Nature and Wildlife of Madeira – by Crossbill Guides

A warm welcome to this page about the nature and wildlife of Madeira. It complements the Crossbill nature travel guide with the same name. This is an online Crossbill Guide ‘light’ for the armchair traveller. It offers some general insights and images to prepare you for your visit, plus some practical information, sites and a free route from the Crossbill Guide. Enjoy!

Madeira is the name both of an archipelago of islands and the largest island within that archipelago. Besides the island of Madeira (at 741 km2 by far the largest island), there are Porto Santos (43 km2) and the uninhabited islands of Desertas Grande and Pequena (14.2 km2 combined).
Madeira is administratively part of Portugal, but lies much further to the southwest in the Atlantic Ocean, closer to the Canary Islands than to the motherland.
Ecologically speaking, Madeira is part of the volcanic Atlantic Islands, including the Canaries, the Azores and the Cape Verde Islands, known as the Macaronesian ecoregion. Together, these islands form a unique world, with the highest number of endemic flora and fauna of any place in Europe.

Landscape of Madeira

Volcanoes

The volcanic origin is key to the landscape of Madeira. The topography of the island is precipitous, with extremely steep slopes and lots of cliffs. Basalts and tuff stone all the result of volcanic eruptions make up the bulk of the bedrock, Cracks in the bedrock were filled with liquid lava that cooled as a very hard rock. These ‘dykes’ are wall-like structures that give strength to the mountain in the same way as timber does in a timber-framed house. The subsequent millions of years of erosion has left the island with spectacular ravines where the relatively soft material has worn away, and massive cliffs where the harder dykes reveal the underlying volcanic framework.

Rain

The volcanic origin is key to the landscape of Madeira. The topography of the island is precipitous, with extremely steep slopes and lots of cliffs. Basalts and tuff stone all the result of volcanic eruptions make up the bulk of the bedrock, Cracks in the bedrock were filled with liquid lava that cooled as a very hard rock. These ‘dykes’ are wall-like structures that give strength to the mountain in the same way as timber does in a timber-framed house. The subsequent millions of years of erosion has left the island with spectacular ravines where the relatively soft material has worn away, and massive cliffs where the harder dykes reveal the underlying volcanic framework.

The ocean

Underneath the Atlantic waves, the Madeiran archipelago continues as a wild underwater mountainscape. The ocean floor drops abruptly to a stygian depth of 3 kilometres or even, locally, to 4 kilometres. The currents from the deep bring nutrients up to the surface which feed a large population of cetaceans (sea mammals) and seabirds. The Madeiran waters are among Europe’s finest for seeing dolphins and whales, and a very large variety of sea birds. The deserted islands, the steep slopes and potholed volcanic rock are ideal for breeding seabirds.

The coastal strip – cliffs and fajãs

Close to the coast, a dense scrubland forms the natural vegetation of Madeira which on south-facing slopes are dry and hot. They are covered in a vegetation of succulent bushes and herbs that is very rich in endemic species – plants that either occur solely in the Madeiran archipelago, or are only shared with the hotter parts of the Canary Islands.

On Porto Santos and the Desertas, this is the dominant ecosystem over much of the islands. On Madeira, you’ll find it only locally in the south, on the peninsula of São Lourenço. It is also found dotted along the coast in a very interesting landscape feature of Madeira, the fajãs. A fajã is a fan-shaped, rocky plain on the coast, beneath a steep cliff. Fajãs are the result of a cliff that collapsed into the ocean. Fajãs are mostly only accessible by boat or, in recent decades, by cable car.

South-facing slopes

Towns, villages and agricultural land – most of them lie on the south-facing slopes of the island. However, the extreme steepness of the slopes and many ravines demand a different approach to land use and town planning. Rather than tight villages, much of the south slope is a mix of scattered houses and terraced fields (mostly banana plantations) mixed with patches of warmth-loving woodland, scrub, gardens, cliffs, etc. This semi-urban environment is rich in the commoner wildlife of Madeira, such as Canary, Grey Wagtail, Greenfinch, Robin, etc. In the gardens (where many plants of South-American origin grow) you can often see Monarch butterflies, which have a stable population here.

