March 8th – 19th 2010
Trip Report by Julian Sykes
Saturday March 5th – We all met at Gatwick’s North Terminal in good time to catch our early morning flight to Marrakech, which went without incident. We landed a little late with John seeing a Barn Swallow from the aircraft as we taxied to the terminal building. We did exceptionally well and soon enough we had collected our luggage and heading through to the arrivals lounge where we were greeted by Mohamed – our Berber guide. He had the vehicle ready and after taking a little time changing some money we were out in the parking area saying “bonjour” to our driver Hassan. Keen to get things going, we quickly loaded our luxury 12 seater vehicle and at the airports exit Julian pointed out a Hoopoe flying across our path. It was now lunchtime and Mohamed had arranged for lunch to be taken in the city on the roof-top terrace of the Islane Hotel. As we waited for our lunch to arrive we started to add a few bird species to the list with specialities like Common Bulbul and House Bunting being seen. Also from here we could watch the White Stork activity as they flew back and forth from their large nests. Dave and Arleen saw our first Black Kite of the day and pair of Common Kestrels was occupying a hole in the local mosque. Eventually the food arrived and we enjoyed some excellent Moroccan fayre of tagine or couscous with copious amounts of bread. Despite the early start everyone was really keen and wanted to head off out of the city to find some more species. As we walked back to the minibus Julian located a couple of Short toed Eagles and then a ‘pale phase’ Booted Eagle migrating north. On the way out of Marrakech, Mohamed decided we should stop at the impressive gate of ‘Bab Agnaw’. It is an incredibly impressive structure with its White Stork nests and very photogenic House Buntings, which pleased Malcolm, Dave and Lynn, the main photographers of the group. During our time here Julian located a small kettle of raptors that were all Black Kites and we all managed to get decent views as they spiralled into the blue sky. We needed to push on and before long the buildings gave way to miles of agricultural and un-used land that stretched away into the distance. Mohamed decided to stop near Tahanaoute, which had proved quite productive in the past and today wasn’t too bad with lots of ‘North African’ Chaffinch, Greenfinch, Sardinian Warbler, Chiffchaff, White and Grey Wagtails, plus several Small White and a Moroccan Orange-tip Butterflies. Back in the minibus we continued towards the impressive snow-clad peaks of the High Atlas, with Jbel Toubkal (North Africa’s highest peak) looming in the distance. As we climbed up into these impressive mountains, Hassan negotiating the winding roads, we made another stop at the Gorge of Asni. Mohamed had seen a Black Wheatear from the bus and quickly relocated it on a wall with a couple of Barbary Ground Squirrels. There were Cattle Egrets in the fields nearby and Penny found a couple of Black Redstarts on the edge of the stone bridge. Lynn picked up a Sparrowhawk as it flew through the valley and a couple of Rock Buntings showed well near to where we were standing. Mohamed then heard a familiar call (to him) and called “Barbary Partridge somewhere, I can hear it?” So we started to search the rocky slopes of the gorge and by sheer luck Julian found it stood on an outcrop. It was a distant and unsatisfactory view, which hopefully will be better over the next ten days! It was now late afternoon and we were getting tired so we cracked on to our accommodation just outside Inarijha Village – the rustic La Bergerie. After the usual check-in procedures we were shown our rooms within the complex’s grounds and arranged to meet two hours later for the evening meal and daily check list etc. However the keenness of the group shone through and before long several of us were wandering the many pathways throughout. While Julian and Mohamed were talking outside over a coffee they spied three more Short toed Eagles heading north along with the usual Common Bulbuls, Sardinian Warbler, Blackcaps, Chiffchaffs, Chaffinches and Serins. As they walked back to their rooms Mohamed heard a Levaillant’s Woodpecker and skilfully called it in while Julian tried to ‘round up’ the group so they could see this North African speciality. Thankfully most saw it sat out on top of a tree but it was sadly flushed by a second bird before Malcolm and Joanna could get there. Hopefully we would see more on a later date. Red-rumped Swallows had started to fly around hawking insects so we all managed to get views of these gorgeous hirundines. It was nearly time for the evening meal and we gathered at the bar for some pre-meal drinks and some tapas. After a little while we sat at the table, ordered our food and while it was being prepared conducted the check list and discussed the next day’s plans. It all worked very well and we also enjoyed a very good meal from quite an extensive menu. Relatively early the night came to a close and starting to feel exhausted from the long day’s travelling we headed back for our beds. Although Julian wanted to have a quick walk around the grounds with his torch managed to find a Moorish Gecko tucked into a crevice in one of the stone buildings. It had been a great start to the holiday and hopefully it would continue in this vein.
Sunday March 6th – A pre-breakfast walk around the grounds of the La Bergerie was quite productive for those who managed it. Penny did very well finding our first gorgeous male Moussier’s Redstart, although this stunning orange, black and white bird’s not really an identification challenge to her! Several of us really enjoyed these beautiful birds along with a pair of Black Redstarts, Sardinian Warblers, Blackcaps, African Blue Tit, Common Bulbuls and House Buntings. Julian found a male Cirl Bunting but even better he saw our first Laughing Dove drop on to the hotel’s terrace whilst we were having breakfast. This was very much appreciated by the group as we got very good views as it picked crumbs from under the tables. After our breakfast of freshly squeezed orange juice, hot pitta bread, cake and croissants, coffee or tea we ready ourselves for a day in the High Atlas. It was a gloriously sunny morning with the sun illuminating the distant snow-clad mountains. As we drove down towards Asni Dave & Lynn shouted “Stop - Little Owl” so we pulled over quickly and sure enough there it was just sat at the side of the road. A few of us got out to try and get a better look but it flew off into the pine forest, however we did add Coal Tit as several flew over our heads. We then continued down to Asni, where Mohamed and Hassan went to buy provisions for our picnic lunch. During this time Julian took us on a short walk down to the river and found some more new species. A Wren was found by Lynn and in one particularly dominant tree we found our first Great Spotted Woodpecker, plus great views of another Levaillant’s Woodpecker. This was very pleasing as it enabled Malcolm and Joanna to get a good look, after their disappointment of missing one the previous afternoon. Julian picked out a single Linnet high up in the tree and everyone managed to get good views of an African Blue Tit. This walk also produced the spectacle of 100+ Cattle Egrets sat in a tree. There were also White Storks stood on nests and a couple of Grey Wagtails seen by John & Penny. As we reached the bridge over the dry river, Mohamed & Hassan met us in the minibus, so we boarded and set off into the mountains along the Sidi Fares road. As we wound our way upwards Mohamed (at the front) saw a Blue Rock Thrush fly up from the side of the road and decided we should pull over. This was an inspired decision as we not only relocated the Blue Rock Thrush but also got good views of several Thekla Larks, Black Wheatear, Rock Bunting (for John), Black Redstarts and another beautiful male Moussier’s Redstart. By this time we had spread out a little with Mohamed wandering up the hill slightly and found a stunning male Tristram’s Warbler. This was a fabulous find as these North African specialities are not always easy to locate at this time of year. Eventually the entire group got stunning views of this bird as it performed brilliantly on top of a nearby Juniper bush. Sadly we had to leave this particular roadside stop as it had been incredibly productive but soon enough our attention was focused on the fantastic mountain scenery we encountered at every turn. At one of these incredible vistas we stopped for a photo op. and while getting our stunning shots we managed to find our first Jay and Red-billed Choughs of the holiday. Onwards we climbed towards the ski resort of Oukaimeden with John and a few lucky others seeing a Red Fox on a scree slope. About half way up we stopped for mint tea at a roadside café and while waiting for it to be made we found another Levaillant’s Woodpecker, Kestrel, and a much larger flock of Red-billed Choughs. Penny found a lizard that didn.t show itself properly and was later found to be a Psammodromus (algirus). Eventually we reached the entrance to the ski resort, with Mohamed and Hassan dispatching Julian and the rest of us on a short walk while they found a suitable spot for lunch. It was now turning quite cold as the looming cloud cover was stopping the sun’s rays from penetrating through. However we enjoyed the walk around the small dam with Julian finding the first of two Dippers (much to people’s surprise), Andalucían Wall Lizard and a few Water Frogs along the edge. Although birds were fairly scarce we did enjoy some other wildlife