Friday, July 21, 2017

Trujillo and Monfrague

We left Donana with the notion that we could return for Marbled Duck on the final morning. For now, the crags of Monfrague and the plains of Trujillo promised once-in-a-lifetime epicness. We executed our assault on both suberbly, finding a campground with the help of Ramata at base command. We checked in west of the plains and got as much sleep as we could before our pre-dawn start. Following the directions of Garcia and Patterson, we navigated the ranch roads in the dark. We flushed the occasional Little Owl and could hear the larks and corn buntings breaking into song, heralding the dawn of one of the most epic days of our lives.

Dawn on the plains of Trujillo
Just as light broke we scoped a female Great Bustard walking in a field at a great distance. Minutes later we located a couple of males, spectagular in the glory morning's light. The display is the most testosterone-jacked, gratuitous display of any male bird I've seen. They were so much bigger and their plumage and structure so solely devoted to their singular purpose of copulation that I feared for the safety of whatever female would choose him to mount her, so violent was the rage with which they flaunted their grotesque ornamentation. Despite their flamboyant nature, these birds are very wary of humans and we could probably not get close than a couple hundred meters away by my reckoning.

Great Bustard

The Great's smaller counterpart, the Little Bustard, proved elusive and with the morning spent, we tried our luck at Monfrague. The Castel de Monfrague sat atop a precipetous crag, villanously encircled by throngs of bloodthirsty vultures, with a spattering of other raptors ready to strip bare any carcass within a 100 mile radius. The cliffs were saturated with Griffons, plastered with decades-worth of their white feces.

Castillo de Monfrague

Steve with vulture colony on cliff behind him

"Particular trail without interest"

Black Vulture

Eurasian Griffon Vulture

Black Vulture

We proceeded to drive along the gully, where Steve learned a valuable lesson about Spanish driving. Apparently, it is not permitted to stop anywhere, even when observing wildlife in an area specifically devoted to said activty. Steve wanted to put this cultural norm to the test, stopping to look at this or that bird. Immediately, we had caused a 4-car jam. He slowly creeped along the side, waiving at them to pass him. However, this escalated the situation as the Spaniards proceeded to ride his ass until he decided to speed up. Steve held his ground, hoping that common sense would prevail. It was like we were watching Real Madrid at the Camp Nou, with Spaniards hysterically yelling foul language and honking. "Hijo de puta!" and "No puedes hacer eso aqui!" yelled one Spaniard as he ripped passed us. Well, lesson learned. In someone else's country, you need to follow the customs, however dumb they seem to us.

We were on the trail of Egyptian Vulture and Eagle-Owl. The Eagle-Owl nest site was vacant since word was that the female had died and the male wandered off. Talking with a French family, we heard an amazing story of a Lynx walking past the dad as he enjoyed a cold beer at his roadside camp at Sierra del Andujar. Shit, maybe we could see one! Our brains immediately started scheming on how we could pull this off and still see all the birds we wanted to see. As we got back into the car, the fellow called us back. We narrowly avoided missing a soaring Bonelli's Eagle. WOW! Then it was onto the Egyptian Vulture, which was sitting on her nest just above the water. A pair of Spanish Imperial Eagles on a nest with simultaneous Blue Rock Thrush added a perfect ending to an epic day. We returned to the campground totally juiced and passed out on the grass.

Dom kept disciplined ebird checklists for the whole trip

As night came, I was determined to get my view of a Eurasian Scops Owl, since we'd heard them the night before. To do this, I needed to leave the campground, which was all walled off, and wander into the neighboring pasture. I hopped the barbed wire and honed in on the source of their tooting calls, which was tricky as whenever I got closer, the sound would get more distant. They were outwitting me. Next, I tried approaching very slowly and did not activate my light until I was right bellow the tree. I heard the call, turned on my light and there it was just a few feet above, a perfect view. After basking in its glory for 5 minutes or so, I raised my camera for a pic but that was enough to scare it off into the night. For some reason, Dom was not phased at missing these amazing views of a life owl.

