Friday, 9 May 2014

Quest for the Wild Canary 12: Pipits, Wagtails, Thrushes and Chats

There is a wide range of endemic or near-endemic species and subspecies of insectivorous passerines on the Canaries, which reflects the complicated ecological history of the islands. As the only breeding pipit in the region, Berthelot’s Pipit Anthus berthelotti is found on the Canaries, Madeira, and some nearby smaller islands. I found it very confiding – the photo at the top of this post was taken from only a few feet away as it hopped around our feet in a car park on Fuerteventura. As with almost all pipits’ it is a ground nesting bird, which must make it vulnerable to feral cats, but despite this the species is doing well in its range, and is listed as Least Concern by the IUCN.

M.cinerea canariensis
The local subspecies of the Grey Wagtail, Motacilla cinerea canariensis, was seen on several days while we were on Tenerife, mostly around reservoirs. Grey wagtails are stream-loving birds mostly, which means available habitat on the Canaries is not widely available, and they may be more flexible in their habitat preferences as a result on the volcanic islands where water tends to disappear into the porous rock very quickly.

T.merula cabrerae
Also doing well is the local race of Blackbird, Turdus merula cabrerae. This is very similar to the subspecies we have in the UK, but is more glossy and the female is much darker brown. They were seen in the hotel grounds on Tenerife, so they are as fond of gardens on the Canaries as they are back here in the UK.

E.superbus - note eye ring and white underparts
I did not manage to get a photo, but we eventually managed to obtain distant views of a Tenerife Robin, Erithacus (rubecula) superbus. This is currently classed as a subspecies of European Robin, but it is very probable that this should be classed as a separate species, E.superbus. They are very distinctive, with white underparts and a white eye-ring, and they also sound different to mainland robins. Just as importantly, the superbus-type robins, currently found on bother Tenerife and Gran Canaria, are also genetically different to each other, with the Gran Canaria birds also having measurably shorter wings. This implies that in fact superbus should itself be split into two species for the two islands. The paper in Avian Science (2003) suggests that the time split between the endemic forms and the mainland species is close to 2 million years. The other islands on the Canaries are occupied by apparently standard mainland robins.

The most important of the endemics that we saw were the endemic Canary Island Stonechat, Saxicola dacotiae. With an estimated total population of around 750 pairs, it is classed as Near Threatened, mostly as a result of habitat destruction by overgrazing and predation by feral cats. An isolated population, subspecies murielae, was formerly found on an isolated islet at the far north end of Lanzarote, although curiously it was never found on Lanzarote itself, but it became extinct in the early 29th century. In recent years Canary Stonechats of the nominate race have been reported present, and possibly breeding, in the south of Lanzarote having spread from Fuerteventura. The chats have similar habitat preferences to their relatives – open country with low bushes they can perch on as they scan the ground for the various insects that are their main prey. As with the robins, they probably colonised the islands within the last few million years.

Next time, I will finish off the insectivorous passerines.

(pipit and stonechat images are mine, other are from Wikipedia)


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