Morocco and Western Sahara from 25th of February to 8th of March 2011
We had been planning a trip to Morocco for many years. We had tried to find other birders to join us because of we thought it’d be safer to travel in a bigger group but we couldn’t find other participants to the trip. So after all we decided to go just together. Birders have been travelling to Morocco for ages but only in recent years birders have been able to go to the southernmost part to Western Sahara and many good places and birds have been found the recently. We knew that it’d be impossible to cover the whole country in one trip so we decided to go to south first. When we got the cheapest tickets to Casablanca we decided to do birding for a couple of days also in Casablanca area before heading south. We also thought we might make a short visit to Atlas Mountains in the end of the trip if we just had time left. So we did a lot of planning and luckily there is lots of information in internet and also several our friends helped us to plan the trip. Finally it was time to go!
Time to go
On Thursday the 24th of February after the work we still packed some luggage and relaxed a little before we drove to Imatra where Janne had his last rink-bandy game of the season and maybe whole career. After the game we continued to Helsinki-Vantaa airport where we decided to sleep on the hallway benches.
The 25th of February. After some hours bad sleeping we woke up at 7 a.m. and went to leave our luggage and soon we were shopping on the international side of the airport. At 9:25 a.m. our Finnair plane left towards Paris. In a quiet plane we managed to sleep a little bit more and finally we landed to Paris a little bit early and at 11:30 a.m. we were already walking from the terminal to another one. Our Air France plane was about to leave at 12:55 p.m. but finally it left at 13:10 p.m. towards Casablanca. In Paris airport we saw some birds: Magpies, Fieldfares, Skylarks, Starlings, Carrion Crows, Rock Pigeons and House Sparrows.
The second 3 hours flight of the day was also pretty easy. Again we managed to sleep an hour or so and when we were flying over southern Spain the sky cleared and we could see the views under us. Finally we landed to Mohammed V airport and saw already the first birds from the plane: Cattle Egrets and Marsh Harriers which seemed to be on their peak migration. The next hour was spent on the passport queue. Luckily we found our luggage even though there was no sign to tell in which line they were. Next half an hour was spent in money exchange where officers had just changed and they were all counting money. Finally we were free to go to Sixt car-rental which was surprisingly easy and about 5 p.m. we finally had our Renault Kangoo and were ready to hit the road.
Driving was surprisingly easy! Luckily Mohammed V airport was close to big roads and far from the Casablanca city. Pretty soon we turned to smaller roads towards north-east and right away we started to see more birds. Collared Doves, Kestrels, Blackbirds, Spotless Starlings, Yellow-legged and Lesser Black-backed Gulls, House Sparrows, Common Swifts, Thekla Larks and Swallows were some of the most common birds. After we had driven through a couple of small village where driving was much less comfortable with many motorbike, bikes, pedestrians and animals, we saw a small passerine flying across the road and landing to a roof of one building – a House Bunting – the first lifer of the trip!
The sun was already setting down when we still saw a couple of Little Owls, a Black-shouldered Kite, Black-winged Stilts on one small pool and on a couple of stops we heard Cetti’s Warblers, Corn Buntings and Stone Curlews. It was already dark when we finally found the right crossroad in Sidi Bettache city towards Sidi Yaya Zaër. After 17 km driving we knew we were on the right place and soon we found a good place where to park and stay overnight in a car. We still went out to listen to many calls of different kind of frogs and also Coots, but managed to hear a couple of calls of double-spurred Francolin too! Soon we’re ready to go to sleep.
Morning with francolins
On the 26th of February we woke up early, before 6 a.m. It was still completely dark but anyway a Great Tit started to sing like crazy. Soon also Stone Curlews started to call, a couple of Song Thrushes were ticking and when the sun started to rise and the thick fog to clear away started also Robins and Sardinian Warbler to sing. We heard again a couple of distant calls of Double-spurred Francolin too.
We changed a place where we were listening to a couple of times but couldn’t find any francolins any closer, but then first Hanna and soon later Janne saw a single bird flying across the road. Then we also heard them calling a couple of times very close but they weren’t active enough to sound-record. Right next to Sidi Bettache 17 km sign, behind the fence we heard a strange whistling and Janne identified it right a way – a Black-crowned Tchagra! We also managed to see the bird briefly on the top of one bush before it continued further – already the 3rd lifer!
There were too much traffic on the road so we continued to a place we had found early in the morning where we could drive away from the road (33.709561 07.432247). It was the best place to record birds if they just start calling actively. After we had seen a couple of African Blue tits (ultramarinus), African Chaffinches, a flock of Common Crossbills, a Wren, a Jay, a Western Olivaceous Warbler, a Wryneck and some more common birds like Wood Pigeons, Common Bulbuls, Blackcaps, Greenfinches (voousi), Goldfinches, European Serins, Linnets and so on, we finally heard a couple of francolins calling in the bushes nearby. I decided to play the mp3 for them and soon one of the birds flew to a dead tree in front of us and Hanna managed to get a couple of pictures of it before it flew away again. I decided to keep on playing and soon the bird came back and now Janne managed to digiscope it very well. It was a female or young male but still it was calling so actively that Janne managed to record it too.
We were happy when we continued towards Sidi Yaya Zaër. After a short driving we found a small pool next to the road and right away noticed a couple of Black-shouldered Kites displaying in the air over it. They were calling and attacking each others. From the lake we found Red-crested Pochards, Shovelers, Gadwalls, Mallards, a Great Crested Grebe and a Little Grebe. Also a Great Spotted Woodpecker and a Southern Grey Shrike (algeriensis) were found nearby. Pretty soon we found another bigger lake which was also full of ducks. There were also Teals, about 20 Marbled Ducks, Pochards, Tufted Ducks and a male Ferruginous Duck with a male Ring-necked Duck! Not bad!
After some searching we found the right road (this was the first but not last time our map was wrong) and continued north. On the way we saw Black Kites, funny Maghreb Magpies, Jackdaws and a Short-toed Eagle and so on. We continued until the Lake of Sidi Bourhaba where we managed to park the car to the end of the lake and there we found immediately Crested Coots, White-headed Ducks, Moorhens, a Purple Gallinule.
Owls and other surprises
Soon we continued to the motorway and we continued north until the crossroad to Moulay Bousselham, where we turned towards the big lake of Merja Zerga. Because of we still had a couple of hours light; we decided to turn to the southern side of the lake. The road was absolutely horrible; it really seemed that someone had tried to destroy the road so that nobody could drive along it. Anyway we managed to get through the worst part and then continued along the sandy road that had some pieces of asphalt here and there. After a half an hour driving it was no point to turn back anymore even though we still hadn’t seen the lake almost at all. Finally we found a place where we could see the lake distant behind the fields. We stopped and started to scan the lake with a scope and right away we a couple of locals came to hang up with us but we didn’t really mind them. Shelducks and Flamingos were possible to identify but the birds were still too far so almost all waders and other smaller birds were impossible to identify. We still continued until the end of the road but the lake never came any closer.
We had lost too much time because of the awful road so we had to make a decision that we couldn’t go to the northern side of the lake anymore. In Moulay Bousselham there would have been a Cafe Milano restaurant where a local birder that leads trips to see a Marsh Owl could’ve been found. Luckily we knew the best place where to see the owls; we even knew that one bird had been seen there only a week earlier. We had a gps-point to the place, so soon we turned from the road to follow a small river towards the lake. There actually was almost no road but anyway we managed to drive along the river to the forest for a couple of kilometres before there started to be too many fallen trees along the track. We managed to go around the first fallen trees but finally we parked to the forest took all our important things with us, hid the big luggage to the trunk and started to walk along the river the last 2 kilometres to the right point.
