Thursday, 7 August 2008

....the Marrakesh Express. April 16th 2008

From the 16th - 23rd April 2008 myself, Rob Lee, Nigel Packer and Ben Murphy took a trip to Morocco in search of some of the countries specialities, most notably those of the Atlas Mountains and of the Deserts in the south eastern region.
We flew into Marrakesh from Luton via Ryan Air for £89 including taxes. The flight was a morning one, departing at 0600, allowing a good few hours birding at the other end on the first day. Because Morocco has a closed currency, the first job on landing was to change some money, along with locating our hire car.
Pretty soon we find ourselves heading out of Marrakesh, the wrong way! we return to our starting point and eventually get our bearings and start heading south east. Within the city suburbs we manage to clock our first birds, Black Redstart, Red-rumped Swallow, Woodchat, White Stork, Crested Lark and the Moroccan form of Blackbird (Morocco has alot of its own forms of familiar birds!) Keen to get on, we pay little attention to our hire cars apparent slugishness and push towards the mountains. As we start to climb and pass through ever more traditional looking villages we find a suitable place to pull, at a scrub sloped valley, to have our first scan. Nightingales are in full voice along with bubbling Common Bulbuls, Goldfinches, Serins, African Chaffinch and Subalpine Warbler. here we also meet our only tortoise of the trip and help him off the road.

African Chaffinch

As we climb higher, the car appears to be getting slower!
The habitat changes from mediterranean style scrub to cooler, scattered coniferous wood with rocky outcrops and boulders. The birds change too as we see our first Rock Buntings, Olivaceous Warbler, Rock Doves (real ones!) and African Blue Tits. We round the corner to see my first new bird, a Black Wheatear, and one that we struggled to see (or rather, not see!) last year in Spain. Pretty soon my second new bird is in the bag, after seeing half a dozen or so Red-billed Chough, a wheeling mass of two hundred birds are noted to be Alpine Chough, the yellow billed cousin of the former.
We now also start to see the first roadside sellers, some of which start running towards us every time we stop. Soon they realise that Ben puts up the least resistance to their many wares and he soon has many Moroccan 'friends'!!

As we reach the alpine like village of Oukamedian more sellers appear, crowding around the car trying the hard sell, we try to politely decline and they seem to find it amusing when I say" hmm very nice. You keep it!" We immediately head to the Ski lifts and start wandering up the track (still followed by sellers!) Its cool up here, with the temperature realised by a few snow fields still present. Birds are rather thin on the ground with 'Atlas' Horned lark, Black Redstart, a pair of Little Owls of the race glaux, lots of 'Seebohm's' Wheatears, Blue Rock Thrush followed by a smart pair of Rock Thrush, and another major target, Moussier's Redstart (gorgeous!) Somewhat aggreived at not seeing a certain finch species, we reluctantly left the mountain side to secure accommodation in the village and grab a beer! After sorting our digs (the modest Chez Ju Ju was our choice!) we decided to venture further upward, at which point it dawned on us that if we stick with this car we could be in serious trouble later on! Great views across the mountain range were secured however, along with an Alpine Accentor, Long-legged Buzzard and on the short descent, 52 Rock Sparrow going to roost along with a couple of Rock Bunting. With the sun all but disappeared behind the mountains we used the last of the day light to have another look around by the ski lifts where, feeding quietly up on the scree below the cables 10 fantastic Crimson-winged Finch were watched before flying off to roost! Oukamedian was well and truely done!

Rock Thrush

Seebohm's Wheatear

Little Owls

Atlas Horned Lark

Moussier's Redstart

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Oukamedian to Ouarzazate April 17th 2008

After a nights sleep on a matress more reminiscent of a hammock, we're up early, too early for the hotel owner as we were locked IN! We have to resort to some Mission Impossible manovers out of a first floor window, down on to a broken -glass capped wall and onto the front terrace. Just as the last one of us got down the owner opened the front door,bastard!
We were soon back down at the ski-lift where Rock Sparrows, Alpine Chough and Seebohm's Wheatears were around in numbers. The Crimson-winged Finch were back and a little flighty but gave good views in better light than last night.

