Azores pelagic trip: August – September 2016

By Josh Jones
Participants: Janne Aalto, Bart Brieffies, Bosse Carlsson, Pierre-André Crochet, Brian Gregory, Marc Guyt, Guy
Mirgain, David Monticelli, Heather Pantrey, Hans Ruhde & Hugo Touzé

2016 represented the fifth consecutive year that a tour has been run to Graciosa in the August/early September
period. The pelagic trips, around which the tour is based, focus on visiting the Bank of Fortune, a seamount rising to
depths of just a couple of hundred metres, and the aim is always to reach the Bank on as many days as possible.
With warm and settled conditions throughout our week in the Azores we were able to maximise our time spent at
this local hotspot, visiting on each of our three full days on Graciosa.
The tour was an overall success: at sea we enjoyed excellent views of the endemic Monteiro’s Storm-petrel as well
as managing to see the enigmatic Swinhoe’s Storm-petrel on two of the three days out at the Bank. There were
many other memorable avian and cetacean encounters. Our participants that visited São Miguel were able to secure
good views of the endemic Azores Bullfinch and although the famous quarry at Cabo da Praia, Terceira, was
relatively quiet during our visit, it nevertheless produced a reasonable selection of Nearctic shorebirds. The nearby
harbour produced an apparent Cabot’s Tern, potentially the first live record of this subtle taxon for the Western
Palearctic and a clear highlight of the trip if confirmed, while good weather in the hills of interior Terceira ensured
we all got good looks at Azores Grayling, an endemic butterfly.

Sunday 28 August
A split day. Heather, Bart and Brian spent the day touring São Miguel with Gerby Michielsen and recorded Azores
Bullfinch at Serra da Tronqueira. Josh flew to Terceira early to meet up with the rest of the participants, some of
whom had already arrived while others arrived on various flights throughout the day.
Cabo da Praia quarry naturally proved a focal point for the day’s birding activity and a good range of shorebirds were
recorded – including up to five Semipalmated Plovers and juveniles of Semipalmated and Buff-breasted Sandpiper. A
short tour of the island gave us great views of Citrine Forktail (Ischnura hastata) – a tiny American damselfly that

maintains its sole European population in the Azores – and some great views of Roseate Terns in the harbour at
Angra do Heroísmo.
A family part of Long-eared Owls at Paul da Praia was an Azores tick for most of the team, including those with many
visits to the archipelago under their belts. The late-arriving Janne was fortunate enough to see a Glossy Ibis at Paul
da Praia during the evening.
Potential bird of the day was a ‘Sandwich Tern’ found by Hugo in the evening tern roost at Praia da Vitória fishing
port. European Sandwich Tern (Thalesseus sandvicensis) is an Azores rarity and North American Cabot’s Tern
(Thalasseus acuflavidus) is yet to be recorded. Detailed analysis of this bird’s plumage seems to suggest that it may
well be the latter, therefore representing a potential first for the Azores – and the first live record for Europe.

Monday 29 August
Several of the group had an early start in the hope that the putative Cabot’s Tern was still at Praia da Vitória
harbour. Indeed it was, but it seemed to fly off out to sea a short while after 07:30.
Heather, Bart and Brian arrived from São Miguel mid-morning and our tour of Terceira began. We headed up in to
the highland interior of the island, where our first stop was Lagoa do Negro. Here we enjoyed great views of several
of the endemic and Azores Grayling (Hipparchia azorina) as well as a few Long-tailed Blues (Lampides boeticus). The
entire group was able to enjoy further views of the abundant Citrine Forktail around the lake’s margins.
A stop at Cabrito Reservoir produced an apparent Mallard x American Black Duck hybrid while nearby conifers gave
us great views of inermis Goldcrest – something Bart was particularly happy about!
After lunch in Praia da Vitória we headed round to the harbour to try for the Cabot’s Tern but, in the middle of the
day, it was no great surprise that the bird wasn’t around.
We caught the late afternoon ferry from Terceira to Graciosa, arriving on the latter island late evening. The crossing
brought us three or four breaching Sowerby’s Beaked Whales at distance as well as the odd Sooty and Great
Shearwater among the many Cory’s. Our approach to Graciosa was well timed and we were able to watch several
presumed Monteiro’s Storm-petrels making their way purposefully towards the colony at Ilhéu da Praia in the fading
light of the evening; a single Bulwer’s Petrel was also seen.
After meeting Rolando at the ferry terminal we enjoyed a late dinner near Praia before retiring to our hotel for some
much needed rest!

