Report on package holiday/birding trip to southern Morocco (based in Agadir) of John Coveney and Marian O'Sullivan.
Thanks to Bob Dawson and Chris Bowden for much bird and general information and company and to Kieran Fahy and Aidan Kelly for maps and trip reports.
It was pretty uniformly clear and sunny throughout the week, although high cloud drifted southwards over the High Atlas nearly as far as Agadir one day. Temperatures ranged from fairly hot to hot between mid morning and mid afternoon. However, they were often tempered by sea breezes around Agadir. On the day I travelled to Goulimine, it was quite breezy during the day with mini-tornadoes/dust devils in places. Mornings, evenings, and high areas in the Anti Atlas and the High Atlas were very pleasant to quite cool (in the High Atlas). Lots of sun cream and plenty of (bottled) water were always essential. At the end of our week, we heard that temperatures had peaked at 34°C and that the weather was more typical of May than March.
The local currency is the Dirham (Dr) and we got just under 16 for our Sterling travellers' cheques (IR£ were worth about £0.84stg at the time), which we changed in the apartment complex office -- there is no need to go to the bank as all official exchanges give the same Government fixed rate.
Chris Bowden recommended Otman cars to us, saying that we should get a small car for about Dr350/day or Dr1750 in total. When we asked in the apartment complex we got the same rate for 5 days (after some haggling -- the agent originally wanted Dr1750 for four days). The apartment complex's agent was Mediterranée cars. We decided to take this in the hope that, should we need it, we would have better back up as we were staying in the hotel. As the car did not break down I don't know if this was any more than a pious hope! The car was a white Fiat Uno with c. 73,000 km on clock. It was fine if a little noisy on main roads. However, it was very noisy on rough tracks -- perhaps due to a loose exhaust? On account of this, we probably did a little less track driving than we would otherwise have done.
Driving was no problem most of the time with the usual care -- especially to ensure that you start on the right hand side on quiet roads! On narrow roads with tarmac only in the middle, e.g. to Massa, it's best to give priority to the other guy, especially if he's bigger than you! Just after dusk is the worst time with many badly or unlit cars, carts, tractors, scooters, bicycles and pedestrians (perhaps best to stop and get dinner at this time!). Later on in the night is fine -- mainly trucks and not very many. I don't know if pre-dawn is similar to dusk - we did not get up that early any morning -- shamefully!
For general information we used the Lonely Planet guide to Morocco, which is very good. It was chosen over the relevant Rough Guide (also a good series) because the current edition (4th) of the Lonely Planet Guide had been published in January 1998 compared to 4-5 years ago for the Rough Guide.
We used the Robertson McCarta 1:1,000,000 series map that had been loaned to me by Kieran Fahy along with some trip reports. Although now several years old, this was good for the main and minor roads. However, the small scale (i.e. 400 times smaller that the new Irish 1:50,000 Discovery) meant that local navigation was very hit and miss e.g. it gives the impression that the track north into the High Atlas from Taroudannt is west of the walled town, when in fact it is to the east. Scale problems were accentuated by the fact that the area south of Goulimine (mapped south to Ad Dakhla only) was given at the further reduced scale of 1:2,000,000 i.e. four times smaller again. The main map available locally (the English "Crown" book shop and local book shops) was the Michelin 959 map (not in stock in Dublin book shops before I left) at the same scale which was slightly more detailed than our map but not enough to justify the extra c. Dr125-150. I can't remember if it gives all of the Sahara provinces at the same scale as the rest of the country.
The Librairie (= book shop) on the junction of Avenue Moulay Abdellah and (I think) Avenue 29 Fevrier had some of the Cartes Régionales Routiers Touristiques but not the ones around Agadir. However, we struck lucky in a nearby Tabac/Journaux which had No. 6 (Agadir and north) and No. 9 (Agadir and south) for about Dr30 each. The whole series of 16 goes from Tanger area (No. 1) to the southern border (No. 16). Later experience of these maps, however, showed that while the four times larger scale (1:500,000) was sometimes helpful, they did not have a lot more detail. I also think that they may not be very reliable for tracks.
The main references were Finding birds in Southern Morocco by Dave Gosney published in 1996 by Gostours and A Birdwatchers' Guide to Morocco by Patrick and Fedora Bergier published by Prion (1990) -- referred to throughout as "Gosney" and "Bergiers", respectively. References of the form "G1" are to numbers on Gosney's maps.
