Thursday, 19 March 2015

Another Med Gull at Shawell

My dinner time stop off at Shawell on Wednesday was good again this week. Amongst about a thousand Black-headed Gulls was another new adult Mediterranean Gull. 

My sightings of Mediterranean Gulls at Shawell So far in 2015:

·         Adult, near full summer plumage, February 17th (un-ringed)
·      Adult, near full summer-plumage, February 25th (Polish colour-ring)
·      Adult, near full summer-plumage, March 14th (un-ringed)
·      Second-winter, March 14th
·      Adult, full summer-plumage, March 18th (Polish colour-ring, different to one on February 25th)

Mediterranean Gull at Shawell A5 Lagoons, 18/03/15

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Iceland and Mediterranean Gulls

Today was a funny one as far as the gulls at Shawell are concerned. I called at the landfill site first thing, but it was deserted. No gulls and no rubbish trucks. It would appear that they are capping the area that has been used recently. This usually results in a lack of gulls as they drift off elsewhere in search of a meal.

At the lagoons by the A5 there was actually a reasonable collection of gulls, although not as many as normal. I scanned through the gulls on the far shore and quickly came upon a sleeping 'white-winged gull' It was clearly a juvenile Iceland Gull, but one that was shy, as it didn't want to lift its head up. I eventually got a photo showing its head to confirm it was an Iceland Gull. 

Juvenile Iceland Gull, Shawell A5 Lagoons

Juvenile Iceland Gull, Shawell A5 Lagoons

It wasn't long before the gulls got disturbed by some invisible foe and most of them flew away northwards. Many of the smaller gulls quickly returned and amongst them was an adult Mediterranean Gull. Later on I spotted a different Mediterranean Gull. This one was a sub-adult with only a very small dark patch on just one primary feather - the rest of the primaries were white like an adult.

Adult Mediterranean Gull, Shawell A5 Lagoons

Weekdays are often better for seeing large numbers of gulls at Shawell and during my brief Wednesday lunchtime session I spotted a smart looking first-winter Caspian Gull. I managed to get a bit of video of it feeding amongst the rubbish. It was quite a pale one, which is quite common at this time of year. The mantle was very silvery grey.

First-winter Caspian Gull, Cotesbach Landfill Site

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Retrospective Colour-Ring Reading

I noticed a group of gulls having a cheeky wash and brush-up in the swimming pool below our hotel room. A staff member decided to chase them off and they started to circle around in front of my balcony. My camera was to hand, so I blasted off a few images. Checking through the images later on, I was surprised to see that one of them was colour-ringed and the code was readable. It turned out that it had been ringed on the Isle of Pladda, Isle of Arran, Ayrshire, Scotland as a chick last summer.

Lesser Black-backed Gull, Agadir, Morocco - 5W1:C

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Pictures From the Desert

Our trip to Morocco coincided with the right conditions for flowers to bloom. Snow lying on the ground in the desert the week before our arrival, was obviously the catalyst for this. I checked the altitude with my GPS and was surprised that even though we were on flat ground, we were actually higher than Britain's highest mountain. According to our Moroccan guide, seeing so many wild flowers in this part of the world is a rare event.

The Desert in Bloom

A Type of Broomrape

The Suns Coming Up

The Snowy Peaks of The High Atlas Mountains

It's Cold in the Desert in the Early Morning

Monday, 9 March 2015


 February 26th Marrakech

Weather: bright and Sunny.

After clearing customs in Marrakech we changed some Euros into Dirhams and met up with the rest of the group. Outside the airport I noticed a group of raptors heading north. They were Black Kites and we estimated that there was about 250 of them. Lunch was taken in a rooftop restaurant that provided us with magnificent views of the snow-capped High Atlas Mountains and our first sightings of House Buntings and Common Bulbuls. After that we had a tour of the famous Souks, which are a large collection of workshops and small shops selling and making leather goods, carpets, metalwork, shoes and other stuff. For me seeing the men working in the cramped workshops was the highlight, as it showed just how lucky most British workers are. One man was sitting on a pile of metal and wood in a very small workshop while he sharpened a pair of scissors - he was nearly touching the ceiling. Back at the hotel, Chris Murphy, our guide, and I did some birding in the garden and saw many Pallid Swifts. Amongst the Pallids were six Little Swifts and a pale phase Booted Eagle.

House Bunting

February 27th Marrakech to Boulmane de Dades

Weather: bright and sunny.

