Sunday, May 14, 2017

Morocco: the Mountains

 We finished up at the beach and said goodbye to Tamri just as a flock of Bald Ibis cruised over our heads and circled over the river mouth. We stopped in for some some fried fish and filled a bag with all the fruit I could carry. I have to say, gorging on fresh fruit is one of life's sweetest pleasures! As I eagerly removed the peel with my fingers, I must have hit the right spot since it squirted its sweet juice all over my lap.

It was almost time to go but not before we paid the parking steward. Nice chap, he even gave us some Moroccan chocolate for the road.

Now, we had only 2 and a half days left and had still not seen most of the mountain stuff (including Tristram's Warbler). We had to chose between 2 options.

a) Go for Crimson-winged Finch at the Oukaimeden ski hill which would take 1 full day.

b) Climb Mt Toubkal (a highly desired peak for me!) and hope that we can get the Finch along the way (but was it a naive hope?).

Like John Muir, I felt a timeless calling to the mountains so for me it was worth the risk of possibly not getting the finch. I just couldn't justify passing up Morocco's highest peak to the mountaineer in me. Dom was kind of on the fence. Steve was slightly leaning toward Oukaimeden for the Finch.

I decided to not press my agenda until we'd had a good night's sleep. In the meantime, we had some work to do. We needed to find the Levaillant's Woodpecker AND Tristram's Warbler. A full day of driving and stopping at many switchbacks in suitable habitat was starting to frustrate us a bit. We even targeted our stops to encompass a range of altitude and blends of oak/juniper/pine as well as some poplar gullies, but were having no luck. We were so tired by this point we were starting to argue about where to camp and it became this obsession with finding the perfect clandestine camping spot. One of us would argue for where we were, then someone else would be like "no, lets push on further so the habitat is better for the morning" and "it needs to be flat with a good view" etc. etc.

We finally reached the Tin Mel mosque where we'd been told we'd be allowed to camp next to the mosque. However, it was already dark when we got there so we weren't gonna bother somebody with this odd request. The habitat around the river valley looked good enough so we parked in the back of a little gravel parking lot, pitched our tents and fell asleep to the sound of the evening call to prayer reverberating from invisible mosques all around us.
The Tizi-n-test pass (2092m)
Dominic's new Tinder profile pic
In the morning, we were up and birding the ravine. We were so happy we'd decided to camp there because the birding was amazing! There were melodious warblers, nightingales and hawfinches in full song. Steve's rage-o-meter spiked on the nightingales but their novelty soon wore off. I was pretty keen on seeing this 800 year old mosque up the hill but the others seemed pretty determined to press on to new sites before the morning died off. A young lad pulled up beside me on a scooter. I greeted him in french but was surprised that he spoke near-perfect english. He offered to show us the mosque for a couple of Euros. Yes! this was the perfect excuse to swing the vote in favour, and we were soon entering the only mosque in Morocco that allows non-muslims inside.

The 800 year old Tin Mel Mosque
As happens so often on these whirlwind-style trips, the best moments can be the ones were you just chill for a second and turn off the rage-meter. Not only that but Dom and I got a lifer right inside the mosque, not a place I would expect to get one! Magnificent European Rollers were nesting in little cavities in the sides of the mosque wall where some roof is missing, battling for airspace with Common Kestrels.

European Roller

Steve poses next to the last original cedar planks from the mosque
Tin Mel was so ancient and peaceful (aside from the battling rollers and kestrels) with its beautiful moorish arches and stone details that we left with a newfound peace. Levaillant's or not, this had been a special experience. We walked leisurely back to the car to continue our journey.

It also happens that when you relax your mind, your senses truly awaken and that's when magical things happen. I walked past an Argan orchard with Dom close on my tail. He suddenly stopped in his tracks and said "Levaillant's Woodpecker!" The thing flew right behind my back and in front of Dom, so I totally would have missed it completely. I turned and saw this red-crested beast jockey from the back of a trunk and perch with its back to us. I don't know if it was just the excitement but this thing looked  massive. Not having my camera freed me up to enjoy perfect views of this beast through my spankin' new Zeiss Victory SF's...I cannot express it enough but if you have never viewed a Levaillant's Green Woodpecker through a pair of primo German optics in the Atlas mountains then it is a combination of thing you need to get on!

