Thursday 18 May 2023

Magnificent Morocco - A spring birding trip of dreams.

On the 26th of February we were embarking on our latest Western Palearctic adventure and our flight was about to touch down at Marrakech in Morocco after some extensive research, planning and correspondence by Bob! We had an over ambitious set of target species so decided on this foreign adventure to enlist some help. Firstly, we had scraped together a rabble of willing reprobates and were in the company of Martin Wightman, Matt Doyle, Toby Phelps and Josh Howells all of which were half decent birders and offered some means of comical entertainment for the long drives ahead. Our second ploy was to hire a local tour company so that we stood a fighting chance of encountering as many of our targets as possible. From the outset this turned out to be a great decision as Otman Elhourchemt from Birding Tours Morocco was an incredible guide and host and we cannot recommend him and his company highly enough. We arrived after dark so sadly couldn’t conduct much birding on arrival but were all excited what tomorrow and the next 10 days had in store for us. 

February 27th - Day 1

After a good night’s sleep and a hearty breakfast at the Palais Al Bahja hotel we were ready to embark on our first day of birding. From the moment we walked outside we were getting lifers and great birds. We were delighted to see and hear our first House Buntings of the trip on the building opposite our accommodation and Common Bulbuls singing from the nearby square. But as much as we relished these species we needed to get going as we had a full itinerary and some even more spectacular species to see! 

Once we had battled the chaotic traffic leaving the city, we entered the much calmer and greener outskirts and started to pick up a whole host of new species that included flocks of Spotless Starlings, our first Little Swifts of the trip and a flock of 87+ White Storks which was just incredible to see first-hand. However, the excitement didn’t stop there as the car was soon screeching to a halt as a Great Grey Shrike of the form “algeriensis” became obvious on a roadside bush. We were split between two cars and whilst both groups got great views of the Shrike, sadly Bob, Toby and Matt missed a cracking male Moussier’s Redstart that showed briefly to myself, Martin and Josh. Despite an extensive search we couldn’t relocate it and were reassured not to worry as we had other chances in the coming days to catch up with this incredibly beautiful species. Nevertheless, the pit stop gave us the opportunity to gain great views of Mahgreb Magpie which was another lifer for the whole group. 

Spotless Starling

Great Grey Shrike of the form “algeriensis”

Mahgreb Magpie

As we continued on our journey, so the High Atlas peaks became ever more obvious in our proximity, and it wasn’t long before the gentle flat roads had turned into hilly chicanes and narrow mountain side tracks. As much as we were enjoying the novelty of such joyous scenery, we were pleased to reach our next birding destination of Asni which was a small town in the foothills of the mountains. We had stopped on the outskirts and were surrounded by mature trees which led to some great encounters that became more exciting than any of us could have guessed. Our guide Otman and his helper Mohammed left us near the car as they went off to try their luck at pinpointing one of our intended targets. We were very content admiring some of the local avian inhabitants including our first African Blue Tits, African Chaffinches, Little Swifts cruising overhead and Common Bulbuls singing nearby as well as White Storks on some pretty impressive nest structures. 

African Blue Tit 

Toby then proclaimed to the group that the Phylosc he was watching had wing bars! We all managed to get some brief views of the bird, but it was difficult to obtain any plumage details as the light was incredibly strong due to the intense morning sun and the bird was highly mobile among the fairly dense leaf vegetation. It then started to call! To the group it very much sounded like a Greenish Warbler, so we proceeded to play a tape lure of the species and it responded immediately and flew to the tree directly above the player. Despite coming closer, it was still near impossible to get any plumage details although at one point I thought I could see a faint second wing bar but was far from being certain. We knew that whatever the species, it was a rare bird for Morocco and should not be there. We tried to get some photos despite the difficult light, frequent movement and it now being very high all of which was transpiring against us, leaving us unable to document it well. What a nightmare! To top it off a big distraction ensued and long story short, we got a shout that a Levaillant's Woodpecker was on show and Josh had successfully located it nearby. This had us all scrambling for views of yet another lifer and for the time being at least, the Phylosc was forgotten about! However, we all connected successfully with the Woodpecker and had great views of a handsome male calling from a nearby telephone pylon. 

Typical views of the Phylosc Warbler at Asni

Levaillant's Woodpecker

Despite all of the excitement from our morning the day was far from over. We continued the winding journey upwards and eventually arrived at Oukaimeden which was situated very high up in the Atlas Mountains and famous for sporting one of the only Ski resorts in Morocco. As one would expect at a Ski resort, there was a deep covering of snow and the arid stoney hills had been well and truly left behind as we were now in a beautiful winter wonderland that wouldn’t look out of place in the Austrian Alps! 


We didn’t even have to leave the car to see why we had made the journey. On the roadside verges and bollards Atlas Horned Larks were singing away like little gleeful cherubs adding a blush of colour to the otherwise white landscape. As we got out to get better views, we were soon aware of another specialist species enjoying the locality. African Crimsoned-winged Finches were flitting about near local Walnut traders produce or nearby buildings and vehicles. What a stunning duo and made all the better when surrounded by some of the best mountain scenery in the world. 

Atlas Horned Lark

African Crimsoned-winged Finch

The area had even more surprises in store for us and once we had finished getting ogling views of the two previous species, we started to notice the other birds in the locality. A truly impressive flock of over 150 Alpine Choughs and c30 Red-billed Chough filled the skies and were putting on some truly astonishing aerial acrobatics. A short walk also paid dividends as we connected with 2 Black Wheatears, 2 Black Redstarts, a single Water Pipit and 2 stunningly close Alpine Accentors! What a place that will forever be a huge highlight of our time in Morocco. 