I started the day with a bit of birding in the hotel garden. Despite it being misty the birds were active. A group of 30 Common Bulbuls were feeding noisily out in the open and a pair of Sardinian Warblers moved through the foliage close to the bulbuls. Just after 08:00 we set off towards the mountains and the Tizi n Tichka pass. The early morning mist soon cleared revealing the snowy tops of the High Atlas Mountains. Our first break of the morning gave us an opportunity to stretch our legs and do a bit of birding. A Long-legged Buzzard showed well and a group of swifts appeared - mainly Pallids but also about ten Little Swifts. The Little Swifts had a very fast and distinctive flight action and their white rumps could clearly be seen. Our next stop was at a roadside restaurant, but before having refreshments we looked for some of the our target species.  A Chaffinch was seen, but not an African one, just an ordinary European one. The next one, however, was an African Chaffinch - the first of many. 

African Chaffinch

A group of Firecrests were flitting about above our heads and I soon spotted an African Blue Tit. Chris and I stopped at a spot where we could hear a few birds and we located our first Rock Bunting. A largish bird flew through the trees and alighted on a tree trunk - it was a Levaillants Woodpecker. Luckily it stayed there long enough for Chris to fetch those who had already retired to the restaurant. 

After drinks we carried on along the road for ten minutes and stopped at a likely spot. After some searching we eventually found two smart looking Tristram's Warblers, one of which showed well as it sang from a low bush. We reached the top of the mountain pass and then continued southwards noticing how the habitat altered. The north side of the Atlas was quite green, but on the south side it was much drier and barren. During our descent from the mountains we made a stop and discovered a pair of Black Wheatears flitting about on the hillside. Sadly there was no time for any more stops, but from the mini-bus we saw our first White-crowned Wheatears.

White-crowned Wheatear

February 28th Boulmane de Dades

Weather: bright and sunny.

A few of us enjoyed a pre-breakfast walk, but there was only a few birds up and about. However, we did see our first Red-rumped Wheatear - a female. We also saw a male Black Redstart perched on a Kasbah wall.

Female Red-rumped Wheatear

After breakfast we were taken on a tour of the Tagdilt Plain (a stony desert). Quite quickly we discovered a pair of Temminck's Larks and a male Desert Wheatear. Further searching, of this unique habitat sandwiched between two snow capped mountain ranges, revealed another seven Temminck's Larks including a group of five, which came in really close. Between us we logged four Red-rumped Wheatears including three males and five more Desert Wheatears. 

We carried on birding whilst having our lunch in Boulmane and were rewarded with some more good birds. The highlights were a pair of Laughing Doves and a male Black Wheatear. We spent the afternoon in the Gorge de Dades, which is a spectacular rocky ravine. Here we saw Black Wheatears and another very obliging male Tristram's Warbler. Worryingly a number of large rocks had fallen recently and had crashed into the road causing quite a bit of damage.

High Atlas Mountains

March 1st Boulmane de Dades to Erfoud

Weather: bright and sunny.

Dawn's alarm burst into life at 06:00, but it did not wake her as she was sleeping soundly. I was already awake and studying the bird species that I hoped to see during the day. I dressed and sneaked out leaving Dawn to rest. The light from the rising sun was just enough to allow me to walk along the edge of the wide gorge. The first birds to attract my attention were a fabulous pair of Red-rumped Wheatears, but the only other birds seen were a pair of Thekla Larks.

Arriving back at our hotel I learnt that Mohamed one of our guides had fallen ill during the night, but after a few minutes he decided he would be ok. Whilst we waited an immature male Blue Rock Thrush appeared on a nearby wall. After a short delay we boarded the mini-buses and set off on our journey to the Sahara. Our first stop was at an excellent location. From a rocky plateau above the road we spotted a pair of Lanner Falcons at a nest site. Whilst watching the Lanners, our first Desert Lark landed close by and gave really good and prolonged views.

The rest of the group had stayed on the flat, so we decided to join them. Another Desert Lark was close to the mini-buses and the group had found two Trumpeter Finches, which were still in view when we arrived. As well as the finches a pair of Red-rumped Wheatears were perched on a nearby ridge and small group of Temminck's Larks scurried about in front of us. We also saw the only Northern Wheatear of the trip at this site.

