Categories
English

Private Wildlife Tour: Sand Cat in the Western Sahara

Pharaoh Eagle-Owl. Photography by Javi Elorriaga, Birding The Strait.
During the nocturnal outings in this tour we had several encounters with the magnificent Pharaoh Eage Owl. This individual was photographed during the scouting prior to the tour.

Between the 14th and the 20th of February we ran our second back-to-back tour to the Western Sahara in 2020. This time, it was a private tour for two clients. Following our success in 2019, our main target was to observe the rare Sand Cat. This way, we arranged the logistics and the itinerary to explore remote regions and optimize the effort spent in nocturnal spotlighting. For a change, this was not a birding trip!

We did find the cat! Moreover, we came upon some other totally unexpected highlights, including the very elusive Honey Badger!

In this post we summarize the itinerary, logistics and the wildlife highlights of the trip, including a selection of pictures.

Itinerary: In search of the Sand Cat

As usual, the tour started in Dakhla. Following the late arrival of the clients in a flight from England via Casablanca on the 13th, on the 14th we had an easy start. We departed from the hotel in Dakhla after lunch and took the road to Aousserd.  Halfway to Aousserd, we set our desert campsite. We spent two nights here and conducted two spotlighting sessions, including the Bougouffa Trail.

On day 3 we moved to Aousserd. Here we spent the following two nights.  We carried out two further spotlighting sessions off-roading in LaglatDerraman and Oued Jenna. In addition, we spotlighted along the Aousserd-Dakhla road.

The famous Dakhla-Aousserd road.

On Day 5 we drove back to Dakhla at an easy pace. This included stops at Oued Jenna and Gleib Jeidane. The Bay of Dakhla made our base for the last two nights. We carried out the last spotlighting session along the Bir-Anzarane road. On Day 6 we relaxed and birded around the hotel. In the afternoon we sailed off the bay.

The trip ended on day 7, with an early morning flight to England and Spain via Casablanca.

In total, we drove about 1400km, approximately one quarter of them off-roading.  We invested around 25 hours in nocturnal spotlighting.

Logistics: Western Sahara

We hired the services of a local team including: two expert local guides and drivers, a camp keeper and a cook.

Accommodation

During the three nights we spent in Dakhla we stayed at Dakhla Attitude Hotel. This resort, oriented to water sports, is placed in the northern limit of the bay. It offers great views of the inner bay and good birding possibilities, when not packed with kite surfers. Moreover, its gardens create an oasis effect attracting migrant and wintering birds. In our first visit to the area in 2016 we already highlighted the potential of the resort to attract birds in a desert context. Remarkably, in February 2017 the second White-throated Bee-eater for the Western Paleartic was found here. During our stay in 2020 we found two Olive-backed Pipits !

We set a desert camp in a forest oued, half-way between Dakhla and Aousserd. This way, we minimized the driving distance to some of the spotlighting hotspots. We used  portable and spacious Saharawi “Khaima” tents.

Ambiende in the Desert Camp.

While in Aousserd, we stayed at a private home. This was a basic but very convenient building, entirely at our disposal. Here we had access to electricity, hot water, toilets, kitchen and private rooms.

Transport

We used two 4×4 vehicles. Both were fully equipped with spotlights, water and petrol reservoirs, and all the necessary gear to explore the desert.

One of the two cars we used, fully equipped to explore the desert.

For sailing off the bay, we hired a private three hours excursion in a catamaran with a local company.

Sand Cat, Honey Badger and more

Day one

Halfway between Dakhla and the desert camp, we visited the famous water tank of Tachektent (Aka Gleib Jeidanne). We easily found our two main targets: the African Green Toad and the Mediterranean Chameleon. The first is the only amphibian in the region. The second reaches here the southernmost limit of its range. The reptile was probably profiting from the large concentration of Vagrant Emperors perched on the Tamarisks.

A Mediterranean Chameleon in the Western Sahara, always great to see.

In our first spotlighting session we explored the Bougouffa Trail off-road. We found up to eight Maghreb Hares and numerous Lesser Egyptian Gerboas and Lesser Egyptian Gerbils. We also got the first Fennec of the trip. After this, we headed to an area with scattered Acacias. In some of the trees we came through an unexpected group of 50+ Black Kites gathering in a communal roost. These were birds in northbound migration to their European breeding grounds.

The African Wild Cat

Suddenly, the beam of our torches unveiled the presence of a mammal partially hidden at the base of an Acacia. Luckily, it walked calmly and we could reliably identify it as an African Wild Cat. Indeed, the cheetah-fashion walk is characteristic of the species. It rapidly disappeared. We, therefore, got off the cars and inspected the surroundings on foot. Luckily, we relocated it thanks to the glow of its eyes. It was hidden, immobile, lying on the sand under a bush. We steadily approached it. Amazingly, the cat kept immobile, relying on it camouflage skills. For over 15 minutes we enjoyed the scene, until it just decided to disappear in the darkness.

It wasn´t the Sand Cat, but at this point, we knew we had experienced one of the greatest moments of the trip.

African Wild Cat showing its characteristic slightly tufted ears. This encounter was one of the highlights of the trip.

Probably prompted by the warm temperatures and calm wind, at a certain point of the night, hundreds of moths approached our spotlights. We suffered a real invasion!

Playing with the camera, the moths and the spotlights. One of the most common identifiable species was the Stripped Hawk-moth.

