Day 0 Wednesday, 16th March
My first trip to Morocco was in December 2009 and I was keen to add some summer visitors to the excellent array of birds I saw that time around. So a plan was hatched to repeat that itinerary in March. With a new crew assembled we headed off from East Midlands airport in the afternoon to arrive at Marrakech just after dark and start the mammoth 600km drive to the east of the country. The 15:50 flight landed on time at 19:15 and we were on the road soon after 20:30.
First Car provided an excellent saloon car but with an ominous crack in the windscreen had no hesitation in offering us another, larger and less cracked one for the same price. So it was in a little more comfort than expected that we undertook the gruelling overnight drive through some of the densest fog I've come across heading into the mountains. Martin's quote: "I'm glad you're driving because a couple of times it's looked like the road could go either way and I think I'd have gone a different way to you!". Well I did stay on the road and as we neared the summit of Tizi 'n' Tichka Pass the fog cleared and we were treated to sensational views of the snowy mountains by the strong moonlight.
Day 1 Thursday, 17th March
We passed little in the way of wildlife but only narrowly missed a few of the stray dogs scattered along the way. About 10km west of Skoura at 01:05 a comfort stop produced a calling Stone Curlew, the first bird of the trip. We arrived at the track near the Auberge Tresor just east of Rissani at about 05:00 and started to search the tracks in the car headlights flushing a Crested/Maghreb Lark in the process. It was 05:45, and still dark, when we flushed an Egyptian Nightjar from close to the track just south of the small hillock. We were able to listen to this bird sing until dawn when two birds were watched flying around here for about an hour. Amazing! Only 3 species on the list and one of the main targets well and truly in the bag.
Egyptian Nightjar Caprimulgus aegyptius
Apart from the Crested/Maghreb Larks and some song from Hoopoe Lark we saw little else here before moving on to the Yasmina track, stopping to watch the extraordinary display flight of more Hoopoe Larks on the way and picking up our first Spectacled Warblers, Desert and White-crowned Black Wheatears and a very showy Lybian Jird.
Lybian Jird Meriones libycus
2-3km along the track at the sandy scrub area described in Gosney we stopped to find an impressive array of birds: Bar-tailed Desert, Crested/Maghreb, Short-toed, Lesser Short-toed and Hoopoe Larks, Spectacled and Bonelli's Warblers and a pair of Desert Warblers collecting nesting material.
African Desert Warbler Sylvia deserti
It was now gone 9am and we were ready for some breakfast at the friendly Cafe Caravan on the edge of the Erg Chebbi sand dunes. At £3 a head the breakfast of omelets, bread and tea really hit the mark with House Sparrows, Feral Pigeons, Swallows, 10 Brown-necked Ravens, Short-toed and Hoopoe Larks, White Wagtail and several White-crowned Back Weatears for company. Welcome to Morocco!
The days of Desert Sparrows on demand here look to be well gone now and, although we later heard rumour of a pair using a nest box at Auberge Jasmina, we were persuaded that a 4x4 trek into the dunes was the only way of assuring views of the number one target species for the area. The fee of 700 Dirham (about £14 each) proved to be utterly non-negotiable; a new concept for me in Morocco where a level of haggling is to be expected, and we were loaded into a jeep which immediately and alarmingly set off in the wrong direction, heading away from the dunes. For me one of the attractions of the excursion was getting into the heart of the dunes but this was not to be. However my initial fears that we were being taken for a ride in more than one way were to be totally unfounded. Despite a couple of confidence-sapping stops to scan more Short-toed Larks we ended up at a lone tree a little way north of a Riad called Sand Fisch. It should be possible to find this independently if you are feeling adventurous as the Riad is signposted from the main road but I'm guessing the drive could stretch the capabilities of most hire cars.
Desert Sparrow Passer simplex
This tree proved to be a refuge for 5-6 Desert Sparrows breeding there away from the attentions of the House Sparrows that have now taken over the more accessible locations in numbers. The same tree also hosted a male Subalpine Warbler and Desert Wheatear, Southern Grey Shrike and Bar-tailed Desert Larks were nearby.
