Marsh Owl is a critically endangered species is Morocco. This piece tries to address one of the main problems causing its decline, and your help is much appreciated.
Marsh Owl (Asio capensis) is a typical owl restricted to Africa and its biggest island. Three subspecies are recognised: 1) the nominate subspecies which has the largest range – from East to Southern Africa, plus isolated populations in West Africa; 2) A. c. hova in Madagascar, and 3) A. c. tingitanus in northwest Morocco.
Globally, the species is not threatened and is currently categorized as ‘Least Concern’ in the IUCN Red List. However, this is not the case for the isolated and declining Moroccan population. There is no Red List for Moroccan avifauna, but the species should easily qualify as ‘Critically Endangered’ for a number of criteria.
Breeding range and the start of the decline
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. However, the species started to decline as early as the beginning of the 20th century in some regions and since the 1970s in most areas.
As with any isolated and small population, the decline started at the periphery of the breeding range: the species disappeared from most of Tangier peninsula except Tahaddart estuary, and severely declined or disappeared from Doukkala region and inland sites. Even at the centre of the breeding range, the species has decreased at some sites and disappeared from the others (e.g. the estuary of Oued Bou-Regreg – then it was in the centre, now it’s just outside of the present-day breeding area). The main cause of the decline in this period is habitat loss due to draining of the big marshes (for the expansion of agriculture).
Currently, the Moroccan population is very fragmented and the species persists only in a small number of areas: Merja Zerga, Lower Lokkous marshes, Sidi BouGhaba and Tahaddart estuary (but only one recent sighting here). The population size in unknown.
Threats to Marsh Owl in Morocco
Two main threats likely contribute the most to the decline of the species in Morocco nowadays.
- Habitat loss and degradation
This factor has been historically the main threat to Marsh Owl in Morocco (as mentioned above). Even today, habitat loss and degradation remain one of the main threats. Encroachment of agricultural lands on the species’ breeding and roosting habitat still occurs at Merja Zerga and other sites.
- Disturbance and pressure from birders
This factor is more recent (after the species became already rare). It’s a big problem especially at the main stronghold of the species at Merja Zerga. If not careful, all birders and bird photographers can disturb the species. However, the main facilitators of this disturbance remain the birding guides (both local and foreign guides). This is because many birders – independent or in groups – rely on the help of local guides to easily show them the species. And this involves most of the times disturbing the birds. Some foreign guides also follow the same tactics used by the local ones. Some independent birders also go straight to roosting places (and sometimes also to the breeding area) without any help (they visit known locations mentioned in birding trip reports, eBird, Obsrvado,…). Even if most birders don’t admit this in public, everyone knows how things work. The result is the same: disturbing an endangered bird species during the breeding season or at an important roosting site.
We are not trading blames here, or suggesting not using the local guides. No, it’s quite the opposite. We recommend using the local guides even if you can see the species on your own (Actually, I personally known some of them and still recommend them to foreign birders). But as a ‘client’ you should decline if the guide suggested what may unnecessarily disturb the owls.
The German birder Wolf Meinken summarized very well the current situation in this comment (I guess that no one wants to see the prediction mentioned in the last phrase happen):
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.
The new emblematic species for Merja Zerga
It is not a big problem to visit the roosting sites for a short period during the non-breeding season to see the birds leaving these sites in late afternoon/evening. However, visiting the breeding sites during the breeding period to spot the owl is ethically unacceptable, especially if done by “educated people”.
Most local guides, with all due respect, don’t have any notion of sustainability and think that this source of money is here to stay. This is unfortunately not true. Some veterans, however, know very well what these ‘target species’ mean. In fact, these veteran guides remember well the golden age of Merja Zerga when the Slender-billed Curlew (Numenius tenuirostris) was still wintering there in the 1980s and early 1990s. After the likely demise of the Slender-billed Curlew, Marsh Owl remains the undisputed ‘star’ or flagship species of Merja Zerga. And these experienced guides certainly don’t want to lose it as they have lost the curlew.
Working together to save Marsh Owl in Morocco
The Moroccan Marsh Owl is important for three groups of people (I know this is simplistic, but let’s accept it for the sake of conclusion. Also, as I said at the beginning this blog-post tries to address the disturbance):
- Local bird guides: currently the Marsh Owl is the main flagship species of Merja Zerga that generates some income for them. Of course, the organisation of boat trips to watch waterbirds at close range is also important for them.
