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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Morocco in Spring

2022 Narrative

After a several year hiatus due to the pandemic, Morocco re-opened just in time for our Morocco in Spring tour. Starting in the Atlas Mountains, where recent snowfall still blanketed the ground, the group had great success with the likes of African Crimson-winged Finch, Levaillant’s Woodpecker, Tristram’s Warbler, and Maghreb Owl. The Sahara Desert didn’t disappoint either with excellent sightings of Egyptian Nightjar, Desert Sparrow, African Desert Warbler, a good number of larks, and photographic opportunities of sandgrouse. The coast around Agadir produced brilliant views of the endangered Northern Bald Ibis, which topped the group’s list of favorite trip species, while the Oued Souss and Oued Massa estuaries provided great numbers of coastal and wetland species.

Day 1: The tour began before dinner with group introductions and going over the tour basics. Dinner provided the first taste of Moroccan cuisine with delicious tajines still sizzling in their earthenware pots.

Day 2: After a filling buffet breakfast, we began our birding right outside our hotel in Marrakech where we picked up some of the common species before hitting the road. Spotless Starlings and House Buntings sang from our hotel while the vacant lot adjacent to the hotel provided Maghreb Magpie and Eurasian Blackbird, among others. Overhead were a good number of Pallid Swifts feeding, and a few Common Wood-Pigeons flew over. Gaining elevation, we traveled towards our gorgeous hotel near Oukaimeden, where snow-peaked mountains added to the backdrop. We walked a loop around the property, having our first taste of the High Atlas Mountains. “Atlas” Common Chaffinches, Cirl Buntings, Eurasian Wrens, and European Robins were in full song, despite the cold weather. Small groups of Coal, African Blue, and Great Tits moved tree to tree along with a few Common Firecrest. The highlight of the walk for some was a pair of Barbary Partridges, which made a brief appearance in the dry creek bed.

After lunch we headed up the road to an area that regularly hosts Levaillant’s Woodpecker. After a short while and an “Atlas” Great Spotted Woodpecker later, we found a Levaillant’s teed up on a utility pole. Also present were Eurasian Kestrel, Eurasian Sparrowhawk, a small group of Eurasian Blackcaps, and a few Rock Buntings. A nearby forest patch provided views of Short-toed Treecreeper before the weather turned and started snowing! We headed back down in elevation to our accommodation for the evening.

Day 3: After a failed attempt for Maghreb Owl the previous night, we woke up before sunrise and had much more success with excellent views of an individual. After the sun rose, we did a brief jaunt around the hotel grounds before breakfast; we had Cetti’s Warbler and Common Nightingale among others. After breakfast, we worked our way up towards Vallée d’Oukaïmeden. A recent snowstorm placed a fresh blanket of snow on the ground. The choughs didn’t seem to mind though as they appeared to be having a field day playing in the snow. Yellow-billed were the most common with a couple hundred present while several dozen Red-billed were mixed in amongst them. We then checked an area that typically hosts small flocks of African Crimson-winged Finches, but none were to be found. We did however enjoy a hefty flock of 45 “Atlas” Horned Larks along with a couple dozen Rock Sparrows and a few pairs of Black Redstarts. We headed for some higher ridges and finally bumped into a small flock of African Crimson-winged Finches. As if that wasn’t enough, soon after we had a group of six Alpine Accentors and a Blue Rock-Thrush all feeding together and a flyby “Barbary” Falcon. After a tasty lunch, we worked a small creek adding quite a few new species such as Moussier’s Redstart, Gray Wagtail, Meadow and Water Pipits, and a show-stopper White-throated Dipper.

