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A Birdwatchers Guide to: Morocco


A map of Morocco showing the main birding areas link to Morocco north coast section link to Morocco South Coast section link to Morocco Atlas mountains section link to Morocco South East section link to Morocco Western Sahara section
A map of Morocco showing the different sections covered (from top to bottom: North Coast, Atlas Mountains, South Coast, South East and Western Sahara.

Morocco, as it is situated in northwest Africa, has both an Atlantic as well as a Mediterranean coastline. The coastal areas have rich agricultural plains, but also dry and barren regions. As the majority of the population lives in this region, most of the original habitats have been transformed to suit human needs. There are still some tracts of forest to be found, but the main attractions here are the wetlands, some of which are of global importance for wintering and migrating birds.
A large part of Morocco is mountaineous; the Rif mountains in the north and the Atlas mountains running from the northeast to the southwest of the country. Particularily in the High Atlas mountains there are some high peaks, and Jbel Toubkal at 4167m (13,670ft) is the highest mountain of North Africa. East of the mountain ranges lies a dry high plateau with a steppe like vegetation and the southeastern parts of the country (to the south of the Atlas mountains) lies in the Saharan desert.
Further to the south lies Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony that was annexed by Morocco in 1975. This part also, as the name suggests, lies in the Saharan desert.
Due to this variation in natural habitats and also due to the fact that Morocco is situated in the middle of one of the major Palaearctic/Ethiopian flyways, this country has a lot to offer birdwise. More than 450 species have been recorded so far, and a little more than 200 breed regularily. Of these breeding birds the most interesting for the global birder is probably the Northern Bald Ibis; almost the whole global population of appr. 500 birds are to be found in four different breeding colonies in Morocco (the one at Oued Tamri being the largest, with almost half the population). Outside Morocco there is only one (tiny) colony known from Syria, although it is assumed that there are still some unknown colonies in the Middle East. Of the Moroccan near-endemics the most interesting are Red-necked Nightjar, Levaillant's Woodpecker, Moussier's Redstart, African Desert Warbler, Tristram's Warbler and Atlas Pied Flycatcher; all of these are endemic to Northwest Africa and can be found with some persistence in Morocco (the redstart is actually quite common and easy to find). Other near-endemics are Plain Swift (at least part of the Canary Islands population winter in Morocco), Dupont's Lark, Black Wheatear, Western Olivaceous Warbler and African Blue Tit. These are all restricted to Northwest Africa and either the Iberian Peninsula or the Canary Islands. The swift is difficult, for a large part due to identification problems, and the Dupont's Lark is highly localized (see Zaida plains for details of the best-known site), but the wheatear, warbler and tit are relatively easy to find in suitable habitat.
The vast majority of the birdwatchers visiting Morocco are Europeans wishing to expand their Western Palaearctic (WP) list and any North African birds that are not found in Europe are thus of interest. The most important groups are probably the larks and the wheatears, but also several raptors, gulls and terns, sandgrouse etc. Another group of birds that is of special interest are species with a general distribution south of the Sahara, but with a Moroccan breeding population (thus birds many European birders are unfamiliar with). This group includes birds as Double-spurred Francolin, Red-knobbed Coot, Marsh Owl, White-rumped Swift and Black-crowned Tchagra.
See the 'Birder's facts' page for a full list of sought-after species.

The North Coast

A map of the north coast showing the main birding areas link to Strait of 		Gibraltar section link to Asilah south of Tangiersection link to Oued Loukkos marshes  section link to Merja Zerga section link to Lake Sidi Bourhaba  		section link to Sidi Yahya Zaer section
A map of northern Morocco showing the main birding areas.

