Morocco has long been a favoured destination of birders as it contains some special Western Palearctic species that are difficult, if not impossible, to see elsewhere. Most of the trip reports on the internet seem to fall into either of the two categories, the grand tour picking up everything from the Marsh Owls at Merja Zerga through the Atlas Mountains and Deserts and on to the coast, or those who spend a week or so around Agadir finding Bald Ibis and other key species of Oued Massa and the South.
The previous February we had spent a week based at Taroudant that had enabled both a trip to Tamri and into the southern desert at the now famous Tan-Tan km 100 area, so this year we tried further inland into the heart of the southern uplands.
Ouarzazate in February can be a bit variable weather wise and is consequently low season. The snow on the Atlas Mountains can be seen from town and we understand that about ten days before our arrival heavy snow fell in the town itself. Fortunately this had all cleared but many of the more tropical plants around the town were obviously very sick, if not dead, and the effect that this had on the local bird populations can only be guessed at. The days were generally clear but the warm sun was offset by a cool breeze from the Atlas range whilst at night it was cold confirming that the town is at 1400m above sea level.
Ouarzazate gives easy access into the southern deserts particularly sites around Boumalne-Dades and the Draa Valley. With a little effort the dunes at Erg Chebbi can also be reached on a (long) day trip.
This was primarily a family holiday and we travelled with Panorama holidays staying at the Riad Salam hotel at Ouarzazate on a half board basis. The hotel is of good quality and provided an ideal base of a typically Moroccan flavour but all the facilities of a modern international standard hotel. This means that the facilities and comfort kept my family happy whilst providing easy access to the southern deserts of Morocco.
The flights were from Gatwick arriving at Agadir, comfortably arranged on a Sunday to Sunday basis using Thomas Cook as the charter airline. The use of Agadir is not ideal as it necessitates a 4 _ - 5 hour transfer to Ouarzazate by Grand Taxi but is more secure than Marrakech that, although closer, requires a crossing of the Tizi-n-Tichka pass that can be closed by snow fall at this time of year and can take just as long.
Whilst in Morocco travel was on a self-drive basis, with a prebooked car with Europcar. This was a Fiat Palio 5-door hatch that was basic but adequate and I paid £240 for six days, a price that was cheaper than the apparent hire for 4 days! We had little problem with the car, except for a heart stopping few minutes south of Erfoud where it stalled and wouldnt re-start miles from nowhere and the fact that it wasnt fitted with rear seat belts that made us more nervous of the general antics of other Moroccan road users.
Generally the roads where empty of traffic and fuel is 2/3rds of the cost of the UK. This meant that travel was relatively easy although distances are large and travel is slow through towns and villages. The local speed limits take a little getting used to with 40 km/h used in some towns (60 km/h in others) at some wadi crossings and out of town places. These odd speed limits around Ouarzazate were the favourite haunts of traffic police with radar traps, so if you drive around here be warned!
As most are now aware distances are large and the roads are of variable quality. Even in the last year there have been improvements, the dual carriageway from Agadir airport now reaches Oued Souss just outside of Taroudant. Most other roads are metalled and the main routes are generally single laned the exception being the road between Taroudant and Ouarzazate were the lane markings run out approx 130 east of Taroudant and then you are on the single lane of tarmac in the middle of the road with gravel run offs on both sides. You have to play chicken to pass and overtake other road users. Average speeds over distance are 60-80km/h on the flat areas and much slower across the mountains. Despite what is often written driving at night is not a nightmare with one proviso, it is done before dawn not after dusk. At 3 to 6am the road are quiet of all users, pedestrians and animals and travelling is easy and quick.
The main sites to visit are listed in most of the books in Morocco and these can give many of the desert specialities. For stony desert species the habitat is plentiful in every direction out of town and stretches in to the distance. It would seem likely that the main species could be found almost every where (perhaps that should say anywhere) but population densities are very low and some trial wanders yielded absolutely nothing.
