Photos with this report (click to enlarge)
Southern Grey Shrike
I had only been to Morocco once before, in 1973 when having paid £13.00 for a two-day crossing (cabin included in fare) on the Patricia from Southampton to Bilbao, I hitched down through France and Spain before a couple of Canadians in a VW van picked me up somewhere near Torremolinos. They too were heading for Morocco for a couple of months but things didn’t quite go to plan after they had their money stolen on our first night in Morocco! We ended up living off my money for the following six weeks until that too ran out....but that’s another story.
In spite of the above, my memories of that time have not been soured by the experience and I’ve always wanted to go back to this beautiful country, not least to catch up with some of the birds I missed (my Canadian friends, Dick & Pete were not interested in birds) and revisit some of the places I had so much enjoyed 37 years ago. With the Euro so strong against the pound, anywhere in Europe is pretty expensive for us Brits at the moment. Morocco then seemed a good bet - although I doubt you could catch the ferry from Algeciras to Ceuta for 95 pesetas (65p) today as I did 5th Feb 1973!
My wife, Gerda had never been to Morocco but I knew she would enjoy it; the High Atlas Mountains, stony deserts, lush green river valleys, the different culture, the food and the friendly people were all memories I wanted to renew and share. I wanted to retrace some of my footsteps. Gerda is not a birder but she enjoys the outdoors and a ‘wilderness’ experience as much as I do. This trip report then is perhaps different to most that I read prior to returning this year, not so much a twitch as a holiday. We only had ten days and as we didn’t want to spend it all on the road (Morocco is a big country and the key birding places spread far apart), we concentrated on the High Atlas and desert to the south. We didn’t visit the coast but even so we still managed to drive 1400km (at a leisurely pace). With no seabirds, waders or terns our list at the end of the trip was “only” 100 species but six of these were lifers for me and we had the most wonderful holiday.
So what changes, that I could remember, have taken place in Morocco over the last 37 years? Not many. It’s still a wonderful country to visit, the people as friendly as ever and flying there from Gatwick was so much faster than hitching (3 hours 10 minutes instead of five days). Staying in hotels was so much better than caves or the back of a VW van, although I did miss the night sky (Gerda refused to sleep rough). Importantly, you can still get that ‘wilderness’ experience that we so crave for but cannot attain in southern Britain. Oh and you can still get ill if you’re not careful so no change there. On the bird-front there are now Collared Doves everywhere: I estimated we saw >550 in ten days compared with none in 1973. The Southern Grey Shrikes may be less common with a max of 11/day this trip when I had 100 on one day in 1973. Corvids are uncommon for some reason but other than a count of 120 Ravens (with “100 mostly at Tazenakht”) on 10.02.1973 compared to no more than 5/day this time, they probably always have been. Raptors too seem scarce with certainly fewer Kestrels this trip and you can drive for hours without seeing any raptors at all in spite of pretty intensive scanning, yet the habitat looks ideal. Of course, spring had yet to arrive.
Day 1 Friday, 5th February Gatwick – Marrakech
Day 2 Saturday, 6th February Marrakech
Day 3 Sunday, 7th February Marrakech – High Atlas Mountains - Ouarzazate
Day 4 Monday, 8th February Ouarzazate – Zagora (Draa valley)
Day 5 Tuesday, 9th February Zagora & Mhamid (Draa valley)
Day 6 Wednesday, 10th February Zagora – Ouarzazate – Boumalne du Dades
Day 7 Thursday, 11th February Boumalne du Dades, Tagdilt Track & Gorge du Dades
Day 8 Friday, 12th February Boumalne du Dades &Tagdilt Track
Day 9 Saturday, 13th February Boumalne du Dades – High Atlas Mountains – Ait Ourir
Day 10 Sunday, 14th February Ait Ourir – Amanouz – Ourika – Oukaimeden
Day 1 Friday, 5th February - Gatwick – Marrakech
We flew into Marrakech on an Easyjet flight for £252.00 for the two of us – fare includes two nights @ Hotel Islane opposite the Koutoubia Mosque in the old city, the Medina. So much more expensive than hitching but so easy, just like catching a bus. We were at our hotel by 1:00pm after catching said bus for 20dH (£1.50) each from the airport and with temperatures in the 20s, palm trees swaying in the wind, House Buntings outside the bedroom and White Storks already on nests, it was a world away from Gatwick. I was relieved that I had no problems getting in as one of the Canadians (Dick) mentioned earlier and I were actually thrown out of Morocco in March 1973 after returning from a visit to the (then) ‘Spanish Sahara’. At the desert(ed) border control post, the passport control officials were missing, presumably off for tea somewhere but this meant our passports weren’t re-stamped so Dick and I had effectively re-entered Morocco as illegal immigrants! Fortunately today, this didn’t show up at the passport control’s computer at the airport and as they didn’t ask me “Have you ever been here before?” I breezed in without a hitch. Phew.