We walked a couple of kilometres and again had a couple of followers. One older man wanted to be our guide but we didn’t really need one. Anyway he followed us and talked Arabic and some French but we didn’t really listen. We did understand that he didn’t like about that we had left our car to the forest, but he also told that he was the guard of the place and only he was aloud to get people to the lake – he even told that he owned the place, so we didn’t really care about him too much. We knew we were already in a bit hurry too as the sun started to set.
Finally we reached the place which looked good and also the gps-point told we were in a right place (34.814383 06.298692). There was a big grassy area which looked perfect but unfortunately there were still many local boys playing football next to it. The man wanted to hire himself to walk to the grass and flush the owl, but it was exactly what we didn’t want to do – the owls in this one of the last area where they still somehow survive are already under too much disturbance which was easy to see! We knew that owls would start to fly sooner or later, at least when the sun had set down in the dark. The place was perfect anyway, there were several similar grassy areas on the shore of the lake further too.
We got some common waders, gulls and terns and so on to our trip-list before it started to be so dark that the footballers stopped playing. Some of the players walked through the grassy area towards the village but most of them went along the river. It became dark and the man who was still hanging around us started to get nervous, he still wanted to go to walk to the grasses but we didn’t let him to do that. We acted like we knew exactly what we were doing and when the the first bigger brown bird was found flying over the marshes the man went crazy – but we stayed calm, almost cold – it was a Bittern. When we finally found the first Marsh Owl flying along the grasses we tried not to celebrate too much as we wanted to act like we were just counting them, we really didn’t want the man think about that he could anyhow help us. Unfortunately the owl landed very soon to the grass, but soon we heard strange calls just in front of us and then we realized that was an owl which was calling exactly on the place where the man had wanted to go all the time – he knew the nesting place. Good that we had told him not to go there! Now the owl managed to stay there as long as it wanted but soon it got up and when the another owl was again flying and flew towards it and these two birds were both calling and fighting a little bit just in front of us! Soon they continued towards the forest but luckily another of them landed to a post not too far from us and I managed to get some digiscoped pictures and video of it before it disappeared to the night.
We still scanned the marshes until it was too dark and we gave up. We started to walk towards our car and still saw one more owl leaving the forest pretty close to our car. So we had seen 3 owls which is not much! We really hope there won’t be any disturbance from birders in the area in the future. The locals are causing enough troubles to these endangered birds! The man was still following us even though we thought he might have understood that we really didn’t need him.
When we got to our car we noticed that someone had broke the side glass of it! The car was full of glass, but luckily we noticed that our luggage was still on the trunk and the car-radio was ok. All important things were of course on our back-bags with us but we remembered that we had left something on the back-seat too. The plastic-bag full of rubbish was gone. There had been lots of empty cola cans and other rubbish. The full cola cans were still under the seat! I also had lost my only trousers that could be shortened as shorts. I had planned to change them because of I was still wearing jeans that I had already on the plane. We also remembered that there had been also another plastic bag but we didn’t really remember what had been in it. Later during the trip we remembered that there had been Hanna’s belt, my long underwear, 2 pillows that are good in flights and all Hanna’s camera plugs and covers. So the robbers hadn’t really got anything useful except my trousers. So we weren’t very worried. Of course Janne knew he’d miss his shorts in Sahara and his long underwear in Oukameïden.
We weren’t very kind to the man when we left him standing to the forest and drove back to the village where we know to find a policeman from the roundabout. There was always a policeman in every single roundabout in Morocco! Of course the police didn’t speak any English but anyway he was very helpful and soon we had somehow managed to explain to him what had happened and that we wanted to get some kind of report from police about it for insurance and also for car-rental company. Finally the police called to another police that was speaking English and I once again explained what had happened while Hanna was calling to Sixt and was telling what had happened and trying to get a new car for us as soon as possible somewhere. Finally she managed to get us a car to Casablanca airport for next morning at 8:30 a.m. WE also managed to arrange a meeting with the English-speaking police to the closest police office where we could get a report. After some half an hour waiting, we had told our story of rubbish-robbers for maybe dozen times already, we followed one police for about 20 kilometres to the police station. We thought that everything would be easy now because of the English speaking police but it wasn’t. Hanna had to stay in a car because of the window, while Janne was again telling several times what had happened and the policemen were writing everything down, first to a computer and then by hand to a book. Again all our papers were checked and all information about us was also written down. And again we were laughing for what the robbers had managed to get.
Finally we were ready and the kind policemen taped the window shut extremely well. We still had a long drive to Casablanca so we couldn’t drive with an open window. Then they still realized that we might have problems to find the right way to Casablanca so they lead us to the bigger road. So we followed 3 policemen in a police-car that had all alarms on for maybe 20 kilometres! Then we found a road that we had in our map and policemen told us to continue until Casablanca without stopping because of the road to there might be dangerous by night-time. The road was extremely long but finally we managed to get to the motorway. The weather was the foggiest we have ever seen, in worst parts of the motorway the visibility was less than 20 metres! Once the traffic stopped completely because of one driver couldn’t see if the road really continued after one bridge at all.
After a couple of hours slowly driving we were finally in a place where we had started the trip – in Mohammed V airport in Casablanca. It was about 2 a.m. when we parked the car to the rental car park and after we had asked about the guard that it was ok, we started to sleep in a car there.
To Agadir area
The 27th of February. We woke up after 5 hours sleeping and realized that the fog was still very thick. That was the reason why we had been able to sleep so well – there had been no planes leaving at all. We took all our bags and walked to the airport where we tried to buy something to eat but all we gat was some chocolate and crisps, but still it was a good breakfast – we hadn’t eaten much for a long time!
Surprisingly we found out that Sixt office was already open, a couple of hours earlier than we had been told. So soon we had a Peugeot Partner and we were driving along the motorway towards south.
We had a long way to drive but the motorway was perfect, only places where to stop were some road-tolls. The road went through huge farming areas so there weren’t many birds except Calandra Larks, some flocks of Short-toed Larks, Kestrels, Cattle Egrets and White Storks. After several hors driving we turned to a road that followed the suburban of Agadir and then followed the coast towards north. It was already late afternoon so we didn’t stop even though we saw a small dark swift with Common Swifts – a Plain Swift! While we were following the coast along the deep cliffs we saw the first Blue Rock Thrushes, Black Wheatears (syenitica) and soon also the first Moussier’s Redstart! But because of the heavy traffic we couldn’t stop, but we knew we’d see more of these beautiful redstarts later.
On the sea we still saw a lonely Gannet flying with gulls before we finally were in the mouth of Oued Tamri. We walked to check the river-mouth but found only a flock of Spoonbills and an Osprey. So we soon continued about 8 km north where there were some small fields along the road. There we found what we were looking for – we were still driving when we saw 2 black birds flying over the cliffs towards north, we stopped and put the scope up and yes, they were Northern Bald Ibises! Soon we found a bigger flock of them flying around and they continued towards the fields. So we followed them and parked the car and managed to find them from the fields. We were walking with sheep so the birds didn’t care about us and so we managed to get pretty good pictures of these ugly but extremely rare birds! Soon we left the birds to feed and drove a little bit back south to Cape Rhir where we tried to do some seawatching but the wind was far too strong. There was too much sand in the air so after we had seen an Arctic Skua and some Gannets we decided to continue towards Agadir.
