Julian Sykes Wildlife Holidays

Southern Morocco

22nd Feb - 3rd March 2008

Report by Julian Sykes

Friday 22nd February :- An unfortunate disappointment was a phone call from Colin Lewis to say that he and his wife would not be coming due to his wife’s illness. We wish them all the best and hope to see them some time in the future. At 5am in Gatwick Airport we all met and quickly checked in our bags. The flight was on time & we arrived at Marrakesh Airport late morning full of trepidation. Mohamed, our Moroccan guide was waiting with a large smile, a warm handshake and even before we had left the terminal he had found our first House Bunting, a new bird for most of the party. The drive to the hotel produced some common European species plus a few Moroccan Magpies, which were nice. After a short break and lunch al fresco, we headed to the outskirts of town where we visited a couple of sites near Palmiele and the River Tarsi. These two areas produced quite a few birds including Grey Heron, White Storks, Cattle Egrets, Greenshank, Little Ringed Plovers, Southern Grey & Woodchat Shrikes, Common Bulbul, Yellow & White Wagtails, Black Redstarts, Swallows and House Martins. We got back to the hotel fairly early as we had a big day ahead of us but just before we went inside I found a few Little Swifts amongst the gathering throng of Pallid Swifts coming into roost, much to John Murray's delight, this had really wanted to see this species.

Saturday 23rd February :- With an early start we set off to pick up Graham & Agi at the Koutoubie Mosque in the centre of the city, they had been enjoying a few days in Marrakesh before we arrived. As we drove, the weather deteriorated and it started to rain intermittently, unfortunately this was to continue throughout the day making things difficult at times. Mohamed stopped the minibus near the Si Feress Natural Park for a welcome leg stretch and very soon we were seeing African Blue & Great Tits, Moroccan Chaffinches, Robins, Wrens, Chiffchaffs & Blackbirds. Then a call alerted us to a Levaillant's Green Woodpecker with 'eagle-eyed' Agi finding sitting against the trunk of a nearby tree. We got amazing views of this endemic woodpecker and at one point it was joined by a Great Spotted Woodpecker, Agi then discovered a Hawfinch sitting in the next tree, and as we spent some time watching the Levaillant's Woodpecker we added a Rock Bunting and several Goldfinches. Once the photographers of the party were satisfied we continued up into the Atlas mountains towards the ski resort of Oukameiden and the rain turned to snow as we got higher. At the entrance to the village we stopped and got superb views of 30+ Shore Larks feeding next to the road, a bizarre sight in a snow storm, plus Red billed Choughs, a nearby lake held 2 Ruddy Shelducks and a Green Sandpiper. The weather conditions were poor and after a welcome coffee we searched the area for Crimson winged Finch but without luck although we did find a small flock of Rock Sparrows, Rock Buntings, Mistle Thrush, Black Redstarts and masses of Alpine Chough around the houses and slopes. After a lunch of a wonderful Moroccan dish called ‘Tagine’(meat, potato & vegetables) with crusty bread ("all together a taste sensation"), which we enjoyed on several occasions during the holiday. After lunch and having got our feeling back into our fingers & toes we went for another walk up the snow-clad valley just adding Raven to our list. This was not a wasted trip as our on-board semi-precious stone expert Maureen bartered the locals into submission for some necklaces, which she will sell on her stall in Britain.  The snow fall was worsening so we decided to leave and slowly make our way back down the valley. Several stops produced some good species, including our first female Moussier's Redstart plus Cirl Bunting, Willow Warbler, Crag Martins and Sardinian Warbler. Mohamed stopped at this great place for refreshments and in their gardens we found Cirl Buntings, Common Bulbul, Grey Wagtail, Sardinian Warbler, Blackcap and Chiffchaffs. Graham & I found a lovely male Crossbill sheltering from the rain but it had departed when we returned with the others. Now late afternoon we returned to Marrakesh after a long but excellent day in the field.

