Thursday 27 February 2014

The power of Sociagull media

I've been working in Glasgow. Not twitching round Scotland, as some of you may think. Anyhow, being holed up in my plush hotel gets a little dull, so what better to liven things up than a quick look at some Gull feather tracts. Mmmmm. Whilst in Morocco, Mick had showed me some topography photos that he had recently marked up and put on the web. You can see the originals here, but it was the work of moments to do this to the first one:

Oh how I sniggered....It is a long-running joke between us that our views on Gulls are entirely opposed. I view them as scabby old shitebirds, he worships the ground they loaf on. So, utterly stealing his fine work, scribbling on it, and then whacking it up on twitter was clearly the only thing to do.

As of right now, it has been retweeted to an astonishing 44 thousand people, and that number is increasing all the time. Social media, whatever you might think about it, can be rather impressive sometimes. It proves what I have always known though, which is that it is not just me that is anti-Larid. It's a perfectly normal stance. Lesser scapulars mirrors? No thanks, it's a Seagull. There are of course different species of Seagull, but that's when it starts getting a bit complex. To further your ID knowledge, the above is a Big Seagull.

Wednesday 26 February 2014


As I mentioned earlier, my plans this past weekend worked out to perfection. The right amount of firmness, the right amount of flexibility, and I got it spot on. Now we all know that congratulating someone on successfully steering a car to a pre-ordained location is not necessarily worthy of high praise, but in this instance I perhaps deserve a small amount of credit for the logistical aspects. One of these was placing myself at Strontian for dawn, which meant a night in the car during one of the worst storms I can remember. Highly uncomfortable, very cold, and as such not a great sleep. Though at first it wasn't looking positive, I was rewarded by good views of the Black Duck after about an hour of searching. I looked at it for long enough to eliminate hybrids and properly confirm the ID. Happy, I took some dodgy phone-scoped record shots, tweeted the news out which I knew the info services would pick up on, and set off on the long drive to Campbeltown.

Imagine my surprise when during the afternoon a revised message came out "No sign Black Duck Strontian 09:15-13:45. Earlier report may have been erroneous." Erroneous my arse. WTF? I have no idea who the disillusioned twitchers who spent five hours not finding it were, but I'm not impressed. Not unimpressed that they couldn't find it, birds do sometimes annoyingly disappear (take a certain Ross's Gull for example...), but unimpressed that their presumption was that it if they didn't see it, it wasn't there at all. Sorry but that's bullshit. As somebody said to me regarding the Gull, shame you didn't get up earlier. Quite. Did you see me rubbishing the early morning sighting? You did not. So whoever you are, fuck you, and I'm glad you dipped. Next time get up earlier. FFS. I called the pager people back to set the record straight, and then ticked off American Herring Gull. Or maybe I made that up as well.

Black Duck

Monday 24 February 2014

Mirror mirror on the wall...

Mirror mirror on the wall, which is the shittest of them all? Don't get me wrong, tick-hungry fiend that I sometimes am (and am at this very moment), I had a pretty sensational weekend, but the birds themselves were all pretty rank. An American Coot, a Black Duck, and an American Herring Gull might all be pretty damn rare, but they're also pretty damn boring. In pure numbers, the Coot is right up there when it comes to rarity value, with a mere six records in the UK. Occupying second spot is the Gull, with 27 accepted records to date. And in third place, almost a dross bird, is the Duck, with 39 UK instances. So which is the real mega? I honestly could not choose between them. All were equally shit, proving what everyboody has known for a long time - that twitching is a mug's game and birds should not be reduced to numbers as it makes a mockery of what is a great and very rewarding hobby for socially awkward people and retards.

Not falling into either of the above categories, I thought I would put the question out there to my three readers. Which is the crappiest bird of the three? And the question is literally out there, up at the top on the right, nothing like a bit of audience participation. I'd be genuinely interested to find out what other people think. Although I enjoyed my weekend immensely, gaining levels of satisfaction usually reserved only for utter losers, at times I could not help but feel that I was just going through the motions. None of the birds excited me in the slightest, they were numbers only and I don't mind admitting it. The thrills came purely from the logistics, and the successful executing of a plan. This may sound overly formal and business-like, but I defy any birder with a list to deny the truth of this. The excitement is very often in the planning and following through of that plan, rather than in the birds themselves. And never more so than in the case of this particular trio, none of which got the juices flowing very much if I'm honest. The Coot was a given, the Duck more difficult than I anticipated, and the Gull the trickiest, as I had always thought it would be. And this is where I gained the most, as connecting with it was never guaranteed, and it was the subtlest of the three. There wasn't a shadow of doubt with the first two, but the Gull was very hard work. Scanning, getting excited, discarding. Wading through cow shit to get to a vantage point. Finding White-wingers. Going through hundreds of Gulls, and finally getting on it, still doubtful. Much as I hate Gullage, it can can be very satisfying when you actually work one out.

