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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Morocco in Spring

2023 Narrative

From snow-capped mountains to towering sand dunes, coastal estuaries and palm-lined river courses, Morocco is magically beautiful. The tour began in the Atlas Mountains where we found all of our major targets including Crimson-winged Finch, Levaillant’s Woodpecker, “Atlas” Horned Lark, Barbary Partridge and Moussier’s Redstart. In the gravel plans around Boumalne Dades, we enjoyed various larks including Temminck’s, Thick-billed, and Greater Hoopoe-Larks, Cream-colored Coursers, and Trumpeter Finches, while the scenic gorge above town gave us Tristram’s Warbler and Bonelli’s Eagle. The desert around Merzouga didn’t disappoint with excellent views of sandgrouse, Desert Sparrow, Fulvous Chatterer and two Egyptian Nightjars. The tour concluded around the coastal city of Agadir, where we had a whole host of waterfowl, waders, shorebirds, gulls, and even Razorbills. Of course, the main attraction was the Critically Endangered Northern Bald Ibis, which we had wonderful views of. It’s no wonder Morocco is such an admired birding destination!

The tour began in Marrakech and after an hour-long drive through towns and farmlands, passing Maghreb Magpies and Spotless Starlings along the way, we reached the Atlas Mountains. The road twisted and turned offering majestic views of terraced slopes brightened with flowering almond trees and snow-capped mountains towering above.

Our birding began at Vallée d’Oukaïmeden, a small ski town, where large mixed flocks of Red-billed and Yellow-billed Choughs welcomed us along the road and Rock Sparrows singing from every other building. We began wandering around on foot, quickly finding a mixed flock of Brambling and the North African subspecies of Common Chaffinch. Among the chaffinches was a single male from the European populations, a rarity here. Nearby we had Black Redstart, the delightful Moussier’s Redstart, and the “Atlas” subspecies of the Horned Lark. We returned and drove up to some higher terrain and cliffs where we added “Atlas” Long-legged Buzzard, Blue Rock-Thrush, Rock Bunting, and a “Barbary” Falcon, which is split by some checklist authorities. Back in town at our lunch stop, African Blue Tits greeted us on the railings and “wild type” Rock Pigeons circled above. Before heading a little way down the mountain toward our accommodation, we walked along a gorge with a running creek. Here we managed to Gray Wagtail and a pair of White-throated Dippers after a bit of searching. They cooperated very well as they both sat right next to each other under a large boulder, remaining even after we left.

Early evening, we walked around our accommodation, which is situated in a beautiful valley with a coniferous forest, running creek, and terraced gardens. Along the vegetated stream we had a Cetti’s Warbler, European Serin, several Mistle Thrushes, Cirl Bunting, and a Eurasian Blackcap. The forest provided all species of tits including our first Coal and Great along with a Hawfinch, which remained hidden. We also had a couple “North Africa” Red Crossbills, which remained elusive, but would end up being seen very well later on. After dinner we managed to hear a Maghreb Owl.

The next morning, we headed back up the mountain to try our luck for the “African” Crimson-winged Finch. While loading the vehicle, we had two Eurasian Jays calling in the pines above. The moment we arrived, we were greeted by 11 Crimson-winged Finches before we even left the vehicle. We spent the rest of the morning birding around the area, picking up a few new species including Sardinian Warbler, a flock of five Ring Ouzels, a pair of Atlas Wheatears, and a surprise Common Snipe, which seemed very out of place.

Next on our itinerary was a pine plantation, which offered our first Great Spotted Woodpecker, Common Firecrest, and cryptic Short-toed Treecreeper. Back at our accommodation we added Western Olivaceous Warbler. After a mid-day break, we headed down the road a bit to a small village where we quickly found a Levaillant’s Woodpecker, which put on an excellent show for everyone as it was unperturbed by our presence. While watching this North African endemic, we had views of a Eurasian Wren and European Robin.

The next morning, we packed up and departed with four “North African” Red Crossbills in the carpark giving us better views than before. We headed back down the mountain to the Ourika Valley where we scanned open farmlands which provided Thekla’s Lark, European Stonechat, Corn Bunting, and four Barbary Partridges. We began our journey over the Atlas Mountains through the Tizi N’Tichka Pass making several stops along the way. A large forest patch added Woodchat Shrike, Western Black-eared Wheatear, and a surprise Eurasian Griffon – the first one reported in Morocco this year and a tour first! We had an excellent lunch along the way eventually arriving in Boumalne Dades, our base for the next two nights. After dinner, we headed to an area nearby where Eurasian Scops-Owls were already calling. With very little effort, we eventually had superb views of one offering excellent photographic opportunities.

On the edge of Boumalne Dades is a productive and vast desert plain; this is where we spent the morning birding, along the “Tagdilt Track”. Our first birds upon arrival were small groups of Temminck’s and Greater Short-toed Larks followed by Desert and Northern Wheatears and a pair of Trumpeter Finches. Moving on to an area that is productive for Greater Hoopoe-Lark, we walked a loop picking up Cream-colored Courser, flocks of Black-bellied Sandgrouse, and a surprise Black Stork catching thermals above. After a while, we found a hoopoe-lark, which entertained us for quite a while calling and doing its acrobatic display. This ended up being one of the most popular birds and experiences of the trip!

