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MOROCCO From Atlas Mountains to the Sahara Desert: March 21st to 31st 2007

Birdwatching Holidays in Spain, Morocco & more…
Josele J. Saiz
BOLETAS Birdwatching centre
tel/fax 00 34 974 262027 or 01162 889318
Birdwatching Holidays in Spain, Morocco & more…
Kevin Shaw
"Scotland's favourite bird and wildlife company"  

In 2007 with BOLETAS: Four species of sandgrouse, new sites for Pharaoh Eagle Owl and for Houbara Bustard , earliest record of Mourning Weather with chicks. Join us for an unforgettable experience!


Josele J. Saiz – Tour leader and expert in Morocco
Kevin Shaw –   co - leader

Day 1   March 21

We assemble in plenty of time for our BA flight to Agadir, which takes off an hour late, but makes up the time thanks to a formidable tailwind; we are travelling at over 600kph! Harry has a smart tweed jacket, which by now might be on sale in the souk in Agadir, as he doesn’t see it again after arrival….   Morocco looks beautiful from the air as we arrive; sandstone plains and plantations set against the backdrop of the high Atlas mountains, now to our north. Josele welcomes us, and we drive in pleasantly warm air to our comfortable hotel. Our drivers have a little trouble finding the place, but we enjoy the tour, getting our first experience of Moroccan driving, which can be invigorating, especially at roundabouts. Our drivers for the week are Saeed and Jamal, managed by Mushti, Josele’s cheerful right-hand man.

Our hotel is very cosmopolitan, with a Moroccan style buffet and comfortable rooms. We have travelled far, so Beryl decides not to hit the casinos, and we all look forward to the next day’s birding. New species await!

Day 2   March 22

Common Bulbul are noisy residents around the hotel, and although not exciting to look at, this thrush-sized bird makes its presence known vocally – by breakfast we have all seen it and most of us have a lifer before we have a juice. Freshly squeezed orange or a tasty whole orange is a welcome feature of many meals. House Buntings are also very common, soon clocked by most of the party before we leave the hotel, and are those Little Swifts? Some of us see them.

We drive through dusty streets and out into dusty countryside. If Morocco can find a market for exporting dust they will be very prosperous. People stand around, waiting for lifts to work or just waiting. Many of the men are dressed in traditional djellaba coats – they are cold in this temperature of around 75F. Birding gets under way as we travel to Sidi Wassay, and we see many Mauritanica Common Magpies – their blue bare skin spot behind the eye is very intriguing, and either now or later we all make sure we have seen it – it might be split into a separate species one day! There is a Hoopoe on a wire as we pass, Mick’s first of many. We see Moussier’s Redstart on a wire, but Josele isn’t impressed – ‘we will see plenty’ – and we eventually stop in habitat which is to become familiar; semi-arid scrub with parched plants and earth. This habitat holds a surprising number of birds, and amongst the larks Rob skilfully picks out a motionless Stone Curlew. There are two algeriensis Southern Grey Shrikes here, their dark tones a real contrast to the very pale elegans race we see later in the week. Thekla and Crested Larks are common, and a specimen of each visits the group, allowing us to compare. ID of these very similar birds is slightly easier here than in Spain, because the Crested is much sandier than its European cousins. We study them carefully. The Thekla sings, giving us another pointer to identity. A leisurely walk through the Sous Massa National Park is a great way to spend the day, and Little Owl and Blue Rock Thrush greet us briefly as we get ready to wander by the river. Great birding here, as migrants are all around. We soon see Subalpine and Olivaceous Warblers, Chiffchaff and a female Moussier’s Redstart. Black-crowned Tchagra is also an important addition. The bird is known to be shy, and Pat doesn’t see it, but don’t worry – this one isn’t too shy, and soon she has it in full view – strongly patterned striped head, brown wings and grey body, long tail; we enjoy very good views. As we walk we see several Laughing Doves, and one is really special – the bird is sunning with one wing extended and we can all see the bluish wing panel, a really lovely little dove.

