Birding in Morocco, Tailor-made Grand Tour in May

The Ziz Palm Grove is a real scenic highlight in Morocco and walking within the Oasis a first class birding experience. 26th May 2017.

As an extension to a Western Andalusia birding trip last May, we guided a 10-day tailor-made birding trip to Morocco. The fairly demanding list of targets required “the grand tour”, from the Strait of Gibraltar to the Sahara, including the steppes, the Atlantic coast and the High Atlas; in other words, the best Moroccan birding experience.

This way, on the 23rd of May we took the 09:00 a.m. ferry in Tarifa, arriving to Tangier one hour later and with our 4×4 waiting for us. We first visited the medina of Tangier and met our first target, the local population of House Bunting. Next we moved to the charming coastal village of Asilah where we had an excellent meal before reaching the Lower Loukos river. The marshes where dry and we struggled to find a single Brown-throated Martin beautifully perched in the reeds with Barn Swallows. This is a very early breeding species and the hundreds of birds we usually find here in our visits in March and April had already left the area. Next we embarked on a boat to explore the Merja Zerga Lagoon. Here, among Audouin´s and Slender-billed Gulls, Little, Sandwich and Caspian Terns we came through a striking Lesser Crested Tern. May is the most reliable period to find this scarce species, as they move to their breeding colony in Libya. Back in firm land we patiently waited until dusk to approach a farmland where the endangered Marsh Owl hunts at dusk. As we stepped out of the car, and despite the poor light, a perched owl showed memorably well. We need to stress that approaching the edges of the marshes where this endangered species nests must be avoided during the breeding period.

Lesser Crested Tern in summer plumage at Merja Zerga. 23rd May 2017.

We started the second day visiting the always rewarding Sidi Boughaba Lagoon in Kenitra. The Maghreb Magpie was the first speciality we found. Large family groups of Marbled Duck, White-headed Duck and Red-knobbed Coot filled the edges of the reedbed. We spent the afternoon in the forest of Ifrane National Park in the Middle Atlas observing Atlas Flycatchers  but we struggled to get good views of the Levaillant´s Green Woodpecker. While looking for the later we came upon a nest of the so-called Maghreb Wood Owl, the NW African subspecies of the Tawny Owl, which some authors suggest as a separate species. The famous Dayet Aoua Lagoon had very little water, where numerous Black-necked Grebes attended their nests. Not far, we found the first Seebohm´s Wheatear of the trip and an eye-catching European Roller.

Atlas Flycatcher showing the characteristic extensive white patch in the forehead. Ifrane National Park, 24th May 2017.
Maghreb Wood Owl (Strix aluco mauritanica), the NW African counterpart of the Eurasian Tawny Owl, showing the characteristic barred body. Ifrane National Park, 24th May 2017.

We started the third day with a walk in the broadleaf forest in search of more Atlas Flycatchers, which additionally produced Western Olivaceous Warbler, Hawfinch, African Chaffinch, African Blue Tit, Short-toed Treecreper and Long-legged Buzzard. After the mandatory stop to observe the Barbary Macaques in Azrou, we drove our 4×4 off the beaten track into the ancient Cedar forest and got great views of a female Levaillant´s Green Woodpecker. We had a tasty tajin for lunch and resumed our way South with strategic stops to observe Seebohm´s Wheatear, Rock Sparrow, Chough, Lesser Kestrel, Ruddy Shelduck, Moussier´s Redstart and riggenbachi and ruficolor type Crested and Thekla Larks, respectively. We reached our hotel in Midelt by mid afternoon and had some rest before visiting the Zaida steppes. Despite the amplitude of the landscape a single Lesser Short-toed Lark and a distant falcon chasing a group of Cream-coloured Coursers were the only birds we found. Far from giving up, we kept our search and our effort was rewarded with lengthy views of two Dupont´s Larks!

Baby Barbary Macaque nursing in the Cedar forest of Ifrane National Park. 25th May 2017
Record shot of an adult Dupont´s Lark carrying food to feed its fledgling. No doubt one of the most elusive species in Morocco. Zaida Plains, 25th May 2017.

