Trip Report: Macaronesia (Atlantic Islands) by Sailing Yacht, July 19-26 1997

P. William and Susan A. Smith, Florida, USA;

We long have been intrigued by the pelagic avifauna of the eastern North Atlantic islands from the Azores to the Cape Verdes, a region obscurely known as Macaronesia. For example, the Madeiran archipelago, the Ilhas Desertas and Selvagens, and the Canary Islands, have several breeding seabirds of great interest to birders along the east coast of North America: at a minimum Fea's (and if split, Zino's) Petrel, Bulwer's Petrel, Cory's Shearwater, Little Shearwater, Band-rumped Storm-Petrel, and White-faced Storm-Petrel. Thus, when we saw a week-long pelagic trip by sailing yacht between the Canaries and Madeira advertised by the British bird tour company Wildwings, we quickly signed up. Although the early-August trip was already full by the time we learned of it, Wildwings put on a second section, leaving 19 July, to which we were assigned. Only 7 passengers plus the leader, Tony Marr, were possible per trip.

After flying from London by way of Madrid to Tenerife in the Canary Islands, we were transferred by hydrofoil to the town of San Sebastian de la Gomera, on the Canarian island of Gomera, where we ate dinner in town and boarded our 45-foot yacht, the well-appointed, 4-"cabin" Ace of Clubs. In addition to our ornithological leader, Tony, the other participants were three British and two French men, Sue being the only woman. The crew consisted of two skippers: Andy, son of the yacht's owner, and Peter, a recently-retired British naval seaman. That evening Andy gave us a long orientation and safety lecture, when we learned that we would each be on crew duty for 12 hours a day (in alternating 4-hour shifts, day and night) and responsible for such chores as cooking, steering, pulling ropes, and watching for other boats. When on deck, we were to wear a harness attached by chain to one of the few secure points on the yacht, lest we be lost overboard. Ye gads, what kind of holiday was this to be?

We were to spend the night in the harbor before a dawn departure. Much to everyone's chagrin, it was the Festival of Saint Someone-or-other in San Sebastian, who was honored by a band on the wharf playing salsa blaring continuously through ~200-db speakers until 6 am the next morning. So, at 7, some bleary-eyed and grumpy people set sail directly into the tradewinds towards Madeira, about 300 miles to the northeast. First, we had to pass through the so-called Wind Acceleration Zone (WAZ), caused by the tradewinds being compressed through the channels between the volcanic peaks of the various Canary Islands. Immediately greeted by 25+ knot winds, 10-foot swells, and a frothing chop, we tossed and wallowed at our 5-6 knot engine speed for several hours as one-by-one, almost everyone but the skippers turned utterly green and had to retire to their bunks, as near to a sink as possible. We ourselves were that way for the next 18+ hours, until we finally got our sea legs.

By the next dawn we were approaching Ilha Selvagem Pequena, home of ~25,000 White-faced Storm-Petrel burrows among other seabirds, and dared to show ourselves on deck, suitably harnessed. We glimpsed one White-faced and several Bulwer's Petrels off the boat before pulling into the lee of the island. Our skipper was leery of trying to set us ashore without help, so we motored northward for a few more hours to Ilha Selvagem Grande, with a somewhat more secure "harbor" and a contingent of wardens, who met us in their zodiac. We went ashore in the early afternoon and were given a brief tour, tripping over incubating Cory's Shearwaters which were everywhere (13,000+ prs.), and which like gooneybirds would NOT move. A warden pulled an incubating Bulwer's Petrel and some Bulwer's chicks from a rock wall, but the other seabirds were best found after dark. So, we returned to the yacht for supper, then went back ashore before dusk. By then, the Cory's feeding offshore were gathering to feed young or switch mates, giving an unbelievable cacophony of braying calls. A warden led us around, tripping over squirming Cory's, as we heard new calls and spotted in our flashlights closely a number of Little Shearwaters, Band-rumped Storm-Petrels, and ghostly White-faced Storm-Petrels, some of which we were able to handle. Finally we went back to the yacht near midnight, ready to set off immediately for Madeira, still about 175 miles upwind.

