Macaronesia - The Azores, Madiera Archipelago, the Salvage Islands,and the Canary Islands

Macaronesia (the Azores, the Madeira Archipelago, the Salvage Islands, the Canary Islands and the Cape Verde Islands). The islands are important breeding grounds for a number of seabirds, including: Fea's Petrel, Zino's Petrel, Bulwer's Petrel, Cory's Shearwater, Little Shearwater, Band-rumped Storm-Petrel, and White-faced Storm-Petrel.

Although also part of Macronesia, the Cape Verde Islands are reviewed on a separate page together with the Cape Verde peninsula in Senegal.

The Azores

Lying well out in the Atlantic, this scattered group of volcanic islands constitutes one of the remotest corners of the Western Palearctic and as such has gained some notoriety in recent times as an excellent place to see Nearctic vagrants.

There are nine main islands spread over an area of 900 square miles. Two thirds of the Western Palearctic's Roseate Terns breed on the Azores. Good numbers of Cory's Shearwaters breed and occur throughout the surrounding waters. Little Shearwaters (P. assimilis baroli) was first discovered to breed within the islands in the early 1950s and the population is currently estimated at a minimum of150 pairs. In spite of the fact that an estimated 800 pairs of Band-rumped (Madeiran) Storm-petrels nests on several islands, the species is only infrequently encountered at sea. Breeding was not confirmed until the early 1990s. There are three known breeding colonies, all on small, rat-free islands. One is situated on Vila (near Santa Maria), the others 300 km to the north-west on Baixo and Praia (both near Graciosa). Recent work by Luis Monteiro and others has revealed two seasonal populations (Monteiro et al., 1996b, Monteiro and Furness 1998). On Baixo and Praia, adults return in late March and are recorded in every month until at least mid-November (Monteiro and Furness, 1998). The presence of brood-patches on captured birds shows a distinct bimodal distribution, with peaks in May-June and October-November, suggestive of two cycles of breeding (so-called cool and hot season breeders). The peak laying, hatching and fledging dates are 19 May, 30 June and 8 September for the hot-season populations on Baixo and Praia, and 1 October,11 November and 28 January for the cool-season population on Vila, Baixo and Praia. Colony attendance of the two populations overlaps during August and early September. Monteiro et al (1996a) estimated the breeding populations as 200 pairs in the hot season (on Baixo and Praia) and 600 pairs in the cool season (400 on Baixo and Praia, 200 on Vila).

In addition to breeding at different times, the hot and cool seanson birds differ in a number of morphological characters (egg length and weight, chick weight, timing of breast feather molt as well as in nine morphometric measurements of the adults) suggesting that they might in fact be different species. Recaptures of adults on Baixo and Praia indicates limited exchange between the two populations. While there is currently no data on possible field separation of the two seasonal populations, these birds have subtle differences in body proportions (hot-season birds are smaller than cool-season birds) but have longer wings (relative to body size) and longer and deeper forked tails (Monteiro and Furness1998).

The land birding is also excellent. Lying near the middle of the Atlantic, the Azores are ideally positioned to catch windblown North American vagrants, and the long list includes many firsts for the Western Palearctic (e.g. Tricolored Heron, Little Blue Heron). Lajes do Pico is well known for attracting vagrant waders, gulls, herons and egrets. There are a handful of endemic landbirds (Azores Bullfinch, Azores Canary, Azores Goldcrest and the local form of Common Chaffinch). These can be found in the laurel forests of Pico da Vara and Serra de Tronqueira on Sao Miguel.

Whaling began in the Azores in the early 1800's and the trade steadily grew until the islands became one of the main whaling stations in the North Atlantic. More than 20 different cetaceans have been recorded in and around the Azores. Sperm Whales are frequent, often accompanied by groups of Short-finned Pilot Whales. Blue, Humpback, Fin, Minke, and Sei Whales are recorded regularly. Several species of smaller dolphins are numerous, including Common Dolphin, Spotted Dolphin, Striped Dolphin. Orca, Risso's Dolphin and Bottlenose Dolphin also occur but with less freqency.

Getting There: A number of birding tour companies (e.g. Sunbird) offer trips to the Azores that include time at sea.

Breeding Seabirds

Cory's Shearwater
Little Shearwater
Bulwer's Petrel
White-faced Storm-petrel


Greater Shearwater
Sooty Shearwater
Red-billed Tropicbird
Sabine's Gull
Sooty Tern
Pomarine Jaeger
Parasitic Jaeger


Herald (Trinidade?) Petrel - 1st record for Western Palearctic, July 1997.
?South Polar Skua?

