BOUNDING DOWN THE ROAD IN MOROCCO
It is often really cold in mid February so a short adventure to a desert seemed like a good idea & that’s what we merry gang of a dozen did just a few weeks ago. I hadn’t flown from Luton for something like 20 years & was surprised how compact, relaxed & intimate it was – especially the security frisking!
3 1/2 hours later & it was warm! What a good start! House Bunting inside the airport building at Marrakesh got our trip list off with an instant ‘lifer’ for some. Spotless Starlings in flocks, a solitary Chiffchaff & we were off on what we hoped was the road to Agadir for our first overnight stop. We were lucky – road signs are not much in evidence – & dust, potholes, jay walkers & donkey carts finally gave way to a new motorway which meant that we just made it in time for the evening meal at our rather splendiferous 4-star hotel. Hungry birders like ‘help-yourself’ buffets so we did our best to show our appreciation of the chef’s culinary efforts over our 3 nights.
Agadir is much bigger than we expected but next morning we were finally free & running north along the coast for our first special quarry, the Bald Ibis. This is their only country (endemic is the pukka word) & there may only be some 50 in the whole wide world! We saw about 25 of them on the Tamri Estuary & ugly they were too until they flew! (Pretty reasonable accompanying picky courtesy of your esteemed chairman). Interestingly, they aren’t waders despite their long curved beaks & they eat insects & small mammals which they catch on dry, scrubby ground. Lifer for all of us & morale very high! One of the beauties of a relatively undeveloped country is the quantity of birds to be found just anywhere & everywhere, so the startlingly attractive Moussier’s Redstart, Black Wheatear & Thekla Lark were constantly with us in this area. Osprey, 2 Bonelli’s Eagle, Tristram’s Warbler, Little Swift & Crag Martin, etc, etc & it was back for another small snack at base.
A flat tyre delayed our start on the next morning. I’m resisting the temptation to include a picky of some 10 PBC members watching a local taxi driver change the wheel & offering useless gratuitous advice but you can find it on Trevor’s Blog if you want a good laugh! Today it was south to the agricultural area of Oued Massa & big quarry no.2 Brown-throated Martin only to be found in the Moroccan part of the Western Palearctic (whatever that means, best you look it up!). They gave themselves up without a fight & we enjoyed great views from a bridge over an attractive river along with Great White Egret, Black-winged Stilt, Moroccan Cormorant, Alpine Swift, Serin, Fan-tailed Warbler, etc.
Since I owned my first Collin’s guide, I’ve been fascinated by the name & appearance of a Black-crowned Tchagra. It’s termed a bush shrike & has no family relatives this side of the Sahara Desert – poor lonely soul! We just HAD to find one! Well we found 3 with gob-smacking views but only after a nail-biting 2 hours when 2 of the gang had seen him & the others hadn’t! Stress levels were high & mounting by the minute! Throw in Spectacled Warbler, Purple Heron, Long-legged Buzzard, Black-winged Kite, Little Bittern, Quail & a couple of Mongoose & we’d earned another small reward or 2 back at base.
The mysterious desert was next on the agenda – Lark & Sandgrouse country – so we were off early & heading south on the only road. The trip reports always mention Tantan 100 as a likely spot for larking about & as it’s the only layby for miles along this road, it seemed like a good idea to us. We didn’t care about it being 100 kms from Tantan – it was great for larks. Bar-tailed are OK, Hoopoe are definitely better but Thick-billed were a tick for most of us! It always looks so barren & devoid of life until you get out of the vehicle, then you’ve got to watch where you put your feet as the ground is riddled with holes of little critters like squirrels, rats & mice, one of which had provided lunch for the Long-legged Buzzard on a pylon. Meandering around on our return journey we suddenly screamed to a halt with the cry of ‘Sandgrouse’ from our sharp-eyed lookout which turned out to be Black-bellied & added Magrheb & White-crowned Wheatear, Temmink’s Lark, Trumpeter Finch & even a good old Corn Bunting. As I was saying, it’s all happening out there where you least expect it! As was the sight of some 800 migrating Black Kite settling to roost on a hillside at dusk.
One evening without a beer is all I can manage, so it was time to leave the stricter Muslim outposts for life on the ski slopes of the High Atlas mountains. It was 25C when we left Guellim and headed north again & before we started the long climb we’d added Cream-coloured Courser, Pin-tailed & Spotted Sandgrouse to the list. More ticking of books even by your world-travelling, hirsute outdoor organiser! The long climb really was! About 2 hours of winding single-lane track with splendiferous views & a steep drop on one side. Good birds as well – Rock Sparrow, Rock Bunting & Barbary Partridge. At 2700 metres it was quite chilly but a few beers & a cuddle in the double bed with my friend & all was well in the world! We had to be first to the base of the skilifts to avoid crowd disturbance & it was well worth getting up early. A squadron of some 350 Red-billed Chough came over the mountain to forage round the waste bins & buildings, soon followed by some 250 Alpine Chough with the same intentions. A noisy but amicable avian breakfast was taken. Our next special quarry was also up early – Crimson-winged Finch. The birds are just as lovely as their name implies & there were about 150 of the little beauties – confirmed by wondrous picky courtesy of Mr P Beesley. A hearty breakfast was enjoyed after that lot & then we went searching for Mr Levaillant’s Green Woodpecker who gave his position away just as his relatives do here at home & he was soon on the list. The final group total of species seen came to 141 which meant that the sweepstake money went somewhat suspiciously to your esteemed chairman. Mr Levesen needs to conduct an enquiry, perhaps! Everyone had at least 2 lifers & that’s saying something when some of those present have 3-4,000 world species on their lists, but one happy birder had 42!