The weather was generally warm during the day and cold at night. There was often a cold breeze off the Atlas Mountains that dropped the temperatures into the range of 12-16 oC but in the direct sun it was almost shorts and T-shirt weather (the locals were all wrapped up of course!)
The week started cloudy but most days were clear blue skies and the lack of cloud cover meant that night time temperatures dropped rapidly. With humidity being near to zero there was noticeable static build up on the car etc.
13th Feb - 12.30 flight Gatwick Agadir, Grand Taxi transfer to Ouarzazate
14th Feb Picked up hire car, wander around Ouarzazate and trip out to Ait Ben Haddou.
15th Feb Trip to Boumalne-Dades, Tagdilt Track and Gorge des Dades
16th Feb Stayed around Ouarzazate, with afternoon trip out to the local reservoir
17th Feb Trip to Erg Chebbi returning via Boumalne-Dades
18th Feb Trip to Amerzgane
19th Feb Trip along Draa valley beyond Agdz
20th Feb Grand Taxi transfer from Ouarzazate to Agadir and 17.00 flight to Gatwick.
Much of the habitat around Ouarzazate is apparently the same expanses of stony desert with rocky outcrops and cut by wadis. Vegetation is sparse and much that could be found here is grazed away by goats and sheep. The area is crossed by the Draa and the Dades valleys and they have a thin ribbon of agriculture clinging to the river edges.
In such habitats the densities of birds are low, both in terms of species mix and in terms of actual numbers of birds. It would seem that the known hotspots for many of the desert species and regular stopping points for those on the grand tour are just typical of many areas across the whole expanse of this part of Morocco and with time and effort most species could be found almost anywhere. However it was clear that many areas were almost birdless and didnt really reward investigation. Certainly the timing of mid-February didnt help as bird song was non-existent and finding cryptically coloured species in seemingly endless plains was not easy.
The perennial problem was rubbish and particularly black plastic bags littering the desert and drifting in the wind. This was particularly acute around towns and villages and most movement in the desert was bags rather than birds. Surprisingly, considering the reputation of the country, I had little trouble with pestering by children or adults although many of the children we did meet seem to have a French vocabulary limited to "Dirhams, bonbons et Stylo".
This is better known as the Tagdilt track and consists of roads and tracks across the self styled Vallee des Oiseaux. The tracks referenced in the books/trip reports run from just east of the town (by the military complex) south across the flat valley floor to the south. 8km east of town there is a metalled road sign posted to Ikniouin that gives easier access to the valley bottom.
On both visits birds were difficult to find and in low densities, nothing like the numbers reported in other trip reports. By walking circuits across the stony desert key species such as Temmincks Horned Lark, Black-bellied Sandgrouse, Desert and Thekla Lark could be found. The only species that could be called common was the Red-rumped Wheatear.
The area close (2km) to town was blighted with plastic bags strewn across the desert scrub.
The sand dunes start just over 30km south of Erfoud and took 4.5hrs from Ouarzazate in the early morning. The site is renowned as probably the only one where Desert Sparrow is accessible. The road South of Erfoud was being re-constructed at the time of my visit but still looks as though it will end 16km south of the town. The telegraph poles that are noted in most guides have also gone but small posts still mark the route and a local guide is not needed to reach the dunes.
The route is trafficable in a normal saloon, the biggest problem being the areas of sand that could bog down the unwary.
A few hours around the cafes and auberges brought a reasonable range of species. Hoopoe Lark and Bar-tailed Desert Lark are typical of sandy areas, and I finally found Desert Sparrow amongst the hoards of House Sparrows.
At the northern edge of the dunes, Brown necked Raven were loafing about and where the tamarisks were thickest a male Tristrams Warbler showed well.
