Located 62 miles west of Morocco, the Canary Islands are a Spanish archipelago revered around the world for its beautiful beaches and unspoiled natural attractions. It’s comprised of 13 islands and islets, including tourism hotspots such as Tenerife, Gran Canaria, and Lanzarote.
From UNESCO World Heritage Sites such as Mount Teide to Timanfaya National Park and the new Museo Atlántico underwater museum in Lanzarote, the islands offer an array of options for nature lovers. But the Canary Islands are named for one of its endemic bird species, and birdwatching is an ever-popular past time there.
Here’s a brief guide to some of the more commonly sighted birds of the Canary Islands:
Widely known as the wild canary or island canary, this fetching finch is the most famous of the native birds of the Canary Islands. Wild ones are mostly yellow-green with brown streaks on the back and white underrated coverts, but captive varieties have been bred to boast an array of colors. Together with the date palm, this bird is the natural symbol of the Canary Islands.
Native to Northern Africa, this crow-sized bird of prey is also commonly found in the Middle East, Central Asia, and South Asia. It looks like a peregrine falcon, but smaller (around 14 inches long) and with paler gray-blue upper parts and buff highlights as opposed to white. They’re usually found in semi-desert landscapes and dry, open hills, where they nest on cliff edges.
This gorgeous game bird is in the pheasant family, with a gray-brown back, gray breast, buff belly, brown and white-spotted throat, and rufous-streaked white flanks. Laying its eggs on the ground in dry, open, hilly areas, the Barbary partridge is native to North Africa, the Canary Islands, and Gibraltar, where it is the national bird.
Although it may not be as colorful as other birds of the Canary Islands, this passerine bird is one of the area’s most commonly seen species. Measuring just five inches, with a shorter tail and larger head than its cousin the meadow pipit, these ground-nesters were named after French naturalist Sabin Berthelot.
With a range that extends from the Canary Islands and northern Africa east to Iran, the black-bellied sandgrouse has a small pigeon-like head/neck atop a stocky body. Males are mostly gray, with a chestnut throat, golden-brown uppers, a thin black border around the lower breast, white underwings, and black belly. Look for them around watering holes at dawn.
One of the endemic birds of the Canary Islands, this beauty boasts bolder colors than other wood pigeons. The male’s dark gray body has bluish overtones, with a metallic blue-green neck, metallic blue shoulders, purple chest, red beak, and yellow-orange eyes framed by a thin flesh-colored ring.
Canary Islands Chiffchaff
Once considered a subspecies of the common chiffchaff, this endemic leaf warbler is now classified as a separate species (Phylloscopus canariensis). One subspecies is found in the western islands, while another is found only on Lanzarote and Fuerteventura. Both have a longer bill, shorter wings, and a longer tail than other chiffchaffs.
Canary Islands Kinglet
Sometimes referred to as the Canary Islands goldcrest or Tenerife goldcrest, this tiny passerine bird has two subspecies that inhabit the pine forests of the eastern and western islands. It looks very similar to a goldcrest, but with a longer bill, darker underparts, and a broader black band with yellow stripe running down the center of its head.
Canary Islands Stonechat
Once common throughout the Canaries, this small passerine bird is now only found on Fuerteventura, and is also known as the Fuerteventura stonechat. They have dark brown heads, white throats and eye patches, and a light orange-to-chestnut breast. It was formerly classified as a member of the thrush family, but is now considered an Old World flycatcher.
Also known as the North African houbara, this large (22-26” long, with a 53-66” wingspan) bustard is found in dry, arid environments across North Africa. It’s an odd but attractive bird, brown on top with a white belly, black stripes on its neck, and a cool black and brown pattern on its flight feathers.
Another pigeon endemic to the Canary Islands, the laurel pigeon is less colorful than the Bolle’s pigeon. It’s dark brown rather than bluish gray, with a dark pink breast, and lacks the Bolle’s dark tail bands. It’s also more endangered primarily due to habitat loss in the islands’ laurel forests.
Tenerife Blue Chaffinch
Endemic to the Tenerife highlands (where it is the natural symbol, along with the Canary Islands dragon tee), this blue beauty is larger, more colorful, and has a thicker bill than the common chaffinch. Visit the islands from the end of April to late June/early July to see the males in their peak breeding season blues.
Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 24 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal Constitution and American Airlines to National Geographic and Yahoo Travel. Along with his wife, photographer/videographer Mary Gabbett, he is the co-founder of ecotourism/conservation website Green Global Travel and Green Travel Media.