Known under the name of « Fortunate Islands » probably since the Antiquity, Canary Islands loom up above the Atlantic waves, dominated by the Teide peak which snowy top reaches 3,715 metres at its highest point often among the clouds.
These volcanic islands with rugged relief and changing colours enjoy a soft climate all year round, and can pass from the worst rain to the most beautiful sun in a few minutes!
The largest island, Tenerife, had stood out around the Teide volcano. From sea level to the top, varied landscapes mark the vegetation’s steps. Canary Pine forest occupies large area around the bare crown of the volcano. Each part shelters definite birds’ species, providing them a suitable habitat.
It seems to be normal starting with the Canary (Serinus canaria), very common and omnipresent as soon as gardens with bushes, small shrubs and trees are available. Visible from sea level to mountain forests up to 1,500 metres, it is often seen in small groups or in pairs, feeding in the grass or singing among branches.
The yellow-green colour of the under parts may remind us the Greenfinch when we see it perched above us, but it is rapidly identified by the dark streaks of the back when it is on the ground. Male has yellow head whereas female is duller, with greyish head and yellow patch around the eyes. Their crystal-clear, rapid chirping allows locating them. Always very active, they fly in flocks and perform chases, going to perch in the same wing-beat to nearly branches. It represents the wild form of the cage bird, which bright yellow colour bears scarcely little relation to the original species.
Also very present around Puerto de la Cruz, the Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea) runs its classic and colourful silhouette while swinging its long tail, along lawns not far from water, into golf courses, urban parks and gardens, indifferent to the tourists which walk close to it.
The Canarian Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita canariensis), similar to our Chiffchaff, utters its characteristic whistle as soon as the early hours, which doesn’t always allow to locate it. Omnipresent in Tenerife, it is very difficult to observe if it has decided to remain in the higher parts of the trees, among foliage and in the shade. But it ventures sometimes on the ground or into shrubs’ low branches, letting us to admire it a brief instant and it goes out immediately. Usually, it perches just above our heads. The one that I regularly observed during my stay often adopted the same behaviour when I was exactly sit under its perch, I looked at it falling down vertically onto me, and then to turn abruptly at about some tens centimetres from my head. Probably some intimidation in order to make me go away from it, that I done of course, but reluctantly I admit!
Another very frequent small bird in the island, the Tenerife Blue Tit (Parus caeruleus teneriffae), resembles a lot our Blue Tit, but colours appears more contrasted and darker. In addition, Canarian species lacks white wing bar, and its crown is rather dark blue. This tit is found as well at sea level as in the Canarian Pine forest up to 2,000 metres of elevation in the volcano slopes.
They live in flocks, feeding in small groups while uttering their high-pitched, brief and rapid calls. In Puerto de la Cruz, they nest in holes in palm trees in city parks. Very mischievous, their behaviour reminds us those of their cousins!
The Canary Islands Goldcrest (Regulus teneriffae) is very difficult to observe, first due to its small size, and above all because it moves nervously and rapidly along the tree trunks and in the shade. Without cryptic plumage, it is easily mistaken for the paler bark of the Canarian Pines. It differs from the Goldcrest by its black forehead, tertial tips less white and flanks slightly darker. Its tiny high-pitched calls sometimes allow locating it on a branch. Those is in the picture let me about fifteen seconds for photographing it! I found it at about 2,200 metres of elevation in volcano slope.
In the same forests, the Tenerife Blue Tit is very present, always in small groups, and often interested by crumb cake given by tourists in picnic areas.
Other inhabitant of high pine forests, the Teneriffa’s great spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major canariensis) is an endemic subspecies. I was lucky and I observed a pair, the male with red patch on the nape, buffy-white under parts and red- orange vent, less contrasted colours than in our Woodpecker. The female shows a buffy patch on nape, less uniformly black than in ours.
Alerted by its drumming, I only had to raise my eyes upwards. It was actively working onto a closed pine-cone, half hidden into the fine Canarian Pine needles. On the close tree, the female climbed around the trunk, quiet and not impressed at all by our presence.