Chough Flock

Alpine Accentor

After a truly magical time in the high mountains, it was time to start making our way back down but there would be more stops along the way to see what else we might pick up although we were truly content with the book full we had already had! It didn’t take long for our guide Otman, to find us some more quality birds and a short while later we had stopped in a layby overlooking a mixture of rocky outcrops and small paddocks. Within seconds a beautiful female Moussier’s Redstart was giving us point blank views and her iridescent mate soon joined her! The whole area was alive with birds and a nearby puddle was being utilised as a bathing wallow by a pristine Rock Bunting and was soon joined by more African Blue Tits and African Chaffinches. A Black Redstart put in an appearance, as did Mistle Thrushes, Black Wheatears, Sardinian Warblers and Blackcaps. We could have spent the rest of the day there, but we had several miles left to travel and a late lunch was beckoning.

Male Moussier’s Redstart

Female Moussier’s Redstart

Black Wheatear

Rock Bunting

At lunch, the topic of conversation soon veered to the strange Phylosc from earlier that morning and after discussing some of the detail we had individually picked up, we concluded that there were some anomalies evident on our photos and it may not be Greenish Warbler after all! We decided to share the record via Twitter and E-bird in the hopes that other local birders may connect with it in better circumstances and sort it once and for all. It was interesting that even when a local birder connected and reidentified it as a Two-barred Greenish Warbler that some further discussion ensued on social media channels. Evidently once all the pieces of the puzzle had been connected and a sound recording shared it transpired that it was in actual fact a Humes Warbler! To view the discussion please visit the Facebook Global Rare Bird Alert Group and scroll to the 2nd of March. The group can be found here: GlobalRBA A fascinating bird and only the 2nd record for Morocco. 

The Hume's Leaf Warbler as photographed by Benoît Maire 

After our late lunch, we meandered our way back towards Marrakesh and to our final stops of the day. When nearing the city, we followed a large concrete drainage channel which wasn’t the most beautiful setting but it did seem good for Thekla Larks, House Buntings and our first Moroccan Pied Wagtails. We were delighted to set eyes on a handsome male of the subpersonata race as they really are a splendid looking bird. 

Moroccan Pied Wagtail

After a long period in the car we were keen to stretch our legs and had one last area to check for the day. We stopped at an area on the edge of Marakesh that was predominantly a mix of scrubland but with some agricultural fields dotted around us as well. This area seemed to be particularly good for Pallid and Little Swifts as well as Barn Swallows and House Martins which bombed around overhead in frequent waves. Steady scrutiny of this movement soon reaped rewards as a Red-rumped Swallow joined the party and then Matt and Toby came up trumps as they picked up a couple of Brown-throated Martins which we all managed to connect with and enjoy. This was another lifer for the whole group and seemed like a great way to end an outstanding days birding. Just what will the rest of our trip have in store and could any of our future destinations rival such a riveting day?

Happy with our first day in the High Atlas Mountains

Video Highlights - Day 1

February 28th - Day 2

Today was certainly not going to be so fruitful on the birding front as yesterday’s bounty as we were due to make the 200 mile long drive from Marrakech to Rabat. However, Otman was convinced we would pick up some nice species for our trip list and there would be plenty of opportunities to stretch our legs at some pleasant bird rich sites along the way. It didn’t take long for the excitement to start as two Barbery Partridge flew from the roadside, which happened to be a new species for many of the group and a great start to the drive!  On our first stop of the day we pulled up next to some fairly standard grass pasture that wouldn’t look out of place in the UK. We could hear and glimpse the occasional Thekla Larks singing away but then the reason for this location choice became apparent. Among the cacophony of sounds a new species was apparent. At first just one and then all around us 6 Calandra Larks were singing and flighting among the Theklas. After admiring them for a time our attention was drawn to other birds in the vicinity. Eagle-eyed Toby picked up two Stone Curlew hunkered down in the middle of the field and a flock of 200+ Spanish Sparrow was a sight to behold!

Stone Curlew 

We had two more stops during the mornings drive which allowed us to stretch our legs but also take in even more of the avian abundance. During these stops we picked up countless Serins, Common Bulbuls, Little Ringed Plover, Hoopoes, Cetti’s Warbler and a pair of Little Owls. A list that you would die for at your local UK patch. 

European Serin

Common Bulbul

Finally, we had reached our lunch spot near Casablanca and after a belly full of khobz (Moroccan bread) and other sustenance salvaged from our breakfast buffet we headed off to explore the local picnic spot in which we had stopped. This was to prove worthwhile as we had some lovely encounters with Zitting Cisticolas, Siskins, a flock of 25 Glossy Ibis which added to the buzz of the wonderful looking habitat. Then Josh came running to find myself and Martin as Bob, Matt and Toby had picked up a cracking Black-winged Kite nearby. Although not a lifer for any of us you can’t help but love these stunning birds!

Black-winged Kite

The remaining drive to Rabat was pleasant, pain free and like the rest of the journey, there were plenty of birds to look at. However, after a long day on the road we were pleased to reach the Hôtel Bouregreg in the heart of Rabat. We made sure our evening meal was early so that we could get plenty of rest as tomorrow had the ingredients for a big day and we wanted to be on point!

March 1st - Day 3

We were up early and well before sunrise as we wanted to be at our first birding location at dawn to give us the best chances of catching up with our intended targets. The labyrinth of lanes and roads leading to Zaer Forrest were a baffling maze even for our guide and we had to do a U-turn more than once to stay on course! Thankfully we made it with time to spare and pretty much as soon as we left the vehicles, we could hear our first target of the day as Double-spurred Francolin were calling to one another throughout the wooded valley! Considering how loud these birds were and how close we were to them at times they were an absolute bugger to see, and we had to make do with glimpses or brief views as they burst from cover and flew a short distance away before dropping back into the thick vegetation found throughout the valley. Nonetheless, we were delighted to spend some quality time with this highly desirable Western Palearctic species.