Both are very good and complement each other. Gosney is a photocopy type report containing purely a list of site guides and maps which were generally accurate and useful (occasional minor exceptions are noted below). Bergiers is a printed booklet that gives a lot useful general information (pre-tour information, travelling to and within the country, accommodation, food, banks, climate, health, maps, seasons, a selective list of the the more sought-after birds with information on finding them, full status lists for birds, amphibians and reptiles (we saw only one species of lizard for which we did not have the information to identify), mammals (we did not see any) and orchids, and finally, a bibliography. Gosney's maps are often more detailed and, inevitably, Bergiers' book is getting a little dated, e.g. some of Bergiers' Bald Ibis and Dark Chanting Goshawk sites are no longer productive. Furthermore, Bergiers do not include Tamri (the only remaining Bald Ibis breeding area) or Goulimine (the southern desert site).
We also had the following trip reports: 1-11 April 1989 by Kieran Grace; 20 March - 10 April 1987 by SM Andrews; a list of birds seen during 3-12 April 1983 by JF Dowdall, RG Hurley & O O'Sullivan; and 17-25 February 1990 by I Gardner, D. Pitman, P. Scholes & P Slade. All of these reports cover a fairly standard "triangle" encompassed by, approximately, Merja Zerga, Merzouga and Oued Massa. We also had recent Finnish trip reports (Annika Forsten, Tapani Numminen and Raino Suni, 1995; Annika Forsten and Tapani Numminen, 1987, 1989, 1990) via Aidan Kelly, much of which covered the Sahara territories. None of these trip reports really added much to Gosney and Bergier for us. However, the Finnish information would be essential to anyone continuing south of Goulimine.
We stayed at the Igoudar Apartments, a 3-star complex in the main tourist area between 5 and 10 minutes walk from the nearest beach access (it may be only 250 m from the beach as the brochure said but you can't go in a straight line!). This cost IR£760 (booked through Sunway travel) for the two of us for a one-bedroomed apartment, including flights, transfers and insurance. We ended up with a two-bedroomed one at no extra cost. The Igoudar apartments were a little more expensive than the Farah Apartments used by A Kelly et al. last Xmas. We chose them mainly because they had a pool. Our apartment was clean and comfortable but bare. A useful feature was a safe for which a key for a week cost Dr140. This took my camera bag and telescope (just) and our documents.
Most city people are bilingual in French and Arabic but many fewer can speak English except in touristy areas. Country people may be more likely to be bilingual in Arabic and Berber.
Left Dublin at c. 2 pm and arrived at c. 5.30 pm. We missed the best views of the High Atlas because while asking for a window seat at Dublin, I completely forgot to think about which side would give better views. Anyway those on the left got spectacular views of the High Atlas, the highest still with snow. However, we only had glimpses as the plane banked. The greenness and intensively cultivated nature of the countryside before we reached the mountains was also very striking and contrary to my expectations. As we neared the mountains, however, the country became more hilly and patchily cultivated. In the mountains themselves, we saw occasional small villages surrounded by patches of intense green. As we dropped into Agadir in a series of sharp banks after we crossed the Atlas, it was again clear that the Sous valley was intensively cultivated with lots of fruit groves. There were also lots of Argana trees. Once landed, it took a while to clear passport control and customs and get everyone on the bus. Much of the drive in was taken up by the Sunway rep giving us various details, although I did notice that we passed the IFCDW (International Foundation for Conservation and Development of Wildlife -- the captive breeding centre for Houbara Bustards).
Up at 0800 to meet Bob Dawson at 0830. We did the Oued Sous with him until 1230, working it more or less as outlined by D Gosney. After going as far as we could in the pickup, we walked out through the estuary as far as the beach and then back through the scrub on the northern shore. This was a very nice estuarine site with lots of waders, terns, gulls etc. Most of the estuary was uncovered by water but I am not sure how much tidal variation there is in any case. The only new species, however, were Common Bulbuls. Highlights were my first North African race Cormorants, a fly over Bonelli's Eagle, Stone-curlews, Slender-billed Gull (adults and first winters), Gull-billed Terns (winter and summer plumaged). Unfortunately, there was no sign of the Moroccan race Pied Wagtails in the drainage channel.
