Amazing Azores: Ten days on Crow Island Autumn 2017
By Peter Stronach
We had been to Corvo (translated literally - Island of the Crow) once before last autumn, beforehand I had no idea what to expect. I’d read about the past exploits by all the famous Western Palearctic birding names; seen the jaw-dropping full frame images of rare American waifs by Vincent Legrand; and looked in awe at the photos of the calderao and the immense volcanic cone that makes up the island. As well as seeing rarities, I also enjoy finding my own birds. So, this is what intrigued me the most about Corvo, how you worked the terrain and the habitats.
I cut my birding teeth on Shetland, and Whalsay in particular. This island has a unique style of birding, and a rich and colourful history of talented field ornithologists; Sammy Bruce, “Tammie da Stuffer”, Johnny Simpson to name a few. After over ten years of visiting Whalsay and Shetland it’s safe to say I know my way around an iris bed!, but what about a Ribeira?!. I remember being totally overwhelmed by them last autumn, they were like Kergord on steroids and then thrown into steep, pitch black, slippery ravines.
I was persuaded on this last minute trip by the weather map below, and the fact that two Hurricanes were hovering off the east coast of North America. That first depression was the critical factor, it was high pressure with cloudless skies over Newfoundland/Nova Scotia with light northerlies, ideal for southward migration. These led into northwesterlies pushing birds straight out into the Atlantic. The depression then kicked in with strong winds straight across to Corvo, looking very good!!!. The Shetland forecast didn’t look great so I took the gamble and booked. I mentioned the trip to Bob Swann, my Western P travelling companion and fellow highland birder. He was interested but would have to negotiate, to my (and his!) surprise he got the all clear and it was game on…
Weather prediction is all very well in theory, but as any birder knows even the best looking conditions can fail to deliver or more likely change!. In the days leading up to the trip the forecast changed back and forward, and more worryingly the forecast for Shetland started to look obscene with high pressures stretching across to Beijing and a southeasterly flow kicking in. I had visions of us on the beach in Corvo, in 30c sitting under the Azores high, whilst getting the “bad” text every minute from Shetland. I needn’t have worried, the Azores forecast only got better and better…
When we arrived the wind was starting to get up, we decided to bird around the village but within ten minutes we were sheltering behind one of the famous windmills from a horrendous rainstorm. Earlier that morning the island had been hit by a violent torrential thunderstorms and there was flooding everywhere. Good conditions for downing migrants, but would any of them have survived!.
The next day it was with high hopes that we got the taxi to Lighthouse Valley, one of the easiest Ribeiras to “work”. We had met two French birders, Jean-Pierre and Dominique the previous afternoon, and had joined forces. We walked down to the fabled Junipers, nothing at all, as usual when we check them!!!. Then the others scanned the valley whilst I crossed over at the bottom and checked the area around the lighthouse, walking back up the other side, the radio crackled into life “Red-eyed Vireo”. The others had found one in the laurels on the valley side. That really put my mind at ease, thank god!, the yanks were here…
I couldn’t see the REV from my side of the valley, so I continued up and cut down to the valley bottom, before walking the path down through the middle of the valley. Reaching the main patch of Laurels, it was perfectly still, not a breath of wind. I had only just started scanning when a small warbler popped into view, MAGNOLIA WARBLER!!. I had always dreamt about finding an American wood warbler but I hadn’t mentally prepared for one to pop out in front of me. I had always worried too that I wouldn’t be able to identify what I saw, but the Magnolia within a second of me looking at it, showed me it’s undertail and tail pattern. I was in disbelief!, I radioed Bob “errr, I think I’ve got a Magnolia Warbler!”. Needless to say they soon appeared. We watched the warbler but it was very active and soon disappeared into dense Hydrangeas, as quickly as it had appeared. Whilst watching it we had another 2 REV’s.
So the first place on the island we had checked had an 8th for the Western Palearctic and 3 Red-eyed Vireos, it was going to be a busy ten days!!!…
Four Black and White’s
Later that day in Fojo, Bob and I had separated, I had just seen a Red-eyed Vireo and reached for my radio, it had switched itself off accidentally, cursing I switched I back on and radioed through the REV. Immediately I got a very excited Bob replying, “I’ve got a Black and White Warbler!”. He had been on the pish next to some large conifers and the Black and White flew down to scold him, he had desperately being try to get me on the radio!. I quickly found him in the jungle that is Fojo, but only got brief views of the warbler as it scuttled along a branch before disappearing. We then found yet another REV!.
Pushing on through the sites as quickly as possible we had got to Da Ponte, walking up from the bottom we had come across three REV’s feeding in a loose flock (It was starting to get ridiculous!!!). We stopped at the upper clearing and began pishing, almost immediately a Black and White Warbler appeared calling and getting agitated by the pishing, we were in dreamland!. We watched it for ages, just bliss, and it was joined at one point by a REV feeding alongside it.