Of course, whilst the weekend was all about the potential (and actual) tickfest, I was also in Scotland, birding my heart out. I got something like 30 year ticks, and had some memorable wildlife encounters, some of which I'll revisit. I love the place. Friday in the concrete jungle of Canary Wharf, Saturday morning lying in heather with snow-capped peaks all around. Snow Geese in massive flocks of White-fronts. Hooded Crow the default. Crested Tits and Red Grouse. A White-tailed Eagle on the Argyll coastal route, flapping lazily over the choppy sea. An Iceland Gull landing in my view finder. Flocks of chuntering Eider in the harbours and squeaking Black Guillemots. Violent weather and amazing landscapes. Inescapably Scotland, and I wish I'd had longer to do it justice and elevate it from pure twitchery. Still, 415 now, and that's what it's all about. Err....

Triple whammy

I am lying, exhausted, on a hotel bed in Glasgow. I have spent the past 36 hours relentlessly driving round the Scotland adding American things to my list, and it has been a great success. I didn't actually come for birds at all, I came for work, but decided that rather than fly up on Monday I would arrive on Saturday instead. No reason really, just felt like it.


So, American Coot then. The one I said that if I twitched it, to shoot me. Yes, that one. In my defence it was on the way from the airport to the Black Duck. Well, if you took a wrong turn it was. I spent a good three minutes contemplating its inner beauty, and then went south and amused myself on Speyside for the afternoon. I finished up on Cairngorm trying and failing for Ptarmigan in increasingly poor weather.

Then the long trek south-west to the Ardnarmuchan peninsula for the long-staying Black Duck at Strontian. I missed the last ferry of the day and had to go the long way around, but finally got there in foul weather for around 9pm. My hotel for the night was the luxuriously appointed "Picasso C4", which on reflection was probably a saving too far. The buffeting of the wind was incredible, and I had to turn the car on every hour simply in order to stay alive. Somehow I made it through the night, and awoke to continuing horizontal rain and stupidly strong wind. Drove the mile or so into the village to start the hunt but every time I opened the window even a fraction the car filled with water. I found three Mallard, and then another two, but it wasn't until there was a short let-up that the Black Duck appeared in the company of another Mallard, crossing the mouth of the river and then hauling itself up onto the shore where it was quite difficult to scope.

Next stop the Mull of Kintyre! When I had been planning this trip, all I had had in mind were the Coot and the Duck - a fabulous duo. Not long before I left an American Herring Gull had been found near Campbeltown, and I figured that eve though I only had a very short time, if I got the Duck either last knockings on Saturday or first thing Sunday, I had a chance at it. A long and slow drive (I did 520 miles this weekend, which took about 15 hours, much of it in the dark and in atrocious weather). I had a quick stop in Oban, and another at Tayinloan where the Snow Geese in with White-fronts were a doddle, and arrived in Campbeltown just after lunch, which in my case was a Double Decker - I would need every ounce of its magic.

It seemed to be working, as the sun came out and then I quite quickly found a field near the airport with a load of large gulls in it, including a 2w Iceland type. Nothing standing out though, so I went and tried the harbour, again without success. Back in the fields, it seemed that the Gulls could be in a depression I couldn't see into, so I abandoned the car and headed up to the Macrihanish Beacon which is a good vantage point. From here I located another/the same Iceland Gull, but more interestingly located a couple of cars on a track looking intently at a flooded field. Find the birders, find the bird... Too far away to get anything meaningful on thr birds, but managed to work out how there got where they were by trial and error, but when scanning couldn't pick it out. I went through them again and again, eliminating darker juveniles that looked the same. And suddenly there it was, the asleep one. The strong wind had been blowing the breast feathers to one side, so it looked lighter than it in fact was. Had to wait a while for it to stand up, but when it did, kerching! The Treble! Record shots only, ditto with the duck which I had to phone scope, but I think shows what it is.

So, another two tick day, and a three tick weekend filled with birds. I love it when a plan comes together! OK, so all the birds are pretty bland - essentially a Coot, a Mallard and a Herring Gull - but if you're going to see them far better to do it in one hit rather than make several lengthy journeys.

Wednesday 19 February 2014

Gulls eh?

Gulls, who would have 'em? Not me it would appear. In addition to dipping the Ross's Gull at the weekend, I also managed to dip Med Gull on Wanstead Flats on Monday morning. The Ross's Gull never reappeared, but on Tuesday (when of course I didn't look!) there were two Med Gulls on the Flats. This morning? You got it.

At Anza, which is a stinking cesspit of fish guts and other choice floating things, even I couldn't fail to see Gulls. If anything there were too many of them, probably 95% Lesser Black-backed, the rest being Yellow-legged. And all of them horrible. Still, with no other real ideas, and wanting to ensure that Mick enjoyed at least some of the trip (Bald Ibis are ugly, Stonechats are boring, Serins suck, Little Owls whatever....) we stuck it out for the morning. Maybe I should have joined Richard in the car with a towel over his head?

