Morocco is one of North Africa's best birding locations. There's a wide range of easily accessed sites in a rich diversity of habitats that are often very different from those found in neighboring Europe. More than 480 species have been recorded in Morocco, and birders can usually find something of interest throughout the year. Having said that, the period from March to May is considered the optimum bird-watching season, as a wide variety of species -- both resident and migrant -- are present, and the weather is generally mild and sunny. Morocco is an important stop for millions of migrants on their way to and from western Europe, and more than 100 species are considered regular winter visitors. Morocco offers good opportunities to see a range of birds such as larks, raptors, warblers, water birds, and wheatears, along with a few specific species that are difficult to find elsewhere.
Merja Zerga (80km/50 miles south of Tangier) was declared a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance back in 1980, and is one of the largest lagoons in Morocco. During the winter months, it's possible to see more than 1,000 greater flamingos, 30,000 ducks, 40,000 Eurasian coots, and 50,000 waders here. The small fishing village of Moulay Bousselham looks out over the lagoon, as well as the near-deserted Atlantic shoreline. Nearby is another Ramsar lagoon, the small but attractive Lac de Sidi Boughaba (30km/19 miles north of Rabat), which is also known for its large winter flocks. Present at various times of the year here are various raptors such as the marsh harrier, montagu harrier, black-shouldered kite, and occasionally Eleonora's falcon. Occasionally spotted at both lagoons are the rare slender-billed curlew and marsh owl.
The Souss-Massa National Park stretches for 70km (43 miles) south of Agadir and is bordered by the Oued Souss and Oued Massa. Best visited between September and April, the mouths of both rivers are among the best bird sites in the country, offering excellent viewing of waders such as avocet, black-winged stilt, and oystercatcher, as well as numerous species of gulls and terns roosting on the sandbars. Also present are many large water birds such as great cormorant, little egret, greater flamingo, gray heron, spoonbill, white stork, and the less common purple heron and glossy ibis. The area leading up to the mouth of the Oued Massa is considered the best spot in Morocco to sight the critically endangered waldrapp, better known as the northern bald ibis, which breeds on the nearby coastal cliffs. The large concentration of water birds consequently attracts numerous species of raptors such as Bonelli's eagle, marsh harrier, and Barbary, lanner, and peregrine falcons.
The islands offshore from the attractive seaside port of Essaouira are one of the world's largest -- and Morocco's only -- breeding sites for the endangered Eleonora's falcon. This migrant breeder resides here from late April to the end of October, and while the protected islands offer very limited access, the falcon can often be seen hunting at the mouth of the Oued Ksob, to the south of Essaouira's wide bay, during the prebreeding months of May and June.
In the Western High Atlas mountains, both the highly sought-after white-rumped swift and Levaillant's woodpecker can often be seen in the valleys around Asni and Imlil, along with large flocks of both red-billed and alpine chough. The pleasant drive from Marrakech to Oukaïmeden passes through several habitats and offers diverse sightings such as rufous bush robin, alpine swifts, and black wheatear. The little-known crimson-winged finch is a rare resident that can be spotted around Ouakïmeden, as well in the higher reaches of the Middle Atlas.
Possible sightings in the fertile lower valleys of both the Oued Todra and Oued Dadès include common bulbul, gold finch, hoopoe, scops owl, white stork, and blue tit, along with blackbird, nightingale, and various warblers. Breeding specifically in the Dadès Valley is the great spotted woodpecker. Both valleys are also good spots to sight spring migrants, including the pretty European bee-eater, while their gorges offer possible sightings of long-legged buzzard and golden and Bonelli's eagles.
Following the course of the often-dry Oued Dra, the Dra Valley, at various times through the year, is home to many varied species, including little owl and Egyptian vulture. From April to September, the sought-after blue-cheeked bee-eater can also be spotted here, as well as in the palm groves of the Tafilalt region around Erfoud and Merzouga.
Another prized Moroccan sighting is the tristram's warbler, which breeds solely in the scrub of the High Atlas mountains (but is a winter visitor to both the Dadès and Dra valleys) and the tamarisk trees found along the fringe of the Erg Chebbi desert dunes near Merzouga. It also winters in the Souss Valley, which is well known for regular sightings of tawny eagle and dark chanting goshawk.
