MOROCCO   (April 2-11, 2010)


  Barbary Macaque (Macaca sylvanus) Middle Atlas Mountains, Morocco   April 7, 2010                                                                                                                              

                                                                                                                                                                     ©  2010 Callyn Yorke



Adouin's Gull (Larus audouinii)  Merja Zerga NR,   Morocco    April 3, 2010                                      ©  2010 Callyn Yorke                                                



Snake Charmer, Marrakesh, Morocco                                                                                                                    © 2010 Callyn Yorke






Our flights between LAX, JFK and Casablanca were on schedule and went without incident. The JFK-Casablanca leg was on Royal Moroc Air, a fairly decent airline, serving hot meals on both flights. Arrangements for a driver of our mid-sized rental car were made after our arrival in Casablanca, which was used as a base for a day-trip to the coast north of Rabat (Sidi bou Ghaba and Merja Zerga Nature Reserves) on the second day of our visit (April 3, 2010). Our driver, Khalid, of Berber ancestory, subsequently agreed to take us around Morocco to visit locations of both historical and scientific interest, e.g. the medieval cities of Fes, Meknes, Erfoud, Marrakesh, the NW Sahara Desert, Middle and High Atlas Mts. and other locations we wished to see, within the limits of our schedule. To that end, Khalid proved to be a knowledgeable, courteous guide and, importantly, a safe and skillful driver. Khalid also made all of our restaurant, lodging and local guide arrangements during our tour.

Since the main purpose of our trip was to find suitable locations to observe the natural history of Morocco, we often found ourselves venturing far off the main highways into small towns and villages where natural habitat (rare in Morocco) had been more or less preserved. Khalid had a good knowledge of Moroccan geography and usually found a way to the sites of interest, even when he had never been there (e.g. Siti bou Ghaba, Merja Zerga and portions of the Middle and High Atlas Mountains). We were also grateful for the largely reliable (though sometimes outdated) information found in Nigel Wheatley 1996. Where to Watch Birds in Africa. Princeton University Press. pp. 240-49, which was useful for planning and navigating.





Our first day in Morocco was spent walking the busy streets of central Casablanca, dodging motorcycles and taxis coming out of side-streets, alley ways and pretty much from every direction except where we could see. Watch out!  Let's wait here on the street corner for a minute. Is that a Lesser Black-backed Gull circling over us? OK, NOW, GO FOR IT!   Disoriented wouldn't quite describe us. We stumbled around like a couple of late-night rummys cast out into the bright daylight. The prospect of driving our rental car in this country horrified us.

This was Merissa's first trip to Africa; my sixth. Morocco appeared at first blush a strange blend of European and Arabic cultures. Missing were the constant, redundant, deep base notes in the music, bounding gaits, colorful robes, baskets on the head, burning garbage; a boldly vibrant rythm of life that really rocks south of the Sahara. In fact, Black people were generally scarce in Casablanca (and throughout Morocco, for that matter). So this busy coastal port of northwest Africa, seemed like somewhere in the Middle East, or perhaps southern Portugal. Exotic yes, yet everywhere Europeanized by fast cars, impossibly tall, shiny buildings and mismatched architecture ranging from mosques with search lights to humble Pizza Huts. At one point, I turned to Merissa and said, " This really isn't Africa." She replied, "Yeah, but it is definitely different."

Whatever it could be called, Casablanca was wearing us down, if not almost mowing us down. Merissa was visibly exhausted and overwhelmed. I worried about the culture shock issues and thought (wrongly) Merissa should wear a scarf to avoid insulting the natives.  A pretty naiive idea, actually. Western women in Morocco aren't expected to dress in Arabic fashion, I learned from our driver. The Moroccans have had a long, dramatic history of cultural assimilation and tolerance. Nonetheless, Merissa warmed to the idea on her own. After all, what young woman can resist modeling new clothes? Just down the street, by coincidence it seemed, a scarf sale was going on with a lot of shouting and arm-waving. Merissa found a lovely black-and-white flowered silk scarf, that she wore proudly for the next few days. Khalid called her, "Preensuz Maareeza." He stopped short of offering her jewels and a fine young camel.

We searched doggedly along the crowded, cobblestone walkways and shady corridors of Casablanca, for a bookstore that might carry English books covering the natural history of Morocco. Amongst the rows of clothing stores, general supply and pharmaceutical shops, we found only two bookstores (almost no one seemed to understand English, including the bookstore owners). Neither store, though well-stocked with Arabic literature, had more than one or two Moroccan guide books in French. So we returned to the relative safety and comfort of our hotel, tired, confused and hungry. Thankfully, the hotel manager spoke enough English to encourage us with directions to the hotel cafe (the restaurant was closed for several more hours) a few feet from the main desk and down some stairs..It was 10 AM local time; 2 AM in Los Angeles. We were served small cheese sandwiches and room-temperature drinks for 240 Dirhams (about $30). It actually was a refreshing meal, even if the price was hard to swallow. I found myself back at the hotel front desk quizzing the manager. What is the drive-time to Rabat? Has anyone seen Slender-billed Curlews recently in Merja Zerga?

