Saturday 30 March 2013

I Swallowed the Sahara 21st-27th March 2013

Tired and depressed by the awful climate and extremes of winter weather that seem to go on for ever in  Britain I decided to take the family to southern Morocco for some sunshine, combining a holiday for my wife and daughter with hopefully some good birding for myself. EasyJet fly there in just over three hours and the transformation from a bleak and cold Stansted Airport to the warmth and vibrancy of the spacious, airy Marrakech Airport in such a short time was a revelation. As the plane approaches Marrakech the first sight is of an awesome skyline of snow covered, jagged peaks that are the Atlas Mountains and which dominate the southern side of Marrakech. 

Our first night was to be spent in Marrakech and then we planned to drive via various small hotels as far south as Merzouga, bordering the awesome dunes of Erg Chebbi which form the northern edge of the Sahara. Our accommodation in Marrakech was a Riad called Dar Zemrane, one of many similar small hotels set in the heart of the Medina, comprising a covered courtyard with rooms off the sides of the courtyard, on one or two floors. After collecting the hired 4x4 I managed a somewhat stressful drive to our accommodation or as near as possible to it, before leaving the car in an open car park with a guard and then walking through a maze of alleyways to our Riad, where we were greeted with a warm welcome and delicious sweet, mint tea. Driving in Marrakech is definitely not for those of a nervous disposition. Cars, buses, motor scooters, pedestrians, donkey carts and  the occasional feral dog wander seemingly at will across the whole road and the scooters come at you from all sides. All this accompanied by incessant blowing of horns. The slightest hesitation will result in a cacophony of noise telling you to get a move on. There seems to be a policeman on every intersection randomly waving his white gloved hands like some overwound toy and blowing his whistle to little apparent effect. Fortunately it is due to such chaos on the roads in central Marrakech that speeds are very slow.

The first birds I saw in Morocco were the ubiquitous House Buntings which frequent the alleyways and indeed the very insides of most buildings and seem to replace House Sparrows in this urban environment. Most are absurdly confiding and their cheery song is everywhere you go. We had one join us indoors for breakfast and there was also one singing from inside the airport lounge. No one seems to bother about them and they are everywhere you go inside and out. 

Male House Bunting
A late afternoon walk with my daughter Polly, through the souk (market) winding endlessly down the narrow street near our Riad (hotel) overloaded our senses with noise and colour. The sheer vibrancy of all human life and the innumerable variety of endless tiny shops selling anything and everything is a complete cultural shock after the boring branded high streets and shopping malls of Britain, and personally thrilled me. It just does not seem possible that all this is just three hours away from home.

Human life is here in all it's myriad forms, absolutely pulsing with energy. The whole Medina seemingly one big market that never closes. Pallid Swifts and Little Swifts whizzed around above us in the blue sky. That evening we walked through the labrynth of narrow streets to Djemaa el Fna, the main square, dodging the many scooters hurtling at breakneck speeds past and around the pedestrians as they browsed the myriad illuminated shops and stalls. Our destination was the slightly upmarket Kozybar, where we eventually sat with a Casablanca beer to revive us, in an alfresco lounge two flights up. I was at eye level with roosting White Storks, both of us assimilating the warm night air and the sounds and sights of nightlife in the centre of Marrakech. 