Rock Sparrow

Crimson-winged Finch

1st summer Seebohm's Wheatear

Our intial plan for today was to go back down the mountain and cut across the lowlands and over the High Atlas, but with the car obviously not fit for purpose we decide to return to Marrakesh Airport and change our vehicle, knowing we could potentially lose half a day. Our return trip notches up further Red-rumped Swallow and Black Wheatear along with some Little Swift over a village about half way down. Our attempt to simply change cars soon becomes a nightmare, as we are required to take the car into the city branch of the hire company and wait what seems an age for a replacement. When it finally arrives its smaller than what we've had but Rob assures us that 'it goes' so we load up and head off. We are now on the wrong side of the city that we need to be on and, after sweating that we may be on the wrong road we see signs to indicate otherwise and we are soon high tailing it out of Marrakesh- the city of lunatics- well done Rob!
As we skirt the city we see, alas only from the car a Moroccan Magpie, which even on that view looks certain to be a 'split' we also see or first Hoopoe's and Woodchat (the later became very common throughout the trip) With the city well behind us we stop beside a still flowing river bed, looking for the local race of Pied wagtail but only manage Iberian Wagtail, Corn Bunting and Cetti's Warbler.

We head off climbing up the north side of the High Atlas range, the area dominated by scattered coniferous woods along its slopes. A brief stop, prior to going through the Tizi-n-Tichka Pass and fore going lunch, we fail to locate Levaillant's Woodpecker but manage Crossbill and Firecrest. Through the Tizi-n-Tichka we see more Red-billed Chough but little else.
As we start our descent, a queue of cars on the road up ahead appear to be stopped for no reason, and with Robs sense of curiosity NOT getting the better of him, he overtakes the queue and is quickly slowed down by the local constabulary and ushered to the side of the road next to the cop shop! The theme tune to Midnight Express momentarily flashes through my mind! The queue was a routine stop check that we later found to be present on the outskirts of most of the towns in southern Morocco. Unfortunately we learnt the hard way, and with Robs drivers licence in the officers possession we had to pay a 'fine' to get it returned!
With our minor indiscretion behind us we drove to lower elevations and into true desert. We were quite keen to make Ouarzazate before dark so pressed on unless birds popped up right in front of us.
Nearing our destination, and with a fairly lush valley bed stretching far to our right we stopped at marker 29km to scan and bird. On the scree desert slopes I briefly see our first Desert Larks and over the valley we see European Bee-eaters (30) Montagu's Harrier (3) Willow Warbler (2) Cattle Egret(1) and our first sightings of Trumpeter Finch (10) and smart White-crowned Black Wheatear(2). We reach Ouarzazate pre-dusk and after seeing alot of the town that we didn't particularly want to, we finally found our hotel for the night, across the river, and organised a much needed evening meal (Tagine) we are famished!

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Ouarzazate- Boulmaine April 18th 2008

After a decent nights sleep we're up before daybreak, packed and ready to move on. On leaving Ouarzazate our road takes us along the northern side of the huge man-made reservoir of Barrage d' El-Mansour-Eddahbi. Stopping just outside town to get our first view of this enormous body of water and Nigel comments on the pile of feathers laying flattened in the road

" Looks like a Little Owl copped it last night" Glancing over, something didn't look right for road kill a la Little Owl so, on closer inspection, with elation and despair at the same time I pronounced, "Its a f****** Egyptian Nightjar !!!!" Within seconds it was a one winged Egyptian Nightjar as Rob moved quicker than a tramp for a fag butt to claim a trophy (nearly as quick as he is at meal times!!)
Egyptian Nightjar, or is it a Norwegian Blue!

We continued along the road for about 5km then took an unmade track down across the stony desert towards the reservoir. Immediately we are greeted by Gull-billed Terns (10) overhead with Great-crested Grebe (6) and Coot (30) on an otherwise seemingly desolate water. We then start walking along and around the waters edge and birds start to appear. The tamarisk bushes hold Olivaceous (5) Bonelli's (3), Subalpine (6) and Melodious Warblers (1) along with single Wood and Willow Warblers and a male Pied Flycatcher. A big long tailed 'warbler' flies from the undergrowth and into a bare bush, my first Rufous Bush-Chat! Waders are seen and heard with Greenshank, Common, Curlew and Wood Sandpiper. A Desert Lark pops up to give all a good view.
Desert Lark

Pied Flycatcher
More new birds come as a small group of Mallard belie the presence of four Marbled Duck swimming away and into the vegetation as a pair of Ruddy Shelduck fly around the corner. We then hear and see another target bird, a fabulous pair of Blue-cheeked Bee-eater's as they drift back and forth searching for insects. Here we also see Grey Heron(3), a roosting party of Night Heron (25), Little Egret (1) a distant Cormorant of the Moroccan race, Marsh Harrier and Black Tern (6). A very confiding Collared Pratincole provides great photo opportunities in the great light now (its getting warm!).