We were up the following morning to hit up the other side of Trujillo, just east of the town. It was a difficult choice on which area to pick but we decided on this spot because many tour groups choose to go here. It did not disappoint, as we saw many more Great Bustards and eventually, two Little Bustards which was a big relief for me! Although they were about 200m away so left good views to be desired, so we explored further.

Great Bustard lek

Little Owl habitat

By that time in the morning, the bustard show was over but birds abounded. As we were stopped, a bird with a long tail flew over the road...Great Spotted Cuckoo! We drove further in the direction it had gone and secured stunning views of a male and female. These majestic parasites had arrived, ready to infiltrate the nests of unsuspecting Magpies. Time spent beside a derelict farmhouse yielded Iberian Shrike. Inspection of two White Stork nests revealed smart-looking Spanish Sparrows nesting inside.

Great Spotted Cuckoo

Iberian Gray Shrike

What a morning! With our siege on the local birdlife complete, we decided to turn out assault to the castle in the nearby town. We refreshed ourselves in the Plaza Major before climbing up the hill to the 12th century Castillo, imagining what life would be like under the 500 year Arab rule.

Castillo de Caceres

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Doñana Wetland

Described as "Europe's best wetland," Doñana is an incredible vast expanse harbouring some of Europe's rarest species like the Spanish Imperial Eagle, Marbled Duck and Iberian Lynx. Thus it made perfect sense to fly to Sevilla (23 pounds!). I don't know if its relevant to the story but Steve got caught up in customs with an extra bag fiasco and made the plain by about 10 seconds before they shut the door behind him, the most epic plane catch I've seen. Our Morocco leg had been awesome, but this trip was only half over and little did we know we would see a creature so rare and beautiful it would have been beyond our wildest dreams a few months ago. Armed with our Garcia and Patterson guide we set out into the wetland admittedly quite ignorant about how to hit this immense wetland to uncover its hidden gems.

We devoured an immense Sea Bass washed down with sangrias which somehow turned into a bill of 88 Euros. Feeling shocked at how much money we had just blown on dinner, we figured out how we would make up the loss. Clandestine camping would cost zero euros and place us in the stone pine woodland for the dawn chorus. The following morning, we rid our bowels of the last of Moroccan Tagine. I had no regrets as I made the connection with a marinated beef and date cinnamon-spiced tagine which was one of the tastiest meals I've had and the intestinal consequences worth it, my ears detected a Tristram's-like song gurgling in the pines. A careful stalk revealed it to be a spankin' Dartford Warbler in full glory!

We did our first morning at La Rocina Visitors Centre hoping we could scoop up some intel. Straight away we bumped into some Spanish birders about our age who gave us the juice on Savi's Warblers in the marsh. They barely spoke English but Dom's Spanish skills were more than sufficient and mine somewhat better than useless. It was awesome to see so many Spanish birders in the field as we read that birding used to be almost non-existent in Spain but here were some energetic young folks who knew their stuff and a one of them a hottie on top of that. We mobilized toward the marismas and honed in on the skulky reed-dwelling warblers like flies on shit. We crossed paths with two old British dudes who dished out warbler ID nuggets left right and centre. We semi-followed them for a bit in order to leech off their skills but laid off a while so as not to disturb them with our obnoxiousness (birding can get rowdy son!). We vehemently staked out singing Sedge Warbler which we eventually gave the victory, pressing on to nab sick views of Cetti's Warbler, Eurasian Reed Warbler and my fave, Savi's Warbler with its generous undertail coverts making its tail look like a ridiculous wedge. After I mistook female pochards for marbled ducks, I realized I needed to regain my birding skills to work in proportion to my amount of rage which, at this point, was high. A wander over to the British dudes secured me a brief view of Icterine Warbler, which would be the only of the trip. By then they were spotting Pied and Spotted Flycatchers so far off in the woods that it was getting a bit ridiculous and we moved on to some birds we could actually see.
The juice on Marbled and White-headed Duck was that the only place to be was the Jose Valverde visitors' Centre so that's where we headed.

Red-crested Pochard

Our red Volvo's low clearance made navigating the insane potholes rather nerve-racking, especially with Dom at the wheel. At our slow speed, however, it was impossible to miss the array of larks and others on the road and fences.