This section covers the most important birdwatching sites in northern Morocco, from the strait of Gibraltar in the north to the cork woods near Rabat in the south. The sites are described from north to south, thus beginning with the strait.
The strait of Gibraltar is one of the main flyways for birds migrating to and from the Eurasian breeding grounds and the Sub-Saharan wintering grounds (the other being Bosporus) and points on the Moroccan mainland around Tangier offer lots of opportunities to watch this natural wonder, both spring and autumn. In this section strategies for migration watching under different wind conditions (both spring and fall) are discussed.
Details are also given for a site just north of Asilah that is good for Great Bustard, as well as Little Bustard and wintering Common Cranes.
Another site not far from Tangier is the Oued Loukkos marshes near Larache (about 90 kms south of Tangier); this is one of the best wetlands in northern Morocco and can be particularily rewarding during the migration seasons, when thousands of birds en route between Africa and Europe stop here. The winter months can also be good, though, and this is a fairly reliable site for wintering Little Bustards. A resident breeder here of particular interest is the Moustached Warbler.
South of Larache is another wetland that is world famous among birders; Merja Zerga. The bird that most birders associate with Merja Zerga is the Slender-billed Curlew as small numbers were known to winter here. Unfortunately none has been seen here since 1998 and the species might actually be extinct by now. That does not mean that Merja Zerga doesn't have a lot to offer; birding here can be fantastic, particularily in the winter months, with tens of thousand of ducks, coots and shorebirds. Merja Zerga is moreover one of the best places in Morocco for both Marsh Owl and Red-necked Nightjar and there are other interesting birds breeding here as well.
Also included in the Merja Zerga section are three other, smaller lagoons (Merja's) between Merja Zerga and Larache; Merja Halloufa, Merja Bargha and Merja Oulad Sgher.
Between Kenitra and Rabat you find Lake Sidi Bourhaba, this is an interesting lake that hold good numbers of birds, particularily ducks, in the winter months. This is also a site where rare birds are frequently found and there are some interesting breeding birds here, most notably Marsh Owl which is often seen here at dusk.
The last site covered in this section is Sidi Yahya Zaer (or rather the cork woods between Sidi Yahya Zaer and Sidi Bettache); the primary bird people are looking for here is the Double-spurred Francolin, which is quite numerous here, as is the Black-crowned Tchagra.

The South Coast

A map of southern morocco  showing the main birding areas link to oued souss section link to oued massa section link to tamri and cape rhir section link to essaouira section link to Loualidia section link to oulad sbaita section
A map of southern Morocco showing the main birding areas.

This section covers sites from Oued Massa (south of Agadir) in the south to Loualidia (north of Safi) in the north and the descriptions of the sites are this time from south to north (the most important sites are near Agadir, where many birders start their Morocco trip). The sites around Guelmim, Tan Tan and Khenifiss lagoon are mostly visited by birders going down to Western Sahara, and these sites are therefore covered in that section. It should be noted, however, that these sites can easily be reached from Agadir and at least a trip to Guelmim should be considered (Guelmim should not be confused with Goulmima described in 'Morocco SouthEast'.
We begin with the national park of Souss-Massa which is described in detail; first the mouth of the Oued Souss is detailed and then the Oued Massa. Both these sites are famous for birders, and for good reason; both are excellent sites, both for migrant birds as well as interesting breeders, and they should definitely not be missed. The Oued Souss is best for shorebirds and, above all, gulls and terns. This is also a very reliable site for Red-necked Nightjar, which is often heard and seen here at dusk. The Oued Massa has more variation to its avifauna and many good breeding birds can be found relatively easy here, including Marbled Duck, Barbary Partridge, Brown-throated Martin, Moussier's Redstart and Black-crowned Tchagra. The mouth of the river is also a reliable place to find Northern Bald Ibis and the place to search for it if you can't get to Tamri.
Tamri, some 50 kms north of Agadir, holds about half the Moroccan breeding population of Northern Bald Ibis and probably the best place to find this globally threatened species is the mouth of the Oued Tamri (also known as Oued Tinkert). Details of the river mouth are given here, as well as your options if the Oued Tamri fails to produce any ibises and also notes about Cape Rhir, which can be good for seabirds.
Furthern north there is the town of Essaouira, and the main reason for the ornithologist to visit this town is a large colony of Eleonora's Falcon breeding on an offshore island here (with >650 breeding pairs one of the largest colonies in the world, about 10% of the global population!). A visit to the mouth of the Oued Ksob river can also be quite rewarding.
Finally birding around Loualidia is detailed and this section actually covers several sites in this region, namely a number of lagoons between the towns of Loualidia and Sidi Moussa and the Khémis des Zémamra lagoon some 40 km inland from Loualidia. Some notes are also given for finding the Common Buttonquail, which just recently has been rediscovered in this area!

