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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Morocco in Spring

2019 Narrative

After the group had gathered in Marrakesh, we headed south, and up, into the High Atlas Mountains. We settled into our magnificent hotel close to Oukaimeden. After a traditional Moroccan tagine lunch, we spent the afternoon birding around the hotel grounds with new birds coming thick and fast: Rock Bunting, Spectacled Warbler, Booted Eagle, and Levaillant’s Green Woodpecker.

Day 2, our first full day of birding in Morocco, dawned cloudy with a sprinkling of snow overnight. We left our hotel to head to Oukaimeden, pausing en route to enjoy even better views of Levaillant’s Green Woodpecker and Cirl Bunting and, a little further up, several Moussier’s Redstarts and a Blue Rock Thrush. A stop off at the Oukaimeden football field gave us our first truly high-alpine species of the trip, Alpine Chough, along with dozens of Rock Sparrows, Red-billed Chough and a smart male Seebohm’s Wheatear. Moving along the ski resort car park, we were greeted by a beautiful Atlas Horned Lark. We filled our boots with point-blank views, before continuing up the valley. Here we found more Rock Sparrows and Horned Larks and, surprise bird of the day, a female Brambling. After a bit of searching, three Atlas Crimson-winged Finches flew in. Lunch was a tagine – different from yesterday’s, but just as tasty – before we headed up to the viewpoint. A Bonelli’s Eagle soared overhead, while dozens of Black Redstarts serenaded us with their buzzing songs from nearby stone buildings. We also took a moment to appreciate the stamina of some of the cross-country runners who were making their way up the 45° ridge as part of a trans-Moroccan sadistic multi-discipline route. Next, we visited the reservoir which, also devoid of any waders or wildfowl, did provide us a smart Water Pipit. Stopping at some woodland sites on our way back down to the hotel, we enjoyed a pair of Firecrests, the male showing exceptionally well as it displayed its luminous orange crown, and a Short-toed Treecreeper, which climbed up to the top of a small juniper to give perfect eye-level views.

We began Day 3 with some more birding around the hotel grounds, including out-in-the-open views of a Common Nightingale. Despite being a ‘travel day’, we enjoyed plenty of birds between Oukaimeden and Ouarzazate, with Corn Bunting, European Stonechat, Woodchat Shrike, White Stork, Black Kite, Cattle Egret and Little Swift all added to the crowing list. After lunch at the Tiz N’ Tichka pass, we made an afternoon stop at Ouarzazate reservoir where the group picked up plenty more ticks – several Sahraran Eastern Olivaceous Warblers showed well, as did a pair of Ruddy Shelduck, and we got to grips with Yellow Wagtail subspecies (Blue-headed flava, Ashy-headed cinereocapilla and Iberian iberiae all present) and Maghreb [Long-billed Crested] Lark. We headed onwards to our luxurious hotel in Boulmane Dades.

Day 4 started at the famous (‘new’) Tagdilt Track, where it quickly became evident that it had been a good year for larks. Temminck’s Larks were common at every stop, with many adults accompanied by recently fledged juveniles begging for food. There were also several flocks of older juveniles, suggesting the species was already on its second brood. Further evidence of early breeding included two juvenile Trumpeter Finches that fluttered away from us (and plenty of coral-billed adults flying around, too) and a family of Red-tailed Wheatears. Surprise sighting of the morning was a flock of Stone Curlews. It took a moment to get our eye in, with numbers increasing on every sweep of the flock. Eight… nine… ten… 15… 20… 35… Then the flock flew, and the true number became apparent: 57! After lunch, we headed up the Dades Gorge, where we marvelled at the ‘monkey fingers’ rock formation, as well as catching up with several migrants including Willow Warbler and Common Redstart and a curiously round-eared Common Gundy.

On Day 5 we headed east, out towards the ‘erg’ (sandy) desert, stopping en route near Imiter. Within 300m of each other, we enjoyed spectacular views of three of the trip’s top birds: a Lanner Falcon, at least three Maghreb Wheatears, and not one but two Pharaoh Eagle Owls. Continuing on, we stopped near Goulmima where we found a wadi full of migrant wheatears – Northern, several Black-eared, and an Isabelline. Other migrants included a Common Nightingale, Common Redstart, Sardinian Warbler sand several Western Subalpine Warblers. Two Desert Grey Shrikes, several Thekla Larks and, offering a good comparison, a Maghreb Lark were in residence but the star bird here was Scrub Warbler, two of which performed brilliantly. The final leg of our journey took us across the impressive Ziz Valley and down into Erfoud, where we checked into our palatial Kasbah-hotel. Around the hotel grounds, we found several Western Subalpine Warblers and two Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters, hunting for dragonflies from utility wires.

