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Friday, 26 October 2012

Morocco Part 1 - 15th & 16th October, 2012

My wife has been saying for some years now that she had never experienced a non-European culture, other than USA, and so we booked a visit to Morocco to put this right. I've been to Morocco before, so had a pretty clear idea as to how best to introduce her to the country. However, having for many years organised tours for other people, I was now happy to let someone else do the work, and chose an outfit based in Wales to make the arrangements for us. Naturally Morocco took my basic itinerary and put the meat on it, much enhancing my ideas as they did so. It was a real pleasure to deal with them.

As a novice birder, I've had some difficulty identifying some of the birds we saw. If anyone disagrees with my identification, or can help with those birds that I've not been able to identify, I'd be very pleased to hear from you.

Monday 15th October

We had an early start so that we could be at Gatwick Airport by 07:20. To my relief all the camera equipment got on board the easyJet flight as hand baggage. The flight was 40 minutes late departing as it was found that they'd got more pieces of baggage in the hold than had been checked in! However, we still arrived 5 minutes early.

We'd booked a hire car plus driver to be with us for our first four days in Morocco. Driving in the mountains and in the cities can be hazardous in Morocco, and the cost of a driver (less than £25 a day, including his food and accommodation!) makes it a 'no-brainer'! Having got through immigration and baggage reclaim without hassle, our driver was nowhere to be seen. To cut a long story short, after several phone calls he finally turned up an hour after we landed. Reading between the lines, they'd had problems supplying the car we'd hired, and we ended up with something rather scruffy and somewhat smaller than we'd booked - and without air-conditioning! This was the only part of the arrangements that did not go to plan (no fault of Naturally Morocco), but it was to have uncomfortable consequences.

Setting off just after 13:00 on a journey across the Atlas Mountains that usually takes three and a half to four hours, we had a brief break on the western side of the Atlas so that we could have our first mint tea. We had another stop at the Forest House in Toufliath, known to be a hot spot for Levaillant's Woodpecker, but only found Great Tit!

Our driver proved to be extremely good at stopping on request, and soon got into the spirit of things by calling out "oiseau" each time he saw a bird. Up on the first section of hairpins he managed to find somewhere to stop so that we could view a pair of Ravens. The photos of the birds came to nothing, but the road was spectacular!

the approach to the Atlas Mountains
The next stop was for a large flock (around 100!) of Red-billed Chough.

Red-billed Chough - northern approach to the Tizi-n-Tichka Pass (Atlas Mountains)
Later in the drive we were stopped by the police and a heated argument broke out between our driver and the police. We never found out the reason, but by the time we got away nearly half an hour later, we had to make all haste to Ouarzazate where we were to spend the night. You really don't want to be out on Moroccan roads after dark!

Our base for three nights was the amazing Dar Daif, in the hamlet of Douar Talmasla, outside Ouarzazate. This place is a converted kasbah, and offers a very high degree of comfort and service in its twelve guest rooms. The decor is fabulous!

On arrival, I asked about walking to the lake, created by the Mansour Eddahbi Dam, and was advised that, although not dangerous, the walk had its hazards, and a guide was advised. A guide was duly summoned from the Dar Daif staff, and he advised a 05:30 start the next day! We'd been hoping for a lie-in after our early start this day, but decided to go for it. This was the only concession to out and out birdwatching that we made during the holiday, but my wife still said that she wanted to come along!

Tuesday 16th October

Setting the alarm for 05:00 we were in the lobby to meet our guide only 5 minutes late at 05.35. It was dark when we set off on foot up the road, and still dark when we left the road and started crossing the fields. Fortunately it was a clear night and the stars lit our way. It took just under an hour to reach a viewpoint near the lake, and it was getting light. We'd heard birds on the way, which our guide said were Crested Larks. However, the first bird that we saw was an Osprey, sitting in a distant tree! What a start!

Osprey - Ouarzazate Reservoir
We had some amusement when our guide set up the scope. He'd got a reasonable Nikon scope - mounted on a surveyor's tripod (complete with hi-viz finish!)! In fact, our guide himself was relatively hi-viz, whereas I'd taken care to dress in 'desert' colours. A number of birds were identified, including a very distant group of Greater Flamingo, several Ruddy Shelduck, a group of three White Stork and six Black Stork, a few Black-winged Stilt, Common Kestrel, Grey Heron, Great-crested Grebe, Shoveller, and a probable group of Kentish Plover. Several birds were not identified, including a fly-over raptor. Some distant images were obtained, a few of which are below.

Black Stork and White Stork - Ouarzazate Reservoir
Black-winged Stilt - Ouarzazate Reservoir
Ruddy Shelduck - Ouarzazate Reservoir
Closer to us than the water we had Crested Lark and Yellow Wagtail feeding from the plants that looked like young conifers. I'm not sure if the wagtails were of the 'iberiae' race, or migrants from elsewhere.

