Morocco 2011

Simon Papps
March 24th-April 2nd

This was a fantastic tour with numerous highlights, but the unanimous vote for ‘bird of the trip’ went to the flock of 33 Northern Bald Ibises which showed down to a distance of 50 feet in perfect light close to Agadir. We enjoyed equally superb and memorable views of many other Moroccan specialities during the tour, including Levaillant’s Woodpecker, Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, Black-crowned Tchagra, Thick-billed Lark, Moussier’s Redstart, Tristram’s and African Desert Warblers, Fulvous Chatterer, Desert Sparrow and African Crimson-winged Finch, not to mention a wide selection of wheatear, lark and sandgrouse species. The good weather, abundance of spring migrants in breeding plumage, excellent Moroccan hospitality and cuisine and fine company made it a tour that will be long remembered by all.

March 24th: Gatwick, Marrakech. Weather: Sunny, calm, 25C.

The Gatwick flight arrived on time in Marrakech at 11.40am and after a quick transfer to the hotel, followed by lunch, we set off to explore the nearby Jardins Menara while awaiting the arrival of the Manchester flight. The ornamental lake and extensive olive groves of this city park provided a pleasant introduction to Moroccan birds. Atlas Chaffinches, Maghreb Magpies, European Serins, Spotless Starlings and Common Bulbuls were all present in abundance, while overhead wheeled flocks of European Bee-eaters, hirundines which included Red-rumped Swallows and Little and Pallid Swifts.

A quiet corner away from the human throng produced Common Nightingale and Western Bonelli’s and Western Olivaceous Warblers, while a dark-morph Booted Eagle enlivened the stroll back to the hotel, where House Buntings serenaded us from the poolside balconies. The Manchester flight arrived on time in the early evening.

March 25th, the Ourika Valley, Oukaimeden and Asni. Weather: Sunny am, cloudy pm, calm, 10-20C (depending on altitude).

The day began with a photocall for the hotel’s resident House Buntings, which posed well on the buildings, while Little Swifts flew overhead as we loaded up the bus. Common Bulbuls, Maghreb Magpies and a Laughing Dove were seen along the roadsides in Marrakech. An impromptu stop for a Western Black-eared Wheatear, on a patch of waste ground not far from the hotel, turned into a significant bit of birding thanks to a run of good species that included Thekla Lark, Little Owl, Great Spotted Cuckoo and a pair each of Barbary Partridges and Southern Grey and Woodchat Shrikes. As we progressed into the Ourika Valley we made a number of short stops, picking up species such as African Blue Tit, Common Cuckoo, Great Spotted Woodpecker and a pale-morph Booted Eagle along the way. Further up a Moroccan Wagtail performed a fly-past and one particularly productive spot yielded Levaillant’s Woodpecker, Red-billed Chough and Cirl and Rock Buntings, while a stop for a pair of roadside Black Wheatears also produced some very showy Firecrests and our first (of many) Moussier’s Redstarts. Long-legged Buzzard, Common Raven, White-throated Dipper, Blue Rock Thrush and Black Redstart were added to the list before we reached our lunch stop at the spectacularly situated village of Oukaimeden, which was surrounded by mountain-top snow. Our luck was clearly in today as after lunch we found a recently returned Seebohm’s Wheatear, while at the ski-lift car park a group of 12 African Crimson-winged Finches performed wonderfully down to just a few feet just after our arrival. Other good birds around the village included flocks of more than 50 Rock Petronias, 30 Atlas Horned Larks and hundreds of Yellow-billed Choughs. The journey to the hotel added Red Crossbill, a flock of 10 Hawfinches, Wood Lark, Grasshopper Warbler and a very co-operative Tristram’s Warbler to the list, rounding off a magnificent first full day.

March 26th: Asni, Touflihte, Tizi n’ Tichka, Aguelmlusse, Mansour Dadihdi and Taourirt. Weather: Sunny 25C.

