Trip Report

Birding in the Snow High Atlas, Morocco Cream Colored Courser Sahara Desert, Morocco Crowned Sandgrouse Sahara Desert Morocco Desert Sparrow Sahara Desert, Morocco Desert Wheatear (m) Sahara Desert Morocco Hamid High Atlas, Morocco
  • Birding in the Snow High Atlas, Morocco
  • Cream Colored Courser Sahara Desert, Morocco
  • Crowned Sandgrouse Sahara Desert Moroccoc
  • Desert Sparrow Sahara Desert, Morocco
  • Desert Wheatear (m) Sahara Desert Morocco
  • Hamid High Atlas, Morocco

 



Spring in Morocco:
A Diary April 1-14, 2018

 

 

April 1: James and I arrived in Marrakech on the Iberia flight from Madrid, but Keith had already been here a couple of days spent exploring the cultural aspects of the city. The hotel was crowded with tourists, but it was a beautiful day so everyone was out by the pool. A nice surprise was a Nightingale hopping on the lawn; obviously a migrant on his way north. I soon discovered that, in addition to myself, Keith’s bag had also not arrived in Marrakech; hopefully tomorrow! A delicious buffet dinner included some local olives and oranges – yum!

 

April 2: We started the day with a quick walk around the property. It was a little quiet due to the overcast gray conditions. It took some time to get color on the birds, such as the pale yellow-green of the European Greenfinch. We did see a skulking Western Olivaceous Warbler and both Sardinian Warblers and Common Whitethroat. Hamid picked us up after breakfast and off we went towards Oukaimeden – the Atlas ski resort at over 7500’. But our first stop was the airport and back to baggage claim where we waited 40 mins for the “Lost and Found” office to open, it was worth the wait as both of our bags were waiting for us.

Cloudy weather and some light rain hung over us as we drove out of Marrakech, but as we climbed higher towards Oukaimeden, we were lucky enough to drive into bright sunny conditions. The wind was cold, necessitating a change into coats, wooly hats and gloves, but when the wind stopped blowing we heated up rapidly. Our target birds fell easily as we had excellent views of Crimson-winged Finch in the parking lot.  Nearby were “Atlas” Horned Lark, Rock Sparrow and both Alpine (Yellow-billed) and Red-billed Choughs, as well as the dark- throated “Seebohm’s” form of the Northern Wheatear and our first Moussier’s Redstart.  Lunch was our first delicious Tajine meal of the trip washed down with some piping hot mint tea at a nearby restaurant before taking the windy back road towards Asni. A couple of roadside stops found us Red Crossbills, Short-toed Treecreeper and a beautiful flock of Lesser Kestrels at a nesting cliff face. Hamid got us at our hotel near Asni in time for a cold Casablanca beer and a brief walk in the garden before dinner.

 

April 3: After hearing the Tawny Owl calling during the night, we decided to do some early morning owling. Unfortunately, the owl was now across a deep gulley that was too steep into which to hike – especially in the dark. Several Nightingales were singing before dawn and a very cooperative Common Cuckoo entertained us from the top of a nearby Juniper.  After breakfast we had another stop along the river in Asni where we enjoyed more great views of Levaillant’s Green Woodpecker, as well as several Chiffchaff and Western Bonelli’s Warblers feeding in a newly-leafed out Poplar. Our destination tonight was Rabat, so we had a long way to go. After driving through Marrakech, we took the old road north stopping to enjoy some spring displays of Crested and Calandra Larks in the open fields. Both Southern Gray and Woodchat Shrikes were also in the area and gave us great views. Our last stop of the day was the rest area along the N7. At last James got his “10” views of Spotless Starling and a Turtle Dove on a nearby telephone wire was a nice surprise. The traffic increased around Casablanca and Rabat, especially as we drove into town towards our hotel. Always funny when we birders get back into “civilization”- I wonder if we birders know quite what to do! Anyway, we had a delicious meal at a little restaurant around the corner from the hotel – very French and perfect.

