Normally we have our main holiday abroad each year in spring, but after we were unable to fly for a while due to medical reasons and knowing we weren’t going to get the all-clear until April anyway, we decided instead to consider options for an autumn trip. We’d had Naturetrek’s Southern Morocco trip in mind for a few years and seeing as they had a September departure scheduled we decided to go for that. It was a bit more expensive than our usual holidays, but it was also a few days longer so we were still going to get decent value – and of course the potential for a lot of species we wouldn’t normally be able to encounter in Europe.
It began with a 3am cab ride from Mum and Dad’s in Oxted to Gatwick in order to get an early flight to Marrakesh. It was comfortable and uneventful, but as we landed we saw a large flock of White Storks, several Cattle Egrets and some unidentifiable larks. Once inside the terminal, having bought some currency, we straight away added House Bunting to the lifelist (#481) as several flew around inside the building. Those of us who had chosen to go on the optional trip into the mountains got into the minibus and headed off out of Marrakesh towards Oukaimeden. A short stop on a bend brought us brief views of our first Moussier’s Redstarts (#482) but we soon headed off again to a stop for lunch. Flocks of both Red-billed and Alpine Choughs were in the air and on the grass and a large flock of Serins were pecking in the car park. Following lunch we had a good look through the flocks of Serins and could just about see a couple of African Crimson-winged Finches – our main target of the day (#483). Just along the road we looked at a couple of Seebohm’s Wheatears, a Black Redstart, Black Wheatears and a larger flock of Crimson-winged Finches and then headed a bit further on where we got a good look at a Kestrel and then headed to a final peak where we got better views of Moussier’s Redstarts, a Spotted Flycatcher and a far more relaxed Crimson-winged Finch. On the way back towards Marrakesh we stopped for a potential Barbary Falcon which turned out to be a Peregrine, enjoyed some Alpine Swifts and also added African Blue Tit to the list (#484 – I didn’t realise until the following day that it was a full species). We missed out on Levaillant’s Woodpecker, but it was otherwise a fine start to the holiday.
Day Two began with breakfast by the pool and straight away I managed to get my first Common Bulbuls (#485) as they picked items up from unattended tables. There was also a juvenile Laughing Dove preening in a tree. As we headed out of the hotel and loaded into the vehicles a couple of Little Swifts circled overhead (#486) and we added Maghreb Magpie as we headed out of Marrakesh (#487). The first stop as we headed towards the High Atlases was a small patch of pines where we had glimpses of Cirl Buntings and the North African race of Chaffinch. Here we also had a couple of very interesting orb weaver spiders, plus one each of Booted Eagle and Lesser Kestrel high overhead. After a coffee stop at Toufliht we had a short walk along the main road which brought us views of the Atlas race of Coal Tit, Crossbills and a Grey Wagtail. Lunch was at Taddart before we traversed the Tizi N Tichka Pass and eventually descended towards Ouarzazate, stopping for great views of Bonelli’s Eagle and getting our first White-crowned Black Wheatears (#488). After checking into the hotel we headed out to the Barrage where we had our first Maghreb Larks (#489) and a couple of Hoopoes. A storm was brewing so we couldn’t stay for long, but we did get a good look at a Little Owl of the Atlas race. We just made it back to the minibus before the torrential rain began and we headed back to the hotel where I spent some time photographing the lightning.
A hot and sunny start to the day was spent on a different part of the Barrage, getting us an Osprey in a small bush beside the water, before we walked across the drier areas to get more White-crowned Black Wheatears and, eventually, our first Spectacled Warblers (#490). Walking back towards the water we had a small group of Bee-eaters fly past but couldn’t tell which species they were, we saw a group of Greater Flamingos over the water, we found a distant Southern Grey Shrike, saw two very distant Honey Buzzards, and then a Purple Heron came by. We went down closer to the water to get look at Common Sandpipers, Yellow Wagtails and Black-eared Wheatears. We eventually returned to the vehicles and went off eastwards to Boumalne Dades, getting our first good looks at the Barbary Ground Squirrels in front of the hotel. After lunch we headed off to the Dades Gorge, stopping to look at the rock formations and check out a couple of Bonelli’s Eagles on the way. At the hairpin stop-off we got a very close Subalpine Warbler before eventually, after a bit of persistence, we got our main target species: Tristram’s Warbler (#491). There were also Rock Buntings, Crag Martins, Rock Doves and Blue Rock Thrushes here. We headed back to Boumalne and then went out to the nearby dump where I spotted another Little Owl on a mound of earth. We then located a small group of Trumpeter Finches (#492) and some Red-rumped Wheatears (#493), although we did miss out on Thick-billed Larks. After dinner Jem and I did some bat detecting, getting Common and Nathusius’s Pipistrelles, plus Leisler’s Bat and a probable Noctule. We also enjoyed a Praying Mantis which walked across the wall in front of us.
