Category Archives: Field Notes

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. 

 

Bird Migration Videos in the Strait of Gibraltar – Part I

Short-toed Eagle crossing the Strait of Gibraltar, by Javi Elorriaga
Short-toed Eagle crossing the Strait of Gibraltar

Today we release in our Youtube channel the first of a series of bird migration videos in the Strait of Gibraltar. We have filmed these videos over the last three years around Tarifa. This is part of a collaboration project with the Nature Agency at the Ministry of Environment of Denmark . These videos make part of the exhibition on bird migration at the Skagen Grey Lighthouse information center (Denmark).

The Strait: a major migration bottleneck

The Strait of Gibraltar is the most important bottleneck in the flyway of the Short-toed Eagle between Europe and Africa. This video shows striking images of eagles in active migration across the Strait. The footage stresses the vital challenge that sea-crossing represents for soaring migrants (enable subtitles).

During 2019 we will upload new videos of this series to our Youtube channel, Stay tuned!

The Empire of the Eagle and Águila de Bonelli: Book review

Review of Empire of the Eagle and Águila de Bonelli
Review of Empire of the Eagle and Águila de Bonelli

There’s no denying, at Birding The Strait we are passionate about Eagles. We love seeking for them, photographing them and simply observing them in the wild. We are also wildlife photography and bird books enthusiasts. Indeed, this is one of our main sources of expenditure! So, we were excited to see two new books coming out last month: ‘The Empire of the Eagle’ by Mike Unwin and David Tippling, and ‘Águila de Bonelli (Bonelli’s Eagle)’ by Tony Peral.

Both have a special meaning for us. We contributed with a few pictures for the book ‘The Empire of the Eagle’ and we were looking forward to seeing them on print. On the other hand, ‘Águila de Bonelli’ has been created, edited and published by a friend of us, the photographer and naturalist, Tony Peral.

Review of ‘Águila de Bonelli’

Packaging of 'Águila de Bonelli' by Tony Peral
Packaging of ‘Águila de Bonelli’ by Tony Peral

You know you are in front of a special book the moment the package with ‘Águila de Bonelli’ is being delivered. The amazing packaging with a Bonelli’s Eagle printed on the box and the wax seal, is really unique and classy. Some would compare the experience to the one you get when purchasing a limited edition vinyl. From the moment you untie the strings and open the box, you are on a trip to the land of the Bonelli’s Eagles.

Cover of 'Águila de Bonelli' by Tony Peral
Cover of ‘Águila de Bonelli’ by Tony Peral

The cover shows an adult female in flight. She is missing one of her tail feathers, which does nothing but improve the visual impact of the photography. It’s truly a statement of intents. The author, Tony Peral, provides further insight on the magnitude of his work stating in the introduction that he stopped counting the hours spent in his hide after 3000!

Good and authoritative texts

The book begins with six concise and well written chapters by Jose María Gil Sánchez and consists on an updated review of the biology and conservation of the species. English-speakers, don’t get distracted by the title, this book has been translated into English. However, the photographies, which are the most important part of the book are universal.

A festival of Bonelli’s eagles’ photos

From there, as the prestigious Markus Varesvuo says in the prologue, comes a true festival of almost 100 photos, all of them of superb quality. The first, a double-page image, shows a subadult Bonelli’s Eagle right in the moment she is catching a Red-legged Partridge. Next page, an adult folds its wings to dive directing its gaze on you!

Every single photo on 'Águila de Bonelli' is fantastic
Every single photo on ‘Águila de Bonelli’ is fantastic

Not a single photo in the book is a filler, none is redundant, and none seems to be done in a known set or hide. Moreover, some photos in this book show scenes of Bonelli’s eagles very rarely seen before. This is one of those books that, if a child happens to find, it is very likely that he will want to be a wildlife photographer.

Many pictures in the book depict the aerial maneuvers and interactions of the Bonelli's eagles
Many pictures in the book depict the aerial maneuvers and interactions of the Bonelli’s eagles

We believe it’s important to note that the FSC certificate guarantees that all the materials used for the production of the book come from sustainable, eco-friendly sources. You can get your copy of ‘Águila de Bonelli’ following this link.

Review of ‘The Empire of the Eagle’

Black-and-White Hawk-Eagle chapter. This picture was taken in Belize by Yeray Seminario while doing field work on the Orange-breasted Falcon project
Black-and-White Hawk-Eagle chapter. This picture was taken in Belize by Yeray Seminario while doing field work with the Orange-breasted Falcon project

‘Empire of the Eagle’ is a compilation of texts and photographs of all the species of eagles in the worldby Mike Unwin, with selected photographies, curated by a renowned photographer: David Tipling .

This is a hardcover book with a clear emphasis on the photography side. Indeed, the introduction describes the book as “a photographic celebration of all the world’s eagles”. Sixty-eight species are treated throughout its 288 pages and distributed in five main sections: ‘Hunters of the Uplands’, ‘Predators of the Plains’, ‘Assasins of the Woodlands’, ‘Raptors of the Rainforest’ and ‘Wings over the Water’. Hence, unlike most of the books that treat groups of different species, the eagles are ordered by habitat, and not in taxonomic or alphabetic order.

Great summaries of  each raptor species

First, we find a brief Introduction section that deals with the personal attachment of the author to eagles. The authors also talk about the relevance of eagles in culture and history, its biology and conservation challenges.

