As our boat arrived at Ceuta harbour on the coast of North Africa, we admired a statue of Hercules parting the twin pillars of the Rock of Gibraltar and the Jebel Musa mountain in Morocco. For the ancient European civilisations, these two landmark rocky monoliths represented the gateway out of the Mediterranean and into the Atlantic, and hence the end of the known world. For migrating birds, they form two major landmarks by which they navigate their short but perilous traverse of the sea.
We were now four days into our tour with a Honeyguides group – time to take them to a whole ‘nother continent! After an early but hearty breakfast at Huerta Grande we set sail for Africa. At 8.30am the docks were relatively quiet apart from a group of screaming Pallid Swifts, and we were soon on our way, seeing Northern Gannets and two Common Dolphins from the boat.
We were soon making a short drive round the back of the second of these pillars, the beautiful Jebel Musa, before pausing at a café in the town of Oued Maarsa to regroup after the sea journey. Juan-Louis, who had accompanied us from Huerta Grande bringing his expertise in all things Moroccan, secured the group their first tastes of North Africa in the form of delicious sweet mint tea and flat breads with fresh goat’s cheese. While we waited, we started to get our first tastes of African variation, looking down onto a patch of scrub to see dapper African Chaffinches.
Even though it was only mid-morning, migration was already in full flow. Among the columns of raptors gaining height in the morning sun we counted 50+ Black Kites, six Egyptian Vultures and over thirty Short-toed Eagles getting ready to cross the Straits, as well as the first Booted Eagle of the trip.
We enjoyed the leisurely two hour drive to our next site, to the famous Merja Zerga lagoon, through low-intensity subsistence farmland, green and lush with spring crops.
On arrival we went for a top up of refreshing mint tea, in a café from which we could see Laughing Doves and Common Bulbul flitting over the town. Here we met with our local guide, Hassan, who is probably the most famous ornithologist in this part of the world. Hassan has been guiding boat trips out onto the lagoon since he was a boy. The lake is probably best known for being the last recorded site for the now extinct Slender-billed Curlew. Hassan told the group about the site and about how he watched as the population declined throughout the 90s. He has the poignant honour of being the person who provided the last known record of this species at the site, in 1995.
Today sadly there would be no sightings of Slender-billed Curlews (although it is of course common practice to attempt to string a Whimbrel or two!) but as the group headed out in two small boats we almost straight away came across a Slender-billed Gull, resting on a mudbank and boasting that gorgeous pink-y hue that they get in the breeding season. Next to it were a group of dozens of sleek red-billed Audouin’s Gulls, once the world’s rarest gull but now recovering well.
The wetlands and mudflats teemed with life and Hassan pointed out hundreds of Grey and Ringed Plover, Bar-tailed Godwits, Whimbrels, Eurasian Curlews, Common Redshanks, Greenshanks, Green Sandpipers, Ruddy Turnstones and Dunlins. We had a surreal few minutes birding from an isolated sandbank in the middle of the lagoon, from where we able a large group of Greater Flamingoes promenading together.
But even after this huge adventure of a day, the highlight was yet to come. Hassan took us to a private area of local damp pastureland. This is a roosting site for the endemic Moroccan Marsh Owl, and sure enough after maybe half an hour of searching, a gorgeous individual flew up from a large clump of rushes. While taking care that our presence did not overly disturb the bird, we still saw it several times in the next few minutes and got lots of chances to admire its intricately patterned plumage and haunting face as it fixed us with its incredible dark eyes.
After thanking local legend Hassan we made our final leg of the journey to our beautiful old colonial style hotel in the city of Larache, where we dined on local fish before retiring tired but buzzing for some much-needed sleep!
Does this sound like it would float your boat? Have a look at our Birding Two Continents trip which is running again this September, and our other Morocco-based offerings from Marrakech and Essaouira…