Star-studded Birding in Morocco – Can We Pap a ‘Pode..?

Birding in north-western Morocco has been bringing us a wealth of avian ‘A’-listers, and now we were headed for the beautiful little gem of Oualidia in search of the ultimate reclusive star bird, the Andalusian Hemipode.

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. 

We’d brought our good friend, wildlife photographer and artist Tony Mills, within close reach of such glamorous species as Eleonora’s Falcon and Cream-coloured Courser and now we were up for this final star-stalking challenge.

Hemipode’s eye view!

Here at Inglorious Bustards we take the welfare and future of the wildlife we love extremely seriously, so it goes without saying we would only see this species if it could be done without causing them undue disturbance in the breeding season.

So our strategy was to focus our attention on the ‘Pode’s breeding grounds in the area’s pumpkin fields, keeping a watchful eye and listening out for the characteristic ‘Moooooo! at dawn and dusk, but taking time to enjoy all the stunning wildlife the area has to offer.

The pretty little resort of Oualidia spreads around a languid crescent-shaped lagoon fringed with golden sands and protected from the Atlantic surf by a rocky breakwater. 

 Rolling fields stretch right down to the coast to meet marshes, reedbeds, saltpans, sandy beaches and rocky outcrops, so there’s lots to explore.

Beach birding, Oualidia

We had a wondrous boat trip out onto the lagoon, with local skipper Hassan, taking in a wealth of gulls waders and terns, including Audouin’s Gulls, Little Terns, Red Knot and Ruddy Turnstone.

Skipper Hassan

Hassan is also a formidable chef, and, mooring up on a sandbank, he cooked us up a delicious BBQ lunch of fresh local sardines and Moroccan salad, while we enjoyed watching fishing Little Terns and maroccanus Great Cormorants.

Well fed, we drifted back towards the town’s beach, and literally as we passed the royal palace, what should be waiting to greet us but a splendid Royal Tern, looking every bit the aristocrat?! These regal visitors to the area breed in West Africa and only turn up occasionally so we felt very privileged!

Between ‘Pode patrols we also visited the salt pans, rich in waders. Black-winged Stilts promenaded their chicks among Kentish Plovers, and Dunlin and Sanderling were all glammed up in summer plumage.

The fields around the beach brought enviable pickings for any photographer, enabling us to get within feet of gleaming Audouin’s Gulls and dapper Collared Pratincoles.

And as for the reclusive star? Excitingly, among a handful of Common Quails we encountered in the pumpkin fields, we had glimpses of Small Buttonquail, the pale underwing, contrasted wing coverts and strange, jerky flight giving the identity away.  And the pic? In the words of Sean O’Connell, rugged wildlife photographer in the film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty: “If I like a moment, for me, personally, I don’t like to have the distraction of the camera. I just want to stay in it…” ‘Nuff said.

Would you enjoy searching for a reclusive avian stars? Our unique ‘Choc & Pode’ tour, featuring Eleonora’s Falcon, Cream-coloured Courser, Andalusian Hemipode and much more is running again in 2018. Come join us!

And don’t forget to check out Tony’s wonderful artwork here.

No load of old Pony!!

Airport arrivals are actually quite joyful places to be – as soon as family, friends and partners arrive it’s a happy occasion.

I was really happy to see my old friend Simon of Wader World – we go back a long way and some of my most informative birding years were spent getting up to all manner of birding based capers together.

You’d think we would ask how each other were or ask how you’ve been upon meeting right?…..the actual first thing Simon said was “you have the same bins as me!”

It wasn’t long before we picked up where we left off and with a few drinks we had a long and enjoyable catch up.

Next day we had a mission and we were on it! (Although a little blurry!) First we hit the freshly wetted fields at La Janda encountering great views of fly-by Collared Pratincoles, Black Kites and a young Black-winged Kite.

A young Collared Pratincole this one just metres from our car at Barbate

We logged several species both here and at other sites including a smart adult female Montagu’s Harrier having a ruck with a Short-toed Eagle.

This time of year we couldn’t help ourselves and indulged in a bit of Swift appreciation as we watched motoring White-rumped Swift with joy and added our fourth Apus species to the trip list.

The next days we explored the area of the Alcornacales cork oak forest and farmlands which offered some great opportunities to get close to both adult and juvenile Black-eared Wheatear, Spotted Flycatchers, Western Bonelli’s Warblers and Bonelli’s Eagles.

