Earlier this year I found a couple of days leave I'd forgotten I had, tucked down the back of the sofa. With this unexpected good fortune I started formulating plans to cash in my cycling credits on a CO2 busting assault on the Moroccan deserts and quickly had a few people interested in joining the venture.
Another bit of good fortune was Dave Gosney bringing out his updated guide to the desert areas which took a huge amount of effort out of the planning. We aimed to cover most of the area SE of Marrakech in just four days. Could we do it and what might we see? Read on...
Day 1 - Friday, 4 Dec 2009
Actually the trip started the previous day with an uneventful afternoon flight from East Midlands to Marrakech. East Midlands is a very relaxed affair compared to Stansted and we were soon winging our way over the Isle of Wight, Brest peninsular, Bay of Biscay, Picos de Europa and Algarve before getting our first sight of Africa as the sun set over the Atlantic to the west.
Isle of Wight
Marrakech from the air looking east with the airport just on the right of the shot.
Immigration and car hire formalities out of the way, at 19:30 we started our long overnight drive to the eastern dunes. We saw very little on the drive east. A Fox sp (Ruppel's or Fennec) showed in the headlights briefly 20km east Ouazazate and the driver saw a Little Owl in El Keela M'Gouna. Somewhere on the descent from the High Atlas we spotted the rear end of what looked like a large pig trotting down a track out of sight - Wild Boar?
A brief stop for a hour's kip just east of Boumalne was the only interuption in the 11 hour drive before we finally detected the first signs of dawn around Rissani. The light quickly improved as we headed south from here towards Merzouga and the first real bird of the trip revealled itself at 06:30; Brown-necked Raven feeding on a roadkill Jerboa species. There were up to 16 of these between here and Merzouga and it was a lifer for all of the team, as were the next four species: Bar-tailed Desert Lark, Hoopoe Lark, White-crowned Black Wheatear and Trumpeter Finch. Crikey!
Bar-tailed Desert Lark Ammomanes cinctura
Hoopoe Lark Alaemon alaudipes
The Trumpeters were in a very bird rich area near the football pitch on the northern edge of Merzouga village. Also here: c.10 Hoopoe Larks, 1 Crested Lark (suitably pale and long-billed - radonii or macrorhyncha?), 4-5 Bar-tailed Desert Larks, 4 White-crowned Black Wheatears, Desert Weatear, Southern Grey Shrike, House Sparrows and White Wagtails.
White-crowned Black Wheatears would prove to be very common and we saw a couple of hundred or more in total. One of them here hopped up very close to the car. This was to become a feature of the deserts but more of that later.
A cream-crowned Marsh Harrier passed by heading for the lake which was our next stop.
Dayet Srij (Lake Merzouga)
We took a track west past the football pitch that led over a low ridge to reveal a huge lake with plenty of water present and clearly rather a lot of birds. Sorting these out was to take quite some time and reveal a few surprises. Some trips have walked around the lake and that might be worth the extra time but we just scoped it from the eastern shore.
Present in large numbers were Ruddy Shelduck (c.200) and Coot (c.100). Also on the water 30-40 Marbled Duck, Shoveler, Pochard, Little and Great Crested Grebes and the first surprise, 5 Phalaropes feeding close together near the middle. These were rather distant so are best left unidentified but it seems Red-necked have been recorded here.
The margins held Grey Herons, the odd Little Egret, 4 Squacco Herons, a few Cormorants, including some pale fronted presumed maroccanus, and another surprise, 2 Black Storks. It was a little while before we noticed a few 10s of Greater Flamingos on the far shore when they all put their heads up behind some reeds.
Around the reservoir 4 Marsh Harriers hunted, there were many White Wagtails, some giving a distinctive buzzing call unlike any other M. alba calls and perhaps indicitive of subpersonata, 1 Long-legged Buzzard, giving us our first taste of this species' upright, falcon-like jizz when perched, and a few Black-headed Gulls. A presumed Lanner hunting on the far side was followed by a definite male perched on the ridge close to the tracks.
Lanner Falco biarmicus erlangeri
We had our first stroke of real luck here with a party of c.30 Crowned Sandgrouse that flew over close by calling. More Sandgrouse were seen on the far side of the lake but were unidentifiable.
The first of many Painted Ladies seen during the trip showed here.
A brief stop for supplies in Merzouga town revealed Common Kestrel, House Sparrows, Crag Martins and Feral Pigeon.
Merzouga, a wild-west style town
A truly barren landscape in places
Approaching the Erg Chebbi from Merzouga
Travelling north along the edge of the Erg Chebbi past the hotels we saw Collared Doves, 4 Stonechats and several Laughing Doves and had our first taste of the Erg Chebbi up close.