Zaer Forrest 

Throughout the rest of the morning, it became apparent that whole area was alive with birds made up largely of African Chaffinch, Serin and African Blue Tit which were feeding on the forest floor or at the side of the road. The area also harboured some other treats, and we were delighted to get better views of Great Spotted Woodpecker of the race “numidus”. We also had our first encounter of Eurasian Jay of the race “minor”. But the real icing on the cake was our first Black-crowned Tchagra singing from the depths of the wooded valley. Despite patiently waiting we did not see the bird but it gave a pitch perfect rendition of its song for minutes at a time. We couldn’t be happier with two great lifers in a morning but as much as we were enjoying our time at Zaer, our guide rounded us up as it was time to move on and head towards our next destination and grab some breakfast along the way. 

Great Spotted Woodpecker of the race “numidus”

Even our breakfast stop in a motorway service station proved fruitful as it was located near to some sort of rubbish dump where many thousands of Black Kite and White Stork were filling the air presumably getting ready to continue their northerly migration back to Europe. Another Black-winged Kite was also observed quartering some nearby fields and then we picked up our first Booted Eagle circling overhead and which we were pleased to get on the trip list.

Our next birding location was at a large lake called Sidi Boughaba. This vast expanse of water located near the north coast of Morocco looked great for birds from the get-go and we drove past loads of places that any birder would have liked to have stopped to have a closer look from. I couldn’t understand why we kept driving when there was such vantage points until we reached an area that our guide had in mind. As we were getting our scopes to the ready a huge flock of waterfowl could be observed bobbing around in the near distance and we couldn’t wait to see what was hiding amongst the raft of ducks. It really didn’t disappoint as we started to pick up some real quality and in decent numbers. Our lake list consisted of 145 White-headed Duck, 20 Marbled Teal, 10+ Red-knobbed Coot, 2 Red-crested Pochard, 1 Common Pochard, 10+ Pintail, 50+ Shoveler and scores of Teal and Mallard! There were also Black-necked, Little and Great Crested Grebes and 100’s of Cormorants including a single bird of the race “maroccanus” which has been muted as a potential split in the future. Interestingly, this was the only bird of the Moroccan race that we would see for the whole trip! We would have happily spent the rest of the day in the area and scanning the lake and I am sure it probably had some other surprises in store but alas we had another important trip tick and lifer on the brain and if we were to allow the time needed for it, we needed to hit the road again.

White-headed Duck

Marbled Teal

Red-knobbed Coot

Cormorants of the race “maroccanus”

After about an hour and a half of driving we reached the infamous birding area known as Medja Zerga. This is well known as one of the last places where Slender-billed Curlew could be observed on passage before their apparent extinction! As much as we would have loved to find an alive Slender-billed specimen it was actually a bird frequenting the arable allotments that we were there for. Just before entering the site, we picked up a local friend of Otmans who would arrange our access into the area which was a boggling array of vegetable and fruit fields that all looked very similar to one another! Thankfully, his local knowledge meant that as we started stomping, we did not have to navigate and simply had to “keep up”! Even without a decent lifer on the cards it was an interesting birding location, and many hundreds of Flamingos could be observed in the distance feeding in the lagoon along with a rich array of wading birds. The fields themselves were fruitful and many Meadow Pipit, Yellow Wagtails and various finches were heard in the area. We even had another great view of the local Little Owl which alluded to promise that our next observation was going to be memorable!

Little Owl
Medja Zerga

After about 15 minutes our new guiding friend entered a field that had long grass and some sort of fruit or nut bush laid out in uniform lines. He slowed and started to concentrate whilst lining us up to observe. After a tantalising few seconds a large bird arose from the vegetation and shortly after several more birds followed suit before settling back down about 40 meters ahead. Scopes were at the ready and we were soon getting frame filling views of six Marsh Owls wondering who had the audacity to disturb them so late in the day! We couldn’t believe our luck and had fully anticipated that we would need to spend many hours in the late afternoon sun waiting to get a distant glimpse of the species quartering the marshland that edged the lagoon. Yet here we were, less than 50 meters from the birds getting first class views. Despite the excitement, we remained a respectful distance away whilst getting some photos and after less than 10 minutes left in peace and forever grateful that they showed so well. We were elated to get such breath-taking views of this difficult western palearctic species, and it was an experience that we will all remember for the rest of our lives. However, after such a full on day and with evening looming it was time to make the journey back to the Hôtel Bouregreg in Rabat as we were due another early start tomorrow. 

Marsh owl

Marsh Owl Video

March 2nd - Day 4

Today would be another day of travel as we made our way 190 miles south from Rabat to Zaida.  After such an exciting and rewarding day yesterday, it wouldn’t do us any harm having an easier day but we couldn’t resist another look at Zaer Forrest which was near the start of our journey. We were rewarded with more encounters of Double-spurred Francolin and singing Black-crowned Tchagra as well as Hawfinch and Woodlark which we hadn’t encountered the previous day, but we had many miles to cover, and it had started to rain so we loaded up and headed on. 

Unfortunately, the weather really had turned wet and foggy which made roadside stops less desirable and bird filled than in previous days. However, we made our way through some fabulous scenery in the Middle Atlas Mountains and were delighted to see our first wild Ruddy Shelducks in a high up roadside pool that also harboured Green Sandpiper, White Storks, Grey Heron and 2 Marsh Harriers. There was also Booted Eagle in the area being hounded by Ravens and Carrion Crows. 