It didn't take much persuasion from the Hotel manager to convince me that hiring a driver in Morocco was the way to see the country safely. So we arranged to meet a driver the following morning at 7:30 AM.  His name was Khalid. He had a dark, friendly face, was soft-spoken, and a single father of two small children. He was game for just about anything we could imagine.  We settled on his fee (about $110 per day plus expenses) and listened to his suggestions. I had a few of my own as well. Our itinerary first would include visits to well known birding sites north of Rabat, called Siti bou Ghaba and perhaps the most famous location (within the international birding community, at least), Merja Zerga. The latter location was the wintering quarters of one of the rarest birds on the planet, Slender-billed Curlew (Numenius tenuirostris). A strained look came over Khalid's face. In more than 20 years of driving foreigners around Morocco, he had never been to those places, and had not the faintest idea what a curlew was. Khalid repeatedly emphasized that if we hired him, we should plan to spend a few days in the desert, the place of his boyhood.

For our first day out, on a one-day trial hire, Khalid agreed to drive to these strange places along the coast, both well off the tourist circuit. in retrospect, I think the concept appealed to his nomadic, Berber ancestory.  Anyway, we all were happy to be driving away from Casablanca, perhaps the least attractive city in all of Morocco, and certainly nothing Humphrey Bogart would recognize. Next stop, a cigarette/photo moment along the wave-beaten cliffs of the scenic capital of Rabat, where the king lives in his royal palace. He probably wasn't home anyway, so we didn't bother to drop in.  Sometime and several back roads later, we arrived at a large, narrow lake, perhaps one mile long and surrounded by a rich coastal chaparral vegetation. I jumped from the car, shouldered my camera and binocular, and sped down a trail toward the lakeshore. Merissa and Khalid, neither much interested in birds (yet) were content to relax by roadside and enjoy the spectacular spring-time wildflower display. Khalid lit up, and sucked in the heavy, unfiltered smoke like it was a breath of fresh air.

Siti bou Ghaba, as it is labeled in Nigel Wheatley's book, was one of the few nature reserves we found in Morocco. I was not disappointed with the diversity of birds to be found here. A quick scan of the lake turned up White-headed Duck (Oxyura leucocephala) a relatively uncommon duck, related to our North American Ruddy Duck (Oxyura jamaicensis), but with even more outlandish white head markings together with a bright blue bill. I saw two males in full breeding (alternate) plumage, both apparently eager to show off their stuff to nearby, modestly colored females. My first 'Life Bird' in Morocco. Nearby, swimming with young, was another rare species, Red-knobbed Coot (Fulica cristata). Within about 45 minutes, our little roadside stop yielded no fewer than ten species, including Red-crested Pochard (Netta rufina), another uncommon, showy species of duck. As it turned out, not a single species found at Siti bou Ghaba would again be encountered by us in Morocco (see our bird list below).

When I returned from a wonderful trek around the lake, I found Khalid and Merissa in the back seat the car. Khalid apparently saw Merissa as an attractive young American woman (that she certainly is) whom might be interested in starting a relationship with him. Merissa, becoming increasingly uncomfortable, had actually warned me earlier that Khalid had misunderstood our relationship, a fact that I had casually brushed aside with disbelief. Now it was clear I would have to explain the situation to Khalid.

Although he was visibly disappointed with the news, Khalid smiled, took it in stride, and continued his duties with a positive attitude. Merissa and I both felt relieved (she perhaps more than I) and we agreed to hire Khalid as our driver for the remainder of our visit in Morocco. We quickly became friends, and cheerfully began to plan our itinerary, incorporating many of Khalid's suggestions, e.g. visiting the historical cities of Mekenes, Fes and Efroud. The atmosphere throughout much of our journey was light, bouncy and sprinkled with humour.

Occasionally, when we encountered an attractive young woman during the journey, we both joked about Khalid catching a new girlfriend. The chiding probably wore a little thin by the end of our trip, when Khalid would face his estranged wife, whom had custody of his two daughters. Khalid had been sending support payments to his wife throughout our trip and never missed an opportunity to talk about his dedication to his children. On one occasion, he let me say hello to one of them on his cell phone. Notwithstanding the obvious manipulative implications of Khalid's frequent discussions of his family and dire financial situation, we developed a friendly business-like understanding ( I paid him every two days or so when we could find a bank to change money), and all of us got along quite well during the many hours on the road.