Calandra, Greater and Lesser Short-toed, Wood and Crested Larks were snatched up as were Corn Bunting, Lesser Kestrels and European Roller.


Corn Bunt
Greater Short-toed Larks
Crested Lark

European Roller
Red-rumped Swallow

While trying to photograph a Great Reed Warbler and simultaneously fishing a fly out of my eye, Dom started calling out "Tim, Tim!" but since I was in pain with the fly I neglected to look over. Only after did Dom realized that what he had just seen fly over was a Ferruginous Duck. I still have never seen one to this day.

Great Reed Warbler

Eurasian Spoonbill

At last we got to the Jose Valverde visitors' centre and we were truly amazed by all the wading birds: flamingos, herons, ibises and spoonbills everywhere. The knowlegable nature interpreter helped is ID a "bastard snake" we had almost captured earlier and sent us in the direction of 3 of our most desired species: Great Spotted Cuckoo, Marbled Duck and White-headed Duck. We missed the cuckoos by a few minutes (at the gate to the off-limits part of the reserve) but as consolation I picked out a soaring Spanish Imperial Eagle and we were amazed by all the flamingos doing their in-synch crazy breeding display. I thought "wow, even non-birders would enjoy this."

Greater Flamingo

Yes, they are doing it!

A huge kettle of raptors started up, mainly Eurasian Griffons with a Black Vulture and Red Kite thrown in. We stopped by the White-headed Duck spot delighted to find a couple of spanky males and a female drifting behind the reeds.

White-headed Duck (taken in Malaga)
We proceeded to our camp, which was along a very wild road east of Valverde where Lynx has been spotted before. We did not see one, but I heard Tawny Owls from our camp and decided to venture over the barbed wire with my headlamp and Steve's speaker and managed to secure a stunning view - a bird I'd really wanted to see on this trip! The exposure was way too low on the shot but I somehow modified it on picasa and it turned out pretty cool!

Tawny Owl

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Morocco: the Mountains

 We finished up at the beach and said goodbye to Tamri just as a flock of Bald Ibis cruised over our heads and circled over the river mouth. We stopped in for some some fried fish and filled a bag with all the fruit I could carry. I have to say, gorging on fresh fruit is one of life's sweetest pleasures! As I eagerly removed the peel with my fingers, I must have hit the right spot since it squirted its sweet juice all over my lap.

It was almost time to go but not before we paid the parking steward. Nice chap, he even gave us some Moroccan chocolate for the road.

Now, we had only 2 and a half days left and had still not seen most of the mountain stuff (including Tristram's Warbler). We had to chose between 2 options.

a) Go for Crimson-winged Finch at the Oukaimeden ski hill which would take 1 full day.

b) Climb Mt Toubkal (a highly desired peak for me!) and hope that we can get the Finch along the way (but was it a naive hope?).

Like John Muir, I felt a timeless calling to the mountains so for me it was worth the risk of possibly not getting the finch. I just couldn't justify passing up Morocco's highest peak to the mountaineer in me. Dom was kind of on the fence. Steve was slightly leaning toward Oukaimeden for the Finch.

I decided to not press my agenda until we'd had a good night's sleep. In the meantime, we had some work to do. We needed to find the Levaillant's Woodpecker AND Tristram's Warbler. A full day of driving and stopping at many switchbacks in suitable habitat was starting to frustrate us a bit. We even targeted our stops to encompass a range of altitude and blends of oak/juniper/pine as well as some poplar gullies, but were having no luck. We were so tired by this point we were starting to argue about where to camp and it became this obsession with finding the perfect clandestine camping spot. One of us would argue for where we were, then someone else would be like "no, lets push on further so the habitat is better for the morning" and "it needs to be flat with a good view" etc. etc.

