Morocco. Full of exotic sights, sounds and smells, stunning wildlife and engaging people, this place is exciting and adventurous yet at the same time accessible and safe. The Inglorious Bustards have explored far and wide together but this is one of the countries we can’t get enough of.
That’s why, armed with some exciting gen about where we could find some real star species, we set off on a vast road trip from Tarifa to Marrakech, with our trusty colleagues Juan-Louis and Miguel, with a mission to develop a tour to bring you Andalusian Hemipode, Eleanora’s Falcon and all the other birding delights on the way.
As with any tour, the slick, well-organised finished product belies a host of adventures and mishaps on the way! So here’s the no-frills version of what we went through to bring you Choc and Pode!
We’d been on the road for several days already, researching a different set of destinations (watch this space!) by the time we reached the first recky point for this tour, Oualidia. Imagine then, how pleased we were to find this pretty, bustling little resort town, nestling around a languid crescent-shaped lagoon on Morocco’s Atlantic coast. We stretch our legs and watched House Buntings in the streets before tucking in to freshly-caught fish in a local restaurant.
After lunch we washed away the road-weariness with a refreshing boat trip out onto the peaceful waters of the lagoon, fringed with golden sands and protected from the Atlantic surf by a rocky breakwater. Within minutes, beach-going families gave way to Marbled Ducks, Greater Flamingoes, terns and a host of wading birds replete in their summer plumages. Our skipper, Hassan, knew the creeks and gulleys like the lines on the face of a loved one, and he got us mesmerizingly close to Kentish Plovers, Ruddy Turnstones, stunning Black-and-Silver Grey Plovers as well as getting us some of the best views of perched Osprey that I’d ever had.
But this was simply the hors d’oeuvre, for it is in this area that we knew we could find the Common Buttonquail or the more romantically-named Andalusian Hemipode if you prefer. Or, when you’ve discussed it as much as we have, simpy ‘Pode’. Thought extinct, the small population that breeds here was rediscovered in the 2000s. On the neighbouring farmland, in 2007, a living Andalusian Hemipode was photographed for the first time in the Western Palearctic.
It’s easy to see why the nearby farmland is ideal. The farming methods here are traditional and non-intensive. Rolling fields stretch right down to the coast to meet marshes, reedbeds, saltpans, sandy beaches and rocky outcrops. In my book, you know it’s going to be a good day if you see a Turtle Dove on farmland, and see them we did, along with Southern Grey Shrikes and Black-eared Wheatears.
Our contact, a local farmer, though we had no word of common language, has clearly come to know and love his Podes, as he observes them amongst his pumpkin crops. We were pleased to see he clearly understood their importance and sensitivity, and confident that his help in finding them represents ecotourism in its purest form. He knows exactly where to look and he was happy to allow us to explore his land. So engrossed were Miguel, Simon and I in searching the surrounding pumpkin fields for signs that it took us quite a while to notice that by now Juan-Louis had retired to the shade of the farmer’s hut to enjoy a Prickly Pear or two!
It should go without saying that it is vitally important for the future of this population that bird-watchers keep a respectful distance from potential nest sites when they visit. We visited outside the breeding season when activity was low, but luckily the many farm tracks through scrub and fallow land offer plenty of opportunities to hear and perhaps even see this most elusive of birds without resulting in disturbance.
Ahead of us lay an enjoyable afternoon exploring the area’s superb mixture of salt pans, brackish and fresh marshes, and sandy and rocky beaches opening straight onto the Atlantic Ocean, where gulls and terns mix with Greater Flamingos and a bewildering array of migratory wading birds.
Juan-Louis is also utterly passionate about Morocco. He’s been coming here for decades and if you cut him, he bleeds tagine. I’ve never seen anyone look more at home than he did as we chilled out in the shade of a rickety beach bar, with a mint tea and some traditional Moroccan music, and let our thoughts start to coalesce about how a trip might look…
We will be running Choc and Pode for the first time this June – it’s completely new and to our knowledge nobody else does a trip like it. Find out more here and be sure to look out for Part Two: Choc!