Pete Morris – Birdquest (www.birdquest.co.uk)
Ranking as one of the Western Palearctic’s ‘big four’ birding destinations, the stark, rugged and scenically beautiful landscapes of Morocco are home to a unique selection of special birds. Among these are a number of North African endemics and several species with a localized distribution that are hard to find elsewhere. It was these species that had as sauntering through montane cedar and oak forests, striding across stark deserts and diligently scoping wetlands and rugged rocky coasts and estuaries. At the end of our ten days birding in this fascinating country we had managed to see nearly all of our targets and seen them well! The good accommodation and delicious Moroccan cuisine all added to the enjoyment.
We kicked off on the coastal plains and cork-oak forests near Rabat. Here, early morning forays in the Sidi-Bettache area led to some great sightings of the much sought-after Barbary Partridge as well as a family of Stone-Curlews, a hunting Black-shouldered Kite, some Booted Eagles, singing Thekla and Wood Larks and numerous Sardinian Warblers. We also spotted a cunning Golden Jackal sneaking down a ride, no doubt, like us, looking out for Double-spurred Francolins. Alas we only managed to hear them. I wonder if the jackal had more luck!
We also had an excursion along the coast north of Rabat where Collared Pratincoles swooped over the fields. Medhya Plage held a mottly collection of gulls including an unexpected Common (Mew) Gull whilst the adjacent Lac de Sidi-Bourhaba provided a few hours of great birding. Red-crested Pochards and Red-knobbed Coots were present in good numbers (the latter side-by-side with Eurasian Coots allowing great comparisons), numerous Marbled Ducks gave great views and Purple Herons skulked in the reedbeds. Several blue-eyed mauretanicus Common Magpies hopped around by the roadside whilst overhead a pair of light phase Eleonora’s Falcons were a surprise here. Another surprise was the presence of at least five Purple Gallinules (including a black juvenile), seemingly a recent colonist at the site.
Having seen the diurnal species, a wait until dusk was required in order to see another of our targets. In the half light, a Eurasian Hobby dashed across the water catching dragonflies, and, just as it was getting dark, a fluffy juvenile Marsh Owl appeared bobbing in the reeds. It was swiftly followed by two adults which allowed excellent scope views as they gave their frog-like calls from the tops of bushes.
Our drive to Ifrane took us first past the truffle-rich cork-oak forests and then over rolling hills towards the Middle Atlas. A stop en route allowed for a brief swift workshop as we enjoyed great looks at Little and Pallid Swifts and other roadside stops produced some dazzling European Rollers, Alpine Swifts, a surprise Laughing Dove and some jangling Calandra Larks. An excellent picnic saw us watching a colony of White Storks, Lesser Kestrels and Spotless Starlings all nesting in some old farm buildings. Nearer to Ifrane we entered the forests of the Middle Atlas and a prolonged stop here produced a variety of common woodland birds including stunning Firecrests, Short-toed Treecreepers, grotesque Hawfinches and, just as we were about to call it a day, a superb pair of Levaillant’s Woodpeckers which put on a great display.
Having seen the hoped-for forest species, we headed out into the rocky Middle Atlas where we were soon watching the highly distinctive black-throated seebohmi form of Northern Wheatear. Other species here included Long-legged Buzzards, a smart Horned Lark, our first Red-rumped Wheatears (an obliging family party) and several stunning Moussier’s Redstarts, surely North Africa’s best endemic! After another pleasant picnic we were excited to see two immature Eurasian Griffon Vultures circling overhead, a rare sight in Morocco these days, and in the nearby gorge we watched Rock Sparrows and breeding Red-billed Choughs. As we headed south towards Midelt, the weather turned nasty, and the squally showers grounded large numbers of Black Kites. A few roadside Ruddy Shelducks brightened up the journey and then, as we neared Midelt, the weather bucked up a bit so we stopped off on the plains just south of Zeida, ready for our first attempt at the ultra-elusive Dupont’s Lark. As we sheltered from a light shower, the distinctive nasal calls of a Dupont’s Lark wafted in through the open door and we were very soon bailing out. Despite some considerable distractions from a superb party of Cream-coloured Coursers, we focused on the job in hand and in no time whatsoever were enjoying stunning views of a rufous Dupont’s Lark which crept and sprinted around us in a large circle, pausing to sing from saltbush clumps as it went. Further explorations in this superb though barren area yielded more coursers, some obliging Lesser Short-toed Larks, a pair of bulky Black-bellied Sandgrouse, some attractive Desert Wheatears and a most unexpected cracking male Thick-billed Lark which was almost certainly responsible for Tony’s mobile phone disappearance!!
