Golden Duck and Penalty Try

I don’t need to delve too deeply into my limited repertoire of sporting metaphors to sum up our final day in Western Sahara.  Easter Sunday saw us make another early morning start with Nico and Sidi saw us back on the road at Oued Jenna for 06.50 after slowing for a Cape Hare and a very brief stop for a Desert Hedgehog.  Conditions were again perfect to listen for nightjars and at 07.10 the first bird began to sing South of the road, followed by a second and possibly a third North of the road.  We walked out into the wadi, but as was the case the previous evening the birds sang intermittently and we were not able to locate any of them.  And the same rules as applied to Scops Owl – you have to see the species for it to count! A cricketer when I was younger I know only too well the feeling of deflation at getting out first ball; a golden duck. It is the same painful feeling I had as we headed back to the house in silence knowing that we had achieved a golden double dip; no nightjar or sparrow.  And some of our target species were not yet realised.

The house in Assouerd

We packed for our return journey to Dakhla and enjoyed another fine breakfast and whilst Nico and Sidi loaded up the car we had a brief look around the surrounding waste ground.  No sign of any Rock Martins and  fly by large falcon with powder blue upper parts was frustrating but we  managed WC Black Wheatear, a pair of Desert Sparrows, 3 Black Kite and a Desert Lark before it was time to go.  It was with mixed feelings that we sped past Oued Jenna, but we were keen to have another crack at African Desert Warbler before it got too hot.  We had a very brief stop to look at a Long-legged Buzzard we flushed from some road kill before pressing on.

Long-legged Buzzard of the small pale North African form cirtensis, Assouerd Road

After about an hour we got close to the coordinates that had been given to me before leaving which was where where the Dutch guys had scored a couple of days previously.  Graham and I walked out to the precise spot. planted our camera gear there and worked a circle of about 200m radius for about 40 minutes but with no success. We were both getting hotter and progressively more frustrated – again we had worked hard and felt that we deserved to get the rub of the green.

N23.018967, W14.843226 – No African Desert Warblers here!

We returned to the car and relocated a km back up the road where the Wise Birding Tour had seen the birds a few days previously.  Within five minutes of stopping Graham had located a singing male who we followed around for the next fifteen minutes –  a tiny sandy scrub warbler with a subtly rufous tail and a quiet melodic song that offered us good views.  Unfortunately his constant movement through the low scrub and the harsh light made photography very challenging. But frankly we didn’t care; by the skin of our teeth we had  African Desert Warbler (WP#696) under our belts and we were back in the game.

Record shot of African Desert Warbler, Assouerd Road

Feeling better we pressed on to Tachaktant where we stopped for lunch.  There were far fewer migrants in the bushes and on the pools, but a Chameleon on the ground was a good spot.

(Mediterranean) Chameleon, Tachaktant

After lunch a couple of Thick-billed Larks came into drink, but only for long enough for Graham to rattle off a few frames before they disappeared back into the desert.  As we returned to the car Nico told us that he had a WhatsApp message from the Dutch crew to say that they had 10 Royal Terns and a Western Reef Heron at Km 19 just North of Dakhla.  There was no question to our next destination!

As we drove North on the East side of the bay the effect of the high tide was obvious, and our hopes were up.  In spite of the check points and some slow-moving Sunday traffic we made it to the site to find the bay transformed the high water had pushed an excellent selection of waders and herons, including a Western Reef Heron, right up to the cliffs and there was even a group of Pintail on the shore.  But we were more interested in a mixed flock of gulls that contained about 10 Slender-billed Gulls and two red/orange billed terns; one was a Caspian, but on a second look the other, to my considerable relief, was two thirds the size with and had an unmarked slightly decurved orange bill – Royal Tern (WP#697)!   There is an old birding expression to the effect “that you only need one” – but this had been a close run thing especially as we could not locate any more in a brief search of the area West of the Tomato Farm.

Caspian (left) and Royal Tern (right), Dakhla Bay; inset Royal Tern in profile

Back to the sporting analogies – we had secured our final two target species, but it felt like we had scored a penalty try.  That is to say we had worked hard and battered the line, but simply could not cross because of persistent foul play by the opposition – under these circumstances rugby union referees can award a penalty try in which the attacking team gets the points but feels little of the sense of achievement of dotting the ball down to score a try and converting it with a kick.  In birding terms seeing the bird well (try) and obtaining a good image (conversion).

