Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Morocco weekender

Gulls resting at the mouth of Oued Ksob, just south of Essaouira, on the Atlantic coast of Morocco. Offshore in the background is the island of Mogador, summer home to one of the world's largest Eleonora's Falcon colonies.
Birders visiting Morocco focus primarily on the specialities for which this Maghreb country is so well known, from the likes of Levaillant’s Woodpecker, Black-crowned Tchagra and Atlas Flycatcher to Moussier’s Redstart, African Crimson-winged Finch and House Bunting. That’s just what I did on my first two visits, in 1995 and 2009, but on both occasions I couldn’t help noting just how good the coast was for gulls.

Yellow-legged and Lesser Black-backed Gulls provide an ID diversion in a range of plumages.
Celebrating an anniversary with Hazel, last weekend we went back to Morocco for a short visit to a coastal town missed during our first trip. Essaouira claims Jimi Hendrix among its famous visitors, but to birders it’s best known for the Eleonora’s Falcons which breed a short distance offshore on the island of Mogador. Some 600 pairs constitute one of the largest colonies of the species in the world, but as a summer visitor to the Mediterranean basin and north-west Africa they don’t return from Madagascar until late April. Bird-wise in February, my free time was focused instead on gulls.

A rather pale first-winter Yellow-legged Gull with a mantle pattern somewhat recalling European Herring Gull ... 
... but otherwise rather typical michahellis Yellow-legged Gull in flight, with neat tail band, reduced inner primary 'window' and largely dark outer greater coverts, among other features.
Resident (and wintering?) Yellow-legged Gulls are joined by large numbers of wintering Lesser Black-backed Gulls from north-west Europe at this time of year, so it was a good opportunity to look at the variation in both species side by side. Both graellsii and intermedius Lesser Black-backeds are present, though some of the younger birds are difficult to determine. Black-headed Gull was present in small numbers, perhaps 20-30 daily, as were up to five or six Mediterranean Gulls. The other expected species was Audouin’s Gull, but having seen good numbers near Tamri to the south previously I was surprised to see just two on one day and six on another – and all adults.

Adult Audouin's Gull - one of the Western Palearctic's most beautiful larids.
With gulls there’s always the possibility of surprises, and on Saturday 14th February at Oued Ksob, a couple of miles south of Essaouira, it came in the form of a second-calendar-year Great Black-backed Gull. This species is rare, if not a true vagrant, this far south, and this bird presumably originated from north-west Europe though the species has, bizarrely, been discovered breeding at one site in Atlantic Sahara in recent years.

A first-winter Great Black-backed Gull, rare this far south, with Yellow-legged and Lesser Black-backed Gulls.
A bigger surprise still came the following day, after I’d spent a couple of hours from first light grilling the gulls again at the port and then at Oued Ksob. Leaving the beach and heading back towards the car, I glanced one last time over my shoulder at the gulls – and there suddenly was a large, white-winged larid: Glaucous Gull! I knew one had been photographed in the port some weeks previously but it hadn’t been seen in recent weeks, and must have flown in behind me literally moments beforehand. A different individual has also been seen further south in Morocco this winter, at Khnifiss; both locations are extraordinarily far south for this Arctic breeder.

Second-winter Glaucous Gull - the pale golden eye is probably the best clue to this age.
... here looking rather blotchy from behind, with Yellow-legged and Lesser Black-backed Gulls for company ...
... and looking very distinctive on the wing as it flies off for a dip in the channel.
A few other species of interest were seen during the long weekend – more in another post. In the meantime, some phonescoped video footage of the Glaucous and Great Black-backed Gulls will appear shortly on my Facebook page.

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