Birding Trip to the Western Sahara

Little Owls of the Saharae subspecies show an striking phenotypic adaptation to desert environment. This is one of the palest individuals we have recorded in the Western Sahara, where they can be very variable. Photo by Yeray Seminario/Birding The Strait
Little Owls of the Saharae subspecies show a striking phenotypic adaptation to desert environment. This is one of the palest individuals we have recorded in the Western Sahara, where they are very variable.

We have just returned from a thrilling wildlife expedition into one of the most remote regions of the Western Palearctic: the Western Sahara. More precisely, we have spent 8 days exploring the wildlife and landscapes within the Dakhla, Aousserd and Bir Anzarane triangle. This has led us to ridges of dunes, extensive mudflats, forested wadis, endless steppes, rock massifs, unexpected waterholes and even off into the Atlantic Ocean.

On this post we summarize some impressions and highlights of this trip.

Our second Birding Trip to the Western Sahara

Bay of Dakhla. The vast intertidal mudflats surrounded by sand dunes and arid planes create a very characteristic and powerful landscape. Photo by Yeray Seminario/Birding The Strait
Bay of Dakhla. The vast intertidal mudflats surrounded by sand dunes and arid planes create a very characteristic and powerful landscape.

Back in February 2016 we were invited by the Dakhla Attitude Hotel to a fam trip in the region. This was a memorable experience and we have been eagerly looking forward to returning since then. On this link you can read the trip report of our previous trip to the Western Sahara, including a large selection of pictures.

During our 2019 expedition we wanted to relocate key sites and target species, explore new trails getting deeper into the desert, reinforce our collaboration with local experts and logistics, and conduct nocturnal surveys for mammals. On this last (but not least) matter, our primary target was to observe the Sand Cat Felis margarita. This is probably the most elusive and least known feline in the Palearctic.

From our camp near Aousserd we could observe a pair of Golden Eagles around their nest, an African Golden Wolf peacefully standing by its lair in day time, a group of Pale Rock Martins, a Lanner and, above all, the immensity of the unexploited Saharan steppe. Photo by Javi Elorriaga / Birding The Strait
From our camp near Aousserd we could observe a pair of Golden Eagles around their nest, an African Golden Wolf peacefully standing by its lair in day time, a group of Pale Rock Martins, a Lanner and, above all, the immensity of the unexpoiled Saharan steppe.

In doing so we have camped in the desert and slept in jaimas (nomad tents) belonging to Saharawi camel herders, but also in cozy hotels in Dakhla. As for the transportation, we have used hired passengers cars and 4×4 with local expert drivers to safely get off the beaten track into the desert. Moreover, we used a boat to reach the most inaccessible corners of the huge Bay of Dakhla.

Pomarine Skua observed during a boat trip in the Bay of Dakhla. Photo by Yeray Seminario/Birding The Strait
Pomarine Skua observed during a boat trip in the Bay od Dakhla.

Using eBird in the Western Sahara

As usual during our Birding The Strait trips, we have invested a considerable effort to systematically upload all the resulting ornithological information to eBird, including pictures and sound recordings. This is our humble contribution to citizen science. As keen eBirders we have found it very exciting to complete bird checklists in some regions which have barely, if at all, being surveyed before. This way, all our records are accessible for the public in our eBird accounts, which can be consulted here (Yeray) and here (Javi).

We took much effort to report on eBird most of the birds we saw and heard during our trip. We also uploaded several pictures, like this of a Greater Hoopoe Lark. Picture by Yeray Seminario.
We took much effort to report on eBird most of the birds we saw and heard during our trip. We also uploaded several pictures, like this of a Greater Hoopoe Lark, widespread in the region.

The Desert environment and its changing conditions

Birding in semi-desert environments always implies a high degree of uncertainty and surprise. Here, rainfall in precedent months and the resulting plant coverage is the main driving force. This way, some of the best and richer birding sites we found in 2016, such as the eastern end of the Aousserd road and Oued Jenna were very dry and quiet this time. In turn, the regions nearer the coast held a greener plant coverage and several flooded and very productive waterholes!

We got to see several flocks of dozens of Spotted Sandgrouse, along with fewer numbers of Crowned Sandgrouse. Picture by Yeray Seminario.
We got to see several flocks of dozens of Spotted Sandgrouse, along with fewer numbers of Crowned Sandgrouse.

Accordingly, some species which we struggled to find in 2016 were amongst the most widespread this year. This was the case of the Temminck’s Lark, for instance. In turn, the Black-crowned Sparrow-Lark was more scarce, although still well represented. Besides, the local specialties, like Saharan Dunn’s Lark and Cricket Longtail seemed to be in similar numbers. During this trip we missed some important targets including Sudan Golden Sparrow and Golden Nightjar. However, we enjoyed unbeatable observations of Pale Rock Martin, African Royal Tern, Spotted and Crowned Sandgrouses, and Houbara Bustard, to name but a few!

