From Marrakech to the Sahara, from Horned Larks to Crowned Sandgrouse, our journey took us through some of the most breathtaking scenery in North Africa. The birdlife in Morocco never ceases to thrill and specialities such as Desert Sparrow always reward our adventures into the Sahara. River complexes reach out from the High Atlas Mountains to nourish otherwise arid areas and their green fingers can be traced from the advantage of the high mountain range. Lush palmeries and the well tended gardens of the wadis, all merge to create contrasting brushstrokes to the dramatic desert. Our attention is diverted only by the calls of an excited Barbary Falcon flying high and master of his homeland……
We then later made our way back to the hotel, picking up more Common Bulbul, Red-rumped Swallow Hirundo daurica and Little Swift Apus affinis.
The morning started with our group all heading into Marrakech with Tarik and Benhamid Abbes a Guide for a tour of the city. The group returned to the hotel at around 12:30 and we all the set off for lunch at a small fish restaurant in the back streets of the city where we had a plate of mixed fried fish which went down well.
We then set off up the mountains towards the ski resort at Oukalmeden, on the drive up the mountains we saw Black Wheatear Oenanthe leucura, Woodchat Shrike Lanius senator, European Serin Serinus serinus, European Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis, African Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs africana and a cracking male Moussier’s Redstart Phoenicurus moussieri.
At the highest point of the drive above the resort Alpine Pyrrhocorax graculus and Red-billed Chough Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax were seen along with Mistle Thrush Turdus viscivorus, Rock Sparrow Petronia petronia, Black Redstart Phoenicurus ochruros and a couple of the uncommon Horned Lark Eremophila alpestris.
We were enjoying the birds whilst Tarik had met a fellow countryman and was spending his time sledging down what was left of the snow.
Down around the ski lifts we found a couple more Horned Larks, Rock Sparrow and both Northern Wheatear Oenanthe oenanthe and its North African subsp Seebohmi, which is split by many authorities including our own wheatear expert Peter Jones. Blue Rock Thrush, Nightingale Luscinia megarhynchos, Cetti’s Warbler Cettia cetti, Common Raven Corvus corax, Eurasian Kestrel Falco tinnunculus and Common Magpie Pica pica were all added to the list on the way down the mountains towards Marrakech. Just as we approached the city several White Storks Ciconia ciconia and a couple more Ravens were seen soaring together.
Day 2 - April 9th - Marrakech to Ouarzazate.
Today we were making the 220km drive to Ouarzazate over the top of the high Atlas Mountains via the Tizi-n-Tichka pass.
On the way we stopped just out of the city on some waste ground where we picked up Rufous Bush Robin Cercotrichas galactotes, Spotless Starling Sturnus uniclor, Turtle Dove Streptopelia turtur, Common Bulbul Pycnonotus barbatus and Corn Bunting Emberiza calandra.
By mid morning we were well up in to the Atlas Mountains and we had seen our first Long-legged Buzzard Buteo rufinus and Booted Eagles Aquila pennata of the trip on the climb up. We then made a stop for mint tea (Moroccan Whiskey) at a road side café. As soon as we were out on the balcony to the rear of the building we could hear the laughing cry of the Levaillant’s Green Woodpecker Picus vaillantii from the near by conifer trees. The bird was quickly found in the top of one of the larger trees and was then seen in flight as it flew down the valley away from us. Subalpine Warbler Sylvia Cantillans, African Blue Tit Cyanister teneriffae, Eurasian Kestrel, Serin and House Bunting Emberiza striolata were all seen during the tea stop. A few hundred yards further on another stop was made in some mixed woodland where a single Hawfinch Coccothraustes coccothraustes flew over (Guide only) and we could hear but could not see a couple of Bonelli’s Warblers Phylloscopus bonelli and a Blackcap Sylvia atricapilla in the Juniper Scrub. A Grey Wagtail Motacilla cinera walked around on the grass along the side of a very over grown spring. We pushed on and during the drive to restaurant Assanfou we picked Cirl Bunting Emberiza cirlus, Crested Lark Galerida cristata and a White Wagtail Motacilla alba. Whilst we had lunch several African Chaffinch were seen in the trees nearby. Once we had finished eating we all had a walk around some conifer trees across the stream. Here we saw Greater Whitethroat Sylvia communis, Bonelli’s Warbler, Common Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita and Mistle Thrush. We then headed south and down out of the mountains and into the first of the rocky stone desert areas. We had a short walk out into a shallow wadi along the side of the road and picked up Desert Oenanthe deserti, Black-eared Oenanthe hispanica, Northern Oenanthe oenanthe and the first of many White-crowned Black Wheatears Oenanthe leucopyga and a single Desert Lark Ammomanes deserti. The day had flown by and we arrived at the hotel Riad-salam later than planned but every one was happy as we had seen some good birds and the views had been breathtaking through the mountains.
The rain we woke up to came as a bit of a surprise, but not daunted we headed south along the Draa Valley towards Zagora. Our first stop was at a river crossing with a small piece of woodland on its one bank. As we approached the river a single Crag Martin Ptyonoprogne rupestris flew quickly past.