Gerda and I spent the afternoon in the Medina and the Cyber Park, the latter a real oasis in the middle of the city with orange and olive trees, very few people and loads of Blackbirds, Common Bulbuls, House Sparrows, Chiffchaffs, Collared Doves and Woodpigeons. I also saw a few Greenfinches, 4 Spanish Sparrows, 8 Spotless Starlings, a Sardinian Warbler, Robin and 4 White Wagtails. There was a magnificent scenic photographic poster display taken from all round the world, set out along the tree-lined avenues through the park which even I couldn’t resist viewing amidst the avian competition. This must be a great place for migrants in a few weeks time but the only evidence for this today came from a few Barn Swallows and a pair of Lesser Kestrels amongst Common Kestrels on the Koutoubia Mosque nearby.
In the evening, flocks of Pallid and Little Swifts suddenly appeared from nowhere. We hadn’t seen any during the daytime. A Barbary Falcon also arrived with prey (perhaps one of the numerous feral pigeons in the city) and settled on the Koutoubia Mosque where presumably it went to roost.
Day 2 Saturday, 6th February - Marrakech
We awoke today to a blue sky full of swifts and I spent an hour or two at dawn on the restaurant balcony of our hotel just marvelling at the spectacle. There must have been >5,000 Pallids and c800 Littles feeding over the city, gradually gaining height before disappearing altogether. Then in the evening they began to return albeit not so obviously so as at dawn. Where do they go in the daytime? We didn’t see any when we arrived at lunchtime yesterday. Odd nobody else seems to have mentioned this in other reports - this was to be one of the highlights of the trip for me.
Gerda and I spent the day in the Medina wandering through the souks and enjoying the food, stalls, snake charmers, water sellers and markets in the Jemaa Square (Djemaa el-Fna). We escaped the hustle and bustle in the afternoon, returning to the Cyber Park opposite our hotel for a reprieve. Our first African Chaffinches and Serins greeted us there and other new birds were Blue Rock Thrush and 3 Song Thrushes, the latter presumably left-over wintering birds. Common Bulbuls must have numbered over 200 and a similar number of House Sparrows and 26 House Buntings were counted around the city streets.
The Jemaa square really comes alive in the evenings and we took advantage of the sunset from the open rooftop of a restaurant overlooking it. This gave us a 360 degree panorama of the entire city with the snow-capped mountains of the High Atlas as a backdrop to the south. As the swifts started to return, small flocks of sparrows arrived from the north/ northeast in groups of approximately 5, 10, 15 &20 all flying determinedly south past our rooftop at eye level. They were all Spanish Sparrows and I counted 1300 birds before dusk! Presumably they must spend the day feeding on farmland outside the city in the daytime as I only saw a few in the Cyber Park and none in the streets anywhere. These competed for attention with the larger flocks of Spotless Starlings flying southwest although overall I think the sparrows won on the number front. Where they were roosting is a mystery but it would be worthy of investigation. I noted a return movement at dawn the next day but they were more dispersed and our own hotel was not as well situated to see them as at that rooftop restaurant in the square.
