WINGSPAN BIRD TOURS (www.wingspanbirdtours.com) Leader Bob Buckler
Our group of seven ‘Wing-spanners’ toured the wonderful countryside of Morocco in early March, visiting the high Atlas Mountains, the stony plains of the ‘Hammada’, the southeast region of Tafilalt, (the area closest to the Sahara), the lush Sous valley and the coastal estuary of the Oued Sous and the Massa national park.
Saturday 8th March
A dry sunny day with temps in the lower 20’s greeted the group as we disembarked at Marrakech from their Easy Jet Gatwick flight at 10:15am. We met our driver Ahmed and loaded up into the bus for the drive to Oukaimedan in the western high atlas, a journey of some 80km. Birds began to appear as we skirted the suburbs of Marrakech and as we headed for the snow capped peaks of the Atlas Mountains they looked both, enticing and exciting, as they towered over the plain of Haouz. As we crossed the plain we noted Barn Swallow, Spotless Starling, House Sparrow, White Stork and Collared Dove. We stopped off to buy our lunch and made our first encounter with the true Morocco, both in culture and currency.
We ate our picnic lunch in the glade of a pine copse in the foothills and began finding birds almost straight away, a very showy Firecrest flitted amongst the leaf litter and then Coal Tit and African Blue Tit appeared, both sub-species and subtly different from the strain at home. Next the raptors put on a show, a Northern Goshawk sped across the skyline as a Long-legged Buzzard circled above and then a Golden Eagle delighted us as it soared on the thermals until it disappeared from sight.
Higher up we then stopped at a sparkling stream, noting Dipper, Rock Dove and Red-billed Chough, driving on and climbing all the time we reached our hotel at 3pm in Oukaimedan. After a short settling-in period we explored the hotel grounds, we spent a good half an hour watching the two races of Chaffinch seen side by side, a small flock of Rock Sparrows, Mistle Thrush, Black Redstart and more of the African race of Blue Tit.
Moving on, our next destination was the mountainside around the village of Oukaimedan, we took a track up to the radio tower, along the way we had great views of Atlas Horned Lark and, at the summit a Rock Bunting sat on top of a small fir tree about 50 meters below us. From the top the views were breathtaking with snow capped peaks towering above us and the lush green valley below.
A Yellow Wagtail (iberica) was found as we drove towards our last destination of the day – the Ski-lift car park. Within minutes of arrival we were watching Crimson-winged Finch, Rock Sparrow and more Horned Larks in mixed flocks as they feed in the car park and were within a few feet of us, fantastic! As the sun went down the temperature fell rapidly so we beat a hasty retreat back to the hotel for a warm-up and a Moroccan dinner of Lamb Tajines.
Sunday 9th March
A pre-breakfast excursion found us wandering around the grounds of the hotel where we had great views of the African race of Chaffinch, also Blue Tit, Mistle & Song Thrush, Rock Sparrow and Black Redstart. Driving through the village we saw hundreds of Chough, of both species which had descended on the village, they were everywhere, feeding alongside small flocks of very genuine looking Rock Doves. In one garden a small flock of finches contained two Brambling, we arrived at the Ski lift car park which was now deserted, except for hundreds of birds. Raven, Red-billed and Alpine Chough, Rock Doves, Horned Larks, Rock Sparrows were joined by at least 50 Crimson-winged Finches, we had tremendous close views of all of them.
We set off after breakfast for the long journey to Boumalne du Dades; we planned to spend all day travelling whilst making frequent stops for refreshments and birding. Our first stop was a few kilometres north of Ourika, we pulled to the side of the road and scanned fields and hedgerows producing a fascinating list which included, Black-winged Kite, Corn Bunting, Common Bubul, Southern Grey Shrike, Crested Lark, Stonechat and a superb male Mousierre’s Redstart.
