endemic Bolle's Pigeon ("Paloma turque," Columba bollii), 4 endemic Laurel Pigeon ("Paloma rabiche," Columba junoniae), 13 dove-species unknown, one Rock Dove, and Canaries. The doves were most active in the 45 minutes after sunrise. All but 2 of the endemic doves were seen flying. The two that landed didn't stay still long enough for me to get my scope on them. On the walk back were the regular forest species: Common Chaffinch, Eurasian Blackbird, European Robin, Chiffchaff, and the endemic Canary Islands Firecrest ("Reyezuelo sencillo", Regulus teneriffae; some field guides list this as a subspecies of Firecrest (R. ignicapillis, some as a subspecies of Goldcrest (R. regulus), and some as a separate species. Clement does the latter). Others have seen Sardinian Warbler on this road as well.

I picked up three girls hitchhiking who told me that in their schools they had never had any exposure to environmental education or had any field trips to the spectacular national park in their neighborhood.

I spent late morning along the road between Arona and La Escalona where Barbary Partridge had been reported. Spectacled Warbler, Chiffchaff and pipits were the most prominent species. After a nap in an abandoned field, I turned in my rental car in the tourist town of Playa las Americas and waited for a city bus to the Los Cristianos ferry terminal.


Since the pelagic species were most likely to be active, I took the ferry three times on June 11, twice the next day and once again on the way home on June 13. I took the Fred Olsen line ferry boat, the Benchijigua, rather than the Transmediterranea because of better hours. The more expensive hydrofoils are too fast and a waste of time. Here are the details:

The Tenerife (Cristianos) to Gomera ferry cost 3,200 pesetas round trip and the Tenerife (Sta Cruz) to Gran Canaria (Las Palmas) ferry cost 2,800 pesetas one way. Yellow-legged Gulls were active close to shore, and Cory's Shearwaters within a few minutes out of the harbor. As with previous visitors, my experience was that the evening ferry had the most activity. The ferry crew called the Cory's Shearwater "pardilla" which I am not sure is a commonly used name or just their term for "little brown jobbers". The most interesting species were mid-way between islands. On the second ferry June 11, a Bulwer's Petrel ("Anaga" [?], Bulweria bulwerii) flew in front of the boat. I immediately recognized a very distinctive, bounding flight pattern and a shape and size intermediate between a storm-petrel and a shearwater. The best view I had was on June 12 when I could see the wing markings in good light. On the evening crossing June 11, some distant Bulwer's Petrels were in mid-crossing, but quite a bit closer to Gomera Island I saw a European Storm-Petrel ("Painno comun," Hydrobates pelagicus) and then in the same view 2 Little Shearwaters (Puffinus assimilis). Both species were quite distinctive. The Little Shearwater has a big-headed look that may be due to the short bill, compared to the Audubon's Shearwater I was used to in the USA.

                        TABLE OF PELAGIC FERRY TRIPS
                6/11   6/11   6/11   6/12   6/12   6/13  6/13

DIRECTION       T-G    G-T    T-G    G-T    T-G    G-T   T-GC
DEPARTURE TIME  1530   1800   2000   1800   2000   1100  1723
DURATION (min)   98     70     87     80     86     81   225
Cory's Shear.    33     85    1100   113    685     6    146
Bulwer's Petrel  0      1      7      1      12     0     1
Europ. St-Petrl  0      0      1      0      0      0     0
Little Shearw.   0      0      2      0      0      0     0
dolphin sp.      8      0      17     7      5      10    6
flying fish      3      6      1      0      0      5     1
Logger. turtle   1      0      0      0      0      0     0


I stayed at Villa Gomera (tel 922-870020), a basic downtown hotel, where my ear plugs were valuable for sleeping at night. Gomera Island is a lot more relaxed than Tenerife or Gran Canaria, perhaps because there is no airport or major tourist developments. On June 12 before taking the afternoon ferry, I circumnavigated the island through Vallehermoso. Except for Blackcap warbler, I saw no new bird species for the trip, but the scenery was spectacular. About 11 Km west of San Sebastian, there is a large tunnel. On the other side, suddenly a lush volcanic valley opens up like in Hawaii. About 2 Km beyond the tunnel is a well marked, paved road to the left for the national park at Monte El Cedro. 4.2 Km up that road is a small parking area with a view of the laurel forest below at about 3,000 feet altitude. At this point and at the bend in the road a short walk up the road, I could hear pigeons calling. Although this area had been well recommended by other birders who had seen pigeons there, I actually saw only 3 Bolle's Pigeons fly by in the hour after sunrise. Unlike the Erjos site, they seemed to stay hidden, perhaps related to an ascending fog bank.

