Thoroughly rested after a night in the superb Hotel La Pergola, a little French hotel in the centre of Agadir, we left town at 8am, following the coast road with the sea on our left, heading northwards towards Essaouira, a favourite seaside town for tourists. My main desire, now we were on the coast was to see Audouin's Gulls and also to catch up with a different race of Great Grey Shrike L. e. algeriensis which is only found on the northwest coast and is darker with less white in the wings than the Great Grey Shrikes L. e. elegans we had been seeing inland in Morocco up to now. We left Agadir in what I suppose was the morning rush hour - that is if anyone rushes in Morocco. Even on the city's three lane highways the inner lane usually had donkeys, bicycles and a variety of transportation that would not be allowed to see the light of day on any major road in the UK. A man riding a camel, for no apparent reason wandered over an active building site. No one batted an eyelid. Rather than safety barriers the central reservation was a double line of purple bougainvilleas. A nice touch. Slowly we left the urban sprawl behind and found ourselves on a pleasant coast road with the blue sea shimmering in the morning sunlight. Small sleepy seaside villages, a jumble of ancient and modern buildings, came and went as we moved northwards with always that brilliant radiating sealight you get on a sunny coast.
We stopped to admire a Peregrine sat on a pylon and then chased an example of the algeriensis race of Great Grey Shrike around some waste ground at the back of a beach. It was hard work but eventually I got my photo.
Great Grey Shrike L e. algeriensis
Otman went off road for this and rather than return to the road we just carried on along a track running parallel with the road as if it was the most natural thing to do, finding up to eight Moussier's Redstarts, Sardinian Warblers, a female Northern Wheatear and several European Stonechats in the scrub.
Male Sardinian Warbler
We finally rejoined the main road and now my main aim was to get some photos of Audouin's Gull. Otman apparently knew just the place and some kilometres later we turned off the road onto a beach road which was, judging by the surfer dudes present in the sandy car park the main hang out for them in this part of Morocco. The beach itself was huge and apart from the surfer's corner it was deserted. The surfers themselves only amounted to around thirty souls and Otman, ignoring them, drove right onto the beach and towards the other end away from the surfers. There was a huge flock of gulls in front of us, mainly Lesser Black backed Gulls and Audouin's Gulls. I counted in excess of 430 of the latter, virtually all were adults with just a handful of first, second and third winter birds. The occasional Yellow legged Gull showed up in the throng and one solitary immature Mediterranean Gull was a surprise. I also found I think a few examples of Baltic Gull arguably a species in it's own right but currently lumped as a race of Lesser Black backed Gull L. f. fuscus.
A number of the Audouin's Gulls had large white plastic rings with numbers or letters on - part of a Spanish ringing scheme according to Brahim.
Adult winter Audouin's Gull
First winter Audouin's Gull
We spent some time on the beach. It was a joy to photograph my favourite gull with the sound of the surf and cries of the gulls in my ears. I watched the waves coming towards the shore, the crests breaking white almost as if they were smiling as they greeted the golden sand. This being Morocco we were eventually joined by a couple of locals curious as to what we were up to and after us all shaking hands in the customary fashion, Brahim had a long chat with them while I wandered around taking pictures of the gulls.
After the dust of the desert it was a refreshing change to be alone on a huge expanse of beach with just my thoughts and the clear sea air. In fact it was so nice we decided to have our lunch here and Otman duly headed off to the nearest village to get bread, olives, cheese, tomatoes and piles of fruit. I could have sat there all day but we had to get on if we were to make Essaouira by late afternoon.
Arriving in Essaouira, I found a pleasant seaside town not in anyway despoiled by the likes of the speculative building and hotel horror of the Spanish Costas or the usual seaside tat one finds all too often in coastal towns, but with wide palm fringed boulevards, white buildings and no individual building more than four stories high, the whole town imparted a pleasant ambience. I doubt it will last as already there were hoardings going up offering the opportunity to purchase exclusive apartments yet to be built and membership of high class golf resorts. But you never know.
We came to rest by another river mouth opening into the sea and walked along the sandy bank by the river and into the hinterland of dunes. Nothing exceptional was here with just a single Common Greenshank and Grey Plover feeding by the river's edge and a small group of Little Ringed Plover doing likewise. A Kingfisher shot downriver towards the sea and Sardinian Warblers played hide and seek in the bushes on the dunes. An adult Mediterranean Gull stood with some Black headed Gulls and a Sandwich Tern flew upriver to join some Lesser Black backed and Yellow legged Gulls vigorously bathing in the river.