On our way back to the camp we found a Rüppell´s Fox and a Fat-tailed Gerbil, along with more Maghreb Hares and Lesser Egyptian Gerboas.

This was the only Fat-tailed Gerbil we found during the tour.

Day two

During the day, we cached up with sleep and relaxed around the camp. Bird activity was rather slow. However, we got decent views of: two Lanners, a group of Fulvous BabblersGreater Hoopoe LarksCream-coloured CoursersSpectacled Warblers , Desert Wheatears, Bar-tailed Lark and the inquisitive Desert Grey Shrikes.

The sunset marked the begining of the most intense activity of the trip, off-road nocturnal spotlighting.

In the second spotlighting session of the trip we explored the surrounding of the camp. We patrolled off-road the ecotone between sand dunes and a the forested oued. Next, we spotlighted along the road. The night turned out comparatively shorter and less productive. As usual, the first mammals we found were Maghreb Hares and Lesser Egyptian Gerboas. Furthermore, we found a Long-legged Buzzard and yet another group of Black Kites roosting atop the Acacias. Once in the asphalt, we found a Fennec sheltering in a shallow depression in the sand. We thought that this particular individual showed especially pale coat.

A Fennec fox photographed during the scouting prior to this trip. The reflection of the beam of the spotlights on the eyes of the mammals was often the first sign of their presence.

We found no signs of cats, except for some distant glimpses of suspicious unidentified signing eyes…

Back in the camp we found a rather impressive Arrowbreasted Scorpion. We were pleased with this finding, except for the fact that it was right next to our tents!

Day three

As usual in this trip, we had an easy first half of the day. Hanging around the camp site, we found all the usual species we had in previous days. A White-spotted Wall-Gecko was a new find here. After lunch, we left the camp and headed towards our next base in Aousserd. We reached our accommodation in the early afternoon. We had time to relax before our next nocturnal outing.

In the late afternoon, up to 110 Brown-necked Ravens gathered together in an empty lot next to our home. Despite the effort, we did never get to understand what did attracted them there.

White-spotted Wall Gecko. It was among the most common Tarentola species in the region.

On the third spotlighting session we explored south of the Aousserd road, mostly off-road. We intensively scanned a region with optimal habitat for the Sand Cat: sandy soil with sparse vegetation. Indeed, we knew of recent records in the area. In our quest we found a Pharaoh Eagle Owl on the ground. We watched it in detail through the scope. It was surprising to observe how skilled it was running. A bit further, we came through a Rüppell´s Fox, which we had to follow for a while before we could reliably identify.

The Honey Badger!

Next, we faced a rather long period with no remarkable sightings. However, our perseverance was greatly rewarded when a gorgeous Honey Badger showed up.  Right next to us!

It is important to remark here that, over the last decades, there have been only a handful of documented records for the species in the region. Indeed, very little is known about its ecology and distribution north of the Sahara (Cherkaoui and Bouajaja, 2017).

We had an amazing and unexpected encounter with this Honey Badger. Its powerful front feet and long claws for digging lizards out of their burrows are clearly visible. As we approached the badger, it lifted its tails as a warning, presenting us its anal sacs.

A recent study in Morocco showed that Spiny-tailed Lizards make up to two thirds of its diet. The authors concluded that Honey Badgers behave as a trophic specialist in the Sahara. This is probably thanks to exclusive anatomical adaptations for digging their prey out of their burrows.

It is curious to note that  the black and white pattern of the Honey Badger is a warning coloration (also known as aposematic) advertising not only the extreme ferocity of the species, but also its capacity to produce noxious secretions with anal sacs.

We kept track of the badger for about 10 intense minutes before it disappeared in the vast plains.

To our knowledge, the ones we got are the only available pictures of a wild Honey Badger alive in the Maghreb region, except for those got by means of camera-trapping.

Back in the asphalt road, already in our way back to Aousserd, we got yet another rewarding encounter. This was about nothing less than a much-anticipated Horned Viper.

This mighty juvenile Horned Viper was taking advantage of the residual heat in hot asphalt by night.

After an exciting photography session, we retrieved the snake from the road and resumed our way back home, where we reached shortly before 4 AM.

Day four

In our second day in Aousserd, we accidentally found a colony of Lesser Mouse-tailed Bats within an abandoned building. We counted over 50 individuals. However, we  didn’t inspect other occupied rooms in order to avoid disturbance.

Lesser Mouse-tailed Bats in Aousserd.

Every now and them, we saw small groups of Black Kites in active northbound migration over the village. A White-crowned Wheatear and a pair of Desert Sparrows visiting the window of our living room was great joy too.

Today we had an early supper consisting of a Harira soup, a Moroccan speciality.

We left Aousserd in the late afternoon and reached Derraman area well before sunset. Here, we were welcomed by a pair or Lanners. These offered a nice display, both in flight and perched. Several Pale Rock Martins flew by along the cliffs.

Pale Rock Martin, another birding speciality in the Aousserd region.

We strolled around enjoying a magnificent scenery with black rock outcrops emerging from the dunes in a vast unspoiled pre-Sahelian landscape. Remarkably, the Western Sahara is one of the most sparsely populated regions of the planet.

Sunset in Derraman, near Aousserd. A typical pre-Sahelian landscape, home of the Sand Cat.

After sunset, we continued for our fourth spotlighting session. First, we explored the Derraman area where we spotted  a Rüppell´s Fox and several, HaresGerboas and Gerbils. In this rocky area, we found a remarkable density of Geckos. This included Petrier´s Sand Gecko and White-spotted Wall Gecko. Back in the asphalt we came through a Diadem Sand Snake.

