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Hardcore Madeira Madness - 15 - 20 June 2022 (4 Viewers)


Well-known member
Well, with remaining annual leave to take within a certain time limit (or lose it), I searched around Ryan Air to see where I get to mid-June at a low cost, and Madeira came up, with flights from Manchester on 15th June, returning mid-day on 20th June, all for around £150. Travelling 'cattle-class' is just about bearable for anything under 4 hours I find, no luxury BA flights ever for me!

15th June

Upon arrival just after 11pm, I jumped in a taxi at Madeira Airport to Dom Pedro hotel at Machico, just two miles away, where I checked into my tiny room for five nights. Apart from loud disco noise, it was just about bearable. No air-con though, so windows were left wide open. I brought my own coffee, tea-bags, travel kettle, cereal and bowl, so just had to buy milk, bread, butter, jam, and beer from the local store. That lasted me the whole stay.

16th June

I selected a local car hire firm called 'Rent-a-car-Madeira100' which was booked on-line, as their office was just by the hotel. This was pre-booked to pick up at 9am this morning, but things didn't look good when I turned up at the office which just had a barking dog in the window and an empty showroom. 9am came and went, so by 9.20am I rang a bewildered Portuguese chap who was clearly saying "what the fuck do you want?" Eventually he understood that I had a pre-booked car, and at 10am he turned up and smiled when he received my payment, and I was soon away in my diesel-powered VW Passat estate, which actually dealt superbly with the steep twisting lanes in the hills and mountains, and I only used half a tank. There are numerous tunnels on Madeira, which to be fair are excellent and undoubtedly speed up your journey. By 11am I was at Ribeira Frio in the hills, and walked up a steep path to Balcoes Levada watchpoint. This ten-minute walk caused considerable wear to my navy blue Adidas Gazelle's (I did say it was hardcore Madeira madness!!). And I failed to find any Madeira Firecrests, with just several very tame local-race Chaffinches being enjoyed over an hour here, plus omni-present Blackbirds and a few singing Blackcaps. Hardly inspiring! I back-tracked down the winding hillside lanes to Faja do Noguiera, and parked up by the bridge. I then walked one km along the dirt track adjacent to the river in a 23C temperature, picking up nothing at all except 4 Trocaz Pigeons (aka Long-toed or Three-toed Pigeon) and a Robin. But lifer number One in the bag! Back at the bridge another Trocaz Pigeon flew over. A lovely spot too.

I then drove all the way along the narrow, winding and tricky coast road to Porto Moniz, the renowned sea-watching spot on the north-western tip of Madeira. It took 30 minutes to find a car parking space for my Passat-estate at this popular resort, which was as long as a bloody mini-bus (why couldn't they just have given me a Punto, after all I paid the cheapest option). I walked away from the crowds and plonked myself in the shade underneath the concrete helicopter pad, where I notched up lifer number Two - a Bulwer's Petrel (in fact I had 2 of them), as well as 40 Cory's, but the winds were wrong directionally for productive sea-watching, and most of the time Sandwich and Common Terns were the only birds on view. Most of the winds on Madeira are from the north and north-east especially, so the northern coast is generally more exposed than the southern coast. But both can be good for sea-watching, though it is said that at Porto Moniz, with the right winds, the birds come closer.

Anyway, I digress. I decided to drive to the opposite tip of the island, to a little-known spot I had checked out on Google Maps called 'Ponta da Oliveira' at Canico, accessed off J16 of VR1 dual carriageway. On Googlemaps, it is at the end of the short road named 'Tv. Cais da Oliveira'. This was just a ten-minute drive from my hotel back at Machico. Although there is a one-way system through Canico, if you work it out in advance, it is actually a superb little spot to get to, with good parking, and critically it is low to the sea with an excellent panorama, looking out towards the Desertas Islands. At the end of this short road, after parking up just walk straight ahead down the path towards the rocks, instead of taking the path to the right to the beach. There are also a couple of benches at the top if you prefer not to walk down to the lower rocky area, but lower the better if you are mobile enough to use the makeshift path that takes you lower down. I’m 59 and managed fine. It’s just a two-minute extra walk. Between 3pm-5pm, I enjoyed views of 100+Cory's, 5 Manx, possibly a Little Shearwater (though it probably was another Manx), and best of all a single and unexpected Band-rumped Storm Petrel (Madeiran Petrel), that as far as I am aware still breed half a mile west along the coast at Ponta da Garajau. Lifer number Two! This was most unexpected, but I was able to watch it for at least a minute in the scope. Then back to the hotel for tea.

