Tuesday 26 November 2013

Maroc around the Clock - Part One 13th -15th November 2013

Having visited Morocco this March with my family, I was so taken with the country, its culture and birds that a return visit was eagerly anticipated and the opportunity arose when my wife decided to go on a cultural tour of Rome with some colleagues on 11th November. I therefore booked myself on EasyJet on 13th November, contacted Brahim a local bird guide I had met on my previous visit and with a driver and  4x4 arranged by Brahim, set about arranging a ten day tour of the birding hotspots of Morocco.

Three hours after taking to the skies from Stansted I arrived at Marrakech Menara Airport at just after 4pm on 13th November and was met by Brahim and his driver Otman. Quickly ensconced in the Hotel Almera just off Jemaa-el-Fnaa, the main square in Marrakech where all the tourists go, there was no real time to go birding. This would commence the next morning with a long 365km drive south entailing crossing the magnificent Atlas Mountains and then through the stony desertified terrain in the rain shadow of the mountains to Quarzazate and then on to Boumain du Dades with birding stops along the way

Jemaa-el-Fnaa was it's usual maelstrom of tourists, street entertainers, musicians, snake charmers, camel rides, food and market stalls selling just about everything and anything - you name it someone was doing it or selling it.

Snake Charmer with Cobra
Frankly it can get a bit much and the constant succession of Moroccans, together with a smattering of Senegalese and Malians beseeching you to look at their goods and buy something makes life extremely tedious, once the novelty wears off. Take a photograph of anything or anyone remotely local and you seem to be immediately confronted with a Moroccan with his hand out demanding money. Rapidly tiring of this I suggested to Brahim we go and get something to eat and I had a light and tasty Vegetable Tagine back at the hotel and then Brahim left, arranging to meet me at 7am next morning on the hotel rooftop for breakfast. Too early for bed I took another turn around the Jemaa-el -Fnaa, now in darkness but with all the stalls a blaze of light and if possible even more people milling around than in daylight. In the middle of the vast square with all the souks running off it were numerous stalls with all sorts of exotic colourful fruits and spices displayed plus a number of open air places to eat with each having a front of house guy trying to persuade you to eat at his particular stand. Many tourists were taking advantage of this but having eaten I was not interested. One particular memorable comment from one of these individuals sticks in my mind. 

'Sir, Sir you eat here. My food really good. No one catch diarrohea!'  I smiled and called it a night. 

It wasn't quite like this at the Ritz!

I was woken next morning at 4.30am by the dawn chorus. No, not birds but Mullahs calling the faithful to prayer. Each Mullah had his own incantation and different tone of voice so it was quite a cacophony of jarring sounds as they each bellowed out their exhortations at full blast on the amplification they all now use. One in particular, obviously had technical problems with his sound system making him sound very much like a Dalek yelling Exterminate! Exterminate!

I had a typical Moroccan breakfast of pancakes, bread, honey, cake and sweet mint tea. A House Bunting, completely fearless, scavenged for crumbs below my table and Spotless Starlings flew overhead before we made our way to the nearby 4x4 and Otman drove us through the chaotic Marrakech traffic until finally we joined the road south to the Atlas Mountains and Boumaine du Dades. A little while later we stopped at the roadside to look at a group of four of the Moroccan race of Magpie with their distinctive and attractive blue ear patches. A Hoopoe flew over the road and shortly afterwards we turned off the main road and entered a gentler world down a quiet side road stopping by some fallow ground that was being irrigated. A Southern Great Grey Shrike perched obligingly on a bush allowing close approach and Thekla Larks and White Wagtails ran around on the ground.

