I sent my trip report to my oldest mate and he mailed back “…sounds like a typical Bo trip.” Rather than the great birding or conservation concerns I raised he was referring to the catalogue of minor disasters that seem to typify our travels (See A~Z Birds). It seems I am perceived as a walking disaster zone, so I’ll get all that stuff out of the way before the serious business of birding.
Here’s how it went. We picked the wrong airport hotel: Dinner and breakfast were barely edible and the pillows seemed to have been made from granite. Later I managed to fall into the taxi to the airport, bruising my aging hip.
Our flight was delayed a little, but we nearly missed it when Maggie misread the listing and told us it was two hours later than it actually was. The airport lounge was awful, with nowhere to sit. Our aircraft seats were even smaller than I remember (or did I get even fatter?) and my curved spine meant sitting with my nose pressed against the seat in front. All right, I confess Maggie got us moved thanks to a wonderful couple who gave up their bulkhead seats for us. We arrived safe and sound, but Jos’s bag did not… until Day Three. The rental car was an automatic – why do so many people like them? Day Two Jos managed to shut his thumb in the car door.
Day Three our 4×4 turned out to be a 4×2 and got us grounded in the desert sand.We had to be winched out. (We swapped later for a 4×4 Jeep, which got grounded in the same spot. We managed to return to it eventually in a Land Rover without sinking up to our axles).
Day Four Maggie fell down the steps by our pool and spent four days in agony with her arm in a sling. Julia got an infection. The villa wifi was rubbish and there was no cleaning service, nor broom or mop, and Lanzarote’s cooling breeze covered every floor with dust and sand. I have to avoid salt in my food and it turns out that the local specialities are potatoes, etc., cooked in sea water! Everything comes with a crusting of sea salt. Shall I go on? Enough already, let’s just say that the flight home was delayed by two hours and we got back to the same crappy hotel at 1:30 a.m.
I’m glad that’s out of the way as there are serious things to tell you.
Apart from the stuck-in-the-sand moments, our bird outings were, as we say in the UK, brilliant (in the sense of shining like stars and diamonds)! Now long-listers will need to man-up when they hear our ten-day list was just fifty-five species of birds. If you want hundreds of new birds, try Peru; if you want bird spectacle, try the African rift lakes with their millions of flamingos. Lanzarote birding is subtle, but of such excellent quality. Our first lifer of the trip was Berthelot’s Pipit (Anthus berthelotii), as unassuming as can be. Cream and brown and spotty down the chest, it’s no colour-match for a macaw or kingfisher, that’s for sure. An American friend of mine was extolling the virtues of your wood warblers and contrasting them with warblers in Europe, rightly described as LBJs (little brown jobs)… but I like my birds to be more like a French movie than a Disney blockbuster: monochrome, mysterious, and subtle; more Manon des Sources than Madagascar.
There were days when birds came thick and fast. The gorges in the north of the island, such as Valle de Temisa can teem with lost migrants at the right time of the year. (The Canary Isles are about 90 miles (150 km) off the coast of Morocco and not on a migration route, but sometimes bad weather will disrupt the passage between Europe and Africa, and the survivors will fall out on Lanzarote or Fuerteventura.) They will flit through the bushes along with the residents. So blackcaps, common chiffchaffs, European pied flycatchers, and so forth will appear amongst the resident Eurasian siskins, Atlantic canaries (lifer), spectacled warblers, and (another lifer) African blue tit. Our early morning there was truly delightful with monarch butterflies (blown across the Atlantic) distracting our attention and the widespread hoopoes (always a favourite) and southern grey shrikes delighting us every time we saw them. Further down the valley we saw our next lifer, Barbary partridges, and were entertained by a single raven and Barbary falcon, also a lifer, mobbing seven Eleanora’s falcons. For those who don’t know, Atlantic canaries are the ancestors of all the domesticated canaries that are kept as pets worldwide, but don’t expect the same Disney colours!
Great birding, but, perhaps surprisingly, my favourite day’s birding produced far fewer species, and mostly birds in small numbers.
The Desert of Soo was literally on our doorstep. Our first day out here produced all the specialities along with hoopoes, ravens, Bertheolot’s pipits, and the local race of Southern grey shrike (Lanius excubitor koenigi). There were Eurasian stone curlews we could see behind our villa, but behind the local church in Soo, on the edge of the dessert, was a group of more than thirty birds. I’ve never even heard of such large conglomerations of any thick-knee species anywhere! Apart from the pipits, three other passerines are fairly common in the dessert: a local race of common linnet (Carduelis cannabin harterti), the local race of trumpeter finch (Fringilla githaginea amiantus), and the very numerous lesser short-toed lark (Calandrella rufescent), which we saw in flocks of up to two hundred! We also encountered Barbary falcon in the desert, hunting swiftly and deftly like is cousin the peregrine. A major star and perhaps the prettiest birds of the trip was the stunning cream-coloured coursers (Cursors cursor), mostly sand to peach in colour depending on the light, but with a very prominent white-over-black eye-stripe forming a ‘V’ at the back of the head. The sudden runs of them across the desert evidence their name. We saw them in groups of up to seven, previously having ever seen only two birds in Dubai, they were a delight.
