Western Sahara

The start of a golden era?

(note: apologies for the poor photography in this post, if it was not for the critical nature of the images they would not have been included!)

For ten years we have been visiting Western Sahara, an area right on the periphery of the Western Palearctic. Richard Moores’ first visit discovered a previously unknown population of African Dunn’s Lark (Eramalauda dunni) and since then we have continued to expand the understanding of mammals and birds in the region. Despite the complete collapse of larger mammal populations over the last 50 years, most bird species are still present and given the position of the area on the western edge of the Sahara, the possibility of new species for the Western Palearctic has always been in the back of our minds, including the potential for Golden Nightjar Caprimulgus eximius….

In March 2016 we returned to Western Sahara to collect in camera traps that we had deployed in 2015, as well and deploy ten new cameras and a number of bat detectors in massifs around the territory including the Adrar Soutouf in the remote interior. Just prior to leaving the UK we heard that an unidentified nightjar had been recorded near Oued Jenna on the Aousserd road. In May 2015 a team of birders visiting the area discovered the first Golden Nightjar for the Western Palearctic after accidentally hitting and killing it with their car (read more about this here). With knowledge of both last years’, and the recent nightjar events we went mentally prepared.

Our already jam-packed schedule took a blow on the first night with only one of the three hold-bags arriving with us at Dakhla airport, and a complete no-show by the car hire company. With increased time pressure, we still achieved all we needed to in the first couple of days but it didn’t allow for any birding time, especially not in the ‘right’ areas. It wasn’t until the penultimate evening, 16th March 2016, that we headed south down Aousserd road at dusk. As per usual we spot-lit for about 100km observing several each of Rüppell’s Fox (Vupes rueppellii) and Fennec Fox (Vulpes zerda) and at km137 a nightjar species flew across the road (our first nightjar in five visits). Views were brief as it headed through the headlights and as we tracked it with our spotlight until it melted into the darkness the resounding impression was of a plain bird with large white wing and tail flashes. Despite waiting for 30 minutes or so, there was no further sign of this bird in the area. Later on as we approached Oued Jenna another nightjar flashed through the headlights, identical to the first and dropped onto a flat stony area. A series of short flights again gave a very encouraging impression and within seconds it had settled on the side of the road where it promptly started singing – Golden Nightjar! It was a particularly brief bout of singing before it took off into the darkness. We rapidly connected up the iPhone and played the Golden Nightjar song recording out into the blackness. Out of nowhere a male jinked in, almost making it into the passenger seat before alighting briefly near the car. Trying to secure images of the bird proved frustrating and almost impossible, as the images allude to!.

One of only two images we secured of the bird on the ground but enough to be able to see the plain and warm golden-brown colouration, lacking any distinct contrast or markings.

One of only two images we secured of the bird on the ground but enough to be able to see the plain and warm golden-brown colouration, lacking any distinct contrast or markings.

Despite the awful image the black-white-black wing tip pattern is clearly visible as is the lack of any dark leading edge to the wing and the overall warm colouration.

Despite the awful image the black-white-black wing tip pattern is clearly visible as is the lack of any dark leading edge to the wing and the overall warm colouration.

As we stood and listened a further two birds could be heard singing in close vicinity. They clearly favoured areas of open ground, loose sand and scattered grasses rather than the acacia-filled oued. This represents the second record for the Western Palearctic and the first of possible breeding. The winter of 2015/2016 appears to have been exceptional in the region with extensive rains causing a widespread desert greening and with it the arrival of tens of thousands of Black-crowned Sparrow-larks (Eremopterix nigriceps) and successful breeding of many desert species. Two Namaqua Doves (Oena capensis) have also been recorded within the last week indicating that this climatic anomaly may be responsible for northward shift in the distribution of several species. Whether Golden Nightjar will become a permanent fixture in the area remains to be seen, but for now we are still buzzing with the excitement of discovering what appears to be a small breeding population of this stunning species within the Western Palearctic.

Uncovering the Deserts Secrets; Exploring Western Sahara’s Remote Massifs

Photo : Oued and massifs in Western Sahara

Photo: Oued and massifs in Western Sahara

In March, several members of the BiOME team return to Western Sahara to collect our Minox camera traps from a variety of locations in the interior of this Moroccan territory. These camera traps have been in-situ for exactly one year; this being the first time that prolonged camera trapping has occurred in this region. Rapid assessment using the same method over a shorter period last year provided an exciting taster to what species may still occur in the massifs and oueds of this corner of the Sahara. African Golden Wolf Canis anthus and African Wildcat Felis silvestris lybica were among an impressive list of mammals captured; what will 2016 deliver?

Photo : Lesser Egyptian Jerboa  Jaculus jaculus

Photo: Lesser Egyptian Jerboa Jaculus jaculus

In addition, we are hoping to further our knowledge of bats in the region. Having previously discovered two species new to Western Sahara in 2015, Egyptian Free-tailed Bat Tadarida aegyptiaca and Egyptian Mouse-tailed Bat Rhinopoma cystops, BiOME will be looking once more for new species and new locations. This expedition is also serving as a reconnaissance mission as we push deeper into the interior of Western Sahara to a series of massifs almost completely unexplored by ecologists. The potential for discovery in this area is huge and we will keep you updated. We will be re-deploying the camera traps in these massifs with the hope of recording Barbary Sheep Ammotragus lervia, a caprid on the verge of extinction in Western Sahara.

Photo :  BiOMEs Richard Moores examining a male Egyptian Free-tailed Bat   Tadarida aegyptiaca  in 2015

Photo: BiOMEs Richard Moores examining a male Egyptian Free-tailed Bat Tadarida aegyptiaca in 2015

Photo:     BiOME bat researcher examing Egyptian Free-tailed Bat   Tadarida aegyptiaca

Photo:  BiOME bat researcher examing Egyptian Free-tailed Bat Tadarida aegyptiaca

Finally we will be putting the finishing logistical touches to our comprehensive cetacean survey of Dakhla Bay which will run in 2017. This is will be first survey since 1998 and will be critical in establishing the status of Atlantic Humpback Dolphin Sousa teuszii in the bay, a species on the verge of extinction at its northern-most global outpost in this location.

Watch this space!