Morocco – Migration from the other shore

Right after we picked up our first guests, Kitty and Marshal, in Malaga, we headed to the Strait of Gibraltar, where we would begin our Morocco Migration from the Other Shore tour. During the tour, we would be able to see one of Nature’s greatest shows, the migration of hundreds of thousands of raptors and other gliders that cross the 15km that separate Europe from Africa.

During the Malaga-Tarifa trip we observed Honey Buzzard, Montagu’s Harrier and Booted Eagle, in active migration.  We made a stop in Algarrobo, one of the best places to observe the migration in the Straight, where we added a few gliders to our list: Black Stork, Griffon’s Vulture, Short-toed Snake Eagle, Eurasian Sparrohawk, Eurasian Marsh-harrier, and a beautiful Rupell’s Vulture.  Also as impressive was the migration of smaller bird species, such as the European Bee-eater, Pallid, Common and Alpine Swifts, and several species of Swallows.

We could enjoy all this as well as the spectacular sights that are seen from the Strait.

The following morning we went very early to the Los Lances beach, a “must” for the ornithologists that visit the area.  Species to mention were: Audoin’s Gull, Common and Sandwich Tern, Northern Gannet, Common Flamingo, several species of shorebirds and some passerines migrating such as Northern Wheatear, Whinchat, or Red-rumped Swallows.

The rest of the morning was spent in migration observatories where we could see greater numbers of Black Kites, Short-toed Snake Eagles, Black Storks, Egyptian Vultures, Griffon Vultures, and a few Rupell’s Vultures.

Our next destination was the La Janda’s Lagoon, an old lagoon that was dried out in the mid 1900’s, but that still conserves an interesting bird fauna.  During this visit we saw Booted Eagles, Lesser Kestrels, Black-winged Kites, huge flocks of White Storks, Glossy Ibis, and a great variety of passerines like the Common Redstarts, Whichats and Sardinian Warblers.

The next day, after a hearty breakfast, we followed the lead of the birds we had observed the day before, and headed to Morocco. During the ferry ride across the strait, we were able to see a few Cory’s Shearwaters and Northern Gannets and even an Eurasian Marsh Harrier crossing.

On our first day on the African continent, we explored the area around what would be our base for the next two nights – the coastal city of Asilah. Here, we were able to enjoy watching some of those species typical of the region such as:  Long-legged BuzzardLanner FalconBlack-winged KiteBarbary PartridgeGarden Bulbul or African Blue Tit. The first night we made sure we rested well, because the next day promised to be full of excitement. After all, a visit to Morocco’s two most important wetlands is an unforgettable experience – even for the most jaded traveler.

In the morning, we headed to the salt marshes along the Loukkos River, close to Larache. Despite the strong human presence nearby, this area still maintains a rich community of avifauna and some well conserved wetlands. Here, species occur in such large numbers that would be unthinkable to find anywhere else.

We saw hundreds of Marbled Teal and Ferruginous DuckRed-crested PochardLittle CrakeGreater FlamingoEurasian SpoonbillGlossy IbisSquacco HeronBlack-crowned Night HeronOsprey, thousands of different species of shorebirds, Little TernCaspian TernEuropean Turtle-DoveCommon Kingfisher and many species of passerines such as the Moustached Warbler, which still maintains a healthy population here.

In the afternoon we visited the mythical Merja Zerga Lagoon, practically the last stronghold for the Marsh Owl in the Paleoarctic. Here, we met up with our friend Khalil, who would be our guide this afternoon and the following morning.  We first made a stop at the beach, where we saw a Lesser Crested Tern. After that, we headed to the southern end of the lagoon where, with very little effort, we managed to see 12 Marsh Owls!!!

The following morning we met up once again with Khalil and took a boat tour of the lake. It was an unforgettable experience. We saw thousands of shorebirds and counted more than 20 species. We also saw some birds that would be a treat for any birder such as: Greater FlamingoGreat EgretOspreyPeregrineSlender-billed GullAudouin’s GullMediterranean GullCaspian TernLittle Tern or Black Tern.

After lunch, we said goodbye to Khalil and headed to our next destination – the Sidi Bourghaba wetland. This lagoon is just south of  Kenitra and is one of the best conserved wetlands in all of Morocco. Here, there is an observatory and an interesting musuem. This site is special for many reasons, among which it is one of the few places in the Palearctic where we could see the Red-knobbed CootFerruginous Duck, Marbled Teal and White-headed Duck all with only one look through our binoculars. This, of course, put a smile on everyone’s face.

