Crimson-winged Finch is one of the special birds we see in the High Atlas mountains Photo: James Lidster
As early spring touches Morocco, the country bursts into life, offering the visiting birdwatcher some truly memorable experiences. We begin in the town of Marrakech before heading into the dramatic mountains of the High Atlas. Here we’ll seek out a variety of mountain species, and in particular the elusive Crimson-winged Finch, a species that is probably seen more easily here than anywhere else.
Perhaps most exciting of all will be our trip through the desert areas near Boumalne and Merzouga along the edge of the spectacular Sahara Desert. In this beautiful landscape are more exciting birds including some classic desert species of North Africa such as Cream-coloured Courser, Thick-billed Lark and Desert Sparrow. We then travel down to the Atlantic coast and Agadir where we hope to find Northern Bald Ibis, one of the world’s rarest birds, as well as a variety of waterbirds on the estuaries of the Souss and Massa.
Day 1: Our tour starts with a flight from London to Marrakech, from where we’ll transfer to the ski resort of Oukaimeden. If time allows we’ll look for Levaillant’s Woodpecker shortly before reaching our hotel. Night at Oukaimeden.
Day 2: We’ll awake amidst the scenery of the High Atlas mountains and we’ll spend the whole day exploring this wonderful habitat. One of the key species we’ll be looking for is Crimson-winged Finch, and the subspecies here, alienus, is a potential split from birds in the east of its range. They favour quiet hillsides and we’ll check any small passerine flocks for these beautifully coloured finches. Whilst doing so we are sure to come across groups of Rock Sparrows, ‘Atlas’ Horned Larks (yet another potential split), ‘North African’ Chaffinch and ‘North African’ Blue Tit (both already regarded by many authorities as species in their own rights).
The three countries of Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria make up the ‘Maghreb’ and this area has several endemic species/subspecies depending on whose taxonomy you follow. This mountainous terrain will hopefully provide us with two of these, namely Moussier’s Redstart and Seebohm’s Wheatear, whilst Black Wheatear and Black Redstart are both common. The high meadows, sometimes covered in snow even in April, are home to both Alpine and Red-billed Chough, whilst Water Pipit and ‘White-throated’ Dipper may be found nearby. The local race of Long-legged Buzzards may drift past and, having now recovered from years of persecution, there is always the chance of a mighty Lammergeier. Night at Oukaimeden.
Day 3: After an early breakfast we leave the mountains behind, perhaps pausing again en route for Levaillant’s Woodpecker. From the flat plains of Marrakech we turn back uphill, and drive to Boumalne via the Tizi-n-Tichka pass, a spectacular and long drive. On the way we’ll try for yet another endemic, Tristram’s Warbler. This species has very specific habitat requirements away from its wintering grounds and not always easy to find. As the road climbs into the hills, we may start to see some more raptors with migrant Booted and Short-toed Snake Eagles both possible. Before reaching Boumalne we’ll stop in Ouarzazate to explore the barrage at Mansour Edhabbi. Here we have the chance of seeing Fulvous Babbler, Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, and Maghreb (Long-billed Crested) Lark, as well as Ruddy Shelduck, Eurasian Spoonbill and a selection of waders. Night in Boumalne.
Day 4: We’ll head out before breakfast to explore the famous Tagdilt region. Our targets for the day will include Crowned and Black-bellied Sandgrouse, Lanner Falcon, Cream-coloured Courser, Desert and Red-rumped Wheatears, Trumpeter Finch and a selection of larks including Greater Hoopoe, Temminck’s Horned, both Greater and Lesser Short-toed Larks, and with luck the highly nomadic Thick-billed Lark. Seeing all of these before breakfast would take some doing, and we’ll return after breakfast to spend the rest of day in the area to give us the best possible chance of finding all that this superb birding spot has to offer. At this time of year migration is often evident over the desert as small groups of European Bee-eaters and swifts (both Pallid and Common) work their way north. Night in Boumalne.
Day 5: The scenery will change again today as we leave behind the high, stony desert and progress to a sandier habitat. New birds will continue to appear with Brown-necked Raven, Bar-tailed Lark, Saharan Scrub Warbler and White-crowned Wheatear all possible. After passing the dramatic Ziz gorge with its unexpected palm lined valley, we’ll make our way to a small oasis hotel, where we spend the next two nights. The gardens of the hotel often host migrants and we could see a selection of warblers ranging from Western Subalpine and Sardinian to Western Bonelli’s and Western Olivaceous Warblers, as well as Eurasian Wryneck, Hoopoe, Bluethroat, Woodchat Shrike and European Bee-eater. The highly localized Eastern Olivaceous Warbler (race reiseri) sometimes breeds near the hotel, and Egyptian Nightjars are found most years. Night near Merzouga.