Oh, as an aside, I find myself unable to recommend Camel. Gave me the right hump.... At our second night south of Guelmin I asked what was for dinner and was told "Tagine Dromadaire". Clearly I know what a Dromedary is, but I was hoping that this was just something along local naming lines. You know, like Welsh Rarebit, or Fisherman's Pie, neither of which contain under-cooked Welsh people or Fishermen. Unfortunately Tagine Dromadaire is exactly what it says on the tin, and it's bloody horrible. I'd chuck it at a Gull, but I wouldn't eat it again. Horrible fatty lumps, rough as you like. I forced it down, but FFS. In Morocco what I really recommend are the oranges. You basically know what you're getting with an orange, and you know you didn't just pass a bloke offering tourists rides on it.

Anyway, have a few Gulls. It doesn't happen often so be thankful. It was a fun couple of hours, but I don't think I'll be rushing back to Anza any time soon. The desert on the other hand, now there's a place I could spend a little more time.

Sunday 16 February 2014

Er mywn fuck

Flush with success from yesterday, I have perhaps pushed the envelope too far. A big dip. This does not happen often and I am smarting. Left London at 5.30am, Port Talbot at 9am. Unfortunately the Ross's Gull does not know this, and departs the beach some fifteen minutes before we get there, not to be seen again for the rest of the day. I hate dipping, and I hate dipping even more when the bird has actually been present. What a bummer, 400 miles there and back, for a total of over 1000 for the weekend. You have to love twitching. I blame Shaun. Nick and I never dip, the only change to the usual routine is the only explanation for our failure. Arse.

We had a nice day stood around in the sunshine, half hoping that the bird would suddenly reappear. We imagined half-overheard conversations between locals, complete with dod-gy Welsh accents....

"Gareth, it's Dai! I've got it! It's on the beach with its foot stuck under a rock, it can't move!"

"Gethyn! Just spoken to Glynn, he's watching it now! Yes, down by the breakwater. He says there's something wrong with its wings! No, no, it's not going anywhere."

"Iestyn, have you heard?! The Ross's Gull is flapping feebly on the beach near the car park. Yes, the car park two minutes from where you're standing!

Needless to say none of these conversations happened, there was no happy ending, and gradually people drifted away. We did too after five fruitless hours, although various Little and Med Gulls were nice diversions. Gutting that it didn't follow the pattern of yesterday, when it was present all afternoon. That was my original plan actually, Glamorgan yesterday, Durham today. If only. Didn't fancy the weather and decided to reverse the order. Shit happens. Still, any weekend where I've seen a Yellow-rumped Warbler can scarcely be described a a failure can it?

Today wasn't a total failure anyway, as we stopped in Gloucestershire on the way back for Nick. Normally we drive right past all the dross birds that he needs, but this was a Red-flanked Bluetail, and even though it pained me to do so, we decided to stop and have a look. The bird showed brilliantly, would that we had been there all day rather than staring dejectedly at a welsh beach. My fourth Bluetail, and they're such quality birds. No photos as we got there rather late, and the only reason we saw the bird is that I cracked open a Double Decker, as just like the Gull it had flown off just before we got there. Perhaps I should have tried that at Port Talbot?

So, a rare dip, but I guess that overall I do pretty well. So let's all try and forget this little blemish and move on. Bet it'll be there tomorrow....

Saturday 15 February 2014

Back on the tick trail

So far this year I've either been at work, in Morocco, or glued to Photoshop. Any thoughts of filthy twitchery have been very far away indeed, and compared to the back end of last year when they came at a rate of knots and I was quite happy to follow them round cleaning up, this year I've not felt remotely inclined to go anywhere other than Gatwick's north terminal. Take, for example, the American Coot all the way up in Inverness. Many people filthier than me have of course already been up for it, but I have resisted superbly. Similarly a pet Heron at Hythe, that bastion of Kentish Ardeidae fence-hopping, has held no interest for me either. No, I have been content with the simple life, supping Champagne in airport lounges, and scouring the warm Moroccan deserts for Wheatears and Larks.

Today all that changed at the instigation of proud new father Bradders, whose daughter insisted that he drive to Durham to add Yellow-rumped Warbler to his list. Though only three weeks old, she could not bear the shame of American Coot showing up as his most recent tick on his blog. He needed a map-reader of course, so I was only too happy to help out sleep in the back seat whilst James L and Crofty plotted our course. We stopped at the truck stop of dreams at Scotch Corner for the largest baps known to humanity, and found ourselves in a housing estate outside Durham for roughly half nine. Apparently over a thousand slackers birders had already passed through during the busy working week, so although this was the first Saturday of this Yank mega there weren't very many people there at all, and certainly none of the idiotic stampeding panic that can sometimes overtake these events.

