Between South Africa and Morocco I did not do much birding around home, it seems quite flat as the number and variety of birds has declined drastically over the last few years and there is not much about to stir the blood. However I did get to the Charca de Suarez a couple of times and had a look at the Dipper site on the Rio Guadalfeo, so here are a few shots from those visits.
The Ferruginous Duck is classified as Near Threatened with extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Hunting, loss of habitat, drought due to climate change are some of the reasons. It was nice to see few at the Charca de Suarez in March/April.
I don't get to see many Sedge Warblers so although this is not a very good photograph I post it for the record. Charca de Suarez in April.
The Common Sandpiper is as its name suggests, very common, but I like this shot from the Charca taken in good light and fairly close.
Four Booted Eagles at once over the Charca and I captured two in this shot including the solitary dark morphed bird.
I found this Dipper inspecting the nest site on the Rio Guadalfeo but the water level is down to about half from the previous year so I'm not sure if they will actually nest this year. We shall see. The prolonged drought combined with the increase in irrigation for the explosive spread of horticulture under plastic in Andalucia has denuded water supplies drastically. The famaous Chillar River walk in Nerja will be a thing of the past from this year, all the water is being diverted to Lake Vinuela which is very low.
The Grey Wagtails at the Rio Guadalfeo make a pleasant sight as always, one of the most colourful and attractive species in Europe.
Our ferry from Motril to Tanger Med was running five hours late due to strong winds in the Straits over past few days. We eventually arrived at the Maison d'hotes Berbari near Asilah at 3 am but were ushered in and taken care of. This was our bedroom....
....and this the view of the courtyard from our breakfast table, breakfast was outstanding by the way and this country hotel was delightful, hard to find along a long dirt road but well worth the effort. We stayed two nights at a bargain rate of 50 euros per night.
We watched storks nesting in the grounds...
...and along the dirt road picked up several birds including this Bonelli's Warbler enjoying a morning bath in a puddle.
Asilah is a very picturesque Moroccan town with a thriving artistic community and a superb Medina (Old town). This was not specifically a birding trip and we stayed two days here enjoying the atmosphere and the food, which was excellent.
However I did have a target bird to find and we moved on to Moulay Bousel Ham by the Merja Zerga Biological Reserve just a bit further down the coast. This is a tidal lagoon with surrounding marshland. The lagoon hosts 100 bird species, between 15,000 and 30,000 ducks overwinter here, and it regularly holds 50,000 to 100,000 waders.
We stayed at the excellent Vila Nora hotel from where we arranged our guide Hassan Khalil who would to try to find our target species, Asio capensis. The Marsh Owl is a resident species here. A few sites like this in Northern Morocco are the only places one can see this species north of the Sahara Desert.
Hassan told us that the Owl no longer roosted near the campsite in Moulay Bousalhem, to have a chance of seeing one it would be necessary to venture out into the marshes around the head of the estuary. So that evening we drove about 10 or 15 kilometers out of town and took a rough track through some farmland, then set off on foot into the marshes. At first we saw no sign of the owl but I was very pleased to see so many Montagu's Harriers, at one point I counted ten of them all wheeling around quartering the marshes for rodents and large insects..
As we wandered through the marshes we enjoyed the Harriers and I took some photographs. As time passed and we covered more ground however it became apparent that we would probably not be lucky enough to see an owl before complete darkness set in. As the sun went down and the light faded almost completely we accepted defeat and were about to leave when Hassan thought he heard something. He gave it one last attempt and moved towards the sound and a stunning Marsh Owl flew up from its roost amongst the tall grass tussocks, and settled on a fencepost. I set my ISO and aperture to maximum (6400 at f4) and moved slowly towards the bird, taking pictures as I went.
The shot above conveys no impression of the actual light at the time. It was almost completely dark but with that high ISO setting any light would be utilised and I was getting shots at 1/20th of a second or slower. The Owl was wonderful, such a powerful and enigmatic presence. Moments like this are the essence of bird watching for me. Below is another of these low-light shots as I got quite close to the bird. Again the photo gives a completely false impression of the light but the effect of using such a high ISO imparts a soft, almost dreamlike imaget which I find quite appealing, a reminder of the feeling of being out in the wild marshes at night & coming face-to-face with this magnificent wild creature.