- Foreign bird guides (who came from outside the region and that include Moroccan and international guides): they offer this species for their clients.
- WP birders or listers (they may not like this word!) who need to see the species inside the Western Palearctic, or any other independent birder (irrespective of twitching and listing).
So let’s work together to help all these groups and the future generations by preventing the extinction of this iconic bird.
If anything is missing, please comment, thanks!
7 thoughts on “Why Marsh Owl in Morocco is endangered and how to save it?”
I spent 3 days at Merja Zerga last spring and was fortunate to see 1 owl for about 15 minutes hunting at dusk. I viewed from the campsite. I was actually stopping at the Blue Lagoon hotel which affords extensive views over that part of the marshes but did not have any sightings from there.
I, personally, was grateful for the views I got considering the scarcity of the species. I was approached by a couple of guides with regard to visiting the owls – I declined and said that it was not wise during the breeding season. What was obvious, from the higher viewpoint, was the amount of disturbance around the general area of the marshes. Unless this factor is made a priority and strict guidelines are adhered to during the breeding season, things look bleak IMO. I urge everybody to act responsibly that includes birders and guides. One guide in particular, as soon as I stated that I wasn’t interested in seeing the owls due to possible disturbance, lost interest straightaway!
En juillet 2011, j’ai observé en compagnie d’un ami 2 Hiboux du Cap dans le marais de Merja Bargha. Il y avait une opération de brûlis à proximité, ce qui les a probablement dérangés. Je n’ose imaginer les conséquences de ce brûlis sur une éventuelle nidification…
Thanks Laurie for your comment. That’s what should every birder do when visiting the area in spring “try to see the species away from where they nest”. Regarding the disturbance, as mentioned above and mentioned by Karim in his comment, the disturbance is a big problem and needs to be dealt with urgently if we want the next generations to have a chance to see this species here.
Thanks Karim for your comment. I agree, the burning of the vegetation where the species nests will impact negatively on the breeding attempts and success. Since your observation was in July means that the species most probably breed at Merja Bargha, it’s worth checking the area during next breeding season (the species have been observed there in winter, but there are no recent breeding records).
I fully agree with the German birder who said: “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”.
I believe that the first responsible are the local guides who think more on the immediate benefits from the tourists than the species conservation, which would be, however, more gainful for them.
In the other side, the local authorities encourage setting fire in the rush meadow (Juncus sp) to gain more space at the expense of natural ecosystem and sell land thereafter.
Also, to avoid bird disturbance, foreign birdwatchers should not encourage any activity that disturb the birds, i.e. checking the owls at the main sites – especially for breeding – with the help of local guides.
I am a member of a group of Spanish birders who visited Merja Zerga last week. Our experience there was really unpleasant. We were virtually assaulted by locals and, what is worst, by the guards who offered to flush the owl for us. This happened in the morning, so we decided to come back before dusk to see the owls when they leave their resting places but we desisted because there were even more people there than in the morning (TV cameras included). We tried to find the owl by ourselves in another place and we succeeded just by waiting for them to fly from their resting places before night.
If the behaviour of the guards does not change, I am afraid that Marsh Owls are damned. A proposal could be to charge a fixed amount of money to all visitors and only flush the birds once a day (maybe shortly before dusk when the disturbance is not so big). The visitors could arrange the visit to that time. Of course this should be applied only outside the breeding season. In any case, I would not recommend the experience to any birder with a minimum environmental consciousness in the current conditions.
Thank you for your comment and your interest in sharing your experience and your thoughts about this subject. There is now a consensus among all concerned observers that “the future of Marsh Owls in Morocco lays in raising the awareness and ‘education’”. The main groups to target are local farmers, local guides and foreign guides (independent birders can be added to that group as well). They offered to flush the owls and you declined, that’s what should every birder do. Thanks again.
As for your suggestion about charging some amount of money to visitors to see the Marsh Owls, I think it is a good idea and it is feasible and can help the long-term conservation of the species. However, to do this in practice, we need a strong organisation (an NGO in cooperation with the Forestry Administration for example) to realize this idea on the ground. Of course, all this must be done with the full support and involvements of the local community.