Day 6: The whole day will be spent in 4x4 vehicles exploring this exciting desert habitat. We’ll be searching for a number of birds including Desert Sparrow, Bar-tailed and Greater Hoopoe Larks, Spotted Sandgrouse, Cream-coloured Courser, Desert Grey Shrike, and African Desert Warbler. This area is home to a re-introduction programme for Houbara Bustards with upwards of 2000 being released into the wild each year, and although finding one would be exciting, its origins will always be in doubt. We’ll stop to admire the huge golden dunes of Erg Chebbi, and search the tamarisk bushes around them for any migrants. Night near Merzouga.
Day 7: As migration will be in full flow the species around our hotel will be ever-changing and before breakfast we’ll explore the grounds for any new birds that arrived overnight after crossing the Sahara. We have another long journey today, but not without some birding along the way. We’ll make a stop to look for Pharaoh Eagle Owls, which are usually resident most years, and we may see Lanner Falcons, Ruddy Shelduck, Desert Lark and Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters. After another picnic lunch, washed down with mint tea and fresh orange juice, we continue to Ouarzazate where, depending on our arrival time, we may be able to check out the shoreline of the nearby reservoir. Night in Ouarzazate.
Day 8: There will be more time this morning for birding around the reservoir. In recent years this has been a reliable site for Marbled Duck and Ruddy Shelduck, and migrant waders could include Wood and Curlew Sandpipers, Ruff, Little Stint and Black-winged Stilt. Passerines will also be present and careful checking through groups of Yellow Wagtails could produce three different subspecies, as well as the ‘Moroccan’ White Wagtail - species or not, the latter is a stunning bird to see. Migrant harriers often drift through, with Montagu’s and Western Marsh Harrier the most likely, and Greater Flamingo, Black-crowned Night and Purple Herons might be seen. Our destination this evening is Agadir and once away from the reservoir we’ll drive through more mountainous habitat, home to Bonelli’s Eagles, Black Wheatears and possibly the endemic Maghreb (Western Mourning) Wheatear. Night in Agadir.
Day 9: Driving alongside long, Atlantic rollers we’ll head north of Agadir in search of one of Morocco’s most iconic birds, the Northern Bald Ibis. At this time of the year visiting the breeding cliffs of this endangered species is quite rightly not allowed but away from there they favour coastal fields and can sometimes be very confiding. At nearby Tamri we’ll check the estuary where the Ibis sometimes drop in to bathe, as do hundreds of gulls, often including the increasingly numerous Audouin’s and Slender-billed Gulls. If there is an onshore wind then seawatching may produce Northern Gannet, Cory’s Shearwater and occasionally a skua. Migrants may include Western Black-eared Wheatears, Tawny Pipits and Stone-curlew, while European Serin, Zitting Cisticola and House Bunting are all common breeders.
The afternoon will be spent around the Souss estuary where anything can, and frequently does, turn up. Large wading birds such as Greater Flamingo, Eurasian Spoonbill and White Stork can be numerous and we’ll check the gulls and terns for species such Mediterranean Gull, and Gull-billed and Caspian Terns. Waders are often plentiful and the selection ever-changing from both Bar-tailed and Black-tailed Godwits to Eurasian Greenshank, Grey and Kentish Plovers and Little Stint. The nearby scrub holds plenty of Maghreb (Moroccan) Magpies as well as a special bird widespread through Africa south of the Sahara, the striking Black-crowned Tchagra. Night in Agadir.
Day 10: Just as famous as the Souss estuary is the Oued Massa, about an hour south of Agadir. Here the dry stone walls provide ideal perches for Little Owls, Thekla Larks and wheatears and the neatly farmed agricultural areas are excellent for Laughing Doves and European Turtle Doves, as well as Barbary Partridge, Desert Grey Shrike, Moussier’s Redstart, and Cirl Bunting. The once brackish lagoon inland of the dunes can hold a variety of waders and herons and walking along its length provides a great opportunity to scan for raptors with Osprey, Bonelli’s Eagle and Lanner Falcon all possible. We’ll check all the hirundines and swifts for both Alpine and Little Swifts, as well as Red-rumped Swallow and Brown-throated Martin, the latter at one of its few Western Palearctic locations. After lunch we’ll explore more agricultural areas inland where we may find Black-shouldered Kites and Spanish Sparrows, while any wetter areas may hold Little Bittern, and Squacco and Purple Herons, plus migrant warblers and over the years this hotspot on the Atlantic coast has turned up some real surprises. Night in Agadir.
Day 11: Depending on our flight schedule there may be chance for some more birding this morning, perhaps another look at the Souss estuary or a trip inland to enjoy the scenery and maybe another Black-crowned Tchagra. Later we connect with our flight from Agadir to London where the tour ends later that same day.
Updated: 11 November 2016