This is also a good place to observe Eleanor’s Falcons on the hunt! Watching their aerobatic flights after dragonflies made us feel like kids again. Other important species found here include: Great Cormorant “maroccanus”Lanner FalconLong-legged BuzzardBlack-winged KiteEurasian HobbyPurple Swamphen and many forest passerines such as African Blue TitGreat titSpotted Flycatcher or European Serin.

After a restful night in Morocco’s capitol, Rabat, we made our way to the country’s interior to visit a well-conserved area where remnants of what was once the largest cork tree forest still remain intact. This is the only place in the Paleoarctic to see one of any birder’s most sought after species, the Double-spurred Francolin. Though this is not an easy bird to find during this time of year – spring is much easier, when its characteristic call helps to reveal its location usually deep within the vegetation – we were lucky enough to see a small flock flush up when we passed by. We heard several Black-crowned Tchagras calling. Other species we saw in the area were: Black-winged Kite, Long-legged Buzzard, Barbary Partridge, African Blue Tit, Stock Pigeon and the north africa subspecies Eurasian Magpie.

African Blue Tit

After an exciting morning, we headed to Chefchaouen, a quaint mountain village that we reached after several hours of driving past some truly beautiful landscape. On a short excursion before breakfast we were able to add several new species of passerines to our list such as the White-throated Dipper, Grey Wagtail or the Eurasian Wren.

The Village of Chefchaouen seen from our fabulous hotel

This was our last day on Moroccon soil and we wanted to end the trip with a bang! So, we headed north, toward the Moroccan coast along the Strait. There, we watched the awe inspiring  migration of raptors – we saw many species soaring low above the horizon, heading toward Spain. We saw hundreds of Booted Eagles, Short-toed Eagles and Black Storks.

We concluded our trip with a visit to some key observation points, from which we watched raptor migration at its height. Finally on our way back to Málaga we made a stop at the mouth of the Guadalhorce, a site of great interest for any ornithologist, situated just outside of this large city. Here, we were able to add more species to our list, such as the Little Bittern and the Eurasian Hoopoe.

Our Morocco Migration from the other shore tour was a wonderful experience! We visited two countries, enjoyed two very different cultures, and saw 160 species of birds. I hope you will join us on one of our trips very soon!

Little Owl

The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw

For anyone planning a visit to Belize, or who is interested in learning more about this tiny Caribbean country, or for those who simply want a good read, The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw by Bruce Barcott, should be on your list. It is a classic David and Goliath story. In this case, “Goliath” is the Fortis Company, a large Canada-based corporation with millions of dollars on hand to build a dam in one of the most pristine rivers in Belize. “David” is a small group of concerned citizens who know what the construction of this dam will mean; the destruction of irreplaceable wildlife habitat that is home to jaguars, tapirs and one of the last known populations of Scarlet Macaws. The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw is an engrossing tale that reads like a good novel but the story it tells is true. Barcott’s prose is enthralling, as is the story itself. This quick read is filled with drama and adventure, and tales of courage and heartache, and sheds light on what it really means to fight for conservation and what is truly at stake if we lose.

Stygian Owl Research by BRRI Team


Though diurnal raptor species tend to be greater studied than their nocturnal counterparts, one group, the Belize Raptor Research Institute, is focusing a large part of their efforts on learning more about one of the largest Neotropical owls, the Stygian Owl (Asio stygius). Their project area is focused in the Mountain Pine Ridge, Belize.
This past season, they were able to radio tag two adult males and collect some interesting data on their dispersal patterns – learning that though they roost in the pine forest, they can and do travel great distances into farm fields in order to forage at night. The BRRI team analyzed several pellets collected over a full year to learn about this owl’s diet, which includes birds, bats, and beetles, as well as several reptiles and amphibians.  The greatest discovery of all, however, was when one of the tagged males led researchers to its nest, which contained a chick approximately 2 weeks old! This is only the second nest for this species to be discovered and studied in Belize!Whitehawk offers two tours to Belize, both of which take you to the Mountain Pine Ridge and offer chances to see the Stygian Owl at roost. Twenty five percent of all profits from our trips to Belize go directly to the Belize Raptor Research Institute.

