Introduction to the birds of Morocco
It is actually very difficult to sit down and write an article about the birds of Morocco without also waxing lyrical regarding the scenery, people and history of this mystical country. I guess, for the uninitiated, Morocco most probably conjures-up visions of just sand and dust. Nothing could be further from the truth! Conditions here, despite its close proximity to Europe, are very different with wadis, deserts, plains, forest, mountains, coasts and islands. The diversity of these habitats are reflected in the number of bird species found in this most exotic of north African countries, with over 450 species it is a must visit country for any with a passion for our feathered friends.
Morocco has both Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts, but the Atlantic side is rightly renowned for both wintering and migrant waders and gulls. The coastal wetlands are spread along the Atlantic side and have such great birding sites as Larache marshes, Merja Zerga, the Souss and Massa estuaries, in addition to the Khnifiss lagoon and Dakhla Bay on the Saharan coast. During the summer months a visit to Essaouira can produce spectacular views of Eleonora’s Falcon Falco eleonorae as any number of over 600 pairs breeding on the nearby islets can be seen close to shore. Along the cliffs between El-Jadida and Essaouira Lanner Falcon Falco biarmicus, Barbary Falcon Falco pelegrinoides as well as Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus can be seen playing in the up-draughts on the high bluffs that protect the headlands from the ravages of the ocean. Of course other notable and sought after species on this coastal stretch include Marsh Owl Asio capensis, Black-crowned Tchagra Tchagra senegala and Bald Ibis Geronticus eremita. The reasons are many and varied for visiting the Atlantic coast and that is why we journey to this region with tours every September (see our autumn tour here).
Forming the backbone of Morocco is her mountain ranges. The mountains are a dominant feature that forms an almost ever presence on the visual landscape, starting in the northeast with the High Plateau bordering the Mediterranean coast, the mountains rise to form the impressive Rif range (2,456m) and further south are softened by the Central Plateau (1,627m). Dramatically the mountains climb majestically from the Central Plateau and to the south they create the High Atlas (4,167m) where the snow lingers into the summer months. As the mountains march towards the Atlantic coast another range, the Anti-Atlas (3,304m), reaches into the cold ocean waters north of Agadir. Throughout the mountain ranges, from the northeast to the southwest, many large forests survive the pressures of man and their animals. Both the forests and surrounding steppe type habitats create niches for several interesting bird species. Throughout the entire range, cliff loving species such as Bonelli’s Eagle Hieraaetus fasciatus and Golden Eagle Aquila chrysaetos occur, whilst the highly prized Dupont’s Lark Chersophilus duponti can be very local in the Central Plateau. We can find many specialities in the forested areas and Levaillant’s Woodpecker Picus vaillantii is probably the most notable of these. Scrubby slopes are always worth exploring and can produce Tristram’s Warbler Sylvia deserticola, whilst the common Moussier’s Redstart Phoenicurus moussieri always reward the patient explorer. There are a number of areas in higher elevations that are accessible and a visit to the ski resort of Oukaimeden can produce good views for Atlas Shore (Horned) Lark Eremophila alpestris, Alpine Chough Pyrrhocorax graculus and the very local Crimson-winged Finch Rhodopechys sanguinea. We always include visits to the mountain areas during our main tours and during our spring safari tours we pass over the High Atlas using the spectacular Tizi-n-Tichka pass.
South of the High and Anti-Atlas mountain ranges lies the area of Saharan Morocco. The landscape here is varied and beautiful, not at all what one might expect whilst imagining an endless desert plain! The desert areas are largely pebble, but are interspersed by river courses whose green palms and gardens contrast with their surroundings. The sand deserts, more in keeping with our own imaginings of desert, are found in the areas of Mhamid in the extreme south of the Draa Valley and to the east close to Merzouga (Erg Chebbi). The desert areas also have their share of mountains and the Jbel Sarhro (2,712m) range captures the area surrounding the Vallee du Dades, separating it from the more southerly desert region. Most notable from a bird perspective in the Dades area is the famous Tagdilt Track. Larks, wheatears, sandgrouse and many desert loving species are widespread throughout the deserts of Morocco. Birds can be hard to find on occasion, but those that are found can reward the effort with such species as Cream-coloured Courser Cursorius cursor, Hoopoe Lark Alaemon alaudipes, Blue-cheeked Bee Eater Merops persicus, Fulvous Babbler Turdoides fulvus, Houbara Bustard Chlamydotis undulata and Egyptian Nightjar Caprimulgus aegyptius all good examples of what makes these deserts worthwhile for the visiting birdwatcher. Spring migration through the desert areas can be spectacular especially where wadis provide food and shelter for many species such as Rufous Bush Robin Cercotrichas galactotes, both eastern and western Olivaceous Warbler Hippolais pallida/opaca (the former breeds in the desert areas), Subalpine Warbler Sylvia cantillans and Red-throated Pipit Anthus cervinus. Searching the deserts and scrub can also produce real Moroccan specialities such as Brown-necked Raven Corvus ruficollis, Desert Sparrow Passer simplex, Desert Warbler Sylvia nana and Scrub Warbler Scotocerca inquieta, whilst the ever present Desert Wheatear Oenanthe deserti provides the constant reminder that the wheatear family is represented here by no less than 8 of their number. To add to the feeling of wonder you can also witness the somewhat bizarre sight of the desert lake at Merzouga, although temporary the lake has appeared for the last 3 years. Here it is strange to see large numbers of waders and ducks with Greater Flamingo Phoenicopterus ruber also appearing as if summoned by some unheard whisper of water.
To present all the birds and their habitats in Morocco would require several pages and although there are so many not included in our brief introduction, I hope you will at least be tempted to visit this wonderful destination at least once in your lifetime. For as the famous American author Paul Bowles said, when describing the Sahara in Morocco:
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