Morocco - From the Atlas Mountains to the Sahara.

Organised by Boletas Birdwatching Centre founder Josele J Saiz  assisted by Harry Barnard.
Also see Josele's BoletasTrip Report - Morocco in February 2010

17th February.

 We stayed last night at the Sofitel beside the North terminal at Gatwick. Early in the morning we took the transit bus to the South terminal, only to discover that the flight number had changed and we were now flying from the North terminal! The weather was bright, cold and sunny.

The easyJet flight from Gatwick to Marrakesh arrived on time, but we were delayed filling in arrival forms at customs. We met Josele, changed money and had a quick bite to eat at the airport whilst watching house buntings flitting inside the arrivals hall.

Straight into birding we drove one and a half hours south to Vallee de L’Ourika and then Setti Fatma . We passed many bright handwoven carpets and clay vases for sale on the roadside .

This journey took us into the low foothills of the High Atlas Mountains and we saw rivers that are obviously in spate during the winter, but dry in summer.
At our evening meeting Josele formally introduced Harry Barnard who is already an expert birder at 17. Josele is to take us to a range of habitats: high Mountains, sandy dunes, stony desert, woodlands and coast. At this time of year, we will have good opportunities to see endemic species which are displaying and perhaps a few early migrants. We will have four-wheel drive cars, from tomorrow and each day the passengers move forward a car. On some days the drivers will cook for us or we will have a packed lunch. Harry will do the checklist each night.

Our sightings for today were African blue tit, great tit, cirl bunting, blackcap, common bulbul, blackbird, chaffinch, grey-wagtail, dipper, Peregrine Falcon, Bonelli’s Eagle, wren(h), robin (h), spotless starling, white stork, kestrel, hawfinch, cattle egret, house bunting, grey heron, magpie, chiffchaff, swallow, collared dove.

After dinner some went to the Medina in Marrakech to view the musicians, drummers, singers and dancers in the square. A small taxi will take you there for 20 dirhams about £1.80. The food stalls were buzzing, offering soupe, lentilles and gateaux. The shops are selling iron work lamps, pouffes, bags, slippers, djellabas, rugs, material, shawls and magic potions to keep you awake all night long! These stalls were surrounded by a circle of young men!!  Most shopkeepers are very pleasant, and they have a knack of getting you inside by stepping out of their shop and placing you between the shop and themselves!    “Bonjour Mesdames! C’a va? What you want to buy? Come and look in my shop..just look ..try this buy!”

18th February 2010.
Marrakesh– Ouikemeden – Marrakesh
Poor weather conditions today. It was cold, windy, raining and snowing… and you thought this weather just happened in Ireland! We left, promptly at 8 AM, in four 4x4s heading south. We stopped opposite this village to search for the levaillant's woodpecker.  Women were spreading their washing on the rocks to dry. 




Onwards and upwards towards Oukaimeden ski resort, where a snowplough was clearing the road. Our vehicles were comfortable and managed the snow without any problems.

We stopped at the resort for a comfort break, mint tea, coffee. There were crimson winged finches in the trees - a flock of alpine and red billed choughs on the rooftops and a pair of ravens foraging on the ground.

A roadside restaurant, just below Oukaimeden was preparing tagines of goat, chicken, potatoes and vegetables. We ordered ours and then strolled off to hunt the Levaillant’s woodpecker - a Moroccan endemic species.






To our great delight, one landed in a tree not far from the restaurant providing us with good views, which meant we enjoyed an even tastier lunch!
Delicious bread called Khobz..anyone found a recipe?  Try moroccan bread - made partly with semolina.



























Further down the hillside, we had views of Firecrest, blue Rock Thrush and great spotted woodpecker.




19th February.
Marrakesh to Boulmane du Dades 300 km

left at 8:20 AM in heavy rain, which turned to snow, mist and snowploughs on the High Atlas. The view from the Tizi n Tichki pass would have been spectacular, but was invisible to us in the mist and snow. The snow disappeared as we descended.

We stopped by a river in below and spotted a thekla lark and a lovely Moussiers redstart sitting bright and bold on the rocks.

Moussier's Redstart

                                                                                   Garry Wilkinson

There was evidence of heavy rain with puddles along the roadside. We stopped along the way for a mourning wheatear which some saw.

Then paused at a hotel in Ouarzarzate, for lunch in the garden with migrant Black kites, a spoonbill and white storks flying overhead.

Garry Wilkinson

Late in the afternoon, we arrived in Boulmane du Dades at the Hotel Xaluca Dades, tired and dusty, to be welcomed by a nomad with sweet mint tea served in tiny glasses.

20 February  Tagdilt Track nr Boulmane du Dades
We left the hotel at 7 am. The weather was windless and mild, with a weak sun. We were to spend the day on the Tagdilt track. This is an area of the 3000 foot plateau between the High Atlas and the Anti-Atlas Mountains. It is quite flat with scrubby, prickly growth and strewn with rubbish, mainly black plastic bags which blow enticingly in the wind, caught in the bushes. This area supports a pack of wild dogs as well as a delightful range of birds.


