28th March - 4th April 2006
(Systematic List - Dave Bickerton)
Morocco is a very popular birding destination due to the long list of exciting species available. A number of recent trip reports helped to further fire our imagination and so a trip was planned with Nicola & Mark Breaks and Dave Bickerton.
We were very fortunate to get flights from Manchester to Marrakech with British Airways for £120 and this helped keep the total cost of the trip down to a very reasonable £440 each. A couple of hotels were pre-booked over the internet but mostly we relied on the ‘Rough Guide to Morocco’ to recommend accommodation. We also used the extremely informative www.go-south.org website run by Patrick Bergier. Together with the usual birding guides and the Rough Guide Map of Morocco, we had plenty of literature to plan our itinerary.
Some of the distances involved were rather large. We travelled approximately 2000km during the seven days, normally during the heat of the day when the birds were completely inactive. The weather was unseasonably hot during our stay with day time temperatures getting above 40 C around Taroudannt! Language wasn’t too much of a problem as Dave’s basic French was of a similar standard to the Arabic speakers’ French (i.e. simple words and phrases!)
A smooth trip to Morocco was extended a little by a flight out into the Atlantic to avoid a strike by French Air Traffic Control.
As we loaded the hire car, a comfortable if somewhat battered Peugeot 307, it did not take long to locate our first new bird with Common Bulbul singing by the car park. A number of Pallid Swifts were overhead and they proved to be common throughout the urban areas we visited.
After a drive into central Marrakech to fill up with petrol (not what we wanted to do for our first driving experience, though the Little Swifts were nice), we headed quickly south towards the High Atlas Mountains. After an hour we saw the mountains out of the haze and began the climb towards our first destination – the ski resort of Oukaimeden.
was a beautiful day and frequent stops soon produced one of our main target
birds – the lovely Moussier’s Redstart.
We also enjoyed views of Booted Eagle, Long Legged Buzzard
& Blue Rock Thrush.
Booted Eagle & Long-legged Buzzard (DB)
On reaching Oukaimeden the search began for the much sought after Crimson Winged Finch. Unfortunately, Morocco was experiencing a heat wave and so much of the snow had already melted. These birds seem to favour the snow line so our chances did not seem good. However, close views were enjoyed of Black & Seebhom’s Wheatears, Black Redstart, Shore Lark and Rock Sparrow in beautiful surroundings.
Black Wheatear & Seebhom's Wheatear
A number of other birders confirmed that no CW Finches had been seen, despite searching, for several days. We retired to the Hotel Imlil for our first Tajine and a beer, hoping for better luck in the morning.
Shore Lark & Rock Sparrow
We got up as the sun began to rise over the mountains, a wonderful way to start the day. Deciding to drive up beyond the usually reliable ‘Car Park P2’ (Gosney Southern, page 17), to find areas of lying snow, we chose an interesting looking valley and began to search. It appeared to be a ‘needle in a haystack’ situation but luck was on our side and from nowhere a stunning male Crimson Winged Finch appeared on the side of the road. He was a real ‘cracker’ and we felt very fortunate to have located this bird after the wintering flock had dispersed.
Crimson-winged Finch (DB)
He showed well twice more, before disappearing, but unfortunately our usually reliable camera crew didn’t quite manage frame fillers on this occaison. One of the strangest moments of the trip then occurred when a Short Toed Treecreeper appeared, hopping around one of the largest patches of snow.
A return to ‘Car Park 2’ produced the spectacle of hundreds of Red & Yellow Billed Choughs feeding all around us – the sheen on their feathers glistening in the sunlight.
After breakfast back at the hotel, we started the next (very protracted) leg of the journey. Roadside stops produced a succession of good birds including Barbary Partridge, Subalpine Warbler, Firecrest, & Rock Bunting.
A short cut through the Ourika Valley produced the first European Bee eater, Black Eared Wheatear and Southern Grey Shrike of the trip. Then a stop for provisions gave us views of our first House Bunting, a bird that seemed extremely common in all towns and villages.
As the Tizi-n-Tichka Pass approached we stopped first at Forest House near Toufliath and found Hawfinch, Crossbill, Chaffinch & Cirl Bunting. Our next stop was in Cistus & Juniper habitat near Taddert. This is an ideal habitat for Tristram’s Warbler and quickly produced three of these lovely birds. At this spot a Bonelli’s Eagle also appeared overhead.
Crossbill & Tristram's Warbler
Through the spectacular pass and on towards Ouarzazate and a site for Mourning Wheatear that fellow Lancashire birder Stuart Piner had found in 2005.
‘26km west of Ouarzazate on the main road is a junction where ‘Agadir 348’ km is to the left and Marrakech is straight on – continue in the direction of Marrakech. The birds were immediately adjacent to the ‘Ouarzazate 29’ km post or on the rocky hillside to the right.’
