The Iconic and very Elusive Houbara Bustard.

04th March 2014
Last week we decided to take a winter break to Lanzarote in the Canary Islands to try and photograph, in particular, the Houbara Bustard. I previously had brief views of the Undulata, nominate species, in Morocco, despite a very nasty bout of food poisoning.
Since then I have wanted to get some better views and hopefully some shots in better circumstances. The Canary Islands have the race Fuerteventurae and this is the best place to try and see them.
However, these birds are very difficult to locate and if you do find one, they are, for such a large bird unbelievably good at disappearing. This is very frustrating as they don't fly off or scatter in panic, they just slowly walk away and totally blend into the surroundings and no amount of scanning can relocate them.
We drove many of the remote sandy tracks, nearly getting stuck once, in search of these iconic desert birds. The so called renowned areas, El Rubicon and El Jable only produced brief distant views before the birds disappeared. You cannot walk these areas because of their quite rightly protected status, you can walk the tracks but this is not really an option because the sand is sometimes whipped up to such an extent that you can't see and your optics would also be severely compromised.
The situation is therefore, you patrol these tracks and if a bird is seen briefly and then disappears then that's it you move on, very frustrating!!
As the week progressed It was becoming more evident that photographing these birds was going to be very difficult, just seeing one was really very difficult indeed. One day we went to see the Volcanoes at Timanfaya and we were speaking to the resident Geologist who told us that his colleague was a bird watcher and he radioed her to come over and talk to us. This woman gave us an area to try, as she saw Houbaras from time to time while she was out horse riding, we were at the area the next morning but unfortunately this also proved fruitless.
As a last resort we decided to try one last area we could see on the map, on arriving there we had great views of a Stone Curlew and also some Barbary Partridge. It looked a much better place than either of the more well documented locations. We could see a Goatherd in the distance and as he came nearer he waved to us and appeared quite friendly. I showed him a picture of a Houbara Bustard from our book and he made a gesture that indicated that they were all around the area. He also indicated through signing that it was best to not drive but to walk the plains. This was not an option as I have mentioned previously, to illustrate this, this man was totally wrapped up with protection against the sand including tinted goggles. Also this particular area was a designated site and these people and their way of life are part of the accepted environment but a birdwatcher or photographer is most definitely not!
I then decided to produce my last throw of the dice, a packet of mint humbugs, never known to fail before and indeed once I pressed a couple into his hand he immediately became more communicative and began to point out a particular area where he was obviously seeing the birds. It was still not going to be easy and we said goodbye to our new friend and left the site as the day was getting on.
Next morning we were back there, this time at the Goatherd's indicated site, immediately I could see a male Houbara about 100 yards away, there was a small sandy track that I turned onto and I could see it would take me within shooting distance. I had my Bean-Bag and lens balanced on the car window as I inched closer. I was being watched closely by him but he was staying put, I got quite close and moved the car side on so I could get a shot. He immediately started to move so I shot him straight away, at last I had a photograph!! He didn't walk away though he stayed there and allowed us some great views as he fed and walked around. We felt very privileged indeed to spend time with this very elusive bird. Finally he walked away up and over a ridge, these birds seem to like a bit of elevation so they can see their surroundings. Anyone looking for these birds should find a quiet sandy and stoney area with plenty of medium size bushes and plants which is quite near some elevated ground.
Finally as we were talking about our experience I looked up and saw him looking down at us from the top of the ridge, I couldn't believe it, one final shot which I gratefully accepted, then he just melted away onto the plains.
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