 

April 4: It was an early start today as we drove inland from Rabat towards one of the Royal hunting preserves. This wooded area is one of the best places in Morocco to see the range-restricted Double-spurred Francolin, which reaches its northernmost distribution here. It was very foggy when we first got there so seeing the birds was near impossible. A few called from rather distant locations and that was all we managed this morning. The scenery was beautiful, especially when the fog started to clear and we could tell that the countryside was very green due to the recent rains. A couple of pairs of Barbary Partridge ran down the road and several Turtle Doves were singing their purring summer song. A roadside stop by a large pool in a field yielded several Red-crested Pochard and a pair of Black-winged Stilt. The pools and lakes were all surrounded by a mass of small floating white flowers - maybe Water Crowfoot (Ranunculus). Overhead a small flock of Black Kite was slowly flying north along with 4 magnificent Short-toed Eagles. Breakfast was in a small café near Tamesna before we drove north to Sidi Boughaba – a lake and picnic area that is quite popular with the locals, especially at weekends. It didn’t take us long to find our first White-headed Duck and Red-knobbed Coot and while searching through the abundant Red-crested Pochard we found 3 Marbled Teal – perfect! A walk along the shore eventually produced a Cetti’s Warbler which showed itself nicely. The picnic area was busy with lots of families and school groups, along with a group of Spanish university students all on a birding day! It was certainly enjoyable talking to their professor using mainly the scientific bird names! Dinner was again at Le Petit Beur near the hotel – just a lovely place for a snack and a glass or two of beer/wine to end the evening.

 

April 5: Thankfully we got to sleep in a little this am before having breakfast on the road on the way to Merja Zerga and our boat trip out on the lagoon. It was a beautiful day as we motored across this very shallow lake looking for shorebirds and gulls. The closest sandbar had a big flock of mostly Audouin’s Gulls, but they were too distant for good viewing. Luckily later in the trip we had another much closer flock allowing us to see their blood red bills and dark green legs. Large shorebirds were everywhere, with Eurasian Oystercatcher, Common Greenshank and Grey (Black-bellied) Plover being the most obvious. Smaller numbers of Eurasian Curlew, Whimbrel and Ruddy Turnstone were also around on the mudflats, along with Caspian, Gull-billed and Sandwich Terns. After a nice lunch in Moulay Boushellam our local guide, Ahmed, took us across the saltmarshes in search of the local specialty, the African Marsh Owl. Small numbers of this rare bird breed around this lagoon but the pressure from people, farming and livestock make its very existence precarious. We had excellent views of an adult before we walked back to the car, our stomachs stuffed with fresh strawberries! A big flock of Gull-billed Terns fed over the farmland obviously feeding on the insects and a male Common Whitethroat gave us good views atop a thorn bush. Dinner was back at Le Petite Beur – a small and delightful restaurant very close to our Rabat hotel.

 

April 6: We left Rabat around 8 AM – (at a rather civilized time to be honest) on our way to Meknes and points to the east. A stop at the Hassan 2 Mosque was fascinating with its tower, plaza and intricate tile work. We explored for a while before having breakfast along the way. Our first stop was the town of Ifran, nick-named the “Switzerland” of Morocco. The city park was quite large, but fairly birdless (except for a colony of Cattle Egrets and a very handsome Cirl Bunting), and needed some TLC to repair walkways and the general infrastructure. A stop near the airport gave us some lark-studies and some more Lesser Kestrels, before we had a delicious lunch in the nearby town of Azrou. A stop in the nearby forest produced several Barbary Macaques and for us birders, great views of European Nuthatch and Short-toed Treecreeper! The road across the high plains was quite cold but the birding wasn’t bad and over 100 Ruddy Shelduck in some wet meadows was quite the sight. Our last stop of the day was the famous Zaida Plain- home of the very hard-to-see Dupont’s Lark. We did hear a distant one, but we were treated to several flocks of Pin-tailed and Black-bellied Sandgrouse – wonderful! Dinner at the local hotel was delicious and we are now ready for our early morning sojourn for the Dupont’s Lark. It was 1C on our last trip, so warm clothing will be essential!