Ruddy Shelduck

White Stork

However, the real highlight of the day was an encounter shortly after driving through the interesting town of Midelt which is home to the Moroccan apple industry and it wouldn’t look out of place if plonked down in the Austrian Alps due to its architecture and snowy scenery! A short while after leaving the town we entered a Cedar woodland and on the roadside, fossil sellers became apparent which was unusual given that it didn’t look like the usual spot that a tourist would stop! We then turned a corner, pulled into a layby and were greeted by a raucous group of Barbery Apes who were pleased to see us as they knew they would get lots of free food offerings from the over generous tourists! It was fascinating to watch the family dynamics play out and each individual had its own unique character, and I couldn’t help relish being in the presence of these interesting primates. What an experience!

Very obliging Barbery Apes

The rest of our afternoon was pretty uneventful until we neared our accommodation and decided to have a quick look at Zaida plains so that Otman could introduce us to the location and let us know what the game plan was for the next day. As we entered the area we were rewarded instantly with fabulous views of a cracking male Red-rumped Wheatear which was a lifer for everyone present and a great start to our time in the area! We could not wait to explore this area more vigorously tomorrow and were excited to be staying at Ksar Timnay Hotel which was just a stones throw from the plains!

Red-rumped Wheatear

Video Highlights - Day 4

March 3rd - Day 5

We were up very early as we wanted to get out to the plains for our best chance at encountering one of the local specialities and targets for our trip. As we entered the arid landscape it was surprisingly cold and windy, and the sun was far from dawning or adding any warmth to the day. We didn’t travel more than a couple of hundred meters before Otman parked us up and we started to scan and listen. Within just a couple of minutes we could hear the mournful song of a Dupont’s Lark nearby and it didn’t take long to get it in the bins as well. It gave terrific views and was very settled despite six distant visitors trying in vain to get a decent photograph in the low light and breezy conditions. An absolutely cracking species that was a lifer for most of the group and Bob and I were delighted to see it once again.  We ventured back to the nearby accommodation to grab some breakfast and collect our luggage as we had a full-on day that would encompass more exploration of Zaida plains and then another 180-mile southward journey that would entail a number of stops along the way! 

Zaida Plains

Dupont’s Lark

Barbery Partridge 

After our breakfast we headed back out to the plains to see what else was on offer and we were in for a real treat! The two vehicles spread out to cover as much ground as possible and were soon rewarded with some of the local specialities putting in an appearance. Firstly a very showy Temminck’s Lark was our first of the trip and was a lifer for most of us. What a beautiful species that adds some real charm to the plains. We also were pleased to see good numbers of Mediterranean Short-toed Larks and had flocks consisting of over 30 birds! We even managed some better views of a Duponts Lark. But the real pièce de resistance of the location was our first sighting of Maghreb Larks! This species was previously considered to be a subspecies of the Crested Lark, but it was proved to have diverged genetically from the latter species 1.9 million years ago and subsequently accepted as a separate species in 2009. I have to say I was worried if I would recognise them when reading the field guides but they are very distinctive in the field and the long bill and sandy colouration is very eye catching. What a cracker and a great way to end our brief visit of the plains.

Temminck's Lark

Mediterranean Short-toed Lark

Maghreb Lark

The rest of the morning and early afternoon was spent heading south through some more breath-taking and interesting scenery. Even if you have no interest in birds and birding I can thoroughly recommend the trip for sightseers and cultural enthusiasts as there really is something to take in and admire wherever you visit. On the bird front we were still seeing awesome species from the car and were especially pleased to pick up our first Blue Rock Thrush of the trip. However, our lunch stop next to the Barrage Al-Hassan Addakhil was to yield some fantastic results!

Blue Rock Thrush

The massive lake was created by the formation of the Hassan Addakhil dam which was built in 1969 to regularise the wadi in order to carry out the Ziz valley agricultural and Tafilalet lands development, as well as to provide flood protection. It has also proved popular with wildfowl and many species that we had encountered back at Sidi Boughaba could also be found here with the addition of Ruddy Shelduck. But it was the hirundine’s that stole the show at this location and there were swarms of Swallow, House Martin and Sand Martin feeding on the lake edge. When we scrutinised these in more detail there were some even more prized species on offer, and we were soon picking out some pristine looking Red-rumped Swallows and then some bulky Crag Martins joined in on the party! After lunch, Bob, Toby and Matt went for a saunter to stretch their legs as we still had several hours ahead of us in the car. This paid dividends for the group as we were soon getting flagged down to join them. They really had come up trumps and had picked up a pair of Rock Martin feeding further up the valley which was another lifer for most of the group! Whilst enjoying these aerial athletes feeding just meters away, two more birds that looked interesting were picked up the other side of the canyon. After careful scrutiny and a check of the identification features, we were all delighted to be looking at two Desert Larks which again was a lifer for most of the group. What a cracking lunch stop and location! 

Rock Martin

Desert Lark

With some distance still to travel we grabbed some record shots of the birds and headed onward. After what seemed like 5 minutes but in reality was probably an hour later, Otmans car suddenly pulled over on to the side of the road and the chaps appeared to be getting out at a hurried pace and with bins and camera in tow. We quickly made our way back along the road and were greeted with yet another lifer. This time in the form of a White-crowned Wheatear and what a beauty it was! We were over the moon to catch up with this species and little did we know that over the coming days they would become very common to the point you would start to dismiss them! 