Blue-cheeked Bee-eater... our first views

Collared Pratincole

We head towards the town of Skoura, stopping for a great view of more Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters on roadside wires, and to venture into a small orchard where another male Pied Flycatcher gives us the run around briefly and add Northern Wheatear, Common Swift, Sand Martin and Turtle Dove. A single Crag Martin is also noted along with good views of Trumpeter Finch.

Blue-cheeked Bee-eater....gor-geous!
We continue eastward, and as the desert becomes more desolate, we stop at a couple of sites for Mourning Wheatear but with no luck, though we do find our first Desert Wheatear, Tawny Pipit and I find the single breast feather of a Pharaohs' Eagle Owl secured on a scree top stunted bush where it is blowing a hooley!!
Reaching Skoura we decide not to fall into yesterday's trap of missing lunch, and settle for a tagine opposite the town square gardens. We soon realise that the Moroccans tend not to rush lunch in its preparation but the hot mint tea goes down surprisingly well!
Desert Wheatear

We push on to our destination of Boulmaine, getting brief glimpses of Serin and Laughing Dove en route from the car, and our first sightings of Cream-coloured Courser.
We reach the desert town of Boulmaine late afternoon and soon secure our accommodation for the night at the birder-famous 'Soleil bleu'.
With our gear dumped we head off towards the Tagdilt Track to the east of the town. The Tagdilt Track is exactly that- a nondiscript unmarked dirt track that heads south-east from the town over the brushy plains which appear to stretch for miles. It first passes through the out of town rubbish tip that every Moroccan settlement appeared to have, or more over, the nearest place to the town with no houses where everything is dumped and left to blow across the countryside! Connected to these dumps are packs of feral dogs that look quite fierce but probably use this as their only line of defence, bending down as if picking up a stone soon has them on their toes! Driving along the track we first see a flock of 60 Short-toed Lark seemingly following the course of a dry wadi. Pretty soon we are in lark heaven racking up Bar-tailed(6), Temminck's Horned (6), Hoopoe (2) and unanimously, best of all Thick-billed Lark (5). The track constantly splits where it crosses the numerous small wadis, not a problem for a four-wheel drive, but slightly more interesting in a Peugot 306! We succsessfully negotiate two of these but the third is just a wadi to far, so we head back towards town, picking up more Desert Wheatear (6) Red-rumped Wheatear (3) Northern Wheatear (3) Cream-coloured Courser (9) a couple of Kestrel and singles of Marsh Harrier and Long-legged Buzzard. As the light begins to fade a movement of some 600 Common Swift heads north up the valley.
Locals heading off to the third wadi, throwing their heads back with laughter!
Cream-coloured Courser... a bird most striking from behind, fortunately!

Monday, 4 August 2008

Boulmaine du Dades - Erg Chebbi April 19th 2008

Up before first light and down on the track again and there are birds everywhere! Short-toed Lark (150), Temminck's Horned Lark (30) and Cream-coloured Courser (25) make up the majority, with smaller numbers of Desert and Red-rumped Wheatear, Thick-billed Lark (4) and single Bar-tailed Lark, Thekla Lark, Long-legged Buzzard and a fantastic Lanner. We head across the plains towards a small isolated orchard, surrounded by Tamerisk, the orchard is heaving with birds

Bar-tailed Lark

Temminck's Horned Lark

Red-rumped Wheatear

Here we see Bonelli's, Melodious and Willow Warblers, Spotted Flycatcher, Woodchat, Yellow Wagtails, Blackbird, Nightingale, Whitethroat, Golden Oriole and Turtle Dove, along with Long-legged Buzzard, Kestrel and Booted Eagle.
Long-legged Buzzard


Melodious Warbler

With the larks under the belt we decide to try once again for Mourning Wheatear-a read of the Soliel bleu log book the previous evening gave details of a site close by wherea pair had been seen just 2 days ago. We headed north along another indistinct track and found the very promising rocky scree this species is said to prefer. Despite our best efforts, spliting up to cover more ground we drew a blank, notching up a couple of Trumpeter Finch, Desert Lark and pairs of Black and Black-eared Wheatear and a brace of Thick-billed Larks. Also here we were initially greeted by a large angry looking dog (I dont think Ive been any where in the world birding ,and NOT come across a big angry dog!) then approached by a stern looking you man who appeared from the middle of nowhere! However he was friendly and curious (like most people we experienced here) and was keen to show us his home in a cave on the side of the scree! Unfortunately we had more miles to eat up and birds to see, so we said our goodbyes and pushed on.
Trumpeter Finch

We timed our travelling to coincide with the hottest part of the day, so sightings on the way to Erfoud were few, and none were new for the trip.
East of Erfoud the road narrowed, then became a track, then, reminicent of the toll booth in Blazing Saddles, disappeared next to a small stone building in the middle of the desert! This was our next stop of interest, and after a couple of Southern Grey Shrikes, we were soon getting excellent veiws of a Desert Warbler in a small area of pampas grasses and bushes.