We had a siesta in the afternoon followed by walk on Agadir beach at dusk when it was quiet. We then met Bob Dawson and Chris Bowden (RSPB Bald Ibis worker) for a fish dinner (very good and very cheap (about Dr35 per person) at Chez Ahmed Restaurant No. 18 at the Port entrance) at the port followed by drinks in "The Pub" behind the Golden Gate Restaurant.
Up latish this morning (by birders standards), shopping and looking for maps in Central Agadir. Back to the apartment to pick up car. The birding highlight of the excursion was a pair of Little Swifts over the square.
We left for Tamri c. 3.30 and almost fell over a House Bunting outside the door of the apartment -- somewhat surprisingly, this was the only one we saw! We drove the road as described in D Gosney with brief stops north and south of the village and long stops to cover the mouth of the estuary and cliffs. No joy with Bald Ibis but Long-legged Buzzard, Blue Rock Thrush and Audouin's Gulls were some compensation. Left to go back to Agadir at dusk and eat at Port (Chez Ahmed again).
Left for Oued Massa c. 9.30 AM. Firstly we drove out to the reserve entrance -- the track was barely driveable in our Fiat Uno (G1, G2, G4 & G5). Then we walked c. 1 km of track onwards from the reserve entrance -- where a big new entry facility was under construction. We then came back to the tracks up the desert area (G3) and went as far as Sidi R'bat (G7 -- the cafˇ was closed -- we learned later that it had been busted for drugs a few month previously). The track here varied from quite rough to smooth and sandy. After doing this area we went to the bridges across the Oued Massa at G8 and finally G9. Weather was quite hot although a breeze helped. The heat may have made the birds quieter.
Note that there are some discrepancies between the published maps and the maps given by Gosney and the Bergiers. What Gosney calls Massa is listed as Arhbalou by the Bergiers with Massa correctly shown a bit further south towards Tassila (but our local Map No. 9 also shows Massa as Gosney does). However, as they all merge into each other, it makes little practical difference. Furthermore, at the T junction in Arhbalou, the sign to the right says Sidi Ouassai, although in fact it is the road for to Sidi Binzaren and Sidi R'bat; Sidi Ouassai is on the southern side of the river. Finally, Gosney's "hand written" sign is actually in Arabic script -- being, I suspect, the sign for the mosque at the right hand bend on the way to G8. All in all, the rule would seem to be -- once off the main roads proceed with caution and maintain one's own sense of direction and be aware of navigational and topographical cues.
The highlight was a pair of Bald Ibises which flew over and then looped back to give good telescope flight views. Marbled Ducks were also obvious. The lowlight was no Bush Shrikes!
Left c. 9 am for Goulimine trip on my own. Checked area around IFCDW for Black-shouldered Kites -- no joy -- BD says there are up to 7 roosting in compound but I could not see over the wall. Then on to Oued Massa for another failed try for the Bush Shrikes -- they could have got into the incubating stage of breeding behaviour as it was unusually warm for time of year, and the breeding season showed signs of being advanced. Then onto Goulimine via Tiznit, Tizi Mighert and Bou Izakarn. Very hot around Tiznit but cooler on the Anti Atlas. The Argana trees disappear after Massa changing to very open plains or semi-desert with low shrubs and little cultivation. Near Tiznit the countryside becomes more fertile again with some Argana? trees. The road was a little narrower south of Tiznit but still good. There was very little traffic around middle of day -- presumably because it was siesta time.
After Tiznit the road climbed slowly across very bare country. Here I noticed my first dust devil -- there were several more south of the Anti Atlas. Then the road went into a valley between high shoulders. The valley looked more fertile and cultivated and was followed by a short fairly sharp climb up the mountains and a relatively flat drive across them. This mountain had lots of little ridges with dry cactus type vegetation and some cereal and scrubby areas. A brief stop produced almost no birds.
On the other side there was a long series of hairpins into a deep steep-sided valley. This opened out into a much wider valley flanked by fairly rounded hills, in which Bou Izakarn is situated. There was a police check point on way in, and I was asked my nationality and then waved on. Bou Izakarn and Goulimine have dark dull red-walled buildings with blue trim and big modern concrete arched "gates".
