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Morocco Sahara, High Atlas & Coast

Classic 11-day birdwatching tour to Morocco

The best birding in North Africa on this long-running spring tour to Morocco, exploring the deserts, mountains and marshes of the south. Exceptional array of birds reads like a Who’s Who of sought-after Western Palearctic specialities... Bald Ibis, Cream-coloured Courser, Pharaoh Eagle Owl, Egyptian Nightjar, Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, Levaillant’s Woodpecker, Black-crowned Tchagra, Maghreb Magpie, 9 larks, Tristram’s and African Desert Warblers, Moussier’s Redstart, 7 wheatears, African Crimson-winged Finch, Trumpeter Finch and Desert Sparrow among 178 species recorded on our 2016 tour!

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Leaders
Arnoud van den Berg

Max Group Size: 10
Duration: 11 Days

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Cost: £1995

inc scheduled flights from London to Marrakech

Deposit: £300

Single Supp: £195
Land Only: £1795

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Egyptian Nightjar Merzouga Morocco Brian Small Mar 2012 P1070139

We've enjoyed fantastic views of roosting Egyptian Nightjars on our last eight tours to Morocco in March © Brian Small, Limosa

Magnificent at any season, Morocco boasts the richest birdlife in North Africa. Set against an ever-changing backcloth, our spring visit finds this beautiful and incredibly varied country at its best. With the northward rush of migration in full flow to add extra spice, this is an excellent time to seek Morocco’s long list of outstanding breeding birds: Northern Bald Ibis, Pharaoh Eagle Owl, Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, Brown-throated Martin, Bar-tailed, Thick-billed, Temminck’s Horned and Hoopoe Larks, Red-rumped, Desert, White-crowned Black and Mourning Wheatears, Moussier’s Redstart, Tristram’s Warbler, Fulvous Babbler... the list of specialities here seems endless!

Our March birdwatching tour to Morocco commences in Marrakech, with the prospect of Atlas Horned Lark, Seebohm’s Wheatear and African Crimson-winged Finch as we ascend to more than 2500m in the snow-capped High Atlas mountains. In forests on the approach road, we will look for Levaillant’s Woodpecker, plus Barbary Partridge and African Chaffinch amongst many specialities on this tour endemic to NW Africa.

Descending to the oasis town of Ouarzazate, we then swing east to Boumalne Dades for our first real taste of desert birding. Larks abound on the stony hamada at Tagdilt, where we shall be looking especially for Temminck's Horned and Thick-billed Larks, alongside sandgrouse, Cream-coloured Courser and Desert Wheatear.

Continuing east, we head deeper into the desert for a two-night stay at an excellent hotel in Merzouga, on the fringes of the great Sahara. Next day, an exciting excursion by Land Rover will carry us around the skirts of the huge red dunes of Erg Chebbi - a spectacular setting to our quest for Pharaoh Eagle Owl, African Desert Warbler, Brown-necked Raven and the rare and rapidly declining Desert Sparrow. Egyptian Nightjars also breed here and, although not present every year, our last eight tours have all been lucky!

Retracing our steps to Ouarzazate, we leave the weathered hills and wadis of the empty interior behind and drop down towards the Moroccan coast. We’ll watch for Black-winged Kite on our way to the ancient walled city of Taroudannt, where our hotel for the night began life as a sultan’s palace and garden birds include Little Swift, Spotless Starling and African Blue Tit.

Our birding concludes around Agadir, beside Morocco’s blue Atlantic shore. Here the bird-rich estuaries of the rivers Sous and Massa offer a remarkable contrast. Waders, wildfowl and other wetland species are present in abundance. We have chances of White-breasted Cormorant, Audouin’s Gull and Black-crowned Tchagra - but the highlight promises to be our search for one of the world’s rarest and weirdest-looking birds, the critically endangered Northern Bald Ibis. It's a fitting climax to a truly wonderful tour - one that we think will surprise you in the warmth of its people, its richness of landscape and, above all, its birds!

Our guide Arnoud van den Berg has led the majority of Limosa’s tours to Morocco over the past 25 years, as well as escorting many visiting Dutch birding groups and undertaking numerous research visits there. His network of local contacts and extensive knowledge of Morocco’s birds and where to find them is second to none.