Crested Lark - near Ouarzazate Reservoir

Yellow Wagtail - near Ouarzazate Reservoir
We'd spent some time looking at the birds around us, and not noticed just how splendid the views were from this south side of the reservoir (most people visit the north side).

view from south of the Ouarzazate Reservoir
The line of sunflowers was where the probable Kentish Plovers emerged from. The water is a short arm of the western end of the reservoir. I'm not sure what the two kasbahs are, and the mountains in the distance are the Atlas Mountains. The 'white dots' 40% up the extreme right of this image are flamingo.

We'd only booked the guide for two hours, and these two hours were already nearly up, so we headed back towards Dar Daif, little knowing what treat was in store for us, stopping to photograph a Kestrel on a stick.

Common Kestrel - near Ouarzazate Reservoir
Continuing the trek back, suddenly we saw what I immediately thought was a Wheatear. I soon realised my mistake, however - a Great Grey Shrike! I took a safety shot and then made a steady zig-zag approach.

Great Grey Shrike - near Douar Talmasla
The bird showed absolutely no concern at my presence and allowed me to get quite close - I'm pleased to say that it was still there when I departed. On the right of the first image below, you can just make out a cricket that the shrike has apparently skewered on its larder bush.

Great Grey Shrike - near Douar Talmasla
The above two images are possibly the best that I obtained from this holiday - but I've still got another five day's worth to go through!

We continued homeward, stopping to photograph some Swallows - which I subsequently realised had a Sand Martin with them - and another Crested Lark

Sand Martin and Barn Swallow - near Douar Talmasla
Crested Lark - near Douar Talmasla
As we entered the village, with my wife and the guide ahead of me, I had to call to them to stop. They'd missed what I had seen - a Little Owl!!! I felt a sense of relief that I'd found this for myself, rather than lose my credibility by having it pointed out to me!

Little Owl - Douar Talmasla
As Little Owls are my passion, I'm going to ask you to forgive me for multiple images here, even if they are all with the bird sitting on the wall. Again I made the steady zig-zag approach, and ended up having to wind the zoom back to get the bird in frame!

Little Owl - Douar Talmasla
 Again, the bird was still in place when I left. What a brilliant start to the holiday!!

Little Owl - Douar Talmasla
That last departing image brings me to something that I had great difficulty with whilst in Morocco, and that was the extremely strong sunlight, and deep shadows. I'm not used to taking photos in bright sun like this, and I have to confess that I made an absolute mess of a lot of images. I was forever having to compensate for the light, and in a tired state often forgetting that the previous adjustment was not right for the current situation. My biggest problem, however, is that I tend to leave 'image stabilisation' permanently switched on, and it was a few days before I realised that this was highly detrimental to image quality when the light is very strong. This is a lesson that I will pay more attention to back in UK from now on.

As we walked along the road, we spotted a House Bunting, and our guide told us that these were a 'good luck' bird, with many houses being built to accommodate their presence. On reaching Dar Daif, I spotted a palm tree full of Cattle Egrets, immediately opposite. Wow!

Cattle Egret - Douar Talmasla
We got back just in time for an 08:00 breakfast, and here we got better acquainted with House Buntings as they were constant, and delightful, companions during breakfast.

House Bunting - Dar Daif (Douar Talmasla)
Our driver was waiting for us at 09:00 and we set off for Ouarzazate and the Kasbah Taourirt, noting Little Egret as we passed over the Oued Ouarzazate. The Kasbah proved to be a little disappointing, and so we did a little souvenir shopping before heading off to the Draa Valley.

As we reached high country of the Jbel Sarhro we were seeing what I took to be a mixture of White-crowned Wheatear and Black Wheatear, the former of which is a speciality of this area. I didn't manage any images of the birds with white crowns, but did manage some of a couple of birds without, that I'd taken to be Black Wheatear. Looking at my images (which are not very good), I'm now wondering if these are immature White-crowned Wheatear, on the basis that they were glossy black and, although I don't have any images which clearly show the ends of the tail, I do not detect the black band of a Black Wheatear, although there is some question in the last image of a different bird. Your opinion would be welcome here.

probable White-crowned Wheatear (immature) - Jbel Sarhro
possible White-crowned Wheatear - Jbel Sarhro
During a lunch break near Agdz we saw mainly House Sparrows and Collared Doves, but this Laughing Dove (a speciality of the region) came to drink in the derelict swimming pool.

Laughing Dove - near Agdz
After lunch we continued the short distance to the Palmerie at Tamnougalt and stopped at the bridge over the Draa. Here we found Little Egret, Bulbul,  a couple of unidentified waders, plus Yellow Wagtail and 'Pied' Wagtail. I suspect that the latter might have been Moroccan White Wagtail as this location is known for them. Again, your input would be appreciated. - UPDATE-  Chris Lansdell has said that the wagtail is almost certainly a 'standard' White Wagtail, so the caption has been altered accordingly.

Little Egret - Tamnougalt Palmerie
Yellow Wagtail - Tamnougalt Palmerie

White Wagtail - Tamnougalt Palmerie
Just up the river from the bridge we could see what I have to assume was a pair of Spanish Terrapin, although I could not get closer because of vegetation.

