5 May 2018

5 May 18 - West African Pelagic - Day Five: A Visit To The Desertas Islands

All the Birders were expecting another interesting day ahead, but the briefing the previous evening was disheartening & frustrating. We were told we would arrive at the Desertas Islands around early afternoon, which lie approximately fifteen miles to the South East of Madeira. However, we wouldn't be stopping & would sail past the Desertas Islands & Madeira & keep going. The Desertas Islands are the breeding grounds for the Desertas Petrel, which is treated by some authorities including the IOC as a monotypic species, whereas other authorities, including Clements, still regard it as a subspecies of Fea's Petrel. We were told that generally the Desertas Petrels generally don't arrive until mid May, although the first males might be around by this date. A few Desertas Petrels were seen on the same date in 2016 on the last West African Pelagic, so there was clearly a chance to see them. This was one of our key target Birds for Madeira & we weren't going to be given a lot of chance to look for them. A smaller population of the endemic Zino's Petrels which breed on Madeira are also in the general area, although I expected we would have little chance of bumping into one of these.
The Desertas Islands: The blue-grey area is the strict nature reserve & the pale green area has controlled access
This was another frustration for many of us, as we had been told a few nights earlier in the West African Pelagic that we would not be visiting the Salvagens Islands. The Salvagens Islands are a small group of Portuguese islands halfway between Madeira & the Canary Islands. It was explained by Pieter, the Inezia leader, that there is nothing special there: although the islands are important Seabird breeding islands. It was doubly frustrating to many of the Birders as this extension had been sold to us as a Pelagic Birding cruise. The chance to visit both island groups (albeit we would not leave the Plancius) was in the Wildwings & Inezia itineraries. Therefore, we had expected to visit both & hang around for at least a few hours at both sites. It was becoming clear that after leaving Razo Island, we were expecting to do a straight sail back to Holland; albeit one where we were stopping for Cetaceans when possible. As none of this was explained in the itineraries, then it is not surprisingly many of the Birders were pissed off as this news was broken to us. I've read both the Wildwings itinerary, as well as, a translation of the Dutch Inezia Tours itinerary & the plans & reality didn't match up on a number of occasions. Had the original itineraries been more realistic, then the Birders wouldn't have felt the need to complain. Although, a trip that already had problems selling enough bunks to run, might not have run at all. Which overall, would have been a pity.
Our first view of the Desertas Islands in the distance
Note, none of these problems were mentioned in the write up in the August 18 issue of the Birdwatch magazine by fellow passenger, Neil Bowman. One of my Birding & photographic mates who was frustrated by a number of aspects of the trip, asked Neil whether he would be honest & mention the problems in his article. He was honest enough to respond that he would only be reporting on the good things, as he wouldn't get many future free trips if he was honest in the article. Obviously, he isn't the only travelling reporter getting free trips & I'm not naive enough to expect a completely open report from somebody who is getting a free trip. However, if Bird Tour companies can mention occasions when things don't go fully to plan in their reports, then he could & should have been more honest in his article. I had to pay the full price for my cabin, which was a lot more basic than the more expensive two berth cabin he was given for free. So I have been a lot more realistic in my Blog Posts about some of the problems with the West African Pelagic (see also my thoughts on the lack of Birding expertise among the Expedition staff on the Plancius). I also provided this feedback to Pieter towards the end of the cruise in a constructive way, in the event of the trip being run again in the future. I should stress that I believe most of the problems with the trip were down to the Inezia Tours charter & Wildwings could only provide an itinerary on what they were told by Inezia. I do not believe the problems were down to the Oceanwide Expedition team who own & run the Plancius. They had done an excellent job on the Atlantic Odyssey & their ship's crew looked after us well on this extension cruise & the Captain & his crew did another excellent job manoeuvring close to Cetaceans on a number of occasions.
Deserta Grande is a long & rugged island
There wasn't anything we could do about the Salvagens Islands as we would be past them before it was light. However, there must have been some lobbying behind the scenes overnight & during the following morning, as we heard during the morning that we would stop at the Desertas Islands & ask permission for a zodiac cruise there. It helped that one of the Expedition staff had connections to the Desertas Islands & that helped get us permission for the zodiac cruises.
