Whales and Birds of Sao Miguel – a trip report from Clive Poole

One of the best things about working at Archipelago Choice is that we get to speak to and communicate with people who are just as excited about our destinations as we are. From time to time some of our customers share their thoughts and experiences of their holidays and for this post, I’m pleased to be able to hand over the reigns to Clive Poole.

Clive recently returned from a week on Sao Miguel having had a tailor-made week based around our ‘Whales and Birds of Sao Miguel‘ itinerary. Clive is a keen and knowledgeable naturalist and has shared here his report on the birds, animals and marine life that he observed on holiday.

Thanks Clive for letting us share your trip report and also for your Feefo review that you left us!

Trip Report: Whales, Dolphins and Birds of Sao Miguel, Açores, 19-26 May 2018

We arrived on a SATA International direct flight from Gatwick landing at 23:30 hrs on 19 May.

Day 1, 20 May 2018

Weather was warm and sunny so good for our afternoon boat trip. We went on a Catamaran which was to give us excellent views. The marine biologists on board were a fount of knowledge and very helpful.

The first sign that our boat might be getting close to cetaceans was an increasing number of Cory’s Shearwaters skimming over the waves, presumably close to fish shoals. We soon came upon a pod of Bottlenosed Dolphins, unusually up to 40 individuals, swimming singly, in pairs and threesomes, sometimes jumping clear of the water. They entertained us swimming out of curiosity close to the boat. We then sped off west away from Sao Miguel.

We close on a RIB boat which had already arrived close to a baleen whale. We saw its high blow several times.  It was a huge Fin Whale, (the second largest living animal on the planet; adult’s weight exceeding 50 tonnes, length c.22 m) feeding close to the surface. Unconcernedly and possibly curious it swam very close to our Catamaran, showing the long white side of its huge right jaw. It made a final blow, unusually showing its tail fluke before diving.

It was now time to speed off towards a pod of the unusual Risso’s Dolphins. These have no beaks but blunt noses and light grey backs contrasting with black dorsal fins; they were less acrobatic than the Bottlenosed but also large & still inquisitive in front of the catamaran. This was a pod of 10-15 individuals.

Our boat now headed east for Ponta Delgada but not before we had stopped to watch a pod of the much smaller and much more lively Common Dolphins. They were easy to distinguish by the “hour-glass” pattern on their flanks, a creamy-yellow. They often lifted right out of the water, racing ahead of us, perhaps 20 individuals in the pod.

We had to speed off back to the marina, but in a sea teeming with fish we counted at least 100 more Cory’s Shearwaters on the return boat trip.

Day 2, 21 May 2018, full day of birdwatching

We were very fortunate that Archipelago Choice had chosen Gerby as our birdwatching guide. He has enormous knowledge of the birds of the Azores and does work with the University on the island as well as other bird organisations.

Gerby first took our small party in his minibus to a remote village on the south coast with jagged volcanic rock outcrops at the sea-edge. Here were not only nesting Common Terns but also 4-5 pairs of Roseate Terns, remarkably the only colony on Sao Miguel, due Gerby thought to higher levels of human disturbance than on the other islands. We watched one Roseate sitting on its nest, clearly showing its black beak, and a pair of Roseate Terns, one feeding its mate  on top of a rock, showing their clean white breasts.

We had to break off to drive north to the east end of the island, our goal being “the lands of Priolo”, the cloud forest nature reserve managed by SPEA. On the way we noticed lots of Grey Wagtails. Arriving in the Serra do Tronquerra, in misty cool conditions, Gerby stopped the minibus on a high ridge. The non-native forest had been removed and the steep hillsides showed some of the original Laurisilva forest, including Azores juniper, Azores Holly and Azores heather. We paused and cupped our hands to our ears. The melancholy call of the Azores Bullfinch was coming up from a valley. Soon we were rewarded by the brief sight of a Priolo (the Portuguese name  for Azores Bullfinch) which perched in a bush before flying off. Then on the opposite hillside a second Azores Bullfinch perched on a tree stump.  We were then rewarded by the enchanting sight of a pair of Priolos  feeding and attending to each other, perched together on vegetation. In the conifers we could hear singing a Sao Miguel GoldcrestA pair of Buzzards glided overhead.

Gerby then drove us to a second location in the cloud forest, where briefly four Azores Bullfinches were feeding ,and flew briefly into a tree, before we descended down to Furnas lake.

At Furnas lake we parked and consumed a tasty packed lunch of Gerby’s home made wholemeal cheese sandwiches and tea, together with sweet bananas and cake! then off to business, following him quietly to an undisturbed corner of the lake near an Alder wood where  a stream flows into the lake. Very quietly we approached an area of lakeside grasses and Gerby pointed to a bird’s head and neck protruding. It was a Pied-Billed Grebe in summer plumage. This was a real rarity: an uncommon  bird in its native USA & Canada which must have been blown east across the Atlantic to land in the Azores. Gerby said it will have been here for its fourth summer this year. There is a second at Sete Cidades. The grebe swam unconcernedly around the margins of the lake, sometimes diving. At the stream we disturbed a migrant Greenshank while a Little Egret and two Yellow-Legged Gulls  (atlantis sub-species ) loafed on a nearby spit. Gerby showed us some holes in the lichen-covered Alder trees which he believes are roosting holes for the endemic Azores Noctule.

It was time to head off to farm land at Lagoa Seco. Here a flock of 10 Common Waxbills flew up from seeding grasses into a hedgerow. Feeding on spilt grain at a farm were 3 Common Waxbills  together with the endemic subspecies of Chaffinch and small groups of  Atlantic CanariesAfter enjoying watching them feeding,time was running out and Gerby took our party back to Ponta Delgada, after a “jam-packed” day!

