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The Eurasian Spoonbill at Smir: past, present and future (book article)

“La migración intercontinental de la espátula (Platalea leucorodia)” is the title of the first monograph on the Eurasian Spoonbill published in Spanish. It was edited by the ‘Limes Platalea project’ of the ‘Sociedad Gaditana de Historia Natural’ and published last autumn in Cadiz, Andalusia. Despite the title, the book included articles about different aspects (migration, wintering and breeding). Here is an excerpt from the synopsis of the book:

“La migración intercontinental de la espátula (Platalea leucorodia)” es la primera monografía sobre la especie editada en castellano, en la que han participado la casi totalidad de grupos de trabajo especializados en la misma en España, sin bien también han intervenido los principales investigadores dedicados a esta ave en los Países Bajos y Marruecos.

We have contributed an article about the Spoonbill colony breeding at Smir wetland, northern Morocco. A PDF of the article is linked below (just text, not as it appeared in the book). And since the original text was written in both Spanish and English, we will publish below the English version. Here is the citation of the article:

El Khamlichi, R. & Amezian, M. 2015.  La colonia de Espátula común (Platalea leucorodia) de Smir, norte de Marruecos: pasado, presente y futuro. pp. 271-276. In: Hortas, F. & Ruiz, J. (Eds.), La migración intercontinental de la espátula (Platalea leucorodia). pp. 271–276. Grupo de Desarrollo Pesquero Cádiz-Estrecho & Sociedad Gaditana de Historia Natural, Cádiz, España.


The Eurasian Spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia) colony at Smir, northern Morocco: past, present and future



The nominate subspecies of the Eurasian Spoonbill (Platalea l. leucorodia) has a very broad but discontinuous breeding range in the Palearctic, from Western Europe, the Persian Gulf, through Central Asia eastwards to East Asia, extending south to India and Sri Lanka in the Oriental region (Matheu et al. 2014).

In Africa, it breeds only at Smir colony in northern Morocco (El Agbani et al. 2002). However, historically this subspecies has bred or attempted to breed at some sites in Northwest Africa, but these attempts have not been successful:

– In Morocco, it attempted to breed at Tahaddart estuary in 1967 (Pineau & Giraud-Audine 1979), and its breeding was suspected at Khnifiss lagoon in May 1985 (Thévenot et al. 2003).

– In Algeria, the species nested at Lake Fetzara where an egg was found in May at the beginning of the 20th century (Heim de Balsac & Mayaud 1962).

– In Tunisia, 80 Spoonbills in full breeding plumage and showing breeding behaviour were found in a Little Egret (Egretta garzetta) colony at Thyna saltpans, Sfax in June 2004 (Smart et al. 2007).

Site localisation and description

The Smir heronry where the Spoonbills also breed is located in a private land on the Mediterranean coast of the Tangier Peninsula between the town of M’diq and former estuary of Oued Smir (now Marina Kabila). It’s situated on dune vegetation which consists mainly of Phoenicean juniper (Juniperus phoenicea), tamarisk (Tamarix sp.), lentisk (Pistacia lentiscus) and dense understory vegetation.

The multispecies colony was formed in the 1960s by Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis), Little Egret and Black-crowned Night Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) (Thévenot et al. 2003). However, the colony was deserted in the 1970s and 1980s, but recolonised again in the 1990s (Pineau & Giraud-Audine 1979, Thevenot et al. 2003). The Eurasian Spoonbill first nested in the colony in 1994 (Peal & Peal 1995, El Agbani et al. 2002) and has continued to do so since then. The latest newcomer to the colony is the Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus) which started nesting there in 2011 (Amezian et al. 2012).

Monitoring the colony

Since its discovery in 1994, the Spoonbill colony has not been monitored regularly until recently. We don’t know which method (counting or estimation) used for the breeding population in 1999 and 2000 (El Agbani et al. 2002). During 2005-2008, there were only partial counts from the road (no access to the colony).

Since the discovery of the Glossy Ibis in 2011, we had access to the heronry but only one or two times a year: 7-8 May 2011, 12 May 2012, 18 April 2013 and 25 May 2014.

Evolution of the breeding population

We summarised in the table 1 the evolution of the breeding population of the Eurasian Spoonbill at Smir colony during the last two decades. The data were gathered by Peal & Peal (1995) for 1994, Schollaert & Franchimont (1996) for 1995, El Agbani et al. (2002) for 1999 and 2000, I. Thompson and M. Amezian (unpub. data) for 2005-2008 (without access to the colony, between 5 and 10 nesting pairs seen from the road), and by the authors since 2011.

