MADEIRA

 

A few words about the island

For those who don't want touristic details and who are only interested in birdwatching, please click here.

Time zone: one hour late as compared with France.

Geography and climate: Madeira is a very hilly island blessed with a wide range of microclimates. The temperature reached about 20░C at the seaside and only 5░C with a lot of wind and fog in the mountains or even on the plateau of Paul da Serra. The island is lined with a lot of rocky cliffs and there are very few sandy beaches. Those enjoying sunbathing for endless hours should select another place for their holidays. As on many islands, one coast is more exposed to the rain than the other and the flora is remarkably rich: orchids, anthuriums, arums, strelezias, prickly pear and bamboos sometimes grow by the side of the roads or in ditches. A visit to the tropical gardens of Monte is a must to see the local flora as well as introduced plants. There is a lot of mimosa, a few araucarias and you can see pasture land just like in the Alps after you have gone through laurel or eucalyptus forests. At a higher altitude, you will find barren rocky places only. If there are so many beautiful flowers, this is due to the high temperatures but also to the humid atmosphere. Those who like fruit will feast on pineapple, mango, medlar and above all on banana and annona. Theses fruits are much cheaper and better at the local farmers' stalls you will find here and there on the roadside. Never buy them at the Funchal covered market where people will rip you off. The farmers are very hard-working people who cultivate the smallest patch of ground in terraced gardens which are very pleasant to look at. On the whole, I found people very nice there.

Traffic: There are few road signs and the way to some villages is not always clearly indicated. There is only one motorway, between Funchal and west of Ribeira Brava. There is also a coastal road and a few other roads which cross the mountains from North to South. They can be very steep, very narrow and winding and interspersed with tunnels as is the case between Seixal and Sao Vicente. This road was being widened at the time and should be finished by now. People park just anywhere because they simply can't do anything else. They usually drive carefully and I have seen just one road-hog which is not much compared to French standards. Be careful and have a full tank because not all villages have a petrol station and not all of them will accept a credit card. Petrol is pretty expensive by the way. As a rule, I always go to the pump when my tank is half empty. When you pick up your rental car, you pay a full tank with your credit card and as most of the time you return your vehicle with some petrol left, you may feel you've been fleeced.

Between Seixal and Sao Vicente

Sites to visit:

Along the coast, from Funchal, clockwise:

The flower market in Funchal

Prazeres

Sao Lourenšo

Centre of the island:

Paul da Serra

The trip

We booked our trip at the Wasteels travel agency which proposed a discovery circuit of the island that we adapted to our needs. We left on 7th April and returned on the 15th of the same month.

 

7 April 1998. We left from Luxembourg in a Luxair Boeing 737-500. The plane landed brutally because the runway, at that time at least, was the shortest in Europe for such aircraft. Picking up the Fiat Punto we had rented was a bit of a problem and we had to be patient. We were surprised at the beauty of the flowers which you can see everywhere, even in Fuchal, where parking is not easy. We didn't lose much time there and went through Camara de Lobos where we saw a lot of banana trees. As far as birds are concerned, we saw some Yellow-legged Gulls, a Ruddy Turnstone and above all a Lesser Kestrel. This species is very rare on the island but was the conditions of observations were excellent. Being a little hungry, we bought bananas, annonas, medlars and some grape. Actually fruit is delicious anywhere on the island. In the evening, we were comfortably accommodated in the hotel full of tourists who had come to gorge themselves and wander about in groups packed in coaches.

Funchal

8 April 1998. At Prazeres, we saw our first Canaries and took a stroll in the area.

Eucalyptus forest near Prazeres

9 April 1998. We visited Paul do Mar then went through Ponta do Largo where we saw the remains of burnt forests and, here and there, spotted a few houses adorned with tiles the shape of birds or human heads at the roof corners. We drove on to Porto Moniz where we had lunch in a nice restaurant then drove up the long road from Seixal to Sao Vicente. On the plateau of Paul da Serra the visibility was reduced to 20 m because of the fog. We felt we were at the North Cape! At the end of the day, we took a pleasant walk along a levada, near Rabacal.

10 April 1998. We wandered about in Jardim do Mar then attended part of the historical reconstruction of Christ's Passion in Ribeira Brava because it was Good Friday and Portugal is a devout Roman Catholic country. We drove on to the cliff of Cabo Girao where we had a fine view of Funchal which we visited a little later on. To conclude this day of sightseeing, we went to Monte, driving up very steep and winding narrow roads. On the way back to the hotel, we saw 5 Ruddy Turnstones.

11 April 1998. It was chilly that morning but, fortunately, the road between Madalena do Mar and Paul da Serra is really beautiful. After the eucalyptus forest we found mountain pastureland. On the plateau I saw, at last, a Berthelot's Pipit. We passed near the Pousada dos Vinhaticos to go to Eira do Serrado where we had a fine view of Curral das Freiras. There is a natural park south of Poiso but we didn't see anything worthwhile there. We ended that excursion at Pico de Arieiro where we had a drink of hot chocolate to get a little warmer because we were surrounded with patches of fog patches at an altitude of 1810 m.

Foggy mountain

12 April 1998. It was Easter and this is no ordinary day in Madeira. In the village of Prazeres I heard a Common Quail. On this day, churches are decorated with orchids and strelezias and other flowers, just as beautiful, and people go to processions, barefooted or elegantly dressed and apparently united in the same faith. It rained, then the fog came down as we drove up the plateau of Paul da Serra, which didn't prevent me from seeing a Eurasian Woodcock in flight. At noon, we reached Santana where we had booked a room in the hotel Quinta da Fourhao which has a lot of class and which we liked much better than the more classical one in Prazeres.

