Monday, 21 January 2008

Morocco, January 11th -20th 2008 - a holiday, plus some birds.

A day after returning from a 10-day tour of some parts of the Mahgreb, it's time to reflect on the ever-fascinating, often-infuriating country that is Morocco...

Day 1 - Marrakech
Luton to Marrakech. Quite a contrast, and nothing can really prepare you for the sensual onslaught that is Marrakech. After being rather politely ripped-off by the smiley, moustachioed cabbie (it's not so bad if they're nice about it), we were dumped at the end of a very narrow street within the southern Medina. The 10 minute walk to our 'hotel' was a baptism - manky cats eating scraps, beggars, motorbikes, exhaust fumes, unmentionable odours and dodgy English phrases. However, after some initial faffing about the room, I was soon standing on a leafy roof terrace overlooking this most mediaeval of cities with the first birds in sight.

Every town in Morocco is populated by hordes of cheeky House buntings and they really are engaging little chaps. Incredibly tame, their quizzical nature is matched by their up-slurred calls, a constant soundtrack to Morocco life.

House bunting - an abundant bird everywhere except the desert.
Another sight characteristic of Marrakech is the noisy, flappy antics of parties of Common bulbuls as they sing and call to each other from palms, rooftops and TV aerials everywhere.

Common bulbuls - although plain, they are real characters...

Day 2 - onwards and upwards...
Morocco is a rather up and down country, with 4 large mountain ranges crossing east-west. Our early morning coach left from the quite scary main bus station headed for Ouarzazate - gateway to the baking south. In order to cross the Atlas it's necessary to navigate the high passes - Tizis - and we were headed for the highest of them all, the Tizi-n-Tichka. Paasing through the scruffy suburbs of Marrakech, the only birds in view from the window were gatherings of White storks amongst the many rubbish dumps littering the countryside. Honestly, I've never seen so many bloody plastic bags!!

Anyway, the High Atlas although breathtakingly stunning yielded very little in the way of bird life bar the first Crag martins, a couple of Common ravens, Sparrowhawk and Moroccan pied wagtails. No Moussiers redstarts! No Levaillants woodpeckers! Still, we did see a car drive over a cliff into a river at speed - our coach driver didn't bother to stop so I have no idea if anyone was killed, but I reckon it'd be a miracle if not...

Day 3 and - El Kelaa M'Gouna - Vallees de Roses and de Dades

Two nights at an amazing kasbah just out of town allowed incredible views overlooking the M'Gouna river valley, where an evening stroll yielded Crag martins, Moroccan pied wagtails, Grey wagtail, Green sandpipers, bulbuls, Chiffchaffs, Sardinian warbler, Blackbird, Little egret, Grey heron, House buntings, Kestrel, Long-legged buzzard, Spotless starling and Kingfisher.

The next day we hired a 4x4 and Spanish-speaking guide to take us out into the Vallee de Roses and through to the Vallee de Dades.The stony hammada and rocky hillsides along the way were surprisingly birdless for the mostpart, but a tea stop with some Berber nomads - cracking old boy and his grandaughters + goats - gave amazing views of Hoopoe lark, Desert lark, and three wheatear species - Black, White-crowned and Mourning! The higher mountain slopes gave flocks of feeding serins plus a solitary Water pipit. A relaxed stroll along the valley bottom gave more of the same, but the contrast of the bone-white poplar trees, the verdant alfalfa fields and the red, dusty cliffs was spectacular. As ever, Black and White-crowned wheatears were our companions.

Day 4 - Auberge Yasmina and the Erg Chebbi

Well for me, the birding really didn't get going until we hit the deserts of the southeast- the Erg Chebbi. After arriving in the slightly dodgy transit town of Erfoud, we ended up getting a cheap lift with the local rude boy - he managed to deck someone whilst we were waiting for our Land Rover - and headed out to Auberge Yasmina via his gaffe, Auberge Berberes. The only saving grace of this enforced diversion was the first sighting of the fabled Desert sparrow - a smart male perched on a wood pile.

White-crowned wheatear is a very common bird in southern Morocco...

Anyway, after insisting we be given a lift to our chosen auberge, we finally arrived at the superb Yasmina and immediatley knew we'd landed on our feet - a fantastic place with amazing views of the dunes and mountains.

The following four days saw us take a three-day, two-night camel trek out into the dunes. This was undoubtedly the highlight of the trip - just amazing to be out in that wilderness where the only sound you can hear is your own heartbeat. Evenings were spent eating amazing food - tajines, cous cous - and watching the spectacle of the night sky unfolding above us - I've never seen the stars with that much clarity before - truly awesome.

Birdwise, the dunes were surprsingly productive. Southern grey shrikes were abundant and we were able to watch them fly from perch to perch, swooping down on unsuspecting dung beetles. The tiniest patch of desert grass or tamarisk contained Tristram's warblers - scolding us as we walked by - and the ubiquitous chiffchaffs. Desert sparrows were very common and small groups would follow our camels, feeding on seeds and insects uncovered by our tracks. The occasional palm groves would be a hive of sparrow activity.

Male Desert sparrow - they were everywhere!

Male and female Desert sparrow - unlike most other sparrows, the female is actually as attractive as the male.
The dunes in the morning were covered with tracks of all descriptions - jerds, mice, hares, hedgehogs, fennec, lizards and beetles, not to mention bird prints.

I must say a word about our guide, Adi - a wonderfully cheerful bloke and he looked after us very well indeed. He spoke broken English and some French but we were able to get by well enough. If I ever return to Morocco I will certainly use the services of this guy again - a true desert man.

Brown-necked raven - a fairly common sight around Yasmina and the dunes.

Hoopoe larks were a regular bird both in the stony desert and even way out into the dunes

Bar-tailed lark - a fairly common bird, often very approachable and seen feeding amongst patches of low vegetation in stony desert.

Crested lark, large billed North African race - only a couple of birds seen in total nearYasmina, foraging around low tamarisk scrub.

Short-toed lark - once I'd worked out what they were, a relatively frequently seen bird in stony desert areas.

A real surprise to find a Short-eared owl in the desert! Cracking views too...

Trumpeter finch - commonly seen / heard around the camel stables around Yasmina.

Each night at Yasmina, this White-crowned wheatear joined us for dinner and sung itself to sleep...

The lack of any large raptors in Morocco is depressingly explained by a quick walk through the souks of Marrakech - thoroughly soul-destroying...

They're out there somewhere...Cream-coloured courser tracks are a tantalising clue.

Thought this was rather's amazing how much detail you can pack into a bird log when you are one of the most amazingly fantastically talented birders on the planet...wish I could write with such depth and manage to get across so much information to help other birders...I found the reference to the Hoopoe larks being on 'the track' most useful...gosh, I can see why we need the likes of you as tour guides...thanks, guys!

Afternoon tea, Berber-stylee....sat in the shade of a bush, sipping sweet mint teaa, watching hunting shrikes.

One of our humped guides chewing on some dead twigs...