On the 25th we were birding the upper part of Poco D’Agua, again pishing at the edge of a line of laurels, when another Black and White Warbler appeared, calling and posing brilliantly in front of us.
On the 26th we were birding in Lapa by the first waterfall, and yet another Black and White Warbler came in to our pishing. They really seem to get aggravated by the noise!.
On the Azores bird news Whatsapp group there was some disbelief that there could be four Black and White Warblers on the island at the same time. It was suggested that it could be the same bird moving around. Well, we knew there were at least two as Bob’s bird in Fojo had been a female type. I looked carefully through the photos and the three first-winter males had different throat patterns, amounts of white in the outer tail and tail feather shapes!. Four Black and White Warblers in one location in the Western Palearctic, unprecedented!.
Flocks of Vireos
From that first Red-eyed Vireo in the Lighthouse Valley, they were one of the real highlights of the trip. The numbers started to get insane, and it was hard not to get blasé about them. We estimate that we had 18-20 Red-eyed Vireos in total. Each one seemed to have a fairly small feeding territory and returning to that area we would pick up birds in the exact same spots, so we were relatively confident that we weren’t double counting.
Best WP vagrant hunting day ever?!
I won’t forget the 27th September 2017 for a long time!
We started as usual at Lighthouse Valley, as we walked through the centre of the valley, I caught movement moving quickly upwards in the single large deciduous tree. It paused long enough for me to see black streaks on a clean white flank and a mohawk style crown pattern, OVENBIRD!. Everybody managed to see it very briefly before it went to ground amongst the dense hydrangeas.
Buoyed by our success we headed on to the first major Ribeira on the way south, the grizzly Cantinho. Dominique didn’t fancy coming into the slippy, mud and boulder strewn slopes and went on alone, leaving just the three of us. We had only just got inside, in to the gloom, when Bob’s pishing attracted a metallic chipping call in the distance, “don’t stop, keep going!” I urged to Bob. The “chips” got closer, as the pishing continued, until we had an angry first-winter male BLACK-THROATED GREEN WARBLER in the branches right above our heads!!!.
Numb with success, the next hour or so was a blur, until we found ourselves in Poco d’Agua. Lying on my back resting on the rocks above the lower waterfall, a silhouetted warbler moved through the canopy above. Hop, hop, hop and gone, disappearing into the dense canopy, all I had got on it was that it was a long-tailed American wood warbler. We checked slowly back up the Ribeira but nothing, gutting!.
We had given up on Poco d’Agua, thinking it was a lost cause. We started to move through the fields towards the bottom end of Pico and Da Ponte. To cover extra ground we had split and were walking parallels through adjacent fields. As I walked through a short grass field, I flushed a warbler from my feet out of the short grass. It had been deep in the grass like a locustella sp, all I had got on it wasa dark, olivey green back as it flew away. I radioed Bob and we wathched were I last had it, nothing. Over the next 10 mins we had split-second views as we flushed it from one Hydrangea hedge it the next. Finally it posed on the edge of hedge long enough for me to rattle off some long range shots, a first-winter male COMMON YELLOWTHROAT!.
The following day on the 28th we were walking on the road to the south of Poco d’Agua with the Ribeira edge 70m to our left, across grass fields. I don’t know why but I stopped and scanned the edge with my bins, almost instantly I saw a warbler for a few seconds on the outside of the canopy, hop, hop, gone. The bird we had given up on yesterday had given us another life line. I had literally only seen it for two, possibly three seconds max before it disappeared. I got my camera out of my bag quickly and blindly rattled off lots of shots of the area in the vain hope of catching it in one frame, nothing!. All I had got on it was that it was a wood warbler, all grey on the back and all yellow underneath, “It was a Canada Warbler” I told Bob.
Unfortunately Bob hadn’t got onto it at all, thankfully he placed his faith in me, my wired look probably assuring him that I wasn’t kidding on. Now faced with the dilemma of two strategies, get straight in there after it or play the waiting game, hope it’s on a circuit and pray it comes back to the same place. Luckily Bob’s older and wiser head told him to stay out and wait, so we got closer and tucked into a hedge line and waited, and waited. It was a hot, sunny day and before long I’d fallen asleep, but as Bob noted later “I was awake at the important moment!”.
It had been an hour and a half since the sighting. I don’t know why I do, but I get serious bouts of finder’s disbelief. I found a White’s Thrush in Kergord, Shetland, it flew up from the wood floor and perched distantly but clearly, high in a Sycamore, I rattled off some pics. The bird flew on a short distance, I went to look at the back of my camera and to my horror the pics were almost black. I had been taking photos in the bright sunlight outside the wood and hadn’t altered my camera settings after coming into the dark wood. I had 20 tortured, horrific minutes when I couldn’t refind the bird, which was sitting motionless in the canopy. One tiny detail had kept me afloat that day, in the only part of one of the underexposed pics that was light enough to see anything, crescent-shaped markings were visible. My cruel brain kept telling me it was a Mistle Thrush, but those crescent-shaped markings kept me going!.