Sunday 24th February :- After breakfast we left the city and the journey out of Marrakesh produced a Booted Eagle, White Storks, Cattle Egrets, Southern Grey Shrikes and several Moroccan Magpies. We reached the Atlas Mountains and soon made our first stop near some pine forest where we found our first Barbary Partridges, Sparrowhawk, distant views of a Long legged Buzzard, Black Wheatear  Common Crossbills, Chaffinches, Serins, Woodpigeons, and a Blue Rock Thrush. A little further we had a walk along the road, which was quiet bird-wise but we did see Coal & Blue Tit, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Crossbills and Cirl Bunting. Again we wound our way up eventually stopping for coffee next a montane river which proved to be very fruitful as John Moon hit the jackpot by finding a Crimson winged Finch, a species we thought we had missed, but unfortunately not everyone got good views before it flew off. Careful searching started to produce good birds with another female Moussier's Redstart, Black Wheatears, Black Redstart, Water Pipit, Rock Bunting and 4 Black Kites. Lunch was taken at the top of the mountain, which was very cold and a walk around the general area was fairly quiet with Ron finding another Water Pipit plus 2 Ravens,  Black Kite, Mistle Thrushes, 2 Rock Sparrows, Black Wheatear and plenty of Chaffinches. After another very welcome lunch of hot Tagine we dropped into the stunning Tizi y Tichna Pass and after a while Mohamed stopped the bus saying this was a good area for birds. How right he was - within minutes we had found a stunning male Moussier's Redstart plus Black Wheatears, Linnets, Goldfinches and a lovely Barbary Ground Squirrel. Whilst watching the redstart I saw an interesting bird land on the nearby scree slopes, raised my binoculars and there was another Crimson winged Finch, followed by two others. Thankfully everyone got decent views of this very rare montane species much to everyone's relief. This was the icing on the cake and we continued out of the mountains towards the city of Ouarzazate, on the plains we soon saw our first White crowned Black Wheatears along the roadside, then a shape made John Moon & I call out to stop the minibus. It was what we had expected 6 Cream Coloured Coursers sitting out in full view so we alighted from the van and spent some time here, which also produced our first Lanner Falcon, Barn Swallows and 2 Northern Wheatears. As we left an Osprey sitting on a pylon made us stop once again and like all the previous stops it went on to produce a Trumpeter Finch and 2 Crested Larks to our growing list. It was now getting dusk so we quickly drove on to Boulmaine Dades, soon we arrived at our hotel on the edge of the town.

Monday 25th February :- A pre-breakfast walk in the steppe area just outside the hotel complex produced Bar tailed Desert, Thekla & Lesser Short toed Larks, Trumpeter Finches, Tawny Pipit, Sparrowhawk and Black Redstart, then a stroll around the grounds produced a Laughing Dove and Blue Rock Thrush. After breakfast we drove the short distance to the famous Tagdilt Track featured in most Southern Moroccan itineraries and it certainly didn't disappoint, due to recent rains having left several pools right at the side of the road. Our first stop at one of these just a few kilometres out of town produced several Thick billed Larks sometimes a very difficult species to find. Also here we incredibly found several Temmincks, Bar tailed Desert & Lesser Short toed Larks, a pair of Red rumped Wheatears, 6 Trumpeter Finches, a close Long legged Buzzard, and a couple of very photogenic Fat Sand Rats; as John Moon rightly said it was one of those magic moments in birding. The rest of the morning was spent on this excellent steppe area, which produced lots more of the above larks and wheatears plus a few Desert & Northern Wheatears, 11 Cream coloured Coursers flew right past us, a Lanner Falcon mobbing a Long legged Buzzard, several Short toed Eagles migrating north and a fantastic Black Scorpion was found under a rock. After lunch we visited the spectacularly scenic Dades Gorge for most of the afternoon, with the clear blue skies enhancing the impressive rock formations. The birdlife was mostly what we had seen previously with Black Wheatears, Blue Rock Thrush, Rock Bunting, Long legged Buzzard and a Grey Wagtail, but we find one new bird for the trip - Desert Lark. Late afternoon we returned to Boulmaine Dades and after a short break we again tried a few more tracks on the steppes of the Plateau d'Anved finding more Thick billed, Temmincks, & Lesser Short toed Larks, Desert & Red tailed Wheatears. Unfortunately a large pack of roaming dogs made things slightly uncomfortable so we headed back to the Auberge to freshen up before our evening's entertainment. One bit of entertainment was watching Graham swim a length of the outdoor pool in near minus temperatures, always a man up for a challenge. Then that evening we enjoyed yet another fine meal followed by some fantastic traditional Berber drumming with our guide Mohamed and Agi trying there hand with the Bongos - superb.

