As in the previous year during March, we started with a pre-tour visit to the northern coastal areas of Larache and Merga Zerga. Surrounded as these coastal marshes are by cultivation, labour intensive and harkening back to long passed practices in northern Europe, these areas harbour great variety and good numbers of both migrant and rare breeding birds. On the lake at Larache for example we counted in excess of 1000 Red-knobbed Coot and were continually entertained by sightings and the sound of Moustached Warbler! Here we also had singletons of Spotted Crake, Collared Pratincole and Whiskered Tern. Merga Zerga produced Marsh Owl and an almost, not quite, total albino Oystercatcher. Caspian Tern, Great White Egret plus a startling array of waders and wildfowl made for a great pre-tour amble.
Before arriving in Marrakech we visited a small lake north of the city and witnessed a performance of courtship and mating ritual by a pair of Lanner Falcon, all whilst watching Plain Martin, Little Swift, Lesser Kestrel and Crag Martins hawk the surface area of the Lake! The road leading to the lake gave great views of several Lark species, including large numbers of Calandra Lark. Of course House Bunting and Common Bulbul greeted our arrival at our usual hotel on the outskirts of the city.
Our usual route was enthusiastically followed once more, leading us over high passes until we eventually arrived into the high reaches of the Draa Valley. The Palmeries of this area, plus the dramatic high mountains on either side, made our journey to Zagora a real pleasure. Frequent stops allowed several views of typical species such as Laughing Dove, Blue Rock Thrush, Blue-cheeked Bee Eater, Yellow Wagtail, Booted Eagle and of course the ubiquitous House Bunting. We also managed Barbary Partridge and Fulvous Babbler near to our excellent accommodation on the outskirts of Zagora.
The later part of our tour took us to Boumalne de Dades via Todra Gorge and here there was a noticeable dip in temperatures. In fact it was ruddy cold! We tried our best to locate Mourning Wheatear at a couple of known sites, but were to be thwarted on each occasion. However, at one of our regular sites (now an official secret) we were able to locate a pair of breeding Pharaoh Eagle Owl Bubo ascalaphus the male being particularly obliging on a cliff ledge, the female seen on her nest. Wow, what a find, what great views! We awoke the next day to snow storms, yep snow storms!! Despite this setback we visited the infamous Tagdilt Track and navigated through snow storms and wild dogs. Red-rumped, Northern and Desert Wheatears were seen at very close quarters as were Temminck’s and Short-toed Lark along with Cream-coloured Courser. As the morning progressed so the snow relented and temperatures became a little better. We visited a couple of other sites nearby and managed great views of both Crowned and Black-bellied Sandgrouse. At a local wadi we were entertained by a particularly large female Sparrowhawk and also saw Spanish Sparrow, Stone Curlew, Long-legged Buzzard and a grounded Lanner Falcon.
Day 1-3 - March 9th to 11th, from Spain to Asilah y Larache
Our few days jolly prior to our main tour included the estuaries and marshlands from Asilah to Merga Zerga and provided a sharp contrast to the main experience and purpose of our tour, namely desert species. A couple of highlights standout for me, namely seeing great shows by Marsh Owls and our count of over 1000 Red-knobbed Coot at Larache marshes! Although I am yet to see copies, Paul French managed some excellent photos of Marsh Owl! Great White Egret, Moustached Warbler, Spotted Crake and over 30 Squacco Heron made Larache a real bonus stop for us. We also managed Savi’s, Sedge and Reed Warblers. Little Bittern was heard from the reed beds behind the main lake at Larache and we had several Wood Sandpiper at the same stop. Caspian Tern was seen at each of our stops and we also had Osprey at the main marshland areas. We met-up with more of the group on the 11th and made our way to the reservoir site north of Marrakech. Here we saw a mating pair of Lanner Falcon, plus we had several Plain Martin and Little Swift. Overhead we had our first real show of migrating Black Kite in good numbers, whilst on the approach road we counted several Calandra Lark as well as Short-toed, Crested and Thekla Lar
Day 4 – March 12th, to Marrakech
Our main tour party gathered at our hotel in Marrakech and a number of our party chose to visit the old city and had an officially guided tour of the main areas of interest. Time still allowed us to take a look at some scrubland adjacent to the hotel where we found Common and Moussier’s Redstart, Iberian and Chiffchaff, Sub-alpine, Melodious and Sardinian Warbler, Meadow Pipit, Song Thrush, Lesser Kestrel, Yellow Wagtail and both Red-rumped and Barn Swallow. The hotel gardens attracted House Bunting and Common Bulbul in good numbers, whilst overhead we saw Little Swift and Pallid Swift. Serin was present among the more familiar species of Great and African Blue Tit, and in the lawned garden we regularly saw Robin and White Wagtail. However, we were already looking forward to the next day and the crossing of the Tizi-n-Tichka pass in the High Atlas.
