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!

1 comment:

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