Day 6, our ‘desert day’, is also a great day; and today was no exception. Joining our local guides, we started the day with Crowned and Spotted Sandgrouse, coming to drink just metres from the car. Next up was Desert Sparrow, two males holding territory around a small desert allotment; then we moved on to African Desert Warbler (two birds), Greater Hoopoe Lark (several birds showing off with their spectacular display); then an Egyptian Nightjar in its day roost; and, finally, seven Marbled Teal and an impressive flock of 60 Collared Pratincoles at Merzouga Lake – all before lunch! After a Berber pizza and a tour of the local fossil museum, we headed back into the field for more Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters, Maghreb Larks, and a family of Fulvous Babblers. We concluded the dark with a visit to the local market, via the car donkey park, to pick up a box of local dates.

Day 7 was very much a day of travel day but that didn’t stop us from stopping for some birding, including eye-level views of Crag Martins and, at Ouarzazate Reservoir, a host of waterbirds such as Great Cormorant, an Osprey, Mallard, and four more Marbled Teal.

Day 8 started damp, and we soon gave up on our planned return visit to Ouarzazate Reservoir. In hindsight, we got off quite lightly – the following day saw a covering of snow in the same area, while where we’d been was under a foot of water the following day after flash floods hit the area! Our first stop of the day was not for birding but rather to try our hand at that quintessential Moroccan experience – haggling. And where better to try than in Tazenakht, Morocco’s ‘carpet city’, where several of the group picked up beautiful hand-made rugs. We stopped just outside of the city where we found three Black-bellied Sandgrouse, two Egyptian Vultures, and several migrants such as Common Whitethroat. Lunch was yet another delicious tagine (kefta and egg today) and, soon after, another birding stop, this time in the Souss Valley’s Argan forest. As well as its famous tree-climbing goats, this area is home to a good population of Western Orphean Warblers, and we enjoyed several showy singing males. An unscheduled stop on the road to Agadir gave us amazing views of a Black-shouldered Kite, which performed perfectly as it glided towards and past us in perfect light. We finished the day in Agadir, where Yellow-legged Gull was an easy addition to the trip list and species such as Spotless Starling and Maghreb Magpie, last seen by the group as we left Marrakesh, were in evidence once again.

Heading back inland a little way, we started Day 9 with a showy singing Rufous-tailed Bush Robin before we headed north along the coast to explore the area north of Tamri. Here, we found a flock of 30-or-so Northern Bald Ibis, only recently reclassified globally from Critically Endangered to Endangered. Down on the Tamri estuary, we found several Moroccan White Wagtails, a Moroccan Cormorant, and some Audouin’s Gulls amongst the Yellow-legged and Lesser Black-backed Gulls. Flocks of Sandwich Terns were feeding offshore. A short seawatch over lunch added Northern Gannet to the trip list, as well as plenty more Sandwich Terns. The afternoon was spent at Agadir’s Oued Souss “urban park”, where we found several shorebirds including Eurasian Curlew, Eurasian Oystercatcher, Black-winged Stilt, Pied Avocet, Little Egret and European Spoonbill. A Little Tern and several Mediterranean Gulls boosted the day total further.

Day 10, our final day of birding in Morocco, was spent at the magnificent Oued Massa, south of Agadir. Even after ten days in the country, it can be hard to keep up with the number of species when one steps out of the vehicle at Oued Massa in the morning: Laughing Doves, Common Linnets, Serins, Greenfinches, Western Black-eared Wheatears, two Little Owls, a singing Turtle Dove, Moussier’s Redstarts, Common Stonechats, Sardinian Warblers everywhere… and singing in the distance, our prize target for the morning, Western Olivaceous Warbler – species number 8,000 for one member of our group. With a bit of searching, we gained superb views of the species with its large bill and its featureless plumage. Moving on further along the track, we were treated to close views of several Zitting Cisticolas, sitting still for once, and a migrant female Western Orphean Warbler. Lunch was taken in a courtyard under the shade of blossoming orange trees – again, a delicious tagine accompanied by couscous with Argan oil. The afternoon was spent exploring the area around the ‘bridges’, with several Squacco Herons seen as well as five Brown-throated Sand Martins, one of the few places where the latter species can be found north of the Sahara. We had just enough time left in the day to stop off at an Argan cooperative – having seen it growing on trees, and having eaten it with a side of couscous, we now had chance to buy some Argan-based beauty products to take back with us when we flew home the following day.

As is traditional, the group voted for their ‘bird of the trip’ at the end of the tour. The worthy winner was Pharaoh Eagle Owl, with Egyptian Nightjar second and Western Olivaceous Warbler, Desert Sparrow and Crimson-winged Finch coming in joint third. Honourable mentions also go to Western Orphean Warbler, Black-winged Kite, Moussier’s Redstart, Firecrest and Spotted & Crowned Sandgrouse, which all found their way onto the shortlist.

-        Stephen Menzie

Created: 09 April 2019