29 March 2013

Early spring movement

A couple of hours birding at Staines Moor this morning in a cold northeasterly revealed just a little evidence of passage with 3 Chiffchaff, including 2 feeding around the fence posts along the Colne, 30+ Meadow Pipit N and 39 Northern Lapwing N. 1 Water Pipit along the Colne (in almost full summer plumage), 17+ Common Snipe, 1 Little Owl, 2 Common Buzzard, 1 Pied Wagtail, 4 Song Thrush, 3 Reed Bunting, a few displaying Meadow Pipit, several singing Skylark, and lots of Greenfinch and Goldfinch were also seen. On Stanwell Moor, 8 Fieldfare, 3 Redwing, 1 Northern Shoveler and 2 displaying Northern Lapwing were noted.

Common Chiffchaffs feeding along the Colne

Northern Lapwing heading north

Mipits over north

23 March 2013

Final birding hours in Morocco: 23 March

Managed to spend an hour or so birding the pools at Oualidia this morning before leaving for Marrakesh and our flight home. In influx of waders since yesterday, possibly brought down by low cloud and heavy rain that started soon after I got to the pools, tallied 25+ Redshank, 3-4 Common Sandpiper, 2 Green Sandpiper, 1 Greenshank and 4 Kentish Plover noted, along with 1 Spotted Redshank and many Black-winged Stilt. Several iberiae and 1m male flavissima Yellow Wagtails were still around the reeds, along with 4 Brown-throated Martin, 1 Sand Martin, 20+ Barn Swallow and several Common Chiffchaff.

Discounting a day visit to Tangier way back in 1997 as a sight-seeing tourist, this is my first trip to Morocco. The birding has been excellent and I'm already thinking about returning. For details on the Wise Birding tour to Southern Morocco see the Wise Birding website.

22 March 2013

Oualidia area: 22 March

Awoke to the calls of Spotless Starlings outside our hotel window in Oualidi and managed to capture a few reasonable images, before taking a quick look at the pools nearby that produced more migrants including several Yellow Wagtails (including a male flavissima), 1 Water Pipit, 1 Sedge Warbler, and close views of 2+ Brown-throated Martins resting in the reeds during heavy rain.

Spent the rest of the day searching the nearby fields for the very rare Andalusian Buttonquail. We heard at least one buttonquail calling at very close range in a field of crops. There was no way we were going to be crashing through crops just to see these birds but we were pleased just to hear their amazing call. For more on the Andalusian Buttonquail click here.

Birds seen here include 3 Common Quail (all in flight), 1 Laughing Dove, 1m Spanish Sparrow, 5 Sardinian Warbler (including a juvenile being fed by a male), 3 Little Owl, many Corn Bunting, 8+ Linnet and 2 Hoopoe, and migrants noted include 3+ Turtle Dove, 1 Stone-Curlew, 1 Nightingale, 3 Blackcap, 1 Common Chiffchaff, 2+ Red-rumped Swallow and many Barn Swallow.

The salt pans and wetlands along the road produced 18 Glossy Ibis, 1 Whiskered Tern, 1 Sanderling, 1 Curlew Sandpiper, many Avocet, 1 Woodchat Shrike and a unusually obliging Crested Lark.

Spotless Starling, Oualidi

Brown-throated Martin, Oualidia

Crested Lark

21 March 2013

The road to the pode: 21 March

Another day of travel today but with some good stops along the way adding several species to the trip list.

Over breakfast of egg on biscuit at our B&B at Moulay Bousselham c250 Linnet were logged heading northwards along the coast in small flocks, and a couple of stops along the northern and eastern sides of the vast Merja Zerga estuary and wetland (famous as the last regular wintering site of Slender-billed Curlew) produced 2+ Slender-billed Gulls, 2 Curlew, 2 Northern Lapwing, a 1st year Mediterranean gull, 4 Caspian Tern, many Sandwich Terns, 1 Yellow Wagtail, 2 Marsh Harrier and 2 Little Owl.

Our next stop, 280 km to the south-west at El Jadida, added many Sanderling and Ruddy Turnstone to the list and 2 Common Sandpiper, 4 Ringed Plover, 1 Grey Plover, 1 Redshank, 1-2 White Wagtails, 2 1st year Mediterranean Gulls and an impressive gathering of c1000 Lesser Black-backed Gulls were also noted.