It was already dark when we were in the southern side of Agadir where we tried to find a couple of hotels that had been told to be good in other birders trip-reports, but it seemed that they didn’t exist anymore. The traffic was horrible so Janne got extremely frustrated soon and really wanted to leave to city as soon as possible – no matter which direction. And that’s how we ended up to the mouth of Oued Souss and to Royal Palace. Janne remembered that there were observations of Red-necked Nightjar nearby, but he remembered that some walking and permits from guards were needed. Anyway we stopped along the road before the gates and guards of the Royal Palace and surprise – soon there was a Red-necked Nightjar calling! We also heard several Stone Curlews but soon we tried to find a way to get out from the city and continue driving south.
Somehow Hanna managed to find a way away from the city and we decided to continue towards the National Park of Souss-Massa. Janne didn’t really want to try to find any more hotels or restaurants in the city. After some driving we finally found a small restaurant along the road in a small village and we stopped to eat. The food was ok at least for Janne, but Hanna thought that her chicken had been made in the same place than fish earlier so she couldn’t eat a lot as she is allergic to fish.
Finally we turned towards Massa village which we drove through and continued along the small road until Souss-Massa National Park parking place, where we again started to sleep in a car at midnight.
In Souss-Massa National Park
On the 28th of February we woke up about at 6 a.m. and while we were packing our sleeping bags and mattresses we heard a couple of calling Little and Scops Owls. Also a Night Heron and a Snipe were heard. When the sun was rising Moussier’s Redstarts started to sing in the closest bushes and soon we heard also whistling of Black-crowned Tchagras. Soon we started to walk towards the mouth of Oued Massa along a couple of kilometres long track. On the way we found plenty of more Moussier’s Redstarts and Black-crowned Tchagras but also Spanish Sparrows, some Laughing Doves and some other trip-ticks, also a couple of Ruddy Shelducks flew over us. From the river mouth we found lots of gulls. In a flock there were mostly Yellow-legged and Lesser Black-backed Gulls but also many Audouin’s Gulls, which many of them were colour-ringed and a Mediterranean Gull. Some nice local white-breasted form of Cormorants were also perched on the sandy island. When we were walking back to the car-park we met a local guide who didn’t speak any English but anyway we talked with him for a long time. A nice flock of 18 Cranes came to soar over us while we were talking. Hanna also saw a Mongoose briefly.
When we were back in the parking place we found a couple of Little Owls perched on a tree before the closest buildings. There were also a House Bunting and Barbary Ground Squirrels. Common Bulbuls, European Serins and Goldfinches were singing still very actively but Moussier’s Redstarts and Black-crowned Tchagras were already quiet, we saw a couple of them only briefly. After all the Souss-Massa area was very pleasant place to do birding but soon we had to continue.
Soon after we had left to drive towards Massa we met a couple of German birders that had just been in Western Sahara. While we were talking we saw a couple of House Buntings and a Great Spotted Cuckoo. After some searching we found a small road that seemed to go towards our next gps-point, but soon we realized that it couldn’t be the right road because of it was getting smaller and smaller. We stopped a couple of times to think about turning back and found a Moustached Warbler in the reeds along the river. Anyway we followed the road and after all found the bridge that we were looking for. And of course now it was easy to tell which would have been the right way from the main road. We parked the car and continued walking along the river-bank. After a couple of hundreds of metres we found the birds – Brown-throated Sand Martins were flying over the river and catching insects. There were about 10 birds and the seemed to be still breeding as some of the birds flew to their nest-holes on the river-bank. After some photographing we got enough of some local kids that started to beg too annoyingly. So we continued back to Massa where we followed notes that we had in one trip-report to another bridge where we easily found a local race Reed Warbler from the reeds just next to the bridge. Actually nobody knows what Reed Warbler lives here, but for us it looked at least a little bit paler than normal Reed Warbler. Soon we were continuing our way towards south again.
Again small problems
In Tiznit Hanna was shopping in silver-jewel shops, but some of the shops were closed during the siesta so we kept on going soon. We drove until Goulimine and through it until 6.5 km after the city where we turned to Oued Sayed. The road was in bad condition but we managed to drive until greenhouses. We played cd for Fulvous Babblers but nothing was found. The time of the day wasn’t the best so nothing else was found either even though we walked for some time along the dry river. While we were driving back to the main road we hit the bottom of the car to something and after that the driving was impossible because of the deafening noise! Somehow we managed to drive back to Goulimine where we found service-station very easily. Soon a couple of men were looking to our car engine but they weren’t sure what was wrong with it, so we still drove to the other side of the road to a garage where an another man was found soon. He seemed to know what he was doing and soon he knew what was wrong with our car. The bottom shield had hit the ground ant curved towards the engine so that the engine was hitting it while driving. So soon the shield was off and the man was hitting it back to its shape with a big hammer. After some resting and a couple of cigarettes he started to work the shield back. Meanwhile Hanna was photographing a couple of Desert Wheatears, a Black Wheatear and a couple of 2nd calendar year White-crowned Black Wheatears next to the garage. There were also House Buntings flying around the buildings. After a half an hour or so, the car was ok again. The man didn’t want us to pay anything but of course we had to. So after all we gave him 200 Dirhams (20€ – no idea was it enough or his whole day earnings, but he had really saved our day!), in Finland it’d been same in Euros anyway.
The sun was already setting down when we continued to 9km south from Goulimine to Oued Boukila, where just a week earlier had been 2 pairs of Scrub Warblers. We were walking along the dry river and checking all bushes nearby while the mp3 playing until the dark but no Scrub Warblers were found. Only several Subalpine Warblers, Chiffchaffs, a Long-legged Buzzard (cirtensis) and a couple of Trumpeter Finches were seen. After giving up we still started to drive south and we decided to drive as far as we could after a hard day. Before Tantan was the 1st the police check-point. Luckily we had prepared to them and we had all info already in a paper. The 3 first stops were easy but then on the 4th a police started to ask the questions and then we gave him the paper where we had all info from passports, professions, mothers’ and fathers’ names, the sex of pets and all the other wisdoms they wanted to know. It really helped us a lot and after this we always gave the paper to police immediately we had been stopped.
After all we managed to drive until the city of Akfennir where we found, with a help of our Lonely Planet book, a comfortable Auberge Pêche et Loisirs Hotel from where we got a room with 40€. After a relaxing warm shower we still managed to ask the permits to the Khnifiss lagoon before we went finally to sleep!
On the 1st of March we woke up at 5:45 a.m. and at 6 a.m. we were already driving towards Khnifiss Lagoon where we were too early. So we waited in a car that the sun started to rise. The wind was again extremely hard so there was sand in the air. When there was enough light we walked to the patch that landed to the harbour, the cliffs gave some cover from the wind. We started to scan the lagoon with scope and found flamingos, 2 Pintails, lots of distant waders and of course gulls. Most of the gulls were still coming from the sea and flying around and only some of them were already perched on the islands. Mostly they were Yellow-legged and Lesser Black-backed Gulls but soon we found the first Great Black-backed Gull too. But then we found much more interesting looking gull flying pretty close to us. It was very much like a Great Black-backed Gull but it had only very tiny white patches on one, 10th primary, the feet were greyish green and the trailing edge of the wing was boldly white both in secondaries and primaries – a Kelp Gull! The bird landed to swim a couple of times but soon continued to the other side of the lagoon. We had been lucky, we hadn’t expect to see this species as we knew the only reliable records of this species had been made later in the spring or in summertime. Soon more black-backed gulls started to land to their breeding island and there were at least 7 big black-backed gulls now, but they all looked similar. Of course it was impossible to tell if they all were Great Black-backed Gulls or not because of the distance and the wind.
