Friday, May 10, 2019

Wondrous Desert Dwellers

Greetings Everyone,
We’re in the Western Sahara on the hunt for Sand Cats and other mammals that make the desert their home. After a night in Dakhla, we were ready to resume our search in the Bir Antzarine region. Nico picked us up from our hotel and we headed east on the tarmac road to Bir Anzarine for about 60 km. We left the road and headed into the desert on a dirt track. Since the area was heavily land-mined during the war it was essential to have a good local guide if you head overland. We were in good hands with Nico and Sidi as we headed deep into the desert. “Keep an eye out for foxes”, Nico advised, “although mostly nocturnal they are sometimes seen during the day”. Shortly after Marc spotted a fox next to the track! We followed it and it led (or at least that’s the way it appeared to me) us to a den where there were two more foxes! Now we could see that they were Rüppell’s Foxes. One brave one remained outside the den, even lying down at the entrance to the den. 

Rüppell’s Fox

When we approached it took off across the desert. I wasn’t sure if it was the same one Marc had first spotted or a different individual. We waited by the den and finally one of the two foxes that had gone underground reappeared. We watched for an hour as the kit emerged to yawn, groom, and poop before disappearing again. We weren’t sure if the two kits were trading off or if it was always the same one coming to the surface.

Rüppell’s Fox

We left the curious kits and resumed our drive to the camping spot. Not long after Sidi spotted a Fennec Fox at its den next to the road. We returned to the site but the fox had disappeared - bummer! Would we ever get to see a Fennec Fox? Suddenly it reappeared and stopped long enough for a good view and photo! 

Fennec Fox

We continued on and arrived at the camp spot at the base of a big dune at 5:00 pm, later than expected due to our encounters with the foxes. Nico, Sidi, and Amina began setting up camp while we explored the area. Nico pointed out a skink at the base of the dune. We went to investigate. It was one of those cool skinks that burrow into the sand. Nico said the common name was “Sand Fish”.  Marc got some great photos. 

Sand Fish

We climbed about 35 feet to the top of the dune with a sweeping view over the desert.  Surprisingly we could get cell phone reception from the top.

View from the Dune

When we returned to camp, our tent had been set up. Our roomy tent was made of cotton with colorful patterns inside. There was no floor but the guys put mats down. I hope the vipers and scorpions can’t get in. 

Marc in Our Desert Tent

After dinner, we ventured north into the desert along the line of dunes as the sun began to set. Around 9:30 Nico spotted our first mammal, it was a Fennec Fox! The Fennec is the smallest canid in the world and is name comes from the Berber-Arabic word "fanak" for fox. Fennecs are crepuscular meaning that they are active mainly at dawn and dusk.  Their most distinctive feature is their unusually large ears which dissipate the desert heat but are also adapted to hear prey underground. It paused in its nighttime foraging long enough for Marc to get some good photos. 

Fennec Fox

We began to see smaller mammals such as Fat-tailed Gerbils, Lesser Egyptian Jerboas and possibly a new species for the trip, a Pygmy Gerbil. It’s very difficult to differentiate between species of gerbils in the wild. 

Pygmy Gerbil

Nico picked up distant eyeshine. We all saw it, Marc saw it a second time, but we lost it in the bushes. By the way it was moving it could have been a Sand Cat but we’ll never know. We returned to camp around 3am. The daytime sightings of both Rüppell’s and Fennec Fox made up for the lack of a Sand Cat sighting but we were running out of time. 

We woke up around 10:30 the following morning and brunch was served around noon. We spent the remainder of the day at camp, writing notes, downloading photos and charging batteries for our lights. We left camp around 7:00 for our second night drive. We were crossing a flat, sandy stretch when Nico shouted: “Stop!”. There was a Fennec peering out of a hole in a den. I saw a second Fennec in a hole in the back of the den mound. We took photos then drove a little closer. The rear fox leaped up and tore off unexpectedly across the desert. Through our binoculars, we could see him sitting about 300m away. We waited for the second fox to reappear but it didn’t. 

