Tour Leader : Pieter Verheij
Tour Guides : Peter Jones and Steve Lister
Tour report : Steve Lister
Day 1 - March 11th - Introduction
The group of three leader/guides and twelve clients finally all assembled in the bar of the Hotel El Andalous in Marrakech on the evening of March 11th.
Some had been up to the ski resort of Oukaimeden for the afternoon and had seen Crimson-winged Finches, Alpine Choughs, Horned Larks, Dipper and various other high altitude species.
Meanwhile some of the group had availed themselves of the opportunity to savour the sights and atmosphere of Marrakech, and two had spent the morning birding near Agadir and then travelled across to join up with everyone else.
After a relaxed breakfast next morning the main tour commenced with a drive through the Tizi-n-Tichka pass and on to Ouarzazate, the ‘gateway to the Sahara'. Over the following ten days we gently explored the regions south-east to Zagora and M'hamid and then further east to Rissani and Merzouga, returning via Boumalne de Dades before retracing our route through the Tizi-n-Tichka, this time accompanied by a stream of hirundines and bee-eaters, plus a few raptors, on their migration north.
The eleven days produced a total of 146 species that included almost all of the desert specialities that we were hoping for: sandgrouse were conspicuous by their almost total absence, and we never connected with Thick-billed Lark, Scrub Warbler or Pharaoh Eagle Owl. And our afternoon searching for Houbaras proved fruitless, but as this species is now released and hunted just like pheasants and partridges in England it is somewhat devalued as a target species. We heard that fifty had been killed by visiting hunters in the previous month.
The two pre-tour extensions, four days on the coast around Agadir and the drive down from Tangier to Marrakech, added another fifty species and so raised the total to 196 - not quite as high as the same trip in the last couple of years but still a fine indication of what Morocco in early spring can offer.
Day 2 - March 12th
Leaving Marrakech after breakfast we were soon in the foothills of the High Atlas on the way up to the Tizi-n-Tichka pass. Roadside stops produced the first of our eight species of wheatears, Black, along with Blue Rock Thrush, Subalpine Warblers, migrating Booted Eagles, a glimpse of a Barbary Partridge hurtling away, and a plethora of colourful wild flowers after a recent wet spell. The restaurant chosen as our lunch stop, just below the pass, was strangely almost birdless - very different to our return visit on the last day. Our first desert birding on the approach to Ouarzazate quickly yielded three more species of wheatears: the scarce and localised Mourning, of which we saw three fine males, the almost ubiquitous White-crowned Black, and a single Northern. Several Desert Larks tried hard to hide themselves away in the boulders, and a couple of Trumpeter Finches flew past. A female Common Redstart looked very odd in a barren desert environment. Overnight at Riad Salam, Ouarzazate.
Day 3 - March 13th
The early risers enjoyed a pre-breakfast stroll alongside the River Draa near the hotel: two Temminck's Stints were the undoubted highlight but we also saw both Black and the very attractive Moussier's Redstarts.
After breakfast we set out towards Zagora: our main birding stop was at a small cultivated oasis area near Agdz and here we found Tree Pipits and Subalpine Warblers to be the main migrants, along with a Hoopoe and a very grey Robin well beyond the normal winter range of the species. Desert Larks, Crag Martins and Blue Rock Thrushes also showed well. Lunch was at a local restaurant in the midst of the palmery south of Agdz with Laughing Doves calling all around us.
Overnight at Kasbah Sirocco, Zagora.
Day 4 - March 14th
A pre-breakfast excursion a few kilometres north of Zagora produced two singing Fulvous Babblers and a very distant Lanner Falcon perched atop a towering cliff. Then it was back on the road heading south-east towards the end-of the-road village of M'hamid. On the way we passed over a low ridge where a pair of Barbary Falcons vied with the earlier Lanner for most distant bird of the day. A fine adult Egyptian Vulture passed over and a shy Bonelli's Warbler in roadside acacias had us suspecting the eastern species, not on the Moroccan list. Then our local driver Tarik, a M'hamid man, led us off the road to a small temporary lake in the middle of the desert. Here we found a few migrants (Subalpine Warblers, four Woodchat Shrikes and at least four Black-eared Wheatears) as well as local species such as Brown-necked Ravens, Desert Wheatears and at least two Desert Sparrows.
After lunch half of the group paid a visit to a local school to launch an environmental education project while the others either relaxed by a pool or had a slow amble around the lunch-stop village: Pied Flycatcher and Turtle Dove were added to the day's migrant list. Then it was on to M'hamid and out into the soft dunes beyond, four wheel drive essential. Our Bedouin camp awaited, and turned out to be rather less basic than most had expected. Most important though was the flock of about 15 Desert Sparrows around the camp.
