Monday, June 10, 2013

Northern Morocco

The aim of this trip was connect with three of the harder North African specialities as well as some of the more regular endemic species and forms of the Atlas, and to do it in a long weekend. The three were African Marsh Owl, Double-spurred Francolin and Andalusian Hemipode, although as the latter is rather sensitive I won't make any further mention of it in the report.

The logistics were based around maximising time over the four days. A civilised morning outward flight to Fes allowed for some birding on the first afternoon but return flights from there were rather early on the Sunday. So with some tempting lagoons along the coast to the south promising potential rare tern action I decided to return from Marrakech on a later flight that day. One way car hire was arranged with Europcar through and the air conditioned Dacia Logan (what else!) came in at £133.

Northern Morocco is not as traditional as the south and feels more European and is more urbanised. Weather was very comfortable with temperatures typically in the low 20s and some cloud cover with the odd shower. It was chilly at times in the Ifrane mountains. It was hotter in the Marrakech area. Days are rather shorter than the UK at this time of year; sunrise is 06:15 and sunset 20:40. There is no time difference with the UK.


Thursday, 6th June 2013
Stansted - Fes 11:25 - 14:45
Birding the road south to Ifrane stopping at Dayet Aoua
Night at Ifrane

Friday, 7th June 2013
Birding the cedar and holme oak forests then the adjacent high and lower deserts.
Drive to accommodation in the Rabat area (c.3 hours)
Evening around Lac Sidi Bourghaba for Marsh Owl

Saturday, 8th June 2013
Early start at Sidi Yaha for Double-spurred Francolin
Return to accommodation for breakfast
Drive south to accommodation at Sidi Bouzid (3 hours)
Evening exploring the coast

Sunday, 9th June 2013
Leisurely birding south towards Safi
Drive inland to Marrakech birding en route.
Marrakech - Stansted 19:30 - 23:05


The outward journey was uneventful and it wasn't too long before airport and car hire formalities were over and the team were logging the Pallid Swifts, House Martins, Serins, Collared Doves and Spotless Starlings around the airport. Swallow, Cattle Egret, Common Kestrel, African Chaffinch and House Sparrow were quickly added as we headed south on the N8 until just north of Imouzzer Kandar where we had our first bit of luck. A pair of Bonelli's Eagles were being mobbed by an Eleanora's Falcon and provided prolonged entertainment as they cruised around the northern limits of the mountains and woodland ahead.

Another stop for a Mistle Thrush that was doing a good woodpecker impersonation wouldn't be the last. The thrushes were rather common and could look like just about anything of about the same size.

Dayet Aoua
It was only a couple of hours after the plane landed that we arrived at this very richly populated lake between Imouzzer and Ifrane. Immediately greeted by huge numbers of Crested Coot and Black-necked Grebes.

Crested (Red-knobbed) Coot Fulica cristata

Also on the lake Little and Great Crested Grebes, Common Coot, Mallard, Pochard, Ferruginous Ducks, Gadwall and Shoveler. Cattle Egrets were very common and there were a few Little Egrets, plenty of Black-winged Stilts and a few Moorhens. Overhead were many Alpine Swifts, a few Common Swifts, House Martins, Woodpigeons, a Sparrowhawk, 2 Booted Eagles and a Bonelli's Eagle.

Spent most of the time along a western stretch of the south shore near a covered spring by the roadside. This was because of the high concentration of birds in the waterside poplars and holme oak woodland edge. The Short-toed Treecreepers (visiting a nest), Ultramarine Tits, Turtle Doves and Spotted Flycatchers were soon abandoned in favour of the first major target of the trip; 2-3 Atlas Flycatchers, including singing males performed brilliantly, mainly fairly high in the lakeside trees.

Atlas Flycatcher Ficedula speculigera

The number of birds in this small area was nothing short of amazing. In addition to the above there were Great Tits, Coal Tits, Serins, Great Spotted Woodpecker, African Chaffinch, Mistle Thrush and Firecrests; at least one vocal Levaillant's Woodpecker unfortunately remained out of sight. Then we noticed why some of the birds were congregating; they had located a roosted Scop's Owl, unfortunately rather difficult to photograph due to the branches blowing around in front.

