Monday, 9 October 2017

Selvagem Grande Madeira (Part 1)

After breakfast on Monday 9 October we inflated the dinghy and rowed ashore. The warden, Dr Manuel José Biscoito, (who is also the Curator of the Funchal Museum about the islands) gave us a very friendly welcome on the slipway and helped us carry our dinghy above the high tide mark. We were then introduced to the newly resident policeman and discovered that we should have brought our booking, passports and ship’s papers with us. He was very relaxed about it and we promised to return with the documentation after the tour. After a few minutes, the crew of the research yacht Sea Dragon and a French couple from the catamaran in the anchorage rowed ashore to join us on the tour.
Looking down on Enseada das Cagarras   

Manuel José guided us up the track zig-zagging up the steep rise above the settlement which gave us an excellent view down over the anchorage and confirmed that there was actually quite a bit more space there than it seemed from sea level.
Cory’s Shearwater chicks   

It took us a long time to get to the top. Not because it was particularly far but because the area was covered in small hollows used as nesting sites by Cory’s Shearwaters. As we stopped outside the nests, Manuel José explained that 2 weeks before they left the nest the parents stopped feeding the chicks. Those that we saw were the last chicks of this year’s breeding season. The path passes the nests less than an arm’s length away and, for us, it was a fantastic way to start the tour. The chicks we saw were starting to lose their fluffy down and the lack of food both lightens them (they go from about 1200g to 700g, which makes flying possible) and makes them hungry, which encourages them to get out of the nest and to start learning to fly and feed.

The island is a major breeding ground for the shearwaters with around 30,000 breeding pairs. They mature away from the island for 6 years before returning to try to use the same nest in which they were hatched. Inevitably, there is competition and the birds sometimes fight to the death in their attempt to win back ‘their’ nest. On the tour, we only saw chicks because the adults are away feeding and gathering food, normally returning in the evening. Their fishing area extends across the Madeiran archipelago and the Canary Islands, going as far south as the Cape Verde Islands and as far west as the Azores.
The southern cliffs   

We finally stopped asking questions about the shearwater chicks and left the nests behind us cresting the ridgeline which gave beautiful views down over the southern cliffs.
The natural well protected by the wall built by the original settlers   

Here we saw our first sign of the original settlers on the island. Water is incredibly scarce on the island and we saw one of the few points where water naturally collects. A small pool gathers drips from the rock above and to protect it and minimise evaporation the original settlers had built walled enclosure around it.
Trying out the settlers’ stone armchairs   

Moving inland we were shown one of the original stone houses, set on the plateau in the middle of the island, which was used by the settlers before they abandoned the island. Set into the wall of the round house were 2 stone armchairs which were perfectly angled to make them very comfortable to sit in. The plateau had been cultivated by the settlers and they had left their mark with the low, drystone walls which they had built to reduce soil erosion and so protect the crops. Over the past 30 years, Manuel José has been involved conservation on the islands and he explained that when he first came here there were still tobacco plants and other non-indigenous plants left from the original settlers’ time. This had been upsetting the natural balance of the island and so one of the first tasks had been to remove all that non-indigenous foliage. All that is left from that time are some tomato plants which, because they don’t compete with the native fauna, don’t need to be removed.
Enseada das Pedreiras   

The track continued to the eastern side of the island and the wide Enseada das Pedreiras bay which used to be an approved anchorage. Manuel José explained that aside from the crops, the settlers had also brought rats to the island. After a mammoth operation requiring rat poison to be laid every 10 metres (including on the cliffs!) Selvagem Grande became the first large island in the world to officially be cleared of rats. Manuel José is leading a team trying to do the same in the Ilhas Desertas but the cliffs there are even more extreme and so the is task proportionally harder.
The white area is not sand but snail shells   

On the plateau to the north of Enseada das Pedreiras, Manuel José pointed out lots of empty, white snail shells on the ground. On the low ground below us there what looked like large sandy areas but he told us that the white was from these snail shells and not sand. The snails feed on the coarse, low bushes that grow on the island and one of the first positive results of getting rid of the rat population was evidence of these snails starting to repopulate the area. We were not allowed closer because the area is also a nesting site for white-faced storm petrels. Rather than building nests, these birds tunnel underground to lay their eggs.
Selvagem Grande, Madeira, Portugal   

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