Next morning we were awoken before dawn by the mullahs calling the faithful to prayer and later at dawn by the cheery calls of Common Bulbuls. We made our way up to the top of the Riad before breakfast and sat in the open roof area in the morning sunshine overlooking the surrounding roofs. A large number of Little Swifts were cruising the already blue skies together with similar numbers of Pallid Swifts, the latter often hurtling around us at eye level. A pair of Spotless Starlings perched on a wall in the sun and more familiar birds such as Collared Doves, Blackbirds and House Sparrows became evident. A couple of migrant Willow Warblers flitted around in a Cypress tree. 
Spotless Starling
After a breakfast of  pancakes, bread, honey, fruit juice, assorted savouries and mint tea we were on our way south. Our route out of Marrakech was straightforward once we found it and we headed southeast on the long first leg of our journey to Boumaine du Dades, some 450km away, where we were booked for two nights at the Perle du Dades, not a stones throw away from the famous Tagdilt Track, where all sorts of ornithological goodies were to be found according to Dave Gosney's guide book 'Finding Birds in Morocco: The Deserts', as well as other birder's trip reports. As we made our way southwards I noted more White Storks and a Long legged Buzzard. We also encountered a number of the distinctive north African race of Magpie with their blue ear patches, scavenging by the roadsides on the outskirts of Marrakech. Once free of the city we made a short stop by an area of waste ground finding a Thekla Lark, singing Western Olivaceous Warblers and Nightingales, a Sardinian Warbler, the distinctive africanus race of Chaffinch with its pastel shaded plumage, green mantle, all blue head and white 'eyebrows' and the only Red rumped Swallow of the trip. Moving onwards we progressed towards the ascent and high altitude crossing of the Atlas Mountains. 

The drive is just too spectacular to describe adequately and I found myself dicing with death with huge drops to one side of the car as we took incessant tight loops and bends up the mountain road, continually heading upwards in jaw dropping scenery and finally ascending to the summit at the Col du Tichka Pass

We stopped briefly here but so, apparently, did every coachload of tourists and we encountered our first of many persistent fossil and trinket sellers, so we soon moved on. On the ascent we had been passing green, fertile, irrigated valleys with trees and pink and white blossom but descending we were now in the rain shadow of the mountains and the ground was virtually a barren desert. Everything was now a red ochre colour, even the buildings which are built into the landscape, looking almost a part of the rock formations themselves.

We saw little birdlife which is hardly surprising as I was concentrating on keeping the car on the narrow mountain roads and the family were admiring the scenery. A couple of brief stops here and there produced a few Northern Wheatears, European Swallows and European Bee Eaters feeding up before making their own crossing of the Atlas Mountains. We finally arrived at Boumain du Dades at 5pm and had to make a big detour to get to the hotel as the normal river ford crossing was impossible even with a 4x4, due to the large amount of water in the river. The 4x4 now came into it's own as we crossed a wasteland of dust and stones heading for the distant hotel which thankfully was well signposted in a seemingly trackless stony desert. 

Perle du Dades
Another warm and relaxed welcome awaited us at the Perle du Dades together with wonderful rooms with traditional Moroccan Berber decor. We had a beer each to settle the dust and then a three course meal including a memorable Chicken and Vegetable Tagine. We felt we had earned it having driven 450 kilometres. I was of course getting very excited as I had the whole of next morning to explore the famed Tagdilt Track and hopefully rack up a host of desert species. Dawn could not come fast enough for me but finally arrived around 6am and I was off in the 4x4. Turning out of the hotel gates I immediately came across a Little Owl perched on the wires and thirty minutes later I was crossing the vast expanse of seemingly bare desert through which runs the track to Tagdilt. The area is literally miles of stones and barren, sandy desert as far as you can see, interspersed by the occasional wadi.

Despite recommendations to find the rubbish dump I went slightly further East. I followed the instructions and map in Dave Gosney's Guide and ventured down what is called the New Tagdilt Track, driving around a couple of dead dogs and some evil looking live ones, and eventually stopped in the middle of nowhere and got out. I really had no idea what to do other than wander around seeing what I could find. Is this what the other birders do? I was alone in the wilderness. Not another human soul within miles. There were birds here alright. I could hear them. My first encounter and one of many as it turned out, was with a Temminck's Horned Lark. Very much like our more familiar Shore or Horned Lark but with white on the face rather than yellow, and to my mind a very impressive pair of black horns. 

Temminck's Horned Lark
As I progressed I regularly came across little groups of them scuttling across the stony ground. Another movement turned out not to be a bird but a sandy coloured rodent with the rather wonderful name of Shaw's Jird. What at first I took to be a Northern Wheatear then flew ahead of me. I looked at it in my bins. It was a male Seebohm's Wheatear, which is basically a Northern but with a black face and throat and arguably a species in it's own right. Whatever, it was a good bird to see. Heartened by this and now gaining confidence in tackling the vast expanse of seemingly nothing I pressed on, encountering Greater Short Toed Larks, Crested Larks, Thekla Larks, Red rumped, Black, White Crowned and Desert Wheatears. 

