High Atlas Mountains - Morocco
The Atlas Mountains are an extensive rugged range of mountains, approximately 2500km long overall, that stretch right across northwest Africa effectively separating the coastal regions of the Mediterranean and Atlantic from the Sahara Desert. There are, in fact, four different ranges – the Tell Atlas and the Aures Mountains in Algeria and Tunisia, the Saharan Atlas which is totally within Algeria, and the Moroccan Atlas mountains incorporating the Middle, High and Anti-Atlas sub-ranges.
These are the mountains which were once the home of the Atlas Bear and the Barbary or Nubian Lion, both of which are now officially extinct. There are a few zoos and/or private collections around the world that claim to have descendants of the Barbary Lion still in captivity, but the general consensus of opinion is that they are not of pure stock. One of these is the Aspinall Foundation’s wildlife park at Port Lympne in Kent where they have a small pride. I've seen them and, whether they are true descendants of the original race or not, can confirm that they are certainly magnificent beasts and quite different in appearance from the African lions we're all familiar with as this Flickr photo shows.
Typical High Atlas Mountain terrain
We had a week in the High Atlas Mountains in 2014 when we stayed in a trekker’s lodge just outside Imlil, which is a quiet Berber village, some 17km off the main road from Marrakech to Taroudant. The village is some 1740m above sea-level and close to Jebel Toubkal, the highest peak in north Africa at 4165m. The scenery in this area is quite stunning, particularly where there are views of the higher ridges that remain snow-covered well into spring. There are only a few roads that wind themselves through these mountains, virtually all without barriers and with very steep drops down to the valley below. Some areas are pretty barren and rocky, whereas others have thick forests of pine, oak or cedar trees growing on the slopes.
The general terrain means that travelling between different locations can be slow and time-consuming and, despite the magnificent scenery, somewhat monotonous after a while. Most of our trips were to surrounding areas such as the Tacheddirt Pass and the skiing centre of Oukaimeden, but we also ventured further afield to the Plateau du Kik and, on one particularly long day, to the Tizi-n-Test Valley.
We went in late March, which should have been a good time to go, but unfortunately Spring was late which meant that bird sightings were a bit disappointing. By the end of the week we’d seen most species, the notable exception being the Hoopoe, but nothing in any quantity. Our trip was with Greentours whose website introduction implied that there would be plenty of Levaillant’s Green Woodpeckers in the orchards around our lodge and large flocks of Alpine Choughs soaring over the village. We saw a couple of woodpeckers whilst out and about, but didn’t get any photos of those or indeed any of Alpine Choughs, which were conspicuous by their absence. However, we did get some nice shots of other birds such as the Sardinian Warbler and the very pretty Woodchat Shrike that weren’t mentioned in the write-up, so that was an unexpected bonus. But, the biggest disappointment, from my point of view, was the general lack of raptors. Yes, we did see a few Short-toed and Booted Eagles, plus a couple of Montague’s Harriers, but most of these were way up and out of camera range, as was the very large congregation of Black Kites that we spotted at Tizi-n-Test. I really thought that there would be far more raptors up in the mountains and surrounding valleys. I’m sure they were there, but they certainly weren’t showing themselves for us.
Moussier's Redstart [Phoenicurus moussieri]
Black Wheatear [Oenanthe leucura]
Great Grey Shrike [Lanius excubitor]
Regardless of the previous comments, I was generally quite pleased with the few photos I came back with, which was supported by a very healthy 100,000 or so views of the selection posted to my Flickr photostream.