It was 20 years ago when Dominic Mitchell first visited the Atlantic outpost of the Azores in search of birds. He has returned on numerous occasions since, and here looks back at the trips and tours which have so far produced a personal tally of 61 species of American vagrant.
It could almost be somewhere on the south coast of Britain, but this lighthouse is at Ponta Albarnaz on Flores, Azores. Migrants making landfall in this area include Upland and Buff-breasted Sandpipers, Yellow-billed Cuckoo and Snow Bunting. (Photo: Dominic Mitchell)
Yellow-billed Cuckoo on Flores. The species has been almost annual in the Azores in recent years. (Photo: Dominic Mitchell)
My radio crackled into life. "MEGA ... White-eyed Vireo ... Pico." Message received loud and clear. As the enormity of this news set in, I began calculating the most direct route to the third-ever Vireo griseus to reach the Western Palearctic. We were shin deep in a bog searching for snipe, close to a cliff-edge on the west coast of Corvo far out in the Atlantic — next stop North America.
Some distance east and at lower elevation lay the extensively wooded hill of Pico, beyond rows of hydrangea hedges, through mud and behind countless dry stone walls. Our route criss-crossing the fields would take an age, but eventually we settled into position in an overgrown orchard and waited ... and waited. Finally, after a vigil involving several too-brief views over a number of hours, everyone in the group managed to get onto this much-desired stray.
We'd had a little luck on our side, too. The day could have played out very differently: we'd had the chance to join other birders first thing on a boat trip to neighbouring Flores for Killdeer and Upland Sandpiper, but I'd decided to say 'no' and, as it turned out, the group had been repaid with an even greater prize. The vireo didn't stay overnight, to the disappointment of the crowds next day, so we were especially fortunate. But not so long ago, there would have been no one even looking for birds here.
Birders searching for an American Redstart on Corvo, the most north-westerly of the nine major islands in the Azores. (Photo: Dominic Mitchell)
I first visited the Azores back in 1994. The islands were a very different place then, more remote and rougher in character, with EU money only just beginning to modernise the infrastructure and impact the landscape. Largely off the beaten birding track, they were relatively poorly known, with no modern guide and comparatively limited knowledge of the abundance and diversity of the local avifauna.
Azores Bullfinch, for example, was well known to occur only on the main island of São Miguel, but it was not yet split as a full species, so was generally regarded as an obscure island form rather than a major crowd-pulling endemic. Monteiro's Storm-petrel, the islands' other endemic bird species, was not recognised as anything different from Madeiran Storm-petrel until as recently as 2008. And while the appearance of American vagrants in autumn was well established, it wasn't known on anything like the scale we are aware of today — such occurrences largely involved wildfowl and shorebirds, not landbirds. In fact, aside from an old record of a Wood Thrush from before 1903, apparently no Nearctic passerines had been recorded on the islands themselves at the time of my first visit, the only such vagrants being a handful of on-ship occurrences in nearby Atlantic waters.
The regular occurrence of Nearctic shorebirds such as White-rumped Sandpiper has been known for many years, but the discovery of vagrant American passerines is a more recent phenomenon. (Photo: Dominic Mitchell)
Armed with knowledge of the birding potential but little expectation of what I might find, I visited the Azores in September 1994 for a week-long trip. In this limited time it wasn't possible to do more than scrape the surface of the five major islands visited — there are nine in total. On balance, however, it was a success, even if my initial encounter with Azores Bullfinch amounted only to hearing birds calling in an impenetrable valley in upland São Miguel.
The small island of Graciosa provided little, but nearby Terceira got my adrenaline going with the discovery of Nearctic waders including American Golden Plover and Least, Semipalmated and Pectoral Sandpipers, as well as the fifth Short-eared Owl for the islands. From there I took a boat to Pico, getting excellent close-up views of Great Shearwaters among countless thousands of Cory's en route, and then found a Blue-winged Teal at Lajes do Pico as the trip came to a close. My interest had been more than piqued, but it was later events which sparked the impetus to keep returning to this corner of the Western Palearctic (WP).
