In search of the Azores Bullfinch

Anna FasoliBirding, General News and Info1 Comment

My sister has been in the Air Force for about 10 years, and because of this, I have been able to visit her in some really great places. She is currently stationed at Lajes Air Force Base on the island of Terceira, one of nine islands in the Azores. The Azores is an archipelago islands in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean (the Azores are owned by Portugal, and they speak Portuguese here). From the coast of New Jersey, it is about 2500 miles to the Azores. From Newfoundland, it is about 1200 miles to the Azores. On the other end, from the west coast of Portugal and Morocco, it is about 800-900 miles to the Azores. Unfortunately there is no direct flight to Terceira from the United States. The only options are to fly from the United States to the mainland of Portugal, and then the islands, or fly from the United States to Sao Miguel (the largest island), then catch another plane to Terceira. I chose the latter, as I was not up for an 8 hour flight to the mainland of Portugal, then another 4 hour flight half way back. This also gave me the option of a long layover on Sao Miguel with enough time to go in search of the rare endemic Azores Bullfinch. So, this past Monday, I drove to Pittsburgh and caught a plane to Boston at 5:30 pm. I arrived in Boston about one and a half hours later, where I waited a few hours for the next leg of my journey to the island of Sao Miguel. A short 4.5 hours later, the lights of Sao Miguel appeared in the darkness.The airport is right on the southern edge of the island, so I could understand how happy migrant and vagrant birds must feel when they see these islands after nonstop flights over 800 miles or more, and as you would expect the airport is a good place to find birds. With just 2 hours of uncomfortable sleep for the night, I wanted nothing more than to get off that plane and onto the island. It was only 3:00 am in Pennsylvania, but it was already 7:00 in the morning on Sao Miguel, so, it was time to go birding!

I had thought about renting a car, as I had very specific directions on where to see the Bullfinch. Knowing how tired I would be, I took the advice of some birders who had been on the island, and hired Gerby Michaelson, a local birder, to be my guide for the 12 hour day. Twelve hours of birding really isn’t an intense day of birding in my life, but on just 2 hours of sleep waking up at 3:00 am, it is quite the task. I was glad to have Gerby along to not only quickly take me to local hotspots, but also point out the species I may overlook. While it is true there are not many resident birds on the islands (a little over 30 species), there are about just as many “regular vagrants” that one could expect to see in migration. On top of that, many different vagrants from both sides of the big pond (North America, Europe, and Africa) can show up at any time as irregular vagrants or rarities, so it doesn’t hurt to have two sets of eye on the lookout.

Gerby picked me up at the airport, and along the way, Yellow-legged Gulls were the first birds of the trip and the most common bird in town. Common Buzzards were perched on telephone poles and were fairly common on the edge of town. As we drove along the major southern road of the island, Grey Wagtails, European Robins, and Common Blackbirds flushed from the road. We made a quick stop at Lagoa das Furnas, a lake inside one of the craters of the island. A few Eurasian Coots were mixed in with a variety of mutant/domestic Muscovy ducks and Mallards, and a Gray Heron was hunting on the flooded edge of the lake. We didn’t stay long since we wanted to get to the Bullfinch area early.

Looming clouds over the mountains

Gerby’s birding van, climbing higher into the mountains

Eventually we drove higher into the mountains on the east side of the island and took the muddy road to Serra da Tronqueira, which gives great views of the islands highest peak, Pico da Vara. This road goes in and out of Japanese Red Cedar plantations, which have basically destroyed the Bullfinches natural habitat. This uniform habitat also creates unstable slopes that are susceptible to erosion and landslides; the road had actually just been repaired after a closure of a few months. Some habitat restoration has been done though, and the Bullfinch is most often found in the cleared restored areas of native laurel bushes.

Road through Azores Bullfinch habitat

In this higher elevation area of Sao Miguel, Common Chaffinch were the most common birds; they generally stayed at low to mid level in the trees. Goldcrest were also common. There are 7 different subspecies of Goldcrest across Eurasia and the Macaronesian islands, and Sao Miguel has its own subspecies. Unlike their North American counterpart, the Golden-crowned Kinglet, these birds weren’t that interested in pishing and proved difficult to photograph, mostly staying high in the treetops. Most species of breeding birds here are actually part of their own subspecies unique to the island or at least the Azores. Eurasian Blackcaps were also fairly common, foraging mostly low in the brush (with a chip note similar to a Chipping Sparrow), but they proved too secretive and sneaky for me to get a picture of. Gray Wagtails were also numerous, mainly foraging in open areas and the road.

Sao Miguel Goldcrest

Gray Wagail – female

In the open areas of laurel on at least 8 occasions in different areas, we could hear the Bullfinch calling. A few times I got a glimpse of its rear end, but I didn’t travel over 2700 miles to see this bird’s butt, so we kept going. After a few hours, we made it to the Pico Da Vara overlook, and could once again hear the Bullfinch. We finally got a glimpse of a juvenile flying out in the open, but it was a distant look (unlike the adult, the juvenile of the species does not have a black head). After eating lunch we split up at the overlook to have a better chance of finding it. There was a large dead snag most of the way down the hillside where there seemed to be a little bird activity. When we arrived here, my lifer Common Wood Pigeon took off from the tree. As the fog rolled in, the next ridge line disappeared, and another Bullfinch began calling. It was actually a very unusual sunny weather day on the mountain, and the bullfinch is typically observed on foggy mornings. Sure enough, a small but chunky bird with a heavy flight flew out from the bushes and landed on the snag. The bird had a dark cap! It was my first good look at an adult Azores Bullfinch. We got the scope on it, and I watched it for a few minutes as it preened and cleaned its bill from a morning snack. Unfortunately the bird was too distant for a photo, but you can’t be picky when it comes to such a rare bird. In the 1970’s, there were just 30-40 pairs of this species left, but there are now about 1000 individuals thanks to habitat restoration and conservation. Eventually a Common Chaffinch pushed the Bullfinch off it’s perch and it retreated back into the bushes.

I did not take the following photo, but wish I had!

Azores Bullfinch – adult (photo from www.birdingazores.com)

My best advice for birders coming to this island is to be persistent and patient when it comes to finding the Bullfinch. Hiking on the steep slopes of the mountains is not necessary (but may provide better photo opportunities if the birds are proving difficult). The muddy roads through this area are easily traveled on foot and by car, and often intersect the cleared restored areas, giving ample opportunity to catch a glimpse. If it is raining heavily though, I would not want to be on these roads because of potential flooded river crossings and mudslides. A vehicle with decent clearance (like a van or truck) would be your best vehicle, but you may be able to make it with a smaller car if the roads are not wet or flooded. And, even if you do see the bullfinch at the start of your journey, take the time to find a few more; this is a very unique ecosystem, and there is not much of it left…it is worth spending some time here!

The overlook where I saw my lifer Azores Bullfinch (steep native laurel slope);
in this case, I believe a little fog helped me find the bird!

 

I am now on the island of Terceira where my sister lives and will be posting about the rest of my time on Sao Miguel and Terceira soon!