We spent the rest of the morning climbing through the Tizi-n-tichka pass and at one stop we watched a pair of Long-legged Buzzards displaying and mating, our lunch stop was made 40 kilometers from Quarzazate at a road junction. On the rugged hill side we found Trumpeter Finch, Goldfinch (parva), Spanish Sparrow, Thekla Lark, Black Redstart and another pair of mating Long-legged Buzzards.
Another stop near the reservoir at Quarzazate we picked up Great Crested Grebe, Common Chiffchaff, House Bunting, White-crowned Wheatear, Serin, Common Kestrel and a few distant Terns. We arrived in Boumalne du Dades very late in the afternoon and quickly located our hotel on the edge of town, as the light was fading we decided to relax before tucking into a lovely dinner of cous cous and roasted vegetables.
Monday 10th March
We made an early excursion to the Tagdilt trail with plenty to see on a cold but bright morning. Our first birds were Cream Coloured Coursers they were everywhere and a count of over 100 was no exaggeration. Next we stopped to look at a flock of Short-toed Larks and we had a brief view of a male Thick-billed Lark, we searched in vain but could not relocate it. We were soon distracted by close views of Temminck’s Horned Lark and a Hoopoe Lark; distant views were had of perched Lanner Falcons (2), Long-legged Buzzards (4) and flying Western Marsh Harriers (3). Wheatears began to show themselves with Red-rumped, Desert and Black-eared being noted. Just before our two hours were up a single Crowned Sandgrouse flew over us calling, unfortunately most of the group were inside the bus by then. We headed back to the hotel for a breakfast break after an exciting morning.
Returning to the tracks across the hammada of the Tagdilt we found White Wagtail, Hoopoe, Northern Wheatear and Seebohm’s Wheatear and at the ‘rubbish tip’ several Black Kite sightings were made. A little further on we crossed a wadi where there were Trumpeter Finches, an Orphean Warbler, a Subalpine Warbler and a Spectacled Warbler all in the same bush! A Southern Grey Shrike sat on top of another bush and a Desert Lark gave a crowd-pleasing show. More flocks of Short-toed Larks flew by and Coursers were everywhere, at 1pm it began to get too hot to bird so we headed into Boumalne for lunch and then onto the famous gorge for a cooler afternoon.
Along the gorge we found Black Wheatear, Rock Dove, Crag and House Martin, House Bunting, Black Redstart, Chiffchaff, Chaffinch and Blue Tit. Late in the afternoon we returned the Tagdilt track but stayed on the tarmac road, we set up stall near a small pool hoping to see sandgrouse as they came to drink. We saw the usual fare of Red-rumped and Desert Wheatears, Temminck’s Horned lark, Coursers, a distant Marsh Harrier and a Tawny Pipit. A Green Sandpipier was put up by a small herd of donkeys but no sandgrouse appeared, the light was fading, the temperature dropping and tummies were rumbling, so we set off back to the hotel for a well earned dinner.
Tuesday 11th March
Three of us made it to the 6:30am excursion, we ventured on foot from the hotel, walking left uphill along the escarpment, the morning was not as bright as usual with some cloud and a chilly breeze. After a while we noticed movement in a shallow valley, a mixed flock of Trumpeter Finches and Short-toed Larks, about 40 birds, were feeding on the ground. Several Thekla Larks feed nearby and two Bar-tailed Larks were found further along the valley. A Sylvia warbler was picked up and quickly lost in the scrub, possible Tristram’s but we will never know.
An early breakfast was taken and we were on the road by 8:30am taking leave of our hosts Moustapha and Jamila as we set off for our desert section of the tour, our destination was Rissani. We stopped many times, the most note-worthy being a palm grove just outside of Tinehir where birds were everywhere. Our first of many Common Redstarts was found very early on, a beautiful plumaged male, then several Spectacled Warblers went on the list followed by Crested Lark, Woodchat Shrike, White Crowned Wheatear, Blue Rock Thrush, Sub-alpine Warbler and possibly 3 Fulvous Babblers flew down behind a palm tree never to be seen again.
