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Wednesday 31 October 2012

Morocco, Pt.2 - 17th and 18th October, 2012

We'd already enjoyed two days of Moroccan sunshine and some super birds, a little hampered by having to drive with the windows open as we didn't have the air-con we had specified for the car. This resulted in our driver and myself having continually streaming noses, and sneezing because of the draught and dust. Strangely, my wife was not so badly effected.

Wednesday 17th October

Hoping for a lie-in after our previous two early starts, I found myself awake early, and so went for a walk before breakfast. The smallholdings were my destination but, as sunrise was just after 06:00 and I said I'd be back for breakfast at 07:00, the light was not good, and the day started off cloudy.

On the smallholdings I found several birds. I pretty much ignored the Crested Larks and Yellow Wagtails because of the light, and went off in search of something different. I wasn't having any luck, until it got to the time to be setting back. Then I spotted a Stonechat in a bush!

Stonechat (male) - Douar Talmasla
Heading back towards base, I spotted three small birds flitting about in a small plot of sweetcorn - presumably picking off insects. I spent a while trying to photograph these, but they were constantly on the move and it was difficult in the poor light. I never worked out what they were, but assume that they were some type of small warbler. Any ideas please?

unidentified - Douar Talmasla smallholdings
As I left the smallholdings, a Bulbul was calling loudly from a low tree. This was the first of many images that I would take of these characterful birds over the next few days.

Common Bulbul - Douar Talmasla
Our driver picked us up at 08:00 as we had quite a long day in prospect. However, we did make a stop on the north side of the Ouarzazate Reservoir, leaving the road and approaching on a rough sandy track with large potholes. Unfortunately we had to stop long before we got to the water as the track got worse.

Beside the car was a rather putrid-looking stream, which did not seem to put the birds off. A Crested Lark was showing off its camouflage to perfection.

Crested Lark - by Ouarzazate Reservoir
Also in the stream was a Black-winged Stilt. 

Black-winged Stilt - by Ouarzazate Reservoir
The odd Ruddy Shelduck flew over - these were quite nervous birds, unlike the Stilt.

Ruddy Shelduck - by Ouarzazate Reservoir
By now, I was concentrating on the stilt, as my time was limited (we had a long and full programme for the day). 

Black-winged Stilt - by Ouarzazate Reservoir
The stilt flew off and joined its mate, nearer to the reservoir, and I banged off a few shots as it landed in the distance. Although these only show the birds in silhouette, and at a great distance, I'm rather pleased with the sequence as it seems to depict an elegance of movement, and a bond between the two birds so, at the risk of overdoing it with the stilts:-

Black-winged Stilt - by Ouarzazate Reservoir
There was also a wader in the stream, which I believe may have been a Wood Sandpiper. Any input here would be much appreciated also - sorry, only record shots.

possible Wood Sandpiper - by Ouarzazate Reservoir
I never actually got to the reservoir on this side, as time ran out on me. However, I did manage to grab a few shots of a Kestrel in a tree beside the track as we departed.

Common Kestrel (female) - Ouarzazate
The rest of the day was spent doing tourist things. First we had a long drive to Tinerhir. This is the 'gateway' to the amazing Todra Gorge. The palmerie at Tinerhir is great for birds (so I'm told!), but we had no time for such things.

view of Tinerhir and the palmerie
We walked through the spectacular gorge, emerging at the western end. Soon after this the road ends, but the track that continues (said to be only passable with 4-wheel drive vehicle) can offer some of the best birding in Morocco. However, we could only look on longingly at the wonderful scenery.

view beyond the western end of Todra Gorge
We saw little in the way of birds - Grey Wagtail, Rock Dove, and House Bunting (although no houses nearby).  Just to get back to the bird theme :-

House Bunting - western end of Todra Gorge
We then walked back through the gorge, and stopped for a very good lunch.

After lunch it was back to the car, and back the way we came, down the N10 to Boumalne du Dadès, stopping to photograph some camels wandering free - many camels that you see are dressed up to the nines in order to extract money from the tourists.

Camel (Dromedary) - beside N10
Turning north in Boumalne du Dadès, we headed along the Dadès valley. The scenery soon became amazing! We stopped to try and photograph a Black Wheatear - this one a rather brown female - but the results were less than satisfying.