The Atlas Mountains

A map of Morocco showing the main birding areas in the Atlas mountains link to Oukaimden section link to Tizi-n-Tichka section link to Zaida Plains section link to Azrou and Ifrane section link to Ouarzazate, Morocco South East link to Boumalne Dades, Morocco South East
A map of central Morocco showing the main birding areas in the Atlas mountains (Boumalne Dades and Ouarzazate are covered in Morocco South East).

This section covers high-altitude sites in the Atlas mountains as well as sites at lower altitudes; all covering species that are uncommon or absent in the other sections.
The first site described is Oukaimden, a high-altitude ski resort a few hours from Marrakech, and this site is definitely worth a visit, both for the birds and for the scenery. The most important bird here is the African Crimson-winged Finch, which you should find here with some patience (some groups stumble across flocks of these rare passerines here with ridiculous ease). There are also other high-altitude specialities here, like 'Atlas Horned Lark' (ssp. atlas) and Alpine and Red-billed Chough, making the trip worthwhile. The valley leading up to Oukaimden can be good; the upper parts of the valley is a good place to find Levaillant's Woodpecker and Tristram's Warbler is also frequently seen here.
Driving from Marrakech to Ouarzazate you have to cross the Tizi-n-Tichka pass. Near this pass, at an altitude of 2260m (7415 ft), you have a chance of seeing some high-altitude specialities, like 'Atlas Horned Lark', Alpine Accentor and even African Crimson-winged Finch. They are not as easy here as in Oukaimden, but if you are not going to Oukaimden you could try your luck here. There are also sites along this road, at lower altitudes, that are quite interesting, particularily for Levaillant's Woodpecker.
One site covered in this section is the Zaida plains; strictly speaking not part of the Atlas range, but rather a high plateau between the Central Atlas and High Atlas ranges. The site is covered here for convenience. The one bird everyone is looking for here is the Dupont's Lark, a very localized lark that is very hard to find elsewhere, but rather easy to find here in spring (if you get up before dawn and listen for its distinctive song, that is). As you might expect you can also see other good birds in this area, particularily larks and wheatears.
Finally we describe the area between the two towns of Azrou and Ifrane. Here you will find details of a few very birdrich lakes northeast of Ifrane (Dayet Aoua, Dayet Ifrah and Dayet Hachlaf). This area is also very good for Levaillant's Woodpecker. Details are also given for sites near the town of Azrou that should be checked for Atlas Pied Flycatcher and where you can see (or perhaps rather hear) Tawny Owl of the near-endemic subspecies mauritanica. The forests around Azrou and Ifrane are also good for endemic subspecies of Coal Tit (ssp. atlas) and Eurasian Nuthatch (ssp. atlas) and near-endemic subspecies of Short-toed Treecreeper (ssp. mauritanica), Great Tit (ssp. excelsus), Eurasian Jay (ssp. minor), Common Chaffinch (ssp. africana) and Hawfinch (ssp. buvryi).

Southeast Morocco

A map of southern and southeastern Morocco showing the main birding areas link to Erg Chebbi section link to Rissani section link to Goulmima section link to Boumalne Dades and Tagdilt track section link to Dades Valley section link to Ouarzazate section
A map of southern and southeastern Morocco showing the main birding areas.