We drove away high on life. In my mind, I patiently restrained myself with my Toubkal agenda until the last possible moment so we could at least enjoy this awesome scenery!

Then we arrived at the junction. Time to make a choice: guaranteed Crimson-winged Finch, or epic Mountain trek with uncertain birdy outcomes. We debated the options sensibly over some tagine when an old man asked if he could join us. "By all means." We told him we were thinking of tackling the mountain and 'as it so happens' he said he could hook us up with everything we need for a good price. That guy had us scoped out before we even got out of the car! We had succumbed to his Berber charm and he even managed to unload a couple trinkets on us. This whole trip Dom managed to buy only one thing, a rock. This time it was me letting my guard down (rather than Steve). And so off we went with a couple of gifts for my ladies and our guide hitching a ride with us up to Imlil, the last outpost for trekking to Mt. Toubkal. He hooked us up with crampons and a map and a secure parking space for the car and we were off by about 3 with a 5 hour hike ahead of us. 

The approach just past Imlil looking ahead

Damn this guy is photogenic. Also, he is single
Our first mountain climb together
We got to the top about 30 minutes before sunset which allowed us to set up camp. Dom had his down-filled jacket but was sorely equipped with a light tropical sleeping bag due to carry-on limitations. I knocked on the door of the Club Alpin Francais just up the trail to see if they could hook us up with a berber blanket for 10 Euros (and throw in a sleeping mat for good measure). This proved to be a possible literal lifesaver. There we were tucked in for bed, camped just outside the lodge property enjoying the company of some Moroccan campers. They never let you down when it comes to tea. As soon as we arrived they passed us two cups of tea from inside their tent! 

One question remained: where was Steve? It had been dark for about an hour and his headlamp was nowhere to be seen. We almost rock-paper-scissored for who was gonna go back for him, but I ended up just dragging my arse out of my sleeping bag and going. Luckily, he was only about 10 minutes away, albeit looking quite exhausted. A past accident meant that Steve's mountain capabilities are not quite as they were 20 years ago, plus his pack was bloody heavy what with the camera gear, so I hoisted the burden myself and we went up to the camp together, deciding he'd bird around the basecamp while we attempted the summit, which was crazy enough as it was with about 5 hours of sleep ahead of us. 

We were up at 4 am and hiking up the hard snow in the pitch dark with our headlamps and crampons. It was a solemn march. The higher we got, the more frequently we stopped. With only one route and no way to get separated I pressed on, impatient with the frigid cold temperatures and wanting to just get the ordeal over with. Each time I'd see a crest above me, I'd convince myself that that was the last of the slope, but about a dozen times it would only yield yet another massive slope. My body had become accustomed to life near sea level and we had rushed this climb, having no time to acclimatize. Could this be Mt Kenya all over again? My body said no but my spirit said yes, and I solemnly marched on, one foot in front of the other. Then I got so tired that my body was having a hard time keeping itself warm and I regretted not bringing my heavy gloves. A kind frenchman, Thierry, lent me his spare mountain gloves, which was enough of a morale boost to get me going again and we pushed on together. Finally after hours of climbing, I could see the summit in the distance. Still far (1 km by my reckoning) but "It'll do" I thought. 

Sunrise on Toubkal
I went into a semi-run when I saw that glorious metallic pyramid ahead of me. Hallelujah! I made it. I enjoyed the panoramic view for about 15 minutes, hoping to see Dom chugging away in the distance. I wanted to wait longer but something told me he wasn't going to come, and besides, I physically felt terrible! The altitude sickness was setting in, and it was time to go back whether I liked it or not. I found Dom sitting in the snow. He said he'd advanced a few inches in about 40 minutes, but at least he saw an Atlas Horned Lark. Yup, time to go back down and get rid of the sickness. We carefully made the descent with no regrets and enjoyed some Alpine Accentors and Choughs along the way, along with glorious scenery. The best part of going down was that having been the second party up, we got to pass all the late-risers going up. "How far is it?" they would ask. "Far" we would say, along with "bon courage!" or "no pain-no gain!" which returned a pep in their step taken away by the "far" part.