Next up is another lovely bird – a perfect male Moussier’s Redstart really close to us! This is a key find, and although Peter R misses out due to being in the minibus, there is no need to worry; it is common and as Josele promised, we get good views many times. There are about 24 European Bee-eater overhead, and suddenly we are treated to an adult Bonelli’s Eagle at close quarters. The bird wheels around for some minutes, and we all have time to study the key ID features; pale body, dark carpals, broad wings, powerful appearance – a Kestrel buzzes around bothering the eagle - great stuff! At the observation hide there are a few common waders, Spoonbill and a welcome Squacco Heron, but we are all enthralled by a large herpestidae-type animal, quickly identified as Egyptian Mongoose. This long-tailed, low-bodied creature busies around, coming very close to our hide before getting a whiff of birder and performing a detour around us.

Lunch is a lavish spread of sardines, ham, cheese, olives, tomatoes, garlic, onions and tasty, wholesome Moroccan bread, another welcome staple of our meals. Afterwards we head out towards Agadir when Harry is first to notice our first really key speciality – 13 Cream-coloured Coursers! We stop and scope the birds, then Kevin and Josele sprint behind them and lift them towards the group. This is possible because these birds rely on camouflage first, scuttling towards the waiting telescopes and giving excellent views of the blue-grey crown and sandy plumage. Seen extremely well by all, these are special views of a special bird. In effect coursers prove to be quite common on the trip, and we see three more groups today, with further sightings across the country as far as the Sahara.

A female Montagu’s Harrier gives excellent views, its bouncy flight raising more coursers. We finish by the coast, hoping to see Red-necked Nightjar beside one of the King’s palaces, but only Josele sees it. Some of us look at the rings of Saturn in Kevin’s scope to complete a great day.

Day 3 March 23

A cloudy beginning as we take the coast road north. There are traffic policemen everywhere, they are on the lookout for illegal migrants passing through Morocco towards Europe, obviously a major problem from the sheer number of officers on the road. A group of gulls contains many Audouin’s, and we chat at length about the local differences between Yellow-legged and Lesser Black-backed. Not easy to separate! Gannets and Common Raven give a taste of more northern coastlines. Four Barbary Partridge are spotted by Josele, and we park to catch sight of them escaping at high speed on foot and then flying over the rocky hillside.

Our stop to see Bald Ibis feeding is not graced by these exceptional birds, but we do see an Osprey repeatedly diving without success. There are lots of warblers and waders migrating here, including Kentish Plover, and we are delighted to see a powerful Lanner Falcon wheeling close by. An algeriensis shrike poses for photos, and we see Barbary Ground Squirrel for the first time. A colourful wedding party passes by on donkeys, and we see another fine male Moussier’s.

After stopping to organise lunch, we proceed to the Bald Ibis breeding spot where we enjoy brief but memorable birding! The Ibis are clearly seen, as is a splendid Barbary Falcon sitting across and slightly below us, perfect for sightings of the brown crown. We watch the birds without disturbing them in the slightest, though a local SEO officer is already disturbed as we arrive. Lunch is a very enjoyable meal of chicken and bread with either lentils or beans, a taste of real Morocco!

In the afternoon we head west to our overnight stop at Taroudant, a very pleasant town in the semi-arid lands west of Agadir. We stop for larks, shrikes and wheatears, a regular feature of the next few days. A splendid buffet offers a vast choice; there are beers by the swimming pool and pleasant walks around the broad boulevards. A lovely place to rest for the night.

Day 4   March 24

Today’s journey begins through well-tended farmland rich in birds. Black Kite fly overhead, there are Kestrels and both morphs of Booted Eagle, and we briefly see another Black-crowned Tchagra. We emerge into semi-arid scrubland with the anti-Atlas mountains providing a stunning backdrop. Another Lanner Falcon is sitting on a roadside pylon, and most of us see this pale bird as it lifts and flies away at great speed.

