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A Report from birdtours.co.uk

Ouzeling in Morocco,

Kevin Briggs

This report fist appeared in the Lancaster and District Bird Watching Society Newsletter

"Another winter birding break in Morocco, that's nice!" Well, I suppose so, but after three study periods in the Spanish Serria Nevada mountains, it was time to repeat the 1993 Morocco experience. The 'Wintering ecology of the Ring Ouzel' is the study, and 'birding break' is not exactly what I would call it!

In early January 2000, Colin Ryall, the project owner, and myself flew into Marrakech airport to be greeted by twelve spiralling White Storks and a Woodchat Shrike. A short bus ride to the Ibis Hotel (this was not added to the list) revealed Collared Doves. Whilst haggling over the price of the 4-wheel drive we would need for the rest of the weeks field trip, House Sparrow, Common Bulbul and House Bunting were spotted in the diesel-fumes-filled streets. The following day, the vehicle was packed and a circular touir of Marrakech undertaken as we attempted to find the correct route to the Denmate. 17 km later and back at the railway station, a friendly policemen escorted us to the correct route.

The objectives of this fieldwork were to revisit Colin's 1993 study sites in the Middle and High Atlas Mountain to assess Ring Ouzel numbers, Juniper berry crops (their main food source) and assess the distribution of the juniper and examine factors that may be affecting the trees. Ring Ouzels have declined by 27% since the 1970s in Britain and although the disturbance, competition and forestry may well influence this loss in Britain, changes in the wintering area of this migrant thrush will also have an important impact on its survival. An increasing human population in Morocco needs more food and fuel-wood, which in turn will decrease the areas available to Ring Ouzels.

So the real fieldwork was taking transects through the different vegetation zones and recording vegetation and tree type, counting and assessing berries on the different species of juniper, counting birds within set measured areas, collecting droppings, assessing tree damage and counting tree stumps. This was done for 38 sites, each taking 2-3 hours depending on the steepness of the slope and the depth of the snow. Oh, I forgot that bit, not a nice warm Mediterranean holiday this one; seven layers of clothing and some very hairy driving conditions. The other unfortunate thing was that it was Ramadan and access to food was limited; mainly hard-boiled eggs, soup and Laughing Cow cheese spread. For three days, we survived on two bags of Hoola Hoops, a packet of cheesy buttons and a packet of raisons. Being away from the town, accommodation was cheap, about 2 per night, a room with glass in the window was more expensive!

Some good birds were found as we crossed the huge irrigated fields near Beni-Mellai. Cattle Egret, White Wagtail, Stonechat and Corn Bunting were common. Moving higher into the mountains, huge areas of land were under cultivation for wheat and flocks of over 300 Scarlet-winged Finches were found along with 100's of Linnets and Shorelarks, whilst flocks of 80-100 Ravens were not unusual. The small wadis gave up Chiffchaff, Sardinian and Orphean Warbler, Southern Grey Shrike and Fan-tailed Warbler. The massive lowland irrigation schemes arise from the dammed mountain streams producing huge reservoirs where Shoveler, Avocet, Black-winged Stilt, Ruddy Shelduck, Green Sandpiper and Kentish Plover were quickly found. Mountain passes produced Alpine Accentor, Alpine and Red-billed Chough, Brown-necked Raven and Pale Crag Martin. The most delightful birds to watch were the White-crowned Black Wheatear, which seemed to appear at all petrol stations and also Moussier's Redstart which produced almost instinctive vehicle stops so the full details of this attractive species could be seen. The best find was a group of two male and four female Temminck's Horned Lark feeding on an area of old camel dung on the south side of the High Atlas mountains near Goulmina. These brightly coloured birds were very tame, unlike the group of eight Fulvous Babblers we disturbed as we took a closer look at the larks. Raptors were scarce; single Osprey, Hen & Marsh Harrier, Black Kite and Kestrel. but a prolonged view of a male Lesser Kestrel was an excellent find.

Ring Ouzels were not found all over, but concentrated in the juniper woodlands with plenty of water nearby; juniper berries are full of resin and need some washing down! They range over very large areas depleting berry crops and then moving on; some areas holding 100 birds per square kilometre.

The trip was nearly marred by very heavy snowfall on the penultimate night which caused the Marrakech to Quarzazote hair-pin mountain route (so picturesque in summer) to resemble a Dukes of Hazard film set with lorries strewn across the iron-hard tracks and not a council gritter lorry in sight. Colin carefully picked his way through these obstacles back to Marrakech in the dark, watching a very dodgy fuel gauge with interest. So, we made it and collected all the data required on Ring Ouzels whilst logging 108 species in seven days without even looking for them!!

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