South of Ouarzazate, the Draa valley is one of the most densely populated strips of land in Morocco and here a narrow ribbon of agriculture and palm groves clings to the river edge beginning just south of Agdz. Birding wise it is best known for the summer breeding of Blue-cheeked Bee-eater bit at the southern end could bring similar species to Erg Chebbi. We didnt get that far and the valley itself was of little interest although it was noticeable that Palm Dove became a common species as we travelled south. Around Agdz Trumpeter Finch was very common. The first flock we found was about a hundred strong and perched in trees like diminutive sparrows. Thereafter, we literally tripped over them where ever we went.
Valley South of Amerzgane
Not really a site but an area along an 11km stretch of road. The road forms a little triangle linking up the main P31 Ouarzazate-Marrakech road with the main P32 Ouarzazate-Agadir road. The road is very lightly trafficked and crossing a good mix of habitats that are worth a few hours. Heading south from Amerzgane it passing an area of cultivation and then climbs a rock ridge with Ground Squirrels and Black Wheatear. The stony desert beyond is as good as any area we found close to Ouarzazate and include Desert Wheatear and the particular target species, Thick-billed Lark. Continuing South there is a good area of wet wadi to the East of the road and then a crossing of a main wadi with Almond trees and Oleander. These areas held Moussiers Redstart, plenty of Chiffchaffs and in a better season would act as good migrant traps.
The large reservoir sits to the South-east of Ouarzazate and is not simple to access. The main P32 route passes close by around 18km East of the town and then again at the Royal Golf complex (the latter doesnt appear to have a golf course!)
The expanse of water must be attractive to birds but looked relatively disappointing although a visit did bring the only Squacco Heron and Great crested grebe of the trip. A party of six Black Stork circling over at dusk on the 18th were a more major surprise.
Great Crested Grebe (Podiceps cristatus cristatus) - one probably two were seen distantly on the Ouarzazate reservoir on the 18th.
Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo moroccanus) 2-3 birds at Ouarzazate reservoir on 18th.
Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea cinerea) only seen at Ouarzazate reservoir with 2 there on 18th.
Squacco Heron (Ardeola ralloides) a single was flushed from the edge of the Ouarzazate reservoir on the 18th.
Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis ibis) low numbers were seen around Ouarzazate and the Dades Valley on most days
White Stork (Ciconia ciconia ciconia)- First seen on the evening of 13th at the Oued Souss crossing nr Taroudant were circa 20 were present. The numbers to the east of Taroudant were higher with over fifty roosting just out of town close to the P32. Around Ouarzazate they were seen daily with a pair nesting on the main Kasbah, and another four pairs on the southern side of the valley. Odd pairs were seen along the Dades Valley on the 15th and 17th.
Black Stork (Ciconia nigra)- six spiralling down, presumably to roost, just before dusk by the Ouarzazate reservoir on 16th.
Long-legged Buzzard (Buteo rufinus cirtensis) a single was over the Vallee des Oiseaux, Boumalne-Dades on the 17th.
Short-toed Eagle (Circaetus gallicus) a single was seen over the desert 12km east of Ouarzazate on 16th.
Lanner (Falco biarmicus erlangi) one seen at Erg Chebbi on the 17th.
Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus tinnunculus) Seen daily around Ouarzazate and the most often found raptor in all areas.
Barbary Partridge (Alectoris barbara spatzi) two seen in the agricultural area close to Agadir airport on 13th.
Common Snipe (Gallinago gallinago gallinago)- one flying over the P32 near the Ouarzazate reservoir on 15th
Black-bellied Sandgrouse (Pterocles orientalis orientalis) Found with some regularity with seven at Tagdilt track on 15th, 14 near there on 17th and 17 in the desert just west of Ouarzazate on the 18th.
Rock Dove (Columbia livia) Separation of wild birds from their feral cousins is always subjective. In the Atlas pure plumaged birds were seen especially above the Dades Gorge on 15th.
Feral Pigeon (Columbia livia) odd plumaged birds were seen around most towns and villages on all dates.
