MOROCCO BIRDING TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY
Morocco: Day 1 Our Morocco birding tour begins this morning at Marrakech, from where we will drive the short distance to the base of the Atlas Mountains and then wind our way upwards to the small ski resort of Oukaimeden for an overnight stay. Here we will be birding in the spectacular High Atlas below the towering peak of Jebel Toubkal (4167m), the highest mountain in North Africa.
Providing the weather is clear we enjoy some truly magnificent scenery, with snow-capped summits looming over us and a fantastic panorama spread out below us to the north as we look for the attractive endemic African Crimson-winged Finch (nowadays treated as a species distinct from its Asian cousin). The lovely North African-endemic Moussier’s Redstart is a characteristic bird of the forested parts of the area and we should also see two other endemics, Seebohm’s Wheatear (split from Northern) and the attractive North African Blue Tit (endemic to the region if treated as distinct from the Canaries forms). This is also the first area in which we may well come across the endemic Barbary Partridge and the endemic Levaillant’s Green Woodpecker.
More widespread species include Golden Eagle, Horned Lark (the local form could conceivably be split in future as Atlas Horned Lark), Water Pipit, White-throated Dipper, Red-billed and Alpine Choughs, Black Wheatear, Black Redstart, Coal Tit, Common Raven, Rock Sparrow, Common Chaffinch (of the distinctive North African race, a candidate for a split) and Rock Bunting. If we are very lucky we will see a Lammergeier, which is now both rare and highly localized in Morocco.
Morocco: Day 2 After some more birding in the High Atlas we will descend from the mountains and then drive northeastwards to Ifrane for a two nights stay, stopping for a little birding en route. After crossing broad, rolling, cultivated plains that are the bread basket of Morocco we will climb up into the Middle Atlas, stopping to explore the wooded foothills. On the way we should see such species as Western Cattle Egret, White Stork, Black Kite, Booted Eagle, Common and Lesser Kestrels, Eurasian Collared and European Turtle Doves, Common Swift, Calandra and Crested Larks, Barn Swallow, Spotless Starling, Eurasian Magpie of the distinctive North African form (now proposed as an endemic species: Maghreb Magpie), European Goldfinch and Corn Bunting
Morocco: Day 3 Ifrane is the French colonial equivalent of a hill-station in the India of the British Raj, a summer sanctuary from the heat of the plains and latterly a ski resort. At this season there are few visitors and so this morning we will be able to enjoy the Middle Atlas at its best. The habitat here is a mixture of coniferous and mixed forests, and barren, rocky uplands studded with small lakes. The breeding-endemic Atlas Flycatcher (split from European Pied) will be our main target during our forays into the spectacular forests, but this is also a good area for both Barbary Partridge and Levaillant’s Green Woodpecker.
Other interesting species we may well see include Red-knobbed Coot, Ferruginous Duck, European Scops Owl, Wood Lark, Tawny Pipit, Spanish Wagtail, Cetti’s, Melodious, Western Subalpine and Western Bonelli’s Warbler, Short-toed Treecreeper, Firecrest, Hawfinch and Cirl Bunting.
Additional widespread species include Little and Great Crested Grebes, Gadwall, Mallard, Northern Shoveler, Common Pochard, Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Common Moorhen, Common Sandpiper, Common Woodpigeon, Common Cuckoo, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Eurasian Skylark, Common House Martin, Winter Wren, European Robin, Common Redstart, Mistle Thrush, Common Blackbird, Zitting Cisticola, Common Whitethroat, Eurasian Blackcap, Spotted Flycatcher, Great Tit, Eurasian Nuthatch, Eurasian Golden Oriole, Eurasian Jay, European Greenfinch, European Serin and Common Linnet. If we are very fortunate we will come across a troop of Barbary Apes amidst the magnificent cedar forests.