Lesser Egyptian Gerboa was the most abundant mammal we found. Some individuals did really perform well for our cameras. This is probably an important part in the diet of the Sand Cat.
The Petrier´s Sand Gecko is a tiny species adapted to desert environments.
Diadem Sand Snake on the Aousserd road.

Day five

Today we left Aousserd to return to Dakhla. In the outskirts of Aousserd we found abundant Sudan Spiny-tailed Lizards. We spend some time trying to approach and photograph these impressive reptiles. In doing so, a group of Dunn´s Larks joined in the scene.

A Sudan Spiny-tailed Lizard by its burrow, near Aousserd.
The Dunn´s Lark is one of the birding specialities in the Aousserd region.

In our next stop, Javi retrieved a camera trap he has been using over the last weeks in the area. FennecRüppell´s Foxand a Camel (!?) where among the most remarkable footage it recorded. This has to be added to the Desert Hedgehog and the African Golden Wolf got on previous weeks. Not bad at all!

Before reaching Dakhla, we revisited Gleib Jeidane. Here we found a Mediterranean Chameleon again. In addition, we spent some time trying to photograph Trumpeter Finches and a Desert Grey Shrike  as they approached the water. 45 minutes later we reached our hotel in the bay of Dakhla. We accommodated in our rooms and had some rest before dinner.

Brown-necked Raven on a Camel near Dakhla.

After sunset, we hit the road again towards the nearby Bir Anzaranne road for the last spotlighting session of the trip. Our first stop was by a water hole. Here we found a Rüppell´s Fox drinking. Some 30km later we found a second Rüppell´s. This time it was lying on the ground, sheltered by a bush.

The Sand Cat!

Not far, we detected a suspicious pair of signing eyes. We kept track of it until it showed its whole body. Bingo! there it was, a Sand Cat! We saw it at medium distance (90m approx.). At first, it fixed its gaze on us and stayed immobile. Then, it relaxed and kept foraging. However, it still turned its head towards us from time to time. We got off the vehicle and approached the cat on foot. This way, we got a brief but better view of its short-legged structure and ringed tail-tip. After a few minutes of observation, the Sand Cat walked away to disappear behind the slope.

Well, we couldn´t get any pictures, but there it was! After many hours of intense nocturnal search, we got convincing views of the elusive creature!

Having delivered the corresponding congratulations, we resumed our way. Amazingly, a few kilometres after we connected with a second Sand Cat, which offered a similar show!

Gratified with our Sand Cat in the pocket, we decided to call it a day and drive back to the hotel, shortly after midnight.

Day six

During the morning we relaxed around the hotel. Surprisingly, Javi found not one but two Olive-backed Pipits right at the doorstep of his bungalow! According to the existing information, this was only the third record in the Western Sahara. The Siberian Vagrants did totally eclipse the presence of abundant Black WheatearsPainted Ladies and Vagrant Emperors.

Olive-backed Pipits, vagrants from Siberia, in the northern limit of the Bay of Dakhla.

Sailing off Dakhla

In the afternoon, we went sailing off Dakhla. We organized a 3-hours private sailing excursion to explore the inner part of the bay. Our main target here was the Critically Endangered Atlantic Humpback Dolphins. Nowadays, the bay ofDakhla constitutes the northernmost limit of the species distribution.

Unfortunately, we had a very windy day and choppy sea. This frustrated our chances to find the dolphins. We did, however, enjoy a smooth and most enjoyable sailing.

In terms of birding, we came through some nice species including: a single African Royal Tern, numerous Caspian TernsGannets fishing, some big groups of Bar-tailed Godwits, Great Cormorants of the lucidus/marocanus subspecies and one Osprey.

Sailing off Dakhla - Birding The Strait
Javi sailing off the Bay of Dakhla

We returned to the hotel in the late afternoon, with time for packing our luggage before dinner. Next morning, we had an early departure from the nearby airport of Dakhla.

Recommended bibliography

There are several recent publications which greatly enhance the knowledge on the Moroccan and Western Sahara wildlife. We have used them and we do eagerly recommend it:

  • Amphibians and Reptiles of Morocco. 2019. Martínez del Marmol, et al. Edition Chimaira
  • Oiseaux du Sahara Atlantique Marocain. 2017. Bergier, P., Thévenot, M. and  Abdeljebbar Qninba.
  • Mammiferes Sauvages du Maroc. Peuplement, Repartition, Ecologie. 2017. Aulagnier et al. 2017. Societe Frencaise por Létude et la protection des mammiferes.

Our previous trips to the Western Sahara

Check out the following links to read the trip reports of our previous visits to the Western Sahara. These trips were primarily focused on birding. The reports include a varied selection of photos, including the Sand Cat!

Off-roading near Aousserd

Acknowledgements

We want to express our most sincere gratitude to Martina Milanese and Nicolo Calcagno and their team: Sidi, Amina and Sara. Thanks to them we safely visited remote regions of the Western Sahara and enjoyed its wildlife, including the Sand Cat.

Categories
English

Birding in Southern Morocco in Spring: Trip Report

These are days to recall past birding experiences and let our imagination run free to plan future trips. A year ago, we organized a private birding trip to one of our favourite destinations, Southern Morocco. This was a bespoke tour, ran between the 27th of March and the 3rd of April 2019. The main target was simple, enjoy all the local birding specialities while getting immerse in the Moroccan culture! Moreover, we specifically designed this tour to complement, in terms of species, a previous one to the northern half of the country.

