Birding In The Footsteps Of Laurence Of Arabia The Sahara Desert

Desert. The word conjures up images of sand dunes marching into the empty distance. A lonely nomad leads his camel train to the sanctuary of an oasis where palm trees cast shade over a pool of water. It’s a romantic Hollywood image and some parts of the desert in Morocco look just like that. But does your mental image include birds? Because they are here in the desert too, they just take a bit more searching and local knowledge to find.

We stay in some really beautiful hotels during our tours to Morocco and love the food too.

We were on a birdwatching trip in Morocco, a stunning country with stark landscapes of harsh mountains, stony plains, dry wadis and vivid green oases wherever precious water came close to the surface. But my favourite region was the area of Erg Chebbi in eastern Morocco. This was the landscape of legends, a sea of huge sand dunes, where Lawrence of Arabia might ride into view on his camel at any moment. We had a modern-day camel, a rugged 4x4 vehicle to cope with the terrain driven by Hamid, a Berber born and bred here who could read the winds and the shifting dunes like a book. Most importantly, he knew where the birds were. At dawn Hamid collected us from our comfortable Kasbah and drove out into the desert to a small pool of water, one of those life-giving miracles in this parched landscape. We waited silently. Then came a weird bubbling call and from nowhere five Spotted Sandgrouse suddenly flew in and landed beside the water. These beautiful birds cautiously lowered their heads to drink; reassured as more sandgrouse flew in to join them. Their subtle spotted plumage really blended in with the landscape and their elongated shape made it hard to tell where the ground ended and the birds began. Then we heard more calls as a pair of Crowned Sandgrouse join the group. These looked similar though the male’s distinctive black facial stripe stood out in the crowd. They jostled for the best place to drink. Then, refreshed, they flew off and melted into the background.

Spotted Sandgrouse pair

The views of the birds were just mind-blowing out in the desert - here a pair of Spotted Sandgrouse.

Next stop: a Berber camp in the middle of nowhere, just a collection of brown Bedouin tents pitched close to a source of water surrounded by dunes and a few short scrubby bushes. Here was another target bird, Desert Sparrow, the male reminiscent of a House Sparrow with its patterning but in shades of cream and grey. It’s a bird in decline as the more robust House Sparrow continues to make inroads into its traditional desert territory, but here it was confiding and obligingly posed on the tents for our camera.

It was wonderful to enjoy such close up views of Desert Sparrow - here a male.

Then, following the sound of lark song, we took a walk amongst the bushes where our attention was attracted by the sight of a black-and-white arrow plummeting to the ground. We froze on the spot and scanned the bushes with our binoculars. There! A large beige lark popped up on top of a bush close by. It looked around and gave a little call before suddenly taking off vertically. We watched in amazement as its black-and-white wings beat furiously to lift the lark high up in the sky. Those striking wings gave the game away: a Hoopoe Lark in full display. It reached the zenith of its climb and stalled, folded its wings and plummeted head-first back down to the ground only opening its wings at the last second to halt its fall. It hopped back up onto its bush and looked at us beadily as if to say, there, beat that if you can! It repeated this remarkable display again, a beige lark on the bush transforming into a black-and-white comet in the sky. What a bird!

Everyone should have the chance to see a Hoopoe Lark and it's mind blowing display flight!

Hamid had more desert treats for us as we continued to a flat area of sand, stones and stubby foot-high bushes, the most this incredibly barren area could support. However, even here was life. Running amongst the bushes was a pair of Cream-coloured Coursers; beautiful, elegant birds with long legs and spindly necks that looked far too delicate for this harsh terrain. Scurrying behind them were two chicks. Perhaps we couldn’t see it, but food was available here if you knew where to look.

What a fantastic bird to share with our guests an almost impossible to see Egyptian Nightjar.

As if to prove the point of how blind we visitors were, Hamid stopped again and encouraged us towards a clump of larger bushes. What were we supposed to be looking at? He pointed to a lump of dry earth in the shade. I focused my binoculars and then chuckled under my breath. That lump was in fact an Egyptian Nightjar. Its cryptic plumage blended perfectly with the ground and only a slight ruffling of its feathers gave away the fact that it was alive and oblivious to us as it dozed. Here was another amazing desert species perfectly adapted to its special surroundings. It rested in the shade during the now scorching heat of midday but in the cool of dusk it would fly to catch insects borne aloft in the air.

Hamid continued the Egyptian theme with the last bird he showed us. Heading back towards civilisation, a range of dramatic cliffs rose up from the sand. They were ridged like gills with deep cracks providing shade. And resting on a ledge in one of these cracks was a majestic owl, the appropriately named Pharaoh Eagle Owl. Through our telescopes we could pick out every detail of this handsome creature: the wonderful ear tufts, the dark outline to the facial disks, the bold streaks around its throat, the buffy belly.

What a thrilling finale to our desert birding! As the daytime heat gave way to the cool of evening, we returned to our Kasbah at the oasis and enjoyed a very welcome long drink!

Ruth Miller

Of course a wonderful way to see more birds is to join one of our Birdwatching Trips and learn a lot about the birds you are enjoying too. We have tours suitable for all from beginners to experienced birders that are seeking particular species. Just drop us a line here and we can arrange a perfect custom tour for you!

We look forward to enjoying wonderful birds with you as soon as it is safe.

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