Our next stop was for refreshments and while some of the group watched football, Andy, Dawn and I had a walk around the town. Amongst some unfinished buildings we found three White-crowned Wheatears and two Black Redstarts. Lots more White-crowned Wheatears were seen on buildings as we made are way to Erfoud. Several more stops were made and two new bird species were added to the list - Fulvous Babler and Bar-tailed Lark. The latter were smaller, shorter tailed and had paler underparts compared to the Desert Larks seen earlier. Other highlights included a couple of singing Spectacled Warblers and several Black Wheatears and we also saw at least four Fat Sand Rats.  

Fulvous Babler

March 2nd Erfoud

Weather: bright and sunny.

Just before 05:30 four 4x4's arrived and we piled in and set off into the desert. The first thing we did was watch the sun come up. This was spectacular, as the sky was lit up by a bright orange glow prior to the sun appearing above the horizon. 

The first bird to appear was a Brown-necked Raven that came to inspect us. At the same time Mohamed heard an African Desert Warbler singing. It was in a small desert bush and eventually it dropped onto the ground and showed really well. It was golden buff coloured on its upper parts and tail. It then flitted up on to one of the small bushes and showed off its pale yellow eyes. 

Moving on we picked up a Berber who was waiting for us. He rode on the footboard of the truck and held on to the roof rack. We stopped after a short while and he lead us to a stony area. Amongst the stones was a sleeping Egyptian Nightjar. Luckily it was facing us and out in the open. Occasionally it would open one eye, but mostly it slept peacefully. The Berber knows the area they roost in and then searches until he flushes one and then watches where it lands. 

Egyptian Nightjar

Once we had all seen the nightjar it was off again in the vehicles. All of a sudden the lead truck made an abrupt stop. Out of the window I spotted a bustard. Grabbing our scopes we leapt out of the 4x4 and could see that it was an Houbara Bustard - a near mythical species these days. We watched it until it wandered out of view. There wasn't time to even lower our binoculars, because the first of many Hoopoe Larks came into view. These smart birds put on a great display: they fly up vertically about four metres above the ground with their wings and tail spread and then close their wings and dive head first back to the ground.

Hoopoe Lark

At a small oasis we saw the first Hoopoe of the trip and a male Trumpeter Finch posed nicely for us. We also saw a Maghreb Lark, which is longer billed and paler than Crested Lark and is considered a valid species by some authorities. 

Back in the desert a small party of Thick-billed Larks teased us with a distant fly by, but we failed to find them on the deck. Whilst searching we noticed a pale wheatear with a very upright stance - it was an Isabelline Wheatear. Eventually we may have seen up to four of these birds, which are said to be rare in this area. 

Breakfast was calling, so we headed to a straw and sand built Kasbah. After refreshing ourselves it was back to the 4x4s and on the hunt again. We chanced upon a mixed group of sandgrouse, which comprised of ten Pin-tailed and two spotted Sandgrouse. Using the vehicle as a hide we were able to get close to them.

Spotted Sandgrouse

Next we had a party of eight Cream-coloured Coursers. They scurried about, but never appeared nervous of our presence. Moving on we saw some camels, so we had to stop to take photos. This put us behind the rest of the group, but I spotted a couple of larks with wide white edges to the back of their wings and luckily they landed close to the truck. Checking out the nearest one I was overjoyed to see it was a male Thick-billed Lark. In all we saw five in that area. It was time to catch up with the others, hoping they had seen some Thick-billed Larks, but on the way we chanced upon another Cream-coloured Courser. When we finally caught up with the others, they had stopped and were scoping four Thick-billed Larks of their own. We joined them and had another good look at these special larks. While we were there we also saw a female Desert Wheatear, which was good as it was our first female of the trip. Near a small Berber settlement we discovered a pair of Desert Sparrows. They were really confiding and finished off a great day in style. The last stop was at a large lake in the desert, which proved to be good. Dawn spotted a cracking male Iberian Yellow Wagtail and the other highlight for me was seeing good numbers of Ferruginous Ducks. The desert was spectacular for both birds and scenery and the massive sand dunes at Merzouga were particularly impressive.

Cream-coloured Courser

March 3rd Erfoud to Ouarzazate

Weather: bright and sunny.