Got some great views of this american dirt bird through the scope, but it never really paraded it, and in any event the light was shocking. Morocco it certainly wasn't, but a tick is a tick, and no complaints especially as I got the equivalent of a full night's sleep on the way up there and back. Cheers for the driving Bradders! So I'm back on the tick trail, and the next one may come sooner than I expect, as I have to do some work in my Glasgow office. American Coot?!! Where?!! Where?!!

A small number of well-adjusted people....

Friday 14 February 2014

Will you be considering Jesus tonight?

Standing outside a zone three tube station freezing your proverbials off in order to evangelise a bunch of unevangelisable London commuters whose only interest is in getting home takes some dedication. I was actually quite impressed. Not impressed enough to stop walking, naturally, but impressed also by the politeness of the enquiry. None of this in your face "Jesus can save you!", but merely a quiet question. Would I be considering Jesus tonight? I thought about it briefly, and decided that no, on balance, and just like every other night, I wouldn't be. But I felt compelled to tell him, especially seeing as everyone else was ignoring him, that I would be considering wine as an alternative. And did he have any? 

No, he didn't. This doesn't make me anti-Christian you understand, just tired and thirsty. I am utterly disinterested in all religions in equal measure, but I am fascinated by the ability of the word of God to compel people to do really bizarre things. From blowing themselves up all the way through to the extremes of standing around outside tube stations muttering quietly. I have to say that 8pm on a dark, wet and windy night does not strike me as the best the time to have a go at converting people, and I'd imagine his success rate, if getting a "tick" is the measure, was bang on zero. Maybe it's just the taking part, and if so, good luck to him. Personally I reckon he'd do a bit better in Berkshire and Surrey, as things are beginning to look a little biblical there. What do you mean Somerset? Where's that? Honestly.

Talking of things biblical, here's a Quail. In the desert no less. Manna from heaven, as they say.

Monday 10 February 2014

The Dream of Geronticus

I am still slightly in shock from having photographed Bald Ibis. This is a species of which less than a thousand survive in the wild, and had it not been for last minute conservation efforts, that number might be zero. We had decided to rely upon local knowledge to both find the birds and to get us up close, having read in trip reports about guides allowing birders to drive offroad to get closer to the birds in their 4x4s. When we spotted a couple soaring over our campsite about a quarter of an hour before we were due to meet our guide for the day, we wondered if we hadn't chucked the cash down the drain. We hadn't. The flocks of Ibis are apparently quite mobile, but for the three days preceding our arrival a flock of about a hundred had been visiting the same area in which to feed. This was coincidentally right next to where we had been staying, though of course we hadn't know that as we had arrived in the dark. The following morning we drove for about two minutes, if that, before the guide motioned for us to stop, and there they were in an enclosed area. Because of erosion, the whole area had been closed off off and planted with plants that would hold the soil together, and fencing this off protected these plants from being eaten by goats and sheep. Despite being voracious photographers obsessed with getting high quality (i.e. close) shots, we would never have considered going over the fence, so we were surprised when Ahmed starting bending down the barbed wire for us. Get in, so to speak. The next hour was wonderful (if you were me or Richard, less so if you were Mick who refused to even pick up his camera on the basis that the birds were UGLY. Unlike GULLS...) and we enjoyed an experience that was unlike any I had been expecting, with ridiculously close views. Easily worth the money (well under under £20) and so much the better that at least some of it goes towards local conservation. The birds were not tame, and flushed pretty easily, but with care they would walk right past you, and if you worked it right, would also fly right past you. The stuff dreams are made of. It also so happens that Bald Ibis was my 501st Western Pal bird. Not being a big lister I had no idea about this until I returned and whacked it up on Bubo. Not that this is significant in any way, many people have seen that in the UK alone, but it is a nice round number, and likely the only round number that any birding list of mine will see this year.

Saturday 8 February 2014

Morocco Trip Report - February 2014

Oooh, look, a proper trip report! With a list and everything. There is not much to say other than that Morocco is an amazing birding destination. This was my third trip, and I have already booked again it's so good. The aim of the trip was twofold; take as many high-quality photos as possible, and get a few Western Pal ticks on the way. I'm posting the majority of my resulting images here.