with a Barbary Ground Squirrel, a few Ladybirds, Jonquil and Alpine Crocus (found by Joanna) in the mountain meadow. We had kept track of the minibus and reached it as Mohamed and Hassan had completed preparing an excellent lunch of pitta bread with fish, cheese and salad plus other nibbles, juice and water. We had been seeing lots of Red-billed Chough around but during lunch Julian heard, then spotted our first of 150+ Alpine Chough as they foraged around the buildings of the resort. Then Malcolm found our first Shorelarks not far from where we were standing so we again got some very good views through the telescopes. Once lunch had been completed and packed away we drove slowly up to a nearby pass to look for more mountain species but things were quiet here. So Mohamed suggested a ‘short’ walk to meet the vehicle in a car park on the other side of the ridge. It sounded easy enough and for some it was but just a few of us struggled with the altitude since we were at nearly 10,000ft. However we all helped each other and we took the path slowly, with Malcolm finding a couple of Scorpions under the rocks!!! We all reached the minibus pretty much in one piece and very well done to Arlene, Dave and Lynn for their sterling efforts. Iit had been difficult and made more so by the rarefied atmosphere and the uneven surface of the terrain. Back at the minibus we saw two (North African) Ravens, which Penny so correctly pointed out “they’re just like ours but possibly a little smaller”. Our final stop at Oukaimeden was the actual ski station which was still operational despite the lack of snow. We wanted to find our main target species of the day, which was Crimson-winged Finch and so far we had lucked out. We left Hassan with the van in the car park and headed to the chair lift through a melee of jewellery and trinket vendors. Then just beyond this a large flock of birds flew by calling – all Crimson-winged Finches! We watched them wheel round the scree slopes and eventually some decided to alight on the metal framework of the chair lift, something the guides had never seen before. In fact a few landed on the moving lift cable and looked very comical as they moved along while sitting there. Sadly they left this place quite quickly and flew about 200m away from the ski station on to the vegetated mountain slopes. So we decided to walk out a little further to see if we could find them but before we got to the area they flew back and did exactly the same thing, This time we all got brilliant views of these scarce mountain passerines as some were in fact just sat on a fence about 20m from where we stood. Now quite tired but incredibly satisfied we climbed back into the minibus and started back towards the exit of the resort. As we passed the café area of the village Dave shouted “stop” and saw what he had found around the bins of the cafes – more Crimson-winged Finches! Most of us got out to take a few shots of these gorgeous birds but didn’t stay long as we wanted to get back to the hotel. The journey back down the mountain was fairly rapid with one necessary comfort stop which produced several Jays, Greenfinches and Mistle Thrush. Finally we reached the La Bergerie and although we were all a little weary, especially after the previous days travelling, we were very happy with what we had seen and done. That evening we met at the bar for drinks and then enjoyed another lovely meal before heading to our rooms to collapse into bed.
Monday March 7th – It was a lovely morning and as we gathered for breakfast a Short toed Eagle flew over that Malcolm skilfully identified even after just a few sightings. There were quite a few Red-rumped Swallows hawking insects around the buildings and the usual Common Bulbuls, Sardinian Warblers and House Buntings made their presence known. While most of us went inside for our breakfast Lynn (who was feeling a little queasy) decided to do some birding on her own. This paid dividends as she found the first Robin of the trip along with Levaillant’s Woodpecker, Moussier’s and Black Redstarts, Blackcaps, Greenfinches and Goldfinches. Today was a travelling day and once we were packed and ready we headed off towards the Ourika Valley seeing the occasional Grey Wagtail along the river. We then found our first Stonechats, Thekla Larks, Southern Grey (elegans race)& Woodchat Shrikes as the mountains gave way to miles of cultivated fields. In Ourika it was market day and consequently very busy so we had to stop to let Mohamed stock up with provisions for lunch. While we were waiting for him we found several Little Swifts flying over the town, which was a pleasant surprise. We continued on through the valley bottom and started to climb when a pale grey bird was seen on one of the roadside pylons. We quickly pulled over and when we got a good view it turned out to be an adult Black-shouldered Kite. This was a major surprise for this part of the country and something neither Mohamed nor Julian had seen there previously. We got some superb views of this gorgeous raptor as it watched us from a Juniper and then flew on to a nearby Palm Tree, what a delight. As we entered the Zet Valley Penny saw a distant large raptor circling over the crags so again we pulled over. It was another new bird and this time the more expected Long-legged Buzzard, and despite being a long way off we managed to see most of the salient features. We continued to climb higher and a little further two more large raptors had us exiting the minibus for a better look. The first of these raptors was a magnificent adult Golden Eagle but sadly disappeared before the telescopes could be set up. The other bird had been a Short-toed Eagle on migration and as it moved along the ridge line it was joined by a second one. These two flew off into the distance being mobbed by a pair of Kestrels and then we found a few more raptors that turned out to be light-phase Booted Eagles. It was now very warm and sunny so we carried on to the Twama Forest where we made an impromptu stop for some woodland species. The pine trees were full of Chaffinches, Serins and Coal Tits but Julian did a little ‘pishing’ and attracted some Common Chiffchaffs and a single Iberian Chiffchaff that was also seen by Penny. A wonderful Long-legged Buzzard flew low over our heads and we also saw a Sparrowhawk briefly along with the ubiquitous Kestrels. However it was Dave Maslin that found the bird of the area with the discovery of a male Western Orphean Warbler near the minibus – very well done. Birds weren’t the only feature of the stop as the good weather brought out the butterflies. These included Western Dappled White, Moroccan Orange-tip (found by Arlene), Plain Tiger, Painted Lady and Brimstone seen by Malcolm and Joanne from the bus as we left. We now required some refreshments so Mohamed took us to a very scenic café near Touflihte where we enjoyed a very welcome Mint Tea while overlooking this stunning wooded valley. Soon enough we were back on the road and winding our way up the impressive Tizi n Tichna Pass. More stops were made for a pair of North African Ravens mobbing a Long-legged Buzzard, plus Black Wheatear and lots of Red-billed Chough. The climb was not for the faint-hearted as we took hair pin bend after hair pin bend with a massive drop to one side! However the ever-skilful and completely professional Hassan did a wonderful job and got us to the top quite safely. Once it had started to level out we pulled over to have our picnic lunch, which we thoroughly enjoyed while watching the local choughs and kestrels. Once lunch was completed and packed away we started on the downward journey to the city of Ouzazate. The rigours of travel took its toll on this leg of the day with most of us catching up on lost sleep as we drove on. As we neared the city our attention returned as Malcolm and Dave (who had remained vigilant) called 100’s of White Storks in a massive kettle over the road. The terrain was now much different as mountains were giving way to stone desert. Just outside Ouzazate Mohamed showed us the famous film studios of the country calling it the ‘Moroccan Hollywood’. We entered the city centre and pulled in to allow us to purchase our alcoholic drinks for the next two nights as the hotel we were staying in was ‘dry’. Once this was done we then went the short distance to the Ouzazate Dam where we spent too much time looking at all the new birds to be found. This winter there hasn’t been much rainfall and the water level was quite low, which was very good for the wildlife. Over the next couple of hours we added many species to our list that included Grey, Night & Squacco Herons, Little Egrets, Spoonbills. Greater Flamingos. .3 Black Storks (that were a good find), Ruddy Shelduck, Mallard, Teal and Coot. We saw a few Ospreys and at least 10 Marsh Harriers, lots of Black-winged Stilts and Black headed Gulls. Other birds included Crested Lark, several ‘Spanish’ Yellow Wagtails, Sedge Warbler, Sand Martins and a few Pallid Swifts at the end of the day. This was also ‘backed up’ with 1000+ White Storks, 100’s of Moroccan Cormorants and cracking views of a Hoopoe as we left for Boulmalne Dades. It had been a very productive day and after an hour and half we arrived at our destination in the dark. We quickly checked in and got to the rooms before meeting again to go for the evening meal. It was a lovely traditional meal of Moroccan soup and tagine, with fruit to finish. However the highlight started after the meal had finished as we were then entertained by a group of Berber drummers, which was completely mesmerising as they played their individual instruments.