We finally reached the Tin Mel mosque where we'd been told we'd be allowed to camp next to the mosque. However, it was already dark when we got there so we weren't gonna bother somebody with this odd request. The habitat around the river valley looked good enough so we parked in the back of a little gravel parking lot, pitched our tents and fell asleep to the sound of the evening call to prayer reverberating from invisible mosques all around us.
The Tizi-n-test pass (2092m)
Dominic's new Tinder profile pic
In the morning, we were up and birding the ravine. We were so happy we'd decided to camp there because the birding was amazing! There were melodious warblers, nightingales and hawfinches in full song. Steve's rage-o-meter spiked on the nightingales but their novelty soon wore off. I was pretty keen on seeing this 800 year old mosque up the hill but the others seemed pretty determined to press on to new sites before the morning died off. A young lad pulled up beside me on a scooter. I greeted him in french but was surprised that he spoke near-perfect english. He offered to show us the mosque for a couple of Euros. Yes! this was the perfect excuse to swing the vote in favour, and we were soon entering the only mosque in Morocco that allows non-muslims inside.

The 800 year old Tin Mel Mosque
As happens so often on these whirlwind-style trips, the best moments can be the ones were you just chill for a second and turn off the rage-meter. Not only that but Dom and I got a lifer right inside the mosque, not a place I would expect to get one! Magnificent European Rollers were nesting in little cavities in the sides of the mosque wall where some roof is missing, battling for airspace with Common Kestrels.

European Roller

Steve poses next to the last original cedar planks from the mosque
Tin Mel was so ancient and peaceful (aside from the battling rollers and kestrels) with its beautiful moorish arches and stone details that we left with a newfound peace. Levaillant's or not, this had been a special experience. We walked leisurely back to the car to continue our journey.

It also happens that when you relax your mind, your senses truly awaken and that's when magical things happen. I walked past an Argan orchard with Dom close on my tail. He suddenly stopped in his tracks and said "Levaillant's Woodpecker!" The thing flew right behind my back and in front of Dom, so I totally would have missed it completely. I turned and saw this red-crested beast jockey from the back of a trunk and perch with its back to us. I don't know if it was just the excitement but this thing looked  massive. Not having my camera freed me up to enjoy perfect views of this beast through my spankin' new Zeiss Victory SF's...I cannot express it enough but if you have never viewed a Levaillant's Green Woodpecker through a pair of primo German optics in the Atlas mountains then it is a combination of thing you need to get on!

Levaillant's Woodpecker! (Steve Pike)

We drove away high on life. In my mind, I patiently restrained myself with my Toubkal agenda until the last possible moment so we could at least enjoy this awesome scenery!

Then we arrived at the junction. Time to make a choice: guaranteed Crimson-winged Finch, or epic Mountain trek with uncertain birdy outcomes. We debated the options sensibly over some tagine when an old man asked if he could join us. "By all means." We told him we were thinking of tackling the mountain and 'as it so happens' he said he could hook us up with everything we need for a good price. That guy had us scoped out before we even got out of the car! We had succumbed to his Berber charm and he even managed to unload a couple trinkets on us. This whole trip Dom managed to buy only one thing, a rock. This time it was me letting my guard down (rather than Steve). And so off we went with a couple of gifts for my ladies and our guide hitching a ride with us up to Imlil, the last outpost for trekking to Mt. Toubkal. He hooked us up with crampons and a map and a secure parking space for the car and we were off by about 3 with a 5 hour hike ahead of us. 

The approach just past Imlil looking ahead

Damn this guy is photogenic. Also, he is single
Our first mountain climb together
We got to the top about 30 minutes before sunset which allowed us to set up camp. Dom had his down-filled jacket but was sorely equipped with a light tropical sleeping bag due to carry-on limitations. I knocked on the door of the Club Alpin Francais just up the trail to see if they could hook us up with a berber blanket for 10 Euros (and throw in a sleeping mat for good measure). This proved to be a possible literal lifesaver. There we were tucked in for bed, camped just outside the lodge property enjoying the company of some Moroccan campers. They never let you down when it comes to tea. As soon as we arrived they passed us two cups of tea from inside their tent! 