Fennec Fox

We continued our drive to the east as the sun set over the desert and the temperature dropped. Amina who had joined us on tonight’s drive spotted a Desert Hedgehog. 

Desert Hedgehog

Just after midnight, I spotted distant eyeshine. We tried to identify it from this point but it was too far. We drove closer, keeping the animal in the spotlight. We got close enough to see it was a Sand Cat! It froze under a bush and we got out for a close view. The batteries on my spotlight were dying and Marc’s camera batteries were dead! He rushed back to the car to change them and I rushed back to grab my camera so at least we’d have a photo. Amazingly the cat remained frozen and we were able to get great views and photos. Finally, after nearly 45 hours of searching, we had the encounter with a Sand Cat that I had desperately hoped for!

Sand Cat

We were up at the usual time of 10:30 the next morning but no one else seemed to be moving. We got out of our tent a little later and found Nico who told us that the clocks had moved back an hour because of Ramadan. We had brunch around 11:30 (new time). We hung out in the mess tent for a while, downloading photos and showing them to Sidi and Amina. Sidi entertained us with the local way of preparing tea. He would pour the hot liquid from a red teapot into a tiny glass from high above without spilling a drop!

Sidi Pouring Tea

We returned to our tent so the others could rest up for tonight, our 7th and final night drive of the trip. We agreed to keep our schedule the same despite the time change. This meant having dinner at 5:00 PM and heading out at 6:00 PM. We decided to check out Fennec Fox den but when we arrived it appeared deserted. Sidi got out to investigate and said there was no sign of recent activity. We were just about to drive off when Nico said: “It’s there!”. A Fennec popped his head out and then emerged in beautiful light just as I had hoped. Marc and Nico got some great photos. 

Fennec Fox

At 11:30 Marc spotted eyeshine and we tracked it in the vehicle. It was a Sand Cat! It hid under a bush affording us a second opportunity for great views and photos. Sand Cats are uniquely adapted for life in the desert and can survive far from water sources. Long hairs protect the soles of their feet from hot desert sand and their sense of hearing is greater than that of a domestic cat allowing them to detect prey.

Sand Cat

We left the cat to resume its nocturnal hunting and 20 minutes later Marc spotted more eyeshine. Could it be another Sand Cat? We tracked the animal to a bush where it hid behind. It was an African Wildcat. It sat allowing for good views and photos. 

African Wildcat

We returned to camp at 1:30 am (2:30 old time) and Marc stayed up to photograph the Milky Way from our tent. What a great ending to our visit to the Western Sahara! We got a great view/photos of a Fennec Fox, another great view of a Sand Cat and an African Wildcat! We turned in for our third and final night in the dunes.

View of the Milky Way from the Sahara

The following morning we packed up camp and left around noon for Dakhla making stops at the known Fennec and Rüppell’s Fox dens. We passed the Fennec Fox den but no one was out. When we arrived at the Rüppell’s Fox den, both of the kits popped up! They entertained us with their grooming, pooping, yawning and at times they approached our vehicle very closely. 

Rüppell’s Fox Kits

As we neared Dakhla we encountered a large herd of domestic camels and sheep grazing in the desert. 

Domestic Camels

We arrived at the Ocean Vagabond, a kitesurfing “camp” in the afternoon. The staff was intrigued about our exploits into the desert to look for wildlife as most tourists come here to kitesurf. On our last day in Dakhla, we had booked a half-day marine mammal watching tour with Sahara Sailing. We were hoping to see critically endangered Atlantic Humpback Dolphins or at least Common Bottlenose Dolphins that live in Dakhla Bay. Sadly, despite Neil’s best efforts, we came up empty handed but we had fun exploring the bay.

