After repeated viewings of "Carry On Follow That Camel," the team (Neill H; Trops, Bazzo, Jellyhead and I) felt we were more than ready to conquer the birding wonderland that is Morocco - flying out to Marrakech from Manchester on April 16 after a hearty breakfast of Stella, and for the more sophisticated in the party, Chardonnay.
Got the hire car and we were soon motoring out of town, picking up Common Bulbul and House Bunting (easy in any built up area) before the road climbed away from the city and up, up, up into the High Atlas, past hordes of fossil salesmen; destination Oukaimeden.
First Moussier's Redstarts of the trip as the road really climbed past the last village before the big O, plus Blue Rock Thrush, Black Wheatear etc, and we heard, but didn't see Levaillant's Green Woodpecker.
Pushed on to Oukaimeden through clouds of Alpine and Red Billed Chough
and headed to the chairlifts, where a walk on up the pass produced Barbary Partridge, singing Seebohm's Wheatear (stunning), Black Wheatear, Black Reds, African Blue Tit, Shorelark and a flock of Crimson Winged Finches which whizzed past up the valley giving poor views.
A good root around didn't give any more Crimson Winged, so we decided drastic action was necessary and before you could say "is this really a good idea?" we were scooped up by the chairlift and hauled up the slopes towards the peak of Jebel Oukaimeden, at 11,400 ft.
Frankly it was terrifying - total silence apart from the whistling of the wind in the cables and the laboured breathing of petrified Marshside birders, praying for the end of the ride.
It was a long, long, long way down.
Passed an Alpine Accentor perched on a crag as we ascended - it looked a whole lot happier than us.
When we got to the top, I kissed the snow. A lot.
Birding produced more Moussier's Redstarts, and some superb Shorelarks (Atlas race).
Going down was if anything, scarier than going up, but all fears evaporated as halfway down we saw a flock of at least eight Crimson Winged Finches feeding on the stony ground below us, before flying up to a stone wall - the cheers of the vertigo-ravaged echoed around the snowfields and rockfaces until we touched down on solid ground again.
Spent the night in Oukaimeden at the French Club Alpine hostel - basic but fine - and drank lots of beer and ate far more frites than were good for us.
Up at 5am next day and we made a quick check of the chairlift area again - cracking views of Rock Sparrows, Shorelarks, wheatears and a single male Crimson Winged Finch feeding in the rubble just behind the chairlift.
Then we piled into the car and headed out, picking up more Barbary Partridges along the way until we came to the first village on the way down, where we found a fine male Levaillant's Green Woodpecker - great stuff.
From there we headed through the Tichka Pass (more good mountain birding, more fossil sellers), negotiated Ouarzazate and got to the reservoir behind the Mansour Eddahbi Dam.
What a place!
Blue Cheeked Bee-eaters, Fulvous Babblers, Desert Lark and Moroccan (Subpersonata) Wagtail all fell before the merciless Panzer advance that was Marshside's finest in full flow.
Back into the wheels we drove on towards Boumalne du Dades and the Tagdilt Track, stopping off to check likely looking wadis that soon produced Trumpeter Finches, White Crowned Black Wheatears and other desert goodies.
Many of the WCBWheatears were already fledged youngsters.
Checked the Tagdilt as dusk approached, but it was disappointing - a few Temminck's Horned Larks, Desert Larks, Short Toed Larks etc, a strengthening cold wind off the Atlas, and a great big pack of mangy wild dogs scavenging around the rubbish tip that now blights the beginning to the old track.
We beat a hasty retreat to the Soleil Bleu - a great stopover, with birders' log, tagines and all that mullarkey.
Up pre-dawn on April 18th to give the Tagdilt a good hammering - and it didn't disappoint - this place is certainly best early in the day, with the stony desert alive with larks - Thick Billed, Short Toed, Hoopoe Larks (mobbing Black Kites), Temminck's Horned Larks, Desert Larks all singing their brains out or scurrying across the deck.
(btw the Temminck's Horned Lark below isn't on a nest, it just settled in a sandy hollow for a few seconds to allow me to get a shot, before resuming frantic Max Wall stylee strutting about)
Past the main wadi was best, with less vegetation, families of Cream Coloured Coursers with young, Black Bellied Sandgrouse, and a steady passage of bee-eaters, common swifts and hirundines heading north.
The first Lanner of the trip beat past us on powerful wings, and a surprisingly large amount of Northern Wheatear were about, plus Desert and at least one Red Rumped Wheatear.
As the morning warmed up, Black Kites began to move through, and a single second year Montagu's Harrier sailed past too.
An incredible experience.
We headed back to the car and headed off the track.
Then the wheels, or rather the fuel line, fell off.
Let me be more precise - everything was hunky dory in birderworld, until we hit a big rock, the engine died and the air was filled with the smell of petrol, rather than the song of larks.