Evolution of the breeding population of the Eurasian Spoonbill at Smir colony between 1994 and 2014
Table 1: Evolution of the breeding population of the Eurasian Spoonbill at Smir colony between 1994 and 2014 (see text for sources of the data).

Why the breeding population has not increased?

The Eurasian Spoonbill has been breeding at Smir heronry since two decades, but the breeding population has never exceeded 20 pairs. This lack of significant increase in the population despite that apparently all aspects that should have favoured its growth are present (relative tranquillity at the site and proximity to feeding places) can probably be attributed to two factors. Firstly, lack of space (the colony have not expanded to the neighbouring private lands, despite the fact that the vegetation structure is similar), and secondly, the rapid increase of the Cattle Egret population which numbered 3,000 pairs in 2011.

The low number of breeders observed in 2012 is attributed to the disturbance by the workers of the private land. The first clutches were most likely destroyed, and at the time of our visit the Spoonbills were starting a replacement clutch (3 nests with eggs, and one nest without eggs). At this time during the previous year (2011), the juveniles were nearly fully-grown. Similarly, 2014 was also very bad for all breeding species in the colony.

The establishment of a new breeding nucleus in the surrounding area is unlikely at present due to lack of safe places. Grazing, stray dogs and plundering of nests are part of the threats that limit the expansion of the Spoonbill colony of to the nearby Smir marches. And in order to ensure the long-term survival of the species in northern Morocco, its settlement in the marshes should be encouraged by using management methods that are inexpensive and cause no or minimum alterations. As an example, we recommend to the managers of the site to enclose a small area in the marshes to limit the direct threats cited above.

The number of spoonbills hatched each year would have increased the population at Smir. But since that the population is more or less stable or apparently slightly decreased during the last years, is most likely an indication that some of the birds hatched at Smir colony are recruited elsewhere (and this even if we take into account the mortality of juveniles during their first years). Only a ringing programme can help better understand where all the juveniles are dispersing and subsequently recruited to the breeding population.


Amezian, M., El Khamlichi, R., & Elbanak, A. 2012. Breeding of Glossy Ibis Plegadis falcinellus in the mixed heronry adjacent to Smir marshes, northern Morocco. Alauda 80: 33–38.

El Agbani, M. A., Bayed, A., Dakki, M. & Qninba, A. 2002. Découverte d’une colonie reproductrice de Spatule blanche Platalea leucorodia dans le Nord-Ouest du Maroc. pp. 38–40. In: Veen, J. & Stepanova, O. (Eds.) Wetland management for Spoonbills and associated waterbirds. Report of the 68th EUROSITE Workshop, Texel.

Heim de Balsac, H. & Mayaud, N. 1962. Les Oiseaux du Nord-Ouest de l’Afrique. Lechevalier, Paris.

Matheu, E., del Hoyo, J., Christie, D.A., Garcia, E.F.J. & Boesman, P. 2014. Eurasian Spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia). In: del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., Sargatal, J., Christie, D.A. & de Juana, E. (Eds.) 2014. Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. (retrieved from http://www.hbw.com/node/52779 on 10 February 2015).

Peal, R.E.F. & Peal, E. 1995. Nidification de la Spatule blanche (Platalea leucorodia) dans le Nord du Maroc. Porphyrio 7: 92.

Pineau, J. & Giraud-Audine, M. 1979. Les oiseaux de la Péninsule Tingitane. Travaux de l’Institut Scientifique, Sér. Zool., n° 38, Rabat.

Schollaert, V. & Franchimont, J. 1996. Chronique ornithologique du GOMAC pour 1995. Porphyrio 8: 94-150.

Smart, M., Azafzaf, H. & Dlensi, H. 2007. The “Eurasian” Spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia) in Africa. Ostrich 78: 495–500.

Thévenot, M., Vernon, R. & Bergier, P. 2003. The Birds of Morocco. BOU Checklist No. 20. BOU, Tring.

Front cover of the book “La migración intercontinental de la espátula (Platalea leucorodia)”
Front cover of the book “La migración intercontinental de la espátula (Platalea leucorodia)”
Eurasian Spoonbill nest at Smir heronry, northern Morocco (Rachid El Khamlichi)
Eurasian Spoonbill nest at Smir heronry, northern Morocco (Rachid El Khamlichi)

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