Laurel forests

The largest Atlantic laurel forests in the world are found on Madeira. Much of the north-facing slopes are covered in laurel forest. In the Tertiary (before the ice ages), laurel forests (of this type) covered large areas in southern Europe and Asia. Glaciation wiped them out, except for the climatically stable Atlantic Islands.

Most Madeiran laurel forests are not entirely unscathed, as the Portuguese burnt them down after their discovery of the island. However, the forest persisted in the steep ravines and has recolonised much of the north slopes since. Today, the forest is a superb, mossy, deep green environment, with the greatest biodiversity in the steep gorges. The tree layer of this forest consists solely on various species of laurel trees: Canary Laurel (Laurus novocanariensis), Stink Laurel (Ocotea foetens), Barbusano (Apollonias barbujana) and Madeira Mahogany (Persea indica).
Many parts of the forest have never been visited by people, simply because access is impossible. This being said, there are also many easy trails into the laurel forests that follow the levadas (see below).

The high mountains

The central core of Madeira towers over the zone where the clouds that sustain the laurel forest normally form. You reach the treeless peaks of the island via a more shrubby zone of the laurel forest, where Tree Heath (Erica arborea) and Candleberry Myrtle (Myrica faya) dominate. Cliffs, flowery grasslands and slopes with broom and other bushes form the dramatic rooftop of Madeira. Most wildflowers here are endemics, occurring only in these mountains. Their closest relatives are usually other high mountain plants, either of the Canaries or of southern Europe. There is even a species of bird that breeds nowhere else but here, and an unlikely one too. It is a seabird, the Zino’s Petrel, that, to feed the mystery still further, only comes to land in at night. With approximately 80 pairs, this is one of the rarest birds of our planet.

Mountains

The high mountain habitat inside the crater and on the slopes of El Teide form a world on its own. Almost all plants and animals here are only found in this region. It is a hotspot of diversity and the landscapes are dramatic.

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If there is one must on Madeira, it is to walk along the levada channels and marvel at the lost world vegetation of the laurel cloud forest.

The beautiful botanical gardens of Funchal, Madeira’s capital, breathe an atmosphere of the colonial past. They are also good spots for the more common flora and fauna of the island (including Trocaz Pigeon).

The narrow São Lourenço peninsula juts into the ocean on the eastern side of the island. A spectacular scenery and very rich flora awaits.

The trails that connect the three highest peaks of Madeira are spectacular, if hard to navigate. The flora is again superior. The trails are very special when  a sea of clouds start to form in the valleys below you.

From Madeira you have the unique chance to see various petrels, storm-petrels and shearwaters (best on a boat trip).

From the harbour of Funchal there are many whale watching trips, varying from lazy family outings to longer serious trips for naturalists.

Explore the peculiar coastal plains known as fajãs. The finest experience is to walk the steep cliff trail down (brilliant cliff flora and butterflies) and take the cable car back up.

Another guided excursion that will be a unique experience. Walk to the peak of the Areeiro mountain to hear the Zino’s Petrels flying to their nests. Only in spring. A bright night and warm clothes are needed for the optimal experience.

Take the ferry to the ‘sun island’ of Porto Santo, where a different flora and fauna awaits. Dolphins and sea birds from the ferry are almost guaranteed.

Take a guided excursion to the uninhabited Desertas, which stand out from the ocean like a knife. Chance of seeing petrels and shearwaters on the nest, Monk Seals, whales, seabirds, etc.

Birds, butterflies and wildflowers  – The flora and fauna of Madeira

Madeira is incomparable to anywhere else in Europe other than the Canary Islands. The vegetation is unique, with many species and even genera completely restricted to Madeira, or even to a small spot in the archipelago. We are not talking about a dandelion that is a little off. Many plants on Madeira are often radically different from the species on the continent.

Evolution is isolation

The isolated position in the Atlantic is the cause of this strange biodiversity. Madeira lies far off in the Atlantic Ocean. Its volcanic origin means that it was never part of any mainland, thus never started off with a resident flora and fauna. Everything that is there now, somehow crossed the water. In a new environment and cut off from the source population, these species evolved to the endemics you find here today.