This section covers sites in the desert regions southeast of the Atlas mountains. The first site described is Erg Chebbi; this is the only large system of sand dunes in Morocco, and covered here are several smaller sites in the vicinity of the sand dunes as well as Lake Merzouga near the village with the same name. Since the habitat here is to some extent unique for Morocco a number of interesting species of bird can be found here, that are either absent or hard to find elsewhere in the country. The most interesting birds here are probably Houbara Bustard, Egyptian Nightjar, Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, Greater Hoopoe-Lark, Streaked Scrub Warbler, African Desert Warbler, Tristram's Warbler (winter) and Desert Sparrow.
Not far from the Erg Chebbi sand dunes is the town of Arfoud and south of this is the Rissani oasis. Rissani with surroundings has been getting more attention the last few years, mainly because of breeding Pharaoh Eagle-Owl, Fulvous Babbler and Eastern Olivaceous Warbler of ssp. reiseri ('Sahara Olivaceous Warbler'). In this section you can also find information about a reliable site for Egyptian Nightjar. The site describe here produces Egyptian Nightjar more consistently nowadays than the classical sites nearer to Erg Chebbi.
The desert near the town of Goulmima can also be productive for larks and wheatears, but the bird to look for here is the Streaked Scrub Warbler. There are some wadis here where this desert skulker is often seen by visiting birdwatchers and the details are provided in this section.
More to the west lies the town of Boumalne du Dadès and several tracks and roads lead into the stone desert from here; this is the famous Tagdilt track, visited by most birdwatchers for larks and wheatears. Birds as Greater Hoopoe-Lark, Red-rumped Wheatear and Desert Wheatear are common here, and Thick-billed Larks are seen here regularily. There are even sightings of Mourning Wheatears from this area (ssp. halophila, 'Western Mourning Wheatear'). From Boumalne du Dadès you can also head up the Oued Dadès valley to the Dadès gorge and further.
The last site describe here is the Mansour Eddahbi dam, just outside Ouarzazate. This artifical lake can hold impressive numbers of wintering birds and the numbers of birds on the lake swell during the migration seasons. At that time the sparse vegetation arround the lake should be checked for migrants and the desert surroundings should also be checked for desert birds. All in all an impressive variety of birds can be experienced here in one day.

link to

Western Sahara

A map of Western Sahara showing the main birding areas link to Guelmim section link to Tan Tan section link to Khenifiss section link to Laayoune section link to Oued Karaa section link to Dakhla section link to Dakhla-Aousserd section
A map of Western Sahara showing the main birding areas.

Western Sahara, annexed by Morocco in 1975, is a vast expanse of desert. This region has only opened up for independent travelers, and birdwatchers, in recent years and being situated at the southwestern corner of the Palaearctic region there have been several exciting discoveries here since. Most of these discoveries have been done in the desert between Dakhla and Aousserd, in sites next to the road connecting these two towns. The highlights here are the Cricket Warbler and Sudan Golden Sparrow; this is the only place in the Western Palaearctic where you can see these two species that belong to the African sahel region. At least the Cricket Warbler appear to be fairly common here, while the Sudan Golden Sparrow can be found in flocks with Desert Sparrows, mainly in Oued Jenna. The site information describes several localities between Dakhla and Aousserd where you can also see other interesting species as Spotted and Crowned Sandgrouse, Thick-billed Lark and Desert Sparrow, as well as other desert birds that are more difficult in the rest of Morocco.
Dakhla is the regional capital of Western Sahara. There can be good birdwatching around this town, either waterbirds in and around Dakhla Bay (mostly gulls and terns, but also shorebirds), or seabirds seen from the shore to the west of the town. Dakhla is also the starting point for explorations of the inland regions between Dakhla and Aousserd (there are no accommodations in the inland, so you will have to return to Dakhla every day, or camp in the wild).
The most interesting birdwatching sites along the coast are wetlands, of which the Khenifiss lagoon and Dakhla Bay probably are the most well-known. Khenifiss is described in some detail and a bird that you should be looking for here is the Kelp Gull, as this southern gull has been seen here on multiple occasions over the past few years (but do not confuse with the Great Black-backed Gull which breed (!) at Khenifiss).
In the Tan-Tan section three smaller sites (river mouths) between Tan-Tan and Khenifiss are described; Oued Chebeika, Oued Ouma Fatma and Oued El Ouaar. The Khenifiss lagoon and the sites near Tan-Tan are technically speaking not in Western Sahara, but in Morocco proper. Still the information about these sites are included here for convenience (I am assuming here that most birders visiting these sites are underway to Western Sahara from southern Morocco). With the same logic I included information about birding around the south Moroccan town of Guelmim here. This desert area was famous for some very good birds years ago, notably Tawny Eagle. The findings of the previous years are less exciting, but this area can none the less be superb for desert birds and Streaked Scrub Warbler is often found here.
Near the city of Laayoune is a small river that can be worthwhile to check, even better is an oasis, Saquiat al Hamra, just outside town that can be very good for birds. If there is water in the oued there can be good numbers of waterbirds there, else you should only expect desert species.