"I feel terrible"

We met up with Steve who was already packed and ready to go, so we said peace and he left us to pack up our own tent. As soon as we lay down, a powerful lethargy set in and it became almost impossible to move. It took formidable effort just to roll over on my side like a seal to take a picture of this Alpine Chough and Accentor.

After a while we had to summon the strength to get up so we ate the last couple oranges we had left and that gave us just enough juice to activate, finally feeling the strength return to our muscles the lower we got. Unfortunately this meant saying bye bye to Crimson-wing habitat but oh well, you can't have everything in life.
This Seebohm's Wheatear was not hard on the eye though
A wild Rock Pigeon in it's native element
Alpine Choughs playing in the wind

We caught up with Steve just as he reached the village. Perfect timing! His news both excited and annoyed us: he had seen a Tristram's Warbler exactly where we'd stopped to sit down next to an orchard. It was way too far to go back. We'd have to get it by the roadside on the way back down the mountain. We made a few stops but were having no success. We got to the turnoff to the main highway and decided we should maybe turn around and go back to check more habitat, since our flight was not until the next morning. We were dead tired. This is when, heroically, Dave Bell messaged us from Canada with an urgent message. We'd asked him to check ebird a couple hours earlier and his reply came in with coordinates and dates for that entire stretch of road. We knew which one we wanted, it was this one nature trail that sounded good. We drove the 10 km back there and looked around but still could not find it. When Dom mosied on back to the car, I continued far up the trail playing the song from Steve's speakers as I walked, in a last act of desperation. Then, I heard the scratchy song. So far, I had practically yelled "Tristrams!" every second time we heard a Chaffinch, so similar are their calls. But this time, it was the real deal, no mistaking it. The little bugger popped out of the juniper for a perfect view. Wow, what a rush! I ran back down to get Dom and we both had perfect views again. Dave, if you are reading this, we both owe you a beer the next time we see you! 

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Morocco: the Coast

We left Lahcen around 11 am knowing we had probably an 11 hour drive ahead of us if were to reach the coast by morning. Not the most ecological way of birding but with our tight schedule imposed by life, it was the only day we would have to find the Ibis. Of course we made a few select stops along the way, picking up Blue-cheecked Bee-eater, Laughing Dove, displaying Hoopoe-Lark and amazingly, Desert Lark! We spotted two larks dart across the highway in prime habitat, pulled over and scoped them. AAAAHHHHHH!!!

We passed through the super-cool walled city of Taroudant which looked really cool at night so we popped in hoping to find accomodation described in the Berger birdfinding guide. This turned out to be a horrible idea as it was difficult to find the described hotel and the streets were super narrow and Dom ended up backing up into a gravel pile while executing a 6-point. As fate would have it, there was already a dent there from the previous driver so we never paid for damage. We decided enough was enough and got back on the highway, deciding to push all the way to Agadir despite some hard fatigue setting in. Anyway, we spotted the "Hotel Ibis" on Dom's MapsMe app and decided it would be good luck for us. That was one of the most comfortable sleeps in my life albeit too short! 

The target area was Tamri, a river mouth with surrounding coastal scrub that was riveted with ebird sightings of the ibis. "We should start looking for the Ibis" I said. Minutes later, Dom epically spotted a whole flock of 19 down in a valley next to the road! RAGEOMETER 9!!! 

I mean, wow, look at those bald freaks walking around. They were picking lizards out of the bushes then flying off with the thing wriggling around in their massive beaks. What a terrifying experience from the lizards' point of view. I mean, these things look scary enough to us! How about a closer look...