Santana

13 April 1998. On that day, we decided to go to the seaside. In Machico, we spotted 6 Common Terns and far off over the sea, 2 Cory's Shearwater. The walk on the Sao Lourenco peninsula is a "must" on this island and even if you are on your last legs at the end of the path, you won't regret it because the site is very picturesque. On the parking place, you are bound to find some Berthelot's Pipits. I also heard a Common quail there. On our way home, we went through Camacha which is worth seeing only if you take an interest in wickerwork.

14 April 1998. It was cold on that day, just as in the rest of Europe. We went to the covered market of Funchal for its fruit, fish and flowers. We felt we had been ripped off and to forget this we decided to have a closer look at Pico Ruivo. We climbed up in the fog and after half-an-hour we were soaked. Knowing we wouldn't be able to see anything, we turned back and went to the small natural park north of Funchal. It is a nice place but we didn't find anything worth the detour.

15 April 1998.  Just before leaving, I was lucky enough to spot a Spanish Sparrow.  No problem on the way home, even though the rain didn't stop.

Ornithological summary

Madeira is a mountainous island lying off the western coast of Morocco which is worth a visit for those who take an interest in birds but also in botany. You can find numerous exotic flowers there which, by the way, often replace the original flora. As to birds, as is often the case for islands, the number of species is far more reduced. I thought I would be seeing a lot of gulls because the coast is rocky and there are many cliffs, but I was wrong. There are very few sandy beaches, which can account for the limited number of waders I saw.

The most common gull is the Yellow-legged Gull. I saw Common Terns, but actually very few. I think there must be uncommon birds in the Salvagen or Desertas islands which lie off shore, like Bulwer's Petrel for instance. Freira is said to nest on Madeira itself but I was not lucky enough to find it. I did see the few reserves of the island but I didn't see a single soul (whether bird or human) at the park house which was closed. A real shame! From the coast, I was able to see some Cory's Shearwater even if I hadn't brought my spotting scope. Even if you haven't brought your spotting scope, the bird's jizz is a giveaway. As to raptors, the Common Kestrel can be seen everywhere but I also saw 1 Lesser Kestrel. The local race of the Common Buzzard often behaves like the Rough-legged Buzzard, hovering even above the sea (but not too far away from the shore, though). There were very few migrating waders, and those I couln't make out, except for the Ruddy Turnstone because they were too far away. I was lucky enough to see a Eurasian Woodcock in flight on the plateau shrouded in fog. At this time of year, there is very often a lot of fog at a high elevation. My efforts to find the Long-toed Pigeon (Columba trocaz) in the high-lying laurel forests were fruitless. It mustn't be easy to find it if you are short for time and if you haven't come for birdwatching only. I thought I saw a very dark Stock Dove but I'm not sure this species lives on the island. As I didn't see this bird in the Long-toed Pigeon's usual habitat and there are a lot of feral Rock Doves in the cliffs, I didn't twitch it. I was able to see Berthelot's Pipit very easily because it is quite familiar. Contrary to what is said in some guide books, you can find it at low altitudes. I saw it several times on a cliff by the seaside. I thought it would be difficult to make it out from the Meadow Pipit, even though I'm not sure this species lives on Madeira, but actually it was quite easy.  Berthelot's Pipit is much greyer and it gives out a very different call. The Grey Wagtail is abundant even in villages. Birds are not attracted by the eucalyptus forests because I've heard insects get stuck in the sap of these trees and are therefore scarce. You can hear Canaries singing almost everywhere and the Plain Swift is common. So common in fact that, were it not for my friend Jean Francois I would still be thinking that I had seen Common Swifts.  There are many endemic races on the island, such as the (Madeiran) Chaffinch and it is always worthwhile noticing how the plumage of some birds is different from the one we are accustomed to see. The Common Quail is pretty abundant, even close to houses or on cliffs, which came as a surprise to me. I don't know anything about the statute of this bird and it is likely some of them were migrating. I saw quite a large number of European Robins and some other common species. There were also many lizards and centipedes, at least near the hotels I lived in.

Of course, such a short trip is not enough to have a good idea of what you can find on Madeira but it might induce you to go there. The people are very nice but you should definitely avoid being ripped off in the covered marked in Funchal!

List of species seen

01 Cory's Shearwater Calonectris diomedea
02 Common Buzzard Buteo buteo
03 Common Kestrel Falco tinnunculus
04 Lesser Kestrel Falco naumanni
05 Common Quail Coturnix coturnix
06 Eurasian Oystercatcher Arenaria interpres
07 Eurasian Woodcock Scolopax rusticola
08 Yellow-legged Gull Larus michahellis
09 Common Tern Sterna hirundo
10 Rock Dove Columba livia
11 Plain Swift Apus unicolor
12 Berthelot's Pipit Anthus berthelotii
13 Grey Wagtail Motacilla cinerea
14 European Robin Erithacus rubecula
15 Eurasian Blackbird Turdus merula
16 Blackcap Sylvia atricapilla
17 Firecrest Regulus ignicapilla
18Spanish SparrowPasser hispaniolensis
19 Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs
20 Island Canary Serinus canaria
21 European Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis
22 Eurasian Linnet Carduelis cannabina



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