Between Hermigua ("Best climate in the world") and Agulo I had both a Canary and a Blackcap in the scope together for some Bavarian hitchhikers I had picked up. This was actually the only time the scope came in handy. Above Vallehermoso I taped Chiffchaff and the Canary Island Firecrest. When I later compared the common calls of the C.I. Firecrest with the European Firecrest and Goldcrest tapes, they sounded different, but I have no idea how representative the commercial tapes of the European species are.

On June 13 I birded the 3 roads leading west of San Sebastian where Rock Sparrow had been reported from a bridge, but all the bridges had been recently replaced. The laurel forest was fogged in. I then began the 37 hour trip back to Atlanta with a ferry to Los Cristianos (see table). The highlight of that ferry trip were some breaching whales far to the south. As we approached Tenerife a small pod of dolphins (Bottlenose?) were feeding while completely surrounded by tourist boats, like cheetahs in a Kenyan safari.

For 600 pesetas I took a fancy bus ("guagua") to Santa Cruz de Tenerife, passing some desert caves that may have been constructed by the original inhabitants (the Guanches were thought to be blond Cro-Magnons whom the Spaniards enslaved at the time of Columbus. Since Cro-Magnon man died out in Europe about 12,000 years ago, I guess the Guanches must have been in the Canaries quite a while). From the central bus terminal in the big city, I walked half an hour on a broad promenade to the ferry. Chiffchaff sang from the big trees overhead.

On the long ferry from Santa Cruz to Las Palmas (GC) I was glad I had my polypro hood and glove liners, because of a 72-degree F wind chill.I asked the second mate if I could go "un pocito mas adelante" to see the seabirds, so I was able to bird from the flying bridge. For some reason, all the other travelers had decided to stay inside and not to do any birding on the trip, so I had to do all the pelagic birding by myself. As with previous birders, the only thing of note besides Cory's Shearwaters was a Bulwer's Petrel midway between the two islands. A late adult Parasitic Jaeger appeared as we rounded Punto del Roque to approach Las Palmas harbor, and some dolphins escorted the ferry into the harbor.

Back at my hotel, the low clouds of the previous week had burned off, and El Teide volcano on Tenerife was backlit by the sunset.


I saw 42 species in 4 days of birding. During winter and migration, there are many other species of birds possible, including pelagic species such as the rare Cape Verde Petrel (Gon-gon, Pterodroma feae, a recent split from Soft-plumaged Petrel). See the Alden and Gooders checklist. April or May might be a very good time for more bird species.


  1. I assume evening ferries are best for pelagic birds, according to my experience and that of others on two ferry routes, either because the seabirds are feeding elsewhere or are resting on the water during the day. The ferry to El Hierro Island (Valverde) may have more pelagic species for the following reasons: it spends more time over deeper water; the departure from Tenerife (Los Cristianos, 2700 pesetas one way) has a better sun angle and leaves at an appropriate evening time; the best seabirds I saw on the Gomera ferry were coming from a direction farther to the south, as were some breaching whales, and the Valverde ferry route crossed that area. I don't know if other ferries to El Hierro Island would be as good as the Cristianos-Valverde run appears to be.
  2. The lighthouse SE of Los Cristianos (TF) has a good record of evening seabirds, and the lighthouse SE of Maspalomas (GC) has a large evening passage of Cory's Shearwaters.
  3. Another possibility for seabirds might be to get onto a deep sea fishing charter boat out of Los Cristianos if they go to interesting areas, but I don't know how much they would charge a non-fishing birder (In Mexico Craig Faanes and I have gotten talked our way onto a sword fishing charter for free). The 7am ferry from San Sebastian (G) to Los Cristianos (TF) might be good, depending on sunrise time.
  4. The area east of Playa Blanca on Lanzarote had a number of reported sightings of Houbara Bustard, Barbary Partridge and sandgrouse, but there is some construction going on in the area, so I don't know how long that will last. The area near the Fuerteventura airport had been good for Coursers, but that is now built up. The plains near Campo Grande (F) have had bustards.
  5. I would camp at the forest reserve in Erjos (no campfires allowed) and at the dam at Barranco de Rio Cabras (would walk in from the Fuerteventura airport and pick up a rental car only afterward for exploring the rest of that island). Bus service is supposedly good on Tenerife Island and adequate between Puerto del Rosario (F) and the "plains" south of El Corralejo (F), so rental cars may not be needed on those islands.


