Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Morocco--Day 5: Dayet Aoua and Zeida Plain

After a light breakfast that featured fresh fruit, yogurt and the Moroccan pancake which is delicious but is nothing like our pancakes, we rolled our bags a few blocks out of the medina to get back to the van.  It was 7 AM and alpine swifts dominated the sky (unless indicated otherwise, all photos in today's post were taken by Laura.  Click on any photo to enlarge).  We shared good mornings with Mustafa as he loaded up the van. 

Our final destination for the day was Midelt located in the high Atlas Mountains, but our first stop was only about an hour drive from Fes.  It was a good sized lake called Dayet Aoua, or in English, gull lake, which both Adrian and Martin have never understood why that is its name since they have never seen any gulls there.  They also had not ever seen many people until we pulled in along with 2 large buses full of school kids.

We were not out of the van even a minute before we began to hear birds calling all around us.  First up was a firecrest in the evergreens.  In this same large forested area along the lake we found great, coal and African blue tits, mistle thrush, and blackbird.

Along the lake edge was a line of trees that gave us our first looks at short-toed tree creeper, and several great spotted woodpeckers.  We spent the next hour walking along the lake edge in search of a more rare cousin--the Levaillant's woodpecker.

Along the way we had very good views of black-necked grebes (eared grebes in North America) and red-knobbed coots.

A bit further down the lake edge we found gadwalls, northern shovelers, pochards, shelducks, and ferruginous ducks.  As we continued to search for the Levaillant's, we found a cirl bunting. 

In a group of pines Martin thought he saw a hawfinch, which would be a very good bird for our trip, but we could not relocate it.  A bit later Laura went thru her photos and discovered she had gotten a shot of the bird which only made us all wish we had spent a bit longer trying to find it.

Even though we still had not seen a Levaillant's woodpecker, the road beckoned to take us to new places higher up in the mountains.  It was not long before we encountered people stopped along the road watching and, unfortunately, also feeding a troop of barbary apes.  This led to us piling out for photos.  While I was behind some trees irrigating the area, I missed the excitement of one of the males rushing Linda and snatching a water bottle off her belt (my photo).  We were just glad nothing worse happened in the encounter.

A bit further up the road we came to a large park area which was perfect for our lunch break. Martin had heard a woodlark calling so, while lunch was being prepared, we went off to find it obliging us with brief but good views.  After it flew off, we tried to relocate it without success, but instead found a stock dove which was not so accommodating for photo ops.

During lunch we did have 3 crossbills fly close by, and watched them taking away bits of cement from a wall.

Next up was the hunt for Dupont's lark on the Zaida Plains.  Martin had been telling us all day how difficult it was to "corner" this lark as it scurried around on the ground between small plants.  It sounded like many hunts I have made for Leconte's thrasher in Arizona.  Other tour groups had spent hours during the afternoon in the past without luck which meant returning the next morning before daylight so that you could hear the lark call in order to then find one.

Martin got us organized in a very long line, and then we proceeded to slowly walk in hopes of crossing the lark's path.  We had not walked 10 minutes when Martin said "there's one".  For the next 15 minutes we carefully encircled what turned out to be 2 birds that did prove difficult to get very good looks at.  We continued to close down the circle which eventually caused the pair to fly up and away.  Besides the fun of seeing the bird we also got to kid Martin about how quickly we had found it.  It also meant we could spend time walking thru the high desert looking for other birds.

First up was a trumpeter finch that apparently likes the same kind of habitat.

We also found several wheatears including black-eared.

Adrian decided that in honor of the quick find on the Dupont's, and the beauty of the late afternoon, it was time for him to take our first group photo.  From left to right--Laura, Linda, Bill, Dan, Doreene, Mustafa, Marty, Gretchen, me, and Martin.