Day 4: This morning, before departing, we picked up a very cooperative “North Africa” Red Crossbill right from the balcony of our hotel. We descended out of the Atlas Mountains into the flat plains to the north where agricultural fields dotted the landscape. A stop here produced a pair of Little Owls along with Thekla’s Lark, Spotless Starling, European Stonechat, Spanish Sparrow, White Wagtail, and a Corn Bunting in full song. Further up the road we had our first of many White Storks, which was sitting on a nest. We then headed back south, working our way over Tizi n’Tichka Pass through the Atlas Mountains and the gateway to the Sahara Desert to the south. Raptors were had with a group of four Booted Eagles followed by two “Atlas” Long-legged Buzzards. Further along the road, a stakeout Tristram’s Warbler provided unparalleled views just yards in front of us. Lunch was enjoyed outside a restaurant, which allowed us to continue birding from our table. This proved productive as we had several Mistle Thrushes, which we had surprisingly missed previously, along with a host of other species. Near Ouarzazate, we birded an area of tamarisk adding Laughing Dove, Eurasian Hoopoe, Maghreb Lark, Western Subalpine Warbler, the Iberian race of Western Yellow Wagtail, along with a Green Sandpiper and several Little Ringed Plovers along a drainage. We continued along the road and made our way towards Boumalne Dades for the night. 

Day 5: We focused the whole morning birding the infamous Tagdilt Track, both the original dirt track and the new paved one. Starting on the new track, we enjoyed a couple dozen Crowned Sandgrouse coming in to drink from a small puddle of water. Nearby we had Temminck’s, Thekla’s, and Greater Short-toed Larks. Desert Wheatears were common while an Isabelline Wheatear was a nice surprise. Entering a sandier area, we added Black-bellied Sandgrouse, Cream-colored Courser, displaying Greater Hoopoe-Lark, Red-rumped Wheatear, and Trumpeter Finch. A small farm, which created a small oasis in the desert, provided a few migrants including a cooperative Western Bonelli’s Warbler. After lunch we checked out another site in the desert where a Berber community was actively living in some cave dwellings, which were being shared with nesting White-crowned Wheatears. Before dinner we headed out on foot and birded a maze of trails between farm plots along the river. The air was filled with the songs of Eurasian Blackbirds, European Greenfinches, and European Serins while the sky above was filled with the calls of European Bee-eaters, which had recently arrived. A European Turtle-Dove was a nice addition.

Day 6: Today was mostly a travel day, but that did not stop us from making a series of birding stops and ultimately picking up some quality species. First stop was a waterhole to see what sandgrouse would come in to drink. After a while we tallied 63 Crowned Sandgrouse. An adult male Montagu’s Harrier also made a brief appearance. Further up the road we spotted a Thick-billed Lark displaying high in the sky, which eventually dove straight back to the ground allowing great views as it fed on the ground. We then hit the road for a short while before jumping out and exploring a scenic canyon which provided views of a nesting Pharoah Eagle-Owl, Lanner Falcon, a hugely cooperative Desert Lark, and a “Maghreb” Mourning Wheatear, most certainly a future split. After lunch we visited a sparsely vegetated wash where we tried our luck for Scrub Warbler. First, we had a pair of Fulvous Chatterers before coming upon a warbler. We stood there for quite a while watching it bounce from shrub to shrub where it mostly remained hidden deep within. A few times it would sit out in the full view, before quickly disappearing again. Back on the road, we worked our way to our nice hotel with the Erg Chebbi right out our doorstep. An erg is a sea of dunes created by wind, and with that we enjoyed excellent views of towering dunes which just got prettier and prettier as the sun set.

Day 7: We switched out of our normal vehicle and got into a couple of 4x4s to take full advantage of birding the desert region. Our first stop was where sandgrouse come in to drink in the morning. Among the Crowned were several Spotted Sandgrouse. We then visited a remote camp, where a pair of Desert Sparrows are breeding, and had superb views of both a male and female. Also present were Western Subalpine Warbler, Woodchat Shrike, and a small group of Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters overhead. As we were leaving, we stumbled upon a pair of nondescript African Desert Warblers and soon after a “Seebolm’s” Wheater, a future split from Northern. Before lunch we checked out a stakeout Egyptian Nightjar and had stunning views of one at its day roost. After lunch, we birded a few more spots around the desert despite the intense winds, which were really picking up during the later part of the day! We added Willow Warbler, Tree Pipit, Bar-tailed Lark, and Western Black-eared Wheatear before calling in for showers and dinner.