The following might be obtainable in local book stores there:

Other people have recommended:


Because of the boom in tourism, it was hard to get some hotel and flight reservations only 3 weeks ahead of time, so I had to stay in some more expensive locations than I would have liked. Early reservations are clearly desirable.

The Canary Islands are a European, not American resort destination. Two carriers have tried to set up regular service from the USA and failed. Private Jet (also called National Airlines) had a charter flight to Fuerteventura when I was there (I don't know who they advertised to: windsurfer magazines might be a possibility). From the time of leaving my hotel in Gomera to arriving at my door in Atlanta it took 37.5 hours, including the overnight stop in Las Palmas. From Las Palmas it still took 17 hours in smoke-filled airports and airplanes. My host paid over $1000 round trip from Atlanta to Las Palmas via Madrid.

For island accommodations and transport we used Ultramar Express travel agency. They have offices in a number of cities in the islands (Mr. Domingo Rodriguez, Ultramar Express, Plaza San Bernardo 17, 35002, Las Palmas, Gran Canaria; tel (928) 367623; fax 360372).

The Canaries switch to daylight savings time when Spain does, so they are 5 hours ahead of Eastern US time most of the year. Since the islands are already far west in their time zone, true noon in the summer is about 2PM local time. Thus sun screen is needed late into the afternoon. I had no problem with insects.


There is an ornithology group at the university in Tenerife, Faculty of Biology, Dept. of Zoology: Drs. Aurelio Martin and Manuel Nogales: tel: 922-603750. I received some helpful advice from Prof. Pedro Sosa (Departamento de Biologia, Universidad de Las Palmas, P.O.Box 550; 35080 Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Spain).


* Bulwer's Petrel                       Bulweria bulwerii
  Cory's Shearwater                     Calonectris diomedea
* Little Shearwater                     Puffinus assimilis
* European Storm-Petrel                 Hydrobates pelagicus
  Egyptian Vulture                      Neophron percnopterus
  Common Buzzard                        Buteo buteo
  Eurasian Kestrel                      Falco tinnunculus
  Eurasian Thick-knee                   Burhinus oedicnemus
* Cream-colored Courser                 Cursorius cursor
  Snowy Plover                          Charadrius alexandrinus
  Yellow-legged Gull                    Larus cachinnans
  Common Tern                           Sterna hirundo
  Parasitic Jaeger                      Stercorarius parasiticus
  Rock Dove                             Columba livia
*+Bolle's Pigeon                        Columba bollii
*+Laurel Pigeon                         Columba junoniae
  European Turtle-Dove                  Streptopelia turtur
*+Plain Swift                           Apus unicolor
  Eurasian Hoopoe                       Upupa epops
  Great Spotted Woodpecker              Dendrocopos major
  Common Raven                          Corvus corax
  Northern Shrike                       Lanius excubitor
  Eurasian Blackbird                    Turdus merula
  European Robin                        Erithacus rubecula
*+Canary Islands Chat                   Saxicola dacotiae
  Barn Swallow                          Hirundo rustica
*+Orangecrest (C.I. Firecrest)          Regulus teneriffae
  Eurasian Chiffchaff                   Phylloscopus collybita
  Blackcap                              Sylvia atricapilla
* Spectacled Warbler                    Sylvia conspicillata
  Blue Tit                              Parus caeruleus
* Lesser Short-toed Lark                Calandrella rufescens
* Spanish Sparrow                       Passer hispaniolensis
  Gray Wagtail                          Motacilla cinerea
*+Berthelot's Pipit                     Anthus berthelotii
  Chaffinch                             Fringilla coelebs
*+Blue Chaffinch (Canary Islands Finch) Fringilla teydea
* Island Canary                         Serinus canaria
  European Greenfinch                   Carduelis chloris
  European Goldfinch                    Carduelis carduelis
  Eurasian Linnet                       Carduelis cannabina
* Trumpeter Finch                       Rhodopechys githaginea

* = life bird.
+ = endemic to Canary Islands (7 species; the Canary is also found
    on Azores and Madeira).

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This page served by Urs Geiser;; June 18, 1997; updated November 12, 1998