Hotspot Highlight – Pipeline Road, Panama

Pipeline Road is a world-famous birding route that winds through Soberania National Park, Panama. This 18 km. road is an easily accessible path that leads straight into the heart of a neotropical rainforest criss-crossed by clear running streams and a rich biodiversity of flora and fauna. Located less than an hour from Panama City, this is one of the best places to see a large number of birds species in a relatively short amount of time.

Colorful birds like the Golden-hooded Tanager, Green and Red-legged Honey Creepers, White-whiskered Puffbird, and the bright red shock of the Crimson-backed Tanager are just a few of the highlights on this trail. The “clack, clack, clack” of Red-capped Manakins, the chattering of ant birds congregating around an ant swarm, and the melodious call of oropendolas adds to the cacophony of all the sights and sounds you will encounter. With some luck, both diurnal and nocturnal raptors can be seen, including the Collared Forest Falcon,  Ornate Hawk-Eagle, Spectacled Owl and, perhaps, for the very lucky, a glimpse of a Harpy Eagle beneath the forest canopy.  Adding to all of this are the numerous mammals that may cross your path including Howler and White-faced Capuchin Monkeys, tamanduas, sloths, and even the occasional jaguarandi.

Hope is the Thing with Feathers

Hope is the thing with feathers… so begins a poem by Emily Dickinson, which served as inspiration for the title of Christopher Cokinos’ book of the same name. This tome recounts the stories of six bird species that have gone extinct in recent times: the Carolina Parakeet, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, the Heath Hen, the Passenger Pigeon, the Labrador Duck, and the Great Auk.

Among the pages of this book the histories of these species are explored in depth, including the path to their decline and their final days; and how greed or ignorance ended in just decades what took hundreds of thousands of years of evolution to form. Cokinos also writes about the struggle of certain individuals to preserve these species, and their conviction and courage in a time when “conservation” wasn’t even a concept.

This is a dense book, full of details and historical documentation, but the stories are told with a delicacy hard to come by in most writing. Each chapter adds key elements which enrich the reader’s understanding of the processes of extinction, its causes and consequences. Cokinos adds some valuable details of the circumstances surrounding each tragedy: excerpts from a ship captain’s logbook in which he recorded thousands of Greater Auks harvested for food in the islands of Quebec; style notes of the ladies of New York who wore hats adorned with the bodies of Carolina Parakeets; or photographs of the last Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in the wild.

Despite being sad at times, the purpose and message of the book are clear. The stories it contains are a warning – calling our attention to the effect our presence on earth has on the rest of the biotic community. In one of the last passages of the book Cokinos writes: “The deep sadness of loss is our best first response – but should not be our only response.” This book is not just for bird lovers, but for those eager to understand a fundamental part of human history and its relationship to the world that supports it.

Birding in Nepal – The Discovery of the Terai and the Adventure of the Himalayas

What is it like birding in Nepal? Thanks to the stability and security of the country in recent years, and the fascination and awe many people experience when viewing the Himalayas, Nepal is becoming an increasingly popular tourist destination. However, it  is not a well-known destination for birdwatchers and wildlife enthusiasts but it has enormous potential, as we confirmed during our trip there this spring.
The Black Baza is a summer visitor that feasts on termites
Perhaps the most compelling aspect of the region is the wide variety of habitats it contains, from lush tropical jungles to wide valleys, from dense forests to icy peaks, and from barren deserts to the Tibetan tundra. All are interlaced by rivers that descend from the heart of the Himalayas.The first stop on our journey was in Terai, the southern lowlands. Forests of Shorea robusta (Sal Forest), jungles and wetlands host a wealth of bird and mammal species such as the rare Bengal Tiger, the Fishing Cat (Prionailurus viverrinus) and even the Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus).
Mammals, like this Barking Deer, are more easily seen along the river
In Sauraha, a beautiful town on the edge of Chitwan National Park, we met Hem Subedi. Hem has worked in conservation and as a guide for the past twenty years. After spending some time birding with him along the Rapti River, we knew he would be the perfect person to lead trips in Nepal for Whitehawk. His knowledge of local birds and Nepali culture and his deep involvement in conservation make him the ideal person for the job.
Dawn and dusk are magical along the banks of Rapti: Cinnamon Bittern, Stork-billed Kingfisher, Asian Paradise Flycatcher, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch… dozens of species are found just a few steps from the village. And several mornings we were treated with sightings of rhinos on this same bank! Although many people come here for the mountains, the forest is undoubtedly one of Nepal’s greatest untapped destinations.
One of the favorite sightings of the trip – a Brown Wood Owl rests during the day in the forest

After making all the preparations, we headed out for the mountains full of enthusiasm. Our destination, Langtang, is one of the best places for trekking and to see the  forest and mountain birds of Nepal.

