Madeira – The Laurel Forest at Ribeiro Frio

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The Island of Madeira is a popular stopping point for cruise ships, but where does the naturalist head for 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.

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past, and been put off by the rather rustic and fragile-looking wooden railings, you’ll be pleased to know they have been replaced by much more sturdy iron ones.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.

Further information

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.

Bookshop

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)

Levada Walks

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.

Finland: Hiidenportti National Park

According to legend, Hiisi was a devil giant living on Vuokatinvaara Hill. He hated the sound of the church bells ringing (when Christianity was first brought to Finland), and threw large rocks at the church. When this didn’t stop the noise (or the church) he gathered his livestock – a pack of wolves, bears, wolverines and lynx – and moved to the backwoods through the gorge of Hiidenportii (the Giant’s Gate). 

You can still walk through the gorge today, and gaze down on the dark, round, mossy ponds at the bottom of the gorge that are said to be Hiisi’s eyes.

Location: Hiidenportti National Park is located in the southeast corner of the municipality of Sotkamo, on the boundaries of the municipalities of Kuhmo and Valtimo.

Geologically, the gorge is a massive rupture valley, formed by the folding of the earth’s crust, and later moulded by the ice ages. It is 1km long, and has vertical walls up to 20m high.

The national park was established in 1982 to preserve the region’s wilderness. The 45 sq km encompasses a mosaic of mires and dry forests. No logging has taken place since the early 20th century, and much of the woodland is in a near natural state.

The Porttijoki (joki = river) alternates riffles and still, dark ponds. It’s fed by a system of rivulets from boggy ground and mires. The whole national park is an important wetland, though the open waters can appear dark and barren as they do not support much vegetation.

Tufted Loosestrife Lysimachia thyrsiflora and Common Reed Phragmites australis can be found on the shores, while ponds surrounded by pine mires and open bogs may support White Water Lilies Nymphaéa cándida and Spatterdocks or yellow water lilies Nuphar lutea. The natural fish population of Hiidenportti National Park include Perch Perca fluviatilis, Pike Esox lucius and Roach Rutilus rutilus.

A Mosaic of Mires

The mires in Hiidenportti National Park are in their natural-state, forming wet corridors winding through ravines and valleys.

Dwarf-shrub pine bog is the most common mire type, dominated by pines and Marsh tea Ledum palustre. These pine bogs often surround more open boggy areas which form long strips in the middle of forests. The largest are Kortesuo Mire and Urposuo Mire.

Spruce mires are usually located by streams and in narrow steep-sided ravines and are a mix of myrtillus spruce mire, cloudberry dominated spruce mire and wood horsetail spruce mire. They can be quite lush on slopes with springs, and on the shores of streams. Downy Birch Betula pubescens, Grey Alder Alnus incana, Goat Willow Salix caprea, and ferns are found here.

Although the Hiidenportti mires are quite barren and the vegetation is sparse, there are a few surprising rich spots in the middle of mires, spring areas, seepage areas, and fens. Demanding plants which grow at these lush spots are Early Marsh-orchid Dactylorhiza incarnata, Broad-leaved Bog-cotton Eriophorum latifolium and Common Twayblade Listera ovata.

Cottongrass growing on a mire
Cottongrass

Old-growth Spruce Forests and Hilltop Pine Forests

Forests cover two-thirds of the national park. In the past, the forests were used for slash-and-burn agriculture and for tar burning. The last logging was in Portinsalo at the beginning of the 20th century, so today the forests are approximately 100 to 150 years old. They are practically all spruce and pine forests in their natural-state, and are in sharp contrast to the commercial forests surrounding the area.

Moist pine forests cover the tops of fells, while spruce predominates on the slopes by spruce. The marked trail from Urpovaara Hill to Hiidenportti Gorge takes you through the most splendid of these dark forests, and in the midst of the large spruce trees there are some grand aspens.

Generally, the forests are not herb-rich, except for one area with plants such as Bearded Couch Elymus caninus, Mezereum Daphne mezereumRosa majalis and the Baneberry Actaea spicata.

Inhabitants of Old-growth Forests

The backwoods of Hiidenportti National Park are quiet and undisturbed. Bear, wolverine, pine marten and lynx are permanent inhabitants. Wolves visit occasionally. Beavers make their homes in the streams, and there is a large Eurasian elk (moose) population.