17th June

I was back at Ponta da Oliveira (Canico) the next morning at 6.45am, where bird activity was brisk over two hours, with 700 Cory's, 40 Manxies, 3 Bulwer's Petrels, and several Plain Swifts hunting out over the sea. I may have had a few Barolo (Little) Shearwaters, but again they were probably just Manxies, I just wasn't quite close enough to distinguish them, and also I noted that these 'morning Manxies' were in a hurry for their breakfast, with a maximum of only three second-long glides between frantic flapping, more akin to Barolo flight-style I thought. Incidentally, a recent study of the Barolo Shearwater population on Madeira revealed that 24% or 1 in 4 birds actually had dark plumage around the eye. Eeek!

I then drove back up to Ribeiro Frio and walked up to the Balcoes Levada again, where another Trocaz Pigeon was sighted down below the viewpoint. I don't like to moan, but again, my trainers took a bit of a battering :)-. More Chaffinches were seen, and eventually, walking back down to the car, my first and only Madeira Firecrest was sighted in a bush a metre away, but it didn't linger and views were close but brief. But.......lifer number Three in the bag.....with difficulty however! In 2021, J Norrey estimated the population of Madeira Firecrest to be 698,300, yet I struggled to find one! Just how the feck he calculated that I have no idea, but where the hell the other 698,299 birds were, who knows? Anyway, I drove back to Machico where I checked out the river, hoping to see Waxbills. As others have mentioned, literally the whole reedbed has been stripped back. I walked half-a-mile up-river along the adjacent path, and stopped where I saw a JCB doing exactly that! Removing any vegetation! Whether this was part of some 'local council madcap plan' I am not sure, but it was certainly benefitting the local Muscovy Ducks, of which 80 were present, along with a skulking Moorhen, and a Little Egret looking lost and bewildered! I was pleased to see a few Monarch butterflies, and a Hummingbird Hawkmoth caught my eye in flight. A Grey Wagtail shot-up stream, and another pair were seen well by the hotel car park.

I had an early night, well that was the plan, for tomorrow was my big pelagic day. But an open-air disco boomed out until well after 1am, I genuinely wanted to strangle that bloody DJ but I did think that popping down in my thermal vest and ear-plugs wouldn't have had the desired effect. Anyway, with Zopiclone taken, I eventually got a few hours sleep!

18th June

Four hours sleep at most, and then up for breakfast and the drive to Funchal harbour. Quite a daunting task I felt as it is quite a large population centre............but in effect from Machico direction, you come off the dual carriageway at junction 11 and then follow the link road round an upward bend for a few hundred metres, where it joins the main road heading down to Funchal sea-front, via several sets of traffic lights. When you hit the traffic island by the harbour, you simply go right along the pretty coast road for about half a mile, with the shops and cafes on your right and yachts and boats on your left, until you see the CR7 museum on your left (Christiano Ronaldo museum with a statue of Paul Scholes outside - it is genuinely that bad!). A hundred metres past the museum you see a blue 'P' parking sign, and the car park is on your left. Like all underground car parks, you retain the ticket you get at the entry barrier, and then pay at the machine before exiting. It does not seem to like credit or debit cards, so currently I advise that it is best to take a 10 euro note, which is an 'all-day' payment I believe. When you feed your ticket into the machine upon your return, you put your ‘straightened’ 10 euros note into the machine with the ticket still half-hanging out, your ticket is then stamped by the machine (you see it light up green which means payment is complete). Then take your ticket and return to your vehicle, and you hold the ticket up at the exit barrier scanner, and up the barrier goes, and you are away. The pay machine gives change. Useful potentially to know, as there are few car parking spots near the harbour. You should have had directions of where exactly to go in the nearby harbour, depending on the company you have used for any pelagic trip. It's best to pre-book cruises of course, and there are a number like Viator, Sea-born, or VMT who you can book on the day at their kiosks in the harbour. But be aware most of these are 'Sunset cruises' or 'Dolphin and whale cruises', which cater for the normal holiday maker and concentrate on seeing dolphins and enjoying wine and sunsets. Shearwaters and Petrels can be seen, especially Cory's, Manx, and occasionally Bulwer's too. But these cruises only go around five miles out.