White-crowned Wheatear

After a combination of the early start, excitement from all the great birds we were seeing and the afternoon sun I drifted off into a deep sleep for a large portion of the remaining journey. I am not sure how much time had elapsed, but the next thing I know I am being bounced and thrown around and awoke in a bit of a panic! “Where are we and what is going on?” or words to that affect I think I muttered but nobody could answer me! I asked Siead our driver what was happening and why we were hurtling through the desert at such speed, but he didn’t know. He had received a phone call from Otman to “keep up and follow him no matter what” as we had no time to spare. So that is what he did, even through deep sandy ravines, gullies and ditches. We didn’t slow down until reaching a man in the middle of the desert who had a brief conversation with Otman, grabbed onto the side of his vehicle and pointed in the direction we needed to venture. A short while later the extreme drive became justified as we were gently and quietly walked to some clumps of grass on the edge of the desert and told to look more closely. We could not believe our eyes when we focused in on the area in question and saw a perfectly camouflaged Egyptian Nightjar roosting just 20 meters away! What an absolutely incredible bird and well worth the death-defying drive to ensure we didn’t miss them as the sun was starting to set. We were speechless, ever so grateful and mesmerised at the opportunity to see this species so well. Our day ended so well and made even better when we picked up a 2nd bird just a few meters from the first. What an introduction the Merzouge and the Sahara desert! 

Egyptian Nightjar

Video Highlights - Day 5

March 4th - Day 6 

As we arrived at Auberge Café du Sud accommodation late the previous evening we did not appreciate just how incredible it was and its architecture and the Erg Chebbi Dunes scenery were just out of this world! Once again I would highly recommend a stay at this place even if you have no interest in birds. It truly is breath taking and the service and standards were incredibly high. 

Erg Chebbi dunes

Little did I know, whilst leisurely munching on my breakfast that I was about to have one of the best mornings birding I have ever had and I will never be able to put into words the emotions or the gratefulness for the effort put in by Otman and his team for such an exhilarating experience! After leaving the hotel a little later than was ideal, we started to race towards an area Otman needed to check within the desert as this would dictate how the rest of our morning would transpire. As soon as we set off we were asking for the vehicles to be stopped as we picked up our first two lifers of the day. First in the form of Bar-tailed Lark but then the highly prized Hoopoe Lark! What a great start but we were not allowed to spend much time with them as Otman explained they are very common and we would see lots more of them over the coming days but the other birds we wished to see were much more time critical! He was right as we were driving to our destination there seemed to be several individuals of these species and more White-crowned Wheatears to add to the excitement! 

Bar-tailed Lark

Hoopoe Lark

We reached a small dwelling in the heart of the desert and were delighted to get even better views of Hoopoe Lark just a few feet away! We also noticed that there were several House Sparrows sheltering in a nearby chicken coup which we hoped was promising for another of our target species. Sure enough, a few minutes later the most sublime male Desert Sparrows were hoping around our feet and feeding on tit bits that Otman had put down. They are just the most enigmatic species and we were in awe of its stunning plumage! 

Desert Sparrow

A short while later Otman caught wind of something calling in the distance and ushered us back into the vehicles and moments later we were slowing near some sort of water trough seemingly located in the middle of nowhere but was obviously an important amenity given the location. It soon became obvious why we were in the area as we started to pick up varying sized groups of Sandgrouse! We were chuffed to see our first Crowned Sandgrouse and shortly after we picked up flocks of Spotted Sandgrouse as well. They were surprisingly abundant and before we left the area we had seen over 50 Crowned and 25 Spotted which truly was a magnificent experience and made the morning even more magical. 

Crowned Sandgrouse

Spotted Sandgrouse

We made another short drive and this time to a nearby dwelling with a lovely desert garden. Otman told us to come and explore as it was a friend of his that owned it so we ambled around and were pleased to see an ever familiar Blackbird and a slightly more exotic Hoopoe flying from beneath one of the psalms trees. We were also mesmerized to see a handful of Common Chiffchaff moving through and obviously on migration. But then the call went up to the whole group from Matt to come quick as there as another new bird to see! We all quickly hurried to his location and were greeted with great views of a family party of Fulvous Babblers busily feeding around the base of the trees. Whilst quite nondescript in appearance they certainly made up for it in charm and personality and for a “garden” bird they were pretty difficult to photograph! Still we were over the moon to set eyes on another lifer and great Western Palearctic tick. 

Fulvous Babbler

After spending some quality time with the Babblers we headed off to try for yet another target species. As we meandered out of the property and were about to set off into the desert we suddenly laid eyes on a wholly unexpected but most welcome sight! A flock of 14 Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters were loafing in a bush on the track side and we could not believe our luck. It was an incredibly early date for the species and most unexpected. They were also lifers for the whole group and not even our intended new target! What we were starting to love about the desert was that not only does it harbour some really interesting local specialities that are difficult to see elsewhere in the western palearctic, but it was also great for migrants passing through that made the most of the green areas to feed up in before continuing their epic journeys. What a dream place the Erg Chebbi dunes were turning into! 

Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters

As much as we couldn’t get enough of the Bee-eaters and loved every minute with them, we had to peel ourselves away and start our search for a potentially more difficult species. After another short drive we were in an area that was still pretty arid but had lots of small thorny bushes. As we exited the vehicles we started getting some quality birds that included pairs of Desert Wheatears and more Maghreb Larks. Otman started playing an unfamiliar scratchy passerine song from his phone and within a few seconds we were getting point blank views of an African Desert Warbler. Whilst it showed incredibly well it was really difficult to get stationary views as it flicked from bush to bush to see who else was in its territory. After a short time Otman turned off the tape and we were pleased to see that there were actually a pair in the area. Here was us thinking this species was going to involve lots of tracking and patience and we had seen it within seconds of our first attempt. A true delight and what a morning we were having! 