After we had been searching for gulls of the lagoon for an hour or so, we met 3 British birders that had arranged a boat-trip to see the gulls closer. Only 3 of their 6 birders group were joining the trip so there was still space for us, so soon we were walking to the harbour where we stepped to a fisherman’s boat and soon we were going towards the gull-island. Also other birds were no much closer and soon we picked up some Knots, Lesser Ringed Plovers and Turnstones, a Little Tern flew over us and soon we saw the first Great Black-backed Gulls in flight. One interesting looking gull was perched on one island but the lagoon was too shallow in that place that we couldn’t get any closer, but soon we were getting close to the gull-island where was at least 6 big black-backed gulls. 5 of them were easy to identify as Great Black-backed Gulls but one was more interesting looking. Of course it was a little bit behind some rocks so we couldn’t see its wing-tips or the trailing edge of the wing. The Brits were almost sure it was a Kelp Gull but we weren’t really happy with it, so Hanna just took as many pictures of it as possible. The eye-colour and leg-colour were good, but somehow it was too similar to the other gulls. After all we had to give up and go back to the harbour.
On the car-park we met the rest of the British group and their leader Lee GR Evans was our old friend that we had met in Finland and in Kuwait. Of course they had seen a Kelp Gull flying around them while we were in the boat. Later we checked all our pictures we had taken from the boat and there were only Great Black-backed Gulls.
We decided to spend some more time watching gulls from the shore after the Brits had left and now there were at least 13 big black-backed gulls on the island – 9 of them looked like Great Black-backed Gulls, one couple looked very good-looking Kelp Gull candidates with their greyish-green legs and a little bit smaller size but then there was a couple of gulls that were about the size of Great Black-backed Gulls but clearly paler – whatever hybrids? Of course there were also graelssii Lesser Black-backed Gulls and Yellow-legged Gulls too se there is quite a gull-mess in Khnifiss Lagoon. Anyway we were still happy with the bird that we’d seen in early morning – if it is possible to identify a Kelp Gull in Khnifiss Lagoon, we had seen one.
After we had still seen a Red-throated Pipit that flew over us calling, we decided to keep on driving south. We were still driving around the lagoon when we picked up a big falcon chasing a Long-legged Buzzard. We stopped and got it to a scope and it was a Lanner Falcon! Finally this species to our lifer-lists!
To Western Sahara
We continued our long way while the wind was blowing very hard and sand was flying in the air. After some driving we saw the first Brown-necked Raven and Hoopoe Lark and after several Desert and Black Wheatear finally the first beautiful Red-rumped Wheatear!
Just before the capital of Western Sahara – Layone, we stopped to a river-mouth were also Lee Evans’ group was scanning the birds. There were 74 Ruddy Shelducks and some Little Stints with Dunlins and so on. Somehow we managed to drive through Layone city-centre and find the right road towards south even though the city was very difficult to drive through – there were no signs at all and several turns and roundabouts. We had read that one group had got lost to the city and found a way to south after 2 hours searching, even though they had tried to ask help many times!
The road was all the time much better than we had expected. It was a little bit too narrow in some parts and sometimes the sand-dynes were blocking another line, but we did see tractors sand-ploughs working the sand away. The biggest dynes were soon after Layone.
After the dyne-area the road was just straight so we were driving pretty fast. There was very few traffic so we decided to try to get until Dakhla before the dark.
After some more driving the views started to change – there were more and rockier hills. And soon we were in Tchoucan village which had almost nothing else than 2 service-stations and a rubbish tip. Actually there was no rubbish tip but the village was one. There we stopped and started to scan the cliffs behind the stations and soon Hanna found what we were looking for – a couple of Pied Crows were having siesta far on the edge on the shadows. These birds are the only couple in whole Western Palearctic so Janne decided to try to walk closer to get some digiscoped pictures. Between all the rubbish there was one small wet part where were 5 Bluethroats and some other migrants but unfortunately the crows were very shy and left already when Janne was still hundreds of metres of them. They flew calling to the other side of the road and landed to search something to eat from the rubbish. So when Janne had walked back to the car we drove to find the birds and we found them pretty easily. But again they left too soon and one bird flew directly to the cliffs on the other side of the road than where they had been found but another bird flew straight over us and Hanna managed to get some good pictures of it before it followed the first bird to the cliffs. We had got one of our best WP-tick ever! We still saw a couple of Barbary Falcons that were playing with the wind but the crows were again having siesta.
We filled up the tank with diesel and it was very cheap as we were now in tax-free Western Sahara. If it was maybe 40€ to fill the tank in Morocco, it was now only 30€! We still had last 169 km to drive until Dakhla and the sun was already setting fast.
So we drove fast and managed to get to our next target-place before the sun set down completely. We stopped first 18 km before Dakhla but the tide was extremely low so we hardly saw any water. So we continued a couple of kilometres more and stopped again. Now we had good views to Dakhla bay and even though the sea was still far we saw lots of birds! The light was already getting bad but we started to scan gulls and especially terns carefully. Janne was just checking a big flock of Caspian Terns when he noticed a small black bird flying in front of them – a British Storm Petrel! Hanna managed to see it also before we had to continue with terns. We found a big flock of a little bit smaller terns and even though the light was already very bad and they were extremely far we managed to see their orange bills. And a couple of them started to fly and they were West African Crested Terns! There were at least 20 of them, but soon the light was gone so we could drive the last kilometres to Dakhla.
We still had a couple of police’s check-points and the last one was the 21st between Goulimine and Dakhla. There it took a little bit longer, but as the policemen spoke more English in Western Sahara than in Morocco, we were told that it was because of they wanted to get all info now so they wouldn’t have to stop us later anymore.
In Dakhla we drove through the city and found easily the Hotel Erraha that had been told to be good in other birders reports and in Lonely Planet. The room was 35€ per night and we took it for 3 nights. After some shopping we went to the hotel restaurant where we had to wait for our food for a long time but when we finally got it, it was good and enough! We were finally ready to go to sleep at 10:30 p.m.
To main target-place Aossard road
The 2nd of March. We woke up early at 4:30 a.m. and soon started a way towards our main target-place of the whole trip, Aossard road. Aossard road is a 230 km long road that leads to Aossard which is in the middle of Sahara desert. We knew that we should have a full tank when we leave to Aossard road, but unfortunately we didn’t know that the Aossard road started about 80 kilometres from Dakhla. We had thought that we’d have enough diesel, but once we realized that we’d need to drive at least 650 kilometres during the day instead of only Aossard road, we weren’t so sure anymore. Of course there was no service-stations open yet, so we just decided to drive as fast as we could and then turn back when half of the diesel was spent. We had filled the tank in Tchoucan, so we had driven about 180 km already when we left.
We had planned to drive the first 100 km of Aossard road in the dark because of we knew the best places started after that, but we hadn’t thought that there was 80 km before the road started, so the sun started to set up when we were just on the beginning of the Aossard road. We had planned to drive until 41 km sign to Aossard and start birding there as that was the most important place for us and then continue to Aossard and a little bit to the other side of the village and then start coming slowly back but now we had to change plans.
We had driven 78 km from the beginning of Aossard road when we saw the first bird and it was a Brown-necked Raven. After 102 km we saw a Long-legged Buzzard and after 131 km the first 2 Cream-coloured Courser. When we stopped to look at these amazing birds well we noticed a couple of small passerine that were licking sugar-water from the surface of yellow melon-like plants. Desert Sparrows! Soon the birds flew to an acacia nearby and we heard the nestlings calling actively – there was a nice roundish nest made of sticks. Soon 2 males and a female flew back to lick the melons and Hanna managed to get good pictures of them.