Next we stopped at a wadi just west of Goulmima, as soon as we stepped into the scrub two Common Quail flew up and were quickly lost to sight. Several Spectacled Warblers flitted in and out of sight and a fabulous Tristram’s Warbler was very showy. More Subalpine Warblers were counted along with two Southern Grey Shrikes, 50+ Short-toed Larks, many Trumpeter Finches and four Bar-tailed Larks. We made a couple more stops but only recorded many of the species already listed.
At 3pm we arrived at our Auberge where we were booked to stay for the next three nights and at 4pm we explored the garden of this wonderful oasis which consisted of a large walled garden littered with many trees and shrubs. We listed the usual fare of Trumpeter Finch, White Crowned Wheatear, Redstart, Chiffchaff, Hoopoe, Serin, Sardinian and Subalpine Warblers and to our great delight 3 Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters flew in and landed on a telephone wire. These colourful gems hunted and devoured dragonflies for an hour or so before disappearing beyond the garden wall but not before our cameras had recorded their visit.
Wednesday 12th March
What a fantastic day we had this day, an early start found all the group heading off towards the wadi adjacent to our Auberge, one of the first birds recorded was the Blue-cheeked Bee-eater as 4 of them flew from the tree-lined entrance track, where they probably roosted, never to be seen or heard of again. In the wadi warblers were everywhere with Subalpine being by far the most common. Spectacled, Sardinian and Chiffchaff were also very common warblers found in the scrub. Some of the group watched a Fulvous Babbler for a short period and all of us saw Desert Lark, Southern Grey Shrike, W. C. Wheatear, Trumpeter Finch, Serin, Common Redstart, House Martin and Barn Swallow.
We returned to the auberge garden and noticed a distinct increase in the number of warblers. There must have been hundreds of Chiffchaff and Subalpine Warbler that were joined by the odd Willow Warbler, Blackcap and Sardinian Warbler, well what a great start to our first full day in the Tafilalt.
Following a lovely breakfast set in the most wonderful surroundings we headed south across the desert to Merzouga, to the large seasonal lake to be more precise. We logged Black Kite as we approached the town of Merzouga and a few Barn Swallows passed as we crossed the dry stone plain to find the lake. At lakeside we listed many species, hundreds of birds fed in the lake, Greater Flamingo, Ruddy Shelduck, Marbled Duck, Shoveler, Black Winged Stilt and Black-necked Grebe being the most common. On the shoreline we noted Kentish Plover and Sanderling (a truly unforgettable experience as you direct people to a Sanderling using distant camels as reference markers!!). In the lakeside scrub we saw Short-toed Lark, Tawny Pipit, a displaying Hoopoe Lark (an incredible sight in itself but as we were watching it a Lanner Falcon swooped from nowhere and nearly took it in mid display!). We also saw Desert Wheatear and a great find, Isabelline Wheatear. Amongst the Common Coot we picked out one or two Red-knobbed Coot and from a number of shoreline positions we added Grey Heron, Greenshank, Sand Martin and Little Grebe all a truly bizarre sight on the edge of the Sahara desert.