Sparrow photography Moroccan style - Berber guide climbs tree to 'encourage' the birds to the outer branches
It was clear that our fee would have earned us far more time with our guide and his jeep had we wanted it so this trip is not bad value. For example had there been any Houbaras left after the season's hunting activities I'm sure this fella would have taken us to them. But there weren't and, having other sand fisch to fry ourselves we headed back to our car and skirted the dunes south towards Merzouga passing the tamarisk stand where I had Tristram's Warbler in December. This held good numbers of Subalpine Warblers and a couple of Woodchat Shrikes and further on we encountered a few Collared Doves, more Swallows, a House Martin and a couple more Brown-necked Ravens.
Brown-necked Ravens Corvus ruficollis
Desert Wheatear Oenanthe deserti
A quick check of the lake area revealed no water so we headed back to Rissani where we picked up our first Common Bulbuls, Clouded Yellows and a Vagrant Emperor, refilled the car and headed off around the Circuit Touristique in search of Babblers and Bee-eaters. We soon picked up a couple of Lesser Kestrels and had 3 Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters fly over closely followed by a Laughing Dove. Not everyone saw these well though, but the Bee-eaters showed well again at the deep wide valley at Zaouzt Sidi Ali, where they were perched in palms just up stream, and 3 Laughing Doves perched up at Ksar Adah near the end of the circuit for all to see along with our first House Bunting. Also on the way round were a White Stork, Hoopoe, Woodchat Shrike, Desert Wheatear, Serin and a Swallowtail butterfly.
Woodchat Shrike Lanius senator
Laughing Doves Spilopelia senegalensis
Bibron’s Agama Agama impalearis (TBC)
It was now about 16:30 and we made our way to the cliffs west of Rissani for an appointment with Pharaoh Eagle Owl and inevitably meeting up with Ali The Nomad (his line "I am always here" somewhat at odds with his epithet) and his side-kick Abdelghani. We picked up Sardinian Warbler, a female Moussier's Redstart, plenty of Chiffchaffs, a Whitethroat and Bonelli's Warbler on the way before striking lucky with a corking male Tristram's Warbler. Ali wasn't inspiring confidence by introducing a pair of Feral Pigeons as Barbary Falcons but he was with us for the duration and as we approached the cliff we located first one then two genuine Barbary Falcons at close quarters on the cliff and flying around at times. A party of 5 Black Kites circled distantly to the east as we searched for the owls. It was Abdelghani who located the Pharaoh Eagle Owl deep in a fissure near the break in the cliffs that we had to look west along the cliff line to see.
Tristram's Warbler Sylvia deserticola
Barbary Falcon Falco pelegrinoides
On the way back Chris pulled a Spanish Sparrow out of a largish roost gathering of House Sparrows and we watched a Kestrel and medium-sized bat tussling. Finally back at the road a presumed Red-necked Nightjar flushed ahead of us. With both 'guides' demanding 100 Dirham we had a bit of trouble sorting out the smaller notes and change and Abdelghani went a bit short and wasn't too happy. A slightly sour end to an amazing first day's birding.
We once again stayed at the Hotel Tafilalet in Erfoud, which I can still thoroughly recommend. For 330 dirhams each (c.£25) we had a three course meal, two twin rooms with warm showers and an amazing breakfast of hard boiled eggs, pain au chocolat, bread and cake. It also served excellent cold beer and the obligatory House Buntings were singing in the courtyard in the morning. A top budget choice.
Day 2 Friday, 18th March
After a glorious eight hours asleep, during which I don't think my body moved a muscle, and that excellent breakfast we were heading back out to the Circuit Touristique for another pop at Fulvous Babbler. A couple of Trumpeter Finches were on rough ground on the southern edge of Erfoud and we passed Sand Martin, Swallow, Red-rumped Swallow and House Martin buzzing about along the road. On the way south we stopped briefly in the agricultural date palm groves where another small party of Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters passed overhead, Serins, Chiffchaffs, Subalpine Warblers and Common Bulbuls flitted around the palms and an elusive Western Orphean Warbler failed to show very well at all.
