On the fringes of the Sahara in Southern Morocco a seasonal phenomenon occurs in wetter years. Rain collects in a shallow, temporary salt lake, offering a feeding and resting site for thousands of migratory birds on their arduous journeys from Africa to Northern lands. This ephemeral lagoon was our camp for the night.
By first light the Ornithological Orchestra is tuning up for its performance. As a lone audience member I took my seat at the waters edge, a crunchy white layer of salt giving way underfoot to a spongy, sticky brown mud underneath. First to sound are the numerous pairs of Ruddy Shelducks, a brash repertoire of high-pitched barking and donkey-like honking as they glide across the surface. Rusty, auburn plumage reveals a shiny green flash of feathers; a flapping fanfare as they fly past, trumpeting out of tune. A Black-Winged Stilt squeaks shrilly as it wades elegantly past. Its bright red legs, glistening wet in the sun, seem to bend backwards as it strides like the most precise, poised ballerina through the shallows. Its perfect reflection in the still, mirror-like water reaches up to merge with its probing, narrow, jet-black beak as it delves for food in the muddy margins. Floppy red feet are revealed during its exaggerated steps and a white-feathered rear flashes as it dives its head.
The rising sun turns the distant arid mountains a rusty red in the dawn light, while behind the towering, undulating dunes of Erg Chebbi loom surreally out of the horizon. Shrieking, squealing calls of approaching flocks of Terns, swooping acrobatically across the waters surface. Graceful, speckled Sandpipers bob across sandbanks, whistling rhythmically while Coots cruise past, heads nodding to the beat. Tiny Kentish Plovers tiptoe unassumingly through the grassy fringes, whistling hurried, nervous ‘pip-pips’ in a hushed percussion.
The highlight of the symphony comes from the harmonious assemblage of Flamingos, their startling white and rose-coloured plumage a vivid contrast to the black, basalt hamada hills beyond. Their pink, u-bend necks plunge beaks methodically into the brackish water, a melodic murmuring as they extend their wide crimson wingspans in full.
As the sun rises high, glaring dazzlingly on the lake surface, the intensifying heat transforms the distant bank to a distorted, watery heat haze. The avian concerto settles into a calmer harmony. This has been a truly unique spectacle; migratory musicians en-mass. Bird song in stereo surround sound.