Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Watching Zino’s petrels, Pic do Arieiro, Madeira

One of the rarest seabirds in the World, Zino's petrel is known from just one colony on Madeira which holds about 70 pairs. Remarkably for such an oceanic bird, it nests in burrows near the top of Madeiras 3rd highest mountain, Pic do Arieiro which stands at 1800m (around 6000ft).

The only way to see them at the nest site is to visit the colony at night when they return to their burrows.

I'd booked onto a night expedition with Madeira Wind Birds and arrived at the car park for 9.30pm to meet the rest of the group who were in a mini bus. It was about a 30 minute walk to the colony site and it was not too bad a walk though it proved a tough challenge for some of the other people on the tour, and they really slowed us down.

The wind was blowing a gale and I was a bit concerned that we might not hear the birds let alone see them, but every now and again there was a brief respite and sure enough at about 10.30pm we heard the first petrels calling.  At first they were quite distant but eventually they were calling reasonably close, though we hadn't yet seen one. The guide told me that they were usually first heard low down in the valley before eventually climbing higher and often calling quite close offering a slim chance of a silhouetted view. It was just a matter of waiting.

However the rest of the party, many of whom had remained seated throughout, now began to head back to the minibus making me wonder why they'd even bothered coming, I don't think half of them had even heard the birds.

Fortunately the guide took me to a second spot about 200m away and here it was much more sheltered. The full moon was shinning bright in a starry sky and I had decent views of several birds at reasonably close range as they dashed around the cliff, including three birds together. They shone white in the moonlight and were much better than simply silhouetted views though they did move at speed. In fact this is about the best way possible to see a species which is very difficult to identify on the sea.

I can be certain of the identification here because of the calls, but more importantly the entire colony on Pic Arieiro is Zino’s petrel, the similar Fea's petrel does not breed on the main island of Madeira, instead it breeds on the offshore Desertas islands.

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