Carefully followed the directions a pair was found in exactly the same location!
They performed really well, along with our first White Crowned Black Wheatear & Desert Lark of the trip.
Desert Lark & White-crowned Black Wheatear
It was now late afternoon and after a brief trip to the Barrage El Mansour we continued east to Boumalne. This was our only drive in the dark and it proved to be as eventful as we had anticipated, with lots of unlit mopeds and bikes appearing from out of nowhere. Thankfully we made it unscathed to our hotel - the Auberge Soleil Bleu.
Red-rumped Wheatear & Temminck's Horned Lark
After a good nights sleep we were on the Tagdilt Track at dawn. As another beautiful day began we found ourselves at the rather less lovely rubbish dump with its grumpy packs of feral dogs.
Desert Wheatear & Thekla Lark
Bar-tailed Desert Lark (DB)
Careful searching produced a number of hoped for species including delightful Red Rumped Wheatears & Temminck’s Horned Larks. Other species included Desert Wheatear, Bar Tailed Desert, Thekla & Lesser Short Toed Larks. There was no sign of Thick Billed Lark but we did enjoy a close up encounter with a confiding flock of 11 Crowned Sandgrouse.
By mid morning it was very hot so our journey ever eastwards continued before a brief siesta in Tinehir. Our next stop was to look again for the elusive T B Lark in the desert 4km east of Mellab. Unfortunately, this only produced 20 Short Toed Larks.
Crowned Sandgrouse (DB)
Passing Jorf our anticipation increased, knowing this was a good area for one of the most eagerly anticipated birds of the trip. It did not take long to locate 2 pairs of Blue Cheeked Bee eaters amongst the palms. These wonderful birds performed superbly, unlike the local children, who provided the type of harassment we had been warned about but actually encountered very rarely.
Reaching Erfoud we were finally approaching the end of the journey and soon spotted the radio mast next to our hotel – the wonderfully plush & relaxed Auberge Kasbah Derkaoua.
We quickly settled in and did some birding around the hotel grounds. At dusk we got into position for an event that the owner told us had been witnessed by hundreds of birders – and which kept his hotel busy each spring! To be honest it was a bit of an anti climax with brief views of a single Egyptian Nightjar hawking around the hotel, with a similar showing at dawn.
However, the wonderful meal served in the open air with a few beers was a real treat and this desert experience comes highly recommended.
Out again at dawn to search for the bird we had travelled all this way east in the hope of finding. A ten minute drive found us at the Hotel Kasbah Said and a quick search of the outhouses produced a very ‘chirpy’ male Desert Sparrow. This enigmatic species was a real delight and performed well, until the melancholy song of a nearby Hoopoe Lark distracted us. We quickly located a pair and found them delightfully tame. The male was a real showman and he regularly clambered up onto the desert vegetation to deliver his beautiful song. He would then burst upwards displaying vivid black & white wing markings before tumbling back to earth. The combination of these birds & a lovely cool desert morning was a real joy.
Returning to the hotel for breakfast we found a number of migrants, newly arrived from across the Sahara. These included Subalpine, Western Bonelli’s & Olivaceous Warblers, Woodchat Shrike, Hoopoe & Wryneck. We also found Pied Flycatcher & Redstart and wondered if they might be on the way to the woods of East Lancashire!
We then headed for the Eagle Owl site near Rissani but could not find the bird in difficult hot and windy conditions. A pair of nesting Brown Necked Ravens, provided some compensation.
Brown-necked Raven (DB)
Having come so far east we now began the journey to the coast and a very long drive eventually found us in Agdz. The ‘Rough Guide’ pointed us to a working farm on the outskirts of town, which initially looked a bit rough – the bedrooms consisted of mattresses on the floor and the place had a distinctly unreliable electricity supply! We became even more concerned when a ‘hippy’ family in a transit van pulled into the courtyard and then left without stopping!
As it turned out this was one of the best places we stayed with friendly hosts, good Tajines and a lively ‘folk music’ session on the Berber drums. This all added a cultural flavour to the birding routine.
A ‘twitchy’ early morning start before our hosts awoke saw us heading for our last chance for the much hoped for T B lark. Our ‘gen’ was not exactly up to date with reports from Gosney of sightings on a plain 5 kms from Taznaknt in 1993!
Undeterred we found the spot and headed out across the undulating stony desert, which initially produced very few birds. However, as in all the best birding tales a shout eventually went up from Mark – he had found the ‘holy grail’. Unfortunately the bird then vanished and Dave got a little too close to this ‘ideal’ habitat.
Despite these traumas, and a tense 45 minute wait (compensated by two Cream Coloured Coursers), a pair of Thick Billed Larks eventually reappeared in the original location. As with all the best birds they then performed superbly, proving to be very approachable. The female was constantly quivering her wings to the male but he playing hard to get, seemingly more interested in the blooming desert vegetation!