As we left Boumalne we had an impromptu roadside stop because a small group of Cream-coloured Coursers had been spotted (#494). Once we’d all had a good look we headed off a short distance into the Tagdilt Plain for a desert walk. A small pool brought us our first Desert Wheatear (#495) and Temminck’s Lark (#496). At our next stop I was first to notice a large distant flock in the sky – what looked a bit like a flock of pigeons – which turned out to be around sixty Pin-tailed Sandgrouse (#497) which eventually landed a short distance away from us. We also had a Long-legged Buzzard, a Thekla Lark and a number of scorpions. Our usual coffee stop brought a number of interesting dragonflies at a small pool, before we headed off eastwards again and eventually stopped for lunch. Here we had our first Western Olivaceous Warbler (#498), a Greenfinch and a number of Subalpine Warblers. It again started to rain and we headed off towards Erfoud, but with a short break on the Maharra Plain where we had another Southern Grey Shrike before a sand storm reached us and we escaped just in time. Jem and I had our first swim in the hotel pool in Erfoud and enjoyed more Common Bulbuls and some dragonflies.
It was an early breakfast so we could get into the 4x4s and out to the desert before sunrise. We could hear Greater Hoopoe-larks singing, but the first species seen was a Desert Warbler (#499) and then my 500th species: Bar-tailed Desert Lark. Around the same time we got our first views of Greater Hoopoe-larks (#501) and then another look at Desert Wheatear. Back into the 4x4s we weaved around the dunes and plains, adding Spotted Sandgrouse (#502), a Barbary Falcon which flew up from the sand (#503), several Brown-necked Ravens (#504), and after looking through a scope for some time I eventually managed to get onto a snoozing Egyptian Nightjar (#505). In amongst these sightings we also had more Hoopoe-larks and some nice, close-up Cream-coloured Coursers, plus our first Desert Sparrows (#506). A short stop at an oasis also got us better views of the Sparrows, and we also had a nice relaxing morning refreshment break near the Merzouga Dunes. After lunch in the Berber Depot we headed to a lake but it only held Ruddy Shelduck of note. On the way back towards Erfoud we stopped at a site for Fulvous Babbler. We didn’t find any, but we did instead have Common Redstart, Woodchat Shrike and more White-crowned Black Wheatears. Back at the hotel we had another nice swim, and after dinner Jem and I did some good bat detecting, adding Daubenton’s a Long-eared species, Serotine and Western Barbastelle.
This was the day that many members of the group started to become unwell – not totally unexpected, but we’d been very careful to avoid likely causes – and we think it was down to tap water-diluted orange at the Erfoud hotel’s breakfast buffet. I held out until the evening, mainly because I didn’t have the orange on the first morning in Erfoud, so the day wasn’t too bad for me. It was mainly a day of travel anyway, heading all the way back to Ouarzazate. After a short walk around the Oued Zizz in Erfoud we headed westwards and had a stop along the escarpments at Rissani. We tried and failed for Pharoah Eagle Owl (although it would’ve been lucky to get one anyway) but after a long wait we eventually got Lanner Falcon onto the list (#507) and some of us added Desert Lark as well on the way back (#508). A nice lunch stop got us the Fulvous Babblers we’d been missing (#509), a Black-eared Wheatear, a Turtle Dove and then a selection of warblers: Western Olivaceous, Western Orphean, Subalpine and Sardinian. Another desert-race Southern Grey Shrike was seen in the afternoon, and we got great views of a Short-toed Eagle.
