2006 – Strait Talk – Volume 9
I won’t dwell too much on the football only to say that we lost gloriously. I just can’t believe how the bars***ds scored in added time. Once it went to penalties there was only one winner really.
The weather the whole week I was in Gib was rather strange for the time of year. We had constant easterlies with low cloud, mist and some very fine drizzle the whole time. This was great for Nightjars, but on the day before I left for Morocco, we caught four Icterine Warblers and another one was seen. These were the second to sixth records for Gib and were a direct result of the weather.
I arrived back in Morocco after what seemed like a very short time away to the same weather. My stay in Gib just flashed by but I suppose it was only a week. I was hoping the same weather might produce some more eastern rarities here too, but no such luck. In fact the ringing was rather slow. Nothing exciting and numbers were really low. I did manage another two ringing ticks after spending some time chasing wader chicks. A Kentish and Little Ringed Plover were added to the list.
The first Wednesday saw me and Mohamed ensconced in a café to watch the champions league final. It was another first for me as I sat through the match watching people politely applaud good moves and attempts at goal while only having one drink, a coffee! And I had one drink more than most! How these establishments make a profit I don’t know. It was as different as chalk and cheese from the events of the Saturday before in Gib when the pubs were full of mainly Liverpool supporters who were very “lively” but good natured. Here in Morocco, you are either Real Madrid or Barcelona. The Real fans were rooting for Arsenal as they hate to see Barcelona win but no bad behaviour, no bad language, no women, in fact no bad anything! Apart from the coffee.
As we watched, boys would pass through the café selling anything from tissues, sweets, single cigarettes, lighters and wacky backy. The air was thick with it and you got quite high by passive smoking. Will I be going to a café to watch footy again? Not if I can help it. I liked the “atmosphere” but footy and coffee doesn’t do it for me.
As nice as the Moroccan people are they have one very tiresome habit. Without exception all adults seem to have a frog in their throat which they spend countless hours and endless energy trying to remove. These attempts to dislodge it are also very vocal. Mohamed seems to have developed such a frog and spent no amount time trying to “hawk it up”. So much so that it has become very annoying and deafening if you were travelling in the car with him. It is like living with Bob Fleming! Then, with great amusement (to me anyway) I remembered a Kevin Bloody Wilson song. Those familiar with his work will know the one I mean, The Pubic Hair Song. Now I knew what he had been up to! Suddenly a very annoying habit turned into one of great amusement and I now realise how much (according to Kevin) the Moroccans have in common with the Japanese.
On the final Thursday of my stay I eventually succumbed to a speeding fine. The police here are everywhere, terrorising and persecuting us poor motorists. There are not many motorists who manage to avoid them when visiting Morocco. They must have bought the world supply of radar speed guns and are out here pointing them at everything that moves. They hide in the most improbable places imposing ridiculous speed limits displayed on the smallest of roadside placards.
For the past two years I have been the most diligent and observant motorist, spotting these guys from great distances and managing to slow down sufficiently to pass unhindered. That was until Thursday. I was finally caught for doing 77km/hr in an 80km/hr speed limit. Yep, that’s right! There is no arguing with these guys. They show you the gun that says 85Km/hr but that was probably someone else an hour ago. Ask for a receipt and the fine doubles. Don’t you just hate technology!
For the last three days of my stay I had company. Two friends from Gibraltar joined me and Mohamed and we went “birding”. The idea was to visit several locations along the Atlantic coast to look for some specialities.
Friday morning saw us leaving in heavy rain and gale force winds. Not the best of weathers to look for Mousier’s Redstart on the coastal slopes of Jebel Mousa. When we arrived at the site, we could hardly walk against the wind and the rain stung your face as it lashed against you. A slow walk to just below the clouds produced a female after just 20 minutes but the male remained elusive. We decided after an hour to call it a day and head off to Tangier.
When we arrived, we headed straight to the Medina and the café opposite Abdul’s barber shop. Abdul has an unusual habit for a Moroccan, he feeds the birds. These birds he feeds at 1000 and 1400 when he puts grain by the fountain just outside his shop. While drinking coffee we were witness to the most northerly flock of House Buntings, all 45 of them. So tame you can get within 10 foot of them. It was only 1030 and the first two birds were in the back, despite the weather.
(Ed’s note: See this paper Is House Bunting about to colonise Europe? Birding World, 19 (6) p.263 )
As we drove towards Larache, the weather brightened and I was finally able to take my fleece off. Who ever said Morocco was hot! It was evening, and we decided to stake out the reed bed where I saw Moustached Warblers some two months earlier. This was our first failure and this species turned out to be our bogey bird, although not through lack of effort.