Day 3 Sunday, 7th February - Marrakech – High Atlas Mountains - Ouarzazate
Breakfast at our rooftop restaurant was interrupted by a flock of 37 Black Kites making their way north in the early morning sun at 07:30hrs. Small groups of White Wagtails were also moving north and a Hoopoe at the Koutoubia Mosque may have hinted at migration too.
Marrakech is a wonderful place. I’m not a city lover but our short stay here has been an absolute delight. Had I been on my own I probably too would have dashed off the first morning as so many others seem to do - to the main birding sights further afield - but then I would have missed all the above. In fact we never saw any other birders during our time in Morocco but from the various trip reports, most only use Marrakech as a convenient stop en route to/from the airport. In fact we hardly saw any other couples at all as most of the westerners in Marrakech were in large groups on guided tours. This seems a shame as it isn’t unsafe anywhere in Morocco; we never felt threatened at any time and travelling on your own can be so much more rewarding.
Having said all that, Gerda and I were looking forward to collecting our car from the airport and heading off into the High Atlas today in search of some peace and quiet. We were heading for the town of Ouarzazate, 204km southeast and a seven hour drive away. The weather looked good (it was 32’C in Marrakech yesterday) and any worries about crossing the often impassable Tizi-n-Tichka Pass due to snow drifts were quickly dispelled as we drove off under a clear blue sky. On my previous visit to Ouarzazate, we only just made it through the Pass in a heavy blizzard at night 37 years (less two days) ago. Today we had sunshine all the way and the scenery was breathtaking.
Our first stop was at a rubbish tip about 30km out of the city (Gerda said this was “breathtaking” in a different kind of way and refused to get out of the car) where c400 Cattle Egrets, 20 White Storks and 6 Grey Herons were present. We had seen a few Crested Larks and the distinctive Moroccan race of Magpie along the way plus a single Sparrowhawk. At another stop, six Corn Buntings were in a bush and 2 Serins, 10 Linnets and a Cirl Bunting put in an appearance. A coffee break at a roadside cafe higher up produced our first Crag Martin and Black Wheatear, the first of eight and a Goshawk over the pine forest...but not the hoped for Levaillant’s Woodpecker.
Usually on trips like this we try and book accommodation in advance to avoid wasting precious (birding!) time on the day and securing the best deals available, often cheaper in advance via the internet. However, due to the uncertainties with getting through the High Atlas at the Tizi-n-Tichka Pass (and there aren’t any shortcuts) we hadn’t booked anything this holiday. Thus we arrived in Ouarzazate completely clueless and prepared for spending at least an hour or more negotiating a room price. Within minutes of arriving, however, and parked up on the roadside to consult our Lonely Planet Guide, a car drew up alongside offering to take us to a hotel “only 200dH/night”. This was the Hotel Nadia which Gerda had just been reading about so we followed our escort through town and within minutes had booked in and set up the scope on the rooftop overlooking the town. This also afforded good views of the reservoir, Barrage El Mansour and although some distance away, I counted c170 Great Cormorants and 6 Ruddy Shelducks. One of the former, perched in a bush alongside its congeners looked like a P.c.lucidus with its white upper breast and black belly but surely this is a coastal race? At dusk a Barbary Falcon flew across and a flock of 250 White Storks arrived from the south to settle on the shore of the reservoir along with c100 White Wagtails. A Laughing Dove just by the hotel proved to be one of several in the area the following morning.
Day 4 Monday, 8th February - Ouarzazate – Zagora (Draa valley)
A cloudy start gave way to another hot, sunny day. We’d had a great stay at the Hotel Nadia even if we didn’t take up their offer of a bird guide and camel rides in the desert. We could have easily stayed longer but were keen to head on south through the Draa valley to Zagora and the desert. First though we drove round to scope the reservoir from the western end and this gave us the following: 27 Great Crested Grebes, 600 Cormorants, 200 Cattle & 2 Little Egrets, 40 Grey Herons, 800 White Storks, 3 Spoonbills, 82 Ruddy Shelducks, 9 Teal, 5 Mallard, 5 Shoveler, a Pochard (rare here?), Osprey, 6 Marsh Harriers, 2 Kestrel & a Barbary Falcon, c1500 Coot, 36 Black-headed Gulls plus Pallid & Little Swifts, Crested Larks, Swallows, Sand & Crag Martins and c300 Chiffchaffs!