 

April 7: It was in the van at 6:45 AM for the 5 minute drive to the Dupont’s Lark spot on the Zaida Plain. Unlike like last tour when the temperature plunged to 1C, this year it was a balmy 7C, but with a steady 8-10 MPH wind. In other words it was very cold again! A few Lesser Short-toed Larks were the first to sing before we heard the somewhat musical slurred double note that announced our target bird for the morning; the shy Dupont’s Lark. At least two were singing but none were in view at all. This very hard-to-see bird sings a few phrases from atop a short bush before dropping onto the ground and sprinting away. It wasn’t until the sun came up that we managed to glimpse walking between the small bushes and after that we were all treated to scope views of this elusive lark. What a relief for all concerned. It was then back to the hotel for breakfast prior to heading south to the Sahara Desert. It was an all-day drive punctuated by stops along the river where we found Common Redstart and Little Ringed Plover, a delicious lunch of Berber omelet and beef Tajine. A spot in the seemingly-endless desert was a jackpot as we found Melodious Warbler, Greater Hoopoe-Lark, Bar-tailed Lark as well as our target bird in this location, 2 very endearing Scrub Warblers that ran along the ground with the tails held high!  We made a brief stop in Erfoud for some beer, followed by another for a pair of Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters, before we got to out desert hotel. Our late afternoon walk amongst the tamarisks was cut short due to a very strong wind that picked up very suddenly blowing the Sahara sand everywhere. Dinner was a delicious buffet back at the hotel.

 

April 8: After a quick exploration of the tamarisks before breakfast we planned on spending the morning east of the dunes at the edge of the Sahara Desert. Otman and Hamid picked us up in a Toyota 4x4 for our day in the Sahara Desert. Our first stop was a small seepage in the desert where a pipe had “broken”. Crowned and Spotted Sandgrouse come in to drink every morning and we were not disappointed as we had incredible views of both species. Desert Sparrow was our next target bird so we went to visit a Bedouin camp, drank some hot mint tea and yes, got great views of this delightful sparrow. It was then off deeper into the desert for a date with the bizarre Egyptian Nightjar. A Bedouin lady took us straight to a pair sitting next to a bush – this was getting too easy, but who’s complaining. Lunch was a Brahim’s family shop in Rissani, the largest town in the area. A lot of the renovations had been finished since last year and there were now new bathrooms and even a dining-room where we had our delicious lunch. After lunch we explored the area around Rissani and picked up Brown-necked Raven, Lanner Falcon and a spectacular Pharoah Eagle-Owl at its daytime roost. We finished the day with a walk through the dry fields to find a small group of Fulvous Babblers. That cold beer back at the hotel never tasted so good after a long day. A brief walk in the desert back at the hotel gave us several Woodchat Shrike, a male Greater Whitethroat, Western Bonelli’s Warbler plus a sunset that turned the dunes orange - a perfect end to a fascinating day filled with birds, scenery and local culture.

 

April 9: We had another exploration of the tamarisks before breakfast with the highlight being a Garden Warbler. I don’t think James was impressed by this one! Hamid was back again after his day off and we drove into Rissani to get some much-needed cash, as well as buy a couple of Berber scarfs (Rezzas). The desert scenery grew rockier and rockier as we climbed into the Ante-Atlas Mountains. Scattered Acacia trees gave the image of East Africa, but after a stroll through the habitat we discovered that the birdlife was very poor in comparison. After a very nice lunch in Todra we braved the tourists and walked past all the stalls through the Gorge. A Bonelli’s Eagle flew high overhead and small parties of Rock Pigeons (“real”, one assumes) flew along the cliff faces. Our target was the somewhat elusive Tristram’s Warbler which we eventually found up a rocky slope. Thankfully he showed rather well!  Boumelne Dades was only about an hour away so we managed a quick trip along the Tagdilt Track, only as far as the rubbish dump. Here we quickly found two of our target birds, Red-rumped Wheatear and the striking Thick-billed Lark – both picking amongst the garbage. Hardly the most beautiful of environments, but we certainly saw them well. Our hotel was very close so we could get in a little early (the wind was howling anyway) and enjoy a good meal. Also ran into some Swedish birders who were birding independently around the country.

