Wednesday, 21 November 2012

The Azores, Sao Miguel - 27th October to 3rd November

After a journey that was not without it's incidents we finally arrived at our hotel in Ponta Delgado in the evening, which meant that we had no chance to see or eval;uate where we were.  We had decided to come to this island in the middle of the Atlantic in the hope of getting some time whale watching, we were also aware that the island itself had its own treasures to explore, there being plenty of opportunities to walk the volcanic craters and uplands.

the next morning we were confused by the clock change, the Azores are on hour behind GMT, and by relying on technology to change the clocks, we found ourselves wandering the streets of Ponta Delgado when there was nobody about.  The day was quite mild, with a fair breeze.  We had decided to explore, but found ourselves at the harbour, so we went and asked about possible whale watching trips.  The news wasn't good, as the days trip had been cancelled due to the wind, and there was the distinct posiblity that with the weather forecast for the week, other sailing through the week would be cancelled as well.

As a result we decided to walk back to the hotel, and set off to see as much of the island as we could today, while the weather was relatively good.  We set off to the west, and then turned in land to climb up towards the village of Setes Cidades.  The journey takes you along a road that is lined with high hedges made of Hydrangeas, some of the blue flower heads remained, and you realised that in the spring and summer it must be an incredible sight.

A  look out point provided wonderful views back towards Ponta Delgado, and off to the east.  As we looked out across the island we could hear dogs barking.  We had followed trucks with dogs in the back, and these must be the same dogs being used to hunt. 

The landscape is dominated by small craters known as Picos, these are where eruptions have bubbled up and created the small cones of small volcanoes.  Originally there were two islands here, the centre of Sao Miguel is the youngest part of the island, created later and providing a link between the two large craters

As well as the dogs we saw up to four Buzzards circling below us.  The Buzzard became quite common as the week went on.  They are a sub species Buteo buteo rothschildi, but are known as the Azorean Buzzard, and they are how the islands go their name.  The first Portuguese explorers on reaching the islands, thought the buzzards were goshawks, because they were so tame, and almost came to the had like the explorers own falconry goshawks.  As a result they named the islands after the Portuguese name for the goshawk "Acors".

From the view point we continued the drive up the side of the crater.  The weather changed rapidly from sunshine to low cloud.  The landscape was incredibly green with lush grass and moss covering almost everything, and alongside the road more hydrangea and other heavy leaved plants.

We stopped at a trail, that led to a large lake that was formed by one of the many craters, this was known as Lagoa Canario.  The short trail took us through feathery pine trees, and then into the open to view the lake.  The green of the surrounding trees reflecting in the still water, it was quiet with only the wind blowing and the clouds moving quickly across the tops of the trees.

From the lake we walked down a trail and into the woods.  Along the path there was plenty of sign of land slip.  The side of the valley were very steep, and covered in very thick damp moss.  With the soil very thin, and based on volcanic rock, the weight of the vegetation would pull the side of the valley down leaving just bare rock.

All along the trail we could hear goldcrests calling, and every so often we would flush a Grey Wagtail.  It wasn't very clear where the path was going, but we always thought that at the next turn there would be something.  Finally we came out on to a road, where there was an overlook away to the north, and we had a first view of Setes Cidades, and the two lakes in the valley.  The main lake here is Lagoa Azure, "the Blue Lake".

To get back we had to retrace our steps.  Along the main path to the car more goldcrests flitted about in the hedge.  We soon became aware that along with the Grey Wagtails these were a very common bird on the island, and that they were quite confiding, but electric quick as they made their way through the trees.  More hydrangea hedges stretched out across the field, still providing an indication of the flowers that would be about in the spring.

We now drove around to the Visti Du Rei, "The Kings View" to look down on Setes Cidades, and the two lakes in the volcano crater.  The larger lake at the top is Lagoa Azure, the blue lake, and the lower lake, lagoa Verde, the green lake.  At certain times and in certain light the water takes on these colours, you could just about make the distinction today.