Southern Great Grey Shrike
More familiar were a small group of Greenfinches and some Collared Doves. The sun was warm and gentle and returning to the car we carried on along the quiet road winding through dusty villages and groves of trees before finally rejoining the main road. The next town we came to gave up a pair of White Storks nesting on some communication masts. We carried on south

White Stork
The last time I was in Morocco I failed to see Levaillant's Woodpecker so when we came to the foothills of the Atlas Mountains we stopped at the first available major stand of conifers and ascended a steep bank running up off the road. Would I be lucky this time? Up and up we went but there was no sign of any woodpecker. African Chaffinches and Coal Tits were in the conifers above us together with Common ChiffChaffs. Maybe we were going to dip again? Brahim walked on but I just stood looking down the steep bank through the conifers to the road far below. I could hear Common Crossbills overhead. Just as I was about to walk on a Levaillant's Woodpecker flew up from the ground some 100m below me and clung to the trunk of a conifer. I called Brahim and we watched it before all too soon it flew. We followed it and had further brief views but then it was gone. We carried on and found another, a female which gave us some extended views and then as we moved closer to it I slipped badly on the loose earth of the steep bank and in saving my camera and lens from damage fell heavily and badly jarred my back and neck. I lay, fearing the worst, but after a few minutes my back felt alright but my neck was badly jarred and I was in a lot of pain. We descended to the road seeing and hearing a Great Spotted Woodpecker and made it back to the 4x4. The pain was getting worse in my neck and we decided to get some pain killers at the next big town which would have a Pharmacy. We duly stopped at the next town but the Pharmacy was closed for lunch. I resigned myself to just getting on with it  and hope the pain would recede but Otman would have none of it. The Pharmacist was apparently at lunch in the cafe next door and Otman went and got him to leave his lunch and open up especially for me and I duly got my (effective) pain killers and some cream to rub in my neck. Would this happen in Britain? I doubt it. Otman's actions were as I came to realise typical of him and many other Moroccans and throughout my trip he could not have been more helpful, concerned for my welfare and solicitous as to my well being. Brahim told me he was an ex Moroccan soldier who had been stationed in the Sahara Desert for fifteen years and had endured a very tough life in the Army before teaming up with Brahim to be his driver.Whatever, he was a star and although he spoke no English we got on very well.

Brahim my guide on the left and Otman our driver plus our 4x4
We wound our way up through the endless hairpin bends to the top of the Atlas Mountains, dodging round almost stalling lorries, belching diesel fumes as they laboured up the steep inclines. As we breasted the inclines they veered off sharply round the mountainside leaving us at certain points just pointing at seemingly open air and blue sky with drops of hundreds of feet before the 4x4 followed the road around the bend. Heart stopping moments indeed. The awesome, fantastical majesty of sheer rock faces and towering mountainsides were all around, confronting us and stretching our senses, well mine anyway, and across the wide valleys, houses the same colour as the earth on which they stood, clustered in small isolated communities, perched precariously on the valley sides. Despite the apparent poverty of the dwellings many sprouted a white satellite dish looking like some giant fungus growing out of the flat roof top. 

A village in the Atlas Mountains. Note the white satellite dishes

We reached the marvellously named Tizi-n-Tichka Pass 2260m above sea level and then descended through a barren land with small patches of green vegetation betraying where water still ran. We were now in the rain shadow of the mountains. It has been very dry in Morocco for many months now and most of the rivers we crossed, some as wide as the Thames, were completely dry. A large flock of Red billed Choughs fed on a random patch of greenery where there was still a little water but then it was onwards through a stony desert landscape with just the odd Black Wheatear standing sentinel on a boulder by the roadside. Mountains were all around us and never far from the road. A road that was long and straight, a shimmering ribbon of communication, virtually vehicle free for miles into the distance.

We passed through yet another police road block.The police in Morocco seem to have taken to speed traps and road checks with a vengeance, no doubt finding them an easy source of revenue and at times it gets really tiresome.We are greeted with an arrogant disinterest and almost contemptuous wave through when they recognise that you are a tourist vehicle (which are rarely troubled by the police) and not a local Moroccan to be relieved of money for some minor offence. Often they are on the phone talking and not really doing their job at all.

Finally we reached Quarzazate, a former base for the French Foreign Legion and a very strange frontier type town of invariably pink stone as are most of the buildings in Morocco.This makes for quite a harmonious landscape as the similar coloured buildings blend in so well with the natural colours of the land. The name Quarzazate means in Berber language 'peaceful town'. It is famous for having two huge film studios on it's outskirts and infamous kasbahs.