In October 2005, the remnants of Hurricane Wilma passed through the mid-Atlantic, depositing a veritable deluge of American birds on the Azores. With impeccable timing, Peter Alfrey arrived on Corvo — which, along with neighbouring Flores, is one of two westernmost outposts of the WP — and connected with a lifetime's worth of vagrants in just two weeks, among them many new species for the islands (see Birdwatch 172: 37–40). In doing so, he established beyond doubt that, in the right conditions, the Azores would produce Nearctic vagrants on a scale of which Scilly could only ever dream.
Wood Duck has reached the Azores on 12 occasions, some birds occasionally lingering for long periods. This drake resided on São Miguel for a number of years from 2002. (Photo: Dominic Mitchell)
Two autumns later I visited the islands again, in company with Roy Beddard, Chris Harbard and Dave Watson, as a 'dry run' for a tour organised through Birdwatch. On our very first evening in the islands' capital, Ponta Delgada on São Miguel, we hit the ground running when Chris discovered a juvenile White-winged Black Tern in the harbour — a first for the Azores. Next day the now-split Azores Bullfinch performed perfectly on cue, as did a then-resident drake Wood Duck, and shortly after I found the first of several Semipalmated Plovers we were to see on that trip.
One of the most numerous Nearctic passerines to reach the islands is Red-eyed Vireo, with some 30 individuals recorded since the first in 2005. This bird was on Corvo in October 2007. (Photo: Dominic Mitchell)
Great Blue Heron is one of the more frequently occurring American herons in the Azores, but it is not recorded annually. (Photo: Dominic Mitchell)
Heading on to Corvo, we were surprised to find no other birders on the island. Conditions were very settled this time and far from ideal for 'Yanks', despite it being early October, but I managed to turn up a Red-eyed Vireo, while small numbers of Semipalmated Plovers were present, along with American Golden Plover and Spotted Sandpiper; we also relocated a Great Blue Heron found by others who'd left before our arrival. Wildfowl included Blue-winged Teal and Ring-necked Duck, while Terceira's wader hot-spot gave us Least, White-rumped and Pectoral Sandpipers. We concluded the trip back on São Miguel with two Semipalmated Sandpipers and a Lesser Yellowlegs before returning home.
Autumn was clearly the best time to be birding on the Azores, but there was more to the islands' birdlife than rarities alone. As well as internationally important seabird populations, the endemic Azores Bullfinch was gaining a higher profile, though only partly because of its newly acquired species status. Listed by the IUCN as Critically Endangered, its population was thought to be just 200–300 birds in the 1990s. Surveys after 2002 put the figure only marginally higher, so the species became the focus of major conservation attention as an action plan funded by the EU's LIFE programme, in conjunction with Portuguese BirdLife partner SPEA, got into gear.
The endemic Azores Bullfinch is restricted to upland laurel forest in eastern São Miguel. Classified as Endangered, its entire population numbers just 860–870 individuals. (Photo: Dominic Mitchell)
At the same time, BirdLife International's Preventing Extinctions campaign provided the opportunity to get directly involved, so Birdwatch became a BirdLife Species Champion for Azores Bullfinch, or Priolo as it is known in the islands. A winter visit to meet SPEA's field team gave me a fascinating insight into the efforts — and funding — needed to restore habitat for one of Europe's rarest passerines, and in the magazine's three-year tenure of this role its total financial contribution (generated partly in association with the British Birdwatching Fair) exceeded £36,000. While ongoing work will be needed, the species' conservation status has been downgraded to Endangered, and according to BirdLife it is now thought to number 860–870 individuals.
That short February fact-finding trip also provided other ornithological interest, including some 'off season' rarities such as Blue-winged Teal, Semipalmated Plover, Least and Spotted Sandpipers, Laughing Gull and a Pacific Golden Plover which had taken up residence since the previous autumn.
A small number of the American vagrants reaching the islands in autumn are sometimes tempted to overwinter. This first-winter Least Sandpiper was on Pico in February 2008. (Photo: Dominic Mitchell)
A mega-vagrant elsewhere in the Western Palearctic, Semipalmated Plover is a regular autumn migrant in small numbers in the Azores and occasionally also present in winter and spring (this bird was filmed in May). (Video: birdingetc)
The first organised tour
Ties with the Azores firmly in place and useful field experience under the belt, it was now time to get organised small-group tours off the ground. In October 2008, the first Birdwatch reader holiday to the islands took place, beginning with a visit to see Azores Bullfinch, taking in the wader hot-spot of Terceira, and then visiting Corvo. The Priolo duly performed, as did two very lost Common Crossbills at the same site, and we continued to the central islands for a good collection of shorebirds and Blue-winged Teal.