Tuesday 30 August
With a scheduled departure time of 10:30 for the first full day pelagic to the Bank of Fortune, there was little need to
rush around in the morning. Those that walked around Santa Gruz recorded typical Azorean species as well as
shorebirds such as Whimbrel and Turnstone, while the long-staying drake Mandarin (of presumed suspect origin)
was still on the small pool in the middle of town.
The weather was perfect – very light south-westerly winds and blue skies meant it was a day for sunblock rather
than seasickness pills!
The calm weather gave spectacular vistas of almost mirror-like blue seas at times, and we were also rewarded with
fantastic views of warm-season breeding Monteiro’s Storm-petrels, usually easily identifiable by their active wing
moult, and a few birds which looked a better fit for the cold-season breeder Grant’s Storm-petrel. Several of us saw
an all-dark storm-petrel which, on the balance of flight action, size, structure, and colour, we all agreed must have
been a Swinhoe’s Storm-petrel – however it remained frustratingly brief and distant and could not be clinched.
The calm conditions were ideal for cetacean-spotting and we were able to record Bottlenose Dolphins, two Sperm
Whales and, best of all, four Cuvier's Beaked Whales showing brilliantly by the boat as we were heading back to
Graciosa.

Out at the Bank for much of the day, we returned back to Santa Cruz at 20:00 via Praia Islet, where we could not
locate the Sooty Terns seen here annually in recent years. However excellent views of Roseate Terns were a fitting
end to a hugely enjoyable first day at sea.

Wednesday 31 August
The wind had strengthened slightly overnight but otherwise it was another fine day with largely clear skies. Leaving
Praia at 08:30, the plan was to spend another full day at sea.
It was quickly apparent that the increase in wind strength had increased numbers of the larger species, with Great
Shearwaters considerably more numerous than the previous day. The first of two Long-tailed Skuas came to
investigate the boat as we steamed out towards the Bank with a second following shortly after arriving at the
‘traditional’ GPS location. This second bird was part of a memorable 15 minutes that also included fantastic views of
the first of two Fea’s-type Petrels, which performed brilliantly as it circled the boat on a couple of occasions before
powering off to the south.
Storm-petrel numbers had also improved on the previous day with up to a dozen Monteiro’s at any one time and
three Wilson’s seen. Highlight of the day, and a prime target for many of the participants on the tour, was a
Swinhoe’s Storm-petrel, which appeared in front of the boat at 13:55 and lingered for a couple of minutes.
Thankfully all on board managed to see this rarity, although it never came particularly close to the boat.
Returning to port late afternoon produced another Fea’s-type Petrel, this time a bird with clearly all-dark underwing
coverts, but another search around Praia Islet again failed to produce any sign of the Sooty Terns.

Thursday 1 September
With the forecast again very calm and sunny, we were able to spend all day at sea. The morning (08:30-14:00) was
spent at the Bank of Fortune before returning to port. Then we enjoyed an evening (17:00-20:00) cruise much closer
to shore.
The conditions resulted in a drop in general activity at the Bank, though storm-petrels were present in decent
numbers throughout the morning and a Swinhoe’s appeared on and off for at least six minutes at around 11:25.
Three Bulwer’s Petrels were also seen in addition to the usual mix of Monteiro’s and Grant’s Storm-petrels. One of
the highlights, though, was hand-feeding a sardine to a particularly confiding Great Shearwater!
The lack of wind meant swell was minimal, making cetacean-spotting much easier. Several distant blows were likely
Sperm Whales while a super pod of around 25 Striped Dolphins entertained us on the way back to port.
The evening pelagic trip was fairly unproductive for unusual sightings but we were able to hand-feed another Great
Shearwater and got great looks at several large rafts of Cory’s Shearwaters. Feeding the terns around Praia Islet
again produced no Sooty but compensation came in the form of fantastic views of Roseates trailing the boat.

Friday 2 September
With bad weather forecast to be arriving in the Azores later on Friday we were unable to take a morning boat trip
out of Praia, so instead decided to take an island tour. Though not the richest Azorean island for birding
opportunities, the lack of significant sightings was more than made up for by the impressive scenery and a visit to
the sulphur mines in the island’s caldeira.
In the afternoon we headed back to Praia for an extended lunch, while some of the participants scanned Praia Islet
for the Sooty Tern – no luck, it seems the lack of breeding taking place this year meant that the adults had already
left.

The evening saw the group say their goodbyes at Graciosa airport as the 2016 pelagic trip came to a close. Some
were destined for another day on Terceira, where they were to find a pleasing influx of shorebirds at Cabo da Praia
on the Saturday, while four of us continued on to São Miguel for our respective onwards journeys.

Pelagic trips 2016: bird list
Please note that all counts are minima. Use of ‘x’ means species present, but not counted.

