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. Recent visits to this region by groups of birders revealed several stunning Golden Nightjars, a species better known from destinations further south such as Cameroon. In addition, there are some other Western Palearctic gems including Dunn’s Lark, Black-crowned Sparrow-Lark, and Cricket Longtail. We’ll spend the start and end of our short tour on the coast at Dakhla, itself a mecca for birds. In between we’ll be based on the edge of the Sahara Desert where, as well as looking for Golden Nightjar, we have the chance to look for a range of desert species such as Pharaoh Eagle Owl and nocturnal mammals including Fennec Fox, African Golden Wolf, Sand Cat, and Saharan Striped Polecat.
Daytimes will be spent exploring the dry acacia-filled oueds (river valleys), and the dramatic massifs that erupt from the desert floor in an area reminiscent of the East African savannahs. There is also the chance of migrants heading north and even some exciting strays from sub-Saharan Africa and beyond - 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.
Day 1: The tour begins this evening in Dakhla. Night in Dakhla.
Day 2: We’ll spend the first part of 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. Later we’ll begin our journey inland to Aousserd and may have time for our first attempt at finding Golden Nightjar before we reach our accommodation. Night in Aousserd.
Days 3-4: We’ll begin the day early, before it gets light, amidst the scattered acacias of Oued Jenna. Here we’ll be listening for the distinctive call of Golden Nightjar, perhaps the key species of the tour. These birds are on the very edge of their range and appear to be more numerous some years than others. Local weather plays a big part in the success or otherwise of finding this bird. In particular it will help our cause if there has been some recent rain.
Our plans for the rest of the tour will remain flexible and are dependent on our success at Oued Jenna on the first night. During the daytime we’ll explore the desert environs around Oued Jenna. These are varied and can be rich in birds. The acacia grasslands hold species such as the engaging 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.
Between Oued Jenna and the coast there are a variety of good sites for birds. A few oases can be visited by Crowned and Spotted Sandgrouse as well as 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.
When in the desert we will not ignore the mammals as we could encounter the highly-charismatic Fennec Fox, Lesser Egyptian Jerboas, Saharan Striped Polecat, Sand Cat, Ruppells’ Fox, and the recently-described African Golden Wolf during our nocturnal excursions.
Days 5-6: We’ll return to the coast on Day 5 to sample more of the rich birding in and around the massive lagoon. We’ll be 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. In addition we should find good numbers of Audouin’s Gull, Gull-billed Tern, Great Flamingo, and a plethora of waders. With luck we may even catch a glimpse of the endangered Atlantic Humpback Dolphin in the lagoon.
Day 7: The tour ends this morning in Dakhla.
Updated: 04 June 2018