Thursday, April 24, 2014

Morocco--Day 10: Merzane, Jorf, Todra Gorge and Tagdilt Track

We were up for an early breakfast so that we could try for the fulvous babbler again, hoping that it would still be on its roost.  Our 3 days of 4 wheel driving were over, and we were very glad to be back in the van and reunited with Mustafa.  We arrived at the fulvous babbler roost about 8 AM only to find no babblers again.  We began to slowly drive the roads listening for them when we were distracted by a wheatear that flew by.  So we turned around to chase after it which proved very fortunate as we located a single babbler back at the roost site (all photos in today's post are Laura's unless indicated otherwise.  Click on any photo to enlarge).

After so many attempts over the past 3 days to find this species, we were pretty elated.  Near the same spot we also had some very nice looks at trumpeter finches. 

And we found a grey shrike who clearly had been feeding recently on its prey.

We headed down the road towards the town of Jorf to see if we could locate one of the most anticipated birds of the trip--blue-cheeked bee-eater.  As we were pulling into town I spied a couple perched on a wire.  

They proved to be very cooperative and many photos were taken over the next 15 minutes.  Even though the trip was barely half over, Marty was so taken with them that he predicted this was going to be the prettiest bird of the tour.

After we had gorged our appetites for this incredibly colorful bird, we stopped in town to get our daily bread ration, and admired the olive stand (my photo).

Our next destination was the Todra Gorge which is pretty well known for its spectacular cliffs rising above a mountain stream.  It also has become a rock climbing spot favored by American and European youth traveling thru Morocco. 

Getting up the gorge thru the town proved to be a major challenge since they were in the process of rebuilding part of the road. Once we were reached the heart of the gorge, we saw many crag martins cruising for insects over the stream, and gray wagtails feeding among the rocks in the water.

Other birds of note in the gorge were house buntings, blue rockthrushes, and a black redstart shown below.

After being reintroduced to our standard picnic lunch, we drove a bit further up the gorge where we located Tristram's warbler, another hoped for bird today since we would not again be in such good habitat for locating it.

We survived the road construction on the way back down, and made the turn towards Boumalne where we would be staying the night.  Our afternoon objective was an area called the Tagdilt Track.  We first worked an area that another bird guide had told us he had found a Mahgreb wheatear.  We worked the area pretty well, but did not locate the bird.  We did find a fat sand rat though.

We then headed over towards the town dump to try for black-bellied sandgrouse.  We spent the rest of the afternoon criss-crossing a fairly large area, but had no luck with the sandgrouse.  We did see plenty of Temminck's larks which look very much like our horned larks in the U.S.

As the sun was setting we pulled into Kasbah Tizzarouine which it turned out was also lodging for a good sized group of motorcyclists, and 2 other birding groups.  Dinner was either soup or salad, which were both very good, and then a lemon chicken with olives tagine--a classic Moroccan dish that definitely lived up to its reputation.  Our bird list review for the day found that we had added 6 more new trip birds.  Tomorrow we will be heading to Ouarzazate.  Stay tuned!

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Morocco--Days 8 and 9: Sahara Redux

Before breakfast we checked out the area around the Desert Inn to see what was about.  We found a moussier's redstart that might have been the same one from late the day before (all photos in today's post are Laura's unless indicated otherwise.  Click on any photo to enlarge).  This is one of the species that is endemic to the Mahgreb (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and western Libya).   Somewhat surprisingly, we had 8 black-crowned night herons laboring to fly north against the wind.

Breakfast was almost a replay of yesterday, but the manager of the Desert Inn allowed Marty and Adrian into the kitchen to make us some scrambled eggs.  Cooked eggs at breakfast is not a usual dish in Morocco, but when tourists ask for them, they come out as omelets because of the French influence.  The problem is that since most places don't normally make eggs for breakfast, the omelets we had so far on the trip were at best mediocre.  In fact when we asked for an omelet in Midelt, it came out as one giant omelet that was undercooked on top and burnt on the bottom.  Marty is a master egg cooker, so we were quite pleased to have scrambled eggs Moroccan style with a dash of cumin.