 

April 10: It was very chilly with an icy wind when we awoke, so we spent the first hour drinking coffee and fighting with the internet! Our first stop today was the rock gorge east of Boumalne where we hoped to get the Maghreb race of the Mourning Wheatear. Almost as soon as we arrived we found a female, and soon afterwards had amazing views of the pair. We left the Swedes to hike down the canyon in search of the Eagle-Owl, while we decided to head across the desert to my favorite oasis of tamarisks. We weren’t disappointed as we had a good crop of migrants including Nightingale, Common Redstart, Wryneck and Garden Warbler. We then had to start driving through the dry stony desert between the High and Ante Atlas towards Ouzazarte. An unplanned stop along the tamarisk-fringed Issimine River was very fruitful with good numbers of warblers in the poplar trees feeding in the catkins. As well as several Western Olivaceous and Willow Warblers, we had our first Western Orphean Warblers of the trip. The Ouzazarte Reservoir was very low in comparison to my last visit and it must have been at least a mile walk across the flats to get to the water’s edge. The wind was howling making for very difficult viewing and we were frequently enveloped in clouds of sand. Despite the bad conditions, we added several trip birds, including Pied Avocet, Collared Pratincole, Eurasian Spoonbill and a beautiful male Whinchat. This time we were staying at the Fint Hotel in the center of town- where we rain into the Ornitholidays birding group from the UK. They had also been in the Sahara Desert at the same time as we were so we compared a few notes during the excellent buffet meal.

 

April 11: We made another quick stop at the Ouzazate reservoir before heading west. This section was mostly tamarisk with a couple of very nasty stagnant and polluted streams. I assume the run-off from nearby houses helped to make the water like it was. We flushed Green Sandpiper and Common Snipe before retreating from the buffeting wind, which barely abated all night long. Ouzazarte is the Moroccan movie-making town with a new studio being built on the way out of the city. We crossed the Ante Atlas Mountains very slowly in a convoy of army vehicles which were heading for the Western Sahara. When they finally turned off to head south we ran into the 31st Moroccan cycle race that runs from Taznakht to Agadir in several legs throughout April. Thankfully we managed a stop for saffron tea and a little birding in the orchards before they caught up with us. The cycles all sped past us as we were finishing lunch on the Souss River outside Aoulouz. The river here is one of my favorite birding spots and we added Black-crowned Night-Heron and Purple Heron before finding our quarry of the place – Little Crake. We found this seemingly rare bird for Morocco last year in exactly the same place and this year we had excellent views of 2 females. We got to Agadir around 7 PM, made a brief stop for some beer and wine from the grocery store before driving south to our evening’s accommodation. Not a hotel tonight, but individual apartments in a holiday village – plenty of space to spread out. Dinner was next door and was Tajine washed down with Moroccan wine.

 

April 12: The Atlantic coast of Morocco is rugged with mudstone cliffs crumbling into the sea and breakers constantly crashing ashore. A walk along the beach before breakfast produced Oystercatcher and Sanderling and it was pleasant to feel the sea air. Our first order of the day was to find the highly endangered Northern Bald Ibis. Morocco is the world headquarters of this localized bird, but because of its size and habit of feeding in the short shrubby fields, it’s not that difficult to see. We soon found a flock of about 4 feeding in a nearby field - excellent stuff; also a small group of Eurasian Stone-curlew and a very obliging Little Owl. The rest of the day was spent in various locations around the Oued Massa and the riverside vegetation. Highlights included great views of Black-crowned Tchagra, 2 Common Kingfishers, several Stonechats and pair of Plain Martins. Lunch was back at the hotel where a much-needed siesta was taken before heading out again at 3:30 PM. Like last year we were planning to walk across the field near the road, but the local warden reprimanded us for not getting permission to be in the National Park. After talking birds for a while we were forgiven and eventually even invited for tea! A walk in some open country outside the park did produce a small party of Tawny Pipits – our target for the afternoon, plus Eurasian Stone-curlew, Hoopoe and lots of Thekla Larks perched atop the fence line. We walked back to the hotel after having done over 4 miles that afternoon – maybe this will counteract the meals we are eating! Dinner again at the hotel with grilled fish for some and chicken kebabs for others. Another great day.