In Dakhla Bay

The following morning we left Dakhla and flew back to Marrakech where we extended our stay to visit Ousoud Falls the next day to see Barbary Macaques. Now a very popular tourist destination, the falls are the best place to see Barbary Macaques in the wild. We hired a local guide named Nwor to take us around. We told him we were interested in nature, particularly to see the Barbary Macaques. As we headed out first along the El-Abid River that forms the falls, Nwor pointed out the many Sahara Frogs, Mauritanian Toads, Viperine Snakes and Mediterranean Turtles in or along the river. He also pointed out birds, butterflies, damselflies and Garden Locust. I was glad to see him excited about nature. 

Mediterranean Turtles

We arrived at the top of the falls where there were many tourists. The falls plunge 110 m or 330 feet in 3 drops into the El-Abid River gorge. Nwor said the falls were the third tallest in Africa but this is a gross exaggeration. 

Ousoud Falls

We explored the nearby olive tree groves for more birds before climbing steeply down into the gorge. Here we met our first group of macaques. Unfortunately, they were being fed by some tourists and the guides were encouraging them to do so! One macaque was sitting on a guy’s shoulders, not cool. These macaques are wild animals and should be treated as such. Feeding them makes them aggressive toward humans and then they become pests. They can also transmit diseases fatal to humans. It would be a tragedy if these endangered monkeys had to be destroyed because of the stupidity of humans. They are found only in Morocco and Algeria and their numbers are decreasing. We spotted a troupe that was away from the tourists and we were able to observe them foraging naturally.

Barberry Macaques

Our trip to Morocco and Western Sahara had come to an end. A big thank you goes to Martina of Dakhla Rovers for working with us to arrange this adventure. Thanks to Nico also of Dakhla Rovers for guiding and enabling us to find so many wondrous desert dwellers! We’ll never forget our close encounters with the endearing Rüppell’s Fox kits, the extraordinary Fennec Fox and of course my favorite the elusive yet amazingly tolerant Sand Cat. Our gratitude also goes to Sidi for driving and for his sharp eyes in spotting animals. Finally, thanks to Amina for preparing delicious meals while we were in the desert. 
We hope all is well with everyone.
Peggy and Marc

       Morocco/Western Sahara Mammal List: April 27- May 9, 2019

No.   SpeciesScientific Name Notes
  1Fat Sand Rat Psammomys obesus  White Dune near Dakhla 
  2Maghreb HareLepus mediterraneusAousserd Rd. & Bir Anzarine Area 
  3Fat-tailed Gerbil Pachyuromys duprasiAousserd Rd. & Bir Anzarine Area
  4Lesser Egyptian Jerboa Jaculus jaculusAousserd Rd. & Bir Anzarine Area
  5Lesser Egyptian Gerbil * Gerbillus gerbillusAousserd Rd. & Bir Anzarine Area
  6Pygmy Gerbil *Gerbillus henleyiBir Anzarine Area
  7Desert HedgehogParaechinus aethiopicus Aousserd Rd. & Bir Anzarine Area
  8Rüppell's FoxVulpes rueppelliiAousserd Rd. & Bir Anzarine Area
  9Fennec FoxVulpes zerdaBir Anzarine Area
 10African Golden WolfCanis anthusDerraman Massif 
 11African WildcatFelis lybicaAousserd Rd. & Bir Anzarine Area
 12Sand CatFelis margarita3, 1 Aousserd Rd. & 2 Bir Anzarine Area
 13Honey Badger Mellivora capensisAousserd Rd., possibly 1st sighting in 25 years!  
 14Barbary MacaqueMacaca sylvanusOusoud Falls, Morocco 

      * presumed to be this species

For the 39 bird species seen and photographed by Marc go to his list on iNaturalist:

