Desert Island Risks

Contrary to our expectations, the Canary Isles are not always warm and sunny. The last few days of our stay saw much dark cloud, heavy showers and a chill breeze which meant our jumpers and coats, which we thought redundant for a week, were dragged out of the closet and gratefully employed. 

Between showers a few days back we visited an area of salt pans and a saltwater lagoon known as Salinas de Janubio. The crashing Atlantic breakers provided a quite dramatic backdrop for a brisk walk to the lagoon where we were told several waders could be seen. This kind of habitat is in short supply around the island resulting in it being much favoured as a safe haven for various species. A quick stroll around the edge, always keeping an eye on the threatening clouds building over the mountains to the south, provided good views of several common sandpipers that flicked away low over the water on deeply bowed wings, a few greenshank piping their three note alarm call, a small flock of Kentish plover that are apparently the only resident and breeding wader hereabouts, elegant black- winged stilts, paired up and flighty and a pair of avocets. Whimbrel, turnstones and grey plovers completed the list huddled together on a rocky outcrop. A surprise was the sight of a brood of 19 ruddy shelducklings accompanied by their rather gorgeous rufous-coloured parents swimming benignly across the sheltered calm. A Berthelot's pipit perched obligingly for the camera, twisting its head from side to side to allow capture of a range of different poses. Thank you my lovely. And then a very quick march back to the car, arriving just as the heavens opened to drench the black sand once more.

Surf's Up!

The Lagoon at Salinas de Junubio


Black-winged Stilt

A Pair of Black-winged Stilts

A Trio of Turnstones Beginning to Moult into Summer Plumage

An Obliging Berthelot's Pipit.
These pale, long billed pipits are very common all over the island.
Their wagtail-like calls can be heard just about everywhere,
but their light plumage sometimes makes them difficult to see.

Scroll forwards a couple of days and we were told by Carmen, our birdwatching guide, that more rain has fallen on the island this winter than for the whole of the last decade. The inevitable and rather positive result of all this moisture is an abundance of greenery and wild flowers. More flowers = more insects, more insects = more food for birds and other wildlife, more food = better breeding success......only it doesn't seem to be working quite that way. The reasons, as always, everywhere, will be multifaceted and more complex, but the fact remains that in the desert of Lanzarote the special inhabitants are in trouble. The problem is nobody really knows how many birds and animals there should be. Are they really decreasing in numbers? Perhaps the more abundant plant life simply makes them more difficult to find? Without a clear scientific baseline population index it is difficult to assess change. And there, I guess, lies the rub because there are only a very few people who actually care about these things here and take the trouble to notice. Sure there are incidental birders such as ourselves that see some lovely birds, take a few snaps and fly home, but that's simply taking from the environment; it would be nice to be able to give something back. Carmen is passionate about her island and its wildlife and is in the process of lobbying the government in order to better protect what they have. The desert area on the north western section are theoretically a protected zone, but this doesn't stop farmers encroaching around the edges, 4x4 vehicles careering across the plain, and the seemingly empty spaces being used for microlite aircraft, dog exercising, shooting etc, etc. It needs to be policed, but there is no will or money to do so. Ultimately everything boils down to money; if you could somehow make it more profitable for the local authorities to preserve the habitat as opposed to turning a blind eye, then things may take a more positively course. That and of course education. Make the local inhabitants proud of the special plants, birds, insects and wild spaces they are custodians of and maybe attitudes will change. But first you have to get people to understand what is there, why it is important and why they must protect it. In other words what is in it for them? A difficult job and let's wish Carmen every success with her worthwhile endeavours.

That aside, the time we spent slowly driving along the dusty tracks in this fantastic, moonscape-like habitat was fascinating. The rain had washed the top layer of ash away from some areas to reveal fossilised nest chambers of now extinct bees - the eruptions that took place in the early 19th century wiped out all life in its wake. But nature, as it always will, has slowly crept back. Before long we espied a couple of small shapes scurrying away from the jeep. Cream-coloured coursers no less and one of our target species for the trip. We watched these quite lovely waders, 2 adults and a well grown juvenile, for several minutes as they pecked at the sand to pick up a tasty morsel before realising another family group was closer to us on the opposite side of the track. So well are these birds camouflaged that we couldn't see them until they moved, and once they froze again they simply blended into the landscape. One superbly marked adult came within camera range and as usual I loosed off a few shots. The dove grey head and nape of these birds contrasts strongly with their russet, black and white head colouring. Close to they really are most exotic looking creatures.

The Desert Area Near Soo
A Beautiful Adult Cream-coloured Courser

Moving on a kilometre or so we came upon the star bird of the week, a magnificent Houbara bustard that strode sedately but purposefully away from our approach. As with the coursers once it froze, partly hidden by the plentiful low scrub, it was virtually impossible to see. It kept a wary eye on us until we moved on once more. These bustards are an endemic sub-species, smaller, much darker and more vermiculated than the nominate race. Lanzarote boasts the highest density of bustards in all the Canaries, but once again precise numbers are not known. Estimates of 80 pairs seem to be an accepted figure, which in the grand scheme of things is not a large number. We came upon a few more of these strange but endearing birds on our drive and a real treat awaited us when we found a male in full display. He began by standing stock still head pointing skywards before slowly, tentatively, stepping forwards. The black feathering that normally forms a stripe along its neck were now raised to form long plumes waving in the breeze. All of a sudden the whole of the breast and neck feathers seemed to explode and the bird ran wildly hither and thither in the form of a fluffy ball of down on long rangy legs. Comical, exciting and fascinating all at the same time. The climatic sighting of the desert trip and one we were very lucky to witness.
An Equally Beautiful Houbara Bustard.
 Note the cryptically camouflaged plumage.
Male Houbara Commencing His Display

In Full Flow

We ended our tour on an impressively high cliff top soaking in the stunning views of the coastline North and South. The Atlantic Ocean sparkling as the sun began to descend, all around us endemic and precious wild flowers that are not to be found in such profusion at any other point of the island. A truly beautiful and memorable way to end our week long trip to this rather wonderful place.

Wildflower Meadow at Los Lomillos
Stunning Views Towards La Graciosa
Blazing Sunset

If you ever find yourselves paying a visit to Lanzarote you should really treat yourselves to the birding tour. It's not a heavy duty, full on trip and moves at your pace. The wildlife you will see is not abundant, but it is very special and you will not find such things so accessible anywhere else in the world. I always think a trip to see wild things and habitats provides a much more rounded experience allowing a deeper appreciation of the destination, its treasures and its challenges. For details take a look at  which provides lots of information on what can be seen and also offers guided walks and bike tours to some of the less visited (and therefore more interesting) areas of the island.