Wednesday 27 November 2013

Maroc around the Clock - Part Two 16th -17th November 2013

We left our hotel in Boumaine du Dades early on a sunny, crisp morning but before heading south to Rissani and Merzouga we made a detour to the fabulous Todra Gorge. Apart from the prospect of seeing Bonelli's Eagle this is one of the most spectacular tourist attractions in Morocco, being a natural cleft in the rocks between huge mountains through which you can drive and park. It attracts many people from just plain tourists to walkers and people with particular interests such as ourselves. It is essential to get there reasonably early otherwise you find yourself battling with hordes of other sightseers.

We turned off the main road south and followed the twisting and turning road to Todra, first rising slowly and then descending ever deeper into a green and fertile valley irrigated by the river Todra.

On the way to the Todra Gorge
As we descended, the walls of the mountains came ever closer and rose ever higher. The road became narrower and the tourist cafes ever more prolific. Even at this early hour groups of local men were sitting at tables doing what Moroccan men have done since time began, drinking tea and watching the world go by. The women do all the work, such as fetching and carrying water or any other domestic manual labour. There is rarely a man to be seen in such situations. A tiny wizzened man, looking and dressed very much like Yoda from Star Wars shuffled along the roadside as we passed.There are few pavements in Morocco and the people just walk along the edge of the road dodging cars, donkeys laden down with owner and/or produce, motorcycles with no one wearing a crash helmet, bicycles and any other moving obstacle that comes along. People wander across roads seemingly oblivious to the dangers and certainly show no inclination to hurry out of the way of oncoming vehicles. Everyone seems to cope and life goes on at it's sedate pace without too much rancour.

Finally we arrived at the centre of the gorge and parked between the huge walls of the mountains rising skywards on either side. The blue sky above us was almost invisible as the mountain walls enclosed us  and we parked by the small river that runs beside the single track dirt road running through the gorge. 

Traders were just setting up their stalls with trinkets for the tourists and Otman, who lived here for some time, seemed to know every one of them, so we stopped for the traditional greeting at each and every one, before reaching our destination and getting out to look for eagles. We failed to find any Bonelli's Eagles probably because it was too early in the day but there were other birds around. A Black Redstart flew from rock to rock and a Tristram's Warbler flitted through the scanty bushes growing on the rocky terrain. Crag Martins swooped through the gorge and Rock Doves bathed in the shallow river waters. We hung around for an hour and were fortunate to see two small birds fly across the gorge at no great height above us from one cliff face to the other. The flight and jizz was utterly distinctive as, with rounded wings, flicking butterfly like, they progressed from one side to the other. Yes, they were Wallcreepers. Totally unexpected and apparently not inhabiting Morocco according to Collins. This made up for the lack of eagles. On the way out of the gorge we came across several Blue Rock Thrushes sitting on the rocks above the cafes and, just like the men in the cafes, watching the world go by.

We had to press on as we were now going to Goulimime to look for Scrub Warblers which seem to cause no end of difficulties for visiting birders in that they can be very elusive. We followed a long road out of Goulimime town and then seemingly in the middle of nowhere stopped by an extensive dry sandy area with many scattered knee high thorny bushes. I was here last March and with the aid of Brahim's tape we had achieved almost instant success. Not this time though. We walked a kilometre into the area but only managed to see one Crested Lark, a White crowned Wheatear, some Trumpeter Finches and a Southern Great Grey Shrike. No sign of any Scrub Warblers whatsoever. We played and played the tape for an hour but nothing stirred and then suddenly we got a response. Two Scrub Warblers called in alarm but proved the absolute devil to see. You would expect the male at the very least to come to the top of the bush and respond to the tape with his song but not a bit of it. They scuttled in, through and around the low bushes always keeping something between them and us.The majority of the time they were actually on the ground running like miniature Road Runners from bush to bush with their long tails cocked high. 

Scrub Warblers
If you thought Dartford Warblers could be difficult try these guys.The best views we got were as they hotfooted it across a few feet of open sandy ground between two bushes or flew briefly between bushes. It was quite a struggle but in the end we managed to see five in the space of around ninety minutes.

We returned to the 4x4 and Otman took us back to Goulimime.

The pink buildings and green trees are mirrored in the Moroccan flag with a
green star on a red background

Everyday sights in Goulimime and indeed in any part of Morocco
We collected bread, cheese, olives and water and took a back road short cut to get us back on the main road south. We decided to stop by a farm to have our lunch under the shade of some tamarisk trees before joining the main road. What a good decision that was. After eating my lunch I wandered down the road a bit to look over the farm wall at a small irrigated orchard. Two White crowned Wheatears bobbed along the wall  and a Rock Bunting, my first of the trip flew from me and across the road. Then another small bird flew up onto the wall. Dapper in black and white with orange underparts and a quivering tail. Moussier's Redstart! A male! Fabulous! I had missed this species in March so this was new for me. It was very wary but kept returning to the wall. Then for a brief minute it came incredibly close chasing an insect and distracted, perched just a few metres away from me. Bingo! I got my photo before it saw me and was off.

