There can be no doubt that this designated protection area is the outstanding birding location on the Atlantic coast of Morocco. 70 km from north to south and up to 15 km in width, it covers 33,800 ha of land and contains 23 villages. In a word it is huge and I was advised strongly by Ewan to engage an official guide, of which seven work on any day. The mouth of the Oued Massa, the park’s second major watercourse, is reached along a minor road from the N1 signposted Sidi Rabat. After turning right at a village Arhbalou a rough road leads down into the Massa valley and a nature reserve area.
On Wednesday morning I was greeted there by a guide, English-speaking Rachid Baitar. He asked me which birds I wanted to see then recommended going for the Bald Ibis first since they can take some time to find. But all the guides have a good idea of where these most sought birds might be on any day in a higher area between the Massa valley and the coast. Rachid also took over all the driving duties leaving me free to relax in the passenger seat with my binoculars and camera scanning for birds myself and getting onto my guide’s sightings.
The car hire proprietor in Agadir had said I didn’t need a 4×4 to go off road here and Rachid clearly agreed, taking the Dacia along rough tracks that I wouldn’t have dared to attempt into all manner of off-piste places. It soon became clear that it would be extremely difficult to bird this vast expanse of habitat successfully without a guide. We tried several known Ibis locations without success but in the process saw Moussier’s Redstart, Laughing Dove, Southern Grey Shrike, three separate Little Owl and a group of several Stone Curlew.
The national park owes its designation in part to the need to protect the Ibis, around which there is constant security against poaching. Eventually Rachid punched the air upon locating a group of more than 30 Bald Ibis grazing near a cliff top to one side of the road. My guide then left to buy cigarettes in the nearby village, warning me to approach very gradually and not get too close. There was no need because these birds soon began to walk towards me, grazing all the while and crossing within 50 metres. When Rachid returned at the same time as one of the security men we all three stood and delighted at being in such close proximity to these rare treasures. This (pictured below) is what is known as a result.
We now turned our attention to finding Marbled Duck and Black-crowned Tchagara, searching several locations along the Oued Massa that here forms the most northerly wadi (oasis) of Morocco’s Sahara region. Driving around it really struck me how though this is a conservation area of huge biological importance, life in its villages and particularly small scale agriculture goes on as it always has done and in harmony with nature.
In one village Brown-throated Martin were active, a winter breeding hirundine found only in Morocco in this part of the world. And that was the 10th lifer for this trip. The Marbled Duck were as Rachid put it taking a holiday but we did find a pair of Ferruginous Duck, a rarity for Morocco; and most surprisingly of all a lone Barnacle Goose. The wardens didn’t seem to have an idea of plasticity, so I took their word this was only the second ever sighting in the park. Glossy Ibis were present in good numbers and artistic arrangements.
The conclusion grew in me today that birding alone in Morocco would be difficult, due to the lack of a developed nature reserve or hiking infrastructure, and the largeness of the sites I have visited. There is always the question of just where to start looking and getting into seemingly birdy places invariably means going where the presence of a foreigner arouses curiosity. Far better to be with a Moroccan with a smart phone who knows what’s up every farm track and is acquanted with the locals. So I decided against any day trips further afield for fear of getting hot and bothered going a long way and not seeing very much.
This loss of confidence grew when returning to Agadir on Wednesday I became completely lost in the manic rush hour traffic and took a long time to find my hotel. I commented that driving during the day here was fun in its way, but now it was just plain scary. How I have yet to see or be involved in a road traffic accident I do not know. It was only today at the third attempt that I worked out the right way back to Agadir’s tourist district and I am also finding the heat here quite exhausting by late afternoon.
Yesterday (Friday) I visited a site furher south where the N1 crosses the Oued Massa (pictured above). The bridge here is currently a construction site but parking was possible on land to the east of the road. This overlooks a small dam behind which lies a rather birdy wadi. There were lots of Laughing Dove here, very beautiful doves that I am pleased to have caught up with on this trip. Also more Brown-throated Martin, as well as Barn Swallow, Spanish Sparrow and assorted small passerines. I also came across new dragonfly species, and saw a Plain Tiger butterfly flop over a wall and out of sight. And just who is this handsome boy or girl (pictured below), the biggest spider I’ve ever seen.
Then I heard a Black-crowned Tchagara calling, that I recognised from Rachid mimicking one. I traced it to some palm trees but then a boy came walking along and when the bird called again it was from nearer his village. The boy then seemed to be just behind me wherever I went, further demonstrating it is difficult to be alone in the wild for long in this country.
This morning (Saturday) I met Rachid again to resume our search for the birds missed first time around. The truth of my conviction that birding here is difficult alone was proven by ticking three more lifers off the trip wish list. At our first stop, while searching for Marbled Duck I picked up a Falcon that was clearly not a Kestrel. Rachid confirmed it was a Lanner. Then he grasped my arm and pointed to a nearby palm tree in which was perched a rather dashing Black-crowned Tchagara, a north-west African resident.
It now remained to find Marbled Duck. We revisited likely sites from Wednesday eventually finding four, and that was the 13th trip lifer. The Fudge Duck were still present and two more Black-crowned Tchagara put in an appearance while we were watching the wildfowl. Mission having been accomplished I opted for an afternoon of rest back at the hotel, but not before engaging Rachid again to take me to the nearest area of desert on my last day, Monday.
Rachid Baitar grew up in the village in which the Souss Massa National Park centre is located. He also organises and leads bird tours in other areas of Morocco. I get on well with him, am struck by his love of wildlife and concern for conservation, and find him an excellent guide. His contact details are – Tel: +212 671 184 137. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org