Day 5 – March 13th, through High Atlas Mountains to Ouarzazate
I think all who have used this route across the High Atlas must been impressed by the dramatic and changing landscape. From Oak forest to high crags, to weathered mountain top and river valley passes the scenery constantly surprises and is stunning. We did our usual stops during our ascent and managed to find the sometimes elusive Levaillant’s Woodpecker, plus we had a small flock of Hawfinch feeding on Hornbeam seeds. Rock Bunting and Cirl Bunting plus Woodchat Shrike gave close views and a solitary Long-legged Buzzard sat proud and upright on a boulder strewn slope. At our lunch stop we added Tree Pipit, Nightingale, Mistle Thrush, Horned Lark and Black Redstart. Near to the café we also had Thekla Lark as Red-billed Chough danced in the up draughts of high slopes and crags, where we also saw Raven. During the high crossing we saw Black Wheatear, which later appeared to be replaced during our descent by White-crowned Wheatear. Later and some 20km from Ouarzazate we made a stop at a good site for Mourning Wheatear, but despite seeing White-crowned, Northern and Desert Wheatears we dipped, as was to prove the case on the whole tour. Fortune was to favour the brave and we spotted Thick-billed Lark feeding near to where we had parked the Land Cruisers and we also saw several Trumpeter Finches. Bonelli’s Eagle, Desert Lark, Hen and Marsh Harrier added to the stop and made everyone feel better for not seeing Mourning Wheatear.
Day 7 – March 15th, from Zagora to M’Hamid
Quite an eventful day as we discovered a new route to M’Hamid and also discovered how to get lost! Our local driver showed us the new route, but about halfway we lost the main track and had to search by foot for the correct route as all the main tracks were hidden by recent sandstorms. Phew, well we did find our way and eventually had some interesting species including Bonelli’s Eagle, Cream-coloured Courser, Bar-tailed Desert Lark and Fulvous Babbler. Of course with the promise of a couple of difficult birds awaiting in the desert camp, we were all anticipating our arrival in M’Hamid. Winding our way westward of the village we later came upon our camp, where we would be spending the night. Right on cue we had Desert Sparrow and a number of Brown-necked Raven. We have been cultivating the management of this Bedouin camp to feed the Desert Sparrows and with a flock near to 40 the results have been very encouraging. I think we were all very impressed by the high numbers and who could fail to be taken by the beauty of this rare bird?
Day 8 – March 16th, from M’Hamid to Zagora
From a very relaxed breakfast we reluctantly left our Desert Sparrows behind and headed into the desert. Very soon we had Crowned Sandgrouse, Hoopoe Lark, Bar-tailed Desert Lark and large numbers of warblers in an area of scrub. In these parts the Draa flows beneath the desert, but now and again Tammerisk and other bushes give telltale signs of water not far below the surface. These scrub areas certainly provided good cover and feeding for many migrants so no surprise that Sub-alpine, Chiffchaff and Willow Warblers were around in good numbers. I managed a single Tristram’s and wherever we went Brown-necked Ravens were never very far away. We also managed another flock of Desert Sparrow numbering over 30 individuals! During our sandy journey we saw a few more Cream-coloured Courser and later after arriving back in Zagora an evening trip produced a gang of Fulvous Babblers.
