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Dutch Day Out

Work took me to Amsterdam for a couple of days in late January and it did not take to convince me to stay an extra day to try and photograph a Nutcracker that had taken up residence in a Wageningen suburb. Setting off in the dark under cold clear skies I travelled by East by train across a flat hoar frosted landscape past fields full of grey geese. Arriving in Ede I transferred to a local bus service and half an hour later I disembarked at Wageningen bus station.

The well integrated Dutch public transport makes twitching without a car very easy.

Guided by Google Maps I took a short walk past a parade of shops and at the first junction I looked up to cross the road and did a double take . There was the Nutcracker! In the driveway opposite exploring a large bag of peanuts closely monitored by the donors – a small group of birders on a day trip from the UK.

Totally fearless the Nutcracker (front left in the driveway) investigates a bag of unshelled nuts provided by his British admirers

The bird is of the Siberian “Slender-billed” form (subspecies macrorhyncus) which is prone to vagrancy and even periodic irruptions (for example in 1968), rather than a bird of the nominate race from the Alps. Being from so far East and with no prior experience of humans it is totally fearless seeing it’s admirers only as a benign source of free food and artificial perches. Such behaviour is not unprecedented as anybody, like me, who made the journey to Cocknage Wood in Staffordshire in the autumn of 1991 to see the last twitchable individual in the UK will testify. Being so trusting of humans could have been the downfall of the Wageningen bird which abandoned the area in which it was originally found (1-2 km away) due to New Year’s Eve fireworks, before being rediscovered a couple of days later in its current network of gardens.

Wherever it came from it is an entrancing bird to watch. I enjoyed spending time in its company observing the dexterous way it employed feet and bill to break open nuts and extract the nutritious kernel. More often than not was buried for future consumption as insurance against leaner times.

A rare opportunity to take a head and shoulders portrait.

Nutcracker Gallery – click on the thumbnail to view a larger image

After spending a couple of hours with this most engaging and charismatic of crows I retraced my steps and returned to Amsterdam Central Station. From there I made my a way to the Vondelpark in Amsterdam Zuid which has a reputation for being a reliable for site for a naturalised and self-sustaining population of Alexandrine Parakeets.

Amsterdam Central Station

As might be expected of a city centre park on a Saturday afternoon it was very busy; full of families, cyclists and joggers enjoying the winter sun. Like some of the London parks Vondelpark is built around a series of artificial ponds that hold a range of very approachable water birds; Cormorant, Moorhen, Coot, Egyptian Goose and a few duck.

Tufted Duck

Finding parakeets in the park is not exactly difficult. Not only are they noisy and obvious, but the population of the commoner Ring-necked Parakeet in Amsterdam is enormous. And unfortunately for the first 40 minutes or so every bird that I looked at was exactly that – RNP!

Ring-necked Parakeet

Fearing failure I took some time out to listen to the calming sounds of a lakeside Handpan player. This is a percussion instrument that I had not come across previously, but one which seemed totally in keeping with the chilled atmosphere of this city centre oasis in the tranquility of the late afternoon sun.


Turning around from the Handpan player I noticed two parakeets higher in the trees than most of the birds I had seen thus far. Craning my neck to view through binoculars I could see the extensive pink rear nape and shoulder patch that characterise Alexandrine Parakeet (WP#702).

By now the light was starting to go and more than happy with how the day had worked out I headed back to my hotel in Amstelveen for a hot shower and early dinner mindful of my 6am start the following morning to make my flight back to Norwich.

Gran Canaria Weekend

Ingrid and I had planned a post-Christmas long weekend in Gran Canaria to unwind, grab some winter sun and give me the opportunity to see one of the world’s rarest birds <500 individuals); the recently split Gran Canaria Blue Chaffinch.  We flew from a cold grey Stansted on the afternoon of Friday 11thJanuary (Ryanair FR8132 ) and four hours later arrived in Canarian air space as the sun was setting.

The view of Mount Tiede on Tenerife from the plane as we approached Gran Canaria

Collection of the pre-booked car from the highly recommended, an inexpensive, Autoreisen was straightforward and we were soon speeding south on GC1 towards Maspalomas before climbing the twisting, but well surfaced road `(GC60) to the small mountain village of Fataga where the charming and well appointed Finca Tassomio would be our base for the next three nights.