Scop's Owl Otus scops

Eventually we dragged ourselves away from this brilliant spectacle to complete the full circuit of the lake. There were many Turtle Doves and Cattle Egrets, more Spotted and Atlas Flycatchers plus 2 Rollers, 3 Golden Orioles, Corn Bunting, Grey Wagtail and Ultramarine Tit at the nest.

European Roller Coracias garrulus

It was only a short drive here to our accommodation in Ifrane but with time to spare we couldn't resist exploring a bit of the limestone habitat just north of the town on the way. We stumbled straight into a pair of Black-eared Wheatears busy bringing food to a nest, several singing Lesser Short-toed Larks, Crested Lark, Rock Sparrow and a male Seebohm's Wheatear - another priority species for the trip. Plants and insects were also interesting here.

Black-eared Wheatear Oenanthe hispanica

Meadow Brown Maniola jurtina hispulla

Bush-cricket sp.

Unidentified larva - resembles Ground Lackey moth

Unidentified flower

Closer to the town were Ravens, Lesser Kestrels, Jackdaws and hoards of Cattle Egrets flying south to roost. In the town itself were White Storks and we could hear more Atlas Flycatchers, Short-toed Treecreepers and Firecrests. And finally we arrived at the Best Western hotel complex on the very edge of the west side of town next to some good looking desert-type habitat. The apartment for 4 was very reasonably priced and the restaurant served excellent beer with copious and various nibbles and olives plus some pretty good food.

Spotless Starling, Blackbird, House Sparrow and Skylark were all around the buildings with many Lesser Kestrels overhead and Black Kites moving off to the south.


Dawn around the hotel buildings was dominated by Spotless Starlings but a Common Bulbul was singing nearby, Lesser Kestrels were quite numerous and there were flocks of Cattle Egrets passing over and about 10 Black Kites leaving a roost over a wooded hill to the south. As we left we encountered a pair of Moussier's Redstarts on a nearby building.

About 4-6km southeast of Ifrane on the R707 a small river runs near the road and birds were particularly abundant starting with 2 Levaillant's Woodpeckers showing very nicely. This clip is of a male feeding among rocks with Serin, Chaffinch and Short-toed Treecreeper audible in the background.

The trees along the river held the bulk of the birds with many Serins and Mistle Thrushes, a singing Common Redstart, a pair of Moussier's Redstarts, a pair of Seebohm's Wheatears, Rock Sparrows, Chaffinches, Hoopoe, Golden Oriole, Spotted Flycatcher and a Cuckoo with Grey Wagtail along the river for good measure.

A little further along the R707 the landscape opened to more sparsely vegetated stony habitat with Seebohm's Wheatears, Thekla Lark, a Tawny Pipit, Lesser Short-toed Larks, Corn Buntings, Rock Sparrows, Sardinian Warbler, Moroccan Magpie, Hoopoe and more stunning Moussier's Redstarts.

Moussier's Redstart Phoenicurus moussieri

From here the R707 heads east through a block of forest before emerging again into steppe/desert. More Seebohm's Wheatears, Rock Sparrows and Galerida larks to start with were replaced a little further east by a huge cacophony of noise from many thousands of insects. This was loud enough to be heard from inside the speeding car with the windows up and air conditioning on! There were several species involved, at least including the grasshopper and Cicadetta pictured below.

Cicadetta sp.

Grasshopper sp.

Before meeting the R503 the road dropped through a shallow valley stuffed with Black Kites. Several hundred birds were present apparently feeding where sheep and goats were disturbing the still numerous orthoptera. Also attracted to the feeding frenzy were 3 Eleanora's Falcons and a Hobby, which gave great views zipping past the road low along the valley floor.

Eleanora's Falcon Falco eleonorae

The base of the valley had a very small semi-cultivated area and a flock of White Storks were feeding there and just beyond that was the junction taking south on the the R503. A rocky area produced Black Wheatear and a stunning Moroccan Eyed Lizard, while a little further on Red-rumped Wheatear and Desert Lark showed.

Moroccan Eyed Lizard Timon tangitanus

Finally before turning back for Ifrane at the Guigou turn we came across a Mole Cricket crossing the road and a Short-toed Lark was singing nearby.

