Sunday, 29 April 2012

A ray of sunshine

29 April 2012

New Hythe

The 'drought' continued throughout the night and I awoke to very heavy rain which eventually stopped after an almighty downpour just before 14:00. The skies began to brighten and I wanted to get some air so I set off with the objective of photographing the elusive songster that is the Nightingale. I hoped that after such continual rain they might be out on a perch singing their almighty lungs out. I decided to try the lakes at New Hythe and arrived at Brookland Lake just as the cloud began to lift. A welcoming committee of hirundines was hawking over the lake: 50 Swallow, 30 House Martin, and 15 Sand Martin plus a single Common Swift and two Common Tern. As the sun came out they swarmed together and departed northwards at some height, leaving just a handful of House Martins and a Swallow. Birds were certainly singing and I could hear Nightingale from the car park. Blackcaps were everywhere, a couple of Chiffchaffs, a Reed Warbler and my first Whitethroat of the year. A couple of explosive Cetti's Warbler sang from deep inside their chosen bushes and at least seven Nightingale were belting out their liquid notes. An unseen Cuckoo gave away its presence from somewhere along the river.

Great perch!

After checking out various Nightingale territories I found one bird that had some potential of giving the odd view. I got within deafening range but just couldn't get a clear view. I waited quietly and then just as it was about to hop out, a guy with his young daughter came wading up the rather boggy footpath - at least he apologised as he walked past. The bird flicked across the path and into an Elder. I waited as it hopped along the horizontal branch until it found a little opening and just sat there looking at me looking at him. I fired a series of shots and he was gone. What a stunner! 

Nightingale, New Hythe Lakes

As I walked back to the car ten House Martin and a Swallow were still hawking insects, and four Common Swift were careening around the paper mill. 

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Another day of drought

28 April 2012


After a week that brought gale force southerly winds and some impressive seawatching to Dungeness I had hoped for at least some chance of a seawatch this weekend for those of us who have to work. Of course the wind immediately went NE and strengthened and to make matters worse persistent rain was forecast throughout the weekend - this really is the wettest drought in history.

I therefore decided to have a lay in. Just after 07:00 I got up to make a cup of tea, and checked the forecast maps. It appeared there would be a hole in the rain cloud over Dungeness for a few hours this morning, so an hour and a quarter later I was on the beach sheltering from the wind on the wrong side of the fishing boats. A north-easter like this would be a dream come the autumn but right now a warm southerly would be ideal to help the many migrants birds passing up the channel towards the Kent coast. At least I was out - more than I'd expected last night.

Not surprisingly there was not much moving, but there were over a hundred Common Tern feeding off the point and among them, with careful scanning, I soon found about half a dozen Arctic Terns and the usual Sandwich Terns. Over the next hour and a half I saw 2 close Red-throated Diver, 7 Common Scoter, 4 Dunlin, 1 Grey Plover and 5 Whimbrel pass to the east and probably another couple of hundred Common Tern. There were 6 Common Gull feeding offshore above a couple of Harbour Porpoise and a Grey Seal. A Great Skua eventually appeared, though heading in the wrong direction and small numbers of Gannet were fishing with a few moving down channel. Good numbers of Guillemot were regularly flying each way, 10 Kittiwake flew towards the patch and five Fulmar glided by. The best sightings however were the inbound migrants - my first Swift of the year flew in, followed by 5 Swallow and a House Martin, though the biggest surprise was a male Northern Wheatear battling against the wind just offshore. These really are tough little birds, though I was surprised to see them crossing the Channel in drizzle, cloud and a NE wind.

Male Yellow Wagtail, Motacilla flava flavissima 
As it was still not raining I decided to check out the nearby gravel pits. I stopped first at the southern end of the ARC, a regular stop-off for waders and wagtails. I soon found a smart male flavissima Yellow Wagtail, two male Blue-headed Wagtail, one yellow-throated bird, with a distinct white stripe in the ear coverts, and the other with a distinctly white throat, but similar head pattern. Up to five birds were present yesterday and all look like Blue-headed to me, see for more images, though others have reported them as 'Channel' wagtail (thought to be intergrades between flavissima and flava). In my experience these Channel wags tend to show very pale blue heads, lacking the clarity and greyish tone of true flava.