The dawn chorus in the grounds of our beautiful hotel was a spectacular affair with Common Bulbul, Common Nightingale, Common Blackbird, Sardinian Warbler and Western Olivaceous Warbler all participating loudly. A stroll round the grounds produced a fall of Blackcaps, a pair or two of Western Black-eared Wheatears and Woodchat Shrikes, Levaillant’s Woodpecker, a pair each of Moussier’s Redstarts and Thekla Larks and numerous European Serins, Sardinian Warblers and Red-rumped Swallows. A stop in the town of Asni produced good views of White Storks on the nest, singing Common Nightingale, a Cattle Egret colony and a Spanish Sparrow. At least four Booted Eagles were noted on the road up to Tizi n’ Tichka, with a spectacular adult Golden Eagle being mobbed by a Eurasian Kestrel the highlight at our lunch stop just after the pass. This site also produced some good ‘vis mig’ with small parties of Barn Swallows passing by regularly and a single flock of 50 European Bee-eaters. The Black Wheatears of the foothills were soon replaced by White-tailed Wheatears as we entered the desert. Our first Desert Wheatears and Desert Larks came in quick succession, as did our first Trumpeter Finches and our first Crested Larks (the North African race of which is split as Maghreb Lark by some authorities). Just beyond Ouarzazate, at Taourirt, the man-made lake created by a dam produced a long list of new species. Most significant were Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, a flock of which hunted over the shallows, and Marbled Teal, of which 15 or so were on the lake. There were hundreds of White Storks and Great Cormorants. Other new additions included Ruddy Shelduck, Eurasian Teal, Great Crested Grebe, Eurasian Spoonbill, Squacco Heron, Black-crowned Night Heron, Osprey, Marsh Harrier, Pied Avocet, Black-winged Stilt, Kentish Plover, Common Snipe, Gull-billed Tern and Sedge Warbler and Reed Warbler, while Blue-headed, Spanish and Moroccan Wagtails caught insects along the margins as the sun set.

March 27th: Tagdilt track across Plateau D’Anved, Dades Gorge and Boumalne du Dades. Weather: Sunny, calm, 25C.

There was a strong passage of European Bee-eaters just after dawn and White-tailed and Desert Wheatears were seen from the hotel. A male Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush in front of the hotel was a pre-breakfast surprise and a Red-rumped Wheatear was seen nearby. The main event of the day was the exploration of the area around the area of the legendary Tagdilt track, and it did not disappoint. Temminck’s Larks, Trumpeter Finches and more Desert and Red-rumped Wheatears were seen along the early stretches. Flocks of Greater and Lesser Short-toed Larks gave good views and several Long-legged Buzzards were seen. First one, then another, then another Cream-coloured Courser were noted, and soon we realised that we were surrounded by dozens or these superb birds, which were scattered all across the desert in every direction. Eventually we came to a small farm, where a pair of Lanner Falcons put on a fine display and a male Thick-billed Lark gave excellent and prolonged views. A break from the Plateau D’Anved during the midday heat saw us head for the Dades Gorge, where a pair of Bonelli’s Eagles flew overhead and Eurasian Crag-Martin, Black Wheatear, Short-toed Eagle and Tree Pipit were also seen. Then, a walk through cultivated land by the river in Boumalne du Dades saw spectacular numbers of birds including dozens of Blue-headed Wagtails, Common Bulbuls and European Serins. Other species noted included Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Moroccan and Grey Wagtails, Western Bonelli’s and Cetti’s Warblers, Common Nightingale, Greater Whitethroat and Little Ringed Plover.

At 3.30 a return to the Tagdilt track area added further excellent views of Cream-coloured Courser, Lanner Falcon and Long-legged Buzzard, plus two rather confiding Black-bellied Sandgrouse and a Bar-tailed Lark – the latter meaning that the larks pipped the wheatears for the day, by seven species to six!

March 28th: Boumalne du Dades, Todra Gorge, road from Touroug to Erfoud and Auberge Darkaoua. Weather: Sunny, calm, 27C.

Four species of wheatear were on show in front of the hotel in the morning – Desert, White-tailed, Northern and Red-rumped. The road from Boumalne passed across the Plateau D’Anved and we saw many of the same species as yesterday, including some fine Long-legged Buzzards. We made stops to watch a trio of Black Kites heading purposefully north across the desert, and a pair of Little Owls perched upon a stack of rocks. The Todra Gorge offered spectacular scenery, plus Bonelli’s Eagle, dark-morph Booted Eagle and many Blue Rock Thrushes, Eurasian Crag-Martins and Black Wheatears. As we headed east from Todra the landscape became progressively more barren and sandy. Southern Grey Shrikes and White-tailed Wheatears were very common. Stops in dry river beds produced Desert, Bar-tailed and Crested (Maghreb) Larks, good numbers of Trumpeter Finches, several each of Spectacled and Subalpine Warblers, a Common Redstart and a Western Bonelli’s Warbler. Close to Erfoud we found a colony of Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters which were prospecting for nest-holes. We watched them at very close range as they perched on wires, often in pairs, and one dispatched a dragonfly. The huge sand dunes of Erg Chebbi came into view shortly before dark as we arrived at Auberge Darkaoua, where the green oasis of gardens and cultivations held migrant Tree pipit, Common Redstart and Subalpine Warbler.