We still had a bit of a drive to make to get to our Riad in Midelt.  As we drove along I was reminded how different it was this time from 1981.  We were here in January that year, and left Midelt in a snow storm to make the drive to Fes.  The storm worsened and finally the road was closed by a gate that drops down to block further progress up into the mountains.  We turned around and began the drive back to Midelt when our car began to stall, and then it just stopped.  We could not get it started, and realized how serious our predicament was since where we were was totally isolated except for the occasional goat herder.

Fortunately a snow plow came up behind us and stopped.  The driver put all 4 of us into his large cab, and drove us over an hour back to Midelt.  The next day he came back to get our car to take to a mechanic.  We ended up being in Midelt 2 extra nights, staying in a motel that was 50 degrees inside.  The plow driver did invite us to his home the next day to meet his family which proved to be one of the most interesting but unexpected parts of our trip.  We finally left under bright blue skies, and made the drive to Fes without any further incident.

This time our accommodations at the Riad were delightful as was our meal that included a tagine of eggs, prunes and beef (my photo).  Our daily bird list review gave us 12 new birds for the trip.  Tomorrow we would climb even higher into the mountains before descending down to the edge of the Sahara desert.  Stay tuned!

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Morocco--Day 4: Volubilis and Fes

We were definitely looking forward to today's itinerary which included some birding, but would be a day of major historical and cultural emphasis.  We left Kenitra about 7:00 AM heading for Volubilis--the most southern significant Roman ruin in Africa.  En route we stopped in a hilly area where lots of fields were planted in hopes of finding callandra lark.  We could see a couple flying up out of a cultivated field, but the common kestrel sitting on the power lines ended up flushing them over the ridge.  As a result we all hiked up to the ridge line where we had a chance to see the lark plus wagtails flitting around the field (In today's post, all of the photos of birds plus the one of me were taken by Laura, and the rest are mine.  Click on any photo to enlarge).

With the lark on the list, we piled back into our van and made the short drive to Volubilis.  I had visited here in 1981.  The ruins were unchanged, but the place was now a definite tourist spot with a a couple of new buildings between the ruins and the parking area.  In 1981 we were the only visitors, and there was one very old man in a djellaba.  He was missing most of his teeth and spoke only a bit of english but still guided us thru the ruins.  This time there were many guides plus an entrance fee.  There were many tourists and a large detail of security people to "protect" the 10 year old prince and his small group of friends as they toured the site.


While taking in the ruins, we had the good fortune of noticing a short toed snake eagle cruise overhead.  Most of our time was spent looking down at the various mosaics that still remain where houses used to be.

There were some birds around including a stonechat and a sardinian warbler.

Our guide, Majid, spoke very good english and enjoyed showing us around, especially when he had Dan straddle a surviving relic that he had initially covered with his hat as Dan looked up at the skyline.

The commotion caused by the prince's arrival had us ready to leave, but then the security guards insisted we had to wait for about 5 minutes before they would let our van drive away.   

We arrived in Fes mid afternoon to meet our next guide, Ali, who Adrian and Martin knew from past trips.  First stop was to view the entrance to one of the 5 royal palaces which was unchanged from my memory when I first saw it 33 years ago.  We learned of one recent major change. The current king, who is about 40, for the first time in the country's modern history has allowed his wife to be seen on occasion in public.

Not far from the palace we entered into the medina which is the old city of Fes founded in 789 AD. Today Fes has about 1 million inhabitants living in and around the old city.

There are no motor vehicles in the medina but we immediately saw the donkey sign followed soon after by the real deal.

The shops are all generally very small and the walkways are often very narrow.  Most foreigners worry about getting lost in the Medina, so there are lots of guides--both official who you pay, and unofficial who get paid a commission if you buy anything from the merchants that they steer you to.  In 1981, the unofficial guides were generally boys age 10-12 whose "story" was that they had a brother in America, and they wanted to improve their english.

We of course had to visit the leather tannery which reeks from the tanning process.  The extensive shop that looked down on the tannery gave each of us fresh mint to smell to counter the odor of the chemicals. Bartering in the markets in Morocco is the norm, and we ended up in a lengthy negotiation with Adrian doing a masterful job of haggling down the price of what are called poofs--decorated round leather skins that you fill once you get them home to turn them into ottomans.