We drove through the beautiful Draa valley at a leisurely pace so it wasn’t until late afternoon that we arrived at Zagora. The road to Zagora runs alongside the river Oued Draa for much of the way and the palm tree plantations form a stark green contrast with the otherwise barren, stony desert of the Jbel s Sarhro and Bani with their scattering of Acacia and other thorny bushes. Birds are few and far between at times but along the way included 1 Black & 48 White-crowned Wheatears, 11 Thekla & 8 Desert Larks (my first lifer), 5 Moroccan White Wagtails of the sub species M.a. subpersonata, 6 Kestrels, 6 Laughing, 20 Rock & 80 Collared Doves, c100 Bulbuls, 2 Blue Rock Thrushes, 50 Chiffchaffs, 5 Black Redstarts, 4 Southern Grey Shrikes, c300 House Sparrows, 2 Trumpeter Finches and 11 House Buntings.
Gerda had found on the internet a hotel/guest house in the village of Amezrou called the Dar Raha and had tentatively made enquires about staying but at 1383dH for two nights it was more than we usually paid, although this included B&B and evening meals with the proprietor. Reviews had been good... and it was in our Lonely Planet Guide too so we tracked it down and booked in for the two nights we wanted to stay in the area. This turned out to be a bad move and although the food was good the price was way above what we paid for superior accommodation elsewhere. We also had to pay another 30 dH when we left for “guarding the car in the street overnight” although we never did find out who this was for.
Day 5 Tuesday, 9th February - Zagora & Mhamid (Draa valley)
Gerda awoke with a bad headache; our room smoke-filled from the house next door overnight but the proprietor assured us this was a “one-off”. It wasn’t and we certainly wouldn’t be staying there again!
The clear air and warm sunshine soon cleared Gerda’s head and we spent the day exploring the stony desert south to Mhamid covering a distance of 175km overall. At Mhamid the desert terrain changed to sand and our first real dunes gave us a taste of the northern Sahara. “Taste” it was as the wind had picked up and although only force three, visibility was reduced to a few hundred metres by the dust. We decided not to stay long here as a result – and also we couldn’t shake off the local guides who followed our car through the town in the hope of selling us a camel ride – so we returned north and surprisingly soon we were clear of both. Somewhere just out of Mhamid we stopped for a quick scan of the desert and a Hoopoe Lark was discovered just 50m away from the road. This was a lifer for me and a bird I have always longed to see. We found another further on and 7 Desert Larks and our first Desert Wheatear of the trip. A flock of 16 Trumpeter Finches brought our daily tally to 22 for that species and other notable counts were 33 White-crowned Wheatears along the route plus Crested and Thekla Larks. At Mhamid we had seen a flock of 50 White Storks, migrants perhaps and our only (3) Brown-necked Ravens of the trip. However, the highlight of the day had been a roadside stop on the way south from Zagora at a dry wadi where something caught my eye in a bush as I drove past. I pulled over to investigate and a group of five Fulvous Babblers (another lifer) came out of said “magic bush” to be followed by a female Spectacled Warbler and then a male Tristram’s Warbler (another lifer). This bush didn’t look any different to any others that I had scanned in the desert and yet it had produced three species, two of which I had never seen before.
Day 6 Wednesday, 10th February - Zagora – Ouarzazate – Boumalne du Dades
A long drive today and with the need to keep to the 60km/hr speed limits along much of it, it took us nearly four hours to get back to Ouarzazate with stops. One of the stops was for the police who accused me of driving at 66km/hr somewhere and wanted 4,000dH (>£300!). We spent half an hour with them discussing both figures and eventually they let us go with just a warning but with all the speed traps on the roads this certainly made me nervous with the rest of the drive. I spent more time watching the speedo over the next few days than looking out the window so our White-crowned Wheatear counts probably suffered as a result (although we did log 70 today).