So what are the pelagic options for the serious birder?

To see Zino's Petrels, Desertas Petrels (aka Fea's Petrel), Little Shearwaters, Band-rumped Storm Petrels (aka Madeiran Petrels), Wilson's Petrels, and White-faced Storm Petrels, there are options. The former two species are of course very difficult to see as there are less than 100 pairs of each in the Western Palearctic and both I think are classified as endangered species. The smaller petrels are also extremely difficult without chumming. Anyway all companies can be googled and trips pre-booked on-line. Infact, it is advisable to do so as they are popular.

'Wingbirds' are the famous company, who offer 3-consecutive afternoons of sea-watching on their 'rough and ride' rib-boats, dedicated at seeing the rarer petrels and shearwaters. But if any spaces are available, you have to opt for all 3 afternoons for 540 euros! I enquired but they were fully booked, not that it appealed to me to be smashed around and soaked wet through. With no w.c. apart from a small bucket, there would have been every chance I would have been soaked wet through due to liquid release a bit closer to home :)-. I cannot last 8 hours these days, and hypothetically-speaking, by the 4th time I had to visit the bucket it would have become rather embarrassing for me. Frustratingly, there were also no spaces available during my stay, on their Zino Petrel mountain tour to Pico do Arieira, and it is 'apparently' against local bye-law to visit after dusk, when these enigmatic seabirds return to their mountainside nesting colony. Exactly where I do not know anyway, but walking a precipice at midnight to catch a glimpse doesn't really appeal to me, though many on these guided tours have described it as a fantastic experience. Ironically, Wingbirds are based at Machico harbour, just a stone's throw from my hotel, rather than Funchal. Out at sea, the Zino's Petrels tend to favour an area to the north-east of Madeira, whilst the Desertas Petrels are far more reliable to the south-east, close to the Desertas Islands unsurprisingly. But there is no hard and fast rule, and without photos or great views, the two species are probably inseparable except to the trained eye. A study of the Desertas Petrel determined that the male and female alternatively undertake 14-day feeding expeditions using the winds to travel up to an astonishing 7,500 miles, but mostly up to around 5,000 miles, with just 10% staying within 75 miles. I guess it is these latter birds you are most likely to see as you sail towards the Desertas Islands.

Anyway, never fear I thought, Ventura do Mar are another established company who offer boat-trips to Desertas Islands for 80 euros, and sometimes over-night trips for 147 euros. They also have ribs with no w.c's to see dolphins, but the boat appealed to me on comfort grounds, and I was confident when I contacted them to be able to book one of the Desertas trips. They place emphasis on seabirds identification, so they were my first choice anyway, but.........a response email told me that the boat 'Ventura do Mar' that undertook the Desertas Islands trips was undergoing maintenance and would not be operational until July. Bugger!!

