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On the lookout for the 'Big Five': The Birdwatching Bloggers

By: Kathryn McCann
Photos: J. García, A. Unquiles and J. Sagardía

Lanzarote, Barbary Falcon, Birdwatchers, 37°, 37degrees, Island news
The spectacular Barbary Falcon (above) is third on the list of Lanzarote's 'Big Five' must-see birds and one reason why Lanzarote is such a popular place for birders.

Lanzarote, Birdwatching Bloggers, 37°,37degrees, Island news
An escape from work: A. Unquiles (left), J.Sagardía (middle) and J.Vargas (right) use 400 millimetre long-range cameras and telescopes to capture their stunning images.

Lanzarote, Song-Thrush, 37°, 37degrees, Island news
The Song-Thrush (above) chooses to stay in Lanzarote during the winter months, rather than migrate to Africa.

Lanzarote, Cream-Coloured Courser, 37°, 37degrees, Island news
The Cream-Coloured Courser (above) is one of Lanzarote's 'Big Five' must-see birds.

Lanzarote, Cattle Egret, 37°, 37degrees, Island news
The Cattle Egret.

Lanzarote, Bobolink, 37°, 37degrees, Island news
Spotting the small New World blackbird, the Bobolink (above) on the Canary island of Lanzarote was a real rarity for these birdwatchers.

Lanzarote, Eleonora's Falcon, 37°, 37degrees, Island news
Eleonora's Falcon.

Lanzarote, Houbara Bustard, 37°, 37degrees, Island news
The Houbara Bustard.

Lanzarote, Laughing Dove, 37°, 37degrees, Island news
The Laughing Dove.

Lanzarote, Laughing Dove chick, 37°, 37degrees, Island news
Laughing Dove chick.

Lanzarote, Red-Footed Falcon and Lesser Kestrel, 37°, 37degrees, Island news
The Red-Footed Falcon and Lesser Kestrel.

Lanzarote, Black-Winged Stilt, 37°, 37degrees, Island news
The breeding population of the Black-Winged Stilt is exclusive to Lanzarote and is not found on any of the other Canary Islands.

Lanzarote, Waders, 37°, 37degrees, Island news
Waders stay on Lanzarote during the winter season instead of migrating to Africa.

25/06/2012 - What is your hobby?

In Lanzarote there are three birders whose dedication to their birdwatching hobby has taken them all over the world, enabled them to meet new friends and encouraged them to create a popular online blog at surfbirds.com to share their observations and photos with like-minded fans.


Javier García Vargas, Antonio Unquiles and Juan Sagardía, all started birdwatching in their teens, and began their blog ‘Birding in Lanzarote’ on surfbirds.com in December 2006, making a list of all birds observed on the island since 2002. Six years later the site is still going strong, with approximately 10,000 hits a year, and over 53,500 hits since 2007, attracting birdwatchers from all over the world.


The blog was set up to share the three friend’s observations on breeding birds, passage migrants, winter visitors and vagrants of Lanzarote, and to also inform and assist others in the worldwide birdwatching community who want visit the island. Javier and Antonio met while observing birds in the field, and they then met Juan through the internet.



Lanzarote and Fuerteventura are
two perfect islands for birdwatching.


Lanzarote is a great island for birdwatching claims Javier:


“The island of Lanzarote and its close neighbour Fuerteventura are two of the best and most unique islands for birdwatching; most importantly because of the islands close proximity to Northern Africa which provides us with a great opportunity to observe migrating birds. The best places for birdwatching in Lanzarote depend on what kind of bird you want to see, and we have a handy guide on our blog."


Javier, originally from Gran Canaria, is extremely dedicated and passionate about his birdwatching hobby; he has been birdwatching for 26 years and goes birding between three and five times a week, sometimes from eight in the morning until eight at night:


“I have always been very interested in all kinds of animals and as a result I wanted to spend time observing them in their natural habitat. Lanzarote does not have a lot of variety of lizards and reptiles and I don’t like insects! I became interested in birds in particular because they are able to fly and move around the world, and because they migrate twice a year it means that there are always rarities and new and interesting birds to see.  If a particular bird is also wearing a ring we can check its migration history and the result is sometimes quite remarkable.”


All three birdwatching bloggers have careers completely separate to their hobby, Javier is a policeman, Antonio is a technology teacher and Juan is a dental technician. They are all keen to keep it this way and if given the choice would rather not make a career out of birding:


“Birdwatching is our hobby and an escape from work so we really wouldn’t want to make it into a career as I think doing that could take the fun out of it” insists Javier.



Birdwatching is a sport on the

rise and can become quite competitive.


Nevertheless birdwatching is one sport that is currently on the rise, with the number of birders increasing every year. The countries which lead in birdwatching internationally are Britain, North America and Holland.  Purchasing equipment such as cameras and lenses is now a cheaper option for potential birding enthusiasts and it is also easier to write and set-up blogs and web-pages about the sport.


Instantly noticeable by looking at the layout of the ‘Birding in Lanzarote’ blog is the high quality and sheer amount of pictures of the different birds that are available to peruse. The trio use a 400 millimetre long lense camera to capture the birds, and say the most spectacular photo they have ever taken is that of the Red-Footed- Falcon (Falco vespertinus) and the Lesser Kestrel (Falco naumanni). Some photos are so impressive and professional in their appearance that magazines such as ‘Birdwatch’, ‘Birding World’ and ‘African Bird World’ have been in touch regarding the use of the photos.