The coast road between El Jadida and the small town of Oualidia is very scenic, with tiny fields flanking the sides of a low rocky ridge running parallel to the coast, and miles of lagoons, salt pans and salt marsh created by longshore drift of sand along the coast. A few stops at the lagoons and salt pans produced a good of waders including 3 Ruff, 1 Bar-tailed Godwit and 1-2 Knot, 3+ Curlew Sandpiper, 1 Greenshank, 5 Redshank, 1 Whimbrel, 6 Little Stint, Ringed Plover, numerous Dunlin, Turnstone, Grey Plover, Kentish Plover and Black-winged Stilt and c100 Avocet. 1 Turtle Dove, 3 Slender-billed Gull, 1 Peregrine and a few Yellow Wagtails (including an 'Spanish' Wagtail M. f. iberiae) were also noted.

The pools at Oualidia were buzzing with migrants with 20 Yellow Wagtails (19 iberiae and a single male flavissima), 2 Willow Warblers, 10 Common Chiffchaffs and numerous Barn Swallow in the reeds and poolside vegetation. 1 Spotted Redshank, 3+ Redshank, 1 Green Sandpiper and 2 Marbled Duck were the best of the rest on the pools.

'Spanish' Wagtail Motacilla flava iberiae. One of 19 at the pools at Oualidia this evening.

Willow Warbler, Oualidia

Common Chiffchaff, Oualidia

20 March 2013

The owl and the francolin: 20 March

Started the day birding around the hunting lodge at Sidi Yahya Zaer, the only remaining outpost in the Western Palearctic for Double-spurred Francolin. After waiting a while a bird started calling from an unviewable area of scrub, but just then we were approached by a local claiming to be a 'forest guardian', who could show us the birds. Well, the locals hadn't let us down so far on this trip as far as showing us birds goes, so we all pile into our hire, ahem, Renault Kangoo (you might mock but those sliding doors are bloody awesome for birding), and start off up some unmarked dirt track. Faith in our guardian plummeted after he strung 2 Barbary Partridge for francolins, but minutes later we found this fella running up and down the track.

Double-spurred Francolin in it's natural pen, er sorry I mean habitat, at Sidi Yahya Zaer

Double-spurred Francolin with the chain-wire fence cropped out to allow easier ticking. Phew!

Interestingly, and more than a little concerning for our up until now unblemished conscious, even though the bird could have easily evaded our attention by escaping across the road into cover, instead it was intent on trying to get into a fenced off area on the other side of the road, i.e. back into it's pen! We pondered it's origin, we slapped it on the list, we said goodbye to our new Moroccan friend, we drove on - not necessarily in that order (for Darryl's much better account see here). 2 Green Sandpiper and 1 Booted Eagle were also noted here.

A stop en route northwards at Lake Sidi Boughaba National Park, a freshwater lake, produced a good suite of wetland birds including 13+ (4m, 9+f) White-headed Duck, 7 (inc. 3 juv) Red-knobbed Coot, 2m Ferruginous Duck, 1 Great White Egret, 2 Purple Gallinule, 4 'Moroccan' Wagtail Motacilla alba subpersonata, 9 Greater Flamingo, several Great Crested Grebe, 3 Little Grebe, several Red-crested Pochard and Common Pochard. Overhead, 13+ White Storks, 1 Booted Eagle, several Marsh Harriers and Black Kites were noted. Several Spanish Terrapins Mauremys leprosa were also noted.

Red-knobbed Coot

A few hours from late afternoon to dusk at Merdja Zerga on Morocco's north-west coast eventually produced good, if rather distant, views of our second main target of the day - a Marsh Owl. While waiting for the owls to appear we were joined by several locals offering to running into the marsh and flush the birds, however, we made it clear that we did not want them to do this (if you visit this site please discourage them from disturbing the owls). Also noted here were 1-2 Mediterranean Gull, 1000+ Avocet, 100+ Black-tailed Godwit, many Grey Plover, 1 Whimbrel, a few Collared Pratincole, 1 Squacco Heron, 5 Ferruginous Duck, 2 Shelduck, 2 Caspian Tern, 2+m Marsh Harrier, 1 Little Owl, 2+ Redshank, 15 Little Egret, Reed Bunting (H), 1 Hoopoe and a surprise summer plumage male Brambling.