I kept being asked by members of our group what had changed since my visit in 1981.  Interestingly, the exchange rate for the Moroccan dirham was still 8 to the dollar.  The poofs price started at $100, but Adrian worked the price down to $75.

Our next stop was a cloth making business that still was using hand operated looms.  Ali showed us the various styles of scarf wrapping--Berber, Beduoin, etc.  I ended up being one of the models.

After a long walk thru the medina, we were very glad to arrive at the Dar (private home turned into a hotel).  As we would discover over the next 2 weeks, a dar or a riad (a private home that also has a central open/garden area) is definitely a better housing option over the hotels.

We were offered the traditional mint tea when we arrived, and about an hour later we sat down to a far better meal than any we had eaten so far.  The salad course included 9 choices some of which we could not even figure out what was in them, but whatever it was it was yummy.  The main course tagine was beef with green peas and artichoke hearts.

Before dinner we went thru the bird trip list, adding another dozen new birds to the count.  Tomorrow we would be heading up into the high Atlas mountains for the first time.  Stay tuned!

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Morocco--Days 1-3: Kenitra

I have returned from a fine birding and culture trip to Morocco.  Now that Laura Keene, who was in our travel group and who I depend on for so many excellent photos, has the time to share her photos with me, I am beginning the series of blog posts about our trip.

The more birding savvy of my readers may be wondering why we made this trip to Morocco to bird since Morocco is not at the top of anyone's list of must visit birding countries.  The answer is pretty simple.  I visited Morocco 33 years ago, and had been wanting to return.  I met Adrian Binns during my lower 48 big year in 2010.  He is a partner in WildsideNatureTours, and for several years has offered a trip to Morocco where he lived as a boy.  His personal connection to Morocco made for the perfect combination with my own desire to visit Morocco again, so I began last summer to put together a group of birders who would like to bird in Morocco as well as take in the culture, scenery and food.

My Ohio friends Dan and Doreene, and Laura, who were at the Pribs with me last fall, were on board as was my long time friend, Marty, who had been in Morocco with me the first time.  Doreene recruited Linda and Gretchen, birders she knows also from Ohio.  Our 8th member was Bill, from Pennsylvania, who had contacted Adrian about going to Morocco.  Martin from England came on board as Adrian's assistant, and Mustafa served as our van driver.

Adrian and the 8 of us met at JFK airport in NYC on Tuesday March 11th to catch our overnight flight on Royal Air Maroc to Casablanca.  We arrived at 5:30 AM where Martin and Mustafa met us.  We headed out immediately for the first of 17 consecutive days of birding.  It was foggy as we rolled out of the airport, but it burned off as we powered up the road towards Kenitra where we would spend the next 3 nights. One of the first birds of the trip, which we saw just about every day, was a common kestrel (all photos were taken by Laura unless indicated otherwise.  Click on any photo to enlarge).

Our first stop was at Forest de Zaers to search for the double-spurred francolin which is a resident subspecies endemic to the Maghreb.  We wandered around a bit before finding a pair that scurried off into the brush.  A bit later we found another that gave us the briefest of chances to photograph it.

We had our first of 15 picnic lunches in a cork forest where we saw our first great spotted woodpecker of the trip.  Lunch each day was laid out by Mustafa with assistance from either Martin or Adrian.  We bought round flat individual loaves of Moroccan bread each morning which we filled with a choice of tuna, sardines, gouda cheese, tomatoes, avocados, or cucumbers seasoned with harissa sauce or salt.  There were also olives, figs, dates, clementines, bananas and cookies or biscuits as they are called in Morocco.  We washed it all down with warm soda or water. Linda and Gretchen had also brought along peanut butter.

We found a little owl which looks a lot like our burrowing owl, sitting on a wall which they do regularly.

We checked into Hotel Assam mid afternoon, and after settling in, we walked to a small wetland near by to find all kinds of birds taking in the late afternoon sun (my photo).