Male Blue-headed Wagtail, Motacilla flava flava. RAF bue head and eye stripe, white supra loral stripe, black loral stripe and moustachial stripe, white flash through centre of ear coverts perhaps more distinct than ideal in this image, white sub moustachial stripe, and yellow throat. Others have reported these as Channel Wagtail, but isn't the greyish head colour, dark loral stripe and pure white non-flared supercilium more similar to flava?
Male Blue-headed Wagtail, Motacilla flava flava. Shows more solidly blue ear coverts, the white in the centre of the ear coverts looking more restricted. Surely Channel types have paler blueish heads?

There was also a rather odd plumaged individual that showed a greenish crown, concolorous  with nape and mantle, and similarly coloured ear coverts, lacking any yellow in the centre, with a thin bright yellow supercilium, throat and breast, and a paler belly. Unfortunately I never saw it close enough for photos but a very striking individual. Presumably just an extreme flavissima variant or maybe a first summer bird? There was also a male White Wagtail, seven Pied Wagtail and 2 Meadow Pipit on the short sward. 4 Dunlin, 2 Ringed Plover and 8 Redshank were also feeding on the shallow margins.

Male Blue-headed Wagtail, Motacilla flava flava
Male Blue-headed Wagtail, Motacilla flava flava
Common Swift

The ARC pit was covered with hirundines (of all three common species, 150 Swallow with 30 House Martin and 10 Sand Martin) and 20 Common Swifts. From the Hanson Hide were a Little-ringed Plover, 2 Ringed Plover, the resident female Long-tailed Duck, 2 Little Egret, 6 Black-tailed Godwit and a very pale female Eurasian Wigeon. Reed Buntings were singing despite the overcast weather and threatening rain.

Male Reed Bunting

A quick stop at the RSPB visitor centre for a hot chocolate before a walk along to Firth and Makepeace hides. The already high water level has risen here as a result of the rain over the last week and the small islands were just showing above the surface leaving few resting (let alone nesting) places for birds. Small numbers of gulls were loafing around, mainly Herring and Great Black-backed with a few Lesser Black-backed Gull. One third year Herring with a dark iris suggested some eastern genes. Six Common Swift fed over the pit as the rain began to fall and a Peregrine took shelter on the Power Station. As the rain came down harder I decided to call it a day and headed for the car, bumping into Laurence Pitcher in the Visitor Centre - great to see him and hopefully catch up again next week. A wet Brown Hare was feeding beside the track as I left.

Brown Hare

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Between the showers

21 April 2012

I spent the morning working in the garden. The male Blackcap was still singing and the Long-tailed Tits have finished their nest. The highlight came early afternoon while I was helping Mandy potting on some Ammi visnaga. I heard the distinctive 'mee-oouw' of a Common Buzzard overhead. I walked out of the greenhouse and looked up - there were three birds of prey circling above the garden. I rushed to the car, grabbed my bins and looked up to check what they were - two Common Buzzard and a Sparrowhawk, and as I turned around a third Common Buzzard was circling to the north, and then the calling bird appeared low over the garden - four Common Buzzard at one time is the most I've ever seen here.

Later in the afternoon with the garden chores completed we went into Sevenoaks. We stopped off at the KWT reserve and had a walk out to the hides overlooking the main lake. I counted seven Little-ringed Plover and a Common Sandpiper out on the islands. A small group of hirundines produced three species - 2 House Martin, 2 Sand Martin and 3 Swallow. A Willow Warbler and a Reed Warbler were singing, a pair of Sparrowhawks displayed briefly and a Treecreeper gave good close views. Otherwise lots of Chiffchaff and Blackcap, several Pied Wagtail on the islands, and 2 Egyptian Geese feeding in front of the Tower Hide.