We chugged sleeplessly northward for another 30 hours into an angry sea, seeing expected pelagic species plus an unexpected Red-billed Tropicbird which made several passes at the boat, as our limited diesel fuel burned away. Finally the skippers decided that we would have to sail and tack, so the itinerary was altered to head for Ilha Bugio in the Desertas, a truly forbidding volcanic peak not really accessible on foot except by helicopter. As we approached in mid-morning on the 23rd, I spotted our first Fea's Petrel, the Pterodroma nesting there. Later we saw a number of them a few miles off the seldom-visited east side. Finally we tacked and headed northwest through the narrow channel between Bugio and Ilha Deserta Grande towards Funchal harbor on Madeira, ~ 25 miles distant. We reached there in late afternoon, chugging in on our last fumes.

As the skippers dealt with replacing our fuel and fresh water, our group hailed two taxis and rushed off up the mountain to Ribeira Frio, a pleasant oasis for Madeira's endemic pigeon, the Long-toed, or Trocaz. In the hour allotted, we saw several of those and other endemic landbird (sub)species, some possible future splits. We returned to the harbor for a well-earned and steady meal followed by a glorious, peaceful, 10-hour sleep.

Now, we had a 60-hour sail back to Gomera, this time wonderfully downwind. There is absolutely no comparison, and everyone was now happy and cheerful. We again sailed along the east side of Bugio and had many more encounters with Fea's Petrels there. On the way back we were able to go ashore on Selvagem Pequena to tiptoe through the thousands of White-faced Storm-Petrel burrows. Even the WAZ was better downwind, and we got back to Gomera at sunset on the 26th, thoroughly content with our birds, and far wiser about travelling and surviving on a sailing yacht. The participants all bonded well together (good thing! a disaster otherwise), and even Skipper Andy seemed less like Captain Bligh by the end of the week. Although the upwind part of the journey was exceedingly stressful and unpleasant, the overall experience was truly memorable and worthwhile. An unofficial list of our main personal sightings follows.

Breeding Seabirds

Petrel, Fea's           Pterodroma feae (deserta)        L      ~ 50
Petrel, Bulwer's        Bulweria bulwerii                L      750+    H, Y
Shearwater, Cory's      Calonectris diomedea (borealis)         20K+    H, Y
Shearwater, Little      Puffinus assimilis (baroli)             40+     H
Storm-Petrel, White-faced Pelagodroma marina (hypoleuca) P      150+    Y
Storm-Petrel, Band-rumped Oceanodroma castro (castro)    P      40+     H

H=Adults in hand; Y=Chicks Seen

Other Marine Birds

Shearwater, Manx        Puffinus puffinus
Storm-Petrel, Wilson's  Oceanites oceanicus             P
Tropicbird, Red-billed  Phaethon aethereus              P
Jaeger, Parasitic       Stercorarius parasiticus
Gull, Lesser Black-backed Larus fuscus
Gull, Yellow-legged     Larus cachinnans (atlantis)
Tern, Sandwich          Sterna sandvicensis
Tern, Common            Sterna hirundo


Buzzard, Common         Buteo buteo (harterti)                  Mad.
Dove, Rock              Columba livia                           Mad.
Pigeon, Long-toed       Columba trocaz                  L       Mad.
Swift, Plain            Apus unicolor                           Mad., sea
Swift, Common           Apus apus                               sea
Blackcap                Sylvia atricapilla (heineken)           Mad.
Firecrest               Regulus ignicapillus (madeirensis)      Mad.
Robin, European         Erithacus rubecula (rubecula)           Mad.
Blackbird, Eurasian     Turdus merula (cabrerae)                Mad.
Wagtail, Gray           Motacilla cinerea (schmitzi)            Mad.
Pipit, Berthelot's      Anthus berthelotii (berthelotii)        Selv.
Chaffinch               Fringilla coelebs (maderensis)          Mad.

L=Lifer, P=new to the Western Palearctic

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This page served by Urs Geiser;; September 3, 1997