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We also took our chance to visit the Guzman Fort in Tarifa where the antics of recently fledged Lesser Kestrels can be watched at point blank range with young birds still being fed by the parents and juveniles perching literally right next to us, we greatly enjoyed this special little falcons first flights.

Shall I stay or shall I go? A pair of juvenile Kestrels eye up the new world

The real searching was for Rüppell’s Vulture throughout the valleys and crags of the Straits. This is no easy task but we know they are about. We had some really special up close views of Griffon Vulture throughout the week and we both agreed that seeing them is beyond tireless.  In fact so tireless when I looked at my watch it was 10.30 in the evening as we obsessively observed roosting and nesting Griffon Vultures.

The  real highlight however was a dead goat that was bringing in the Vultures and this provided us with some truly special moments, with this magical and at times wrongly maligned species hissing and squabbling over the remains as the clean up squad was in full hoover mode!

Did we see a Rüppell’s ???? …….well …can you spot it?

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There’s something for everyone with the Inglorious Bustards and we know you will have fun whether you want to go easy and raptor watch from the pool or go full throttle birding, scrambling up rocks looking at Vultures – we pride ourselves on having the best team for whatever you need and however you want or need to do it.

Contact us and chat to us or check out our tours page, we are really happy to help to fulfil your dream and look forward to welcoming old and new friends.

Star-studded Birding in Morocco – Finding the Cream of the Coursers

Avian ‘A’-listers abound in north western Morocco, and we were on a mission to meet – and hopefully pap – them with wildlife photographer and artist Tony Mills.

Having bathed with dreamy Eleonora’s Falcons in Essaouira, our ‘Choc & Pode’ tour took us north along the coast road to the heath and farmland around Safi. This stretch of road is a veritable Hollywood Boulevard of natural delights and we made frequent stops to enjoy it!

Coast road to Safi
Moussier’s Redstarts, too busy with the breeding season to be bothered by us, were seemingly everywhere, as were glamorous Black-eared Wheatears.  Barbary Ground Squirrels provided the comedy action while Agama Lizards, Black Redstarts, Woodchat and algeriensis Southern Grey Shrikes, Crested Larks and a Desert Wheatear all featured in the star-studded cast.

We’d been to the market early that morning and bagged some really excellent local produce.  We enjoyed our picnic lunch of fresh flatbreads, tomato, red onion and black olive salad and High Atlas cherries in wonder at how these fruits and veg bear so little resemblance to the sad excuses for flavour we put up with in the UK!

Mobile picnic table!

Our musings were cut short by an absolutely stunning Black-eared Wheatear, almost entirely black-and-white with barely any peach. Only feet away from Tony’s lens, this bird hung around and made sure of grabbing its share of the limelight!

We soon arrived at our accommodation at Kohelian Oriental Lodge Farm – a tranquil leafy oasis in the arid coastal heath. Built on a spring, this verdant retreat has a therapeutic soundtrack of purring Turtle Doves and is a haven for weary travellers and wildlife alike.

We would happily have missed dinner to carry on birding the wonderful hotel gardens, had it not been so exceptional!  Once the chef and her helpers had had their own Ramadan breakfast, we were served with superb modern Moroccan food, featuring delights such as white cabbage with mint and yoghurt, courgette with tomato and garlic, lightly spiced chicken and carrot tagine with flatbread, and crispy crepe with caramelised orange and honey, dusted with cocoa powder and a dollop of vanilla ice cream – heaven!

Birding in the surrounding heath and farmland areas was a superb section of the tour, and  gained us audiences with Collared Pratincoles galore, Thekla, Crested, Lesser and Greater Short-toed Larks, Little Owls, and tribes of Stone Curlews running about like they owned the place.

I… am… stone…
But our tongues rolled out like red carpets when we came across our star bird, Cream-Coloured Courser!  A group of these gorgeous, quirky waders were feeding on the arid heaths with their families, happy to pose for atmospheric photos in their desert hangout.

Fwoar!
Would you enjoy hanging out with avian celebs in their rural retreat? Our unique ‘Choc & Pode’ tour, featuring Eleonora’s Falcon, Cream-coloured Courser and much more is running again in 2018. Come join us!

