Our list began with a House Bunting perched on a sign inside the arrivals hall of Marrakesh airport! Without this bird, John may not have realised that he had left his bins on the plane until it was too late to go back for them. Having left a chilly snowy England, it was good to feel the warmth of the sun in a clear blue sky and to hear the twitter of low flying Swallows. Other airport arrivals included Lesser Kestrel, Chiffchaff and Common Bulbul, which has a rich tropical sounding call. A lunch stop on the transfer to Agadir produced better views of nine of these Bulbuls, displaying in a nearby tree top, while a couple of Red-rumped Swallows flew to and fro just across the road. At the coast, the Sous estuary was teeming with Grey Herons, Little Egrets, Spoonbills, Black-winged Stilts, Black-tailed Godwits, Ruff, a Green Sandpiper and an assortment of gulls including an immature Mediterranean, but Magpie was bird of the day for me, as the North African mauritanica race has metallic indigo wings and a lovely blue patch of bare skin behind the eye.
Lots of standing water showed how wet it had been recently, but the morning was nice and sunny as we headed south to the Oued Massa National Park. Once off the main road we found a group of sixteen Stone Curlews close to the road and then two pairs of Little Owls perched on small rock piles, followed by Subalpine Warbler and Corn Buntings. Continuing on foot, we had unbeatable views of a whole host of star birds including several superb male Moussier’s Redstarts plus Laughing Dove, Kingfisher, Blue Rock Thrush, Sardinian Warbler, Spotless Starling, Serin and House and Cirl Buntings. In the estuary we scoped black-breasted Atlantic and white-breasted Moroccan races of Cormorant standing together, and we counted fifty plus Glossy Ibises, a similar number of Marbled Ducks, at least forty Spoonbills, eight Spotted Redshanks, a few Kentish Plovers and Sanderlings, two Great White Egrets, a bright pink Greater Flamingo, a Whimbrel and a Curlew Sandpiper. Three Night Herons and fourteen Cranes also flew by. Top of our wanted list here was Black-crowned Tchagra, with slender storm cloud grey body, rufous wings, long white tipped tail, a striking black and white striped head pattern and a heavy black hooked bill. After some searching, we got incredible views of this top bird, when three of them joined in a song contest, eventually coming into the tops of the bushes right in front of us! “Great stuff” as they say on Springwatch.
Another warm sunny day for ‘Operation Bald Ibis’, as we headed north to Tamri in search of one of the rarest birds in the Western Palaearctic, if not the world. Just south of Tamri we stopped off at the river mouth, which was jam-packed with hundreds of Lesser Black-backed, Yellow-legged and elegant Audouin’s Gulls with grey legs and red bills. Just north of Tamri, we struck gold with a group of eight Bald Ibis very close to the road, looking like “Glossy Ibises on a bad hair day” according to Nigel. At the same spot we also had singing Thekla Larks in the scope and eventually got onto a very flighty Spectacled Warbler.
Next we headed inland along Paradise Valley, although it must have been hell at high water during the recent flash flood, which had literally torn up the road in several places! Along here we spotted a very distant soaring Golden Eagle, plus Crag Martin, Black Wheatear, Grey Wagtail and the very handsome africana race of Chaffinch, with a green back, blue-grey head, black lores and white eye rings. This could have been bird of the day were it not for the mega rare Bald Ibis.
In Taroudant, the dawn chorus began with a wailing Imam calling people to Friday prayers at 5.30am, followed by House Buntings and the fruity calls of Common Bulbuls. After breakfast we began with a visit to the nearby riverbed, where we had very close views of Southern Grey Shrike, Spectacled Warbler and Hoopoe, with Little Ringed Plover on a mud bank, but no sign of Plain Martins. On the long drive east via Ouarzazate to Tinerhir, the cliffs above a bridge across the Oued Sous produced Ruddy Shelduck, Peregrine and Booted Eagle, and further on, we passed a Long-legged Buzzard being mobbed by a Kestrel and a swarm of migrating White Storks. On the outskirts of Ouarzazate, Morocco’s own Hollywood, a White Crowned Wheatear posed for the cameras on the film set of a remote and run down western gas station.
Today we were up for the larks on the Tagdilt track and as soon as we stepped out of the minibus, we had a cute little Bar-tailed Lark at just ten yards range! During the morning we enjoyed equally remarkable full frame views of Thick-billed Lark, which is exactly what it says on the tin, Hoopoe Lark, with a long curved beak, and Temminck’s Lark, which has two long spiked feathers reminiscent of bull’s horns! For many, this had been a very productive morning with such good views several lifers including Red-rumped Wheatear as well as all the larks, and on this Saturday afternoon, more results came in, including Desert Larks 4 Trumpeter Finch 1, Leicester 3 Forest 0, and West Brom 3 Derby 1, boing boing! We also found a flock of up to thirty Black-bellied Sandgrouse.
It was now time to head east again and on the way we took a stroll along the impressive Todra Gorge, where the towering vertical rock faces produced a wind tunnel effect. This was just a foretaste of what was to come, as in the afternoon, the wind whipped up an extensive sandstorm, reducing the visibility to almost zero at times, especially when the minibus windows became clogged with wet sand as we drove through a squall. Consequently we dipped on Scrub Warbler and saw few other birds apart from White-crowned and Desert Wheatears, plenty of Ravens and the pale Saharan elegans race of Southern Grey Shrike. With the desert storm still sweeping across the desolate landscape, we really were in the Sahara by the time we arrived in Merzouga.
