Looking at the BBC weather for the UK, and the BA website for cheap flights outta here saw me head for Morocco last weekend. I had ended up working every day through Christmas and as is well known, if I don't have a holiday every few weeks I begin to decline. So the flight was booked at short notice, and as the filthy weather persisted as the car was buffeted from side to side on the way to Gatwick, I knew I'd done the right thing!
I had no plans at all, in fact I didn't even have a map. I just knew that the birding and photographic opportunities were really good, and that I could probably conjure something up even out of a very short trip. This assessment proved to be spot on, though a little more planning and thought would have been helpful and avoided some wasted time.
The flight got in slightly late due to some shenanigans at Gatwick, and this meant my rental car people were nowhere to be seen. A quick phone call sorted that out, and it wasn't long before I was the proud owner of perhaps the crappiest car I had ever seen, a Dacia Shitter. No power steering, no nothing, but I came to fall in love. Driving in Morocco is of course an interesting experience to say the least, but with a top speed of perhaps 80kmh, I was in the ideal car to be able to deal with it as I weaved my way through mopeds and donkeys. Things come at you from all sides, the "drive on the right" thing is only very loosely interpreted for the most part, so you have to have your wits about you. Despite the chaos, there are no real hold ups and everything operates pretty smoothly. Introduce traffic lights and you would probably have gridlock and millions of accidents.
So, what follows is a very brief synopsis of where I went and what I saw. The whole point of the trip was to spend quality time behind a lens, and it was so successful that it would end up boring you to tears. If that interests you, keep an eye on the other blog as that's where the majority of the output is going to end up. Throughout my trip the sky was blue and the sun was out - a massive result!
Day 1 - Saturday
Got out of the airport by lunchtime, and made my way up to Oued Ourika and a certain layby where I knew there was an obliging Moussier's Redstart. It was still there! So too, unfortunately, were a variety of hawkers who all wanted not only my money, but my shoes, my jacket, my watch....Spent an hour or so taking photos and then decided to head for somewhere less busy and closer to where I was planning to stay.
Between Oued Ourika and Ait Ourir took some random side roads south into the slopes of the Atlas. Small villages and some agriculture, and hardly any people at all, perfect. Came across an obliging Great Grey Shrike, lacerated my leg on a very fierce bush trying to get in position for it, and decided that this was how I would spend my time the next few days. Would that I had resolutely stuck to this plan!
Found the hotel I was looking for in Ait Ourir, excellent value as always, and a great dinner.
Day 2 - Sunday
Returned to the same side roads from the previous afternoon and continued to potter with my tripod set up on the passenger side. Shrikes, Redstarts, Bulbuls, fabulous birding. I birded varying habitats from scrub through to Pine forest, with Serin and Blue Tit, and at one point ended up with perhaps 4000 Chough in an uberflock as I reached some higher elevations. A high point was a big group of Magpie surrounding the car, but on the whole I didn't manage any photos at all, the birds refused to come close. I wasted an hour on a Black Redstart, and half an hour each on a Sardinian Warbler and a Serin.
I eventually wiggled my way back west to Oued Ourika and this is where is started to go wrong. I decided to drive the valley towards Setti Fatma looking for opportunities that just weren't there as it was so busy. Disgusted with all the lies "The road ends here, park here" I turned around and decided to head up and stay at Oukaimeden, the ski resort I'd visited last time. The drive was fairly straightforward and took less than an hour, but there was no snow and far fewer birds as a result. Amazingly I found a small flock of Crimson-winged Finch, but as I was rolling up to them in the car for the killer shot a "merchant" flushed the lot by approaching and trying to flog me some tat. By this time I was in a shit mood having wasted half a day, so I was pretty unkind to him, but he did get the message and leave. With the sun setting I tried to book into a hotel, but at five times the price of my place in Ait Ourir I walked out again. At this point I made one of my more sensible decisions of the trip and resolved to return to Ait Ourir and pursue the back roads again, even though this meant descending in the dark.
Slunk back into my hotel bemoaning my ineptitude. My first full day in Morocco and perhaps 50 images.....not what I had planned at all!
Day 3 - Monday
A killer day. Putting the previous disastrous afternoon behind me I chose a new side road to the south of Ait Ourir and struck gold almost immediately. A song I did not recognise caused me to stop the car - another Great Grey Shrike up on an escarpment. Ditching the car I slogged it up there to find paradise. Although I couldn't actually get any images of the Shrike, the best Moussier's Redstart in the world also lived here, and I spent the rest of the morning in this one spot. Also present were Common Bulbuls, a pair of Stonechat, and a Black Redstart. And best of all, no people.