I started the day with a brisk walk near our Hotel (the Palm Hotel). A single Maghreb Lark serenaded me as the sun came up and the surprise of the day was seeing about 130 Cormorants flying north. Pharaoh Eagle Owl was high on my list of wants amongst the desert species and Chris did not let me down. Just inside a large shady crack in the cliff sat a marvellous Pharaoh Eagle Owl. We heard a sandgrouse but didn't see it. White-crowned Wheatears were ubiquitous in the area and the day's total was at least 60. During and before lunch we searched for Barbary Partridges. After failing the first time, Dawn and I tried again with Andy and this time we found a couple running around between the palms. Sadly I failed to get a good look at the Moussier's Redstart seen by others, but Dawn found one on her own and confirmed it with a photograph. We finished the day at the barrage at Ouarzazate (lake). The light was fading fast, so birding proved difficult - an early morning visit would be better. One of the highlights of the day was seeing the desert carpeted with wild flowers.

Pharaoh Eagle Owl

March 4th Ouarzazate to Taroudant

Weather: a thin veil of cloud, but still warm.

A quick look around the hotel yielded a couple of Blue Rock Thrushes and a steady stream of Common Swifts. At the barrage a mixed party of waders provided us with some new birds including Wood Sandpiper and Ruff. An Osprey was another first for the trip, as was a Red-throated Pipit. Half-a-dozen Ferruginous Ducks were out on the lake along with some Shovelers. Continuing westwards we made a stop in a suitable area for Desert Lark and one was found that showed really well. This pulled the species back for those that missed the earlier ones. It's undulating and almost see-sawing flight action was delightful. A Blue Rock Thrush displayed from the cliff tops and a Spectacled Warbler sang and gave its display flight from the taller plants. As we descended down from the mountains the rocky ground gave way to stony desert. Wheatears were once again in evidence. Two Desert Wheatears were viewable from the mini-bus and a pair of Red-rumped Wheatears were located during a brief stop. The male fluttered his wings and spread his tail, as he displayed to the female. A stop at a Saffron tearoom at Taliouine proved to be an excellent choice, as there were many birds amongst the nearby trees. A pair of Hoopoes fluttered by and one landed and posed for us. A small drinking pool attracted lots of birds including two male Spanish Sparrows, some Corn Buntings and our first Goldfinches of the trip. Dave mentioned Moussier's Redstart, which we wrongly assumed was the bird from yesterday until he showed us where he had seen a pair. They took a bit of searching for, but eventually I found them - what a stunner the male is. Another brief stop to see a couple of Southern Grey Shrikes rewarded us with the sight of a pair of Fulvous Bablers feeding four well-grown chicks. The adults delivered food on a regular basis to their wing quivering family. The final bird of the day was a Black-winged Kite perched at the roadside.

Fulvous Bablers

March 5th Taroudant to Agadir

Weather: bright and sunny

Half the group went shopping during the morning in the Taroudant Soaks, whilst the rest of us went birding. Just before breakfast we climbed up onto the sun deck where we could see about forty Pallid Swifts wheeling around above us. After breakfast Chris took us to an area just outside of Taroudant where there was rough ground and isolated bushes. Two pairs of Black-winged Kites were in the area. The closest pair was nest building and the male displayed. He lifted his wings faster on the up stroke compared to the down stroke. A couple of families of Fulvous Bablers posed well as they fed on blossom. A pair of a Stone Curlews was a welcome addition to the trip list, as was a singing Quail that was actually seen by some of the group. Many Southern Grey Shrikes were seen, as well as lots of Common Bulbuls. A few Blackcaps and Chiffchaffs were flicking about and four Sardinian Warblers were seen well. The star warbler for me though was a fine male Western Sub-alpine Warbler. However, the star bird of the morning was Black-crowned Tchagra. Another new bird for the trip was an adult Woodchat Shrike. As we wandered back to the minibuses we flushed a pair of Barbary Partridges. 

Black-crowned Tchagra

We returned to the hotel to collect the rest of the team and just after 11:00 we set off on the last part of our journey. We were heading to Agadir, but not before having a planned stop just north of there to look for Bald Ibis. We stopped for lunch at a village called Tamri. Whilst waiting for lunch, I searched the distant cliff face and noticed a falcon perched on a dry stonewall. Through my scope I could see it had an orangey brown nape and rear neck. In flight it clearly had a pale tail with a dark band and its coverts and secondaries contrasted with its darker primaries - it was a Barbary Falcon. Three Red-rumped Swallows kept us entertained while we were eating. After lunch it was game on as we searched for Bald Ibis. We drove down a track, but were turned back by a chap who was guarding the nesting cliffs of this rare species. He took us to a location away from the main nesting cliffs and luckily we saw twenty-one of these rare birds. They put on a good show as they flew about and we also saw them on the ground near the roadside. The last action of the day was a quick look for colour-rings amongst the many gulls on the beach near Tamri. About 60 Auduion's Gulls were there and six of them were colour ringed. I also managed to read the colour-rings on three Lesser Black-backed Gulls.