Laughing Dove Streptopelia senegalensis
As we neared the northern edge of the dunes we picked up some showy White-crowned Black Wheatears, another Desert Wheatear and found 2 Tristram's Warblers in tamarisks with 2 Chiffchaffs.
Desert Wheatear Oenanthe deserti, male
Tristram's Warbler Sylvia deserticola
White-crowned Black Wheatear Oenanthe leucopyga
While watching the Tristram's Warblers we had left the doors to the car open and two first-winter White-crowned Black Wheatears were feeding on, under and inside the car. We began to notice during our time in the desert areas that stopping the car anywhere near WCB Wheatears would cause them to come and feed on the car. They have clearly learned that insects are killed or attracted to cars and are making use of this.
White-crowned Black Wheatear Oenanthe leucopyga, first-winter feeding in car
Continuing our trip around to the northern edge of the Erg Chebbi we began searching in earnest for Desert Sparrows. We stopped at several camel holdings without any luck and were approached by a chap from the Cafe Caravan who said they had been at his place but for some reason we decided to carry on to Cafe Jasmina across the totally dry lake bed. Then we struck very lucky indeed. While checking a large group of Camels we met Gary and his wife, who were staying there on their honeymoon. He had seen 5 sparrows at Caravan early on but none just now. However one had been showing minutes before at Jasmina. We headed there with the intention of having lunch and watching out for the bird.
Shortly after we arrived Gary drove up behind us to say there were two birds back at Caravan so we headed back there with him. We followed him back and just as we got there a really pale male Lanner swooped in a took prey from a Common Kestrel. However the real show was to follow and we are eternally grateful to Gary and his missus for making the trip back to get us.
The pair of Desert Sparrows perfomed fantastically well around some Bedouin rugs hung out in a patch of sand strewn with camel dung.
Desert Sparrow Passer simplex (with thanks to Gary and his wife)
Desert Sparrow and paparazzi
We ended up staying here for a very late lunch, chatting to Gary, his wife and the owner of Cafe Caravan over our first 'Berber Whisky', the hot, sweet mint tea of the area. Our first Tagine eventually turned up but it was worth the wait and not just because it was our first proper meal for over 24 hours.
With just a few hours of daylight left we reluctantly moved on and headed through Rissani, encountering another Long-legged Buzzard on the way. Then we stopped at a small pool, well surrounded by vegetation and starting to dry out, that seemed to be used as a bit of a cesspit. Anyway the birds seemed to love it and it was the Common Bulbuls that first attracted us to it.
Otherwise there were 3 Moorhens, White Wagtails, House Sparrows, a Black Redstart, many Chiffchaffs, a House Bunting (not seen by me), 2 Laughing Doves, Collared Doves and a Cetti's Warbler scalding a cat as it moved through the low vegetation.
Then we took a closer look at the hirundines wheeling overhead and realised they were Rock Martins, an unexpected tick for all of us. The paler impression and lack of covert contrast were quite clear once you got your eye in.
Heading west from Rissani we encountered Southern Grey Shrike, Black Redstart, Crested Lark and a small mammal that was probably a Jird species, just before a river with a decent amount of water flowing. Here were Grey Heron, 2 Green Sandpipers, 1 Little Egret, Pied Wagtails, Crested Larks, Blackbird, Chiffchaff, Common Bulbuls and a Long-legged Buzzard.
Time was now against us and we were rather tired as we valiantly attempted to reach the Eagle Owl site a bit further to the west. But despite a heroic hike out to the cliffs the light was failing fast and we only managed to find a couple of large sparrow roosts in lone bushes and a Red Fox before it got too dark. The only hint was a distant call that could have been Eagle Owl from even further along the ridge.
We headed back to the car encountering this Green Toad on the way and found a hotel in Erfoud where we went over notes and photos in the bar which served beer accompanied by olives, nuts and meat nibbles. An excellent end to our first day in Africa.
African Green Toad Bufo boulengeri
Day 2 - Saturday, 5 Dec 2009
The Hotel Tafilalet did us proud at breakfast and as dawn broke we were treated to the sight of 15 Cattle Egrets and a Little Egret passing overhead. There were also plenty of House Sparrows, Feral Pigeons, a White Wagtail and Blackbird over along with a Sparrowhawk.
We headed out of town on the desert road SE towards Kasbar Said pausing only briefly to admire the plastic bags soaring majestically (and confusingly) over the hills. Our first stop was at the fossil diggings where once again White-crowned Black Wheatear took advantage of our car.
