Marvelous Morocco: North Africa in a Nutshell

This 9-day tour of Morocco has been specifically designed for birders with limited vacation time. While short, this southern Moroccan circuit covers the Atlas Mountains, the Sahara Desert, and the Atlantic coast, maximizing habitat diversity and ensuring you chase after the best birds in the country, such as the critically endangered Northern Bald Ibis, Spotted Sandgrouse, regional endemic Levaillant’s Woodpecker, handsome Moussier’s Redstart, Red-rumped Wheatear, tiny African Desert Warbler, fantastic Greater Hoopoe-Lark, enigmatic Thick-billed Lark, and ghostly Desert Sparrow.

While this is a fabulous short stand-alone tour, it is also easily combined with Southern Spain: The Europe Intotour. Spain, only a short flight away, offers very different cultural and birding experiences with displaying Great Bustards on the plains, Spanish Imperial Eagle in the mountains, and one of the most famous reserves in all of Europe, the super-diverse Doñana National Park.

Day 1: Marrakesh to the Atlas Mountains. After arrival in Morocco, and an airport pickup, we shall drive up into the tortuous High Atlas Mountains, and the mountain resort of Oukaimeden. As most flights arrive in the morning we should have time in the afternoon to get out birding straight off the bat, with plenty of possibilities at this high altitude site, (2600m/8530ft). Our chief target will be the Crimson-winged Finch, for which this our only site on the tour, but we will also be on the lookout for other birds like Red-billed and Alpine Choughs, the seebohmi race of Northern Wheatear, Moussier’s and Black Redstarts, Rock Bunting, Rock Petronia, and Blue Rock Thrush. Raptors like Long-legged Buzzard and Barbary Falcon are possible. At the end of an exciting first day, we will descend to the lower part of the Ourika Valley for a single night.

A visit to Oukaimeden on the first day may produce a smart Crimson-winged Finch
A visit to Oukaimeden on the first day may produce a smart Crimson-winged Finch (Steve Blain)

Tristram's Warbler is only found in northwestern Africa
Tristram's Warbler is only found in northwestern Africa (Ken Behrens)

Day 2: Ourika Valley to Boumalne Dades. In the morning, if we failed to locate it on the previous day, we’ll search for Levaillant’s Woodpecker, a Maghreb endemic, within the mountain forests as we make the drive south and east towards Boumalne, where we’ll overnight. The journey is a long, though bird-filled one. En-route we’ll drive over the Tizi-n-Tichka Pass. This route might provide chances at some of the key birds of the trip, with Tristram’s Warbler a possibility in the dry scrubland. In the stony desert closer to Ouarzazate, we’ll hope to bump into species like Cream-colored Courser, Desert Lark, Trumpeter Finch, and Desert and White-crowned Wheatears. The night will be spent at the edge of the desert in the town of Boumalne Dades.

Day 3: Tagdilt Track to Erg Chebbi Dunes. The Tagdilt Track crosses a vast expanse of desert and offers the best chances at some of the trickier desert birds like Thick-billed and Temminck’s Larks, and Red-rumped Wheatear. This is one of the best and most famous birding sites in all of Morocco, with other possibilities, including Black-bellied and Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, and Long-legged Buzzard. These local raptors may well be augmented by migrating birds of a variety of species. After our morning on the Tagdilt, we’ll head east and south to the true Saharan habitats of the Erg Chebbi Dunes area. We’ll sleep at the edge of a monumental system of reddish Saharan dunes, a beautiful and stereotypical desert landscape.

The Sahara Desert is on most people's bucket list, and rightly so
The Sahara Desert is on most people's bucket list, and rightly so (Ken Behrens)

Greater Hoopoe-Lark
Greater Hoopoe-Lark (Ken Behrens)

Day 4: Erg Chebbi area. We have a full day to explore the Erg Chebbi dunes and surrounding gravel plains and palm oases. This is the best area to search for many Saharan specialties and northwestern Africa endemics. Our long list of targets will include Pin-tailed and Spotted Sandgrouse, Cream-coloured Courser, several larks like Greater Hoopoe and Bar-tailed, African Desert Warbler, Fulvous Babbler, and the ghostly desert-adapted Desert Sparrow. Sometimes, with the assistance of local nomadic people, we manage to locate the incredibly cryptic Egyptian Nightjar during the day. We will also seek out the big and handsome Pharaoh Eagle-Owl on the cliffs where it roosts and nests. Possible raptors include Lanner and a variety of migrants. By the time the day is done, we hope to have seen the vast majority of the area’s specialties, and to have truly experienced this beautiful corner of the endless vastness of the Sahara Desert.