And don’t forget to check out Tony’s wonderful artwork here.

Star-studded Birding in Morocco – Up Close With Eleonora’s Falcons

The House Buntings flitting around our feet were helping to build our excitement as we eagerly awaited wildlife photographer Tony Mills at Marrakech airport.

For the next week we’d be taking Tony – a glutton for punishment now on his third trip with us – on a whirlwind tour of north-western Morocco, Inshallah, studded with star species for him to photograph.

We spotted our friend’s characteristic saunter and multitude of photographic equipment immediately and after customary hugs, whisked him away out of the heat of Marrakech to the decidedly more chilled-out coastal town of Essaouira. Here, amongst other fabulous local wildlife, we hoped to bring him up close and personal with the gorgeous Eleonora’s Falcon.

Rebuilt during the days of the French Protectorate in the 1800s, Essaouira is a sleepy, arty town where Moroccan medina charm meets Brittany coastal resort.

After a scenic drive there across vast cinnamon-coloured plains, we checked into  Palazzo Desdemona – a tastefully renovated riad on the edge of the old town, its modern decor adding a sophisticated twist on the traditional.

That afternoon, among the fresh catches and lively bartering of the thriving fish market, we were able to get superb close views of Yellow-legged Gulls of all age classes, screaming excitedly and fighting over bits of discarded fish. Also hanging around this gritty, bustling place were Little Terns, handsome summer-plumage Ruddy Turnstones, Little Egrets, and Grey and Common Ringed Plovers.

And, like fans at a stadium gig, we also had our first distant views of the star of the show for this leg of the trip – Eleanora’s Falcons, 1300 of which breed on the Île de Mogador just offshore.

Dinner was delicious traditional soups and tagines and epic slabs of chocolate cake in one of our favourite boutique restaurants in the old town, ‘Chaabi Chic’. What can we say, here at Inglorious Bustards we’re suckers for a clever name (!) and we think this one sums up the town perfectly!

Our next day’s birding was focused around a dramatic canyon a few kilometres inland from Essaouira. When they’re not hunting and brutally butchering migrant passerines, this riverine habitat is where the local eleonorae glitterati like to hang out by the pool and have a drink.

Sure enough we almost immediately had fantastic views of this dreamy ‘A’-list Falcon right over our heads, and we were graced by the presence of several individuals of both colour morphs throughout the morning.

And to top it off the supporting cast featured many other avian mega-stars, including Moussier’s Redstart, Barbary Partridge, Rock Bunting, Common Bulbul, Masked Wagtail and African Chaffinch. 

The city of Essaouira comes to an abrupt halt at its eastern edge with a four-mile long stretch of Victorian-style park railings. On one side, a residential area peppered with corner shops, carts full of melons, boisterous children and mechanics’ workshops. On the other a vast forest in the sand, peppered with tamarisks, olive trees and amber-coloured pools, where we spent our afternoon birding.  Here we rubbed  shoulders with Gull-billed Tern, Black-winged Stilt, Night Heron, Little Ringed and Kentish Plover, Brown-throated Martin and Ferruginous Duck to name but a few.

We celebrated with a well-earned Casablanca beer and a touch of sandy exfoliation at the breezy the seafront of the aptly nicknamed ‘Windy City’. 

But although Tony was really pleased with the superb views of Eleonora’s Falcon in flight, us Inglorious Bustards are perfectionists when it comes to birding in Morocco, and we wanted to get him some even better shots.  

Returned the following morning at 6.30am, our persistence was rewarded with the magical sight of ten or more of these exceptionally elegant falcons bedecking a tree like chocolatey decorations, and taking it in turns to bathe in the river.

It doesn’t get much up close and personal than that!  We observed and happily papped away at these avian ‘A’ listers enjoying their baths. We retreated before a restraining order could be issued, and set off on our next step along Morocco’s Hollywood Boulevard of birding…

Would you go weak at the knees for a dreamy Falcon?! Our unique ‘Choc & Pode’ tour, featuring Eleonora’s Falcon and much more is running again in 2018. Come join us!

Very Important Puffinus

Unless there’s a moth trap or a night out with the Next Generation Birders involved, there’s normally only one 5 o’clock in our day! But this morning we had a great reason to haul ourselves out before daybreak.

Team Balearic!

We were to spend it helping out our friends at Fundacion Migres surveying Balearic Shearwaters as they migrate through The Straits.