Cream coloured Courser Morocco Arnoud van den Berg Sep 2006 0058

Many desert species are nomadic and numbers of Cream-coloured Courser can vary dramatically from one yeat to another - but we haven't missed them yet! © Arnoud van den Berg, Limosa Holidays

Day 1
MARRAKECH & ATLAS MOUNTAINS

Our March birdwatching tour to Morocco begins with a British Airways flight from London Gatwick to Marrakech, where Arnoud will be waiting to welcome us. We transfer directly to a nearby hotel, which will be our base for the first two nights.

If flight times permit, we will head out of town to investigate a remnant area of mature pine forest for Hawfinch and Atlas Common Crossbill, as well as our first Northwest African endemic: Levaillant’s Woodpecker. We also have a chance to see the Moroccan form of Short-toed Treecreeper, and listen for its characteristic song. Gardens and orchards along the valley resound to the songs of Nightingales and Blackcaps in spring, and we are also likely to encounter our first ‘African’ Chaffinches, of the green-backed North African race. Night Marrakech

Day 2
THE HIGH ATLAS

Our birding reaches a literal high today as we drive up to an altitude of more than 2500m in the High Atlas Mountains. If the visibility is clear, the views from up here can be quite stupendous!

Ringed by ragged snow-capped peaks, the ski-resort of Oukaimeden grants access to the realm of Red-billed and Alpine Choughs, Atlas Horned Lark, Rock Sparrow and Seebohm’s Wheatear, the dapper males with their distinctive black throats. The big Black Wheatear is also on the cards today and with luck we will come across the splendid African Crimson-winged Finch - another of the region's endemics. This altitudinal species can be relatively easy to find one year and seemingly absent the next, so can never be guaranteed but we’ll check several favoured haunts that we know.

After dinner this evening, there may be an opportunity for those that wish to pay a sightseeing visit (optional) to the city’s bustling main square, Djemaa el F’na, with its colourful array of jugglers, fire-eaters, snake charmers, water-sellers and fortune-tellers. Participants that are up for a spot of bartering may wish to enter the bewildering maze of the nearby souk; others might prefer to sip mint tea at a cafe beside the square and watch the busy Moroccan world go by. Night Marrakech

Day 3
MARRAKECH TO BOUMALNE

We cross the mighty High Atlas today via the spectacular Tizi n’Tichka pass, with further opportunities to watch for Levaillant’s Woodpecker. In high mixed woodland, we will also look for African Blue Tit, Great Spotted Woodpecker and singing Subalpine Warblers (the race inornata found here being more orange below than the birds breeding in Europe). Trsitram’s Warblers love the low maquis-like scrub of the slopes as we rise higher towards the pass and we will have a good chance to see this super Sylvia, another tricky northwest African endemic. Over the pass itself we should see 'North African' Raven, and may encounter a migrant Black-eared Wheatear or two beside the road.

Nearing Ouarzazate, we will make one or two stops to search for larks and have our first chances of Trumpeter Finch and White-crowned Black Wheatear. With luck, we will also come across Western Mourning Wheatear, by far the scarcest and hardest to find of all the Moroccan wheatears.

Continuing east along the Dadès Valley, we pass a string of villages and oases where rose petals are harvested for rose water. The riverbed itself can be interesting and a brief stop might reveal migrant White and Yellow Wagtails – the latter most often of the race iberiae - as well as the rather striking Moroccan White Wagtail. Waders such as Green and Common Sandpipers also occur on passage. Night Boumalne Dades

Day 4
TAGDILT TRACK & GORGES DU TODRA

We will want to be out and about first thing this morning to explore one of Morocco’s most productive areas of hamada or stony desert.

Situated at an elevation of around 1600m and known to birdwatchers simply as the 'Tagdilt Track', this extensive, high arid plain is home to the compact Atlas Long-legged Buzzard, Cream-coloured Courser and chuckling Black-bellied Sandgrouse. Crowned and Spotted Sandgrouse are scarcer and more elusive, but we sometimes see them here, too. Most of the region’s specialist larks occur at Tagdilt, including the delicate Bar-tailed, the ‘Viking-like' Temminck’s Horned and the bruising Thick-billed. Desert Wheatears utter their ‘sad Robin’ song and we may even be treated to a Red-rumped Wheatear’s rendition of a whistling kettle coming to the boil!        