It is late April and the rhododendrons are starting to bloom in the Himalayan foothills, offering a tremendous visual spectacle while also sheltering a wide variety of birds: Black Bulbul (Hypsipetes leucocephalus), Darjeeling Woodpecker (Dendrocopos darjellensis), Streaked Laughingthrush (Trochalopteron lineatum), Green-tailed Sunbird (Aethopyga nipalensis), Nepal Wren Babbler (Pnoepyga immaculata) and White-browed Fulvetta (Fulvetta vinipectus), to name a few. Sometimes woodpeckers, nuthatches, sunbirds, and other passerines formed in large mixed flocks that kept us busy for hours.

 

We continue to walk, and the road gets a little steeper, but there is no rush. We stop frequently to enjoy the scenery and add more species to our growing list. On one of our stops we see a Black Bear of the Himalayas (Ursus thibetanus)! As well as some species of ungulates. I can’t help but imagine that there is a Snow Leopard (Uncia uncia) not lurking somewhere closeby, too, as the Langtang National Park is home to this rare cat.

The landscape continues to  change as we climb higher and higher. The valley opens, the snowy peaks get closer and we leave behind the tree line. On the slopes we catch our first glimspes of Golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) and Bearded Vultures (Gypaetus barbatus). The grandeur of the Himalayas is breathtaking. An experience both moving and unique. Those lucky enough to have walked these trails know that this is not a sensation that can be described. It needs to be lived.

 

In total, birding in Nepal yielded  370 species of birds and 23 mammals, including the Spiny Babbler (Turdoides nipalensis), the only endemic for Nepal, a rarity for the country -the Malayan Night Heron (Gorsachius melanolophus) and ¡A cetacean! the Ganges Dolphin (Platanista gangetica) showed us its tiny dorsal fin on more than one occasion. We marveled at the beauty of many birds, like laughingthrushes, parrotbills an  yuhinas among many other species. The raptors, like the Black Eagle (Ictinaetus malayensis), the  Grey-headed Fish Eagle (Icthyophaga ichthyaetus) and the Black Baza (Aviceda leuphotes) left us in awe. Not to mention the spectacular Himalayan Monal (Lophophorus impejanus) and, one of the most charistmatic owls of the region, the Brown Wood-Owl (Strix leptogrammica).

This fall Whitehawk will be offering an intense journey through Nepal with tour guide Hem Subedi, one of the best ornithological guides in the country. The mountain and forest combined in two weeks full of birds, landscapes and unforgettable lifetime experiences! Of the latter, there is no doubt.

A Top Predator in Belize: The Harpy Eagle

In general, it is not easy to see forest raptors, and in the case of the Harpy Eagle, a low density species,  it can be more difficult still. But for many bird watchers this eagle, the largest in the Americas, a top predator, and the most powerful raptor in the world, is one of the “most wanted” species to include in their life lists.

Although this eagle has been seen sporadically in Belize over the past decade, it was not until a few short months ago that a team of investigators found the first active nest reported for this species in this country for over 60 years.

This incredible find injects a breath of hope for the conservation of the Harpy Eagle in this small Central American country.  Now, scientists are concentrating on monitoring the movements of the adults and the juvenile to learn more about their diet, behavior, and movements, and are also looking for new nests in areas close to the territory occupied by this pair.

At Whitehawk, we are planning several trips to key sites in Central America that will allow us to observe this incredible eagle.

Mountain Pine Ridge, Belize

The Mountain Pine Ridge, Belize is a birder’s paradise, particularly for raptor enthusiasts. Only two hours from Belize City, it is, as its name implies, a large expanse of Caribbean Pine Forest. However, it is a forest riddled with surprises. Pines give way abruptly to broad-leaf vegetation. Howler Monkeys can sometimes be heard, and occasionally seen, from mountain tops that look down onto an expanse of green jungle. Jaguars, pumas and tapirs continue to be seen on occasion, as well as deer and foxes.
The juxtaposition of habitats in Belize’s Mountain Pine Ridge, along with an abundance of water sources in the form of cool streams, natural blue pools and thundering waterfalls, has created important habitat for a large number of species and some amazing and hard-to-see raptors. Ferruginous Pygmy Owl, Stygian Owl, Laughing Falcon, Plumbeous Kite, Black and White Hawk Eagle, Black Hawk Eagle, and Solitary Eagle are just a few of the raptors that have been documented in the area. And it is one of the best and most accessible places in Central America to see Orange-breasted Falcon. Other birds that can be seen include King Vulture, Rusty Sparrow, Green Jay, and Plain Wren, to name just a few.
Whitehawk offers two trips to Belize, both of which include time spent in the Mountain Pine Ridge. Come join us for a birding adventure set in arguably one of the most pristine, beautiful settings in Central America.