Next morning we visited the same spot and we connected with these elusive larks again. Indeed, we realized it was an adult feeding its fledging! Fully satisfied we hit the road towards the desert. A Spiny-tailed Lizard was an additional highlight. Moroccan White Wagtail, Blue Rock Thrush, Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, Desert Lark, Black Wheatear and White-crowned Wheatear were some of the species we enjoyed before going for a walk into the impressive palm grove at Ziz River, south of Errachidia. Both the quantity and diversity of birds sheltered in this oasis were astonishing, and included European Turtle and Laughing Dove, African Reed Warbler, Saharan Olivaceous Warbler, Nightingale, Moussier’s Redstart and Rufous Bush Robin. Once in Rissani we got excellent views of a pair of Lanners and a Red Fox, but missed the Pharaoh Eagle Owl… Soon after we reached the spectacular sand dunes of the Sahara in Merzouga. Here we had a warm welcome to our Hotel, a nice dinner and a well deserved night sleep.

Our charming hotel in Merzouga with the sand dunes of Erg Chebbi in the background.

Next morning, 27th of May, we admired the very first beams of light in the desert. Thanks to a well studied route we chained excellent views of an array of desert specialities, namely Desert Sparrow, Bar-tailed Lark, Desert Warbler, Greater Hoopoe Lark, Fulvous Bablers and a superb Fennec! However, the biggest spectacle was yet to come as we approached a tiny water hole where hundreds of Crowned and Spotted Sandgrouses gathered for drinking. Next, we visited the isolated farm of Moubarak, a man of the desert who had kindly located an Egyptian Nightjar for us!

Fully satisfied we returned to the hotel to avoid the high temperatures of the central part of the day. Late in the afternoon we returned to the Rissani area and, yes! this time we got excellent views of a Pharaoh Eagle Owl. What a stunner!

Fennec, the soul of the desert. Erg Chebbi, 27th May 2017.
A group of Crowned Sandgrouses at a waterhole close to Merzouga, Erg Chebbi. Over 400 individuals visited this site for drinking and bathing after sunrise providing an unforgettable sight. 27th May 2017.

Adult female Spotted Sandgrouse offering unbeatable views. Er Chebbi, 27th May 2017.

Egyptian Nightjar in Merzouga. 27th May 2017.

Next morning we headed west and rather easily located two highly sought after species: Streaked Scrub Warbler and Maghreb Weathear! We then had a relaxed visit to an ancient Kasbah in the exotic Ouarzazate and the impressive Todra Gorges before reaching Boumalne Dades by mid afternoon. Here we found another Pharaoh Eagle Owl and a waterhole with numerous Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, Temminck’s Lark, Desert Wheatear, Red-rumped Wheatear, Trumpeter Finch and Thick-billed Lark.

Streaked Scrub Warbler. West of Rissani. This is a restless species that rarely leaves its shelter in the low vegetation. 28th May 2017.
Pharaoh Eagle Owl at Boumalne Dades, the second individual we found during the trip. 28th May 2017.

Early next morning we revisited the water hole and found over 20 Black-bellied Sandgrouses, our last species to get the poker of sandgrouses! We then continued towards the Atlantic coast with two successful detours to observe Barbary Falcon and a family group of Maghreb Wheatears. Next morning we visited Tamri National Park. Here we photographed several Southern Grey Shrikes of the algeriensis subspecies, notably paler than the elegans type we had seen in the desert. A group of over 20 Cream-colored Coursers in a sandy slope was a nice surprise and we had a fascinating encounter with the global threatened Northern Bald Ibis, the most iconic species in the region. We then crossed the extensive Argan forest and visited a local cooperative of women including argan oil, honey and hamlou tasting.

A recently fledged Maghreb Wheatear, a rarely photographed age class and often a tricky species to be found in Morocco. Ouarzazate 28th May 2017.

Once in Essaouira we stopped at the river mouth where Eleonora´s Falcons of different color morphs were numerous. Despite the gale, we got close-up views of two falcons having a bath and very much enjoyed photographing them. We then checked in to a charming ryad and had an excellent dinner in the tranquil medina of Essaouira.

Eleonora´s Falcon in Essaouira. 30th May 2017. Mogador and other islets of the Esaouira Archipielago hold an impressive falcon colony, which in 2016 reached a record number of 1217 nests!