Tuesday March 8th – After a very good and varied breakfast we set off from the hotel and headed out to the stone desert of the Anvid Plateau. Just outside Boulmalne Dades we pulled over to the side of the road as Mohamed had seen something. Initially we couldn’t find any birds but then we located a small party of Greater Short-toed Larks, which was then quickly followed by our first handsome male Desert Wheatear. We watched this bird for some time before it was joined by a male Northern Wheatear – giving a nice comparison. Eventually we returned to the minibus and continued to the minor road to the village of Tagdilt. This road dissects some of the best steppe habitat in Morocco and soon we were seeing larks and wheatears fly up from its edges. They were mainly Thekla and Greater Short toed Larks but we also saw our first gorgeous Red-rumped Wheatears, followed by a few Temminck’s Horned Larks and a few Fat Sand Rats. A Long legged Buzzard was sat just at the side of the road but a passing vehicle disturbed it but then went and landed right on the road for a couple of minutes giving super views from the bus. Before long we then turned off the minor road on to a track that led out to the market garden of Igoudmen. Mohamed spotted a Hoopoe Lark from the bus that had us spilling out to set up the telescopes, getting again fabulous looks at it running from tussock to tussock. Penny had then found another Long-legged Buzzard sat out on the plateau when Julian heard the familiar call of Black-bellied Sandgrouse. We soon located them as 5 birds flew by but further away Julian spies a bigger group of 10+ sandgrouse, which looked different. Sadly they were too far away for most people to see properly but Julian had them in the scope and was convinced they were in fact Crowned Sandgrouse. We needed better views! After this we continued scanning and sat on the skyline Julian found a wonderful Lanner Falcon. It looked majestic stood on a rock and everyone got a decent view of it through the telescope. However it didn’t stay there long and flew in the direction of the sandgrouse but instead of flushing these birds it landed next to another. This was brilliant as they interacted on the ground before taking off and was then unbelievably joined by a third bird, which looked like an immature. It was fascinating to watch them all giving this aerial display with the two adult birds clearly not happy with the presence of the youngster. Eventually they all departed and so did we stopping next at the entrance to the cultivated area. Mourning Wheatear was our target here but unfortunately there was no sign of it. However we were treated to several more new species and better views of some previously seen ones. Before we got out of the minibus we saw several Black-bellied Sandgrouse take off from near where we were but one remained giving awesome views on the ground. This individual soon also left and we got out of the bus and started to search the immediate area. However it was more around the cultivated fields that the activity was happening so we walked the short distance and started to scan. There were (as expected) lots of Thekla & Greater Short-toed Larks, Red rumped & Desert Wheatears, but there were also several Lesser Short toed Larks, Trumpeter Finches, 3 or 4 Spectacled Warbler, 2 (elegans) Southern Grey Shrikes and a Kestrel. Although one of the highlights of the day was the close fly-past of at least 40 Black-bellied Sandgrouse followed by 14 Crowned Sandgrouse, showing their entire salient flight and call features. It had been an awesome morning so far but we still would have liked to find another new species or two. This was especially true for Penny who was quickly heading for her 1000th bird - an impressive achievement. It wasn’t to be as we walked back to the minibus we looked at various insects and much the same birds. Then the slow drive back to town was very hot and dusty, not producing too much at all – it had been a great morning though! Back in the town centre we stopped at an excellent restaurant where we had our lunch, which was superb and enjoyed by everyone. It was still warm and the wind had increased somewhat by the time we left the town and followed the Dades River up to the impressive (and famous) Dades Gorge. On the way Mohamed stopped the bus as he had seen a Desert Lark fly up to the rocky slopes next to the road. We searched for it and after a while Malcolm expertly found it amongst the boulders and vegetation. We watched as it picked its way through the terrain being joined by a second bird and blending in so well. We then started searching the immediate area and it was Penny who ‘scored’ next with a large raptor in the distance. It was an adult Bonelli’s Eagle and one of the ‘hoped for’ birds of the afternoon. We watched as soared around before disappearing behind the hillside, but Dave did very well relocating it sat briefly on the horizon. We had to leave and continue up the valley with John seeing a Laughing Dove, Julian a male Blue Rock Thrush and several stops for photos of this impressive area. We got to the end of the gorge and decided to wander round for a while finding several (genuine) Rock Doves, another adult Bonelli’s Eagle, Crag Martins, Black Redstart and a couple of Grey Wagtails. It was now time to leave and we worked our way back to town stopping again occasionally for images but generally most people were weary. Back in Boulmalne Dades we stooped at the river bridge where we spent a very productive 30 minutes. Here there were lots of different things like Moroccan Wagtail amongst the White & Grey Wagtails, 3 Little Ringed Plovers, 2 House Martins, 2 Hoopoes, Chiffchaffs, Serins, Goldfinch, Common Bulbuls and Blackbirds. It was time to drop us off at the hotel since Hassan (the consummate professional) wanted to wash the minibus. So Julian, Dave & Lynn, John & Penny went for a short walk not for from the complex, which mainly produced superb views of a couple of White Crowned Black Wheatears. Also around here we did very well for other wheatears with Red rumped, Desert, Black-eared and Northern Wheatears all being seen. John and Penny went their own way back to the accommodation and were lucky enough to find a Temminck’s Horned Lark. The evening meal was going to be earlier than the previous night as we were all a little jaded from the long days in the field, even if they were productive. Still it was enjoyed very much but as soon as it was finished we were heading to our rooms with another 7am start the next day!!!