Greater Short toed Lark

Male Desert Wheatear

Male Red rumped Wheatear on one of the million or so plastic bags
at Boumaine rubbish dump
My main target however was the elusive and for mecharismatic and  highly desirable Thick billed Lark. There are always birds that seem more desirable than others and this for me was the bird that was wanted more than any other. But where to find it in this huge area? The rubbish dump is recommended but many birders still fail to find them there. The rubbish dump is immensely depressing with huge numbers of wind blown blue and white plastic bags strewn for miles across the barren land. Feral dogs, both dead and alive also do nothing for it's appeal, nor do evil smelling bags containing heaven knows what and, although I did eventually check the dump, there seemed little birdlife present there. I then had a revelation. It occurred to me that instead of walking about I could short circuit the exercise by using the 4x4 to it's full extent and go off road or if you like off track. This I did, saving both time and energy and I was now birding from a mobile hide. Why did I not think of this before? Idiot! 

I was by now on a slightly raised plateau well into the wilderness, which according to Gosney was meant to be the best spot for Hoopoe Lark and Cream Coloured Courser. I failed spectacularly to find them although I got good close up views of pairs of Red rumped and Desert Wheatears. I stopped to admire and photo yet another male Desert Wheatear, probably the commonest wheatear species here. A movement caught my eye. A pale and larger bird was moving steadily across the ground behind it. Please let it be. I got the bins on it and there it was. A Thick billed Lark. A female working it's way across the stones picking at various items with it's huge bill. 

Female Thick billed Lark
Suddenly the Desert Wheatear took exception to it's presence and flew at it. It flew. Oh no! I followed the direction it flew and drove to the spot with little hope of re-finding it. My luck was in. There it was again. I got the bins on it  but it wasn't the female I was expecting. It was a male! Glorious with it's black and cream face, huge pale blue bill and blotchy, heavily streaked underparts. I followed it around manoeuvering the car in anticipation of it's progress as it moved rapidly through the stones and I got my pictures as it was apparently untroubled by the close proximity of the car and my frequent changes of position.

Male Thick billed Lark
I just could not believe my luck. Watching it for around an hour I savoured every moment before it finally took off and as it did, so did two more, so there were in fact three. Two males and a female. Flying away you could see the black underwings and broad white edges to the wings and white indentations in the tails. It does not get better than this. Elated I got out of the vehicle to relax and unwind for a bit and heard what I thought was a 'grouse' like call. Suddenly two portly grouse rocketed off the ground with very obvious black bellies. Black bellied Sandgrouse. From nothing a few hours earlier I had now achieved some spectacular finds and satisfied my main aim to find and photo a Thick billed Lark.

Still with some hours left before my scheduled return at lunchtime I drove around some more of this vast area encountering a herd of camels by some pools but no birdlife there. I headed back across the wasteland and crossing a wadi noted a slender, quite large, pale bird with a long curved bill and long tail. It was a Hoopoe Lark. It flew revealing it's attractive black and white wing pattern. Further on a movement on the ground caught my eye, then another and another. Four Cream coloured Coursers rapidly running away from the vehicle. What a morning. I headed back to the hotel as a Long legged Buzzard flew across the plains. 

We stayed one more night at Boumaine and I did a bit of birding in the fertile Vallee du Dades by walking along the river which runs behind the hotel early the next morning. The whole area consists of irrigated, primitively cultivated, small plots of land growing wheat, shaded by scattered trees and consequently attractive to birds. My explorations encountered over ten singing Nightingales, drumming Great Spotted Woodpeckers of the race numidus which has much more extensive red on the underparts and a red spot on the chest, Cetti's, Sardinian and Tristram's Warblers, numerous Blackbirds, Grey Wagtails on the river and a male Yellow Wagtail of the race iberiae. Singing Serins and Chaffinches were everywhere and a Hoopoe wandered about in a glade. Goldfinches, Greenfinches and Chiffchaffs were more familiar and there were also a few migrant Common Redstarts. A flock of around fifty European Bee Eaters hunted insects above me and migrating European Swallows with the occasional Sand and House Martin moved up the valley. A Laughing Dove perched just above my head  as I headed back to the hotel. 