On the 31st of May, our last day of birding, we visited Oukaimeden in the High Atlas searching for mountain species. Ascending the mountain road we came through Barbary Falcon, Rock Bunting, Seebohm´s Wheatear, Chough, Alpine Chough and we heard several Quails. We passed Oukaimeden and kept driving and hiking on the breathtaking Tizi-n´Ouadi (2950 m). As soon as we reached the mountain pass we got excellent views of several Shore Larks, Mousier´s Redstart, Black Redstart and Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush. Equally noticeable were the views of the snow-capped Jebel Toubkal (4167m), the summit of North Africa. Suddenly, two African Crimson-winged Finches showed up. We still wanted to get better views of this moroccan highlight but a menacing storm pushed us back to the car. On our way to Marrakech we made a last stop and got close views of an obliging Tristram´s Warbler, the last target of the trip!

Seebohm´s Wheatear in the High Atlas. 31st March 2017.

We celebrated the end of a very successful tour with a visit to the mythic Jemaa El-Fna Square and an excellent dinner in Marrakech, including a toast for the nemesis of the trip, the Barbary Partridge!!

From Tarifa to Skagen, a collaboration to show the wonders of bird migration in Europe

Skagen Bird Center
The new Skagen Bird Center

Since last summer Birding The Strait has been working on a project for the Nature Agency, at the Ministry of Environment and Food of Denmark. The project consists on providing video material of the migration of birds in the Strait, which now takes part of the exhibition at a new visitor center in Skagen.

This new visitor center is located at Skagen Grey Lighthouse, which is Denmark’s second-tallest at 46 meters and was built in 1858. The exhibition offers visitors a virtual journey offering a high quality digital contents and the latest bird migration news, following the birds on their migratory routes through Europe.

The center was inaugurated last May and we were invited to the opening. Yeray had the opportunity to experience the exhibition in person, which begins with a spectacular combination of screens creating an immersive experience, perfectly summing up the crossing of birds from Africa to Denmark, flying through Andalusia and all of Western Europe. The expectations for the new bird center are great, with estimations of about 50.000 visitors per year from all over the world.

The opening took place at the same time of the Skagen Bird Festival, which counted with the presence of some of the most prominent European ornithologists, such as Lars Svensson and Dick Forsman, who gave two excellent lectures about their work. The festival was very well attended, as Skagen is one the best migration hotspot in the country, and May is the best time to enjoy it.

The beautiful Bluethroat is one of the many migrants that can be observed in Skagen during spring migration

In the video below you can see a selection of the images from the Strait of Gibraltar that have been provided to the Skagen project so far. This is an ongoing project and we are working to further capture the essence of bird migration in the region.

We want to thank the Nature Agency, and particularly Mr Jacob Funder, who is primarily responsible for our involvement in this great project, for the opportunity to show the world the natural wonders of Tarifa, Cádiz and the Strait of Gibraltar!

Save the Montagu’s Harriers of La Janda

Montagu's Harrier in La Janda, Strait of Gibraltar
Montagu’s Harrier in La Janda, Strait of Gibraltar

We are backing a conservation project to save the Montagu’s Harrier in La Janda, in the Strait of Gibraltar. As some of you know, the numbers of Montagu’s Harriers in the region have plummeted dramatically, mainly due to change in agricultural practices and habitat destruction.

Our friends from the association Tumbabuey are working hard to preserve the population of Harriers and make it grow in the long term, with combined actions that include sustainable farming that favor the species.

If you want to contribute to this good cause it’s really easy, just follow this link to go to the crowdfunding website. There are nice rewards for those who contribute, but most importantly, you will be a fundamental part of this project!

We encourage all our friends to participate and help these magnificent raptors!

Beyond the Strait: Canarian endemics birding trip 2017!

In Birding The Strait we feel an special attraction for the landscapes and wildlife of the Canarian Archipielago. Indeed, this is one of our preferred destinations when not birding in Tarifa.

In early April we have been pleased to design and guide a tailor made birding trip combining Tenerife (3 days) and Fuerteventura (4 days) with an evident target: observing and photographing  the local endemics and specialities. We have beautifully meet all our targets, including some bonus in the form of 5 striking Red-billed Tropicbirds off Fuerteventura!