Trip Report

You can find the trip report here. It contains a day-by-day description of the itinerary. It also shows a selection of pictures of birds and landscapes. Next, we summarize some of the highlights of this trip.

Desert Warbler at Erg Chebbi - Photo by Javi Elorriaga 7 Birding the Strait
Desert Warbler in Merzouga

Birding in Southern Morocco Highlights

  • We got good views of the whole set of Moroccan wheatears within the first 24 hours of the trip. Namely: White-crownedBlackNorthernSeebohm’sMaghrebRed-rumpedBlack-eared and Desert Wheatear. Remarkably, we found Maghred Wheatears at two different locations. And all these at an easy pace!
  • Pharaoh Eagle Owl offered dreamed views during the golden hour. Remarkably, we got it in full view, preening and getting ready for his nocturnal hunt. All this in a wonderful desert scenario.
  • Coming through a congregation of 500+ Blue-checked Bee Eaters was a major surprise. We saw the birds gathering around their night roost in a patch of Eucalyptus trees.
  • The Egyptian Nightjar is a must in any  tour to Southern Morocco in spring. As usual, it beautifully performed for the group in Merzouga.
  • Dunn’s Lark near Merzouga made the biggest  surprise of the trip. And we got a record shot!
  • Connecting with all the specialities in Oukaimeden took us a bigger effort than usual. Once we found them, we did specially enjoy the views of the African Shore LarkTristram’s Warbler and Crimson-winged Finch.
  • Finding the Lake of Merzouga, Dayet Srij, flooded is a dream for every enthusiast of the Moroccan birdlife. And we did so! The view of over 1000 Flamingos with the dunes of the Sahara in the background was memorable.Finding the Lake of Merzouga, Dayet Srij, flooded and full of birds is a rare sight.
  • Sightseeing made a remarkable part of this trip. A visit to the Ksar of Ait Ben Haddou and strolling at dusk in the Jemaa El Fna square of Marrakech was great. Indeed, both are included within the list of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Egyptian Nightjar in Souther Morocco - Photo by Javi Elorriaga / Birding The Strait
An Egyptian Nightjar near Merzouga, a real highlight.

Birding in Morocco

Every year we organize several birding trips to Morocco. These are both open to individual travellers or customized private trips.

Contact us if you are interested on a Birding Trip to Morocco!

And stay tunned for our forthcomoing tour report on our last visit to the Western Sahara in February 2020!

Categories
English

Birding The Strait coronavirus statement (Covid-19)

Booted Eagle in migration. Photography by Yeray Seminario, Birding The Strait.
Bird migration continues! Booted Eagle in migration across the Strait of Gibraltar

Dear friends,

As you might expect, the coronavirus (Covid-19) crisis has drastically affected our work. Starting yesterday, all our day trips, tours and activities outdoors in Spain and Morocco during this spring season have been cancelled or postponed until further notice. The health and safety of our clients and society at large is unquestionably our top priority.

As a travel agency, we want to specially express our solidarity to all our colleagues in the travel industry and our commitment to cope with this undesirable situation positively and severely. In Birding The Strait, we are convinced that with our combined efforts we will promptly overcome this situation.

We will take this time as an opportunity for introspection, get back to those unfinished projects, pending books, writing, studying and planning for the near future. No doubt, we will soon be ready and reinforced to keep enjoying with you our wonderful nature!

In the meantime, migration is still going in Tarifa. Raptors and other migratory birds keep reaching Europe and will continue their relentless natural course. We will be here to witness their efforts, the marvel of migration and life, in times to come.

See you soon,

Birding The Strait Team

Categories
English Field Notes

Bird Migration Videos in the Strait of Gibraltar – Part III

Black Kites on migration in the Strait of Gibraltar. Photo by Javi Elorriaga / Birding The Strait
Black Kites on migration in the Strait of Gibraltar. Photo by Javi Elorriaga / Birding The Strait

We have released a new clip to the series of Bird Migration Videos in our Youtube channel. We filmed it exactly one year ago. On this third episode we present the onset of the White Stork migration. We also talk about other migrants in the Strait of Gibraltar this time of the year, like black kites and swifts.

Bird migration videos for all

The large concentration of White Storks and Black Kites in the Tarifa area offers a magnificent spectacle. This show does not only draw the attention of keen birders, but regular tourists visiting Cadiz in summer are also stunned by it. Indeed, July and August is an excellent period for family birding in the Strait of Gibraltar.

The big show of the smaller birds

The migration of smaller birds is equally astonishing for the trained eye. It is currently known that the Strait of Gibraltar funnels the migration of European birds to Africa in a much bigger proportion than traditionally assumed. For instance, thousands of Common and Pallid Swifts can be seen heading south in a few hours. In addition, continuous flocks of migrant European bee-eaters can be heard by night as well.

The big days of “autumn” migration have only started. One more year, Birding The Strait will be offering birding wildlife excursions during this exciting time.

Check out our YouTube channel for more videos and sign up to our newsletter to stay tuned! Contact us if you are interested in joining to one of our day trips from Tarifa or our tours in Spain and Morocco.

