Cricket Warbler is a speciality of the region. Photo: Dan Brown
Remote corners of the Western Palearctic hold a particular fascination for birders, and none more so than the Western Sahara. Following numerous trips to the region and a previous sighting, Dan Brown was part of a team that explored this area in 2016, finding several stunning Golden Nightjars, along with other regional specialities such as Dunn’s Lark, Black-crowned Sparrow-Lark, and Cricket Longtail. We’ll spend one night camping in the desert where we’ll have the chance to look for night creatures such as Pharaoh Eagle Owl and Fennec Fox, as well as exploring the dry acacia-filled oueds (river valleys), and the dramatic massifs that erupt from the desert floor. There is also the chance of migrants heading north and even some exciting strays from sub-Saharan Africa - recent discoveries have ranged from White-throated Bee-eater and African Crake, to Upland Sandpiper and Lesser Scaup - so anything is possible. The shallow coastal bay formed by the Dakhla spit hosts a huge variety of terns, gulls, and waders and we’ll be looking for species such as Royal Tern, Kelp Gull, and Western Reef Egret amongst the commoner Audouin’s Gulls, herons and egrets. We may also have the opportunity to look for Houbara Bustard, a now rare species in this part of the Sahara. The area is also rich in nocturnal mammals from the fascinating Lesser Egyptian Jerboa, to the recently split African Golden Wolf, as well as Sand Cat and Saharan Striped Polecat.
Day 1: The tour begins with a flight from London to Dakhla, via Casablanca. After clearing Customs we’ll transfer to a hotel for the night. Night in Dakhla.
Day 2: We’ll spend the day birding around the tip of the Dakhla Peninsula. We can expect to find a huge gathering of gulls and terns here, and careful searching may reveal unusual species including Kelp Gull and Royal Tern. The mudflats here also hold hundreds of waders and, with luck, Western Reef Egret. After a leisurely lunch, we’ll embark on the journey south into the desert, stopping off at a small oasis which can be rich in migrants. We then find ourselves passing through areas of open desert dotted with acacias. We are heading for Oued Jenna and aim to arrive there prior to dusk and in time to settle into our camp and get in position to listen for nightjars.
Days 3-7: Our plans for the rest of the tour will remain flexible and are dependent on our success at Oued Jenna on the first night. If Golden Nightjars have proved elusive we will remain in the area, or return north and come back to Oued Jenna for a second night.
During the daytime we’ll explore the desert environs around Oued Jenna and back north towards the coast. These are varied and can be rich in birds. The acacia grasslands hold species such as Cricket Longtail and Desert Sparrow, and occasionally Sudan Golden Sparrow, whilst the trees can be full of migrants from Subalpine and Western Bonelli’s Warblers to Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters and Golden Orioles. In areas of open sand, flanked by grasslands, we’ll look for Black-crowned Sparrow-lark and the distinctive Hoopoe Lark, while the stony hamada landscape should produce Thick-billed, Temminck’s, Bar-tailed and Desert Larks, and with some searching, African Dunn’s Lark. Cream-coloured Coursers can be widespread but as with any desert species their numbers and range can fluctuate massively depending on climatic conditions. Desert Warblers are few and far between but with enough searching we should locate them.
During dawn and dusk visits to the oases will endeavour to track down Crowned and Spotted Sandgrouse as well as any new migrants. In 2016 Namaqua Dove bred here for the first time, whilst an Allen’s Gallinule took up residence for a few weeks, and this area has in recent times turned up a variety of vagrants from White-throated Bee-eater to Lesser Scaup. We’ll also check out the impressive massifs for a resident Pharoah Eagle Owl, Lanner, and Golden Eagle, whilst passing raptors can include Short-toed and Booted Eagles, Griffon Vulture and occasionally even vagrant Ruppell’s and White-backed Vultures. Along the coast migrating Montagu’s Harriers and Black Kites can sometimes be very much in evidence.
We’ll have several birding sessions along the coast, checking some of the huge mud-flats for gulls, terns, waders and herons, and we’ll explore some of the few agricultural areas in the country. Many of these have been heavily planted and are vital stopover points for migrants. Almost any Western European migrant is possible here and there is always the chance of vagrants, which in the past have included Reed Cormorant, Lesser Flamingo, Grey-headed Gull, and African Crake. With luck, we may be able to secure access to a protected area further south which will allow us the opportunity to look for Houbara Bustard as well as a number of critically-endangered mammals which have been reintroduced including Scimitar-horned Oryx and Dama Gazelle.
When in the desert we will not ignore the other mammals that we may encounter which could include the highly-charismatic Fennec Fox, Lesser Egyptian Jerboas, Saharan Striped Polecat, Sand Cat, Ruppells’ Fox, and the recently-described African Golden Wolf. Nights will be spent at Dakhla where we should be able to enjoy species such as Audouin’s Gull, Gull-billed Tern, Great Flamingo, and a plethora of waders from the comfort of our accommodation. With luck we may even catch a glimpse of the endangered Atlantic Humpback Dolphin in the lagoons.
Day 8: We transfer to the airport for our return flight to London, via Casablanca, where the tour concludes.
Updated: 19 October 2016