Hassan was keen to try again early the following morning in better light, so he and I arrived again at sunrise for another attempt. The shepherd below watched us in mild bewilderment, no doubt wondering about the strange behaviour of some foreigners. Anyway there was no sign of the owl but Hassan is not one to give up easily so we moved on to another location and with the help of a young shepherd who knew where the birds were we eventually found one which again flew conveniently onto a fencepost, allowing me to get some technically better shots from fairly close range. Superb.
It is easy to see the improvement in quality of the photos below taken in good light. The low-light shots though have value, they are a reminder of a special birding moment and convey a different feel which is nice to look back on.
After our sojourn in the marshes we returned to our hotel for a leisurely breakfast on the terrace overlooking the Atlantic where we formulated our plan for the rest of the day. We would take a look at a small lake that Hassan knew of some distance from the town, then later in the afternoon we would take a boat trip around Merja Zerga Lagoon to view waders and seabirds.
The lake turned out to be superb, quite a long way out of town and there were a bunch of boys playing football close to the shore, so many of the birds had moved across to the far banks. We could see many Whiskered and Gull-billed Terns, Marsh and Montagu's Harriers, Purple, Grey, Squacco and Night Herons, Red Knobbed Coots, three Grebe speces including G. Crested, many ducks including Red Crested Pochard and much more. However we were looking into the sun at this time and with the boys there most birds were some way off, so we decided to return in the morning when the light would be better and hopefully less disturbance.
After the lake we had a siesta before embarking on Hassan's boat for a trip around the Laguna. There were all manner of Waders present, too numerous to list them all but I enjoyed seeing so many Curlews. We were all pleased to see Lesser Crested Terns too along with Little and Caspian Terns, the Lesser Crested bring a few birders in as they are uncommon, which is good business for Hassan.
Always great to see Curlew, but this place was once the haunt of the now famous Slender Billed Curlew and many birders are still hopeful that they will discover it here once again. Alas it is highly unlikely. After a long period of steady decline the slender-billed curlew is extremely rare and possible extinct. This were thought to be fewer than 50 adult birds left in 2007 and I don't think any have been seen since then. As a result it is now listed as critically endangered and is almost certainly the first European bird species to become extinct since the last great auk died in 1852. Hassan has a copy of the last photo taken here by a British ornithologist, I forget which year it was but there will probably never be another one.
Here's another bird that I always enjoy seeing, the Slender-billed Gull. A very elegant member of the Gull family, quite unlike most of its relatives.
After our fascinating trip around the lagoon we thanked Hassan & hoped we would see him again. he is a good and hard working guide who cares about the birds and the state of the wildlife of his native Morocco..
The Common Bulbul is easily seen here, this shot taken from the terrace of our hotel. I was surprised to hear their very sonorific song. Sometimes the plainest of birds have the sweetest song.
Next morning we had decided to have another look at the freshwater lake Hassan showed us earlier. It should be quiet at this early hour and the sun would be behind us. Sure enough it was an idyllic scene spoilt only by the dreadful plastic litter strewn everywhere. The advance of the plastic greenhouse has been an environmental disaster, it's bad enough in Spain but here they seem to have no concept at all about looking after their environment, the countryside has become a huge rubbish tip.
Happily I spotted a magnificent male Marsh Harrier engaged with its partner in nest building amongst the reeds at one end of the lake. There were lots of birds about but I only had eyes for this one. The male Marsh harrier is a very handsome bird indeed, much more spectacular than its rather plain mate, and they are extremely difficult to photograph, being very shy and wary of humans.
I saw this as a great opportunity to get some decent photographs of a much admired bird, I could get reasonably close to the nest site without being seen as there was plenty of cover, so I made my way carefully to as close as I dare and for the next hour sat watching the pair bringing nest material and searching for prey.
Eventually I had my fill and collected a few good shots, so we made our way back to the car and set off for Fez and a bit of tourism. Our Moroccan birding was over for a while but I'm sure we will be back. It had been fun.
Retired seafarer living in Frigiliana, a white village in Malaga Province in southern Spain. Married to Elena. Keen bird and wildlife watchers.
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