The temperature was becoming unpleasant so we jumped into the bus and headed for refuge in the form of an auberge along the edge of the very impressive Erg Chebi dune system. The dunes towered above us as we searched some outbuildings and a camel dung heap for the very rare Desert Sparrow. After a very hot half hour we eventually found a female amongst the many House Sparrows, then a male appeared on the wall of an outbuilding, eventually the pair giving great close views as the camera shutters clicked away, The Desert Sparrow is a stunning looking bird it would be a great shame if Morocco lost this species. At the auberge Yasmina we sat and ate lunch overlooking the seasonal pool from the raised terrace. What a great afternoon we had, birds were everywhere with dozens of warblers passing just below through the tamarisk scrub. We saw many Subalpine and Sardinian Warblers, Chiffchaff, a wonderful and showy Bonelli’s Warbler, Sedge Warbler, and Common Redstart. On the lake there was Little Grebe, Black-winged Stilt, Greenshank, Little Ringed Plover, Ruff, Ruddy Shelduck and a couple of Green Sandpipers. Then the excitement really started as we heard distant calls from high above, soon a flock of Bee-eaters descending onto the trees on the shoreline of the pool. Nineteen Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters put on a brilliant colourful shown in the great afternoon light, what a crowd pleaser and when three Brown-necked Ravens put in an appearance sometime later they hardly got looked at because the group were still admiring the Bee-eaters. We spent 3 hours sitting on that terrace and it seemed like fifteen minutes, but it was getting late so we unfortunately dragged ourselves away from this tremendous site and headed back across the desert track for our evening meal of chicken tajine, the conversation was lively as the group were still buzzing from a great relaxing afternoon.
Thursday 13th March
Today we made an early start and at 6:30am we boarded 4-wheel drive jeeps for our excursion into the desert proper to search for the very rare Houbara Bustard. We headed south east from Merzouga and soon all signs of inhabitation were lost from sight. We saw several bird species en-route such as Barn Swallow, Desert Wheatear, Desert lark, Hoopoe Lark, Cream Coloured Courser, Southern Grey Shrike and Short-toed Lark.
After a couple of hours we sat and ate our pre-packed breakfast of pancakes, buns, bread, honey, tea, coffee and orange juice. Now fully refreshed we renewed our search and spent the next couple of hours searching every likely looking stretch of habitation, we drove close to the frontier between Morocco and Algeria and just as we found the Houbara Bustard we were flagged down by soldiers from a Moroccan army outpost who apparently though we had crossed over from Algeria. After about 45 minutes, during which time our drivers got a ticking-off, our passports were checked and mint teat and cake was consumed we were allowed to pursue our interest.
The trail of the Houbara was truly cold by now and we spent another hour searching without success, so we headed back to our auberge having spent 5 hours driving around some wonderful and beautiful terraine managing only a brief encounter with our target bird.
After that gruelling morning we had a leisurely lunch in the gardens of the auberge and then spent an hour or so looking at new migrant ‘arrivals’ in the garden bushes. We found Bonelli’s, Melodious, Wood and Willow Warblers and saw many Chiffchaff, Subalpine Warbler, Trupeter Finches and White Crowned Wheatears.
At 3pm we headed north to Rissani and then onto the road to Alnif, after a short while we stopped at a wadi and as we emerged from the car we saw several (9) Brown-necked Ravens circling on the thermals. We then walked along the dry river bed with a rocky escarpment towering above us on our left. We were pestered by young lads who were trying to sell us fossils and trinklets but they became very useful as they new where to find our target species the Pharoah Eagle Owl. Sure enough, after another half-kilometre walk during which we noted a pair of Brown-necked Ravens, there was an adult Owl sitting out on the rock high above us and just below it there were too fluffy young owls, a delightful sight and well worth the walk. We duly paid our guides and set off back to the bus for the drive back to the auberge first stopping off in Rissani to pick up food supplies for long drive the next day.
Friday 14th March
We said farewell to our hosts at the auberge and with great sadness we left our desert home for the long journey to the coastal area around Agadir. We planned a two-stage journey with an overnight stop at Taliouine about two thirds of the way. During the journey we made several stops and noted some good species from the bus. Roadside stops produced the usual array of Wheatears, Shrikes, larks and Finches, whilst at least 4 Blue-cheeked Bea-eaters were seen on wires near to Erfoud. At the reservoir near Quarzazate we saw an Osprey, Great-crested Grebe, Grey Heron, Mallard, Ruddy Shelduck and Common Coot whilst in the town centre we added Lesser Kestrel and Pallid Swift. At a stop near a tourist centre we saw House Bunting and Laughing Dove and a few kilometres outside of Boumalne du Dades we stopped to watch a small flock of Thick-billed Larks that gave excellent views, pleasing the group as they had missed the two, brief, previous sightings.
