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Rare Birds of the Canary Islands

By: Dominic Mitchell
Posted on: 13 Aug 2013Expires on: 31 Dec 2050

Long popular as a package holiday destination, the Canary Islands have attracted plenty of interest from birders too. This has largely been through a desire to see the archipelago’s unique species – Bolle’s and Laurel Pigeons, Canary Islands Stonechat, Canary Islands Chiffchaff and Blue Chaffinch – as well as a number of near-endemics, local specialities and distinctive subspecies, not least Barolo Shearwater, Houbara Bustard, Plain Swift, Berthelot’s Pipit, ‘Tenerife Robin’ (subspecies superbus), ‘Tenerife Kinglet’ (the now-lumped teneriffae form of Goldcrest), African Blue Tit and Atlantic Canary.

Rarities also often feature on the list for any isolated island group, and lying in the eastern Atlantic close to the Western Palearctic boundary with the Afrotropical region, the Canaries are  no exception. This new guide to all the rare species across the islands – Lanzarote, Fuerteventura, Gran Canaria, Tenerife, La Gomera, La Palma, El Hierro and associated smaller islands – makes that abundantly clear, detailing no fewer than 172 species in a 30-year period. I was pleased to discover it did so bilingually, with species names, narrative text and records given in both English and Spanish.

Although politically one of Spain’s 17 autonomous communities, the geographical remoteness of the islands from the Spanish mainland means that many species which are common there are classed locally as vagrants. Many Canarian rarities also come from further afield, notably from North America and perhaps surprisingly even Asia, while the proximity of West Africa entails yet another suite of species. This diversity of origin is illustrated by the new species the islands have added to the Western Palearctic list – Swallow-tailed Kite and Louisiana Waterthrush from North America, and African Crake from closer to home.

After an introductory section expanding on these and related points, the meat of the book is the species accounts. These give a very brief summary of taxonomy and range, followed by details of occurrences in the Canaries. They are clear and concise, with a general summary accompanied by a panel listing records by island, date, site and observers. The English bird names used are largely straightforward but default to American alternatives in a few instances, with the more familiar version in brackets; in one such case the supplementary English name has been omitted, so that the Common Scoter entry is unfortunately titled Black Scoter.

Most accounts are illustrated with photos of the birds involved, and many are rather small but of good quality, if in a few cases a little dark. I particularly liked the Little Swift roosting on a tree at close range, while the Swallow-tailed Kite shot will fuel the dreams of many a Western Palearctic lister. No less impressive are the images of Black-bellied Storm-petrels and South Polar Skua taken at sea at Banco del la Concepción, north of Lanzarote. These regionally mega-rare seabirds at a recently discovered marine hot-spot illustrate not just the huge potential of the islands for outstanding vagrants, but also the fact that there is clearly more to be discovered in future.

Rare Birds of the Canary Islands by Eduardo García-del-Rey and Francisco Javier García Vargas (Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, 2013).
• 328 pages, numerous colour photographs, maps, tables and histograms.
• ISBN 9788496553910. Hbk, approx £24.

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