6 Feb 2014

6 Feb 14 - Following the Punks

In 1990, I spent 11 days travelled in a circular route around Morocco with Keith Turner, John Chainey, Dave Unsworth & Pete Durnell, starting at the Slender-billed Curlew site at Merja Zerga. It was a very successful & enjoyable trip with a lot of amusing stories & memories, mainly at the expense of John & Pete. Having seen just about all the World ticks that were likely, I thought I would probably not return to Morocco. The recent splitting of Atlas Flycatcher & the summer visiting Egyptian Nightjar still didn't tempted me. However, a few years ago, an interesting write-up appeared on the Punkbirders website of a trip they had just made to the Western Sahara (see Western Sahara Jan 2010). In true Punkbirder style, it's the usual irreverent write up of their trip, but with an underlying serious approach to the birds & mammals. It certainly got me thinking about a return visit to Morocco & Western Sahara.
The Anti Atlas: A line of stoney hills South of Agadir
Formally, known as Spanish Morocco, the Western Sahara was a Spanish overseas territory until Spain abandoned it in 1975. It was then annexed by neighbouring Morocco & Mauritania who fought over it for 4 years, before Mauritania pulled out. Fighting between Morocco & a separatism movement continued till 1991, when a cease fire began & peace talks started. Western Sahara is still largely Moroccan run, but with the Eastern third controlled by the separatists. The UN helps to maintain the peace & keep the two sides apart. In recent years, it has been possible to visit the coastal side of the Western Sahara, although few visiting birders to Morocco get this far South. The Punks had headed a long way South into the Western Sahara & explored the coastal & desert areas & seen some interesting birds.
The UN guys get to travel in comfort
A birding mate, Richard Webb, had been to the Western Sahara in Dec 2012 looking for mammals, but had been unsuccessful in his main quest of Sand Cat. When he started to talk about a return trip, I said I would be interested to accompany him, providing we looked for the main birds along the way for me. Richard also interested John Wright from Essex. I hadn't met John before the trip, but he turned out to be a sound travelling companion. So a week after getting back from India, I was heading to Gatwick for an early morning flight to Agadir in Southern Morocco.
I had expected to see more overturned lorries given the long distances between Western Sahara & Morocco
We arrived into the Agadir sunshine at lunchtime, which was pleasant after the best part of a week of the long winter monsoon that the UK had been experiencing. The car hire was quickly sorted out, but too quickly which is a subject I will return to later in the trip. With a 750 mile journey South ahead of us we were keen to get started. The first part of the journey took us South through the Anti-Atlas, which are a set of low set of stoney hills with scattered trees. There were few birds seen along the way, but given the distance we had to cover, we didn't have the time to stop to explore the area. With nearly 1/3 of the journey covered, we decided to stop a few miles North of the town of Tan-Tan, our base for the night, to get some birding in before it got dark. Wish we had stopped a bit earlier as the late afternoon light was rapidly dwindling & casting long shadows as we finally encountered a few typical desert birds.
Desert countryside: This slightly more vegetated area was home to a pair of Red-rumped Wheatears
Desert countryside: A more typical view
Hoopoe Lark: This is the nominate alaudipes subspecies
Hoopoe Lark: A fairly common Lark of Southern Morocco & the Western Sahara
Bar-tailed Desert Lark: This is the commonest Lark we encountered & it is perfectly camouflaged for desert life
Bar-tailed Desert Lark: This is the arenicolor subspecies which occurs as far East as Arabia
Red-rumped Wheatear: Male of the nominate moesta subspecies
Red-rumped Wheatear: Female
Desert plant