Another two stops found us firstly, on the ‘regs’ just outside of Tazenakct where we saw Woodchat Shrike (5), Cream-coloured Courser, Thekla Lark, Short-toed Lark, Desert, Northern and Black-eared Wheatear, Trumpeter Finch and many Subalpine Warblers. Next we stopped just outside of Taliouine where we noted Hoopoe, Southern Grey Shrike, Barn Swallow and Crested Lark.
Two very interesting species were noted from the bus towards the end of our journey, the first was a Barbary Falcon sitting in bright sunshine on a roadside pylon and the second was our first Montagu’s Harrier. We were now at the head of the Sous valley, the vegetation was changing from barren stony plains to cultivated fields with lush green bushes, shrubs and trees. We stopped overnight in Taliouine some 200 kilometers from Agadir where a whole new range of bird species awaited our attention as we approached the western coastline of Morocco.
Saturday 15th March
An early walk around the garden of the hotel and the surrounding olive grove proved to be very productive for those of the group that made the effort. A couple of Tawny Owls called just before daylight as did the local imam about 04:45! The harsh call and song of the Common Bulbul seemed to come from every tree in the garden as we emerged from our rooms and a dawn chorus to rival any in England could be heard from the olive grove next door. During a one hour walk we noted many species including Wryneck, Olivaceous, Melodious, Bonelli’s, Willow and Subalpine Warblers, Blackcap, Chiffchaff, Song Thrush and we also noted our first Greenfinch and Great Tit. Returning to the hotel we watched the Bulbuls for a while and added Blue Rock Thrush, House Martin and Red-rumped Swallow before retiring for breakfast.
On the road by 8:45 we set off for the second leg of our journey to Agadir along very straight roads and wide open countryside, several stops produced Marsh and Montagu,s Harriers, many Woodchat and Southern Grey Shrikes were seen and a party of 15 migrating Black Kites that were flying very low down the valley, they could not find thermals in the dull overcast conditions. Our most productive stop was at the airfield just outside of Tarroudant where a small party of Fulvous Babblers were very well appreciated, once we had got our eye for this species we noted another two groups along the dual carriageway just after Tarroudant.
After Tarroudant the countryside was lost to surburban Agadir and further stops only produced Common Magpie, Spotless Starling and Common Swifts, it was early afternoon when arrived at the Souss Massa National Park and it was very hot. A cooling breeze helped us cope with the heat as we walk the track towards the month of the river, we had great panoramic views over the riparian scrub and extensive reed-beds. We added many new species here and one of the first delivered a lovely melodic song from a very close dead tree, the bird, a Black-crowned Tchagra was equally as impressive as its song. The river held Greater Flamingo, Spoonbill, Little Egret, Glossy Ibis a few wildfowl, Marbled Duck, Teal, Mallard, Moorhen, Coot and Little Grebe. The scrub was alive with warblers many of which we had already noted but a Great Reed Warbler (seen) and a Reed Warbler (heard) were new for the trip, as was Zitting Cisticola. We also saw Mousierre’s Redstart (male and female) , Laughing Dove, our first Linnet, Stonechat and the usual fare of gulls – Yellow-legged, Lesser Black backed and Audouin’s. We next tried an area just south of the town of Sidi Rbat, where open, cultivated fields were fed by small pools and water filled ditches. Unfortunately the water had dried up, there were no pools and very few birds. We noted a Water Rail as it scooted across our path as we arrived and the sky was full of Barn Swallows and Common Swifts. We added Meadow Pipit, Yellow Wagtail, Sparrowhawk, Booted Eagle, and Common Kestrel to our ever growing daily tally, our total for the day was an impressive 90 species. So at 6pm, after a very long day we headed towards Agadir to our hotel for a hot showers and a good meal.
