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Morocco NEW! High Atlas & Sahara

A 9-day birdwatching tour to the deserts and mountains of Southern Morocco

The best birding in North Africa on our new look spring tour to Morocco, with more time to explore the deserts and mountains of the south – and a bird list that reads like a 'Who’s Who' of sought-after Western Palearctic specialities... Cream-coloured Courser, Crowned and Spotted Sandgrouse, Pharaoh Eagle Owl, Egyptian Nightjar, Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, Levaillant’s Woodpecker, Maghreb Magpie, nine larks, Tristram’s and African Desert Warblers, seven wheatears, Moussier’s Redstart, African Crimson-winged Finch, Trumpeter Finch and Desert Sparrow among possible highlights!

Tour Dates

2019

Spaces
2

Leaders
Arnoud van den Berg

Max Group Size: 10
Duration: 9 Days

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Cost: £1895

inc return flights London Gatwick-Marrakech, nonstop with British Airways

Deposit: £300

Single Supp: £185
Land Only: £1725

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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 nine tours to Morocco in spring © Brian Small, Limosa

Magnificent at any season, the Atlas Mountains and desert regions of Morocco boast the richest birdlife in North Africa. Set against an ever-changing backcloth, our new spring tour finds this beautiful and incredibly varied country at its best. The northward rush of migration through the desert oases and mountain passes is in full flow, and this is also the optimum time to seek out Morocco’s long list of outstanding breeding birds: Pharaoh Eagle Owl, Egyptian Nightjar, Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, Bar-tailed, Thick-billed, Temminck’s Horned and Hoopoe Larks, Red-rumped, Desert, White-crowned Black and Mourning Wheatears, Moussier’s Redstart, Tristram’s and African Desert Warblers, Fulvous Babbler... the list of specialities seems endless!

New for 2019, our revised itinerary not only cuts down dramatically on the amount of time spent driving but gives an extra day in the desert - always the highspot of this tour - to allow longer enjoying the unique and fascinating birdlife of this very special place.

Starting in Marrakech, we head directly up into the mountains for the exciting prospect of Atlas Horned Lark, Seebohm’s Wheatear and African Crimson-winged Finch as we ascend to more than 2500m (8000ft) in the snow-capped High Atlas Mountains. In forests on the approach road, we will look for Levaillant’s Woodpecker, plus Barbary Partridge, Moussier’s Redstart and African Chaffinch amongst many specialities on this tour that are endemic to Northwest 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 check out sites for Saharan Scrub Warbler, Maghreb Lark and Fulvous Babbler, before heading deeper into the desert for an extended three-night stay at an excellent hotel in Merzouga, on the fringes of the great Sahara. Over the next two days, we will make exciting excursions by Land Rover that will carry us around the flowing skirts of the huge red dunes of Erg Chebbi. Aided by our local guides we'll visit the current hotspots amidst this spectacular but shifting landscape in our quest for African Desert Warbler, Brown-necked Raven and the rare and rapidly declining Desert Sparrow. Egyptian Nightjars also breed and, although not present every year, our last nine tours have all been lucky! Nearby, we'll visit some cliffs where Pharaoh Eagle Owls nest.

Retracing our steps to Ouarzazate, we have a chance to visit El Mansour Reservoir, on the edge of town. At this time of year, the area can be alive with migrants, attracted by the water. Wetland birds might include Marbled Duck, storks and waders such as Collared Pratincole, while small flocks of Yellow Wagtails and Meadow Pipits often hold Red-throated Pipit, too. We may also find Bluethroat and Saharan Olivaceous Warbler nearby.

Guide Arnoud van den Berg has led the vast majority of Limosa’s tours to Morocco over the past 30 years as well as escorting many visiting Dutch birding groups and undertaking numerous ornithological studies and research visits there. His network of local contacts and extensive knowledge of Morocco’s special 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 year to another - but we haven't missed them yet! © Arnoud van den Berg, Limosa

Day 1
MARRAKECH & ATLAS MOUNTAINS

Our spring birdwatching tour to Morocco begins with a British Airways flight nonstop from London Gatwick to Marrakech, where Arnoud will be waiting to welcome us. We head south and climb up into the Atlas Mountains that loom large in the distance to arrive at our first hotel near Ourika, our base for two nights. Well away from the hustle and bustle of the city, Ourika is the perfect base from which to explore North Africa's highest mountain range.