It doesn't matter who was driving at the time (let's just say Trops earned a whole load of new, unprintable nicknames that morning), but in the face of adversity, and circling wild dogs, we had no choice but to push the ex-car out of the desert for close to 100 miles (okay, that may be a slight exaggeration), under a burning sun.
The rest of the morning was a blast - local cops contacted a mechanic, once we reassured them that a Jurassic Park pencil case was a valid form of car insurance where we come from (we couldn't find the right documentation), then after a bit of towing, discussion on the perils of driving off-road when you don't have a 4x4 in schoolboy French (Oui Monsieur, nous comprends, mais nous sommes idiots) , lots of coffee and a pitifully small repair bill (we spent three times as much on beer that night), we were back on the road, and heading to Erfoud.
All part of life's great adventure - to watch the video of Where Idiots Dare and the Tagdilt Car Wreck, click here.
Got out into the desert past Erfoud by late afternoon, and booked into the superb Auberge Kasbah Derkaoua, with its lovely gardens stuffed with migrants, lovely bar stuffed with Stork beer and lovely pool, over which the Egyptian Nightjar flew no less than three times from 7.48pm onwards.
Not the best views of the sandy coloured critter, but with a bird this enigmatic, and a stakeout this exotic, it didn't matter.
6am the next morning, and THE MAN was waiting for us outside.
Blue flowing robes, battered Land Rover and the mien of a soul at ease in the hostile environment of the brutal shifting sands, miles from tarmac, Ali Mouni was waiting.
Ali is THE MAN, because Ali was going to show us Houbara Bustard.
There he is look, in the driving seat. Ali could well be the greatest off-road driver in the world.
We haired off into the desert, plunging over wadis, up dunes, down dunes, steadily south east as the sun began to climb. More coursers, Bar Tailed Desert Larks, Hoopoe Larks, sand, rocks, dizzying heights swiftly followed.
We picked up Fiz, a friend of THE MAN, who as well as knowing where the Houbaras hang out, was also the local dentist, so we had to stop for ten minutes while he whipped out a woman's gnashers in a dusty village - it was one of those mornings.
As the Land Rover hurtled to within 6 clicks of the Algerian border, and scopes flew through the air like confetti, the journey felt like a cross between the best white knuckle ride at Alton Towers and a quick trip in your washing machine at spin cycle six.
Then the spin cycle ended, and Neill uttered the magic words "Houbara, right in front of us".
And there it was, striding regally across the wasteland, a stunning vision in the wilderness.
We saved popping the champagne corks until we got our asses out of Dodge (we were VERY close to the Algerian border) and turned back towards Merzouga, pausing to admire a few Brown Necked Ravens before Ali headed off towards the Auberge La Caravan.
In an outbuilding nearby a pair of Desert Sparrows were feeding young and we spent a good half hour watching these great little birds.
With unusual rains earlier this year, the lake close to Merzouga had lenty of water and plenty of birds, with a good range of waders (including Marsh Sands), raptors and wildfowl (including 100 Marbled Ducks).
Then it was back to the Nomad Palace - Ali's desert pad - for a relaxing afternoon watching migrants in the sand swamped tamarisk trees.
Subalps, Bonelli's, Melodious, Olivaceous (plus Saharan race) Warblers, Golden Orioles, Woodchats, plus Trumpeter Finch and Desert Sparrow coming down to drink at the small watering hole behind the Nomad Palace.
For more details on how to hire THE MAN and stay at his place, go to http://adventureswithali.com
Next morning (April 20th), we said our farewells to THE MAN and got a lift back to the Derkaoua, where we had left the car, and drove carefully back to tarmac, then gunned the engine through Erfoud and onto Rissani.
At the well known Pharoah Eagle Owl site, Neill spectacularly refound the bird (it has moved some 100 metres left of its traditional site on the cliff face), and Jellyhead was in splitter's heaven.
Great views of Rufous Bushchat here too.
Bombed on down the road, catching up with a Long Legged Buzzard along the way, before we pitched up at the Errachidia 43k sign, another well-known stakeout, for some serious scrub scrutiny.
Long hot hours gave us some more migrant warblers, redstarts etc, loads of Striped Hawkmoths and their caterpilars and best of all, an African Desert Warbler, found by Bazzo as its ghostly, but beautiful form scurried around on the sand.
Good numbers of Hoopoe Larks too.
Stayed the night in Boulmalne du Dades at the Soleil Blue again, after doing the eastern track (new one with tarmac) before dusk - good numbers of Red Rumped Wheatears and a few Deserts here.
Next morning we did the Tagdilt orchard and water hole, which although it had some good migrants was a little disapointing for sandgrouse.
Back on the road we headed back towards Ouzazarte, getting Barbary Falcon at the 29k Ouzazarte marker on the Marrakech road.
Spent the night in Taroudant, a wild walled city, bustling with chaotic life. Hotel Taroudant suited us just fine.