In the woodland we picked up Serin, Woodchat Shrike, Common Chiffchaff, Wood Warbler Phylloscopus sibilatris, male Pied Flycatcher Ficedula hypoleuca, Nightingale Luscinia megarhynchos, Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica, Bonelli’s Warbler, Blue Rock Thrush and Wryneck Jynx torquilla. I then started to walk back to Tarik in the vehicle, leaving the group watching the Wryneck; 50 yards on I picked up a pair of Ortolan Buntings Emberiza hortulana as they flew into the river. Unfortunately they had gone by the time we all gathered.
Just to the south of Agdz we parked off the main road on a track to our lunch stop at Kasbah Chez Yacob. Here we caught up with both Blue-cheeked Merops persicus and European Bee-eaters Merops apiaster both perched on the riverside vegetation. Next Hoopoe, Laughing Dove Streptopelia senegalensis, Yellow Wagtail Motacilla flava and the Moroccan subsp of White wagtail Motacilla alba subpersonata were all added to the day list.
Lunch was taken in a fantastic old Kasbah amongst the Palm trees, more Laughing Doves, Cetti’s Warbler and House Buntings were seen.
Back at the river Common and Pallid Swifts, Common Bulbul and Sand Martin Riparia riparia were all seen. We dodged several showers and made our way to a barrage (weir) where Little Egret Egretta garzetta was added. We also got some great views of a couple of Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters while they were perched in an acacia tree. Further south we stopped at a second barrage but it was very quiet mainly due to the time of the day. We did see several Turtle, Laughing and Collared Doves. As we were ahead of time and it was still looking like rain we made a stop at a road side wadi and had a stroll, one of the first birds which was unfortunately only seen by me was a cracking male Thick-billed Lark but as soon as I got the bird in the bins it flew and we did not relocate it. We did see a pair of Black-bellied Sandgrouse Pterocles orientalis, Desert and Thekla Larks Galerida theklae, Southern Grey Shrike Lanius meridonalis and White-crowned Black Wheatear.
Due to the weather we decided to make our way to the Kasbah Sirocco Hotel where the group could relax in the gardens where the evening meal was enjoyed.
Day 4 - April 11th - Zagora to Camp at Mhamid.
We made a leisurely start as the distance to travel was only 120KMs. Our first stop was at a point where the road crosses what would normally be a trickle of water passing down a large wide river bed. Following the recent rains we found a torrent which meant the waders we would usually see had no banks or gravel beds to feed on. We did see White-crowned Black Wheatear, Woodchat Shrike and Crested Lark. A diversion on to a new road which was still very much under construction produced the trips only Trumpeter Finches, three birds were seen but none stayed long, a single Hoopoe also played hard to get.
We then continued on to Mhamid for a very special lunch stop at Tarik’s house with his family and friends. We were made very welcome and ate very well, a very pleasant change from the normal stops.
After lunch we headed out into the desert area to the west of the town where we saw the first Brown Necked Ravens Corvus ruficollis and Hoopoe Larks Alaemon alaudipes of the trip, Many Woodchat Shrikes, Desert Lark, Eurasian Kestrel, Common Bulbul, Bonelli’s Warbler and Crested larks were also seen. The group decided that an early arrival at the camp would give them chance to settle in, so we made our way there. On arrival we were shown our nights accommodation and shown the much improved ablutions. Once we were all sorted we went for a very short walk to have a look at the very special flock of Desert Sparrows Passer simplex, the birds were feeding in a small basket of rubbish which was at the rear of the camp and coming to a dripping pipe to drink. More Brown-necked Ravens were seen and a couple of very confiding White Crowned Black Wheatears flew around scolding the camps cats.
Just as the sun went down we all walked out on to one of the dunes near the camp and watched the sunset. Once it was dark the stars could be admired, with no light pollution the sky was quite a sight.
Day 5 - April 12th - Camp at Mhamid to Zagora.
Again we made a relaxed start as the distance back to Zagora was short. We did a loop out into the desert seeing more Hoopoe Larks calling and doing their diver bombing display flight. At a fenced well area we picked up a group of 8 Brown Necked Ravens and a small flock of Desert Sparrows. Out in the stone desert we had good views of a flock of Bar-tailed Larks Ammomanes cincture a very pale attractive bird. As usual we had good numbers of White Crowned Black Wheatears but today they were joined by several Northerns.
Tarik then made a command decision to take us off the road north and on to another of the tracks across the stone desert. The star bird of this drive was spotted by Ellen, 5 Crowned Sandgrouse Pterocles coronatus moved out of cover on her side of the car as we admired a Melodious Warbler Hippolais polyglotta in a nearby Acacia bush. The birds did not want to fly so we were treated to some of the best views of this species I had ever had.On the drive towards Zagora we picked up European Bee-eater, Crag Martin, Barn Swallow, House Bunting and Desert Lark.
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