We have just come back from a week’s cultural and birding trip with a small guiding company called ‘Birding the Strait’.  We flew into Marrakesh and immediately headed south up into the High Atlas Mountains, via the Tizin Tichka pass at 11,000 feet and finally descended to 4,265 feet to the small village of Ait Ben-haddou, a Unesco world heritage site, with its medieval town and castle. Many Hollywood films have been made here including ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, ‘Gladiator’ and ‘The Mummy’. As our trip was part culture, we spent a few hours having a guided tour around this interesting and historical site. The town seems to be constructed of Adobe, a mixture of soil, water, clay and straw. I guess there was also some animal dung in the mixture as well. I suppose it’s similar to Argomasa the material the Moors used to build their medieval castles in Southern Spain. You would imagine that erosion over the years would have made these ancient buildings crumble, but the village stood witness to the longevity of these old construction methods. 

Mousier’s redstart

Although this was part of our cultural itinerary, the unusual looking LBJ’s that we were frequently seeing around the village awoke our birding instincts and gave us our first lifer of the trip. These small birds proved to be House Buntings (Emberiza Safari), quite a pretty looking bird that we were seeing frequently as we walked the narrow streets of the village. It is a resident of this sort of arid countryside that ranges from Morocco and south to Mali and east to Chad. In Morocco, it is traditionally treated as a sacred bird and has become very tame and cheekily enters inside houses, shops and mosques. It has expanded its range north since the 1960’s and reached as far north as Tangier. I suspect it won’t be long before it crosses the Straits of Gibraltar to Tarifa, in Southern Spain. 

We were soon beginning to realise that we were going to do quite a bit of travelling each day, but Javi our guide, ensured that we stopped frequently at interesting sites. These sites were quite often good birding locations. On the road to Boumalne Dades we stopped at quite a pretty place that was known for a particularly colourful bird called a Mousier’s Redstart. We soon went into twitching mode, as our group was intent on finding the bird before leaving. Fortunately, the showy male birds were quite happy to perch out in the open to flaunt their handsome appearance, so it didn’t take too long to find one perched, where we could get good views of it.

White-crowned wheatear

We were soon travelling again towards our destination of the Sahara Desert and as you can imagine the landscape became more arid and desert-like. This proved to be a great opportunity to accustom ourselves to a new bird species, a White-Crowned Wheatear (Oenanthe Leucopyga). It is a common bird of these habitats. It looks very similar to our Black Wheatear (Oenanthe Melanura), a permanent resident in parts of Murcia. However, as you would expect, the adults have a white crown, which is the only visual difference from our resident Wheatear.

Desert wheatear

As we travelled closer to the desert, the landscape became more arid and the vegetation became scarcer. It was perfect habitat for one of the birds we were seeking, a Desert Wheatear (Oenanthe Deserti). The males are the more attractive of the two genders and they look very similar to one of our summer visitors to Murcia, the Black-Eared Wheatear (Oenanthe Hispanica). The difference between the two species is quite subtle. The Desert Wheatear has a black line of feathers from the ear to the wings. Yes, you’ve guessed it; our Black-Eared Wheatear has a gap in the black line.

Desert Sparrow

We eventually arrived at the Sahara Desert at the village of Merzouga, the gateway to Erg Chebbi, a huge expanse of dunes. I must admit that the desert is beautiful and we were very impressed by the landscape, a habitat that we had never previously experienced. I was left stunned by its beauty and very intrigued about the type of birdlife we would find in such a place, totally lacking in water.

The birdlife was fantastic, much to my surprise. We went into the desert in 4 x 4 cars driven by local people who clearly knew the desert and where to find the local wildlife. The first area we visited was a lonely village where a few desert goatherds lived a very basic life with few amenities. However, there was a small group of Desert Sparrows (Passer Simplex) that were sharing their very basic lifestyle. They were quite attractive, especially the males who unfortunately were a bit camera shy. However, I did manage a reasonable photo of a female bird collecting nesting material.

