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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Morocco in Fall

2014 Tour Narrative

Morocco is an amazing and exciting country, as beautiful and diverse in its habitats, and therefore in its avifauna, as any area in the Western Palearctic. Over the last 15 years, (since the computer has kept count) this one-week tour has produced nearly 260 species – though only half that number can be expected in any one year, thanks to the vagaries of weather and distribution and the unpredictability of the supporting cast. Inevitably, therefore, no two years yield the same list. Last year, for instance, the tour failed to find Great Egret, White Stork, Lanner, Stone-Curlew, Cream-coloured Courser, Whimbrel, Mediterranean and Slender-billed Gulls, Temminck’s Horned Lark, Spectacled Warbler, Rock Bunting, and even such ‘list padders’ as Woodpigeon, Meadow Pipit, Jay, Goldfinch, and Linnet. Other years have missed (variously) Ruddy Shelduck, Black-shouldered Kite, Pintailed Sandgrouse, Little Swift, Desert Lark, Thickbilled Lark, Hoopoe Lark, Streaked Scrub Warbler, and Atlas Crossbill. All these species were seen this year but even so there were other species that did not put in an appearance. It was significant, however, that almost all the target species, the really important specialities, were not only seen but seen well by all the group. And in Morocco the star attractions are such that it is always quality rather than quantity which counts. Every day had its memorable moments.

In an action replay of last year’s trip our first bird at first light on our first morning was a Peregrine perched on a balcony of our hotel, to be followed as we entered Paradise Valley on the mountain road to Imouzzer by a sequence of strikingly beautiful target species: Moussier’s Redstart (surely the most attractive of all regional endemics), House Bunting (sahari race), and Tristram’s Warbler (another NW African endemic frequenting a very specific habitat; stony uneven ground with a covering of light scrub – Cistus, Buxus, and Adenocarpus - and scattered trees – Juniperus, Tetraclinis articulata). Our ascent also brought us our first Black Wheatears and Barbary Partridges and our only Pied Flycatcher of the trip. On reaching the higher-altitude pine forest, we were surrounded by Atlas Crossbills (another exciting target species) and spodiogenys (africana) Chaffinches looking so different from our garden birds back home. Intriguing also was the local race of Jay with their darker-streaked crowns. Our lunch break on the terrace of the hotel at 1170m was not entirely a break from birding either. A range of species put in an appearance, from Blackcap and Serin, to Crag Martins, Blue Rock Thrush, and a (disappointingly distant and brief) Bonelli’s Eagle. A bonus on our descent to the coast was a particularly bright and colour-saturated Subalpine Warbler (on almost the latest date ever for Morocco).

Visibility at Tamri was a little restricted by a sea fret but still gave us our first (and in some cases last) views of Squacco Heron, Moroccan (subpersonata) Wagtails, Grey Plover, Sanderling, Audouin’s Gull, and a perched Lanner. A late migrating Hobby flew alongside us on our return journey.

Our next day will surely be remembered by all as a classic birding ‘best day’. The opening act by the Youssef ben Tachfine canal was the spectacle of 300 Black-bellied Sandgrouse, accompanied by five of their Pin-tailed cousins, landing close enough for photographs of their amazing plumage. Then, two more often-elusive desert species followed (Cream-coloured Courser and Stone-curlew) plus Spectacled Warbler, Laughing Dove, White Stork, Spoonbill, Whimbrel, and Long-legged Buzzard. And finally, after several hours devoted to the search (including choosing an exclusive lunch spot – overlooking the fabled Sidi Rabat beach in case our target bird flew by), our perseverance and patience was rewarded as we waited on top of the cliffs at Douira until a single Bald Ibis flew over our heads. Satisfied with this success we were about to call it a day when the sky became stitched with line after line of Bald Ibis spiralling down around us until the cliff below and the sky above was festooned with some 400-plus individuals – over 80% of the world population of this endangered species. Everything seemed perfect – the elation after a prolonged and fruitless search, the attractive setting with the Atlantic rollers crashing onto the sweeping beach below the sandy cliffs, the backdrop of a blood-red sun, but most of all the sheer numbers of a bird whose world population fell to 250 birds in 1998 with only 60 breeding pairs in 1998 and 1999. How wonderful to witness this dramatic come-back from near extinction.*

It was a relief the following day to find that the sea had become very calm, ensuring that our pelagic was comfortable and relaxing - though this may have contributed to a diminished selection of seabirds. (We gathered that the previous day there were indeed three cases of seasickness and that strong winds were forecast for the following day.) Surprisingly only one Manx Shearwater and one Great Skua put in an appearance, although the plunging Gannets were an ever-present spectacle and the boat trip was certainly the most satisfactory way of sorting out Scopoli’s from the hundred or so Cory’s Shearwaters. The prelude to this change of pace was a posing Barbary Partridge below the Citadel and the day was rounded off in the Souss estuary by Greater Flamingoes, White Storks, Osprey, Black-winged Stilts, Curlew Sandpiper, Black-tailed Godwits, Mediterranean Gulls, Kingfisher, and Serins before (surprisingly) rain stopped play and gave us an extra hour to relax before dinner, an unpredicated opportunity for shopping or swimming in the hotel pool.

