Trip Report: La Palma (Canary Islands), July 27 - August 1, 1999

Mark Adams, Fort Davis, Texas USA;

During a business trip to La Palma, Canary Islands (Spain), off the northwest coast of Africa, I had some opportunity to bird. My visit's short duration limited the available birding hours. However, since I found little in print or on the web about birding La Palma, a report on my modest birding effort on this island may be of interest to others. There are a fair number of trip reports on the web for other Canary Islands, especially Tenerife and Fuerteventura, but I found just one relatively old (1992) report on La Palma.

La Palma is wetter and younger than the other islands. It is the westernmost island in the archipelago, and is small, measuring 49 km North/South by 27 km East/West. La Palma rises abruptly from the Atlantic Ocean, reaching a maximum elevation of 2426 meters at the Roque de los Muchachos. A world-renowned astronomical observatory is located nearby (as a professional astronomer, I had to note this at least once!). Several brochures I read claim La Palma is the steepest island in the world. Regardless of whether this is true, the island geography is certainly steep. The island is also volcanically active. The most recent eruption occurred in 1971. Since it has few beaches of the sort that bring mostly European tourists to the other islands, La Palma is quieter and offers a different type of tourism than that of Tenerife, Gran Canaria, Lanzarote or Fuerteventura. La Palma has interesting landscape and quite a few fine hiking trails. I would return to La Palma to explore these further, regardless of the birding or butterflying opportunities.

I arrived (exhausted) on Tuesday afternoon 27 July. Iberia Airlines operates a single non-stop flight from Madrid, Spain every afternoon (IB 5934), using a DC-9 jet. During the summer months, it is apparently difficult to book a seat on this flight and the non-stop return (also once per day, IB 5937) without planning well in advance.

Between my arrival Tuesday and Friday afternoon, I saw ROCK DOVE, PLAIN SWIFT and YELLOW-LEGGED GULL at the hotel and along the rocky ocean shoreline in the vicinity of Los Cancajos and Santa Cruz de la Palma (mid-eastern coastline). Since several persons had advised me that evening would be the best time to look for activity over the water, I used my Kowa TSN-4 scope from my third floor room balcony to scan the ocean to the East. I sighted ca.100 CORY'S SHEARWATER flying low over the water and headed generally north, within easy sight of shore, on each of two occasions when I watched for ca.30 minutes. No other species were seen.

On Thursday 29 July, I drove from Los Cancajos through Santa Cruz de la Palma and on to the Observatorio de Astrofisica and the Roque de los Muchachos via highway LP-22, which twists and turns the whole way. The road ascends from the coast through a beautiful pine forest, emerging at ca.2000m elevation into a treeless, low scrub landscape that reminded me of chaparral. I only had time for a couple of brief stops along the way to the summit, given the day's business schedule, but these yielded my first observations of CANARY, BLACKBIRD, BUZZARD, BOLLE'S PIGEON and KESTREL. A roadside stop also yielded my first observations of LARGE WHITE butterfly. At and near the summit, I added BERTHELOT'S PIPIT and several CHOUGH. CANARY BLUE butterflies were abundant at the summit.

My first real chance to bird was late Friday afternoon 30 July, when a colleague and I ventured south along the East coast of La Palma. At Fuencaliente, we turned onto the winding road that led through Las Caletas and down to the shoreline and the lighthouse (Faro de Fuencaliente). Adjacent to the lighthouse are several saltpans, where we had hoped to find some additional bird species. We found nothing other than the ubiquitous Yellow-legged Gull and, over the water, Cory's Shearwater. While scanning the ocean, I heard a bird call across the road, in the gritty volcanic landscape, and soon located my only LESSER SHORT-TOED LARK of the trip. Other than more Plain Swift and a couple Kestrels, we saw nothing else on the south end of the island. There are a few, small black sand beaches along the southern coast (Playa Echentive, Playa Nueva, La Lajita), but there were no birds in these areas.

On Saturday 31 July, I ventured again along the East coast of the island, this time headed North from Los Cancajos. My primary goal was Los Tilos, which had been highly recommended by several persons. Los Tilos is a relatively dense, subtropical forest in the Barranco del Agua. UNESCO declared it a Biosphere Reserve in 1983. Los Tilos contains the largest concentration of laurel forest (laurisilva) that remains on La Palma. This area is reached via a short 2 km road that branches to the west from the main north-south highway on the east coast (C-832 south of Santa Cruz de la Palma, and C-830 north of Santa Cruz de la Palma). At the end of this side road is a restaurant and bar; a portion of the same building houses a visitors center and exhibit about the Reserve. An informative film is shown here. Immediately behind this building is the starting point for the ca.1.5 km trail to the Mirador de las Barandas. The trail climbs steeply up the hillside, through the laurel forest. The elevation gain from the trailhead to the mirador (overlook) is substantial, 500-600 meters. A surprising number of families with children and other poorly-equipped folks (i.e., no water or hiking boots) made the ascent. There was a great deal of suffering going on at the mirador! I thought that this trail would be a good opportunity to see the area's birds, but it was a disappointment, bird-wise. I saw only one fast-moving flock of CANARY ISLAND CHIFFCHAFF (10-12 birds), with a couple of the La Palma subspecies of BLUE TIT mixed in for variety. Otherwise, the laurel forest was quiet, though we could occasionally hear the gentle "coo-coo" of the pigeons. The trail, by itself, is certainly worthwhile, though, and the view from the mirador is memorable.