African Desert Warbler

The fun was far from over and we ventured to another nearby location to see what else we might pick up. Whilst the habitat looked similar to the last location it was situated in a slight gorge which seemingly offered more shelter for the birds. After a scan of the area, many of us were once again getting great views of another lifer and this time in the form of some very obliging Trumpeter Finches that were feeding beneath the thorny bushes. I think by this point most of us had lost count of the lifers we had seen that morning and were ecstatic with our guides efforts. What a memorable morning that we will all fondly remember for the rest of our lives! 

Trumpeter Finch

Our afternoon was a little more leisurely but still exciting as we continued our exploration of Merzouge and the Erg Chebbi dunes. We ventured to some more locations similar to the first and continued to get some great views of the birds we had earlier in the day as well as some other highlights such as Booted Eagles, Brown-necked Ravens, White-crowned Wheatears and some more House Buntings. But the real highlight occurred when we stopped at another agricultural property that was surrounded by small trees and large bushes. It was apparent that this green spot was harbouring lots of Western Subalpine Warblers and we had at least five working their way through the foliage and making the most of the food on offer. Bob then picked up a different Warbler that got our pulses racing as he ushered us to come quickly! Although elusive we all eventually got views of a glorious Tristram’s Warbler skulking in a thick bush. Another lifer and one off of our trip list. It was also a great bird to end the day on and we decided to get some respite back at our welcoming accommodation and rejoice in the fabulous days birding we had just had. What a day!    

   Video Highlights - Day 6

March 5th - Day 7

Today we would continue our exploration of Merzouge and the Erg Chebbi dunes to see if we could connect with some other desirable target species in the area. Our day started well as we connected with two more Desert Sparrows, a handful of Hoopoe and Bar-tailed Larks and White-crowned Wheatears were seemingly everywhere! We then ventured to another agricultural area that harboured lush green fields and a variety of different crops. We were mesmerised as the area was literally dripping with migrant passerines and everywhere we looked we were seeing Chiffchaffs, Western Subalpine Warblers and irate local Sardinian Warblers wondering why it was so busy! After 30 minutes or so taking in this spectacle we had a tot up between us and had recorded c30 Western Subalpine Warblers, c30 Chiffchaff, 30+ Spanish Sparrow, 10 Blackcap, 1 Common Whitethroat a Laughing Dove, a Woodchat Shrike and a Great Grey Shrike of the elegans form! All from within a paddock half the size of a football pitch. It really did give us the upmost admiration seeing these birds having to endure the harsh desert environment on their journeys back to breeding grounds throughout Europe.

Western Subalpine Warbler

Sardinian Warbler

Great to see Subalpine Warblers were nearly as common as Chiffchaffs

Woodchat Shrike

Great Grey Shrike of the form "elegans"

As much as we loved catching up with the migrants it was time to get back out into the desert and see what other local specialities we could encounter. We started well and picked up a Greater Short-toed Lark, six more Crowned Grouse and innumerable Desert Wheatears, Brown-necked Ravens and Maghreb Larks. But then we hit jackpot as Otman took us to another hotspot where he hoped one of our prizes would be hiding. It didn’t take long for us to connect as five Cream-coloured Coursers emerged from some low thickets and showed well for the group. A cracking bird that we were delighted to encounter in its desert home. A great end to our morning and we hoped it was a good omen for the afternoon ahead. 

Desert Wheatear

Brown-necked Raven

Cream-coloured Courser

After lunch we were due to travel a fair bit further away from the vicinity of our accommodation to try for a species a little more tricky. But on route we would try for Rufous Scrub Warbler at a few locations which obviously got us pretty excited and pumped for the rest of the afternoon as it was another highly desired lifer for the whole group. After another hearty desert lunch we set off and scoured three or four dense thorny thickets seemingly located at each corner of the desert but sadly to no avail! Would this be the species that we dipped on? Surely we would luck in at some point given the enormous effort the guides were making on our behalf? 

We started to make our way to a more mountainous area nearby and were intrigued as to what Otman had in store for us? But there was another surprise waiting for us before we hit our destination. As we cruised along a gully with a cliff edge to the left of us suddenly Otmans car came screeching to a halt! We could see the chaps scrambling for bins, scopes and cameras and knew they had just found something good by the enthusiastic antics. It just so happens that as they were passing through Matt was scanning the cliff for anything interesting and he hit the jackpot as he glimpsed a Pharoah Eagle Owl peering out of one of the high caves! What a great spot and a really great western palearctic tick that we had all dreamed of seeing but were unsure if we would ever get so lucky!   

Pharoah Eagle Owl

After soaking up the Eagle Owl for some time and congratulating Matt on a great find, Otman ushered us back into the car so that we had plenty of time to enjoy the next bird he had in store for us. We didn’t have to drive much further and pulled up beneath a much larger cliff this time. The afternoon sun and heat was intense but we were stationary and all we had to do was scan and were assured our prize would eventually turn up and it was worth the wait. Whilst scanning, we noted that there were some obvious signs of breeding as there were some faecal white streaking coming down the cliff in a couple of places and they were obviously eyrie’s but for what species? We had only been there for 5 minutes and our question was answered as a male Lanner Falcon swooped past to check that all was OK at the breeding site! He put on a cracking show and zoomed past four times before heading off again. What a fantastic birding experience and cracking species to see in such glorious conditions. We stayed in the area for over an hour and were treated to some more superb views and revelled in the excitement from the last two days and the beautiful place we found ourselves. It was the perfect ending to another brilliant Moroccan day.  