Trumpeter Finch
We bade farewell to the wonderful Perle du Dades, passing a Trumpeter Finch perched on a wall as we left, and then it was onwards to perhaps the most exciting part of our trip. Merzouga, which is slap bang next to the ever encroaching Sahara and the Erg Chebbi Dunes. Our hotel was located just two hundred metres from the dunes. Awesome! As we progressed southwards the landscape became ever more desertified and barren. We survived yet another police speed trap. These traps now seem to be everywhere but fortunately oncoming traffic flash their lights to warn you of their presence. We must have encountered over half a dozen on our way south often in the middle of nowhere. We passed through Quarzazate, a former Foreign Legionnaire town with it's bizarre, huge film studios and air of unreality. The last stretch of our journey from Rissani to Merzouga was across vast, open dusty plains, on roads seemingly empty for miles bar the occasional lorry hurtling along on the other side, spraying dust everywhere. We passed the ancient Berber burial grounds and now somewhat of a tourist trap. 

Eventually the Erg Chebbi Dunes came into sight, rising golden and huge above the sun shimmering plain. Many, many people, not just birders, come here now to see the dunes and there are any number of small hotels, riads, auberges, call them what you will, catering for every want. A large number of  hotel signs clustered together and consequently confusing to the motorist, line every intersection where a track leads off the road to the various hotels. We eventually found our one, Riad Mamouche in amongst about twenty others and were soon being welcomed by the very friendly Hassan and his staff. 

More mint tea and then we were shown to our rooms which contained possibly the most enormous double beds I have ever seen in a hotel. The hotel obviously catered for the Japanese tourist, there were two while we were there, as the toilet seats were equipped with a ridiculous number of buttons with instructions in Japanese which, as I learned in Japan, the Japanese seem to have a love affair with. Why on earth do you need all this to take a dump for heaven's sake? Without wasting anymore time, once we had checked in we got in the 4x4 and headed straight for the dunes. Leaving the vehicle we walked another half a mile into the dunes and entered a magical world of sand on a just sheer unimaginable scale. 

View from our Riad. Two tourist camels awaiting their next victims

Father and daughter

Erg Chebbi Dunes 
All of us were struck by the size and immensity of the dunes and their majestic, sculpted. geometric beauty. They rise to 150m in places and stretch for miles. We stood, awed in the silence and isolation, with the wind gently blowing the sand in ripples around our feet and watched as the dunes slowly turned a rich gold in the setting sun. Dung beetles pootered around in the sand and Silver Ants, unique in that they alone can survive being out for brief periods in the burning midday sun of the Sahara, tried to retrieve a dead beetle. 

We are but a speck in this vast world. A Dung Beetle
As we stood waiting for the sunset, European Bee Eaters and Swallows were coming in off the desert having crossed the formidable barrier of the Sahara. The timeless ebb and flow of migration was right here around us and I felt a sense of detachment from my world as I watched, with no little emotion, these tired and weary travellers finally making it to comparative safety, having crossed a huge and hostile environment. It was a sobering thought that they had still a long way to go and had yet to cross the  Atlas Mountains. The next time I sit on the Sussex coast in Spring watching the Swallows coming in off the sea or our local Swallows sitting on the television aerial I will remember this time. 