Another successful trip celebrated with another local beer

It was now late in the afternoon and Nico returned us to our hotels where we said our farewells and headed to our rooms to shower and pack before heading out for a last early evening meal at the Villa Dakhla.  Over dinner, and a couple of beers, we reflected on an enjoyable, if at times hard, trip which despite the golden failures was, in the end, very successful.  Our total of 101 species included all my other avian targets, plus Eurasian Scops Owl which added six species to my Western Palearctic list.  And if that was not enough I had seen and photographed Sand Cat.  Having counted the many positives we returned to our hotels, organised a taxi to take us to the airport in the following morning and headed for our beds.

 

Oued Jenna

The iPhone alarms went off at 6am and we were soon up and on the road back to Oued Jenna full of enthusiasm after the success of our previous evening’s spotlighting.  Unfortunately the wind had got up overnight and conditions were not optimal for listening for nightjars and by the time it got light we had not heard or seen anything.  To make matters worse we met the Dutch guys who had camped overnight in the wadi.  They not only thanked us for the African Desert Warbler gen, they had scored within five minutes of reaching the coordinates, but also told us they had heard and seen Golden Nightjar the previous evening!

We had arranged for a late breakfast back at the house so that we could explore Oued Jenna in the cool of the morning.  It is perhaps worth emphasising that the wadi is substantial and extends in a narrow ribbon several km either side of the road with a similar mixture of large acacias and long grass and that the Sudan Golden Sparrows hang out in nomadic mixed flocks with Desert Sparrows. Nico and Sidi drove us about 2 km into the Northern arm so that we could bird our way back to the road.  As soon as we got out the car we found the Dutch team engrossed in trees that were leaping with Sylvia and Western Olivaceous Warblers.  I will add a quick caveat here – the Iduna warblers we saw here mostly appeared to be identical with a similar call to the Western Ollies we had seen at Mijk farm and Tachektent the previous day.  However both Graham and I independently noted at least one bird tail dipping in a manner usually associated with Eastern Olivaceous Warbler and we later learnt that Saharan Eastern Olivaceous (ssp reiseri), a form that we saw five years ago near Rissani, breed in Oued Jenna.

The Dutch team in action in Oued Jenna

The dominant species of Sylvia was Western Subalpine Warbler with several Western Orphean  (WP#695) with the odd Sardinan Warbler and Common Whitethroat thrown in for good measure.

Western Subalpine Warbler (the only female type we saw in five days), Oued Jenna
Western Orphean Warbler, Oued Jenna

Having spent some quality time with the Sylvias we started making our way through the wadi picking up more Cricket Longtails, Fulvous Babblers and Black-crowned Sparrow Larks.  After about 0.5 km we found three of the Dutch guys again who had flushed an owl that they thought might have been Long-eared. When it flew again it appeared too bulky with languid wing beats.  On the small screen on the back of my camera the long range shots I took revealed the bulk, but no plumage details.  However, when it flew once more the underparts and underwing confirmed its identity as Pharaoh Eagle Owl.

Pharaoh Eagle Owl, Oued Jenna – even partly obscured the bulky shape and faint bars on the breast are characteristic of this species. A Long-eared Owl would be slimmer more erect and have vertical streaks on the breast.

A little further down the wadi I finally got close to a Great Grey Shrike that was not perched on top of an acacia in direct sunlight, other wise it was more of the same in the final half kilometre.

Great Grey Shrike, Oued Jenna; all the birds we saw appeared to be of the interior NW African form elegans.

We headed back to Assouerd stopping a couple of time to search patches of acacia where Nico had previously seen flock of sparrows, but only managed to find a single male Desert Sparrow

Desert Sparrow,near Assouerd

A little further down the road we stopped to admire a Spiny-tailed Lizard (Uromastyx sp). Based on distribution I understand is likely to be one of he dark forms of Uromastyx dispar flavifaciata that has been previously reported near Assouerd.