We continued driving slowly and after 139 km we saw the first Hoopoe Lark that were pretty common later. Aloud whistling of Hoopoe Larks was able to hear even when we were driving.
Our first target-place was after 159 km and on 68 km to Aossard sign. One week earlier a British group had heard one of their two African Desert Warblers here. Soon we heard a promising song from the bushes and I took my mp3-player and compared the songs and there it was! I played some song back to it and soon we saw the bird perched on the top of one bush – African Desert Warbler! The bird never came any closer but we heard at least 5 of them singing in the same area!
We continued soon and saw some more Hoopoe Larks, Cream-coloured Coursers, Brown-necked Ravens, first Desert and Northern Wheatears and Desert and Bar-tailed Desert Larks that were very difficult to identify from each others. Also some big flocks of Short-toed Larks were seen when the better-looking bushy desert started.
We decided to continue as fast as possible to our main target-place 41 km before Aossard where we knew was one of the best places for Cricket Warblers. The German birders we had me a couple of days earlier had seen several birds there easily. When we got out from the car we realized that the wind was almost stormy, but we had to start trying! We had read all the English trip-reports but none of them really gave an answer was it ok to walk in the desert along Aossard road. We knew there would be mine-fields somewhere because of the war less than 20 years ago, but we had no idea where. On some reports it was said that it was absolutely not aloud to leave the roads but in some reports people had been walking in some areas. After some walking on the road we decided that at least this bushy and grassy area was so full of footprints of sheep and camels and there were no big holes or pieces of camels that we decided to go to the field! I took my mp3-player with me and started to play Cricket Warbler, but the wind seemed to blow the sound away.
A couple of Brown-necked Ravens came to check if we’d find mines and be eatable soon but after some walking we had found only some bigger flocks of Short-toed Larks, 2 small flocks of Black-crowned Finch-Larks and several Subalpine Warblers and Chiffchaffs and a couple of Sardinian Warblers and one Common Whitethroat from acacias. Also 4 Quails were flushed one by one under our feet before finally Janne found a small, long-tailed bird flying towards his player! A Cricket Warbler flew straight in front of him and landed to the closest bush to call angrily for the mp3-bird. Janne shouted Hanna to see the bird and she managed to see it shortly before the wind blew the bird away and it disappeared. We were walking in the bushes for some time and found a couple of Hoopoes before we continued towards Aossard.
We had driven only a kilometre or so when we saw a flock of big larks that had white on their wings, and they weren’t Hoopoe Lark, they were Thick-billed Larks! 13 birds landed to a desert pretty far from us but we managed to watch them for a couple of minutes with a scope before wind blew them to flight again.
We had been checking the declining level of the diesel in our tank and counted that we could drive a little bit to the other side of Aossard and still be able to drive back. A British group had seen a couple of Dunn’s Larks there so we needed to try as the local subspecies might be a species in a future. But 25 km before Aossard we still had one more place where to stop – Oued Jenna. And this big bushy and grassy area with some bigger acacias really looked promising! Again we decided to go to walk there and we found some Southern Grey Shrikes, a Bushchat Shrike, 3 Great Spotted Cuckoos, a Cuckoo, a Redstart, a couple of Quails and again just one Cricket Warbler that disappeared immediately. Soon we continued towards Aossard and saw about 100 Desert Sparrows on the small area with lots of acacias. There were also big flocks of Short-toed Larks and Black-crowned Sparrow-Larks. The village itself was just an army-base for local army and UN so we didn’t really want to stop there even though we saw a nice adult White-crowned Black Wheatear on the fence there. There were no shops or service-station on the village. The road was still good on the other side of the village but the desert changed much poorer. We also thought that now we were in the area where it was not clever to step outside the road at all. After 20 kilometres driving the desert was still looking bad and we hadn’t seen any birds at all so we decided to turn back. The diesel-level was also showing that we had to turn.
Once we were back in Oued Jenna we saw a couple of birders having a break under the closest acacias. We went to say hello to them and they were surprisingly Moroccan! We seemed to have seen mostly same birds (or at least species) but they told that they had seen a strange dove in acacias 10 km before Aossard. They told some id-marks and it really sounded like an African Collared Dove! So soon we were driving towards Aossard again! Luckily we remembered that the first service-station would be already 40 km before Dakhla.
The site wasn’t exactly where Moroccans had told not 10, but 8 km before Aossard and the building on the right-hand-side of the road wasn’t pale but red, but the tamarisk-forest was easy to find anyway. We stopped the car and walked to the acacias and immediately 3 doves were flushed from the closest trees – and 2 of them were clearly Collared Doves but 1 was smaller and paler! We walked after them and flushed them again and now managed to see that this smallest bird clearly had white under-tail coverts – an African Collared Dove! We still wanted to see it better and maybe get some pictures as we wanted to make sure that it wasn’t anything rarer or a feral version from Canary Islands. But we walked through the forest many times but could find only 1 Collared Dove. There were also plenty of Black-crowned Sparrow-Larks and Desert Sparrows and at least one Savannah Hare, a Great Spotted Cuckoo and finally one Cricket Warbler that let us to watch itself better. But after all we had to give up and start our long way back. We didn’t want to run out of diesel when it was already dark. We were a little bit disappointed as we already had one observation of African Collared Dove from Israel that nobody really knew what the bird had been, a hybrid or some own subspecies?
After we had passed Oued Jenna again we met the Moroccans again and we told about our observation and then Janne realized that another of them got a good camera – and he did have pictures of the dove. Actually there had been 2 Collared Doves and 2 of these African Collared Doves and they had pretty good pictures of these together! Now we were happy too – they had been real African Collared Doves! So we started a way back towards Dakhla but we still had birds to find on the way. We still hadn’t seen any Dunn’s Larks so we decided to check every single lark on the way.
After some driving we met Lee Evans’ group again. They had started on Gleb Djiane water-pump where they had been waiting for the sandgrouses until 9:20 a.m. before they had arrived. They had seen Spotted and Crowned Sandgrouses very well. They had also been already on 41 km sign and seen plenty of Cricket Warblers, but they had still Oued Jenna to go and of course the doves now that we told about them. They had also seen a couple of Dunn’s Larks with a fledling along the road 75 to 76 km before Aosserd and a Tristram’s Warbler in the same place! These guys seemed to have almost too good luck!
We still stopped on the 41 km sign and as the wind was now a little bit weaker, we managed to find several Cricket Warblers pretty easily. Finally we found one bird that stayed photographable too. Janne also managed to get some kind of recordings too.
Slowly we drove until the place where Lee’s group had seen their Dunn’s Larks and Tristram’s Warbler and we walked at least a kilometre on the both sides of the street but didn’t find anything else than a couple of Bar-tailed Desert Larks, Hoopoe Larks and Subalpine Warblers..
In the end of the day we still drove to Gleb Djiane to see if any desert birds would come to drink to the pool. But only 5 Little Ringed Plovers, a Green Sandpiper and a couple of Trumpeter Finches were seen.
While we were driving back to Dakhla many buses full of soldiers were driving towards Aossard. We were absolutely out of diesel but somehow managed to get to the service-station, there we filled 51 litres to probably 50 litres tank. In Dakhla we drove straight to our hotel and after Hanna had bought something to eat and drink for next day we were ready to go to sleep even thought it was only 9:00 p.m.