Morocco: Day 4 Today we will drive southwards to Midelt for an overnight stay, descending into increasingly arid country as we leave the mountains and pausing en route to look for such species as Ruddy Shelduck, Long-legged Buzzard (the Atlas form, cirtensis, is very different from the nominate form of SW Asia and may well represent a distinct endemic species), Lanner, Thekla Lark and Western Black-eared Wheatear. The barren, semi-desert plains of the high plateau country around Midelt are the home of the elusive Dupont’s Lark, a bird that much prefers to scurry away through the low clumps of vegetation rather than fly when one approaches. Getting a good view of this little-known bird can be hard work, but is well worth the effort. A number of other interesting species occur in this inhospitable habitat including Lesser Short-toed Lark and Desert Wheatear.
Morocco: Day 5 From Midelt we travel on southwards through increasingly stark but beautiful mountain scenery until we reach the fringe of the Sahara. After crossing the stony hamada plains we eventually drop down, rather unexpectedly, into the verdant Ziz valley and then continue to our guesthouse, deep in the desert south of Erfoud, for a three nights stay.
During the journey we will stop to look for the North African-endemic Tristram’s Warbler which at this time of year has ascended the slopes of the Atlas Mountains to breed. We will also see our first true desert birds, such as Desert Lark, Maghreb Lark of the form saharae (a future candidate for a split) and White-crowned Wheatear. We also have a good chance for Saharan Scrub Warbler, which is now split by some from Streaked Scrub Warbler.
We will doubtless also want to stop to admire the remarkable displays of huge ammonites and other fossils and massive crystalline growths that are on sale at the roadside stalls, marvelling at the way the local inhabitants can ferret out such bounty from such rugged terrain.
Morocco: Days 6-7 The region south of Erfoud offers some exciting birding in an attractive setting. The palm groves and gardens of Erfoud and Rissani give way gradually to the stony plains, sandy wadi beds and spectacular sand dunes of the Sahara. It is important to have plenty of time here in order to maximise the chance of seeing the area’s many specialities, so we allow three nights in this superb area rather than two.
North African endemics we can expect here are the recently-recognized Maghreb Lark, African Desert Warbler, Fulvous Babbler, the rare Desert Sparrow (endemic to North Africa, now that Zarudny’s Sparrow in the deserts of Central Asia is considered a separate species) and House Bunting (now split from Striolated and thus confined to North Africa). We also have an excellent chance of finding a roosting Pharaoh Eagle Owl and at night, with persistence, we have a good chance of finding the cryptically-plumaged Egyptian Nightjar, which breeds in this area most years.
Other good birds we should encounter here include the gorgeous Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, Bar-tailed and Greater Hoopoe Larks, Common Bulbul, Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin, Eastern Olivaceous Warbler (of the form reiseri, that may be split as Saharan Olivaceous Warbler, yet another endemic), Western Olivaceous and Spectacled Warblers, Southern Grey Shrike, Brown-necked Raven and perhaps Spotted Sandgrouse.
Houbara Bustard (now restricted to North Africa and the Canary Islands, following taxonomic reassessment) also still survives in this area, but heavy mortality caused by the depredations of wealthy Arab falconers from the Gulf region caused the population to decline to alarmingly low levels. Re-introduction programme has raised numbers to a degree, but we will still need luck to encounter this much-persecuted species.
Frequently the clumps of tamarisks amongst the huge sand dunes of Erg Chebbi in the Merzouga area harbour migrants that have just made the long desert crossing from the south, including such species as and Woodchat Shrike.
Morocco: Day 8 After some final birding in the Erfoud area we will cross the desert to Boumalne for a two nights stay. We will break the journey at the dramatic, pink-walled Gorges du Todra which are almost 1000m deep. Here we will be looking out for Bonelli’s Eagle in particular, as well as Alpine Swift, Eurasian Crag Martin, Grey Wagtail and Blue Rock Thrush.
Morocco: Day 9 The desert near Boumalne harbours several specialities, including Cream-coloured Courser, Black-bellied Sandgrouse, Temminck’s Lark, Thick-billed Lark (a species virtually endemic to North Africa), the showy Red-rumped Wheatear, the amusing Trumpeter Finch and sometimes Crowned Sandgrouse and the interesting and sometimes split Maghreb (or Western Mourning) Wheatear, which exhibits marked sexual dimorphism and which has a rather localized distribution in Morocco.