The texts contain information about the natural history of each species, following a similar structure in all the cases. They include references to scientific research and anecdotic information, all written on an easy-reading, colloquial way. In any case, they are well documented, and deal with some very specific information. They occasionally include recent research results, adding to the overall value of the book. We can safely define the texts as brief summary introductions on each species.

An excellent compilation of eagle images

Western Banded Snake-Eagle by Yeray Seminario. This photography was taken from a boat in the Gambia River, Senegal
Western Banded Snake-Eagle by Yeray Seminario. This photography was taken from a boat on the Gambia River, Senegal

The quality of most images on the book is excellent. Also, the printing quality is what you would expect on a high-profile photography book. We noticed how some of the rarest species lack a spectacular image to depict the bird. There are probably not many photographies of some of these rare species out there! These pictures are an important testimony to how little we know about some eagle species in the world.

You can find a link to buy ‘The Empire of the Eagle’ here.

Which one we recommend?

We eagerly recommend both “Empire of the Eagle” and “Águila de Bonelli”. They are great books for anyone keen on wildlife. Specially, for those who are passionate about one of the most majestic groups of animals: the birds of prey. With christmas just around the corner, these remarkable books are a perfect gift!

Birding Northern Morocco: Trip Report

We recently finished a Birding Northern Morocco trip and just uploaded the trip report. You can find it here. It contains a full description of the itinerary, with pictures taken during the trip. It also has an annotated list of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and insects! On this post we mention some of the highlights of this trip.

Eleonora's Falcon seen during a Birding Northern Morocco trip - by Yeray Seminario
Juvenile Eleonora’s Falcon flying near the breeding colony during our Birding Northern Morocco trip

Birding Northern Morocco highlights

  • We found one of the targets, and in good numbers, almost right out of the plane. Seeing up to 11 African Royal Terns, a species recently split from the American Royal Tern, was certainly a highlight.
  • We got phenomenal views of one of the main targets of the trip: the Lanner Falcon. We had two adult Lanner Falcons at pleasure in our scopes, and also got great views of the birds in flight. That same morning we saw 2 Great Bustards from the last surviving population in Africa.
  • Seeing up to nine Marsh Owls at dusk near the Merja Zerga Lagoon was certainly one of the best moments of the tour.
  • The boat trip at Merja Zerga lagoon and the visit to a Eleonora’s Falcon colony provided excellent views and photography opportunities.
  • The Zaër Forest was productive after some work. We ended up seeing our three targets on site: Barbary Partridge, Double-spurred Francolin and Black-crowned Tchagra.
  • The visit to the old Roman city of Volubilis was a welcome addition to the trip.
  • A couple of Levaillant’s Woodpeckers provided some of the best experiences of the trip at Dayet Aoua.
  • We heard and saw the recently split Maghreb Wood Owl, closely related to the Tawny Owl. You can hear a recording of this bird here.
  • The Zaida Plains provided a welcome change of scenery. Here we found some desert specialties including one of our main targets: the Dupont’s Lark.

The most remarkable highlight of the Birding Northern Morocco trip was hitting all the targets while having a relaxed and friendly atmosphere. And let’s not forget the abundant and good food! This all made for a great trip to some of the most unexplored sites of Morocco.

You can find more information about birding in the region on these posts:

Contact us if you are interested on a Birding Trip to Morocco!

Glossy Ibis, the Andalusian Phoenix

A murmuration of starlings, a murder of crows, a confusion of chiffchaffs, a prayer of godwits, a committee of vultures…what about the Glossy Ibis?

Adult Glossy Ibis breeding in La Janda, the Strait of Gibraltar. Spring 2018. Yeray Seminario / Birding The Strait
Adult Glossy Ibis breeding in La Janda, the Strait of Gibraltar.

Glossy Ibis Galore

Once upon a recent time a Glossy Ibis in Andalusia was a celebrated finding.

The species declined to extinction as a breeding species in Spain during the 20th Century. Then, it was recorded sporadically during the 60s, 70s and early 80s. Thereafter observation became more frequent and 7 pairs nested in Doñana in 1996 (De Juana & Garcia 2015). Nowadays, the breeding population in Doñana does notably exceed 10.000 pairs. Moreover, the number of individuals gathering at communal roosts when the mud driving (aka fangueo) takes place is hard to believe!

Testimony to this is the following video recorded at dawn in early October 2018. Thousands of Glossy Ibises leave their night roost in the rice paddies at the margins of Guadalquivir River. Do you dare to give an estimate on the number of individuals?

Now consider that the above video shows less than 25% of the total birds seen leaving the roost! Might this be the biggest group ever recorded?

A Winner

The Glossy Ibis is a “winner species” that thrive in human altered landscapes (i.e. rice paddies; but see McKinney & Lockwood 1999). Indeed, its range expansion in the Old World and North America has few precedents in the avian world.

Blackish at the distance, only at close range the Glossy Ibis shows its real color. Javi Elorriaga / Birding The Strait
Blackish at the distance, only at close range the Glossy Ibis shows its real color.

In the Straif of Gibraltar, the species used to breed in the former Lagoon of La Janda in the XIX Century. Following its amazing and recent expansion,  a growing number of Glossy Ibises nest again in the area since 2012.

Take a look to the  the eBird data  for the most complete information on the current world distribution of the Glossy Ibis.