Approaching dust storm
My wife pointed out to me what appeared to be an approaching storm to the North, moving slowly towards us, so we headed back to the car. It slowly dawned on us that this storm was not rain but dust and it was now coming ever closer and moving faster than we anticipated. We made it to the vehicle at the same time as the dust storm. Clambering in we were confronted with virtually nil visibility. Dust was everywhere, in our hair, noses, eyes and ears despite the vehicle windows being firmly sealed. I started up the 4x4 and we headed across the sand in what I could only guess was the direction of Merzouga and our hotel. You could see literally nothing but dust swirling around. I headed in a straight line reasoning that if I did this I would encounter the hotel. It was, after all only a few hundred metres away. Thankfully it worked, as the hotel loomed out of the dust and we fled the vehicle and raced into the hotel coughing and spluttering. Hassan was laughing. 

'Monsieur, you have swallowed half the Sahara. Here, have some tea to clear your throat'. 

Eventually I stopped coughing. That night we dined on Berber soup, vegetarian tagines with delicious orange and cinnamon to follow. The hotel laid on some improvised Berber drumming and musical entertainment after our meal, unfortunately involving audience participation. 

Cabaret time in Riad Mamouche

The dust storm had abated and after our meal and the musical entertainment my daughter was asked by one of the waiters to marry him. She told me he came out with the corniest of lines such as come and look at the stars from the roof and even the phrase 'luvvly jubbly' was employed. Del boy in the desert! My daughter having lived in Glasgow for two years is well capable of dealing with such nonsense and told him in no uncertain terms what he could do with his camels. Apparently he was willing to offer me four camels for my permission for marriage. Only four? 

Just before we left Britain I had contacted Brahim Mezane who lives in the nearby town of Rissani and offers bird guiding in the desert.  I had booked him for a day's desert birding the next day, so bright and early we all drove to Rissani to rendezvous with Brahim who turned out to be both knowledgeable, spoke  no less than six languages fluently and was an all round nice person. Our first stop was very near Rissani where we admired a group of four Blue Cheeked Bee Eaters and then we headed off into the desert to look for a Pharoah Eagle Owl. 

Blue cheeked Bee Eaters
Brahim told me he had checked the owl site the day before and the owl was present but sadly our luck was out as it was not there now. A Desert Fox, sandy grey compared to our fox in Britain, slunk along under the cliffs and a White crowned Wheatear flew amongst the rocks. 

White crowned Wheatear
Brahim told us not to worry as he knew another location and we would go there in the evening. He then almost casually asked my view about going to see an Egyptian Nightjar. I needed no further encouragement and with the 4 wheel drive fully engaged we set off across sand and pebbles into the depths of the desert. We were to make a rendezvous with a relative of Brahim's, a nomadic Berber Arab who had located the nightjar in a wadi and would wait for us and guide us to it. Although nomadic, living in the desert and with no discernible means of financial support he had, just like the rest of us a mobile phone with which to communicate. We duly arrived and parked within fifty metres of the nightjar. We walked much closer and he pointed it out and at first I just could not see it due to its superb camouflage. Then revelation. There it was looking just like the scattered stones around it. Our Arab friend pointed out there were actually two of them. Male and female! Apparently there had only been one last night but now there were two. 

Male Egyptian Nightjar
Two Egyptian Nightjars
Female Egyptian Nightjar
We spent an hour with them, gave our Arab guide a lift back to his tent and pressed on further into the desert heading for a lone Acacia tree in the distance. We found three Desert Larks, a new species for me, running across the sand as we drove towards the tree. On arriving at the tree Brahim told me there was a pair of Desert Sparrows in the tree. Really? The tree seemed devoid of any life but there were at least seven bulky sparrow nests in the tree but no sign of any sparrow. We walked around the tree. Silence. We walked around again. Then a pale bird showed itself or let's say parts of itself, in amongst the dense foliage. It was a Desert Sparrow alright but we needed better views than this. More walking commenced around the tree and finally there was a female with nest material in her beak just below one of the nests. We watched her and she watched us and eventually the male perched out in the open at the top of the tree. This much desired and increasingly difficult species to see was now firmly on the list. 