At Abu Louz (another view of the Sous River, this time well upstream), we enjoy great birding. Perhaps the highlight is an unexpectedly confiding Spotted Crake, although we also enjoy the fabulous sight of Red-rumped Swallow, House Bunting, Woodchat Shrike and Common Bulbul sitting side by side on a wire over the river. Western Bonelli’s and Sardinian Warbler give excellent views, and we also see Hoopoe and sitting Long-legged Buzzard. Green Frogs are common and noisy here, and a pale morph Booted Eagle circles above – what a stop!

The next stop is a stony track where we take a brief walk and collect delightful Desert Wheatear for our lists. We study the black wing line joining the larger black areas around the ear and on the wing. A beautiful male bird. There are Black Wheatear nesting here, and we are very pleased as we leave for a lunch of skewered chicken and lamb kebabs in the town of Tasnazt. After lunch, Desert Lark is another key bird seen clearly, and as we wander around at Ouazarzate Reservoir we can soon tick White-crowned Wheatear and snoozing Ruddy Shelduck. A single Whiskered Tern lazily crosses the water’s edge, and we proceed to another comfortable hotel haven, this time featuring powerful local red wine.

Day 5 March 25

One of the undoubted highlights of our holiday is our visit to the famous Tagdlit Track, and our experience certainly lives up to the advance billing. The early morning air is cold as we begin with Red-rumped Wheatear, common but welcome. The bird’s pale front may lead it to be confused with Mourning Wheatear, the most elusive of our wheatear targets, and we study several Red-rumped with interest – we want to be sure! As we turn onto Josele’s chosen path we quickly see two Temminck’s Horned Larks, a beautiful white-faced version of our more familiar Shore Lark. This pair is quite confiding, and we get super views. Soon however we are distracted by large and noisy flock of birds overhead - Pin-tailed Sandgrouse! These birds are clean white underneath, unlike other species, and we see them clearly. During the next three hours we enjoy regular flyovers of these lovely birds. There are two pairs of Black-bellied Sandgrouse flying over too, a welcome addition. The call of sandgrouse overhead with the high peaks of the anti-Atlas behind is unforgettable.

After some careful searching, Josele locates a pair of Thick-billed Lark and we watch these birds running for some time. Delightful and distinctive, this is a special moment, easily missed by the less-experienced birder! There are Short-toed Larks everywhere showing plain white undersides, and we also spend some time watching the aptly named Fat Sand Rat. After more searching, we get splendid views of Hoopoe Lark, high on everyone’s wish list. We are treated to their delightful display flight, getting good views of the intricate wing-pattern. Josele walks up three more coursers, and we see perhaps another 30 as we drive to lunch - we are getting blasé about these birds!

Another superb spread is enlivened by six Trumpeter Finches, four wheatear species and White Stork in the balmy sunshine. This is a good spot to say that every day is pleasant and sunny, not too hot and often, like today, with a cooling breeze here at 1500 metres above sea level – perfect birding weather. We finish lunch with another great bird, Bar-tailed Lark! This sandy, self-effacing looking bird is sunbathing nearby, and we watch it at our leisure, large-headed, thick-billed, dark terminal tail band, we enjoy ourselves for some time. Next is a welcome siesta, earned because we have rounded up all the birds we targeted here. Another Bonelli’s Eagle provides entertainment as we drive to the hotel.

Later we drive to a riverside spot and enjoy ultramarinus Blue Tit, the delightful African race of this familiar bird. Local children tell us they use their catapults to catch Blackbirds which they eat, but when we test them with a plastic bottle on a rock put out for them by Peter Z they can’t hit it – maybe the birds are safer than the boys say! Next we meet another young Moroccan near an Eagle Owl site who is much more conservation oriented. Our first site has been damaged by blasting, but the second is much better. We drive through a lovely village and entertain the locals for about 45 minutes waiting for the owl. Will it show? We are standing on a rough football pitch while everyone watches, and the children try out some of our scopes. These are delightful people who marvel at these strange foreigners who want to see les oiseaux. We are rewarded for our patience with an excellent view of Eagle Owl as an adult bird flies across the sandy bowl. Rounded wings, long tail, lazy flight, we all get good views and agree it is well worth the wait. We say our goodbyes and drive home in the fading light.