  • A 5 day trip in early February, Saturday to Tuesday, with Mick S and Richard S.
  • Birded the arid area south of Guelmin, and the Oued Massa near Agadir.
  • BA flight from Gatwick departs 0650 on Saturday arriving 1015 local time (there is no time difference), costing about £220 at the time of booking. Left the car at the Long-term car park for about seven quid a day.
  • Return flight is at 1825. Easyjet option exists at similar times for about £150.
  • Car hire via MedLoc, a local company. They do cheapo normal cars for 22 Euro a day, or a Mitsubishi Pajero for 85 Euro a day. Depending on how many people are splitting the bill, this is a great option for properly exploring the desert, and three up, this is what I did this time. Driving in Morocco requires great vigilance by the way, you are assailed from all directions. In addition the traffic police are out to get you(r money).
  • Accomodation was booked for the first two nights at Tichmert, SE of Guelmin on the N12 to Assa. This was the Chambres d'Hotes Nomades, where a three bed room including dinner cost approximately £16 per night each, which is astonishing. We made it up as we went along for the following two nights, details below.
  • We used the two Gosney guides as a starter for ten to find birding sites.
  • A Marco-Polo map of Morocco proved nearly useless, with roads in the wrong place. The scale for the southern part of the country was smaller than that for the north, and thus even more useless. We used it to plan a rough itinerary, but not for detail. Far better to cache detailed maps of the areas you plan to visit in your phone before you leave. Or just make it up as you go along.
  • We used my phone as a GPS when we went off-piste, but you can easily navigate by the sun provided you know how the major roads lie. GPS burns up the battery, so take a car charger.
  • Two-way radios were worth their weight in gold for keeping in touch in the desert and in the Massa. We used some fairly robust Kenwood ProTalks.
  • We had one real meal per day in the evening, and subsisted on oranges, bananas and bread the rest of the time. The oranges in particular are fabulous, and the best we found were being sold just outside Agadir as you approach from Marrakech.
Day 1
Landed at Marrakech right on time, and having hand luggage only, was out and sorting out the car within 20 minutes. Half an hour after that Mick and Richard turned up on the Easyjet flight and we were on the road west, connecting with the A7 Autoroute south-west to Agadir after about 40km. This stretch is a toll road costing 60 Dirhams, is about 200 km, and takes two hours. We had decided to get to our furthest point on day one however, so carried on beyond Agadir and down to Guelmin, a further 200km on the N1, and another three hours. All told we covered 450km, which took us until dusk. A couple of stops to investigate roadside birds and buy supplies probably ate up an hour, so don't expect much on day one. A word of warning - some of the police near a smaller settlement called Lakhssas in the Anti Atlas are somewhat corrupt - we were stopped for speeding, 92kph in an 80 zone. Very genial, they accepted a lowered amount which went straight into their pockets, but when we returned along the same road a couple of days later (much more cautiously!), we discovered the reason for our downfall - the 80kph speed limit sign had been carefully laid on it's side...much swearing. Anyhow, we found the accommodation reasonably easily, it's signposted from just after the large roundabout on the outskirts of Guelmin, and then again where you need to turn off. A series of white arrows painted on the walls then guide you through a maze of narrow alleyways to the middle of the Oasis. Top rate accommodation for the price, and very welcoming - amazingly had wifi. There are several places you could stay here, all signposted from the road as it goes past Tichmert. Alternatively there is very large hotel on the north eastern outskirts of Guelmin, which you cannot fail to spot as you drive in from Marrakech.

Day 2
Oversleeping, we were disappointed to miss sunrise in the desert, but made the fabled "22km Post" (literally a small stone distance marker) on the N1 south to Tan Tan by about 0830. Dawn long gone, but the first bird we saw was a Lanner Falcon perched on the side of the road, so the day was going well. The weather wasn't exactly as we had hoped, but the cloud cover meant in fact that we could take photographs for longer, as on a clear day the light is incredibly harsh by about 1030. Birds in this area, west of the road, included at least four Thick-billed Larks, two pairs of Red-rumped Wheatears, and several Temminck's Larks, and we spent the entire morning here trying to get decent shots. Once the possibilities here had been exhausted, we took the track running west and up the hill from the obvious white sign. Although this soon petered out, the Pajero made short work of blazing a new trail, and we soon bumped into Long-legged BuzzardGreat Grey Shrike, Trumpeter Finches, and several Desert Larks. A few more images here, and then we headed vaguely north-west, with a view to connecting with the road that runs east of Guelmin towards Echatea Ei Abied (this road is the first major left turn off the N12 from if driving north from Guelmin), and leads to the northern end of the fabled Plage Blanche albeit at the other side of a river. On a map this is the next river north of the Oued Draa. We stopped at several locations in the desert as we went cross country in this way, finding many more Red-rumped Wheatear, a pair of Desert Wheatear, Spectacled Warbler, Hoopoe Lark, and loads of Desert Larks. Eventually we hit the road that led west, and followed it all the way to the coast, where we found an inpromptu campervan roost on a bluff, and a few Waders on the pools below the cliffs. A number of Gulls were loafing on the river mouth, including Slender-billed and somewhat bizarrely a Ring-billed Gull, which Mick picked out while I was answering the call of nature - there is no stopping him! This is presumably a rarity in Morocco, so I was a bit gutted to miss it. But when you gotta go, you gotta go! Caspian Terns, Kentish Plover, Sanderlings and Grey Plover on the beach. The Atlantic was raging, and the inclement weather was holding a thick layer of cloud over the coastal hills. With the light therefore poor, we decided to head back east to where it appeared brighter. Waylaid by incredibly photogenic Black Wheatears where the road cuts through the hills, by the time we made it back to Guelmin it was practically dusk and out day was over. Another nice meal at Nomades, and a dribble of a shower to rid myself of the dust. 