Marine Mammals

Sperm Whale
Blue Whale
Humpback Whale
Fin Whale
Sei Whale
Minke Whale
Short-finned Pilot Whale
Bottlenose Dolphin
Common Dolphin
Spotted Dolphin
Striped Dolphin
Risso's Dolphin

Madiera Archipelago

Situated in the subtropical North Atlantic, some 400 miles off the coast of Morocco, the Madiera archipelago consists of the main island of Madiera, its sister island Porto Santo and the outlying Salvage and Desertas island groups, all of which belong to the Funchal Municipality. In 1982, the Regional Government of Madeira declared approximately two thirds of the main island a nature reserve and later incorporated The Salvage Islands and Desertas. A good variety of seabirds (Cory's, Little and Mediterranean Shearwaters) can be seen from land-based seawatchers or from the ferry between Ponta de Sao Lourenco and Porto Santo. Avoid the hydrofoil and take the slow ferry (2.5 hours each way on an old British Steam Ship, the 'Lady of Mann'.). An even better way to explore the archipelago is by yachet. Click here to read P. William and Susan A. Smith's account of a voyage between Gomera and Madiera in July 1997.

Desertas is a three island group (Iheu Chao, Deserta Grande and Iheu do Bugio, with a total land area of c.20 sq. km.), aligned along a north-south axis some 10 km southeast of Madeira - from which they are clearly visible. The islands were once owned by the Hintons, a British family, before being appropriated by the local Madeira government. Ilha Bugio is a forbidding volcanic peak that is not really accessible on foot except by helicopter. Fea's Petrel can be seen around the islands during the nesting season, especially on the eastern side of Bugio. In addition the critically endangered Zino's Petrel, the islands support a population of the endangered Monk Seal.

The Salvage Islands (Selvagens) are much smaller than Desertas, consisting of two small islands and nearby islets (total land area 2.73 square km). These are arranged into two groups, spread over an area of 20 km. At one point the islands were owned by the Rocha Machado family, wealthy bankers from Madeira. Lying 200 km south of Madeira, the Selvagens are actually nearer to the Canary Islands than to Madeira and there have been some recent moves by Spain to annex the islands in order to expand Spain's Exclusive Economic Zone.

Ilha Selvagem Pequena is home to some 25,000 pairs of White-faced Storm-Petrel as well as breeding Bulwer's Petrel, Cory's Shearwater (13,000+ prs), Little Shearwater, and Band-rumped Storm-Petrel. Manx Shearwater, Red-billed Tropicbird, Wilson's Storm-petrel, and migrant jaegers are all possible in the waters around the islands.

Madiera is the top of a large submarine volcano. The island is 36 miles long and 14 miles wide, rising 16,500 feet from the sea bed and 6,100 feet above sea level. Around 90% of the island is 600 feet or more above sea level and covered by a primitive laurel forest (the "laurisilva"). The forest hosts an endemic pigeon, the Long-toed Pigeon, or Trocaz. These can be found at Ribeira Frio, which is reachable by taxi. In addition, interesting landbirds include Plain Swift (Apus unicolor), Madieran Firecrest (Regulus ignicapillus madeirensis), Madieran Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs maderensis).

Madiera was discovered in 1419 by the Portuguese navigator Joao Goncalves Zarco. While at anchor off Porto Santo (which he had co-discovered in 1418) during a storm, Zarco's crew saw Madeira on the horizon and concluded this it must mark the end of the earth. Zarco returned the following year with a less nervous crew and reached the mountainous and densely forested island, which he named Ilha da Madeira (meaning Island of Wood). He was so taken with the place that he stayed on as Governor and colonizer. Except for some British occupation during the Napoleonic wars, the islands have remained under Portuguese rule. Remarkably, the island is one of the most densly populated areas of Europe, with an average of 65 people per square mile. About a million Madeirans live overseas, mostly in South Africa and Venezuela. Click here to read an account of island life written for National Geographic magazine by John McCarry.

The Canary Islands

The Canarian Archipelago consists of seven inhabited islands (El Hierro, La Palma, La Gomera, Tenerife, Gran Canaria, Lanzarote, Fuerteventura) and a few smaller barren islands. Their total area is about 7500 square km and they are located 1100 km away from the Spanish mainland, and about 100 km from the coast of African.

Inter-island ferries offer an excellent opportunity for seabirding. Cory's Shearwater can be seen from almost any ferry and often from shore. Bulwer's Petrels have been reported from the following ferries: La Gomera-Tenerife, Tenerife-Gran Canaria, Tenerife-Fuerteventura (Puerto del Rosario). Little Shearwater (Puffinus assimilis baroli) have been records from many of the ferries as well as from seawatches at Punta de la Rasca (southern Tenerife). Band-rumped (Madeiran) Storm-Petrel has been reported from the Tenerife and El Hierro ferry at dusk. White-faced Storm-Petrel from the ferry between El Hierro and La Gomera

Helpful Literature

Friesen, VL., Lodha, V., Monteiro, LR and Furness, RW (1998) Evidence for sympatric speciation in the Band-rumped Storm-petrel Oceanodroma castro. Ostrich 69: 400-401.

Monteiro, L.R. and Furness, R.W. (1998) Speciation through temporal segregation of Madeiran Storm-petrel (Oceanodroma castro) populations in the Azores? Phil. Trans. R. Soc London B 353:945-953.

Sangster G. (1999) Cryptic species of storm-petrels in the Azores? Dutch Birding 21: 101-106.

Copyright © 2002 All rights reserved. Angus Wilson

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