Day 5: Erg Chebbi area to Ouarzazate. We have a final morning to “clean up” on any Saharan specialties that we missed on the previous morning, before heading northwest to Ouarzazate, a convenient stopover on our way to the Moroccan coast. This bustling regional center is famous as the place where Lawrence of Arabia was filmed. There is also a large reservoir nearby which can offer good birding during migration – the odd sight of waterbirds in the middle of the desert. Possible species include Great Crested Grebe, Eurasian Spoonbill, Ruddy Shelduck, “Long-billed” Crested Lark, and a variety of migrating shorebirds and passerines.

Day 6: Ouarzazate to Agadir. On this day we’ll be driving west through the Sous Valley to Agadir on the coast of Morocco, where we’ll spend the next three nights. Along the way, we’ll look for species like Black-shouldered Kite and Western Orphean Warbler. We hope to have enough time for a late afternoon visit to the Oued Sous after arriving in Agadir. This coastal site features a bounty of shorebirds, waders, gulls, and terns, and is likely to feature a frenzy of new additions to the trip list! The night will be spent in Agadir, a large, modern, coastal city on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. Two nights will be spent in this absorbing Moroccan city.

Northern Bald Ibis is a critically endangered specialty of the coast
Northern Bald Ibis is a critically endangered specialty of the coast (Ken Behrens)

Black-crowned Tchagra is the only member of the bush shrike family in northern Africa
Black-crowned Tchagra is the only member of the bush shrike family in northern Africa (Ken Behrens)

Day 7: Sous Massa National Park. In complete contrast to the tour thus far, we will spend a day around the coastal sites close to Agadir, which are regarded as some of the most diverse sites for birds in the entire country. We’ll be birding estuarine habitat around Oued Massa, but may also cover dunes, cliffs and riparian scrub in the national park too. The sheer variety of wetland and drier habitats is sure to give us our single biggest day list of the tour. In the tidal areas, we’ll be looking for shorebirds like Curlew Sandpiper, Bar-tailed Godwit, and Black-winged Stilt. The adjacent coastal scrub and wetlands may hold Black-crowned Tchagra, Sardinian Warbler, and finches like Common Linnet and Eurasian Goldfinch. The estuarine habitats are also good for congregations of migrating birds, including gulls and terns; among them we’ll try to track down Audouin’s and Mediterranean Gulls, and Gull-billed Tern. The park is known as one of two reliable places in Morocco for the critically endangered Northern Bald Ibis. The park is their last stronghold; with two-thirds of their world population, just under 100 pairs, thought to breed in Sous Massa. Another threatened species, the vulnerable Marbled Duck (Teal), can also be found here, but can be tougher to find by virtue of its more reclusive nature. At the end of a bird-packed day, we’ll return to nearby Agadir for a second night.

Moussier's Redstart. Just saying
Moussier's Redstart. Just saying "Moussier" is fun! (Ken Behrens)

Day 8: Agadir to Marrakesh. We have a final morning of birding, either around Oued Sous or perhaps north to Cap Rhir and Oued Tamri, depending on what we are still “missing”. Around mid-day, we will head back to the Moroccan capital on the fine new toll road that connects Agadir and Marrakesh. We have a cultural diversion planned for the final night, as we enter the old quarter of Marakesh, where snake-charmers perform alongside stalls loaded with local spices, and a bustling local market will provide more than enough interest, even for the most avid birder. The final night of the tour will be spent in Marrakesh.

