Madeira Windbird's - Zino’s Petrel Expedition
Zino’s Petrels are indeed Madeira wind-birds but Madeira Wind Birds is also a small company run by the young couple Hugo Romano and Catrina Fagundes that specializes in providing opportunities for keen seabirder’s to experience the amazing seabird diversity of the Madeiran archipleago.
Hugo and Catrina have been working closely for the last couple of years with seabird authority Hadoram Shirihai to better understand the “at sea” distribution and ecology of the locally breeding pterodromas - Zino’s and Desertas Petrels. Their initial successes have attracted great notice in the seabirding community and seabirding notables such as Bob Flood, Steve Howell and Mike Danzebaker are among the recent guests on the Oceanodroma.
Hugo & Catrina preparing the Oceanodroma for a seabirding expedition off Madeira
On the evening of May18/11 I left World Pelagic Birding Headquarters (somewhat inconveniently located in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada) and headed out for the 6 hour drive to Detroit, Michigan the closest major international airport. The next afternoon I left Detroit and after stops in Philadelphia and Lisbon I touched down at Funchal on Madeira at about 1500 hrs local time.
For those nor familiar with the geography of the “Atlantic Islands” the Madeiran Archipelago lies 1000km southwest of mainland Portugal and about 600 km due west of Morocco. It along with the Azores, Canary Islands and Cape Verdes make up Macronesia. Thirty-five kilometers to the northeast of Madeira lies the island group of Porto Santo and about 20km to the south east lies the Desertas Islands which includes Bugio the only known nesting site of the Desertas Petrel. Deserta Grande hosts possibly the largest colony of Bulwer’s Petrels in the world.
The pterodroma petrels that breed in Macronesia were up until recently considered subspecies of the Soft-Plumaged Petrel, Pterodroma mollis. In the last 10 years mitochondrial DNA analysis along with considerable differences in size, vocalizations and breeding behavior suggest that the Macronesian pterodromas are not closely related to P.mollis and have a greater affinity to Bermuda Petrel, P. cahow.
Fea’s Petrel off North Carolina - speculative origin Cape Verdes Islands which supports 500-1000 pairs (note the large thick bill)
Fea’s Petrel includes the birds breeding on Bugio in the Desertas Islands along with the nominate form found breeding on the Cape Verdes Islands. There has been a push towards considering these distinct species and there are some morphological differences but definitive separation at sea is not currently possible. I will refer to the Bugio breeding birds as “Desertas Petrels” understanding that the exact taxonomic status of this group is still tentative.
Zino’s Petrel is endemic to Madeira were it breeds on inaccessible ledges in the central mountains between Pico Areeiro and Pico Ruvio. The birds are found in Madeiran waters from April to late summer. Peliminary results from geolocation studies suggest Zino’s Petrels are windspread over the North Atlantic during breeding season with migration towards the Brazilian coast in non-breeding season.
Pico do Arieiro, Madiera- above the clouds breeding site for Zino’s Petrel
On the evening of May 22nd we met up with Hugo and Katrina for the much anticipated night hike to the Zino’s Petrel breeding site high in the Madeiran mountains. The group consisted of Bob Flood (who had been in Madeira for sometime studying Zino’s Petrels and gathering video material for his multimedia North Atlantic Seabirds series), Tim Worfolk ( well know bird illustrator preparing to illustrate the much anticipated- Shirihai, H. & Bretagnolle, V. Albatrosses, petrels and shearwaters of the world: a handbook to their taxonomy, identification, ecology and conservation, A & C Black, London), along with British birders David Norman (and his charming wife) and Mike Buckland.
By the time we reached Pico do Arieiro it was pitch black with a howling wind and dense fog with intermittent mist/rain. Walking along the trail with a very dim headlight and glasses covered in mist proved very interesting. The howling wind added to the adventure and I sort of wondered how I would hear a locomotive let alone a bird. Things improved when I acquired a better light and we arrived at a more sheltered area.