Then it was off towards the coast, to the Souss Massa, a verdant river valley leading to the sea south of AGadir, and bursting with quality birds - Black Shouldered Kite, Plain Martin, Bee Eaters, Orioles, BB sandgrouse etc etc etc.
Paid a warden at the Massa reserve proper 50dhms to show us Black Crowned Tchagra - which he did (we had two).
They can be hard to get to grips with, despite there being 100 or so pairs in the area.
Where the lagoon meets the sea, a flock of terns held two Lesser Cresteds, and the beach had Audouins Gull in front of pounding Atlantic surf.
Time for a paddle.
More terns at the Oued Souss, including Lesser Crested, Black, Roseates, Gull Billed, plus Tchagra calling away.
Nice, but distant Long Eared Owl too.
Later in the evening we had Red Necked Nightjars calling and flying about at dusk along the track beside the Royal Palace.
Not the most salubrious place -I wonder if His Royal Highness knows what goes on there after dark?
April 23rd we got an hour of seawatching in off Cape Rhir, with 1,000 Black Terns, numerous northern Gannets and two Balearic Shearwaters a reasonable haul.
Then it was on to Tamri, where we had a single Bald Ibis soaring over the road north of the village, about 6-7km out, and another one of the slapheads over the ridge immediately south of the lagoons.
Fan Tailed Warblers, Flamingoes, Ruddy Shelduck etc at this site - and plenty of youngsters offering to show you the ibis for a fee - try offering to show them the birds for less, it tends to confuse them.
Drove away from the coast then, back to Taroudant, where we stayed for the night, before taking on the Tizi-n-Test pass -as scary a road as you'll find anywhere, up and over the Atlas.
Hawfinch, Woodlarks, Greater 'Pecker etc were okay, but a singing male Tristram's Warbler at the 52k post to Marrakech on the other side was even better.
A Levaillant's Green Woodpecker was calling at Asni, and this groovy Chameleon was on the road up to Lala land, a shangri-la of rolling wheat fields, happy smiling people in Berber dress and perpetual goodwill, before we hit 50 miles of rough track to get to the frankly dire reservoir at Tankerkoust.
Collided with Marrakech for our last night in Morocco on April 24, and behaved exactly as you would expect us to after nine days in the desert and mountains when confronted with the big city.
190 species in total - I'll post a full list and other gen from the rest of the guys here over the next few weeks.
Great people, great food, great country - go, you'll love it (just remember to clean your teeth in bottled water and you'll be fine).
We used Gosney, Bergier's "Birds of Morocco," and various internet reports for gen, and were doubtless helped by the fact that Trops, Jellyhead and Bazzo have all birded the place before.
Now we have to go back to Marshside.
NEILL'S MOROCCAN GALLERY:
Here's Neill Hunt's shots from our Moroccan trip as I promised 100 years ago, I've tried to avoid duplicating species I've already featured....
1. Blue Rock Thrush
2. Greater Flamingo and Spoonbills
3. Melodious Warbler
4. Rock Bunting
5. The Team = l-r Barry McCarthy (Bazzo), John Dempsey (Brick), Simon Jackson (Jellyhead), Paul Thomason (Tropical), Neill Hunt (er, Neill)
6. White Crowned Black Wheatear
7. House Bunting
8. Ruddy Shelduck
9. Squacco Heron
10. Woodchat Shrike
11. Golden Orioles (distant)
12. Long Legged Buzzard (very distant)
13. Moussier's Redstart
14. Bar Tailed Desert Lark
FULL TRIP LIST
Great Crested Grebe
Black Crowned Night Heron
Black Shouldered Kite
Short Toed Eagle
Long Legged Buzzard
Black Winged Stilt
Cream Coloured Courser
Little Ringed Plover
Bar Tailed Godwit
Black Headed Gull
Lesser Black Backed Gull
Yellow Legged Gull
Gull Billed Tern
Lesser Crested Tern
Black Bellied Sandgrouse
Great Spotted Cuckoo
Pharoah Eagle Owl
Long Eared Owl
Red Necked Nightjar
Blue Cheeked Bee Eater
European Bee Eater
LevaillantÃ¢ÂÂs Green Woodpecker
Great Spotted Woodpecker
Bar Tailed Desert Lark
Thick Billed Lark
Short Toed Lark
Lesser Short Toed Lark
TemminckÃ¢ÂÂs Horned Lark
Red Rumped Swallow
Rufous Bush Robin
Black Eared Wheatear
Red Rumped Wheatear
White Crowned Black Wheatear
Blue Rock Thrush
Western Olivaceous Warbler
Western BonelliÃ¢ÂÂs Warbler
Black Crowned Tchagra
Southern Grey Shrike
Red Billed Chough
Brown Necked Raven
Crimson Winged Finch
Eyes to the skies everyone, eyes to the skies......