Leaving the view point, we took the road down into the crater, and made our way through the village of Setes Cidades, and then back up out of the crater the other side, and down towards the village of Mosteiros.  We stopped at an old whale watching look out point, and looking to the north we could see the village close to the sea.

From the look out we drove down to the village following a truck with dogs in the back, and two dead rabbits hanging from the bars, so we now knew what the dogs were hunting.  Mosteiros was a quiet village by the sea, the light was very atmospheric, and out in the the bay the dark islands and stacks contrasted with the calm grey waters of the bay.

We completed the rest of the tour in differing weather conditions, the clouds would move in from the south, and there would be the odd shower, and then we would be back into sunshine. 

The next day the whale watching trip was cancelled once again, and the prognosis was that the trips would be cancelled for the next two days, however worse news was that Helen had been taken ill overnight.  As a result we headed out in the car in the afternoon.  The weather was lousy with rain and low cloud, and for the majority of the journey we could see a thing, the fog was so thick.  For some unknown reason we decided to follow the bullfinch route, and only succeeded in getting lost, and passing the same road construction site twice, and a road sweeper four times.  As a result we headed back to the hotel.

The next day, Tuesday, Helen was feeling a little better, but the weather wasn't.  With high winds and rain we decided once again to explore the island to see if we could find better weather, something that is possible on this rock in the Atlantic.  After finally getting out of the car park we headed west to Mosteiros again, and finally stopped to watch the sea crashing onto the rocks.

After this photograph was take we drove down to get closer to the rocks, parking on the corner in the pull off area.  Minutes after stopping we were shocked to see a truck narrowly miss us, skid and tip over depositing a load of breeze blocks onto the path literally feet from our car.  The driver was alright, but we decided it was time, to retire to the safety of Ponta Delgado for the rest of the day.

Wednesday started brighter, with blue skies and sunshine, but still with the very strong wind.  We decided to visit the lakes around Furnas, and as we took the southern coast road we could see that the sea was very rough.  Pausing at San Roque, the waves could be seen pounding the beach and rocks.

Moving on, after a few miles we turned inland and started the ascent up the crater towards Lagoa Fogo or lake of fire.  This basin is actually the most recent crater on the island, evolving between 30,000 and 12,000 years ago, with the most recent eruption in 1563.  Today though the silent lake reveals nothing of its violent past.  The road winds up to several view points where you can take in the whole lake, and appreciate the steepness of the crater sides.

Cutting through the silence of the mountains were the calls of the Azorean Yellow-legged Herring Gulls.  They could be seen flying around the face of the crater sides, providing a similar habitat to sea cliffs that the gull would normally use.

The road then takes us down the other side of the crater towards the north.  About half way down we stopped to visit a waterfall that is a popular place with the locals as the water is constantly warm.  The valley area was being developed with buildings, and it did not look as picturesque as described in the guide books.  It was though very lush with vegetation, and the steam from the warm water could be seen rising through the ferns.  In several places the water could be seen boiling through the ground, forming small craters, giving some idea of how the massive volcano craters were formed.  Wildlife was very sparse, we did hear frogs calling, and as were everywhere else there were lots of Grey Wagtails.

Our next stop was Ribeira Grande, a village named after the river that flows through and out into the sea.  We walked along the river to the beach, and once again was mesmerised by the waves coming onto the beach.

As we watched the surfers, we were also given some nice views of a Little Egret that flew past, and then ran around fishing in the surf.

On the beach in front of us there was also a small group of Sanderlings feeding on the beach and running around just in front of the surf as the waves rolled in.

Small yellow butterflies could be seen all around any area of grass.  These were Clouded Yellows, and there were both male and females, the males seeking out the females, and dueling with other males in their effort to isolate a female.