Deserta Grande: It needed a wide panoramic photo to get the island in (which resulted in the wonky sea)
Chao is a small flat-topped island to the North of Deserta Grande
Bugio lies to the South of Deserta Grande
The Desertas Islands are three long & thin islands: Bugio, Deserta Grande & Chao (from South to North). There is a small rangers camp on the Northern side of Deserta Grande. The Southern half of Deserta Grande & Bugio are a strict nature reserve set up to provide sanctuary for a small population of thirty or forty Mediterranean Monk Seals. The Mediterranean Monk Seals are classified as Endangered & they only survive in a handful of locations in the Mediterranean, as well as, the Desertas Islands & around the Western Sahara and Mauritania border. As we got closer, we heard that we had been granted permission for a zodiac ride along the shore of the Northern part of Deserta Grande. However, we were told that the Mediterranean Monk Seals were rarely seen around Deserta Grande & the zodiacs would not be allowed into the most strict part of the nature reserve. This is understandable given how low the population is. This was treated as good news by some of the passengers, but others were still complaining that we would not be staying till the evening off the Desertas Islands. When I thought about the timing it didn't seem too bad. We would not arrive till after lunch. I reckoned it would take the best part of three hours to launched the zodiacs, run two zodiac cruises & reloaded the zodiacs. Thus, we wouldn't depart from the islands until late afternoon. I didn't expect much to be seen from the zodiacs as they would not be allowed to land on Deserta Grande. Although, a local wildlife sailing tour company were allowed to land their passengers. But the main thing was we would be leaving the islands in the late afternoon & that gave us a better opportunity for seeing a Desertas Petrel. But first we had several hours in the morning until we could see the islands in the distance.
This Whale & Dolphin boat looks like a good way to visit Deserta Grande: They run five hour afternoon trips in the summer, but leave around 18:00 from the islands which could be frustrating for seeing Desertas Petrels
With the news that the plans had been revised, a lot of the Birders were happier about the plans than they were the evening before. About a third of passengers were keen Birders or photographers, another third of the passengers were more casual Birdwatchers & the rest of the passengers, seemed to be along for the general ride. Therefore, keeping to the itinerary & looking for the key Seabirds was clearly important to a large number of the passengers. We still had to reach the islands & there were Seabirds to look for as we approached. The key species we were looking for were the locally breeding population of Band-tailed Storm-petrels AKA Madeiran Storm-petrels, some more White-faced Storm-petrels, Baroli's Little Shearwaters, Desertas Petrels & the outside chance of a Zino's Petrel, plus any passing Cetaceans or Turtles. I did see a distant Rorqual Whale which dived before we got close, as well as, Atlantic Spotted Dolphins, Short-beaked Common Dolphins & a few unidentified Dolphins. Additionally, I got to see a Loggerhead Turtle which dived before I got any photos. But for me the focus was primarily on Seabirds during the day.
White-faced Storm-petrel: This is the hypoleuca subspecies which breeds on the Salvagens Islands. We had seen the eadesorum subspecies around Cape Verde & thus, we had seen both of the North Atlantic subspecies. Unfortunately, we didn't see the Tristan da Cunha & Gough Island subspecies on the Odyssey. The other subspecies breed on islands around Australia & New Zealand & the Kermadec Islands
White-faced Storm-petrel: I saw three & today was the only day I saw this subspecies
White-faced Storm-petrel: This is the only immediately obvious Strom-petrel species in the North Atlantic
White-faced Storm-petrel: They are long-legged & spend a lot of time close to sea level with their feet down
White-faced Storm-petrel: Recently, Clements & the IOC checklists have split the Storm-petrel family into two families: Northern Storm-petrels & Southern Storm-petrels. White-faced Storm-petrel & Wilson's Storm-petrel are placed within the Southern Storm-petrel family, along with some of the other species I saw in the South Atlantic on the Odyssey. The European breeding Storm-petrel, Leach's Storm-petrel & the Band-rumped Storm-petrel complex of species are placed in Northern Storm-petrels. The checklists could do with some better family names given White-faced Storm-petrels also breed in the North Atlantic
I was keen to see some of the local breeding population of Band-rumped Storm-petrels as these would be pukka Madeiran Storm-petrels. It is currently thought there are two species on Band-rumped Storm-petrels breeding on the Canary Islands, the Salvagens Islands & Madeira. The first is the hot-season breeding population which would be the Madeiran population of Band-rumped Storm-petrels. The second is a cold-season breeding population which have been proposed should be split & named as Grant's Storm-petrels which breeds in the winter on the same islands, as well as, the Azores & Berlengas Islands off the Portuguese coast. Studies are also underway to understand how the populations we saw on the Odyssey around St Helena & Ascension Island, fit into the Band-rumped Storm-petrel complex. I saw five of the Madeiran population of Band-rumped Storm-petrels close to the Desertas Islands during the day, which would be from the hot-season breeding population. However, I only managed to get presentable photos of one individual.