Temminck's Lark
Garry Wilkinson 

We saw desert and red rumped wheatear, Temminck's Horned Lark, cream-coloured courser and bar tailed desert lark. We searched and searched for thick billed lark, to no avail. However, as we were leaving the track. Josele made a final search, and came across six thick billed larks running through the scrub. Apparently they use their thick bills to carry stones. The male, which can carry the heaviest stone is chosen by the female. At another spot we searched for the three varieties of sand grouse, and eventually picked up quite a few black-bellied sand grouse and more cream-coloured coursers.

Black Bellied Sandgrouse
Garry Wilkinson



Down the road we stopped by a ruin at Armezgane, whilst the drivers prepared lunch, spread a red woven rug on the desert and set out our lunch. Delicious! 


On down the Tinerhir Road . We walked a couple of miles on the stony shale below the cliffs. Seeking the elusive mourning wheatear, but found a flock of trumpeter finches instead.
We were back at the hotel by 4 PM. Just time to visit the local hammam for 25 dirham.


21st of February Sunday - Boulmane du Dades to Merzouga 6 to 17°C
Our first stop this morning was to view a Pharaoh's Eagle owl perched on a cliff face.

Todra Gorge is a dramatic rift in the Atlas Mountains. As you drive in it becomes increasingly narrow and very high. You, anyone with an imagination might feel they were driving into the gates of hell. Never to return! Our early start meant we arrived before any coaches which make driving difficult.

We searched a dried up river valley, and finally spotted a Tristam's warbler and a pair of Barbary partridge; the warbler didn't hang around for long but  the latter didn't seem too bothered by our presence.






Tinehir nr Todra Gorge

Moving on to Goulmima we stopped at another flat plateau area, which was more like stony desert… Hamada. Here we found spectacled warbler, Thekla lark.moussier's redstart and southern grey shrike. The delightful bird of this area was the scrub warbler, which is difficult to find, but displayed for us on the tops of the bushes. The drivers prepared lunch of boiled eggs, Berber omelette, bread, salad, water and Coca-Cola and gave a share to a passing goat-herder.




Later in the afternoon we paused at a luxurious hotel owned by Josele's friend. It is set in a compound inside a wall; a calm area sheltered from the desert. Again, we were welcomed with mint tea.


We finished the day in Merzouga at the beautiful Hotel Xaluca Tombuctu. The entrance archway is made of kissing camels so you won't miss it!

Monday 22nd of February, depart 6:45 AM temperature 8- 22°C
We were to spend today in the desert seeking the houbara bustard, desert warbler, fulvous babbler, sand grouse - both crowned and spotted, Desert Sparrow, and brown necked raven.
Driving through the desert is quite different from driving in Europe. There are tracks through the sand, but no roads, so drivers can choose to drive where they wish.  desert

Desert Sparrows  Garry Wilkinson
The special bird of the morning?  Desert Sparrows hopping along the ground and the walls of the hotel nearby.

Josele had asked a nomad to search for our houbara bustard, and he duly found one which gave us quite distant views.

Sometimes the desert is sandy and sometimes stony. We took a gentle walk around an oasis and spotted the shy fulvous babbler that we had come to seek, moving through the trees in a party of eight..
Our lunch stop was under a tamarisk tree in a sea of dunes. Whilst we waited for the drivers to prepare lunch three young nomad girls appeared from nowhere to sell camels they had made from fabric. Their father was herding camels, and although he ate lunch with us the girls refused.

We spent an hour relaxing under the tree, photographing dung beetles and occasional birds including brown neck ravens and southern grey shrike.  Then we shot off across the desert for about 20 km at great speed! The Algerian border wasn't far away...
We finished the day at the Merzouga lake. What a surprise to see flamingos, marbled duck, pintail, shoveller, little ringed plover, teal, ruddy shelduck the desert!!  ...Not to mention the traders selling soap dishes and other ornaments with embedded fossils.


Portrait of desert boy by Helen Cooper

Tuesday 22nd of February Merzouga to Ouarzazate departing at 8:30 AM. 22°C +

Some of us went for a walk at 6.45 before breakfast through the local oasis with cultivated gardens. The plots are surrounded by low mud walls, about a foot high and irrigated by a concrete channel, which supplies water from the local lake. The fertile gardens grow onions, garlic, carrots, beans and date palms. The palms provide shade and shelter for laughing doves, hoopoe, robin, chiffchaff and a blackbird. It was bliss walking through shady garden - a haven of green in the middle of the sandy desert. Not such bliss for the birds that had been caught by the Spanish ringers nearby.

We left for Ouarzazate at 8:40 AM and searched along mountainsides with boulders and scree for mourning wheatear - fruitlessly. We saw lots of white-crowned black wheatear, black kites over the towns, an Eagle owl, temminck’s horned lark, but sadly no sand grouse and it seemed we were too early for the blue cheeked bee eater.
This was the last drive for our 4x4 drivers so we said goodbye to Jusef, Mohammed, Hassan and Barrack.