Common Bulbul Pycnonotus barbatus
At the start of the Circuit Touristique a pair of Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters appeared to be settled and looking to breed in the sandy eroded land just west of the road junction.
Blue-cheeked Bee-eater Merops persicus
Not far along at a narrow bridge over a well-vegetated, small concrete culvert there were Common Bulbuls, a Hoopoe, many Chiffchaffs, 2 Subalpine Warblers, a showy Bonelli’s Warbler, a fly over Booted Eagle and at least three singing Saharan Olivacious Warblers. This distinctive warbler has a more fluting version of Eastern Olivacious Warbler’s song with rather shorter phrases. With greyish plumage, a pale secondary panel and a habit of dipping its tail Chiffchaff-style this is surely as good a species as most others.
Booted Eagle Aquila pennata
Western Bonelli's Warbler Phylloscopus bonelli
Saharan Olivacious Warbler Hippolais (pallida) reiseri
Our next stop was at the deep, wide river crossing by Zaouzt Sidi Ali, where at least 6 Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters performed beautifully and 2 Little Owls shared the same palms.
Blue-cheeked Bee-eater Merops persicus
Little Owl Athene noctua
Moving on to the more open country just beyond the village Chris suggested stopping for a wander and we immediately picked up the calls of a party of Fulvous Babblers that gave great views as they fed around the irrigation channels and palms.
Fulvous Babbler Turdoides fulva
A couple of Southern Grey Shrikes and fly over Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters completed the picture here and with our last target for this area in the bag we set off back towards Erfoud and the road west.
West of Erfoud, heading for Jorf, the road crosses a very wide ravine with sluices just to the north. A wander in the damp river bed revealed at least 6 Little Ringed Plovers, 2 Green Sandpipers, 2 Snipe, Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, many Chiffchaffs, another Bonelli’s Warbler, a few Iberian Wagtails, 2 Moroccan Wagtails, Crested Lark, Woodchat Shrike, a Black-eared Wheatear, Serins and Red-veined Darter. A couple of the Chiffchaffs looked very good for Iberian Chiffchaff but they were silent and we did not give them the sort of attention I'd like to be sure of the id.
Moroccan White Wagtail Motacilla alba subpersonata
West of Fezna at the 264km post to Ouarzazate we located our first Desert Larks and a short way along the minor road to Goulmima a male Moussier’s Redstart, Bonelli’s Warbler, Northern Wheatear and Spectacled Warbler. This road was lined with Desert Wheatears and there were Southern Grey Shrikes and a Blue Rock Thrush plus, at the deep river crossing, a pair of Ruddy Shelducks an Isabelline Warbler and more Chiffchaffs. A party of 20 or so European Bee-eaters was feeding high near the village of Ksar-el-Kebir-el-Kdim.
Now east of Goulmima on the N10 at the wadi between the 43 and 44km posts from Errachidia we only had to go a few 100m from the road before encountering a pair of Scrub Warblers. This site is described in Gosney but on both my visits the birds have been much closer to the road than suggested in that guide. It shouldn’t be necessary to go beyond the first bush but it is easy to walk straight past these birds as they mainly keep out of sight on the ground between the low bushes. It is inconceivable that this is the only such wadi in the area to host these characterful birds and surely a crew with a bit of time could try some of the similar habitat elsewhere along the N10 and reduce the pressure on these.
We also saw 2 Southern Grey Shrikes, Short-toed Larks, a Thekla Lark, Desert Wheatear, Brown-necked Raven and a distant Short-toed Eagle to the north before heading back west towards Tinghir. The river crossing at the turn for the Todra Gorge had singing Grey Wagtail and Cetti’s Warbler pus Swallows and Sand Martins overhead. West of here the first Red-rumped Wheatears started appearing from the 148km post to Errachidia.