             Sand Acacia Tree - home to a pair of Desert Sparrows

Female Desert Sparrow with nest material

Male Desert Sparrow
Other birder's trip reports recount horror stories of having to walk for hours through the desert to see them but we had managed to literally drive up under a tree and score. We drove further on finding a couple of Woodchat Shrikes and then came to a Berber Camp. Parking the car here we wandered off into the dunes to look for African Desert Warblers. Brahim played a tape but there was little response and we walked further and further over the hot sand. A Camel slowly wandered across on the horizon. Then suddenly Brahim's tape was joined by the real thing and an African  Desert Warbler with yellow eyes and sandy plumage was flitting around us in the grass which looks so like Marram grass but isn't. 

Berber Camp

African Desert Warbler
There were in fact two African Desert Warblers, presumably a pair, and we stayed with them for around forty minutes before heading back to the camp and out of the sun. Back at the camp another pair of Desert Sparrows showed themselves and sadly also a pair of House Sparrows. How long I wonder before the Desert Sparrows are forced out by their more robust cousins as has happened in Merzouga, where they used to be common. A White crowned Wheatear was feeding it's young in a nest in a cavity at the top of a canvas shed and a Tristram's Warbler was quietly tacking away to itself in some tamarisks. The day wore on and we returned to the sparrow tree and in its shade had a quick alfresco lunch of bread, cheese and olives. I asked Brahim how hot does it get at the height of summer. He told me 52 degrees Celsius! Only a few, possibly deluded or desperate Moroccans come out to the desert at that time as it is believed the sand has therapeutic properties to cure rheumatism. Sufferers, of rheumatism or the sand, I am not quite sure which, are buried in the hot sand for up to a minute or two. Any longer and apparently it can be fatal. 

My wife Guen really wanted to see some flamingos and we decided that we would make an unscheduled detour to Lake Srij which is just beyond Merzouga and although often dry was currently full of water and might harbour some flamingoes. We would, however, have to step on it if we were to get everything in by nightfall i.e the Pharoah Eagle Owl. The 4x4 now justified it's expense yet again, as we rapidly drove through miles of sand back to Merzouga, eventually gaining the tarmac road and then diving down yet another sandy track to the lake. It was teeming with birds. In the space of forty five minutes we saw the following:

Black Kite 2; Brown necked Raven 4; Ruddy Shelduck 250; Greater Flamingo 57; Black winged Stilt 364; Avocet 37; Greenshank 3; Spotted Redshank 5; Green Sandpiper 5; Gull billed Tern 24; Whiskered Tern 3; Black headed Gull 1; Grey Heron 1; Great Cormorant 1; Common Swift 30+; Swallow 20+; Brown throated Martin 1; Yellow Wagtail 1; White Wagtail 1 

Now it was time to try for the owl again. We headed back towards Rissani and then turned off into yet more desert. Parking in the middle of nowhere we were surprised to find ourselves pestered by two fossil sellers. I do not know how they do it but they seem to literally magic themselves out of nowhere. 

Pharoah Eagle Owl site. It was in the narrow vertical cleft in the rock face
Guen, Polly and Brahim at the Pharoah Eagle Owl site
Ignoring the fossil sellers we walked a quarter of a mile under some huge cliffs and with the telescope found our Pharoah Eagle Owl, ensconced in an aperture in the rocks. It obviously did not do much apart from occasionally blinking its eyes, so after noting it's plumage details and everyone getting a good look at it we went to our final destination to find some Spotted Sandgrouse. Again going off road the 4x4 did it's stuff and we came to a wide sandy area scattered with low bushy plants. Stopping, we scanned ahead of us and there were the Spotted Sandgrouse in scattered groups on the sandy ground. 