Tuesday 26th February :- After an early breakfast we loaded the minibus and headed out once again onto the Plateau d'Anved were we enjoyed another fantastic couple of hours here although not being able to relocate John's flying sandgrouse species was a slight disappointment. However we did manage to find White Storks, Long legged Buzzards, 14 Cream Coloured Coursers, Hoopoe, Little Ringed Plovers, Thick billed, Temmincks, Lesser Short toed, Bar tailed & Thekla Larks, Trumpeter Finches, Red rumped & Desert Wheatears plus more Fat Sand Rats peeking their heads out of their burrows. Eventually we had to leave and headed east and after a short break in Tinelur we drove up into the equally impressive Todra Gorge where we spent an hour admiring the scenery and birding along the river plantations. Here we found a few Cattle Egrets, a Bonelli’s Eagle flew over, then a Peregrine Falcon gave a wonderful aerial display right in front of us, a Barbary Partridge stood on a rock and called, Crag Martins were everywhere with the odd Red rumped Swallow, the trees held Cetti’s Warblers, Chiffchaff, Blackcaps, 3 Siskins were a very good find, Grey Wagtails and Common Bulbuls. It had been well worth the visit. We continued east towards Algeria stopping en-route for a migrating Common Buzzard, which apparently is a scarce migrant in this area. Just after Garfoud Mohamed suggested a walk into the desert to stretch the legs, this produced  several Bar tailed Larks and a male Marsh Harrier so we continued on our way to Erfoud. Then I glimpsed something at the side of the road, which made us stop and after a quick search we had fantastic views of our first Hoopoe Lark to everyone’s sheer enjoyment. This enigmatic lark gave a wonderful show as it ran from tussock to tussock and over sand dunes stopping to lift it's head and check on us. White crowned Wheatears started to become regular roadside sightings, and in Erfoud we stopped for a coffee and found a large group of Sand Martins migrating north. This was our last stop before reaching the wonderful Auberge Darkoua, our accommodation for the next two nights, this hotel oasis is literally situated in the middle of the desert at least 5Km from the nearest road. Simply awesome.