Categories
English Field Notes

Lesser Kestrels in Tarifa – a walk tour within the #MigBird event

Panel to advertise the activity to watch Lesser Kestrels in Tarifa
Panel to advertise the activity to watch Lesser Kestrels in Tarifa

Lesser Kestrels in Tarifa

The ancient ramparts of Guzman el Bueno Castle in Tarifa, hold the southernmost colony of Lesser Kestrels in the continent. In addition, this is one of the few sites where this typically migrant species overwinters in Europe. Unfortunatelly, the Lesser Kestrel population has suffered a dramatic decline throughout its range. This is due to multiple factors. This way, make people aware about the presence and fascinating lifestyle of this charming raptor is a key factor towards its conservation.

Male Lesser Kestrel in Tarifa. Photography by Yeray Seminario / Birding The Strait
Male Lesser Kestrel in Tarifa

Tarifa #MigBird

Next Saturday 20th, Birding The Strait will be offering a free excursion around the Castle. The breeding colony of Lesser Kestrel will be the central subject of the activity. However, we will certainly have the chance to observe many other species as well.

This activity is part of Birding The Strait corporate responsibility . Come join us!

Female Lesser Kestrel. Photography by Javi Elorriaga from Birding The Strait
Female Lesser Kestrel

Aftermath

We want to thank the 17 participants for their friendliness and enthusiasm. The morning just flew by observing Lesser Kestrels around their nests. Moreover, we have seen numerous Black Kites in active migration from Africa. It has been very rewarding to discuss with this varied group of nature enthusiasts from Tarifa, other regions of Spain, Holland and Switzerland.

The most rewarding surprise has been to realize the remarkable knowledge for birds and nature by the youngest participants. No doubt, local initiatives such as MigBird are significantly contributing to increase the awareness for wildlife conservation in Tarifa. This is really encouraging! In Birding The Strait we will keep working in this direction as much as we can.

Finally, we want to thank Diego and Lucia, from the Tarifa Town Hall, for their support.

If you are interested in visiting this colony and learn more about the Lesser Kestrel and the other resident and migratory raptors, contact us!

Categories
English Field Notes

Bird Migration Videos in the Strait of Gibraltar-Part II

A group of migrant Black Kites stopovering in the Strait of Gibraltar. Photo by Javi Elorriaga / Birding the Strait
A group of migrant Black Kites stopovering in the Strait of Gibraltar.

Yes friends, the time has come!

One more year, since time immemorial, the raptor migration has started in Tarifa and the Strait of Gibraltar.

Black Kites on the move

Black Kites are always the first to be noticed. They are on the move in growing numbers. Adults are now in a race from their African wintering quarters to their breeding grounds in Europe. They are in a hurry to occupy the best possible nest site. The Sahara, the ocean, weather constrains and human infrastructure will be the main threats they will have to face. The Black Kite is, by far, the most abundant of all the raptors using this flyway. They often kettle in enormous flocks and gather in communal roosts providing a world class spectacle.

Black Kites gathering in a commonal roost on a Cork Oak. Photo by Javi Elorriaga /Birding The Strait
Black Kites gathering in a commonal roost on a Cork Oak.

Bird Migration Series Part I & II

To celebrate this, we release in our youtube channel the second video of the Birding The Strait migration series. Follow this link to see the Part I.

The new video shows the spring migration back from Africa of the Black Kite  in the Strait of Gibraltar. It contains a selection of the best footage we have filmed over the last springs in Tarifa, the Strait of Gibraltar and Los Alcornocales Natural Park.


The show has only started. Birding The Strait will be offering guided birding day trips and tailor-made tours in Tarifa and the Strait of Gibraltar throughout the season. Feel free to contact us anytime for further information!

Categories
English Field Notes

Birding Trip to the Western Sahara

Little Owls of the Saharae subspecies show an striking phenotypic adaptation to desert environment. This is one of the palest individuals we have recorded in the Western Sahara, where they can be very variable. Photo by Yeray Seminario/Birding The Strait
Little Owls of the Saharae subspecies show a striking phenotypic adaptation to desert environment. This is one of the palest individuals we have recorded in the Western Sahara, where they are very variable.

We have just returned from a thrilling wildlife expedition into one of the most remote regions of the Western Palearctic: the Western Sahara. More precisely, we have spent 8 days exploring the wildlife and landscapes within the Dakhla, Aousserd and Bir Anzarane triangle. This has led us to ridges of dunes, extensive mudflats, forested wadis, endless steppes, rock massifs, unexpected waterholes and even off into the Atlantic Ocean. On this post we summarize some impressions and highlights of this Birding Trip to the Western Sahara.

Our second Birding Trip to the Western Sahara

Bay of Dakhla. The vast intertidal mudflats surrounded by sand dunes and arid planes create a very characteristic and powerful landscape. Photo by Yeray Seminario/Birding The Strait
Bay of Dakhla. The vast intertidal mudflats surrounded by sand dunes and arid planes create a very characteristic and powerful landscape.

Back in February 2016 we were invited by the Dakhla Attitude Hotel to a fam trip in the region. This was a memorable experience and we have been eagerly looking forward to returning since then. On this link you can read the trip report of our previous trip to the Western Sahara, including a large selection of pictures.

During our 2019 expedition we wanted to relocate key sites and target species, explore new trails getting deeper into the desert, reinforce our collaboration with local experts and logistics, and conduct nocturnal surveys for mammals. On this last (but not least) matter, our primary target was to observe the Sand Cat Felis margarita. This is probably the most elusive and least known feline in the Palearctic.

