Twixmas in Morocco – Oukaimeden

I conceived this rather ambitious short birding trip with the aim of seeing four new Western Palearctic species in three days. For me it represented three firsts.  This was my first solo trip overseas since turning 60, since the start of the C-19 pandemic and since cancer surgery. And it nearly didn’t happen.  The journey from Trevarth to Gatwick took nearly eight hours.  Fortunately I got from the long stay car park to the gate in just 21 minutes – three minutes before it closed!

The flight to Marrakech was uneventful. Entry formalities complete I met my driver who took me to the nearby Riad L’aeroport.  I enjoyed a good night’s sleep and a fine breakfast in this spotless and comfortable hotel. Fully recovered I returned to the airport to pick up my hire car and start the 1.5 hour drive to Oukaimeden.

Stay on the Grass

Ouakimeden is a ski resort in the High Atlas. It known in Western Palearctic birding circles as the place to search the snowline for high altitude Atlas species .  There was just one problem – no snow!  Undeterred I followed the example Hamid (Guyuin Birding Tours) and his group onto the flat expanse of short turf above the lake.

The approach to Ouakaimeden

Red-billed Chough was the most obvious species, whilst White Wagtail,  Meadow and Water Pipits fed on the ice melt.  Black Wheatears and Black Redstarts flitted around the boulders. 

An unfamilar high-pitched melodic call distracted me. This emanated from small flocks of  Atlas Horned Larks (Eremophilia (alpestris) atlas) flying low across the sward.  This distinctive taxon restricted to the Atlas Mountains of Morocco and Algeria is considered by some authorities as a full species. For more about Horned Lark taxonomy see HOLA Staines.

Atlas Horned Lark
Sister Species

I met Hamid who told me his group had seen African Crimson-winged Finch further up the valley.  A search of the area of boulders he directed me towards was not successful.  Next I turned my attention to similar habitat just beneath the road.  I did not immediately recognise the first birds I saw.  For some reason Rock Sparrow is not a species I have encountered often in my travels.

Rock Sparrow

As I tried to get better photographs of a Rock Sparrow when a bigger bird appeared in the viewfinder.  African Crimson-winged Finch (WP #734), the first of my four trip targets.  It is nearly forty years since I saw the sister species (Asian Crimson-winged Finch) in Eastern Turkey.  As such this striking bird felt very special.  After 15 minutes I left the flock of four to feed in peace and headed to the café where Hamid suggested for lunch.

African Crimson-winged Finch

After lunch I followed Hamid up the track beyond the last car park. About 1 km along the track we parked and scrambled up the slope to search some livestock enclosures. Hamid and his clients scored an Alpine Accentor which unfortunately I could not relocate.

Sheep and Goat shelters favoured by Rock Sparrowsand Alpine Accentor
The Descent

By now a day and half of travelling had caught up with me.  Consequently I decided to head back down the approach road to my hotel.  After about 3 km I stopped by some radio masts where Hamid’s party  had seen Levaillant’s Woodpecker. No luck with the woodpecker, but a Rock Bunting emerged from a nearby bush.  

A few km down the road I found a generous pull off next to some promising habitat.  A mixture of well spaced mature conifers and open areas that is favoured by the woodpeckers.  A calling Crossbill shared the upper branches with African Chaffinches. 

African Chaffinch

I played a little bit of “music” and immediately got a response!  Another burst and a superb male Levailliant’s Woodpecker (#735) burst into view and alighted on a bare bough.

Levailliant’s Woodpecker

The woodpecker disappeared as quickly as it arrived.  More than content with the day’s birding I continued the descent to the attractive wooded Ourika Valley.  Here I quickly found the Auberge de Maquis, a former boar hunter’s lodge turned cozy hotel where I would spend the night.

Auberge le Maquis