Wednesday March 9th – After an early breakfast we got ourselves ready and loaded the minibus, said “goodbye” to the excellent and friendly staff of the Hotel Kasbah Tizzourine. It was a very cold morning with a bitter easterly wind and a shroud of dust keeping the sun’s rays out. However we again headed for the Anvid Plateau and slowly drove along the minor road followed by a short trip out on to the stone desert. We saw many of the species encountered the previous day including a Long-legged Buzzard, Spectacled Warbler (for Mohamed), single Northern, Desert & Red-rumped Wheatears, Thekla, Temminck’s Horned, single Hoopoe, Lesser and Greater Short-toed Larks. As this was primarily a travelling day east to the Algerian border we needed to make some progress and soon enough we were back on the main road. As we travelled east we saw several Southern Grey Shrikes, a couple of Hoopoes and the occasional Barn Swallow. Not far from Tinerhir we pulled in to look for Mourning Wheatear but again this scarce Moroccan species eluded us. Although we did get some fabulous views of Trumpeter Finch except Malcolm (again) – was this going to be his nemesis bird? Our journey continued and after a short while we stopped in the town for a mint tea while Mohamed got some provisions for lunch. While most of us were sat people watching in the main square, Penny had a look round the local park and found an Iberian Chiffchaff. Malcolm also ventured out to photograph the Cattle Egrets as they were nest building in some nearby fir trees. We were also kept busy checking out the ‘now famous’ Moroccan species - the high-flying black plastic bag! Just before midday we were back on our way but it wasn’t long before we arrived at the lunch stop, where we stayed for a while. This roadside café/picnic area can be good for migrating species but today it was fairly quiet, although a very obliging female Moussier’s Redstart was well received. A short walk around the grounds, while Mohamed and Hassan got the picnic prepared was worthwhile not just for birds. However Julian did find another Trumpeter Finch sat on a building and this time Malcolm did see it. There were some small pools at the back of the complex with some frogs in and photos were taken for identification purposes. Penny had decided to go for a longer walk in the other direction and got brilliant views of several Desert Larks as they fed around her feet! Mohamed soon called us into the extensive picnic lunch and while we were sat at the table Julian spied a lovely male Black-eared Wheatear in the distance. After we had finished a few went for another short walk round and Julian was lucky enough to find a Woodchat Shrike and a male Blue Rock Thrush. Our journey continued with everyone in good spirits but these were raised even further when Julian and Mohamed spotted a Fulvous Babbler from the speeding minibus near Mellab. We all quickly got out and made our way to the series of acacia bushes where it was seen, but John saw drop into the bush before we got there. We pretty much circled the sparse bush but only got very brief and unsatisfactory views until one then another, then another decided to sit right out in the open, calling to each other. We estimated there to be at least 6 birds there and wondered how they had managed to stay so hidden in this small leafless shrub. We all got fabulous looks at this very gregarious bird (and a male Spectacled Warbler) before they followed each other to another set of acacias further away. Off we went again towards Erfoud and not far from Touroug Malcolm spotted a few Cream Coloured Coursers next to the road, which again saw us exiting the bus with military precision. These gorgeous waders are always wonderful to see and we got super views both on the ground and in flight, with their very contrasting wing pattern. Just outside Touroug we stopped again at a known well that backed on to a rocky hillside with some birds coming down to drink. Around the watering holes we found a White-crowned Wheatear and a few Desert & Thekla Larks, but Mohamed did very well locating a couple of Barbary Partridges on the hillside. Sadly only a couple of us got to see these before they disappeared into one of the many crevices created by the large rocks. We left here and then drove directly to Erfoud where we spent a short while again waiting for Mohamed to buy the food and drink for the next day’s picnic in the Sahara. Due to road works we had to go a different way to the auberge, which paid dividends as we passed a small group of Brown-necked Ravens at the side of the road. It was good to see these with the sun behind us as they were actually showing off their brownish necks, something not always apparent. Shortly after this we left the concrete road for a desert track, which led us to our accommodation situated in the Sahara desert. We had not gone too far before Malcolm exclaimed “what’s this tiny pale bird flying into that bush?” Immediately we stopped the bus as it sounded very interesting, certainly to our guides and after a quick search Mohamed said “Desert Warbler”. Sure enough there was this beautiful pale Sylvia warbler flitting from bush to bush and occasionally sitting on top to allow a good examination. It was smiles all round and congratulations to Penny on her official 1000th bird species. This had been an incredible run of North African and desert specialities to end the day. However it didn’t stop there as just before we arrived at the fabulous Auberge Derkaoua we found a small party of Bar-tailed Larks right next to the bus and Julian saw another Desert Warbler but only Lynn got a good look at this one. We reached the accommodation as the sun was setting so we were quickly shown our very comfortable and traditional rooms. Later we met in the main dining are with a drink before dinner and to do the daily list, which was looking very healthy. Despite the day’s travelling we had all thoroughly enjoyed it and we were very much looking forward to the next couple of days in this special place.
Thursday March 10th – I always say “you put in the effort, you get you just rewards” but sadly today this wasn’t the case. We spent many hours traversing the Sahara Desert looking for the rare and elusive Houbara Bustard but sadly came up empty handed. We started the day with a delicious early breakfast and by 7am we were heading out to our first ‘Houbara’ site the Ziz riverbed. We had two 4x4 Landcruisers – ideal vehicles to take us across this difficult and inhospitable terrain. The initial journey took quite a while and en-route we saw our first White-crowned Black Wheatears, Desert Wheatears, Brown-necked Ravens and Southern Grey Shrikes. Near the riverbed we got fabulous views of a (North African) Crested Lark, with its longer bill and more patterned plumage. As we slowly drove along the wadi we saw a few Greater Short toed and Bar-tailed Larks in small flocks plus the occasional pair of Desert Wheatears. Then Dave (who was in the front vehicle) said “what are these?” and there about 40m from us were a small group of Spotted Sandgrouse. We got fabulous views of them as they walked away from us and when someone eventually got out of one vehicle they soon departed revealing 16 birds – absolutely marvellous. We continued searching the dried riverbed for the bustards but with no sign although Lynn, Mohamed and Julian got brief views of a Western Bonelli’s Warbler. We even called in on one of the local sheep & goat herders to ask him what he had seen lately, and he kindly tried to help us. In fact while he was being quizzed the rest of us enjoyed watching the big flocks of Trumpeter Finches around his out buildings. So we tried his advice without success so Lasanne (the main driver) decided we should try another area he knew. He had seen 4 individuals a couple of weeks early so we drove (and bounced) across the desert to reach the place called Byaa. This journey yielded much of the same species and even while we were traversing their last known area didn’t find anything different. As we had spent so much time in the vehicles we decided to make a short walk around the general area, which proved quite productive. We had just got out to stretch our legs and we heard a Desert Warbler singing so with a little patience and good fortune we managed to get fabulous views (and images) of this rare pale Sylvia warbler. While this was going on Mohamed found a Woodchat Shrike, plus Dave and John located a few distant Cream Coloured Coursers. A Spiny footed Lizard was found by Malcolm, and Joanna took great delight in finding a Scarab Beetle scurrying across the sand. It had been a great little interlude. We needed cheering up so we were then driven to a small set of tented accommodation belonging to a local camel herder. Our drivers knew immediately where to look and within five minutes of arrival we were watching a pair of (copulating) Desert Sparrows – and Malcolm has the evidence!!! We stayed here for about 30 minutes watching these incredibly rare passerines as well as a cracking Hoopoe Lark and a pair of White-crowned Wheatears. It was now nearing lunchtime and we were hot, dusty, tired and hungry so we drove off across the desert now under the shadow of the famous sand dunes of Erb Chebbi. On the way we passed the ‘dried lagoon’ of Timalt where in previous years it had been superb for wildfowl, waders, etc. Also we passed through a small village and a couple of the younger members had Fennick Foxes in their hands wanting to sell them – this was incredibly sad to see. We eventually got to the Hotel Jasmina, once famous for its breeding Desert Sparrows before the local House Sparrows took their nest holes. Here we were allowed to use the facilities and set up our picnic lunch overlooking the lake, which was now dry! However during lunch we were able to look over the tamerisk trees where we managed to find and decent views of Sub-alpine & Sardinian Warblers, a cracking male Common Redstart and Southern Grey Shrike. A Lanner Falcon flew through but disappeared quickly despite there being lots of prey for him to chase. Penny took a walk up one of the massive dunes and afterwards around the hotel found a Moroccan Wagtail. After lunch we adorned the 4x4’s and drove again across the desert to another area overlooked by Erb Chebbi - Hass Abild. This is classed as an oasis even though the water irrigation was totally man-made from underground pools. Still the walk through the groves of Palm with gardens of vegetables etc. was really nice. One of our first birds here was a few Laughing Doves plus a couple of White Wagtails and then we located a field with lots of Common Chiffchaffs and at least one Iberian Chiffchaff. Also here Lynn pointed out another slightly larger bird on the edge of a pea field, which initially identified as a pipit. It then showed better to everyone and Julian explained why this was indeed a Tree Pipit – quite an early migrant. We continued our walk through the allotment fields finding the beautifully marked Green Toad along the water channel, plus a few Barn Swallows, more Common Chiffchaffs and a Willow Warbler. Back on the road the Landcruisers were summoned and when we were back on board we headed into the Sahara for one last go at finding a Houbara Bustard. Sadly it wasn’t to be and as the day was coming to a close we were returned to the Auberge Derkoua. Just before dusk Julian had arranged for us to reconvene to go and listen for Egyptian Nightjar. It was a little bit of a non-event since there was no sight or sound of a ‘goat-sucker’ but at least Penny found a ‘Bat sp’, which looked very interesting and worthy of further investigation. That night we enjoyed yet another brilliant and tasty meal that was much appreciated by the entire group.
