Nigel Redman – Birdquest (www.birdquest.co.uk)
Morocco is one of the best birding destinations in the Western Palearctic, and its variety of habitats ensures a great selection of birds in some truly spectacular scenery. This year’s tour was no exception. In just a few days we travelled from cork oaks and ‘maquis’ to montane grasslands and cedar forests, stony ‘hammada’ deserts, wild rocky gorges, rolling sand dunes, verdant oases, goat-infested ‘argan’ woodland, and coastal marshes and estuaries. We managed to find virtually all of the North African endemics and specialities, a wide selection of migrants, and a good number of mammals, as well as having what was possibly the best seawatch ever in Morocco.
We began as usual in Rabat, visiting the nearby cork oak woodland and Mediterranean-type maquis. The Double-spurred Francolins played hard-to-get this year, and were not even very vocal, but Barbary Partridges were on view and a superb Black-shouldered Kite by the road in perfect light was much admired. A party of seven migrant Black Storks was undoubtedly a bonus – this species is scarce in Morocco. At Lac de Sidi-Bourhaba, the Red-crested Pochards are now well established, and Red-knobbed Coot, Marbled Duck and Marsh Owl all performed on cue, the latter scoped on a bush before dusk. A surprise find was some Purple Swamp-hens, somewhat south of their usual range.
The journey inland into the Middle Atlas was relieved by Calandra Larks and Lesser Kestrels, but the Levaillant’s Green Woodpeckers made us wait. When they finally appeared, it was all worthwhile as their performance was impressive. In the magnificent cedar forests we were lucky enough to encounter Barbary Macaque – just a lone individual, but we watched it for some time as it foraged for food in the ground. Here too we found our first Moussier’s Redstarts, surely one of the best of Morocco’s specialities.
Leaving the Middle Atlas behind we eventually reached Midelt. Our search for the elusive Dupont’s Lark was the stuff of legend. Not a sniff for almost two hours and no response at all to the tape. We were on the point of giving up when someone had a possible sighting. Ten minutes later someone else saw it, some distance away, but a bit to the right; another sighting followed soon after. After a full hour the bird panicked and ran through the tussocks; fortunately everyone got onto it. In all that time it had not moved nearer or further away, yet had remained hidden in the sparse vegetation. Even when it moved it was hard to see! The delightful Tristram’s Warblers in the foothills of the High Atlas were much easier to find.
Continuing south through wild and rocky gorges, relieved by occasional riverine oases, we finally reached Er Rachidia where a hovering roadside falcon caused an abrupt stop – it was a male Red-footed Falcon, a rarity in Morocco. More desert species were quickly added to the list, including a virtuoso performance from a pair of Hoopoe Larks – an ever-popular species. At Erfoud, our delightful hotel was set in a small oasis. Here, Egyptian Nightjars were garden birds (!) and we quickly had excellent scope views in natural light, both at dusk and dawn. The gardens also produced the expected migrants, as well as the unexpected. Wryneck and Great Reed Warbler were good species to find, but a Grasshopper Warbler in a dark, muddy ditch was a surprise. Nearby, a noisy party of Fulvous Babblers provided much entertainment (and relief).
The sand dunes of Erg Chebbi are a highlight of any tour to Morocco. As the sun rose dramatically over the huge, golden massif, it seemed as if every tourist in Morocco was there to witness the spectacle, but within two hours they were all gone and we were left to enjoy the Desert Sparrows nesting in the cafe walls. In the dunes we found ourselves in the middle of a Desert Warbler territory. The birds responded to our presence by copulating, and then flew directly towards us. The male even appeared to dive-bomb us, later landing on the dunes just a few metres in front of us. We could not have asked for more. The lake was dry this year, so no desert ducks, but the gardens and palmery at Merzouga produced the usual crop of migrants. Strong winds were building up by late morning and we were forced to beat an early retreat.
Heading westwards, admiring gorgeous Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters on the way, we visited the famous Gorge du Todra. Clearly even more famous this year, it was positively heaving with tourists, but the resident Bonelli’s Eagles performed superbly. A single Crimson-winged Finch was less obliging. The name « Tagdilt track » is now synonymous with a superb selection of desert species. This year was no exception, and this uninspiring-looking area quickly produced the exotic Thick-billed Lark – our 14th species of lark for the trip. Other good birds included Black-bellied Sandgrouse, Cream-coloured Coursers, Temminck’s Larks, Red-rumped Wheatears and a splendid Lanner ‘fly-past’, the latter probably well satiated after a breakfast of birds!
As we continued our journey towards the coast, we visited the dramatic gorge at Aoulouz. Although Spanish Sparrows eluded us, a pair of European Rollers performed well, but even these were overshadowed by the local Peregrines. These birds appear to stoop just for fun; having seen a speck in the distance, barely visible with binoculars, we watched one approach directly towards us at a frightening speed and then cross the road not more than three metres from where we were standing, at just one metre above the ground. This was a sight not to be forgotten in a hurry.
After a stopover in the walled city of Taroundant, we finally reached the coast. At Oued Massa we found some obliging Black-crowned Tchagras, a fishing Little Bittern, a flock of Glossy Ibises, a vagrant Great White Egret and our first Audouin’s Gulls. Closer to Agadir, the equally well-known Sous estuary is a haven for waders and terns. The roosting terns numbered many hundreds, but included at least 13 Lesser Crested and also one Royal. The latter is uncommon in spring, but an adult Roseate was an even more unusual find. After dark, we eventually tracked down a Red-necked Nightjar.
It is always good to end a trip with a great day, and just occasionally we are lucky enough to have a really great day. This year, it was a stupendous day! It started with a spectacular seawatch at Cap Rhir. The conditions were not pleasant for birders (low cloud, drizzle, onshore wind), but good for seawatching. Cory’s Shearwaters were passing in their thousands, together with a few Mediterraneans. A single Sooty was a bonus for some, but all managed to get onto several Great, Arctic and Pomarine Skuas. Two Sabine’s Gulls were feeding amongst a flock of terns offshore, but the real highlight was the sight of a whale blow. Whales surface only intermittently, but after prolonged scrutiny of the area concerned, we ended up with no less than four species of cetaceans. There were pods of Common and Bottle-nosed Dolphins, two huge Fin Wales, and even a male Killer Whale. There was clearly good feeding offshore that day, and our Morocco mammal list will never be the same again. We could not linger as we had to find the Bald Ibises. This we managed, not at the usual site, but a little further north; just eight birds feeding in sandy areas close to the road. Our final destination was to look for the Eleonora’s Falcons – our eighth species of falcon for the trip. These aerial acrobats are always a joy to watch and their display was a fabulous finale to an action-packed tour. There had been so many good birds (and a species total of 227), but this time the whales almost stole the show.