22 April 2012

I had a late start this morning and decided on a walk around the Stour Valley. The weather was superb, bright sunshine and high cloud. I parked at Stodmarsh and walked right up to Grove Ferry and back along the river. There were absolutely loads of Blackcaps at the Stodmarsh end, all males and many in song. A few Reed Warbler and Sedge Warbler were singing from their reedbed summer homes and my first Cuckoo of the year could be heard behind Stodmarsh village.  Marsh Harriers were displaying over the reedbed but no sign yet of any Hobby. The walk was fairly quiet with just 2 Snipe of note from Marsh Hide, nothing from Harrisons Drove or Feast Hide and a Greenshank from the mound. Walking back along the river I heard brief snatches of song from 2 Nightingale and a Lesser Whitethroat, and found more Blackcap and Chiffchaff. Cettis Warblers seem to have survived the winter in good numbers. Nothing at the water meadows or on the main lake. As I arrived at the car park I could see the rain clouds building and decided to head home. A nice walk, maybe another week will make a difference.

Male Blackcap

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Looking Back - Morocco April 2010 (Part 8: Sidi Yahya)

1 May 2010

Sidi Yahya

In planning the trip I had included an extra day - just in case we encountered inclement weather or failed to find a target bird. However the trip had gone to plan throughout (other than Mourning Wheatear) and we had kept the day to the last in case we needed another crack at the Flycatchers. Having found the on our first proper attempt and had such wonderful views we were now left with a bonus day. Looking at maps we decided to have a crack at Sidi Yahya - the well-known site for Double-spurred Francolin. So we set off from Ifrane and arrived at Temara Plage at 18:30, finding just one hotel open along the coast. After a long day and a very long drive I was exhausted and we ended up eating a pizza in a beach side restaurant before getting an early night ready for a very early start. So on 1 May we left the Panorama Hotel at 05:00 and drove the relatively short distance to Sidi Yahya and the Royal Hunting Lodge. We were slightly held up by another police check point but arrived at dawn and positioned ourselves with a view into the hunting grounds as suggested by Gosney. In hindsight I wonder if we arrived just a little too late - but our luck finally ran out. We could here Black-crowned Tchagra, Nightingale, Sardinian Warbler and Turtle Dove, but nothing like a Francolin. We tried further up the road but again to no avail and by now it really was getting too late. A Black-shouldered Kite failed to make up for the dip and we drove a number of tracks around the back of the hunting lodge, picking up a couple of superb Golden Oriole and 8 Woodchat Shrike, and finally getting good views of Moroccan Magpie. A Short-toed Eagle, 2 Booted Eagle, 4 Black Kite and a Long-legged Buzzard showed the potential of the site, but access is impossible and viewing only at distance.

Poppy covered fields on the way to Marrakech
We began the long drive back to Marrakech. The only new highlights were a couple of very showy Calandra Lark along the road as we passed some large arable farmland and a pale Little Owl that sat on the clay wall of a ramshackle farm. 

Calandra Lark
Crested Lark
Moroccan Magpie
Woodchat Shrike
We arrived in Marrakech and eventually found a reasonable hotel not far from the old town. After cleaning up we headed in to the infamous square, Djemaa el Fna. The place was absolutely buzzing and we enjoyed or last tagine of the trip overlooking the activities from a restaurant above the souks. An amazing end to a superb trip.

Koutoubia Tower, Marrakech

Looking Back - Morocco April 2010 (Part 7: Ifrane)

29-30 April 2010

Dayet Aoua

When I planned this trip one of the prime objectives was to try to see the very local Atlas Flycatcher while also taking in the desert and coastal specialities available in Morocco. Most birders who had been for the flycatchers had gone much later in the Spring, specifically targeting this species on a long weekend trip. Many trip reports suggested the first migrants did not arrive in the mountains until at least early May, so I knew even the last few days of April was touch and go.