Friday March 11th – Despite this being touted as an easier day we still managed to make full use of the daylight available. Sadly though the weather was again disappointing with high winds, creating a dust cloud and the occasional shower! However as always in these situations we thoroughly made the best of it and a few of us were out doing some pre-breakfast birding around the extensive grounds of the auberge. Initially things seemed quiet with just a few House Sparrows, Blackbirds and Common Bulbuls to log. Then a walk around some of the olive trees and the shrubs surrounding the open areas we started to find Common & Iberian Chiffchaffs, Sub-alpine & Sardinian Warblers, a few Willow Warblers, single Western Bonelli’s Warbler, White-crowned Black & Desert Wheatears. We got fabulous views of 20+ Trumpeter Finches, 30+ Greater Short-toed Larks, Crested Larks, Hoopoe, White Wagtails and a singing Southern Grey Shrike. John spied a large raptor flying over, which Julian identified as a Black Kite and just before breakfast Penny & John found a female Common Redstart. At 08:30 we all gathered in the dining room for breakfast and enjoyed the usual mix of breads and pancakes with various locally made preserves plus fresh orange juice and excellent coffee (or tea). Hassan had returned with the minibus and when we ready we congregated outside reception. While we were waiting we saw more warblers flitting about and Julian wanted a better view so moved closer. This caused a few ‘sparrows’ to fly up into a nearby olive tree and when he checked them they were all Spanish Sparrows. He called to the rest of us but sadly they flew off before we could get a good look at them. So we climbed aboard the van and set off across the desert to the main road and then headed for Rissani. Just after the city a couple of small waders near some reedy pools made us pull over and we watched this area for the next 40 minutes finding 2 Little Ringed Plovers, Little Grebe, Little Egret, Moorhen, Grey Heron, 2 Ruddy Shelduck (plus 2 flying over), House, Sand & Crag Martins, Barn Swallows, Moroccan Wagtail, Crested Larks, Chiffchaffs, Sub-alpine Warbler and a distant migrating Booted Eagle. As we neared the cliffs just outside Rissani we saw a few Brown-necked Ravens plus Lasanne (one of the local birdwatchers) joined us. He was kindly going to show us where to look for the ‘Pharaoh’ Eagle Owl in its roosting hole. We pulled off the main road on to a sandy track that ran parallel to a rock face and parked when it got pretty much impassable. Almost immediately after getting out of the bus we found a large falcon sat on top of the crags, which was clearly a Lanner. Julian then went on to find its partner and when a migrating male Marsh Harrier flew over they made their alarm call and flew up to make sure there was no threat. So we then walked under the wall of rock checking the holes and when we looked at the usual hole there was nothing to be seen, maybe the owl was too far back in the hole? Not wanting to spend much more time here we decided to return that evening to see if it would show itself at dusk. We were then taken a little further away from Rissani and turned off the road on to another track where we drove for a short while and at the side of the minibus we found 6 Crowned Sandgrouse. We got fabulous views of these normally elusive birds as they just walked away from the van. We carried on a little further before stopping at a flat area of scattered scrub. Mohamed and Penny walked out towards this area first and were lucky enough to flush a Quail, which flew away into the more vegetated area. We then all started walking out over this area searching for more sandgrouse and in doing so found both Desert & Bar-tailed Larks, White-crowned &Desert Wheatears. Suddenly Mohamed pointed and there in the distance were a group of Crowned Sandgrouse. We only thought there were a few but closer inspections and when they eventually flew we discovered there were in fact 40+ in this flock. We decided to stay in this area until lunchtime and during this time we got flight views of another 70+ Crowned Sandgrouse that flew around where we were calling all the time, which was magic. Dave located a male Northern Wheatear and Mohamed, John & Penny saw a Woodchat Shrike and on the way back to the van Dave and Lynn found a male Spectacled Warbler. Penny was really pleased as she got a chance to see Desert and Bar-tailed Larks side by side, and Malcolm was (unsurprisingly) very pleased with his flight shots of the sandgrouse. It was now time for lunch so we drove the short distance back into Rissani where we ate at one of the many merchandise places in the area. As well as the picnic stuff they were kind enough to supply some Berber pizza (mince and veg baked in a large pitta bread), which was really delicious. After we had eaten we agreed to listen to their talk on the local rug making industry before returning to the auberge. We had an hour and a half to ourselves before we needed to be back at the van to try for the Eagle Owls again, which in fact passed very quickly. A few people had looked for migrants in the grounds but the weather conditions were deteriorating making any kind of birdwatching difficult. By the time we had reconvened the rains had started but only a little, however by the time we had reached the cliffs at Rissani it was steady and cold. Thankfully it was nearly dark when we arrived so we didn’t have to stay out too long but we did give it a go and did see (and hear) one of the Lanner Falcon’s sat on a rocky outcrop. The lack of any response from the Eagle Owls must be down to the extremely bad weather, with strong winds and rain being incredibly counter-productive to this type of activity. A little disappointed with the whole situation we made our way back to the accommodation and quickly got ready for the evening meal. This again was lovely, with plenty of it so we soon cheered up and enjoyed our traditional Moroccan soup followed by a huge dish of couscous and then a sweet of Lemon Tart or Chocolate Mousse. Superb.