In some places in the world, birding can be quite a competitive sport, however in Lanzarote it is a lot calmer, with a small close-knit community of around seven or eight birdwatchers who all keep in regular contact and inform one another if a rare or interesting bird is spotted.


Lanzarote is an unusual location as all nesting birds originally migrated.


Antonio, originally from Madrid, has travelled far and wide for his hobby:

“I have travelled abroad to Germany, Scotland, Cape Verde and to the Galapagos islands for birdwatching. I have been birdwatching for 30 years and like to take advantage of my time off as a teacher during the summer months to go and meet up with birdwatchers from other countries.”

As the trio claim the “beauty of the bird is in the rarity”, then without a doubt the most beautiful bird they must have observed while birdwatching in Lanzarote is the small New World blackbird, the Bobolink (Dolichonyx oryzivorus). This particular bird is usually found in North America, and commonly migrates to Argentina, Bolivia and Paraguay. It is very seldom spotted in the North Atlantic or in Europe, making its sighting in the Canary Island of Lanzarote a real rarity for these bird watchers.


Lanzarote is also an unusual location as all nesting birds here originally migrated; therefore there is a unique and interesting mix of breeds from North Africa and Southern Europe to be found on the island. Among the migrating birds who have settled in Lanzarote are the Laughing Dove (Streptopelia senegalensis) which originally came from Africa and the Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis) and the Black-Winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus) which both originally migrated from Europe:

“The Cattle Egret is commonly found in Arrecife while the breeding population of the Black-Winged Stilt is exclusive to Lanzarote and is not found on any of the other Canary Islands” explains Javier.


There are between 250 and 300 species of birds recorded in Lanzarote, most rarities and accidental sightings come from North America, Africa and Asia, whereas most migrating birds come from Northern Europe to avail of the warmer climate. There are two migration periods in a year, one in spring and one in autumn.  In spring (February/March) birds migrate from Africa to Europe to breed and in autumn (end of August/September) birds migrate from Northern Europe to Africa for the warmer climate. Some species of birds including Thrushes (Turdus), Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris), Gulls, Waders and some types of ducks do stay in Lanzarote during the winter season rather than migrating to Africa.



Lanzarotes top `Big Five’ birds
cannot be found anywhere else in Europe.


The three birders have a list of birds and tick off each name after spotting each particular species. Unlike other birdwatchers they do not know the exact amount of birds they have observed thus far. They do however know what birds are at the top of their own personal observation list:


“We really want to see any sort of North American Warbler, which are very rare birds, or alternatively a North American Duck, which you may see only one winter in your life-time. We are also very interested in birds from New Zealand.”


However, most birdwatching enthusiasts who make the trip to Lanzarote are after a certain group of birds in particular:

“Most birdwatchers come to Lanzarote for the islands top `Big Five’ birds, those five species of bird that cannot be found anywhere else in Europe apart from on the islands of Lanzarote and Fuerteventura”, explains Javier.

“The ‘Big Five’ in order of importance are the Houbara Bustard (Chlamydotis undulate), the Cream-Coloured Courser (Cursorius cursor), the Barbary Falcon (Falco pelegrinoides), Eleonora’s Falcon (Falco eleonorae) and the Trumpeter Finch (Bucanetes githagineus).  Holidaymakers who come across our blog often want to go birding with us to see if they can spot any of these birds, and we are happy to take them out with us.”


The trio are also happy to provide some tips for aspiring birdwatchers, keen to take up the hobby:

“For successful birdwatching you really need to bring a notebook, a camera, a tripod, binoculars and a telescope. It is also essential to study books at home before you go birdwatching so that you are aware of what you are observing and are easily able to recognise the behaviour of certain birds. It is important to do your research and know what you are looking for before entering the field” advises Javier.


“I have around 200 books on birds, and Antonio has around 40.”


However, for all three birdwatchers, protecting the bird’s natural environment from the demands of increasing tourism on the island is of the outmost importance:

“The best thing to do for birds is to ignore them and let them enjoy their natural habitat. Birds can protect themselves but the most important thing is that their natural environment is protected too.”


Is enough is being done to protect the bird's natural habitat?

There is some concern among Lanzarote’s birdwatching community that not enough is being done by the government here to protect the bird’s natural habitat. They believe that the authorities in Lanzarote are much more focused on tourism and expanding that market, as opposed to restricting areas for the protection of birds:


“Provinces such as Castellón in mainland Spain have much more protected and restricted areas for birds, in Lanzarote there is a lack of ‘protected environment’ signs,  therefore nobody, especially tourists, are aware that some areas should be restricted to maintain the natural habitat of wildlife” argues Javier.


The Environment Minister of the Lanzarote government disagrees with this assumption, claiming that the council annually addresses different ways to control and manage specific areas of interest and are currently funding studies related to birds such as the Vulture and Eleonora’s Falcon.


“We are in close connection with the University of the Canaries and the Spanish birdwatching society to address different studies and surveys to ascertain the situation of the different species and to implement conservation measures.”


Both sides do agree on the fact that a fine balance needs to be struck between conserving the natural habitat of the birds while enabling both social and economic development for the island. This is of increasing importance when considering the extension of the La Santa Sporting hotel close to the Salt Marshes which are a Special Area of Conservation and a resting area for migrant birds.


Therefore, mutual co-operation of both the birdwatching community in Lanzarote and local government is needed. This will work to ensure that the island, while prospering economically and socially, is still successful in welcoming and providing a unique home (either temporary or permanent) for rare and migrating birds from all around the world.










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