Male Moussier's Redstart
Delighted with this success I rejoined Otman and Brahim and we set off for Rissani, Merzouga and the Sahara. The terrain became increasingly dry and dusty and the temperature rose markedly. We came across a couple of Arab boys who were fiddling around at a well, drawing water for their goats. Otman turned off the road and drove up to them across the sand and said in Arabic presumably the equivalent, I suppose, of  'Oi  lads, any sign of sandgrouse around here?' They looked at us, gave some directions and then pointed further into the desert. We drove through the sand for half a kilometre and came across around twenty five Spotted Sandgrouse and a Bar tailed Desert Lark. Using the car as a hide we managed to get incredibly close to the sandgrouse and we sat watching them and taking pictures for around forty five minutes before a feral dog arrived and they wisely took off.

Spotted Sandgrouse
Back on the road and a little later we headed 'off road' courtesy of the 4x4, travelling across miles of barren, seemingly trackless desert, a huge dust trail in our wake as we drove towards our hotel for the night, the imposing Auberge les Dunes D'Or at Merzouga.

This whole area is dominated by the awesome and quite wonderful presence of the Erg Chebbi Dunes. It is a must see destination for any tourist and you cannot but be overwhelmed by the sheer spectacular beauty and presence of this place.The dunes turn golden in the last hour of sunlight and my hotel room faced literally onto the dunes. Ten steps from the little terrace in front of my room and I was in the dunes. That evening I walked out into the solitude and stood in the quiet with sand cushioning my feet and watched the sun go down just like any other tourist and just like any other tourist I felt moved and very insignificant in this spectacular, other worldly landscape.

Erg Chebbi Dunes at sunset with the moon already in the sky
My hotel right on the dunes. My room was fifth from the left
Erg Chebbi Dunes and the view from my room in the morning
After a dinner at our hotel consisting of a very tasty bowl of soup, a Vegetable Tagine and some fruit for afterwards, I left Brahim playing drums with his Berber colleagues. The waiters once they have finished serving or even before, double up as an impromptu Berber music entertainment. Both Brahim and Otman are from this area so Otman took the opportunity to go home to see his family while Brahim got in some drum practice. I retired early as I was quite tired and got an extra blanket as desert nights at this time of the year are very cold. Lying snug in bed in pitch darkness I could sense the silent presence of the dunes just metres from my door. The wind, I noticed, was also getting stronger and whistling around the window. The next day I rose before sunrise (c 0645) as I wanted to see the sun come up over the dunes. I was in fact awakened by a strange irregular tapping at my window and on drawing back the curtain came face to face with a White Crowned Wheatear. The tapping was caused by its beak as it caught flies trapped on the window pane. Both of us were I think equally surprised by this encounter. I was probably the more delighted.

I had been looking forward with great anticipation to my day in the Sahara as I had such a great time here in March. However the wind was steadily increasing from the south east whipping sand across the dunes at a ferocious rate and lowering visibility.We had the usual gargantuan Moroccan breakfast and then set off into the desert. Otman dressed me in a shesh, a scarf that is wrapped round and round your head and neck and allows itself to be pulled up over your mouth and nose.

The reason? The wind was now approaching gale force and tons of sand was on the move in the form of millions of grains of sharp edged sand blown by the howling wind.  The shesh would hopefully protect me from the worst of the conditions. Otman drove stoically through the now rapidly decreasing visibility. No tracks or signs to follow but he just knew where he was going and we drove over what were to me featureless sand dunes with wind blown sand waves snaking in ever changing patterns across them. Our speed was at times alarming and secretly I think Otman was reprising his army days driving in the desert but I had full confidence in him and he duly delivered us safely to wherever Brahim told him to go. We were now very close to the Algerian border and still after an hour had not seen a bird. Who could blame them? Standing out in the wind was like having your skin rubbed with coarse sandpaper but at least the birds had feathers to protect them from the flying sand. The 4x4 was also slowly acquiring a film of sand inside despite us keeping the windows shut. It was purgatory. We eventually found a lone Hoopoe Lark, unusually for this ground loving species sat up in the top of a low bush, I assume to escape a sand blasting. It was reluctant to move but in the end left the bush and attempted to feed in the lee of the bush.

Hoopoe Lark
A White crowned Wheatear similarly sat in the lee of another bush to escape the wind and sand. All the birds were doing the same and keeping well under cover. I was a little downcast, with all my hopes seemingly dashed by the unexpected storm but Brahim told me this was nothing and we would find birds. We went looking for the 'Desert Sparrow tree' that had a pair breeding in it last March but when we got there it was devoid of any birds let alone Desert Sparrows. A Camel loomed up out of the sandstorm like a shipwreck and disappeared as quickly as it appeared. We went to a small Berber settlement to try our luck there. The wind was now at it's most ferocious and in the shelter of some trees we found a large flock of sparrows but they were only House Sparrows. They took off and were immediately hurled at great speed in the whirling air hundreds of metres out into the desert. 

