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The night is dark and (sometimes) full of animals!

The night is dark and (sometimes) full of animals!

We’re in the Western Sahara searching for a Sand Cat. You can read more about that here. The way to see it is to drive the road between Dakhla and Aousserd up and down at night and then spotlight in the desert hoping to encounter a Sand Cat or another nocturnal animal.

So that’s what we’ve planned for the first night. A long time we don’t have any luck. Finding animals at night is hard work! There aren’t any nice birds to distract you. When you see something it is often something good, but it takes a long wait! We’ve been driving for more than two hours now in the dark without having seen a thing.

Then suddenly a cat walks on the road! I can hardly believe it, after we’ve seen so little for such a long time. We quickly stop and manage to find it back. We see immediately that it is not the hoped for Sand Cat, but most likely another cat species: African wildcat! It looks a lot like the common housecat, so that is the first species which needs to be excluded. Luckily we see it up close so we are able to do that quite fast. Granted we haven’t seen a Sand Cat, but an African wildcat is also a brand new species! Sadly the photo’s aren’t too great.

The night is not over yet though. Again we don’t see anything for a long time. After we’ve turned around to drive home, although we of course keep on spotlighting, we suddenly see a cat sitting in the berm! It turns out to be another African wildcat but this one doesn’t move away when we step out of the car. Although daylight is always better, I’m now pretty satisfied with my pictures.

The rest of our trip we go for the same approach. Oddly enough we don’t see any other African wildcats! We do get a Sand Cat at some points, although it’s not as great as in daylight.

We also manage to see other Saharan specialties.

For example the Lesser Egyptian Jerboa: a rodent with a long tail with a little feather on its tail. That makes it hip like a kangaroo: a funny little mammal! Some are not shy and allow themselves to be photographed.

Much more appealing species are two foxes of the desert: Fennec Fox and Rüppels Fox. Especially the Fennec is a very attractive mammal. A tiny fox with gigantic Mickey Mouse ears. After a tip from another birder I know, we discover a piece of road where we see no less then twelve Fennecs in one night! One even sits at less than two meters from our car, but we aren’t fast enough with the pictures… Other Fennecs do a better job of waiting.

We also manage to see the Rüppels fox. A fox that is much like our Red Fox but also has big ears.

A somewhat bigger predator is the African Golden Wolf. We see five of those in one night in which we don’t see any of the other species and after that, barely a single one of them. This is also an attractive species of the desert.

We even see some birds now and then! You know, when you think you’ve finally got another good nocturnal species and you’re being fooled by a Black Kite or a Long-legged Buzzard who think they have found a nice spot to spend the night, but are suddenly ambushed. I was most surprised by a young Cream-coloured Courser that thought it was a good idea to stand on the road in the middle of the night. Fortunately he survived!

Long-legged Buzzard

Cream-coloured courser

Black kite

I had hoped for Pharaoh Eagle owl, after all that’s a real nocturnal bird. This bird also behaves like the rest of the animals. One night we see five of them and then we don’t see them for the rest of our trip.

As you can see the night is actually not a great time to take beautiful pictures of animals. I’m quite happy to have every species recognizably photographed and that African wildcat looks fine. Still, spotlighting is a bit like treasure hunting, shining until you see some eyeshine and then it’s almost always something good. During the day it’s often scanning a lot of animals hoping for a different species. At least I can return home with a cat that I hadn’t counted on. African wildcat is officially still not a separate species, but since I haven’t seen any wildcat at all, for me it is! Perhaps they will split it and then I will also have to go after that European one!


For the story behind the Sand Cat click here!

For pictures of the Saharan landscape, click here!

For pictures that show more of the culture in the Western Sahara click here!

For a tripreport click here.


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