The Island of Madeira is a popular stopping point for cruise ships, but where does the naturalist go to make the most of a day ashore?
If the weather is at least reasonable, I’d recommend taking a bus ride north to the mountain village of Ribeiro Frio. The route winds its way up through Funchal, through commercial forest, then the edge open plateau of the top of the island, then down into the Laurel forest and the village.
Best to leave the bus at the restaurant at Ribeiro Frio (just south of the village) from where there are several options for walking, birdwatching and botanising.
If this area is in the clouds, you might prefer to continue on the bus to Santana or Porto da Cruz on the north coast.
If the weather is good, another option is to get off the bus at Poiso, and walk the 4km to Pico de Arieiro near the top of the island – best in clear weather. But leave enough time to walk back to catch the bus back.
The Madeira Islands were known to the Romans as the Purple Islands. It is likely that the Arabian sailors knew about the archipelago in the 14th Century – it appears on a 1351 Florentine map named as “Isola de Lolegname” (Island of Wood). The official date of discovery is 1419 by Portuguese seamen. And within the next ten years most of the endemic forests were burnt away to make room for agriculture. Some forest still remains on the steep slopes on the northern half of the island. This woodland is most easily accessible at Ribeiro Frio.
Just below the bus stop a track is signposted to “Balcões” (Balcony or viewpoint) and an easy half-hour walk leads to a magnificent view over a valley. Alongside the path is the Levada (water channel) do Faial, and a selection of laurel forest plant species, such as Madeira mahogany Persea indica, Bay tree Laurus axorica, Madeira orchid Dactyloriza foliosa, and Yellow foxglove Isoplexis isoplexis.
The balcony itself (a viewpoint) juts out over a 200m drop. If you have visited the site in the past, and been put off by the rather rustic and fragile-looking wooden railings, you’ll be pleased to know they have been replaced by much more sturdy iron ones. Here is probably the best place for birdwatching – the endemic races of sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus granti, kestrel Falco Tinnunculus canariensis, buzzard Buteo buteo harterti, blackbird Turdus merula cabrerae, chaffinch Fringilla coelebs madeirensis, and firecrest Regulus ignicapillus madeirensis and the endemic Trocaz pigeon Columba trocaz can all be seen from here. However, nothing is guaranteed except perhaps the chaffinches, which have learned that tourists mean food.
The Madeiran chaffinch is similar to the European chaffinch, but the male has much more blue on its flanks. The birds at the Balcões are very tame, and easily bribed with seeds or apples.
On clear days, you can see the the island’s central chain of mountains – Pico de Areeiro, Pico do Gato, Pico das Torres, Pico Ruivo and Achada do Teixeira. Even a cloudy day may allow occasional glimpses:
In the valley below is the Ribeira da Ametade, and it is possible to walk along the track at the bottom from a point some 7km north of Ribeiro Frio. There is no direct way down from the viewpoint. This whole valley is a protected area within the Madeira Natural Park.
Trocaz pigeons keep their distance, but can be seen with luck and patience. We saw as many from the restaurant as we did from the Balcões. They are found only in the laurel forest, and numbers are low.
This bright jewel of a bird is the Madeiran firecrest, weighing only 6g (1/4 ounce). It is continuously active, often hidden in the vegetation, but can be very confiding, as was this individual foraging in the heather by the Balcões.
Adjacent to the gift shop and restaurant is the government trout farm, where the fish are reared to restock the rivers, as well as for food. Here there is a break in the forest, allowing growth of flowers such as the native Erysimum bicolour to attract butterflies like the Madeiran Brimstone Gonopteryx maderensis
On the opposite side of the road to the trout farm is the Parque Florestal (Forest Park) – a botanical garden of Laurel forest plants. Over 100 flowering plants are endemic to the island, many of them hidden within the Laurel forest. The Parque Florestal is best visited in late spring and summer, and is especially useful if you don’t have time to look for the plants in the wild, or want to check the identity of something, as most are labelled. It’s open all day, every day, with no charge for entrance.
Madeira has three species of endemic cranesbills, all with large pink flowers from spring to winter. The Madeiran cranesbill Geranium maderense (above) is endemic to the island’s Laurel forests and has flowers of 3 – 4cm diameter.
By the trout farm, concrete steps lead up to a levada path which takes you to another kind of forest – full heather trees.
Tree heath Erica arborea (above) has small leaves and white flowers with red anthers and stgmas. It grows well above 700m, and old specimens can be 5m tall. It was formerly used for charcoal-making, becoming quite a scarce plant.
Besom Heath Erica Scoparia maderincola (left) also grows to tree proportions, and these two species are often found growing together. Besom heath has broader, longer needle-like leaves, and reddish bell-shaped flowers. It grows from sea level to to 1400m, and plays an important role on the island, condensing the mist into small drops that feed the water tables. Its wood was formerly used in furniture-making, and it is still used to make brooms (hence the name besom) and fencing hurdles. The latter are especially characteristic in the landscape around Port Moniz in the north-west of the island.
Going west from the Ribeiro Frio restaurant, is the Levada do Furado to Portela (above). This 12km hike is considered to be one of the best on the island, but involves steep drops and rock-cut tunnels, so is not for the faint-hearted.
You also need to be aware of the time in order to be sure of catching the bus back to Funchal at the end. If you suffer from vertigo, you can still do the first kilometre or so of the walk, then turn back to Ribeiro Frio when you’ve had enough.
Tripadvisor lists a number of tour operators who provide guided walking and driving tours which may include wildlife.
Wildlife specialist operators include MadeiraWindBirds. We went on a night watch with them to see petrels and shearwaters coming to their nests after dark, and found them to be excellent and helpful guides.
On our first visit in 1996, we found a few books about the cultivated plants on Madeira, but nothing about the natural history.
In 2006 this had changed, with the publication of a delightful book called Madeira’s Natural History in a nutshell by Peter Sziemer and available in several European languages. Note that this book is probably a lot cheaper to buy in Madeira than from elsewhere.
Click on the book covers for more information. We have used the ones that were available at the time of our last visit in 2016. (Buying from this source earns me a small commission, at no extra cost to you, that goes towards the cost of this website)
Walking the paths beside the levadas (water channels) is a popular past-time. If you plan to take any of these paths, please make sure you have up-to-date information. We followed one from a 1996 book, and found the end of it had changed due to building and road works. Another one we had followed in 1996 and found a bit hairy then, was no longer considered a safe route in 2014.
The original Levada-walking guide was Landscapes of Madeira which is frequently updated, and is now also available as a pdf for use on tablets, etc. We would recommend this, but have not tried any of the other books now on the market.