“Spiny-tailed Lizard” Uromastyx sp, near Assouerd

As we got close to town we stopped, very briefly, to look at a gang of Brown-necked Ravens feed in on a goat carcass and a pair of Lanners flew over, but given that our proximity to the military camp it was time to put the cameras away!  The Dutch who had also been watching the falcons were also heading into town to try and secure better images of a Seebohm’s Wheatear they had seen the previous day feeding on a pile of garbage outside the town shop.  Sadly it had moved on so we said our farewells and headed for brunch.

After a well earned rest during the heat of the day we ventured out again in the late afternoon and walked the Northern arm of Oued Jenna again and saw nothing new until we were almost back at the road when Graham came across a small mixed flock of Black-crowned Sparrow Larks and Desert Sparrows and that was it.  Hot, tired and more than a little frustrated we asked Nico and Sidi to take us a couple of km into the Southern arm so that we could try our luck there.  There was at least a bit more activity with small numbers of Bee-eaters and a male Marsh Harrier moving though the wadi.

Marsh Harrier migrating over Oued Jenna

Apart from getting some nice looks at Cricket Longtail and Fulvous Babbler we had little to show for our efforts and we still had a couple of hours to go until it got dark.  That said the full moon was rising and there was no wind so despite rising levels of frustration and incipient grumpiness we tried to remain positive.

Cricket Longtail, Oued Jenna
Fulvous Babbler, Oued Jenna

As the light started to go a Melodious Warbler showed around the car park but a last walk around the lower part of the wadi didn’t produce anything else new.

Melodious Warbler, Oued Jenna. In right profile this looks a fairly typical individual, However the left wing showed six exposed primaries which made us consider Icterine Warbler. However Yoav Perlman has kindly pointed out that the longest terrial in the left wing is missing (inset) exposing more of the primary projection. We should have, as Harry Hussey has observed, focused on the leg colour (brown) and wing length of the primary projection (ca 60% of exposed tertials).
Dusk at Oued Jenna

We positioned ourselves on the South side of the road where the Wise Birding tour had seen nightjars a few days before but to our surprise the singing came from the North side of the road. This was problematic as the south side (see the image above the title) is relatively open and grassy whereas to the North one has to pass, noisily, through a belt of acacias to get to the open areas.  This we did with the inevitable consequence of disturbing the bird and not seeing it.  Back at the road we briefly heard another bird on the South side before they shut up for the evening and we returned to the house disappointed but philosophical and more than ready for the superb tagine that awaited us – after all there was always the morning….

 

 

Day and Night on the Aousserd Road

Nico and his colleagues picked us up at 08.30 from outside our hotels and once we had packed our gear for our three days in the desert we set off.  Before we left Dakhla we drove around a number of spots on the Atlantic and bay side of the peninsular where he regularly encountered Royal Terns with zero success.  Wishing to see Royal Tern before we headed out to Assouerd we took a short detour South to a site on the East side of the bay where terns are known to gather.  It was a lovely spot and there were certainly good numbers of Spoonbills, Caspian Terns and waders, but none of the hoped for Royals and after half an hour we pressed on.

Our next stop was a private farm (Mijk) that Dakhla Rovers have permission to visit with their clients – the principle business is growing tomatoes and melons in huge polythene and canvas greenhouses. However, when the farm was established around a borehole the owner planted trees and constructed some pools which given the location in the middle of the Sahara makes for a very potent migrant trap. For example the second Great Bittern for the Western Sahara had been recorded here three days previously.  As soon as we got out of the car it was apparent that the trees and bushes were alive with birds to the extent that it was hard to know where to start.

Picnic Lunch at Mijk Farm

After walking around to get a feel for what was about we decided to sit quietly in the shade and allow the birds to come to us – Graham stationed himself in a small irrigated orchard and I elected for some reed fringed pools under the shade of the canopy.  After an hour or so we broke for a picnic lunch under a makeshift awning and then opted to for different stations.

Mijk Farm Migrants – click on a thumbnail to enlarge

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Mijk farm has pretty much everything a migration enthusiast and photographer could ask for and it was hard to drag ourselves away, but we needed to head East.  Before we hit the Assouerd road proper we stopped briefly at Tachaktant, but found very little that had not been there the previous day apart from a rather showy Western Olivaceous Warbler.

