In Association with:
MOROCCO – March - 2006
188 Bird Species recorded
Leader Nick Bray
Day 1 Friday 17th March
Our wonderful group met full of anticipation at London’s Heathrow Airport for the flight to Marrakech, Morocco. An uneventful flight saw us landing on time and meeting our excellent ground crew who whisked us away to the first of several luxurious hotels, the style of which we would become accustomed to over the next week in Morocco.
Day 2 Saturday 18th March
There is no better feeling than waking up in a new country where you find yourself full of expectation at the prospect of some much wanted lifers, and today would live up to this feeling and more! Our superb hotel provided us with a good breakfast, as well as our first Common Bulbuls and House Buntings, as well as a flock of Pallid Swifts and some White Storks, plus a surprising Black Stork soaring overhead as well. Once our vehicles arrived we drove out of the city through a well cultivated and obviously fertile plain towards the High Atlas Mountains whose snow capped peaks dominated the horizon. Many Spotless Starlings and Crested Larks were seen on this part of the journey, as well as a male Cirl Bunting before the road began to climb up into the mountains. We stopped to collect our picnic lunches in a small village, and took the opportunity to scan the valley below us, seeing Red-rumped Swallow, Sardinian Warbler, several European Serins, many Chaffinches of the Africanus race, and yet more House Buntings, with Cetti’s Warbler and Common Nightingale singing from somewhere nearby.
From here it didn’t take long to reach our first planned stop and no sooner had we left the vehicles than a pair of Levaillant’s Woodpeckers showed nearby. You couldn’t have planned this any better, as one bird remained motionless on the trunk of a Pine tree before flying to the ground and beginning to hunt for food around a large boulder. Everyone had superb views of this very special bird, and shortly after a Long-legged Buzzard was seen flying over the hills above us, before Mick found a couple of totally unexpected Hawfinches feeding in some low shrubs by the road. Once everyone got on them, we first heard and then saw at least 3 Firecrests at point blank range before heading up to the ski resort of Oukaimeden.
Our arrival was greeted by lots of snow, and a large flock of Red-billed and Alpine Choughs that flew all around us uttering their distinctly different calls. We parked in the top car park and decided to follow the track higher up, but birds were not as numerous as on previous visits, although Horned Larks were quite plentiful, as were Black Redstarts. A White-throated Dipper fed along the narrow stream, and as we walked higher it was apparent (well that was my theory) that all the birds must be lower down. So retraced our steps, which involved walking across several stretches of compacted snow that made the going very slow, but we were enjoying the scenery and once near the car park had good views of several Rock Sparrows, and many more Horned Larks. The lower slopes before the village were literally teeming with all the previous mentioned species and we decided to have our picnic lunch outside one of the cafes before searching the lower areas thoroughly. During lunch Roger spotted a bird perched on the roof of a nearby house which on closer inspection turned out to be a Crimson-winged Finch. Unbelievable, outrageous and pure luck were a few of the things going through my mind – and sure enough this was the trend for the whole week. We scoped this much wanted bird before getting crippling views as it fed on the floor no more than a few metres away, and you know this sighting was all the sweeter as I later found out that it’s been quite elusive here this winter. Also feeding in the same small garden were lots of Chaffinches and African Blue Tits, a Rock Bunting, and at one point a nominate race Chaffinch flew in as well. So we walked around the edge of the village, seeing several more Rock Buntings, and a couple of Common Ravens mobbing a pair of Long-legged Buzzards, before driving lower down. We made several stops further down the mountain, seeing lots of Moussier’s Redstarts, which is surely the most beautiful bird to be found here, as well as Coal and Great Tits, Common Chiffchaff, Blackcap, Melodius and Western Bonelli’s Warblers, Great Spotted Woodpecker of the Mauritanus race, more Hawfinches, and Cirl Bunting. The drive across the valley floor produced a Black-shouldered Kite before entering the city limits of Marrakech where the sky was filled with Pallid Swifts.
So what a first day, full of great birds, most of which gave good views, and once again the unpredictability of birding was shown with all those birds around the village at Oukaimeden rather than being on the hillsides as in previous visits. Fantastic!