Species
Great Shearwater
Cory’s Shearwater
Sooty Shearwater
Fea’s-type Petrel
Monteiro’s Storm-petrel
Grant’s Storm-petrel
Wilson’s Storm-petrel
Swinhoe’s Storm-petrel
Bulwer’s Petrel
Arctic Skua
Pomarine Skua
Long-tailed Skua
Roseate Tern
Common Tern

30 August
20
x
1
20
x
2
3
4

31 August
80
x
20
2
60
x
3
1
2
1
1
2

1 September
30
x

40
x
1
3

List of birds recorded
1.
2.
3.
4.
5.
6.
7.
8.
9.
10.
11.
12.
13.
14.
15.
16.
17.
18.

Tufted Duck Aythya fuligula
Mandarin Duck Aix galericulata
Common Quail Coturnix coturnix
Cory’s Shearwater Calonectris diomedea
Great Shearwater Puffinus gravis
Sooty Shearwater Puffinus griseus
Bulwer’s Petrel Bulweria bulweri
Fea’s Petrel Pterodroma feae/deserta
Wilson’s Storm-petrel Oceanites oceanicus
Monteiro’s Storm-petrel Oceanodroma
monteiroi
‘Grant’s’ Storm-petrel Oceanodroma castro
granti
Swinhoe’s Storm-petrel Oceanodroma
monorhis
Little Egret Egretta garzetta
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea
Glossy Ibis Plegadis falcinellus
Common Buzzard Buteo buteo rothschildi
Moorhen Gallinula chloropus
Coot Fulica atra

19. Ringed Plover Charadrius hiaticula
20. Semipalmated Plover Charadrius
semipalmatus
21. Kentish Plover Charadrius alexandrines
22. Grey Plover Pluvialis squatarola
23. Knot Calidris canutus
24. Sanderling Calidris alba
25. Turnstone Arenaria interpres
26. Dunlin Calidris alpine
27. Curlew Sandpiper Calidris ferruginea
28. Little Stint Calidris minuta
29. Semipalmated Sandpiper Calidris pusilla
30. Buff-breasted Sandpiper Calidris subruficollis
31. Ruff Calidris pugnax
32. Common Redshank Tringa tetanus
33. Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa
34. Eurasian Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus
35. Common Snipe Gallinago gallinago
36. Pomarine Skua Stercorarius pomarinus
37. Arctic Skua Stercorarius parasiticus
38. Long-tailed Skua Stercorarius longicaudus

39.
40.
41.
42.
43.
44.
45.
46.
47.
48.

Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus
Azores Gull Larus michahellis atlantis
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus
Cabot’s Tern Thalasseus acuflavidus
Common Tern Sterna hirundo
Roseate Tern Sterna dougallii
Feral Pigeon Columba livia
Wood Pigeon Columba palumbus azorica
Collared Dove Streptopelia decaocto
Long-eared Owl Asio otus

49.
50.
51.
52.
53.
54.
55.
56.
57.
58.

Grey Wagtail Motacilla cinerea patriciae
European Robin Erithacus rubecula
Common Blackbird Turdus merula azorensis
Blackcap Sylvia atricapilla
Goldcrest Regulus regulus azoricus/inermis
Common Starling Sturnus vulgaris
House Sparrow Passer domesticus
Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs moreletti
Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis
Canary Serinus canaria

Image gallery

Images 1 & 2: putative Cabot’s Tern, Praia da Vitória, Terceria, 28-29 August

Image 3: Azores Grayling, Lagoa do Negro, Terceira, 29 August
Image 4: Citrine Forktail with prey, Lagoa do Ginjal, Terceria, 28 August

Image 5: Sowerby’s Beaked Whale, Terceira – Graciosa ferry, 29 August
Image 6: Bottlenose Dolphin, off Graciosa, 30 August

Image 7: Sperm Whale, off Graciosa, 30 August
Image 8: Cuvier’s Beaked Whale, off Graciosa, 30 August

Images 9 & 10: Striped Dolphins, off Graciosa, 1 September

Image 11: Wilson’s Storm-petrel, off Graciosa, 30 August
Image 12: Swinhoe’s Storm-petrel, off Graciosa, 1 September

Images 13 & 14: Monteiro’s Storm-petrels off Graciosa

Image 15: Grant’s Storm-petrel, off Graciosa, 1 September
Image 16: Fea’s-type Petrel, off Graciosa, 31 August

Image 17: Fea’s-type Petrel, off Graciosa, 31 August
Image 18: Sooty Shearwater, off Graciosa, 30 August

Images 19 & 20: Great Shearwaters off Graciosa

Image 21: Cory’s Shearwater off Graciosa
Image 22: 2016 pelagic team back in port after three successful days at sea!