Desert Warbler

Here we are approached by another local, who claims to be the regions best known birdguide, Ali. However we are not convinced by the push bike and the tall skinny man standing infront of us, and despite his best efforts, we are not drawn in! We head back to the stone hut and go some 20 yrds in the hot, liquid like sand soon realising that we don't know exactly which way to go and there are no signs to show us either! A quiet, unassuming man offers to guide us to the Erg Chebbi which we accept, and by the time we've drove 500yds we have secured his company for the next day also. Ahmed expertly directs across the sands towards the huge dunes in the distance, but an unseen rock rips into the plastic protective shell under the chasis which we have to cut off with a pen knife to disgard it! We see no birds until we reach the row of hotels and outbuildings at the foot of the dunes, where a most welcome and immediate shout of "Desert Sparrow!!" is followed by a decamp of the car. We watch a pair feeding young and are thoroughly ecstatic as we arrive at the rather pleasent Hotel Yasmina just a few yards on. We sort our accommodation and head out just beyond the hotel grounds where the Yasmina Lake has been reduced to little more than a pool and as dusk falls we bird the tamerisk which holds plenty of migrants, and add Sedge and Reed Warbler. The evening is spent in the restaurant eating more Tajine and digging the authentic Berber grooves being played live!
Erg Chebbi
Kasbah Yasmina
Desert Sparrow- get in!

Sunday, 3 August 2008

Erg Chebbi - Er-achidia April 20th 2008

Another early start and Ahmed is waiting quietly and patiently as we bundle all our gear into the car. We head further south and are soon on the banks of the Dyat Srji, a desert lake close to Merzouga. During the dry season there's no water here but today there is plenty, with lots of birds too! The majority are Greater Flamingo (700), Ruddy Shelduck (300) Marbled Duck (50)and Eurasian Coot (250). Scanning the muddy edges we see Kentish Plover (10), Little Ringed Plover (5) Black-winged Stilt (40) Little Stint (27) Greenshank (2) and a Ruff. To the far east a flock of 30 Black Tern hawk over the marshes with wild Camels in the distance.

Greater Flamingo

Ruddy Shelduck

Beyond the opposite shore twice we catch a glimpse of sandgrouse flocks and order Ahmed to guide us through the tamerisk and dunes to the other side (OK, we ask him!) On the way through we flush two Purple Heron and a Marsh Harrier. We reach the raised embankment which reveals a shallow pool which the grouse were obviously coming down too. As we get out of the car and walk towards it, a Sandgrouse gets up close and flies right infront of us, followed by Rob's shout "Crowned!" Pleased with this, a few moments later he shouts "Spotted, calling", with this a flock of seven Spotted Sandgrouse wheel away, fast and high, followed by four more. Both are welcome additions, and uncanny as about this time last year Rob, Nigel and myself were watching Pin-tailed and Black-bellied in Spain! On this side of the lake we see further Hoopoe and Bar-tailed Larks, Short-toed and Booted Eagle and another Lanner, shortly followed by good views of a Barbary Falcon. Two Black Storks are seen circling over pasture land before dropping in, no doubt having just completed a desert crossing. Further exploring here results in no new birds, but the lake edges are crammed with Vagrant Emperor dragonflies and a very large Desert Monitor scrambles along the embankment and into a drainage hole.
Hoopoe Lark
With the morning fast getting away we decide to head off to Rissani for our next speciality. We reach our destination and are immediately greeted by more uninvited guides in the form of a handful of school kids keen to show us the Pharaoh's Eagle Owl they have kept staked out all morning. A long, hot walk provided us with great views of the cliff, cave and shite of the owl, but no owl. The kids looked as perplexed and as jarred off as we were! With hindsight, this was where our birding luck all but run out. After eating late, we headed back out across the desert for an evening vidual around the Auberg Kasbah Dakouah trying, in vain, for a live Egyptian Nightjar. We drop off our excellent guide, Ahemed where we first met him at his fossil shop at the start of the desert and head off into the night. We head for Er-Achidia, a large town, and find our worst lodgings of the trip, but we are so knackered we hit the sack, unfed and unwatered!
....these aren't any old fossils...these are Ahmed's fossils!