Strong winds were indeed the order of the next day, inhibiting our forays into the deserts beyond Goulimine. Nevertheless we saw White-crowned Black, Red-rumped, and Desert Wheatears, Short-toed, Thick-billed, Temminck’s Horned, and Bar-tailed Desert Larks, 46 Ruddy Shelducks, 43 Little Ringed Plovers, and most excitingly of all two Streaked Scrub Warblers (the theresae form, endemic to SW Morocco and the Holy Grail for one member of the group in his quest to see a representative of every bird family in the world). A very satisfying and authentic tagine sent us to bed happy and the breakfast omelettes launched us off to a good start the following day. Thankfully the wind had dropped and returning to a spot where we had glimpsed a much-desired Hoopoe Lark. Before the sandblasting forced us to abandon our search, we immediately found Temminck’s Horned Lark, Bar-tailed Desert Lark, Short-toed Lark, Thick-billed Lark, Crested and Thekla Larks, and finally … Hoopoe Larks all in the same small area. Particularly thrilling was the all-singing all-dancing display from a Hoopoe Lark over our heads. Six Cream-coloured Coursers, 400 Spanish Sparrows, and the usual wheatears were also present and a Lanner briefly sparred with a Marsh Harrier. Also sighted were four Long-legged Buzzards, Little Swift, and the King and his seemingly never-ending entourage of big black motorcycles celebrating the anniversary of the Green March. The Asrir prickly pears hosted eight boisterous bouncing Fulvous Babblers, frustratingly distant; Aouzerouai oasis failed to produce Trumpeter Finch; and our picnic stop at Col Agri Mharne failed to produce Desert Lark – ensuring that desert habitat remained on the shopping list. Meanwhile it seemed sensible to allow time for a break on our return journey to Agadir to see more of the Massa agricultural area, which we had ignored previously in our all-consuming quest for Bald Ibis. This proved to be a good move and we enjoyed wonderful views of that notorious skulker Black-crowned Tchagra and also Black-shouldered Kite and Brown-throated Sand Martin – plus a bonus for one lucky member of our group who happened to be admiring an Iberian Yellow Wagtail in the telescope when a Bluethroat popped out.

On our final full day we opted for the great Anti-Atlas circuit – in the words of travel writer Barnaby Rogerson ‘one of the most classically beautiful journeys that you could make in Morocco’. En route we diverted briefly into the Bouargane hammada desert and immediately saw a large flock of Trumpeter Finches. Our other missing species – Desert lark – we saw very well around Izerbi. Rock Bunting, Blue Rock Thrush, and eye-level Crag Martins were also notable. But the stake-out Bonelli’s Eagle at Col de Kerdous was even more distant than our Imouzzer bird – though the coffee, tea, and toilets at this remarkable hotel were most welcome. As usual, it was the relentlessly photogenic scenery and gasp-inducing views, together with the bizarre rock formations created in past millennia by slow cooling extrusions of igneous red lava (usually referred to as looking like meteorite showers on Mars), which provided the most abiding impressions.

Thanks to an evening flight home on our last day, we were able to return to Tamri to see this attractive estuary in good light and, as it happened, to watch Ospreys fishing and add Pochard, Meadow Pipit, and Barbary Falcon to our list – plus another close Stone-curlew. However, the most satisfying reprise was the sight of 47 Bald Ibis feeding by the roadside with the strong morning light revealing the subtle sheen of their bronze-green, copper, and violet plumage and their poor bruised purple and red skulls – as memorable an experience as our first encounter five days before. A fitting finale. But not quite. Time still for another reprise. Our second visit to the Sous estuary added Great Egret, Slender-billed Gull, Knot, Bar-tailed Godwits to compare with their Black-tailed associates, and a particularly obliging Zitting Cisticola.

All in all, a happy week of full days, varied experiences, good company, and memorable birds. Morocco was long known in the Muslim world as Maghreb el Aksa, the land of the furthest west, literally the edge of the world and a place notorious for its powerful magicians and demon-like jinn. It is still intensely foreign and fascinating. The magicians are still there.

* Wikipedia comments ‘For the first time in the species’ recorded history there is now evidence of population growth in the wild, and the populations in Morocco increased to 100 breeding pairs in the decade prior to 2008 and reached a record of 113 breeding pairs in 2013’. There are believed to be about 500 birds in Morocco and maybe only one now in Syria. Turkey has lost its genuinely wild population.

Updated: December 2014