The Sahara awaits for 09

For Ospreys migrating south from the UK, the most obvious hazard on their 3000 mile flight to the wintering grounds is the vast and wild expanses of the Sahara.  In his lifetime 09 has made 25 crossing of one of the most inhospitable parts of the planet and his latest satellite data shows that yesterday morning he was in the southern part of Morocco, preparing to cross once again.

09’s flight south so far has been notable for its speed – he has averaged more than 50 miles a day further than last autumn – and he continued to make excellent progress once he reached Morocco on Sunday evening.

Having left Europe behind at around 3:30pm on Sunday afternoon and crossed the Strait of Gibraltar into North Africa, 09 showed no signs of letting up. By 6pm he had already flown 50km further south and he continued migrating until after dark. Non-GPS locations showed that he was still migrating at 9:20pm and he finally settled to roost 30km east of Rabat having flown 552 kilometres since leaving his roost site in the Sierra Morena mountains that morning. With sunset in Rabat just after 7:30pm, 09 must have flown more than 100km in total darkness. As he demonstrated as he flew south through Europe, it seemed that he wanted to make the most of excellent migration conditions.

09’s flight from Spain to Morocco on 9th September

09’s roost near Rabat

Having roosted in an area of open agricultural land, 09 began flying south again at first light. Its possible he made a short diversion to fish at Lac Barrage on the outskirts of Rabat, but two hours later he was another 31km south, heading purposefully south-west at 49kph. Once again he was evidently keen to press on with his journey and over the course of the next five hours he covered 236km at an altitude of more than 1000 metres.

As he flew over Marrakesh, the Atlas Mountains would have loomed large on the horizon. These vast mountains, rising to more than 4000 metres in places, present an obvious barrier to migrating birds and, like last year, 09 shifted his course to a more westerly heading in order to avoid the highest peaks. Google Earth offers us an insight into the kind of views he would have been seeing.

09’s view of the Atlas Mountains as he flew over Marrakesh

At 4pm 09 was flying along the northern edge of the mountains at 67kph. At present we’re receiving data fixes from his transmitter every two hours and they indicate that he flew around the highest peaks before changing towards a more southerly course towards Agadir. The red line on the Google Earth images are direct lines between data points, but in reality 09 would almost certainly have flown further to avoid the highest mountains.

09’s flight round the mountains, looking south

By 6pm 09 was flying south-west along at an altitude of 1892m along a mountain pass towards Barrage Abdelmoumen. Although we do not his exact flight path, he would almost certainly have had the view shown below as he flew past the spectacular mountains.

The view towards Agadir

The sun would now have been getting low in the sky, but once clear of the mountains 09 flew another 100km before roosting just south of the large reservoir Barrage Youssef ef Ibn Tachfin after a day’s flight of 556km.

09’s roost site 10th September

It is fascinating to see how similar 09’s journey this year is to his flight last September. The image below shows his two autumn flights through Morocco. Last year 09 made the flight round the Atlas on 11th September – the same day as this year, given that 2012 is a leap year. Incredible!

09’s autumn migrations in 2011 and 2012

Next morning 09 was still at his roost site at 9am, suggesting he had made the short flight to Barrage Youssef ef Ibn Tachfin to go fishing – he would have arrived too late to catch a meal the previous evening. He can’t have left long after 9am though because two hours later he had flown 57km south-west and was heading powerfully on at 47kph at an altitude of 1350m. He now had the Sahara in his sights. By 1pm 09 had covered another 73km and was still heading south-west at an altitude of just under 1000m. Two hours later though, he had stopped and was perched on the top of a spectacular ridge, with the vast expanse of the Sahara lying ahead. He was either tired after the exersions of the previous week’s flying or the weather was too poor to continue any further, because two hours later he was still in the same spot. He evetually settled there for the night, having flown just 155km – much less than the previous few days. The land forms here are truly mighty impressive – and can easily be seen from the air. The photo below, which shows almost the exact spot where 09 was resting, was taken by John Wright when we flew to West Africa last year.

09 perched on a ridge on the northern edge of the Sahara

09’s ridge in the Sahara, viewed from the air

Next morning (yesterday) the Argos satellites were unable to pick any GPS fixes from 09’s transmitter, but several non-GPS points – accurate to within a few hundred metres – suggested he had moved down into the valley to roost and that he was still there at 10:30am. The terrain there explains the lack of GPS fixes and suggests, that, perhaps, 09 is taking the chance to rest before setting out across the Sahara. A look at Google Earth indicates there may well be water in the valleys – 09’s last chance of a meal for a few days. We expect the next batch of data to arrive on Saturday. It will be fascinating to see where he is then.

09’s roost site on 11th Sept and subsequent movements next morning

2 responses to “The Sahara awaits for 09”

  1. Cirrus

    A truly wonderful travelogue TIM. I so enjoyed reading it. At one point I realised I had held my breath. What an inhospitable place to cross, so glad he’s done it before and knows what to expect. I was willing him to find fish and a good roosting spot. Can’t wait for his (safe) return next year and a reunion with his newly found mate.

  2. Piki Sääksi

    Many thanks for this very detailed blog, truly keenly looking forward for the next update. Several other satellite tracked ospreys seem to race westerly this year, I think.