As we arrived in Ouarzazate, a loose flock of 702 Black Kites drifted north over the town. At the reservoir, thousands, if not millions of Lesser Emperor dragonflies, Anax parthenope were in tandem and filled the sky in all directions. We saw much the same here as earlier but 2 Marbled Duck, 2 Gadwall, 3 Flava Wagtails and a Bluethroat were new. Shoveler had increased to 114 birds and with 150 Swallows, 5 House, 30 Sand and 150 Crag Martins, 500 White Storks and 16 Teal perhaps spring migration had started. A Lanner perched up on a fence post as we left town but as there were no places to pull over and I wasn’t keen on another sortie with the police, we drove on.
We continued east to Boumalne du Dades and booked in at the splendid Hotel Soleil Bleu on the outskirts of the town, a popular destination for birders just a stone’s throw from the famous Tagdilt Track, home to most of the desert specialities in Morocco. We didn’t arrive until late afternoon so had little time left for birding except from our balcony facing west over the town and snow-capped Atlas Mountains to the north. A male Dartford Warbler was in the garden below with a female Sardinian whilst a pair of Little Owls sat out on a wall as dusk drew in. The hotel has a birders’ log book and it was great to read of sightings made by others, some going back years and many of the contributors being friends of ours!
Day 7 Thursday, 11th February - Boumalne du Dades, Tagdilt Track & Gorge du Dades
I hadn’t been here in 1973 so I was keen to explore the area around the famous rubbish tip at the start of the “Old Tagdilt Track” and set off before dawn. Unfortunately I took the wrong track alongside the army barracks to start with and was subsequently accosted first by two lots of army officials (one in a fast car speeding towards me, lights flashing) and then by the police when I returned to the road. They were all very good about it though and after shaking hands and smiles all round, I carried on and found the right track!
The rubbish tip was rather disappointing with just a handful of Lesser Short-toed Larks, 8 Red-rumped Wheatears, Thekla Lark, 2 Trumpeter Finches and a single Black Kite and I was wary of the packs of feral dogs in the area. I’m always nervous of the latter as they don’t like birders carrying telescope/tripod combinations but I needn’t have worried, they were more interested in the rubbish. Nevertheless I was glad Gerda had stayed in bed on this particular morning.
After breakfast we spent the day in the desert along the “New Tagdilt Track”, now a good tarmac road and the cold dawn warmed to a warm, bright sunny day and one we thoroughly enjoyed - albeit after an early setback shortly upon arrival at the track. As I slammed the driver’s door it bounced back out at me: the metal bar on the doorframe had fallen off, probably as a result of my earlier bumpy ride at the track alongside the army barracks. We drove gingerly back to the hotel with Gerda in the back, her arm out of the window, and holding on to my door to stop it banging into oncoming cars! Of course I was more worried about the police (now between us and the hotel) but found a new route back across the desert to avoid them and once back our friendly proprietor Mustafa took command of our predicament and within an hour we had a new door lock and were back on the road.
With 20 Temminck’s, 4 Lesser Short-toed, 8 Thick-billed, 12 Thekla, Crested, 2 Desert and a Bar-tailed Lark (the latter another lifer for me), today was certainly an exaltation of larks. Red-rumped Wheatears were numerous and I counted 36 here but only one Desert Wheatear showed itself. A pair of Lanner Falcons and single Long-legged Buzzard showed off and on throughout the day.
We drove to the Gorge Du Dades late afternoon with its weird and wonderful sandstone and limestone rock formations quite unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.
Incidentally, the cost of the car repair at the garage? 100dH (<£8.00) and no we didn’t have to book it in for “next week”!