The drive north from Zeida took us once again through vastly different scenery, alpine meadows and passes reminiscent of The Alps and a far cry from the dusty dryness of the deserts. The bird species seen throughout the journey reflected this change. The last few desert type Wheatears (2 Black, 1 White-crowned Black, 2 Red-rumped and 5 Deserts) gave way to another Northern and 4 Black-eared as the altitude increased and finally to 10 Seebohms Wheatear as we reached the higher elevations. A Booted Eagle, 2 Black Kite, a passing Marsh Harrier and a Long-legged Buzzard also reflected the change. White Storks were found nesting on rooftops and feeding out on the alpine meadows and on some of the larger pools we found 14 Black-winged Stilt, 2 Grey Heron and 2 Ruddy Shelduck.

White Storks feeding in the damp alpine meadows 
White Stork
White Stork
White Stork nesting on the village rooftops 
Wet alpine meadows covered in flowers

At various stops along the route we found a Melodious Warbler singing beside a small stream, a Wood Warbler singing from a patch of trees, Linnet, Goldfinch, Greenfinch, African Chaffinch, Serin, 8 Rock Sparrow and Spotless Starlings nesting in the small villages. Yellow Wagtails were common around the meadows and 25 Northern Raven, 10 Red-billed Chough, 50 Cattle Egret and Pallid Swift were also seen.

Spotless Starling
Wild flowers growing in the rocky hills

We easily found the lake at Dayet Aoua, where the King of Morocco has his summer residence. The area is quite touristy with rowing boats on the lake and many visitors, but away from the car park it is fairly quiet and there are loads of birds. On the lake we found 40 Crested Coot and 100 of their Common cousins, 100 Great-crested Grebe, 40 Little Grebe and surprisingly 80 Black-necked Grebe all in superb summer dress. 

Crested Coots nest around the lake on floating vegetation 
Crested Coot
Ducks were well represented with 2 Gadwall, 20 Mallard, 2 Shoveler, 8 Pochard, 1 Ferruginous Duck and 6 Ruddy Shelduck. Cattle Egret were very common numbering some 250, and one each of Squacco Heron and Little Egret were also seen. 

Cattle Egret
20 Black-winged Stilt, 3 Common Sandpiper and a Little-ringed Plover were the only waders. A Cuckoo, 2 Jay, 4 Mistle Thrush, 2 African Blue Tit and lots of African Chaffinch provided variety. Overhead 6 Booted Eagle, 3 Kestrel and 2 Black Kite represented the birds of prey. Colour was provided by 25 European Bee Eater and a stunning Roller which gave great views around the edge of the lake. 

African Chaffinch
It is this site which has provided many birders with their best encounters with Atlas Flycatchers, often in close company with migrant Pied Flycatchers. We checked all the likely habitat but failed to find any - were we just too early? As we walked back along a line of Poplar we found 8 Hawfinch feeding and using the roadside verge managed to get some good looks.

Male Hawfinch
Female Hawfinch
Just as the light was fading a movement in one of the Poplars caught Gary's eye - a black and white, male Flycatcher. Before I could get a clear look it flicked off across the road and was gone. Well at least there was a flycatcher here - even if we hadn't identified it.

The light was now fading and we decided to drive into Ifrane to find a hotel for the night. Ifrane is amazing (in a Moroccan context). It is a Swiss-clean, very modern, alpine resort town. All the roads and paths are immaculately swept clean by an army of smartly dressed guys. Police check everything coming and going, speed bumps slow the traffic to a snails pace, there is no dust, dirt or poverty - it is quite unbelievable. There seemed to be some event going on and there were hundreds of people all dressed in their finery. We had just arrived from the desert and had been up since 04:30. Not surprisingly no hotels had a room. After a little frustration we left Ifrane and drove to the next town of Azrou. We soon found the excellent Panorama Hotel sitting on the hillside above the town. Overhead were Alpine and Pallid Swift and Lesser Kestrels - perfect.

