2006 – Strait Talk – Volume 4
Back in Gib now after my first visit to Morocco and trying to warm myself up a little.
The journey and the border crossing was the easiest yet. I guess I am considered a regular now and have just got used to filling all the forms out correctly. One little mistake and you are there forever and you can never take it for granted. They can be very awkward when they want to be.
The weather was not the best, torrential rain in the early days. This means that everywhere is awash as there are no planning laws over there and no drainage. The roads are just quagmires, full of potholes and strewn with rubbish washed along by the water. Everywhere looks a real mess, but that’s Morocco. When it dries out and the wind blows everything away, it’s back to how it should look. Reminds me a great deal of Venezuela.
I arrived at the apartment about midday. Everyone was waiting and seemed really pleased to see me again. I have to admit I felt a lot more at home this time than last. M’diq is changing fast because the whole area is being redeveloped for tourism and the town is getting a facelift. The artists’ impressions on the posters look grand, but it takes a great deal of imagination to believe that it will ever get there. It looks like the whole town is being dug up all at once making it even more muddy and untidy that it ever was before. I suppose they will get there eventually.
The expanding town and increased tourism is what threatens the marsh and what this project is all about. I have learnt that some good came out of me being arrested in the Kings palace last year. We were able to confirm breeding Spoonbill. This is the only colony outside Europe and therefore the only one in Africa. I don’t feel so bad about having a criminal record now and it may add a little more reason for preserving the area.
I went with Mohammed to the marsh in the evening to look at possible sites for ringing. A very wet, cold and muddy place it turned out to be. My lovely car did not stay clean for long and I was glad it’s a 4-wheel drive. I was also glad of my hat and gloves. I have a hat like the old bobble hat without the bobble (I don’t know how else to describe it) so Mohamed called me “The Edge” after the lead guitarist from U2. For a man who has never heard of the Beatles or Rolling Stones, this surprised me. Still, I would swap the waders for a guitar any day. Anyway, the aim was to catch a few Reed Warblers and collect some samples for DNA analysis, but it wasn’t that easy. It was very frustrating to hear them calling only feet away from the nets but never get caught.
The first evening was spent getting used to eating with my hands again. It looks like I will be putting on a few pounds as they were hell bent on fattening me up. Great meals as ever and then mint tea. I think I have really missed it despite the sugar overdose.
The apartment was much the same. Still the same old dim lighting and the shower is a dribble, but at least the water was warm which is more than can be said for anywhere else. You never really feel warm there until April with no heating in the houses and the humidity. The only snug place to be found is bed but then there’s the noise to put up with. The Imams calling to prayers can be heard all night long, every hour on the hour from the minarets through very tinny speakers from all parts of the town along with dogs barking and cockerels crowing. One very enterprising Imam right next to us even had a backing track. This is quite loud but luckily for us his slot seemed to be 0600 and we were up and on our way by then.
Getting up in the morning reminded me of when I was young and we had no central heating. The first thing you did was stick out an elbow to test the outside temperature, get out of bed grabbing all your clothes in the same movement and dashing to the kitchen. This was the only warm room in the house because dad had got up earlier for work and had lit the paraffin stove. I guess the only difference then was that there was a warm room to dash to!
I did find the solution to being cold at night. This was to have countless blankets on the bed. So many in fact I was in danger of being crushed by their weight.
I was also introduced to the winter drink. It’s mint tea but with another “herb” added. It’s called “ch-ba” (pronounced Sheba) but it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen and no one knew it by any other name (it’s Absynthe! – Ed). It’s a strange looking leaf you put in your tea but not for too long. It has a slightly bitter taste but boy, after a while, who cares. I am sure if it were sold at home it would be considered a class A drug. A glass of tea with this in and you don’t have a care in the world, especially about being cold. Just might smuggle some home.
The first day in the marsh was spent in the reed beds trying to cut some net lanes in water up to your armpits. Not the easiest of environments in which to work, especially when you are breaking ice when you enter the water. I must admit the marsh looked rather special that morning with all the snow on the hills and mountains and after my morning dose of ch-ba. The day was cut short by heavy rain but we did manage to catch a couple of Reed Warblers.
We were greeted with more rain the following morning which actually stopped about 0900. We were about to start ringing when we were intercepted by a ranger from L’eau et Foret, the wildlife police to you and me. These encounters always take an eternity while they check all your paperwork, want to look through your scope and get a few bird watching tips. This time was even longer because they passed on a mass of information relating to bird flu and what to do if we find any dead birds. A very complex procedure which when boiled down means we call them if we find any. Luckily we didn’t as I would have been there forever filling out forms.
Finally started ringing at about 1300. By the time we had finished, we were frozen to the marrow but we did catch some more Reed Warblers and 4 Bluethroat. I did wonder at the time if I would ever warm up again. At the time I very much doubted it.
Ringing was very slow due to rain and the ever present strong winds either from the east or from the west. Being continually soaked through, cold and muddy seems to be the order of the day in the marsh. We did manage to catch a few more Reed Warblers and a Sedge Warbler, the latter being a very great surprise so the trip was well worth it. Now it’s down to the scientists and theorists to work out exactly what is happening here, but I might throw in an idea or two myself. We also caught 2 Penduline Tits, a species which is not supposed to occur in Morocco and found large numbers of Crested Coot, also not supposed to occur in this part of Morocco. It looks like Smir could be where African and European species meet.
The weather did improve towards the end of the trip with clear skies and bright sunshine. The downside of this was that it was even colder! The last two mornings we were breaking ice on the water again as we waded out into the reed beds to put up nets. There were times I could not feel my feet and my fingers were like sausages. Thank god I had my hat and gloves and the car had a heater. It’s those times when I begin to think “I’m too old for this”. But then where else could I be 10 foot from Marsh Harrier when I’m in the reeds or see sights like 12000 Starling with 5000 Jackdaw and 4000 Cattle Egrets all in one roost. Such sights never cease to amaze me.
One final birding trip on the last day to the reservoir in the hills produced very high counts of Wigeon and Pochard plus 14 Tufted Duck, an absolutely amazing record for Morocco. Isn’t it funny how it turns out to be the birds that occur in your own back yard and take for granted that turn out to be the rarities when abroad?
The evening was spent with Mohamed’s flat mates and fellow students discussing everything under the sun, them quizzing me on the English language (luckily it’s the only one I know) and drinking Moroccan Vodka and Whiskey (water and tea to everyone else) with a little ch-ba. Needless to say a good time had by all. At the end of the evening I was very much surprised when they presented me with a Jelabah, a traditional Moroccan coat. An absolutely wonderful gift which I shall treasure even if I don’t wear it at while shopping at Tesco’s.
All in all a very cold but pleasant trip. Now back to settling down to life in Gib again. Less food and a few beers will be the order of the day. I have an RSPB researcher from The Isle of Lewis staying (hahahahah that must have been me – was that how i was described! – Ed) and then there’s the BBC before I return to Morocco in two weeks. At least life is not boring.