Black Wheatear (female) - Dadès Valley
It was about now that I realised a fact of life in Morocco. If you expect roads to run through river valleys - they don't! Water, and the land around water, are far too valuable for cultivation and so not taken up with roads. The roads tend to run at the edge of fertile areas. However, there are places where there are very narrow gorges, where there is no choice but to run the road through the gorge. The Todra Gorge is short (600 metres), but very dramatic with vertical sides rising to up to 160 metres high and a minimum width of  only 10 metres!! The Dadès Gorge is much longer (perhaps 10 miles/16 km), and the road only runs in the bottom of the gorge for a shorter distance than that of the Todra Gorge, but the scenery of the Dadès totally outstrips that of the Todra.

rock formations in the Dadès Valley

road through the Dadès Gorge

Dadès Gorge
It was getting dark by the time that we got back to Dar Daif.

Thursday 18th October

We had an earlyish start this day, as we were to leave the Ouarzazate area for the second half of our holiday in Morocco. I had another brief walk before breakfast and found that Laughing Dove were not confined to the Draa Valley!

Laughing Dove - Douar Talmasla
 Our destination was Marrakech, but we took the scenic route on a road that, until last year, had only been passable with a 4x4 vehicle. The direct route can be done in under four hours, but we allowed ourselves ten hours for this diversionary journey - and pretty much used up all ten!

Our first stop was on the outskirts of Ouarzazte, so that  our driver could check our tyres - it was still going to be a rough road! As we stopped, I noticed a Black Wheatear on a wall, and managed some images. On examining these, I'm a little concerned as I will describe below.

Black Wheatear - outskirts of Ouarzazate
My concern over the Black Wheatear was due to the description in the Collins Bird Guide. The Black Wheatear is described as a big and hefty bird when compared to its White-crowned cousin, with the black on the underside extending behind the legs. Elsewhere I've seen the bird described as drab black, rather than the glossy black of the slimmer White-crowned Wheatear, and never with any white on the crown. This bird seemed slim, glossy black, black not extending beyond the legs, and a definite white spot showing on the back of the crown in the second image. There's no denying the tail pattern of the Black Wheatear, however. It started me wondering if Black and White-crowned were known to hybridise?

Tyres checked, we continued to a viewpoint above the spectacular ksar (fortified city) of Aït Benhaddou, stopped for a mint tea, and set off agaion, suitably refreshed.

Our next stop, just beyond Tamdaght, was for another Black Wheatear. This one was again slim, but the black extended behind the legs, and the black was relatively drab.

Black Wheatear - Tamdaght to Telouèt road
A different-looking bird on a wire had us stopping again. This turned out to be my first Blue Rock Thrush and, although it stayed distant, I managed some images although, at this range, the bird did not look very blue! 

Blue Rock Thrush - Tamdaght to Telouèt road
A later stop for birds (which were unidentified and gone before we could leave the car) had us looking at a Barbary Ground Squirrel, spotted by my wife - a quite attractive looking creature (the squirrel, not my wife!).

Barbary Ground Squirrel - Tamdaght to Telouèt road
I little before Telouèt I could not resist a final (I promise!) shot of a Crested Lark (or was it a Thekla Lark?) as it posed rather nicely.

Crested Lark - Tamdaght to Telouèt road
We had a lunch break at the splendid-looking Auberge Restaurant Telouèt, just beyond the village of Telouèt - very enjoyable, and full of character inside also!
Auberge Restaurant Telouèt
After lunch, when still in sight of civilisation, we stopped for some birds in a bush. I really don't know what these were - any suggestions please?

unidentified - beyond Telouèt
It was about now, that I started reflecting on our travels and was regretting that we were on our way to the city and had not seen that iconic Morocco bird - the Moussier's Redstart . Suddenly Bingo! - there was a fine male on the hillside, but it was departing as we stopped. I managed a distant shot of it in a bush before it disappeared from sight, not to be seen again.

Moussier's Redstart (male) - Telouèt to Tizi-n-Tichka road
As second prize I saw another bird nearby. This turned out to be the somewhat less spectacular female of the species - but it was a bit more photographable!

Moussier's Redstart (female) - Telouèt to Tizi-n-Tichka road
Feeling quite eleated by this latest find, we approached the junction of this by-road with the main N9 to Marrakech. Literally only a few metres before we reached the junction we saw another Black Wheatear beside the road. Now this really was chunky and drab black, and his partner was even more drab. These birds much more closely fitted the Collins description.

Black Wheatear - near Tizi-n-Tichka pass
We enjoyed the spectacular run through the High Atlas, taken at a more leisurely pace than on our outward journey, only stopping for refreshements and to view more Red-billed Chough. We approached Marrakech in a dust storm, but as we entered the city a group of White Stork flew low over the car. Wow!!

It started to rain as we arrived at our destination, which was the superb Dar Vedra, and we got thoroughly soaked that night when we went out to sample the spectacle that is Place Jemaa el-Fna after dark. 

More birds and other creatures will feature in the third (and final) part of my account of our travels in Morocco. Thank you for dropping by.

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.