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

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.