Spanish Terrapin - Tamnougalt Palmerie
Because we'd had two early starts to the day, we fancied an early return to Dar Daif, and so turned back north at this point. A stop to attempt another photo of wheatear (unsuccessful) turned up a bird that I only got very poor images of, and have no idea as to what it was. It was in a high altitude relatively barren area, and seemed to be a little smaller than the wheatear, and had a rather heavy bill. The dark marks on the head in the first image are just shadow. Can anyone help with identification please. - UPDATE - This has now been identified as Trumpeter Finch (thank you to all for your input).

Trumpeter Finch - Jbel Sarhro
Also in this area I took an image of what I thought was another Crested Lark, but I'm now beginning to think may have been a Thekla Lark, as this would be more normal for this area. It seems to have a less spikey crest (more evenly fanned) and a slightly concave lower mandible. I guess I should have done more homework before the visit!

possible Thekla Lark - Jbel Sarhro
After refreshments back at base, my wife and I went for a walk in the smallholdings immediately opposite Dar Daif. One of the first things we saw was a fellow tending his plot, surrounded by Cattle Egrets! We made our way over to where he was, and found that he was letting water onto his land, and the egrets were flocking to the area, totally oblivious to his presence. He kindly let us onto his patch to take some photos. Some of the birds were still showing a hint of colouration in their plumage.

Cattle Egret - Douar Talmasla
Whilst we were there more birds were still arriving.

Cattle Egret - Douar Talmasla
Continuing our walk I stopped to take more photos of Yellow Wagtail and Crested Lark, before it was time to return to base for a much-needed siesta!

Crested Lark- Douar Talmasla
Yellow Wagtail - Douar Talmasla
 The egrets were still arriving ....

Cattle Egret - Douar Talmasla
... and a pair of House Buntings were sitting in a distant palm.

House Bunting - Douar Talmasla
As we reached Dar Daif I grabbed a shot of a House Sparrow in the failing light - a reminder of home!

House Sparrow (female) - Douar Talmasla
Thus ended a great day, with only a massive dinner (and a much needed sleep!) left to enjoy. It seems incredible to me that all this happened within 30 hours of arriving in Morocco, on a non- birdwatching holiday!!

I've not even started to look at the images from subsequent days yet, so don't have too much idea of what might have been usefully captured. It'll probably be a good few days before Part 2 of  this report.


  1. A great account Richard, some memorable highlights there too. I'm no expert either but I like testing my knowledge (or lack of):-).
    I think you are right with White Crowned Black and the Thekla, the mystery bird looks a bit like a Trumpeter Finch, I don't think there is enough going on in the wing for Crimson Winged and the bird is overall fairly plain looking. The 2 House Buntings on the palm might be Rock, only based on the contrast of the black malar and crown stripes and nice long tail. I could be totally wrong (probably) Thank you for sharing the first part of you trip, excellent, look forward to the next instalment.

    1. Thank you Alan for your kind comments and for your much-appreciated observations. I can see where you're coming from with the Trumpeter Finch suggestion - a good possibility there! I think I'm going to stick with the House Bunting identification, however. This is due to the close proximity of buildings and many definite House Buntings, and the lack of grey colouration on the lesser coverts.

  2. Wow looks like you had a great trip Richard, my knowledge of foreign birds is so poor I can't help, sorry. But I've enjoyed the post and are looking forward to part two.

    1. Thank you Douglas. I think that Pt." will probably be Tuesday or Wednesday - I'm getting behind with other things that I should be doing!

  3. Lovely set of pictures and some of the Little Owl too:-) I like the pictures of the White-Crowned Wheatear and the one of the Laughing Dove.

    1. Thank you Linda. It was a great place to visit.

  4. This is an incredibly birding mission. I would so love to visit this place one day. The spirit of adventure:) Little Owls or Cattle Egret.....they're all very cool:) Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thank you Chris. It was a great place to visit - so different to home!!

  5. Great to see and photograph the Shrike so nicely, Richard.

    1. Yes, Christian, that Shrike certainly was a highlight of the day - even of the holiday!

  6. Brilliant photography Richard,hard to pick out a winner,love the Great Grey Shrike,superb detail.
    Your little Owl,looks stunning,but,the Chough in flight is my choice.
    Overall looks like a very rewarding trip,well done.

    1. Thank you John. I quickly came to the conclusion that this would be a brilliant destination for a dedicated birding holiday - especially if one had a bit more knowledge about local bird identification!

  7. Great post Richard, it made excellent reading and some stunning images. Really well done on spotting the Little Owl, you wouldn't have lived it down if it had to be pointed out to you!

    1. Thank you Paul. This turned out to be the only owl I saw, but it was a great holiday! Some more images of different birds to come in the next post.

  8. Hi Richard,
    Your mystery bird is most definitely a Trumpeter Finch and your wagtail looks like a standard White Wagtail to me. You might like to see this - my latest trip report from Morocco/Western Sahara


    1. Thank you Chris. Very much appreciated! I've now updated this post accordingly. If you can throw any light on other 'mystery birds' in this or in Parts 2 & 3 of my report, I'd be grateful!


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