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. Transfer to a nearby hotel, which will be our base for 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
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, with luck, an early 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 a few favoured haunts that we know. Night Marrakech
MARRAKECH TO BOUMALNE
Leaving Marrakech, 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 northbound 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 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 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 both scarcer and more elusive, but we sometimes encounter them, too. Most of the region’s specialist larks also 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 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 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), where we stay for two nights. Situated at the foot of towering red sand dunes at 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
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 nine years, we can’t promise to repeat the amazing good fortune of our last three tours, which were all 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 extremely rare in Morocco nowadays and very seldom seen – but we have occasionally been lucky on this tour, so you never know!…
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 holds Cream-coloured Courser and 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. Or if we haven't already been there, in the afternoon we will 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. The low bushes in this area are a favoured haunt of Crowned and Spotted Sandgrouse. Night 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 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 use this very same route as a migration 'corridor', ensuring there's always plenty to watch for. ‘Falls’ of migrants can occur almost anywhere there is cover and we could encounter just about anything today - from Short-toed Snake Eagle and Scops Owl to Eastern and Western Olivaceous 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
ANTI-ATLAS MOUNTAINS & TAROUDANNT
Depending on water levels, an early morning foray to the vast El Mansour Reservoir on the edge of town could reward us with some nice 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 Western Osprey, Collared Pratincole and various races of Yellow Wagtail.
Leaving Ouarzazate after breakfast, we continue on our journey west towards the Atlantic coast, again pausing at small oases along the way to look for migrants. Ortolan Bunting, Common Whitethroat, Wood Warbler and Pied Flycatcher are possible. We ascend the rugged Anti-Atlas Mountains, 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 vast Argana forest, an open thornbrush habitat reminiscent of the savannas of sub-Saharan Africa. We’ll stop to scan for birds of prey such as Black-winged Kite and to check the scrub for Woodchat Shrike, Western Orphean Warbler and Maghreb Magpie, with its distinctive blue eye-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
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. As we pass through groves of fragrant citrus trees and spiky Argana scrub, we'll marvel at the amazing antics of the region's tree-climbing goats before hastening on through the beach resort of Agadir and heading 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, Shag 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. The rivermouth at Tamri is a good place to check for roosting gulls including 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 today, 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
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 some further exploration of the Massa or return to Agadir and spend a final couple of hours beside the equally rewarding River Sous. Night Agadir
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.