Wednesday 27th February :- Today was our highly anticipated 4x4 safari skilfully organised by Mohamed and thankfully we woke to better weather conditions than the previous days, where high winds and some rain had made things a little difficult. Full of anticipation we all enjoyed pre-breakfast walk around the grounds, which was quite productive with our first Stone Curlew, Sub-alpine, Sardinian, & Willow Warblers, Chiffchaffs, Common Redstart, Hoopoes, Linnets, White crowned Black Wheatears, a Marsh Harrier and several Trumpeter Finches. After a smashing breakfast we boarded our two Landrovers fully equipped with some 'hawk-eyed drivers/guides and headed off into the desert for the day. To try and describe the colours and contrasts of the deep orange sand dunes, greens of the Tamarisks against the piercing blue skies would not do it justice and this would apply to most photographs, it is breath-taking. I digress. The small bushes held the bright 'Elegans' Southern Grey Shrike, and there were small flocks of Lesser Short toed Larks and our first Cream Coloured Coursers of the day. Then a stop in no-where'sville at a single Acacia Tree produced our first major target with a beautiful pair of Desert Sparrows. We watched from a safe distance as the pair went backwards and forwards with nesting material into the foliage of the tree. Eventually we left and visited the area around Café Jasmine where we found another pair of Desert Sparrows at a nest hole in the side of the building plus a few Greater Short toed Larks, Trumpeter Finches, Desert Wheatear and a Brown necked Raven, found by Agi and on a nearby lake was Marbled Duck, Ruddy Shelduck and Little Ringed Plovers. Back into a more stony desert finding Hoopoe Larks, Long legged Buzzard and more Cream coloured Coursers along the way, eventually we reached a remote area and our expert drivers found us not one but two adult Houbara Bustards. This was very much the bird everyone wanted to see on the trip and we weren't disappointed, and shortly after we left these very rare breeders in peace and continued on our adventure. Another magic stop near some small pools produced another target with 3 Tristram's Warblers plus a Common Redstart, more Trumpeter Finches, Sub-alpine & Sardinian Warblers. We took lunch next to a palm grove and after our excellent picnic we walked slowly along the water channels as Mohamed explained how this system of irrigation was unique to the area. John Moon was on top form by finding a very obliging Laughing Dove and then 3 Fulvous Babblers sometimes a species, which can be missed on this trip. The trees and bushes were alive with migrants such as Chiffchaffs, Sub-alpine, Willow & Sardinian Warblers, Common Redstart, Hoopoes, Swallows & House Martins. Our final local site of the day was the large saltwater lake of Merzouga finding Greater Flamingos, Ruddy Shelducks, Marbled Ducks, Common Teal, Kentish Plovers, Marsh Harrier and a Bar tailed Desert Lark. It was now time to return to the Auberge but as we left an impromptu stop for a male Desert Wheatear paid dividends as it also produced an African Desert Warbler, Tristram’s Warbler, (in the same bush) Sub-alpine Warbler, Chiffchaff, Northern Wheatear, Tawny Pipit, Brown necked Raven & Hoopoe Lark. This was a fantastic finale to very memorable day in this wonderful corner of North Africa. We got back to the accommodation with plenty of time for a celebratory beer and walk around the grounds before getting ready for the evening meal and log. Ron was happier as he could set his moth trap for the night as the conditions were near perfect, hopefully tomorrow will bring some interesting species.

Thursday 28th February :- Another pre-breakfast walk around the grounds of the hotel produced a Spectacled Warbler, which was new for the trip plus a few of the commoner species. Ron was pleased he had found a hawkmoth species in the trap, which turned out to be a Barbary Spurge Hawkmoth a new species for Ron (and us all unsurprisingly). Sadly we had to leave left this lovely location after breakfast (in 2009 we are planning a 3 night stop) and headed for the outskirts of Rissani to a special site known by Mohamed. We parked off-road and walked along a small cliff face scanning the ledges and holes for our target, but initially we only found Trumpeter Finches, Bar tailed & Desert Larks, 8 Brown necked Ravens and a Kestrel,  Graham alerted us to a Lanner Falcon sitting on a nest which was an excellent find. At last, a call from Mohamed, and minutes later we were all watching a gorgeous adult Pharaoh Eagle Owl asleep through our telescopes, and over the next half hour we watched it closely as it occasionally revealed it’s gorgeous yellow irises when its eyes opened. The rest of the day was spent travelling towards Ouarzazate punctuated with a few stops for birdwatching mostly along the Draa Valley, and during these periods we saw 3 Ruddy Shelduck, Cream Coloured Coursers, Rock & Laughing Doves, Hoopoes, Bar Tailed Desert, Hoopoe, Desert & Crested Larks, Swallows, White Wagtails, Common Bulbul, Blue Rock Thrush, Blackbirds, Cetti’s, Sub-alpine, Sardinian Warblers, Blackcaps, Black Redstart, White crowned Black & Desert Wheatear, Southern Grey & Woodchat Shrikes, Goldfinch, Serin, Trumpeter Finches & House Buntings. At Ouarzazate we stopped at the river and found White Storks, Little & Cattle Egrets, Green Sandpiper, Chiffchaff, Sub-alpine Warbler plus 100+ Sand Martins migrating through. It had been a long days travelling but essential for getting to the coast, many tahnks to Mustapha for his seemless driving in difficult conditions.