As we had driven into Essaouira, over the bridge spanning the river, I had noticed a small area of what looked like settling pools behind the river and suggested to Brahim we investigate them. We were both pleasantly surprised to discover just how many birds were on them. The big surprise was the number of Common ChiffChaffs catching flies around and indeed over the water.There must have been at least a hundred around the pools, flying out to pick flies from the water's surface or just hopping around the banks. There were also many Black winged Stilts together with a nice selection of commoner waders such as Common Greenshank, Common Redshank, Ruff and Common Snipe. An adult Spanish Yellow Wagtail M f iberiae fluttered along in front of us loathe to leave the abundant supply of flies and four Song Thrush flew wildly away from some dusty bushes. Could they be migrants? Just as we were leaving, two each of European Swallow and Brown throated Martin came to feast on the flies.
'Spanish' Yellow Wagtail M f iberiae
Common ChiffChaff - now I know where they all go in winter!
Black winged Stilt
We headed for my hotel for the night. Just off the main promenade I even had a view of the beach from my bedroom. Once I was ensconced in my room Brahim announced he was going to go and buy some fresh fish and get a local open air restaurant to cook it for our evening meal. Fine by me, it sounded an excellent and appetising idea. He left me in my room and looking out of my window I came close up to a pair of Yellow legged Gulls on the balcony roof. I took a photo of one of them from my bed it was that close and then sat in the shower to eat a pomegranate. They can get very messy!
Adult Yellow legged Gull - as seen from my bed
Brahim and Otman duly collected me later in the evening and we went to our seafood restaurant located on a sort of Moroccan version of Fishermans Wharf i.e pretty downmarket but with bags of character and I had I must say the most sensational meal. We were invited to choose our fish from a dazzling array of fish and crustaceans displayed on a huge slab. They had been caught that day and we sat alfresco, in the dark with a tilly lamp to light our table looking at the boat that had caught them whilst the fish we chose were cooked over a charcoal fire. It was excellent. Truly memorable.
The end of my Moroccan odyssey was now in sight. Tomorrow we would make the long haul to Marrakech but thankfully would not stop there but spend a night in a hotel in the Ourika Valley, a well known tourist venue high up in the Atlas Mountains, before going on to Oukaimeden, a ski resort even higher up in the Atlas Mountains where we would try and find the second of my most desired Moroccan species, Crimson winged Finch. Brahim had already dampened my spirits and expectations by repeatedly telling me that the snow had not come to the mountains so I had little chance of seeing them as they would still be on the mountain tops. They only descended to Oukaimeden when the snows came. I was philosophical. I had dipped them in March at Oukaimeden when there was snow on the ground and it would be great to see them this time but hey ho I have had a pretty good time of it despite this final likely disappointment. It certainly was not going to ruin my holiday.
I was collected from my hotel at 7am and we made our way out of Essaouira, a town I definitely would like to come back to and spend some time in. We had not had breakfast so Otman said we would stop in an hour or so which we duly did at some nameless little town. Otman throughout our trip was very particular about where we had breakfast and he would reconnoitre all the street cafes before selecting the one he deemed appropriate. Thus it was we did our usual dry run down and up the main street before alighting at a cafe cum butcher's shop complete with sides of meat hanging stiff and bloody in the cold air. The cafe floor even had sawdust on it and the plastic tablecloths were still wet with condensation from the chill air but the mint tea warmed me, tasted as good as ever and the pancakes and honey were a real treat.
We left the chilly cafe and went on our way, passing through various towns and turning to follow the signs to Marrakech. One final stop was made to buy two huge baskets of grapes which Otman was going to give to one of his ex army buddies in Marrakech.
Loaded up with grapes we made our way to the chaotic Marrakech. A nightmare of traffic, pedestrians, motor scooters, road diversions and demented traffic policemen frantically blowing ineffectual whistles whilst trying to maintain order. We crossed the city, gave the grapes to Otman's colleague and headed for the hills, literally. The traffic chaos died away and we found ourselves on quieter roads as we headed south for the Atlas Mountains. Because we had made such good time we now had an opportunity to go to Oukaimeden today as well as tomorrow. This would give me two opportunities to look for the Crimson winged Finch. Slowly the road rose upwards until we were spiralling dizzily around hairpin bends, passing through tiny villages with hordes of impossibly cute children walking home from school by the roadside.
We made a stop at a layby high up in the mountains overlooking a huge drop down between the mountains into a valley where, below us, was a small village dominated by a Mosque. This being Friday, the holy day, the mullah was giving his address and broadcasting it over the tannoy. It rang out between the high mountains and down the valley in the still air and was incredibly moving. I am not in anyway religious but I felt moved to silence and respect for the mullah and his address although I did not understand a word of it. It was just so powerful and evocative in such wonderful surroundings.