Highest point in Madeira - pleasant day trip, amazing nocturnal adventure
The trail is certainly “interesting” and appears to travel along the top of a narrow ridge with a rather precipitous vertical drop off on both sides. The lack of visibility was reassuring as I couldn’t really appreciate what was likely a pretty scary walk for those of us with a significant phobia for heights. After about 45 minutes we arrived at the listening site which was being monitored by local conservation officers.
The listening site was very still and must be sheltered although I couldn’t really figure out how. One could see the vague outline of the surrounding rocky peaks as fog drifted by in swirling masses. Immediately we started hearing the haunting calls of the Zino’s Petrels. A very eerie sound emanating from the mist and spellbinding. On occasion the birds were so close we could feel the wing beats as dark shapes passed by. A number of birds both the higher pitched females and the males called plaintively and its hard to describe what an unreal experience this is.
Magnus Robb captured the feel of this unique experience well on the audio portion of the book Petrels, Night and Day; A Sound Approach but I would highly recommend this adventure in person. Hugo and Katrina broke out tea and cookies for the group which we enjoyed while watching the fog swirl around the sheer craggy peaks and enjoying the petrels spooky serenade.
South side of Madeira - the calm side
Day 1-May 23/11
Well the next day we were all ready for some seabird action. We had three days of trips planned each starting in the early afternoon and running until dark. As we left the marina we had a Ruddy Turnstone on the rocks and a Whimbrel along the breakwall in Canical. We headed east to the eastern tip of Madeira and rounded the headlands and headed north. The sea was quite rough but the Oceanodroma handled it very well. Although this unique craft is a little wet when travelling it is a very stable platform when stationary and allows for very close viewing of the seabirds.
Cory’s Shearwater- Calonectris diomedea borealis - off Madiera
Cory’s Shearwaters are abundant off Madeira breeding in all the island groups. They have a close relationship with the local dolphins often occurring together in big feeding frenzies.Spotted and Striped, and Bottle-nosed Dolphins were all seen during the pelagics.
Spotted Dolphins & Cory’s Shearwater- a common site off Madeira
We arrived at the appropriate spot some 10-20 miles off the north of Madeira and Hugo put out the frozen blocks of chum which floats nicely and last a long time. The strategy is to chum and drift and wait for the seabirds to come on in. This doesn’t take very long. The first birds at the chum were of course Yellow-legged Gulls.
Second cycle Yellow-legged Gull at the chum
A bit of controversy developed among the group in regards to Larus and the value of their study. Tim and I were definitely within the Larophile group with Bob showing definitive signs of Larusphobia (presumably due to some type of traumatic experience during childhood of which one can only imagine). The remainder of the group remained uncommitted.
The gulls were quickly joined by a number of Manx Shearwaters. It was great to get such close looks at these birds as they zipped by with there quick choppy wingbeats so different from the larger and more languid Corey’s Shearwaters.
Manx Shearwater, the commly seen Puffinus sp. off Madeira
Next the chum started bringing in several Bulwer’s Petrels. Their fast & very erratic flight style makes these birds very challenging to photograph but they are very common off Madeira and eventually you get one in focus if you are persistent. What a thrill to see so many of these petrels at so close a range and to become so familiar with their unique jizz.
Madeira offers a unique opportunity to study Bulwer’s Petrels very closely at sea
Next on the cast of seabird characters were Madeiran Storm-petrels. This is the warm season breeder on Madiera and one of potentially four taxon of “Band-rumped” Storm-Petrels that breed in Macronesia. The cool season breeder on Madeira is referred to as “Grant’s” Storm-petrel and this is the mostly likely candidate for the commonly seen “Band-rumped” Storm-Petrels seen on the south-eastern North American coast. Madeiran Storm-petrels are often seen in only small numbers off Madeira so we were lucky to have a prolonged viewing of at least 10 birds.