But the birds everyone wants to see are a highlight of any trip and we were just as pleased as anyone could be to add both male and female Houbara bustards (Chlamydotis undulata) to our life list.
So our ten-day trip produced just 56 bird species (including one North American vagrant rose-breasted grosbeak), but included six lifers and nine new subspecies for our world list (leaving me a frustrating five short of 2,700). That’s a pretty average day’s birding in my home county. (On my best-ever day at just one UK reserve I recorded 96 species!) So what made this trip so special?
Well it’s not the rarity of the birds, although some, like the glorious bustard, are vulnerable, and so many races could not be seen elsewhere. It wasn’t the spectacle, as we’ve been privileged to have seen flocks numbered in the million elsewhere. No, it’s a combination of the subtle birds with nuances that challenge your ID skills, and the setting. I’ve birded in deserts before but never one that is truly unique. But this desert needs your help! See Lanzarote Desert Watch.
Lanzarote as a whole is a bio-reserve, with some really amazing scenery. To quote the Lanzarote Tourism website, referring to its biosphere reserve designation: “The perfect symbiosis achieved in Lanzarote between man and nature is undoubtedly the main reason for this international recognition.”
Any visitor to the lava fields and volcanoes of Parque Nacional de Timanfaya will be impressed with the way in which tourism is handled to ensure that maximum enjoyment by the visitor is combined with minimum impact on the unique landscape and its unique flora.
The volcanic landscape is precious but not unique in the world. However, Lanzarote’s desert is unique. Formed during the ice age when exposed sea bed was blown by the trade winds to be captured by the massive cliffs that were Lanzarote, its composition is unlike any other desert. Because of Lanzarote’s isolation from the African continent, the desert environment has developed many unique species. More than half of the plants are endemic, found nowhere else on Earth. Unique flora in a unique landscape attracts a very special fauna too.
Yet, while the Parque Nacional de Timanfaya is promoted as a tourist attraction, carefully controlled and protected, El Jable (the desert) is exploited in part for EU grants with nefarious agricultural use. If unused land is brought into agricultural use the EU gives a grant of 300 euros per hectare. It is also used as a playground for damaging vehicles, eroded by development, and generally neglected, except by the few. Because much of it is a network of private plots, there is no overall management. Many areas are degraded by goat herds and others by over use. If more protection is not given soon, this unique environment will disappear completely and become the wasteland many uninformed people consider it now. The keys to protection are education and information, and the key to those is its use by low-impact, knowledgeable visitors. Encouraging birding tourism will give international focus to the Desert of Soo while at the same time bringing the “green” pound, euro, or dollar to Lanzarote.
In other parts of Spain, it is well recognised that saving the environment is crucial, and education is the king-pin needed. For example, in Mallorca, every schoolchild must visit their prime nature reserve, Parc Natural de s’Albufera de Mallorca, every year! This means that they get to know, appreciate and grow to love wild places with wild animals. At the park there is a well-used interpretation centre showing them the wildlife of the area, but also how man had managed wild places for human use, like reed cutting, but enhanced rather than endangered wildlife. Moreover, recent thinking is that wild places are not a luxury but a necessity for our mental wellbeing.
Lanzarote is blessed with a number of places that are great for bird watching, so visiting enthusiasts can take a boat trip to the seabird island or visit the northern gorges, which attract passing migrants as well as special residents.
Next to Club La Santa is a tiny wetland that also attracts many terns, gulls, and wading birds, but it, too, suffers continual disturbance from surfers and those who do not realise how important it is.
Among the many rich traditions of Lanzarote is hunting, but that pastime has the potential to destroy the very things that could bring the wealth of tourism to the island. Birders can enjoy birds over and over again if they watch them without disturbing them. However, hunters enjoy the birds just once when they shoot them, and soon there will be none left unless certain areas are vigilantly protected from the hunter’s guns.
In short, as a British birder I greatly enjoyed the birds on the island and even more the uniquely beautiful and precious wild places. 15% of the island is taken up by the wonderful and precious desert, but it can so easily disappear just at a time when its potential to attract visitors is growing.
About the Author
Bo Beolens is best known in birding circles for his extensive web presence: Fat Birder - one of the world’s biggest and most-used on-line resources for birders and Birding Top 1000 lists the top birding websites by their popularity. He also has a monthly column in a UK birding magazine as The Grumpy Old Birder and has written articles in BWD and other magazines. He has had seven books published and more are in final edit… ‘The Eponym Dictionary of Birds’ came out in time for the British Bird Fair in August 2014. He also champions birders with mobility problems setting up a charity in 2001 Birding For All Having birded on six continents he also organises trips for others via his Anytime Tours website. If he ever gets time he goes birding! His wife Maggie and son Ash are keen birders but the rest of their children and some of their five grandchildren (21, 14, 12, 10, 5) have yet to be convinced... although two are now showing a healthy interest! Having reached the magical age of 65 Bo has recently launched a new BLOG: Angry Old Bloke