The Mosque down in the valley
A coach load of French tourists drew up and the spell was broken. Heedless of what was below them they gabbled away, taking photos of each other while the mullah's address rang out. It was disrespectful, I was affronted and told Otman to take us away from here. I think Otman, who was quite a religious man, praying five times a day wherever we were, felt the same.
We arrived in Oukaimeden where the road ends and the mountains take over. Sadly the mountain walls by the road near to the summit at Oukaimeden are despoiled by graffiti but somehow the sheer grandeur of the geography is not diminished by this. Stopping by the dam wall we got out. It was bitterly cold. We were 2300m up in the thin alpine air, it was looking like rain and we had passed through cloud! Not good.
I looked down from the road to where a small stream flowed downhill from the dam wall. A White Wagtail and some Meadow Pipits were feeding quietly beside it. A Blackbird or so I thought was also feeding in the wet grass by the water. It looked up and showed a large white crescent on it's breast. It was a Ring Ouzel. Then another and another appeared. Five at least. We walked closer but in true Ring Ouzel fashion they fled and now there were at least fifteen, previously hidden, flying away from under the banks of the stream and up the mountain slope. Where had they come from? Can these birds be migrants crossing the high Atlas to the warmer climes of southern Morocco and have had to put down because of the cloud and rain? I will think of this moment when I next see them at Linkey Down in Oxfordshire. We drove further into Oukaimeden towards the ski lifts
A huge flock of small birds flew up from the flat grassy expanses around the currently out of use ski lifts. They were Common Linnets. About one hundred and fifty. We looked at the flock from the 4x4 to see if anything else was with them. It was very very cold with a gentle but bitter wind blowing. I saw a male Common Chaffinch and then there were about fifty others together with some Rock Sparrows and Horned Larks, hopping around near to the linnets but there was no sign of any Crimson winged Finches. Black Redstarts seemed to pop up everywhere and a small flock of Red billed and Alpine Choughs were feeding on the damp grasslands near the dam.
Female Black Redstart
Red billed Chough
We got out of the 4x4 and walked a little further up the road beyond the ski lifts towards where an alpine stream, strewn with litter in true Moroccan fashion, flowed below a rocky slope. A Grey Wagtail was bobbing along between the discarded beer cans and some more Common Chaffinches and Rock Sparrows flew up from beside the stream. A small group of finches separated from the flock and I thought I saw pink. Chaffinches however have pink breasts so I was circumspect but I re-found seven finches at the same time as Brahim, sat on a rocky outcrop above the stream. They were Crimson winged Finches. Yes they really were, we had truly done it. We had found them despite Brahim's previous doubts. What a great result. I was ecstatic.
There are seven Crimson winged Finches in this picture
Incredibly well camouflaged on the rocks they sat motionless for a while and then flew across the road to a rocky scree slope. We gave chase but it was a bit futile as they made sure they kept a good distance from us, were difficult to find amongst the rocks and to cap it all it was now beginning to rain. I tried some camera shots more in hope than anything else and even managed a minor miracle in getting a few half decent images.
Crimson winged Finch- at last!
The finches went progressively higher up the hillside. We gave up the chase and despite searching lower down we only saw them once more, briefly, before they disappeared for good. I found six Serins later, feeding with the Common Chaffinches and then we called it a day and drove back to my final hotel in Ourika and my final night in Morocco.
The hotel was large but I was their only guest as this was well and truly out of season. It was very cold and I had the heater in my room going full blast. I had a really nice Vegetarian Tagine in splendid isolation in the restaurant and discovered to my delight the hotel actually sold beer. I had two small bottles of Heineken to celebrate my success with the Crimson winged Finches and retired to bed with three blankets and heavy duty socks on my feet to ward off the cold.
My Hotel at Ourika
View of the Ourika Valley from my Hotel
The Hotel restaurant where I was the only customer
Next day there are no prizes for guessing as to where we went for our final morning of birding. I wanted some more Crimson winged Finch action. On the way up we came across two unexpected Common Ravens perched on some wires but they soon flew off across the valley. A Blackcap at an elevation of over 2000m was also a surprise.
We went to the area the Crimson winged Finches had seemed to favour yesterday but there was no sign of them. The weather in contrast to yesterday was fabulous with a crystal clear blue sky and sun but still very cold. The scenery was just breathtaking in it's beauty and we had the place to ourselves.
Oukaimeden with low cloud coming off the mountains
These huts are used in the summer months by goat and sheep herders. They
are also the haunt of Black Redstarts and Black Wheatears in winter
Brahim and myself wandered around looking in vain for the finches but it was Otman who located them and alerted us. They were further up the valley so he came to collect us in the 4x4 and we drove to the spot and there they were, feeding on the rocky ground to our left with some Rock Sparrows. I suggested we remain in the 4x4 and with incredible luck the birds flew over and landed on a rocky slope right by us.