The International Film Studios at Quarzazate
Our main mission however was to find the large artificial lake called the Barrage El Mansour which is situated to the south of the town. The first question was would it still have any water? The answer was yes but not a lot and that which it did have was a very long way from the road.

The fast disappearing lake at Quarzazate
This was not a problem for us as Otman simply drove the 4x4 cross country as there are no fences in Morocco as far as I can see, and we finally came to rest by some marshy ground with the lake still a fair way off. Brahim went to pick up his bins.They were not in the car. By a process of deduction we ascertained he had left them hanging in a small tree in the shade of which we had taken our lunch at a place called Amezegan. Otman drove the 30km back to try and find them.

We carried on birding in his absence. The area was alive with birds. A Black winged Kite was a very good find sitting on poles and hunting. We found a couple of Black Wheatears and a single male Northern Wheatear.
Black Wheatear
A Tree Pipit somewhat incongruously fed in some marshy ground surrounded by a flock of twenty or so Little Ringed Plovers and a few Green Sandpipers. Crested and Thekla Larks sprang from the earth as we headed on foot for the still very distant lake. A Marsh Harrier floated overhead as we walked over parched and cracked ground that many months ago had been under water. Painted Lady butterflies were everywhere as we marched on, eventually getting close enough to scope the lake. Here we found a wide variety of waterbirds with thirteen Spoonbill, Moroccan and Great Cormorants, a single Great White Egret and all the commoner dabbling ducks. A distant group of pale looking ducks resting on the far shore were Marbled Ducks and then we found another flock bringing the total to thirty five. A flock of Ruddy Shelduck flew across in front of us and a single Eurasian Wigeon was a good out of range find. Common Greenshanks, Black winged Stilts and a few Ruff wandered amongst the ducks. We walked back to where we had first parked to anxiously await the return of Otman and news of Brahim's bins. Whilst waiting we scoped the wagtails, finding the local race of Yellow Wagtail M.f. iberiae, the so called Spanish Yellow Wagtail. I systematically scoped every White Wagtail and was finally rewarded with views of the Moroccan race of White Wagtail, with it's distinctive facial pattern and not an easy bird to find as it is heavily outnumbered by its commoner cousin. 

Otman returned with good news. He told us that when he got to the tree he found three girls with the binoculars and they handed them back to him without demur. Brahim was very fortunate and we could all now relax again. We left the lake and headed for Boumaine du Dades and our hotel for the night, the Hotel Kasbah de Dades. We were now in Berber country and the hotel was very much in that tradition. My room overlooked the wide fertile green strip that hugged the course of the Dade's river in the valley below.

View from my bedroom window down into the fertile valley of Boumaine du Dades
  The writing on the hillside says 'Allah is God, The Nation and The King'.
You see similar writing to this all over southern Morocco
Looking down the hill from our hotel to Boumaine du Dades
Looking from my hotel room window a male Blue Rock Thrush dipped and twitched in anxiety on the turrets of a house built on a bank to the left of the hotel and a Little Owl called, unseen, from the valley below. A lone Mullah summoned the faithful to his Mosque and the evening slowly declined into dusk and then darkness. All was still apart from the wind. Tomorrow we were going to spend the day in the vast stony desert just outside Boumaine du Dades, on the famed Tagdilt Track, known to birders the world over as the place to search for and find a good selection of larks and wheatears.

The nights here were very cold and an extra blanket was definitely required but during the day the sun warmed things up although the wind always kept the temperature down. We were away from the hotel early and soon driving deep into the vastness of the stony desert lands of Tagdilt fame. This was another world away from the busy town of Boumaine. There is an intoxicating quiet and peace far out on these stony tracts with no extraneous noise apart from the wind and occasional bird sounds. You are usually entirely alone. Miles, literally miles of nothing but stones and grey green, dry clumps of grass for as far as you can see. The mountains distant but omnipresent on either side and the road running south, a lonely, dead straight, thin grey strip of tarmac dissecting the wasteland.