                                                                                            MERJA ZERGA


After about two more hours by car heading north of Siti bou Ghaba along the coast, we arrived in Merja Zerga. This small coastal resort town sits on a hill overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and is surrounded by luxury homes and makeshift shelters. Quite a few Westerners were sitting outside a row of cafes along the main street. The owner of a local cafe presented us with menus (in English) and two log books filled with delicious tidbits from international travelers -- Europe, South Africa, Australia, and California. The latest entries for Merja Zerga bird sightings described nothing extraordinary ...Greater Flamingoes, Harriers, stuff that general tourists could recognize and remember to include in their remarks. Nothing about the Slender-billed Curlew was noted in the last few entries covering late March and early April. All of the information available to me in reference books indicated that these birds are usually gone from Merja Zerga by the end of March. So, on this day, April 3, 2010, the only chance we would have to see this incredibly rare bird, seemed remote.


    Merja Zerga harbor and estuary, viewing south    April 3, 2010                                                                                 

                                                                                                                                                                                                 © 2010 Callyn Yorke


About an hour later, around 2PM, we finished lunch and drove a short distance to Merja Zerga harbor. There, a persistent old fisherman convinced Merissa and I to hire him and his motorboat for a tour of the extensive tidal marsh (see photo above). His rate was $100 Dirhams per hour, which seemed reasonable, and was apparently non-negotiable. Our boat tour lasted about three hours.

We motored out of the harbor slowly on a southeasterly course. Almost immediately, we passed a mudflat on the east side of the harbor crowded with gulls and terns. Scanning with my 10 x 42 binocular, I picked out another lifer,  a flock of  Adouin's Gull (Larus adouinii), mixed in with a flock of Sandwich Tern (Sterna sandvicensis) and Lesser Black Backed Gull (Larus fuscus). A few minutes later, we pulled up to a sand bar and stared directly into the sun at a shimmering flock of shorebirds. I set up the spotting scope on the sandbar and soon had several Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus) in focus, along with one smaller individual with a relatively thin, downcurved bill. I studied this individual for several minutes, comparing it with the nearby Whimbrels, which also have downcurved bills. There could be little doubt that the odd-looking Whimbrel was not a Whimbrel. Only one other possibility seemed likely... Slender-billed Curlew (Numenius tenuirostris) !  If only we could get to the other side of the sandbar with the light behind us! This was impossible; the water was too shallow for the draft of our heavy wooden boat and walking any closer to the birds would surely flush them. I settled for a few quick, hand-held photos with my Nikon D3x and 80-400 mm  VR, IF lens and hoped for the best. Unfortunately, the low angle and harsh lighting did not allow for clear, unambiguous identification of this rare species; the light bouncing off the water distorted the profile of the bird's bill, one of the most important diagnostic features; the large, heart-shaped markings on the flanks were shaded and difficult to separate from arrow-heart markings found on the Whimbrel, a familiar species in North America (see photos below).

Subsequently, specialists on the Slender-billed Curlew (Numenius tenuirostris ) from the UK, contacted me and reviewed my notes and photos given in this report. The concensus opinion was that, although one of my photos (on the far right below) could represent Slender-billed Curlew, the lack of clarity of the image does not conclusively show the bird to be this species. The committee, however, did agree that the other two images (left and center) most likely represent Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus ).


                                                    Numenius phaeopus (left and center)                                                                           Numenius tenuirostris ?  


                                                                             Merja Zerga   April 3, 2010                                                               © 2010 Callyn Yorke                                                                                           


Merja Zerga in spring is an exciting place to bird. The captain continued along the edges of sandbars and mudflats, several with locals harvesting bivalves. In the distance I could see the profile of three Black-tailed Godwit (Limosa limosa); the captain kept pointing to the southeast, saying something in broken English I couldn't decipher. About a mile away was a flock of sixty or so Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber) with coloration ranging from almost white (immature) to intense reddish-pink (adult). We kept our distance from these magnificent birds to avoid disturbance. We were beginning to appreciate the impressive size of the Merja Zerga Nature Reserve... thousands of acres of pristine salt marsh estuary, clearly a major wintering area for migratory waterbirds. Motoring slowly through the sloughs surrounded by mudflats and low saltmarsh vegetation, we added Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus),  Avocet (Recurvirostra avocetta), Greenshank (Tringa nebularia), Ruddy Turnstone (Arenaria interpres) and Grey Plover (Pluvialis squatarola). The latter two species are familiar migrants along the West Coast of North America. The other species ( 16/18 species of waterbirds we found at Merja Zerga) we had encountered four years ago in southern Portugal.

MOROCCO BIRD LIST  (April 2-11, 2010)                          © 2010 Callyn Yorke