The following morning after a leisurely breakfast I spent some time in the Finca garden enjoying the local village birds (eBird list here) before we headed to higher elevations and the remaining extensive areas of Canarian Pines where GC Blue Chaffinch can be found.  There are essentially two areas in which birds are seen without too much difficulty. The first is the NE section of Inagua forest and the other a more fragmented area of pines around the tourist attraction of Rocque Nublo. More information about the recovery plan for the GC Blue Chaffinch can be found here.

Ingrid enjoying the Finca Tassomio garden
African Blue Tit of the race hedwigii are regular visitors to the Finca garden

We headed to the former by carrying on up GC-60 from Fataga as far as the junction with GC-606 and turning immediately on to GC-661 which we took to the settlement of El Juncal de Tejeda and followed the road through the village and over the baranco until the pavement runs out.  The dirt road which continues through the Inagua forest to GC-605 is perfectly drivable, but in deference to Ingrid I chose not to walk and walked the road as far as the point at which the WP Big Year team saw GC Blue Chaffinch in 2017.  Apart from the many vocal Canary Island Chiffchaffs birding was hard work (eBird list here) although there were impressive views across the west of the island towards Tenerife. Interestingly as I gained altitude the amount of broom, on which the Blue Chaffinches forage, in the understory increased and I suspect if I had carried on I would have found more and better habitat.

Canary Islands Chiffchaff
Looking towards Mount Tiede

After a couple of hours we had had enough and we headed back down GC-60 towards Fataga stopping en route for a late and leisurely lunch at one of the many roadside eateries. By the time we got back to the Finca it was too late to head back up to try a different area and I decided to leave another attempt until the morning reassured by a message from Phil Abbott who had seen Blue Chaffinches around the picnic site at Llanos de la Pez.

Sunday morning saw me having breakfast at 8.30 am sharp whilst Ingrid enjoyed a lie in. Again I took GC 60 but this time turned off onto GC 600 (signposted for Roque Nublo). After gaining more altitude and driving for about 2.5km beyond the Roque Nublo car park I  unfortunately mistook a camping area on the right for the picnic site and parked there about 800 m short of the picnic site itself! This caused me some problems especially when I found myself more than 1km from Phil’s coordinates and the batteries in my GPS device getting very low. As I reorientated I flushed a pair of RL Partridges and started to see more African Blue Tits and CI Chiffchaffs. I hit the S51 circular trail and headed South, away from the picnic site, and at the t-junction turned East and followed the trail for about 300 m along the edge of broom filled gully where I tracked down an unfamiliar high-pitched tick to the endemic sub-species (or possibly species) of Robin.

European robin (ssp marionae)

After getting some images I followed the trail back to the picnic area which was by now filling up with visitors and their sound systems and worked my way across the hillside to Phil’s coordinates, an area of pines with extensive broom understory, which gave an excellent view of the canopy. Lots of the local race (ssp canariensis) of Chaffinch and a Buzzard flew over head, but still no sign of my target bird and my morning pass was rapidly running out. Resigned to failure I dropped down the hillside and walked along the edge of the picnic area just 50m or so from the road where I disturbed a small flock of Atlantic Canaries foraging in the broom.

Atlantic Canary

I stopped to photograph a reasonably obliging male and turned to see more finches in the next patch of broom one of which gave the call that I had familiarised myself with over breakfast. The perpetrator flew up into a nearby pine and revealed himself as a GC Blue Chaffinch (WP#701). This was one of three birds in a loose mixed flock of finches which with some patience and despite the clock having turned red came close enough for me to get some images.

Gran Canaria Blue Chaffinch – the colour rings may indicate a bird introduced from the captive breeding project.
Gran Canaria Blue Chaffinch
The letter G marks the approximate location of my Robin and GC Blue Chaffinch sightings

More than content I returned to the car adding Raven and Great-spotted Woodpecker (ssp thanneri ) on the way to complete my eBird checklist. The traffic on GC 60 was not too bad and I arrived back in Fataga less than half an hour late and in good time to enjoy a lazy lunch on the terrace of one of the village restaurants.

Sunday lunch Fataga style

The rest of the trip was uneventful and relaxing and we returned to Stansted (as cold and grey as when we left) the following day (Ryanair FR8133) having thoroughly enjoyed the sun, scenery and food of interior Gran Canaria.

