Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Morocco--Day 13: Oukaimeden, Tizi n Test Pass, and Taroudant

We were up at first light to make sure that we did not miss out on the morning flight of the alpine and red-billed choughs.  We also wanted to make sure that Linda and Gretchen had a chance to see the Seebohm's wheatear which they did.  While waiting for the choughs to arrive, we walked up the hillside scanning the meadow below the summer herders' quarters, and found several different birds.

First up was a hungry mistle thrush, and nearby was a Levaillant's woodpecker acting very much like our flickers (all photos in today's post were taken by Laura unless indicated otherwise.  Click on any photo to enlarge).

Then we had a group of rock sparrows that I decided were the most visually boring bird of the trip.

We also got some nice looks at rock buntings which are very similar looking to house buntings.  Just below the rock bunting is the Atlas form of chaffinch.

Less than an hour had passed when we began to hear the call of the choughs as they flew down from their night roosts up on the mountainside.

As you can see, they are both all black birds, but different in size and bill color.  The alpine has the yellow, smaller bill, and is not as big overall with a somewhat more compact wing shape.

With the chough spectacle in the books, we went in for a late breakfast for us (7:30).  Then we got in the van and drove up to the radar site above the town to search for alpine accentors.  They were not visible at first, and then we spotted them very far down the cliff.  Fortunately we were patient and after about 20 minutes 4 of them flew up to where we were standing.

We also got very good views of a blue rock thrush while waiting for the accentors to cooperate.

Just as we were starting back down we also got our best look so far of a crimson-winged finch.


It was such a beautiful morning, and we had successfully found all the target birds at Oukaimeden, so we needed a celebratory photo of the group (left to right: Martin, Bill, Marty, Laura, me, Linda, Dan, Doreene, and Gretchen--photo taken by Adrian), as well as of our outstanding leaders and driver (Martin, Adrian and Mustafa).

We returned to Chez JuJu just long enough to gather up our gear which was still enough time for the local fossil dealers to make one more run at us.  Martin proved to be a very hard bargainer plus it was a very "hungry" group of guys.  It resulted in some very inexpensive acquisitions.

Next up was a short stop just 5 minutes down the road where we quickly picked up a dipper which we all agreed was more dapper than ours back in the States.

We finally pulled ourselves away from the dipper because we had several hours of difficult highway to drive in order to reach our evening's destination--Taroudant.  Near the bottom of the road back down towards Marrakech, Marty stopped and took photos of some very interesting sculptures.

Once we had descended from Oukaimeden, we were driving on the plain very briefly before we began what has been called one of the most frightening highways in the world--a 4 hour fingernail biter that takes you up over the Tizi n Test pass through the High Atlas Mountains (my photo).

On the way up we saw an area where they have begun to reintroduce the barbary sheep which are similar to our big horn sheep.  We stopped at one point because Martin had seen a large black bird dive over the side of the road.  Our hope was that it was a ring ouzel which winters in the High Atlas before returning to Europe in the spring.  We worked hard for about 20 minutes locating a few of them across the ravine which meant no great photos, but a prized trip bird nevertheless.

At the pass we stopped for some mint tea, and took in the view of our highway down the mountain.  We also kept looking for barbary partridge--an endemic bird of the Mahgreb that so far had eluded us.  With only a few days left in our trip, we were beginning to get a bit nervous about missing it.

On the south side of the mountains we drove through several places where the road was being improved.  At one point we were guided underneath the bucket of a large earth mover.  It was hard to believe that we drove for well over an hour on what seemed like a one lane road full of hairpin turns without having a head-on collision.  It felt very good to reach the lowlands and the Souss River valley.

We were pretty whipped when we finally arrived in Taroudant.  As we drove the short distance through town, we got to see the locals strolling through the streets socializing much as I have seen late in the day in the towns of Italy.  We arrived at la Maison Anglais to refreshments of mint tea and cakes.  Dinner was served soon after our arrival.  Everything arrived at the table at the same time--beet, carrot, and tomato salads; a baked cauliflower dish; a tagine of lamb and prunes; saffron rice; and bread.  Cut up fruit was the dessert.  All was excellent.  We had purchased beer a few days earlier to have while we stayed in Taroudant.  It was cold and hit the spot.