Saturday, 2 August 2008

Er-achidia - Ouarzazate April 21st 2008

We pack and leave fairly swiftly, though not before we all opt to use the more western of the two toilets available, and thank our lucky stars the carbon monoxide that the boiler was undoubtedly kicking out hadn't killed us during the night !
Heading back towards Quarzazate we stop at 23KM marker and an interesting looking wadi (to be fair, most of them look interesting, we just don't have time to check them all!) Here we see the usual suspects including more Thick-billed Larks and note 250 Common Swift pushing northwards. Its here that I am found berating and chasing down a Crested Lark with a freshly caught Hawkmoth, which to my amazement it drops and scarpers! I retrieve the broken body of my first Striped Hawkmoth! Further on and another wadi and more larks, where Rob gets down and personal with a pair of Thick-billeds, and whilst bush bashing we come across a pair of Spectacled Warbler.

TBL (Rob Lee)

Our blank run seems to be continuing, until crossing the road , to the other side of the wadi a small, dark, long tailed bird flits between bushes and eventually gives itself up easily as Scrub Warbler and is enticed in even closer, oh to have a DSLR with a lens!
Continuing eastwards we stop briefly at Goulmima to admire the traditional buildings (from afar!) and re-acquaint ourselves with a couple more Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters.
Another stop at the shingley river Oued M'Gotha gets us another sub species target, this time the smart subpersonatta race of White Wagtail.
Late afternoon and we're back in Quartzazate and are able to secure the same digs as on the journey out. We head out across the town towards the marshes, parking next to the (a) rubbish tip and walk across the muddy outer regions of the huge barrage. This area is teeming with birds, feeding and resting on the mud, we tot up Black Tern (100), Wood Sandpiper (30), Ringed Plover (40), Collared Pratincole, Kentish Plover (6) LRP (c20) Dunlin (40) Little Stint (2) Greenshank(25) Curlew sandpiper(20) Glossy Ibis, Common Snipe (2) Green Sandpiper (4) Redshank(10) Marbled Duck(20) Little Egret(10), Squacco Heron (4) Blue-cheeked and European Bee-eater, Gull-billed and Whiskered Tern and singles of Red-throated Pipit and a very fresh plumaged Temminck's Stint. This really was one of those stick in the memory moments!

With the sun now setting we decide to head off to the stretch of road just outside of town where we found the dead Egyptian Nightjar, on the off chance that there may be others here but we draw a blank, adding only Spoonbill and Osprey to the days tally. With the night well set in, we head back to our digs where tagine awaits and a well earnt nights sleep!

Friday, 1 August 2008

Ouzazate - Marrakech

Our final full day, and we leave Ouzazate vowing to return to the area again one day.
Our heavy hearts were somewhat compounded for some of those present (Ben!) after receiving news via text that a Black Lark has just turned up at Winterton!!
We stop at marker 172 where we find our western most Thick-billed Lark displaying and further along a small flock (6) of 'pipits' on the road prove to be Ortolan's that flit up onto the rocks to feed among the grasses. Also here we have Corn Bunting. A stop close to the summit of the Tizi- n-Tichka pass gets us more Moussier's Redstart, Long-legged Buzzard, Cirl Bunting and Subalpine Warbler. We also partake in the classic 'two' bird therory game (but with three) as we veiw a high flying eagle " Bonelli's!" "nah...thats Golden"......."looks like a Booted to me" then realise we are each watching different birds, and we were all right!
Long-legged Buzzard

In the valley we again hear Levalliant's Woodpecker calling from the other side and decide to drive down and over to see if we can pin it down. We find a track that rises adjacent to the valley but despite hearing it again we fail to locate it, adding only Woodlark and Black-eared Wheatear to the tally.


We continue onwards back towards Marrakech where on the outskirts we stop at a fairly broad, gravel-bedded oued where we connect with further subpersonatta along with flava and iberiae. Another brief stop on the way to the hotel for a better look at North African Magpie, and that was it, the trip over, all bar the beer at the hotel with wheeling Little Swifts overhead and my first hint of a dodgy stomache, just before flying home , typical!