Canary Island Birds
Tenerife is a dramatic island dominated by the brooding 12000 foot volcanic cone of Mount Teide. The last major eruption occurred sometime between the 11th and 14th centuries but many of the lava flows and areas of jagged black rocks look as though the event could have happened yesterday. Volcanic ash, however, can be very fertile once it releases its minerals and, with increasing distance from the main mountain, the island becomes greener with forests, cultivated slopes and valleys full of spring flowers.
Along with the rest of the Canaries the Tenerife wildlife has arrived from nearby northwest Africa or from Europe but has then been cut off and left to develop on its own. Many of the birds are the familiar ones from our own countryside but with small differences creeping in as they evolve in isolation.
The blue tits at first glance look much like ours but have a more striking head pattern with their crowns black not blue. Once regarded merely as blue tit subspecies, DNA analysis has now pronounced them sufficiently distinct to be classified as a separate species, Canary Island blue tit. Their behaviour has also begun to change with them often feeding on tree trunks, taking the niche of absent treecreepers.
Canary Island chaffinches are brighter than their mainland counterparts with salmon-pink breasts, white bellies, blacker wings, green rumps and different calls. They are on their way to becoming separate species or may even have achieved that status according to recent research. A bird that is definitely a species in its own right and which probably once shared an ancestor with the common chaffinch is the blue chaffinch (pictured), found only in the conifer forests between 3000 and 4000 feet on Tenerife and Grand Canary.
The Canary Island kinglet is another bird in the process of evolving away from its mainland ancestors, looking somewhere between a goldcrest and a firecrest and causing head scratching among experts, some of whom have been in favour of categorising it as a separate species while others say its DNA is still too close to that of its mainland relatives.
Evolution is not straightforward and does not stand still. On an island like Tenerife it is fascinating to see it in action, especially when there are so many species with only slight differences to those we see in our own gardens.
Article & Photo by Denis O’Connor