How to save the Moroccan Marsh Owl from extinction?

By MaghrebOrnitho | 5 January 2012

The Marsh Owl (Asio capensis) has a very large breeding range across sub-Saharan Africa and locally in north-west Morocco and hence not a globally threatened species (currently rated as ‘Least Concern’ globally by the IUCN).

In Morocco, however, where it is represented by a distinct subspecies tingitanus, is very restricted to a few remaining sites along the Atlantic coast. It was classified as Critically Endangered (CR) in the “Preliminary lists of candidate species” presented by Michel Thévenot (2006) during the starting workshop to prepare the “Moroccan Red List of Birds” held in Rabat in December 2006.

The historical breeding range of Marsh Owl in Morocco extended from Tangier in the north until the marshes of Sidi Moussa-Oualidia in the south and inland to around Meknes. It has bred for instance at Smir marshes, Tahaddart estuary, Lower Lokkous marshes, Merja Zerga and Sidi BouGhaba and in cereal crops near Souk el Arbaa (Thévenot et al. 1983).

Now, the Moroccan population is very fragmented and persists only in a small number of areas: Merja Zerga which is the stronghold for the species in Morocco, Lower Lokkous marshes, Sidi BouGhaba and Tahaddart estuary (but only one sighting in the latter near Oued Gharifa acording to Qninba et al. 2007). The population size in unknown. A study in Merja Zerga and probably also in lower Loukkos by Arnoud B. van den Berg conducted recently may shed some light about this.

Habitat loss and disturbance both by the locals and birders are believed to be the main causes of the decline of the species. Claiming land for agricultural use by setting fire to sedge where the species breed is probably one of the main causes of the decline of the species in Merja Zerga. Other causes includes the pressure from some irresponsible birders that want to see the owl at any price by following some ignorant and irresponsible local guides (“ignorant” in the sense that they don’t have any notion of sustainability, they want a few hundred Dirhams now and that’s it!). Some international guides are also to blame when they follow the same tactics followed by the local ones (disturbing an endangered bird species during the breeding season).

We all know that birders want to see Marsh Owl when visiting Morocco and to do so easily they visit Merja Zerga and go straight to roosting palaces and also to the breeding area. Although the birders don’t say so obviously, but both local guides and foreign birders told us so, and they are to blame for doing this.

It is not a problem to visit the roosting sites during the winter and see the birds which generally don’t notice our presence at all. However, visiting the breeding site during the breeding period to spot the bird is ethically unacceptable, especially if done by educated people. Most local guides, with all due respect, don’t have the notion of sustainable use of this source of money and think the birds are there and will stay there forever, this is unfortunately not true. Some veterans, however, know what means these “target birds” as they remember the golden age of Merja Zerga when the Slender-billed Curlew (Numenius tenuirostris) still visits the area for wintering in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Saving the Moroccan Marsh Owl:

To save the Marsh Owl population from extinction we need to address many issues, here are the easiest ones:

– Reduce habitat loss.

– Reduce disturbance by local people especially during the breeding season.

– Reduce disturbance by visiting birders especially during the breeding season.

– Other actions…please comment below.

The first two actions need education and awareness-raising campaigns and law enforcement by the competent government agencies.

The third one needs also awareness-raising campaigns among potential visitor birders. The rule is “don’t flash birds during the breeding season” even if the bird guides (both locals and internationals) told you so. Instead try to the see the birds while hunting at dusk, or plan to see this bird in autumn and winter.

I agreed with the German birder Wolf Meinken who commented the following in his trip report:

The guide was ok, he has good knowledge about local birds, a sharp eye and, most important, knows where to find the owls (contact: Khalil Fachkhir, Tel. 00212-663095358). The fee was 300 DH (around 27 EUR), which seems to be much. But if you consider that he hangs around for days in his office opposite the camp site waiting for clients it is not that much. And if we generate an owl-related income for local people, the probability increases that we still can see these birds in 20 years. To be honest I am not very confident, I think Marsh Owl is probably the next to go the way Moroccan populations of Tawny Eagle, Dark-chanting Goshawk, Arabian Bustard etc. already went.

We want to stress that generating an owl-related income needs to be in winter. We should never disturb birds during the breeding season. For information, the egg-laying is from the end of February to the end of May and peaks by the end of March (Thévenot et al. 2003).

Local bird guides and Western Palearctic birders:

The Moroccan Marsh Owl is important for 2 groups of people (I know this is simplistic, but we take it as this for the sake of conclusion):

– Local bird guides, the species is one of the ‘stars’ of Merja Zerga that generates some income for them after the probable demise of the Slender-billed Curlew.

– Birders, listers and twitchers who need to see the species inside the Western Palearctic.

So let’s work together to help both these groups and the future generations of both by preventing the extinction of this iconic bird.

If anything is missed or needs to be changed, please comment below, thanks.

References:

  • Qninba, A., Radi, M. & El Idrissi Essougrati, A. 2009. Les changements récents dans la composition du peuplement d’oiseaux d’eau nicheurs du Bas Tahaddart (Nord-ouest du Maroc). In: Scapini, F., Boffa, J.M., Conrad, E., Cassar, L.F., & Nardi, M. (Eds), Sustainable management of Mediterranean coastal fresh and transitional water bodies: a socio-economic and environmental analysis of changes and trends to enhance and sustain stakeholder benefits. Firenze University Press, Florence. pp: 171-179.
  • Thévenot, M., 2006. Listes préliminaires d’espèces candidates. Projet d’élaboration d’une Liste rouge national pour les Oiseaux. Atelier de démarrage du 13 décembre 2006, Institut Scientifique, Rabat.
  • Thévenot, M., Bergier, P. & Beaubrun, P. 1983. Répartition actuelle et statut des rapaces nocturnes au Maroc. Le Bièvre 5: 27-39.
  • Thévenot, M., Vernon, R. & Bergier, P. 2003. The birds of Morocco. BOU Checklist No 20, British Ornithologists’ Union, Tring.
Moroccan Marsh Owl (Asio capensis tingitanus), Merja Zerga, Morocco, 12 February 2011 (Richard D. Moores)

Moroccan Marsh Owl (Asio capensis tingitanus), Merja Zerga, Morocco, 12 February 2011 (Richard D. Moores)

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