Saturday March 12th – This morning we awoke to a total contrast in the weather with blue skies and very little wind – the clarity of the dunes and distant mountains was superb. However another early morning walk before our breakfast produced a lot of the same species as the previous day with lots of Common & Iberian Chiffchaffs, Willow Warbler, Sardinian & Sub-alpine Warblers, Short-toed Larks, Trumpeter Finches White-crowned Wheatears, Blackbirds, Common Bulbuls and House Sparrows. Although we did also get to find other things with Julian seeing a Northern Wheatear, Sedge Warbler and female Common Redstart, Penny & John finding a Western Bonelli’s Warbler and Dave & Lynn seeing a female Spectacled Warbler. As we gathered for lunch Malcolm spotted a distant raptor flying north and Julian tentatively identified it as a Black Kite. Breakfast was again lovely with plenty of toast, pancakes, and breads with freshly squeezed orange juice and lots of coffee. When we were ready we went back to our rooms and got our luggage together before taking out to the minibus. Bar bills were paid and a huge “thank you” was given to the Auberge Derkaoua’s excellent staff. Just before departing Julian and Lynn had a quick look at the water trough area to see if the Spanish Sparrows were there again, but sadly not although they did find a smart male Woodchat Shrike. Today was a travelling day with us heading back to Ouzazate but first we wanted one more attempt at the ‘pharaoh’ Eagle Owl! So we headed off to some more cliffs near Rissani where we had been successful in previous years but sadly this also drew a blank. Although while we were there we saw a pair of Peregrine Falcons doing their thing, a Short-toed Eagle flew over and lots of hirundines (Barn Swallows House Martins) and swifts (presumably Pallid Swifts) were moving through. While we were there Mohamed got a call from his friend Lasanne who was at the other ‘owl’ site and it was showing in its normal hole. So we quickly made the short journey back to the original place and as we walked to meet Lasanne we got tremendous views of a Lanner sat on a ledge highlighting the differences between it and the Peregrines. Unfortunately the Eagle Owl had moved position slightly and wasn’t showing quite as well but with the telescopes trained on him you could clearly see the owl in the hole. Thank goodness we had definitely put enough effort in to this quest, which had finally paid dividends. We now needed to be heading back west to Ouzazate as we had spent more time here than planned. The first half of the journey was fairly uneventful with us seeing White Crowned Black Wheatears and a few Woodchat & Southern Grey Shrikes from the bus. We stopped for a mint tea at noon and from the café’s roof terrace we saw another very distant Short-toed Eagle, a couple of Brown-necked Ravens, Kestrel, Sub-alpine Warbler and Chiffchaff. So we continued and Mohamed got us to the gorge at Tazzmine for lunch. Here he left us while he and Hassan went to get the food and drink for our picnic. Julian led around this area and we also wandered off to do our own thing. Along the river we found a Green Sandpiper, several Little Ringed Plovers, Woodchat Shrike and a White Stork flew over. A quick look around the acacias provided us with the usual Sardinian & Sub-alpine Warblers, Common Chiffchaff, Blackbirds and a Goldfinch, with a Long-legged Buzzard being mobbed by the local Kestrels. At this point Penny came back from her recce having found a few Barbary Partridge so we headed back in that direction. Mohamed & Hassan had by this time come back with the lunch and he was coming to fetch us to eat. The thought of the partridges faded at this point so we made our way towards the main road. On the far rocky hillside Mohamed exclaimed he had seen a possible Blue Rock Thrush, which was in fact the case but it did prove elusive. However it was Julian that found the creature of the day with a huge monitor-like Lizard (Fouet de Queue) basking on a rock. He was ecstatic about this and spent a long time looking at it while most of us went back to the minibus for lunch. Before long we were all around the van enjoying a roast chicken picnic with juice and the usual fruit and veg. Being in such a good area we were walking about seeing what we could and Dave found a Spiny-footed Lizard and Malcolm a Plain Tiger butterfly. Julian came back to inform us he had found a Western Bonelli’s Warbler, a couple of Common Redstarts and several Andalucían Wall Lizards So most of us followed him back to where he had come from amongst the very thorny Acacia Trees where we flushed a couple of Hoopoes from the ground and saw a very obliging female Sub-alpine Warbler. Soon enough he relocated the Bonelli’s Warbler and several people got a decent view of it amongst the branches of a tree. Again we needed to go but Mohamed gestured too us to go to him and when we got there he informed us he had found 20+ Barbary Partridges. He did very well getting everyone on to at least one of them giving us all a chance to get a proper view of this game bird. Eventually we had to leave and as we were getting back into the minibus a very pale Lanner flew over us and in fact stalled in the air right above our heads. It had been a terrific stop but onwards to Ouzazate we continued seeing much the same species as before although Mohamed stopped the minibus near a running stream saying it could be good here for Thick-billed Lark. The lark wasn’t found but we did see a Green Sandpiper, Kentish Plover and 3 Little Ringed Plovers along the river plus another new amphibian – Natterjack Toad. The afternoon was moving on and we started along the impressive Draa River with just enough time to get to Ouzazate before dusk. The Draa River forms part of the valley of the same name, which is a very fertile strip of land with extensive palm groves almost 200kms long from Ouzazate to the Sahara Desert. We drove along the edge of the river until we got to the mountain range dividing us from the city. So with the late afternoon sun shining on this wonderful landscape we climbed up and over this wonderful range. At the top again Mohamed stopped the minibus and again had a quick look for the Thick-billed Lark but all we could manage was a Thekla Lark, Desert and White-crowned Wheatears. With not much light left we dropped down towards Ouzazate and just outside the city we started seeing lots of White Storks circling round and going to roost. Near our hotel the Dar Daif (Arabic for guesthouse) Malcolm did really well spotting a Little Owl at the side of the road, which was only seen by people on that side of the bus. At the hotel we were made to feel really welcome and shown to our rooms after the rigmarole of form filling but also mint tea and biscuits. We arranged to meet in the dining room of this very quirky hotel with lots of levels and interesting rooms to explore. The meal was fabulous catering for all needs and tastes with the added bonus of some Berber music. It had been a very long day so after the log had been completed we said goodnight and retired in lieu of the next day’s travelling to the Atlantic Coast.