Lanner Falcon

Video Highlights - Day 7

March 6th - Day 8

We were a little sad to be leaving Merzouge and the Erg Chebbi dunes after such a memorable time in the area. But alas, it was time to make the 165 mile journey west and it had all the promise of another great days birding as there were a couple of stops along the way that might just harbour some more interesting species! At breakfast we were treated to some more migration in action as Swallows flicked through overhead along with a Yellow Wagtail. The gardens were also productive with yet more Western Subalpine and Sardinian Warblers and near the car park a Hoopoe Lark could be seen displaying in the near distance. But it was finally time to say good bye and make our way to an area near Goulmima for our first target species of the day.

After around an hour and half we pulled off of the main road and made our way to some scrubby thorn patches and Otman explained that we would try for the elusive Rufous Scrub Warblers again at some locations this morning, but it would likely be our last chance to connect! We lived in hope and prayed that we connected but after yesterday’s efforts knew it may be hard. Will trawled throughout the area and had great views of two more Cream-coloured Coursers and lots of Desert Wheatears but still no Scrub Warblers. We headed back on the main road and were told there was only one more place to try a few miles further on, but it wasn’t sounding hopeful that we would see the species and they had probably already made their way to breeding sites for the summer. This really was our last chance! When we finally reached the destination, we walked from the vehicles to a promising looking clump of thorny bushes and spread out to cover as much ground as possible. The guides started playing some calls from their phones and within seconds a territorial male shot up to the top of the highest bush and proclaimed his disgust at this intruder! The tape was stopped, and the group was gathered to ensure everyone had a chance of seeing this skulky species. One more quick blast and it put on a superb show! We were delighted to finally connect and were grateful once again that the guides had persisted to get us another memorable encounter. 

Rufous Scrub Warbler

We drove another hour west and stopped off for lunch and a few hours birding at Todra Gorge. This was a fascinating mountain range that was much more arid than others we had visited in Morocco. It was fantastic for birds as we had great views of House Buntings feeding at our feet in a cliffside carpark, Black Wheatears could be seen hopping from boulder to boulder alongside Blue Rock Thrushes and Black Redstarts. There was even a healthy population of Crag Martins feeding high up above the mountains. Some of the group split off and went for a hike higher up and were rewarded with cracking views of Tristrams Warbler and myself and Martin lucked in on a cracking Bonnelli’s Eagle soaring overhead! Thankfully we caught up with this species again as we were leaving the Gorge so the whole group got to enjoy this spectacular raptor. It was a super afternoon and a really picturesque location.

House Bunting

Blue Rock Thrush

Tristram's Warbler

Bonnelli’s Eagle

It was getting late in the day and we still had another hour to drive before we reached our accommodation but we couldn’t resist a quick stop at the start of the Tagdlit Track which held great promise for us the next morning. About 200 meters along the track we stopped by a small dried up pool and were pleased to get much better views of Temminck’s Lark as they fed in the dried up basin. There were also some fabulous looking rodents going about there business and we were delighted to learn that they were called Fat Sand Rats which was just the most perfect name for the species! 

Temminck’s Lark

Fat Sand Rats 

After yet another highly rewarding day we were happy to reach the Hotel Kasbah De Dadès in Boumalne Dades for some celebratory beers and to get some rest before an early start on the Tagdilt Track.

Video Highlights - Day 8

March 7th - Day 9 

Our penultimate day started early and we were heading back towards the Tagdilt Track just before dawn and our breakfast! As we trickled slowly down the road we were greeted by an obliging Little Owl and were surprised to see several stray dogs and wondered why they would hang around an area that was so far from human habitation or a food source. A little further on and it became clear that they were there because it was the local rubbish dump that we were visiting! Not the most scenic of areas we had explored in the country but the bird life frequenting the dump certainly made up for the smells! 

Little Owl 

As soon as we got out of the vehicles and carefully waded through the sea of litter we were getting good species. A Black Kite sailed overhead and a laughing Dove flew through at speed. Several Moroccan Pied Wagtails were lingering among the trash and were joined by a solitary Yellow Wagtail. 4 Red-rumped Wheatears were watching us from a distance to see what we were up to and we accidently flushed a Hoopoe that had been sheltering in a nearby ditch. Our first Red-throated Pipit of the trip was also calling as it flew into the area and House Buntings could be found amongst the rubbish and stony outcrops. But then a wholly different species was found, and made trawling through the rubbish tip early in the morning completely worthwhile! We set eyes on one of our prizes and it quickly transpired that there were at least five Thick-billed Larks in the area and we were ecstatic to get this final Lark species of the trip in our optics and on our list! After spending some quality time watching their antics and admiring the beautiful species we headed back to the hotel for a spot of breakfast before we had to head off towards our next location. 

Thick-billed Lark

After our breakfast we loaded up the car and headed back to a spot near Imiter to try for some final trip targets before heading in the opposite direction later that afternoon. As we were traveling back west we picked up a large raptor in the distance and were really pleased it turned out to be a Short-toed Snake-Eagle! This would be one of five that we encounter on migration that morning and they are always a delightful sight. After about 20 minutes or so we pulled up next to, what looked like a disused quarry. On arrival Otman was greeted by a local man that lived a nomadic lifestyle within the area and had been tasked to show us some of the local bird specialities on offer. We were told to follow him and he would point out everything on offer. So we did just that! Within minutes of our amble we connected with an Long-legged Buzzard of the form cirtensis and were told that they breed in the quarry! It has been long hypothesized that this may be a distinct species but extreme variations of both races and minimal differences in behaviour, voice and morphology have prevented said species recognition. This subspecies tends to be notably smaller than the nominate rufinus Long-legged Buzzard. 

