Don and Donna, members of the New York State Ornithological Association and long-time travelers with Zegrahm, had arrived with a tally of 4,981 bird species on their list. The question they asked me was “Could I manage to get them 19 new species?” In theory it was certainly possible but in the field with all the constraints imposed by weather, ship’s schedules, and so forth, it is not always easy to conjure or induce species to drop from the sky on command. An added twist to the challenge was that Don and Donna do not count birds unless both of them see it. As far as I know, no other couple “birds” in this way. Over the years I have managed to get either Don or Donna onto the bird but not both so that the species went unchecked. Let me assure you, it is difficult enough pointing birds out to folks without having to get partners looking in the same direction, into the same bush, at the same bird, at the same time. But I love challenges.
What made this challenge even more remarkable and enjoyable was the fabulous support that Don and Donna received from their fellow Zegrahm travelers on our Atlantic journey. At one of the first recaps I had announced that Don and Donna were attempting to break the 5,000 barrier and that we needed 19 species to do it, but none could be considered easy. It was wonderful to see the support and encouragement from their “Zegrahm Family.” Each day—in the buffet line, in the Zodiac or on the bus, at dinner—the same questions were asked time and time again—“Any new ones today?” and “How many more to go?”
We began amassing those 19 species in good style with truly remarkable views of such sought after island endemics as Berthholdt’s pipit, Trocaz pigeon, Bolle’s pigeon, laurel pigeon, and even houbara bustard. By the time we reached Lanzorote in the Canary Islands on April 23 and with just three days remaining on the expedition, Don and Donna had added 17 species and were poised at 4,998. Fellow traveler, Louis, leant a helping hand in the late morning on Lanzorote by spotting a fine spectacled warbler pushing Don and Donna to the brink of 4,999.
It all rested on our days in Morocco and for once I felt no pressure whatsoever. Morocco is a birder’s dream destination. It sits on the southern shores on the straits of Gibraltar, one of the planet’s major migratory fly-ways. Now it was not “if” we could get Don and Donna to 5,000, but what bird would the 5,000th species be?
And so it was, at dawn, on April 24, that the birders, in three mini-vans, set off on what would be a 400-mile jaunt from Agadir to Marrakech. Our first stop was under the ramparts of the King’s Summer Palace, south of Agadir, at the mouth of the Oued Sousse River. Birds were seemingly everywhere: red-rumped swallows, Eurasian spoonbills, pied avocets, spotted redshanks, golden orioles but alas, none of these were that elusive 5,000th species. As we stood watching a flock of several thousand black terns, Margot, Louis’ wife, noticed a band of magpies mobbing a raptor perched in a nearby tree. A falcon, yes, but not just any falcon – a BARBARY FALCON. This was species number 5,000!
Amid hugs and handshakes I pulled the two bottles of Moet and Chandon Champagne that I had been carrying in my backpack for the past several days. With pomp and fanfare the cork duly hurtled into the sky. We all agreed that warm champagne had never tasted better.
We arrived at Marrakech late that evening. It was already dark. We had seen over 100 species for the day including over 100 waldrapp, the critically endangered bald ibis of which there are just 200 in existence. Without doubt, this was the bird species of the trip, a wonderful finale to a truly memorable day.
What made this event even more special was that when we rejoined the Clipper Adventurer, our Zegrahm family broke into spontaneous applause once learning that Don and Donna had indeed surpassed the 5,000 barrier. By trip end Don and Donna had added 35 new species to their life list and were now beyond 5,000 with just 984 to go to barrier 6,000. Hearty congratulations to them both. Hopefully the 6,000th will come on another Zegrahm expedition.