Day 3 Sunday 19th March
This morning we set off on the long drive over the High Atlas Mountains towards the desert, with the first stage of the journey passing through the fertile plain that surrounds Marrakech. Mick again spotted a Black-shouldered Kite, and shortly after we stopped to take a look at a pale-phase Booted Eagle. From here the road began to rise rapidly, and the scenery changed from rolling green hills, olive groves on steep-sided slopes, pine forest and then up into the arid slopes of the Atlas Mountains. A roadside stop produced a Willow and Cetti’s Warbler, before stopping for drinks at a café where Jim found a Common Nightingale perched in a dead tree and which remained there for ages. It was here that we first noticed how numerous Painted Lady butterflies were and there was a good number of them on migration, with some even right at the top of the mountains heading north! A Thekla Lark appeared alongside the café allowing everyone close views, and also on the slope above the road we saw a Common Linnet, Moussier’s Redstart, and higher up a Long-legged Buzzard flew over. We even had more Rock Buntings, which are obviously very numerous this year! Continuing on we headed ever higher, seeing a pair of Lesser Kestrels flying over, before reaching the Tizi ‘n’ Tichka pass before descending to the desert around Ouarzazate. About 20 kilometres from the town we made an emergency stop when a Mourning Wheatear was seen perched on a telegraph wire. We all jumped out and had great views of this often difficult-to-find species, with a female also present as well. Whilst watching these birds, a Northern Wheatear and our first Trumpeter Finches were seen in the flower filled area in front of us. In fact at least 6 finches were present giving great views, with a Greater Short-toed Lark joining them at one stage.
Lunch was taken in Ouarzazate, after which we continued east, stopping at a small stream where we saw Green Sandpiper, Little Ringed Plover, and several White and Yellow Wagtails. Our next unexpected stop was caused by a flock of 7 Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters perched in some trees by the road, and what views they gave with a fine display of aerial manoeuvrability as they chased after some bees and even a migrating, and rather unfortunate Painted Lady.
And eventually we passed through the Dades Valley and shortly after the town of Boumalne du Dades we turned off the main road onto the famous Tagdilt Track and headed a few kilometres out into the desert. No sooner had we stopped than a male Red-rumped Wheatear was seen and we watched him displaying to a more demure female. A few Temminck’s Larks were found, and as we walked across the stony desert a singing and displaying Hoopoe Lark gave a fine show, and we were privileged to watch a pair nest-building! Probably the highlight was the views of a party of 5 Crowned Sandgrouse that fed totally oblivious to our presence, and there was another flock of 14 found as we drove back to the main road, and onward to our next hotel.
Day 4 Monday 20th March
After breakfast we drove the short distance to the spectacular Todra Gorge, where after a few anxious moments when the hillside seemed devoid of life we were treated to pretty breathtaking views of an extremely confiding Tristram’s Warbler. For about 10 minutes we watched the bird getting closer and closer to us until it was no more than 20 feet away, perched on a boulder and singing its heart out. Wow! As we watched this spectacle, a migrating Eurasian Wryneck appeared nearby and we scoped it sat in a bush for quite a while, before it made its way up the hillside. A walk through the gorge then followed, where a Sahara Frog was seen in the stream, whilst Eurasian Crag Martins, Grey Wagtail, and surprisingly a Meadow Pipit standing in the stream were also seen. At the far end of the gorge a small cultivated area held plenty of Common Chiffchaffs, a Willow Warbler, and a close Blue Rock Thrush, before a stunning Bonelli’s Eagle soared into view overhead against a deep blue sky.
Leaving here Roger spotted a Eurasian Hoopoe on the rocks above the road, which prompted a quick exit from the vehicles before we returned to the Tagdilt Track. A quick stop was made at the viewpoint where a European Bee-eater flew by giving its distinctive call, and this was followed by a Woodchat Shrike and a White-crowned Wheatear along the main road. We stopped in for drinks at the Soleil Bleu Hotel and to check the birder’s log to see if there was any up-to-date info, seeing another Eurasian Hoopoe and a Laughing Dove, before driving onto the new Tagdilt Track. A Bibron’s Agama was a good find, whilst the first of many Desert Wheatears to be seen today was well appreciated. Many of the same species were seen as on yesterday’s visit, and whilst our crew prepared a superb picnic lunch, we took a short walk and found a great little area that was partially sheltered from the cool breeze. Here a flock of Greater Short-toed Larks were feeding, along with Red-rumped and more Desert Wheatears, several Desert Larks, and a small flock of Trumpeter Finches. Whilst watching all this activity, a Lanner Falcon flew in and attacked a Eurasian Hoopoe right in front of us, the collision resulting in an audible ‘thud’ and sending feathers flying everywhere, but the attack was unsuccessful. However, the ‘empty-handed’ falcon seemed determined to make amends and we watched in amazement as it circled us three times at very close quarters before drifting away. Walking back to the vehicles, a very obliging Temminck’s Lark almost got stepped on, before we rather surprisingly found a Lesser Short-toed Lark, and could compare the plumage features with a nearby Greater Short-toed Lark.