The one species of bird that was in the garden at the Desert Inn the whole time we were there was the subalpine warbler.

After breakfast we drove in our Toyotas to a palmerie near Merzouga to look for fulvous babblers.  On the way Laura snapped what appears to be a scarecrow.

The palmerie was full of palms, and crops below the palms that are irrigated.  There were lots of European collared doves, and a couple of laughing doves that we did not get good photos of.  After an hour of wandering around, we did not find any babblers, but we did find a Mauritanian toad (my photo).

Since the bird life was not all the exciting at the palmerie, we drove over to a casbah where when it rains in the spring a very large body of water appears next to it.  Morocco has been very dry for 3 years now, so no seasonal lake for us this year.  We did see many times during the trip the flowering plant just below (my photo).  We also found some greater short-toed larks as we drove along.


Instead of another round of our daily picnic lunch victuals, we were able to return to the Desert Inn to have a hot meal.  The starter course was a warm dish of tomatoes and eggplant that had a very nice seasoning on it.  Then they brought out a tagine of kefta (meatballs), green olives and eggs (my photo).  What a nice change of pace for us.  We were so satisfied that a nap was next up.

After our siesta, we decided to take a walk in the wadi that was adjacent to the Inn.  It was a warm, but not too hot afternoon.  Astonishingly, over about 2 hours of cruising thru the dry wash, we turned up 3 Egyptian nightjars.   We also saw several of the desert race of the grey shrike.

We got back to our lodging about 6 PM where we had the good fortune of finding a western Bonelli's warbler who was quite cooperative.

Dinner was quite good again with the starter being a mini bisteeya for each of us.  This led to a lengthy discussion about the correct word for this dish.  Adrian said it was pastilla, which seemed like it would be a Spanish word.  I said that in my Moroccan cookbook it was spelled bisteeya.  After coming home, I googled the word bisteeya to find it is a variation as is pastilla all used in the Berber language for the dish.  The main dish was our second cous cous tagine of the trip.  The cous cous was far better than our first one in Kenitra, but the vegies were of course cooked to mush.


After dinner everyone but Marty and me went to look for night creatures.  Within the first hour they saw several animals including a lesser Egyptian jerboa, a lesser Egyptian gerbil (above), a fennec fox, a hare, and a desert hedgehog (below).   Things slowed down after that, and everyone was back at the Inn before midnight.

The next morning at breakfast Marty and I got a full update on the previous evening's critters while we all enjoyed a redux of scrambled eggs from Marty and Adrian.  But before breakfast we turned up a wryneck which is an ant eating woodpecker.

A chiff chaff was also flitting about the garden, as were several bulbuls which is a bird we saw every day of our trip.

After breakfast we headed out to search a different place in hopes of finding fulvous babblers.  We arrived about 30 minutes later, and were told they had just flown off.  We spent the better part of the next 2 hours wandering the area in hopes that they might return.  It gave us a chance to inspect a hand dug well (my photo).

Martin and Laura found a warbler that at first we could not ID.  It disappeared before anyone could get a photo of it.  We kept walking around looking for babblers, but Laura stayed at the warbler spot.  When it returned we headed back to the tree, and hunkered down to get some photos.  Eventually we were successful.  Between the pics and the bird's mannerisms, we concluded it was a Saharan eastern olivaceous warbler--a resident subspecies endemic to the Mahgreb.

We returned tot he Desert Inn for lunch again which was almost identical to yesterday's.  After lunch we continued our hunt for babblers which proved to still be unsuccessful.  While wandering around the desert, we did encounter a mini sand storm.  We also kept seeing some of the rally vehicles that were part of a women's desert rally happening in the general area.

We did not have anywhere near the good fortune of 2 days earlier, but we did find some more cream coloured coursers, and several different wheatears including a desert.