Adult summer Brambling at Merdja Zerga

19 March 2013

Heading north: 19 March

A long day of travel today, first driving east back to Marrakesh to drop Andrew, Neil and Sue at the airport, then north to the coast. Not much time for birding, but a quick stop at a wadi west of Marrakesh produced a few migrants including 1m Moussier's Redstart and 2m Common Redstart, along with a Laughing Dove, 2 'Desert' Grey Shrike and 2 Common Bulbul.

The habitat became lusher and more agricultural as we drove north from Marrakesh towards Casablanca, with vast fields of crops. Several Calandra Larks and many Corn Buntings were seen from the car, as well as 1m Montagu's Harrier, 3m Black-eared Wheatear and 7 Woodchat Shrike. Also noteworthy for the day was a Booted Eagle over Marrakesh.

18 March 2013

Combing the bald patch: 18 March

The main target today was the Critically Endangered Northern Bald Ibis Geronticus eremita. Formally widespread across much of Southern and Central Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East (even appearing in Egyptian hieroglyphics), Northern Bald Ibis underwent a calamitous decline over the last 400 to 500 years, until just two disjunct populations remained, a migratory population in the east in Turkey, and another, resident population, in coastal Morocco. Good numbers remained in Turkey up until the mid 1900s, but were declared extinct in 1992 leaving just the Moroccan population, until 2002 when a tiny number were rediscovered in Syria. Today the total global population consists of around 500 wild birds in Morocco, about 10 in Syria, 100 reintroduced birds in Turkey and a small number also reintroduced in Spain.

In Morocco, the area to see these birds is the Souss-Massa National Park (created in 1991 and protecting 95% of the world's remaining Northern Bald Ibis), and the cliff tops at nearby Tamri. Urbanisation, disturbance and changes in farming practices are the main threats faced by the Moroccan ibises nowadays, but the park has successfully blocked building on their breeding and feeding areas. This, together with local wardens employed by SEO/BirdLife monitoring and raising local awareness of the bird's plight, has led to a slow increase in the Moroccan population (Wise Birding are donating 3% of the cost of this tour to SEO/BirdLife). The difference in breeding success inside and outside the park couldn't be more stark. Breeding in Souss-Massa last year was similar to the previous year, with 34 pairs (two less than 2011) hatching 95 chicks (one less than 2011), although at Tamri, which is unprotected, no eggs hatched in 2012.

After drawing a blank at Souss-Massa, we eventually found 23+ ibises (including a few immatures) feeding at close range on the hillside north of Tamri Estuary.

Northern Bald Ibis, Tamri - not a looker

Northern Bald Ibis, Tamri

1 Little Ringed Plover, 1 Common Sandpiper, 2+ 'Moroccan' Wagtail were noted on Tamri Estuary and a few Audouin's Gull (including a ringed bird) and Yellow-legged Gull were amongst a large number of Lesser Black-backed Gulls on the beach. Offshore many Northern Gannets were moving north, and overhead several Red-rumped Swallow were noted.

'Moroccan' Wagtail Motacilla alba subpersonata

Souss-Massa this morning was still productive with 2 Black-crowned Tchagra, 2f and 1f Moussier's Redstart (including a nesting pair), 2 Barbary Dove, 1 Great White Egret (scarce in Morocco), 2 Barbary Partridge, 1 Caspian Tern, 1m Montagu's Harrier, 1 Wryneck, 1 Alpine Swift, 1 Common Swift, 7 Audouin's Gull, c100 Sandwich Tern, 1 Spoonbill, 1 Common Sandpiper, 1 Sparrowhawk, 1 Little Owl, 1f Blue Rock Thrush and several Linnet were amongst the large number of species seen.

Male Moussier's Redstart, Souss-Massa - a looker

Little Owl, Souss-Massa

Common Bulbul, Souss-Massa

A quick stop further up the Souss-Massa produced the hoped for Brown-throated Martin, along with 1 Sedge Warbler, 1m Stonechat, 2 'White-breasted' Cormorants, 1 Common Sandpiper and a Yellow Wagtail.