Although I paint a romantic picture of this harsh wilderness the unpleasant fact is that the best birding here is to be found around the local rubbish tip which is basically a dry wadi (river bed) located about a kilometre or two into the desert where anyone from the town dumps their rubbish. Thousands of blue and white rubbish bags festoon the surrounding desert blown hither and thither by the ever present wind. Feral dogs scratch a living in the filth of deposited rubbish and crap. Moroccans seem to have no care for their countryside and litter is everywhere you go from the large cities and towns to the most isolated of locations. It is such a shame but then I guess for most Moroccans life is pretty tough and just surviving is a major concern and litter and esoteric demands therefore come pretty low on life's priorities.

Believe it or not this habitat is full of larks and wheatears
Especially around the rubbish dump!
My main desire was to resume acquaintance with one of my favourite species - Thick billed Lark. I saw them really well the last time I was here in March. No sign of them today however, as we drew up by the rubbish. Just a few of the ubiquitous Thekla Larks and a lifer for me in the shape of a Lesser Short toed Lark which did not hang around for long. 

Thekla Lark
Red rumped Wheatears, usually in pairs were almost common, feeding on the insects attracted by the foul contents of the rubbish bags.

Male Red rumped Wheatear

Female Red rumped Wheatear
A Desert Lark, of the distinctive, dark, north Moroccan race scuttled up out of the wadi. Grey upperparts and tawny underparts, not at all pale and desert like but here very well camouflaged. Trumpeter Finches in family parties and small flocks mixed in with White Wagtails and Temminck's Horned Larks, the latter along with the Thekla Larks one of the most commonly encountered species across this wasteland, both here and beyond in the pristine desert.

Temminck's Horned Lark
A Shaw's Jird, a cross between a gopher and squirrel, popped it's head up from a hole and then dropped back underground as a Long legged Buzzard passed low over the ground 

Long legged Buzzard on the look out for Shaw's Jirds
Eventually another much smaller head poked out above yet another sack of rubbish and at last here was a Thick billed Lark. A male. We followed it's progress through the multi coloured rubbish bags and general detritus. Annoyingly it was hard to get a photo as it was always partially obscured but eventually it was in the open. Not for long. It flew off. 

Thick billed Lark in its 'favoured' habitat
I wanted more and as we wandered around we indeed found other Thick billed Larks until we reckoned that we had seen fifteen. 

They are never ever common here and notoriously hard to find but we had been really lucky. Now what about wheatears? We found plenty more Red rumped Wheatears, the most common species of wheatear at this time of year, a first year White crowned Wheatear joined a male Red rumped Wheatear and we found, we think, a pair of Maghreb Wheatears but that was it. 

First year White crowned Wheatear with partial white crown
They only get the full white crown in their second year
We left the area of the dump and drove further out into the desert encountering up to six Hoopoe Larks wandering the stony ground and flashing black and white wings when they flew from us. We were now looking for Black bellied Sandgrouse but there was no sign of them although we slowly drove across seemingly miles of barren sandy earth and stones. We came to a young boy and his even younger brother herding goats and sheep. They were nomads, living quite unbelievably to me, in small caves sunk into the ground. 

The nomads home with Otman sitting outside
His entire family, I learnt later, lived in the caves with one cave reserved for the goats and sheep. They just wander this vast area taking the goats and sheep to wherever there is food and living in whatever cave is nearest. It is almost incredible that such a life carries on with the completely, to them, alien existence that exists in Boumaine not so very far away. Brahim spoke to him and he said that he had seen Black bellied Sandgrouse here but not for a few days. Much more interesting was the fact he had seen a Houbara Bustard which are now very much endangered due to hunting by Arabs with falcons. He had seen the bustard only a day or so ago and agreed to take us to the area where he had seen it but first we had to ask his father if he could go with us. This entailed a drive of a couple of miles to a Well where his father was drawing water for the goats and sheep. His father told us to wait until his son arrived with the goats and sheep then he could go with us. As a favour and to show our gratitude he asked would we help him draw water? Otman obliged. A Southern Great Grey Shrike watched us from a nearby tree. The son duly arrived with the goats and joined us in the 4x4. He had never been in a car before. 