Morocco Birding – Mountains, Sea, Marshes and Wind-swept Dunes

I don’t know what hit me first – the hypnotic music, the bustling voices in the marketplace, or the smells of spiced vegetables and meat grilling on open barbeques in the Djemaa el Fna Square in Marrakesh. This was the first stop on our week-long, winter, Morocco birding extravaganza and we didn’t want to miss a thing. We spent the night in Marrakesh, eating well, strolling among the crowd, and purchasing spices and souvenirs at the bazaar.

Early the next morning, we headed to the Ourika Valley, not far from the city. Snow covered the ragged Jbel Toubkal – the highest peak in Morocco. The bright sun felt good on our faces. This was going to be a great day for birding. Within minutes of arriving, we spotted a Bearded Vulture soaring on splendid wings over the snow-covered valley. As we walked, we saw Red-billed Choughs scampering on the ground in small groups, and Horned Larks and Rock Sparrows seemed to be everywhere. On our way down, we even saw a Little Owl and a lovely Moussier’s Redstart.

Though it was thrilling to see spend time with these birds, my heart was set on seeing the Bald Ibis. With only 300 individuals left, this is one of the most endangered birds in the world. As we slowly wound our way down the coast in search of this elusive species, we were treated with sightings of Audouin’s Gulls and Barbary Partridges. Joyfully, we finally spotted the dark shapes of the Bald Ibises as they wandered along the sand dunes, probing for insects with their long beaks. We parked and snaked our way quietly toward the beach, inching closer to the birds to get a better view, careful not to disturb them. We observed them for quite a while from a distance, taking photos and just enjoying the splendor of being in the presence of such an amazing bird.

After the thrill of spending time observing Bald Ibises along the Moroccan coast, we continued south, for there were more amazing birds to be seen. We visited the beautiful Souss-Massa National Park to see the Black-crowned Tchagra and the Moroccan Magpie. We saw Barbary Falcons perched on telephone poles in open fields, and at the Ouarzazate Lagoon, we observed Marbled Ducks, Ruddy Shelducks, Squacco Herons and Crested GrebesYellow Wagtails, White-crowned Wheatears and the flashy Blue-throats were common sights along the edge of the lake.

The next day we left the warm waters of Ouarzazate and headed to the Sahara. We stopped in the hills of Boumalne Dades to try our luck with some birds such as the Greater Hoopoe Lark, Bar-tailed Lark, Red-rumped Lark, Temminck’s Lark and Trumpeter Finch… We saw them all!

We arrived in the desert in the late afternoon to the sight of red sand dunes jutting from the earth, camels wandering lazily in the sun, and Brown-necked Ravens scampering across the ground. We took an ATV ride across the dunes to a small patch of palm trees where a small flock of Desert Sparrows could be seen flitting in and out of the trees. This species, once common throughout the area, is now almost limited to small oases in the middle of the desert.

Before leaving the desert, we were able to see some of the most charistmatic birds of the region: Tristram’s Warbler,  Desert Wheatear, Streaked Scrub-Warbler, African Desert Warbler, a good flock of Spotted Sandgrouse and finally, as a parting gift, the Houbara Bustard.

One of our last stops was in The Forest of the Cedars – where families of monkeys sat by the side of the road or in the trees, watching us with interest as we walked through the forest. Morocco really is a country of contrasts. Only a few hours ago we were in a vast desert. Here, shadowy paths wind between tall trees, and birdsong echoes in our ears. We spotted Mistle Thrush, Coal Tit, Levaillant’s Woodpecker, Eurasian Nuthatch, Short-toed Tree-Creeper, North African Chaffinch and African Blue Tit.

The week passed quickly. When I boarded the plane back home, I was filled with good memories of our Morocco Birding tour. It has been an enlightening and amazing trip filled with good food, great company, interesting culture, and of course, some pretty special birds – a total of 132 species in all. It was a fabulous way to ring in the New Year!