Mole Cricket Gryllotalpa gryllotalpa

The return back through the forest was unremarkable with more Ravens, Jays and, new for the trip, a Wren. But on a short circuit on the P7229 around by a small lake south of Ifrane we took a walk on a track to the SE where Woodlark, African Chaffinch, Ultramarine Tit, Serin, Western Bonelli's Warbler and Short-toed Treecreepers entertained. The stars were the insects: several Cardinals, Southern Brown Argus, Hummingbird Hawk-moth, Bath White, Black-veined White, Greenish Black-tip, Clouded Yellow, Small Copper and a Red-striped Oil Beetle. The Andalusian Wall Lizard wasn't bad either.

Cardinal Argynnis pandora

Black-veined White Aporia crataegi

Bath White Pontia daplidice

Southern Brown Argus Aricia cramera

Small Copper Lycaena phlaeas

Clouded Yellow Colias croceus

Red-striped Oil Beetle Berberomeloe majalis

Bee sp.

Andalusian Wall Lizard Podarcis vaucheri

The small lake itself held a Grey Heron, Mallard and a pair of Ruddy Shelduck. We then picked up a singing Robin on our way west from Ifrane. The drive to the coast on the fast roads had few birds. Most towns had White Storks and a couple of European Bee-eaters were picked up on wires.

Heading for our accommodation on the P4025 just NE of Ain el Aouda we came across an intruiging flock of Helmeted Guineafowl. To all intents and purposes wild but presumably of feral origin as the wild population is thought to be extinct and the dry farmland here might not be the ideal habitat for wild birds. Unfortunately we did not identify the subspecies.

A fairly tortuous drive through the northern outskirts of Rabat found us at Sidi Bourghaba early evening. The lake was full of wildfowl, many with young: Red-crested Pochard, Pochard, White-headed Duck, Mallard, Ferruginous Duck, Common and Crested Coot, Moorhen and Purple Gallinule. A large Cattle Egret colony was at the north end and had a couple of Cormorants and a few Little Egrets with them. Around the lake were Common Bulbul, Cetti's Warbler, Moroccan Magpie with Lesser Kestrels, Marsh Harriers, a Hobby, a couple of Eleanora's Falcons and many Black Kites over.

White-headed Duck Oxyura leucocephala

A quick look at the estuary before dusk revealed Yellow-legged and Lesser Black-backed Gulls, Little and Common Terns, Oystercatchers and Little Egrets before we headed back to the north end of the lake for the main event. The first Marsh Owl appeared high above the opposite hills mobbing a Marsh Harrier and we had further sightings of up to 3 birds in the failing light. They mainly kept to the hillside but later on 2 were on the road side in the near dark. The birds often called: a harsh amphibian or duck-like croak.

After that it was a reasonable meal and a few beers in the little seaside place of Mehdya nearby and a late return to the ranch for a few hours sleep.


An early start and a short drive to south of Sidi Yaha with several Little Owls on the way. Woodchat Shrikes everywhere, Nightingales, Cetti's Warbler and Black-crowned Tchagra singing unseen and Turtle Dove, Blackbird, Sardinian Warbler and a Great Spotted Woodpecker around.

The main target was the partridge-like Double-spurred Francolin but viewing is very difficult from the road and luck was not on our side. Birds were calling from several places but unless they perched high enough or flew or ran across a line of sight you were never going to see them and so we had to settle for hearing them only. Barbary Partridges were also calling unseen and there were mammals around with a Rabbit showing, 2 Red Deer seen by Lloyd only and a dead Wild Boar on the road.

We took a walk off to the east of the road at the southern end of the enclosed hunting woodland but couldn't hear any partridges calling. Great Spotted Woodpecker, Woodchat Shrikes, Sardinian Warblers, Painted Lady and Southern Brown Argus butterflies and an immature male Southern Darter dragonfly were the only reward.

Southern Brown Argus Aricia cramera

Painted Lady Vanessa cardui

Southern Darter Sympetrum meridionale

A few pools just to the north of the woodland had plenty of Black-winged Stilts, Common Coot, Cattle Egrets, Little Egret, Little Grebe and a Spoonbill but the star for me was an adult Antlion on the roadside.

Antlion Myrmeleontidae

The habitat along the P4042 road east of these pools looked excellent for Double-spurred Francolin and seemed to be more accessible than around the royal hunting park. We had no time to stop here but did encounter a very confiding Stone Curlew along the way followed by Lesser Short-toed Lark, Stonechat and Little Ringed Plover on the open ground and lake beyond.