Bald Ibis
Bald Ibis

March 6th Agadir (Parc Naturelle de Sous Masa)

Weather: bright and sunny - very warm

Andy and I met at the front of the hotel at 06:00. We planned to blag our way into the fishing harbour, but five armed policemen told us to come back at 08:30 to try to get a permit. There was no way we could do this, as the mini-bus was due to leave at 07:30. We decided to try the beach and luckily there were many gulls present. We didn't have much time, as it didn't get light enough until just before 07:00. Between us we read colour rings on three LBB Gulls. 

The day trip today was to Masa, with Brown-throated Martin being the main target. Sadly we could not find them despite trying all their usual haunts. On the way we checked an area of semi-desert and here I saw my first ever Lesser Short-toed Larks. These tiny little gems showed really well on the ground at close range. A small group of Black-bellied Sandgrouse flew over and amongst them was a smaller Spotted Sandgrouse. A stop to check a weedy pool proved to be a good choice. At least four crakes were wandering about on the floating weed. I only saw two, but one was a Little Crake and the other a Baillon's. At one time both were in the same view, which is surely a rare sight. At another pool a male Little Bittern was seen perched high in some reeds. Nearby a Moroccan Reed Warbler was singing and showing on the edge of the reeds. This is possibly a new species: non-migratory with short wings and a slightly different song to the Eurasian Reed Warbler. Chris explained that the Masa river is more typical of the rivers further south in Africa. We walked for a while at the side of it enjoying the warm mid-day sunshine. Several male Moussier's Redstarts sheltered from the heat in the bushes by the river. A Fresh looking male Black-eared Wheatear perched in the shade just above the track. Further along we heard three Black-crowned Tchagras doing their rising whistle calls and saw one of them well. A group of roosting Night Herons was a good spot by Dave, as they weren't easy to see. We had one more go at seeing the Brown-throated Martins, but they didn't want to play. We did at least get a good view of an adult African Cormorant (a sub-species of Great Cormorant). 

A late afternoon visit to the Oued Souss (a river near Agadir) to see Red-necked Nightjars was the plan, but the nightjars refused to show although we did hear one. Before dark we checked out the estuary. A group of gulls and Sandwich Terns were on the far shore. 12 Mediterranean and a similar number Black-headed Gulls were with them, but pride of place goes to the first-winter Common Gull I spotted amongst them.

Common Gull

March 7th Agadir (Oued Souss)

Weather: bright and sunny - very warm

Once again Andy and I met up for a session of looking for colour-ringed gulls. On the way to the beach we spotted a Barbary Falcon on an early morning sorti amongst the high rise hotels. On the beach we saw a colour-ringed gull that we had seen the day before and a new Norwegian ringed LBB Gull. Another first-winter Common Gull was amongst the large gulls and also three first-winter Mediteranean Gulls were there. The plan for the morning was to return to the Oued Sous. At the car park a group of Night Herons flew inland away from the river and a Zitting Cisticola crept around on the floor by our feet. Amongst the gulls there was now two Common Gulls. According to the distribution map these are outside their normal range. An Osprey was fishing near the mouth of the river and eventually it caught a fish and flew off to feed. Four Marsh Harriers drifted over and as they did they flushed a group of herons and waders. The King of Morocco has a palace close to the river and we could see his guards by the wall. Andy, Justin, Mohamed and I decided to find the pools that the birds must have come up from, but this meant getting closer to the palace walls. Once we got close to the pools we could see a good collection of waders including Avocets, Black-winged Stilts, Dunlin, Greenshank, Grey Plovers, Ringed Plovers, Redshank and Ruff. A group of sleepy Spoonbills were there and a Great White Egret flew up from the group. The Osprey we had just seen catch a fish was perched on a post near the pool. Unfortunately we had caught the attention of the police and two officers came out on quad bikes to apprehend us. They were friendly enough, but they told us not to look towards the walls and gave us clear instructions on where we could go. They shadowed us until we left the area. On the beach was another gathering of gulls and terns. An adult Slender-billed Gull was amongst them and surprisingly it had a colour-ring, which we were able to read. A Woodchat Shrike was a nice find by Justin and a couple of Moroccan Magpies posed for photographs.

All too soon it was time to say farewell and start our journey home. The trip had been excellent thanks to the efforts of Chris and Mohamed.

Moroccan Magpie