White-crowned Black Wheatear Oenanthe leucopyga
As we pulled up a small bird flitted up from the base of an adjacent bush and with everyone out of the car in record time showed itself briefly to be a Desert Warbler. Unfortunately that was more or less the last we saw of it and despite a thorough search we only came up with a couple of Spectacled Warblers, more White-crowned Black Wheatears and a Jird, probably Sundeval's Jird.
Presumed Sundeval's Jird Meriones crassus
Undetered, we headed south again but didn't get far as there were masses of birds at a drinking pool where the road bends right; c.50 Trumpeter Finches, 6 Desert Larks, a White Wagtail and a lone Rock Martin.
Trumpeter Finch Bucanetes githagineus
Desert Lark Ammomanes deserti, very variable colouration - pale like this one in the south but darker and more heavily marked nearer the Atlas
Pushing south again past Desert Wheatear and Long-legged Buzzard we saw another glimpse of a probable Desert Warbler just north of the Kasbar Said but the main show was to be in the scruby sand-filled wadi just to the south. Here a male sang and showed very well, while there were Desert and Hoopoe Larks around as well.
Desert Warbler Sylvia (nana) deserti
We decided to move back north now to try for Scrub Warbler. On leaving Erfoud on the Jorf road we found a pair of Blue Rock Thrushes getting frisky on the walls of a building; "luvly jubly" as the friendly Moroccan who stopped to talk to us said when he found out we were from England. Obviously impressions of the English are formed from documentaries such as Only Fools and Horses!
A pair of Lanners were stooping at each other 5-10km further on, a Long-legged Buzzard showed and there were Common Bulbuls and a couple of Laughing Doves on the edge of palm groves.
More Moroccan bonhomie was to be encountered as we pootled through Jorf. A sharp bit of metal on the road resulted in instant deflation for one tyre and four team members alike. But we needn't have worried. In seconds there were many offers of help, either with wheel changing or with getting the tyre fixed. As it happened there was a mechanic just across the road and in 15 minutes we were back on our way with the spare tyre on and the puncture mended and tyre reinflated. We had to haggle with the mechanic, but in reverse. He wouldn't take any money at first but we managed to beat him up to 40 Dirham (c.£3.30!). What a great country! I even got a lifer out of it as a couple of House Buntings showed along with a few Common Bulbuls and a couple of Clouded Yellows.
The route took us past Bedouin wells, more Camels and several Southern Grey Shrikes, the ever present White-crowned Black Wheatears and a few Desert Larks were seen.
We then took a promising-looking shortcut between the Erfoud-Tinejdad road and Goulmima. One stop produced 3 Stonechats, 2 Sardinian Warblers, a Southern Grey Shrike and Long-legged Buzzard.
Southern Grey Shrike Lanius meridionalis elegans
East of Goulmima, at the Errachidia 43/4km post we parked by the wadi, prepared to walk out to the bushes described in the Gosney guide, but only got a couple of hundred yards before we encountered the first Scrub Warbler. This turned out to be one of the most entertaining stops of the trip as up to 5 Scrub Warblers (perhaps a family party) showed fantastically well along with a pair of Moussier's Redstarts (to be the only ones of the trip surprisingly), 3 Spectacled Warblers, 4 Stonechats, a Southern Grey Shrike, a Kestrel, a Swallow and a rather short-billed Crested Lark. A large flock of small birds further up the wadi could well have been Lesser Short-toed Larks and there were more Painted Ladies, a small lizard and a Jird species.
Scrub Warbler Scotocerca inquieta theresae
Moussier's Redstart Phoenicurus moussieri
Returning through Goulmima we noticed up to 100 Cattle Egrets roosting on the roofs of the taller buildings. Refueling on the eastern edge of Tinejdad a Blue Rock Thrush showed and leaving the town on the western side we got our best views so far of House Bunting.
A Cattle Egret and a Sparrowhawk greeted us as we drove into Tinihir and began a late evening drive up the Todra Gorge. there were plenty of Crag Martins here and the vegetated lower parts had Serin, Blackbird, Blackcap, Black Redstart and Common Bulbul. 2 Blue Rock Thrushes were higher up as the light began to fail.
Bottom of Todra Gorge
We stayed at the very reasonably priced Chez Christophe on the west side of Tinihir. Good food but bring a pillow substitute as the ones here felt like they were filled with concrete.
Day 3 - Sunday, 6 Dec 2009
Woke to the sound of House Bunting calling outside the hotel somewhere. Another excellent breakfast and we were on our way past more White-crowned Black Wheatears, Southern Grey Shrikes and Stonechats until the 18km post from Tinihir. Here we encountered our first Red-rumped Wheatears, a pair, along with 3-4 Thekla Larks and a Desert Lark (darker than the ones further southeast).