Stone Curlew Burhinus oedicnemus

Our arrival back at the ranch was met with the most brilliant Moroccan breakfast taken on the patio overlooking the valley. Birds were as plentiful as the pancakes and tea here with a pair of Great Grey Shrikes breeding, Fan-tailed Warblers, Moroccan Magpies, House Sparrows, Lesser Kestrel, Serin, Black Kite, Pallid Swift, Common Bulbul, Goldfinch and Swallow all around. A Brassy Waved Umber moth had settled near a light overnight.

Brassy Waved Umber Menophra japygiari

The relaxing late breakfast couldn't last and before long we were on the road again steaming south via sneaky speed traps around Cassablanca (MAD300 on the spot fine - c.£23) towards our next destination. Birds were fairly thin on the ground on the journey. Great Grey Shrikes were scattered along the way, many Pallid Swifts and Lesser Kestrels, a few Black Kites and a single Glossy Ibis over just north of Cassablanca.

The Sidi Bouzid hotel was very comfortable and had a balcony where beers were enjoyed while watching first summer Gannets passing north. Common Bulbuls and Lesser Kestrels were next to the hotel and Pallid Swifts, House Sparrows and Spotless Starlings were common.

We then took a late afternoon drive south along the coast where the rocky shoreline just south of town held Whimbrel, Turnstone, Dunlin, Sanderling, Grey Plover, Bar-tailed Godwit, Redshank, Oystercatcher and Little Egret. A Black-eared Wheatear was the only passerine of note. Reaching the headland south of Oulad Ghadbane we went into seawatching mode and logged Shag, Cormorant, Cory's Shearwaters and more Gannets. Finally we saw a few Bee-eaters before heading back to the hotel for an excellent meal and a good night's sleep.


Today was to be a slow journey south towards Marrakech starting along the same coastline as we had worked the previous evening. Turtle Doves were as common as before with the addition of more Bee-eaters and other common birds like Fan-tailed Warbler, Blackbird, House Bunting and Common Bulbul (some with young).

The first of the lagoons south of Sidi Moussa had many Collared Pratincoles breeding along with Little Terns, Kentish and Ringed Plovers, Dunlin, Sanderling, Curlew, many Black-winged Stilts and a few Marsh Harriers. Gulls to the southern end included Yellow-legged, Lesser Black-backed, a couple of Black-headed and about 12 Audouin's Gulls.

At the Oualidia Lagoons the old salt workings at the north end had Bar-tailed Godwit, a single Black-tailed Godwit, Grey Plover, Dunlin, Redshank and Raven. Pushing on further south we passed masses of Pallid Swifts, Bee-eaters, Swallows, a few Lesser Kestrels and, just north of Safi, 2-3 Eleanora's Falcons.

European Bee-eater Merops apiaster

A stop in the low hills on the R204 just east of Sidi Ettiji revealed many Rock Sparrows, Woodchat Shrike, Common Bulbul, Sardinian Warbler, Lesser Kestrel, Swallows, a single Red-rumped Swallow and of course more Turtle Doves. The Great Grey Shrikes from here on looked like the pale elegans desert form rather than the algeriensis types near the coast and further north.

Now we were on the final stretch inland towards Marrakech but we made one final stop at a salt lake marked on the maps but not featured in any bird guides or itinereries. At a town called Echemmaia the lake is named Zima on some maps and is largely a mirage, being dry for the most part. But at the eastern end near the town there are lagoons being worked and despite severe heat haze the birding was pretty good.

Black-winged Stilts seemed to be breeding and there were at least 7 Gull-billed Terns and a couple of Ruddy Shelduck on the lagoons. There were also plenty of Pallid Swifts and Swallows hawking over among them a cracking Little Swift giving great views. Iberian Wagtails, singing Lesser Short-toed Lark, Crested Larks and Cattle Egrets completed the picture.

Finally on the outskirts of Marrakech we picked up another 2 Little Swifts and a Red-rumped Swallow plus Laughing Dove before reaching Menara airport where 2 juvenile Great Grey Shrikes, 2 Red-rumped Swallows, House Sparrows, Spotless Starlings and Pallid Swifts completed the birding for this trip.

Great Grey Shrike Lanius (excubitor/meridionalis) elegans

We covered 1,330km in Morocco and saw 136 species of bird.

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