Todra River Crossing, Tinghir
Reaching the Ikniounen Road at c.18:30 we had half an hour or so of daylight to enjoy a Long-legged Buzzard, a Lanner, Red-rumped and Desert Wheatears, Thekla Lark and at dusk a distant Pharaoh Eagle Owl calling. However no Sandgrouse showed and we retired to the Soleil Bleu to find two other groups of birders staying at this popular hotel on the edge of Boumalne. A four bedded room with three course evening meal and breakfast set us back a bargain 300 Dirham (£22.50) each, and there was beer and wine available, although the beer did run out!
Day 3 Saturday, 19th March
Saturday morning saw us all out early checking out the area around the hotel. Bob Buckler of Wingspan Bird Tours had a party staying and had seen a male Seebohm’s Wheatear the previous day. Sure enough this was still present and showed really well along with Desert Wheatears, Short-toed, Thekla and Desert Larks, Linnets, Red-rumped and White-crowned Black Wheatears.
Seebohm's Wheatear Oenanthe (oenanthe) seebohmi
A Pallid Swift flew up the valley and there were House Bunting, Blue Rock Thrush and Laughing Dove on the hotel itself.
Blue Rock Thrush Monticola solitarius
Hotel Soleil Bleu
During the best breakfast of the trip (pancakes, bread, jam, honey and olives) Martin noticed a flock of Sandgrouse hurtle past the hotel window but despite a mad dash outside they could not be seen again and went unidentified. Soon after we were out again at the pools on the Ikniounen Road and at c.08:30 a flock of 13 Crowned Sandgrouse flew in calling and landed behind the pools. Unfortunately they were soon spooked by a Long-legged Buzzard. Other birds here were Northern, Desert and Red-rumped Wheatears, Woodchat Shrike, Temminck’s, Short-toed, Thekla and Hoopoe Larks, White Wagtail, Spectacled Warbler, Tawny Pipit, Trumpeter Finches and fly through Common and Pallid Swift and Lanner Falcon. We also had 2 Thick-billed Larks fly through heading west.
Thekla Lark Galerida theklae
We continued along the Ikniounen Road then doubled back along the old Tagdilt Track stopping at the ‘Wheatear Wall’ and the small, low-lying oasis with tamarisks. The latter had a party of 11 Cream-coloured Coursers feeding on the slope to the north and in the vegetation itself there were 3 Quail, flushed from the long tussocky grass. Chiffchaffs were in the Tamarisks, White Wagtail in the water-filled stream, House Sparrows, Northern, Red-rumped and Desert Wheatears, Short-toed, Lesser Short-toed, Thekla and Hoopoe Larks, Southern Grey Shrike and Hoopoe in and around the oasis.
A Scorpion Martin found turning over a stone in the desert
Our final stop here was at the dump near Boumalne. Not the most pleasant surroundings, with piles of rubbish and feral dogs, including the odd dead one, around, but full of birds. The highlight here were 3 Thick-billed Larks, which showed very well alongside the Temminck’s, Short-toed and Lesser Short-toed Larks, Trumpeter Finches and the always entertaining Fat Sand Rats. A couple of Long-legged Buzzards and 2 Black Kites lingered and an immature, rufous morph Booted Eagle drifted over giving a momentary identification challenge.
Black Kite Milvus migrans
Fat Sand Rats Psammomys obesus
With only one remaining target desert bird left to find we now headed off west again along the N10 in search of Maghreb Wheatear. Our first Cattle Egrets were west of El Keela and further stops produced more Trumpeter Finches, Desert and Thekla Larks, Spectacled Warbler, frequent Desert Wheatears and Southern Grey Shrikes. At the Errachidia 248km mark a Barbary Falcon flew over and Thick-billed Lark showed in the rocky wadi. At the El Keela 48km post a Golden Eagle (probably 3rd calendar year) circled and dropped onto prey, possibly a large lizard, before carrying it off.