Birds don’t always live up to their ‘hype’ but this one certainly did.
After this idyllic encounter we headed for Taliouine. The rough guide pointed to an eaterie, Auberge Soukana, on the outskirts of the town and this proved to be a real delight. Marvellous fresh tomatoes, lamb kebabs and roast potatoes with rosemary produced the undoubted culinary highlight of the trip.
Continuing ever westwards we reached the valley of the Sous and stopped at the scenic Aoulouz Gorge before completing the final leg of this epic journey to Agadir.
Leaving the Hotel Pergola, another early start took us to Oued Massa and to the causeway (Gosney Southern, page 11, site 8) in search of Tchagra’s. Somewhat surprisingly we couldn’t find any! However, this was an excellent area with Squacco & Purple Heron, Marbled Teal, Black Bellied Sandgrouse, Brown Throated Sand Martin, ‘Iberian’ Yellow Wagtail & Zitting Cisticola encountered amongst many other species.
Squacco Heron & 'Iberian' Yellow Wagtail
Moving onto the reserve the lovely early morning had become a 40oC scorcher. Despite the perspiration we finally managed to track down a pair of Black Crowned Tchagra’s and enjoyed excellent views. Other highlights here included ‘Maroccanus’ Cormorants, Glossy Ibis and an Egyptian Mongoose.
Black-crowned Tchagra (DB) & 'Maroccanus' Cormorant
We then had the good fortune to encounter some fly by Bald Ibis above the reserve, along with a Lanner Falcon.
This was followed by some traditional Berber hospitality – sitting on the floor eating an omelette with our fingers and drinking mint tea – whilst watching MTV received via a satellite dish!
Black-winged Kite (DB)
Continuing to explore the area after lunch produced a delightful encounter with a Black Winged Kite hovering overhead. A final stop at the causeway produced a ‘mega’ butterfly - a Plain Tiger.
We then headed back to Agadir, arriving at dusk, and headed to an area of bushes between the Royal Palace and the Oued Sous. This is an excellent place for Red Necked Nightjars and we heard several birds singing and saw them hawking insects and landing briefly on the road.
Finding Bald Ibis at Oued Massa saved us the trip to Tamri and allowed to spend a leisurely morning birding the Sous estuary. This turned out to be very fortuitous.
Our first stop overlooking the river produced an excellent selection of birds including
120 Spoonbills & 50 Greater Flamingoes. The exposed mud held a variety of waders including Black Winged Stilt, Kentish Plover, Curlew Sandpiper, Little Stint &, more surprisingly, Stone Curlew. Alongside them we also noted Ruddy Shelduck, Slender Billed & Mediterranean Gulls and Whiskered & Gull Billed Terns.
Whiskered Tern & Gull-billed Tern
We then moved on to the mouth of the river and the scrub here produced a number of sylvia warblers including, to our delight, two Orphean Warblers. At this point we also recorded three Collared Pratincoles over the estuary.
Walking out onto the sand flats we scanned the first group of Sandwich Terns and were rather shocked to discover an immature Franklin’s Gull with them! (We later discovered that the bird had been present since at least 17th February). We all enjoyed good views before the bird left the terns to join the nearby gull flock, which included several Audouins Gulls. After this excitement we carried on birding and the mornings variety was added to with Osprey, Black Bellied Sandgrouse and Purple Heron appearing in quick succession.
Then a raptor was spotted coming in off the sea and turned out to be a stunning dark phase male Montagu’s Harrier. This graceful bird gave great views before circling away to the north providing a fitting end to an outstanding mornings birding.
Audouin's Gull & Black-bellied Sandgrouse
After checking out of our hotel we travelled back to Marrakech and arrived late afternoon. We then headed into the foothills of the Atlas for a final search for Moroccan Wagtail (ssp subpersonata). We just picked a likely looking river at Tahanaoute and quickly located 4 of these distinctive birds. We ended another wonderful day at the entertaining White Stork & Cattle Egret colony at the Gendarmerie Royale in Asni before heading to our hotel in Marrakech.
Moroccan Wagtail & Cattle Egret
After a lively night in Marrakech – with Nicola impressing the crowds with her juggling skills - we had a leisurely breakfast before returning to the airport. The birding was not quite complete however, and we discovered a House Bunting singing inside the terminal!
A smooth journey home followed and all agreed that Morocco was a marvellous destination, with 180 species being recorded in total. The encounter with Thick Billed Lark was particularly memorable, and as a result this was voted bird of the trip.
Systematic List - Dave Bickerton
All Images taken by Dave Bickerton, Nicola and Mark Breaks, Copyright - © Breaks Bird Photography