Recently we hosted a group from Wensum Valley Bird Society from Norfolk, UK at the end of April. We delighted in Birding on Two Continents with them and as with all our trips we became the best of friends in travel and adventure! If you have a group, bird / wildlife club or simply a group of friends and want an adventure that suits your budget and exceeds your expectations, simply contact us for further information.
Here are some of the trip highlights in the fabulous team’s own words!..
The weather was being very contrary at the start of our trip, and we left the UK in the middle of a heatwave. We were hosted by Inglorious Bustards at the lovely Huerta Grande lodge, where Nightingales and Firecrests made their presence known immediately. Our first full day in Spain found us on top of the Sierra de la Plata, near Bolonia, in a howling gale and temperatures more suited to the English winter. Fortunately it didn’t actually rain, and in fact it didn’t stop us from seeing some exciting birds. We were all thrilled to see Woodchat Shrikes on the way up the mountain, and these lovely birds became frequent sightings throughout the week. On parking at the top we were greeted by a Blue Rock Thrush, and a pair of Griffon Vultures on the cliff.
Lesser Kestrels were nesting on the top. As the Vultures and Kestrels swirled around us, enjoying the strong wind, the really exciting birds were seen. A pair of Egyptian Vultures! What is more they are really beautiful, pale birds, something I never expected to say of a Vulture. They are clearly nesting here, to the delight of Simon, and most of us got pictures of them. Chicks of the Griffon Vultures were too seen and photographed. A Booted Eagle and two Short-toed Eagles also put in an appearance.
A coffee stop at Bolonia was not only enlivened by my first Zitting Cisticola, but also by a cavalcade of around 40 motorbikes, their approach heralded by much hooting and honking! The highlight of our stop at Barbate, a wetland area, had to be the beautiful Collared Pratincoles, which nest there in numbers. Other birds did try to upstage them though. The first I hardly dare mention. It was a Red-necked Nightjar, for which we owe thanks to Alan, who unwittingly flushed it. Sadly he didn’t see the bird himself, and he was remorselessly teased about it for the rest of the week. The other was a Little Bustard, which was heard calling nearby. Another favourite bird that we were to see more of was the Iberian Yellow Wagtail, a bright and beautiful grey-headed sub-species. Add in the Corn Buntings, Crag Martins, Cirl Buntings and Kentish Plovers, among others, and you will see that we had a great first day.
7.30a.m saw us queueing for the 8 a.m ferry from Algeciras to Morocco. It hadn’t been a very smooth crossing, however the African sunshine was welcoming us. Once waved through it was only 20 mins to Oued Marsa, a truck stop high on a splendid viz-mig spot for a second breakfast. What we really yearned for were big mugs of builders tea, sadly not on offer, but Moroccan mint and orange blossom tea made for the perfect alternative.
What happened next was a once in a lifetime birding moment, something every birder dreams about. First out of the fog came hundreds of BLACK KITES, interspersed with WHITE & BLACK STORKS, HONEY BUZZARDS, MONTAGU’S HARRIERS, SPARROWHAWKS, BOOTED EAGLES (both morphs), SHORT-TOED EAGLES, KESTRELS & BEE EATERS, all kettling and trying to gain height for their crossing. We watched a female HONEY BUZZARD set off, lose confidence, turn around and head back, and then set off again, disappearing into the horizon, well on her way into Europe.
A cry of “SPOTTED FLY over here” turned our eyes to the ground. Soon all our group were shouting “REDSTART”, WILLOW WARBLER”, “GARDEN WARBLER”, “WOODCHAT SHRIKE”, “IBERIAN CHIFFCHAFF” in unison. The most unusual find was a pair of BLACK-CROWNED TCHAGRA.
Our host Simon said that the best migration here was with an Easterly. How right he was. In a brief 30 minute stop we reckoned we saw 28 species that had been grounded by the Levante wind. The skies were dripping migrants. It seemed to be the case of name the bird and it will be there somewhere. I have never seen anything like it in my life. A truly memorable birding moment.
Reluctantly we climbed back into our vehicles for the two hour drive to Merga Zerja wetlands, a tidal lagoon located on the Atlantic coast. Once the home of Slender-billed Curlew, last seen there in 1995, its threatened wildlife is under pressure from ever increasing agricultural expansion.
More mint tea was consumed at a restaurant overlooking the lagoon as we waited for our boats, and we marvelled at the aerial antics of CASPIAN and SANDWICH TERNS, AUDOUIN’S and YELLOW-LEGGED GULLS were dotted on the Lagoon shore. GLOSSY IBIS flew past in formation.
We picked our way through the lagoon-side fish market, the fisherman seemingly preferred to sell direct from their boats, rather than the tailor made brick building. Plenty of waders were on the lagoon shores. Umpteen WHIMBREL, splendid GREY PLOVERS, DUNLIN, CURLEW, and OYSTERCATCHERS. GREATER FLAMINGOES glinted in the distance. RED-RUMPED and BARN SWALLOWS, COMMON & PALLID SWIFTS danced above our heads.