We set out at dawn on a 4x4 off road safari with an ambitious hit list. Top of the list was Desert Sparrow and so we began by searching the many small settlements scattered along the edge of the massive Erg Chebbi sand dunes. Every camel paddock seemed to have House Sparrows in their hundreds, with a few Spaniards among them, but the Desert eluded us for quite some time until eventually our patience was rewarded with excellent views of a nesting pair of these really special sparrows. Well done to John, aka ‘Sparrow Man’ for seeing them first. Next we had Desert Wheatear, Bar-tailed Lark and Hoopoe Lark all in the same field of view and with the same pale sandy colouration. The Hoopoe Lark even performed its song flight display where it flies straight upwards for about thirty feet and then drops vertically with folded wings, singing all the way. This was followed by nice views of a male Tristram’s Warbler, which is quite similar to a Subalpine but with rusty brown primaries. Moving on from this Tamarisk scrub to a more open sandy area, I asked our guide Christian if we could expect any Coursers and within a minute there they were, four of them, blending in so well with the light sandy terrain but showing off their very neat blue-grey caps and black and white eye stripes. For entertainment value, the African Desert Warbler took some beating. While putting on such a great show right in front of us, we could clearly see its bright yellow eyes as well as its clean white underparts and the customary pale sandy upperparts.
After a picnic lunch in the shade of an oasis of palm trees, we tracked down a group of eight Fulvous Babblers moving from bush to bush, often by running across the sand. Back in the Land Cruisers, we got close to some Short-toed Larks and then spotted a male Houbara Bustard. As we scoped it he went over the brow and so we drove in a long arc hoping for a better view. We were so lucky to find it, but when it started to go into display mode, by running with its neck folded back while puffing out the black and white neck feathers into a fluffy ball, this was the icing on the cake. We even found time to drop in for a cup of tea and pet the baby goats at a house back in the oasis. By now we had seen everything but sandgrouse, although we did try very hard for them, which was an adventure in itself as our four by fours bounced around on the rough terrain. With numerous lifers for everyone, this had been a fabulous day and one we will probably never forget.
It was now time to leave the desert and head west for Ouarzazate with some top birding en route. Within thirty minutes of leaving Merzouga we were scoping a Barbary Falcon on the top of a roadside pylon, followed by lots of Brown-necked Ravens gliding along a line of cliffs where we also found a majestic Pharaoh Eagle Owl, standing in the entrance to its desert hideout. As it kept one eye on us, our scopes showed all the detail of its pale ‘desert’ plumage, including the dark eyebrows and pointed ear tufts.
A thunderstorm up ahead filled the dry wadis with flash floods which threatened to break the journey each time we came to a ford, but we always managed to get through the resulting mayhem, while others hesitated or got stuck. Even the high street in Tinerhir was awash with chocolate brown water. That afternoon we must have seen about fifty Black Kites en masse, plus a steady stream of some twenty Short-toed Eagles and a single Honey Buzzard, all migrating in the wake of the storm, and we even got a Lanner Falcon perched in the scopes. At the next stop our quarry amongst the rocks was a pair of scarce Mourning Wheatears, which took a bit of searching for, but it was well worth the patient stake out of the rocky slope, where we eventually watched them popping in and out of a nest hole. By late afternoon we arrived at the reservoir near Ouarzazate, where a feast of raptors included at least four Marsh Harriers, male and female Hen Harriers, a supercharged Barbary Falcon repeatedly dashing and swooping in all directions, and a fly by Osprey carrying a large yellow fish, which David identified as a smoked Haddock!
Next morning the freshly watered fields on the outskirts of Ouarzazate were alive with Little Ringed Plovers, Iberian Yellow Wagtails, Zitting Cisticolas and low flying Sand Martins and Red-rumped Swallows. On the edge of the reservoir there must have been a thousand White Storks as well as hundreds of Ruddy Shelducks, two Common Shelducks, a few Snipe and Greenshank and a Wood Sandpiper. We even flushed a Quail, but star bird for me here was the really smart Moroccan White Wagtail, which showed so well right in front of us.
We were now on the road to Marrakesh, crossing the High Atlas mountain range, sprinkled with fresh snow, and on the greener northern slopes we watched a Wild Boar and a pair of Barbary Partridges foraging on a distant hillside.
On the last day in the field we had two target birds and by 8 o’clock we already had one of them in our scopes, once Christian saw it fly across the road in front of the vehicle. It was Levaillant’s Woodpecker, which is like a Green Woodpecker with a yellow rump and green wings, but the face is grey, and as this was a female, she had a grey crown and bright red nape. She sat in the tree for so long we had time to take photos and eventually we had to leave her and move on. Our destination was Oukaimeden, the only ski resort in Africa! The place was packed out with hundreds of Red-billed and Alpine Choughs and we were still on the car park at the end of the road when we found our second target species, the exquisite high altitude Crimson-winged Finch. Mission accomplished, but there were still some good birds to follow, including a splendid male Black Redstart, a male Brambling with European Chaffinches, Rock Sparrows showing bright yellow throat patches, three Alpine Accentors and point blank views of a very confiding Horned Lark.
Back in Marrakesh, we did a tour of the square and the souks to experience the hustle and bustle of this amazingly lively city where hundreds of Pallid and Little Swifts scream overhead. By now we had seen 152 species including many of the specialities of this exciting country, thanks to the expertise of our local guide Christian. However, we didn’t just see all these birds, we saw them all really, really well.