Friday, May 03, 2019

NIght Life in the Sahara

Greetings Everyone,
My quest to see all the wild cat species in the world has brought us to an unlikely place, Western Sahara. One would not necessarily equate the Sahara as good habitat for cats or any mammal for that matter but after dark, the desert comes alive with a myriad of life. We began our journey in Marrakech, Morocco where we spent one night before flying to Dakhla in Western Sahara, a disputed territory currently administered by Morocco. Occupied by Spain since the 1700s and made a colony in 1884, control of Western Sahara was relinquished in 1975 to Morocco and Mauritania. A war broke out between the two countries which lasted until 1991 when the United Nations sponsored a ceasefire. Two-thirds of the territory, including most of the Atlantic coastline and the area we were to visit, is currently administered by the Moroccan government. Today Dakhla has been invaded again by Europeans in the form of kitesurfers who flock here to be pulled across Dakhla Bay by strong northeasterly winds.

Kitesurfers Near Dakhla

We had arranged a tour with Martina and Nico, founders of Dakhla Rovers, to take us out into the desert in search of mammals, birds, and other wildlife. After spending the night in Dakhla, Nico picked us up the next morning to take us birding in the area. We visited a place known as the “White Dune”. While looking for shorebirds, I noticed tiny tracks in the sand leading to some bushes. I trained my binoculars on the spot and saw a rodent sitting there. We tried to get a closer view but it disappeared. We later identified it as a Fat Sand Rat, the first mammal of the trip.

Fat Sand Rat

A horde of weekend tourists from Marrakech had descended on the White Dune so we drove to a Ramsar site on the eastern side of the bay to look for more birds. The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance was signed in 1971 in Ramsar, Iran hence the name. There were a few birds around such as Greater Flamingoes, Whimbrel, Grey Heron, Great Cormorant, various plovers and thousands of West African Fiddler Crabs.

West African Fiddler Crab

We drove to the end of the peninsula where a ramshackle fishing village had been set up. I was astounded at the number of wooden fishing boats that had been dragged ashore by a tractor to await the next fishing foray. Next to kitesurfing tourism, fishing and oyster farming are the main economic activities of Dakhla.

Fishing Boats on Dakhla Bay

The next day Nico picked us up in his 4x4 for the drive southwest to Aousserd. We were accompanied by a second vehicle driven by Sidi who was with our cook Amina. We made a few stops along the way to look for birds. The first was an agricultural farm where Nico said Crowned Sandgrouse frequented. We spotted them near a water source and got some nice views and photos. 

Crowned Sandgrouse

The next stop was a massive agricultural farm called Mijk. It’s surprising that tomatoes and other vegetables are grown on a large scale in the Sahara Desert and exported to Europe. Large plastic covered greenhouses with irrigation are used. 

Marc and Nico at Mijk

We did a bit of birding and had lunch here before resuming our drive toward Aousserd. The plan was to stop at a wadi near the Bougouffa Trail and rest up for our first night drive along this track. We took a short walk spotting a family of Fulvous Chatterers and a lizard later identified as a Dumerils’s Fringe-fingered Lizard before taking a nap.

Fulvous Chatterer

We woke and had dinner before driving back to the main road. We could see a tower on a hill and headed off along the Bougouffa Trail for it. The sunset was around 8:30 and we went into spotlighting mode. Sidi radioed that he had found our first mammal which turned out to be a hare. Both African Savannah and Cape Hares are found here and are impossible to tell apart without looking at the grooves in their teeth. 


On two occasions we spotted eye shine which turned out to be a Rüppell’s Fox but they kept running away and we couldn’t get a good view or photos. We had better luck with the smaller mammals. We saw many Lesser Egyptian Jerboas, two Fat-tailed Gerbil with a short tail and at least one other gerbil species with a long, white-tipped tail, most likely an Egyptian Lesser Gerbil. We also saw three adorable Desert Hedgehogs. We spotlighted in the area until 1:30 am! 

Lesser Egyptian Jerboa

Fat-tailed Gerbil

Desert Hedgehog

We continued to spotlight along the main road to Aousserd not seeing many mammals but we did encounter a stunning Desert Horned Viper. It moved with a side-winding motion off the road. 