Tradition – Kovasinvaara Hill

The most valuable traditional landscapes are on the grounds of a former wilderness croft on the slope of Kovasinvaara Hill. On some parts of the slopes birch trees grow – a reminder of slash-and-burn agriculture. These birch forests are much like herb-rich forests: lush and varied. However, spruce forest is starting to invade. The area is actively managed by the use of grazing animals, and a small area has been subjected to recent slash and burn (including the planting of traditional crops) to maintain the more open habitat here.

Field Scabious is a perennial of calcaereous and neutral grassland, found in rough pasture, open hedgerows and on roadside verges, waste ground and railway embankments.

There are many interesting plants at Kovasinvaara Hill, including Alpine Bistort Polygonum viviparum, Field Scabius Knautia arvensis (above) and Moonwort Botrychium lunaria, as well as the regionally near threatened Brown Knapweed Centaurea jacea and Leathery Grape Fern Botrychium multifidum. The threatened Clustered Bellflower Campanula glomerata and Creeping Bellflower Campanula rapunculoides can also be found.

In addition to dry and wet meadows Kovasinvaara also has large areas where raspberries and Fireweed Epilobium angustifolium grow amongst Couch grass Agropyrum repens and Tufted Hairgrass Deschampsia cespitosa.

Birds of the National Park

The majority of bird species in the Hiidenportti National Park are indigenous to the east and north. The most common in summer are Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs, Willow Warbler Phylloscopus trochilus, Siskin Carduelis spinus, Spotted Flycatcher Muscicapa striata and Tree Pipit Anthus trivialis. The Wren Troglodytes troglodytes is the only southern species – its clear song can be heard in the lush hillside forests of Porttijokilaakso River Valley.

Many species require old-growth forests in order to survive. These include Goldcrest Regulus regulus and Wood Warbler Phylloscopus sibilatrix, Goshawk Accipiter gentilis, Three-toed Woodpecker Picoides tridactylus and Siberian Jay Perisoreus infaustus; this last species is very curious and will watch humans from tree tops – often coming in for a closer look. The most common game birds are the Western Capercaillie Tetrao urogallus and the Hazel Grouse Bonasa bonasia.

Great grey owl, Strix nebulosus, in northern conifer forest, where it is well camouflaged. One of the three largest owls in the world, it is found across the boreal forest zone of the northern hemisphere.

The Great Grey Owl Strix nebulosa is the emblem of the park.  It is common and can be seen especially in years when there are many small rodents such as voles around.

The mires do not attract many species, but the wood sandpiper Tringa glareola is the National Park’s most typical wader.

Butterflies, Moths and Beetles

A lack of intensive farming has left Hiidenportti National Park and its surrounding areas ideal for invertebrates. Species are typically those of middle boreal coniferous zone and also from further south.

Burnished Brass moth

A study done in 1992 found 164 species of large moths and butterflies, and 186 species of micro-moths in Hiidenportti National Park. Among these were Swallowtail Papilio machaon, Burnished Brass Diachrysia chrysitis (above), Eurasian Emperor Moth Saturnia pavonia and the threatened Xestia sincera.

Dead wood: The short summer and cool temperatures mean that dead wood rots slowly – providing cracks and crevices for invertebrates.

Finland: Hildenportti resources

The canyons of Hiidenportti are an impressive sight. Along the path leading to the main gorge you can experience shady spruce forest, a flowery meadow and woodland that used to be cleared periodically by slash-and-burn farmers. The park has many fascinating places and stories for anyone interested in cultural history to discover. 

Hiidenportti Narional Park Website – The canyons of Hiidenportti are an impressive sight. Along the path leading to the main gorge you can experience shady spruce forest, a flowery meadow and woodland that used to be cleared periodically by slash-and-burn farmers. The park has many fascinating places and stories for anyone interested in cultural history to discover.

Getting there – Hiidenportti National Park is located in the southeast corner of the municipality of Sotkamo, on the boundaries of the municipalities of Kuhmo and Valtimo.

Activities to enjoy – Trekking, admiring the sights and the views, photographing the scenery

Hiking – 30km of trails – For hikers and trekkers looking for peace and quiet. Also well-suited to inexperienced hikers, groups of students and other group trips. Not suitable for the disabled. 

Rules for visitors – the DOs and DON’Ts for visitors to the park

Travelling in Finland – advice for those unfamiliar with the country

Videos

Three days hiking in the Hiidenportti NP – with English subtitles

Books

Useful guide to sites south of the Arctic Circle, but sadly not to Hiidenportti

Lluontoportti – NatureGate

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