I was wondering how anything could live in such a dry and desolate habitat. The few species that were able to live in this environment have evolved to survive with very little water. Evidently, their kidneys require little or no water and they obtain moisture from eating the insects that they find. One such bird is a LBJ that is a bit smaller than a Sparrow. It is lacking in colour and is a drab nondescript little bird that blends effortlessly with its surroundings. It is quite sought after by birdwatchers, but it is extremely difficult to see. In fact, if it stayed still without moving I doubt we would ever see it. It is a Desert Lark (Ammomanes Deserti). We managed to find one in the vast expanse of desert, but its reputation of a reclusive and difficult bird to find didn’t really enhance our joy in finding it. It looked pretty ordinary and boring!

Desert Lark

Our next experience was totally different, as we went to a watering hole, where two species of Sandgrouse visited each day. It was an artificial pool that had been built by the local guides to attract birds. They earn quite a good living by taking paying birdwatchers to view the elusive Sandgrouse that visit daily. There were two species that came to drink, Spotted (Pterocles Senegallus) and Crowned Sandgrouse (Pterocles Coronatus). These birds fly to waterholes each day for a drink and will fly quite long distances, as water is very scarce in the desert. Their chicks aren’t able to fly when they first hatch, so the males will bathe and collect water in between their feathers. They subsequently fly to their thirsty chicks hidden in the desert, which then sate their thirst by drinking the water held in dad’s feathers. 

The first sign of Sandgrouse approaching the water hole was when a flock of maybe twenty birds approached flying fast and low. They landed about 200 metres away and then walked slowly to the watering hole. They are shy birds and used this ploy to be more secretive.

Sandgrouse in flight

Our final desert bird was very active. It was a Hoopoe Lark (Alaemon Alaudipes), named because its long down curved beak resembles that of a Hoopoe. They are very active in the mornings and then hunker down in any shade they can find until the evening. This Lark came to be one of our favourite desert birds as it was an authentic survivor and very active in the mornings.

Hoopoe lark

After the desert, we returned, over two days, to the bustle of Marrakesh. From here we went to the snow line in the high Atlas Mountains at Oukaimeden. It was quite spectacular seeing the snow covered rocky mountains and very different to what we had experienced to date. We had gone there to see three very specific and rare birds; Alpine Chough (Pyrrocorax Graculus), Crimson-Winged Finch (Rhodopechys Alienus) and Horned Lark (Eremophila Alpestris).

As soon as we arrived, we were surrounded by Choughs, both Red-Billed and Alpine. We regularly see Red-Billed Choughs flying down the valley behind our house in Murcia. However, Alpine Choughs, with their yellow beaks instead of red, are a rarity in Murcia. You would have to travel to the Pyrenees or the Alps to see them.

We were fully expecting to have a difficult search to find the Crimson-Winged Finches, but lo and behold, they were feeding at the side of the café we stopped at. This was certainly a bonus and made birding and looking for rarities a bit of a walk in the park. I can assure you it isn’t always as easy.

Crimson winged finch

It seemed like fate, that the Horned Larks we had come to see, were as elusive as ever. We searched everywhere, but without any luck. After several hours of searching we found a handful of these birds feeding on one of the snowdrifts further up the mountain range. I don’t know what was so attractive on the snowdrifts as they normally feed on insects, but occasionally feed on seeds. I wouldn’t expect to find either on these high snowdrifts!

Horned lark

The Horned Lark is recognised by most authorities as a separate sub-species, but scientists are now considering splitting the sub-species and in future it maybe be classified as the Atlas Horned Lark. It will then be considered a new species and can be ticked! Currently, it is considered a close relative of the Shore Lark, a species that is seen uncommonly on the shores of Eastern England. It seems very strange to me, as the habitats in both places seem diametrically opposed!

If you have any queries or comments, please do not hesitate to contact me on antrimbirder@gmail.com