Morocco: sharing the birds

18 augustus 2020  ·  Diedert Koppenol  ·  3425 × bekeken

Morocco: sharing the birds.

Arnoud B van den Berg & The Sound Approach 2020. The Sound Approach, Poole. ISBN 9789081093392. Hardback, 308 pp. Price: £54.95 / €59.95.

A new book from The Sound Approach (TSA) always evokes hype among birders. This line is written in at least the last two reviews from a work of TSA (Petrels night and day & Undiscovered Owls). With their latest release “Morocco: sharing the birds” hype was created once more. Does this book live up to its predecessors and the renewed hype, especially now that our famous TSA-er, Arnoud, is the lead author?

‘Morocco’ is not only about differences in taxa discovered by analysing their songs and calls. More room is given to the birds themselves with paragraphs about breeding, migration and tips on how to find the species in the field. It lacks the monograph-like titles we were getting accustomed to and seems to go in the same direction as that of “The Beauty of the Sound Approach”, a LP and USB-stick containing la crème de la crème of their humongous archives. Familiar things like the style and their controversial taxonomy are still present, but this sixth instalment of the Sound Approach guides tries to harken back to their first release with a more personal style of writing. Arnoud states in the introduction that this approach consequently leads to a less ‘mathematical’ book, as if this is a negative. In my opinion, it is quite the contrary. It allows Arnoud to share his wealth of knowledge gathered over the course of 47 years with plenty of visits, while not hampering the scientific background as ample sources are provided.

Maybe the most surprising fact to me is that it takes you all the way to page 50 before the first recording is featured and it is not even a real bird sound! With Owls it only took 13 pages. Morocco starts with quite a long introduction, that is included to show that this book is indeed not only about sounds, but also about the region’s history with birds, the cultures of yesteryear and the evolution of birding itself in the Maghreb. Most of this is quite interesting and paints a beautiful picture of the Maghreb region. However, it probably is the weakest part of the book, with too much seemingly random, or better, generic information included. For instance, the paragraph about bird ringing and migration hot spots could have been replaced with more specific info, like an introduction on the several ‘must-visit’ areas.

Human imitation by Arnoud of Slender-billed Curlew Numenius tenuirostris Merja Zerga, Rharb, Morocco, 13:10, 29 January 1988. Four cour-lee calls in flight. 880129.AB.131000.11

The book picks up all the steam from here! The first chapter is dedicated to one of the most enigmatic species in the Western Palearctic, the Slender-billed Curlew, sadly no longer with us. It tells about the personal connection Arnoud and Cecilia have with the decline of this species. It also includes the only known recording of Slender-billed Curlew (!) and misquotes Napoleon Bonaparte in an aptly suitable paragraph about ‘not ascribing to malice what is adequately explained by incompetence’. So, I am unsure if this misquote is malice or incompetence, surely Arnoud would not be one to describe as incompetent. I am interested to read your judgements.

This chapter also introduces the style of the book. Each chapter discusses a species or a family of species and talks about its status in the Maghreb, specifically Morocco, what habitat it uses, what areas the species is found, what threats it has to deal with and of course, it analyses all known sounds produced and sometimes proposes splits of several taxa. My favourite chapters are the ones about the Houbara Bustard, finally being able to read precise and elaborate information about what the status of this species in Morocco is; the one about the sandgrouses, giving a beautiful overview of all species occurring in Morocco and interesting details on their breeding behaviour; and the one about the mysterious Andalusian Hemipode, one of my most-wanted WP-birds. The most elaborate chapters are chapter 11 and 12, about the larks and wheatears, respectively. This is where the core Sound Approach shines brightest. All species occurring in the Maghreb are discussed and their sounds are analysed to the syrinx itself. They provide not only thoughtful insight in the species’ behaviour and divergence of sounds, but also handy tools for determination in the field. It discusses key species like Maghreb Lark and how to tell it apart from Thekla’s and Crested, gives tips on how to find Red-rumped Wheatear and delves into the splitting of Horned Larks and Black-eared Wheatears. In previous titles like Owls some felt that the taxonomy subjects were distracting. I didn't have that feeling in this volume. These chapters also feature the two plates provided by Killian Mullarney on African Dunn’s Lark and Seebohm’s Wheatear. They are superb and give extra touch to these majestic chapters while being helpful additions for birders in the field!

Spotted Sandgrouse Pterocles senegallus, males and females, Erg Chebbi, Merzouga, Tafilalt, Morocco, 30 March 2017 (Arnoud B van den Berg). Peacocking tails.