March 29th: Jeep safari around Merzouga and Erg Chebbi, including lunch at Auberge Yasmina. Weather: Sunny and calm, 28C.

A full-day jeep safari saw us leave the auberge at 7am and head off into the surrounding desert. Very soon we were watching two African Desert Warblers performing very well in the vegetation along the side of a dry river bed, plus a Cream-coloured Courser and Spectacled and Subalpine Warblers at the same location. White-tailed and Desert Wheatears and Desert, Bar-tailed and Hoopoe Larks all proved to be common, as did Trumpeter Finch, and we came across several flocks of these. A small oasis attracted Booted Eagle, Red-rumped Swallow, a flock of Blue-headed Wagtails and a Little Ringed Plover to the last patches of water. Back in the desert several Brown-necked Ravens were seen, including one which allowed all its features to be studied, even including the brown neck! A single tree in the middle of otherwise barren desert had been chosen as home by a pair of Desert Sparrows which showed very well indeed and shared their refuge with at least one Subalpine and three Western Bonelli’s Warblers. At the nearby Auberge Yasmina there had been a fall of these last two species, with perhaps 30 or more of each sheltering in the relatively small belt of bushes by the buildings. We also found another pair of Desert Sparrows and other migrants included Willow Warbler and Common Redstart. Further exploration of the desert in the afternoon produced many more Brown-necked Ravens, wheatears, larks and Trumpeter Finches, another Booted Eagle and another African Desert Warbler. Despite a prolonged and concentrated effort we missed the hoped-for Houbara Bustard. It seems that due to severe over-hunting by visiting Saudi falconers you need a huge slice of luck to see this species at the moment. Our jeep driver had not seen one for more than a month, despite being out in the desert every day. However, even though there was a lack of bustards this was still a very good day’s birding with many excellent species seen.

March 30th: Auberge Darkaoua, Rizzani, Erfoud, Alnif and Ouarzazate. Weather: Sunny and calm 25C.

The gardens of Auberge Darkaoua produced Spectacled, Subalpine and Western Olivaceous Warblers, as well as flock of more than 50 European Bee-eaters which hunted around the property’s bee-hives, giving excellent views in the process. After breakfast we hit the road and two Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters were seen on roadside wires near Rizzani, while a male Marsh Harrier flew purposefully northwards and larks included Desert, Bar-tailed and Hoopoe Larks. We tried some sites for Pharoah Eagle Owl without success, and while there we were offered the opportunity to try another location for this species, but unfortunately this was with a disreputable local ‘guide’ who had apparently chased the birds from their usual cliffs. Not wanting to encourage such behaviour we declined his offer. Not long after we enjoyed excellent views of flocks of at least eight Crowned and 70 Spotted Sandgrouse, as well as a pair of Peregrine Falcons of the African race minor at a nest site. Stops in desert stands of acacia produced Subalpine, Willow and Western Bonelli’s Warblers and Southern Grey and Woodchat Shrikes plus, not least, a loose party of about 25 Fulvous Chatterers which showed very well. The remainder of the long drive to Ouarzazate was punctuated by various stops, including for a superb close view of a perched Short-toed Eagle, while the mountain pass that led into town produced Black Wheatears and the areas of water just outside town a pair of Ruddy Shelducks.

March 31st: Oued Ififi, road from Tazenakht to Taliouine, Oued Sous Estuary and Cap Rhir and Tamri. Weather: Sunny, calm, 30C.