Band-rumped Storm-petrel: Madeiran population. There are differences in size, weight and moult times, as well as, vocalisations between the hot & cold season breeding populations. But they look very similar in the field
Band-rumped Storm-petrel: Madeiran population. Adults will moult after the breeding season so the Madeiran population moult from August to February. In contrast, the cold-season breeding Grant's Storm-petrels should be far out to sea in May & in the middle of their moult period, which is believed to be February to early August. Seeing a Band-rumped Storm-petrel in moult around the breeding islands, could help to identify if it was a hot or cold-season breeder around the overlap months. Even during this period, if it is not in moult, then it could be a freshly moulted adult or a recently fledged youngster from the other population. Far out to sea & away from the breeding islands, then there is the added complication of separation from other recently split species from the Band-rumped complex like Cape Verde Storm-petrel & Monteiro's Storm-petrel
Band-rumped Storm-petrel: Madeiran population. For anybody interested in reading more about this ongoing taxonomic story, I would recommend reading the excellent Petrels Night and Day by Magnus Robb & the South Approach team
Band-rumped Storm-petrel: Madeiran population. Note, the square tail & clean white rump. To my eyes, these Band-rumped Storm-petrels do not look significantly different to any of the other populations we saw on the Odyssey or the Cape Verde Storm-petrels we saw. However, that will be a significant part of the reason that the Band-rumped Storm-petrel complex were considered to be a single species for so long
Band-rumped Storm-petrel: Madeiran population. The white rump extends a long way down the side of the body
Bulwer's Petrel: I saw over a thousand Bulwer's Petrels during the day
Bonxie: This Bonxie flew past during the morning
Yellow-legged Gull: Adult. There were a few hanging around the Desertas Islands
Common Tern: There were a couple of pairs hanging around the Desertas Islands
We arrived at Deserta Grande at lunchtime & the zodiacs were launched after lunch. The Wildwings party were scheduled to be in the second zodiac group. So, we had time to grab a cuppa & head up to the upper deck. Telescopes & tripods appeared & people started scanning the seas hoping for a Desertas Petrel to come back. This seemed a more sensible plan than to get in the zodiacs. After a while, Ian, one of the Wildwings group, was kind enough to lend me his telescope & tripod while he went below for a drinks break. It was hot & a lot of glare, with little reward. When Ian returned, I decided on plan B: to get an hours kip in the cabin. I wanted to be fully awake for when we left the Desertas Islands as I thought that might give me a better chance of a Desertas Petrel. I felt a lot more awake after that sleep.
Some of the hard-core photographers as we left the Desertas: Unfortunately, they were in the wrong position for the day's highlight
While some of the passengers were doing their zodiac cruise, I also had the chance to talk to Bob Flood about the chances of seeing a Pterodroma Petrel as we left the Desertas Islands. Bob said we would need to pay close attention to the rafts of Cory's Shearwaters resting on the water. He said there was a chance that a Pterodroma Petrel could be sitting with them & they tended to be more nervous of ships than the Cory's Shearwaters. Therefore, they were likely to be one of the first Shearwaters to fly up out of a raft. This was great information to know. I decided I needed to be scanning for flying Pterodroma Petrels, but to switch to scouring the rafts of Cory's Shearwaters as we encountered them. I filled the coffee pot up & headed up to grab the best position on the port bridge wing, with no intention of leaving before the light went. I also made the decision, that I wouldn't leave this position, even if there was a shout elsewhere on the Plancius as I didn't think I wouldn't get back in this excellent spot. I got there with plenty of time to get the pole position. The top deck suddenly filled with Birders as we started to leave, albeit some of the keener photographers went to the bows.
Cory's Shearwater: Just a few of the two thousand plus Cory's Shearwaters that I saw during the day. I saw the vast majority in the many rafts of Cory's Shearwaters were as we left the Desertas Islands
Cory's Shearwater: I wasn't worrying too much about photographing them today when there was a chance of seeing a Pterodroma Petrel. However, this individual came close enough for a couple of photos
In the first thirty minutes of sailing from the islands we disturbed a number of rafts of Cory's Shearwaters, but little else. Fortunately, everything changed as we reached the next raft. I picked up a Pterodroma Petrel rising from the back of the hundred or so Cory's Shearwaters in the raft & immediately started shouting directions as I lifted the camera. It was about a hundred metres in front & to the left of the Plancius. It immediately started moving forward & left from the Plancius. Fairly quickly it had moved to about four hundred metres away, but more crucially had moved from twelve o'clock to ten o'clock (the ships bows are always taken as twelve o'clock for directions). This allowed a lot more people to be able to see it from the port side for the several minutes it was on view. I checked the photos & could see they were looking OK. I wasn't sure which of the Pterodroma species it was, as I had skipped Bob's talk the previous day, but figured it could probably be identified from the photos later. Looking back, I could see Bob had seen it which was good news. There were a lot of quite rightly excited Dutch Birders around me all wanting to see the photos. I later heard that one of the best Dutch Birders on the Plancius, Ris, had been on the other bridge wing & had also independently picked it out as it started to lift off the water from the Cory's Shearwater raft. Unfortunately, he hadn't been able to get any photos & the Birders on that bridge wing would have lost it fairly quickly as it started moving towards eleven o'clock.