Later, we’ll head west for lunch at a restaurant in the impressive Gorges du Todra - itself well worth a visit, if only to gaze in wonderment at the towering walls of sheer pink rock soaring skyward above us. Alpine Swift, Crag Martin and Rock Bunting breed in the cliffs and afternoon is a good time to look for the hawkish Bonelli’s Eagle, which also nests here. Nearby, we’ll make another effort to find the secretive Tristram’s Warbler. Night Boumalne Dades

Day 5
TAGDILT TRACK TO MERZOUGA

After a further visit to the Tagdilt Track this morning, we travel east towards Goulmima, stopping at one or two of Arnoud’s ‘special spots' to check for the elusive and highly localised Streaked Scrub Warbler. Perhaps a troop of chattering Fulvous Babblers will show, but there will always be plenty to watch for.

We then swing south, following the Oued Ziz towards Rissani, where the landscape changes to one of broad wadis and sweeping desert flats. Ancient earth-walled villages and enticing palm-fringed oases dot the route. We will keep a sharp lookout for the exotic Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, a migrant which should be returning here to breed about now, and check the skies for hunting Lanner and Barbary Falcons.

Our destination this evening is an excellent hotel in the remote desert settlement of Merzouga, south of Erfoud. Situated at the foot of towering red sand dunes of Erg Chebbi - the largest and most spectacular dune system in all Morocco - the stands of palm and feathery tamarisks around Merzouga act as a magnet to passage migrants in spring. Wryneck, European Bee-eater and Melodious Warbler are among many species we could see making their way north across the Saharan sands. Night Merzouga

Day 6
SAHARA DESERT AT MERZOUGA

Our excursion by 4WD Land Rovers into the sands of the Sahara today promises to be one of the highlights of the tour! Leaving our hotel at dawn, we will try for Egyptian Nightjar, an extremely scarce and erratic species to be found in the desert around Merzouga. Although we have been lucky in each of the past eight years, we can’t promise to repeat the amazing good fortune of our spring 2015 and 2016 groups, which were treated to remarkable daylight views of birds roosting in the desert at close range!

Hoopoe Lark and Maghreb Crested Lark, African Desert Warbler and Brown-necked Raven may all be new to us today. We shall also be hoping to find that most reclusive of desert birds, the handsome and nomadic Desert Sparrow. Sadly, this is now a species in serious decline in Morocco, having been ousted from many former haunts by the ever-spreading House Sparrow. Houbara Bustards are very rare in Morocco nowadays and very seldom seen – but you never know!…

If the winter rains have been good, we’ll continue out to an ephemeral lake which (when present!) proves irresistible in spring to flocks of transient waterfowl and waders - even Coots - as they wing their way across the Saharan sands. Set against the backdrop of towering red dunes, it makes a truly remarkable sight! Sometimes Spotted Sandgrouse might come in to drink and the surrounding stony desert holds Cream-coloured Courser and looping Hoopoe Larks.

After a thrilling morning in the desert we return for lunch at the hotel, where those that wish will be able to take a break from birding and maybe enjoy watching the sun set on Erg Chebbi. If we haven't already been there yet, in the afternoon we will travel out to some cliffs that have rewarded our last four groups with fine views of two more Saharan specialities: Pharaoh Eagle Owl and Barbary Falcon. The low bushes in this area are a favoured haunt of Crowned and Spotted Sandgrouse. Night Merzouga

Day 7
MERZOUGA TO OUARZAZATE

Morocco is a big country and we have a fair bit of ground to cover today as we travel back west towards Ouarzazate - Morocco’s answer to Hollywood - on our journey towards the coast. We will pass through varied habitats along the way and the roadside wires near palm-fringed towns could produce Blue-cheeked Bee-eater.

In spring, large numbers of migrants - skirting east round the Atlas Mountains - use this very same route as a migration 'corridor', ensuring there's always plenty of interest. ‘Falls’ of migrants can occur almost anywhere there is cover and we could encounter just about anything today - from Honey Buzzard and Scops Owl to Western Olivaceous and Subalpine Warblers. We are also likely to see good numbers of Southern Grey Shrikes, the birds in this part of Morocco belonging to the fresh-looking race, elegans. Night Ouarzazate

Day 8
ANTI-ATLAS MOUNTAINS & TAROUDANNT

Depending on water levels, an early morning foray to the vast El Mansour Reservoir on the edge of town should reward us with some wetland species. White Storks will be attending their rooftop nests and other possibilities at this season include Spoonbill, Black-winged Stilt, and Gull-billed and Whiskered Terns. Recent visits have also produced Collared Pratincoles, various forms of Yellow Wagtails and the pale ‘Saharan’ Olivaceous Warbler.

