Star-studded Birding in Morocco; Can We Pap a Pode..?

Birding in north-western Morocco has been bringing us a wealth of avian ‘A’-listers, and now we were headed for the beautiful little gem of Oualidia in search of the ultimate reclusive star bird, the Andalusian Hemipode.

Thought extinct, the small population that breeds here was rediscovered in the 2000s. On the neighbouring farmland, in 2007, a living Andalusian Hemipode was photographed for the first time in the Western Palearctic.

We’d brought our good friend, wildlife photographer and artist Tony Mills, within close reach of such glamorous species as Eleonora’s Falcon and Cream-coloured Courser and now we were up for this final star-stalking challenge.

Hemipode’s eye view!

 

Here at Inglorious Bustards we take the welfare and future of the wildlife we love extremely seriously, so it goes without saying we would only see this species if it could be done without causing them undue disturbance in the breeding season.

So our strategy was to focus our attention on the ‘Pode’s breeding grounds in the area’s pumpkin fields, keeping a watchful eye and listening out for the characteristic ‘Moooooo! at dawn and dusk, but taking time to enjoy all the stunning wildlife the area has to offer.

The pretty little resort of Oualidia spreads around a languid crescent-shaped lagoon fringed with golden sands and protected from the Atlantic surf by a rocky breakwater.

Rolling fields stretch right down to the coast to meet marshes, reedbeds, saltpans, sandy beaches and rocky outcrops, so there’s lots to explore.

Beach birding, Oualidia

 

We had a wondrous boat trip out onto the lagoon, with local skipper Hassan, taking in a wealth of gulls waders and terns, including Audouin’s Gulls, Little Terns, Red Knot and Ruddy Turnstone.

Skipper Hassan

Hassan is also a formidable chef, and, mooring up on a sandbank, he cooked us up a delicious BBQ lunch of fresh local sardines and Moroccan salad, while we enjoyed watching fishing Little Terns and maroccanus Great Cormorants.

Well fed, we drifted back towards the town’s beach, and literally as we passed the royal palace, what should be waiting to greet us but a splendid Royal Tern, looking every bit the aristocrat?! These regal visitors to the area breed in West Africa and only turn up occasionally so we felt very privileged!

Between ‘Pode patrols we also visited the salt pans, rich in waders. Black-winged Stilts promenaded their chicks among Kentish Plovers, and Dunlin and Sanderling were all glammed up in summer plumage.

The fields around the beach brought enviable pickings for any photographer, enabling us to get within feet of gleaming Audouin’s Gulls and dapper Collared Pratincoles.

And as for the reclusive star? Excitingly, among a handful of Common Quails we encountered in the pumpkin fields, we had glimpses of Small Buttonquail, the pale underwing, contrasted wing coverts and strange, jerky flight giving the identity away.  And the pic? In the words of Sean O’Connell, rugged wildlife photographer in the film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty: “If I like a moment, for me, personally, I don’t like to have the distraction of the camera. I just want to stay in it…” ‘Nuff said.

Would you enjoy searching for a reclusive avian stars? Our unique ‘Choc & Pode’ tour, featuring Eleonora’s Falcon, Cream-coloured Courser, Andalusian Hemipode and much more is running again in 2018. Come join us!

And don’t forget to check out Tony’s wonderful artwork here.

Star-studded Birding in Morocco; Finding the Cream of the Coursers

Avian ‘A’-listers abound in north western Morocco, and we were on a mission to meet – and hopefully pap – them with wildlife photographer and artist Tony Mills.

Having bathed with dreamy Eleonora’s Falcons in Essaouira, our ‘Choc & Pode’ tour took us north along the coast road to the heath and farmland around Safi. This stretch of road is a veritable Hollywood Boulevard of natural delights and we made frequent stops to enjoy it!

Coast road to Safi

Moussier’s Redstarts, too busy with the breeding season to be bothered by us, were seemingly everywhere, as were glamorous Black-eared Wheatears.  Barbary Ground Squirrels provided the comedy action while Agama Lizards, Black Redstarts, Woodchat and algeriensis Southern Grey Shrikes, Crested Larks and a Desert Wheatear all featured in the star-studded cast.

We’d been to the market early that morning and bagged some really excellent local produce.  We enjoyed our picnic lunch of fresh flatbreads, tomato, red onion and black olive salad and High Atlas cherries in wonder at how these fruits and veg bear so little resemblance to the sad excuses for flavour we put up with in the UK!

Mobile picnic table!

 

Our musings were cut short by an absolutely stunning Black-eared Wheatear, almost entirely black-and-white with barely any peach. Only feet away from Tony’s lens, this bird hung around and made sure of grabbing its share of the limelight!

We soon arrived at our accommodation at Kohelian Oriental Lodge Farm – a tranquil leafy oasis in the arid coastal heath. Built on a spring, this verdant retreat has a therapeutic soundtrack of purring Turtle Doves and is a haven for weary travellers and wildlife alike.