This is a selection of our best shots:

Houbara Bustard (ssp. fuerteventurae) in the astonishing planes of Tindaya , Fuerteventura.
The Blue Chaffinch (Fringilla teydea) is now considered a full species and has been splitted from the Gran Canaria Blue Chaffinch (F. polatzeki). These are, no doubt, among the most striking Canarian endemics.
The dark brown chest is the most distinctive character in the Canarian endemic subspecies of the Greatter spotted woodpecker (ssp. Canariensis)
The taxonomic rank of the Canarian falcons is under debate and many individuals should be considered intergrades between Barbary and Peregrine. The male in the picture, photographed in Fuerteventura, showed all the correct characters of a Barbary Falcon.
The Fuerteventura Stonechat shows a marked preference for the rocky slopes of the “Barrancos” and, amazingly, is not present in the neighbouring Lanzarote.
Photographing Common Ravens is often tricky, except when you meet the inquisitive canariensis subspecies.
Even if not endemic, the Trumpeter Finch is always a joy for the observers and photographers.
At times elusive, a displaying pair of Laurel Pigeons in Tenerife was a real highlight in the trip.
Adult “Fuerteventura” Buzzard showing obvious resemblance to the Atlas Long-legged Buzzards in Morocco and notably different to average individuals of the insulaum subespecies in Tenerife. Indeed, Buzzards of the local population in Fuerteventura have often been misidentified as Long-legged.

In perfect timing with this tour, the April 2017 issue of British Birds published a paper on the identification of the Buzzards in the Canary Islands on which we have contributed as co-aouthors and photographers.

Rodríguez, G., Ramírez, J. & Elorriaga, J. 2017. Phenotypic characteristics of Common Buzzards on Fuerteventura. British Birds Vol.110: 222-232.

For more information on our tailor made trips to the Canary Islands and beyond please check our website and drop us an email!

Amazing numbers of Black Kites!

During the spring migration we get large concentrations of Black Kites, the most abundant migratory raptor in Western Europe, in the Strait of Gibraltar.

This short video from early March, shows impressive numbers of these raptors passing by before continuing their journey to their breeding grounds.

During migration, whenever easterly gales blow in the Strait, hundreds of raptors interrupt their journey and seek shelter on the sloping hillsides of Los Alcornocales Natural Park,  gathering in large communal roosts which do not occur elsewhere in Europe. Preserving this forest and securing the tranquility of the roosts is of paramount importance.

Black Kites roosting and regaining strength after crossing the Strait of Gibraltar to resume their northbound migration .This Cork Oak leans sideways due to the effect of locally prevailing easterly winds
Massive number of Black Kites roosting in a Cork Oak

Birding The Strait in 2017 FIO International Birdfair

Birding The Strait has been present at 2017 FIO International Birdfair in Extremadura. We attended the stand of Andalusia on behalf of the Tarifa Council, participated in a professional workshop with international touroperators and gave a lecture titled “The migration of the Iberian Griffon Vultures to Africa, an overlooked wonder”.

Javi during the lecture

Indeed, the  Griffon Vulture Migration is one of the most genuine experiences we offer and vulture study has constituted an important part of our carriers as field ornithologists in the Strait of Gibraltar and beyond.

During the lecture we reviewed what is known and what remains unknown on this still poorly studied phenomenon and highlighted the spectacularity of immense flocks of griffons crossing the Strait of Gibraltar.

One of the pictures included in the lecture, showing the massive concentration of Griffon Vultures in Tarifa during their autumn migration to Africa accros the Strait of Gibraltar.

It was a real honour to share the stage with our good friend Fernando Barrios, pioneer ornithologist and wildlife photographer in the Strait of Gibraltar and author of the reference work “Nomads of the Strait of Gibraltar“. He gave an authoritative lecture on the White-rumped Swift based on the research he conducted in the Strait of Gibraltar during the last decades of the previous century, when this African species colonized the European continent.

An immature Griffon Vulture on migration from Africa across the Strait of Gibraltar. The lighthouse of Europa Point in Gibraltar is on the Background.

During the rest of this fabulous weekend we took the opportunity to do some birding in the always amazing Monfragüe National Park and the Plains of Caceres around Trujillo, where we easily found the local specialities, including Cinereous Vulture, Great Bustard, Little Bustard, Pin-tailed Sandgrouse and Black-bellied Sandgrouse.

Back in Tarifa, the first groups of Griffon Vultures crossing the Strait back from Africa have already been recorded along with thousands of Black Kites, growing numbers of Short-toed Eagle, Egyptian Vulture and Black Stork.

Black Kites approaching a night roost in the Strait of Gibraltar.