The settlement was on a slightly raised part of the desert floor and there was an area that was lower and comparatively sheltered from the wind and sand which could be overlooked from a vantage point. I saw a pale looking sparrow that flew up and was flung by the wind far out across the sands. Could that have been a Desert Sparrow? We did, by some miracle find it again and confirmed it was a female Desert Sparrow. I heard a lark calling and watched it settle on the lower area. We crept into the lee of a wall so we could look down on the lower area of desert whilst remaining sheltered from the worst of the wind and sand. This was where the lark had settled I was certain. Indeed the lark, one of the big billed races of Crested Lark was there but before us was also an unprecedented flock of over twenty Desert Sparrows, males, females and first year birds feeding on the scattered sheep and goat dung. They were beautifully camouflaged against the pale sand and stones. Brahim was getting very excited as he had not seen such a flock for some years. Me too. It is hard enough to see one of these increasingly scarce birds let alone a flock like this one. 

Male Desert Sparrow
I endeavoured to take some photos and in the process was having to kneel to shelter behind the low wall. I knelt in something soft and smelly. Gaaaghhh! Camel s**t. Too late. I was on a mission and would have to deal with the consequences later. The Desert Sparrows fed unconcerned, joined by a Desert Lark and the aforementioned Crested Lark plus a few of the House Sparrows that are slowly taking over and pushing the Desert Sparrows ever further and yet further into the desert.

I stood up and inspected the stain on the knee of my trousers. It was bad and stunk to high heaven. In this sand and wind maelstrom it would be impossible or at least very painful to remove my trousers and put on another pair! Otman produced a bar of soap and some water and vigorously sponged my trouser leg.  I was fragrant again or at least did not stink to high heaven. Now however, with my top half above the sheltering wall I received another severe Sahara sandpapering. Yeeeaaagh! My face was raw from the wind whipped sand grains and my ears full of sand.We retreated to the car spitting sand from our teeth. 

We drove on and in a space of thirty minutes the wind fell away until it was just a light breeze. It really was as quick as that. Brahim's family used to live in the desert and indeed his relatives still  do and he told me that this was typical weather behaviour for the desert. Now that we could bird in relative comfort we soon came across a group of three Bar tailed Desert Larks. Energetic little things constantly on the move across the sand, their pale plumage surprisingly distinct and noticeable. 

Bar tailed Desert Lark
We also found a flock of over twenty, wary, Brown necked Ravens scavenging at a small rubbish dump and another Desert  Lark and that was about it for our Sahara experience. It had been an eventful morning but victory had been snatched from the jaws of defeat. Brahim had been right to be optimistic.

Brown-necked Ravens
We were now due to visit some mountain cliffs near to Rissani, some 30km from Merzouga, which is Brahim's home town and where I would spend the night in Brahim's house. My home is your home is the way he put it.

The cliffs were very impressive and had a similar feel to those I visited  near Boumaine du Dades. The only problem was that when we left the 4x4 we were now assailed not by sand but by countless flies. They really were present in pestilential proportions and were a real nuisance and distraction. We walked on, deeper into the rocky valley and slowly the flies died away. Above us was a quite magnificent sight of around sixty Brown necked Ravens flying around in a milling flock and which apparently nest colonially on the cliffs. Think Rooks and substitute Ravens and you get the general impression. The huge cliff face stretched for half a mile or more and Rock Doves regularly flew out from its fissures and cracks. I was just thinking this would be a great place for a Pharoah Eagle Owl, when we found one lurking in a fissure in the rock face and very well hidden. We took our lunch here underneath the imperturbable owl and were joined by a White crowned Wheatear. 

White crowned Wheatear
I have noticed that this particular species seems to have acquired the habit of soliciting food from any human that visits it's habitat. On a number of occasions individual birds have deliberately flown right up to me as this one did and just sat there waiting to be thrown a morsel of food. A Black Redstart flitted through some nearby tamarisk bushes and a Desert Lark flew over calling loudly. Brahim borrowed my scope to scan the ridge. Two Brown necked Ravens were tusselling with another bird which eventually settled on the cliff top. It was a magnificent adult Lanner Falcon and as we watched it we noticed a Desert Fox lying some metres below it on a ledge watching us. So much greyer than our Red Fox and with dark patches around its eyes, it soon slunk off alarmed by our presence.

The final visit was to an isolated area of flat desert plain surrounded on all sides by cliffs and mountains. Only a 4x4 could get to such a place. We drove around the plain until we came across a flock of thirty plus Spotted Sandgrouse. These were unusually jumpy. They normally hunker down on the ground relying on their camouflaged plumage but all bar two took off. We got ridiculously close to these two birds and I got some great photos. One of the other huge benefits of a 4x4 is that you can use it as a giant mobile hide. This worked brilliantly for me many times throughout our trip and once Otman got the general idea there was no stopping him.

Spotted Sandgrouse
The day was now closing fast. Dusk and dust came again with a renewed wind so we returned to Rissani and I went to Brahim's house for the night

to be continued 

1 comment:

  1. I'm lost for words - thank goodness you're not.
    The Oxon Feather.