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Wild Flowers and Birds on Madeira

The Portuguese island of Madeira has all the history, landscape and culture – including some wonderful gardens – needed to attract a variety of tourists. For me, as a naturalist, the main attraction is the chance of seeing some endemic plants and animals – species found nowhere else on earth.

Lying some 310 miles off the west African coast, and 620 miles from continental Europe, Madeira is rather isolated, yet washed by currents from various directions. These currents have brought in seeds of plants from Africa, Europe and America. Indeed, it is said that it was after seeing these strange plants, Christopher Columbus decided there must be land further to the west, and so was inspired to travel further and “discover” America.

We visited in late March, 2006. At this time of year, flowers were blooming, birds and butterflies were becoming abundant, and most importantly, the weather was very pleasant.

We found our first endemic species the afternoon we arrived. Madeiran Wall lizards scampered over the walls along the promenade at Canico de Baixo where our first hotel was located. They are thought to have come originally from Morocco, but have evolved into a unique species here. An endemic plant called Echium nervosum also grew here, but cultivated in raised flower beds.

Madeira has been called the garden of the Atlantic, as there are so many wild and cultivated plants here. Officially, 143 species are endemic to the Madeira Island group. That includes Porto Santo to the north-east, and the Ilhas Desertas – three uninhabited islands to the south-east.There is no field-guide to the all the wild flowers here, so we did our best with a guide to the Mediterranean wildflowers, and a book called the “Flora Endemica da Madeira” – which had text in English, French and German as well as Portuguese.

Our first few days were spent exploring along the top of the cliffs. One of the more obvious endemic plants was the fish-stunning spurge. It contains a poison which was harvested by local fishermen and used to stun fish so that they were easier to catch.

One day we took a bus to Camacha (the centre of the basket-making industry) and walked back to the coast along a series of levada paths. Levadas are channels cut into the rock – sometimes even on vertical cliffs – to distribute water around the island, to the terraces that were built for growing crops. The first one was built in 1493. Most of the levadas are fairly level, and the paths beside them provide a network of routes across and around the island. However, getting between the different levels calls for some steep up and downhill walking. Arriving back at the coast we had good views of a Madeiran spectacled warbler – several European birds have sub-species found only on Madeira.

Another day we took a bus to Porto da Cruz on the north side of the island. As well as some more flowers, we found Perez’s frog and the Madeiran bumblebee – the only frog and bumblebee species to be found on the island, and again nowhere else.

For our second week, we moved to Funchal, the capital city that takes in the coastal slope and extends about as far up the hillsides as it is possible to build houses. Even new roads now have to go underground, so the new motorway from the airport is hardly visible in the city. Funchal is the hub of the bus system, and we were now able to explore other parts of the island.

The highest point is Pico Arieiro, and here we found Berthelot’s pipit, a bird native only to Maderia and on the Canary Islands well to the south. Walking back to Funchal, we followed footpaths through the new Madeiran Ecological Park, which aims to protect the watershed behind Funchal, and is being replanted with native trees as the commercial forestry is cleared.

Other bus trips took us to Ribero Frio, where we saw the bright orange and yellow Maderian cleopatra butterfly, and to the Ponta da Sao Lourenco on the east end of the Island, another wonderful place for native wildflowers.

Then we took a boat ride out to the Ilhas Desertas – the three small islands rising vertically out of the sea. These are uninhabited apart from wardens and scientists, and are home to a number of seabirds including Fea’s petrel – a small member of the albatross family, found only on Madeira and the Canary Islands, and the related Madeiran storm petrel which is found around the world’s tropical oceans. We didn’t see them – it’s too early in the season, and even then, these birds come and go from their breeding sites under cover of darkness. There is also a small colony of the very rare Monk seal here – but it really is a matter of luck if you do see any of them – we didn’t.

Funchal itself has a number of small parks of open spaces and cultivated flowers. However, a short ride on the telerifico not only gives wonderful views across the city, but takes you to the Botanical Garden where both native and introduced plants can be seen – and they are labelled, which makes identification much easier!

Perhaps the best test of a good trip somewhere is to ask “Would I go again?” The answer is a definite yes, but at a different time of year. That way we should see a different group of plants in bloom, different butterflies, as well as catching up with birds such as the Laurel pigeon of which we have so far had only brief glimpses.

More information about Madeiran wildlife at http://www.madeirabirds.com/about_madeira