Birds

Madeira has few bird species, but most that occur are special. On land, the Trocaz or Long-toed Pigeon and Madeira Firecrest are perhaps the prize birds, since they occur only in the laurel forests of this island (The firecrest mostly in Tree Heath). Other noteworthy land birds are Plain Swift, Berthelot’s Pipit, Canary, Madeira Chaffinch (all endemic to the Atlantic Islands), and Hoopoe, Spectacled Warbler, Rock Sparrow and Spanish Sparrow, which are shared with the southern Europe.

At least as exciting are the coastal birds and seabirds around the island. There are large numbers of Cory’s Shearwaters and smaller numbers of Manx and Macaronesian (Barolo) Shearwaters and Common and Roseate Terns. Bulwer’s Petrel is numerous. Harder to find are the storm Petrels. White-faced and Madeira Storm-petrel breed, Wilson’s and European Storm-petrel are present in summer. The two rarest birds of Madeira are the Zino’s and Desertas Petrels – two seabirds that breed exclusively on this archipelago.

Flora

Madeira is called the Island of Flowers. Sadly, it got this name from the many flashy invasive (introduced) plants from South America that spread over the south slopes uncontrolled and form a threat to the native flora.
The laurel forest is a hotspot for native flora, with many species that are restricted to Madeira, or shared only with the Canaries. A typical feature in the forest is a phenomenom called ‘island gigantism’ – what are herbs on the mainland, are gigantic plants, or even trees on the island.

The man-sized Canary Buttercup (Ranunculus cortusifolius) is a good example. The Honey Spurge (Euphorbia mellifera) and Tree Sow-thistle (Sonchus fruticosus) are other examples. The forest is home to several extremely rare plants, which grow only in a handful of valleys: Madeira Lady’s-tresses (Goodyera macrophylla) and Wollaston’s Musschia.
The two other wildflower hotspots are the high mountains and the warm coastal cliffs. In the first there are hundreds of endemic plant species. One of them is Madeira Orchid (Orchis scopulorum), that grows here by the thousands.

Sea Mammals

Madeira is the island of cetaceans. 21 species have been encountered around the island – some winter, others spend the summer and a few are only present on migration.
Six species are commonly seen on whale-watching trips: Sperm Whale, Bryde’s Whale, Short-finned Pilot Whale, Common Dolphin, Bottle-nose Dolphin and Spotted Dolphin.
Madeira also holds an important population of the threatened Monk Seal.

Reptiles

The only native reptile on Madeira is one you’ll see everywhere: the Madeira Wall Lizard (Teira dugesii). It is a big lizard with a very diverse skin pattern and colouration. Since Madeira never had any rodents, the lizards were able to colonise every nook and cranny of the island and is the staple food for the island’s buzzards and kestrels.
African House Gecko and Moorish Gecko were introduced and now live in some villages on the south coast. Loggerhead Sea Turtles are common along the island’s coast.

Butterflies

What goes for the birds also holds true for the butterflies: there are few species, but those that occur are mostly special or occur uniquely on Madeira. The endemic butterflies are Madeira Speckled Wood, Madeiran Cleopatra, Madeiran Grayling and the Canary Red Admiral (the latter obviously also occurring on the Canaries). The famous and beautiful Monarch is also present on Madeira and flies in good numbers around the city parks.

madeira bont zandoogje Pararge xiphia

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A beautiful, abundantly flowering bush, related to the Viper’s-buglosses. In the wild, it has become extremely rare, but it is planted in many parts of the island.

This is the pigeon of the laurel forest. It is only found on Madeira and lives in the canopies of the laurel trees and increasingly in ornamental gardens (especially Palheiro Gardens, Funchal).

One of three Musschia species, all of which are endemic to Madeira. A spectacular flower, distantly related to the bellflowers.

One of the world’s rarest seals. It is found in the waters around the Atlantic Islands and the Eastern Mediterranean. It is very hard to see, but on Madeira you stand a decent chance.