Back on land we pulled into a small wood at the edge of the Lagoon, lazily scanning for NORTHERN LAPWINGS and MARSH HARRIERS as we devoured our picnic lunch.
However the day was not over yet. Simon had a “special bird” he hoped we would see at dusk. The secret location was alongside a fruit farm, producing strawberries, blackberries and potatoes for M & S and Waitrose. Quietly and in single file we followed Simon down the edge of a furrowed field, glimpsing ZITTING CISTICOLAS and SERIN on our way. Our target was the vulnerable MOROCCAN MARSH OWL, more and more of its habitat being claimed by the fruit farmers. Preparing for a long wait, we were startled when suddenly there it was, rising out of the reeds in front of us.
By sheer chance and good luck I was actually looking in the right direction, camera in hand. click, click, click. Not brilliant photos, but a brilliant momento. Satisfied, we turned around and headed back towards the vans. Liz and I stopped for a few minutes to admire a LITTLE OWL scowling out of his dead tree at us. We didn’t realise two male and a female MONTAGU’S HARRIERS were displaying behind us, and a COMMON QUAIL was lurking…….
……We had had the best possible day.
Our first full day in Morocco, at Larache a town on the Atlantic coast. After a good night’s sleep in our hotel, breakfast was taken in a restaurant across the road. Freshly squeezed orange juice, flat bread, pancakes, honey, fried eggs, cheese and more olives. Hot drinks of milky coffee and sweet mint tea, both served in glasses.
Simon had advised us to bring cameras and binoculars across the newly refurbished plaza, Place de la Liberation, to the old arches opposite, and there in the corners were Little Swifts nests, these had been there for decades with Swifts repairing and building on to them. Swifts were busy feeding chicks and took little notice of us.
Checking out of the hotel and back in the minibuses we drove along the run-down beach and seafront area to the Loukkos river and along to the marshes. A couple of stops revealed Little and Cattle Egrets, Turtle Doves, Bee-eaters, Greater Flamingos, Savi’s Warblers in full song at the top on reeds, Red-crested Pochard, Marsh Harrier, Black-winged Stilts, Cetti’s Warblers, Brown-throated Martins, Red-knobbed Coots, Great White Egrets, Zitting Cisticolas, a single Purple Swamphen, an elusive Great Reed Warbler, Short-toed Eagle, Black Kites and the list went on!
By early afternoon we had arrived at the little bustling town of Bni Arouss. Several old white Mercedes taxis, heavily-laden donkeys, butchers shops with lamb carcasses hung in the open air and busy barbers shops. Having found a local to mind the minibuses our guides soon organised lunch. The eatery had sawdust on the floor, a home-made BBQ outside and inside about enough space to sit us and space for the cook to prepare our food. Flat breads, two types of spiced beans, grilled sardines, strips of beef and lamb mint balls, chips, water and mint tea, all very tasty.
Back on the road to the Bouhachem Forest a forest of Pine trees, Cork oaks and Wild Olive trees. Our first stop was for a troupe of Barbary Macaques to look at us, this made a change and the dominant male never took his eyes off us. As we walked, stopping here and there, Booted Eagle, Ravens, Long-legged Buzzards, a Short-toed Treecreeper, African Blue Tits, Atlas Pied Flycatchers, Firecrests, Desert Grey Shrikes, Griffon Vultures but best of all with excellent views four Levaillant’s Green Woodpeckers, three seen well the fourth heard.
As [a] member of the wonderfully enjoyable WVBS trip to Spain and Morocco … I thought I would share some of my highlights of the trip.
Levaillant’s Green Woodpecker…Picus vaillantii………………………tick
Northern Morocco was quite a surprise in terms of its vegetation and lushness. The Bouhachem forest in the Rif mountains of North Morocco is wonderful mixed woodland: the ubiquitous Cork Oak, but also cedar, pine, fir and cypress. It seems relatively unspoilt and has recently been assigned status as a “parc-naturel” so hopefully there will be some form of protection against the ongoing spread of developed land creep and technology.
So there we were, on a lonely forest road sitting in the van watching a troupe of Barbary Macaques entertaining themselves. (This population was the originator of the macaques in Gibraltar). But as entertaining as these were as soon as David and Simon, the guide, saw a Woodpecker fly into a tree in their midst, there was an eruption of bodies out of the van to try to spy it. Before too long Simon had it in his scope and we were treated to great views of a Levaillant’s Green Woodpecker, its beautiful green back straight in front of us against the trunk of a pine tree. While we were congratulating ourselves on our luck to see this we heard another calling off stage right and shortly after heard drumming fairly close by. With luck I was able to spot this one in another tree drumming against some dead wood on part of the trunk.
After everyone had a chance to see this we then saw another Levaillant’s Woodpecker buzzing it and then them both flying off stage left across the road. So we got great views of two, calling and drumming and a good barney to boot.