Next morning we headed back toward Ifrane before breakfast. In a recent article Gosney had made reference to finding Atlas Flycatchers in the areas of bright green leaved woodland. We tried one area he had suggested but the habitat had changed and was not ideal. Driving on we found an old area of established woodland with large areas of bright-green deciduous trees. We found somewhere to park off the road (2km on from the km73 Fes marker and adjacent to a small white roadside building on the edge of the woods). There is lots of similar looking habitat and suspect we may have had similar results at any of these areas. However stepping out of the car we walked less then 10m into the woods and I instantly heard a Flycatcher singing. It was slightly different to Pied, but still of the same ilk. We quickly found him - a stunning Atlas Flycatcher! He had staked out a nesting hole and was singing and displaying to attract a mate. Soon enough a female appeared and was shown into his accommodation. She left quickly trying out another male and his nest within 50m of the first. As we walked around the woods we found no less than 3 males within 100m  and recorded a total of 4 males and 2 females over the next couple of hours (we returned after breakfast). 

Male Atlas Flycatcher
Male Atlas Flycatcher
Also in the woods we found 2 Short-toed Treecreeper, 2 Coal Tit, 2 African Blue Tit, 2 Hawfinch, a rather surprising Rock Sparrow, 2 Great-spotted Woodpecker, 4 Firecrest, 2 Nuthatch and 2 Lesser Kestrel, while overhead above the canopy 3 stunning Roller were displaying! Mission accomplished!

Later in the day we returned to the lake at Dayet Aoua seeing much the same birds as yesterday, though Black-necked Grebe numbers had declined to 48. Around Ifrane we found another Roller and 3 Black Kite.

Looking Back - Morocco April 2010 (Part 6: Zeida)

29 April 2010

Zeida Plains

Zeida Plains
We left the Midelt hotel at 05:00 driving north to the Plains at Zeida, and once again following Gosney's excellent directions. We arrived before sunrise and turned onto the unmarked tracks that run out onto the plain. Within one minute of leaving the road we could hear the distinctive song of Dupont's Lark. Remaining in the car and carefully scanning in the area where the noise originated we managed to pick up this lovely lark on top of the small mounds of vegetation. 

The specialised habitat of the Dupont's Lark
Adult Dupont's Lark displaying at dawn (heavily cropped)
We could hear others singing further along so continued down the track hoping for a closer view. We reached a dead end and tried a different track. Suddenly a lark appeared in our path - we stopped suddenly - it was a juvenile Dupont's Lark less than 2m in front of the car. Carefully leaning out of the window, rather than fly away it walked towards us and vanished under the bonnet!

Juvenile Dupont's Lark
Juvenile Dupont's Lark
Thinking we had been incredibly lucky we drove further looking for the other speciality of this area - Lesser Short-toed Lark. We had been told that Lesser's outnumbered their Greater cousins here by a huge amount, but our experience was very different. Short-toed Lark's were everywhere but Lesser's were very scarce. We eventually found one close and grabbed a shot.

Lesser Short-toed Lark
Short-toed Lark
As we headed back towards the road another juvenile Dupont's Lark jumped out in front of us giving stunning views in the now improved light. It almost seemed to posture at our car, challenging it to a fight - bizarre but absolutely brilliant!

Looking around the area we recorded 25 Lesser Short-toed Lark, 7 Dupont's Lark (5 ad, 2 juv), 200+ Short-toed Lark, 3 Thekla Lark, 2 Red-rumped Wheatear, 4 Desert Wheatear, 1 Northern Wheatear, 3 Kestrel, 2 Short-toed Eagle, 1 Barbary Falcon, 1 Whinchat and 14 European Bee Eater. We returned to the main road and found a lovely cafe where the owner cooked us a fresh omelette breakfast.

Looking Back - Morocco April 2010 (Part 5: Erg Chebbi)

26-28 April 2010

Erg Chebbi, Mezouga and Rissani

We stopped at the Todra Gorge, mainly to see the impressive rock walls, somewhat ruined with the concrete road running right through and the many vehicles parked along the sides. A few birds were evident including a nice male Blue Rock Thrush, 10 lovely Crag Martin feeding along the stream, a Grey Wagtail, the ubiquitous Nightingale, a Rock Bunting and 3 Common Bulbul. As we left the site a huge rain storm developed overhead and dropped an impressive shower. 

