Eleonora’s Falcons of Essaouira

I spent last week in Morocco with wildlife writer Simon Barnes of the Sunday Times. We were in Essaouira to look for Eleonora's Falcon, the pretty port town is possibly more famous for Jimmy Hendrix's brief residency than the annual influx of this enigmatic raptor, which breeds on the island of Mogador just off the coast, before returning to Madagascar - an eccentric and completely unique migration.

From an east and southern African perspective Eleonora's Falcons have a near-mythical status, we know that they should be passing through but they are very rarely sighted giving them an ephemeral quality. The only Zambian record is for a satellite-tracked bird that spent a few days, unnoticed, in the wilds of the North Luangwa. To add a bird to the national list it used to be necessary to shoot a specimen and provide the skin - these days it need not even be seen.

Our base was the wonderfully quirky Villa Maroc, a veritable labyrinth of corridors and staircases with a rooftop terrace overlooking the port, and at dusk the falcons shoot around and kiss the sky. Better views of Eleonora's displaying and hunting can be found on the two bridges over the mouth of the Oued Ksob a few miles south of town - but best of all is to get up close to Mogador. The island is now a nature reserve and it is not possible to land, but visit any port in the world and you're likely to find a Frenchman with a yacht and Xavier's craft provides the ultimate platform to watch the falcons launching themselves off the cliff-face in search their quarry. In the summer this is passing songbirds, which when there is a glut, they rip off their flight feathers and stuff them, alive, in "larders"- cracks in the rock - to feed their growing brood. 

If you are in Essaouira between May and September be sure to occasionally cast your eyes skywards and look out for a long-winged, long-tailed, slender falcon scudding accross the sky - reminscent of a giant swift - it will almost defintely be an Eleonora's Falcon, named after Eleonora of Arborea the warrior-princess heroine of Sardinia, and it will have traverssed the African continent to get here, as they have presumably been doing for millenia, but are only now revealing their secrets.

Posted by: Rod Tether

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