If flight times permit, we will enjoy a short walk nearby to investigate a remnant area of mature pine forest for Hawfinch and Atlas Common Crossbill, as well as our first Northwest African endemics: Moussier’s Redstart and 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 early spring, and we are also likely to encounter our first ‘African’ Chaffinches, of the green-backed North African race. Night Ourika

Day 2
THE HIGH ATLAS

Our birding reaches a literal high today as we make the 30-minute drive up to an altitude of 2500-3000m (8000-9800ft) 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 chunky 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 a number of favoured haunts that we know.

As we head back down for a second night at our Ourika hotel, we will check the streambed for the local Atlas race of White-throated Dipper (minor), and scan the rocky slopes for secretive Barbary Partridges that (frustratingly) seem to scarper as soon as you find them! Night Ourika

Day 3
MARRAKECH TO BOUMALNE

Leaving Ourika, we cross the mighty High Atlas range today via the spectacular Tizi n’Tichka pass - with further opportunities to watch for Levaillant’s Woodpecker along the way. 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). Tristram’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. Migrant raptors may be passing overhead and could well include Black Kite and Booted Eagle, harriers and kestrels.

Nearing Ouarzazate, we will make one or two stops to search for larks, including Greater Short-toed, and have our first chances of Trumpeter Finch and White-crowned Black Wheatear. With luck, we will also come across Western Mourning Wheatear, which is 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 striking 'Moroccan' White Wagtail. Waders such as Green and Common Sandpipers also occur here on passage. Night Boumalne Dades

Day 4
TAGDILT TRACK & GORGES DU TODRA

We will 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 1600m (5200ft) and known to birdwatchers simply as the 'Tagdilt Track', this extensive, high arid plain is home to desert specialists such as Cream-coloured Courser and the chuckling Black-bellied Sandgrouse. Crowned and Spotted Sandgrouse are scarcer and more elusive, but we sometimes see them here, too.

We will plan to be in place to see dawn above the desert and, if it is clear, the distant Atlas Mountains may glow pink as the sun rises. As the light gradually improves we will begin to hear the songs of Tagdilt's desert birds. Most of the region’s sought-after larks occur at Tagdilt, including Hoopoe Lark, the ‘Viking-like' Temminck’s Horned Lark 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 to 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 early morning visit to the Tagdilt Track this morning, we travel east towards Goulmima, stopping at one or two of Limosa’s ‘special spots' to check for the elusive and highly localised Streaked Scrub Warbler. Perhaps a troop of chattering Fulvous Babblers will also show. Desert Wheatear and larks are common beside the road, including further chances to spot the mighty Thick-billed Lark.

After lunch, we swing south, following the Oued (river) 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 be keeping a sharp lookout for the exotic Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, a migrant that should be returning here to breed about now, and check the skies for marauding Lanner and Barbary Falcons.

Our destination this evening is an excellent hotel in the remote desert settlement of Merzouga (south of Erfoud), where we enjoy an extended stay of three nights. Situated at the foot of the towering red sand dunes of Erg Chebbi - the largest and most spectacular dune system in all Morocco - stands of palm and feathery tamarisks around Merzouga act as a magnet to northbound 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

Days 6 & 7    
SAHARA DESERT AT MERZOUGA

We have two full days to explore the desert around Merzouga, where our excursions by 4WD Land Rovers into the plains of the Sahara are invariably rated as the highlight 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 nine years, we can’t promise to repeat the amazing good fortune of our last four tours, which were all treated to remarkable daylight views of birds roosting on the desert floor!

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.

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

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 later enjoy watching the sun set on Erg Chebbi. If we haven't already been there, in the afternoon we may travel out to some cliffs that have rewarded our last five tours with fine views of two more Saharan specialities: Pharaoh Eagle Owl and Barbary Falcon, as well as Alpine Swift. The low bushes in this area are also a favoured haunt of Crowned and Spotted Sandgrouse.

With Land Rovers again at our disposal, our second full day at Merzouga affords the chance to catch up with anything we may have missed before - Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, perhaps - or to pay a return visit to any wetland areas or wadis in search of migrants. Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin and the heavy-billed Western Olivaceous Warbler all pass this way in spring. At Rissani, amongst the pink-flowering tamarisks and palms of the oasis, we may find the smaller, tail-pumping 'Saharan' form of Eastern Olivaceous Warbler singing its cyclical song. Two further nights Merzouga

Day 8
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 the town of Ouarzazate - famed as Morocco’s answer to Hollywood. We will pass through varied habitats along the way, perhaps breaking our journey near Jorf, where Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters sometimes nest in holes in the ground, or to investigate a shallow desert wadi for migrant Spectacled and Subalpine Warblers. Raptors and White Storks are also on the move at this time and could well be seen spiralling over hilltops, seeking to gain height as they continue their northward journey to Europe. At Kelaa, we cross a river where 'Moroccan' White Wagtail and Little Ringed Plovers feed.