This was becoming more difficult, and I was running out of options, but thankfully a 3rd company, VMT Madeira offer twice-weekly (Wednesday and Saturday) catamaran day-trips to Desertas Islands (subject to weather and numbers though) from Funchal harbour, also for 80 euros, so I pre-booked my place which departed at 9am this morning. I took my seat on the catamaran, which was ideal for viewing, and the fact that only 17 passengers joined me made switching around easy during the trip. It probably holds 60-70 passengers. There is a snack bar with beer on draft, and two toilets. The 30-mile journey across to Grand Desertas takes around 3 hours, ample time for sea-watching, but they weren't going to stop for seabirds, only if they encountered dolphins or whales. We did stop to view some Atlantic Spotted Dolphins, the most common cetacean in these waters, but I had to take in what views I could of any birds, by constantly checking either side, which is obviously easier if you have a few mates sharing the task with you. But, being an anti-social 'on me Jack Jones' type, I make do with my own limited abilities and hence assuredly miss great amounts of good birds. But I love it, the thrill, the search, the joy of finding great birds by myself, if I can. No photos of birds in this report, which is a serious setback on such pelagics, but I am a birdwatcher nothing else.

Anyway, for the first five miles out from Funchal harbour, nothing except Yellow-Legged Gulls were encountered, but increasingly rafts of Cory's Shearwaters occurred. Several hundred were seen in all on the outward leg, plus a couple of Manxies, and occasional Bulwer's Petrels. As you get within perhaps 8 miles of the Desertas, things suddenly started to change, winds picked up and the sea became choppier, though the catamaran dealt with the sway superbly and provided a pretty stable viewing platform. Up to 10 Bulwer's were seen on the outward leg overall, and then away to my right, a high-arching petrel the size of a Manx (but with longer wings) showed for twenty seconds, but the sun angle was poor and I couldn't make out any colouration, but this was certainly a Gadfly Petrel, most likely Desertas in these parts. At this point I was standing up and sitting down, and looking around, with immense nervous anticipation, and I am sure the other 16 passengers thought I was deluded and even thinking of jumping overboard! Then, behind the catamaran, I noticed another Desertas Petrel sat on the sea, where the heck had that come from? And how did I let it pass by? We continued to move away from it but I still saw it quite reasonably. Lifer number Five! We moved on, and as we sailed through a Cory's flock which inevitably scattered, 2 Desertas Petrels flew to the immediate starboard side of the catamaran, and nervously resettled on the sea behind the catamaran, just 20-30 metres away. I was thrilled with this moment, with the birds looking brown in 'upperparts plumage colouration', and sturdy like a Fulmar, with substantial bills. These were almost certainly Desertas Petrels, as the Captain's Chief wildlife observer also confirmed to me. He also told me that they often sit within Cory’s flocks on the sea. Within twenty minutes we were at Grande Desertas, where most of the 17 people were transferred by dinghy to the shore for a few hours. I slipped upon exiting the dinghy as I walked over slippery stones on the beach. To be honest, that was a waste of time with only Bertholot's Pipits and Canary's prominent, and a few Common Terns around the sea. There were restrictions on where you could walk. I returned to the catamaran after a couple of hours (at the first opportunity to be honest) for a nice Portuguese salad lunch and a couple of beers..........ok the title containing 'hardcore birding' was just a misnomer! You will have gathered that by now, and perhaps knew it was a soft, self-depreciating piss-take from the start. But there can't be many opportunities where you can simultaneously sup a draft beer and watch Desertas / Fea's Petrels in the world !! This was certainly no Jos Stratford expedition getting chased by locals with machetes in some backward region of the African continent, or no planned expedition by our Czech colleague Jan to sail around the Amazon rainforest!! It was sat on a catamaran drinking lager and eating home-produced Madeiran beef and sweet potatoes! I am a truly lightweight birder! :D

Eventually, it was time to sail back to Funchal, but we were warned to hold tight as the first part of the journey departing the Desertas would be extremely windy and rough. And it was, relatively, so much so that viewing was quite tough facing into the wind, and my plastic pint of beer was blown over! But that was as I watched my 4th (possibly 5th) Desertas Petrel fly on classic scythed-shaped wings but looping back for around a minute, just one-hundred metres from the boat. This bird looked almost black and white in overcast conditions. But this was the classic poise and posture I had always imagined seeing my first Fea's Petrel - zipping past in gale-force winds. Just superb! We also encountered 12 Manxies and a count of 96 Bulwer's Petrels on the return leg, mostly seen during the rough section nearer the Desertas and sometimes in trails of 5 birds at a time, each following each other. Magical! Hundreds of Cory's were seen as usual.