Date Palms mark an oasis along the damp valley in the desert

Todra Gorge - must have been more impressive before they filled it with concrete

A slow drive through the farmland and fields with frequent stops produced some interest. 30 Turtle Dove, a Rufous Bush Chat, 15 European Bee Eater, 2 Desert Lark, 2 Southern Grey Shrike, 1 Hoopoe, 2 Woodchat Shrike and a passing female Marsh Harrier. A pair of Crested Lark and 4 Thekla Lark provided a useful comparison to the 6 Long-billed Crested Lark watched at close range.

Long-billed Crested Lark
We drove out to Cafe Yasmina, stopping briefly at a known Egyptian Nightjar stake out to ensure we could find it after dark. Yasmina is a wonderful castle surrounded by a moat, and in wetter years with a large lake out back. However this year had been dry and the lake was without water, but the tamarisks still attracted many passing migrants. Unfortunately the SPanish ringing team who spend most springs here had given up and gone home after days of strong winds.  On the way along the very ridged and uncomfortable track we found 10 White-crowned Black Wheatear, 2 superb African Desert Warbler, a Whinchat, a Woodchat Shrike and 2 Hoopoe Lark.

African Desert Warbler
After another excellent day we went for another stunning tagine in the hotel restaurant, where the waiters and chefs provided after dinner entertainment, playing drums and generally enjoying themselves.

Cafe Yasmina and the Sahara Desert backdrop
The Cafe Yasmina staff provided after dinner entertainment

I walked outside to check the lamps around the hotel for any moths, finding a stunning Striped Hawk Moth on the wall. 

Striped Hawk Moth

Around the pool were large numbers of large Desert Toads, which kept us amused for some time.

We were just chatting to some Belgian birders who we had last met at the Tagdilt Track when one of them casually mentioned he had just seen an Egyptian Nightjar flying around the hotel car park, just a few metres behind us. We raced outside and suddenly in the it appeared circling around well lit by the car park lights. It performed brilliantly even landing briefly. That saved a long trek in the dark and provided an early night!

The moon over the dunes before dawn in the Sahara

We awoke early and were out on the immense dunes pre-dawn, awaiting the sunrise. As the sun rises over these immense dunes on the north western edge of the Sahara Desert it casts a wonderful warmth turning the sand a most beautiful orange.

As the sun rises the dunes turn orange
The 'garden' of the Cafe Yasmina is full of large Tamarisks which provide an attractive oasis for tired migrants that have crossed the desert. Early mornings and the bushes were alive with warblers (10 Western Bonelli's, 4 Western Olivaceous, 1 Wood, 2 Willow, 3 Garden and a Blackcap) and chats (5 Spotted Flycatcher and 2 Redstart). 9 European Bee Eater, 5 Turtle Dove and 20 Swallow flew through and a Woodchat Shrike hunted around the edges.

We had arranged a 4x4 tour from the hotel out into the stony desert north of the Dunes. The driver arrived and we headed out into the desert across tracks and wadis that even the Toyota Corolla couldn't have tackled. By driving a trusted route we picked up a number of good desert birds: 1 African Desert Warbler, 4 Thick-billed Lark, 8 Hoopoe Lark, 6 Desert Lark, 6 Bar-tailed Desert Lark, 3 Whinchat, 1 Northern Wheatear, 3 White-crowned Wheatear, 4 Cream-coloured Courser, 3 Southern Grey Shrike and 11 Crowned Sandgrouse. 

A Desert Lark coming down to drink in a desert oasis
Crowned Sandgrouse

The main objective was to track down the elusive Houbara Bustard. At a particularly huge, flat stony desert the driver stopped to make a phone call. He then followed directions towards a lone man on a moped who was riding around on a bank. Somewhere between us and him the Houbara was cowering in a tiny bush. It broke cover and the driver carefully and very respectfully relocated the car for better views.

The Houbara Bustard breaks cover (very heavily cropped)
As we crossed back towards the hotel an adult Lanner Falcon was sitting beside the track and then gave great over head views as it circled out to the desert. A couple of Western Bonelli's Warbler, a Subalpine Warbler and 2 Brown-necked Raven were added to the list. However the real prize was left til last. We knew that Desert Sparrow was becoming very scarce and was difficult to pin down, but the driver assured us he had a nest site. We stopped beside an isolated acacia tree and there in the crown was the prize - a stunning male Desert Sparrow.

