There are some good people in the world, folk who give a lot of their time and energy to providing great experiences for others with no thought of financial gain, writes Andy Chapell.
One such group are the shakers and movers behind the Andalucian Bird Society which has now been functioning in our area for well over ten years and boasts nearly 500 paid-up members. The Society produces a professional quarterly magazine as well as organising a monthly field meeting to some of the hottest birding sites in Andalucia.
And every now and then they organise a not-for-profit bigger event. At the end of March, 17 members and a guide met in Marrakech to explore the exciting birds of Southern Morocco. Over the course of a very well-organised 10 days the participants were treated to some amazing ornithological sites and sights as well as having unforgettable cultural and culinary experiences.
Peter Jones, the President of the Society, led the tour along with local guide Hamid, and they both had lots of opportunities to demonstrate their prodigious knowledge of the birds of the area. How can they identify eagles that are just dots in the sky? How do they distinguish between little brown larks where the only difference is the length of wing feathers or tiny markings on the head? How do they remember so much information about so many different species?
From four different comfortable bases the group ventured to some amazing places, including two days on the very edge of the desert, identifying over 140 species. Unsurprisingly water sources are very important and they produced some of the most wonderful sights.
One day we breakfasted before dawn to be out at first light to a place where crowned and black-bellied sand grouse come to drink at a tiny water hole maybe one metre by one metre, the only surface water for miles around. Dozens of the birds, looking like so many medium sized stones, fly long distances to the water hole where they warily drink before returning to their feeding sites. They have all gone by two hours after sunrise but need to make the same journey the following day.
Another day we found a lake where ruddy shelduck and black-winged stilts fed along with bar-tailed godwits and greenshank giving great views through the shared telescopes. The week before a rare Houbara bustard had been at the site but that is one of the joys of bird-watching – you never know what you are going to see and the unexpected can be thrilling, the lack of sightings occasionally frustrating.
There are many birds in Morocco which are not found in Europe and we spent time trying to locate as many of these as possible. Hamid used his phone to broadcast the songs of some of the rarer birds hoping to attract them from the undergrowth. Tristram’s warbler is a case in point where we travelled for over two hours to get to a site where they are known to breed. Once there we waited nearly another hour before finally success: great views as a pair posed on the top of low scrub.
Another day we went to the rubbish dump just outside the town of Boumalne where we expected some rare wheatears but had no luck. The countryside all around was covered in wind-blown plastic from the dump but someone spotted a lovely Temminck’s horned lark scuttling around amongst low bushes and plastic bags. It is a pretty bird showing great markings on its head. As we watched, a group gasp went up as we saw the female arrive at two grey chicks in a rudimentary nest that no-one had spotted and saw the youngsters open their bright orange gapes waiting to be fed. Was anyone surprised to find that the female put in about three times as much effort in the feeding process as the male? An unexpected bonus.
Elsewhere we watched birds of prey on the nest, a pharoah’s eagle owl asleep in a cave, Egyptian nightjars resting under a bush, the display of the hoopoe lark in the desert, and the stunningly beautiful Moussier’s Redstart, a fairly common speciality at higher levels.
Away from the birds, there were other fantastic experiences, not the least of which were the amazing landscapes. A dawn walk into the silent dunes was a highlight as was getting caught up in a severe hailstorm which made mountain roads dangerous for our vehicles as eroded soil and rocks covered the tarmac. At Africa’s only ski station, now obsolete, we had unexpectedly delicious tajines in the one restaurant still open. We also visited the UNESCO site at Ait-Ben-Haddou – an ancient kasbar used for films including Lawrence of Arabia and episodes of Game of Thrones.
Of course no Moroccan trip would be complete without a visit to the Souk which we did with a guide in Marrakech. We enjoyed the delights of the Bahia palace and a discussion ensued with our guide about polygamy and concubines. The efforts of a spice shop owner to woo us with a viagra substitute were rejected, but plates, spices and ammonites made the journey back to Spain, while others enjoyed the delights of the hammam.
Although the trip was spectacularly good value there was a surplus at the end which will be donated to local ornithological projects.
It had been a wonderful trip and all members of the group are grateful for the wonderful experience they enjoyed thanks to the generous time-consuming organisation of a whole team of people.
If you have even a passing interest in our feathered friends why not consider supporting the society yourself? Annual membership is only €25 for an individual and you are guaranteed great value from a friendly but very well-organised and kindly set of people.
For more information visit www.andaluciabirdsociety.org