High Atlas & Sahara
A 9-day birdwatching tour to the deserts and mountains of Southern Morocco
Limosa's spring birding tour to Morocco combines the best birding in North Africa with more time to explore the deserts and mountains of the south – plus 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, up to 10 larks and 8 wheatears, Moussier’s Redstart, Tristram’s and African Desert Warblers, Fulvous Babbler, African Crimson-winged Finch, Trumpeter Finch and Desert Sparrow are among many possible highlights on our Morocco birdwatching tour!
Tour Dates & Prices
Wed 17th March 2021
Thu 25th March 2021
7 Spaces Available
Tour Cost: 9 Days from £1895* inc return flights from London Gatwick
* 2020 tour costs shown. Please note costs for our 2021 tour TBA (available summer 2020)
- Limosa Tour Leader
- Return flights - London Gatwick-Marrakech, nonstop with British Airways
- 8 nights accommodation in Morocco
- All main meals (with drinking water provided)
- Local travel by coach or minibus
- 4WD Land Rovers at Merzouga (2 days)
- All excursions, entry fees, local guides, tour-based tips (drivers, guides, etc) and taxes
- Map & Limosa checklist of birds
Insurance, drinks, airport meals/snacks, in-flight meals (except where included within the airline ticket cost) & other items of a personal nature.
The Land Only cost is the price you will pay if you choose to arrange your own flights
- The best birding in North Africa - bar none!
- Two days of excursions by 4WD Land Rovers into the Sahara for desert birds at Merzouga
- Egyptian Nightjar and Desert Sparrow, plus a host of other Moroccan specialities
- Migration in full flow - up to a dozen raptors, 10 larks, 8 wheatears, 20 warblers possible
- Incredible and varied landscapes, from snowy Atlas peaks to towering Saharan sand dunes
- Small group - maximum of 10 participants
- Expertly led by Limosa's Arnoud van den Berg, a foremost authority on Morocco’s birds
Fly London Gatwick-Marrakech. Night Ourika
High Atlas Mountains around Oukaimeden (2500-3000m / 8200-9800ft). Night Ourika
We cross the Tizi n’Tichka pass and head east to Boumalne Dades (2 nts)
Tagdilt track, Imiter and Gorges de Dadès
We continue east for the first of a three-night stay in the Sahara desert. Night Merzouga
4WD desert excursions looking for Egyptian Nightjar, African Desert Warbler and Desert Sparrow. Merzouga (2 nts)
Heading west. Night Ouarzazate
From Mansour Lake, up and over the Atlas Mountains. Fly Marrakech-London Gatwick
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 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: from Pharaoh Eagle Owl, Egyptian Nightjar and Blue-cheeked Bee-eater to Thick-billed and Hoopoe Larks, Desert Sparrow and African Desert Warbler... the list of specialities seems endless!
While Morocco is a big country, our itinerary for 2020 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.
Arriving into Marrakech, we start our birding in the mountains with the exciting prospects 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 range. 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 and Thick-billed Larks, alongside Cream-coloured Courser, sandgrouse and Desert Wheatear.
Continuing east, we check out sites for Streaked Scrub Warbler, Maghreb Lark and Fulvous Babbler, before heading deeper into the desert to enjoy 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 4WD 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 ten tours have all been lucky! Nearby, we'll visit some cliffs where the big Pharaoh Eagle Owl nests.
Retracing our steps to Ouarzazate, we have a chance to visit El Mansour Reservoir, on the edge of town. At this time of year, and depending on water levels of course, the area can be alive with migrants. Wetland birds can include Marbled Duck, Spoonbill, storks and Collared Pratincole, while parties of Yellow Wagtails and Meadow Pipits often hold Red-throated Pipit, too. With luck, 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.
MARRAKECH & ATLAS MOUNTAINS
Our spring birding tour to Morocco begins with a British Airways morning flight nonstop from London Gatwick to Marrakech, where Arnoud will be waiting to welcome us. We head directly south, out of town, and climb up into the Atlas Mountains that loom large in the distance to arrive at our first hotel near Ourika, which will be our base for two nights. Situated well away from the hustle and bustle of Marrakech, 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 ca. 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 any 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, we will check the streambed for the local Atlas race of White-throated Dipper (minor), and scan the rocky slopes for shy Barbary Partridges that (frustratingly) seem to scarper just as soon as you find them! Night Ourika
HIGH ATLAS 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. Migrating 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 too, 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 DE DADES
We will be out and about first thing this morning to explore one of Morocco’s most productive areas of stony desert or hamada. 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 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 starts to improve we will begin to hear the songs of Tagdilt's desert birds. Most of the region’s sought-after larks occur at Tagdilt, including the ‘Viking-like' Temminck’s Horned Lark, Hoopoe 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 east from the Tagdilt track to walk beside impressive wadi cliffs looking for Lanner Falcons and rare desert dwellers such as Western Mourning Wheatear. In the afternoon, we may drive the spectacular road up into the pink mountains of Gorges du Dadès. Crag Martin, Blue Rock Thrush and Rock Bunting breed here, and we'll have another chance to try for the secretive Tristram’s Warbler. Night Boumalne Dades
TAGDILT TRACK TO MERZOUGA
After paying a second early morning visit to the Tagdilt Track, we set off east towards Goulmima, stopping to check one or two of Limosa’s ‘special spots’ for the elusive and localised Streaked Scrub Warbler. Perhaps a troop of chattering Fulvous Babblers will also show. Desert Wheatear and various larks are common beside the road, including further chances to spot the hefty 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 ten years, we can’t promise to repeat the amazing good fortune of our last five tours, which were all treated to remarkable daylight views of birds roosting on the desert floor!
Maghreb 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 Merzouga’s 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 five of our last six 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 4WD 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. Much depends on water levels here but, with the light behind us, we will check the lake for wildfowl that can include Ruddy Shelduck and Marbled Duck, while the shore regularly attracts waders such as Avocet, Redshank and Collared Pratincole. Black and White Storks often put down here to rest and refuel on migration, as various races of Yellow Wagtail creep about the vegetation and pipits to watch out for include the handsome Red-throated Pipit with its fine brick-red throat. Night Ouarzazate
EL MANSOUR 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, travelling up and over the Tizi ‘n’ Tichka Pass which crosses 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 evening flight from Marrakech to London Gatwick, where our spring birdwatching tour to Morocco concludes. *1
*1 Please note that airline schedules can 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.
WHAT TO EXPECT
Our spring birding tour to Morocco combines the best birding in North Africa with more time to explore the deserts and mountains of the south – plus a bird list that reads like a 'Who’s Who' of sought-after Western Palearctic specialities.
Morocco is a big country and we must necessarily 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.
A good tour for opportunistic bird photography, plus many great landscapes.
Hotels range from a new (and very well reviewed) kasbah in the foothills at Ourika to an excellent contemporary 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.
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.
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 (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 up to 2600-3000m (8000-9800ft) at Oukaimeden, where we spend a few hours birding.
Our tour cost includes return flights from London Gatwick to Marrakech. In recent years, British Airways have usually offered 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 minibus or small coach, switching to 4WD Land Rovers for our two days in the Sahara Desert at Merzouga.
View a gallery of images for this tour below, click on an image to view as full size with caption