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.

 

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)

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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.