8 Feb 2014

8 Feb 14 - Suddenly Cricket Becomes Interesting

It was an uncivilised 04:00 departure from the hotel. After getting past the 3 police checkpoints we had covered the first 50 kms from the hotel to the start of the road heading inland to Aoussard. This is also known as Awsard, but I will stick to Aoussard in this blog. Soon we were spotlighting on both sides of the road to Aoussard. We managed to see a few Lesser Egyptian Jerboas which are excellent small mammals: they look like a small Gerbil with long legs and an even longer tail. When disturbed they hop rapidly over the ground like miniature Kangaroos. There were also a few unidentified Gerbils and a large African Savanna Hare. Unfortunately, I failed to get any worthwhile photos of these mammals. Despite the early start it was getting light soon after 07:00.
Sunrise over the Aoussard road
A Warning sign: No problems understanding this warning
The sign was right
This sign was trickier: But it means 'Warning - deposits of sand blown onto the road'. Due to the constant strong wind, there were a couple of places where there was sand on the road, but it not enough to be a problem 
As the sun came up, we switched to from looking for mammals to birds. It was apparent as we drove down the road, that the desert in this area was quite variable. In places, it was quite sandy, in other areas more stoney. Also the amount of vegetation changed. This partially explains why the bird & mammal sightings are grouped around certain hotspots along the road. I suspect in some cases that is where people have seen something good & others have focused their attention on the same places on subsequent trips, to the detriment of other parts of the road. This is probably more the case with some of the birds. With the mammals, the searching is by spotlights from the cars and the early trips would have probably covered the road more consistently. However, a lot of the Larks & other desert Passerines, have been found by people walking around & as the road is 140 miles long, I'm sure there are a lot of interesting areas that have never been checked by birders. That said, there are some key areas which are clearly focus points for birds. There is a small waterhole next to a pumping station at Gleb Jidane at km 21 (all distances are from the start of the road) which is well worth a visit. There are also a rubbish tip at km 119 next to a small military post, which was good for Desert Sparrows. Much closer to Aoussard, there are a couple of places where bands of Acacia trees & more luxuriant grassland cross the road. While completely dry while we were there, it looks like there must occasionally be water in this area on the rare occasions it rains. One of these is Oued Jenna at km 192 which is the main birding site along the road.
Closer to Aoussard are these hills: I wonder if birders have ever been able to explore them?
Another hill
As I was reading up about this trip, there were a number of warnings about landlines. The area close to Aoussard had clearly been close to the front line in the fighting between the Moroccan army & the separatists, in the past. As a result there had apparently been a lot of mines laid & never cleared. The general consensus is to the West of Aoussard wasn't mined. Seeing a large ongoing military exercise to the West of Aoussard, was another indication that that area was safe. But beyond Aoussard is clearly a different case as we saw warning signs telling us not to leave the road soon after leaving the town. I've birded in the past close to minefields, in Israel & Zimbabwe, but these have been fenced off areas & clearly signed. Here there is nothing to stop you walking off the road, apart from these few warning signs.
This sign beyond Aoussard is pretty clear
As we were driving towards Aoussard, we saw our first party of Cream-coloured Coursers & some more Hoopoe Larks. We didn't encounter many Cream-coloured Coursers or Stone-curlews, but every time we did, there was always a group, rather than just a lone individual. The following photos were taken between about km 100 and Aoussard.
Lanner Falcon: This is the erlangeri subspecies which occurs in Mauritania, Morocco & Tunisia
Lanner Falcon
Lanner Falcon
Cream-coloured Courser: This is the nominate cursor subspecies which ranges from the Canaries, across North Africa to the Arabian Peninsula
Hoopoe Lark
Bar-tailed Desert Lark
Bar-tailed Desert Lark
African Desert Warbler: Another perfectly camouflaged desert species
White-crowned Black Wheatear: Immature birds, like this one at Aoussard, have black crowns. A quick check of the tail pattern will confirm the solid black is only on the central tail feathers & does not form a strong T shape as found in Black Wheatears
Desert Wheatear: This is the homochroa subspecies which is found as far East as Egypt
Desert Sparrow: Part of the approximately 50 strong flock at km 119. Surely the best looking Sparrow 
Desert Sparrow: Male at Oued Jenna. This is the saharae subspecies with the nominate subspecies being found further South in the Sahara
Desert Sparrow: A pale sandy female showing her wing pattern in a bigger flock of males
Until I read the Punkbirders report, had you asked me if there was anything interesting about the word Cricket, then all I could have to told you about were members of the order Orthoptera (Grasshoppers, Crickets & Bush Crickets). I certainly wouldn't be considering that dull game that goes on for days & where half the supporters start praying the weather will force a draw, when their team is losing. But now I realise from the Punks there is also Cricket Longtail. Most birders who have travelled to Southern Europe, Asia or Africa will have come across members of the Prinia & Cisticola family. They are generally dull Warblers inhabiting grassland & scrubby habitats with songs resembling Crickets and Grasshoppers. Not so Cricket Longtail. It was probably the main reason for coming to the Western Sahara & it's a stunning Warbler.
Cricket Longtail: This has a wide range from Mauritania to Senegal & Mali and across to central Sudan & Northern Eithopia. It is right on the edge of it's range in the Western Sahara & as a bonus just into the Western Palearctic
Cricket Longtail: They move around the Acacias in family parties so when you find them you get an excited group
Uromastyx dispar: Please let me know if you believe it's one of the other Uromastyx lizards. This medium sized lizard was enjoying the safety of sitting under the beware of mines sign
Dumeril's Fringe-fingered Lizard
Desert Locust