Leaving Ouarzazate after breakfast, we continue on our journey west towards the coast, again pausing at small oases along the way to look for migrants. Ortolan Bunting, Whitethroat, Wood Warbler and Pied Flycatcher are possible. We'll ascend the rugged Anti-Atlas Mountains and then drop down towards the gorge at Aoulouz, from which emanates the crystal waters of the life-giving River Souss. Here we have our first chance of the handsome Black-crowned Tchagra as we enter the region’s Argana forest, a vast and open thornbrush habitat reminiscent of the savannas of sub-Saharan Africa. We’ll stop to scan for birds of prey such as Short-toed Eagle and Black-winged Kite, and check the scrub for passerines including Woodchat Shrike, Western Orphean Warbler and Maghreb Magpie, with its distinctive blue wattles.

Our destination tonight is the ancient walled city of Taroudannt, with its bustling ‘rabbit-warren’ souk (market) little changed over the centuries. ‘Moroccan’ Tawny Owls and Spotless Starlings breed within the red city walls, as Little and Pallid Swifts wheel excitedly overhead. Bounded by the same red mud ramparts and replete with fountains, mosaics and leafy courtyard gardens, our hotel here began life as a sultan’s palace. African Blue Tits and Western Olivaceous Warblers nest in the hotel garden. Night Taroudannt

Day 9                                                               
BALD IBIS & OUED SOUS AT AGADIR

From Taroudannt, the floodplain of the Sous extends as a fertile green finger that points west towards Morocco’s sunny Atlantic coast. Passing groves of fragrant citrus and spiky Argana (and no doubt marvelling at the amazing antics of the region’s incredible tree-climbing goats!), we hasten through the popular seaside resort of Agadir and head northwards up the coast towards the rocky headland at Cap Rhir.

Sparsely topped with grass and scrub, the sea-cliffs along this stretch of Morocco’s southern coast are the haunt of agile Barbary Partridges, fluting Blue Rock Thrushes and the sensational Moussier’s Redstart - perhaps the most striking of all the region’s endemic birds. Gannet, local Shags and Cory’s Shearwater are possible over the sea below. But we shall be hoping especially to find the critically endangered Northern Bald Ibis, a species whose total world population now hovers precariously at around 500 wild birds. Investigating the river mouth at Tamri, we will sift carefully through the throng of roosting gulls looking for scarcities such as Mediterranean, Audouin’s and Slender-billed.

Exiting into the sea at Agadir, the estuary of the Oued Sous forms a compact and easily worked area that can be simply outstanding for birds in spring. We’ll spend some time here in the late afternoon, seeking the likes of Greater Flamingo and Spoonbill, Little and Cattle Egrets, Caspian and White-winged Black Terns, Sardinian Warbler, Moroccan White Wagtail and Serin. Waders can often be numerous in spring and we will check the estuary for migrant Bar-tailed Godwit, Dunlin and Knot.

As dusk falls, Stone-curlews emerge from the shade of brushy scrub to feed with eerie cries and Red-necked Nightjars can occasionally be seen patrolling the woodland edge beside the Royal Palace. Night Agadir

Day 10                                                          
OUED MASSA

Taking an early breakfast, we leave our hotel and head out of town, bound for Oued Massa. Lying about an hour’s drive to the south of Agadir, 'the Massa' is justly famous as one of the best birding spots in all Morocco. Delicate Brown-throated Martins hawk for insects over the baked-mud houses, date palms and fig trees that are so characteristic of the villages in this part of Morocco. The patchwork of intensive cultivations that line the fertile river banks are attractive to migrants and resident birds alike, with possibilities to watch for including Black-winged Kite, Bluethroat, Zitting Cisticola and African Chaffinch.

Stands of eucalyptus trees offer welcome shade (and often conceal a roosting Night Heron or two) as we busy ourselves enjoying everything from handsome Squacco and Purple Herons to Osprey and White-breasted Cormorant. We may well encounter the enigmatic ‘Moroccan’ Reed Warbler, which is presently an undescribed taxon but most likely a subspecies of African Reed Warbler. And with migration in full flow, we could come across almost anything today - from secretive Baillon’s and Little Crakes to Golden Oriole and the flirtatious Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin - while the magical calls of Black-crowned Tchagra, Laughing Dove and Common Bulbul impart a distinctly ‘tropical’ feel to this rewarding place.