Day 3, Second Morning Whale & Dolphin Trip

We opted not to go on the RIB boat but instead to go again on the larger catamaran (for better views & more comfort). The captain headed off promptly in a completely different direction from our last trip, namely due south, at speed. No Shearwaters about and after about 40 minutes some high “blows” could clearly be made out in today’s cooler temperature. A baleen whale of some kind was up ahead said the on-board marine biologists.

Our approach was slow towards a pod of four Fin WhalesThere was a mother accompanied by a large juvenile and two others further away, making blows. The mother and juvenile swam close to our stationary boat so you could clearly see the white (looked sky-blue under the water) colour of the huge right side of the head. They swam close to the boat before moving a short distance and giving several more high “ blows “ before they dived.

Heading now south-east we could make out the shape of Santa Maria island, the most easterly of the Azores.Coming upon a pod of around 15 Bottlenosed Dolphins we watched their delightful leaps and dives close to and alongside our catamaran before we sped back to Ponta Delgada, encountering just a few Cory’s Shearwaters.

Afternoon – Free time in Ponta Delgada – Presidential Palace Gardens:
After a snack lunch we had the afternoon free before collecting the hire car tomorrow. we decided to visit the gardens of the Palace of Sant’ Ana just a 10-15 minute walk uphill from Hotel do Colegio. Many huge veteran exotic trees here, Perez’s Frogs calling from the lake ( but not seen ), Madeiran Wall Lizard watched scuttling up a tree-trunk, Atlantic Canaries  singing in the trees and even a small flock of  Common Waxbills feeding on seeding grasses.  Open Tuesdays to Sundays, 10AM to 5PM, admission 1 euro.

Day 4-Free Day—Visit To Sete Cidades Lakes:

Having collected our hire car we drove off towards Sete Cidades on the scenic uphill road via Arrifes and Covoada. Here an Azores Buzzard was soaring above the lush farm fields. The hedgerows had Hydrangea, oleander and some bouganvillia. We avoided parking with the coaches and tourists, cars at the viewpoint Vista do Rei and drove downhill to Lake Azul, following a track on its east side past the farming hamlet of Cerrado das Freiras to a shady picnic site under trees. Here, as we ate, we watched Atlantic Canaries drinking from a puddle, a flock of Common Waxbills feeding on seeding grasses and several Grey Wagtails flycatching. A couple of Common Terns were fishing. Visiting Lagoa Azul we could here two Sao Miguel Goldcrests but were unable to see them in the conifers. Both lakes are enclosed by the dramatic edges of the extinct volcano. Eight more Azores Buzzards had soared around during our car drive and detour to Rocha da Relva. The highlight of our return drive back to Ponta Delgada was to watch a pair of Azores Quail (non-migratory azores sub-species) cross the road in front of us near the airport.

In the evening, returning after sunset from a Ponta Delgada restaurant we looked up just above the rooftops of Rua Carvalho Araujo to see a very large Greater Mouse-Eared Bat flying directly above.

Day 5—Free Day—Priolo Centre Near Nordeste:

This morning’s drive along the north coast of Sao Miguel was shrouded in mist the whole way until it lifted a little at Nordeste. This is a very pretty traditional Azorean town with a bridge leading to a picturesque church in its centre. We drove south and then inland heading for the Centro Ambiental do Priolo in the Serra do Tronquerra. Arriving there in light mist we visited the centre. The duty warden was very passionate about the Priolo (Azores Bullfinch). He explained that the key to helping this second rarest bird in Europe was habitat management. The species had declined almost to extinction with only around 150 birds in the early 1970’s. They have a diet varied according to the seasons on the Azores, feeding on the seasonal seeding/fruiting plants of the cloud forest including Azores plum, Azores holly, laurel and fern. These have mainly been lost to invasive species. Under succeeding SPEA projects funded by European union grants, bold steps have been made to remove invasive non-native trees and shrubs and replant these hillside areas with native laurel forest species. As a result the warden told us Priolo numbers have increased from 400 birds in 2003 to 1182 Priolos in 2017. But this is a constant task of removing invasives as they grow back.

Day 6—Free Day –Mosteiros & Sete Cidades:

We drove north-west again from Ponta Delgada, to the fishing village of Mosteiros. Parking at the edge of the rocks at the north end of the village there were some obliging Madeiran Wall Lizards, darting in and out of the low wall at the car park. Several walkers were on the rocks below so no chance of finding any waterbirds. We made off uphill for Lagoa Azul.

On the drive down from Vista do Rei we noticed a Black Rat dead on the road.

We parked again at the picnic site on the east side of the lake, to watch the grey Wagtails, Atlantic Canaries, Azores Chaffinches and a small flock of Common waxbills again feeding on seeding grasses. After picnicking it was back to Ponta Delgada to await a delicious evening fish meal.

Day 7-Saturday Morning—Free:

Clive spent the morning in the Jardim Botanico Jose do Canto.

Here are some very large non-native old trees. He could hear Blackcaps singing from them. Also present were all the common species/subspecies: Grey Wagtail, Blackbird, Atlantic Canary, Goldfinch, Starling, Woodpigeon, Collared Dove and also the uncommon Greenfinch.

The main reason for the visit was to hear and see the colony of Perez’s Frog which inhabit the central pond – Clive saw 7 or 8 and heard their deafening croaking. After an hour it was time to head back to Hotel do Colegio (10-15mins. walk) and pack for home.

Clive Poole – June 2018

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