Thursday, 23 October 2008

Back in Blighty

I’ve just come back from a week in the Azores, where I went to write a couple of articles – one about the archipelago as a birding location generally, and the other about the Priolo Life project, which has been fighting to save the Priolo, or Azores Bullfinch, from extinction.

After a brief stopover on Sao Miguel, it was off to Corvo, the smallest and most westerly of the islands, seven square miles of extinct volcano with just enough flat land for a runway and a village. Like the rest of the Azores, it’s covered with lush vegetation, with lots of small cow pastures between thickly wooded valleys and ravines.

In between some torrential rain, we found a Red-eyed Vireo high up on the mountain, but things really took off just after a large container ship had passed the island.

First, Belgian birder David Monticelli found a Common Yellowthroat in a patch of scrubby bushes close to the village. He couldn’t find any of us to tell us until breakfast the next day, so we headed back to the same spot at first light praying it hadn’t disappeared.

It hadn’t. We thought we heard it call once or twice, and then I found it flitting around a patch of maize in the company of some Blackcaps. Later, David found another (or more likely, his original). As we were waiting, though, he also spotted a chunky, strongly marked passerine, and we both got great views of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak.

It’s well-known that a lot of rare transatlantic vagrants hitch a ride part of the way, and here it was in practice. Unfortunately, I had to fly back to the main island, Sao Miguel, at this point, but the others have since found a variety of North American birds of Corvo.

After a slightly hair-raising night drive along the fog-bound, rain-lashed coast road from Ponta Delgado to Nordeste, I met up with the Priolo Life people. The idea was to get stuck in as a volunteer, to give our readers an idea of how to combine a birding holiday with a bit of practical conservation. So, I spent my time high up in the mountains, clambering up and down steep, muddy trails and getting ripped to shreds by brambles while surveying the native plants the Priolo needs if it’s to survive. And of course, we saw plenty of the birds themselves. They’re not, you’d have to say, as colourful or striking as the European Bullfinch, but they’re a fine sight all the same, and thanks to the project, their future looks a little brighter.

Finally, driving back to Ponta Delgado airport, I stopped on a headland along the coast to stretch my legs and tried to tune into BBC Radio 4, to get the India vs Australia cricket score. Instead, I got Start The Week, and by a strange chance the first voice I heard was of poet Jane Holland!

The pictures show (from top): Corvo; Belgian birder David Monticelli trying to photograph the Common Yellowthroat on Corvo; the north coast of Sao Miguel; and Nordeste.


Susan Richardson said...

Sounds like a fascinating trip...And I hope you've since managed to catch up on the outcome of the Second Test!

Matt Merritt said...

Yes, it was great, thanks. And I was delighted to see India give the Aussies such a trouncing. Sets the rest of the series up nicely.

PJ Nolan said...

Wow. I'd guess the notebooks are full of ideas after that trip! Matt, could you enlighten me (a non-birder) would that transatlantic hitchhiking of birds be a feature of pacific traffic also? I'm assuming it would?

Matt Merritt said...

Yes, it did give me a few ideas, PJ. There was quite a lot of free time, too, so I did get a fair bit of reading and writing done.

I think the same thing probably does happen with birds across the Pacific - they have the disadvantage there that there are more islands to hop between, and the disadvantage that the distances are so vast. But in recent years, there have been a few birds turning up in Britain and Ireland from the north Pacific - the theory is that they are coming over the North Pole, now that the ice is retreating so much. A worrying sign.

PJ Nolan said...

Thanks for that Matt. It has a relevance to a (slowly) evolving draft.