Western Olivaceous Warbler, Tachaktant

Since the early visits by the Punkbirders in the mid-noughties the Assouerd Road has established itself as a Western Palearctic hotspot and the place to visit for a number of regionally scarce species – but before we got to look for the first of these;  Dunn’s Lark we had to drive an hour or so along the tarmac road with the car thermometer reporting 35oC we stopped only once for a party of Cream Coloured Coursers.

Cream Coloured Coursers, Assouerd Road

Many years ago, I saw “Dunn’s Lark” in Israel, but with every likelihood that the Asian form will be split as a separate species, Arabian Lark,  it was one I was keen to see.  When we arrived at the coordinates we split up to search the tufts of long grass under which the larks shelter to get what shade they can in the unforgiving environment.  After ten minutes or so Graham located a couple of birds and we settled down to photograph them which was easier said than done in the intense light and heat as it was 2 pm and the sand was so hot that it burnt our knees.

(African) Dunn’s Lark, Assouerd Road
(African) Dunn’s Lark, Assouerd Road

After re-hydrating and a brief rest we drove a few km further East to a site at which the Wise Birding group had seen African Desert Warbler a few days previously and only ca 800 m from the GPS coordinates where  Martin Casemore had seen them a couple of weeks earlier.  Given the uniformity of the dwarf scrub habitat we were clearly in the right area and did not expect too many problems – but after searching assiduously for the best part of an hour we had nothing to show for our efforts.   After a further hour of driving we reached Oued Jenna which is a wide wadi full of large acacias that runs NW-SE across the road and the site for the golden duo; Nightjar and Sparrow.  Given that it was now early evening and we wished to eat before going spotlighting for mammals we could only spend an hour in part of the NW section of the wadi close to the road, but that was long enough for us to find our first Fulvous Babblers and Cricket Longtails (WP #693).

Cricket Longtail, Oued Jenna

A further 20 minutes drive East is Assouerd a settlement of 120 people that is also home to a brutal looking basic training camp for recruits to the Moroccan military, at least they get single tents, and a UN Mission (MINURSO)  involved in an ongoing project to clear land mines.  Dakhla Rovers have access to a large house in the town with hot and cold running water where clients can sleep on mattresses and eat breakfast and dinner which is a very positive alternative to rough camping in Oued Jenna. After a long day in the field we were more than happy to shower and rest for an hour or two before our evening session, although not before I was woken up by Desert Sparrow (WP #694) calling outside my bedroom window.

Our plan was to go out spotlighting for 2-3 hours getting back in sufficient time to grab 6 hrs sleep before trying for the nightjar which were reported to be singing only in the morning. After dinner we headed back West for an hour or so before slowly driving back home using the spotlights.  On the way out we were lucky enough to encounter a Saharan Sand Viper crossing the road.

Saharan Sand Viper, Assouerd Road

I had not spotlighted before – for those unfamiliar with this technique it involves shining a powerful light into the vegetation either site of the road in the hope of picking up the reflected light from the eyes (eyeshine) of a nocturnal animal.  Nico’s 4X4 is well set up for this activity with two front mounted LED spots on the front of the car and two handheld spots to play on the vegetation at 90o to the moving vehicle.  I was i/c of one of the hand-held spots and a touch anxious that I would stuff it up.  I need not have been and after 20 mins my spot made contact with a stationary animal about 250 m off the road. Nico swung his spot around and confirmed and fixed the animal and the three of us set off with headlamps and a hand-held spot to investigate – as we got closer our lights became sufficient to dimly illuminate the beast and confirm its identity – SAND CAT!  Prior to departure this and Golden Nightjar were my two most wanted species from this trip – suppressing my excitement, I dialled the flash gun to max and hoped that the extender was enough to reach the cat – not quite so we edged closer and I had another go and got very lucky.

Sand Cat, Assouerd Road

There are certainly better photos of Sand Cat than this, but I will always have a strong personal affinity with this Sand Cat which I spotlighted and photographed under a starry Saharan sky in a truly memorable encounter.  Everything after that was a bit of an anti-climax and our spotlighting efforts lacked its earlier intensity. After a further 20 minutes, and a couple of stops for some roadside geckos, we called it a night and headed back to the house where a Ringed Wall Gecko under the security light bid us goodnight and brought our nocturnal adventure to an end.

Ringed Wall Gecko, Assouerd