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

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

In the Western Sahara we were searching for a Sand Cat. The way to see it is to drive the road between the places 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. For a long time we don’t have any luck. Finding animals at night is hard work! There aren’t any nice birds to provide some distraction. When you finally see an animal it is often something good, but it takes quite some effort! We had been driving for more than two hours without having seen a thing.

Then suddenly a cat crosses 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 again. 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. Although that is not that easy with the African Wildcats over here this seems like a good one. The back of the ears is nicely reddish which should be a good distinguishing feature. So we still haven’t seen a Sand Cat, but an African wildcat is also a nice new cat for me! Sadly the photo’s aren’t too great.

African Wildcat

The night is not over yet though. Again we don’t see anything for a long time. Finally we turn around to head home. Suddenly we see another cat! It turns out to be another African Wildcat which we can see a lot better than the other one. After we are able to take some pictures it sneaks away.

African Wildcat

For the rest of the trip we do pretty much the same thing each evening. Just driving around and spotlighting in the hope of encountering a nice mammal. Oddly enough we would not see any more African wildcats! We do get a Sand Cat at some point, but we don’t see it up close at night.

Sand Cat

We also manage to see other Saharan specialties like the Lesser Egyptian Jerboa: a rodent with a long tail that has a little tuft. It hops like a kangaroo: a funny little mammal! Some are not shy and allow themselves to be photographed.

Lesser Egyptian Jerboa

Even more appealing species are two foxes of the desert: Fennec Fox and Rüppels Fox. Especially the Fennec is a very attractive mammal. It’s a tiny fox with gigantic Mickey Mouse ears. After a tip from another birder we find a piece of road where we see no less then twelve Fennecs in one night! We have one at less than two meters from our car, but we aren’t fast enough with taking pictures… Other Fennecs are a bit more cooperative.   

Fennec Fox

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

Rüppels Fox

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

African Golden Wolf

We even see some birds now and then! You know, when you think you’ve finally got another good nocturnal species and you’re actually being fooled by a Black Kite or a Long-legged Buzzard. I was most surprised when we bumped in to a young Cream-coloured Courser which thought it was a good idea to keep standing still on the road in the middle of the night. Fortunately he survived!

Long-legged Buzzard

Black Kite

Cream-coloured Courser

Pharaoh Eagle Owl was a bird I really wanted to see. That is obviously a bird that is also active at night. On one night we see five of them and then we don’t see them for the rest of our trip. This pattern seems to be common with nocturnal Western Saharan animals.

Pharaoh Eagle Owl

As you can see the night is actually not the best time to take beautiful pictures of animals. I’m already quite happy to have every species recognizably photographed and that the African Wildcat sighting was quite good. I was very happy that I could return home with the African Wildcat as an unexpected bonus for my catlist. Spotlighting is a bit like treasure hunting: a lot of driving through the dark night while spotlighting right until you find something good!

The car, the road and the Western Saharan desert

Read more about our adventure with the Sand Cat

Look here for pictures of the attractive birds of the Sahara.

Look here for some pictures of the Western Saharan landscapes.

Look here for a trip report!


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