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 or crepe 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!

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