Golden Eagle Aquila chrysaetos with prey
2 White Storks were in nests on minarets 7km west of Skoura where the road crosses a wide river. With Maghreb Wheatear looking increasingly unlikely we stopped for some wetland birding at the east end of the Barrage Al Mansour turning off the N10 onto a track about 19km west of Skoura. Many Grey Herons, a few Little Egret, 1 Spoonbill, Black-winged Stilts, 25 Ruddy Shelduck, Coot, Mallard, Garganey, Little and Great Crested Grebes, Black-headed and Yellow-legged Gulls, White and Yellow Wagtails (iberiae and flavissima), Northern Wheatear, Swallows, House Martins, Red-rumped Swallows, many Cormorants, Kestrel, a female Marsh Harrier and an Osprey. We had stopped by the shore next to a radio mast by a east-facing cliff and here there were two Rock Martins showing well.
It was now decision time as we had been informed of heavy snowfalls in the High Atlas and the group that had been at Oukaimeden several days before had seen no Crimson-winged Finches. I also had in mind that my friend Chris Hughes had got snowed in for 24 hours at Oukaimeden in March one year and the forecast was for light rain in Marrakech. That could easily translate into more heavy snow at altitude. We had the option of heading for the coast instead but decided to take the pass across the mountains in the daylight and assess how much snow had retreated in the five days since the heavy falls.
So, leaving here at 15:20 we passed through Ouarzazate, where there were more Cattle Egrets on the western outskirts and 23 White Storks on the edge of a village at Oued El Malah further west. As we climbed the Tizi ‘n’ Tichka pass we picked up Raven, Woodchat Shrike, Black Wheatear and Moussier’s Redstart and on the descent Crag Martin, Long-legged Buzzard, Serin and Chaffinch. Further along the descent at Zerkden a Cirl Bunting was singing and African Blue Tit and Great Tit showed. There had clearly been some significant snow melt so we decided to press on to the ski resort and phoned ahead to make sure there was somewhere to stay.
After some hairy roads with assorted unlit cycles, donkeys, trucks, dogs, etc. all looming suddenly out of the dark we arrived in the moon-lit snowscape of the Oukaimeden ski resort at 20:40. Last time I arrived at the Chez Juju I had to knock on windows to get staff to open up the hotel. But that was in snow-free conditions in December. This time the restaurant was full of customers and there were only a couple of rooms left. The food here is not the greatest but the chocolate mousse is excellent and the potage and kofti did the job and, for the third night in a row, there was beer available.
Day 4 Sunday, 20th March
The final day dawned over a crystal clear, cold, snowy scene and we were out again before breakfast to find that Crimson-winged Finches were back in force. The first were around the first ski carpark along with a few Atlas Shore Larks. There were many more finches at the base of the final ski lift, the chair lift, taking the total to about 100. All were preferring to feed on crushed walnut shells which were scattered liberally about the walls. Meanwhile Alpine and Red-billed Choughs were flying in and a pair of Ravens landed in the first carpark. White Wagtail, Chaffinch, Black Redstart, Mistle Thrush, Kestrel, Rock Sparrow and a rather splendid flock of 20-30 pure Rock Doves completed the avian interest at the skiing area and we moved on to the resort behind the hotel.
Crimson-winged Finches Rhodopechys sanguinea and Atlas Shore Lark Eremophila alpestris atlas feeding
Crimson-winged Finches Rhodopechys sanguinea
Crimson-winged Finch food
Atlas Shore Lark Eremophila alpestris atlas
Red-billed Choughs Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax, mutual preening
Raven Corvus corax
Mistle Thrush Turdus viscivorus
There were directions in the bird log at the Chez Juju to a Levaillant’s Green Woodpecker nest hole. Take the road past the hotel and the right fork towards the radar station rather than the ski area, then double back on the second track into the housing. The nest hole is in the tree closest to the white portacabin of the Moroccan Ski and Mountain Organisation. The birds get on the rocks and building walls nearby. There were also 2 Rock Buntings nearby and many Black Redstarts and Rock Sparrows plus Blackbird, African Blue Tit and African Chaffinch. The rocks were also busy with some Atlas Day Geckos (a Moroccan endemic) and one or two Moroccan Rock Lizards (thanks to Mohamed of Moroccan Herpetofauna for help with the ID of this and the Bibron's Agama).