 

April 13: After a little sea-watching in the morning, when we found a few distant Northern Gannets, the Souss River mouth was our birding spot this morning and, despite dipping on the Spectacled Warbler, we had a profitable morning watching gulls, terns and shorebirds. The highlights were multiple Audouin’s Gulls, Caspian, Little and Lesser Crested Terns (Thanks Keith) and a good selection of waders. The walk along the river was pleasant with multiple Moussier’s Redstarts being along the trail, along with Sardinian Warblers and blizzards of Linnets. Lunch was at the Ibis restaurant in Massa where we had Tajines plus the delicious couscous dessert. Our afternoon at the freshwater lagoon was very windy so many of the smaller birds had gone to ground. Thankfully we flushed several Common Quail (our first of the trip) and James spotted a male Little Bittern that tried to hide in a Tamarisk. Dinner was back at Fanti – gosh, we seem to be eating most of the time, but the food was delicious and washed down with wine!

 

April 14:  No walk before breakfast this morning so we had a little time to catch up with sleep and repack before returning to Marrakech this afternoon. A stop along the way was a fascinating visit to a local pottery specializing in all manner of plates, bowls and pots; highly decorated or left natural.  The Souss River in Agadir was our main birding site this morning and is a great spot for wading birds. Larger waders included Greater Flamingos, and greater numbers of Grey Heron and Little Egret. Shorebirds were in smaller numbers than last year, but we did get the chance to go through the flocks. Common Redshank, Greenshank and Grey (Black-bellied) Plover were the most abundant, but we did find Common Ringed-Plover, Dunlin and 2 Little Stint – a very nice selection indeed. It was then time for lunch along the way before taking the motorway back to Marrakech. Chicken Kebabs again before we took the new road to Marrakech, getting to the hotel around 7PM or so.

 

We finished the tour with around 200 species of birds, including most of the Moroccan specialties. Highlights included superb views of Spotted and Crowned Sandgrouse coming to drink; a pair of superbly-camouflaged Egyptian Nightjars and good numbers of northbound migrants throughout the country. We also had wonderful opportunities to enjoy a lot of Morocco’s culture, meet people and enjoy the diverse scenery. It’s a great country for almost any aspect of enjoying the natural world.

   

Simon Thompson 

Birds and Other Wildlife Seen or Heard on our Venture to Morocco

April 1-14, 2018

 

Ruddy Shelduck
Common Shelduck
Gadwall
Mallard
Northern Shoveler
Marbled Teal
Red-crested Pochard
Common Pochard
Ferruginous Duck
White-headed Duck
Common Quail
Barbary Partridge
Double-spurred Francolin (H)
Little Grebe
Great Crested Grebe
Greater Flamingo
White Stork
Northern Gannet
Great Cormorant
Little Bittern
Gray Heron
Purple Heron
Little Egret
Cattle Egret
Black-crowned Night-Heron
Glossy Ibis
Northern Bald Ibis
Eurasian Spoonbill
Black-shouldered Kite
Short-toed Snake-Eagle
Booted Eagle
Bonelli's Eagle
Eurasian Marsh-Harrier
Eurasian Sparrowhawk
Black Kite
Long-legged Buzzard
Little Crake
Eurasian Moorhen
Red-knobbed Coot
Eurasian Coot
Eurasian Thick-knee
Black-winged Stilt
Pied Avocet
Eurasian Oystercatcher
Black-bellied (Grey) Plover
Northern Lapwing
Kentish Plover
Common Ringed Plover
Little Ringed Plover
Common Sandpiper
Green Sandpiper
Common Greenshank
Common Redshank
Whimbrel
Eurasian Curlew
Bar-tailed Godwit
Ruddy Turnstone
Curlew Sandpiper
Sanderling
Dunlin
Little Stint
Common Snipe
Cream-colored Courser
Collared Pratincole
Parasitic/Pomarine Jaeger
Slender-billed Gull
Black-headed Gull