The following morning, having already seen the lark, we were once again ahead of schedule, and had time to potter round near the hotel where a few Common Crossbills, including some recently fledged juveniles, were a pleasant distraction. We then headed south where a stop just below the pass yielded a superb singing male Tristram’s Warbler as well as a pair of Rock Buntings. The long journey south to Erfoud was then broken by a detour from Er Rachidia where a rather shadeless picnic in the desert was compensated for by an obliging pair of scurrying Scrub Warblers and some tired Melodious Warblers. We then headed down the stunning Ziz Valley where the green palm oases in the valley bottom were in stark contrast to the surrounding barren land. A quick detour then had us watching delightful Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters and a smart Rufous Scrub-Robin before we transferred to our landrovers and headed to our comfortable Auberge in the desert.
The incredible Erg Chebbi sand dunes, at the northern fringe of the Sahara, were the main focus of our visit to the Merzouga area and would be worth a visit even without the birds that inhabit the area. The oases at the edge of the dunes are a real migrant trap and good numbers of tired new arrivals had swelled the ranks of the resident birds. One of our prime targets here was the cheeky Desert Sparrow that we watched around the Café, nesting in the walls and often hopping about near piebald White-crowned Wheatears. Bar-tailed, Desert and Greater Hoopoe Larks were all seen well, diminutive Desert Warblers and colourful Subalpine Warblers obliged and commoner migrants included Whinchat, European Pied Flycatcher, and Willow and European Reed Warbler. The mixed flocks of Yellow Wagtails (comprising ‘Grey-headed’, ‘Spanish’ and ‘Blue-headed’) were a delight to watch and a number of Common Grasshopper Warblers and a couple of Red-throated Pipits were a bit more of a surprise. A Lanner (of the pale erlangeri subspecies) drifted over and we watched a family of Fulvous Babblers, first hopping through the bushes and then the next morning on the sofa at breakfast!! Pride of place however must go to the superb Egyptian Nightjars which put on such a wonderful performance for us.
The drive to Boumalne du Dades was broken by a lengthy stop at the Gorges du Todra where, much to our dismay, there were thousands and thousands of people enjoying a festival. However, we eventually got terrific views of a stately pair of Bonelli’s Eagles before heading on, notching up European Honey Buzzard, a pair of Lanners and an Osprey en route.
The desert near Boumalne is always difficult but after some hard work we enjoyed great views of Temminck’s and more Thick-billed Larks, numerous coursers, Trumpeter Finches and, just as hopes were fading, a lovely group of Crowned Sandgrouse at close range. Nearby gardens held numerous Common Nightingales and Olivaceous Warblers as well as a sleepy and highly cryptic European Scops Owl which peered out at us from his hole.
Heading west the following day we found a smart (though mobile) Mourning Wheatear which showed very well after some chasing, a pair of Spectacled Warblers brightened up lunch and a stop in Aoulouz Gorge yielded an excellent pair of Peregrines (of the Mediterranean form brookei) along with their fledged youngster.
Onward ever onward, the following day saw us exploring the birdy estuaries of the Sous and the Massa. At the Massa, highlights included some fine Little Bitterns, Greater Flamingos, some drinking Black-bellied Sandgrouse, Plain Martins, a superb singing Black-crowned Tchagra and a lovely Cirl Bunting. At the ocean, we saw our first of many Lesser Crested Terns and several Audouin’s Gulls but best of all was a male Killer Whale which loafed offshore. On the more brackish waters of the Sous we enjoyed huge numbers of waders, gulls and terns including Little, Mediterranean and many Audouin’s Gulls, hundreds of Black Terns and an adult Sabine’s Gull which may well have been blown in by the strong onshore winds which may in turn have ruined our chances of seeing Red-necked Nightjars.
Our last day was to be a full-on one! First up was a seawatch at Cap Rhir which produced hundreds of Cory’s Shearwaters, both Arctic and Great Skuas, no less than 25 Sabine’s Gulls (in one hour!!) and a much appreciated immature Barbary Falcon. Next up was Tamri where a fine adult Barbary Falcon showed well, and, after our own version of ‘A Comedy of Errors’ (including getting the bus stuck in the sand for an hour!!), we all got great views of the amazing Northern Bald Ibises!! This prehistoric looking species is now extremely rare though they have apparently had a good breeding season this year. A long drive north along the Atlantic coast to Essaouira then proved worthwhile as graceful Eleonora’s Falcons cruised overhead during lunch. Both dark and light phase adults gave superlative views and earned many admirers among our ranks. We then returned to Agadir and headed back to the Sous for one last bash. Here, ironically, six Eleonora’s Falcons hunted over the estuary (though not as close as earlier in the day). Without the wind but under the careful scrutiny of the King’s soldiers (he was in residence) we waited for darkness. Forbidden from going down my normal track, we had to look elsewhere and I think it’s fair to say that expectations were not high. Then, as if by magic, a Red-necked Nightjar floated by and smiles broke out. But the best was yet to come. As we walked back towards the vans we were treated to stunning spotlight views of this bold nightjar which provided a fitting climax to a memorable tour.