Another day in Aossard road
On the 3rd of March we woke up at 5 a.m. and slowly started a way towards Aossard road again. We drove straight to Gleb Djiane which situated 78 km and were there already when the sun started to rise. We started to wait for the birds to come to drink but it was very quiet for a long time. Most of the Little Ringed Plovers and a Green Sandpiper also left to continue their migration. 6 Trumpeter Finches landed to the desert not far from the pool but we never saw them coming to drink, but part of the pool wasn’t visible from the car. A Sedge Warbler and another warbler, maybe a Savi’s were seen briefly on the vegetation. But no sandgrouses were seen or heard yet.
It was already 9 a.m. when a Long-legged Buzzard landed to a top of the closest tree of the pool. It seemed to be waiting for the sandgrouses too. Soon we heard calling from the sky and saw a lonely Spotted Sandgrouse flying over us, but turning back to direction where it had came. Then we saw a flock of 11 Crowned Sandgrouses flying extremely fast very low and landing far to the desert. We started to think that sandgrouses were afraid of the buzzard because it was too close to the pool. Soon we heard calls of Spotted Sandgrouses again and saw a bigger flock that had a Lanner after them! Somehow they managed to escape the Lanner but also they landed very far to the desert. Then we lost nerves and decided to flush the buzzard away, we really wanted to let the sandgrouses to think – they had probably youngsters waiting for some water that adults would carry on their feathers tens of kilometres to the desert – and of course we wanted to get some pictures too! Luckily the buzzard left almost immediately when we got out from the car and flew some hundreds of metres to a sand-dyne. After less than a minute the sandgrouses were in flight again and now they landed much closer, and soon 20 of them continued and landed straight to the pool!
The sandgrouse-show lasted about 20 minutes and altogether 60 Spotted Sandgrouses came to drink but Crowned Sandgrouses had probably waited for too long and decided not to drink today at all. Luckily we waited some extra because of we saw a couple of Temminck’s Horned Larks flying over us – the lifer for this day too!
Before 10 a.m. we left again towards Aossard but now we concentrated almost only to larks. Of course we still tried to find other birds like Fulvous Babblers too so we had the mp3-player ready. When we were driving we passed a truck that had felt down and all the sheep that had been loaded to aboard had flight around the desert. Lee’s group had seen the truck already in the evening when there had been still many sheep alive and wounded. The accident had probably caused because of the stormy wind?
We drove almost straight to the place where Lee’s group had seen the Dunn’s Larks and walked again on both sides of the road but couldn’t find anything interesting, just Brown-necked Ravens, Short-toed Larks and Hoopoe Larks. When we were walking on the desert at least 30 big cars full of soldiers were driving towards Aossard. So we weren’t very hopeful to find anything from or close to the road on the way when we continued. Soon we were passing these cars and trucks wondering where on Earth they were all going.
We stopped a couple of times and found for example a couple of African Desert Warblers, but then drove until the 41 km to Aossard sign. There we first saw a flock of 10 Thick-billed Larks that flew fast past us and then several Cricket Warblers, a Great Spotted Cuckoo, a Spectacled Warbler and maybe the best an Iberian Chiffchaff which we identified already on field but luckily it started to call too.
At 2 p.m. we started to drive back towards the Dunn’s Lark places, the higher area where all the most reliable observations have been made, was worth to check one more time. We walked there in several places but found only Bar-tailed Desert Larks and Desert Larks in very small flocks. Probably the windy weather wasn’t good for larks? Cricket Warblers were found almost in every place where was any of this grassy vegetation, the last ones 79 km from Aossard and almost immediately after that there wasn’t any grass anymore. Bar-tailed Desert Larks, Desert Larks and Hoopoe Larks were seen still on the drier desert and finally we found 2 Temminck’s Horned Larks that Hanna managed to get only one picture before they left. It really seemed that all larks, except Black-crowned Sparrow-Larks, were also very flighty in this wind. We also found a dead Red-rumped Wheatear lying on the road; it had just died maybe just minutes before. It was only our second Red-rumped Wheatear, Northern and Desert Wheatears had been common along the road.
We were already passing Gleb Djiane because of the tried to get close to Aossard to see the terns when there was still some light, but we saw a familiar car next to the pool so we turned there. The Moroccan birders were there next to the pool and they clearly had something there. We drove carefully next to them and they told that they had a Baillion’s Crake hiding in the vegetation. After some waiting we also saw it briefly and Hanna even managed to get some kind of picture of it. We decided to leave soon and continued until 16 km to Dakhla and managed to get there again only just before the sun was setting down.
Unfortunately the sea-level was again very low – the tide was exactly same than on our previous visit. Anyway we managed to identify at least 50 West African Crested Terns from the masses of Caspian Terns but again the wind and the light were too bad for digiscoping. Anyway we had planned to come back on next day.
We were back in our hotel before 8 p.m. and again we ordered the same food (we think that there was actually nothing else available) and after a long wait we finally it and pretty soon we were ready to go to sleep.
Towards north again
The 4th of March. We woke up at 6:14 a.m. and soon started to try to find the road that leads to the tip of Dakhla peninsula. After some searching we found the right road and drove until the fishermen’s village where we parked the car and waites for some time the sun to rise before we walked some hundreds of metres to the shore. We got followers again, but this time a family of dogs. One of them was very aggressive but the rest of them were very nice, especially the puppies and their mother. From the shore we did some seawatching and it was very good! After some gulls and Caspian Terns we picked up a storm-petrel, which finally came close enough so we could identify it as a Madeiran Storm-Petrel! And soon we found another bird which was easy to identify as a Leach’s Storm Petrel and the next one was British Storm Petrel! In a less than an hour we saw still one more Madeiran and on more British Storm Petrel and some Gannet but nothing else interesting. When the fishermen started to wake up, we decided to leave. In big flocks of gulls there were lots of Audouin’s Gulls and on a couple of big pools there were hundreds of waders but nothing very interesting. Soon we were back in our hotel where we took our luggage with us and left Dakhla towards the bay.
We stopped again 16 km from Dakhla but the water-level was totally something else than we had thought – it was even lower than on our earlier stops. Also there were almost no birds on the sea, so pretty soon we decided to start a long drive towards back to Morocco.
So soon we were driving fast along the road almost straight road in a middle of the desert. On every check-point the policemen still wanted to get the papers from us and we didn’t have many left anymore. Of course we stopped in Tchoucan but we couldn’t find the Pied Crows in a couple of minutes searching. We also stopped a couple of times nearby on the rocky areas so Hanna could check if there were fossils, but nothing very interesting was found. The wind was now much lighter so there were now plenty of wheatears everywhere and not only Northern and Desert, but also Black and Red-rumped Wheatears. We also found an African Desert Warbler, a Sedge Warbler and a couple of Bluethroats.
When we finally reached Layone we somehow managed to find the right road towards Oued Lemseyed. Of course there was soon another police check-point where the policemen where extremely strict. The wanted to see passports and even the car documents ant then they found out that one paper was missing. Of course they didn’t speak any English and we had no idea what paper was missing – of course we didn’t understand anything about those Arabic papers that we had go from car-rental. Polices were asking tirelessly about some paper and finally somewhere came one more police that spoke English and he told that an insurance paper was missing. But what can we do about it? After some 30 minutes we finally were free to continue but after 3000 metres there was another check-point of military-police! We were now going closer to Mauritania than we had been, but anyway – why can’t these polices work together in same check-point? After another 30 minutes or so we finally managed to continue the last 6 kilometres to Oued Lemseyed. But unfortunately the sun was already setting down soon.