And to complete this beautiful day, the bird that we especially want to see has arrived in pair, singing for us during long minutes. The Blue Chaffinch (Fringilla teydea), endemic species to Tenerife is well present in the island, whereas the species of Gran Canaria is rare and threatened. It is sedentary and usually remains in mountain forest, but it can perform some altitudinal movements in order to find food in cultivated areas, when the weather is too bad.
It seems to be slightly larger than our Common Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs), and shows stronger, conical, powerful bill. Its soft blue-grey colour is stunning and we enjoyed it. Its eyes are surrounded by two fine bright white crescents, one above and the other behind. It stays perched in small leafless branch, at short distance, and sings. The sounds remind us those of our Chaffinch, but with more brief and low series.
Female is very similar to ours, but much duller. The broken eye-ring appears rather buffy-white.
Our mind still marked by this wonderful appearance so coveted, we take again our car in order to climb higher in this superb road which snakes into the Teide’s Park. Vegetation disappears little by little, replaced by arid and rocky areas, with changing contrasted colours. Result of the various Teide’s eruptions, the last in 1909, these lunar and chaotic landscapes bathed in sunlight are found above 2,200 metres of elevation. Further, the snowy top soars up at about 3,715 metres into the blue sky. We are entering into the Berthelot’s Pipit habitat, another endemic to Tenerife.
This slender bird has its legs relatively far behind the body. It runs into the loose stones as a mouse! Its cryptic colours make it almost invisible on the stony ground. But it is interested by the hotel-bar terrace found in the middle of the park. I meet it in the parking, very close to the car. Then, I see several birds around the tables, and I understand that this wild species is similar to our House Sparrows in front of crumbs of bread… But it also feeds in bushes and Indian Fig Opuntia.
These birds live in family groups and are primarily terrestrial, preferring to run rather than to fly away. Its nest is also on the ground. The Berthelot’s Pipit moves by flicking its tail up and down, as a wagtail. Its conspicuous whitish eyebrow, the streaks on the chest and the very finely streaked brownish colour of upper parts help quickly to identify it. It moves quickly and rarely perches in trees. This species is sedentary and is only found in these arid areas of the island, in altitude.
The Eurasian Kestrel canariensis (Falco tinnunculus canariensis), is omnipresent in all parts of the island, but less in altitude, although having already been observed up to 2,000 metres of elevation! It is fairly similar to ours, perhaps with more contrasted plumage, but considered as endemic subspecies in each island of Canaries.
We also have to quote the subspecies of the Common Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs tintillon) similar to ours but with more accentuated colours. Back and head are rather dark blue-grey. The upperparts strongly contrast with the soft buffy-orange colour of the underparts and head sides. It lives in brushy and scrubby areas, at laurel forests’ edges.
Atlantic Islands Gull (Larus michahellis atlantis) has duller yellow legs and darker mantle than the traditional species. It frequents the steep coasts composed with warm coloured volcanic rocks. It seems to nest among the rocks of the beach, but probably mainly in the nearby cliffs.
The Tenerife Robin (Erithacus rubecula superbus) slightly differs from our king of the garden by a whitish eye-ring, brighter red-orange breast and forehead, and by a grey area which separates this bright colour from the rest of the brown plumage. The belly is white. It frequents the scrubby areas at the base of laurel forests.
The Sardinian Warbler (Sylvia melanocephala leucogastra) also lives in Tenerife. This bird has dark coloration above, and the male shows pale rufous-brown flanks. It probably flies between eastern Canary Islands and Maghreb.
On this picture, it is eating a beautiful ripe berry, and it is completely indifferent to people walking on the side.
The Plain Swift (Apus unicolor unicolor) breeds very well in Tenerife, in cliffs, bridges and other high structures where it nests in colonies. It is partially migratory and may winter in the island, but it also performs some movements to north-western Africa.