After lunch we covered a wide area of the Tagdilt Track in search of the elusive Thick-billed Lark without success, and our efforts were hampered somewhat by the increasingly strong wind which would eventually put paid to our birding rather earlier than we would have liked, as a menacing sand storm blew up. But it was pointless to continue, although we did try, seeing a party of 4 Eurasian Hoopoes before calling it a day and returning to our hotel.
Day 5 Tuesday 21st March
There was a beautiful sunrise this morning that sent a red glow over the nearby village and surrounding mountains, and we left after breakfast on the journey to our auberge on the edge of the Sahara Desert. A Black Wheatear heralded our departure, and off we drove on what would turn out to be a very fruitful day’s birding, starting with a Southern Grey Shrike of the race Elegans, followed by a stop in a small park whilst Yusouf and the other drivers collected our picnic lunch. A short walk amongst the trees here produced a few birds, with several Western Olivaceous Warblers being immediately obvious, with several other migrants also found including Common Redstart and Melodius Warbler, plus 4 Trumpeter Finches feeding at the edge of the concrete sports pitch. Continuing east we searched some suitable habitat along the road for some reported Thick-billed Larks which turned out to be rather fruitless, however a totally random stop to scan a suitable area about an hour later turned up trumps. Jim spotted some movement out in the desert which turned out to be a pair of the much-wanted Thick-billed Larks picking at some small desert plants. Everyone left the vehicles in a hurry and several scopes were set up, and we simply soaked up the views. After we had our fill of these little crackers, a bit of ‘off road driving’ led us to a shallow wadi which was full of Western Bonelli’s Warblers, with at least 5 birds seen. In fact in one small bush we had 2 Bonelli’s, 1 Spectacled and a Subalpine Warbler all at the same time, with a Eurasian Hoopoe nearby. Another area of low bushes held a very confiding African Desert Warbler that flew in to inspect us and sang literally just a few feet away from on top of a bush.
Lunch was taken just south of Erfoud alongside a cultivated area and we ate yet another delicious picnic in the shade of some palm trees. The surrounding area held more Subalpine Warblers, as well as Common Chiffchaff, Willow Warbler, Woodchat Shrike and another Western Olivaceous Warbler, with Blue-cheeked Bee-eater and Lanner flying over.
So after a stop to exchange money in Erfoud we headed out to an area of desert and walked for maybe 35 minutes to view some cliffs. Well, we waited and waited and our patience was rewarded just as the sun dipped below the distant hills, when a superb Desert Eagle Owl appeared at its roosting hole in the cliffs. It remained there for a minute before being mobbed by one of 18 Brown-necked Ravens present and promptly flew a short distance only to perch on a different section of cliffs where we had prolonged scope views. Everyone was elated with this, and from here it didn’t take long to reach our great auberge where we would stay for a couple of nights.
Day 6 Wednesday 22nd March
After an early breakfast we boarded the vehicles at first light to gasps of astonishment at the beautiful Erg Chebbi sand dunes outside our auberge and drove out into the desert. After a short wait, during which time we saw a perched Short-toed Eagle and a Hoopoe Lark nearby, we met a local Bedouin who led us across the Hamada where we eventually saw the almost mythical Houbara Bustard. Everyone had good views as we watched the bird walking along a wadi before leaving the bird in peace. So what a start to the day, and from here we went to the Café Yasmina, where Black-eared Wheatear was new for our list. Once everyone had returned from the bumpy journey across the desert and had some cold drinks and coffee we drove to another café where a male Desert Sparrow promptly arrived and made it onto most people’s life lists. It remained on view for maybe quarter of an hour before we left, and after more photo opportunities of the sand dunes and camels we saw a Eurasian Wryneck from the vehicles before stopping at a little pool where several Blue-headed Wagtails were present, and then headed back to our auberge for lunch.
