Sunday, April 27, 2014

Morocco--Day 12: Ait Ben Haddou, Tizi n Tichka Pass, and Oukaimeden

As we found with dinner last night, the breakfast at Dar Daif was top notch with the best Moroccan crepe so far on the trip.  We were sad to leave such nice accommodations, but the High Atlas was beckoning.  We were out the door at 7:15, and did not have to drive very far to reach Ait Ben Haddou--a UNESCO heritage site.  It is essentially a small walled town.  We stopped just above the river for initial photos and noticed that European bee-eaters were hawking bugs above the river. 

By the time we got down to the river the bee-eaters had moved off, so we crossed on strategically placed sandbags.  As the first across, I signaled to the group that it was safe to follow.  They thought I was simply cheering them on (all photos in today's post were taken by Laura, or on her cell phone by someone unknown.  Click on any photo to enlarge).  Part of the group went into the walled town, and the rest of us decided to bird the river and gardens. We found a very accommodating little ringed plover showing off its yellow eye ring.

The gardens proved to be pretty slow except for the nightingale thrush Martin managed to find singing inside a pomegranate tree.  Before the rest of our group returned from touring the heritage site, we did see a few other birds including European goldfinch, crested lark, more distant bee-eaters, and subalpine and black capped warblers.

We next began the drive towards Tizi n Tichka Pass, stopping about 1/2 way up to check out a small hillside that had some cultivation on it.  There were quite a few birds about including several tree pipits.  Adrian found a nice male red crossbill, but it flew off before the rest of us could get to see it.

We drove up to a perfect lunch spot not far below the pass.  There were at least 2 common kestrels patrolling the meadow, but we still located a group of willow warblers feeding in the grass.

More importantly, we finally saw a Levaillant's woodpecker which we had missed earlier in the trip.  This removed another of the key birds we needed to find in order to complete our list of Moroccan or Mahgreb endemics.

On our way back to eat lunch, Laura was"accosted" by a local means of transportation.  Lunch was of course our usual fare which we all were now beginning to be quite tired of even though it was tasty and filling.  It was such a nice mountain lunch spot, but we still had 3 hours of windy roads before we would reach Oukaimeden where we would be spending the night.

The weather continued to be excellent--sunny and not too warm--as we wound our way down the mountain, approaching the outskirts of Marrakech before turning back south to make the climb up to Oukaimeden which is a small ski resort town 80 kilometers from Marrakech.  Even though it is at about 8,000 ft in altitude, it was quite pleasant, and since Morocco had not had much precipitation during the winter, there was not much snow left.

We checked into Chez JuJu which was a major come down from Dar Daif as far as the general accommodations.  Walking up to our postage stamp sized room, I was skeptical about what our dinner was going to be like.  We still had some good daylight left to bird, but we went without Adrian whose "flu" had finally gotten the better of him.

We quickly found the Atlas horned larks roaming around on the hillside.  We ran into 2 Dutch birder/photographers who told us they earlier had seen 40 crimson-winged finches.  This was one of our target birds for Oukaimeden.  They said they were up in the "summer" quarters for the shepherds.  We spent some time scanning the stone buildings before finding a single female crimson-winged finch that was far enough away that the photos turned out poorly.

The Dutch had also had found a Seebohm's wheatear in the large meadow.  We all spread out to walk through a good part of it in hopes of relocating this somewhat rare wheatear.  Most of us gave it up after 30 minutes of seeing almost nothing other than a very distant long-legged buzzard feeding down by the lake.

As soon as we approached our lodging we were swarmed by the local fossil and trinket dealers who were probably quite hungry to have some customers.  Marty ended up swapping a fleece for 3 silver bracelets which the man immediately tried on for size.

Laura and I decided to go back up the hill for one more try at the Seebohm's.  Martin joined us soon after, and suggested that if he were a wheatear, he would be hanging out with the sheep where the bugs might also be.  Sure enough, within minutes we turned up the Seebohm's eating bugs where the sheep had just been.  I went back to Chez JuJu to round up our missing birders.  I thought we had gotten the word to everyone else, but Gretchen and Linda were up in their room and missed hearing about the bird which led to some consternation when we returned.  Our hope was that they could pick it up first thing in the morning. 

Dinner turned out to be far better than I had presumed when checking in.  It was not just traditional Moroccan fare.  Besides lemon chicken, there was a choice of wild boar in red wine, cassoulet with sausage, or lasagne.  Dessert was either a tart or flan.

Our daily review of the birds seen added another 13 new trip birds for our list.  And we now had seen all the expected wheatear species plus the surprise sighting of the Isabelline.  Tomorrow morning promised more new birds including choughs.  Stay tuned!

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