Moving on to Corvo, the events that unfolded on that trip will stay permanently etched into my memory. We'd left Terceira bathed in sunshine, but by the time our plane touched down on Corvo it had started to rain. We headed out into the field regardless, but the downpour quickly strengthened, eventually becoming torrential, so we aborted attempts to find migrants and returned to shelter to dry off, biding our time until the next morning.
Northern Parulas have turned up in several autumns. This individual, found on the October 2012 tour, was the first to be recorded on Flores. (Photo: Dominic Mitchell)
Starting in the eastern valleys and engaging in some friendly rivalry with two Swedes (the only other birders on the island), we got off to a flying start when I was fortunate to find a gorgeous male Hooded Warbler and a Yellow-throated Vireo within minutes of each other — the fourth and third records respectively for the Western Palearctic.
Our new Swedish friends replied quickly with a Northern Parula, and over the course of three frenetic days we became a team, between us adding Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Hermit Thrush, Red-eyed Vireo, Northern Parula and Blackpoll Warbler to the tally. We returned home truly sated with the experience, having timed our tour perfectly.
After that success, the October Azores tour established itself as a firm autumn fixture. Of course, not all trips can produce such heavyweight vagrant payloads to order and, though each year has its own successes, every trip depends to some degree on the prevailing weather. For example, easterly winds meant 2010 and 2011 were quieter affairs and birds took a lot more finding, though the former still produced Wood Duck, Upland and Buff-breasted Sandpipers and Bobolink, and the latter White-tailed Tropicbird, Northern Harrier and Grey Catbird.
This White-tailed Tropicbird on Flores was one of the most exceptional vagrants in recent years, regularly visiting the west coast of the island and subsequently wandering elsewhere in the archipelago. (Photo: Dominic Mitchell)
Another highlight of recent organised tours was this Tricolored Heron, found by the group and in view for just moments in eastern Terceira as it flew inland from the coast, never to be seen again. (Photo: Dominic Mitchell)
They were sandwiched between two more good 'westerly' years, with 2009 giving the group looks at Ovenbird, Yellow Warbler, American Redstart, Baltimore Oriole and that White-eyed Vireo, and 2012 producing self-found Northern Parula, Blackpoll Warbler and Indigo Bunting, along with Tricoloured Heron, Double-crested Cormorant, a record-breaking 240+ White-rumped Sandpipers and many other rarities. Last year's trip oscillated between quieter days and blockbusters, but overall produced a tally that included American Black Duck, Surf Scoter, Least Sandpiper, Short-billed Dowitcher, Greater Yellowlegs, American Mourning Dove and Myrtle Warbler, continuing the established run of major birds.
The large flocks of House Sparrows, 'Azores' Chaffinches and Atlantic Canaries feeding in agricultural areas sometimes attract more interesting species. This Rose-breasted Grosbeak showed well in crops on Flores in October 2012. (Photo: Dominic Mitchell)
There was a major arrival of White-rumped Sandpipers in October 2012, with about 120 birds in this one flock alone on Terceira (along with a few other waders, mainly Sanderlings), and more than 240 seen during the trip. (Video: birdingetc)
This autumn will see the seventh consecutive tour take place — my 14th visit to the islands, exactly 20 years after the first. As in recent years the focus will be on São Miguel, Terceira and Flores, with the option to visit Corvo should birds and weather conditions make this advisable. Unlike this last island, which has reached full accommodation capacity in mid-October, we'll again stay on neighbouring Flores and have it largely to ourselves. There is great potential on this larger and more habitat-rich island for finding your own birds — witness Grey Catbird in 2011, Northern Parula in 2012 and Myrtle Warbler in 2013, among many others. Nothing is guaranteed, of course, but that is all part of the fun of exploring an isolated island group in autumn — you never know what might be waiting around the next corner.