Day 3
This time we set an alarm, and were at the "Tan Tan 100km" marker (per Gosney) for sun-rise. This is only about 10km further south down the N1 than the previous day's area. The guide suggests walking north one or two miles from here, so we left the car a suitable distance away from the road and set off on foot. Enormous quantities of Bar-tailed Desert Lark, but we didn't find this area as productive for photography as "22km".

We spent three hours combing the area, probably going a lot further than the distance suggested. Quite a few Red-rumped Wheatear and Temminck's Lark, some flyover Thick-billed Lark, and heard-only Black-bellied Sandgrouse that appeared to come from a static location but could not be located. Richard found a Fulvous Babbler whilst being hassled by a pack of feral dogs, and this proved to be the only one of the trip. I enjoyed the Larks, and with no sign of the others returned to the car, contacting them by radio to work out where they were. Soon picked them up and we decided to point the car in a random direction and see if we could locate any Sandgrouse, and the real target, Courser. This proved to be a stunning success, with a flock of 13 Black-bellied Sandgrouse in an area that was being used for agriculture just to the east of the obvious line of higher hills that run north-south. Through bins, a slightly smaller bird stood out with a white breast - a Pin-tailed Sandgrouse. We followed them across the desert via some very fun driving, but they were highly flighty and we never got anywhere near them. Continuing on ur way, randomly, we reached a drier stony gravel plain, and Mick's sharp eyes picked up a pair of Cream-coloured Courser. These too proved uninclined to pose for images, so we nabbed a few shots out of the car windows. Our plan at the beginning of the morning had been to leave the desert no later than 11am in order to drive during the heat of the day and hit the Oued Massa for the nicer light in the afternoon, but of course we blew it, and when we finally hit the main road at about the 27km mark, it was roughly midday. I estimate that we drove a 15-20km loop clockwise from the N1. Although behind schedule, we decided to stop at site mentioned by Gosney for Scrub Warbler, along the Oued Boukila about 10km south of Guelmin, near the water treatment site. These were very elusive, but we eventually got some decent views in the bushes west of the road. If I ever decide to complete my "Bird of Morocco" this could be a site I revisit.

The drive back through Guelmin, via Tiznit, probably took around three hours, and we pulled into the village of Massa at around 4pm. The light was lovely, and we started our search for Black-crowned Tchagra by driving the small sandy lanes between the village and the river. This is a very fertile area with many small crop fields mainly growing fodder for animals - it reminded me of St Martins on Scilly. With the song firmly in our heads we soon heard Tchagra, and had some wonderful views of this shy bird whilst not getting any clean images. Also at this location were many Common Bulbul, a Hoopoe, Laughing Doves and a Little Owl. We split up for a spot of photography, and I took a narrow thoroughfare that led through the fields back towards the village. Lots of very friendly residents were wanting to know about the camera, and so the birding wasn't as productive as I had hoped! Heaps of Stonechat, Serin, Zitting Cisticola everywhere, and a roving flock of Cattle Egret. Lots of Swallows overhead, and the occasional Brown-throated Martin. Wonderful light that unfortunately ended very quickly such was our late arrival. We had no accomodation booked, but lucked out by finding the Sidi Wassay campsite at the mouth of the Massa on the southern side. This was found by using the Gosney, albeit it with no expectation of being able to stay there, but it turned out that they have five very small bungalows that sleep two each. Although the campsite was full to bursting with enormous French campervans, we secured two of these hobbit-like dwellings for the equivalent of £13 each. Dinner was a further £6 each, but was pretty unimpressive. We didn't care, and had a great sleep as the Atlantic crashed against the shore a few metres away. Excellent hot showers, and electricity for recharging cameras, phones and radios.

Day 4
The previous evening we had randomly met Brahim at the campsite, a guide at the Souss Massa reserve and President of an ornithology group. He had offered to show us Bald Ibis for free, but only at 10am as he had a few things to do. Though this was very nice of him, given we preferred to start early he sorted a guide for us called Ahmed, who would meet us at 8am. This cost us £50, for the entire day, although we ended up parting ways at 3pm so we could concentrate on photography.

We were up early and went for a walk on the beach. The weather had calmed down overnight, and we found Ringed Plover, Grey Plover, Whimbrel and Sanderling on the rocky shore and sand. As we returned to the campsite to meet Ahmed, I spotted a group of unidentifiable Ibis flying away - there are also Glossy Ibis here, so Bald Ibis is not necessarily the default. As we were packing up, two more Ibis circled overhead allowing a proper view - Bald! Who needs a guide?! Too late now, and Ahmed was right on time, jumping in our car. We drove all of about a minute along the road back to Massa, before he stopped us and pointed - a group of about a dozen Bald Ibis feeding in a scrubby field near the road. Although relatively mobile, fortune was on our side as they had apparently been feeding in this area the past four days. We were invited into the field, which we would not have done on our own as it was surrounded by barbed wire to prevent access, and enjoyed brilliant views for about an hour - there were over 110 birds probing the sandy soil. Although we hadn't needed a guide at all, this immediately justified the meagre expense.