We located a wood sandpiper which was the only one we saw on the trip.

On our return walk to the hotel, we found a group of squacco herons.

And back at the hotel we checked out the white storks on their nest (my photo).  This is another bird that we saw almost everyday of the trip.

Our first Moroccan meal was not bad, but left room for improvement--green pea soup (they eat a lot of soup in Morocco); chicken and green pea tagine; bread and butter; and oranges with cinnamon.  As with all days of the trip, we went thru the list of birds for the day which totaled about 70 species.

We were out birding by 7:30 on day 2, stopping at the wetland to see if anything new had come in.  We found a rare marbled duck lurking at the back of the open water.  We then drove about an hour to a park by the ocean.  The park sign was not much help since it was mostly in arabic (my photo).  No matter, we could still enjoy the birds which included the largest number of white-headed ducks that Adrian and Martin had ever seen in one spot in Morocco.  This bird reminded us of our ruddy ducks.

Another new bird was the ferruginous duck.  We also had a nice look at a group of Eurasian spoonbills as they flew overhead.  Other good ducks for the day were common and red-crested pochard, northern pintail and shoveler.

Another striking bird for day 2 was great crested grebe.  We walked a wooded area along the water which produced several woodland birds including cetti's, Sardinian and black-capped warblers; African blue and Maghreb great tits; blackbird; wren; and chiffchaffs.  We also saw Audouin's and yellow-legged gulls, sandwich terns, great cormorants, ravens and jackdaws.

Dinner at the hotel was on a par with the night before--soup, a tagine of meatballs, eggs and rice, and cake pastries for dessert.  The bird list grew by about 20 new trip birds .

Day 3 had us driving over an hour north of Kenitra to visit Merdja Zerga national park.  We did a short sea watch which gave us a Eurasian oystercatcher on the beach, and an arctic skua that at one point attacked a tern.  We then piled into 2 boats to motor around the lagoon for a couple of hours (my photo).  One of the first highlights was a very short lived view of a common kingfisher, and next was a slender-billed gull.

The tide was very low, so we were not able to get as close to some of the shorebirds as we would have liked which meant we also did not get many photos.  We did see many women harvesting cockles (my photo).  Some of the bird highlights while on the lagoon included whiskered tern, a Mediterranean gull with Audouin's and slender-billed gulls; common redshank and greenshank; common ringed, little ringed, Kentish, and gray plovers; whimbrel; black-winged stilt; pied avocet; glossy ibis and Eurasian spoonbill.

After our picnic lunch, we set out to locate probably the rarest bird of our trip--a marsh owl which is similar in size and markings to a short-eared owl.  Hassan, our boat man and local guide, took us to a new location in the marsh where we were supposed to meet up with another guide, but when we arrived the other man was not there.  Finally after some wrangling and phone calls, we tracked down the guy and picked him up down the road.

We then drove another 15 minutes to a second spot, passing by tilled fields full of mostly potatoes.  We got out of the van and began to work our way over to the edge of the marsh.  As we approached the reeds, we were treated to a close fly by of a Montagu's harrier which proved to be our only sighting of this beautiful raptor.

Next up was one of the best times of our trip as we found at least 3 marsh owls which flushed up out of the reeds.  The last one landed on the ground not too far away, so we worked our way towards its position.  It had settled into a small dip so that as we got closer it would hunker down only leaving its head visible.  Hassan worked his way behind it, but it flushed as he got nearer, so we called it a day.  As we walked back to the van, a 4th owl flew up and disappeared into a potato field.

Our last meal back at the hotel was probably the weakest of our entire trip--a chicken and vegie cous cous that seemed to be made with instant cous cous, and like almost all cooked vegetables in Morocco, these were total mush.  We had creme caramel for dessert that also was subpar.

After 3 days of birding our trip list was up to about 110 trip birds, and we were ready to move on to new habitat the next day after such a poor dinner.  Stay tuned!