Andalusian Buttonquail Turnix sylvaticus sylvaticus Kasbat Ayir, Doukkala-Abda, Morocco, 10:42, 27 June 2010. Complete song of female.
Background: European Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis parva, European Bee-eater Merops apiaster, Zitting Cisticola Cisticola juncidis and Sardinian Warbler Sylvia melanocephala. 100627.AB.104200.02S

Other topics include chaffinches with the information about distinguishing the three taxa (Tunisian, Atlas and Common) relevant for Maghreb birding and vagrancy, finally made easily readable. Sadly, they chose to not include the Atlantic Island taxa in this review, which would surely have called for a split or two. The Bonelli’s Warbler chapter is another topic of interest for Dutch birders. It goes into details about differentiating between Wood Warbler, Eastern and Western Bonelli’s and potentially hybrids between a combination of species.

Homologous ‘excitement’ calls compared for, from left to right, Atlas Fringilla coelebs africana (chep), Tunisian F c spodiogenys (chep) and European F c coelebs (pink) Chaffinches (USB-0304 to USB-0306).

Atlas Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs africana Forêt Ain Kahla, Azrou, Western Middle Atlas, Morocco, at 1843 m, 10:59, 26 March 2002. Chep calls by male.
Background: Coal Tit Periparus ater atlas and African Northern Raven Corvus corax tingitanus. 02.004.AB.04247.01T

Tunisian Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs spodiogenys Mareth, Aram, Gabès, Tunisia, at 38 m, 07:44, 1 May 2005. Chep calls by two individuals.
Background: European Bee-eater Merops apiaster, Saharan Olivaceous Warbler Iduna pallida reiseri, Collared Flycatcher Ficedula albicollis and Western Orphean Warbler Sylvia hortensis. 05.006.AB.03311.00T

European Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs coelebs Ardgay, Sutherland, Scotland, at 117 m, 20 March 2002. Pink calls by a male. Background: Song Thrush Turdus philomelos and European Robin Erithacus rubecula. 02.010.MR.02315.01T

The pictures you can find throughout the book add a lot of flair and clarity to the book, emphasizing the wealth of beautiful and interesting birds that can be found in Morocco. Even though I have never been to Morocco before, putting on headphones with the included 321 recordings and looking at the pictures, it feels though you are walking alongside Arnoud through this mystical region.

Sunrise along the Iknioun road at the famous Tagdilt track, with view on the outskirts of Boumalne Dadès, Dadès-Draa, Morocco, 28 March 2014 (Arnoud B van den Berg). More than 10 lark species can be found here.

Most of the chapters do however also instil a great feeling of sadness in me, regrets about the fact that I was not born earlier to be able to enjoy the enormous ornithological treasures this region has known. SBC already gone, many raptors like Tawny Eagle and bustards too and species like Andalusian Hemipode following suit. Luckily Arnoud shows that there is also new stuff to discover like the Golden Nightjars and maybe soon a new lark species to add to the country list. The chapters about Zitting Cisticola and Black-crowned Tchagra are also good examples of this. Like with Owls and Petrels, new species might lurk closer to home than expected, but especially the story on the Cisticola lives on the edge between far-fetched and well-founded.

Slender-billed Curlews Numenius tenuirostris and Black-tailed Godwits Limosa limosa, Merja Zerga, Rharb, Morocco, 26 January 1988 (Arnoud B van den Berg). Flying over feeding habitat on eastern shore.

Black-crowned Tchagra Tchagra senegalus cucullatus Tassila, Oued Massa, Souss, Morocco, 07:58, 2 April 2002. Three to five descending whistles often repeated once (‘big ben tune’), as if involving countersinging, by identical song without the three introduction whistles by same bird or another, overall slightly descending.
Background: Great Tit Parus major, Atlas Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs africana, Common Bulbul Pycnonotus barbatus, Zitting Cisticola Cisticola juncidis, Common Blackbird Turdus merula mauritanicus and Sardinian Warbler Sylvia melanocephala. 02.008.AB.04700.11T

TSA finally seems to have made a dedicated move to a more modern device for carrying their precious sounds. Arnoud himself in 2015 wrote: “some good advice for every birder the coming decennia: make sure that you not only own a great collection of books, but also have a working CD-player”, so I already broke out my dad’s portable CD-reader in preparation of this work. Luckily only a nice USB-stick is used and your recordings are safer from scratches and more readily accessible. There is even more ‘plus’ to this move, since this also allowed Cecilia to create a very useful ePub book, called ‘Maghreb Key Species’, which includes pictures and 573 recordings of all target species one can have when visiting this region. You can easily install a free app to read this work and have offline access to calls and songs of any species you might want to listen to. It works very smoothly and will prevent you from having to search your mobile database and you get to use the top-quality TSA sounds! Sadly, the recommended Android app (Lithium) lacks a nice overview menu which the Apple version does have, but maybe a better free app can be recommended which does have such a menu overlay.
By the way, Cecilia’s name would not have been entirely misplaced on the front cover of this work since I suspect Arnoud would have had a hard time without her.