One question remained: where was Steve? It had been dark for about an hour and his headlamp was nowhere to be seen. We almost rock-paper-scissored for who was gonna go back for him, but I ended up just dragging my arse out of my sleeping bag and going. Luckily, he was only about 10 minutes away, albeit looking quite exhausted. A past accident meant that Steve's mountain capabilities are not quite as they were 20 years ago, plus his pack was bloody heavy what with the camera gear, so I hoisted the burden myself and we went up to the camp together, deciding he'd bird around the basecamp while we attempted the summit, which was crazy enough as it was with about 5 hours of sleep ahead of us. 

We were up at 4 am and hiking up the hard snow in the pitch dark with our headlamps and crampons. It was a solemn march. The higher we got, the more frequently we stopped. With only one route and no way to get separated I pressed on, impatient with the frigid cold temperatures and wanting to just get the ordeal over with. Each time I'd see a crest above me, I'd convince myself that that was the last of the slope, but about a dozen times it would only yield yet another massive slope. My body had become accustomed to life near sea level and we had rushed this climb, having no time to acclimatize. Could this be Mt Kenya all over again? My body said no but my spirit said yes, and I solemnly marched on, one foot in front of the other. Then I got so tired that my body was having a hard time keeping itself warm and I regretted not bringing my heavy gloves. A kind frenchman, Thierry, lent me his spare mountain gloves, which was enough of a morale boost to get me going again and we pushed on together. Finally after hours of climbing, I could see the summit in the distance. Still far (1 km by my reckoning) but "It'll do" I thought. 

Sunrise on Toubkal
I went into a semi-run when I saw that glorious metallic pyramid ahead of me. Hallelujah! I made it. I enjoyed the panoramic view for about 15 minutes, hoping to see Dom chugging away in the distance. I wanted to wait longer but something told me he wasn't going to come, and besides, I physically felt terrible! The altitude sickness was setting in, and it was time to go back whether I liked it or not. I found Dom sitting in the snow. He said he'd advanced a few inches in about 40 minutes, but at least he saw an Atlas Horned Lark. Yup, time to go back down and get rid of the sickness. We carefully made the descent with no regrets and enjoyed some Alpine Accentors and Choughs along the way, along with glorious scenery. The best part of going down was that having been the second party up, we got to pass all the late-risers going up. "How far is it?" they would ask. "Far" we would say, along with "bon courage!" or "no pain-no gain!" which returned a pep in their step taken away by the "far" part.

"I feel terrible"

We met up with Steve who was already packed and ready to go, so we said peace and he left us to pack up our own tent. As soon as we lay down, a powerful lethargy set in and it became almost impossible to move. It took formidable effort just to roll over on my side like a seal to take a picture of this Alpine Chough and Accentor.

After a while we had to summon the strength to get up so we ate the last couple oranges we had left and that gave us just enough juice to activate, finally feeling the strength return to our muscles the lower we got. Unfortunately this meant saying bye bye to Crimson-wing habitat but oh well, you can't have everything in life.
This Seebohm's Wheatear was not hard on the eye though
A wild Rock Pigeon in it's native element
Alpine Choughs playing in the wind

We caught up with Steve just as he reached the village. Perfect timing! His news both excited and annoyed us: he had seen a Tristram's Warbler exactly where we'd stopped to sit down next to an orchard. It was way too far to go back. We'd have to get it by the roadside on the way back down the mountain. We made a few stops but were having no success. We got to the turnoff to the main highway and decided we should maybe turn around and go back to check more habitat, since our flight was not until the next morning. We were dead tired. This is when, heroically, Dave Bell messaged us from Canada with an urgent message. We'd asked him to check ebird a couple hours earlier and his reply came in with coordinates and dates for that entire stretch of road. We knew which one we wanted, it was this one nature trail that sounded good. We drove the 10 km back there and looked around but still could not find it. When Dom mosied on back to the car, I continued far up the trail playing the song from Steve's speakers as I walked, in a last act of desperation. Then, I heard the scratchy song. So far, I had practically yelled "Tristrams!" every second time we heard a Chaffinch, so similar are their calls. But this time, it was the real deal, no mistaking it. The little bugger popped out of the juniper for a perfect view. Wow, what a rush! I ran back down to get Dom and we both had perfect views again. Dave, if you are reading this, we both owe you a beer the next time we see you!