Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Above, below and within the Cloud Forest of Madeira

Being an East Atlantic Island off the coast of North West Africa, Madeira has a hot, wet climate and is very green. However during our week long stay we found that there were actually three quite different major climates on the island, depending on altitude, with a fourth encompassing the eastern peninsular of Ponta de São Lourenço and the nearby island of Porto Santos (and probably also the Desertas Islands, though we didn't visit these). This summary is based on a single one week visit in the middle of May and  is probably completely wrong so see it for what it is, simply an attempt to summarise our holiday.

Sea level to 600m

From sea level to about 600m it was often cloudy or at least partially cloudy and not much warmer than an average UK summer. The vegetation here was very lush and a clear indicator of the amount of rain the island gets. Despite the mountainous nature of the whole island right down to sea level, it seemed at times that every inch of available land especially on the south side was tightly packed with the terraces of small holdings growing their own crops. The birds typical of this area included Maderian race kestrel, Atlantic canary and plain swift, though the latter especially was not restricted to low levels and could be found anywhere on the island, even around the highest peaks.

Fig. 1 the terraces of the southern coast.

 Fig, 2 the cliffs are generally steeper on the northern coast but there are still plenty of terraces.

The exception in this lush, green, low level zone, and in fact as far as I could see, unique to the whole of Madeira, was the very arid Ponta de São Lourenço in the east which along with the nearby island of Porto Santos had a unique flora and fauna quite unlike anything else we found during our short stay, with plants such as iceplant Mesembryanthemum crystallinum and the endemic Berthelot's pipit. Both these species were also common on Porto Santos.

Fig. 3 Ponta de São Lourenço, arid and volcanic.

Fig. 4 Far from green and lush, the flora at Ponta de São Lourenço is unlike anywhere else on Madeira.

The middle level - 600m to 1400m

Between about 600m - 1400m there was often thick cloud. In this belt of cloud on the north side of Madeira is the magnificent laurisilva, a type of rain forest also known as cloud forest and for good reason. Its a very moist, humid place often covered in a blanket of fog or low cloud, with consistant temperatures throughout the year. The laurisilva of Madeira is a very ancient woodland, a UNESCO World Heritage site, dominated by a variety of laurel trees, with a splendid understorey dominated by ferns and bryophytes, and is the largest remaiming example of a forest that once covered large areas of Southern Europe. Endemic birds such as Madeiran firecrest, Trocaz pigeon and the Madeiran race chaffinch are common here.

Fig. 5 A whole host of communities living on a laurel tree in the cloud forest.

Fig. 6 The laurisilva. This particular spot is grazed by cows, hence the lack of understorey.

Fig. 7 The laurisilva is not always in cloud, but this bit was 30 minutes after I took the photo!

The mountain levels - 1400m to 1860m

Above 1400m we were often (though not always) above the clouds and into a mountain climate. However, despite getting up to around 1800m (around 6000ft), I didn't find any plants that I would recognise as tyipcally alpine apart from the occasional Saxifraga pickeringii or the spectacular Aeonium glandulosum. Perhaps this far south the mountains just aren't high enough for alpines. Typical plant species here included Erica arborea, a type of heather also known as tree heath which typically can grow up to 4m tall but sometimes can reach 7m. I've been above the clouds before in the mountains, in the Alps for example, but this was different, this wasn't just the occasional cloud drifting past below, this was often a whole belt of cloud for as far as the eye could see, the sort of view you get from an aircraft when approaching Manchester on your way home, bright blue sky above and dazzling white cloud below, the difference being that in this case you could also see islands in the clouds as the various peaks broke through. As you might expect, just like in Manchester, the best of the Madeiran weather was above the clouds, hot and sunny. This is where you had the best chance of getting a tan, or worse!

Fig. 8 Islands in the clouds.

Fig. 9 Pic do Arieiro. High above the clouds and home to the oceanic Zino's petrel.

Whilst we are in the high mountains it's worth mentioning another reason why these high peaks are different to any others that I have encounted, in that they hold the entire world population of one of the most Oceanic and endangered seabirds in the world, Zino's petrel. It's hard to put into words how awe-inspiring it is to be above the clouds on a bright moonlit night watching and listening to Zino's petrels flying around their nesting burrows, birds which otherwise you would only expect to see in the middle of the Atlantic ocean. Only around 70 pairs in existance, and they all nest here on Pic do Arieiro, above the clouds on Madeira and they have an eerie call, typical of so many of these sea birds at their burrows. With so few other birds up here, it's amazing to think that without doubt the evocative sound of Pic do Arieiro is the call of such an oceanic bird! Unfortunately, unless you're there at night, around midnight, you'll never hear it.
A few bryophytes and ferns of the laurisilva

However, exciting as these rare endemic sea birds might be, it is not they or any other bird which makes Madeira so important and special, it's the laurisilva forest and the flora, bryophytes and ferns it supports. While we were in Madeira I wrote many blog posts regarding the other flora and fauna that we saw and you can find them all by simply scrolling down the page. For the rest of this post I'm going to concentrate on the bryophytes and ferns because they deserve a special mention of their own and they are so often overlooked by the overwhelming majority of visitors, who actually probably consider the low cloud and fog an inconvenience to the their holiday rather than embracing it and recognising that it is the cloud and the moisture which is what makes Madeira and in particular the laurisilva such a special place.

There are so many endemic species on Madeira that I can't possibly put a name to all of the plants below, and it would be foolish to try. I'm not even sure that a book exists to help me name them, and I'm wary enough of putting names to British bryophytes and ferns let alone those in Madeira! Even so, I'll try to comment of those which look familiar (even if in reality they're not!). Please note, where I've suggested a name below it does not mean that it is that species, just that it looks a bit like it! I didn't even have a hand lense with me to help. The birding equivalent would be for me to say that a Fea's petrel looks a bit like a Zino's petrel without the aid of binoculars. Don't take it literally!

 A bryophyte wall in the laurisilva.


Possibly a liverwort, looks a bit like a scalewort.

Looks a bit like Pleurozium schreberi.

A liverwort, looks a bit like Conocephalum conicum.

A liverwort.

Looks like a thyme-moss.

Looks a bit like Plagiomnium undulatum.

Looks a bit like Mnium hornum.

I'm not sure what this is but I only found growing on waterfalls and it is the species I was photographing in the photos of the bryophyte wall above.

A liverwort, the purple fringe gives it a look of  Reboulia hemisphaerica.

Some type of bristle-moss? I love the capsules they really look alien like!

This moss was not in the laurisilva, it was at an altitude of about 1800m in the mountains.


Some type of hard fern.

A filmy fern.

A type of maidenhair fern.

Looks a bit like lanceolate spleenwort.

A different type of Madeiran fern.

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