I am often asked by birders planning a visit to La Palma about the sea-watching potential of the island. La Palma is, after all, surrounded by a vast expanse of unpolluted ocean, so the question seems reasonable.
However, not all regions of the Earth’s oceans are equally rich in marine life, and the subtropical waters around La Palma are referred to as oligotrophic.
So seabird activity and species numbers are generally low. La Palma has no insular shelf or extensive shallow waters offshore, no reefs, no nearby seamounts, no upwelling or nutrient-rich currents, and no estuaries which could act as feeding grounds for coastal birds. The Atlantic plunges to depths of 3,000-4,000 metres within a short distance of the coast. The narrow beaches are made of inorganic volcanic sand and lack food for waders.
So not a very bright picture for sea and shorebird enthusiasts. Precise details of the observable species and their status can be found in “Birds of the Atlantic Islands” by Tony Clarke or the “Field Guide to the Birds of Macaronesia” by Eduardo García-del-Rey. (The Avibase checklist should be handled with great care, by the way).
Here is a basic overview of what to expect:
There is only one species of breeding gull, the Yellow-legged (Larus michahellis), and small numbers of Lesser Black-backed (L. fuscus) can also be found. Very occasionally, migratory gulls turn up, such as the solitary Iceland Gull (L. glaucoides), seen by various observers on the island earlier this year.
There are large breeding colonies of Cory’s Shearwater (Calonectris borealis) which are absent from the island between November and February-March. Small numbers of Little/BaroloShearwater (Puffinus baroli) and Manx Shearwater (P. puffinus), might be seen from the coast by patient observers.
The Gannet (Morus bassanus) is a fairly regular visiting bird, in extremely small numbers, and there have been about three sightings of Great Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo) on La Palma in the last ten years, including this recent one seen just north of Santa Cruz de La Palma on April 13, and kindly reported by the visiting observers Simon Priestnall and Anthony Cooper, the author of the photograph:
Great Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo). Photo: Anthony Cooper
Of course, the fact that hardly anyone is observing birds on the island means that many species are simply overlooked. I also have to admit that, personally, I do more inland birding than coastal. Nevertheless, it would be reasonable not to set your hopes too high, if sea-watching is a priority…
Possible locations to observe seabirds on La Palma include the harbours of Santa Cruz and Tazacorte, Punta Cumplida in Barlovento (northeast) and El Faro in Fuencaliente (south). The latter location has the advantage of an excellent bar-cafeteria, with a wind-sheltered upstairs terrace from where you can survey the ocean in comfort: remember, the birding is going to be very slow.
So, no raucous colonies of Guillemot (Uria aalge), Razorbill (Alca torda) or Kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla) - to mention three of the seabirds Northern European visitors might mistakenly expect to find on an Atlantic island - but La Palma does have a couple of offshore stacks where Common Tern (Sterna hirundo) breed annually. Below, are some recent photos taken at one of the tern colonies:
Common Tern (Sterna hirundo)
Common Tern (Sterna hirundo):courtship feeding
Common Tern (Sterna hirundo): courtship feeding
Common Tern (Sterna hirundo)