Sunday March 13th – A few of us met for a pre-breakfast walk to the Barrage El Mansour Eddahbi, which was initially through cultivated fields where we found lots of White Storks, Zitting Cisticolas, singing Corn Buntings, Thekla Larks (nice i.d. Penny), Meadow Pipits and a few Chiffchaffs. It was a gorgeous morning and the early sun was illuminating the snow-clad mountains of the High Atlas in the distance – absolutely magical. At the water’s edge we started to find many birds with lots of Ruddy Shelduck, Black-winged Stilts, Little Ringed & Kentish Plovers, ‘Spanish’ Yellow Wagtails, White Wagtails and a tree full of Barn Swallows. However we took our time and started to filter the other birds on offer finding a couple of Grey Herons and Little Egrets, a Cormorant flew through, there were a few Mallard and a group of 5 Shoveler, 2 or 3 Marsh Harriers quartered the reed-bed, Dave & Lynn found a Black Kite sat on a pylon. Malcolm did very well picking out a couple of ‘Blue-headed’ Wagtails amongst their Spanish cousins. Amongst the waders we found a few Green Sandpipers, Common Sandpiper, a couple of Common Redshanks, Dave found a Common Snipe and a Little Stint pitched in with a small group of Kentish Plovers. Although seeing a flock of 30+ Avocets flying around made for another atmospheric scene. Around the scattered trees and bushes we found several land birds including Southern Grey & Woodchat Shrikes, Sedge Warbler, Hoopoe and more Chiffchaffs. Sadly we had to leave and return to our enigmatic guesthouse where we met up with Mohamed who had been birding from another location on the dam. He had been lucky enough to see a few things we hadn’t such as a few Little Grebes, a big flock of Greater Flamingos and a Water Pipit. We all then went to the dining room for breakfast where we met up with the others and swapped our stories. Breakfast was another fabulous affair with lots of traditional Moroccan breads and pancakes etc. After this and a little later than anticipated we got our luggage to the minibus and while doing so watched a small group of Pallid Swifts fly around the buildings with Julian locating a Little Swift in with them. Eventually we left Ouarzazate and headed west on the main road to Agadir seeing more shrikes and wheatears along the route plus lots of Barbary Ground Squirrels sat on the rocks. As we stopped climbing and levelled out on the plateau Mohamed called “sandgrouse” and immediately stopped the van. There in full view were 20 Black-bellied Sandgrouse feeding out in the open. Again got brilliant views of these normally ‘hard to find’ birds making it about 200 sandgrouse we had seen in total during the holiday. At Tazenakht we pulled in for a mint tea at one of their local hostelries, which was most welcome. As we got out of the minibus we spied a few Black Kites circling over the buildings but didn’t realise the extent of the migration. As we settled down in the café’s outdoor terrace we started scanning the skies finding Black Kites everywhere, they had obviously been held up by the recent bad weather and were now moving north in their 100’s probably 1000’s. Julian was being quite vigilant and continuously scanning the skies for something different and eventually scored with a 1st winter Golden Eagle looking huge amongst the Black Kites. We all got superb views of this fabulous ‘aquila’ eagle especially with the bright sunlight illuminating its white wing patches and tail band. Sadly for Julian and Dave who were really enjoying the huge raptor migration we continued west with the magnificent Jbel Siroua range to the north. It was actually now around lunch time and after a couple of brief stops for flocks of Linnets and Greater Short-toed Larks, we pulled off the road for our picnic lunch on the Sfkoumpt Plateau. Being on quite a high plateau the wind was cold making it difficult to keep warm, but we ventured out finding lots of Trumpeter Finches, Thekla & Greater Short-toed Larks, Northern & Black Wheatears. Malcolm & Joanna were busy photographing plants when they discovered a few small lizards on the rock walls and then later he even saw an unidentified gerboa hop in and out of view briefly. Once lunch was completed we set off again and the plateau continued with Arlene seeing a Long legged Buzzard from the minibus and John calling many Kestrels, Southern Grey & Woodchat Shrikes. We then started to drop down into the Sous Valley where we saw our first Argan Trees, where they produce the special oil from. Between Tallouine and Aoulouz we stopped for a leg stretch and a bit of birdwatching, which produced a Barbary Partridge, several Spanish Sparrows, Chaffinches, Blackcaps, Corn Buntings and another Hoopoe. Malcolm found a stunning Pearl-bordered Fritillary while Joanna studied the plants finding some beautiful wild Lupines and Iris’s. Our journey continued west through ‘argan’ country to the outskirts of Taroundant, where at Arzan Mohamed stopped for a raptor, which was quickly identified as a stunning male Montagu’s Harrier. We watched this wonderful migrant ‘bird of prey’ quarter the agricultural fields and soon discovered that there were in fact a few more, which was marvellous and when we set off Penny located another one from the bus. We were having a brilliant time but the weather was beginning to look more and more threatening as we neared the coast. On the west side of Taroundant near Oued Tayme we then found a Black-shouldered Kite over some kale fields and got out of the bus for a better view. This was also quite productive as we also heard a Quail and briefly a Black Crowned Tchagra plus saw a Red rumped Swallow, Goldfinch, Zitting Cisticola and Moroccan Magpie. It was now late afternoon and we wanted to get to Agadir in time for a decent rest before the evening meal. We were all right so decided on a brief interlude along the main duel carriageway to Agadir but as we were searching the hillside the heaven’s opened and it started to rain. So we quickly avoided the gathering clan of children interested in what we were doing, got back into the bus and completed our final leg of the day, arriving at the Argana Hotel for 6pm. For the last time on this holiday we completed the appropriate paperwork, before we were assigned our rooms, arranging to meet later to do the log and go for the evening meal. Julian had been given a room overlooking Agadir Port and the Atlantic Ocean so he spent a little time that evening looking over the water where he saw 3 Arctic Skuas chasing a Sandwich Tern, lots of Western Yellow-legged & Lesser Black-backed Gulls plus Pallid Swifts. Although both the gulls and the swifts had been seen by a few of the group also. As a consequence we agreed to meet again before breakfast to walk down to the coast and see if there was anything around, although when we went to bed it was still pouring down!!!
Monday March 14th – At 5am there was an almighty crash of thunder and flash of lightning that certainly woke some of the group, the wind howled and the torrential rain fell. What was today going to be like? We had actually decided to meet for a pre-breakfast walk to the nearby beach but the weather conditions had put most people off. Although there were three intrepid people who still wanted to go – so Julian, Dave & Lynn got their wet weather gear on and set off in the high winds and cold rain. The walk down produced good comparison views of Western Yellow-legged & Lesser Black-backed Gulls but wasted no time getting there and sheltering by one of the structures just in from the beach. Over the 40 minutes the weather and the birds improved as Julian guided Dave & Lynn to the birds he found passing their field of view. The gulls were the most numerous as expected but there were also lots of Gannets, several Sandwich Terns and a single Common Tern moving out of the bay. There were also a couple of memorable moments with a Great Skua seen chasing a Gannet and just before we left no fewer than 4 Arctic Skuas chasing a Sandwich Tern. The effort of getting there to see this had all been worth it. They got back to the hotel for breakfast and met up with the others who were full of admiration for their stoic effort but all thoughts were still on the day ahead and how the conditions might adversely affect it. The plan was to drive north towards the coastal village of Tamri looking for the ‘globally endangered’ Northern Bald Ibis amongst other things. So we set off along the coast road passing many beaches with some large gulls on but at one particular beach Julian saw some smaller birds and asked to stop. Hassan duly obliged and we were soon scanning the flock with our ‘scopes’ finding a good number of Audouin’s Gulls and a single Black headed Gull amongst the larger gulls and several Sandwich Terns. The ‘Audouin’s’ were one of our main target species and we had just got some fabulous views of them. Just before we got back into the bus Mohamed picked out a lovely male Moussier’s Redstart and while looking at this Lynn found a Blackcap. We continued northward winding our way through the coastal towns and villages with their ‘surf shops’ and relict hippy residents until we round the corner of Cap Rhir. This is a high promontory that sticks out into the sea and sometimes can be good for watching migrating seabirds. However it wasn’t this that made us stop but Mohamed and Julian seeing a large dark bird flying over the grassy fields. We pulled in by the lighthouse and Mohamed shot out of the minibus and checked what he thought he’d seen and sure enough there was a small flock of Northern Bald