After enjoying lunch nearby, we will either conclude our birding this afternoon with further exploration of the Massa or return north to Agadir and spend a final couple of hours beside the equally rewarding River Sous. Night Agadir

Day 11                                                               
RETURN TO MARRAKECH, FLY LONDON

Depending on flight schedules, we should have time to enjoy a little birding this morning before the recently completed highway carries us north and east to Marrakech, for lunch.

Having come full circle, we catch the British Airways afternoon flight from Marrakech to London Gatwick, where our spring Morocco tour concludes this evening.

Please note: airline schedules to Morocco can vary year on year, necessitating an adjustment to the timing and itinerary on Days 1 and Day 11 as outlined above. We have no control over this of course, but such changes should not affect the range of birds seen nor the places visited on our tour.

3AFR Group Birding roof cafe Merzouga Brian Small Mar 2012 P1070180

Participants on our March tour take a break on the roof of an old fort overlooking the massive red sand dunes at Merzouga © Brian Small, Limosa Holidays

What To Expect

The best birding in North Africa on this long-running spring tour to Morocco, exploring the deserts, mountains and marshes of the south. An exceptional array of birds reads like a Who’s Who of sought-after Western Palearctic specialities... Bald Ibis, Cream-coloured Courser, Pharaoh Eagle Owl, Egyptian Nightjar, Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, Levaillant’s Woodpecker, Black-crowned Tchagra, Maghreb Magpie, nine larks, Tristram’s and African Desert Warblers, Moussier’s Redstart, seven wheatears, African Crimson-winged Finch, Trumpeter Finch and Desert Sparrow among 178 species recorded on our 2016 tour!

Please be aware that Morocco is a big country so this tour inevitably involves a fair amount of travelling in the vehicle. But comfortable hotels and the fascinating and ever-changing backdrop of scenery with frequent stops for birds - sometimes in the most unlikely looking places - are a treat not to be missed!

In late March/early April, the climate in southern Morocco is mostly warm-hot and sunny (10-30C), but can feel surprisingly chilly at times - even cold at night and first thing in the morning. Rainfall is generally unusual at this season but not impossible, especially at higher altitudes in the Atlas Mountains, where it can also be cold. In some years, snow may still be lying - or even falling! Bring warm clothing to layer up if necessary.

Birds

170-200 species.

[However, with the unpredictability of migration, a March visit to Morocco has enormous potential and our 2012 tour broke all records, producing an astonishing 223 species seen!]

Butterflies

A small but interesting range of butterflies is also possible, including Black-eyed Blue and Provence Hairstreak.

Accommodation

Hotels range from a former Sultan’s palace in the walled city of Taroudannt to an excellent contemporary four-star in the Sahara Desert at Merzouga. Standards do vary across Morocco, but overall accommodation is surprisingly good and improving year on year. All rooms have private facilities.

Meals

All main meals are included in the tour price, commencing with dinner on Day 1 and concluding with lunch on Day 11.

Dinner and breakfast will usually be taken at the hotels. Most lunches (plus the odd breakfast) will be picnics. Some lunches may be taken at hand-picked local restaurants, where the food is good.

Walking

Easy, but be prepared for early starts on this tour to find the best birds and to beat the desert heat. Short walks (typically ca. 1-3 kms) over mainly easy terrain.

Walking shoes or lightweight 'desert' boots with sturdy, corrugated soles are recommended for this tour.

Maximum elevation: 2600-3000m at Oukaimeden (for a few hours on one day only).

Travel

Scheduled flights direct from London Gatwick to Marrakech. British Airways usually offer the best service and timings and so we usually use them for our tour. (Easyjet and Royal Air Maroc also operate on this route)

Ground Transport  By coach or minibus, switching to 4WD Land Rovers for our day in the Sahara at Merzouga.

Tristram's Warbler m Todhra Morocco Arnoud van den Berg Mar 2012 6646cr

With its distinctive rusty wings and rust-red underside, the attractive Tristram's Warbler is a highly localised species endemic to Northwest Africa © Brian Small, Limosa Holidays

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1 Mark Webster, Morocco March tour ... Both leaders could not have been better, with their ID skills and relaxed manner for the trip. 10 out of 10 for me! [empty string]
2 Brian & Ann Hague, Morocco March tour ... Morocco exceeded our highest expectations. Arnoud’s leadership and commitment could not be bettered. The group was excellent company, amenable, enthusiastic and full of good humour. Travel arrangements and accommodation were first class.. [empty string]
3 Elaine Gathercole, Morocco March tour ... a brilliant holiday... [empty string]
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