Madeiran Storm-Petrel, off Madiera
Key notable features
1) feet not extended beyond tail (not a Wilson’s)
2) lighter carpal bar ends before reaching leading edge of wing (not a Leach’s)
3) narrow band-rumped with white extending to flanks and undertail coverts (not a Leach’s)
4)relatively long wings compared to Wilson’s but not as long and narrow as Leach’s
5) minimally forked tail-Leach’s is usually markedly forked but can be tricky in molt or if worn
6) no narrow dark stripe through rump as seen in Leach’s
7) flight and feeding style unique - get Flood & Fisher’s new multimedia Storm-petrel guide -link below
Madeiran Storm-Petrel-off Madeira, May/11
Madeiran Storm Petrel “belly feeding”, off Madeira
These “Band-rumpeds” appeared to have a quite narrow tail band with a shallow but definite fork. Interestingly they have quite short a very scrawny legs almost vestigial and markedly different from Wilson’s Storm-petrels belying there markedly different feeding styles.
The Madeiran Storm-petrels were often seen “belly-feeding” a practice I have never seen in Wilson’s but according to Bob Flood is also seen in European Strom-petrels. It was a rare privilege to be able to study these birds along with three other Storm-petrel species under the tutelage of Bob Flood who literally has written “the book’ on North Atlantic Storm-petrels. Bob and Ashley Fisher will be publishing their multimedia guide to Storm-Petrels & Bulwer’s Petrel very soon and a sneak peek at some of the illustrations and video suggests this is going to be a truly fabulous and unique resource for both the beginner and veteran seabirder.
White-faced Storm-petrel, off Madeira
We had one last new species for the day when a pair of everyones favourite comical seabird the White-faced Storm Petrel came in to provide a great show as they hopped about like marine Kangaroo mice. It was getting dark as we headed back to port although it had been a fun afternoon the lack of a single pterodroma made me quite nervous. Had all the Zino’s flew off to sea? Hugo said “tomorrow is another day” and I felt optimistic that pterodromas would be coming our way.
Day 2- May 24/11
The wind had picked up significantly overnight and in fact it was bad enough to close the airport temporarily. It looked like a perfect day for pterodroma activity. We headed north again and ran into some fairly good sized swells. After clearing the rough area around the eastern headlands we ran into a large collection of Corey’s Shearwaters feeding with Spotted and Striped Dolphins.
Climbing some decent size swells in the Oceanodroma (taken with point & shoot camera)
We slowed to look around and a smallish pterodroma approached - smallish bill, significant amount of white on the underwing- the Zino’s Petrel zipped by the boat offering good looks to all aboard. Unfortunately as we were in transit we all had our cameras stowed in water proof sacks but we were all pleased to have had a decent look at our first Zino’s Petrel of the day. We continued on and got settled in a location some 10 or so kilometers north of Madeira. The chum went out and anticipation was high.
Well it wasn’t long before a small stocky storm-petrel came fluttering over a big swell to patter around the slick. The white under wing panel stood out confirming it as a European Storm-petrel.
European Storm-petrel, off Madeira
European Storm-petrel is markedly different in flight style from the Madeiran Storm-petrel and would be easier to confuse with Wilson’s Storm-petrel which has a similar but less “busy’ flight and feeding style. This and its stockier structure give it a unique jizz that I am sure is instantaneously recognizable to experienced European seabirders. We were subsequently graced with a couple of Wilson’s Strom-petrels fro comparison purposes
Out of the blue appeared another pterodroma. Once again the bird appeared relatively small with a smallish bill, the underwing was mostly dark. Unlike our first Zino’s Petrel this bird put on an extended show making multiple close passes by the boat from every angle. Despite the fairly rough seas the prolonged presence of the bird allowed us to get some decent pictures and without a doubt this bird was the highlight of the trip.