The most peculiar of all the storm-petrels. There is a huge breeding population on the Selvagem islands south of Madeira, and birds often feed on the ocean around Madeira.

The two famous petrels of Madeira. Zino’s only breeds around the Pico do Areeiro and Desertas Petrel only on the Desertas Islands.

This is the famous migratory butterfly of North America, which has a growing population on Madeira’s south coast (mostly in city parks).

Perhaps the commonest dolphin around the Madeiran coast, often seen from the ferry to Porto Santo.

Another endemic bird of the island. The Madeira Firecrest is common in the tree heath zone.

Deep sea “monsters” are impossible to see for us common mortals. One of them, the Black Scabbard Fish, is a common deep sea fish of the Madeiran Waters that is commercially fished, sold and eaten on the island. You’ll find it on the fish market in Funchal.

Routes and practicalities

Madeira’s topography is extreme, but the island is nevertheless surprisingly easy to travel around by car. Nowhere in Europe will you find so many tunnels as ‘in’ Madeira, enabling you to travel quickly and conveniently around the island. Every corner can be conveniently reached from pretty much any place on the island.

Levadas

Of particular interest are the levadas – small water channels that carry water from the wetter part of the island to the drier south. They follow the contours of the mountain slopes, often in the most extreme terrain, through narrow tunnels and beside drops of a hundred metres or more. There is a dark side to the levadas, namely that slaves were forced to build them. Today, they are a godsend as being flanked by paths they make it possible to walk with ease in a terrain you would otherwise never be able to visit. The Madeiran laurel forests are not only the largest and wildest, they are paradoxically also the easiest to explore.

Seabirds, whales and dolphins

The ocean is another habit where exploration depends on the existence of a helpful human infrastructure. Unlike on the Canary Islands, Madeira has numerous whale-watching companies and even a few that are specialised on seabird watching. Also trips to the Desertas make it possible to see all the sea birds, whales, dolphins, sea turtles of the region. You even stand a realistic chance of seeing Monk Seals.

The best routes, both car routes and walking routes, are described in our Crossbill guidebook on Madeira. In the book is a special chapter reserved for information on booking (seawatching) excursions.

Sustainable tourism

There is no such thing as a totally environmentally friendly trip to Madeira, but there are ways to minimise your impact on the environment.

  • A lot of food is imported from the mainland – either by boat or, if it is fresh, by plane. As far as possible choose foods produced on the islands, in particular the fresh goods like vegetables, fish and meat.
  • Tap water is safe all over the island. Use it instead of bottled water to minimise waste.
  • Coastal lagoons and freshwater ponds are important resting spots for migrant birds. When you go out birding, keep in mind that as these sites are small, birds are easily disturbed.

The book

The Crossbill Guides are the most comprehensive wildlife travel guides available. Each Crossbill Guide covers in depth descriptions of landscape, habitats, geology and all the species groups, and links  to those routes where this can be seen.

These routes are typically a mixture of  routes on foot and by car with stops and short walks. Combined, these routes cover all the best sites for seeing birds, butterflies, dragonflies, plants, mammals and reptiles. They are also set out to show you the finest examples of the ecosystems and geological features. In short, everything for nature lovers.

The Crossbill Guide to Madeira contains:

  • 224 pages
  • 13 detailed routes (11 on Madeira and 2 on Porto Santo)
  • 14 site descriptions Information on and tips for guided excursions to see whales and seabirds

The authors

Dirk Hilbers (NL, 1976), set up the Crossbill Guides Foundation and travels Europe to research the guidebooks. This is the 17th guide he worked on. As a biologist, when not in the field, Dirk Hilbers is a free-lance writer and lecturer in the field of nature education and environmental ethics.

Kees Woutersen (NL, 1956) has lived in Huesca for 20 years, working as a nature and bird guide throughout Spain. He runs his own travel company, Aragon Natuurreizen. Kees Woutersen is author of various books on the birds and natural history of the Pyrenees and Aragon, e.g. the Atlases of the Birds of Huesca and Ordesa.