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

 

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

Otus Falls!

After failing to see Royal Tern on the first day we were keen to make amends and in the absence of any recent information decided to head to the exposed sand flats in the NW corner of the bay where we had seen Sandwich Terns and Slender-billed Gulls the previous day in the hope of finding an early morning gathering.  After picking up water, bread, cheese and halal pate,  very pink and with the consistency of dry spam, from the petrol station we headed up the road and decided to scan from the kite surfing lodge and eat our breakfast with the sun behind us.  With nothing bar a couple of Caspian Terns on the sand flats we turned our attention to the scrub which held a few Willow warblers and the getting some images of the very obliging Thekla Larks and Black Wheatears that were hanging around the car park.

Upper: Black Wheatear Lower: Thekla Lark, Dakhla Bay

Just as we were about to pack up and move on a male Marsh Harrier drifted across the bay and appeared behind us where it startled a large falcon – after a brief bout of handbags the harrier disappeared and what turned out to be a Lanner shot out in front of us carrying a recently killed  House Sparrow and landed ca 250 m away on the sand flats to consume its mid-morning snack.

Lanner of the NW African subspecies erlangeri, Dakhla Bay

The scrub around the car park held a few Willow Warblers and a Grasshopper Warbler whilst on the way out what would turn out to be the first of many male Western Subalpine Warblers disgraced itself in front of Graham’s camera.  We headed North West to the roundabout/checkpoint at the entrance to the peninsular and after resolving a misunderstanding about missing a stop sign, which in our defence was in Arabic, headed North a few km to a Scrub Warbler site.  The directions were fine, but the habitat did not appear to be very different from the surrounding desert and I was not surprised we did not see Scrub Warbler.  We did to our surprise flush a Short-eared Owl which was one of the week’s less expected birds.

Graham contemplating the status of Short-eared Owl in the Western Sahara

We returned to the roundabout, navigated the check point and drove down the Bir Azerane road.  We had directions to a water source at Km 57 – since we unsure if this was from Dakhla or Bir Azerane we decided to see if it was the former and if not head back rather than spend the rest of the morning driving; which is how it turned out. All we found was a single White Stork in a herd of goats.  We had driven past a wadi that contained a few bigger trees that looked as if it might support a few migrants, so on the way back we stopped for a look.  As we entered the vegetation I flushed a Desert Wheatear with a a strong exhibitionist streak.

Desert Wheatear, Bir Azerane Road

As we progressed through the wadi we found just a few migrants and a Great Grey Shrike. I was on the track of a Sylvia warbler which turned out to be a Common Whitethroat when Graham called to me to say that he had flushed a bird which  appeared to be a small owl.  He tracked it down to a large acacia and suggested I stopped wasting time on the warbler as he thought his bird was “Otus” Otus scops, Eurasian Scops Owl, has been my absolute Western Palearctic bogey bird – I have heard loads all around the Mediterranean basin, but never clapped eyes on which means it has never made it onto my list.  But birding never ceases to surprise and here in the middle of the Sahara was a migrant Eurasian Scops Owl that became number 692 on my Western Palearctic list (WP#692).

Eurasian Scops Owl, Bir Azerane Road

We still had a desire to find somewhere with water so headed back to the check point again and headed for the start of the Assouerd Road which we drove for twenty minutes until we found the famous water tower known to birders as Gleb Jeblaine, but which should correctly be called Tachaktant (Gleb Jeblaine is actually the settlement 4 km to the West).  The well that fills the tower has a permanent leak that fills a series of small muddy pools surrounded by vegetation where desert species (including, Thick-billed Lark and Crowned Sandgrouse) come to drink and migrants come to rest.  Consequently there was a much greater diversity of species that we had encountered previously including Spotted Crake, Green Sandpiper, Little Ringed Plover, Bluethroat and Sedge, Grasshopper, Willow and Western Subalpine Warblers.

Some Tachaktant migrants (click on the thumbnail to enlarge)

 

As well as giving birds the opportunity to drink the pools offer the opportunity for a wash and brush up and towards the end of our visit we were entertained by a Tree Pipit that was taking full advantage.