Day 6 March 26

Heading for the Sahara, we stop to look for Mourning Wheatear without success, though Trumpeter Finch, Thick-billed Lark, and three wheatear species including Red-rumped is no disappointment, these were all lifers for most only two days ago! Five minutes later we are smiling not mourning as the buses stop and Josele sprints across the land – having failed to walk a bird up, we instead have one that he saw at distance whilst travelling! Soon we are all enjoying views of a family group of this scarce bird; both parents and two large chicks are visible in a nest in a low cliff. This family is interesting because of the date and their advanced nature the chicks are ready to fly, and are already hopping around short distances. The male Mourning Wheatear is a beautiful bird, its contrasting black and white plumage shining against the russet sandstone – lovely! We watch for twenty minutes, distracted only by a passing Long-legged Buzzard.

Our next speciality proves difficult, as we drive through the tourist-trap of the Gorge di Todra. There are Crag Martins here, and we drive through the beautiful scenery to spots where our bird has been. Vegetation is sparse and Josele isn’t hopeful, but he doesn’t give up and at the second spot there it is – a splendid male Tristram’s Warbler! Another key bird bites the dust as we note the rusty red plumage and dark eye of this Dartford look-alike. We are very close and everyone sees the key features during our perfect sighting, well done Josele!

A tasty lunch of eggs, cheese, tomato and onions then we are off towards the Sahara Desert, again collecting Thick-billed Lark amongst others on the way. In the late-afternoon a cry goes up – green bee-eaters! And so they are – a party of Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters posing on wires, circling around, classic views of this beautiful African bee-eater. We can see yellow and red as well as green on the birds, and of course the blue cheeks. Another very satisfying sighting. A pale-morph Booted Eagle, Black and Black-eared Wheatear, displaying Crested Lark, all in this one roadside spot, there are birds everywhere in Morocco! Overnight our accommodation is very different, an auberge in the middle of the desert. Rooms are spacious, food is good and we bring our own alcohol, for a consideration our hosts are happy to serve it!

Day 7 March 27

Another key highlight - our day in the Sahara Desert. What a fantastic place to be, wonderful birds and scenery all around. Specialist birds need specialist knowledge however, and not everyone can just find these birds – it is a long way to travel if you don’t know exactly where to look! A local lake is teeming with commoner species, and we quickly start to count up new birds. Marbled Teal, Shoveler, Shelduck, Little Stint, great variety here. We have rarer specialities to find however, and today we have a local guide on board. There are Hoopoe Larks around as we race across the stony desert, directly to Houbara Bustard! These are rare birds, but our preparation is good and we get prolonged views of a female bird – just what we wanted! Two Crowned Sandgrouse fly past, we see the sandy belly and distinctive head and wingtips, and Spectacled Warblers are on territory. More good views for all!

An undoubted highlight for everyone is our walk around a green area in the desert, with flowering bushes and trees full of migrating warblers. Spectacled, Western Bonelli’s and Subalpine Warblers, several wheatears, and the usual larks - a delightful place. Next we take time out from birding to visit a small village, home to the family of one of our guides. The people are welcoming and friendly, offering us dates, peanuts and tea as we select some souvenirs from their hand-made collection. Women and children are shy but very curious. Ann and Harry both try the veil! For many this is the most memorable experience of the tour (non-birding of course), and we say our goodbyes after a very enjoyable break. All Kevin’s mints and fruit sweets have been left behind, and our buses are full of shawls and ammonites – great fun.

We have taken to the desert in the best possible transport, four-wheel drive landrovers. There are four in our convoy, with Josele at the front and Kevin riding shotgun, connected by walkie-talkies. Soon we need these, as vehicle four disappears into a sand dune and doesn’t drive out again. Much hilarity as we dig it out, but driver Hamid is a little embarassed; bet we don’t get stuck again today! As the rest of the group watch our bus finally draw up, a beautiful Hoopoe Lark entertains everyone with its display flight. Looking in the bird books one might think this bird to be named after its decurved bill, but it is the display flight which gives this species its nickname of ‘Desert Hoopoe’. Wide black and white wings and erratic flight are genuinely reminiscent of Hoopoe.