Overnight Bedouin camp, M'hamid. With stargazing, dancing to the drums, and a game of bridge.
Day 5 - March 15th
Those who got up at dawn, about 0630, could enjoy the absolute silence; the first sounds were fittingly the chips of Desert Sparrows flying in from the surrounding dunes.
The odd clumps of tamarisks within walking distance of the camp held a few Subalpine Warblers and both Barn and Red-rumped Swallows flew past.
After a fine breakfast we headed out in search of the sand-desert specialities. Four single Marsh Harriers on passage looked rather out of context. The first of several Cream-coloured Coursers was more what we were expecting, and then we had excellent views of Hoopoe Lark displaying. Brief views of a Crowned Sandgrouse and then two Rock Martins- each flying past and seen by just single people - were rather frustrating, but a single Bar-tailed Desert Lark that also flew past was only a little more satisfying as most saw it. Several Desert Wheatears and a few Woodchat Shrikes decorated the scattered bushes but our efforts at sandgrouse-spotting drew a blank.
After a late lunch we headed back to Zagora: some of the group went to visit another school and some re-visited yesterday morning's Fulvous Babbler site. There were now three, and the Lanner was still a minute shape on top of the cliff, but in much better light. Overnight Kasbah Sirocco, Zagora.
Day 6 - March 16th
A relatively early start today for the long drive east to the Erfoud/Merzouga area. And not much time for many stops: the main one produced a group of four Fulvous Babblers near Agdz.
A Western Orphean Warbler was glimpsed in a roadside bush at about 70 kilometres per hour by the driver of the first vehicle.
Eventually we arrived at Rissani to find four Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters perched on wires: up to 2003 this species never used to arrive in Morocco until March 20th but in recent years it has consistently been found up to a week earlier. At least three more were circling over our hotel when we briefly called in to unload. We pressed on to Merzouga to spend a couple of hours birding at the desert lake known as Dayet Srji (or Merzouga Lake): this was much more extensive than in previous years and may now be permanent.
Amongst the birds we found were 100+ Ruddy Shelducks, a few Ferruginous Ducks and Marbled Teal, 17 Greater Flamingoes and two Gull-billed Terns. Then back across the desert to our base for the next three nights.
Overnight Auberge Derkauoa, Erfoud/Merzouga
Day 7 - March 17th
An early morning stroll around the auberge grounds produced a scattering of migrants including a Tawny Pipit, a Wryneck and at least 15 White Wagtails.
We spent most of the morning at the lake: a more thorough coverage yielded at least 90 Marbled Teal and eight Ferruginous Ducks plus two Garganey and a Wigeon amongst larger numbers of Pintails and Shovelers. The high water levels meant that there were few shorebirds, just four Black-winged Stilts, a couple of Little Stints and maybe 40 Kentish Plovers. The tamarisks that you can normally walk amongst looking for migrant passerines were all flooded and unreachable.
Back to the auberge for lunch and then the afternoon was devoted to a search of a nearby area for Houbaras with the leader of the local community. Unfortunately he could not find us any but we did find a fine singing African Desert Warbler and several Spectacled Warblers also on territory. Hoopoe Larks were also conspicuous, with at least ten and several of them displaying. Smaller numbers of Cream-coloured Coursers and good numbers of Short-toed Larks, behaving as both migrants and locals, rounded off a great day. Overnight Auberge Derkaoua.
Day 8 - March 18th
Another early morning session around the auberge showed not much difference to yesterday but an Olivaceous Warbler was a very good candidate for the eastern species, being very grey and regularly flicking its tail.
After breakfast we headed to the string of ‘cafes' along the edge of the Erg Chebbi dune system. Our main destination was Café Yasmina, now almost surrounded by water following the appearance of two desert lakes, one either side, over the past few years. We were surprised to find a team of Spanish ringers operating in the tamarisks but things were quiet and they were just closing their nets. Main interest for us was a flock of at least 19 Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters perching photogenically on dead branches and flying out to catch dragonflies. An Olivaceous Warbler seen very close up was obviously much browner than the one seen earlier and so was labelled a Western. On the way back to the auberge we had quite good views of an Isabelline Wheatear perched up on low bushes: this is officially a rarity in Morocco but must surely be commoner than records suggest.
After lunch there was the choices included a third school visit and another trip to the lake. Those that opted for the latter explored the far (eastern?) end and found it to be quite different to the rest, with extensive reedbeds and an irrigation system utilising the water. We found a Squacco and three Purple Herons plus a Common and five Green Sandpipers as well as Kentish and Little Ringed Plovers. Overnight Auberge Derkaoua.