Oued Lemseyed was a beautiful palm-oasis but the time of the day was totally wrong so we couldn’t find almost any birds. We weren’t very keen to go back to check-points or extremely messy Layone so we were happy when Hanna noticed that it was possible to continue the road and go around the city back to the main-road to the northern side of the city. So we continued driving along the narrow road to the semi-desert. The sun was already setting down but we still stopped several times on a good-looking bushy area where we played both Scrub Warbler and Fulvous Babbler from the player. Once we were playing Scrub Warbler when we heard familiar calls of Fulvous Babblers from the small forest-area nearby (27,050760 13,051184) and there were at least 20 birds! These funny birds were really attracted by the player and soon Hanna was photographing both adult and very young birds just next to us.
Finally the road turned towards the main road and we managed to get there just before it came dark. And we had managed to go around the whole Layone city and all the check-points too! Perfect!
Of course we were a little bit worried that now we had been wanted because of we had been lost to the road that leads to Mauritania. Anyway we knew that there will be more check-points soon. We had only one paper left so Hanna started to write more papers, but when the next check-point came we weren’t stopped anymore. And after that we weren’t stopped at all in any of the check-points along the road. We were already very tired but we decided to drive as far north as possible, so we could start in Goulimine area in the morning. We hadn’t searched that area well on the way south because of the car problems.
After a long driving we had already passed Tantan and we were absolutely too tired to continue. So we turned to a small road the lead to hills and just parked along the road and started to sleep about at midnight. We had driven more than 1000 kilometres during the day!
Still towards north
The 5th of March. The night was very cold so we slept pretty bad and woke up already at 5:30 a.m. We drove the last 50 km close Goulimine to Oued Boukila where we again tried to find a Scrub Warbler for more than an hour but with out luck. A Lanner was flying over us and landed for a short time to a electric-pole before continued further. We found also Subalpine Warblers, a couple of Spectacled Warblers but no Scrub Warblers. After all we drove about 20 km back towards south and stopped in a semi-desert area exactly 30 km south from Goulimine. There we went to walk to the desert and tried to find larks. There were many Short-toed Larks, 8 Thick-billed Larks flew over us and a Temminck’s Horned Lark was also seen in flight and many wheatears were seen again, also Red-rumped Wheatears.
We continued walking to a bushy area which looked really good for Scrub Warblers. Janne started to play mp3 and soon a family of Scrub Warblers (theresae) flew towards us. Finally we saw this local sub-species too. In the same area there were several Fat Sand Rats that were calling funnily on their nest-holes.
We still continued to check an area 22 km before Goulimine but didn’t find anything interesting. So soon we decided to keep on driving north. Just before Goulimine city we still saw a Fulvous Babbler crossing the road. We weren’t stopped on the last check-points either – altogether we had been stopped 15 times between Dakhla and Goulimine.
Soon we crossed the border between Western Sahara and Morocco, then passed Tiznit and finally turned away from the main-road just before Agadir. We followed along Souss Valley towards Anti-Atlas Mountains. The road was long and curvy but even though we stopped to eat in a small restaurant, we still managed to get to east-side of Taliouine to high plateau 48 km to Tazenakht which is one of only few places where to find Dupont’s Larks.
Because of there was still some light we still went to walk to the rocky plateau where were some grassy areas. We saw 2 Thick-billed Larks that Hanna managed to get some pictures before they left. Thekla Larks and Black Redstarts were common and a couple of Desert Wheatears were singing but Dupont’s Larks weren’t found at all. We were still listening to when it was already completely dark but no Dupont’s Larks were heard even though we tried to attract them with the mp3-player. A Little Owl was heard calling and some barking mammal was also heard before we walked back to our car where we prepared to an extremely cold night. So we wore all our clothes and went to our sleeping bags to sleep.
On the 6th of March we woke up before 5 a.m. and it was really cold! The ground was frost! Janne had been sleeping well but Hanna had awakened a couple of times because of the cold. After we had warmed up in the car we got out and started to listen if any larks were singing. The sky was amazing clear so we watched stars and planets with scope. A couple of Little Owls were calling on the mountains, but otherwise it was quiet. After a half an hour Hanna heard a bird calling in the sky and soon it came closer so Janne also heard it. The bird flew very high over us, but the call was very easy to identify – a Dupont’s Lark! Soon it was quiet again and even though we played the mp3 nothing was responding. Soon Thekla Larks started to sing and then the sun rose. We still went to walk to the closest hills but all we found were 10 Thick-billed Larks in flight. Finally we walked back to the car and went to listen to a couple of good looking places nearby but nothing was found, so soon we started to drive towards Tazenakht. Trumpeter Finch was the most common bird on the mountains, there were some bigger flocks. Also several Black and White-crowned Black Wheatears were seen.
We continued along the mountain-road close to Ouarzazate but there we made a decision that we skip machorhynchos Crested Lark and Western Mourning Wheatear and turned straight to Tizi-n-Tickha road towards north and Atlas Mountains. We knew that we should come back to Morocco anyway sooner or later because of some summer birds and its better if we have more things to do when we come. Of course we checked all the good-looking places and checked all wheatears but didn’t really stop too many times because we wanted to get soon to Oukameïden – the only skiing resort in Africa. Actually we were now in area where we weren’t supposed to be at all during this trip, but we had managed to make Western Sahara trip one day faster than we had planned so of course we had to get to mountains more than only a visit to Oukameïden which we had planned to do anyway.
Tizi-n-Tichka road was the first tourist-place during our trip. There were souvenir-sellers in every corner and it was impossible to stop without someone selling fossils, fake-fossils or ceramics. Maybe that was one more reason that we didn’t really stop too many times. The views were of course great, we were already getting close to the highest peaks of Atlas Mountains.
Of course we saw some birds too: a Short-toed Eagle was soaring in the sky and after we had driven over Iriri River we saw several Little Swifts, Crag Martins, a Red-rumped Swallow and a stunning Bonelli’s Eagle on the electric pole. There we were also stopped by a funny police that wanted to test Hanna’s camera. We were discussing for a long time about the camera, of course without common language, before we continued.
Again we stopped a couple of times to check if there were any fossils or something else interesting but the only interesting observation were 2 Black-bellied Sandgrouses that left just in front of Janne. Hanna found some carnelian-agates but we made a decision that on our next trip to Morocco we have to spend some more time on searching the geology.
When the road had climbed once more a little bit higher we found a flock of Red-billed Choughs feeding close to the road and soon we saw a big flock of them in the sky. On the valleys there was some rivers from where we found some Grey Wagtails. Soon there started to be more and more trees and even small forests. On the first stop in the forest we found Coal Tits (atlas) and a flock of Common Crossbills and already on the 2nd stop we heard a Levaillant’s Woodpecker (31,47301 07,432247). We started to whistle back to the bird and soon we found it from a branch where it kept on calling and soon there were at least 4, maybe 5, different birds calling around us! We managed to get good pictures of the woodpecker and soon we continued driving. We still stopped a couple of times and on one stop we heard Barbary Partridges.
Later we still saw a Rock Bunting (africana) that flew over the road before we got an idea to try to take a short-cut to Oukameïden. Luckily I had put some coordinates that I had got from Andreas Uppstu to gps and surprisingly they were showing the way how to get to Oukameïden without going to Marrakesh. Actually the road was pretty clear but as we were here without any plans we had thought that we should drive until Marrakesh to get to Oukameïden, but now we’d save a lot of time and nerves.