Female Spotted Sandgrouse with male back left

Male Spotted Sandgrouse
Using the car as a hide we edged closer and were soon getting very good views of this attractive species. A quick count gave us in excess of eighty. Dusk was now approaching so we took Brahim back to his home in Rissani and accepted an invitation to have tea with him before he took us into town to see the family fossil shop. We bought a fossilised Trilobyte from him. Well it seemed the right thing to do and on the spur of the moment we arranged to go out with him for half a day tomorrow looking for Fulvous Babblers around Rissani and Scrub Warblers at Gulimime. This would work out well for both of us as Brahim needed to be at Gulimime to meet another bird group and Gulimime was on our way back north to Ait Benhaddou our last overnight stop on the way back to Marrakech. That night I had a chat with Otman the owner of our hotel who noticed I was a birder. He was very knowledgeable about the birds of the desert and he told me he was 'a guardian' for the increasingly endangered Houbara Bustards and offered to take us out into the desert the next day, near to the Algerian border, to see them. One has to be careful as frankly there can be a lot of misinformation from our Arab friends but he seemed genuine enough. Sadly we just did not have the time but maybe next year we will take him up on his offer provided we can negotiate a mutually accceptable price. Early the next morning, before breakfast and before heading for Rissani I used the car as a hide to get some pictures of Tristram's Warblers, which frequent the numerous tamerisks around the riads and auberges in Merzouga. 

Tristram's Warbler
Being in the vehicle also avoids the unwelcome attentions of the dreaded fossil sellers who never seem to sleep. As I left the hotel a Southern Grey Shrike was sitting on a tree in the early morning sun further down the road and European Bee Eaters were still coming in off the Sahara. We checked out of Riad Mamouche after an early breakfast on the terrace, finding another two Cream Coloured Coursers by the main road. Nine that morning found us wandering some fallow fields with scattered palm trees near Rissani. Brahim played his tape which failed to get any response from the babblers. Admittedly it was a huge area so they could be anywhere. We wandered around and came across the long billed version of Crested Lark i.e.Long billed Crested Lark. Some accept this as a separate species whilst others do not. It's bill is markedly large and long compared to the normal version. There were also 'normal' Crested Larks present for comparison. 

Crested Lark
Long billed Crested Lark
A male Subalpine Warbler zipped around some bushes as did a White crowned Wheatear. A Southern Grey Shrike and a Woodchat Shrike sat atop a palm each, surveying the land. We wandered back towards the road and then, at last, the babblers were located, some half dozen, possibly more, calling to each other, flying between palms and frustratingly disappearing on landing into the depths of the foliage. They are very engaging, superficially like small Magpies, chuckling and calling to each other and following one another around. They led us quite a merry dance amongst the palms, playing 'peek a boo' until we had sufficient views and then left them, mocking us with their whistling contact calls. 

Fulvous Babblers
Back in the car and now we headed off on the long drive to Gulimime, finally arriving at the required spot some two hours later. For once we were not alone as a party of Spanish birders were already scouring the area - another huge sandy area covered in scattered, low growing, bushy vegetation. The Spanish birders said they had seen a Scrub Warbler but with great difficulty. Brahim produced his tape and within a minute we had a Scrub Warbler dancing about atop one of the bushes. Hola! In the end we saw three but without the tape it would have been very much more difficult. I tried not to be smug. 

Scrub Warbler
Bar tailed Desert Lark
Common Redstart

Male Thick billed Lark
We wandered further into the area. Three pale and leggy larks ran before us over the sandy ground. Bar tailed Desert Larks and most welcome, having not seen them in the desert at Merzouga. Then a larger, sandy and pale looking lark was in front of us. A Thick billed Lark. A male plucking at the vegetation with it's monstrous bill. In fact there were four of them, two pairs. This was an unexpected bonus for me and there was little problem in deciding which was the bird of the day! A Hoopoe flew up and away from us and then a flock of twenty plus Short toed Larks rose from the ground as we walked through this superficially lifeless habitat. There were other birds present also, including at least two Southern Grey Shrike, a couple of male Common Redstart and no less than three Spectacled Warblers. We walked slowly back to the car with unidentified lizards scurrying away across the hot sand and the four Thick billed Larks parading ahead before tiring of us and flying off behind us with flashes of white in the wings and tail. A pair of Desert Wheatear sat near the car, the male singing.

