Bulwer's Petrel: Madeira (photo: Paul and Andrea Kelly).

A sailing boat bobs gently under a setting sun, the lack of swell ensuring that seasickness won't be a problem for the eager participants on this pelagic boat trip. Expectations are high – we are here to see seabirds and cetaceans and this is one of the best places in Europe to see them. We are moored off Desertas Grande, 25 miles from the Atlantic island of Madeira. This uninhabited National Park has thousands of breeding Cory's Shearwaters, Madeiran Storm-petrels and Bulwer's Petrels and the first birds are returning to the breeding caves, taking care to avoid the patrolling Atlantic Yellow-legged Gulls that patrol the cliffs for an easy meal. Before we moored, we spent time cruising the waters of the nearby sister island of Bugio, where at least 25 Fea's/Zino's Petrels had been seen effortlessly gliding over crystal clear waters and a couple of Little Shearwaters had given close up, if brief, views as we headed back to our mooring spot, just below the imposing cliffs. Earlier still, we had spent some time onshore watching the incredibly tame Canaries and Berthelot's Pipits while eating a superb barbecue of fresh tuna.

Cory's Shearwater: Madeira (photo: Paul and Andrea Kelly).

Other pelagics on this holiday produced fantastic views of Spotted and Bottle-nosed Dolphins, Sei Whales and Sooty Shearwater, as well as more of the above mentioned species. Not to be missed during your stay is an evening visit to the high mountains at the centre of Madeira, where Zino's Petrel, the world's rarest seabird, breeds. A head for heights is definitely needed, as these birds flit around your heads in the semi-darkness uttering their haunting, owl-like calls, while the mist rises off the top of the mountains. You won't get much in the way of plumage details, but it is an amazing once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Trocaz Pigeon: Madeira (photo: Paul and Andrea Kelly).

Overhead, Plain Swifts and Pallid Swifts wheel around the towns and the pristine Laurel Forests and Levadas hold the endemic Trocaz Pigeon and both Madeiran Chaffinch and Madeiran Firecrest, both potential future splits. With only 30 or so breeding species, all species on Madeira are interesting, but the local races of Spectacled Warbler and Rock Sparrow, Blackcap, Kestrel and Robin all seem more colourful than their mainland counterparts. Madeira is a hugely spectacular island with high rugged cliffs and volcanic rock formations, vast areas of cloud forest, terraces of banana plantations, endemic reptiles and amazing sub-tropical vegetation giving it an almost prehistoric feel, while the pleasant capital Funchal remains typically colonial Portuguese and has a Mediterranean feel with its white houses, narrow, cobbled streets and harbour. Atlantic Yellow-legged Gulls and Common Terns can be seen in the harbour and occasionally Roseate Terns put in an appearance too, while a wide variety of fish can be seen as you wait to board for the offshore excursions.

Madeiran Firecrest: Madeira (photo: Paul and Andrea Kelly).

Madeiran Chaffinch: Madeira (photo: Paul and Andrea Kelly).

A scheduled ferry trip to the nearby island of Porto Santo produces many more seabirds and onshore good numbers of Hoopoe, Spanish Sparrows and perhaps Quail. Despite being just 40 km away, and in total contrast to the main island, Porto Santo has a fantastic nine km long sandy beach and is sparsely vegetated.

For anyone with an interest in seabirds, this is surely the ultimate European pelagic trip. Therefore, in conjunction with Celtic Bird Tours, BirdGuides is arranging a Madeira tour in July 2006 that will include all the experiences described above.

For further details click here.

To see more pictures by Paul and Andrea Kelly, please see their website at: http://www.irishbirdimages.com/
Written by: Neil Donaghy