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ZEISS DTI thermal imaging cameras. For more discoveries at night, and during the day.


Jos Stratford

Eastern Exile
Staff member
United Kingdom
In light of the earthquake in Morocco, it with sadness that I begin this trip report - many of the excellent localities that I visited, particularly in the Imlil and Asni areas, are at the very epicentre of this quake and the villages I visited have been totally destroyed. Undoubtedly some of the very fine folk that I met and stayed with are among the many casualties. My sympathies to them and I hope this report a little portrays the wonders that Morocco has to offer and inspires others to visit, tourism will clearly offer a lifeline to devastated communities.


A two-week trip concentrating on the High Atlas and adjacent desertlands, the main focus being butterflies. In contrast to birding, where localities are well-known and trips can be planned to target all desired species, far less information exists regarding sites for butterflies in Morocco. Furthermore, seasonality is also more pronounced when looking for butterflies - not only in terms of absolute flight periods for individual species, but also relating to how wet or arid particular areas are at any particular time (adjacent valleys were frequently completely different in regard to how productive for butterflies). As a consequence, the itinerary of this trip evolved as I travelled, stopping where I found species, skipping sites that would clearly have been excellent earlier in the season.

Having visited Morocco on a number of occasions, birds were not a main focus of this trip and many of the classic birding localities were omitted, e.g. the Merzouga area. That said, plenty of birds were seen nevertheless, including such delights as Pharaoh Eagle Owls, Thick-billed Larks, Levaillant's Woodpeckers and Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters.
Deciding against visiting the Ifrane area further north (almost certainly good for butterflies, though slightly more 'European' in mix), this trip essentially divided between sites in the High Atlas and locations in the arid lowlands to their south and west:

A. High Atlas Mountains.

Rising to over 4000 metres, the High Atlas is a mosaic of habitats from semi-Alpine tops to relatively lush valleys lower down. Though considerable differences exist in terms of aridity on the southern, eastern and western sides of the mountain block, the entire area offers some of the best butterfly possibilities in Morocco in the summer months, streamside areas mostly remaining rich in both flowers and butterflies. At higher elevations, the likes of Vaucher's Heaths, Giant Graylings, Black-eyed Blues and Atlas Blues can be found on the wing, while lower down a multitude of different blues, fritillaries, browns, and skippers fly.

A total of 66 species of butterflies were recorded across the various sites visited in the High Atlas (Oukaimeden, Imlil, Tizi n Test, Tizi n Tichka).

B. Deserts and Anti-Atlas.

In the parched desertscapes of Morocco, conditions are not ideal for large diversities of butterflies in summer. However, it was the hope that a few desert specialists would be on the wing, especially in the better watered wadis and small scale irrigated areas. As it was, in temperatures touching 42 C, indeed there were butterflies, Desert Orange Tips, African Babul Blues and Plain Tigers typical of the wilder areas, a whole range of species occurring in the patches of irrigated alfalfa in the valleys.

Further south, the Anti-Atlas mountains are lower in altitude than the High Atlas, are essentially semi-desert and also suffer considerable overgrazing. Undoubtedly better in early spring, butterfly abundance was generally low, but did produce one of the main targets of the trip, Sahara Swallowtail.

Across various sites in the desert lowlands and Anti-Atlas, a total of 30 species were recorded.
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Day Log.

17 June. Ouazazate - Boumalne-Dades

Arrival in Ouazazate early afternoon, slow queue at immigration. Eventually through, out into the bright sun, temperature 39 C.

Though the main part of the trip would be dedicated to the mountains, destination for this first day was Boumalne-Dades a couple of hours to the east. Attraction here was the Dades Valley, a lush slither of greenery hugging a small river …hopefully the small fields here would be home to a few butterflies. Arriving with just enough time to explore before butterflies became inactive for the day, not too bad it turned out - only six species, but decent numbers: abundant Small Whites, several Clouded Yellows, super abundant Long-tailed Blues, a few Lang's Short-tailed Blues, two Rosy Grizzled Skippers, three Pygmy Skippers.

As a pleasant backdrop, the valley was also choc-a-bloc with common breeding birds - many Western Olivaceous Warblers, Turtle Doves and Common Nightingales, plenty of Hoopoes, several Golden Orioles and no shortage of others, including Woodchat Shrikes, Spotted Flycatchers and Serins. And in the villages dotted along the valley, White Storks too, plus House Buntings and a couple of Black Wheatears. Top bird of the afternoon however was a rather fine Blue-cheeked Bee-eater.

Checked into a rather nice accommodation half way up the Dades Valley, home for two nights.
18 June. Tagadilt Track, Imiter & the Dades Valley.