We could see them moving in a certain direction, so we planted ourselves in a depression next to the road and waited. Two ibises walked right past us! We kept perfectly still, but when they saw us they sort of walked away and kept their distance as they seem to be fairly wary. 
Black-eared Wheatear

Southern Grey Shrike

With that one out of the way, we birded freely along the coastal cliffs and in the scrub, picking up Black-eared Wheatear, long-overdue Moussier's Redstart, Northern Gannet, and Southern Gray Shrike, Auduin's and Slender-billed Gull, Sardinian Warbler, Zitting Cisticola, Moroccan White Wagtail and Ruddy Shellduck (by the river mouth). Pallid and Common Swifts swarmed in great numbers off the cliff, giving us an opportunity to experiment with our camera settings. We did not realize until later that the super-similar Plain Swift winters along this coastline (Breeding only in Canary Islands), although I'm pretty sure we didn't see any since we would have picked out anything different. 

Pallid Swift
Common Swifts
Northern Gannets migrating north
Little Ringed Plover
Overwhelmed by the beauty of nature all around me and by the unstoppable conveyor belt of lifers, I threw myself into the frigid Atlantic, then sprinted down the beach, feeling the firm sand on my uncalloused feet. I exalted to God for bestowing upon me so many great sensations that nature has to offer.


Dominic reveled in the scene of euphoria
With only 2 full days left, it was to the mountains!

Morocco: The Desert

While the Tagdilt had been a success on our own, the Erg Chebbi area would require some professional assistance. The Egyptian Nightjar and Desert Sparrow are extremely local so would require visiting two separate farms with 4x4 access, while the Pharaoh Eagle-owl cliffs in Rissani was notoriously tricky to find and the up-to-date sandgrouse watering hole was a similar situation.

We met up with our guide Lahcen Ouacha ( / +212 671146336) a little later than expected due to some prolonged tagine enjoyment, in Rissani under the "town arch" based solely on a photo he had sent me on whatsapp. Communication had been a bit dodgy, us not having agreed on a price (not sure if it was the lack of English/French or poor wifi reception during our correspondence). In any case, we found him no problem and were soon on our way to the Pharaoh's cliffs, albeit his disappointment that we were about an hour late. And it turns out his french is excellent so no problem for me and Dom although we had to repeat everything for Steve.
Our guide Lahcen

Despite our lateness, Lahcen's eagle eye soon spotted the bird way up high a bit further down the cliff, much to our relief and be-wonderment.

The cliff
Pharaoh Eagle-owl!

We had no idea where were we were going that night but Lahcen said it was all taken care of so we put our trust in him and off we went toward the edge of the Sahara, Merzhouga and our mysterious accommodation. 

Turns out he was taking us to Augerge du Sud, a kinda mid-range place on the edge of Erg Chebi (dune system on the edge of the Sahara). The place was a bit pricey (35 euros each) for a crash-pad, but hey, it was quite an experience! They had an ensemble of traditional Berber music around a campfire in the evening and we delighted in a nice variety of traditional foods while there which I have to say were a highlight of the trip. I would definitely recommend this place. 

But we did not enjoy too much, as we had some sleep to catch up on and a big day tomorrow. Lahcen would take us way into the desert in a 4x4 which we rented from the auberge. We were ripping through the dunes headed toward a special spot where 3 species of sandgrouse fly in from up to 40 miles away to get their daily drink of water from a puddle of water no bigger than 2x5 m that resulted from a leaky pipe underground. We could hear the faint sounds of sandgrouse in the distance, getting ever closer. Then around 10 am as predicted we could see a few bands of 10-20 flying around and landing in the distance. After a few minutes, a few Spotted Sandgrouse tentatively scuttled in for a drink then flew off. But as time went on, more and more came until they were coming in throngs, bustling and making quite a ruckus as they drank and bathed, soaking their breast feathers in water in classic sandgrouse fashion. The scarcer Crowned Sandgrouse appeared later, as if it had it's own designated time to drink and soon they had repaced the Spotteds. Then with great excitement, just as the Sandgrouse mayhem was climaxing, we spotted someone else way in the distance. The highly anticipated Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, a female, one of only two that ever visits this watering hole according to Lahcen. She was so smokin' hot we thought she was a male until we looked her up in the book. The Sandgrouse spectacle is one of the great spectacles of nature we felt lucky to have experienced. 