Day 9 – March 17th, from Zagora to Merzouga
Our journey to Merzouga took us northwards, but still in the Draa Valley we soon were having great close-ups of Blue- cheeked Bee Eater and later we found another riverside site for Fulvous Babbler. Whilst next to the river we saw our only Collared Pranticole of the main tour and again I had a male Tristram’s Warbler! Little-ringed Plover, Green Sandpiper and Barbary Partridge plus several warbler species made this site very rewarding. At our lunch stop we had both Common and Moussier’s Redstart. During the afternoon journey to Merzouga we again saw close-ups of Blue-cheeked Bee Eater and later at our hotel we had several migrants in the gardens including Sub-alpine and Bonelli’s Warbler. Trumpeter Finches were breeding in the gardens walls!
Day 12 – March 20th, from Merzouga to Boumalne de Dades
Our morning involved making a slow drive to the Todra Gorge and incorporated many stops to enjoy some fine birding, which included very close and spectacular views of Blue-cheeked Bee Eaters. Not before though seeing a Grasshopper Warbler in the grounds of the hotel! After our lunch we made our way slowly towards Boumalne and along the way saw White-crowned, Black-eared, Desert and Northern Wheatear, Black, Common and Moussier’s Redstart. However, the star of the day was Pharaoh Eagle Owl and we only really found it by accident! At a normal stop for Mourning Wheatear we searched for well over 30 minutes with no luck and with nothing else to do we scanned a nearby cliff face, which not only produced a very relaxed male, but also the female sitting in the nest! Quite a find and one which was duly marked for a return visit next year, but after the apparent desertion of a couple of known sites, we have decided to keep this one a secret (sorry in advance to enquiries, you know we are normally very helpful, but hope folk understand on this occasion).
Day 13 – March 21st, from Boumalne de Dades to Ouarzazate
We awoke this morning to SNOW showers and freezing temperatures! The kind of first experience you would want to avoid whilst in Morocco, but our visit to the Tagdilt Track and the surrounding area produced some excellent birds. It took us a while to locate Red-rumped Wheatear, but of course once you found one then we found lots! It seemed every time we stopped Temminck’s Lark was showing well and we also managed to find both Crowned and Black-bellied Sandgrouse. Tawny and Tree Pipit were also seen, whilst Lanner Falcon gave great views as it perched on the ground. Taking another route of ours we also had Spanish Sparrow, Tree and Meadow Pipit, Moussier’s and Common Redstart plus Iberian Chiffchaff. We finished our day with big numbers of Black Kite 00’s and singletons of Short-toed Eagle and Long-legged Buzzard. Also our stop at the reservoir near to Ouarzazate produced Sedge and Bonelli’s Warbler.
Day 14 – March 22nd, from Ouarzazate back to Marrakech
We set-off on our journey towards Marrakech via the High Atlas, but not before Red-throated Pipit and Kingfisher were added to our growing list of species! During the first stage of our day we made a detour via the river Asif Iriri and very soon had flocks of Sand Martin, House Martin, Red-rumped Swallow, Barn Swallow together with both Common and Little Swift. A couple of Short-toed Eagles soared overhead whilst we were watching Desert Lark and Wheatear. In the high pass we again had Horned Lark and well over 60 Alpine Chough where Red-billed were strangely in the minority. A Barbary Falcon gave excellent views and we also managed Rock Sparrow. Here we were able to watch Seebohmi Wheatear and discuss the differing characteristics which we believed should lead to this species being considered separately from Northern Wheatear! Our descent gave us further opportunities to ‘stop and find’, fabulous views of a Levaillant’s Woodpecker being a real high-point and we also saw Common Cuckoo. Eventually we arrived in Marrakech and luckily some were able stay over for an extra night!