Birding stops permitting, we'll aim to arrive at Ouarzazate in time to visit El Mansour Reservoir for the last hour or so of the day. With the light behind us, we will check the lake for wildfowl that might include Marbled Duck, while the shore also attracts waders such as Avocet, Redshank and Collared Pratincole. Migrant Black and White Storks often put down here to rest and refuel, as various races of Yellow Wagtail creep about the vegetation and pipits to watch out for include Red-throated Pipit with its fine brick-red throat. Night Ouarzazate

Day 9
EL MANSOUR RESERVOIR TO MARRAKECH, FLY LONDON

A pre-breakfast gathering in the grounds of our hotel might reward us with groups of Night Herons returning to roost, or screaming Pallid Swifts over the town. After breakfast, we will take a look at El Mansour Reservoir in the hope of finding new species: Spoonbill, Little Stint, Wood and Common Sandpipers, Black-winged Stilt and Gull-billed and Whiskered Terns are all regular here in spring and our recent visits have also produced Western Osprey and Collared Pratincole. Little Owls frequent the castellated roof of a nearby ruin and Squacco Herons might be seen along the waters’ edge, where we will look for migrants such as Quail and Bluethroat.

Leaving Ouarzazate, we head back north over the Tizi ‘n’ Tichka Pass through the Atlas Mountains. We'll pause for lunch along the way and as we descend the northern slope of the mountains back towards Marrakech have a last chance to look for the attractive Maghreb Magpie. Check-in for our British Airways early evening flight from Marrakech to London Gatwick, where our spring birdwatching tour to Morocco concludes.

 

Please note that airline schedules vary year on year, which may necessitate an adjustment to the timing and itinerary on Days 1 and Day 9 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 our new look spring tour to Morocco, with more time to explore the deserts and mountains of the south – and a bird list that reads like a 'Who’s Who' of sought-after Western Palearctic specialities... Cream-coloured Courser, Crowned and Spotted Sandgrouse, Pharaoh Eagle Owl, Egyptian Nightjar, Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, Levaillant’s Woodpecker, Maghreb Magpie, nine larks, Tristram’s and African Desert Warblers, seven wheatears, Moussier’s Redstart, African Crimson-winged Finch, Trumpeter Finch and Desert Sparrow among possible highlights!

Morocco is a big country so we cover a fair amount of mileage on this tour. The longer drives are punctuated with stops for birding, but even when we are travelling you will find the Moroccan scenery is fascinating and constantly changing.

We usually drive to each birding site and take short, gentle walks from the vehicle. There are one or two longer walks, always at an easy pace.

In March/early April, the climate in southern Morocco is typically warm to hot (10-30C/50-86F) and sunny. However, it can sometimes feel surprisingly cool - even cold at night and chilly first thing in the morning on both the high plains (Tagdilt) and in the desert. 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! Be sure to pack warm clothing to layer up if necessary.

Birds

140-180 species

Accommodation

Hotels range from a new (and very well reviewed) kasbah in the foothills at Ourika to an excellent, contemporary four-star hotel in the desert at Merzouga. Standards vary widely across Morocco, but overall the 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 at the hotel on Day 1 and concluding with lunch on Day 9. Our evening meals and most breakfasts will be taken at the hotels. Most lunches (and the occasional breakfast) will be picnics, but some lunches will be taken at local restaurants, where the food is good.

Walking

Easy walking at a gentle pace, but you should be prepared for early starts on this tour to see the best birds and to beat the desert heat. Mostly short walks (typically ca. 1-3km) over mainly easy terrain. It can be stony and uneven underfoot in places so we recommend good walking shoes or lightweight 'desert' boots with sturdy, corrugated soles for this tour.

Maximum elevation: we drive to 2600-3000m (8000- 9800ft) at Oukaimeden, where we spend a few hours birding.

Travel

Our tour cost includes return flights from London Gatwick to Marrakech. British Airways usually offer the best service (nonstop) and timings on this route, so we generally use them for our tour. (Easyjet and Royal Air Maroc also fly to Morocco, but their timings are usually less appealing and/or involve a change of planes en route)

Ground Transport  By coach or minibus, switching to 4WD Land Rovers for our two days in the Sahara Desert 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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