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
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
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
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
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
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
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.