Levaillant's Green Woodpecker Picus vaillantii
Rock Bunting Emberiza cia
Black Redstart Phoenicurus ochruros
Atlas Day Gecko Quedenfeldtia trachyblepharus
Moroccan Rock Lizard Scelarcis perspicillata
Another day with lifers under the belt for the team before breakfast. We returned to the hotel for a leisurely meal of cake, toast and jam outside in the sun, during which 3 Crimson-winged Finches came and perched in the garden. All the time skiers were arriving until the place was thoroughly packed, donkeys appearing from all angles and a band playing in the carpark in front of us.
Ski Sunday - Moroccan style
The hotel doesn’t take plastic so it was fortunate that Don had brought a fair few Euros with him to help cover the rather heftier bill than we’d been used to (it worked out at about £48 each including the bar bill) and still leave enough for a bit of lunch! That successfully done we drove up to the observatory and communications tower where Alpine Accentor and Lammergeier can be seen. Neither showed for us but I don’t think I’ve come across a higher density of Black Redstarts anywhere and there were also Moussier’s Redstart, Blue Rock Thrush, Rock Sparrow, Kestrel and both Choughs.
Alpine Chough Pyrrhocorax graculus
By 11:30 we were heading off back down the mountain passing Red-rumped Swallows and Black Wheatears and the first of several Cleopatras. As we reached the first pines Firecrests could be heard singing everywhere and African Blue Tit, Great and Coal Tits, Robin and African Chaffinch were in the trees. We stopped at the first (highest) Tagine place for lunch where the request for two tagines between the four of us seemed to cause immense confusion. They arrived however, one lamb and one beef, with plenty of bread and ‘Berber Whisky’, consumed with Moussier’s Redstarts and the only Wren of the trip in attendance. The whole lot was 200 Dirham, about £3.75 each.
Moussier’s Redstart Phoenicurus moussieri
The rest of the descent was fairly uneventful with the expected birds plus a few Cattle Egrets near the bottom and a snatch of Short-toed Treecreeper song heard. At the junction with the Route d’Ourika we turned to head a little way up that valley locating Moroccan Wagtail in the river, the only Woodpigeons of the trip and a single Little Swift over with some Red-rumped Swallows before we headed for the plains near Marrakech.
The area south of Marrakech is a maze of agricultural land and gardens. The common birds were Collared Dove, Feral Pigeon, House Sparrow, Blackbird, African Chaffinch, Crested Lark, Swallow, Common Bulbul, Sardinian Warbler and Southern Grey Shrike. We also had 2 Nightingales, a Cetti’s Warbler, 2 Fan-tailed Warblers and a Black-eared Wheatear. The target though was Moroccan Magpie and we located a pair at a nest by one of the roads criss-crossing the area. We couldn’t watch these for as long as we’d have liked as a party of blokes in a pickup stopped saying something about no photography. There were no sensitive sites around so we can only assume they were looking for trouble or thought we might have got them on film. There were political demonstrations in Marrakech (and across Morocco) that day and it might be they were just a bit twitched.
Southern Grey Shrike Lanius excubitor/meridionalis elegans
Anyway we moved on in the direction of the airport picking up the inevitable Spotless Starlings on the way. With airport formalities out of the way we had time to enjoy the House Buntings inside the terminal building and the Pallid Swifts coming to the windows outside.
Another excellent trip to this wonderful country was at an end. We drove 1465km in Morocco and saw 126 species in four days.
Click here for a full annotated species list.