Thekla Lark Galerida theklae
Driving through Riad Timadrouin revealed a Sparrowhawk and Serin but just 2km further west was the next treat; a spanking male Mourning Wheatear. We also saw 5 Black Wheatears here and another of the darker Desert Larks.
Mourning Wheatear Oenanthe lugens, male
Mourning Wheatear site
Our next stop was the rubbish tip outside Boumalne. The first birds were right by the main road at the 48km marker but there were many scattered throughout the tip area. Temminck's Larks were among the most numerous with plenty of Skylarks and White Wagtails, several Thekla Larks, 5 Lesser Short-toed Larks, 3 Bar-tailed Desert Larks, 2 Desert Larks, 2 Thick-billed Larks, Red-rumped Wheatears and 3 Long-legged Buzzards. With a Hoopoe Lark a bit further along the track that made 8 species of lark here. We also had a jammy flyover Golden Eagle.
Thick-billed Lark Rhamphocoris clotbey
Temminck's Horned Lark Eremophila bilopha
Red-rumped Wheatear Oenanthe moesta, male
Long-legged Buzzard Buteo rufinus cirtensis
The tip area was bristling with entertaining Fat Sand Rats.
Fat Sand Rat Psammomys obesus
Driving further along the Tagdilt Track produced scattered Temminck's, Desert and Thekla Larks but was otherwise rather uneventful until we got to an area on the NE edge of the first hills. Here a Lanner was chasing Hoopoe Larks and about 40 Black-bellied Sandgrouse were seen feeding and in flight.
Returning along the metalled Iknouinen Road there were many Red-rumped Wheatears and we ended up back at the spot where we had kipped for a few hours on the drive through the first night.
Middle of nowhere?
It was about 13:00 by now and with a long drive across the Atlas ahead of us we turned west through Boumalne where more Crag Martins and Common Bulbul were encountered along with a Moroccan Orange-tip.
More White-crowned Black Wheatears, Southern Grey Shrikes, Crag Martins, Cattle Egrets and Blue Rock Thrush accompanied the drive into the foothills, with a Little Egret on the river at El Keela. Black Wheatears started appearing on the drive up into the mountains where Chiffchaff and Common Bulbul were in the valley.
With the last of the light on the descent from Tizi-n-Tichka we saw a few Goldfinches and a cracking male African Chaffinch right by the road.
We had noticed another tyre was going down so stopped to get that pumped up before heading up into the moutains again. Once more the garage we stopped at wouldn't take anything without coercion and gave us excellent directions for the shortcut across to the mountain road.
We arrived at the Oukaimeden ski resort at 20:00 to find it pretty well shut but managed to knock on a window and get the attention of the guys at Chez Juju, where the first reaction was come and join our meal! In the end we had a three course one of our own with beer and berber whisky while reading the bird log the hotel keeps.
Day 4 - Monday, 7 Dec 2009
Up at dawn before breakfast but in the mountains the light was reluctant to say the least. The birds on the other hand were magnificent. It was bitterly cold as we walked across ice to the ski lifts opposite the hotel while Choughs flew over in large flocks high above. At the bottom of the long ski lift were c.300 Crimson-winged Finches lining the cables. They just kept arriving and many were feeding in the compound of the small building just past the lift gear. The light was unfortunately very poor for photography and when we returned later the birds had dispersed up the hill a short way and were far less obliging. If you are after the finches here, do visit at dawn as the views were amazing.
Crimson-winged Finch Rhodopechys sanguinea
About 30 Rock Sparrows and 200 Linnets also vied for our attention but that was then captured by a young Barbary Falcon making repeated passes through the flocks with a dashing Merlin-like flight. This bird obligingly perched up in full view a couple of times giving us a great opportunity to study the diagnostic features.
Also around here were Black Redstarts, Chaffinches (European style), White Wagtails, Rock Doves, Mistle Thrush and there were 2 Dippers in the small stream.
We returned to the hotel for breakfast which was taken outside in the very sunny but still very cold conditions. Linnets, Great Tit, Ultramarine Tits, Chaffinches, Black Redstart, Blackbird, a Meadow Pipit and hoards of Alpine and Red-billed Choughs were on show throughout.
Alpine Chough Pyrrhocorax graculus
Red-billed Chough Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax
Views of Oukaimeden
We took another walk back up to see the finches but they were much flightier and very difficult to photograph. A single Atlas Horned Lark showed briefly but we decided to move on.
The slow tyre had gone down overnight so another wheel change (again with local assistance) saw the repaired tyre pressed into service for the run back to Marrakech.