Audouin's Gull
Yellow-legged Gull
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Little Tern
Gull-billed Tern
Caspian Tern
Black tern
Sandwich Tern
Lesser Crested Tern
Pin-tailed Sandgrouse
Spotted Sandgrouse
Black-bellied Sandgrouse
Crowned Sandgrouse
Rock Pigeon
Common Wood-Pigeon
European Turtle-Dove
Eurasian Collared-Dove
Laughing Dove
Common Cuckoo
Pharoah Eagle-Owl
Little Owl
Tawny Owl (H)
Egyptian Nightjar
Alpine Swift
Common Swift
Pallid Swift
Little Swift
Eurasian Hoopoe
Common Kingfisher
Blue-cheeked Bee-eater
European Bee-eater
European Wryneck
Great Spotted Woodpecker
Levaillant’s Woodpecker
Lesser Kestrel
Eurasian Kestrel
Lanner Falcon
Black-crowned Tchagra
Southern Gray Shrike
Woodchat Shrike
Eurasian Golden Oriole
Eurasian Magpie
Red-billed Chough
Yellow-billed Chough
Eurasian Jackdaw
Brown-necked Raven
Common Raven
Greater Hoopoe-Lark
Dupont’s Lark
Bar-tailed Lark
Desert Lark
Thick-billed Lark
Calandra Lark
Greater Short-toed Lark
Lesser Short-toed Lark
Crested Lark
Maghreb Lark
Thekla’s Lark
Sky Lark
Wood Lark
Horned Lark
Temminck’s Lark
Plain Martin
Bank Swallow
Eurasian Crag-Martin
Barn Swallow

Red-rumped Swallow

Common House-Martin
Coal Tit
African Blue Tit
Great Tit
Eurasian Nuthatch
Short-toed Treecreeper
Eurasian Wren
Common Bulbul
Firecrest
Scrub Warbler
Cetti's Warbler
Willow Warbler
Common Chiffchaff
Western Bonelli's Warbler
Western Olivaceous Warbler
Melodious Warbler
Sedge Warbler
Eurasian Reed-Warbler
Zitting Cisticola
Eurasian Blackcap
Garden Warbler
African Desert Warbler
Western Orphean Warbler
Tristram’s Warbler
Western Subalpine Warbler
Sardinian Warbler
Greater Whitethroat
Fulvous Chatterer
Rufous-tailed Scrub-Robin
European Robin
Common Nightingale
Moussier's Redstart
Common Redstart
Black Redstart
Blue Rock-Thrush
Whinchat
European Stonechat
White-crowned Wheatear
Black Wheatear
Northern Wheatear
Northern “Seebohm’s” Wheatear
Mourning “Maghreb” Wheatear
Red-rumped Wheatear
Black-eared Wheatear
Desert Wheatear
Eurasian Blackbird
Mistle Thrush
Spotless Starling
Western Yellow Wagtail
White Wagtail
Tawny Pipit
Tree Pipit
Cirl Bunting
Rock Bunting
House Bunting
Corn Bunting
Common Chaffinch
Crimson-winged Finch
Trumpeter Finch
European Greenfinch
Red Crossbill
European Goldfinch
Eurasian Linnet
European Serin
House Sparrow
Desert Sparrow
Rock Petronia

Mammals:

Barbary Ground-Squirrel
Fat Sand Rat
Gerbil sp.
Least Weasel
European Rabbit

Barbary Macaque

Reptiles and Amphibians:

Agama Lizard (maybe A. impalearis)
Desert Lizard (Acanthodactylus sp)
Green Lizard (Psammodromus sp)
Spanish Pond Turtle

Mediterranean Spur-thighed Tortoise