Laughing Dove (Streptopelia senegalensis phoenicophila) The first was seen nr El-Kelaa MGouna on 15th. Only common in the Draa valley south of Agdz on 19th.
Collared Dove (Streptopelia decaocto decaocto) Common in villages and towns throughout
Crested Lark (Galerida cristata riggenbachi) A common roadside bird in the lowland areas but not in the plateau stony desert around Ouarzazate.
Thekla Lark (Galerida theklae aguirrei?)- birds in this part of Morocco have a particularly grey cast and very clear breast streaking and are readily distinguished from Crested Lark. Typically they were seen as pairs at Tagdilt track on the 15th, and again on 17th and in the valley south of Amerzgane on 18th.
Bar-tailed Desert Lark (Ammomanes cincturus arenicolor) a minimum of two birds were seen at Erg Chebbi on 17th.
Desert Lark (Ammomanes deserti payni) A common roadside bird around Ouarzazate and seen daily in pairs or singletons in most stony desert habitat.
Hoopoe Lark (Alaemon alaudipes alaudipes)- a single bird was seen at Erg Chebbi on 17th.
Thick-billed Lark (Ramphocoris clotbey) 4 birds were seen south of Amerzgane on 18th. 2 flew across the road 155km East of Taroudant on the 20th. We were unable to explore this area of rough agricultural activity but by the number of birds flitting around at the road edge it would have been worthy of a few hours investigation.
Short-toed Lark (Calandrella brachydactyla rubiginosa) a single bird was seen and heard at Erg Chebbi on 17th.
Lesser Short-toed Lark (Calandrella rufescens minor) a couple of birds were seen and heard by the Ouarzazate reservoir on 16th.
Temmincks Horned Lark (Eremophila bilopha) Only found in the Vallee des Oiseaux with 6-8 birds on 15th and at least twice as many on 17th.
Crag Martin (Ptyonoprogne rupestris theresae) The most common hirundine found on wadi cliffs and the edge of Mountains throughout and therefore seen daily.
Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica rustica) Seen with increasing regularity throughout the week especially around any water.
House Martin (Delichon urbica meridionalis) .First seen South of Amerzgane on 18th and thereafter, only seen in the Draa Valley on 19th.
White Wagtail (Motacilla alba subpersonata) Seen daily in small numbers except at Ouarzazate where the pre-dusk flights to a roost site somewhere in town crossed the Hotel Riad Salam and hundreds could be seen every night.
Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea cinerea)- A pair were seen at Gorge des Dades on 15th.
Meadow Pipit (Anthus pratensis) A single was at the Ouarzazate Reservoir on the evening of the 16th and another bird was seen South of Amerzgane on 18th.
Common Bulbul (Pycnonotus barbatus barbatus)- common where ever there were gardens and agriculture. Seen daily around Ouarzazate.
Stonechat (Saxicola torquata rubicola) Odd singles were seen in agricultural areas and edge of oasis across the area on an almost daily basis.
Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros gibraltariensis) Found on the edge of villages and in agricultural areas as Stonechat above.
Moussiers Redstart (Phoenicurus moussieri)- not common but 1 male was at Ait ben Haddou on 14th,and 1 South of Amerzgane on 18th.
White-crowned Black Wheatear (Oenanthe leucopyga aegra) Very common in villages and on rocky outcrops and seen everyday in reasonable numbers. Separation of some birds were not straight-forward from Black Wheatear due to a number of Black-crowned birds being present.
Black Wheatear (Oenanthe leucura syenitica)- Some confusion with the previous species was possible with black crowned birds until I got my eye in. Black Wheatears could be seen in very similar habitat to White-crowned Black, including the edge of villages and rocky outcrops. They seemed to prefer higher altitudes but not uniquely so. Birds were seen daily.
Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe oenanthe) 3 were seen on the transfer back to Agadir on the 20th. All seemed to be of the migrant nominate ssp rather than the resident seebohmi ssp of the Atlas mountains.