Zino's Petrel: The first individual. The initial view as it flew away from us with a larger Cory's Shearwater to its left
Zino's Petrel: The first individual
Zino's Petrel: The first individual. There are only 65 - 85 breeding pairs high on a couple of mountainous ridges on Madeira. I know a number of Birders who have been taken to one of the breeding sites. It is a tricky walk along a narrow ridge to get there & realistically all that it is possible to see of the Zino's Petrels are shapes moving in the dark as shining torches are obviously not allowed to minimise disturbance. But the calls are excellent, for those who have survived the ridge walk
Zino's Petrel: The first individual
Zino's Petrel: The first individual
Zino's Petrel: The first individual. It is a bit surreal to be editing these photos, whilst listening to their calls from the CDs that are part of The Sound Approach Petrels Night and Day book
Zino's Petrel: The first individual
Zino's Petrel: The first individual
Zino's Petrel: The first individual
Zino's Petrel: The first individual
Zino's Petrel: The first individual. I'm not going to win any photographic awards, but getting some photos to clinch Zino's Petrel on my list is sufficient reward for me
Once a number of Birders had seen the photos, everybody settled back down to looking again. Now we knew if there was a Pterodroma Petrel in the Cory's Shearwater rafts, there might be another. After twenty five minutes, I picked up a second more distant Pterodroma Petrel rising out of another raft. This time it was around four hundred metres ahead & it rapidly headed in the same direction as the ship & didn't turn. Only a few people around me managed to get on this individual. But again, I managed to get some photos to show Bob that evening. I carried on looking for another hour or so, but we didn't see any more Pterodroma Petrels & we had passed the Cory's Shearwater rafts. The light was starting to get poorer & I decided that I was happy to head below decks for a celebratory cuppa of tea & to upload the photos onto the laptop. But first, I had a quick chat with Bob. Bob had seen the first individual & felt it probably was a Zino's Petrel. Once he saw the back of the camera photos of the first individual, he was completely happy it was a Zino's Petrel. Wow: I really hadn't expected any real chance of seeing one, let alone finding it (even if I didn't identify it). The images of the second individual was too small to be able to figure on the back of the camera & Bob hadn't been in the right spot to see it. We would have to till I had sorted the photos on the laptop before it was identified. When I showed Bob the photos after dinner, he was happy this was also a Zino's Petrel.
Zino's Petrel: The second individual
Zino's Petrel: The second individual
Zino's Petrel: The second individual
Zino's Petrel: The second individual
Zino's Petrel: The second individual
While we were on the Atlantic Odyssey, there were a number of Dutch & Belgium Birders with walkie-talkie handsets that were on the same frequencies as the Expedition staff. This often helped get news around the Plancius. Unfortunately, most of the Birders with radios left at Cape Verde & the new passengers didn't have handsets. However, John & Jemi had brought four handsets from Hong Kong & I had been given one a couple of days ago to help improve communication. Unfortunately, they didn't have any channels that overlapped with the ship's handsets, but it was better than nothing. John, Jemi & Colin had the other three handsets & they tended to be on the bows. So having a handset, was a lot better than to try shouting really loudly & pointing to attract their attention or vice versa. At the end of each day, I had to hand my handset back to Colin to recharge it, as the battery was often dead. I looked for John, Jemi & Colin during the starter course at dinner & couldn't see them. Despite being after 20:00, it wasn't dark yet so I wandered back to the decks to look for them. Here I found about fifteen Birders still looking hard in the failing light. There was a steady movement of around twenty Baroli's Little Shearwaters moving past the Plancius. I had a quick look & saw two go past: the only Baroli's Little Shearwaters I saw during the trip. The light wasn't great for photos & my camera was in the cabin. Having seen a couple & having seen them on a number of Bilboa ferry trips in the late 90s & early 2000s, I was happy to have just seen them again. I gave Colin my powerless handset & headed back down to pass the news around the dining room & got back for my main course.
The Porto Santo ferry: This would be interesting to try for seawatching. It is just over two hours journey to Porto Santo Island to the North East of Madeira & was passing in the distance about the time we were seeing the Zino's Petrels
Not surprisingly, having got the photos of both of the Zino's Petrels & being the only person to get photos of either of them, then my laptop was very popular that evening. Especially, after the news that Bob had seen the photos of both individuals & was happy that both were Zino's Petrels.
These Dutch Birders wanting to see my photos of the Zino's Petrels after dinner: It was a Tick for many of the Birders on the Plancius. The photo was taken by my cabin mate Jeroen (copyright for the photo remains with Jeroen Creuwels)
I thought we had a small chance with seeing a Desertas Petrel. It didn't think we had any chance of seeing a Zino's Petrel so to have found two was great. It had turned out to be a brilliant day in the end. But had we kept to the original plans, then we would have missed both the Zino's Petrels & the Baroli's Little Shearwaters & there would have been a lot more people complaining (me included) at the end of the trip.