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