Friday 29th February :- Another fairly relaxed start and a quick walk around the hotel grounds produced the usual Common Bulbuls, Blackcap, Chiffchaff, Swallows and House Buntings. We soon set off again west towards Taroudant and just outside the city we stopped as we saw 4 Thick billed Larks flying over the fields another very good find for this area, along with Corn Buntings, Stock Doves and several Crested Larks. As we travelled west through more good steppe habitat we saw more Cream Coloured Coursers, Hoopoe, Desert & Thekla Larks, White crowned Black & Desert Wheatears, Southern Grey Shrikes and Stonechats from the minibus. However, the highlight of the morning was at Oued Iriri where we got fabulous views of an adult Bonelli’s Eagle as it fed on a rodent next to the road. A little further along the road on we stopped for an adult Lanner Falcon sitting on top of a pylon and then after another short distance we found a roadside a very showy Long legged Buzzard along with Spectacled & Sub-alpine Warblers. Lunch was taken near Skfount by a deserted village on the steppes and as we arrived Mohamed found a large falcon on yet another pylon. We quickly got our telescopes on it and were very pleased to find our first Barbary Falcon of the holiday, and completing an excellent quartet of raptors in the morning. After the picnic in gorgeous sunshine we had a walk around the ruined site finding Northern & Desert Wheatears, Greater Short toed Lark, Black Redstart, Trumpeter Finch and Hoopoes. Westwards we continued into the Sous Massa and at the Aoulouz Gorge we stopped for a walk along the river. The species were starting to change and Maureen found a lovely Kingfisher  plus we saw Little Ringed Plovers, Cattle Egrets, Red rumped Swallows, Blue Rock Thrush, Zitting Cisticolas, Robins, Serins, Chaffinches, Goldfinches & Greenfinches. Our final short leg to Taroudant was punctuated with short stops looking for Black shouldered Kites but to no avail, however we did manage to see however, Southern Grey & Woodchat Shrikes, Sparrowhawks, 50+ White Storks in a large kettle and a few Little Swifts near the city. It had been another long day travelling but the quality of the species more than made up for this.

Saturday 1st March :- Today we were travelling to Agadir but first we wanted to have another crack at this elusive kite, so after breakfast we loaded the van having first found Pallid Swifts, Common Bulbuls, Chiffchaff, Blackcaps and Blackbirds around the hotel. Just outside Taroudant we found an area of ‘Agara’ with a small hill as a vantage point, and almost immediately we found a pair of Spectacled Warblers, Southern Grey & Woodchat Shrikes, plenty of Black Kites, Kestrel and Serins. As we looked over the scattered trees John Moon found a ’good candidate’ sitting on a pylon but too far away for a positive identification. I set off in that direction along the track and soon confirmed it as an adult Black shouldered Kite, I returned to the others and we all drove back down the track to get better views of this rare raptor before it disappeared. Ron found a Common Redstart and Mohamed saw a Quail pitch in the adjacent field, along with Corn Buntings, more Black Kites, male Marsh Harrier and a few more shrikes and warblers. Eventually we left and headed towards Agadir and within 10 minutes Agi spotted another Black shouldered Kite right at the side of the road, so Mustapha quickly pulled into the grass verge and we got fantastic views of it both perched and flying. Finally we reached the coast and eventually arrived at the famous Oued Massa, an excellent reserve some 40kms south of Agadir. A walk along the river soon produced Squacco & Grey Herons, Great Crested & Little Grebes, Little Egrets, Common Pochard, Coot, Marsh Harrier, Sedge, Sub-alpine & Sardinian Warblers, Chiffchaff, Blackcaps, a male Moussier's Redstart, Stonechats, Siskins, Serins & Swallows hawking insects over the river. Mohamed then heard our next target species and a brief search revealed a fabulously named and looking Black crowned Tchagra sitting in a fig tree, we all got excellent scoped views of it moving from tree to tree and on the ground foraging for insects. It was now time for lunch so we drove the short distance to the picnic area near the visitor centre and while we were there a sub-adult Bonelli’s Eagle caused some excitement as it soared around the reserve. Here we also got very good views of the Moroccan Magpies with their incredible blue eyes, a few more Marbled Ducks and another Tchagra was found fairly near. After lunch we went for a longer walk along the Massa river to the Atlantic Ocean but with the sun in our faces it made for difficult viewing at times, however, during we did manage to see another pair of Black crowned Tchagras, several Moussiers Redstarts, Spoonbills, Marbled Ducks, Shoveler, Common Pochard, 3 Tufted Duck, several Pintail, Ruff, Black tailed Godwits, Green Sandpipers, Common Snipe, Greenshank, Redshank, Ringed, Little Ringed & Kentish Plovers, Dunlin, Eurasian Curlew, several Audouins, Yellow legged, Lesser Black backed & a single Black headed Gull, Red rumped Swallow, Sand Martins, Great Tit, Zitting Cisticola’s, Sardinian Warblers, Serins, Greenfinches, Goldfinches and Spotless Starlings. Late afternoon we left this excellent reserve and made our way into Agadir seeing a small group of Little Swifts en-route, a nice end to yet another brilliant days birdwatching.