Sunrise at the legendary Tagadilt Track, almost 30 years after my first ever visit. And impressive it still is - although essentially a rubbish tip surrounded by a seemingly everyday patch of semi-desert, a true magnet to larks and wheatears it is, back then and still today. Within moments of arriving, flocks of Crested Larks, then, rather better, a number of Temminck's Larks both sides of the track, juveniles begging from attending parents. Continuing to the dump a kilometre or two down, Red-rumped Wheatears on piles of building rubble, two Desert Wheatears, one Black Wheatear, two Bar-tailed Larks and one Desert Lark.

And then to the 'scenic' delights of the tip, wafts of smoke rising from smouldering rubbish, packs of savage-looking dogs periodically erupting into conflict with each other. Between them, one Lilith Little Owl, numerous Rock Doves, plenty of Crested Larks, several Temminck's Larks and, looking somewhat out of place, a flock of about ten Little Ringed Plovers. Goal here however was Thick-billed Lark, this necessitating a meander through the packs of dogs to the centre of the tip. Fortunately, the dogs seemed far more interested in each other than me, none passing more than a casual glance my way, except one puppy that decided I deserved a full dose of enthusiastic yelping. Two Thick-billed Larks duly found, both thereafter flying out of the tip to open desert beyond my now distant car. Retracting myself out of the tip, I wandered a nearby shallow wadi, adding more Red-rumped Wheatears, a Black-bellied Sandgrouse and a White-crowned Black Wheatear, plus the first butterflies of the day - several Bath Whites.

With butterflies on the wing, soon my day's focus would change. Before that however, I did have desires to encounter a bird that I have not seen since that first ever visit to Morocco nigh on three decades earlier. For this bird I need to travel about 10 kilometres further east - to an arid wadi south of Imiter.
Found the spot quite easily, a fairly high cliff overlooking a dry valley, the cliff pockmarked with small fissures. A few Rock Doves flying around, a Long-legged Buzzard drifting nearby, time to scan the rock face. It didn't take too long - after nothing on the upper parts of the cliff, my eyes then came face-to-face with four pairs of bright orange eyes staring back at me from a ledge right at the base of the cliff …four recently fledged Pharaoh Eagle Owls in all their glory! Very nice birds. And just to add to the spectacle, then found an adult on rocks just to their right.

In the dry valley below the owls, a few Desert Orange Tips beginning their day's activity and, even more impressive, a number of shrubs servicing as a magnet to many dozens of Mediterranean Tiger Blues, always exquisite butterflies with underwings smartly dressed in black and white.

With that, it was back to the Dades Valley for a few hours exploring more of the irrigated meadows in the lower parts of the valley. Quite superb it was - as well as numerous Long-tailed Blues again, along with all of the other species seen the day before, additions this day included six Iberian Scarce Swallowtails, five Plain Tigers, a whole bunch of Desert Orange Tips, several Small Coppers and Southern Blues and at least twelve Moroccan Red-underwing Skippers.

Later exploration of areas in the more arid higher parts of the Dades Valley added a Moroccan Small Skipper, plus Blue Rock Thrushes and a Trumpeter Finch. By day's end, the butterfly tally sat at 17 species, not bad for a desert environment.
19 June. Tizi n Tichka & the Ourika Valley.

Largely a travel day, the 340 km from Boumalne-Dades to the Ourika Valley beneath Oukaimeden taking more than six hours, plus stopping time. From Ouazazate towards Marrakech, the mountains on this eastern side of Oukaimeden were far more arid than I had expected and little habitat seemed very good for butterfly habitat. That said, a stop in dry riverside meadows on the north side of Tizi n Tichka did produce a few good species - of most note, several of the endemic Moroccan Coppers, quite a few Southern Gatekeepers, three Southern Brown Argus and one Desert Fritillary. Also here, one Iberian Scarce Swallowtail, a few Southern Blues, several Long-tailed Blues, three Speckled Woods, a number of Clouded Yellows and both Small Whites and Bath Whites. Booted Eagle overhead too.

Finally arriving in the Ourika Valley, the habitat looked superb for butterflies - very green and lots of flowers. Unfortunately, sitting in the shadow of the mountains, it had also clouded over! Basically no butterflies active, but still I managed to add a couple of species - a small colony of Common Tiger Blues in a drier area, plus six Lorquin's Blues on stunted grass aside the river.
20 June. Oukaimeden.

Still cloudy at dawn in the Ourika Valley, mist hanging on the slopes. Hoping for better conditions at altitude, I headed for Oukaimeden - either I would find sunshine for butterflies or I would spend the day birding instead. Fortunately, everything worked out perfectly - climbed out of the cloud at 1800 metres and it was then blue sky and sun for the whole day. And on these initial slopes, plus or minus 2000 metre altitude, a glorious mix of thistles and abundant flowers, perfect for the first butterflies of the morning - a Small Copper, a couple of Bath Whites, a Painted Lady and a Speckled Wood. In short succession, more and more butterflies taking to the wing - first a Moroccan Small Heath, then False Baton Blues, then an Iberian Scarce Swallowtail, then a whole bunch of Spanish Marbled Whites.