Another headlong charge across the desert – hugely enjoyable, surprisingly comfortable – and Josele calls another screeching halt. He has heard Desert Warbler! This bird is on territory, and soon we have all enjoyed super views. A large, sandy and white warbler, perching and running around, it is a delight.

We begin to drive back to base for lunch, what a morning! But the fun isn’t finished yet. Kevin’s vehicle disturbs something which settles back onto the ground – large partridge sized …. Must be a sandgrouse! It is, and a new species too, Spotted Sandgrouse! This fabulous male is content to let us watch as all four vehicles converge and everyone gets detailed views. One more treat before lunch and we go to a spot where we know Desert Sparrow are breeding. After a bit of a search we are rewarded with birds feeding young at a nest in a deserted house. Each time the birds return as a devoted pair, and the female feeds the chicks as the male stands guard on the wall. Another way of putting it is that the female is doing all the work of finding lunch and presenting it while the male just supervises, and this seems accurate enough. Some group members giving knowing nods – just like home! These beautiful and now uncommon sparrows are the highlight of the whole trip for some.

Bill manages to evade some determined camels – he is standing next to their food trough – and we retire for lunch and a break from the heat. Again we only do this because the birds are already in, but we are grateful, this is the Sahara after all! A walk in late afternoon around palm trees produces Hoopoe and warblers, plus an elusive Wryneck which only Harry sees in the scope – his first Wryneck! A little further and we count 52 Pin-tailed Sandgrouse on the ground in front of us; again our guides know exactly where to go to see these birds. There is a beautiful desert sunset behind the birds to end a brilliant birding day.

Back to the auberge, where we have bought a lamb, which is cooked for us and presented to the table, but where is the rest of it? It seems everyone involved has taken some, and we notice the meat being served to other diners too! It doesn’t matter; we all have enough, as Kevin, Rob and Mick tuck into the tail, we are luckier than Pete, who tries another cut  …..  After dinner we enjoy a performance from the local drummers and one or two of us begin to dance – no names, no drill…

Day 8    March 28

We leave the desert returning west, and since we have rounded up the majority of the birds, relatively few new species on this day. One early highlight is the excellent views of Brown-necked Raven we enjoy close to their nest site. In the early morning light the nesting cliff is in shadow, but one bird helpfully flies gracefully across the road and wanders over the plain in full view. Light is important for this species, and we see the bronze head clearly, as too the thinnish bill. Our drive through the anti-Atlas is incredibly scenic, broken by a stop to watch migrating Whitethroat, a coffee at Alnif, and our first elegans Southern Grey Shrike.

Beyond Ouazarzate the scenery is fantastic as we pass through the mountains heading northwards. Unfortunately for afternoon birding we drive into a sandstorm, so having watched White Stork, Black Kite and Bee-eaters struggling, we decide to check into our hotel and freshen up. Dinner is Moroccan Soup, salad, turkey and spaghetti bolognaise, washed down with the dodgiest wine of the trip – we don’t take too much!

Day 9    March 29

We walk around Ait Ben Haden, and a birding migration hotspot holds Olivaceous, Reed and Sub-alpine Warblers, Little Ringed Plover, Yellow Wagtail, Crag Martin and Red-rumped Swallow. Our drive north continues, and at 2240 metres we stop in the Tichka Pass to watch Red-billed Chough, and for the first time experience a new feeling for the trip: we are cold! Another stop and now we are chasing near endemic Levaillant’s Green Woodpecker. Our first try produces a familiar sound – Mistle Thrush singing, but no ‘pecker. Next it is lunch in a small town where meat is hanging outside the restaurant. Josele and Mushti bargain for the meat, it is minced in front of us, and we wait for it to be cooked. Most of the group wander up the street to barter for stones, beads and fossils. Good fun, followed by a very enjoyable fresh lunch eaten outdoors in the sun, with lamb chops, lamb meatballs, sweet biscuits, olives, bananas and tea. Bananas! What happened to the oranges?

