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MOROCCO – November 2006

Once more our winter week in Morocco was a delightful sequence of varied experiences which, even with hindsight, couldn’t have been better planned or paced.

Our first exposure to a cross-section of Moroccan birds was at the Sous estuary with Greater Flamingo, Spoonbill, Black-winged Stilt, Avocet, Kentish Plover, Little Stint, Mediterranean, Slender-billed, and Audouin’s Gulls, and Fan-tailed and Sardinian Warblers.  Then followed the Massa estuary with Glossy Ibis, Marbled Duck, Laughing Dove, Little Owl, Kingfisher, Plain Martin, Moussier’s Redstart, and Black-headed Bush Shrike.  And, after a delicious chicken and lemon tagine at an amazing secret and secluded kasbah and caravanserie and an exploration of the agricultural areas, the day closed with our first Black-bellied Sandgrouse and Desert Wheatears.

The following day we opted for a dramatic mountain circuit via Paradise Valley and Imouzzer which brought us Cirl Bunting, Tristram’s Warbler, Black Wheatear, Barbary Partridge, Bonelli’s Eagle, Goshawk, Atlas Crossbill, and African Blue Tit, another relaxing lunch break on the terrace of the Hotel des Cascades, and a grand finale north of Tamri with 200 Bald Ibis, magnificent Atlantic breakers, and the most photogenic sunset over the sea (and yes, there was a green flash).

Then came an even more breathtaking mountain circuit to Tafronte which gave us our first looks at more desert birds - Trumpeter Finch, Thick-billed and Hoopoe Larks, White-crowned Black Wheatear, and Desert Lark - and also Red-billed Chough and (for some) Barbary Falcon at 1660 metres, plus bizarre rock formations, fascinating Berber citadels and fortified hilltop villages, and another taste of authentic Moroccan cuisine (the meat this time complemented by almonds and prunes) in a Berber ceremonial tent.

More desert birds followed the next day south of Goulimime: Red-rumped Wheatears, Fulvous Babblers, and Hoopoe Larks for a thrilling finale at sunset.  En route we added migrating White Storks, Black-shouldered Kite, Long-legged Buzzard, Great Spotted Cuckoo, and Hoopoe.  And for our evening meal at our delightful oasis auberge what else but camel tagine?

The following morning got off to a good start with a pair of Scrub Warblers, another Great Spotted Cuckoo, many more Red-rumped and Desert Wheatears, Trumpeter Finches, and Black-bellied Sandgrouse, but most significantly all the larks: Bar-tailed Desert, Temminck’s, Greater and Lesser Short-toed, Thekla and Crested, and Thick-billed.  This freed us to return to the Sous for a reprise of waders, wildfowl, gulls, terns (including Gull-billed), and dusk glimpses of Red-necked Nightjar and Short-eared Owl.

After such an action-packed week Saturday was decreed an Options Day: relaxing in Agadir (the beach, the shops, and the bird gardens); a land-based return to Paradise Valley and the Atlantic coast for some much-desired repeats for those who missed Tuesday’s success story (Tristram’s Warbler, Barbary Partridge, Cirl Bunting, Bald Ibis – plus Moroccan White Wagtail which was new for all); or a laid-back pelagic out to the Atlantic shelf for shearwaters (Cory’s, Manx, and Balearic), skuas (Arctic and Great), Grey Phalarope, plus Green and Hawksbill Turtles alongside our catamaran.

With only one significant target bird still missing the choice for our final day was now obvious: the deserts around Massa to search for the elusive Cream-coloured Courser.  But first the river provided us with yet more new birds (Ferruginous Duck, Red-crested Pochard, Ruddy Shelduck, Squacco Heron, Little Swift).  The superb lunch at the Ksar Massa (pastilla, the ultimate Moroccan speciality – layers of flaky pastry, pigeon breast, eggs, almonds, raisins, spices, and honey – followed by melt-in-the-mouth shoulder of lamb, and fresh fruit) was probably the best of the trip, made all the more enjoyable as we ate overlooking the impressive Sidi Rabat beach and the mighty rollers, the spot where Jonah was washed up by the whale, where Uqba ben Nafi rode his horse into the sea to show Allah that there was no land further west for him to conquer for the true faith.  The Coursers, however, continued to elude us as we drove over miles of hammada desert knowing that we had to set off for the airport at 5pm.  Then, in an uncanny action-replay of last year’s scenario, at the eleventh hour (4:30pm) there they were: seven Cream-coloured Coursers being entertained by a cabaret act from a displaying Hoopoe Lark.  Perfect timing – which earned for them the accolade of Bird of the Trip (with 124 votes, beating Bald Ibis by 10 votes).

A wonderful week with perfect weather, a classic selection of birds, as much scenery as it was possible to pack into seven days, some memorable meals, and the most congenial group of travelling companions possible.

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