Day 8 Friday, 12th February - Boumalne du Dades &Tagdilt Track
Another full day in the desert enjoyed under a cloudier sky than of late. I skipped breakfast, setting off before dawn to some roadside pools we had found yesterday by the New Tagdilt Track in the hope of catching sandgrouse coming in for a drink. I stayed until 10:15 am but no sandgrouse came so I returned to the hotel to collect Gerda.
We spent another great day in the wilderness around the Old Tagdilt Track, seeing much the same as yesterday but adding Mourning Wheatear to our list – my life list too. This is a wonderful place and other than a few shepherds with their camels and goats, you can walk for miles and not see anybody. The wheatears were nesting in the wall mentioned as the “Wheatear wall” in the Gosney guide but both took some finding! I managed to take some digiscope pictures of the male collecting nesting material, on one occasion alongside a Tawny Pipit, the only one we were to see. We also saw a few groups of Black-bellied Sandgrouse totalling 45 birds in all. There were more Long-legged Buzzards around today, plus 2-3 Lanners and a flock of 32 Black Kites passed north.
Day 9 Saturday, 13th February - Boumalne du Dades – High Atlas Mountains – Ait Ourir
We reluctantly left the Hotel Soleil Bleu this morning and headed back towards Marrakech with only one more day of the holiday left tomorrow. The High Atlas Mountains were obscured by cloud along the whole length and I was worried the Tizi-n-Tichka Pass might be closed. When we arrived there we were greeted with fog and rain only, so continued unhindered to the other side and a hotel on the river Oued Zat called the ‘Hotel Coq Hardi’, about 38km southeast of Marrakech, outside the town of Ait Ourir. We had stopped at the river on the way through on 7th and had discovered this wonderful place by chance. It proved to be a good choice, inexpensive with good food and less than an hour away from the airport – and importantly only a short distance from the alpine ski resort at Oukaimeden which we wanted to visit tomorrow via a different route (a shortcut across the agricultural plain south of Marrakech which negates the need to enter the city itself).
It took us seven hours to reach the Coq Hardi from Boumalne du Dades today and with much of it driven in rain (the first we had experienced) it came as a welcome relief when at 5pm, the skies cleared and allowed us to explore the river by the hotel. Blackcaps and Blackbirds were singing everywhere and pair of Collared Doves was nesting outside our bedroom window in an olive tree. The Oued Zat gave us our first Grey Wagtails, Cetti’s Warbler and Red-rumped Swallow of the holiday and there were at least five pairs of Crested Larks on territory along a short stretch of the river.
Day 10 Sunday, 14th February - Ait Ourir – Amanouz – Ourika – Oukaimeden
Our last day, we drove up to the ski resort at Oukaimeden as planned, initially under a threatening sky but this soon cleared and we “enjoyed” a stroll along the mountain road round the corrie to look for Shore Larks and Crimson-winged Finches, soon finding 43 of the former and a flock of 13 of the latter. “Enjoyed” is an over-statement. Being a Sunday, the place was overrun with people; families with their lunch hampers and radios, skiers and donkeys, bands strewn across the floor of the corrie blasting out loud music through speakers mounted on tall stands pointed in all directions. At one point a Dipper flew upstream through the groups of dancing people, turned back at one particular crowd and fled downhill. I’m afraid we did the same.
We were lucky to get out of here as the car park was already full and new arrivals were double parking. A large flock of Red-billed and Alpine Choughs congregated around some buildings as we negotiated our exit through the traffic but we only stopped briefly to watch them, worried we might never get back.
Returning to the tranquillity of the agricultural belt below, we stopped several times to enjoy a few more new species: 2 Barbary Partridges, 7 Moussier’s Redstarts, 2 Stone Curlews and a Rock Bunting. We also counted 11 Southern Grey Shrikes, 39 Crested Larks, Cetti’s & Sardinian Warblers, Cirl & House Buntings, 23 Serins, 18 Stonechats, 2 Black Redstarts, 2 Black Wheatears, Common Bulbuls and African Chaffinches everywhere.
We returned to our hotel towards dusk and packed ready for our flight home in the morning, our African adventure over.
20th March 2010.