Only a little way past the manned barrier on the way down, next to a huge vertical rocky face on the right hand side, we encountered a near-adult Lammergeier which treated us to extraordinary extended views. this was followed very soon after by a pair of Common Ravens circling.
Lammergeier Gypaetus barbatus
The view back down to the plains
But the good fortune wasn't to end there, or even with the Barbary Partridge seen well by the side of the road among some of the first pines on the descent.
Shortly after that, just above the first buildings encountered on the descent, the bank was alive with Ring Ouzels. About 30 were noisily flitting about the junipers. There were also several Barbary Ground Squirrels about here, Mistle Thrushes, Serin and a Rock Bunting.
Descending further we encountered a few Firecrests at a bend across a broad gully where there were also Common Bulbul calling and we had Wren and Robin.
Firecrest Regulus ignicapillus
A few kilometers further on the road crossed the valley again to head east on the south side of the river and we were passing through small settlements making frequent stops to look for woodpeckers. At one of these we spotted another birder, a friendly Spanish chap and while we were chatting to him Chris noticed a female Levaillant's Green Woodpecker feeding high on the bank right by the road. It had been there all along, unseen by any of us.
Many photos were taken much to the delight of the school children walking back up the hill. They thoroughly enjoyed looking through the scopes and at the photos.
Levaillant's Green Woodpecker Picus vaillantii, female
The rest of the descent was characterised by Blackbirds, House Sparrows, Ultramarine Tits, the odd Sardinian Warbler and Black Wheatear, Common Bulbuls, a Sparrowhawk and a Cattle Egret.
Shortly after the woodpecker we stopped for our final excellent Tagine of the trip at the Restaurant Soleil. Great Spotted Woodpecker called nearby, Ultramarine Tits showed well, there were Serin, Chiffchaffs, Goldfinch and Wren about and a Little Egret and Grey Wagtail flew along the river. 2 Woodpigeons over here were the only ones of the trip.
We continued our descent out of the mountains past mineral, pottery and textile shops plus the odd saddled Camel until we reached the plains.
The rest of the drive back to Marrakech revealed Stonechats, Southern Grey Shrikes, a Corn Bunting, Sardinian Warbler and, nearer the city, Collared Doves, Spotless Starlings, a Sparrowhawk and a few Cattle Egrets. But Morocco had one more pleasant surprise to throw at us. We pulled over for a roadside bird, which failed to show again, only to spot a fairly distant Black-shouldered Kite hovering over land SE of the city.
Back at the airport we took a last look at Spotless Starlings, Feral Pigeons, House Sparrows, and a few House Buntings but the last bird of the trip was a House Bunting flying around inside the departure lounge well after dark.
House Bunting Emberiza (striolata) sahari
The Arrangements and Tips
We flew with Ryanair, booked a car with Europcar through an online booking agency and did not book any accommodation in advance. It might be advisable to book the accommodation at Oukaimeden in advance, especially if, like us, arriving late out of season, as we had to knock on a window to get them to open up the hotel. Otherwise it was easy to find good cheap accommodation with good food.
The overnight drive from Marrakech to Merzouga took about 11 hours including a stop for an hour or so in the small hours. On the way back the drive from Boumalne to Oukaimeden took about 7 hours. The road up to the resort is quite quick and well signposted from the Route de l'Ourika out of Marrakech. It would take about 1.5 hours from Marrakech without stops.
Rocky desert roads were passable in our 4 door saloon, in fact on occasions we just drove straight across the desert, but sandy roads are to be avoided. It wouldn't take much to get stuck in any moderate build up of sand.
The driving in town is a bit mad and signposting a bit hit and miss. Almost anywhere at night you can come across people on foot, donkey, bike, scooter or even the odd lorry with no lights.
First light is at about 06:00 at this time of year with birds appearing from about 06:30. By 17:00 light was failing fast and by 18:00 it was completely dark.
The weather was cloudless throughout and well over 20 degrees in the daytime. It felt very warm at times. Locals said this was much warmer than usual for the time of year. Nights were cold. It was near freezing in the desert on the first night. The mountain resort was very cold with plenty of ice about in the early morning.
Morocco is an amazingly friendly country. Everywhere we went we were treated like old friends and everyone was keen to help or just chat. Nearly everyone speaks good French but we found most spoke some English too. Learn the odd word of Arabic or Berber though to be polite - "Shokran" is "Thank you" and generally goes down well.
You do get hassled in some places, e.g. around Merzouga/Erfoud for hotels and/or trips into the desert. If you aren't interested just say so politely and people leave you alone. Often folk just want to talk and try out their English, Spanish or German.
Full species list