Thick-billed Lark close to Aousserd. Photo by Javi Elorriaga/Birding The Strait
The Thick-billed Lark is one of the most impressive Larks in the region. This individual was photographed close to Aousserd in our 2016 expedition.

In this trip we have recorded a total of 86 bird scpecies, and a grand total of 111  considering our two visit to the Dakhla-Aousserd region.

Birding Highlights

Aside from the birds mentioned, other birding highlights during our trip included:

  1. A gang of Fulvous Chatterers breaking into our campsite in Oued Jenna to feed on our supplies and drink our water!Fulvous Chatterer by Yeray Seminario
  2. A flock of 5 Pale Rock Martins flying and contact-calling overhead.Pale Rock Martin by Yeray Seminario
  3. A male Houbara Bustard literally in the middle of nowhere.
  4. Two Pharaoh Eagle-Owls illuminated by our torches
  5. A pair of Lanner Falcons landing by a waterhole as we were watching Spotted and Corwned Sangrouses drinking.Lanner Falcons and flock of Spotted Sandgrouse by Yeray Seminario
  6. Several family groups of Cream-coloured Courses.
  7. Up to 8 different Cricket Longtails  at Oued Jenna.
  8. Large groups of Sandwich, Caspian, Common and African Royal Tern observed while navigating in the Bay of Dakhla with impressive sand dunes in the background.Mixed flocks of terns by Javi Elorriaga
  9. We enjoyed observing and photographing the varied array of Larks and Wheatears in their different plumages and variations, namely: Desert, Black, Black-earedNorthern, White-crowned and Red-rumped Wheatear; and Short-toed, Desert, Bar-tailed, Dunn’s, Black Crowned, Thick-billed, Temminck’s, Greater Hoopoe and Maghreb (Crested) Lark

The observation of two putative Maghreb Larks North of Bir Anzarane deserves special mention. Indeed, the taxonomic rank of the so-called “long-billed” Crested Larks is nowadays unclear. Interestingly, the presence of birds belonging to the senegalensis group of the Crested Lark in the region has been proposed. On this eBird checklist we have uploaded photos of two different “long-billed” larks, including a sound recording. We have provissionally asigned the records to Maghreb Lark Galerida macrorhyncha, but see also Qninba et al. 2019.  Are we facing yet another case of a typically Sahelian taxa expanding North into the Western Palearctic? Comments welcome!

Interestingly, we found two Corn Buntings around a waterhole not far from Dakhla. Much to our surprise, we later got to know that this was among the very first reports for the species in the region!

Mammal Watching

Mammals deserve special mention here. To our pleasure, we managed to find the sought-after Sand Cat! Indeed, we got to find this precious desert creature in each of our night surveys. Amazingly one of the encounters involved a Sand Cat hidden in low bushes a couple of meters from us! Never in our wildest dreams did we expect such an amazing observation.

Sand Cat in the Wester Sahara. Photo by Javi Elorriaga/Birding The Strait
Sand Cat in the Wester Sahara. This up close and personal encounter was one of the highlights of the trip.

But that was not it! An African Golden Wolf peacefully standing by its lair in the middle of the day made another highly unlikely target accomplished. In following nights, we had two additional encounters with wolfs while using torches from the car (stay tuned for the forthcoming nocturnal footage).

The list of mammas was completed with one Fennec, two Rüppel’s Foxes, African Savanna Hare, gerbils and the skull of a Saharan Striped Polecat.

We will return!

We are fascinated by the wildlife, landscape and tranquillity of this region. As expected in such an arid region, the density and diversity of birds is comparatively low. However, the interest and uniqueness of the avian community at the Western Palearctic level is out of question. The sense of wilderness greatly enhances the experience and the possibility of “coming through something new and unexpected” brings birding to a higher level. Moreover, the high chances of connecting with mammal species hard to find in other regions of the Maghreb is, no doubt, an additional highlight.

The Dunn's Lark is another local speciality Indeed, the Aousserd region is probably the most reliable site to observe this little known species within the Western Palearctic. Photo by Javi Elorriaga/Birding The Strait
The Dunn’s Lark is another local speciality Indeed, the Aousserd region is probably the most reliable site to observe this little known species within the Western Palearctic.

Thanks to the experience on the wildlife and logistics gathered in our two expeditions to the region, we are already working to offer a especially dedicated tour to the Western Sahara.

Royal Terns in the bay of Dakhla. Photo by Yeray Seminario/Birding The Strait
Royal Terns in the bay of Dakhla.

Stay tuned for the upcoming information and more pictures and videos!

We thank Patrick Bergier and Go-South for the valuable source of information they provide.