First pass of Zino’s Petrels # 2 showing its diagnostic slender bill
Until recently the at sea identification of Zino’s Petrel has been hampered by lack of information and/or incorrect information in texts and articles. This all changed with the publication of “The Identification of Fea’s, Desertas and Zino’s Petrels at sea” by Hadoram Shirihai, Vincent Bretagnolle and Francis Zino in the July/10 issue of Birder’s World. This 36 page study complete with 90 photographs and a comprehensive illustrated plate is really a landmark piece of work and an essential study for any serious seabird aficionado.
Zino’s Petrel #2 from multiple angles ,off Madeira
In Shirihai et al’s Birding World article they conclude that a conclusive identification ( Zino’s vs. Fea’s/Desertas) can be made at sea but this needs to be done by careful assessment of size a jizz along with bill size and shape. They go on to emphasize “The slender bill is the most important field characteristic if it can be compared and recorded photographically”. In regards to plumage differences they state “a petrel with extensive, broad and continuous white on the under secondary coverts should immediately alert observers to the possibility of Zino’s”. This helpful differentiating feature is unfortunately only present in about 15% of Zino’s.
It wasn’t long before our third Zino’s Petrel appeared this one having an extensively white underwing and a very slender bill. Unfortunately it was not as cooperative and only marginal “ record shots” were achieved. They do however illustrate how extensive the white underwing can be in some Zino’s Petrels.
Zino’s Petrel #3-note extensive white on underwing a very slender bill
Well we had one more photographable pterodroma for the day. This bird was the least cooperative but I was able to get some distant record shots. Although the pictures were suboptimal I believe they are adequate to confirm that this is as well a Zinos’ Petrel.
Zino’s Petrel #4
We headed back to Madeira very pleased. Multiple Zino’s Petrels with incredibly good and prolonged looks at one of the birds and decent photos - I felt quite satisfied and relieved especially after a pterodroma shut out on day 1.
Day #3 May 25/11
Today was still windy but the sea to the south was quite calm. So far we hadn’t seen anything suggestive of a Desertas Petrel which is largest, stockiest, biggest billed bird of the Fea’s complex. The previous weeks pelagics had recorded a number of pterodromas but all were felt to be Zino’s (I don’t think anyone complained). Bob had received a note and a picture from a group of Spanish birders who had a probable Desertas off the Porto Santos ferry a few days earlier.
Apparently Desertas Petrels arrive back quite a bit later than Zino’s and are rarely recorded until May and probably the bulk of the birds don’t return until late May or possibly even early June. Desertas Petrels are only know to nest on Bugio the southern most of the Desertas Islands. Bugio is far from an idyllic “desert isle”. It is craggy, barren and rather ominous appearing. Perfect home for a pterodroma. The population estimate for Desertas Petrel is 150-200 pairs.
Bugio - Desertas Islands, lone breeding location for Desertas Petrel
We left Madeira heading straight south towards the Desertas Islands. The Desertas are home to some other rare critters specifically the critically endangered Monk Seal Monachus monachus and the endemic Desertas Tarntula which lives apparently only “on the top’’ of Desertas Grande. This is the largest island in the group and holds a small research station and “Baby Seal” hospital.
The island is also home to one of if not the largest Bulwer’s Petrel breeding colonies in the world. The Macronesian Shearwater which may be undergoing a very critical population crash breeds on all three of the Desertas. Desertas Grande is a stunningly beautiful and unique island.
Bizarre and colourful cliffs of Desertas Grande
Unique plants include many Madeiran Archipelago endemics in narrowly vegetated zone on Desertas Grande
As we passed Desertas Grande we observed large numbers of Cory’s Shearwaters and Bulwers Petrels. The numbers of Bulwer’s Petrels seemed much higher than the north side of the island. It was amazing to be able to see so many Bulwer’s so well - really an amazing bird with a an erratic and aerobatic flight.
Bulwer’s Petrels, off Bugio, Desertas Islands
Hugo put out the chum and the obligatory Yellow-legged Gulls popped in followed quickly by a second winter Sabine’s Gull.
The Sabine’s Gull hung out for the entire chumming session.