After a little rest we visited the large oasis nearby and spent an enjoyable couple of hours here, finding plenty of migrants amongst the small cultivated crops and palm trees. Some of the highlights included seeing plenty of Laughing Doves, European Bee-eaters, lots of Eurasian Hoopoes, and a Bluethroat. In fact the oasis was teeming with birds and our log for this site is quite interesting:
Laughing Dove 20+ Common Chiffchaff 70+
Eurasian Turtle Dove 4+ Willow Warbler 30+
European Bee-eater 7+ Sedge Warbler 1
Eurasian Hoopoe 10+ Wood Warbler 1
Sand Martin 3 Blackcap 3+
Blue-headed Wagtail 2 Subalpine Warbler 25+
Meadow Pipit 8+ European Pied Flycatcher 1
Tree Pipit 3+ Bluethroat 1
Grasshopper Warbler 1 Common Redstart 10+
Western Olivaceous Warbler 1 Woodchat Shrike 5+
Western Bonelli’s Warbler 12+
Nothing totally amazing you might think, but it was great fun doing some simple birding and enjoying pretty good views of most things, but unfortunately a poor view of a Rufous Bushchat was practically untickable!
From here we headed north to a wadi which we walked along for a short while, seeing a Black-eared Wheatear and another Spectacled Warbler, before crossing the road and seeing a pale-phase Booted Eagle and a Peregrine before settling down to wait for sunset. A short while after the sun descended below the horizon we were treated to the most stunning views of an Egyptian Nightjar flying below us before coming right over our heads and landing 20 yards away to round of another good day’s birding. Wow!
Day 7 Thursday 23rd March
After breakfast we loaded the luggage into our vehicles and drove to a wadi where a short walk produced Bluethroat, Common Nightingale, and more Subalpine and Western Bonelli’s Warblers. But our search was for the one last speciality still needed from this area, and after a short while at least 3 Fulvous Babblers were found, with one bird in particular scoped as it sat in a small bush. Well done Jo! From here we headed into Rissani, where we explored one of the souvenir shops before heading on the long drive west. A Melodius Warbler was seen in the small park in Tinejdad after we had finished our coffee, and after an hour or so we pulled into a cultivated area that offered us some shade for our picnic lunch. A Tawny Pipit was seen in a small ploughed allotment, and once everyone had left the vehicles we enjoyed great views of several European Bee-eaters feeding close by. As the lunch was being prepared, we took a short stroll around the area seeing the usual assortment of migrants such as Tree Pipit, Melodious, Western Bonelli’s, Western Olivaceous and Subalpine Warblers, and Common Redstart.
From here it was a short drive to the Tagdilt track where we had our last look at Temminck’s and Hoopoe Larks, Desert Wheatear, Spectacled Warbler, plus a Northern Goshawk flushed from a Tamarisk bush and a pair of Black-bellied Sandgrouse, as well as a Fat Sand Rat. Leaving here we headed to our excellent hotel in Ouarzazate, seeing a couple of White Storks perched on their large rooftop nests in the Valley of Roses.
Day 8 Friday 24th March
Shortly after leaving on the drive towards the coast, we stopped along the road to check out some bushes that looked potentially attractive to migrants. A Southern Grey and several Woodchat Shrikes (the latter of which reached over 40 in total today) were immediately visible. Also here was our first Greater Whitethroat, followed by several Trumpeter Finches and a few Thekla Larks, with a pair of Bar-tailed Larks found in rather unsuitable habitat at the next stop. The scenery on
the next stage of the journey was very picturesque with snow-capped mountains in the background, and after passing through arid hillsides the road dropped down into the fertile plains of the Sous Valley, with olive groves, arable fields and carpets of wild flowers. As the road passed through a plantation of Argan trees a partridge flew across the road and as we stopped to search, a Great Spotted Cuckoo was found perched right on top of a nearby tree, giving the best views imaginable. The surrounding area looked very interesting, and a quick search revealed up to 4 Western Orphean Warblers, with several close birds being very approachable, and a distant soaring Northern Goshawk. We made a stop in the shade of some trees for our picnic lunch, during which time we saw Crested Lark, Southern Grey Shrike (of the race Algieriensis) and several species of butterfly, with a Black Kite seen sometime later.