From our camp near Aousserd we could observe a pair of Golden Eagles around their nest, an African Golden Wolf peacefully standing by its lair in day time, a group of Pale Rock Martins, a Lanner and, above all, the immensity of the unexploited Saharan steppe. Photo by Javi Elorriaga / Birding The Strait
From our camp near Aousserd we could observe a pair of Golden Eagles around their nest, an African Golden Wolf peacefully standing by its lair in day time, a group of Pale Rock Martins, a Lanner and, above all, the immensity of the unexpoiled Saharan steppe.

In doing so we have camped in the desert and slept in jaimas (nomad tents) belonging to Saharawi camel herders, but also in cozy hotels in Dakhla. As for the transportation, we have used hired passengers cars and 4×4 with local expert drivers to safely get off the beaten track into the desert. Moreover, we used a boat to reach the most inaccessible corners of the huge Bay of Dakhla.

Pomarine Skua observed during a boat trip in the Bay of Dakhla. Photo by Yeray Seminario/Birding The Strait
Pomarine Skua observed during a boat trip in the Bay od Dakhla.

Using eBird in the Western Sahara

As usual during our Birding The Strait trips, we have invested a considerable effort to systematically upload all the resulting ornithological information to eBird, including pictures and sound recordings. This is our humble contribution to citizen science. As keen eBirders we have found it very exciting to complete bird checklists in some regions which have barely, if at all, being surveyed before. This way, all our records are accessible for the public in our eBird accounts, which can be consulted here (Yeray) and here (Javi).

We took much effort to report on eBird most of the birds we saw and heard during our trip. We also uploaded several pictures, like this of a Greater Hoopoe Lark. Picture by Yeray Seminario.
We took much effort to report on eBird most of the birds we saw and heard during our trip. We also uploaded several pictures, like this of a Greater Hoopoe Lark, widespread in the region.

The Desert environment and its changing conditions

Birding in semi-desert environments always implies a high degree of uncertainty and surprise. Here, rainfall in precedent months and the resulting plant coverage is the main driving force. This way, some of the best and richer birding sites we found in 2016, such as the eastern end of the Aousserd road and Oued Jenna were very dry and quiet this time. In turn, the regions nearer the coast held a greener plant coverage and several flooded and very productive waterholes!

We got to see several flocks of dozens of Spotted Sandgrouse, along with fewer numbers of Crowned Sandgrouse. Picture by Yeray Seminario.
We got to see several flocks of dozens of Spotted Sandgrouse, along with fewer numbers of Crowned Sandgrouse.

Accordingly, some species which we struggled to find in 2016 were amongst the most widespread this year. This was the case of the Temminck’s Lark, for instance. In turn, the Black-crowned Sparrow-Lark was more scarce, although still well represented. Besides, the local specialties, like Saharan Dunn’s Lark and Cricket Longtail seemed to be in similar numbers. During this trip we missed some important targets including Sudan Golden Sparrow and Golden Nightjar. However, we enjoyed unbeatable observations of Pale Rock Martin, African Royal Tern, Spotted and Crowned Sandgrouses, and Houbara Bustard, to name but a few!

Thick-billed Lark close to Aousserd. Photo by Javi Elorriaga/Birding The Strait
The Thick-billed Lark is one of the most impressive Larks in the region. This individual was photographed close to Aousserd in our 2016 expedition.

In this trip we have recorded a total of 86 bird scpecies, and a grand total of 111  considering our two visit to the Dakhla-Aousserd region.

Birding Highlights

Aside from the birds mentioned, other birding highlights during our trip included:

  1. A gang of Fulvous Chatterers breaking into our campsite in Oued Jenna to feed on our supplies and drink our water!Fulvous Chatterer by Yeray Seminario
  2. A flock of 5 Pale Rock Martins flying and contact-calling overhead.Pale Rock Martin by Yeray Seminario
  3. A male Houbara Bustard literally in the middle of nowhere.
  4. Two Pharaoh Eagle-Owls illuminated by our torches
  5. A pair of Lanner Falcons landing by a waterhole as we were watching Spotted and Corwned Sangrouses drinking.Lanner Falcons and flock of Spotted Sandgrouse by Yeray Seminario
  6. Several family groups of Cream-coloured Courses.
  7. Up to 8 different Cricket Longtails  at Oued Jenna.
  8. Large groups of Sandwich, Caspian, Common and African Royal Tern observed while navigating in the Bay of Dakhla with impressive sand dunes in the background.Mixed flocks of terns by Javi Elorriaga
  9. We enjoyed observing and photographing the varied array of Larks and Wheatears in their different plumages and variations, namely: Desert, Black, Black-earedNorthern, White-crowned and Red-rumped Wheatear; and Short-toed, Desert, Bar-tailed, Dunn’s, Black Crowned, Thick-billed, Temminck’s, Greater Hoopoe and Maghreb (Crested) Lark

The observation of two putative Maghreb Larks North of Bir Anzarane deserves special mention. Indeed, the taxonomic rank of the so-called “long-billed” Crested Larks is nowadays unclear. Interestingly, the presence of birds belonging to the senegalensis group of the Crested Lark in the region has been proposed. On this eBird checklist we have uploaded photos of two different “long-billed” larks, including a sound recording. We have provissionally asigned the records to Maghreb Lark Galerida macrorhyncha, but see also Qninba et al. 2019.  Are we facing yet another case of a typically Sahelian taxa expanding North into the Western Palearctic? Comments welcome!

Interestingly, we found two Corn Buntings around a waterhole not far from Dakhla. Much to our surprise, we later got to know that this was among the very first reports for the species in the region!