The Well
The Goats arrive for water

Dark skinned and dirty, he sat in the front seat. He directed Otman where to drive and on our travels we came to a woman and some small children. He let out an ear numbing piercing whistle. We were all deafened by the unexpected noise. He was trying to attract the attention of his mother to tell her he was in the car and not to be afraid. He did not realise with the window wound up they could not hear him. Otman wound down the electronic window and he whistled again to his family. 

Nomadic Arab family
We waved to them and after a brief conversation went on our way with our young guide but we could not find any sign of the bustard. Never mind, it was for me a humbling, moving experience to meet this fellow human who had no concept of modern life and up till now I never could have believed that such an existence should still be going on so near to what we call civilisation. Finally we gave it up. The young lad as is the custom invited us back to his cave for tea with his family but we regretfully had to decline as we had to drive to another location to look for a Pharaoh Eagle Owl.

We drove some twenty kilometres south along the road from Boumaine, the stone wastes of the desert stretching away on either side of us, before turning right and into the vastness of a mountainous valley and parking on a track above a dried up river bed. 

It was absolutely quiet. The sheer height of the mountainous sides of the valley imparting a grandeur and timeless aura that was at times almost overwhelming in it's immensity, both tangible and intangible. We had our lunch here and then Brahim used my scope to try and locate a Pharaoh Eagle Owl, which have a predilection for roosting high up on cliff walls in  the great cracks and fissures that split vertically down the cliffsides. He found one. Oh boy, did he find one. Usually they are hidden well away in shadow, inside the cleft in the rocks but fortunately this one was much more in the open and gave us some brilliant views through the telescope. We remained here for over an hour just admiring the sleeping owl.

Pharaoh Eagle Owl
The solitude and sheer majesty of our surroundings very much enhanced the experience. I felt at times as if this valley that must have accommodated so many different  human beings, over so many generations was almost physically imparting its sense of history and timelessness into my soul. I looked at the vast cliffs rising up around me and noted the evidence of past civilisations now long gone. Forgotten with the passing of time but still a faint call came, an echo from the distant past to those whose spirit was still open to such contact. A  faint chill even in the sunlight fell over me, a reminder of how my ancestors must have feared but respected such places. No wonder the ancient gods always came from on high in the mountains. It was so obvious in a place such as this.

The afternoon was waning and we needed to return for another night in Boumaine before heading for the Sahara and the awesome Erg Chebbi Dunes, miles to the south on the Algerian border. As we drove slowly back up the track out of the valley, a wheatear, black above and white below with a white crown flew close to us and perched on a rock. Arretez Otman s'il vous plait! (please stop Otman). I was out of the 4x4 in a flash. This was a find equalling if not better than the owl. It was a Maghreb Wheatear, so similar to a Mourning Wheatear that some say they are the same species but with less orange buff undertail coverts, this was the difference between them and Collins gives the range of Mourning Wheatear as way way to the east from where we were.  Frantically feeding it flew ever closer. I fired off the camera and even got an image of the distinctive undertail coverts but then it was gone all too soon, flying further down into the fastness of the rocky valley. Its discovery a total fluke but a most welcome and much desired  new species for me. 

Maghreb Wheatear
Fifteen Black bellied Sandgrouse flew high over the valley chuckling amongst themselves and were gone, invisible but still audible as they headed over the mountains to some unknown stony plain to roost. Quite a day.

We headed back to Boumaine in what they call in Africa the golden hour. That last hour of sunlight when the sun loses its  heat and white intensity and becomes soft and benign, suffusing the land in a warm orange glow and the world seems to hold its breath. The distant mountains surrounding the stony plains, that during the day were sharp and angled, become folds of brown velvet sinking into the opaque distance. Deep shadows appear and the contours become vague and mysterious as desert plain and mountain become as one.

to be continued

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