Other birds in this area included a group of 60 Stone-curlew, Common Swift and Crag Martin. Ahmed took us back through the Massa via a ford over the river - Brown-throated Martin, Kingfisher, and three more Tchagra - I got some better images here. We had explained our photography agenda, and so he was quite happy to have an easy day lounging around and having the odd cigarette before giving us directions to the next area, which was the northern side of where the Massa reaches the sea. Here a group of Glossy Ibis fed in the shallows, along with Moroccan Cormorant, a single Flamingo, various Waders and Gulls, and an Osprey. Further out on the beach, impressive groups of Gulls were loafing - primarily Lesser Black-backs and Yellow Legged, but with a fair few Audouin's  - many of them ringed. This got Mick's juices flowing far more than approximately a sixth of the entire population of the critically endangered Bald Ibis!

Ahmed then showed us an area for Barbary Partridge on the slopes above the river, in a scrubby area that also held many Sardinian Warbler. We soon flushed a pair, but had flight views only - good enough for the tick, but no images. IN any event the light was now terrible, and although there were also quite a few vocal Tchagra in this area, we decided to press on via some Little Owls Ahmed knew about. Some decent images taken from the car despite the light. Back in the Massa, we searched without success for Marbled Duck, finding only Coot, Tufted Duck, Little Grebe, Glossy Ibis and Cormorant. It was at this point we paid Ahmed off and decided to revisit the previous evening's spot for Tchagra. Didn't happen, but I rewalked some of the tracks I had taken and had a field day with a wonderfully friendly Stonechat. Other new birds here included fly-over Black-tailed Godwit, and a hovering Black-winged Kite that never came close enough, although it was so low that had it done so I would have absolutely smashed it. I got rather lost in the fields this time, and so as dusk fell I aimed for the nearest Mosque, which I assumed the others could also see, and guided them in with the radio.  Back out through Massa village and onto the N1, we drove to Agadir and got stuck in the rush hour. This took over an hour to get though, and after a fractious half-hour searching for non-existent hotels near a fish-processing plant at Anza, we returned the short distance to Agadir and found a three bed room for about £80 at the Suite Hotel Tilila just next to the Marina. Way more expensive than we had been hoping for, but it had been a long day and were in no mood to continue looking for the sake of a tenner or so each. Plenty of restaurants in this area, and we secured our first beers of the trip to soothe our shattered nerves. Although pricey, the apartment was all mod cons and extremely comfortable, and I had a great sleep. Richard did not, as Mick was snoring very loudly. Luckily I couldn't hear him above my own snoring though, so no worries. 

Day 5
We woke early (Richard very early!) and drove back north to Anza, soon locating the fish processing plants. To say that the atmosphere was extremely unpleasant is a massive understatement. Raw sewage mixed with fish guts is a heady mix, but the Gulls didn't care. A huge throng of Lesser Black-backs and Yellow-legged were swirling round the beach run-offs, a few Little Egret mixed in, and it was thoroughly disgusting with litter everywhere. The stench at times was unbearable. Richard, normally a Gull stalwart, retired to the car and put a coat over his head, whilst I taught Mick a thing or two about flight photography.


At around 11 we packed it in and headed back to the Autoroute to Marrakech, via a second speeding ticket, this time from two far more officious policemen who actually filled out a form - no negotiations! We attempted to find a forest to the west of the A7, but failed, and ended up driving along a barren road, the P2034 past Ichamerarne. We found many Black Wheatear along this road, but no friendly ones. With time running out, we retraced our steps, rejoined the N8 rather than the A7, and almost immediately got stopped for speeding again - to say that tourists are easy prey is an understatement. My advice is to be doing whatever the sign says when you hit the sign, as the favoured tactic from the police is to zap you exactly as you pass and are slowing down - the radar guns are very long distance and you're busted for being a fraction over before you even see them. Even then I'm no convinced they wouldn't do you anyway just because they can. This time I pretended to speak no French, offered only a credit card, and said I was late for my flight. They decided not to bother pursuing the case..... We switched back to the autoroute as soon as possible, lest I end up in a Moroccan jail. Our final hour was spent rather fruitlessly in the verdant area south-west of Marrakech. Plenty of Magpie, Great Grey Shrike and Bulbul here, but none that felt like having their photographs taken. 

We returned a very muddy and dusty car to MedLoc who were waiting for us at the airport, and breezed through check-in and "security". I smuggled beer and wine out of the lounge, and we all sat around chimping at the backs of our cameras until it was time to leave. My BA flight arrived about an hour earlier than Mick and Richard's Easyjet one, so I went and fetched the car and had a quick snooze before picking them up and returning to Kent. An excellent if knackering trip, with five new WP birds for me, and a combined trip list of just over 100. Our five day trip included three and a half days of birding, with driving about 1,400km taking up the rest of the time. Better research could probably have upped this to close to four full days, as our final afternoon was basically wasted.