Bathing Tree Pipit, Tachaktant

Whilst we were a Tachaktant we ran into two other groups of birders, one French the other Dutch, who had already been out East to Assouerd; neither had seen Golden Nightjar and both reported that Sudan Golden Sparrow was difficult.  Both were heading back to Dakhla for some R&R before another attempt.  The Dutch team had not seen African Desert Warbler either. but were more than happy to exchange for GPS coordinates for gen on where Royal Tern had been seen regularly near Dakhla.  Armed with this new information on Royal Tern we sped back towards Dakhla and the Royal Tern site which we had driven past the previous afternoon. No Royal Terns, although several flocks of Sandwich flew past, but a Western Bonelli’s Warbler was feeding along the cliff edge and a Black-crowned Night Heron in a rock pool making short work of a shoal of fish.

Western Bonelli’s Warbler, Dakhla Bay

Black-crowned Night Heron, Dakhla Bay

Back at the the hotel and with WiFi I picked up a couple of messages from Martina asking that we meet with Nico to finalise plans for the trip. We were more than happy to do so, but it delayed our trip to the Villa Dakhla for dinner and beer where we found our Dutch colleagues and caught up on the rest of their day’s birding.

 

Dakhla Peninsular

Formally the territory of Western Sahara remains disputed between Morocco and the Polisaro Front who ceased hostilities in 1991.  Since 2000 the security situation in the areas administered by Morocco have gradually improved which coupled with an extensive programme of mine clearance have allowed the development of tourism, especially kite surfing, in the Dakhla Bay area.  As a result an increasing number of birders have made the long drive south from Agadir or flown into Dakhla to explore the Dakhla Peninsular and the road to Assouerd ca 250km to the South-East to see a number of species that are hard to see elsewhere in the Western Palearctic region along with some top reptiles and desert mammals.   Graham Clarke and I were keen to join the fun and organised a five day trip over the Easter weekend.

After a rainy drive from Norwich to Gatwick on 27th March we flew to Dakhla , via Casablanca with Royal Air Maroc arriving around midnight where we met by Martina Milanese from Dakhla Rovers who were going to be taking us into the desert for three days.  After picking up the car we were renting for the two days prior to our organised trip, we changed some money, found our hotels and went straight to bed.

The following morning dawned hazy with limited visibility across Dakhla Bay as we fueled the car and found a mini-mart that supplied fresh bread and cheese for breakfast and plenty of water before setting off to explore the road that runs South from the city along the rocky Atlantic Coast.  As we drove we encountered small groups of gulls on the dry hard clifftops; mainly Lesser Black-backed and Audouin’s with a few Yellow-legged mixed in.  Some groups were accompanied by a couple of Caspian Terns but, in what was to become a theme, no sign of the hoped for Royal Terns!

Audouin’s Gull, Dakhla Peninsula

Audouin’s Gull, Dakhla Peninsular

Caspian Tern, Dakhla Peninsular

Also along these flat stony clifftops were Kentish Plovers, plenty of migrant Northern Wheatears and  a pair of very obliging Greater Hoopoe Larks.

Greater Hoopoe Lark, Dakhla Peninsular

When we reached the fishing village of Lassarga the road ran out in a scrap yard which we entered with the blessing of local gendarme, who five minutes later was pushing us out of the sand.  We never did find the access point to the tidal pool that we had come to check and later learnt that this may have been for the best as the locals were no longer keen on visitors birdwatching there.  Having learnt our lesson about soft sand we decided to head North and found a small inlet called Bouthala that looked interesting on Google maps.

The inlet at Bouthala

As we parked we were greeted by a very friendly Thekla Lark whilst a couple of Common Pratincoles hawked insects overhead all of which seemed very promising.

Thekla Lark, Bouthala

The inlet had a good cross section of the common waders of Dakhla Bay including Redshank, Greenshank, Dunlin, Grey and Ringed Plovers and Whimbrel along with Grey Heron, Little Egret and Marsh Harrier whilst the resident pair of Black Whesatears patrooled the cliff edges.  The few bushes surrounding the inlet held a small number of migrant passerines including Bluethroat, Tree Pipit, Sedge Warbler, Grasshopper Warbler, Western Subalpine Warbler and Willow Warbler – all species that we  encounter again over the next few days.