From Riberia Grande we headed back up into the hills, the road taking us through more Plain Tree lined avenues, and hydrangea hedgerows.  At yet another view point we had some wonderful views across the north coast, and back inland, the sun picking out the lush vegetation that covers the rolling hill sides.

Our next stop was the view point at the top of Pico do Ferro (Iron Mountain).  It looks out across Lagoa Furnas and the Furnas valley.

Looking down we could see the steam rising out of the Caldeiras das Furnas, both in the town of Furnas, and by the side of the lake.  After a stop off in Furnas for lunch we headed to the lake.  It was now overcast, and it was also drizzling with rain.  We took a short walk around the area of the picnic site.  This is another popular place with locals, who come to cook stews in the boiling waters of the calderas.  All along the shore of the lake you could see steam rising from bubbling pools of mud.

As we left the lake and set off for the main road to take us back to Ponta Delgado, looking back we saw a waterfall that was cascading down from the mountain.  The water was a yellowy brown, which made it stand out from the vegetation.  As I took this photograph I was alerted to a group of three wigeon calling from the middle of the lake.

Back in Ponta Delgado the weather was better, and later in the evening we received a call to say there was a chance the whale watching trip could be on in the morning.

On Thursday morning it was sunny and clear, with a slight breeze but no where as strong as previous days.  I went early to the old harbour, and waited to see if the boat was going out.  The companies work with whale spotters based at look out points along the coast.  These are usually old whalers that have retained the skill, and put it to use for tourism following the ceasing of whaling in the late seventies.  The boats are reliant on the spotters to direct them to the whales, so if they can't see anything, they don't go.  The company was hopeful the sea would be better at a different site, so we waited, but when the news came that they could only see a pod of dolphins I decided not to bother and went back to the hotel.  I had come to see Sperm Whale, unfortunately they had not been seen for over ten days.  At this time of year it is only the big bull whales around and they can dive for over an hour, making it hard to see them.

Back at the hotel we decided to take the road we didn't see when we set off on Tuesday.  We stopped at a viewpoint where there was a whale spotter.  He pointed out a pod of dolphin that were being followed by two boats.  There was no sign of any whales.

We returned once again to Mosteiros and decided to walk this time along the coast road, the islands off the bay were a little clearer now, and gulls could be seen on the rocks.

We walked around to the scene of the accident to find that it had all been cleared up, then after a coffee stop we made our way back.  As we approached a ruined building I noticed a white bird fly down onto a wall, as I picked it up I realised it was Snow Bunting, which was a big surprise, but apparently not rare on the island.  It proved to be a very confiding bird, allowing me to get very close, and top get some lovely shots of a very pretty bird.

We walked back around the bay, watching snorkelers with spear guns fishing in the water off the rocks.  A pair of Azorean Yellow-legged Gulls, posed very nicely on the black rock showing the bright yellow legs, and the flatter shaped head that distinguishes it from the main herring gull species.

From Mosteiros we made our way back to the hotel, by taking the route through Setes Cidades in the opposite direction of that which we had taken on Sunday.  Back at the hotel, after rescuing two cruise passengers from the car park, we spend the rest of the afternoon people watching in a bar on the sea front.

Friday, once again started as a beautiful day, and with Helen feeling better enough to attempt a walk we headed back to Lagoa Furnas.  This time we made our way straight there and it was very quiet when we arrived in the car park.  The first thing we noticed was the fact that where there had been bubbling pools the previous day, they were now gone, and secondly looking up the side of the mountain, there was no waterfall.  Did it get turned on and off?

We set off to walk around the lake in blue skies and sunshine, but as was turning out to be the usual pattern very quckly cloud spilled across the crater and the lake.  We went through an area of young sapling trees and grasses, and came across a small flock of Common Waxbills.  At first I wondered what they were, but since I have found out that they have established themselves from escaped cage birds, and are common around the lake.