Key Species Account - Morocco: sharing the birds, 1 juni 2020 (The Sound Approach)

Worth a read

To summarize, this book is definitely worth a read. Some minor weak details are easily forgotten when reading this magnificent work from Arnoud & TSA. For anyone interested in birds of Morocco, the Maghreb or the WP, this is definitely the work that needs to be digested. Apart from ‘where to find’, there is not a lot of information you cannot find in this book and the tips on behaviour will serve birders in the field very well. If you are just in it for the enjoyment, the anecdotal style breezes you through this work and the bitesize chapters create this “okay, just one more chapter” feeling and soon you will reach the end of the 308 pages.

Worth a buy

I would wholeheartedly recommend buying a copy of this work. Other than to support the amazing (field)work of TSA, a valid reason on its own, having access to these recordings on a small USB-stick is invaluable. The enjoyment of bird song might be personal but what beats listening to a full-stereo recording of Greater Hoopoe-lark except the real thing? The added benefit of a simple file allowing for easy access on your phone to nearly 600 recordings, the “Key Species Maghreb” file, is worth a buy alone almost. It saves hours of searching xeno-canto to find good quality recordings, since who needs better recordings than those of TSA? They also already did the downloading for you and you just have to transfer this file onto your phone. You can even save it on your external SD-card and have offline access.

Greater Hoopoe-Lark Alaemon alaudipes Tagdilt track, Boumalne Dadès, Dadès-Draa, Morocco, 07:42, 17 April 2011. Songs by two.
Background: Cream-colored Courser Cursorius cursor, Desert Wheatear Oenanthe deserti, Red-rumped Wheatear O moesta, Temminck’s Lark Eremophila bilopha and Greater Short-toed Lark Calandrella brachydactyla. 110417.AB.074216.11T

I really enjoyed this new release from the TSA and can’t wait for their next title. I hope we’ll get to see more of this style, giving much information beyond standard field guides. A “sharing the birds” in Macaronesia, the Middle East, the Caucasus, or would they even dare venture beyond the borders of the Western Palearctic? The hype will be all the same, I suspect.

Diedert Koppenol


Diedert Koppenol  ·  18 augustus 2020  16:01

Voor eenieder die geïnteresseerd is in dit boek, TSA heeft nu een aanbieding lopen ivm de Virtual Bird Fair voor hun titels, zie hier.

Arnoud B van den Berg  ·  19 augustus 2020  12:07, gewijzigd 19 augustus 2020  12:20

Dank voor je uitgebreide recensie, Diedert! Hopelijk kunnen we het land volgend jaar (weer) bezoeken, of anders toch in 2022.

Dat Magnus, Mark en Killian als co-auteurs zijn te bestempelen is bekend maar je hebt terecht opgemerkt dat Cecilia's rol erg belangrijk is.

Een vorig TSA-boek met de opzet van 'sharing the birds' was misschien 'Catching the bug'. Dat ging echter over een heel klein gebied (Poole Harbour, Dorset) in plaats van een groot land en het ziet er daardoor anders uit. Door de aanpak van bijv nachtzwaluwen, zandhoenders, leeuweriken, tapuiten en vinken doet dit Marokkoboek inderdaad dan weer meer denken aan petrels en owls.

Lukasz Lawicki  ·  19 augustus 2020  15:50

After reading this superb book, I also said aloud - the next books by The Sound Approach for the most interesting areas of the WP would be a great concept and challenge! To this 'the big three' mentioned by Diedert, I would add two more: Arabian Peninsula and Iran! :-)

Gijsbert van der Bent  ·  25 augustus 2020  18:34

Besteld! Moet de reeks toch een beetje compleet houden.

Arnoud B van den Berg  ·  1 december 2020  17:31, gewijzigd 8 januari 2021  14:55

na recensie in novembernummer van Birdwatch & BirdGuides 

nu ook in decembernummer van British Birds:

en in Rabat: ;

for sale at

Recensies in 2021: onder andere in Ardeola

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