Not so unusual to see a Nightingale but what did seem to me unusual was that we heard Nightingales practically everywhere we went, loud and long, day and night, protected areas and not. There is just so much good habitat: wasteland and scrub. So the Nightingale does not seem to be at risk (yet) in its heartland areas. But it made me think about how little land is available to them in the UK now and how hard it will be to maintain them at the edge of their range. Maybe Mr Gove will solve it all with his new environmental policy…….But it really was a treat to hear them singing so much and I did eventually get great views of one singing near our dining area at Huerta Grande our base camp in Spain.
Crested Tit …. Lophophanes cristatus….tick Firecrest….Regulus ignicapilla….tick
Both on the same tree whilst I was having breakfast at Huerta Grande. How nice was that!
Thekla Lark……Galerida theklae…………………tick
We were at a likely-looking site of grazing and common land with patches of scrub and Iberian Broom. I was idly looking at a Crested Lark and asked the guide what the bird next to it was. He easily identified this as a juvenile Stonechat but suggested I look more closely at the Crested Lark, its distinct breast streaking and its more upright stance. While I was trying to take in this upright posture, the Lark started lowering its breast to the dusty ground and going round in circles. Was it dust bathing? After several circles Liz suddenly shouted “there’s a snake” and a Horseshoe Whip snake at least a metre long weaved its way past the bird and on across the grass into the undergrowth. Did this explain the bird’s strange behaviour? Who knows.
My highlights of the trip in no particular order:
- A lovely friendly bunch of people to spend time with
- Waking to the wonderful song of Nightingales
- Standing by a truck stop watching hundreds of raptors debating whether to brave the Levante wind and cross the Straits
- Weird, wonderful and rare birds: Egyptian Vulture, Northern Bald Ibis, Moroccan Marsh Owl, Levaillant’s Woodpecker.
- Cartwheel sized flatbreads, fried fish and copious beans
- Little Swifts’ feathery nests in the Larache plaza
- Moussier’s Redstart, Moussier’s Redstart, Moussier’s Redstart !!
- Glorious mountain flowers
- Eating chewy snails from a market stall in the blue city
- Scarce Swallowtail butterfly – and a Common too
- White Storks sharing their nests with sparrows and
starlings – imagine Edward Lear’s Old Man With A
- Friendly cetaceans
- An enormous Common Toad on my doorstep!
- Lesser Kestrels oblivious to tourists visiting the Castle
Thanks to the Inglorious Bustards.
At the risk of introducing a more melancholy note I would like to mention some of the conservation concerns that I have been pondering since we got back:
Slender-billed Curlew – Shortly after crossing the Straits of Gibraltar we drove to a river estuary where we took two small fishing boats out onto the river. Apart from being a very pleasant excursion, this site has a very sad birding significance as the last known recorded site of the Slender-billed Curlew, now believed to be extinct. Hassan, our local guide, is credited with being one of the last observers to record the bird. There is a local café, beloved of visiting birders, in which the bird log records scores of annual sightings some years ago, then dozens, then a few, and finally none…..We saw lots of Whimbrel, a few Common Curlew, but no Slender-billed. This is a species that has become extinct in our lifetime. Ouch….
Nightingales – The wonderful gardens around our accommodation in Huerta Grande in Spain, and the hotel near Chefchaouen in Morocco, rang to the glorious song of many male Nightingales. They kept us awake at night, and woke us up in the mornings – and never have I been so pleased to suffer insomnia! This bird seems to thrive in less intensively farmed and developed areas in Europe, where the locals are less inclined to be so tidy. There are probably greater numbers of insects, and less Deer browsing the understorey. Whatever the cause, we are about to lose this fabulous bird from the UK where numbers may have declined by as much as 90%. Surely, something must be done to halt then reverse this decline.
Moroccan Marsh Owl – Simon, our leader, took us to an area bordering a river estuary. We drove down farm tracks past fields and greenhouses where fruit and vegetables were being farmed intensively, almost entirely for the British market. One multinational farming company was responsible for draining and then eating up much of the land in this area to grow strawberries for our supermarkets. We were met on the edge of the cultivated area by Hassan and another local who knew exactly where to find a Marsh Owl and what a fantastic bird this is, but now very rare, and if the farming company continue to swallow up the limited marshland habitat, the last few birds will be forced out of this area.
Northern Bald Ibis – These birds have been reintroduced into Spain and had chosen a nest site in some cliffs just above a relatively busy road. An Eagle Owl had wiped out all but one of the chicks last year, so the owl had been captured and relocated out of harm’s way. I asked Simon if there was any risk from egg collectors stealing, as these birds are so rare (this is currently their only European nest site). No, he said, as the local villagers are very proud of “their” Bald Ibis colony, and anyone threatening it would be likely to be dealt with quite harshly! This colony is small, but with care, will continue to prosper and hopefully grow in numbers.
Janet and I cannot thank Simon and Niki from Inglorious Bustards enough for hosting such a brilliant week. And we are very grateful to our six colleagues from the club that were such good company throughout. I would love to visit the area again, and, who knows, maybe a Red-necked Nightjar will appear….!?