The calls of buzzards could be heard echoing around the crater, and I finally managed to get ta photo of one of the iconic birds of the Azores

As we walked along the path that was surrounded on both sides by trees and plants we heard and saw goldcrests and chaffinches calling.  The Chaffinches were much darker than the British bird, and the breast was not as pink, but the back a lot deeper blue grey.  You could see it was a chaffinch, but it was stuck between the male and female.  Grey Wagtails were also very conspicuous, and would fly up from the little streams that ran down from the rocks into the lake.  Along with the buzzard the grey wagtail was everywhere on the island.  As you turned a corner on the road one would flush from the side.  By the lake I finally managed to get some pictures.

The cloud was now beginning to take over, but as we reached the furthest point of the lake on this walk, looking back the water was reflecting nicely what little amount of blue sky remained.

The trees were shedding leaves, but not at the same pace as they probably were in the UK.  One thing about both the conifers and the deciduous trees on the island is that they are huge.  This probably to do with the warm , wet climate just like the cloud forests of the north west pacific.  Looking up the trees looked like pictures of lungs with the many branches reaching out into the sky, essential to the well being of the island.

The path now took us into a clearing surrounded by more tall trees, and as we walked through it we saw bats flying around.  In total there were three, these were Day-flying Bats, and are the only true mammal found on the island.  Of course there are dogs, cats rats and mice, but these came in via humans.  The bats must have made their own way here, and unusually hunt during the day.  The three we watched flew around the trees, and were very difficult to photograph this was the best shot I managed to get.

The walk then followed the road back to the car park.  In the reeds and bushes by the water there were more small flocks of waxbills.

A little further on I finally managed to get a Goldcrest to stay still long enough for a photograph.  The lichen on the trees in this shot was common all over the trees around the lake.

I had seen reports of two Ring-necked Ducks on the lake earlier in the week, but when we arrived there was nothing on the water.  As I approached the car park I noticed two ducks making their way from the edge of the water out towards a group of Coot.  Looking closer I could see that they were female Ring-necked Ducks.

We left the lake and headed away from Furnas.  The road were were driving on we had come down on last Monday in thick fog, today the cloud was clearing again, and the sun finally came out as we stopped in Povoacao.  After lunch we made our way up the side of the Serra da Tronqueira.  Ahead of us there was cloud hanging on the tops of the mountains, and behind us was clear blue skies and sunshine.  The result of this combination was a rainbow stretching across the valley.

We were attempting to drive the route we had taken in the fog on Monday, but we decided to take a detour down to Faial da Terra.  This was a very steep drive down to the sea, and then through a very quiet village, taking the road back out again to pick up the main road we were treated to an even greater spectacle of a rainbow arching across the fields, for once you could see both ends, and we were tempted to look for that pot of gold.  With lush greens of the valley, and the blue of the sky, it really looked wonderful.

Back on the main road we headed for Nordeste, but very soon cam e across a road block.  Ignoring it as you do we set off only to come across several huge land slips, that had to have happened since Monday.  In places only one lane was open, and workers were clearing the soil that was covering the road.  At the last slide we actually drove through on mud.  At Nordeste it looked no different to the scene we found last Monday.  It was low cloud mist and drizzle, and this was very much the case as we drove the northern roads of the island.  As we came back down into Ponta Delgado the sun returned, and in the evening we were treated to a lovely sunset from the roof of the hotel.

Our flight to Lisbon on Saturday morning was early in the morning, and as usual the day started clear and sunny.  As the plane took off and headed away to the east I was able to get some aerial shots of the island that captures the small picos and craters that make up the middle section, and some lovely views of Lagao Fogo, and Furnas.  As usual the north coast is already covered in cloud and mist.

Looking West towards Ponta Delgardo

Lagoa Fogo

Lagoa Furnas and the Furnas valley.

It had been a very eventful week, and unfortunately we were not able to whale watch due to the weather.  But I have enjoyed the island, and it is truly a very beautiful place.  We would like to come again, maybe not for a week, and definitely in the spring, when for sure the plants and flowers must be spectacular.