Special mention must also be made of the impressive migration across the Straits of Gibraltar, which can be observed onshore within the vicinity of Tangier. More than 250 mainly European species have been recorded making the 15km (9-mile) crossing -- mainly between March and May and August and October -- including bee-eaters, finches, flamingos, gulls, larks, shearwaters, swallows, and wagtails, along with high concentrations of raptors and storks.
As yet, there are no Moroccan-based English-speaking tour operators offering specialized birding tours, and local English-speaking specialists are also sparse. In the village of Moulay Bousselham, local ornithologist Hassan Dalil (tel. 0668/434110) comes highly recommended from fellow travelers, as witnessed in the Birder's Log housed in Restaurant Milano, on the one main street. Mohammed Zaki (tel. 0666/659392; email@example.com) specializes in the general wildlife (bird life in particular) of Morocco's mountains and desert regions, and is often contracted by various U.K.-based operators. Saïd Ahmoume is Naturally Morocco's resident wildlife guide, with a particular passion for botany and ornithology. He can be contacted through Naturally Morocco.
Some of the better English-language websites for birding in Morocco are Go-South (www.go-south.org), which also has an extensive archive of field reports; African Bird Club (www.africanbirdclub.org), a general information website; and Bird Links to the World (www.bsc-eoc.org/links), which, as the name suggests, is a dedicated site of links to other birding websites. Considered the most comprehensive English-language Moroccan ornithological field guide is the Collins Bird Guide (Collins, 1999) by Lars Svensson, Killian Mullarney, Dan Zetterstrom, and Peter J. Grant. Although it's subtitled "The Most Complete Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe," the book's 392 pages cover Morocco as well. For something that's easier to pack, I recommend A Birdwatchers' Guide to Morocco (Prion Ltd., 2003) by Patrick and Fédora Bergier. The easy-to-read layout includes directions and a map to access each location, though its one downfall is the lack of any pictures for identification. Moroccan NGO Groupe d'Ornithologie du Maroc conducts ornithological studies, issues publications, and generally works for bird life conservation in Morocco. In 2001 and after 6 years of research, they published Les Oiseaux du Maroc, a French-language coffee table-style guidebook that indexes the different species of birds in Morocco, describing them and their natural environment in detail, as well as their migratory patterns. The book received the Hassan II Prize, awarded by the Environment Ministry of Morocco. It's extremely hard to get hold of, but I located it on my last visit to Morocco in Agadir's Librairie Papetrie la Lecture Pour Tous, 11 Passage Aït Souss (tel. 0528/843427). Birding in Morocco (Gostours), by Dave Gosney, is a DVD covering a birding expedition by the author and is full of great footage of many of Morocco's birds.
- Field Guides (tel. 800/728-4953 toll-free or 512/263-7295; www.fieldguides.com) is a specialist bird-watching tour operator with trips worldwide. They operate an irregular trip to Morocco -- the next is in September 2011 -- that takes in the country's Atlantic coastline, Atlas mountain ranges, and central desert landscapes. Group size is usually limited to 14 participants.
- Heatherlea (tel. 01479/821248; www.heatherlea.co.uk) is one of the U.K.'s leading wildlife holiday operators, specializing in birding tours worldwide. Their annual 11-day Morocco tour, usually departing at the end of March, is a round-trip from Marrakech, taking in the best birding sites of the Western High Atlas and central and southern Morocco. Group size is limited to 14 participants.
- Naturetrek (tel. 01962/733051; www.naturetrek.co.uk) has more than 20 years' experience in operating natural history and wildlife holidays, including specialist bird-watching tours. This U.K.-based company currently offers four trips to Morocco, including a 5-day "Bald Ibis Break" and a 15-day itinerary that includes 10 days trekking through the Western High Atlas in search of birds and wildflowers.
- Spanish Nature (tel. 616/891359; www.spanishnature.com) is a small Spanish-based tour operator leading bird-watching trips throughout the year to Costa Rica, Spain, and Morocco. They are renowned for their leisurely paced itineraries and quality guides. Most Moroccan tours run for 11 days, and group size is kept to a maximum of 12.
- Wings (tel. 888/293-6443 toll-free; www.wingsbirds.com) has been offering bird-watching tours worldwide for the past 30 years. Their current brochure includes "Morocco in Fall," an 8-day ramble of the Souss Valley and Agadir coastline, which also includes an offshore pelagic day trip. This trip is limited to 16 participants and includes two specialist leaders.