Levaillant's Woodpecker; a Maghreb endemic we'll be searching for in the Atlas Mountains
Levaillant's Woodpecker; a Maghreb endemic we'll be searching for in the Atlas Mountains (Steve Blain)

Day 9: Departure. The tour ends this morning with transfers to the airport for flights out. If joining the Southern Spain tour, this starts the next day, giving you some downtime to explore Madrid in the afternoon and evening on this day. You will need a flight from Marrakesh to Madrid, which you can book yourself, or we can help you book them on request.

PLEASE NOTE: This tour links directly with Southern Spain: The Europe Introtour, to make a great combined tour of both Morocco and Spain. If joining the Spain tour, you will fly directly from Marrakesh to the Spanish capital Madrid, where you spend the night.

If not joining our Spain tour, and you wish to stay on for some extra days of cultural activities, of which there are many choices around Marrakesh, please contact our office if you need help with this. Some of the many options are visiting the Koutoubia mosque, seeing the Saddian Tombs, and touring the network of souks while working your way through the myriad markets in the city, to name but a few.

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Moderate to intense. This short tour cover a lot of ground, and there is little down time. The sun rises at about 6:30am and sets about 6:45pm, meaning that days are not extremely long. There are a couple of long drives of 6-8 hours, namely on days 2 and 6. Most of the roads in Morocco are paved roads of good quality. In the Erg Chebbi area, we will spend one day in 4x4s on small tracks or driving cross-country.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Mostly easy. There are plenty of walks, some of which are likely to be long, although for the most part this is on flat terrain, and not in the mountains. All the walks though are in close proximity to the vehicle, and should people wish to not take part in them they are welcome to remain in the vicinity of the vehicle. You can expect to walk around 4 miles (6.4km) on the days with the most walking. Parts of a couple days are spent in the High Atlas Mountains, where our maximum elevation will be about 13,000 feet (4000m).

CLIMATE: Hot and dry during the day in the desert areas of the tour  (rarely up to 90°F, 32°C), cold (down to freezing) and possibly wet in the mountains (gloves, warm hat and good raingear recommended). Also expected to be cold during the early mornings and nights at the desert sites. The weather on the coast is generally comfortable at this season, though it can be hot at mid-day. Rain or even snow is possible on the coast or the mountains, though usually not for extended periods.

ACCOMMODATION: All accommodations used are good to excellent, with en-suite facilities, and 24-hour electricity and hot water. Internet is available in most of the hotels, though it is often very slow.

PHOTOGRAPHY: This is a birding tour, but Morocco offers excellent chances for bird photography, as many birds are quite tame, and the habitats are mostly open. The beautiful landscapes and spring wildflowers also make for good landscape and macro photography.

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: A valid passport is required; the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay. No visa is required for citizens of the UK, US, Canada, most European countries, and many other countries. Advance visas are currently only required of a few nationalities, mostly in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Travel requirements are subject to change, and it is a good idea to double-check your entry requirements at least six weeks before you travel; contact the nearest embassy or consulate, or ask our office staff for help.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Tips to local guides, drivers, and lodge staff; accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night of day 8; meals from dinner on day 1 (unless you arrive too late for dinner service) to breakfast on day 9; safe drinking water and/or juice during meals; Tropical Birding tour leader with scope and audio gear from the evening of day 1 to the morning of day 8; one arrival and one departure airport transfer per person (transfers may be shared with other participants of the same tour if they arrive at the same time); ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary from in a suitable vehicle with a local driver; entrance fees and local guide fees for all the birding sites mentioned in the itinerary; a printed and bound checklist to keep track of your sightings (given to you at the start of the tour, though electronic copies can be provided in advance).

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Optional tips to the Tropical Birding tour leader; tips for luggage porters (if you require their services); snacks; additional drinks apart from those included; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.

Spotted Sandgrouse pair near Erfoud
Spotted Sandgrouse pair near Erfoud (Ken Behrens)

Saharan dunes, paradise for a Desert Sparrow
Saharan dunes, paradise for a Desert Sparrow (Ken Behrens)

Cream-coloured Courser doing some coursing
Cream-coloured Courser doing some coursing (Ken Behrens)