We took Brahim back into town, bade farewell and left him at the bus stop before driving on to the Dar Mouna Hotel at Ait Benhaddou. Before we got there we made a special request stop on behalf of Polly at a French restaurant, the Relais de St Exupery in Quarzazate. The restaurant walls are lined with photographic memorabilia from the Aeropostale days of Antoine de St Exupery the author of The Little Prince and indeed the whole place seems to be an homage to him. This was easily the finest meal we had in Morocco. French cuisine at it's absolute best with excellent French wine to wash it all down. Frankly I was stuffed full and dead tired before we reluctantly left and drove the  thirty kilometres to Ait Benhaddou. We arrived in the dark and drove down a dark, narrow alley to yet another warm welcome, this time  from Khalid and were shown to our rooms in the Dar Mouna Hotel with little fuss. Ait Benhaddou is a Unesco World Heritage site which has been used as a location for many films including Lawrence of Arabia and Gladiator. Awakening next morning we looked across the river at the view of the old Ksour (fortified tribal village) that is Ait Benhaddou, built on a hill. In the dark we had no idea of how spectacular it looked. Now we were in no doubt. 

Ait Benhaddou. The view from the Riad Dar Mouna breakfast terrace
We took our breakfast on the terrace below our room looking at the view. It was unbelievably beautiful and atmospheric. How often can one have such a view, and see, and hear Nightingale, Blue Rock Thrush and Woodchat Shrike whilst having breakfast? A White Stork was standing on it's nest on top of one of the houses in the Ksour across the river. We wished we had booked more than one night here but you cannot have it all and I am sure we will come back. Leaving Polly and Guen happy to just sit in the sun and admire the view, I went birding until 11am, our official check out time at the hotel. I drove a little way out of the village to another irrigated and fertile area by the river. As at Boumaine it was teeming with birdlife and I found the following:

White Crowned Wheatear (breeding); Northern Wheatear; Desert Wheatear; Trumpeter Finch (10+); Goldfinch; Linnet; Rock Sparrow (50+); Yellow Wagtail; Common Redstart (4); Nightingale; European Swallow; Rock Martin (6+);  Tawny Pipit (2); Quail; Common Bulbul; European Bee Eater; Crested Lark; Short toed Lark (2); Spectacled Warbler; Subalpine Warbler; as well as a Barbary Ground Squirrel and a pair of breeding Little Ringed Plovers on the river itself

Barbary Ground Squirrel
Male Trumpeter Finch
Collecting our packed lunches from Khalid we left Ait Benhaddou and embarked on the long and dusty drive back to Marrakech. Back up the twists and turns of the road over the Atlas Mountains we went and eventually entered  the chaotic rush hour traffic of Marrakech. Our flight was tomorrow but not until 1500hrs.

None of us wanted to stay in Marrakech longer than necessary so I arranged a quick trip to Oukaimeden for the next morning to try and see Crimson winged Finch. Timing would be tight and I estimated I would have no more than an hour to find the finches. So next morning we again found ourselves ascending into an alpine environment of great beauty in the high Atlas, and arriving at Oukaimeden failed to find the finches. There was just not enough time to adequately search for them. We found Alpine and Red Billed Choughs everywhere, also Rock Sparrows, Black Redstarts, Water Pipits and even a pair of Atlas Horned Larks in the ski lift car park but of the finches not a sign. It was a long shot, so now it will have to wait until next year.

Alpine Choughs

Red billed Chough

Male Atlas Horned Lark
Southern Morocco surprised me with it's great beauty and mountainous terrain, and the desert was truly inspiring, leaving an indelible impression on all of us. Everywhere we looked on our travels there were spectacular views. The colour, mainly ochre, contrasting with the green where there is fertile cultivation, surely inspired the red and green national flag. If there was life on Mars I think it would not look dissimilar to this landscape with it's overall dull, reddish pink colouration.

And where else can one have snow covered mountains as a backdrop whilst looking at palm trees and hot, dry desert all at the same time? .

Insha' Allah


  1. Superb narrative that took me back to many sites and birds of a 1981 trip - still the best birding ever.

    1. You did the area full justice - as you say difficult with words. I have only been in August to many of the areas you visited! The birding was surprisingly good even then. Best wishes, Simon Wates