After hiking back down the trail to the roadway, I birded again along the Los Tilos highway, obtaining great scope and binocular views of LAUREL'S PIGEON. I also spotted and observed from close range a couple of beautiful PAINTED LADY butterflies, and a good specimen of the CANARY ISLANDS' LARGE WHITE butterfly. In mid-afternoon, we departed Los Tilos, returning to C-830 and heading North. Our plan was to continue on to the Laguna de Barlovento, a man-made reservoir, and the northern side of the island. However, at about 3:15 pm, this plan was thwarted by a road rally, and we were turned back south. We were told that we could probably pass in another hour or two. We punted and returned to Los Cancajos.

My flight departed on Sunday at 3 pm, so I had the morning for more birding. I departed the hotel in the pre-dawn. Road-side birding along the way north from Los Cancajos and Santa Cruz de la Palma added TURTLE DOVE to my island list. A visit to the Laguna de Barlovento was a disappointment, yielding just several Yellow-legged Gulls and a single RAVEN, which I first heard, then saw. Also, while I was at the laguna, firearms were being discharged in the area. As I birded the reservoir, three armed men emerged from the surrounding woodlands. Being unfamiliar with the terms of hunting on La Palma, I deemed it unwise to venture into the wooded areas near the laguna.

Turning south, a second visit to Los Tilos yielded additional views of the pigeons and conclusive identification of a species that had been singing loudly all morning: BLACKCAP. I heard about 6-8 of these birds and finally managed good, close binocular views of a singing adult male. This sighting wrapped up my birding, as it was time to head for the airport.

During my brief trip, I observed 18 bird species and 6 butterfly species. Someone with more time or local knowledge could undoubtedly do better. As always when I visit new territory for the first time, I did not see everything on my target list. I did not see any Chaffinch, Sparrowhawk or Tenerife Kinglet (though I did hear one bird, that I never saw, that sounded suspiciously like a kinglet). There were 3 or 4 species that I heard but could not identify. Also, I did not see a single Spanish Sparrow, which I had thought might be common in the towns and around human habitation. I had also hoped to find a shorebird territory or two, to see species such as Ringed and/or Kentish Plover, but it wasn't to be. And I have yet to visit Tenerife to see Blue Chaffinch, and I have yet to visit Fuerteventura to see Houbara Bustard and the Canary Islands Chat. So there is much more to explore, including the pelagics. Something needs to remain for my next trip to the Canary Islands!

Ferries ply the waters between the Canary Islands. Several persons who responded to my BIRDCHAT RFI suggested that I take a ferry to see and observe pelagic species such as Bulwer's Petrel and Little Shearwater. Unfortunately, La Palma is not well-served by the ferry lines, and a pelagic trip proved impossible for me. Again: next trip!

On the advice of several persons, I purchased a copy of the Hermann Heinzel et al Birds of Britain and Europe, with North Africa and the Middle East. This book includes the Canary Islands, and often illustrates the specialties of the islands, at the species and subspecies level. Lars Jonsson's book does not. I left it home. Tony Clarke informed me that, since the publication of the Heinzel book, there have been three taxonomic changes: (1) Canary Island Chiffchaff is now a full species, (2) as is Tenerife Kinglet, and (3) Lanius excubitor koenigi / Great Grey Shrike is now Lanius meridionalis koenigi / Southern Grey Shrike.

Tony Clarke's site guide was recommended to me by several persons. It is available solely through the Natural History Book Store (NHBS) in the UK. Unfortunately, owing to the vagaries of the NHBS web-site search engine, I could not locate the book in their on-line catalog until it was too late for me to order and receive it prior to my departure from the USA. Since my return to the USA, I have ordered a copy of Clarke's book from NHBS, so that I will have it for my next Canary Islands trip.

The other item I wished I had had, while in the Canary Islands, was a cassette or CD of the songs and calls of the La Palma birds, or their close relatives. Does anyone have any recommendations about such an item?

The butterfly book I purchased is impressive and was easy to use in the field: Collins Field Guide: Butterflies of Britain and Europe, with text by Tom Tolman, illustrated by Richard Lewington. It is a small hardcover. I wish such a fine butterfly field guide existed for Texas and/or the western United States (Jeff Glassberg's new book is excellent for the butterflies of the eastern USA). My interest in butterflies is new, but I am confident that the Tolman book will assist me a great deal in future trips to Europe.