Mammal Watching

Mammals deserve special mention here. To our pleasure, we managed to find the sought-after Sand Cat! Indeed, we got to find this precious desert creature in each of our night surveys. Amazingly one of the encounters involved a Sand Cat hidden in low bushes a couple of meters from us! Never in our wildest dreams did we expect such an amazing observation.

Sand Cat in the Western Sahara. Photo by Javi Elorriaga/Birding The Strait
Sand Cat in the Western Sahara. This up close and personal encounter was one of the highlights of the trip.

But that was not it! An African Golden Wolf peacefully standing by its lair in the middle of the day made another highly unlikely target accomplished. In following nights, we had two additional encounters with wolfs while using torches from the car (stay tuned for the forthcoming nocturnal footage).

The list of mammas was completed with one Fennec, two Rüppel’s Foxes, African Savanna Hare, gerbils and the skull of a Saharan Striped Polecat.

We will return!

We are fascinated by the wildlife, landscape and tranquillity of this region. As expected in such an arid region, the density and diversity of birds is comparatively low. However, the interest and uniqueness of the avian community at the Western Palearctic level is out of question. The sense of wilderness greatly enhances the experience and the possibility of “coming through something new and unexpected” brings birding to a higher level. Moreover, the high chances of connecting with mammal species hard to find in other regions of the Maghreb is, no doubt, an additional highlight.

The Dunn's Lark is another local speciality Indeed, the Aousserd region is probably the most reliable site to observe this little known species within the Western Palearctic. Photo by Javi Elorriaga/Birding The Strait
The Dunn’s Lark is another local speciality Indeed, the Aousserd region is probably the most reliable site to observe this little known species within the Western Palearctic.

Thanks to the experience on the wildlife and logistics gathered in our two expeditions to the region, we are already working to offer a especially dedicated tour to the Western Sahara.

Royal Terns in the bay of Dakhla. Photo by Yeray Seminario/Birding The Strait
Royal Terns in the bay of Dakhla.

Stay tuned for the upcoming information and more pictures and videos!

We thank Patrick Bergier and Go-South for the valuable source of information they provide. 

Categories
English Field Notes

Bird Migration Videos in the Strait of Gibraltar – Part I

Short-toed Eagle crossing the Strait of Gibraltar, by Javi Elorriaga
Short-toed Eagle crossing the Strait of Gibraltar

Today we release in our Youtube channel the first of a series of bird migration videos in the Strait of Gibraltar. We have filmed these videos over the last three years around Tarifa. This is part of a collaboration project with the Nature Agency at the Ministry of Environment of Denmark . These videos make part of the exhibition on bird migration at the Skagen Grey Lighthouse information center (Denmark).

The Strait: a major migration bottleneck

The Strait of Gibraltar is the most important bottleneck in the flyway of the Short-toed Eagle between Europe and Africa. This video shows striking images of eagles in active migration across the Strait. The footage stresses the vital challenge that sea-crossing represents for soaring migrants (enable subtitles).

During 2019 we will upload new videos of this series to our Youtube channel, Stay tuned!

Categories
English Field Notes

The Empire of the Eagle and Águila de Bonelli: Book review

Review of Empire of the Eagle and Águila de Bonelli
Review of Empire of the Eagle and Águila de Bonelli

There’s no denying, at Birding The Strait we are passionate about Eagles. We love seeking for them, photographing them and simply observing them in the wild. We are also wildlife photography and bird books enthusiasts. Indeed, this is one of our main sources of expenditure! So, we were excited to see two new books coming out last month: ‘The Empire of the Eagle’ by Mike Unwin and David Tippling, and ‘Águila de Bonelli (Bonelli’s Eagle)’ by Tony Peral.

Both have a special meaning for us. We contributed with a few pictures for the book ‘The Empire of the Eagle’ and we were looking forward to seeing them on print. On the other hand, ‘Águila de Bonelli’ has been created, edited and published by a friend of us, the photographer and naturalist, Tony Peral.

Review of ‘Águila de Bonelli’

Packaging of 'Águila de Bonelli' by Tony Peral
Packaging of ‘Águila de Bonelli’ by Tony Peral

You know you are in front of a special book the moment the package with ‘Águila de Bonelli’ is being delivered. The amazing packaging with a Bonelli’s Eagle printed on the box and the wax seal, is really unique and classy. Some would compare the experience to the one you get when purchasing a limited edition vinyl. From the moment you untie the strings and open the box, you are on a trip to the land of the Bonelli’s Eagles.

Cover of 'Águila de Bonelli' by Tony Peral
Cover of ‘Águila de Bonelli’ by Tony Peral

The cover shows an adult female in flight. She is missing one of her tail feathers, which does nothing but improve the visual impact of the photography. It’s truly a statement of intents. The author, Tony Peral, provides further insight on the magnitude of his work stating in the introduction that he stopped counting the hours spent in his hide after 3000!

Good and authoritative texts

The book begins with six concise and well written chapters by Jose María Gil Sánchez and consists on an updated review of the biology and conservation of the species. English-speakers, don’t get distracted by the title, this book has been translated into English. However, the photographies, which are the most important part of the book are universal.

A festival of Bonelli’s eagles’ photos

From there, as the prestigious Markus Varesvuo says in the prologue, comes a true festival of almost 100 photos, all of them of superb quality. The first, a double-page image, shows a subadult Bonelli’s Eagle right in the moment she is catching a Red-legged Partridge. Next page, an adult folds its wings to dive directing its gaze on you!

