Andalusian Buttonquail in Morocco and the Western Palearctic

The Andalusian Buttonquail (Turnix sylvaticus sylvaticus) became almost extinct throughout its Mediterranean range except in Morocco where there have been more or less regular observations until 1988. Since that date, however, the species went undetected until 2000.

Since the beginning of the new millennium, new sightings (including the first-ever photograph of a living wild bird in the Western Palearctic – the last photo below) were obtained by different birders in Doukkala region on the Atlantic coast of Morocco.

In 2009, a preliminary study was carried out in this area resulting in the first data on breeding, with several adults and chicks being observed, two nests found and five birds ringed. The experiences gained in this study were used to improve search methods for subsequent surveys. The results of these surveys have just been published in Dutch Birding. The article also details the taxonomy of the species and comments in details on the current status of the species in the Western Mediterranean (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Italy, Portugal and Spain).

Related:

Andalusian Buttonquail / Turnix d'Andalousie (Turnix sylvaticus sylvaticus), Doukkala region, Morocco. (Mohamed Radi)
Andalusian Buttonquail / Turnix d’Andalousie (Turnix sylvaticus sylvaticus), Doukkala, Morocco (Mohamed Radi).

Finding the Andalusian Hemipode in Morocco

The Andalusian Buttonquails – or Hemipodes as some prefer to call them – are certainly very difficult birds to find and observe but we can give some helpful tips.

First of all, for Morocco, be aware that the conservation of the tiny population is extremely important; therefore, one should never disturb the breeding process and should always be kind and polite to local people, asking permission from farmers and land owners before starting out to walk in any given area.

If you try to find buttonquails in scrub areas, it is possible to walk freely through the whole area, but in the cultivated areas it is very important not to walk through the fields. However, it is easier to detect the birds’ presence by searching tracks than by trying to find them on sight. These tracks (green-coloured droppings, feathers and footprints) can be found at the edge of cultivations or on narrow footpaths.

Droppings are very small cylindrical excrements characterized by urate (salt derived from uric acid), making them pale green instead of white (see photo).

Buttonquail feathers are well patterned and easily identifiable, and it is even possible to separate those of adults from well-grown chick feathers.

Buttonquails are three-toed species lacking a hind toe (hence the old name ‘hemipode’, meaning ‘half foot’). Hence, footprints are identifiable because they show only three toes and are much smaller than those of Common Quail (only 2 cm long, against 3 cm in Common Quail; plate 106 & 108). Beware of small plover footprints that can be very similar but which are asymmetric, with different angles between the toes (plate 107; for more details, see Gutiérrez & Qninba 2010).

The Doukkala area still holds a kind of traditional cultivation and regularly some fields remain fallow between two cultivation cycles. These fields are very attractive for buttonquails and can be walked more easily.

Females can sing the whole day, with more activity after warm nights and less during cold weather. Singing females have been detected between March and August, though in 2009 sound recordings were made of several females singing in a small cultivated area in El Jadida province as late as from 29 September to 1 October, when the crop at their site was harvested (Arnoud van den Berg / The Sound Approach in litt). Indeed, the species’ presence has been confirmed all year round.

Although buttonquails can make nomadic or dispersive movements during different seasons, sedentary behaviour seems to be the rule for WP birds. Therefore, reporting any sighting as soon as possible is of great importance to make it possible for researchers to follow it up and try to establish adequate conservation measures.

Note that there are many areas to explore that may still hold buttonquail populations, not only in Morocco (eg, Cap Sim in Essaouira and the coastal strip between Asilah and Larache) but also in Algeria and Spain.

Excrements of the Andalusian Buttonquail, Doukala region, Morocco, June 2011 (Abdelhak Elbanak).
Excrements of the Andalusian Buttonquail, Doukala region, Morocco, June 2011 (Abdelhak Elbanak).

Birding Oualidia area between yesterday and now

The lagoons of Oualidia and Sidi Moussa were known since decades, both for professional and amateur ornithologists, for their migratory and wintering birds. And since a few years ago, another category of birders have started to visit the area to search for the recently rediscovered population of Andalusain Butonquail. In this context, we have been informed that their numbers have increased and the actions of some of them are neither respectful nor sustainable.

The fate of this population is on the shoulders of all of us: farmers and local people, scientists and conservationists, and visiting birders. To help guarantee the conservation of this population, all birders and commercial bird tours are encouraged to be careful when dealing with this species in this environment (e.g. asking permission to enter private lands is very important). Some advice are are already given in the paper reported here. The bottom line is that each visitor is ought to remember his/her country’s law regarding disturbance and photographing rare bird species and apply it here. Applying the right behaviour is also paramount (towards birds and people’s land) even if none is watching you. That’s also true for other endangered populations, like the Moroccan Marsh Owl (Asio capensis tingitanus) at Merja Zerga.

On the other hand, birders can and do contribute to conservation efforts worldwide. In this case, one can help by many means: e.g. by explaining to local people why they visit their area and how it’s good that they still have the buttonquails. Also, as already mentioned, by searching for the species in other potential areas.

Together we can save the last known population of the Andalusian Buttonquail in the Mediterranean region.

References:

Gutiérrez, C., Copete, J.L., Crochet, P.-A., Qninba, A. & Garrido, H. 2011. History, status and distribution of Andalusian Buttonquail in the WP. Dutch Birding 33: 75-93.

Gutiérrez, C. & Qninba, A. 2010. Identificación de rastros e indicios del torillo andaluz. Quercus (289): 14-19.

Historic and current distribution range of the Andalusian Buttonquail (Turnix sylvaticus sylvaticus).
Historic and current distribution range of the Andalusian Buttonquail (Turnix sylvaticus sylvaticus) in the Mediterranean region (Gutiérrez et al. 2011).
Andalusian Hemipode / Turnix d'Andalousie (Turnix sylvaticus sylvaticus), Sidi Abed, Morocco, September 2007 (Benoît Maire)
Andalusian Hemipode / Turnix d’Andalousie (Turnix sylvaticus sylvaticus), Sidi Abed, Morocco, 16 Sep. 2007 (Benoît Maire). This is the first-ever photograph of a living wild individual (not on nest) in the Western Palearctic.

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