Western Subalpine Warbler

Willow Warbler, Boutala

We carried on North and found a couple of places where the road came close to big sand flats one of which held a party of terns; all Sandwich mixed in with some Black-headed Gulls and some lovely pink flushed Slender-billed Gulls.  We lunched at a bayside restaurant L’aquilla about 25 km North of Dakhla where we continued to be entertained by migrants; Willow and Subalpine Warblers, Woodchat Shrike, Tree Pipit and Nightingale that occupied every patch of vegetation.  After lunch we decided to try working a farm called Taourta 2 on the Atlantic side of the peninsular, but not before I had taken a good look at the local “White breasted” Cormorants which I take to be Great Cormorants (Phalacrocorax carbo)  of the race marocus rather than White-breasted Cormorants (Phalacrocorax lucidus).

Great Cormorant (ssp marocus), Dakhla Bay

 

The right hand patch of vegetation is Taourta 2 – it is not hard to see why these farms are attractive to migrants!

On the ground the farm’s small dry fields were attractive to pipits and wagtails

We parked by a small cafe and asked a couple of the local lads if it was OK to walk around the farm which they were happy to agree to for the price of a packet of cigarettes (2 euro).  There were constantly Bee-eaters over head and the commonest species was Tree Pipit with over 20 individuals in 2-3 allotment sized fields.  Other migrants included Nightingale, Sedge Warbler, Willow Warbler and Blue-headed Wagtail.

Tree Pipit, Taourta 2

Blue-headed Wagtail, Taourta 2

White Wagtail, Taourta 2

By comparison the large public park by the main North/South road a kilometre or so to the East was very quiet with just a Redstart to show for our efforts.  The long day and lack of sleep was catching up with us and we called it a day.  After a shower and a change of clothes we walked into town to find something to eat and elected for the bayside terrace of the Villa Dakhla which offered very nice menu and a selection of cold beers.

 

 

Getting better every day

On Friday a female Snowy Owl was found on Scolt Head Island  where it could be viewed at considerable distance from the coastal footpath near Burnham Deepdale. Since this represented only the second record of a Snowy Owl in Norfolk in the past 100 years the news caused quite a stir among county listers few of whom had seen the male that wandered North Norfolk for a few days in late March 1991.   Try as I might I simply can’t get too worked up about Norfolk listing. Moreover since I was working the next day I had already made plans to leave work early to see Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri at Norwich’s excellent Cinema City.  I enjoyed the movie which lived up to its excellent reviews, and although incredibly funny in places it is a tough watch. Had I made he right decision?  I think so!  Not only had I seen the 1991 bird in Lincolnshire but also birds on Fetlar, Shetland in the mid eighties. And judging by the pixilated white blobs appearing on social media this bird could only be seen at great distance before it flew off West at dusk.

By Saturday morning, and in keeping with its direction of travel, the owl had relocated to Thornham Point where it could be viewed from Titchwell RSPB reserve.  Possibly a second bite of the cherry? A distinct maybe as I was committed all morning. First of all to my daughter Kat who along with her colleagues on the City College Foundation Year was exhibiting her art in Norwich and secondly to helping with an applicant visit day at work.

My mid-morning appointment

However by early afternoon I was free and a quick phone call to Kat confirmed her interest in seeing the owl. After collecting Kat from town and a quick stop at home to pick up our wellies and to jump online to order some flowers that might reach my mother in Maidenhead by the following day.

Parking at Titchwell was straight forward and we immediately set off for the beach and soon encountered many very happy friends making the return trip.  On reaching the beach we discovered that the tide was out and as we headed west towards the bird we found the tide line littered with the debris of the previous week’s storms including many dead starfish.  As we approached the crowd of admirers at the edge of the dunes we found that the owl was close to the shoreline ca 400m distant. Given the reports of some less than ideal behaviour by 2-3 rogue photographers earlier in the day and with the bird’s welfare paramount, everybody was keeping a very respectful distance. Nevertheless views  through the telescope of this iconic arctic predator were very good indeed and having missed one on Scilly by just one day a few years back Kat, who is a bit of an owl fan, was delighted to to catch up with one so close to home.  Equally delighted was my mother who phoned me while we were watching the owl to say how pleased she was with her flowers – result x2!

The best that I could manage with a DLSR given the distance

More than content we headed back to the car park and drove home arriving in time for me to set the moth trap before making Ingrid dinner.