To the north the snow-capped peaks of the High Atlas contrast with the rich colours of the desert plain and the foothills, providing a splendid scenic backcloth to our birding. The nearby gardens are full of the glorious sounds of Common Nightingales in full song whilst at dusk we shall listen for the mournful call of the European Scops Owl and then try to sneak up on one of these splendid little creatures.
Morocco: Day 10 Today we will drive to Agadir for a two nights stay. We will stop along the way if we need to for Maghreb Wheatear, and also for Barbary Falcon. The deep blue sky, the black, grey and ochre mountains, the green palm groves and the rich pinkish-red walls of the fortress-like villages make for magnificent scenery.
As we leave the Sahara and follow the winding road down into the Sous valley the desert gives way to argana woodland, quite reminiscent of the acacia savanna so characteristic of many other parts of Africa, and extensive areas of olive groves and citrus. We will pass by the ancient walled city of Taroudannt before we reach Agadir.
Birds we may well encounter in the Sous valley include Black-winged Kite, Eurasian Stone-curlew, European Bee-eater, European Roller, Pallid and Little Swifts, Red-rumped Swallow, Common Nightingale, Sardinian and Western Orphean Warblers, Woodchat Shrike and Spanish Sparrow. We may also come across the brookei form of Peregrine (an interesting form to compare with the closely related Barbary Falcon).
Morocco: Day 11 Today we will concentrate on two bird-rich estuaries to the south of Agadir. First we will visit the pocket-sized estuary of the Oued Massa, probably the richest birding locality of its size in Morocco. The whole area is thronged with birds, especially herons, egrets, waders, gulls and terns. We shall concentrate on the upper, marshy parts of the estuary where amongst the more interesting species we may find are Little Bittern, Squacco and Purple Herons, Marbled Duck, Western Marsh and Montagu’s Harriers, Collared Pratincole, Black-winged Stilt and the localized Plain (or Brown-throated Sand) Martin. Other species likely at the mouth of the Massa include Grey Heron, Great Cormorant, Little Egret, Eurasian Coot, Little Ringed Plover, Lesser Black-backed and Yellow-legged Gulls, Little Owl, Common Kingfisher, sand Martin (or Bank Swallow), Common Stonechat, European Reed Warbler and Black-crowned Tchagra (or Black-headed Bush Shrike, whose beautiful song often gives its presence away).
Later we will visit the Sous estuary, close to Agadir. Here we are likely to find large numbers of waders, gulls, terns and other waterbirds including Greater Flamingo, Eurasian Spoonbill, Eurasian Oystercatcher, Pied Avocet, Common Ringed, Kentish and Grey Plovers, Red Knot, Sanderling, Dunlin, Curlew Sandpiper, Little Stint, Ruff, Bar-tailed Godwit, Whimbrel, Wood Sandpiper, Common Redshank, Common Greenshank, Ruddy Turnstone, Black-headed, Yellow-legged and Audouin’s Gulls, Gull-billed, Sandwich, Common, Little and Black Terns, and the restricted-range Moroccan Wagtail. We may also come across one of the scarcer visitors to the area such as Mediterranean or Slender-billed Gulls, Lesser Crested, Whiskered or White-winged Terns. We have an excellent chance here for Red-necked Nightjar.
Morocco: Day 12 This morning we will travel northwards along the Atlantic coast in search of the critically endangered Northern Bald Ibis, which still breeds in the Agadir region. We have an excellent chance of finding this strange bird at one of its coastal breeding sites. We will also stop at Cap Rhir for some seawatching: there is a good chance of encountering Cory’s Shearwater and Northern Gannet, and even a moderate possibility of Sabine’s Gull.
As we continue northwards, following the convolutions of the coastal highway and passing one wave-lashed headland after another, we shall enjoy the dramatic scenery of this meeting place between the High Atlas and the Atlantic Ocean. Eventually we will arrive at a section of coastline opposite Mogador Island, close to the town of Essaouira. Here we should find some attractive Eleonora’s Falcons flighting in to feed over the mainland opposite their breeding island.
Later we will continue across dry, rolling plains to Marrakech, where our Morocco birding tour ends early this evening.