Morocco.4. In the desert

To: "birding-aus" <>
Subject: Morocco.4. In the desert
From: "Wim Vader" <>
Date: Mon, 11 Dec 2006 22:07:53 +0100

                                   WINTER IN MOROCCO. 4. IN THE DESERT

We spent two whole days, and parts of some other days, in the desert or 
semi-desert during this trip. I always get these romantic ideas, when I think 
of 'the desert', with endless sand, sickle dunes, and camel caravans. But most 
of the desert we visited in Morocco was much less spectacular. It was largely 
flat and rather featureless, either  a large plain with scattered---often very 
scattered-- plants, and almost paved with small stones and an amazing amount of 
dead land snails (We found the living ones clinging to the plants), or a sandy 
version of the same, then as often as not plowed and furrowed, wailting for the 
chance of one of the infrequent rainstorms which might make a quick harvest 
possible. Where there were somewhat larger stones, they hid often several slow 
black beetles, just like the ones that always feature in TV movies of the  
living desert. There were also, especially maybe in the sandy areas, many 
different rodents, the names of which I have not figured out as yet; a 
checklist lists 4 jirds, 14 gerbils and 3 jerboas, in addition to some sand 

Birds there were too. There were three different wheatears: the White-crowned 
Black Wheatear, the Desert Wheatear with their nearly all black tails, and the 
Red-rumped Wheatear, which (you guessed it) has a reddish rump. And there are 
larks galore! The most common and conspicuous are also here the Galeritas, 
probably again mostly Thekla Lark, but especially in the sandy areas also 
unmistakable Crested Larks with their longer bills and their propensity to dig 
for food. At 'Lark alley', an area S. of Goulimime, where there had been 
cultivation, there were in addition toy-like Lesser Short-toed Larks, flighty 
Short-toed Larks, which I never got to see properly this time, bland Bar-tailed 
Desert Larks (with amazingly less black in the tail than the normal Desert 
Lark, which prefers more stony areas), and the charismatic and powerful 
Thick-billed Larks, a bird I had never before seen, but which quickly became a 
favourite, with its thrush-stippled breast and grosbeak bill. The last lark 
here was also a life bird for me, Temminck's Lark, looking a bit like a refined 
'lady's model' of the Shore Lark which we have in Finnmark (The Horned Lark of 
the Americas). Nor were these all the larks we got to see: there were Skylarks 
a few places on old plowed fields, and in the sandy desert we found another 
most charismatic character, the large Hoopoe Lark; unfortunately this was the 
wrong time for its fantastic display jump-flight.  Lark alley also held 
Black-bellied Sandgrouse, and a few Trumpeter Finches (We saw more of those 
elsewhere in the desert, along some water-holding creek near a village, where 
they occurred together with Spanish Sparrows, a few Red-throated Pipits and 
again Thick-billed Larks); small flocks of Spanish Sparrows and Corn Buntings 
flew over and landed now and then in the only bush in the vicinity.

Where usually dry oueds (rivers, no doubt the same word as the wadis in Israel) 
crossed the desert, there were more bushes, often also palms and tamarisks, and 
at one such place we sought for a long time for a rarity, the western form 
(split by the Dutch!) of the Scrub Warbler, Scotocerca. This is a real skulker, 
and here the qualities of our leaders came extra to the fore; they did not rest 
till the pair of  small birds had popped up so many times that everybody had 
had a chance to see them. And these are really small birds, very typical of the 
type that in the field guides get the text: 'more often heard than seen'!  
There was a little water here too, no doubt after the rain storms of the week 
before, and we found both Rock Doves and a Green Sandpiper here. A bit further 
along the main road, mysteriously a stinking open sewer appeared over some 
distance, and this was most popular with migrating birds; it held tens of 
Little Ringed Plovers, as well as a few Kentish Plovers and  Common Sandpipers, 
and  lone Little Stints and Dunlin.

On the last day we went to the desert near Massa to chase that quintessential 
desert bird, the Cream-coloured Courser. This was again in the erg, the almost 
flat stony desert full of dead land snails----and mysteriously several 
specimens, scattered over a large area, of a marine purple snail of some kind. 
How that got here??--. And yes, sharp-eyed James found faraway Coursers! We 
walked up the group of seven, and in the end saw them so well, that they were 
chosen 'bird of the trip' by a sizeable majority of the group. They ARE very 
special, with their chalk-white legs, strange blue head-stripes and all black 
underwings. And they ran around constantly, changing directions a lot, as if 
they were wound up.

This was the end of a most successful trip, and once more I thank Sunbird, 
Bryan Bland and James Lidster for the excellent organization, and all the birds 
they made sure we all saw.

 Wim Vader, Tromsø Museum
 9037 Tromsø, Norway

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