The following morning there were only a couple of Chestnuts  in the trap with a Hebrew Character (NFY – new for the year) resting on a nearby wall.  Interestingly there was also a single brightly coloured tortrix moth, that with the help of the Norwich moth-ers WhatsApp group,  I identified as Aclaris cristana which turns out to be quite scarce in TG20 with just 15 previous records and a new species for the garden and for me.

Acleris cristana – the English name is Tufted Button which refers to the two raised matches of scales half way down the inner edge of the wing which give the impression of fins.

Whilst I was sorting this out news emerged that the owl had moved again this time to an area of rough grassland behind one of the hides on Snettisham RSPB reserve and, according to the news services was “showing well“.   Since Kat and Ingrid had gone out for Mother’s Day brunch and a movie temptation was too much.  After a brief exchange of messages Graham picked me up  half an hour later and we set off for Snettisham. When we arrived in the car park early in the afternoon we still had a 30 minute walk to the bird but to our delight she was still there, hunkered down in a grassy hollow a mere 80 m distant and appeared to be unfazed by the crowd of admirers that had assembled behind the fence on the adjacent boardwalk. After about twenty minutes  she coughed up some pellets of undigested prey and shortly after flew to a slightly more distant fence post affording us the most wonderful views and providing good photographic opportunities.

Just look at those eyes

And the dense feathering on her legs!

We could have stayed all afternoon, but time was moving on and Graham needed to be back in Norwich.  Again I was back in before it got dark and with the promise of another mildish night set the moth trap again.  Late evening I was rewarded with my third Pale Brindled Beauty of the winter a very fresh individual and almost three months after the first on 21st December suggesting an extended flight period.

Pale Brindled Beauty – click on an image to view the gallery.

The following morning there were again just two moths in the trap; Chestnut and Common Quaker (NFY) but on the wall was a Dotted Border which was a welcome, if not unexpected addition to the garden list and a fine end to a weekend that just got better and better.

Male Dotted Border

Fuerteventura Day Two

When we got up the forecast rain was already in the air. After grabbing a quick breakfast in a Tindaya bar we headed out onto the plains to make the most of the early morning light.  A Berthelot’s Pipit was feeding alongside the first rough track we explored, but we saw nothing else and returned to the tarmac when the track petered out.

Berthelot’s Pipit

A Great Grey  Shrike on a roadside post was typically nervous so we moved on until after a further 500 m we literally tripped over a party of 4 Houbaras; two of which walked across the road in front of us.  Taking Robin Chittenden’ s advice we parked the car, used it as a hide and simply allowed one individual to walk towards us until it was quietly feeding  just 50m away.

Houbara Bustard of the

After 30 minutes spent feeding our memory cards we reluctantly moved on picked up some provisions and returned to the Barranco de Rio Cabreas for another go at the Dwarf Bittern. Perched up on the side of the gorge we waited for just 40 mins in deteriorating conditions when two recently arrived birders further down the ravine gestured that they could see our quarry.  After further gesturing and some frantic triangulation we located the bird and managed a couple of record shots before the heavens opened and we had to retreat to the car.

Possibly the worst photograph taken this winter of this WP rarity!

In an attempt to outrun the rain we decided to head South to the wood at Costa Calma and search for wintering passerines,  The car heater was  turned up to maximum in an attempt to dry outbut when we arrived in Costa Calma about an hour later we were still a touch damp.  The “wood” is in fact two strips of parkland each about 1 km long and neither more than 100 m wide that run parallel to the beachside hotels.  As we walked through the western strip we found a motley collection of refugees from the European winter including 15 Song Thrushes, 2 Siskin, a  Redwing and a Brambling (a Canarian rarity)  before encountering one of our target species; a group of 3 Little Buntings feeding on some dry under story.

Little Bunting

Walking to end of the strip we found a few more Song Thrushes and Chiffchaffs before turning back and bumping into a visiting birder from Gran Canaria who had seen a Yellow-browed Warbler and gave us directions to the Olive-backed Pipits which had relocated to the other strip.

Olive-backed Pipit

Following his directions we soon located a party of three OBPs which gave nice views despite the footfall through that section of the park.  By now the sun was out and with our mission accomplished we set off back off to the North West of the island.