The white breasted NW African race of Great Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo maroccanus

17 March 2013

Westwards to the coast: 17 March

Another day of driving so little time for birding. An hour or so early morning at Barrage al Mansour Ad-Dhabi, a large reservoir just east of Ouarzazate, produced huge variety of birds including a flock of c150 Trumpeter Finch, 1 Marsh Harrier, 2 Osprey, 1 Barbary Falcon, 2 Cream-coloured Courser, 1 Spotted Redshank, 2-3 Common Redshank, 3 Greenshank, 1 Common Sandpiper, lots of Kentish Plover, 2 Marbled Duck, lots of Ruddy Shelduck, 1m Pintail, a pair of Common Teal, 8 Northern Shoveler, 4 Gadwall, several Mallard, several Great Crested Grebe, a few Coot, 9 Spoonbill, 1 Cattle Egret and lots of White Stork and Grey Heron.

Overhead, 2 European Bee-eater and 1 Tawny Pipit flew NE and Pallid Swift, a few Little Swift, several House Martin, many Sand Martin and 1 Red-rumped Swallow were also noted moving through. Migrant passerines on the deck included 1 Water Pipit, 1 Yellow Wagtail, several White Wagtails and Short-toed Larks and a few Meadow Pipits. I'd love to spend a few days birding this site during migration.

Barrage al Mansour Ad-Dhabi is an Important Bird Area, with large numbers of Marbled Duck and Ruddy Shelduck

A picnic stop at a wadi in the Sous Valley produced 1 singing male Western Orphean Warbler, 1m Moussier's Redstart, and a few migrants including 1 Subalpine Warbler, 1 Common Nightingale, 1+m Common Redstart and 3 European Bee-eater overhead.

Common Nightingale

Common Redstart

Late afternoon and evening at the Sous Estuary produced 1 Peregrine, 1 Osprey, 17 Sandwich Tern, 2 Black-headed Gull, 1 Yellow-legged Gull, 21 Lesser Black-backed Gull, 1 Spoonbill, 7-8 Little Egret, 6 Northern Shoveler, 1f Common Teal, 1m Sardinian Warbler, 2 Zitting Cisticola, and a good collection of waders: 4 Curlew Sandpiper, 2-3 Common Snipe, 1 Wood Sandpiper, 1 Green Sandpiper, 2 Dunlin, 9+ Ringed Plover, 4+ Little Ringed Plover, 1 Avocet and c10 Black-winged Stilt. 2-3 Red-necked Nightjar flying around and resting on the track brought the day to an end.

16 March 2013

The road to Ouarzazate: 16 March

A travel day driving westwards from Merzouga to the town of Ouarzazate with a few stops en route. A Black Kite north over the edge of Merzouga was a new migrant for the trip. A stop at a wadi in Goulimine, along N10 from Goulmima to Errachidia, produced 1 Scrub Warbler, 4 Thick-billed Lark, 2 Bar-tailed Lark, 1 'Long-billed' Crested Lark, 1+ Barn Swallow, 1 Spectacled Warbler, 2 Common Whitethroat, 2m and 1f Desert Wheatear, 1m Northern Wheatear, and best of all, a superb male migrant Seebohm's Wheatear.

Male Desert Wheatear, Goulimine

'Long-billed' Crested Lark, Goulimine

A picnic lunch at a wadi near Tinejdad produced a few migrants, including 1m Desert Wheatear, 1 'Desert' Grey Shrike, 1 Subalpine Warbler, 1 Common Whitethroat and incredible views of an Egyptian Nightjar that flushed from the bed of the wadi under our feet before settling to roost.

Egyptian Nightjar - what a bird!

Egyptian Nightjar - up close and personal!

A well-earned lunch after amazing views of Egyptian Nightjar

A coffee stop late afternoon just east of Ouarzazate also produced a few migrants including 1 Yellow Wagtail, 1-2 Red-rumped Swallow, a Barn Swallow and lots of Sand Martin. Also, this Heart & Dart Agrotis exclamationis was found in our hotel room in Ouarzazate this evening.