Carrying on up the road I never really found the same productivity, although I did get a decent Grey Wagtail and my best views of a Morrocan Pied Wagtail (99% of the Pied Wagtails in Morocco are alba). However I very much enjoyed visiting a succession of small villages and communities, and seeing the way of life up here that bears no relation to Marrakech. Eventually I ended up on the N9, the main road over the Atlas. I didn't fancy that, so took the next turning I came across, and what a stroke of luck that was. The road was unpaved and I had little idea where it led, but some pine forest soon gave way to a barren landscape that looked very promising. I continued to bump along, at one point going through a maze of streets in a village, and then on a ridge I espied a black dot.....I'd been hoping for this the whole trip, but other than the drive up to Oukaimeden hadn't really been in the right habitat - Black Wheatear!
I spoke to a local farmer about the bird and got permission to cross his field and attempt to climb the ridge to get up to it. He allowed me to take the path up past his house and from there I picked my way up to the ridge What I hadn't been able to tell was that this was in fact the edge of another plateau with some more fields and dwellings beyond, and after chatting to an old man for a while about what I was doing, I homed in on my target - there were in fact two birds, a pair, as well as Black Redstart, another Moussier's Redstart, and numerous Thekla Larks. And a Shrike, but not just any Shrike, a friendly one! So friendly I couldn't focus on it at times.
Meanwhile the old man had called his grand-daughter out to come and see this crazy white bloke. Her 'help' caused a brief halt to proceedings, until she got the bright idea that I might have some money, and ran back to her house and returning with some water. To be fair, this was a whole lot better than people just wanting cash for doing nothing at all, and the water was great after my ascent. Before I gave her some Dhirams I made a deal with her that she would go home and leave me to it, which thankfully she did. So there I was, in lovely weather, with views to die for and a whole suite of amazing birds, some of which I could almost have stroked. I spent hours up here, reflecting on quite how amazing a place it was, and how lucky I was to have found it.
When I was done, I reluctantly returned down to the car, and faced with a choice of returning to the main road or carrying on into the unknown, chose the latter. This took me over some landscape more akin to the moon than to anything else, and I ended up then descending via a series of villages back to the central plain. My little car was magnificent - some of the track was pretty hairy, but I steered a sensible course and took it nice and slow when required. Looking back now at the satellite view, I'm amazed I made it with no damage other than a few more rattles.
Now back on the plain and with less than an hour before sunset, I headed back towards where I though Ait Ourir probably was based on where the sun and mountains were. I got this spot on thankfully, and also found an excellent area of irrigated land that was heaving with Yellow and White Wagtails. I got some nice images of each of these, and sat on a thorn bush by accident.
Day 4 - Tuesday
With my flight in the early evening and thus needing to be back in Marrakech mid afternoon, I planned a vague route that took me to the south of the city skirting the edge of the mountains in a westerly direction, which would hopefully see me end up in the fertile agricultural area within striking distance of the airport.
An agricultural area near Tahnaout had an impressive number of Chough, and there were Thekla Larks all over the place, so I stopped quite frequently. Gradually the landscape became more arid, and the road took me through some very barren stony areas, more similar to the desert south of the Atlas than I'd encountered elsewhere, and had various Larks and my first Tristram's Warbler of the trip. After perhaps 50km I hit a lush valley, and headed up it to find a huge lake and a dam at a place called Aguergour. The water levels were well down, the place was set up to be a leisure destination for Marrakech, but the lack of water was clearly putting people off. Following a road around the west side of the lake, I found some Cormorant and a Ruddy Shelduck, and at the end of a track, two more Black Wheatear, though the heat at this time of day proved a complete killer for photography. Following the valley back down got me a pair of distant large raptors and a Black-winged Kite preening on a branch, but just a little distant to do anything with. Great bird though, shame I didn't have a scope.
I finally hit a larger road signposted for Marrakech, and so continued past this and into the fruit-growing area that I had been hoping to hit. Initially this wasn't as interesting as I had thought it might be, but I came across some pools in what ought to have been a major river that were teeming with waders - Green Sandpiper, Greenshank, Snipe, LRP, Black-winged Stilt, and....hirundines! I did a double-take, I had thought that Brown-throated Martin was a coastal species, but there was no doubt - here was a small group of them, and a new bird for me.
And that was it, my time was up. I rearranged all my stuff ready for travel whilst some fascinated kids looked on - they particularly like the Collins, and then headed back towards Marrakech, following tourist minibuses led me straight to the airport. A great trip, really pleasant, and what I really liked about it was just winging it with no firm plans, even though this did cost me at times. But it was a good exploration, and if (when!) I go back, now I know what works and what doesn't. Essentially if you ignore any area that has tourists and all the hangers on that they bring, you cannot really go wrong!