The current bout of disbelief was plumming new depths, involving me at one stage me looking at my Collins app on the phone checking what a Grey Wagtail looked like!!!, I could laugh about this later. The single details I remembered from the split second sighting earlier was the uniformity of the yellow underneath, that kept reassuring me. I finally caught sight of a bit of movement and raised my bins, a first winter male CANADA WARBLER was hopping out about frantically like a pinball on the edge of the Ribeira. We watched it for what felt like an age, but was probably only a couple of minutes if that. The sense of relief was amazing!.
Black and Blue
We were due a quiet day…
And the 1st October was that day, after all the excitement, it seemed a bit mundane, checking the usual sites but there had been a big clear out, no Red-eyed Vireos in Lighthouse Valley or anywhere we looked. We started to head for home, not downhearted but just a bit deflated after all the recent action-packed days.
As we got to the top of the steep road out of the village at the Miradouro, we saw and caught up with Dominique who was also heading back after a day in the Calderao. We asked him about his day, just as we did he got a text, casually glancing at his phone, it was from Jean-Pierre. “He has found a warbler”, he then showed me his phone with the French name, I was none the wiser!, then Dominique started “ A blue warbler, yes, a blue warbler with a black throat”. At which point Bob and I’s chin’s hit the floor…BLACK-THROATED BLUE WARBLER!!!!.
What followed was pure comedy, the instructions had been “lost in translation” we knew the rough area and headed off there. Knowing the rough area on a fine sunny day would have been fine, as we would have seen JP from a distance, but as we gained height we quickly entered the cloud base covering the top of the island. It got thicker and thicker. Calling out into the mist, we couldn’t find JP anywhere, finally we saw him a few fields away. We sped up lowping walls until the final wall onto the concrete road, it was high, way too high. I decided to go for it but clipped the top of the wall, throwing me off balance and I landed awkwardly, very awkwardly. The combination of the heavy rucksac and binoculars pulling in opposite directions during the landing whiplashed my neck, hence the reason I had a neck brace on for the week following this trip!.
The warbler was nowhere to be seen, JP had found it in a tiny, thin strip of vegetation around a dry burn, it had called several times and he had seen it well once. The Ribeira forked just uphill above the concrete bridge so I decided to follow the right hand fork up, no sign. I walked across and then started to come back down the other fork. I was feeling increasingly tender after the fall, and took my time in what became a steep narrow and slippery gulley, which I was negotiating for the first time. I thought I was a good way down and close to the others, when I heard a quiet bill click, which got my interest, then another, it was too quiet for a Red-eyed Vireo. Then a tiny movement in a Hydrangea, definitely too small to be any of the residents, finally I got a view for a couple of seconds and radioed the others. Unbeknown to me I was a lot further up the gully than I thought and it turned out the route up was a Bramble-themed assault course across slippery rocks!. The state of Bob’s shorted legs had been a running joke with our landlady but this evening they were almost skinned!. The pain was worth it though!!!.
One, no two!, final surprises
We did Lighthouse Valley again on the final day with no more surprises, and had arranged for a taxi pick-up to head back to the village as we had the flight out early afternoon. We had a couple of hours left so we got the taxi to drop us off at the top of the middle fields. We split up covering as much ground as possible, I was concentrating on the weedy fields half dreaming of a Tennessee Warbler popping out. It was slow going and we were not finding anything. I had given up on the weedy fields by the time I got to the Cape Verde Farm area, meeting with Bob he decided to do the fields towards the airstrip and left me to check the farm and tamarisks. I walked in through a tunnel in the tamarisks, I’d never seen anything in here. I slowly started quietly pishing, what sounded like a maimed Blackbird was getting excited by the pishing so I continued. It slowly dawned on me that what I was taking for a Blackbird was not a Blackbird at all, staring through into the darkness under the Tamarisks I caught some movement, then a bright supercilium and a flicking tail, a NORTHERN WATERTHRUSH. It was very mobile, so I rattled off a couple of pics and radioed Bob and the others.
As we watched this bird, it got further away so I tried a tape, this brought the original bird out, but then both JP and I heard calling behind us, a second bird!!! TWO NORTHERN WATERTHRUSHES!!.
And that was that, we had finally ran out of time…
Between Bob and I and Jean-Pierre and Dominique we found the following birds during the trip…
Canada Warbler (5th for WP)
Magnolia Warbler (7th for WP)
Black-throated Green Warbler (8th for WP)
Black-throated Blue Warbler (9th for WP)
Philadelphia Vireo (17th for WP)
Ovenbird (18th for WP)
2 Northern Waterthrush (22nd and 23rd for WP)
4 Black-and-white Warblers
18-20 Red-eyed Vireos
2 presumed Rough-legged Hawks
2 American Golden Plovers
2 Spotted Sandpipers
6 Glossy Ibises
14 November 2017
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