Desert Horned Viper

It was getting late or should I say very early. We stopped spotlighting and picked up speed toward Aousserd. We didn’t arrive until 4:30 am! We drove into a small compound and entered a new and very large house. It would be a very comfortable place to spend the next four nights. 

Our House in Aousserd

We slept until 11:30 the next morning and brunch with scrambled eggs and mushroom wraps was served at 1:00 PM. Around 3:00 PM we drove to the nearby Laglat Massif. Along the way, we spotted at least 6 Sudan Mastigures or spiny-tailed lizards basking outside their burrows.

Sudan Mastigure

We drove to a valley at the base of the massif and climbed on foot above a sandy wash to the confluence of three drainages. Torrential rains two years ago had caused a lot of erosion. It was hot and very dry so we didn’t see much. We reached a pool where the water was fast evaporating and saw fresh canid tracks, maybe wolf or jackal but possibly dog. 

Desert Pool

We drove back to Aousserd for dinner before heading out on our second night drive. We took a short detour to the Derraman Massif to look for African Golden Wolf. An adult and a pup had been spotted here just a week ago but we weren’t so lucky. We returned to the main road to set up for spotlighting. I was scanning out the right side of the vehicle when I spotted a cat sitting next to the road!  We had to back up to see it and it took off. It looked like an African Wildcat. We continued on and Sidi and I saw another mammal at the same time. It was a Honey Badger! Nico raced off on foot to try and get a photo but the badger was too fast. We all saw it but sadly we don’t have a photo record of what could be the first sighting in this area in 25 years! Not a bad start to the evening but we had few sightings thereafter and returned to Aousserd around 3 AM.

We decided not to do any daytime activities to rest up for our third night drive. We left around 6:40 PM and decided to check out the Derraman Massif which we dubbed “Wolf Mountain”. At first, we didn’t see anything so Nico and Sidi got out of the car to scan. Sidi shouts “Nico!”. We rush out of the car and I caught a glimpse of the wolf on the top of a rocky outcrop. Nico saw it but Marc missed it completely. The wolf disappeared behind the rocks and we drove around to search for her to no avail. We gave up and resumed our drive. Around 10:30 PM Sidi spotted the eyeshine of an animal in a tree. We went out to investigate and could make out what appeared to be a cat’s ear but it didn’t move at all. We tried different angles for a better look through the branches but I wasn’t convinced that it was a Sand Cat. Finally, the animal moved to verify that it was indeed a Sand Cat!  Not the sighting I was hoping for but at least we could say we saw one. We had read a report by J. M. Bompar who was here last Oct./Nov. that Sand Cats had been seen resting in abandoned ravens’ nests and our observation seemed to support that this is the case.

Sandcat in Raven's Nest

We resumed our drive turning around at 1:30 AM. Nico spotted a Desert Hedgehog eating a viper! It appeared that the hedgehog had killed it rather than it being roadkill as it wasn’t flattened. We got back to Aousserd around 3:30 AM. Although I got two new species, a Sand Cat and an African Golden Wolf, they were marginal sightings at best and I hoped our final night in Aousserd would yield better results.

Desert Hedgehog and Viper

On our final night drive in the Aousserd area, we had a second frustrating encounter with the African Golden Wolf. Sidi spotted her from a high vantage point but we could not see her from below. When we got to the spot she had been resting she had already moved off. We didn’t find another Sand Cat but spotted three more African Wildcats. We got our best views and photos yet of this species from which domestic cats evolved.

African Wildcat

The next day we packed up and left our comfortable abode in Aousserd to return to Dakhla for the night. We’d resume our search for Sand Cats and other wildlife in the Bir Anzarine area east of Dakhla. Stay tuned to see if we are successful.
We hope all is well with everyone,
Peggy and Marc

Our route map: