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Notes from a Morocco trip May 13th-21st 2015 (1 Viewer)

Chris Gooddie

Well-known member
Hi all,

Just back from an 8-days-in-country trip to Morocco- a few notes below which I hope will be useful:

We flew into and out of Marrakech eve 13th/eve 21st May with BA (Easyjet also fly) and drove a loop east and north from Marrakech via Ouarzazate/ Erfoud/ Merzouga/ Midelt/ Azrou/ Marrakech, which worked very well, although did mean that we covered almost 1900kms in total. We did not visit any of the coastal sites, as all bar one of my targets (Bald Ibis) were inland. As an alternative to our itinerary one could easily miss out the Azrou section which involves a significant drive North (only Atlas Flycatcher up there that is not easily available further S, although we also wanted to include a visit to the ruins at Volubilis to the N. of Azrou) and loop back to the West after Merzouga and the SE sites via a route further S. You could then include the coast for Bald Ibis etc if preferred, and this more southerly loop would be 3-400kms shorter than the northern one we opted for I think. Adding a side-trip to Oukaimeden is easy from Marrakech (an hour and a half’s drive to the South maximum.) Note that if you want to try for both Tristram’s Warbler and the higher altitude species (e.g. African Crimson-winged Finch) each is up separate valleys so you’d need a full Oukaimeden-area day to do justice to both.

We sorted out a basic 2WD Renault rental car, booked on the web in advance via Rhino (Sixt Car Hire provided the vehicle on arrival) all of which went very smoothly. The 2WD was fine throughout EXCEPT in the desert around Merzouga, where if you want to try for the more remote desert species 4WD is definitely required. We hired a local guide with a 4x4 for a morning which was great- I highly recommend Brahim Mezane and Otman from Gayuin Birding Tours (http://www.gayuin.com [email protected]) for a half- or full day; Gayuin also do full tours if you want guiding throughout. I did not meet Brahim in person as he was away leading a tour, but Otman knew all the sites and looked after us very well on our one SE desert morning excursion (0630-1130am).

Driving in general was fine, although within Marrakech the style is combative to say the least. Once outside the city, roads are generally good, driving is easy, and directions for the most part unproblematic with a map and/or SatNav, despite the lack of road signs in many cases. We did not have any problems with corrupt police as others have, (there has been a recent Govt. campaign to clamp down on this I think? Tourists bring money…) although we did get caught bang to rights by a mobile speed trap of which there are a large number in Morocco- a £25 fine was matched by a receipt for the same amount, all very official. To avoid getting caught: i.) Stick rigidly to the 100kmph speed limit out of urban areas, and ESPECIALLY the 60/80 kmph limits on the way in to and out of any/all towns and cities ii.) Follow the speed of the locals iii.) always stop completely at police checkpoints until they wave you through iv.) Pay very close attention to drivers coming towards you- if they flash their headlights you can be sure there’s a speed trap/police checkpoint/both ahead. We never needed any of the police forms (listing all our passport details etc) of which we had prepared multiple copies before leaving home- they would be useful if venturing further South to the Western Sahara I imagine.

The African software maps purchased for my new Tomtom 5000 SatNav worked pretty well from the outset, although not 100%, as we discovered when guided the wrong way down a very narrow one-way street full of donkeys and street hawkers in the medina outskirts on the way to our first night’s accomm! SatNav is not really needed for most locations, although being able to type in specific lat/long co-ordinates for individual sites was very helpful on occasion. We stayed throughout in relatively up-market Riads, £30-£60 pppn, though it’s not difficult to find budget accomm. in most locations if required.

Money- the local currency is the Moroccan Dirham (MAD), c14 = £1 UK Pound during our visit. (DO NOT get suckered as we did at Gatwick and change any money at a UK airport- we got £1 = 11 Dirham at Gatwick instead of 14.5 locally! Bandits…) Very few places accept credit cards in Morocco, so make sure you have enough cash for petrol/accomm./food. UK-bankcard-friendly ATMs are available, but only in the larger cities.

The Gosney guides (‘Finding Birds in Morocco: coast and mountains’ and (especially) ‘Finding Birds in Morocco: the deserts’) were extremely useful as always (note however that the best entrance track on to the Tagdilt Track is S of the ‘Tinghir KM46’ post not ‘KM48’ per Gosney Deserts- P18/19). I also used trip reports by Ian Merrill (May 2014: excellent! We pretty much slavishly followed Ian’s entire itinerary…) and Richard Bonser (July 2010: also very useful though focuses for the most part on the W Sahara and coastal sites and hence did not cover all of our route).

Key species seen:

Egyptian Nightjar- 1 seen briefly pre-dawn at the Auberge Kasbah Derkaoua (AKD). This former Egyptian Nightjar hotspot can still deliver the goods! Note however: i.) I had only a single fly-by as a bird came in to drink from the pool on both mornings at 0650-0655, and there was no sign of the bird in the evenings. And more crucially ii.) We had prolonged views of 2 EUROPEAN Nightjars both evenings at AKD, and also side-by-side with the Egyptian on one of the mornings. At least one bird was a male, and briefly vocalized on the 1st morning. Clearly it is not safe to tick a silent nightjar sp. on silhouette views only, even this far to the east! We also had a single bird at a daytime roost thanks to Otman of Gayuin Birding Tours who called his Berber contact. The latter confirmed he had a roosting Egyptian Nightjar, so we headed to his home camp and spent 30 happy mins. drinking in every last detail through the scope and taking photos of this mythical species- definitely a trip highlight.
The Auberge Kasbah Derkaoua is situated between Rissani and Merzouga (turn off the paved road c14kms SE of Rissani and follow the good dirt road (2WD is fine) for c6kms). It’s a fabulous place to stay if budget allows, and much better than staying in Merzouga which is pretty fly-blown and a hotspot for persistent hawkers trying to sell you fossils/minerals/camel treks/quad biking excursions/their mothers etc. There were still some migrants moving through the AKD ‘oasis’, Wood and Melodious Warblers, 1 Great Reed Warbler, Whinchats, Pied Flycatchers, Barn Swallows etc

African Desert Warbler- 2 seen, both in areas of very low scrub in flat desert (i.e. not true wadis) between AKD and the Auberge Yasmina. Stunning!

Fulvous Babbler- 6 in the wadi immediately N of the AKD and a couple in a Berber camp N of the Auberge Yasmina. I saw the 2 leaders of the 1st group flying towards me, so I froze and was gratified to have one of them land two feet from me in the tiny patch of shade cast by my tripod!

Desert Sparrow- after trying 2 or 3 spots we finally scored in the 4x4 with 2 males at a Berber camp in the middle of the nowhere a few kms to the N of the Auberge Yasmina. It seems that birds are no longer regularly being seen around the Auberge Yasmina/Auberge Caravane.

Tristram’s Warbler- 2 males and a female at the famous spot 1.5kms N. of the Tizi-n-Tairhemt Pass (1907m) near Midelt were found without much trouble after a quick scramble across the scree. Walk c500m along the bottom of the small valley to the West of the road and check the larger bushes low down on the slope on your left hand (south) side as you walk west.

African Crimson-winged Finch- a couple of hours’ searching along the dirt road c2kms above the upper ski lift at Oukaimeden turned up a party of three (1m, 2f) in the small ‘alpine meadow’ to the right of the track where the road becomes impassable in a 2WD. (A Queen of Spain Fritillary in close attendance was a nice bonus.) I also had a separate song-flighting male less than 1km above the upper ski lift around some small seasonal pools just below a ruined shepherds’ village. The birding in the valley on the way down is worthwhile too- a couple of brief stops produced 3 Crag Martin, 2 Black Redstart, a brief Western Subalpine Warbler and a Booted Eagle, plus a distant heard-only Levaillant’s Green Woodpecker.

Red-rumped Wheatear- 3 pairs on the Tagdilt Track, just East of Boumalne-du-Dades

Thick-billed Lark- a male walked in to tape on the Tagdilt Track after 2.5 hours of searching- a major relief!

Blue-cheeked Bee-eater- only 3 seen, in the Ziz valley, on the main road between Erfoud and Rissani.

Atlas Flycatcher- common at Ben Smim Forest, which is site no 3 in Gosney/coast and mountains P33. The track to the South/East of the N5 road is c11kms from Azrou on the way to Ifrane, just past the ‘Fes KM71’ post. We saw multiple singing males just c100m in to the forest here- the species seems to largely shun the mixed (part-coniferous) forest that predominates the further you go from the road.

Levaillant’s Green Woodpecker- 3 pairs eventually seen at Ben Smim over 2 trips, but they can be very tricky to get decent views of; as ever, dawn is best when they are most active. We also had a number of Western Bonelli’s Warblers at Ben Smim (common by voice) and a couple of Short-toed Treecreepers, as well as the Moroccan race of High Brown Fritillary and a startled party of c10 Wild Boar!

Maghreb Lark- now split by the IOC etc as Galerida macrorhyncha- birds in the SE around Rissani etc are of this strikingly long-billed taxon. We had just 3 in total but did not expend a great deal of energy looking!

African Blue Tit- 1 Foret du Cedres S of Azrou (Atlas Flycatcher largely absent from this large forest it seems), and 3-4 Ben Smim Forest, between Azrou and Ifrane

House Bunting- very common, often inside hotel lobbies etc.

Seebohm’s Wheatear- very common in upland areas (typically above 1,800m) e.g. the pass SE of Azrou and (especially) Oukaimeden. Not yet split by IOC but surely it’s only a matter of time? Both sexes (esp. males of course) of o_O.seebohmi are pretty different plumage-wise from nominate Northern Wheatear…)

‘Moroccan’ Wagtail- Motacilla alba subpersonata ‘ Just two of this good-looking taxon seen, both on rivers/irrigation canals en route back to Marrakech from Azrou.