Its wings are narrower than in Common Swift, but both species are very similar, although the Plain Swift is slightly smaller.
The Spanish Sparrow (Passer hispaniolensis) has bulky body and red-brown crown, instead grey in House Sparrow. The upperparts are darker, but the underparts are very different, being heavily streaked dark brown on whitish plumage.
Its behaviour is similar to that of the House Sparrow, but it nests mainly in colonies, in bushes and thickets near the streams. It also may establish its nest in the basements of the large raptors’ nests.
The Canarian Blackbird (Turdus merula cabrerae) is present in Madeira too. This subspecies is endemic to Macronesia, and frequents as well forests as urban parks, cultivated areas and vegetation at high elevation.
It is smaller, with deeper black plumage and glossier feathers than our European Blackbird. The female is darker too, almost black-brown.
The behaviour is similar to that of all blackbirds. Only the breeding season may vary according to the elevation.
The Barbary Partridge (Alectoris barbara) is a stocky bird seen up to 3000 metres of elevation in the Teide’s Park, but also in forests or in steep barrancos. It has grey eyebrows, throat and upper breast, and a conspicuous reddish-buff mottled white collar. In addition, a black band separates the pale grey crown in two parts, and extends to the nape where it joins the collar. It is a gregarious bird, often seen in small parties. It flattens on the ground if threatened, and takes off at the last moment, almost at our feet.
The Southern Grey Shrike (Larus meridionalis koenigi) is a subspecies endemic to Canary Islands. It often perches on exposed places, as all the shrikes. This subspecies has shorter eyebrow. It feeds on lizards and butterflies in semi-desert areas with scattered bushes.
Other species are only living in Tenerife, like the Bolle’s Pigeon (Columba bollii), and the Laurel Pigeon (Columba junoniae) unfortunately not observed. Difficult to see because they are living exclusively into tree foliage, and their relatively dull and classic colours don’t make them an important goal for amateur ornithologists!
The Rock Dove (Columba livia) forms an important feral population on the island. It is very common and visible in all parts of the island, except at high elevation in the Teide’s Park. This species frequents mainly the rocky areas and the bushes in barrancos, but also the sea-side rocks.
The Cory’s Shearwater (Calonectris diomedea) flies along the Gigantes’ cliffs, which fall into the Atlantic Ocean from their 500 to 800 metres of height. It soars just above the water surface, with some interspersed springy wing beats. It lives on rocky islets and coastal cliffs where the seas are very temperate.
And finally, the Monk Parakeets (Myiopsitta monachus) which nest in palm trees and colonise towns and countries, are very common in Tenerife.
It is an introduced species into Canary Islands as into several parts of the world. It is native from South America, coming from Argentina and adjoining countries. This species builds communal nests high in trees, whereas other Psittacidae nest in cavities.
Finally, there is about fifty different species in Tenerife, giving an interesting and educational goal to each walk into the island.
Around the end of the day, the sun gently declines onto Tenerife Island, suffused with fine fog which smoothes out contours and wraps the forest with light veil, whereas the Teide’s Peak still emerges above the clouds, taping the last gleams of the sun and watching over the fertile grounds and the extraordinary colours created by its lava flows a century ago.
The birds gradually keep silent. In the Canarian pine forest, the beautiful Blue Chaffinch falls asleep, the small tit calms down and the Berthelot’s Pipit rests in its stunning landscape. On the side of humans, city lights are coming, the noises are fading in the falling night, and soon, when the darkness will be complete, fireworks will burst here and there, because the Canary Islands love celebrations and music. Don’t forget their old name of Fortunate Islands! Or perhaps they are the remnant of this legendary island called "Atlantide" whose inhabitants, valorous warriors, are not without reminding us of the Guanche people, first known inhabitant of these islands before the arrival of Europeans at the Middle Ages...
Text and photographs by Nicole Bouglouan
Personal observations in Canary Islands in December 2007/January 2008 – Tenerife.