The astronomical conference I attended was held at the Hotel Taburiente, so I stayed at this hotel in Los Cancajos, a resort between Santa Cruz de la Palma and the La Palma airport. It was a fine hotel, with a wonderful breakfast/lunch/dinner buffet at reasonable prices, courteous staff and pleasant rooms. My room cost 7500 ptas per night (approximately $50 USD at the current exchange rate), which was likely discounted for the conference. Los Cancajos has a small black sand beach, quite a few restaurants (we particularly enjoyed La Fontana), the usual assortment of tourist shops, and some night life. The Canary Islands are much more affordable than the Hawaiian Islands, at least for visitors from the USA (once you get past the airfare).

I rented a car (an Ibiza) from Hertz at the La Palma airport. With full insurance coverage, it cost 21.000 ptas for Tuesday afternoon through Sunday afternoon, which seemed reasonable. Magna sin plomo gasoline (petrol) was ca.84 ptas per liter. With a manual transmission (always my preference) this vehicle was peppy and had no difficulty negotiating the continual up and down, steep, narrow and winding 2-lane roads of La Palma.

Overall, La Palma was not particularly birdy during my time in the field, but I cannot generalize much from such a short visit. I certainly enjoyed my time in the field on La Palma, and it yielded 15 lifers.

I want to thank everyone who responded to my BIRDCHAT request for information about the Canary Islands. I am especially grateful to Tony Clarke, Andrew Senior and Bill Smith for the detailed information they provided. I am also grateful for the assistance I received from Bo Crombet-Beolens, Edward Birch, Francisco del Campo, Gary Johnson, Jan-Joost Bouwman, Kevin Caley, Mark Carmody, Mark Oberle, R. Allan Reese, Richard Guthrie, Roderich Moessner, and Urs Geiser. As always, the generosity of those who enjoy birding and natural history is impressive.

If anyone has any questions about my trip, please feel free to contact me privately at the e-mail address listed above.

Species List - La Palma, Canary Islands, Spain; 27 July - 1 August 1999

* = Lifer


  1. Cory's Shearwater (Calonectris diomedea) *
    Abundant offshore. Easily seen from the shore with a scope and 30x eyepiece.

  2. Buzzard (Buteo buteo) *
    Three seen and heard. One seen very well as it perched and watched me from the top of a roadside tree.

  3. Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) *
    Fairly common. Seen kiting and perched at several locations around the island, 2-4 per day.

  4. Yellow-legged Gull (Larus cacchinans) *
    Common along every shoreline and at the Laguna Barolvento. Adults, sub-adults and juveniles seen.

  5. Rock Dove (Columba livia)
    Abundant, feral and natural.

  6. Bolle's Pigeon (Columba bollii) *
    Several birds seen fairly well while flying, especially at Los Tilos.

  7. Laurel Pigeon (Columba junoniae) *
    Several flying birds seen well. One perched bird at Los Tilos seen very well in scope.

  8. Turtle Dove (Streptopelia turtur) *
    Three birds seen roadside in the town of Los Sauces.

  9. Plain Swift (Apus unicolor) *
    Abundant, especially at lower elevation areas with cliffs (which is pretty much everywhere on La Palma). I never saw a bird that I was convinced was a Pallid Swift, and I looked carefully at a lot of swifts.

  10. Lesser Short-toed Lark (Calandrella rufescens) *
    One bird seen near the lighthouse at Fuencaliente.

  11. Berthelot's Pipit (Anthus berthelotii) *
    Just one bird, seen in the scrub outside the Nordic Optical Telescope, near the Roque de los Muchachos.

  12. Blackbird (Turdus merulla)
    Uncommon, but several seen.

  13. Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla) *
    This bird's loud and distinctive song was heard several times, roadside and at Los Tilos, but actually seeing the bird proved to be quite a challenge. I eventually managed to see one adult male fairly well, and another very well. Lars Jonsson's book notes that this bird can be difficult to see once the trees leaf out.

  14. Canary Island Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus canariensis) *
    Common everywhere, seen as singles and in flocks.

  15. Blue Tit (Parus caeruleus palmensis) *
    Just 2 seen, with a flock of Chiffchaff along the Mirador de Baranda trail, Los Tilos.

  16. Chough (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax) *
    Common. Several flocks of 10-30 birds seen. Seen at all elevations.

  17. Raven (Corvus corax)
    One bird heard, then seen, at Laguna de Barlovento.

  18. Canary (Serinus canaria) *
    Abundant at many locations, especially at lower elevations.


  1. Canary Islands Large White (Pieris cheiranthi) *
    1 seen well at Los Tilos.

  2. Large White (Pieris brassicae) *
    Several at Los Tilos and along LP-22.

  3. Small White (Artogeia rapae) *
    Several at Los Tilos.

  4. Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui)
    2 seen at Los Tilos.

  5. Canary Blue (Cyclyrius webbianus) *
    Fairly common at all elevations, especially numerous at the higher elevations.

  6. Monarch (Danaus plexippus)
    1 seen on the grounds of the Hotel Taburiente, Los Cancajos.

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This page served with permission of the author by Urs Geiser;; August 19, 1999