The country from Bou Izakarn to Goulimine is a very dry broad valley between interior and coastal hills and very little cultivation except for a few areas around Bou Izakarn. On the way out of Goulimine and prior to Oued Seyed there was no sign of G1 dump. Oued Seyed was a nice sheltered gully with bushes along the stream. A Subalpine Warbler was the best of several apparent migrant warblers.
Next I tried to find G3 but this was complicated by the fact that the kilometre markers had all been repainted but the numbers had not yet been put back on. After picking up Red-rumped Wheatear from the road at 17 km (roughly = to G3) from Goulimine gate, I turned right (going south on main road -- same for all turn directions) and drove up c. 5-700 m round to right behind a low hill. This brought me to a small area of dark brown stony desert. This right turn is between two signs (1-2 km apart on opposite side of the road) indicating a rough stretch of road. The turn is c. 2 km N of a signed narrow bridge, where a spur of the hills come almost out to the road on right (going south). The plain to the left was in large part being cultivated with green cereals, with the areas near the road being fallow. Opposite the above track to the right that I took, there was a track to the left at 45 degrees to the road going to the cereals and back in general direction of Goulimine. Beyond the narrow bridge was a small sign for Zrioulia and about another km or so, a big sign for Layouene 490 km (I think).
On the small area of dark brown stony desert, on the back side of the small hill (not the much higher hills with low cliffs near top further back from the road) from the road, I had Cream-coloured Coursers and the three new larks (Bar-tailed Desert, Thick-billed, and Temminck's Horned) as well as Thekla and lots of Short-toed, from about 5 pm. I spent a fair while getting to grips with these. I then tried the 45 degree track, where I had more Coursers, Desert Wheatear, Trumpeter Finch and another probable male Red-rumped Wheatear (it was very distant). Here I also heard what I think were sandgrouse -- or could it have been Barbary partridge?
It was by now 6.30 pm and as I went a little further south, I realised I was not going to get to G4 before dusk, so I took a track eastwards (S of the track into Zrioulia) to the power lines. The main birds here were a Bonelli's Eagle which landed on a low hill and three Black Kites. I stayed in this area on top of the little hill enjoying the stillness, the warmth and vastness -- however, I am sure the local shepherds watching me from a km or so thought I was mad. Back to Agadir for 12.30 am.
A quiet day after yesterday's long trip. This evening I did a quick visit to the Port. It's very big with perhaps 2-300 fishing boats tied up. Chris Bowden later told me it was the closed season for most of the boats especially the ocean-going ones. Little of note bird-wise except for hundreds of Lesser Black-backed Gulls and somewhat fewer Yellow-legged Gulls. I then went to Oued Sous to look for Red-necked Nightjars. I heard one singing -- the description of a car trying to start is very apt. However, I was soon spotted by the guard who then reported me to another soldier (the sergeant?) who came along shortly in a jeep -- he was not happy about me being there and was either uninterested or unbelieving when I told him why I was there as well being convinced that my optics were for taking photos. Having well heard a bird calling, I decided it was not worth the hassle to wait longer to see one. In any case, it seemed the jeeps driving along the lighted strip between the fence and the walls of the palace grounds would make it unlikely that any nightjars would land there.
Today we planned to see if we could visit the High Atlas via the small road running north from Taroudannt towards Jbel Aoulime via Amcherk and Tasguinnt. However, we spent an hour plus trying to find it before working out the following: At the roundabout on the main road which has a sign for "centre ville" via a gate in the town walls, take the road to the hotel Palais Salaam and follow this around the outside of the walls on the eastern side. It led to an a short unpaved dual carriageway section under construction which in turn led to 3-5 km of paved road. We then came to a new road being built and paralleled by a rough track -- too rough to drive a car over any distance as we could only go dead slowly.