A long travel day began with nine Black-crowned Night Herons in the Cattle Egret colony by the hotel. A stop at a bridge over the Oued Ififi west of Ouarzazate produced a bounty of migrants including plentiful Subalpine, Willow and Western Bonelli’s Warblers and Common Redstarts. A Melodious Warbler added variety, two Western Olivaceous Warblers sang away and a pair of Black-bellied Sandgrouse passed overhead. Further along the road another group of 10 Black-bellied Sandgrouse flew past the bus, while Corn Buntings and Woodchat Shrikes became abundant and a Booted Eagle and several Calandra Larks were seen. A roadside stop produced a singing Common Quail, our first Atlas Chaffinches for several days and a small colony of European Bee-eaters. We reached the mouth of the Oued Sous in Agadir around mid-afternoon, but no sooner had we set up scopes than we we were told to leave by some rather overzealous officials as the king was in residence at the adjacent royal palace. There was just enough time to note 10 Gull-billed Terns, a Slender-billed Gull and our first Yellow-legged Gulls of the trip before plan B was put into action and we headed north up the coast to Tamri. This proved to be a good move as just beyond Cap Rhir a flock of 33 Northern Bald Ibises showed at point-blank range in perfect light. Wow! They were disturbed by a fisherman walking by and then alighted in a field close to us. The birds then worked their way down the field, feeding all the time as they went, until some were no more than 50 feet from us. Also in the area were hundreds of Pallid Swifts, two Great Cormorants of the white-breasted race maroccanus, many Blue-headed Wagtails and a fledgling Southern Grey Shrike. A scan from the cliff-top resulted in brilliant views of a Wryneck basking in the sun, as well as two Sandwich Terns, two Black-tailed Godwits, a Squacco Heron, more than 30 Audouin’s Gulls, a pair of Western Black-eared Wheatears, several Zitting Cisticolas and Sardinian Warblers, a Northern Gannet and four Common Ringed Plovers, not to mention four more Northern Bald Ibises passing close by as the sun started to set.

April 1st: Oued Massa bridge, Oued Massa Estuary, Sidi R’Bat. Weather: Sunny, calm, 33C.

Our day at Souss-Massa National Park began on the grassland area above Massa village, where we found Tawny Pipit, Western Black-eared Wheatear, Black Kite and Thekla Lark. An inland stretch of the Oued Massa produced Little Grebes, Common Moorhens, Mallards, Eurasian Coots, Squacco and Grey Herons and a fine male Little Bittern stalking its prey, while the adjacent area of fields and scrub produced Stonechat, Laughing Dove and a smart-looking male Moussier’s Redstart. A Black-crowned Tchagra put on a fantastic display as it posed for prolonged views on a stone wall and then a nearby cactus. Moving further down the river a mixed flock of hirundines and swifts contained Pallid Swifts which were drinking from the river, Barn Swallows and House, Sand and Plain Martins, with the last species giving excellent close views. European Bee-eaters passed overhead in numbers while raptors included Eurasian Hobby and Marsh Harrier. A Large Grey Mongoose stalked the muddy margins of the river. We walked the final stretch of the estuary down to the dunes where the river meets the sea, finding Eurasian Spoonbill, Eurasian Oystercatcher, Common and Curlew Sandpipers, Redshank, Greenshank, Dunlin and Common Ringed Plover. A male Montagu’s Harrier patrolled overhead and passerines included Eurasian Linnet, Common and Moussier’s Redstarts, Common Nightingale, more Black-crowned Tchagras and at least two Western Orphean Warblers. European Turtle-Doves were common and showed well and close to the car park a party of six Northern Bald Ibises flew past heading upriver. After lunch we travelled a few kilometres to the village of Sidi R’Bat. En route we saw an Osprey, three Cream-coloured Coursers, a female Montagu’s Harrier, a pair of Greater Short-toed Larks and a Black-winged Stilt. Many Sandwich Terns were passing on the sea, along with a single Arctic Skua and several Northern Gannets. A flock of 32 Northern Bald Ibises was circling in the distance we gained closer views of some of what were presumably the same birds as we made our way back to Agadir.

April 2nd: Oued Sous Estuary, Agadir to Marrakech with stops including Oued Meznes spring. Weather: Sunny, calm, 30C.

We made a return visit to the Sous Estuary this morning, and although the king was still in residence we managed to avoid any officious police officers and got a good look over the mudflats. Birds included Kentish and Common Ringed Plovers, Black-winged Stilts, Curlew and Green Sandpipers, Gull-billed and Sandwich Terns and Greenshanks. In the surrounding scrub Maghreb Magpies performed well and a flock of more than 40 Lesser Short-toed Larks zipped past. The drive back to Marrakech was punctuated by a number of short stops during which we saw birds such as Long-legged Buzzard, Black Kite, Booted Eagle and Moussier’s Redstart. Our main stop, at a spring on the Oued Meznes produced great views of about 20 Plain Martins, several Red-rumped Swallows, Iberian and Moroccan Wagtails, Green Sandpiper and a pair of European Bee-eaters prospecting for a nest hole. Then, after a final hearty lunch of delicious tagine we headed to the airport at the end of a fantastic tour.

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