Sunday 2nd March :- Our final full day and we had one last target species to try and get before returning to Marrakesh for our flight the next day, but first I wanted to make a visit to the mouth of the Oued Sous just on the outskirts of Agadir. This was a good decision as it held significantly more waders than the Oued Massa, and while we were there we logged Grey Herons, Little Egrets, Greater Flamingos, Spoonbills, Marsh Harrier, Kestrels, Barbary Partridge, Oystercatcher, Black winged Stilts, Avocets, Grey, Little Ringed & Kentish Plovers, Black tailed & Bar tailed Godwits, Curlew, Redshank, Greenshank, Common Sandpiper, Sanderling, Curlew Sandpiper, Mediterranean, Black headed, Yellow legged & Lesser Black backed Gulls, Sandwich Terns, Woodpigeons, Swallows, White Wagtails, Meadow Pipit, Common Bulbuls, Zitting Cisticolas, African Blue Tit, Moroccan Magpies and a Corn Bunting. Unfortunately, we had to leave and head north along the coast to Tamri and en-route at a couple of brief stops we managed to find Gannets, Cormorants, Cattle Egrets, White Storks, Common Pochard, Black Kites, Common Coots, Audouins Gulls, Sandwich Terns, Rock Doves, Crested Larks, Swallows, White Wagtails, Blue Rock Thrushes, Southern Grey & Woodchat Shrikes and a few Ravens. Just beyond Tamri, Mohamed stopped the mini-bus and almost immediately ‘eagle-eyed’ Agi spotted a large black bird flying into the scrubby area beyond. It was our first of 70+ Bald Ibis and a scan around the area revealed another 14 birds. We enjoyed fantastic views of this incredibly rare bird as they foraged along the cliff tops, and after a while a shepherd walked through the site and caused the whole local flock to fly around. It was yet another wonderful experience capped off with another pair of Moussiers Redstarts near where we were watching from. It was now time to leave and head for Marrakesh along the coast road and then inland, this was a fairly slow journey broken up with sightings of 2 Cream Coloured Coursers, Linnets, Black Kites, Ravens and a Cirl Bunting. Late afternoon we reached our hotel in the city and that night we ate yet another very enjoyable meal. The standard of food has been a revelation on this holiday and a nice surprise for all. Goodbyes were said to Graham and Agi who were leaving on an early flight to Heathrow with the same to Mohamed and Mustapha the following morning at the Airport.



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