Ibis. This was brilliant and we all got amazing views over the next couple of hours of these strange looking birds. The weather had also improved once we had all got out of the van and didn’t rain again until we got back in, which was also brilliant. Thekla Larks sang everywhere and Malcolm found a smart male Blue Rock Thrush. Small groups of Pallid Swifts were flying through with the Barn Swallows and House Martins but Julian managed to pick out a Little Swift in with these also. However it was the sea that grabbed our interest as Julian exclaimed “there loads of Gannets moving north!” So for the next hour we did some sea-watching with Julian mainly directing the operation as he found a few Great Skuas and Arctic Skuas along with a constant stream of Gannets and Sandwich Terns. Dave called a group of ducks flying north that were eventually identified as Pintail and while Julian was away from the group John and Penny found a Corry’s Shearwater skimming the sea, which was another hoped-for find. It was now late morning and we were getting a little cold stood on this exposed headland so we called for a hot drink and the guides duly delivered. This also coincided with the rain starting again and in Tamri we found a café and sat on their veranda drinking delicious mint tea or coffee watching the locals struggle to deal with the adverse weather. After this we decided to check another area north of Tamri for more ibis but the heavy rain made things difficult so we returned to Tamri and just beyond to the Oued Tinkert river mouth, which was now like a torrent. In fact there was so much silt being dumped into the ocean it had turned a big section of it light brown! At a very good vantage point Hassan pulled off the road and again we spent at least an hour checking the beach, river edge and small pools. There was another flock of terns and gulls on the beach which were mainly Sandwich Terns, Lesser Black-backed and Audouin’s Gulls but Julian did find a beautiful adult Slender-billed Gull, resplendent in its pink flush. Our search got wider and Lynn picked out a few waders further on the beach which were our first Grey Plover and this was quickly followed by Penny seeing a ‘curlew-type’ near them. Careful inspection of this revealed actually to be a Whimbrel – a very good find indeed. Malcolm & Joanna picked out a few Little Egrets along the river bank followed by a couple of Grey Herons and this was followed by Arlene spotting 3 Spoonbills dropping in to the river mouth. Mohamed had also been busy and located a small group of Linnets just below where we were standing, which was then followed by a really good Southern Grey Shrike sat on a wire. It had been tremendous but we had stopped here too long and lunch was now required. Due to the conditions we were going to a restaurant instead of a picnic, which was very well received by everyone and just before the outskirts of Agadir we stopped in Aourir. We all picked from the extensive menu and we really enjoyed the wholesome Moroccan food provided. Lunch did consequently take a little longer than usual but it did now mean we could to the Souss river mouth without any other stops, which (as it turns out) a very good decision. We arrived as the River Souss was on the turn and the tide rising, which is ideal conditions for this site and already there were lots of herons, egrets, waders, gulls and terns to be found. Like all these situations the first few minutes was everyone shouting their birds, which were the commoner species such as Little Egrets, Grey Herons, Avocet, Black-winged Stilts, Grey Plovers, Common Redshank, Greenshank, Black-headed Gulls, Lesser Black-backed Gulls and Sandwich Terns. Things then got a bit of perspective with Julian and Mohamed starting to pick out the new species such as Ruff, Black-tailed and Bar-tailed Godwits, Dunlin, Common Sandpiper, Mediterranean Gulls and a lone Gull-billed Tern. There was also a single White Stork that really stood out and then in came a few Spoonbills, which were actually quite active! A Greater Flamingo then appeared from nowhere as did 2 Curlew Sandpipers amongst the bigger throng of Ruff and Redshanks. John was sifting through the small plovers and found a couple of Greater Ringed Plovers, which was followed by Mohamed pointing out first an Oystercatcher and then several Stone Curlews on the muddy fringes. While all this was going on Arlene was skilfully picking out a Moroccan Wagtail from the normal White Wagtails and Malcolm got some excellent shots of a Moroccan Magpie. Later on the Red rumped Swallows started flying around us low over the muddy fringes, which we meant we were actually looking down on them! We had a fantastic time helping each other locate the various birds we were finding and everyone getting to see well what was on offer. As the tide rose the waders were being pushed downstream so we changed our position and spent the last 45 minutes just up from the river mouth. Here we didn’t find anything new but did get phenomenal views of a couple of Stone Curlews on the mud flat close to our view point. This was then followed by a Moroccan Wagtail sitting on an overhead wire right above our heads with the distinctive facial pattern looking marvellous through the ‘scope’. The sun was starting to go down and we had been incredibly lucky with the weather as the forecast had said it would rain all day. So really flushed with success we returned to the Hotel Argana and got ourselves ready for the evening meal. We met earlier than the previous night and consequently got a preferable table and the food was more traditional, and very tasty. The log was called after the meal and this revealed the amount of birds we had seen that day, hopefully this would carry on into our last full day in Morocco.
Tuesday March 15th – We had arranged a 7am breakfast and we woke to another day of grey and threatening skies, hopefully things would improve? After breakfast we gathered in the lobby of the hotel while we waited for Hassan to turn up with the bus. During this time we saw a few birds including Western Yellow-legged & Lesser Black-backed Gulls, Pallid Swift and Common Bulbul. Eventually we were heading south along the main coast road after negotiating the traffic of Agadir. In Sidi Bibi we stopped to let Mohamed buy some things for the picnic and while this was going on we saw a few Serins, House Buntings, Common Kestrel, and a Moroccan Magpie. Our journey continued and soon enough we were turning of the main road towards the ocean and the National Reserve of the Sous Massa. We passed through some agricultural land where Thekla Larks flew up from the verges and we also started seeing a couple of Moussier’s Redstart. Along a derelict wall Dave saw a Little Owl and short time later Penny found another. The roads and tracks showed lots of evidence of the recent storms with large puddles stretched across the access routes. Hassan skilfully drove through these and we made our way done to the parking area near (the closed!) visitor centre. The first bird we heard when alighting the bus was our main target species Black Crowned Tchagra, so Julian & Mohamed walked over to where it was coming from. As they got there a movement in a dead tree alerted them of the Tchagra and very quickly we were getting scope-filling views right out in the open. What a start! Mohamed then spoke to one of the reserve’s wardens and he informed him that most of the birds were up river near the village of Massa. However we wanted to have a short walk her as we were sure there would be things to be found, and almost immediately we saw a few Spoonbills, Moroccan Cormorants, Laughing Doves, Serins and Goldfinches. We started down the track with the beautiful song of another Tchagra below us but proving elusive, but we got brilliant views of several Moussier’s Redstarts, Stonechats, Serins, Goldfinches and a Sub-alpine Warbler. A very familiar call to Julian and Mohamed alerted them to the arrival of some European Bee-eaters but initially only got poor flight views. However Julian then found 20+ sat in some dead trees just below where we were stood and we got some fabulous looks through his telescope. Mohamed had gone a little way ahead with John and Penny, when he located a family party of Wild Boar, which he relayed to the rest of us and it was Arlene who first located them. It was great to see the two adults and several strippy piglets moving through the undergrowth. While the rest of us just enjoyed the wildlife around where we stood Mohamed, John and Penny made their way quickly down the track to see if there were any wildfowl or waders at the river mouth. They didn’t find any water birds but they did see an Egyptian Mongoose followed by another Black Crowned Tchagra.
Wednesday March 16th – A few of us had planned to do an early walk down to the beach if the weather had improved. Unfortunately it was raining so this was abandoned and we ready ourselves for leaving Morocco. However the usual suspects of Western Yellow-legged & Lesser Black-backed Gulls, Pallid Swift, Common Bulbuls and House Buntings were seen around the hotel before we left. So for the last time climbed aboard the minibus and headed for the airport, which was about a 30 minute journey. We got there on time and Dave kindly did the honours with the tips we had given for both Mohamed and Hassan both thanking them both for the wonderful time they had given us during the course of the holiday. We then duly made our way through the airport procedures and caught our plane for Britain, which was also on time.