After a fine meal, and some rest, we were on the road again by 0400 the following morning, to look for those elusive Moustached Warblers. After a few hours pishing, Little Bittern and 2 real rarities for Morocco, Icterine Warbler and Tree Sparrow, the rest of the day was spent in the salt pans and extensive reed beds where we found 7 Great Egret, Garganey and Shoveler plus another of our target birds, Ferruginous Duck. We then headed back to look for those elusive warblers. They again proved impossible and indeed were probably not even there, but there were huge flocks of swift drinking where we saw Little Swift and another great record, 3 Plain Swift.
The last two hours of the day were spent back in the marsh in the company of zillions of mosquitoes and horse flies looking for Marsh Owl. It was really quite impossible but as we decided to leave, Charlie spotted a silhouette above the sedge and tamarisk. It was indeed the owl but not the best of views.
That evening we decided to head for Merja Zerka, THE site for Marsh Owl. We arrived at 0800 and decided to hire a boat and look on the lagoon first before the sun and wind got up. Two hours later and bitten to death by midges, we had another rarity report to write. Sitting on a sandbank with the Slender-billed Gulls was a Common Gull!
A drive to the opposite side of the lagoon found us in suitable habitat for Marsh Owl and somewhere for us to spend the evening looking for them. After ten minutes we were approached by a man with binoculars (unusual for here) who turned out to be the L’eau et Foret warden. He told us that we would probably not find the owl until the evening and some good spots where we should be able to see them. As he continued to talk to Mohamed, it turned out that he knew all Mohamed’s professors and fellow students plus those from the Scientific Institute and knew all about us and our project.
Because of this, he then offered to take us to the winter roost site where up to 60 birds can be seen in the winter. He said that it was still being used by three non breeding birds. After a 30 minute drive we arrived in the most unlikely place, a small clump of sedge surrounded by houses, one of them being his. He left telling us that he was off to tell his wife that we were staying for lunch and that it would be ready in 45 minutes!
We didn’t need that long and we waited nearly 90 minutes. After 15 minutes an owl was disturbed by cattle, flew round and over our heads, settled on a post for 5 minutes and then disappeared. Great views, a great lunch of couscous and another great contact for the future. A real experience.
As we headed back, we decided to return to the marsh at Larache to look for the owls there again. We were in position an hour before sunset, no mosquito’s because of the wind and 20 minutes later were on a pair of owls sitting and hunting in a field only 60 yards away. We watched these for some 40 minutes before it got too dark and headed for the hotel. If there was a bar, I am sure we would have celebrated, but coca cola had to suffice.
Now that I am back in Gib, I look back at my time in Morocco with mixed feelings. I am glad to be here as I had had enough by the end of my stay in Smir, and although I very much enjoyed the last three days birding, I am looking forward to some relaxing ringing here before I return home.
I shall not miss the biting insects, mosquito’s by the million and horseflies the size of Spitfires and the clouds of dust that clogged your nostrils with rock hard bogies. Nor shall I miss the sweat and tiredness brought about by wading through deep water and clawing mud for 12 hours a day in temperatures approaching 30’C in chest waders. But then, given a few weeks, I shall be thinking of Smir again in a more kindly light and will be looking forward to the possibility of returning.
What concerns me more are the changes I have seen since I first set eyes on Smir only two years ago. Back then, M’diq was just a small sleepy town and the marsh a place of peace and tranquillity with just the farmers, herdsmen and sedge cutters to disturb you. Now, M’diq is a rapidly expanding and developing town, the new motorway and countless construction sites have brought with it all the associated heavy machinery and lorries that thunder around the marsh either passing through it along narrow tracks or tipping “spoil” anywhere that is convenient for them to do so.
And what has brought about all these changes? A visit from the King who decreed M’diq should be developed as a tourist resort to hopefully bring money to the area to offset the drugs trafficking industry that is prevalent here.
What the King wants, the King gets. A quick visit to the internet and Google shows that there are six consortiums, all foreign, bidding for the development of Laguna Smir. All show huge tourist complexes including hotels, a marina and golf courses.
This could well be the demise of Smir, the last remaining fragment of what once was a huge marsh spreading from Cueta to Tetuoan, some 40 kilometres along the north coast. Like all marshes, it is viewed as wasteland instead of the magical wild place that it is, still hiding many secrets that are waiting to be discovered. I look forward to returning later this year and next, but it is with some trepidation as to what will greet me.