Wednesday, 24 February Ouarzazate to Taroudant. Weather fine and sunny. We stopped at a small town by a river called Ait Benhadou while Josele went back to the hotel for the picnic. We wandered around an orchard with Harry spotting white stork, common bulbuls, yellow wagtails and the start of the migrants such as spectacled warbler. It was a beautiful start to the day, even better when a second minibus appeared for us to spread into, and which made the rest of our journey much more comfortable.

  Today's journey was through the Anti- Atlas and hamada desert. Looking north, we could see the snowcapped mountains of the high Atlas.

 We stopped for lunch at a river gorge tightly packed with scrub and trees. Whilst eating we spotted Barbary partridge, shrikes and chiffchaff. Further along the road, we stopped at Aoulouz, where a bridge crosses the Sous River. There were lots of small birds in the olive groves such as blackcap, serin and corn bunting.

A lanner falcon was spotted  at close range on the ground tearing its prey. We had good views through the telescope.

One of our party urgently needed a toilet stop. Josele said 10 minutes. 20 minutes later we were still driving...uh oh! So we stopped by the roadside, and the driver was in stitches laughing at the “Berber toilette”.

On the edge of the town is an unregulated rubbish dump by the river. Needless to say it's a great spot for birds and here we saw plain martin, sand martin, yellow wagtail, southern grey shrike and little owl. Not recommended to wear sandals here!!  The rather grand Hotel Palais Salam in Taroudant was faded but gorgeous. High walls, and even higher palm trees, tiled floors and walkways, arched doorways and two swimming pools -this was formerly a pasha's palace. It's well worth a stay if you haven't been, but try to get a room in the old part.


25th February Taroudant - Agadir - temperature max 28c
We started off this morning at the riverside rubbish dump. The plain martins eventually showed up and a little owl bade us farewell.


LittleOwl  Garry Wilkinson
Along the road Harry told us to watch out for Great Spotted Cuckoo since we were driving through suitable territory. Men were off to work in the early morning, wearing djellabas with hoods up to keep out the chill. The road was cluttered with bicycles, motor bikes and scooters, lorries and cars. The driver drives up close, gives a toot on the horn, overtakes even when there is little room and toots twice when he has passed (to say thank you). Road mortality rates must be very high.

We passed the outskirts of Agadir full of new industrial and commercial developments - many unfinished - on the ring road.  And headed out for the Atlantic coast. ...what a perfect place for a picnic...with the temperature rising to 28C and a cooling breeze. Remember this is the first heat anyone has felt since last May in Ireland.


We watched yellow legged, audouins and lesser black backed gulls, gannets and cormorant mauritanica. Further along we saw some  rare bald ibis,  kentish plover and common sandpiper. Back to the hotel in Agadir where some of us enjoyed a refreshing swim in the pool before dinner.

26th Agadir - Souss-Massa National Park - Oued Souss
Departing at 7.45 for a two hour drive south to the Sous Massa National Park. Spotted some stone curlews in a field near the road and heard a western olivaceous warbler in a bamboo thicket. We  walked at a leisurely pace along an unmade road towards the park observing the devastating effects of recent heavy rain and floods on the local small farms. Nevertheless sardinian warblers, moussier's redstart (10+ males), blue rock thrush and black crowned tchagra were seen in the undergrowth and the bushes.
The hot sun was draining so we were glad to see the drivers arriving under the trees with our picnic lunch. We ate to the sound of serin calling all around us.


Back to the hotel for a couple of hours off and then out at 5pm to the local Oued Souss (wadi) - a water hole full of little egrets, spoonbill, gulls, avocets and an osprey. The golf course at the side of this wadi had almost been breached by the floods and the road had been washed away.  In the gathering dusk we walked towards the back of the king's palace where the nervous guards told us to go away - there was nothing here to view. We insisted that we weren't spending the night here,  only watching birds. Reluctantly they let us stay but kept a distant eye on us. We didn't cross the barrier into the grounds as the guards had guns!
It seemed to take a long time for the light to drop  and the mosquitoes kept us company whilst we waited. After a long time our target bird flew in, picked up by torchlight - we could see the white on its wings - red necked nightjar. Success!! and even better views for some when one landed on the road in front of the mini bus.
An itchy but delighted crowd of birders headed back to the hotel for our last dinner with Josele and Harry as they were leaving us on Saturday at lunchtime.

27th February Agadir - Marrakech
  Driving back through the mountain alongside an almost-completed motorway the wind blew with increasing strength...breaking branches. Was this a sand storm?  It was part of the weather system that caused heavy rain and serious storms in Spain and Southern France.

The last afternoon and evening in Marrakech were free for us to choose our own itinerary. 
  ...why not go to Morocco and enjoy it for yourself?
Thank you Josele for organising such a wonderful trip and also for bringing Harry along to assist so excellently with the guiding. And finally thanks to all the other birders who made this a superb holiday.