Mourning Wheatear (Oenanthe lugens halophila) Uncommon in stony desert, the first seen near Ait ben Haddou on 14th. One was c.30km east of Boumalne-Dades on 17th, another 15km west of Ouarzazate on 18th and a single was south of Amerzgane also on the 18th.
Red-rumped Wheatear (Oenanthe moesta moesta)- The commonest bird at Boumalne-Dades and circa 8 birds there on 15th and 6 on 17th. Elsewhere they were surprisingly scarce and only seen further east with 2 en-route to Erfoud on 17th.
Desert Wheatear (Oenanthe deserti homochroa) the first was seen at Erg Chebbi on 17th and 1 west of Ouarzazate and 1 South of Amerzgane on 18th.
Common Blackbird (Turdus merula mauritanicus) seen daily and common around villages and oasis.
Blue Rock Thrush (Monticola solitarius solitarius)- a single male was resident around Ouarzazate throughout and could occasionally be seen in the hotel grounds. Circa ten were seen along the Draa Valley on 19th many sitting on rooftops in the villages.
Tristrams Warbler (Sylvia deserticola ticehursti) two seen both males, one at Erg Chebbi on 17th and one in a wadi south of Taourirt on 19th.
Subalpine Warbler (Sylvia cantillans cantillans) A first winter bird was found in roadside scrub South of Agdz on 19th.
Sardinian Warbler (Sylvia melanocephala melanocephala) The commonest Sylvia warbler but still in small numbers including around Ouarzazate and oasis in the desert areas
Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla atricapilla) One was resident in the garden on the Riad Salam Hotel throughout.
Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita collybita)- birds could be found in oasis and anywhere close to water throughout.
Blue Tit (Parus (caeruleus) ultramarinus) 2 seen in the trees beneath the Kasbah at Ait ben Haddou.
Southern Grey Shrike (Lanius meridionallis elegans) - Common across the stony desert and seen daily as birds perch obviously on wires, bushes and trees.
Spotless Starling (Sturnus unicolor) only seen between Taroudant and Agadir on the 13th and 20th.
Magpie (Pica pica maurentanica)- only seen between Taroudant and Agadir on the 13th and 20th.
Brown-necked Raven (Corvus ruficollis) A group of about a dozen birds were loafing around the auberges and cafes at the north end of Erg Chebbi on 17th. Despite checking carefully I couldnt make any of these Common Raven.
House Sparrow (Passer domesticus tingitanus)- common throughout and seen daily around villages and plantations. Common around cafes and auberges at Erg Chebbi on 17th.
Spanish Sparrow (Passer hispaniolensis) a small flock of 20 birds were seen at Ouarzazate reservoir on 16th.
Desert Sparrow (Passer simplex simplex) a minimum of six and a maximum of ten birds were seen at the northern end of Erg Chebbi on 17th. The numbers here were dwarfed by the numbers of house sparrows with which they only loosely consorted.
Linnet (Carduelis cannabina cannabina)- first seen with 3 at Ouarzazate reservoir on 16th. 1+ birds seen just south of Amerzgane on 18th.
Serin (Serinus serinus) First seen at Gorges des Dades on 15th. Also present in the Draa valley on 19th.
Greenfinch (Carduelis chloris aurantiliventris) A single bird was seen in the gardens of the Riad Salam hotel, Ouarzazate on the 18th.
Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis parva) Only seen in the Draa valley with 3 small flocks of 4-6 birds each seen on 19th.
Trumpeter Finch (Rhodopechys githaginea zedlitzi) Only seen in the Draa valley from just North of Agdz southwards on 19th. The first flock just north of Agdz was about 100 birds strong. At every stop thereafter 10-30 birds were seen and they could be seen perching in the roadside Acacias. Probably over a thousand birds seen that day.
House Bunting (Emberiza striolata sahari) common in towns and villages either singly or in pairs, seen daily.