Saturday 1 June 2013

Birding in Morocco - part two

After a decent night's sleep we were up and away by 5.45am. It felt cold so I threw on about four layers before heading out.
We were looking for Dupont's Lark and following the maps in David Gosney's book, we soon reached the spot on the Zeida Plain. It was 6am, the sun still hadn't risen just yet and it was very chilly. We could see small little brown shapes darting around the scrub and could hear some larks beginning to sing but no sign of any Dupont's. The first birds to show well though were a pair of Desert Wheatear. The last time I saw this species was in November 2011 on Bray Head in Wicklow, Ireland. I remember wondering at the time how would a desert species survive an Irish winter, but they seemed very happy there on that cold desert morning, so no problem to them. As the morning brightened up we could hear plenty of Lesser and Greater Short-toed Larks singing. We walked in separate directions looking and listening for Dupont's Larks. A party of three Ruddy Shelducks flew over and I had a single Trumpeter Finch alongside a Lesser Short-toed Lark. Nick soon called me over though when he picked up a lone Thick-billed Lark poking around the scrub. I tried for some record shots but the bird just seemed to vanish. Still an impressive species though.

First light on the Zeida Plains
We continued walking separate lines as the light gradually improved. I came across a smart male Red-rumped Wheatear and watched it as it perched and sang from the tops of bushes and rocks. However it never came close so it was record shot territory again.

Red-rumped Wheatear, Zeida Plains, Morocco - 24th May 2013
I took a short movie clip of it singing - click here to watch.

By 8.30am it was starting to really warm up, although we had dipped on Dupont's Lark, we had seen some decent species, several of them lifers for me. Before reaching the car we came across this rather approachable Thekla Lark. We both got shots before deciding that it was time for breakfast.

Thekla Lark - Zeida Plains, Morocco - 24th May 2103
Before getting back to the hotel we pulled over to check a line of high Papyrus along the road side for Western Olivaceous Warbler. No luck this time but we did have Reed Warbler, Serin, Woodchat Shrike and Turtle Dove. Quite a Spanish feel to things!
After breakfast we set off once again. This time we were headed for the Tizi-n-Tairhemt pass. Taking 'gen' from Josh Jones trip report, we were looking for an area where we might see Tristram's Warbler, a species I've longed to see. We parked at the hairpin bend and descended into down into the valley. 

Tristram's Warbler site
Carrying a tripod and heavy gear down a scree covered slope was precarious. At any moment I expected my feet to go from under me, I was more worried about smashing my gear up rather than breaking my arse on a sharp rock, is that normal? At the bottom, we walked the rocky edge of a dry river bed surrounded by stunned junipers trees. We could both hear the scratchy sound of a small Sylvia. Within a few minutes we managed to connect with an absolutely stunning male Tristram's Warbler. It was too busy to sit still for photos, so I had to contend with just watching it instead, but what a bird. But if that wasn't good enough, as I sat watching the Tristram's a couple of very striking male Moussier's Redstarts put in an appearance. One of them proved to be quite bold and sat up on the edge of juniper bush for enough time to get a decent snap.

Male Moussier's Redstart, Tizi-n-Tairhemt pass, Morocco - 24th May 2013
As we came back to car I couldn't decide which of the two species I liked more. I'm still undecided as I write. Before we left the location we had some nice views of a singing Serin, a single Coal Tit, a pair of Black Wheatears and a male Woodchat Shrike. It was a hard spot to leave.

Serin, Tizi-n-Tairhemt pass, Morocco - 24th May 2013 

We continued on through the mountains, as the river ran close to the roadside, Nick pulled over and said it might be worth checking the stream for Moroccan Wagtail ('Subpersonata' White Wagtail). It turned out to be a good call, as soon as we had started to scan the gravel edges of the river we picked up a pair feeding some young. The male is a very striking bird indeed, so well worth seeing. Present also were a pair of Grey Wagtails, these too were feeding young.
As we descending the mountain pass the countryside began to green up a bit. We stopped  when we noticed a Hoopoe flying into a nice looking roadside orchard. Both of us felt it might be good for Western Olivaceous Warbler, and at the far end of the orchard we were in luck. A single bird was singing from deep cover. 