Suddenly, after the first hour back, the winds dropped and the sea calmed. Cory's and few Bulwer's continued to show for most of the way back to Funchal, but even they stopped within a few miles of port. Overall, it had been a superb pelagic, exceeding my expectations, fantastic birding in relative luxury! I would suggest to others that there is more than a good chance of seeing Desertas (Fea's) Petrels on this VMT day trip to Desertas Islands. If I had been here for longer, I would most certainly have done it again, for every trip presents slightly different conditions and hence different birds potentially! I was a happy boy by the time I returned to the hotel. No-one was sea-sick either, so this is testament to the stability of the catamaran, even on rougher seas.

19th June

My final full day was fairly inconsequential, though I did go up above the cloud-base to Pico do Arieiro at 8am, just to enjoy the scene and to say I had been there. Very few birds were seen, a few Blackbirds, Plain Swifts, single Bertholot's Pipit, possible Spectacled Warbler, and an unseen but singing bloody Red-Legged Partridge! It was easy to obtain a parking space here at this time in the morning, it can apparently be a real problem. So do get here early if you want to go for a walk in the mountains! Certainly by 9am. I also checked out the eastern-peninsula viewpoints around Sau Laurenco but only saw Kestrel, and the views above the sea whilst being spectacular, were always too high up to effectively sea-watch.

I had also pre-booked to go on a 3-hour VMT Madeira catamaran 'sunset and dolphin and whale cruise' from Funchal costing 35 euros, on this, my last full afternoon and evening. Departing at 6.30pm, it sailed around Funchal for three hours. At least 45 people were on this popular cruise......boozy, middle-class Brits mainly who 'oooed and arred' at the sightings of Atlantic Spotted Dolphins. A few Bulwer's Petrels were seen, along with 40 Manxies and numerous Cory's once again. But these tours do not go too far from Funchal so the rarer seabirds are unlikely, they are targeted for family and groups, but not for birders.

20th June

My 3 hours, 25 minutes, and 11 seconds flight (as the steward jokingly told us) back to Manchester with Ryan Air departing 1225pm was on time and went smoothly, and at Madeira Airport there is even an outside viewing area that reminded me of school-trips to Manchester Airport in the 1970s when you could do just the same, getting up close to VC10s, 707s, DC-8s etc. I became so engrossed that I nearly forgot that I still had to get through the extremely long passport queue, before the actual departure gates, so if you do indulge in a spot of plane-watching, leave yourself a good hour to get through passport control.


Overall this had been a very successful trip, made at short notice, and apart from the VMT catamaran trip, it was done independently and without specialist help. Zino's Petrel will have to wait until next time! But even they might have been achievable, independently.

Only 25 species were seen (lifers in bold), which is reflection of the paucity of birdlife on Madeira: -

Desertas (Fea's) Petrel - 5 seen
Bulwer's Petrel - 115 estimated
Band-Rumped Storm Petrel - 1 seen distantly
Manx Shearwater - 60 approx seen
Cory's Shearwater - 1,500 estimated seen
Sandwich Tern - around 20 seen
Common Tern - around 20 seen
Yellow-Legged Gull - at least 200 seen
Trocaz Pigeon - 5 birds seen
Madeira Firecrest - just a single bird seen
Common Chaffinch - around 20 seen
Robin - single bird seen
Blackcap - 3 seen but many heard
Blackbird - at least 200 seen
Grey Wagtail - 5 birds seen
Canary - 10 birds seen
Bertholot's Pipit - at least 15 seen
Spectacled Warbler - single bird seen briefly
Collared Dove - around 10 seen
Plain Swift - a few hundred seen
Rock Dove / Feral Pigeon - a few hundred seen
Moorhen - single bird seen
Little Egret - single bird seen
Kestrel - up to 10 seen
Cayuga Mallard - 80 seen