Every single photo on 'Águila de Bonelli' is fantastic
Every single photo on ‘Águila de Bonelli’ is fantastic

Not a single photo in the book is a filler, none is redundant, and none seems to be done in a known set or hide. Moreover, some photos in this book show scenes of Bonelli’s eagles very rarely seen before. This is one of those books that, if a child happens to find, it is very likely that he will want to be a wildlife photographer.

Many pictures in the book depict the aerial maneuvers and interactions of the Bonelli's eagles
Many pictures in the book depict the aerial maneuvers and interactions of the Bonelli’s eagles

We believe it’s important to note that the FSC certificate guarantees that all the materials used for the production of the book come from sustainable, eco-friendly sources. You can get your copy of ‘Águila de Bonelli’ following this link.

Review of ‘The Empire of the Eagle’

Black-and-White Hawk-Eagle chapter. This picture was taken in Belize by Yeray Seminario while doing field work on the Orange-breasted Falcon project
Black-and-White Hawk-Eagle chapter. This picture was taken in Belize by Yeray Seminario while doing field work with the Orange-breasted Falcon project

‘Empire of the Eagle’ is a compilation of texts and photographs of all the species of eagles in the worldby Mike Unwin, with selected photographies, curated by a renowned photographer: David Tipling .

This is a hardcover book with a clear emphasis on the photography side. Indeed, the introduction describes the book as “a photographic celebration of all the world’s eagles”. Sixty-eight species are treated throughout its 288 pages and distributed in five main sections: ‘Hunters of the Uplands’, ‘Predators of the Plains’, ‘Assasins of the Woodlands’, ‘Raptors of the Rainforest’ and ‘Wings over the Water’. Hence, unlike most of the books that treat groups of different species, the eagles are ordered by habitat, and not in taxonomic or alphabetic order.

Great summaries of  each raptor species

First, we find a brief Introduction section that deals with the personal attachment of the author to eagles. The authors also talk about the relevance of eagles in culture and history, its biology and conservation challenges.

The texts contain information about the natural history of each species, following a similar structure in all the cases. They include references to scientific research and anecdotic information, all written on an easy-reading, colloquial way. In any case, they are well documented, and deal with some very specific information. They occasionally include recent research results, adding to the overall value of the book. We can safely define the texts as brief summary introductions on each species.

An excellent compilation of eagle images

Western Banded Snake-Eagle by Yeray Seminario. This photography was taken from a boat in the Gambia River, Senegal
Western Banded Snake-Eagle by Yeray Seminario. This photography was taken from a boat on the Gambia River, Senegal

The quality of most images on the book is excellent. Also, the printing quality is what you would expect on a high-profile photography book. We noticed how some of the rarest species lack a spectacular image to depict the bird. There are probably not many photographies of some of these rare species out there! These pictures are an important testimony to how little we know about some eagle species in the world.

You can find a link to buy ‘The Empire of the Eagle’ here.

Which one we recommend?

We eagerly recommend both “Empire of the Eagle” and “Águila de Bonelli”. They are great books for anyone keen on wildlife. Specially, for those who are passionate about one of the most majestic groups of animals: the birds of prey. With christmas just around the corner, these remarkable books are a perfect gift!

Categories
English Field Notes

Birding Northern Morocco: Trip Report

We recently finished a Birding Northern Morocco trip and just uploaded the trip report. You can find it here. It contains a full description of the itinerary, with pictures taken during the trip. It also has an annotated list of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and insects! On this post we mention some of the highlights of this trip.

Eleonora's Falcon seen during a Birding Northern Morocco trip - by Yeray Seminario
Juvenile Eleonora’s Falcon flying near the breeding colony during our Birding Northern Morocco trip

Birding Northern Morocco highlights

  • We found one of the targets, and in good numbers, almost right out of the plane. Seeing up to 11 African Royal Terns, a species recently split from the American Royal Tern, was certainly a highlight.
  • We got phenomenal views of one of the main targets of the trip: the Lanner Falcon. We had two adult Lanner Falcons at pleasure in our scopes, and also got great views of the birds in flight. That same morning we saw 2 Great Bustards from the last surviving population in Africa.
  • Seeing up to nine Marsh Owls at dusk near the Merja Zerga Lagoon was certainly one of the best moments of the tour.
  • The boat trip at Merja Zerga lagoon and the visit to a Eleonora’s Falcon colony provided excellent views and photography opportunities.
  • The Zaër Forest was productive after some work. We ended up seeing our three targets on site: Barbary Partridge, Double-spurred Francolin and Black-crowned Tchagra.
  • The visit to the old Roman city of Volubilis was a welcome addition to the trip.
  • A couple of Levaillant’s Woodpeckers provided some of the best experiences of the trip at Dayet Aoua.
  • We heard and saw the recently split Maghreb Wood Owl, closely related to the Tawny Owl. You can hear a recording of this bird here.
  • The Zaida Plains provided a welcome change of scenery. Here we found some desert specialties including one of our main targets: the Dupont’s Lark.

The most remarkable highlight of the Birding Northern Morocco trip was hitting all the targets while having a relaxed and friendly atmosphere. And let’s not forget the abundant and good food! This all made for a great trip to some of the most unexplored sites of Morocco.

You can find more information about birding in the region on these posts:

Contact us if you are interested on a Birding Trip to Morocco!

Join our newsletter