We returned near dusk for our last evening at the Desert Inn, which is also called Derkaoua in Moroccan.  We had a superb soup of pureed squash followed by a chicken tagine with overcooked vegies.  And for the 4th night, we enjoyed the lemon meringue tart which is made on the premises. After 2 more days on the edge of the Sahara, we had only added a total of 4 new trip birds which reinforced how great day 7 had been.  Tomorrow we begin driving west with our next night's destination being Boumalne.  Stay tuned!

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Morocco--Day 7: Erg Chebbi and the Edge of the Sahara

We were in our two 4 wheel drive Toyotas at 5:20 AM for the 20 minute ride to Erg Chebbi--a large sand dune formation.  My son Caleb had visited this place with a high school friend back in 2000 prior to starting college.  I did not know until we got into the vehicles that was where we were headed.  It was still dark when we climbed onto our camels which we road out to the start of the dunes.  There were 5 camels in each of 2 lines that were led by a Moroccan.  As we approached the edge of the dunes it became lighter, and we could see that this had become quite the tourist event (all the photos in today's post are mine unless indicated otherwise.  Click on any photo to enlarge).

We disembarked and walked a short way up to a dune ridge where we could sit down to watch the sun come up.

And because it was 1 day past the full moon, we could look behind us to see it as well.

I would estimate that there were 50-75 tourists and their camels, and at least 1/2 that many local Moroccans.

After the sunrise viewing was finished, we all got to do some dune sledding.  We also had a chance to be shown some of the polished fossils for which the area is also known.


We remounted our sturdy beasts of burden and worked our way back to our vehicles (photo above taken by Laura).  Marty decided since his camel saddle was very uncomfortable that he would just try riding it backwards (photo taken by Adrian).

Next up was a short drive to a spot where a herder had staked out an egyptian nightjar.   While our drivers/guides--2 brothers, Mohammed (in blue) and Lahcen (in black and white)--talked with the herder, our group spread out to see the nightjar.


As always, our photography happy members were part of the spectacle of watching this incredibly well camouflaged bird (photo taken by Laura).

After fully taking in the nightjar, it was time to return to the Desert Inn to have some breakfast.  Along the way we ran into a spectacled warbler (above), and then a desert warbler (photos taken by Laura).

Breakfast was al fresco and included fresh oj; Moroccan crepes; yellow pound cake; bread, butter and jam; tea and coffee; and a not very good omelet.  We were back out birding by 11 AM, and ran across a nomad who told Lahcen that there were 2 pharoah eagle owls in a tree.  One flushed and flew off but the second stayed allowing our photogs to snap 100's of photos.

Laura got a nice photo showing the very light coloring of this particular owl which you can see much better than the distant shot in yesterday's post of a pharoah eagle owl. 

Next up was a group of crowned sandgrouse (photo taken by Laura) which look very similar to the spotted sandgrouse but the males have a black vertical line on their faces.

We stopped to have lunch at Lahcen and Mohammed's tent home.  While there we got good looks at a desert sparrow (photo taken by Laura).


The rest of the afternoon we spent cruising the desert which proved to be very productive as we turned up a short eared owl--not a species that you would expect to find here. Many hoopoe larks were also about (both photos taken by Laura).

We stopped at a small palmerie to look for fulvous babblers but came up short.  On our way out, a young girl had set up her wares for us to look over.  She proved to be a very tough negotiator, but a few items were purchased by the group (photo taken by Laura).

Back out into the desert scrub brought us to another pharoah eagle owl, followed by 3 cream coloured coursers of which Laura got a good shot of each species.

It was getting late by now, so we started the slow drive home, and came upon a booted eagle (photo taken by Laura).

After being up since 5 AM, we were glad to be back at the Desert Inn for dinner which was soup, bread and butter, excellent chicken with fried potatoes, and another round of lemon meringue tart.  11 new birds were added to the trip list, and for many it was the best day of birding so far.  After such a good day, we were stoked to go another round in the desert tomorrow.  Stay tuned!