Here come the Spotted Sandgrouse in numbers
Our rage-o-meters were coming up on 7
Here come the Crowned Sandgrouse
The Crowned Sandgrouse landed nearby and tentatively scuttled over for heir precious drink
Spotted and Crowned Sandgrouse filling up together
Pin-tailed Sandgrouse: rage-o-meter 8!!!
Still high on sandgrouse, we rampaged over dunes on our 4x4 toward a remote farm where a pair of Desert Sparrows were nesting. These guys used to be common back in the day. When the area got more developed with tourism, the habitat favoured the more aggressive House Sparrow which out-competed its desert cousin, relegating it to more remote outposts. Luckily for us, there are still a few spots left for them and we were soon onto a nesting pair in a palm tree on someone's farm, a testament to the value of local knowledge of a guide.

Desert Sparrow
Desert Sparrow
Next, we drove to some seemingly random desert track with a few patches of scrub scattered about. Seemingly random, but not. Lahcen had taken us to a very particular spot with a Desert Warbler territory. We called in a sprightly male with almost no effort. 

Look at this guy hiding under that tiny bush!
Desert Warbler - a beautiful songster
Next, he took us to another farm. We were passing through prime Houbara Bustard habitat, but unfortunately the middle-eastern falconers had wiped them all out. We even saw a massive compound where a bunch of these rich bastards were camped out in the desert. I guess they had to come all the way over to Morocco to do their bustard-falconing because they killed all their MacQueen's Bustards back in Quatar or wherever. Hopefully the Moroccan government will protect the Houbara soon. 

The farm was a magnificent oasis, but not in the sense that most people imagine. It was really a couple arid rows of tamarisks and some shrubs and a fairly sad looking example of cultivation but hey, they seemed to be making it work so we had to give it to them for making a living all the way out here where life to us seems impossible, although I'd be willing to bet they make more on tips from birders than from cultivation. 

A little water tap attracted trumpeter finches but they were far too skitish for my sniper or Steve's bazooka but I did manage this angry-looking Subalpine Warbler. A few other migrants were found around the farm, and oh, did I mention...Egyptian Nightjars? 

What are Subalpines angry about?

Egyptian Nightjar
We settled in for another night of Berber cuisine and a quick swim in the pool before one last morning with our guide.

Next morning, Lahcen took us to another seemingly but not at all random desert track which was a dry wash with a bit more scrub than the desert warbler spot, for the aptly named Scrub Warbler. Splitting up was our strategy, and it took about an hour to find this little guy running from bush to bush like a miniature thrasher. I called the others over but within seconds the thing had vanished into thin air! However, we re-located it after a while (and possibly a second one), hardly managing a half-second view before the thing flew into a further bush. Eventually, we realized that was all we were gonna get and left stoked from seeing this often-missed species. 

Nearby, Lahcen took us into some super-arid rocky hillsides to seek out he Desert Lark. We did not find it, but did find something not expected - hundreds of squid! Well, fossils of squid, nautiloids from 300 million years ago when this place used to be a sea. The rocks seemed ordinary until Lahcen poured water on them, revealing the specimens distributed all over the rock face. Then a man called to us from way up in the hills over a km away, rushing over to us to greet us ("bonjour!!") and sell us some trinkets. I told him we were searching for birds and to please not disturb us as it would scare the birds, but Steve indulged and I think acquired some more rocks for his collection. This left us wondering: we must have been like 50 km from the nearest habitation so how the hell did that man get all the way out here and where did he come from? 

Nautiloid fossil
Dipping on the lark, we decided there was one bird we could not afford to miss and that was the Fulvous Babbler. We'd tried already once and this was our last chance. Eventually with much calling from the Archer speakers, we got super lucky and a whole family group flew in from deep in the palms and landed on an irrigation barrier, sitting in plain view for us to bask in their Fulvous glory. 

Fulvous Babblers
We said goodbye to Lahcen and made sure to pay him, a fee which we decided based on internet reports and which he accepted without negotiation; he seemed pretty happy with what we offered and we were certainly thrilled with his services. I would definitely recommend him for finding hard-to-get species.