Our evening bird list review was held as usual.  5 new birds were added to the trip list.  Tomorrow we were going to see what the Souss River Valley had to offer us.  Stay tuned!

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!

Friday, April 25, 2014

Morocco--Day 11: Tagdilt Track, Kasbah Amridil, Amerzgane and Ouarzazate

After another typical Moroccan breakfast of yogurt, Moroccan crepes, yellow pound cake, and tea and coffee, we left at 7 AM to work the Tagdilt Track again.  First up was a second try for the Mahgreb wheatear which is usually the toughest wheatear species to find.  We spread out over a fairly large area and slowly walked through it.  Laura flushed a very large hare, and we turned up a few birds, but not the Mahgreb wheatear.

After maybe 30 minutes, Adrian signaled to the group to come to him so we all worked our way over to where he had a wheatear.  After lots of scoping and very good photog work, we were very pleased that we had confirmed the ID of an Isabelline wheatear which is rare in Morocco (all photos in today's post are Laura's unless indicated otherwise.  Click on any photo to enlarge).

On our way back out from the Isabelline site, we also had nice looks at a little owl--our 4th of the trip.

We returned to the area from late the day before to look again for black-bellied sandgrouse.  We spent probably 90 minutes working through the open desert.  We saw several hoopoe larks including one in flight display.

We also found a few Thekla larks, but in the end no sandgrouse.  At one point we found one of the birding groups from last night's lodging.  They were English, and were scoping thick-billed larks which we had seen a few days earlier. As we passed their van we were a bit jealous of the tea service set up in the back, so we headed off towards our lunch destination.

Lunch was under a large tree next to a dry river bed that abutted Kasbah Amridil in Skoura.  This is a very old Kasbah that is being restored.  Marty is posing in front of the section of the building that is on the 50 dirham bill.  We toured only part of the massive structure while Martin and Mustafa organized lunch.

After lunch we still had some driving to do to reach Amerzgane where Adrian has had the most success in finding the Mahgreb wheatear.  Along the way we saw a Bonelli's eagle land on a micro-wave tower.

We passed right through Ouarzazate and drove 40 more kilometers to get to the wheatear site.  Our hopes were briefly raised when we found the very similar looking red-rumped wheatear.

Shortly after that sighting we pulled over and got out to walk a promising wadi.  I found a scorpion.

Then we discovered a female Mahgreb wheatear.  A nice looking bird, but not nearly as dramatic as the male form.  So we went down the road a bit further to try again.  Most of us got out of the van, and started to walk up a hillside.  Soon Marty yelled that a male Mahgreb had just flown over his head.  We continued up the hill and finally got distant views of it, but unfortunately no photos.  When we all got back together we found out that Doreene and Gretchen who stayed on the bus as Mustafa moved it a bit further down the road ended up having very good views of the bird before it flew up to the rest of us.

It was starting to get pretty late, so we climbed back into the van for the drive back to our night's lodging--Dar Daif.  This turned out to be the most interesting and best accommodations of the trip.  It was 2 homes that were combined into one Dar, and had 4 levels to it.  The tiling throughout the place was exquisite.  We were asked to wear slippers provided by the Dar while we were in the house.

Dinner was probably considered by most of our group as the best to that point of the trip.  We began with excellent legume soup and pita bread.  Then a banana/strawberry palate cleanser was followed by a very fine chicken bisteeya, and a vegie tagine.  Dessert was an apple/date tart.  While we ate an older Moroccan man played the lotar, and sang his short medley of songs.  Our trip bird list for the day grew by 3 new birds.  Tomorrow we will make the climb back up into the High Atlas mountains.  Stay tuned!

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 a place called the Tagdilt Track.  We first worked an area that another bird guide had told us he had found a Mahgreb wheatear.  We worked it 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!