A few scenery photos: -

1) My own south-eastern Madeiran sea-watching viewpoint at Canico, at Ponta da Oliveira (off Junction 16) - with Desertas in distance.
2) View from Pico do Arieiro, looking down on the cloudbase.
3) Another view from Pico do Arieiro, showing the path that leads out to the Zino's Petrel colony
4) A view of the VMT catamaran viewing deck
5) Approaching the Desertas Islands on the catamaran.
6) Hardcore Madeira birding - beer and gadfly petrels!


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This was certainly no Jos Stratford expedition getting chased by locals with machetes in some backward region of African continent

But no worries, you get the birds 👍

Not been to Madeira, this independent mini-trip seems just up my street, nice report
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Nice report Nick.
My wife and I had our Windbirds short pelagic (not the big 3 day one) cancelled due to the strong winds a couple of years ago. At short notice we then went for a Ventura del Mar cruise to the desertas and thoroughly enjoyed it. Watching the desertas and bulwers petrels while having a cold drink was a new experience and one I'd recommend.

Worth going ashore as petrels nest in the area you can walk and we had a Booted Eagle over the landing site.
Others see Monk seal there too but we were not lucky

Didn't see spotted dolphin but did get several beaked whales and hammerhead shark.

A place worth a second visit I believe

Regards Howard
Nice report Nick.
My wife and I had our Windbirds short pelagic (not the big 3 day one) cancelled due to the strong winds a couple of years ago. At short notice we then went for a Ventura del Mar cruise to the desertas and thoroughly enjoyed it. Watching the desertas and bulwers petrels while having a cold drink was a new experience and one I'd recommend.

Worth going ashore as petrels nest in the area you can walk and we had a Booted Eagle over the landing site.
Others see Monk seal there too but we were not lucky

Didn't see spotted dolphin but did get several beaked whales and hammerhead shark.

A place worth a second visit I believe

Regards Howard
Thanks Howard. Wow, we were told we could not really go past the hut when we had landed on shore at Desertas. Not sure why. Love to have seen those cetaceans!

I'd definitely do it again if cheap flights and annual leave permit, just for the pelagic trips.
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Thanks all, yes I did stop for a bit of Madeira cake at a cafe at Ribeiro Frio. Everything was taken at a truly slow pace so I could cram in as little actual birding as possible.

I also spent quite a lot of time eating snacks and chocolate and drinking tea or beer in my room.

To be honest, once you have notched up the Pigeon and Firecrest there isn’t much to admire on land apart from the landscape and fauna. Disappointed not to see any dragonflies.
Another great read - I had no idea you could connect with the quality seabirds without doing the Windbirds Chunder Bucket.

Now I'm in Sydney I'm even further away from Europe that before ... but then again my sister's about to move to Lisbon so never say never.

Another great read - I had no idea you could connect with the quality seabirds without doing the Windbirds Chunder Bucket.

Now I'm in Sydney I'm even further away from Europe that before ... but then again my sister's about to move to Lisbon so never say never.

Thanks Mike, the danger is I am basing it on one trip, but many others have seen several gadfly petrels from the relative luxury of the Ventura du Mar. If you Google that company you can see what they offer. They actually stop for good seabirds…..VMT Madeira were the last and only choice for me but it would have been brilliant to have stayed in the seas off Desertas for a few hours.

Other thing is trips are also subject to numbers and weather, in that respect my luck was in this time. Even Windbirds cancel (understandably) if it’s too rough.

But I think it is a perfectly doable trip tho Madeira hotels and car hire are not cheap, but next time I would try to stay near Funchal harbour (for Ventura Do Mar or VMT) whereas Windbirds go from Machico.

I might even go back for a cheap weekend at short notice if I can book a Ventura Do Mar boat trip.
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