After a rough night I popped some Imodium to get me through the day and we headed off westwards again out of Ouarzazate, after another short stop at the Barrage where the highlight was seeing the the Little Owl we’d first seen a few days earlier, along with its mate. After we left Ouazarzate behind for the second time we failed to find Mourning Wheatear before continuing in rainier conditions via a coffee stop in Taznakht and eventually to Tinfat for lunch at the saffron dealer’s place. In the afternoon we stopped for a short walk in Aoulouz where we saw Spanish Sparrows (#510), a Cetti’s Warbler, Red-rumped Swallows and a Bonelli’s Eagle. Soon after we stopped again for better views of Barbary Falcon which relocated from one pylon to another. We eventually arrived at our hotel in Taroudant in time for dinner, where my Imodium wore off. This day also happened to be my birthday, but unfortunately it wasn’t one of the better days of the trip, thanks to a combination of illness, lots of travelling, poor weather and only adding the one lifer. Never mind.
Another sunny morning and I was beginning to feel better. We headed off on the short drive to Agadir – our final base of the trip – and stopped off for a bit of sea watching with our refreshments. Pomarine Skua (#511) and Lesser Crested Tern (#512) were additions here before we got checked into the hotel and then headed northwards up the coast to Tamri where we located the population of the critically-endangered Northern Bald Ibis (#513) and some Audouin’s Gulls. As we hung around the vehicles for lunch a raptor appeared out of nowhere and briefly hovered before stooping into the reedbeds: our first Black-winged Kite (#514). In the afternoon we headed to the other side of Agadir to the Oued Souss. Species seen here included Marsh Harriers, White Wagtails, Dunlin, Knot, Sandwich Terns, Whimbrel and an Osprey.
We headed southwards out of Agadir towards the Oued Massa, stopping along the way at a dirty, dusty roadside for a large flock of Stone-curlews – probably around sixty individuals. Another Spectacled Warbler was here, as well as Thekla Larks and a Redstart. When we reached the Oued Massa itself we went for a long walk alongside the river. It began well with our best views of Moussier’s Redstarts, and we also got several Stonechats, a Curlew, lots of Common Bulbuls, some Barbary Partridge (#515), a young Woodchat Shrike, a Cirl Bunting, some Spotted Flycatchers, a flock of Glossy Ibis and, after a lot of persistence having heard it calling, finally a Black-crowned Tchagra (#516). After our refreshment break we found a second Black-winged Kite – this time perched on a palm tree – and at our lunch stop at a narrower part of the river we also added Plain Martin (#517) to the list. There were more Turtle Doves and Spotted Flycatchers here as we ate our lunch in a small woodland. In the afternoon we relaxed back at the hotel and had our final swim of the trip.
Our final morning in Morocco was spent with another walk at the Oued Souss, but this time from a different spot. I finally got some photos of Maghreb Magpies here, and we had Zitting Cisticolas and Sardinian Warblers in the scrub. The river itself was very active with large numbers of Greater Flamingos, White Storks, Black-winged Stilts, Spoonbills, both Bar- and Black-tailed Godwits, Whimbrel, Dunlin, Sanderling, Redshank , Greenshank, Ringed Plover and Oystercatcher. A Peregrine perched in a distant tree and we were treated to an awesome fly-over from a juvenile Bonelli’s Eagle. After that it was back to hotel to relax and get checked out before leaving for lunch and then the airport for the flight home.
In summary it was a pretty awesome holiday. There were a few missed species (Thick-billed Lark, Pharaoh Eagle Owl, Levaillant’s Woodpecker, plus the other two Sandgrouse species: Crowned and Black-bellied), and we were unfortunate with the dodgy orange squash at the hotel in Erfoud, but the pluses far outweighed any negatives. I saw 151 bird species in total, including thirty-seven lifers to take my list past 500 and up to 517. My favourite day was Day Five when we went out into the Sahara before dawn and my favourite species seen were the Cream-coloured Coursers. Other highlight lifers were the Greater Hoopoe-larks, Lanner Falcons, Black-winged Kites, Egyptian Nightjar, Northern Bald Ibises, Moussier’s Redstarts, African Crimson-winged Finches, Barbary Falcons, Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, Fulvous Babblers and the Black-crowned Tchagra. I also really enjoyed some non-lifers, such as the Bonelli’s Eagles, the scenery and landscapes, and the overall variety of habitats that we visited. Not bad at all.
A full photo album can be seen here.