Embalse de los Molinos

The Embalse de los Molinos is probably the largest stretch of fresh water on Fuerteventura and as such is something of a magnet for visiting birders.  As we got out of the car there were swifts, this time Pallid, overhead and a departing birder mentioned a Marbled Teal.  We eventually caught up with this duck at the far end of the reservoir along with ca 20 Common Teal, a couple of Mallard and a female Tufted Duck, but it was quitter hard work without in the strong wind and without a telescope.  Amongst the other common water birds, Coot, Little Egret and Spoonbill, were a few Greenshank, a couple of Common Sandpipers and a Black-headed Gull.  After an hour or so the sun was going down behind the mountains, it was noticeably cooler and time to go.  On the way home we chanced upon the very pleasant La Cancela Restaurante in the small town of Tefia where we enjoyed some local specialities.  Feeling better for something to eat will stocked up on supplies for the next day at a supermarket between La Oliva and Villaverde before heading back to the apartment for the night.

Fuerteventura Day One

Family commitments had made it impossible for me to join the steady stream of Western Palearctic listers who, since December, had made the trip to Fuetereventura to twitch a Dwarf Bittern (a tiny African heron that is incredibly rare in our region) and enjoy some Macronesian endemic and scarce wintering species in the sun.  The first weekend in March was my best chance and despite the efforts of the “Beast from the East” and Storm Emma to derail the plan I had a straightforward, if bitterly cold, journey down to Barton Mills in the early hours of 2nd March to rendezvous with  Sue Bryan and then on to Stansted. Our Ryanair flight, reassuringly dripping with antifreeze, departed more or less on time and by midday we were in the warm Canarian sun collecting a hire car, which was a definite upgrade on the requested Ford Fiesta.

Definitely not a Fiesta!

After a brief stop for fuel and water we headed North-West to the segment of the Baranco de Rio Cabrea that had hosted the Dwarf Bittern for almost three months.  The car was parked by the entrance to a land fill site that was swarming with Yellow-legged and Lesser Black-backed Gulls with a supporting cast of Common Ravens Common Buzzards, Egyptian Vultures and Grey Herons.

Egyptian Vulture of the Canary Islands race majorensis

We tramped 300m across a stony plain flushing a pair of Lesser Short-toed Larks as we went before locating the breeze block cairn that marked the path down to the bottom of the barranco.   As we descended into the gorge there were Ruddy Shelducks in the stream below and Trumpeter Finches calling everywhere..

The vegetated floor of barranco was very birdy; Hoopoe, Green Sandpiper, Little Ringed Plover, and a pair of indigenous Fuerteventura Chats  that were actively collecting food for their brood.

Male Fuerteventura Chat

After a couple of hours I picked up a tiny heron flying towards us that had been flushed by two birders working the upper part of the Barranco. The Dwarf Bittern carried on past us and dived into a thick clump of tamarisks.  We relocated to the opposite side of the gorge. As we waited we noted African Blue Tit, Spectacled Warbler and a noticeably green and yellow Phylloscopus warbler with contrasting white underparts and yellow supercilium that appeared a good candidate for Iberian Chiffchaff. This species is not on the Canary Islands list and unfortunately it was silent and I got no images.  Even more unfortunately the Dwarf Bittern didn’t emerge until the couple who had originally disturbed it  approached our vantage point and inadvertently flushed it again this time out of view from us and none of other three observers were able to see where it landed.  By now it was now late afternoon and after one more brief search overseen by a party of Plain Swifts we decided to cut our losses and head over to the Tindaya Plains to search for Houbaras.

Shortly after leaving the village of Tindaya we located a single very distant male Houbara displaying in the rapidly dimming light. As we continued further down the track four Black-bellied Sandgrouse crossed in front of us offering close views.

Male Black-bellied Sandgrouse

Content we pressed on a further a 200 m or so when Sue picked a Cream Coloured Courser in the gloaming which turned out to be one of three birds. Repositioning the car allowed for a short high ISO photography session with the closest individual before the light packed up it was time to go and find our digs in nearby La Oliva.

Cream-coloured Courser – for the technically minded this image was taken at ISO 5000 and is a tribute to the low-light capabilities of the Canon 5Dmk4.

After checking into our accommodation we walked into time to find something to eat only to find the local pizzeria was shut.  A local bar doubled as a greasy spoon and although the food was indifferent there was cold beer to toast an excellent first afternoon! Feeling better for something to eat and drink we returned to the apartment where I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow impervious to the sound of Stone Curlews in the surrounding fields.