Sunday 16th March
Our last full day of birding had arrived and we intended to make the most of it. At 6:30am we made a start travelling the short distance to the Oues Sous estuary and by 6:40am we jumped out of the bus to the sound of European Bee-eaters as a flock of 10 flew over. The tide was receding and on the emerging mudflats .we watched Greater Flamingo, Curlew, Redshank, Greenshank, Dunlin, Sanderling, Bar-tailed Godwit and the Moroccan race of Common Magpie. Our next stop found us walking across a sandy heathland to view a wider part of the river mouth. We saw Spoonbill, Turnstone, Kentish, Little, Grey and Ringed Plover, Little Stint, Sandwich Terns, Y. L. Gulls, Audouins Gull an Osprey drifted up the estuary putting up every bird in sight. On the heath we watched Moussiere’s Redstart, Sardinian Warbler, our first Robin of the trip and Zitting Cisticolas, whilst overhead Pallid and Common Swifts dashed about. At 9am we headed back to the hotel for breakfast before heading north to look for the star bird of the trip, the very rare Bald Ibis. However before we reached our destination one of the group had to be returned to the hotel because of a stomach bug, the rest of the group waited at a coastal vantage point where we logged Northern Gannet, Blue Rock Thrush, House Bunting, Common Kestrel and a Preying Mantis.
After an hour we were back on the road and we reached our beach-destination very shortly, the river Tamri flows nto the sea just before the town and forms a wide basin with reed fringed pools. On the main poll a flock of Yellow-legged Gulls contained a few Audouin’s Gulls and the large flock of Common Coot held a single Red-knobbed Coot. Our star bird was found on the hillside behind the village where scope views were had by all, a group of some 31 Bald Ibis were feeding amongst the sparse vegetation. Soon a second flock came over the hill and they were joined by the first group, the whole flock came towards us and to our delight they landed on the bank of the lagoon some 100 meters away giving excellent views. There was an impressive flock of 69 birds in all and they stayed for an hour before flying off over the hill never to been seen again! We ate our lunch in the shade of some tall bushes and then some of the group took a walk into the reed-beds whilst others went for a paddle in the sea. In the reeds we noted Reed Warbler (singing), Willow Warbler, Chiffchaff, Sardinian and Subalpine Warblers. In the small pools we found Little Grebe and more Common Coot.
As mid-afternoon approached we decided to head back to the Oued Sous where it would be cooler, some of the group elected to return to hotel for a quiet relaxing drink in the shade of the garden trees. At the estuary there were thousands of birds, alongside those already recorded we saw Knot, Curlew Sandpiper, Gull-billed Tern, Slender-billed Gull. We had a fantastic fly-over by an Osprey as it glided right over the top of us. The sun had moved round to the west and provided perfect lighting for scanning over the estuary, a photographer’s dream scenario, we counted 18 different species of waders during our 2 hour vigil, added to that were the gulls, terns, egrets, herons and other wildfowl, what a place!
The tide began its relentless rise, the light began to fade, the birds set off to find lodgings for the night and so, reluctantly, did we. The day’s fading light was as if the curtains of time were being drawn closed across our wonderful window through which we had the opportunity to view this magical place.
Monday 17th March
We made a very early start to travel the 200 kilometers from Agadir to Marrakech, even at 5am the Common Bulbuls were noisily going about their business in the hotel garden. The drive was uneventful we made one stop and noted more Bulbuls, House Bunting, Spotless Starling and White Stork. The birding tour was over as we arrived at Menera airport for the return flight to London, Gatwick.
The trip was made a great success because the efforts of the participants, the humourous banter and the relaxed atmosphere created by everyone on the tour. We encountered 173 species and had some memorable experiences, the group voted the Blue-cheeked Bee-eater as their favourite sighting, especially the flock of 19 that descended into the trees from the desert skies as we sat sipping cool drinks overlooking the seasonal pool at Café Yasmina, with a backdrop of the Erg Chebi dunes, what better way could you spent an afternoon?