Moussier's Redstarts also graced the slope, so too a Blue Rock Thrush. Scrambling up the next few hundred metres of rocky slope, punctuated by bramble patches and areas of flowers, it was butterflies all the way - numerous Bath Whites, one Moroccan Copper, a few Southern Brown Arguses, several Moroccan Marbled Whites alongside Spanish Marbled Whites, the first of the day's Cardinal Fritillaries and two highly mobile Dark Giant Graylings. Also several Wall Browns and Speckled Woods.

Eyeing the perfect blue skies, I decided to head further up the mountain - and there found an absolutely amazing valley just below the plateau at Oukaimeden. Steep-sided and lush, the valley was stunning - a bubbling stream inhabited by Dippers and Grey Wagtails, bordered by verdant banks of Marsh Orchids and abundant other flowers. It was also a top class butterfly location - among the masses, an array of blues starting with Amanda's Blues as the most abundant, followed by Southern Blues and what I presume were Chapman's Blues. Also one Mazarine Blue and, near the valley top, a Mountain Argus. Skippers also common, adding considerable challenges with identification - Essex, Small and Lulworth Skippers on the one hand, no conclusive Moroccan Skippers, while also one Eastern Marbled Skipper, two False Mallow Skippers, two Moroccan Red-underwing Skippers and one Oberthür's Grizzled Skipper (the latter seemingly out of range a little, leading me to question the identification). Rather easier for identification, one Moroccan High Brown Fritillary too, plus plenty of Cardinals and one Queen of Spain Fritillary. Also present, as well as numerous Bath Whites and Small Whites, both Spanish and Moroccan Marbled Whites, a couple of Plain Tigers, two Purple-shot Coppers and a Cleopatra.

At 2600 metres, also wandered the plateau area adjacent to the ski resort - however, other than Cardinals and several Lorquin's Blues, this area was not so productive in butterfly terms. Still, big flocks of Red-billed Chough here, along with several Rock Sparrows, quite a few Black Wheatears and a mix of hirundines, headed by Red-rumped Swallows.

At around 3 pm, cloud rolled in from below, immediately dampening butterfly activity. Soon after, I descended back to the Ourika Valley, this now bathed in full sunshine. Added Long-tailed Blues and Lang's Short-tailed Blues to the day tally, then headed to the hotel to relax over a coffee while sorting out a few of the day's identification issues… rudely interrupted by Great Spotted Woodpecker and Levaillant's Woodpecker having a dispute in a tree in the garden!

Final butterfly total for the day turned out to be 38 species, a total double the entire number seen on the trip till that point.
21 June. Imlil.

Repeat of weather of the day before - low cloud at the day's start. Left the Ourika Valley and travelled a couple of hours to Imlil on the western side of the mountain block, sunny on arrival.

Far drier than on the route up Oukaimeden, the Imlil area initially looked as though it might flop in terms of butterflies. Though stunning landscapes, patches of snow still visible on the high rugged Toubkal, a notable lack of greenery and flowers characterised the valleys. I had planned to explore the high slopes east of Imlil (above Tamatert) this day, but arriving at 2300 metres, butterflies were indeed very thin on the ground - plentiful Spanish Marbled Whites and one Dark Giant Grayling, but little else. Changing strategy, I dropped back to 1900 metres and things were much better, primarily around bramble patches and scant flowers along a stream, but also on agriculture terraces and arid gullies a little lower again. Top butterfly of the day was a splendid Chapman's Green Hairstreak quietly sunning on bramble leaves - sporting a rusty coloured head and better developed stripes on the underwing than Green Hairstreak, this was a new species for me. Plenty of other species too, not least an African Babul Blue, a couple of Desert Fritillaries and a Moroccan Meadow Brown. Not withstanding the above species however, the brambles brought a distinctively European feel to the species mix here - among the butterflies seen, two Old World Swallowtails, two Moroccan Green-veined Whites, one Holly Blue and a Red Admiral, all new for the trip. Also present, a Cardinal, abundant Speckled Woods and Small Skippers and, in the drier gullies, six Cleopatra, 12 Queen of Spain Fritillaries and one Iberian Scarce Swallowtail.

By day's end, I had amassed 28 species, seven of which new for the trip, not too bad at all.

Stayed in a quaint hotel on a steep slope overlooking Imlil these next couple of nights. This being one at the heart of the worst affected area from the quake however, sadly this hotel is likely no more.
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