We then checked a nearby farm which often holds migrants and had our first Eurasian Hoopoe, Common -Redstart and Eurasian Linnet, before heading into town for some tagines at one of the trip-favorite restaurants picking up a half dozen Red-rumped Wheatears along the way. After lunch, we headed into the Dades Gorge in search of the Tristram’s Warbler. Along the way we spotted our first of several Bonelli’s Eagles soaring near some cliffs. We eventually made it to the Tristram’s Warbler location and spent a while searching. Despite the large VW Golf Challenge rally, we were able to find a male that popped up briefly right along the road. Before dinner we headed to the nearby Dades River and birded the gardens where we had European Bee-eater, Western Subalpine Warbler, Common Nightingale, European Greenfinch, and European Goldfinch among others.

We headed back to the Dades River the next morning and walked around for an hour, adding more to our trip list with the likes of European Turtle-Dove, Western Yellow Wagtail, and Meadow Pipit. Afterwards, we headed to the landfill where we had excellent views of four Thick-billed Larks, who seemingly enjoying their surroundings. Outside Boumalne Dades, we visited an escarpment which hosts breeding Pharoah Eagle-Owls. Two Desert Larks, a migrant Whinchat, and breeding Booted Eagle later, we scoped the eagle-owl nest and observed one actively incubating. Just as we were about to leave, a “Maghreb” Mourning Wheatear popped up on top of a bush to sing farewell. Further east we stopped and birded a scrub area along the road where we eventually found a Scrub Warbler, which entertained us as it distinctively hopped around on the ground like a mouse. We also added Spectacled Warbler and Bar-tailed Lark before hitting the road and driving to Merzouga for the next two nights.

Switching to 4x4s the following morning we explored the desert around the towering Erg Chebbi sand dunes. First on the agenda was to catch the sandgrouse coming in to drink during the morning hours. We were not disappointed with no fewer than a couple hundred Spotted and Crowned Sandgrouse. We then visited a home of a Berber family, where they put out water and food for the Desert Sparrow. After a few minutes, a pair arrived and provided excellent views for the group. Also present were a couple White-crowned Wheatears and several Greater Hoopoe-Larks, including one fearless individual feeding only a few yards in front of us. Birding some nearby scattered shrubs, we picked up several Bar-tailed Larks and an African Desert Warbler before we headed to a stakeout Golden Nightjar. When the local Berber showed us the way to his scouted location, we were surprised to find a pair sitting together! After a local lunch in the town of Rissani, we headed to a nearby wastewater treatment plant. In the tamarisk we had several Eastern Olivaceous Warblers, Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters, and Willow Warbler while the ponds held Ruddy Shelduck, Black-winged Stilt, Little Ringed Plover, and Common Sandpiper. The rest of the afternoon was spent searching for Fulvous Babbler, which gave us a run for our money, but we eventually found several, with one teeing up for good scope views. We also enjoyed “Maghreb” Larks, a recent lump with Crested Lark.

The next morning we checked a palm grove near our hotel where we added a couple Eurasian Wrynecks before retracing our footsteps towards Ouarzazate. Although a travel day, we made a stop at the Ouarzazate Dam, which was pretty quiet, but still provided Great Crested Grebe, Mallard, and Gray Heron.

The next day was our final long travel day as we worked our way towards the coast and the city of Agadir. Before departing, we took a leisurely walk behind our accommodation in an area of farmlands and greenery where we had a surprise Common Grasshopper Warbler, a scarce migrant in Morocco. Outside of town, a small dam added Pallid and Common Swifts, Green Sandpiper, and Common Greenshank. A stop along the Drâa River held Sedge Warbler, Bank Swallow, Greater Whitethroat, another Bonelli’s Eagle, and several dozen Western Yellow Wagtails of several subspecies. After a lunch stop, we paid a visit to a local saffron cooperative where we were given a short presentation about the cultivation; most of us purchased some to take home. A couple stops before reaching Agadir, we managed to pick up Rufous-tailed Scrub-Robin and Western Orphean Warbler.

The final two days we focused on the coastal region around Agadir with this morning concentrating our time north of town. Our first stop was an area where Northern Bald Ibis often feed, and we eventually tallied 18 individuals. We enjoyed from a respectful distance, but several of them decided to walk even closer to us offering great views. 

The Asif n’Srou Estuary was productive with the likes of “Moroccan” Wagtail, Eurasian Marsh Harrier, Eurasian Oystercatcher, and a nice collection of gulls roosting on the beach with Lesser Black-backed, Yellow-legged, and Audouin’s Gull all present.  A nearby overlook offered a chance to scan for seabirds and we found a dozen or two Razorbills, countless Northern Gannets, a single Cory’s Shearwater, and a Eurasian Thick-Knee in the parking area. We finished the day off at the mouth of the Oued Souss, where hundreds of shorebirds can be found. Here we found our first Black-bellied, Kentish, and Common Ringed Plovers, Whimbrel, Eurasian Curlew, Bar-tailed Godwit, Curlew Sandpiper, Sanderling, Dunlin, and Common Redshank. We also had Common Shelduck, a single Greater Flamingo, Marbled Teal, Mediterranean Gull, Caspian Tern, Eurasian Spoonbill, and an Osprey to name a few. After dinner we went back out to an area near our hotel and successfully found two Red-necked Nightjars.

Our final day, we headed south of Agadir to the Sous-Massa National Park where we birded along the Massa River. Northern Shoveler, Slender-billed Gull, “Moroccan” Great Cormorant, Purple Heron, and Glossy Ibis were some of the additions while raptors also put on a great show with our first Black-winged Kite, Hen Harrier, and yet another Bonelli’s Eagle. Back at the carpark, a pair of Black-crowned Tchagras put on a great show. After an excellent lunch, one of the favorites of the tour, we birded a few more areas near the Massa River before returning to our hotel for our final dinner together. All in all, it was a very successful tour with all the main targets in the bag and even a couple new birds for the tour.

- Ethan Kistler

Updated: October 2023