PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot The Rapids — Morocco Day 7

And now for something completely different.

I am not a birdwatcher. I feed the birds on my deck and I recognize a few of them, like the cardinal and the finch. But mostly if I see a bird that’s pretty, I point at  it and say, “Oh. There’s a pretty bird.”  But it has to be fairly obvious because my skill set does not include sighting small birds in trees.

My sister, Gretchen, and our traveling companion, Martha, however, are wildlife biologists. They both spent their careers working in wildlife management for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. And they are avid birders, which is lingo used to describe birdwatchers. Because of that, when we planned our trip, it was important to incorporate dedicated time to birdwatching in our itinerary.

That is why I found myself this morning staring through binoculars in a dump in a desert expanse near the High Atlas Mountains, surrounded by garbage, junkyard dogs, countless goats, sheep, a few donkeys and some Bedouin people who live in shanties in the middle of the dump.

As a neophyte, using cheap binoculars that substitute for opera glasses for me at the Met, I actually quickly began to understand the endorphin surge that accompanies people when they see what I would previously refer to as a “pretty bird.”

Gretchen, Martha and our guide, Mustafa, were very generous in helping me spot birds as they identified where they were located. Since I have trouble delineating between right and left, it wasn’t always easy, But once I consistently looked through the right end of the lens, I was quickly beginning to see what birds they were directing me to.

After spending a great deal of time in the dump, we moved on to the the famous Tagdilt track, where we traversed the desert in search of more birds. Identification of location was easier in the dump because there were items like old shoes and blue plastic bags from which to begin the search. Here, however, it was more like “see that white rock next to the other white rock that’s by another white rock that is slightly bigger, and perhaps shaped a little different, right by that slightly dead bush.” However, their patience was greater than my inexperience. I am fairly certain I saw every bird that they also identified.

The last stop was a rock cliff and ravine, where we saw a supercool Lanner Falcon next and its babies — we saw the falcon itself earlier fly over us as we were traveling there.

The biggest expedition was to see the Pharaoh Eagle Owl, which is a fairly rare bird. It took a long time to spot it because basically we were looking at rock outcroppings where everything looked exactly the same, and the owl blended in to the cliff face. However, our guide would not relent until we saw it. And I must admit, when we did, my level of enthusiasm was as great as Gretchen and Martha’s. It was hiding inside a cave-like area with its young.

We returned to our riad when the weather got warmer, as optimal time is earlier and later in the day. This afforded me a nap that I desperately needed. I had been up in the middle of the night to watch the UConn Huskies win the national championship. I was exhausted, but it was definitely worth it.

In late afternoon, Gretchen, Martha and I went on a walk in a green area near our riad, where we again saw a lot of “cool birds.” I was actually mesmerized as well and even identified some before they saw them. I think I’m a natural.

We arrived back to our riad just before the call to prayer to end the fast, and that is when the highlight of the day occurred. Not only did we see the very rare Little Owl, we saw two of them and then witnessed them mating. Gretchen was able to record the call and enter it onto a birding site. They assured me it was a legit site and not one for bird porn.

For someone who has never done any serious birding, I have to admit it was a really exciting day. I think I may be a convert. I will at least look into opportunities like this in the future when I travel. And work harder to identify the birds on my deck.

I am including with this post, a list of some of the birds that we saw, as well as some photos that Gretchen took as well as some stock photos of the birds so you can get an idea of what the experience was like. The photos are from the Cornell Bird ID site, Merlin.

And for all of you bird lovers, here are just some of the birds we saw:  Pharaoh Eagle Owl, Lanner Falcon, Desert Lark, Greater Hoopoe Lark, Desert Wheatear, Eurasian Hoopoe, Maghreb Wheatear and the European Bee Eater

I am truly delighted that Gretchen and Martha insisted that this be part of the trip because it exposed me to something new and helped me understand something that I had never experienced. And that is the purpose of travel.

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