Alighting from the bus in Tarifa at 6am, we entered a surreal crossed reality, where revellers celebrating last night’s Festivale de San Juan were literally just leaving the nightclubs, high heels and kebabs in hands!

Across town, dock workers were getting breakfast and heading to their jobs, as were the town’s resident Pallid Swifts, which we enjoyed watching over our coffee and tostada as we waited for day to break.

Sunrise over Tarifa harbour

The nightclubs might have been heaving last night, but thanks to Alejandro Onrubia from Migres we had VIP passes of our own today – to Tarifa Island, an ex-military base now inhabited by around 4000 pairs of Yellow-legged Gulls, and the location of Punta de Maroquis, the shortest distance between mainland Europe and Africa.

Here we settled down to stunning views across the Straits, and a morning of sea-watching, to help fulfil the monitoring of Critically Endangered Balearic Shearwaters, Puffinus mauretanicus, that Ali and his team have completed for the last 14 years, working with the Spanish Environment Ministry.

Where the Med and the Atlantic meet

Fundacion Migres have monitored the passage of these birds using the same protocol every year, meaning it provides a reliable index estimate of the current population.  We know they are doing badly, mainly due to deaths as part of fishing ‘by-catch’ and predation of chicks by rats and feral cats on their island homes. Thanks to this work we are able to see how badly.  In 2007, when the global population was estimated at 24,000, this method recorded 16,000 migrating through the Straits.  Last year, only 12,000 were recorded.  This year, with migration season nearly over, the numbers are around 11,000 recorded so far.  The monitoring is vital to increase pressure for conservation solutions and funding to be found to these problems.

At peak migration, the team can be counting up to 1,500 Balearics a day, mixed in with thousands of Cory’s Shearwaters.  Today at the end of the season we clocked a leisurely one hundred, giving us time to enjoy some of the delights of birding in the Straits, including views of Audouins Gulls, Lesser Crested and Little Terns as well as a pod of Striped Dolphins, and distant but tantalising glimpses of Orca fin and a whale fluke!

Not too fussed about the endemic pink stuff it seems

Close by, there were plenty of amusing begging antics from the Yellow-legged Gull youngsters, unsurprisingly oblivious to the pretty pink endemic Limonium emarginatum adorning their hangout, exclusive to the Tarifa coastline.

But most importantly, we got to contribute in some small way to Balearic Shearwater conservation, and hopefully to helping Ali retain his seawatching sanity!

Thanks Ali for having us along! The next nightclub trip is on us!

You too can support Migres – watch this space for future volunteering opportunities.  Or maybe you fancy experiencing the spectacular migrations and cetaceans of the Straits first hand on tour..? Join us!

6 Mega Moments that will have you booking the next flight to the Straits!

There’s so much to see here in the Straits of Gibraltar it’s sometimes hard to know where to start!  Every day is different and that’s what makes it so special – for every group or person we show around there are special birding moments we get to share with them.  Here’s a selection from the past week to get you reaching for your passports!

1)      Punk Birding with Gill

We love to treat our guests to some great surprises when they’re out and about with us! As Gill and I finish up our tasty lunch, and pause to admire a Cattle Egret colony in their beautiful peachy breeding plumage, I am hardly able to contain my excitement as I attempt a nonchalant stroll down the side of the main road!  I can tell Gill is wondering why I’m practically skipping at the thought of getting better views of the Jackdaws on the cliff face.  I love the moment when the penny drops and a huge smile spreads across her face as she realises she is looking at a Northern Bald Ibis!  This weird and wonderful punk of the bird world is an iconic local species, and although the successful reintroduction programme is yielding an increasing population it is still one of the most endangered birds in the world, and the incredible close-up views of this fascinating breeding colony are probably the best in Europe, if not the world.

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2)      Pratincoles with the Pulverers

Here at the Inglorious Bustards, we pride ourselves on tuning in to the needs of our guests, whether they be expert birders or complete beginners.  The Pulverers, first-time birders from Sweden, were staying at our base at Huerta Grande and hanging out with me to try out birding as a new experience.  I loved sharing my beloved Straits with this fabulous group.  By some stroke of fate it’s almost as if the birds knew, and the day’s sightings were even closer than usual!  The very first bird of the day was the brilliant little Collared Pratincole, which not only sat up right in front of us but made the group fill with admiration at their fluting calls and pretty tern-like flight – the perfect appetite-whetter!  They’ve not long since arrived back here, and can now be seen at their breeding grounds alongside Stone Curlews and Kentish Plovers, amongst many others.


3)      Larking about with Gary

For the keen birder that wants to learn more, the Straits is such a great place to be at this time.  Over two days with Gary we really got stuck into the resident larks, all singing and displaying often within metres of each other.  With a living Collins guide right there before your eyes and ears, and a helpful Inglorious Bustard to help you bring the ID features to life, suddenly it all makes perfect sense, and Gary will now forever confidently know his Crested from his Theklas and his Calandras from his Short-toed!


4)      A Sanderling story for the Pulverers

As our day went on, the Pulverers were loving not only seeing the amazing birds around the Straits, but also hearing about their stories and journeys.  As we picnicked by the beach in Bolonia, we were treated to the antics of a host of migrating waders and terns around one of the area’s excellent inter-tidal pools.  How brilliant to think that some of these very birds, having already made it to Southern Spain, may well be waiting to greet the Pulverer family when they return home to Sweden?! We raised a glass of Rioja in the sun to the Sanderlings!


5)      Nightingale moment with Gill

As migrant passerines arrive in their scores each night, it really is a fantastic time for birdsong, with Iberian Chiffchaff and Western Bonelli’s, Subalpine and Melodious Warblers vying for airtime with the more constantly present Sardinian and Cetti’s Warblers and Blackcaps.  As Gill and I drove along a picturescue hillside track we could hear several Nightingales really going for it in the mountainside scrub, so we stopped to see if we could get a view.  It was one of those unexpectedly heart-stopping moments where the ordinary is transcended – suddenly there he was, sat out in full view on a branch, framed beautifully in the very centre of a wild olive tree, singing like the world was ending.  So wide was his exquisite yellow-rimmed gape that we felt like we see right into his soul! Or at least what he’d had for breakfast that day!  With both of us welling up a bit, Gill said to me with glee ‘I LOVE it when they do exactly like the picture in the book!!” 

And last but overwhelmingly not least!

6)      Welcoming the raptors with Gary

Of course for all its fascinating nooks and crannies, and migratory and resident species, the birding experience which makes the Straits the place to be in Spring and Autumn is the spectacle of thousands of raptors and soaring birds crossing this narrow stretch of sea between Europe and Africa.  Although you can encounter raptors every day, to experience this happening at its best you need not only a bit of luck with the weather, but also local knowledge and skill to predict how these conditions will affect how and where the raptors will arrive.  Despite the strong easterly winds, things were really happening today, and Gary and I were already buzzing from seeing a flock of several hundred White Storks arrive in Spain, while we enjoyed a lunchtime gazpacho.  At a stop I had chosen in the hills west of Tarifa, we were admiring a stunning little Black-eared Wheatear when suddenly it was happening!  Looking out across the Straits, we could see the air was thick with raptors, and with minutes they were all around us, and we shouted our welcomes to hundreds upon hundreds of Black Kites, Booted Eagles, Griffon Vultures and Sparrowhawks as they flooded up the valley low around us! Bienvenidos en Espagne!!!


We love sharing these moments with folk, whatever their birding experience or approach.  We really hope that it will be you!  We still have availability on our Spring Strait Birding and Cetaceans Tour, and you can make the most of these joys on our Autumn tours too – why not treat yourself to a few Mega Moments of your own?

Meet Fundacion Migres, Bartolo the Eagle Owl and a whole lotta vultures

This morning was the last day of the trip we were guiding for our Honeyguides group, so a good opportunity to meet Lola and Alijandro at Fundacion Migres, our conservation partners and the organisation benefitting from a donation from the trip’s proceeds.

En route to our meeting we treated the group to a swift detour to visit a colony of Drosophyllum lusitanicum, a quasi-endemic carnivorous plant which we thought they would be interested to see.  Apart from populations in Portugal and Northern Morocco, this endangered plant species is only recorded in this part of Spain.  It is becoming increasingly rare due to habitat destruction, and has been lost from many of its previously known strongholds in the region. It differs from other sundews because it grows in dry, stony, calcareous habitats rather than the acid conditions in the marshes and bogs which are the usual habitat for other carnivorous plants.

In common with other sundew species, Portuguese Sundew catches its small insect prey by entrapping them with a sticky substance that emanates from the leaves and stem. Once trapped the insects become asphyxiated and, following death, are eventually digested by enzymes in the leaves of the plant.  The group was able to witness this sinister little plant trapping flies first hand. We also managed our first views of Crested Tits, which despite being omnipresent in the area had only been heard up until this point.

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Day of the Drosophyllum…

At Migres HQ, director Lola gave the group a tour of the facilities where they are able to house the international volunteers who help them with monitoring the twice-yearly passage of birds.  Alijandro then gave a brief but fascinating presentation on the species and numbers involved and the work of Migres to ensure this spectacle is monitored, researched and protected for the future.  We also got to meet Bartholo, a charming rescued eagle owl, which sadly will never fly again due to a gunshot wound to the wing, but now helps out at Migres in a public relations role.

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Bartholo and Alij

After posing for a group photo, we moved on to the cliffs at Vejer de la Barca.  Here we visited a breeding colony of Northern Bald Ibis, a fantastic quirky bird with iridescent black plumage and a superb punk hair-do reminiscent of something out of Mad Max.  These birds are the product of a successful reintroduction scheme in the area, and the rarest species we were likely to see on the trip – the 80 or so pairs now breeding in this area being a large chunk of the remainder of the world’s population.  They have expanded out of the original reintroduction site and now have nest sites right by the road into the village, so the group was able to observe and photograph these strange creatures at close hand.

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Good hair day for a Northern Bald Ibis

After a refreshing coffee we headed for our next site at the nearby salt pans at Barbate.  To our delight a confiding group of Northern Bald Ibis were foraging on the farmland around the entrance to the site, so we left the group to wander amongst them while the final trademark picnic of the trip was prepared, overlooking a close-by group of Audouin’s Gulls.

While we ate the group enjoyed views of Sanderling and Dunlin as well as Grey, Golden, Common Ringed and Kentish Plovers, Greater Flamingoes in flight and flybys from Painted Lady and Spanish Festoon butterflies.  Elsewhere on the site we found Spanish Sparrows amongst a flock of House Sparrows, and had smashing views of a Black-eared Wheatear perched up on the fence.

There were numerous raptors aloft by now, and it was becoming apparent that something was causing Griffon Vultures to gather in large numbers.  The flocks included three Egyptian Vultures, and to our delight we found one of the Greater Spotted Eagles that have been recorded wintering in the area.

We decided to investigate the source of temptation for the gathering vultures.  Rounding the corner it soon became apparent what all the fuss was about.  On a facing hillside was the carcass of a cow, with perhaps fifty individuals tucking into the remains or simply lounging about digesting their spoils, their white heads stained red.  Even more dramatically though, in the field next to us a cow had just given birth to two calves.  They were so newly born that they were still struggling to stand up, and their feeble attempts were attracting a great deal of unwanted attention from the vultures, who were shuffling ever closer to see whether another meal could be had.

Mother cow was frantic, trying to tend to both calves, which were far enough apart that she couldn’t defend both of them at once.  To our amazement the whole heard eventually rallied round, and the vultures were relegated to a safe distance till both calves were up and about.

This dramatic turn of events marked the end of our visit to Barbate, and we returned to Huerta Grande to enjoy chef Juan Carlos’s evening meal for one last time, before giving the group their send-off in the morning.

Does this sound like your kind of adventure? Come see us in the Straits this Spring or Autumn, or if vultures are your thing then grab a chance to witness the unknown vulture migration spectacle this October

Birding the Oued Lauou river

Our tour group had fallen in love with the blue buildings and dramatic backdrop of the town of Chefchaouen.  But today it was time to follow the birds north and return to Europe.  From our location high in the Rif mountains, we followed the route of the Oued Lauou river all the way down from near its source to the bay where it meets the Atlantic Ocean, watching the ecology and vegetation change as we went. 

Oued Wow!

As we drove through the rugged countryside we could see numerous short-toed eagles and black kites following the same route as us and it was exciting to consider who would be the first to cross the Straits!

Frequent birding stops en route gave us more superb views of blue rock thrush foraging on farmland.  We got up close to a young male and got to appreciate the delicate scalloped patterning on his plumage, which is usually ignored because of the distracting vibrant blue colouration of more adult birds.

 Further on as the river furrowed its way through another precipitous gorge, we watched a thrilling battle between a Bonelli’s Eagle and two Ravens.  It appeared at first that the ravens were mobbing the eagle, but it’s also a possibility that this powerful and stocky predator had decided to try its luck making one of the ravens a prey item!

As the land levelled out and the river became wider, we stopped at a wide gravelly meander, which local folk were visiting to do their laundry and water their livestock.  Against a background of crested larks and zitting cisticolas, we enjoyed overhead peregrines and sparrowhawks, a perched short-toed eagle and the best views yet of Atlas Long-legged Buzzard, this time low over us in excellent light and in its most rufous morph.

 We could hear Stone-curlews calling, and just as we were about to leave we finally spotted a bird on nest amongst the stones, barely visible except for its yellow eye.

 Carrying on downstream the river opened up into expanses of marshy land, on which we could see large flocks of egrets and glossy ibis and even a Black-winged Kite from the bus.  We reached the coast at lunchtime, and enjoyed taking our picnic from an improvised table in the form of an upturned fishing boat on the shore.

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Although a bit of a wait is always involved at the border crossing back into Ceuta, this is never boring and always gives a fantastic opportunity to swap birdwatching for people-watching for an hour or so, for those that are open minded enough to observe!  The crossing itself went smoothly and after taking refreshments at the port we were soon aboard the ferry and on our way back to Huerta Grande, where dinner awaited.

Do you need a bit of Lauou factor in your life?  Have a look at our Birding Two Continents tour, which still has places available for this September, or if you fancy even more Morocco then maybe our Choc & Pode Tour in June is right down your stream…

 

Urban birding in Morocco!

Our tour group from Honeyguides had enjoyed their sample of urban birding in Spain, now it was time to hit ’em with the hard stuff!  As we set out for breakfast in downtown Larache, they were in for another urban birding treat.  The café, under the arches of the promenades surrounding the town square, was right next to a colony of little swifts!  We were able to watch them come and go through the arches as we enjoyed strong coffee and Moroccan churros, and also admire their creativity as they patched up their nests with everything from feathers to bits of plastic!

Little swift colony in Larache

Next it was on to nearby Loukkos marshes, a wetland right on the urban fringe of Larache.  We spent a great morning there, and highlights included the group’s first views of glossy ibis, red-crested pochard, red-knobbed coot, Caspian terns, several brown-throated martins and a nice selection of common waders including little-ringed plovers, green sandpipers and black-winged stilt.

We were surprised by the incredible numbers of marsh harriers present, with probably half a dozen being visible in the air at any given moment, and a total of 20+ for the day.  We also enjoyed picking through a large flock of yellow wagtails which included flava, flavissima and iberiae races, a real treat to see these different markings together and be able to compare them.

 

The clouds close in at Loukkos

Unluckily – and unusually for the time of year – the weather was taking a turn for the worse, so we negotiated a deal with a nearby café, who allowed us to eat our picnic lunch of local breads and cheeses and salads in the shelter of their establishment, while also getting a warming glass of tea!

The journey through Bouachem forest was sadly very cold and wet, but this didn’t stop Simon and Niki valiantly getting out of the van to search for Levaillant’s green woodpecker and the resident population of Barbary macacques.  After numerous attempts we were unlucky so we carried on our journey without further ado.

Things had cleared somewhat by the time we reached Chefchouen, a town beautifully located in the Rif mountains.  The buildings and streets of its Old Town are painted many shades of blue, and from a distance appear to tumble down the hillside like a waterfall.  Its tiny streets, some barely a couple of yards wide, are an intriguing maze of tea shops, grocery stores and art galleries, and the group couldn’t help but be cheered by this fascinating new place.

Chefchaouen, the blue kitty city

Our hotel, the Ras el Maa, is reached through a small unimposing doorway in a row of traditional properties, but once inside opens up to reveal beautiful Moorish architecture full of open spaces and intricate archways.  Perhaps one of its best features from our point of view is the roof terrace, which affords breath-taking views of the village as it tumbles down the hillside, and the mountains of the Talessamtane National Park behind it.

Those of us that hadn’t remained in their rooms to relax before dinner were treated to a final hit of urban birding from here, as we watched Atlas long-legged buzzard, large groups of ravens and red-billed chough and a distance glimpse of two black wheatears while we enjoyed the evening call to prayer drifting out over the town.