It has been a long patient wait. We can all hear the woodpecker, and even see several likely nest holes, but this species is famous for not budging. ‘It is in this tree!’ …  ‘Surely it must fly soon?’ …  ‘Let’s give it ten minutes’ … ‘It isn’t going to show, let’s go to the next site’…. Suddenly, a lazy, undulating flight and we have it sitting openly on a broken stump – Levaillant’s! The bird repeats its trick of sitting for ages in one place, the difference being that this time we can see it! Great views for everyone and we study the black moustachial stripe and faint white stripe above – great bird! A lasting memory will be the way the sun gradually illuminated more and more of the bright green plumage as we watched it calling continuously.

Our final stop is at a raptor viewpoint which is a favourite of Josele’s. Suffice to say that there are three pairs of Booted Eagle displaying on territory here (we compare one bird with the Short-toed Eagle it is harrying), Long-legged Buzzard, Black Kite and Kestrel pass through, and we enjoy spectacular raptor watching.

Kevin goes for a little wander, only to come face to face with a very large pig. There is no-one nearby, so he has to shout – ‘Wild Boar!’ This isn’t the usual way to watch wildlife, but it stops the boar in its tracks for about twenty seconds, long enough for most to get good views of a huge animal defiantly glaring back up the track (the boar, not Kevin). Finally two Common Crossbill, heard by Kevin half an hour previously, finally fly so most of the group can see them. We had better views earlier in the day.

Day 10   March 30

Our final full day begins on the roof of our hotel in Marrakesh. There are Pallid and Common Swift everywhere, and we also spot two Little Swift. After this we drive to the high Atlas mountains, another highlight of our tour. En-route we get fantastic views of an adult Golden Eagle, wheeling above us in a narrow cliff area, gaining height on the early thermals. We can see the bird perfectly, and have several minutes to enjoy its superb skill as it manages to achieve altitude without seeming to try. There is a male Rock Bunting on display, and a female Moussier’s Redstart too.

At the top of the road we are at about 8000 ft. Up here we don’t want to walk too far, but need to see a very special bird. Alpine and Red-billed Chough are all around, we examine beautiful seebohmi Northern Wheatear, scope Shore Larks and admire a handsome Long-legged Buzzard. We have heard our target bird, seen a couple in flight, but ….. then Josele begins to tape the birds, Bill and Kevin hear a flock go past, one returns to see who is calling, and there it is – a beautiful male Crimson-winged Finch! This last key speciality could possibly have been missed, so we all marvel at the bird. This is a large finch, with plain plumage except for a bright crimson wing bar, showing as a line on this sitting individual – lovely! A gentle walk produces Rock Sparrow, more finches and Black Redstart. We pose against the stunning mountains and enjoy a hearty traditional Moroccan lunch. On the way down we collect Firecrest, and to finish Josele catches a Chameleon by the roadside.

En route to the hotel Kevin is still shouting into his walkie talkie – ‘White Storks on the right!’ Josele doesn’t answer because his talkie is sensibly turned off. A cavalcade carrying the His Majesty the King of Morocco is coming the other way and Kevin is talking to the King’s security team! Apparently His Royal Highness has more pressing things to do today than watch birds!

Back to the hotel, and most of the group use the couple of hours of free time to visit the market and souk in Marrakesh. We buy souvenirs, watch the snake charmers, and barter with everyone, even taxi drivers.

Day 11    March 31

We have a mid-morning flight, so there is no rush as we say goodbye to Josele and head for the airport. Everyone is agreed that the trip has been a huge success, both for birding and also for the fun and experiences  we have had; Morocco is a wonderful country and we will never forget our holiday here.

My thanks to everyone for their good humour and company throughout – this holiday will surely become a Heatherlea favourite.

Kevin Shaw


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