We would happily have missed dinner to carry on birding the wonderful hotel gardens, had it not been so exceptional!  Once the chef and her helpers had had their own Ramadan breakfast, we were served with superb modern Moroccan food, featuring delights such as white cabbage with mint and yoghurt, courgette with tomato and garlic, lightly spiced chicken and carrot tagine with flatbread, and crispy crepe with caramelised orange and honey, dusted with cocoa powder and a dollop of vanilla ice cream – heaven!

Birding in the surrounding heath and farmland areas was a superb section of the tour, and  gained us audiences with Collared Pratincoles galore, Thekla, Crested, Lesser and Greater Short-toed Larks, Little Owls, and tribes of Stone Curlews running about like they owned the place.

I… am… stone…

But our tongues rolled out like red carpets when we came across our star bird, Cream-Coloured Courser!  A group of these gorgeous, quirky waders were feeding on the arid heaths with their families, happy to pose for atmospheric photos in their desert hangout.

Fwoar!

Would you enjoy hanging out with avian celebs in their rural retreat? Our unique ‘Choc & Pode’ tour, featuring Eleonora’s Falcon, Cream-coloured Courser and much more is running again in 2018. Come join us!

And don’t forget to check out Tony’s wonderful artwork here.

Star-studded Birding in Morocco; Up Close With Eleonora’s Falcons

The House Buntings flitting around our feet were helping to build our excitement as we eagerly awaited wildlife photographer Tony Mills at Marrakech airport.

For the next week we’d be taking Tony – a glutton for punishment now on his third trip with us – on a whirlwind tour of north-western Morocco, Inshallah, studded with star species for him to photograph.

We spotted our friend’s characteristic saunter and multitude of photographic equipment immediately and after customary hugs, whisked him away out of the heat of Marrakech to the decidedly more chilled-out coastal town of Essaouira. Here, amongst other fabulous local wildlife, we hoped to bring him up close and personal with the gorgeous Eleonora’s Falcon.

Rebuilt during the days of the French Protectorate in the 1800s, Essaouira is a sleepy, arty town where Moroccan medina charm meets Brittany coastal resort.

After a scenic drive there across vast cinnamon-coloured plains, we checked into  Palazzo Desdemona – a tastefully renovated riad on the edge of the old town, its modern decor adding a sophisticated twist on the traditional.

That afternoon, among the fresh catches and lively bartering of the thriving fish market, we were able to get superb close views of Yellow-legged Gulls of all age classes, screaming excitedly and fighting over bits of discarded fish. Also hanging around this gritty, bustling place were Little Terns, handsome summer-plumage Ruddy Turnstones, Little Egrets, and Grey and Common Ringed Plovers.

And, like fans at a stadium gig, we also had our first distant views of the star of the show for this leg of the trip – Eleanora’s Falcons, 1300 of which breed on the Île de Mogador just offshore.

Dinner was delicious traditional soups and tagines and epic slabs of chocolate cake in one of our favourite boutique restaurants in the old town, ‘Chaabi Chic’. What can we say, here at Inglorious Bustards we’re suckers for a clever name (!) and we think this one sums up the town perfectly!

Our next day’s birding was focused around a dramatic canyon a few kilometres inland from Essaouira. When they’re not hunting and brutally butchering migrant passerines, this riverine habitat is where the local eleonorae glitterati like to hang out by the pool and have a drink.

Sure enough we almost immediately had fantastic views of this dreamy ‘A’-list Falcon right over our heads, and we were graced by the presence of several individuals of both colour morphs throughout the morning.

And to top it off the supporting cast featured many other avian mega-stars, including Moussier’s Redstart, Barbary Partridge, Rock Bunting, Common Bulbul, Masked Wagtail and African Chaffinch.

The city of Essaouira comes to an abrupt halt at its eastern edge with a four-mile long stretch of Victorian-style park railings. On one side, a residential area peppered with corner shops, carts full of melons, boisterous children and mechanics’ workshops. On the other a vast forest in the sand, peppered with tamarisks, olive trees and amber-coloured pools, where we spent our afternoon birding.  Here we rubbed  shoulders with Gull-billed Tern, Black-winged Stilt, Night Heron, Little Ringed and Kentish Plover, Brown-throated Martin and Ferruginous Duck to name but a few.

We celebrated with a well-earned Casablanca beer and a touch of sandy exfoliation at the breezy the seafront of the aptly nicknamed ‘Windy City’.

But although Tony was really pleased with the superb views of Eleonora’s Falcon in flight, us Inglorious Bustards are perfectionists when it comes to birding in Morocco, and we wanted to get him some even better shots.

Returned the following morning at 6.30am, our persistence was rewarded with the magical sight of ten or more of these exceptionally elegant falcons bedecking a tree like chocolatey decorations, and taking it in turns to bathe in the river.

It doesn’t get much up close and personal than that!  We observed and happily papped away at these avian ‘A’ listers enjoying their baths. We retreated before a restraining order could be issued, and set off on our next step along Morocco’s Hollywood Boulevard of birding…

Would you go weak at the knees for a dreamy Falcon?! Our unique ‘Choc & Pode’ tour, featuring Eleonora’s Falcon and much more is running again in 2018. Come join us!