Day 9 - March 19th
The early risers were rewarded with a few more migrants around the auberge grounds including one or two Western Bonelli's Warblers, at least four Tawny Pipits and apparently both Eastern and Western Olivaceous Warblers.
As soon as breakfast was out of the way we had to set off on our journey back westwards. Heading towards Erfoud we had to pause for first a female and then a fine male Montagu's Harrier but after that there was little to delay us along the road to Tinerhir and the Gorge du Todra, the spectacular but crowded venue for our lunch stop. Crag Martins were nest-building at eye level while Common and Alpine Swifts whizzed overhead. A particularly strongly coloured male Grey Wagtail was feeding along the stream, and a Blue Rock Thrush looked down at us and the hundreds of tourists and their jumble of vehicles.
Pressing on after a particularly good tajine lunch we were soon nearing Boumalne de Dades. A gathering of seven Long-legged Buzzards caused us to halt a while, and then we turned off the main road towards Ikniouen (spelling depends on which road sign you look at). This tarmac road cuts across the same habitat as the more famous and far less savoury Tagdilt Track but gives access to a similar network of tracks. We quickly added both Red-rumped Wheatears and Temminck's Horned Larks, both singing, to our burgeoning list and had our best views yet of Lanner Falcon. But rain threatened so we called an early halt and headed for the hotel. A couple of never-say-done types wandered out again and saw a Short-toed Eagle before getting caught out in the rain that eventually did arrive.
Overnight Hotel Xaluca Dades, Boumalne de Dades.
Day 10 - March 20th
There was the option of a pre-breakfast return to the Ikniouen road but only five takers: a pity as our only well-seen sandgrouse of the trip duly obliged, 15 Black-bellied that landed not far from us. Displaying Lesser Short-toed Larks were also new, the ninth species of lark for the trip.
Two male Northern Wheatears of the very distinctive local race, Seebohmi's Wheatear, had us puzzling as to why it is not regarded as a full species.
We all returned to the same area after breakfast but could not relocate the Black-bellied Sandgrouse - a fly-past by a Crowned Sandgrouse was some compensation for those who saw it well enough. A well-seen Wryneck, a Spanish Sparrow (at last) and two Lanners chasing each other and then a Long-legged Buzzard chasing them were other highlights.
Lunch was taken on a roof terrace overlooking the Dades river and then it was back towards Ouarzazate. We spent an hour or two viewing the enormous barrage (reservoir) east of the town: here we found upwards of 30 Great Crested Grebes, two Purple Herons, a Squacco Heron and a few Mallards but surprisingly little else. With rain clouds again threatening we threaded our way through the town to the hotel. The rain held off in the end so a few of us went out to the river, surrounded by 55 Bee-eaters. We realised that the barrage, or at least one end of it, was viewable from the hotel roof-terrace so with telescopes set up we counted 14 Marsh Harriers, 320 White Storks and a roost of 230 Great Cormorants in the fading light. Overnight Riad Salam, Ouarzazate
Day 11 - March 21st
The early morning take up was even lower at just four this morning but we were rewarded with bushes full of warblers - Chiffchaffs, Bonelli's and a few Subalpines - and both Nightingale and Quail calling. We found a mixed roost of Night Herons (arriving) and Cattle Egrets (leaving) close to the hotel.
Between Ouarzazate and Amerzgane we stopped at sites where previous trips have found Thick-billed Larks but to no avail, although Corn Bunting was a new bird for the list and Desert Larks showed well for a change. Two Nightingales sang at the next stop, in the hills approaching the Tizi-n-Tichka pass. A side road to an aerial installation took us high enough to find three Horned Larks but not the hoped-for Crimson-winged Finches. And then as soon as we got through the pass we realised that there was a large passage of migrating birds moving parallel with us. A stream of hirundines, mainly Barn Swallows, flocks of Bee-eaters totalling at least 300 birds, a trickle of eagles, all Booted as far as we could tell, and a single Griffon Vulture. All these could be well watched from the restaurant where we stopped for lunch, and the bushes there were hosting several species of warblers including our first Common Whitethroats. It was a hard choice - stay and watch the migrants or go in and have lunch.
The temptations of tajines and pizzas won though, and possibly the bitterly cold wind had something to do with it.
There was not much time after lunch as we had to be back in Marrakech for an airport check-in at 4.00. Nevertheless there was still one big target species to see on the descent, Levaillant's Woodpecker. We stopped at exactly the place we had spent thirty minutes on the first day and within a minute of getting out of the vehicles there was a shout of ‘Woodpecker' and first one then two landed on a tree only fifty metres away. Not a bad way to finish.