Desert Sparrow habitat
Adult male Desert Sparrow
Finding grubs even in this harsh environment
Sitting in his nesting tree
Well pleased with our morning we returned to the Yasmina for lunch and a cool drink on the terrace, watching camels being led over the dunes, and taking the opportunity to phone home - surreal!

We decided to spend the afternoon at the fabled Lake Merzouga a few km to the south. However getting there meant traversing the heavily rilled track for 15km to reach the road. One saving grace was that at km9 along the track some Austrian birders had found a Dunn's Lark singing a few weeks earlier. We had heard no news since, partly due to the ash cloud preventing anyone getting there, but if nothing else it would alleviate the headache from the bone shaking desert piste surface. We stopped at the 9km sign and parked safely off the road, walked down into the first area of grass running parallel to the piste. We walked up the near side finding a smart, and paler variety of Desert Lark. The family party of Hoopoe Lark was still showing well, and a parent African Desert Warbler was feeding its well grown chicks, enabling close approach. 

A sandier Desert Lark shows well near km9
Desert Wheatear

We walked for some distance in the intense sunshine and heat. A few passing vehicles stopped to check if we were ok! We then decided to turn around and walk back through the grass, Gary in the centre and I took the far flank. I found a pale lark out on the sand to my right, which at first I thought was just another sandy Desert Lark, but something wasn't quite right. By now Gary was some way ahead, but I wanted a closer look so followed it out into the desert. Once I got about 50m out it flew high over my head singing and then dropped in the grass (I later realised it did this to take me away from its nest!). I still wasn't sure but Gary, having got about 250m in front looked around to see where I'd gone so I gestured that he better come back. I waited patiently as he walked back in the heat and explained what I'd seen - I still wasn't sure it was anything different, but it just felt odd. We carefully walked into the grass and I found it again running from clump to clump. This time with the sun behind me it was clear - it was an African Dunn's Lark!  Over the next 45 minutes we managed to get great views by carefully stalking it through the grass and predicting where it would emerge. It occasionally gave a burst of song flight high overhead, but always returned to the same area.

African Dunn's Lark
African Dunn's Lark
African Dunn's Lark
Delighted with our morning's haul we drove the remaining distance to Lake Merzouga, arriving at 16:30. There were large numbers of birds in, on and around the lake and we enjoyed the evening watching from a range of viewpoints. We did attract some fossil sellers attention, but fortunately Gary (The Magpie) can't resist anything shiny and the thought of taking some interesting fossilised trilobites home for the boys ensured I was left alone to enjoy the birding.

10 White Stork, 10 Grey Heron, 1 Purple Heron, 3 Squacco Heron, 2 Great-white Egret, 40 Little Egret, 2 Spoonbill and 400 Greater Flamingo represented the larger wading birds. 350 Ruddy Shelduck, 200 Marbled Duck, 20 Ferruginous Duck and 600 Common Coot provided wildfowl interest and 15 Gull-billed and 2 Black Tern hawked insects over the water. There were also good numbers and variety of waders which included 15 Kentish Plover, 2 Common Sandpiper, 12 Wood Sandpiper, 4 Curlew Sandpiper, 1 Ruff, 1 Black-tailed Godwit, 4 Avocet, 50 Black-winged Stilt and 5 Collared Pratincole. There were 6 Marsh Harrier over the reedbeds and 30 Yellow Wagtail were mainly iberiae and a single thunbergi. As we headed back north along the edge of the dunes the various hotel gardens produced 2 Spotted Flycatcher, a smart male Pied Flycatcher, 1 Whinchat, 1 Common Redstart and 20 European Bee Eater before darkness finally fell on an extraordinary day. We arrived back at Cafe Yasmina and were greeted by a brief fly past of the Egyptian Nightjar. 

What a numpty! A beached 4x4 on top of the dunes.