First summer Sabine’s Gull, off Bugio Desertas Islands
A number of Cory Shearwaters joined the growing crowd and subsequently a small flock of Manx Shearwaters. The Manx Shearwater’s were diving completely underwater presumably to retrieve tidbits of sinking chum.
Cory’s Shearwater, off Bugio, Desertas Islands
Manx Shearwater disappearing under water -well your just going to have to take my word for it.
A few Wilson’s Petrels fluttered by followed by a pair of White-faced Storm-Petrels. One of the White-faced storm-petrels seemed to take a real shine to the Sabine’s Gull who studiously ignored its advances. A distant pterodroma was spotted by Bob on a couple occasions. It appeared large and bulky but never really came in close enough to allow pictures. A juvenile Arctic Tern allowed some close viewing if only very briefly.
White-faced Storm-petrel displaying for the Sabine’s Gull
First summer Arctic Tern-off Bugio, Desertas Islands
Finally a largish pterodroma cooperated and made several passes at a distance that allowed one to note its bulk and the significantly heavier jizz than the rather smallish and delicate Zino’s. The underwing was uniformly dark (other than the anterior axillary region of course) with no appreciable white in the underwing panel. The bill was noticeably heavy and thick. The photos although along way from National Geographic quality confirmed the identification of Desertas Petrel. ( Off course some assumption based on location is being made as at sea identification of Desertas vs. Fea’s may never be entirely conclusive).
Desertas Petrel, off Bugio, Desertas Islands - note large thick bill and uniform dark underwing with no white in wing panel
I was quite pleased although I really would have appreciated some better pictures I wasn’t going to complain. Things started to slow down and it was starting to get dark and we were getting ready to leave when Hugo spotted a Macronesian Shearwater landing at the chum. he immediately brought it to our attention and we were all on the bird immediately. I could see the small size and the extensive white around the eye. They pulled the boat around to move back closer to the chum and the bird bolted. We watched it head off towards Bugio and a valiant attempt to follow it ended when the bird disappeared into the distance.
It would appear that the Macronesian Shearwater is undergoing a precipitous decline within its restricted range with some relatively large breeding sites being abandoned. This species is noted for its timidity and is a challenging species to see well at see and to photograph. This species may be found from the Porto Santo Ferry and this maybe the best opportunity to see this bird while in Madeira. A group of Spanish birders photographed this species from the ferry during our stay and Bob mentioned he had had good luck seeing this elusive species from the ferry. With hopes of getting a few photos I took the ferry the next day but sadly struck out. I did have breeding plumage Arctic, Roseate and Common Terns in Funchal Harbour but little else of note
The Crew -Tim Worfolk, Hugo Romano, Bob Flood, David Norman, Kirk Zufelt The Captain - Catrina Fagundes
All and all this trip was a great success. Hugo and Catrina had everything organized down to a tee and were excellent hosts. The Oceanodroma was a great platform for photography and the birds cooperated wonderfully. I would very highly recommend this experience to all avid seabirders. No were else on the planet are you going to be reliably see Zino’s Petrels which just a few years ago had never been definitively identified or photographed at sea. Thanks to the Madeira Wind Birds these birds can now be seen well and enjoyed by all who make the journey to the fascinating Madeiran Archipelago.
A detailed species/ numbers list for this trip can be found on Hugo and Catrina’s website.
A few more pictures for the road..........next stop the Galapagos
World Pelagic Birding Headquaters
Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario
Zino’s Petrel, off Madeira
Pair of Bar-tailed Godwits - Lugar de Baixo Lagoons
Grey Wagtail - Machico
Second cycle Lesser Black-backed Gull in front of Adult Yellow-legged Gull -Porto Santo
Adult Yellow-legged Gull - Porto Santo
Sailboat off Deserta Grande with Bugio in background
Cliffs of north-east shore of Madeira
Ready for some pteredroma action
Waterfall on to coastal road south shore of Madeira
So long Madeira!!!