And the way to Oukameïden was very easy even though the road looked very small in a map. So small roads on them map would have been awful near Casablanca or Rabat but here in the mountains all roads were surprisingly good. Before Oukameïden we still saw a flock of Cirl Buntings and when we finally were in Oukameïden and we had paid the small parking fee we immediately found a huge flock of African Crimson-winged Finches on the wires next to the parking place. We rushed out to photograph them and there were a British group of birders with Spanish and Moroccan leaders too photographing them. There were also lots of Rock Buntings (barbara), but African Crimson-winged Finches were much more numerous than we had thought – there were about 150 of them! While Hanna was still photographing I changed a couple of words with the tour-leaders and got some info for the next day. Soon the light started to get bad and then we realized that the hotel Chez Juju that had been told to be good was just the closest building. We got the room easily and soon we were in the restaurant having a good meal. The rest of the evening we just relaxed, took a shower and went to sleep early.
On the 7th of March Janne woke up already at 5 a.m. and soon Hanna was awake too. So it was still dark when we were out and walking towards the closest hills next to Oukameïden. We decided to climb a little bit higher so we could see the highest peak of North Africa to Jbel Toubkal 4167m. On the grassy areas we found a flock of Shore Larks (atlas), which we photographed but the light was still pretty bad. Black Redstarts were singing on the roof of mountain village and on the rocks when the sun started to come up behind the mountains. Soon we were on the closest top and there were amazing views to the snowy peaks of highest mountains of Atlas Mountains.
We still climbed a little bit so we could touch African snow and then we also saw a Peregrine Falcon that flew over us and also a big flock of Alpine Choughs that was flying fast around the top of mountains. Later we saw this Peregrine chasing the flock of Alpine Choughs and we could hear a pretty loud voice from the wings of Alpine Choughs.
Soon we were landing down towards the village and saw more Shore Larks and Black Redstarts with one male Moussier’s Redstart on the way. It was very difficult to try to photograph them in a rocky hill-side but Hanna managed to get something.
In the village there were big flocks of Alpine and Red-billed Chouhgs on the grassy area. Hanna went to photograph them while Janne was watching a group of trial motorbikers that were practising just next to our hotel. A couple of Mistle Thrushes (deichleri) were seen in the village too.
We were still waiting for some time if the African Crimson-winged Finches would come to the village but we didn’t see any. Rock Sparrows were here and there but they were very active so we didn’t really try to photograph them. So soon we packed our luggage and started to drive towards Marrakesh.
We didn’t follow the Oukameïden road for long but soon turned left to a small but good road towards Tahanaout. The road climbed back to the mountains and again there started to be some forests. So we were driving with open windows and soon we heard some calls and stopped and found several Firecrests and also some Hawfinches from the trees. In the next village (Sidi Fares) we turned left towards Asni (there was no sign) and soon the biotope started to look good for our project-species. Last evening the Moroccan tour-leader had told to Janne that the area close to Asni village was very good for Tristram’s Warbler. He had told that they liked junipers and they had been photographing one bird just next to Asni village. We had been driving one third of the road to Asni when we found the first good-looking area (31.25168 07.899832). We stopped the car and climbed up to the junipers and soon Janne saw a small bird in front of him flying from juniper to another. The bird stayed still for a couple of seconds and that was enough so Janne could identify it as a male Tristram’s Warbler! Janne thought that it stayed in the bush and called Hanna to come quickly, but the bird wasn’t found anymore.
We spread to the bushes to try to find it or more birds but after 15 minutes hard climbing we hadn’t found anything at all. We still decided to check one dry river area wherever denser bushes and finally Hanna found it! Now Hanna saw it briefly but when Janne climbed there it was gone again. Unfortunately we hadn’t planned to try this species so we hadn’t got its song on mp3. Happy to have one more lifer we continued towards Asni.
In Asni we turned to the 17 km long road to Imli, where were told to be nice views to Jbel Toubkal. The road was very bad in a couple of places and we hit the bottom of our car a couple of times pretty bad but managed to get to Imli. There were lots of tourists so Hanna could finally do some shopping while Janne was waiting in a car.
Soon Hanna was back from shopping and we started to drive towards Marrakesh. After about an hour driving, we had the last difficult part of the trip when we had to find a way towards Casablanca through Marrakesh suburban. Luckily in the beginning there were some signs but soon we lost Casablanca signs and kept on following Agadir signs to get away from the town. The traffic was of course awful but somehow we managed to get to a road that was clearly leading towards the motorway.
Finally we found the motorway and started a long way towards Casablanca. We had a lot of time but we wanted to drive as close as possible to Mohammed V airport when it was still some light. About 70 km before Casablanca we stopped in a service-station, counted our last Dirhams and decided to eat something. The problem was that we didn’t really have many Dirhams left and Visa-card wasn’t accepted in this Shell service-station. Anyway we ate a pizza half and tiny french-fries. We hoped that the 50 Dirhams we had left would be enough for the last road-tolls along the motorway.
We still drove about 20 kilometres and stopped again to a service-station that had a huge parking area behind it. We decided to try to sleep a little. We just laid on the car-seats and started to sleep.
Back to home
The 8th of March. After all we slept 9 hours in a service-station’s parking place and woke up at 5 a.m. We decided to drive straight to Mohammed V airport. But then on the road-toll we had an unpleasant surprise – the payment was 70 Dirhams! Luckily we had some Euros so we managed to pay some extra Euros so the officer put the missing 20 Dirhams from his own money. But then there was still another road-toll – and we hadn’t got any Dirhams left! The officer wasn’t letting us to go at all! I don’t know what she was thinking, should we just stay the rest of our lives on 1 km long motorway? It was impossible to get out from there without Dirhams! There were already several cars in line behind us and luckily one woman took some extra Euros from us and paid our huge 10 Dirhams (1 €) toll-payment! Before we continued we still made it sure that this has been the last toll.
Finally we managed to drive to the airport where we parked to familiar rental-car parking, took our luggage and walked to the car-rental offices. The offices were still closed and after all they opened after 8 a.m. While waiting we saw a Pallid Swift in a flock of Common Swits. When the Sixt office finally opened we heard that we had to pay only 40 € because of the broken glass of our first car. So we had spent hours in police-office for nothing but at least we had more funny memories from the trip.
After we had left our luggage and again filled some papers and queued in passport-line we walked for some time checking the unpretentious shops but couldn’t find anything interesting. Our Air France plane left at 10:35 a.m. towards Paris where we landed at 2:25 p.m. We hadn’t got too much time and a long way to walk from terminal to another so after all we walked straight to our Finnair plane. After all we sat for some time in a plane before it left at 3:25 towards Finland.
We landed to Helsinki-Vantaa airport at 7:20 and the weather was very different than when we had left! It had been still very cold when we left but now it was 0 degrees. We had a long walk to our car but soon we were driving towards home. We drove without stopping to Simpele where we ate well while watching 2nd half of Barcelona-Arsenal Champions League match. We were home in Parikkala at midnight.
What a trip we had experienced! In 10 days we’d been driving 6100 km in Morocco and Western Sahara (and then 700 km in Finland). The trip had cost the flying tickets, car-rental and then only about 6000 Dirhams (600€) + 140 € to hotels. So we had spent a half less money than we had thought. But maybe the reason was that we had spent 6 nights in a car and one in an airport and only 4 in hotels. We had also eaten proper food only every 2.5 day. We had seen altogether 210 bird-species which 21 were new WP-ticks for us! We hadn’t got any really big problems but anyway we had been in contact with police much more than ever! But we must say that the policemen in Morocco are surprisingly helpful and kind! We might have been the first group ever that has been driving this much without having any tickets from police! We are still planning to go back maybe already next spring but a little bit later and then we’ll focus to the eastern parts of the country. We need to get Atlas Flycatcher, Atlas Wheatear, Western Mourning Wheatear, Houbara Bustard and many local sub-species to our lists. So see you soon Morocco!