Trip List (locations given for notable birds)

Ruddy Shelduck - one bird seen on banks of water treatment area south of Guelmin on N1
Tufted Duck
Barbary Partridge - 2 at mouth of Oued Massa
Quail - 3+ in fields between Massa village and the river, 1 in the desert west of 22km post
Little Grebe
Moroccan Cormorant - plenty Oued Massa
Cattle Egret
Little Egret
Grey Heron
White Stork
Glossy Ibis - plenty Oued Massa
Bald Ibis - 100+ Oued Massa

Greater Flamingo - 1 Oued Massa
Osprey - Oued Massa
Marsh Harrier - Oued Massa
Long-legged Buzzard - 1 nr Guelmin, 1 approx 2km west of 22km post
Black-winged Kite - hunting over fields near Massa village
Stone-Curlew - 60+ near Sidi Wassay
Cream-coloured Courser - a pair in the desert west of "Tan Tan 100km" marker
Little-Ringed Plover
Ringed Plover
Kentish Plover
Grey Plover
Green Sandpiper
Common Sandpiper
Black-tailed Godwit
Black-headed Gull
Slender-billed Gull - Plage Blanche and Oued Massa beach
Ring-billed Gull - Plage Blanche at Echatea Ei Abied
Yellow-legged Gull
Audouin's Gull - loafing flocks on beach near mouth of Oued Massa
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Sandwich Tern
Caspian Tern - at Echatea Ei Abied and Oued Massa beach
Black-bellied Sandgrouse - flock of 13 ~10km west of "Tan Tan 100km" marker on N1
Pin-tailed Sandgrouse - single bird with above flock
Collared Dove
Laughing Dove - several around Massa village
Little Owl
Nightjar - in the headlights approaching Sidi Wassay
Crested Lark
Thekla Lark
Desert Lark - west of 22km marker
Bar-tailed Desert Lark - west of "Tan Tan 100km" marker on N1
Thick-billed Lark - double figures west of N1 between 22km and Tan Tan markers.
Temmick's Lark - several pairs in same areas as above
Hoopoe Lark - as above
Brown-throated Martin - small numbers Massa
Crag Martin - singles, Massa
Meadow Pipit
White Wagtail
Yellow Wagtail
Black Redstart
Moussier's Redstart
White-crowned Black Wheatear - 1 at Tichmert
Black Wheatear - several about 3km east of Echatea Ei Abied, and 10-30km along the P2034 west of the A7 
Desert Wheater - a few pairs west of the N1 below Guelmin
Red-rumped Wheatear - same areas as above, but much more common
Scrub Warbler - 2 about 12km south of centre of Guelmin
Sardinian Warbler
Spectacled Warbler - occasional birds in the desert
Zitting Cisticola
Cetti's Warbler
Great Grey Shrike
Black-crowned Tchagra - Massa, most numerous alongside the river at various points
Common Bulbul
Fulvous Babbler - 1 approx 1km north of "Tan Tan 100km" marker
Moroccan Magpie - most numerous close to Marrakech
Spotless Starling
House Sparrow
Spanish Sparrow
Chaffinch (africana)
Trumpeter Finch - small flocks in the desert areas
Corn Bunting
House Bunting

Friday 7 February 2014

Morocco. Again.

There be Gulls!

As you may well have guessed from the Thick-billed Lark I quickly posted up in the week, I've just returned from Morocco again. No, I deserve it. A short visit once more, but extremely profitable, and extremely amusing. In the company this time of a couple of Kent reprobates, I ended up a fair way down south in the deserts near Guelmin. A proper, in so far as I ever do proper, trip report will follow, but here are a few of the highs and lows.

- Photographing Bald Ibis, I had expected a blurry dot
- Screaming across the desert in a 4x4 and finding pretty much everything
- Not getting the shits. Yet.
- Oranges, Bananas, and Wheatears.

- Getting busted by the Police three times for speeding, including twice in a day
- 20 trillion plastic bags
- Spending a morning in close proximity to a raw sewage outlet next to a fish processing plant
- Learning where Mick has a varicose vein

A lot of driving to get down that far, but a proper adventure and I can't wait to go back, it's that good. I've been three times and each time has exceeded the last in terms of the quality of the birding, and the opportunities you get with the camera. Wanstead is a very poor relation I'm afraid. I'm still going through millions of images, but here are a couple of the Bald Ibis to give you a flavour. A full-fat WP tick, given what I would have settled for, the views exceeded my wildest expectations.

Thursday 6 February 2014

The reason for silence

Sorry, there has been another trip. More (much more) later.......

Thick-billed Lark in the Moroccan desert