‘Saharan’ Eastern Olivaceous Warbler- Iduna pallida reiseri We had 3 in song in tamarisks on the Ziz valley, on the main road between Erfoud and Rissani and at least two more in the grounds of the AKD.

‘Moroccan’ Magpie- Pica pica mauretanica Only seen once, a group of 3, c15kms East of Marrakech in the grounds of our accomm, the Terra Mia Marrakech.

Rufous Bush Chat- rather common, c20 seen in total

African Chaffinch- Fringilla coelebs africana seen daily. A number of the taxon’s vocalisations (including the main song) are quite different from UK birds.

Moussier’s Redstart- easy to find in the montane areas e.g. High- and Middle- Atlas passes, at Oukaimeden etc

Hoopoe Lark- single figures Tagdilt Track and in the desert areas N of Merzouga

Trumpeter Finch- a few along the minor road S of Amerzgane (just W of Ouarzazate) and c8 along the Tagdilt Track

Cream-coloured Courser- c30 total, Tagdilt Track and desert around Merzouga, including a couple of very young juvs.

Temminck’s Horned Lark- common Tagdilt Track

Bar-tailed Desert Lark- 1 Tagdilt Track, 4 N of the Auberge Yasmina nr Merzouga

Desert Lark- 2 Tagdilt Track

Lesser Short-toed Lark- 4 Zeida plains and heard at dawn on the Tagdilt Track

Western Olivaceous Warblers- rather common throughout (even in Marrakech in e.g. Jardin de la Koutoubia) Note that they also occur in the SE e.g. around Merzouga, so you cannot assume that an Olivaceous Warbler sp. in the SE is necessarily a Saharan Eastern Olivaceous. If possible watch them singing in tamarisks in the Ziz valley!

Spotted Sandgrouse- c20 total in the very low scrub (most plants no more than 1 foot high) /mini dunes around AKD in the early mornings

Black-bellied Sandgrouse- a handful along the road S of Amerzgane, W of Ouarzazate

Pin-tailed Sandgrouse- c30 total on the Tagdilt Track
Southern Grey Shrike- c12 total, in the E, all presumably Lanius excubitor elegans

Long-legged Buzzard- only one seen- in the barren hills c80 miles NE of Marrakech during the long (c7 hours) drive back from Azrou

Black-winged Kite- 1 from the main road c5kms S of Volubilis/Moulay Idriss

Spectacled Warbler- 5 total in the SE, around the AKD etc

We missed:

Houbara Bustard- difficult these days, with few it seems left alive anywhere in Morocco! There is still the odd pair around Merzouga, but finding them probably now requires a targeted attempt with a guide. If you do try on your own, tool up with a 4X4, GPS etc; the Algerian border is only a few kms to the SE and it would not be clever to wander in accidentally armed with optics, cameras etc…

Dupont’s Larks- no joy on our one mid-afternoon visit to the Zeida plains despite a lot of searching.

‘Maghreb’ (Mourning) Wheatear- Oenanthe halophila no sign S of Amerzgane, nor at Gosney’s ‘Ikniounen Orchard’ SE of the Tagdilt Track where birds have most recently been seen.

‘Maghreb’ Scrub Warbler- Scotocerca inquieta saharae we didn’t try the spot at which everyone sees them (‘Er Rachidia 43’, see Gosney-deserts P16-17) as it was not directly on our route.

Pharaoh Eagle Owl- we didn’t try at e.g. Imiter as I have seen the species elsewhere so we prioritized other targets.

Dunn’s Lark- there have not been any confirmed sightings in the Merzouga area since 2012 (when a few pairs appear to have bred) as far as I have been able to ascertain.

If anyone wants more details on anything just PM me… Chris Gooddie
Money- the local currency is the Moroccan Dirham (MAD), c14 = £1 UK Pound during our visit. (DO NOT get suckered as we did at Gatwick and change any money at a UK airport- we got £1 = 11 Dirham at Gatwick instead of 14.5 locally! Bandits…)

This is a good piece of advice that should be highlighted IMHO.

We did not have any problems with corrupt police as others have, (there has been a recent Govt. campaign to clamp down on this I think? Tourists bring money…) although we did get caught bang to rights by a mobile speed trap of which there are a large number in Morocco- a £25 fine was matched by a receipt for the same amount, all very official

This is also an equally important advice :t:. I have seen a comment by a bad tourist recently on-line (can't remember where) advising other tourists to offer the Policemen half the value of the fine or less without receiving the receipt. This is called a bribe and it's bad for us.

Dunn’s Lark first bred at Merzouga in spring 2010, and to my knowledge, as you said, the last sightings were in 2012.
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