Tom McCanna trip report and experience with a Gyr Falcon in Madeira

We would like to thank to Tom McCanna (UK)who kindly called Madeira Wind Birds to acknowledge about the Gyr Falcon and kindly sent us his little story about his experience with this species in Madeira and his trip report:


On the afternoon of 26th October, I was sitting in my hotel room in Funchal, Madeira, trying to identify the shearwaters a kilometre at sea. Then at 6.20 a large grey bird appeared only 50 metres away, with something long in its claws, being chased by a few terns. It made as if to land on a small boat, but continued flying and came down on the sea about 30 metres offshore.

This gave me the chance to get my telescope on it, and what I saw was puzzling – it seemed to be crouching with wings spread on the water, not floating like a sea bird. After about five minutes, it realised for itself that it wasn’t floating like a sea bird, as by this time only its white hawk-like head was above the surface. It started to use its large wings (white with rows of grey flecks) as oars, and with a kind of butterfly stroke eventually swam to some rocks on the nearby shore, where it clambered up and spread its wings cormorant-fashion to dry, apparently none the worse for its experience.

Now that it was out of water, I could see clearly what it was – a gyrfalcon, with jesses round each leg. As it was about the size of a female peregrine, I guessed it to be a male. The rocks were on a private beach, but I could see it close-up from the other side of the fence. When the bird saw me nearby, it made a few whimpering squeaks.

As it obviously belonged to someone, I asked the hotel reception about falconers. “We don’t have them on Madeira.” Then I remembered that the local bird-tour operators had a website, and finding their phone number from their website, I rang them up. “We’ll there straight away”.

Catarina and Hugo of Madeira Birds indeed were on the scene within minutes, but they were very puzzled. Hugo had no idea where the bird had come from. The topography of Madeira is such that nearly all property is overlooked from higher ground, so it would be difficult for any falconry to go unnoticed. Had the bird flown 800 kilometres from Morocco?

It was by now getting dark, and the bird had to be left overnight. By next morning, it had disappeared, leaving a record of two firsts for Madeira – first gyrfalcon and first escaped falconry bird with jesses.

MADEIRA, 17th-31st OCTOBER 2008

Birdwatching was only incidental to the normal tourist excursions and family outings, though much sea-watching was done from the Porto Santa Maria Hotel at Funchal. Bad weather prevented more exploration of the plateau and laurel forest.

?Shearwaters. These were usually too far away to be positively identified. Cory’s were certainly present. Birds showing white tails may have been Desertas Petrels. On 29th Oct 6.00 to 6.15pm,1-2km off Funchal, there was a passage eastwards of at least 100 smaller shearwaters, which were identified from their jizz as Manx.

Little Egret. 6 roosting in trees next to the Cable Car terminus in Funchal, commuting eastwards during the day. One catching a fish on the river at Machico, 20th Oct.

(Mute Swan. A total of 6 birds on 2 small ponds in the centre of Funchal were obviously captive birds).

Muscovy Duck. Apparently self-sustaining feral population at Ribeira Brava, with at least 50 birds including half-grown ducklings. Also an escapee crossing the road near Portela. A drake was seen chasing female Mute Swans at two different ponds in the middle of Funchal.

Sparrowhawk. Females seen 5 times, mainly near habitation. One bird showed unusually large white base to tail, and a pale head.

Buzzard. Several birds seen or heard, mainly in rural locations.

Kestrel. Two birds flying side-by-side over Rochinho area of Funchal. Heard calling near Levada do Bom Sucesso. White in tail particularly conspicuous.

Gyrfalcon. Escaped bird described in separate report.

Sanderling. One at river mouth at Machico, 20th Oct. One on beach at Funchal Harbour, 22nd Oct.

Common Sandpiper. One on harbour wall at Funchal, 21st Oct.

Turnstone. At least 10 around Funchal Harbour, very tame. Two at river mouth at Machico on 20th Oct,

?Great Skua. Bird seen alongside Yellow-legged Gulls off Funchal, 17th Oct. In comparison with gulls it was larger, with broader wings, and darker plumage. Seen closer, with light panels in centre of wings. Beat the water with its wings.

Black-headed Gull. One in winter plumage at Funchal on 22nd Oct, with up to 12 on later dates.

Lesser Black-backed Gull. Common around Funchal Harbour.

Herring Gull. One on jetty at cement works near Camara de Lobos on 23rd Oct.

Yellow-legged Gull. Very common around Funchal Harbour.

Great Black-backed Gull. Immatures seen on several occasions around Funchal Harbour.

Sandwich Tern. 15 roosting each night on small boat near Porto Santa Maria Hotel. Chattering heard frequently at night.

?Common Tern. Calls reminiscent of Common Tern heard several times at Funchal, but none positively identified.

Feral Pigeon. Very abundant in towns and gardens and around cliff faces.

Trocaz Pigeon. Only 4 birds seen, at Ribeiro Frio (20th Oct.) and near Ponta...

?Swifts. Most birds were assumed to be Plain Swifts (first seen 19th Oct.), as they differed from Common Swifts in never showing a light chin even when closely seen. They also tended to feed closer to the ground than is normal with Common Swifts. One poorly observed individual at Machico on 20th Oct. had much paler under-parts, so may have been a Pallid Swift.

Grey Wagtail. Common along sea shore both on beach and on neighbouring buildings. Also seen near levadas.

Robin. Seen and heard frequently in gardens.

Blackbird. Seen and heard frequently in gardens, but very secretive.

Blackcap. Seen and heard frequently in gardens.

Chaffinch. Common in countryside, and targeting tourist picnic spots to beg for food. Contact calls different, and perhaps beak longer.

Madeira Firecrest. Seen and heard in scrubland near Referta, 26th Oct.

Waxbill. Party of around 20 birds by river at Machico, 20th Oct.

?Bronze Mannikin Almost certainly an escaped bird, as yet not positively unidentified. Feeding on seeds on a small tree near the Cable Car terminal in Funchal, 9.00 am on 18th Oct. A small waxbill-shaped bird with large grey beak. Upper plumage and breast mainly chestnut, forehead and bib black, lower wings dark brown, under-parts cream.

Canary. Very common in towns, gardens and on agricultural land. Why do they sing in October?

Goldfinch. Two in Machico.

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