Next morning I was up at dawn and out in the Tamarisks behind the hotel. Over the next couple of hours we found 2 Common Redstart, 2 male Pied Flycatcher (both carefull checked), 4 Spotted Flycatcher, 2 Garden Warbler, 1 Wood Warbler, 1 Willow Warbler, 6 Western Bonelli's Warbler, 2 Blackcap and a Whinchat. The presence of 4 Olivaceous Warblers allowed close comparison and proved three to be Western but one was a 'Saharan' Eastern Olivaceous Warbler. 

Male Pied Flycatcher against the Saharan sand
Beetle footprints in the sand

We departed after breakfast checking the Auberge Erg Chebbi area finding 2 White-crowned Wheatear and 30 House Sparrow, but no sign of the hoped for Desert Sparrows. We next stopped at Rissani and walked along the dry wadi. Four stunning Blue-cheeked Bee Eater were feeding and courting.

2 Hoopoe, 12 Turtle Dove and 25 Common Bulbul were recorded before a roving group of 3 Fulvous Babbler flew across the wadi and disappeared into the school garden. In the Tamarisks by the road we found 4 superb singing 'Saharan' Eastern Olivaceous Warbler 

'Saharan' Eastern Olivaceous Warbler
Leaving Rissani we drove part of the Circuit Touristique around the many green and fertile farm fields and orchards. Here we easily found 2 Rufous Bush Chat, 1 Western Olivaceous Warbler, 3 Crested Lark, 2 White-crowned Black Wheatear lots of Turtle Dove and a Serin.

Rufous Bush Chat
We followed notes in the Gosney guide to the infamous rock cliffs to the west of Rissani. We were led to expect a certain amount of 'interest' at this site, with people looking after your car and 'guiding' you to the viewing area, but in the event we were the only people there and enjoyed the peace and quiet of this interesting area. In the tamarisks along the wadi we found one each of Pied Flycatcher, Black Redstart, Spotted Flycatcher, Whinchat, Temminck's Lark, Kestrel and Bonelli's Warbler, 5 White-crowned Black Wheatear, and 50 Brown-necked Raven. The star objective was easily found - a wonderful pair of Pharoah Eagle Owl, the male on its cliffside roost and the female sitting on the nest - both respectfully scoped from a reasonable distance.

Male Pharoah Eagle Owl
Female Pharoah Eagle Owl on the nest

We then drove north to Er Rachidia checking the sites at km43 and km48 on the N10. As we travelled out to these sites we passed a huge Houbara Bustard 'farm' where arab falconers raise hundreds of these prized prey birds to be released into the wild. We couldn't help but wonder about the parentage of these birds - had they come originally from North Africa or potentially from the Middle East (where they are actually a different species McQueen's Bustard). We also wondered where our bird had originated - was it one of the last remaining wild birds or was it a released one?

Driving to the two sites produced another Northern Wheatear, 10 White-crowned Black Wheatear, 5 Desert Wheatear and a Seebohm's Wheatear and 4 Bar-tailed Desert Lark. At km48 we found a number of migrants including a Pied Flycatcher, a Spotted Flycatcher, a Wryneck, 2 Common Whitethroat, 1 Western Bonelli's Warbler, 4 Willow Warbler and a Melodious Warbler. Also present were 3 Fulvous Babbler, which finally gave good views, and a Southern Grey Shrike nest in a tiny acacia. 

Fulvous Babbler
At km43 we found 6 Southern Grey Shrike, 1 Woodchat Shrike, 2 Whinchat, a Thick-billed Lark, 10 Bar-tailed Desert Lark, 14 Crowned Sandgrouse, 1 Desert Wheatear and three more Fulvous Babbler. As we walked back to the car I caught brief sight of a sandgrouse dropping into the thick vegetation. We tried to work toward where it landed hoping to flush it and get an identification. But we seemed to walk right past without further incident. However as we turned to the car Gary flushed a small warbler - following its path and closing in we uncovered 3 super Scrub Warbler of the local saharae race. They gave great views and set us on the next leg of our journey to Midelt, where we found a Moroccan Fort style hotel for the night.

Scrub Warbler, km43