We then decided to abandon this and try for Tizi-n-test to get at least a view of the mountains. The road east from Taroudannt was much quieter than the section to Agadir. The country was very fertile with very few Argana trees (we had been flagged by shepherds on the Agadir side wanting to show us their goats in the trees just as described in the guide books -- no doubt there would have been a fee for the photographs!). The flat section at the bottom of the Tizi-n-test had good stretches of Argana but the ground cover was very heavily grazed. The lower part of the road, though not very wide, ascends relatively slowly through continuous curves. It passes through pine groves (planted) and scrub and was generally quite green. Tracks lead to relatively flat hill tops and small villages. Then as the climb becomes steeper, the road become narrower and changes to a series of hairpins connecting straighter stretches cut into very steep hillsides. Tracks lead to green oasis like Berber villages tucked into deep valleys. The final stretch of road is even more dramatic as the drops are now precipitous and you realise that virtually the entire climb to the pass will be in sight of the Sous plain. In one section, the road is cut into rock to leave an overhang. In other parts the road is newly repaired and unsurfaced, presumably after flood, avalanche or landslide damage.
From the pass itself, the plain cannot be seen but the road continues at about the same height through the mountains. It was cool here, almost cold in the shade. There was one small cafe/souvenir shop. However, the main point for most people was a bigger stop a few hundred meters back down the road which looked over most of the climb and the Sous plain. As we went up, the pine groves gave way the dwarf palm scrub on the steeper slopes, which in turn gave way to a narrow band (between 1800 and 2200m approx.) of thin evergreen deciduous forest. The upper limit of this appeared to coincide with a change in the rocks. Above was dry poor grass, or so it appeared from the pass. On the way up we could see some kind of station/signals base on the ridge west of the pass, apparently in this grassy habitat, but at the pass it was unclear where the road to this was.
We made several short stops on the way down and the highlights were Tristram's Warbler in the dwarf palm scrub and Barbary Partridges in the scrub lower down. We then drove back to the Oued Sous bridge just west of Taroudannt, where we had 3 Fulvous Babblers. The drive back to IFCDW to meet Bob, Claire, Chris and Ali for tagine at 8 PM was a bit dodgy given the number of unlit cyclists and pedestrians. Pickups with the trailers stuffed with veiled women field labourers were also noteworthy.
To IFCDW for 0730 where Bob duly showed me the Kites (2) and a male bush-shrike singing. Flushing a Red-necked Nightjar several times was also a highlight. We also saw a few of the captive Houbara Bustards in their cages.
The Foundation was set up in 1992 but at present there are no formal arrangements for visiting. Because of the sensitivity of the birds this is unlikely to change in the near future. An article is being prepared that describes the activities of the FoundationÕs first six years (Bob Dawson pers. commun.).
After packing, we went to the Souk where they tried to charge us Dr 650 for spices etc. -- they eventually took 300 after I said that was all I had -- and I still think we were overcharged! Finally, we were bussed to the airport for our 7 PM flight, which took off at dusk.
English and scientific names are as in Bergiers, except for Southern Grey Shrike. Subspecific names are from Jonsson. M = Male, F = Female.
A total of 120 species were definitely identified, which was not bad for about 4.5 days birding and no early morning starts. Of these 18, as follows, were lifers.
Of the other possible 27 lifers (realistic maximum of 20 or so) that I could have got in southern Morocco, Dark Chanting Goshawk and Double-spurred Francolin now seem to be impossible or nearly so in the Sous plain. Tawny Eagle would have required much more time in desert areas. Raptors in general were thin on the ground (very different from Spain), and this presumably explains the lack of Lanners and Barbary Falcons. As with all falcons, more time in the field would have improved the odds. Both Houbara and Arabian Bustards are now impossible or nearly so due to over-hunting. Royal Tern and Lesser-crested Tern cannot be expected in the Agadir area until May, and even then they are few at best. There was no time for any serious attempt at the sandgrouse (Crowned Spotted Pin-tailed and Lichtenstein's) or Scops Owl (one of my bogey birds in the Western Palearctic). Egyptian Nightjar necessitates a trip further east than we had time for. There was not time to do the woods on the High Atlas for Levaillant's Green Woodpecker. More time in the desert would presumable have provided Desert Lark and Hoopoe Lark, while the status of Rock Martin in Morocco is unclear. The Rufous Bush Robins do not arrive until April. Again, Mourning Wheatear, White-crowned Black Wheatear, Scrub Warbler, Desert Warbler and Brown-necked Raven would have required more time in the desert. Desert Sparrow occurs exclusively in Merzouga much further east. Finally our time budget did not allow a trip to Oukaimeden for Crimson-winged Finch.
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