Day 8: Today was mostly a travel day as we worked our way back west towards Ouarzazate. We made a few stops along the way, of course. A promising looking section of drainage with a few scattered trees gave us a few warblers including Melodious and Western Orphean along with a cooperative pair of Moussier’s Redstarts. Upon arriving at Ouarzazate, we visited a viewpoint of the nearby reservoir. The winds were howling so using the vehicle as a windbreak, we scoped Ruddy Shelduck, Garganey, Northern Shoveler, Common Pochard, Greater Flamingo, Little and Great Crested Grebes, Pied Avocet, Kentish and Common Ringed Plovers, and an Osprey among others. After checking into our accommodation for the night, we ventured out once more to the lush green gardens just behind. Although we had a good number of species and great photographic opportunities, we only added Black Stork to the trip list, which is only the second time on one of our Morocco tours.

Day 9: Today was a long travel day as we worked our way towards the coast. Early in the morning we birded an area of tamarisk to try our luck at the locally breeding Eastern Olivaceous Warbler. Interestingly, only Westerns were to be found. A few Sedge Warblers also made an appearance. Further along, we made a stop along on a river valley, we were able to find a resident pair of Bonelli’s Eagles perched atop of cliff face. The surrounding area was alive with birds including our first Little Swift and Greater Whitethroat. Again, a good number of Western Olivaceous Warblers, but no Eastern. The rest of the day we traversed our way through desert and mountains before we hit the coastline and our hotel for the next three nights, overlooking a vast sandy beach.

Day 10: This morning we headed north along the Atlantic coastline where we would target one of Morocco’s most iconic birds: the Northern Bald Ibis. First, however, we made a stop in the mountains at a site where Rufous-tailed Scrub-Robin occurs. After a bit of searching, it was clear that they had not returned yet. Migration was a little delayed this year. We did however get another brief view of two Barbary Partridges as they flew up the canyon. Further up the coast, we spent some time in some traditional areas where Northern Bald Ibis regularly feed but none were to be found. We headed over to the Tamri Estuary to find that they were there! We had at least eleven birds flying over and feeding along the estuary. Other birds present were Eurasian Spoonbill, Eurasian Marsh-Harrier, Sardinian Warbler, and the local “Moroccan” subspecies of White Wagtail. Along the beach was a large gull roost of Yellow-legged and Lesser Black-backed but also a handful of Audouin’s Gulls along with Gull-billed and Sandwich Terns. We continued back south picking up a “Moroccan” Great Cormorant before making a stop along a sea cliff to do a bit of seawatching. Not many seabirds were on the move aside from a handful of Northern Gannets, but we did add Whimbrel, Ruddy Turnstone, Slender-billed Gull, and Black-headed Gull.

Lunch was at a local restaurant where we had fresh fish just brought in from the sea cooked over open coals in front of us. After fish and chips, we headed back towards Agadir and spent the remaining part of the afternoon birding Oued Souss Estuary. The tide was up so the usual numbers of shorebirds and roosting Larids were not present, but we still had a good number of birds. Several hundred Greater Flamingos were napping, Eurasian Oystercatcher, Black-bellied Plover, Eurasian Curlew, Ruff, and Common Redshank were some of the shorebirds present along with a few Mediterranean Gulls, Zitting Cisticola, and very conspicuous Maghreb Magpies nearly at our feet. We returned to our hotel for a short while and returned to the estuary for dusk to try our luck at Red-necked Nightjar. We soon had one singing but could not entice it into view. A couple Eurasian Thick-Knees were also heard flying overhead.

Day 11: On our final day of birding, we headed south this time to the Oued Messa area. We slowly birded along the estuary for nearly three hours where we accumulated a good number of birds including our first Green-winged (Eurasian) Teal, Black-tailed Godwit, Curlew Sandpiper, Sanderling, Common Greenshank, Purple Heron, Glossy Ibis, Black-crowned Tchagra, Spotted Flycatcher and Eurasian Linnet. After a delicious home-cooked lunch, we birded another site along the Oued Messa where a Common Kingfisher was seen flying upriver. We walked along the river’s edge and eventually found it sitting atop a reed. Other new species include Brown-throated Martin and Red-rumped Swallow. Although we already had Northern Bald Ibis the previous day, we were hoping to get even better views. Scouting before the tour proved productive as we were able to find 32 individuals right along the road at a stakeout. They fed oblivious of our presence. One final stop along the Oued Souss supplied us with our final new species of the trip – a pair of Marbled Teal.

Day 12: Departures home.

- Ethan Kistler

Created: 11 May 2022