Heart & Dart Agrotis exclamationis, Ouarzazate

15 March 2013

Erg Chebbi area: 15 March

Another fantastic day birding the sandy, this time driving around the edge of Erg Chebbi. We started off back at the berber encampment at Kemkemia where a pair of Desert Sparrow allowed me to get some half reasonable pics, before driving on to a date palm plantation on the edge of Erg Chebbi where we picked up 3+ Fulvous Babbler, 1 'Desert' Grey Shrike, 1 Western Bonelli's Warbler and a 'Long-billed' Crested Lark. Driving on eastwards in search of Houbara Bustard (thought to all now be of captive stock) we found a flock of Spotted Sandgrouse followed almost immediately by a surprise flock of Crowned Sandgrouse, as well as 2 African Desert Warbler, 1m Black-eared Wheatear, 1f Desert Wheatear, 4 Greater Hoopoe Lark (including a juvenile) and many Bar-tailed Larks.

Male Desert Sparrow, Kemkemia

Male Desert Sparrow, Kemkemia

Fulvous Babbler

Male and female Spotted Sandgrouse

2 female and male Spotted Sandgrouse

Male Crowned Sandgrouse

A lunch stop at an oasis next to the village of Bagaa, 20 km SSE of Merzouga, produced another male Desert Sparrow and plenty of northbound migrants including lots of Subalpine Warblers, 1m Common Redstart, 1 Yellow Wagtail over, 1 Sand Martin and 1 Barn Swallow. Best of all was a totally unexpected flock of around 10 Rock Martin flying around the dunes (more on this record here).

Back at our hotel in Merzouga, Albergue Atlas du Sable, another male Common Redstart was noted, and an evening visit to Dayet Srji produced 17+ Short-toed Lark, 4+ Northern Wheatear, 4 Yellow Wagtail, 3 Common Redshank, 13+ Little Stint, 1 Green Sandpiper, many Kentish Plover, just 1 Avocet and many Ruddy Shelduck. Finally, a night drive in the early evening around the desert north of Merzouga failed to find any Fennec Fox but did yield 2 Egyptian Nightjar flying around in the headlights and 2 (presumably) Cape Hare.

Birding the hamada east of Erg Chebbi

Hamada near Erg Chebbi

Hamada near Erg Chebbi

14 March 2013

Desert birding around Merzouga: 14 March

A fantastic day birding the sandy desert around Merzouga. After sorting through large numbers of House Sparrows at the auberges and camel trains around Erg Chebbi (the largest dune system in Morocco) we eventually caught up with one of our target birds - Desert Sparrow, with amazing views of 4+ at a temporary berber camp at Kemkemia. Also with the help of other local berbers we found 2 superb roosting Egyptian Nightjars and 42+ Spotted Sandgrouse at Rissani, with 1 'African' Desert Warbler, 2 Greater Hoopoe Lark, 2 'Desert' Grey Shrike and several White-crowned Black Wheatear logged along the way.

White-crowned Black Wheatear, Kemkemia

'Desert' Grey Shrike Lanius excubitor elegans, Kemkemia

Erg Chebbi

Erg Chebbi at Kemkemia

Jaffa, Darryl and Pete looking for Desert Sparrows

The berber camp at Kemkemia

Migratory Locust Locusta migratoria, Kemkemia

Northbound migrants seen around Erg Chebbi included 1 Hoopoe, 1f Subalpine Warbler, 1 Woodchat Shrike, 1m Black-eared Wheatear at Hotel Kasbah, 1 White Wagtail, 5 Short-toed Lark at Auberge L'Etoile des Dunes, and 1 Western Olivaceous Warbler, a few Western Bonelli's Warbler, 1+ Woodchat Shrike, several Subalpine Warbler, lots of Willow Warbler and Common Chaffchaff, 2 Short-toed Lark and 2 Red-rumped Swallow at Auberge Yasmina.

Migrant Short-toed Lark, Yasmina

Migrant White Wagtail

Subalpine Warbler taking water from a dripping tap at Hotel Kasbah

Willow Warbler, Auberge Yasmina

A stop at the Oued Ziz produced 2 Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, 1 'Moroccan' Wagtail (Motacilla alba subpersonata), 1 Western Bonelli's Warbler, 2 Greenfinch, 2 Trumpeter Finch and 2 White-crowned Black Wheatear visiting our picnic table!

Blue-cheeked Bee-eater at Oued Ziz

White-crowned Black Wheatear eyeing up the olives on our picnic table at Oued Ziz