We’re going again soon!  Wanna come with..?  Check out our Birding Two Continents tour this September, or maybe have a look at our June Morocco tour taking in Marrakech and Essaouira

 

A Herculean day’s birding!

As our boat arrived at Ceuta harbour on the coast of North Africa, we admired a statue of Hercules parting the twin pillars of the Rock of Gibraltar and the Jebel Musa mountain in Morocco.  For the ancient European civilisations, these two landmark rocky monoliths represented the gateway out of the Mediterranean and into the Atlantic, and hence the end of the known world.  For migrating birds, they form two major landmarks by which they navigate their short but perilous traverse of the sea.

We were now four days into our tour with a Honeyguides group – time to take them to a whole ‘nother continent!  After an early but hearty breakfast at Huerta Grande we set sail for Africa.  At 8.30am the docks were relatively quiet apart from a group of screaming Pallid Swifts, and we were soon on our way, seeing Northern Gannets and two Common Dolphins from the boat.

View from Oued Maarsa

We were soon making a short drive round the back of the second of these pillars, the beautiful Jebel Musa, before pausing at a café in the town of Oued Maarsa to regroup after the sea journey.  Juan-Louis, who had accompanied us from Huerta Grande bringing his expertise in all things Moroccan, secured the group their first tastes of North Africa in the form of delicious sweet mint tea and flat breads with fresh goat’s cheese.  While we waited, we started to get our first tastes of African variation, looking down onto a patch of scrub to see dapper African Chaffinches.

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Even though it was only mid-morning, migration was already in full flow.  Among the columns of raptors gaining height in the morning sun we counted 50+ Black Kites, six Egyptian Vultures and over thirty Short-toed Eagles getting ready to cross the Straits, as well as the first Booted Eagle of the trip.

We enjoyed the leisurely two hour drive to our next site, to the famous Merja Zerga lagoon, through low-intensity subsistence farmland, green and lush with spring crops.

On arrival we went for a top up of refreshing mint tea, in a café from which we could see Laughing Doves and Common Bulbul flitting over the town.  Here we met with our local guide, Hassan, who is probably the most famous ornithologist in this part of the world.  Hassan has been guiding boat trips out onto the lagoon since he was a boy.  The lake is probably best known for being the last recorded site for the now extinct Slender-billed Curlew.  Hassan told the group about the site and about how he watched as the population declined throughout the 90s.  He has the poignant honour of being the person who provided the last known record of this species at the site, in 1995.

Today sadly there would be no sightings of Slender-billed Curlews (although it is of course common practice to attempt to string a Whimbrel or two!) but as the group headed out in two small boats we almost straight away came across a Slender-billed Gull, resting on a mudbank and boasting that gorgeous pink-y hue that they get in the breeding season.  Next to it were a group of dozens of sleek red-billed Audouin’s Gulls, once the world’s rarest gull but now recovering well.

Birding from a sand bank with local legend Hassan

The wetlands and mudflats teemed with life and Hassan pointed out hundreds of Grey and Ringed Plover, Bar-tailed Godwits, Whimbrels, Eurasian Curlews, Common Redshanks, Greenshanks, Green Sandpipers, Ruddy Turnstones and Dunlins.  We had a surreal few minutes birding from an isolated sandbank in the middle of the lagoon, from where we able a large group of Greater Flamingoes promenading together.

But even after this huge adventure of a day, the highlight was yet to come.  Hassan took us to a private area of local damp pastureland.  This is a roosting site for the endemic Moroccan Marsh Owl, and sure enough after maybe half an hour of searching, a gorgeous individual flew up from a large clump of rushes.  While taking care that our presence did not overly disturb the bird, we still saw it several times in the next few minutes and got lots of chances to admire its intricately patterned plumage and haunting face as it fixed us with its incredible dark eyes.

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Enigmatic Moroccan Marsh Owl

After thanking local legend Hassan we made our final leg of the journey to our beautiful old colonial style hotel in the city of Larache, where we dined on local fish before retiring tired but buzzing for some much-needed sleep!

Does this sound like it would float your boat?  Have a look at our Birding Two Continents trip which is running again this September, and our other Morocco-based offerings from Marrakech and Essaouira