Crimson winged Finches were feeding on this slope
We estimated there was now around twenty five to thirty of them in small groups and we spent the next hour watching them at relatively close quarters feeding on seeds in amongst the rocks and stones on the slope to our right. One male in particular came fairly close. I got my photos.
Male Crimson winged Finch
Female Crimson Winged Finch
Many many photos. Far too many photos I agree but I just love this bird for what it represents. After an hour or so something spooked the finches and they were gone. We waited for thirty minutes or so to see if they would return but no such luck.
It was now time to head for Marrakech and my flight home. One brief stop by the dam and we found two more Black Redstarts, a Dipper and a Green Sandpiper that presumably was migrating over the Atlas Mountains but for now was just resting by the water's edge.
Three hours flying on EasyJet and all this would just be a memory for me.
Below is a list of what I saw on my trip
Bonelli's Eagle/ Peregrine Falcon/ Lanner Falcon/ Osprey/ Long legged Buzzard/ Black winged Kite/ Marsh Harrier/ Common Kestrel/ Pharoah Eagle Owl/ Little Owl/ Common Raven/ Brown-necked Raven/ 'Maghreb' Magpie/ Jay/ Red billed Chough/ Alpine Chough/ White Stork/ Eurasian Spoonbill/ Great White Egret/ Cattle Egret/ Little Egret/ Grey Heron/ Northern Bald Ibis/ Glossy Ibis/ Great Cormorant/ White breasted Cormorant/ Great Crested Grebe/ Little Grebe/ Black necked Grebe/ Common Coot/ Common Moorhen/ Common Shelduck/ Ruddy Shelduck/ Mallard/ Northern Pintail/ Northern Shoveler/ Eurasian Wigeon/ Common Teal/ Marbled Duck/ Lesser Black backed Gull (L. f. fuscus, graellsii & intermedius) / Yellow legged Gull/ Herring Gull/ Audouin's Gull/ Mediterranean Gull/ Slender billed Gull/ Black headed Gull/ Sandwich Tern/ Common Tern/ Balearic Shearwater/ Eurasian Curlew/ Oystercatcher/ Lapwing/ Stone Curlew/ Common Greenshank/ Common Redshank/ Spotted Redshank/ Ruff/ Avocet/ Grey Plover/ Knot/ Black winged Stilt/ Common Snipe/ Green Sandpiper/ Common Sandpiper/ Ringed Plover/ Little Ringed Plover/ Dunlin/ Sanderling/ Greater Flamingo/ Black crowned Tchagra (heard only)/ Great Grey Shrike L. e.elegans & algeriensis/ Woodpigeon/ Collared Dove/ Laughing Dove/ Dipper/ Common Kingfisher/ Spotted Sandgrouse/ Black-bellied Sandgrouse (heard only)/ Great Spotted Woodpecker/ Levaillant's Woodpecker/ Wall Creeper/ Blackbird/ Song Thrush/ Ring Ouzel/ Blue Rock Thrush/ Moussier's Redstart /Black Redstart/ European Stonechat/ Northern Wheatear/ Red-rumped Wheatear/ Black Wheatear/ White crowned Wheatear/ Maghreb Wheatear/ Spotless Starling/ Fulvous Babbler/ Common Bulbul/ Crested Lark (including long billed examples)/ Thekla Lark/ Thick billed Lark/ Desert Lark/ Bar tailed Lark/ Lesser Short toed Lark/ Hoopoe Lark/ Temminck's Lark/ Horned Lark/ Tree Pipit/ Meadow Pipit/ White Wagtail/ 'Moroccan' White Wagtail/ Yellow Wagtail M.f.iberiae/ Grey Wagtail/ Crag Martin/ Rock Martin/ Brown throated Martin/ European Swallow/ Greenfinch/ Goldfinch/ Serin/ Common Linnet/ Crimson winged Finch/ African Chaffinch/ Common Chaffinch/ 'Atlas' Common Crossbill/ Trumpeter Finch/ House Sparrow/ Spanish Sparrow/ Desert Sparrow/ Rock Sparrow/ Common Chiffchaff/ Blackcap/ Sardinian Warbler/ Tristram's Warbler/ Scrub Warbler/ Zitting Cisticola/ Cetti's Warbler/ Cirl Bunting/ Rock Bunting/ House Bunting / Great Tit/ 'African' Blue Tit/ Coal Tit.
Red denotes lifers
Barbary Ground Squirrel