By mid-afternoon we had reached the Oued Sous Estuary and were overwhelmed with many new species for the tour, starting with Greater Flamingos, 9 Eurasian Spoonbills, Black-winged Stilt, and more familiar sights such as Sandwich Tern, Little Stint and lots of Magpies of the Maroccanus race with the blue skin behind the eye. Walking through the scrub alongside the estuary gave us further views of several Moussier’s Redstarts and many Sardinian Warblers. The next viewing area gave us Mediterranean Gull, Dunlin, Curlew Sandpiper, with some Pallid Swifts flying over. A perched Osprey was scoped near the mouth of the estuary as we continued walking, and more waders were found including Red Knot, and several flocks of Common Ringed and Kentish Plovers. It was a real pleasure to have lots of birds to scan through, regardless of whether they were common or familiar or not. This was real fun birding as everyone in the group became involved in finding something different. However, as the sun began to set we were turned away from the usual spot for Red-necked Nightjars by the Royal Guards patrolling the outside of the Royal Palace, so had to be content with trying a different spot. As luck would have it, shortly after the sun had set we firstly heard 2 birds calling, then saw one flying across a gap in the trees before flying right over our heads in the spotlight.
Day 9 Saturday 25th March
Our last day’s birding dawned with clear blue skies, and as we dragged ourselves away from yet another luxurious hotel we were greeted by Common, Pallid and Little Swifts sweeping around the buildings in front of us. And then we were driving north along the rugged coastal route, watching the huge waves breaking against the rocks below us. At a site north of Tamri, a pair of Common Quails was flushed accidentally from a roadside field, before we checked out the Tamri estuary, where a thick pall of fog cloaked the whole area. After a while this lifted a little, and right on cue a Northern Bald Ibis was spotted by Mick flying down the hillside, where it circled several times before apparently drifting off north in the direction of a further 4 ibis. As we walked back to the vehicles it or another ibis appeared directly overhead where it circled several times before drifting away.
Leaving here we headed south in high spirits, and reached Massa village where a pair of Little Owls perched amongst some ruins heralded our arrival. As we stopped to look at these, a large Agama lizard was seen on a wall. We decided to walk most of the way to the entrance to the reserve, having a good vantage point to scan the Oued Massa below us, seeing Purple and Squacco Herons, and the first of many Zitting Cisticolas. Many commoner species were present, including Little Grebe, Common Coot, Common Moorhen and Tufted Duck, but much more inspiring was the sight of a pair of Western Marsh Harriers spooking about 60 Glossy Ibis from the dense reedbed. Some roosting Black-crowned Night-herons were seen in the riverside Tamarisks, before a calling Barbary Partridge was tracked down to an outcrop of rock on the hillside behind us, and there were many Serins present, along with Laughing and Eurasian Turtle Doves. After lunch by the car park we walked further along seeing another Squacco Heron, more Glossy Ibis, Greater Flamingo, Plain Martins, Ashy-headed Wagtail (cinerocapilla) and a great spot by Mick in the form of a Spotted Crake bathing in a small puddle below us.
Unfortunately time was against us and all too soon we had to return to the vehicles, leaving us a little time to search the hillsides above the Massa for the elusive Cream-coloured Coursers that had yet to arrive due to the cold and wet winter experienced in NW Africa. Despite our best efforts we were unsuccessful, so headed back to the hotel where we said our goodbyes to our drivers who had looked after us and been an integral part of such a great tour.
Day 10 Sunday 26th March
After breakfast we transferred to Agadir Airport for our return journey to London via Casablanca. A relaxed flight eventually saw us arrive at Heathrow Airport where this excellent tour of Morocco concluded later this afternoon.
The success of this tour was not only due to the sound planning as is usual with BIRDSEEKERS, nor was it due to the odd slice of luck so necessary on any trip, but to the co-operation, good nature and good birding skills of the whole group. It truly was a pleasure to be part of and lead, and I hope everyone has fond and lasting memories of this very interesting country. After all we had seen some special birds such as Crimson-winged Finch, Egyptian Nightjar, Houbara Bustard, Crowned Sandgrouse, Desert Sparrow, Thick-billed Lark and Northern Bald Ibis, as well as the very bold Lanner Falcon striking the Eurasian Hoopoe before circling us many times with a gleam in his eye! And then there was the scenery, from snow-clad mountains, to the beautiful desert landscape of the Erg Chebbi, to the rocky coastlines and bird-filled estuaries. Not a bad tour at all!!