A nice looking orchard - with Western Olivaceous Warbler buried in there somewhere
Getting good views were tricky, I stared into the bushes with my bins trying to get views of it as it moved from branch to branch. At one stage I thought I had it as it sat still on a low branch, but I soon realised I was staring straight at a Nightingale instead. Not bad I guess, but Western Olly was what I really wanted to see. As Nick moved around the other side of the orchard, I stayed put and eventually my quarry came to the edge of a tree and began to sing. You could say these are relatively non-descript birds, but not for me. The slim elegant body shape, the long bill and sloping head shape, I had soon forgot about Moussier's Redstart and Tristram's, Warbler. Western Olivaceous Warbler was the new star and I was now really looking forward to catching up with Eastern (pallida) and Saharan (reiseri) forms.

Western Olivaceous Warbler
With time pressing we continued on. By about 4pm we arrived at a very nice lush looking wadi outside the town of Errachidia. I followed the sound of a singing Western Olivaceous Warbler. It was high above me in a Tamarisk but from there I could see the swollen convex sides of its large bill as well as hearing its song well. After watching it for ten minutes or so I continued on and a short distance ahead I came across another Olivaceous Warbler. This one was silent though and as it flew from one tree to another I could see its bill looked noticeably shorter and it dipped its tail down repeatedly as it moved through the Tamarisk, so possibly an Eastern Olivaceous Warbler this time. Just then Nick texted me to say he had a pair or White-crowned Wheatears, I caught up with him and we both watched the pair going in and out of nest hole under a large rock. Meanwhile a couple of Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters hawked insects overhead. In a small Tamarisk a rather yellow looking warbler was moving. On first views it appeared to have a pale panel on the wing. We had both thought Melodious so this threw us for a bit. But Nick had seen a short primary projection and I recalled something somewhere about fresh Melodious Warblers having a pale wing panel. I haven't seen that many Melodious Warblers but have seen plenty of Icterines over the last two summers in Latvia and the head shape looked different too, more rounded than Icterine. Plus I don't think Icterines migrate this far west in spring.
As we came around the edge of a large Tamarisk I almost stood on this very showy Rufous Bush Robin. I thought it would fly when I set up the tripod but it was a real poser and gave both myself and Nick the best show any bird had put on so far. At one stage it was too close to even focus on. There's a record of one from Cape Clear in the 1960's, can you imagine the stampede if another turned up this autumn. For ten minutes or so I forgot all about Eastern and Western Olivaceous Warblers while this little cracker put on a show.

Rufous Bush Robin, near Errachidia, Morocco, 24th May 2013

To see a short movie clip click here

As usual time was pressing on and we had one more target to aim for. Outside the town of Rissani, on the road to Merzouga, is a well known site for Egyptian Nightjar.
We hit Rissani at rush-hour (honestly, it was mayhem). We followed the maps on David Gosney's guide but managed to get a little lost, once again our dodgy french was used on some poor gendarme and we were soon on the right track. Just beyond the Auberge Tresor we pulled over and got our gear out. The sun was dipping, the moon was up and we walked the dry desert piste looking and listening for 'jars. We wondered how they must roost in the direct desert sunlight and Nick mentioned that they must try to find the shade of a small acacia bush. We took separate paths and pretty soon Nick was out of sight. I walked along a dry wadi where short stunned acacias spread out in a line in front of me. Every five yards or so I would stop and scan the acacias for twenty yards in front of me looking for a roosting bird. After twenty minutes I had drawn a blank and was running out of acacias to check. Just then I noticed an interesting shape sitting under an acacia about twenty yards in front of me. I quietly set my tripod and camera up, pulled a couple of shots and as I cropped them on the viewfinder I could see it was roosting Egyptian Nightjar. I texted Nick to say I had a roosting bird and he appeared from a ridge about five hundred yards in front of me. I waved to him and pointed in front of me, he had joined within five minutes. We stayed for about twenty minutes watching the bird. Just as the light was almost gone it suddenly got up and flew off into the gathering gloom. What a bird, if you weren't looking for it you would walk right past it such is its plumage.

Egyptian Nightjar roosting near Rissani, Morocco - 24th May 2013
Here's the above image cropped.

Egyptian Nightjar
By now it had been quite a long day. We made our way to the Auberge Yasmina where we planned to overnight. A delicious Moroccan meal and a couple of cold beers rounded off one of the best days of birding I'd had in a long time.
More tomorrow!

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