Short-toed Snake-Eagle

Long-legged Buzzard of the form cirtensis

Our local nomadic guide certainly knew where all the species were that day! 

As our amble continued the local guide was showing us some great species! We were delighted to see another Pharoah Eagle Owl, which was one of two that we would see well whilst in the quarry. We also had another Lanner Falcon sitting tight on an old Ravens nest which the pair had successfully evicted earlier in the year! There were even some obliging Trumpeter Finches working their way through the quarry and feeding on a nearby bank. But the real highlight came after a patient wait of around 45 minutes. 

Pharoah Eagle Owl

Lanner Falcon

We were promised that Maghreb Wheatears bred in the vicinity but that had big territories and coved a lot of ground. Otman thought he had glimpsed one on arrival but the group had yet to connect. Everyone started getting restless so the local guide and Otman started to hunt around and see if they could find the species. Sure enough within 5 minutes of their departure we were getting calls to come quick as they had one. We legged it over and a group of five Wheatears consisting of 2 Desert, 2 Red-rumped and 1 Maghreb were on show and feeding on a weedy section of a bank. We were made up to get this fantastic species on our life lists! Our morning really couldn’t have been any better.

Maghreb Wheatear

That afternoon we headed towards Ouarzazate which was around 90 miles to the west and where our accommodation was for the night. After such a successful morning and with no more targets to chase that day, we stopped at the Barrage Mansour Eddahbi which was another massive lake situated about 15 miles from our final destination. It was incredibly productive for birds and as we relaxed in the afternoon sun we ended up with quite the list which consisted of 2 Osprey, 1 Great White Egret, 1 Little Egret, 40+ Great Crested Grebes, 2 Ruddy Shelduck, 11 Kentish Plover, 2 Little Ringed Plover 1 Marsh Harrier and a whole host of other common species. Toby and Matt went on one of their useful jaunts and managed to pick up 2 Bluethroats from a nearby reedy gully which Otman was most pleased about as it was a new bird for him too!  It was a lovely place and way to end our day and we were once again happy and content after another great Moroccan day. Our final accommodation was in the Hotel Riad Amlal in Ouarzazate and just like all of the accommodation throughout our trip the rooms, service and staff were impeccably good! 


Video Highlights - Day 9

March 8th - Day 10

Our final day of the trip had sadly arrived and I don’t think any of the group really wanted to leave after such a fantastic week! But with 120 miles to clock up in order to get back to the airport we had no choice but to make a move shortly after breakfast. Whilst we didn’t have any full species left to go for, there were still some birds we hoped to catch up with along the way. As we were travelling through the High Atlas mountains once again, we also knew there would be plenty to look at and appreciate on the scenery front, so it would still be a pleasant day. 

Our first stop was near a stony river with mountains situated either side of it. It was quite remarkable to pick up a Little Ringed Plover perched on the bank and not a place I would associate the species with back in the UK. The area was also great for finches and Tits and Bob picked up a cracking male Moussier’s Redstart and Toby connected with a wholly unexpected Brambling! But the endemic Barbery Ground Squirrels found in the area were fascinating and we had great views of the species. 

Little Ringed Plover

Barbery Ground Squirrel

Later in the morning we started to notice a lot more woodland habitat situated between mountainsides so Bob asked if we could stop to try and catch up with some of the Red Crossbills. In a recent genetics study it was found that: “Of all the subspecies of the Red Crossbill (Loxia curvirostra) in the Western Palearctic, the Crossbill of the Maghreb (ssp. poliogyna) and the Balearic Islands (ssp. balearica) are the most genetically differentiated. This genetic divergence is even greater than that between the Red Crossbill and the Parrot Crossbill (Loxia pytyopsittacus).” So it was worth catching up with the local race as given that their genetics, vocalisation and feeding is different than other Red Crossbill found in the Western Palearctic, then it is a real contender for full species status in the future. None of us really expected to connect as we all knew Crossbills can at times be difficult to entice but Bob started playing the call from his phone and within less than a minute some distant birds responded followed by a young male bird coming and sitting right on top of the tree next to us! A great plan and we were delighted that it actually worked. Let’s hope they decide to split them sooner rather than later!

Atlas Crossbill

Atlas Crossbill Video 

One of the last birding highlights of the trip was an unforgettable experience and whilst it didn’t involve any lifers, will be an event that I remember fondly! Further along the mountain road we pulled over to a roadside layby and Otman started to play Ring Ouzel song from his phone. We were hopeful that we might entice one in to view for the trip list but were utterly flabbergasted when a flock of nearly 30 birds started streaming past us on the nearby mountainside! It was strange to see such a large number flocking together on this wintering ground when I am only used to seeing one or two each year on migration in Cornwall. What a great experience!

Ring Ouzel

Whilst the rest of our journey was bird filled and the scenery was out of this world, it was time to say our good byes and head for the airport. This was hard to do as the hospitality and experience was out of this world and we cannot recommend Otman and Birding Tours Morocco highly enough. If you are planning a trip we sincerely urge you to get in touch via the website found here:  BTM - welcome  or via their Facebook page found here: BTM - Facebook Page 

You can also read a detailed E-bird report compiled by Matt Doyle, that will be useful for any birders exploring the country without the aid of a guide here: E-bird Trip Report by Matt Doyle 

During our trip we observed 166 species that included almost all the targets we had set out to get and secretly we are pleased to have missed a couple as we now have a valid excuse to go back to this most beautiful bird filled country. I cannot wait!

Happy Birders in the heart of Morocco!