May 2013 – Herpetological Trip to Morocco

By Maykel van Gent, Rob Andriessen, Gerjon Ikink and Jesse Erens

When we planned our trip, we were informed that the month of May was a very good month to travel to Morocco, as the temperatures are not too high, in the twenties and the herps would be quite active. However, a heat wave closed in and during our stay temperatures of 40 degrees were reached regularly. This really did not stop us having an incredible stay in beautiful and diverse Morocco.

Day 1: Souss-massa national park

The four of us started our trip on May 8th from Agadir, where we rented a spacey Dacia logan and went south. Our main interest was of course the reptiles and amphibians which we were eager to strain our back turning rocks to find them. But with one avid birder in the group, we had to stop at the Souss-Massa national park to find the very rare Northern bald Ibis (Geronticus eremita). Many local birdguides will want to take you there, but as the main path was just one long straight walk along the river, this is not very necessary. It was however necessary to stay on the path, as the rangers made very clear to us. A single bald ibis was found quickly, but was too far away to properly photograph. Because of the presence of the river the bird activity was high. And while the colorful birds, like the European Turtle dove (Streptopelia turtur), European roller (Coracias garrulus) and EuropeanBee-eater (Merops apiaster) were looking down on us, we found our first Common Gecko’s (Tarentola mauritanica) which would be a constant presence during our trip. Before we had to start our long trip south to our hostel, we also found a very dark juvenile Berber toad (Amietophrynus mauritanicus)

Oued Massa
The Oued Massa, making its way to the ocean. Photo: © Rob Andriessen.
Coracias garrulus
A European roller (Coracias garrulus) looking at what we were doing. Photo: © Gerjon Ikink.
Tarentola mauritanica
Common Gecko (Tarentola mauritanica). Photo: © Jesse Erens.
Amietophrynus mauritanicus
Berber toad (Amietophrynus mauritanicus). Photo: © Jesse Erens.

Reading on this website, we expected quite some roadkill during our 5 hour drive south, but luckily for the animals we did not see any and arrived early in the evening at our hostel in the Tighmert oasis.

After a good meal and some warnings by the locals to stay away from snakes, and that we could be assured that we probably wouldn’t find any because they killed them all, we went for an evening stroll through the oasis to prove them wrong.

During our walk we were again greeted by the Common gecko’s and some more nicely coloured Berber toads. The oasis has an irrigation system that is fed by the local river and the Saharan frogs (Pelophylax saharicus) made good use of it as they were very abundant. An interesting find was a beautiful North-African hedgehog roaming through the fallen palm fronds. We found no snakes indeed this night, but we would not give up and try again another night.

Amietophrynus mauritanicus
Berber toad (Amietophrynus mauritanicus). Photo: © Jesse Erens.
Pelophylax saharicus
Saharan frog (Pelophylax saharicus). Photo: © Jesse Erens.
Testudo graeca
Our resident Spur-thighed Tortoise (Testudo graeca) at our hostel. Photo: © Gerjon Ikink.
Atelerix algirus
North African hedgehog (Atelerix algirus). Photo: © Jesse Erens.

Day 2: fort Boujerif

We awoke bright and early to the sounds of the House Buntings (Emberiza saharae) and the Common Bulbuls (Pycnonotus barbatus) and we were ready for a new day of finding interesting animals.

After a quick stop in Guelmim for sweet bread and gas, we went on our way again, driving through a varied landscape of towns, cultured land and open scrublands. A quick stop at a river gave us our first snake, a little Viperine snake (Natrix maura) that was swimming against the flow. A little walk along the river also gave us Bosk’s fringe fingered lizard (Acanthodactylus boskianus), Berber toads, Saharan frogs and a single incredibly fast juvenile Bibron’s Agama (Agama impalearis).

The area around BouJerif is very beautiful and we spent our day relaxing in the shade of the palm trees along the Oued Noun and of course looking for reptiles. Here the little egrets (Egretta garzetta), pied flycatcher (Ficedula hypoleuca), house buntings, black wheatear (Oenanthe leucura) , melodious warbler (Hippolais polyglotta) and Red-rumped swift (Cecropis daurica) accompanied our search.

Our first sight was a bright blue Bibron’s agama, which definitely stood out from the generally brown colour palette of the environment. The river had an abundance of Spanish terrapins (Mauremys leprosa saharica) in the different ponds, sometimes barely covering them. A shine with our flashlight down a dry well generated more Common Gecko’s and on the bottom was our first and also only Horseshoe whip snake (Hemorrhois hippocrepis) resting. Snakes proved very difficult to find and that would remain constant for the rest of the trip.

Turning over half the fort, scaring the Common Gecko’s also gave us the Moroccan lizard-fingered Gecko (Saurodactylus brosseti) with its iridescent yellow stripes and general translucent appearance, making it one of the most beautiful gecko’s of our trip.

Hemorrhois hippocrepis
Horseshoe whip snake (Hemorrhois hippocrepis) in the well, 10 meters deep. Photo: © Maykel van Gent.
Natrix maura
Viperine snake (Natrix maura). Photo: © Rob Andriessen.
Mauremys leprosa saharica
Spanish terrapin (Mauremys leprosa saharica) a bit too big for its puddle. Photo: © Jesse Erens.

The first river with Bibron’s agama, Bosk’s fringe-fingered lizard and Viperine snake and a beautiful view. Photo: © Jesse Erens.

Our trusty car out in the open, where the agama’s roam. Photo: © Gerjon Ikink.

The fort, a remnant of a different time. Photo: © Gerjon Ikink.

In the evening we returned to Guelmim, but with no idea what normal dinner time is in these parts, we tried a few restaurants, which could not serve us. But then we were welcomed into a little place with open arms by some very friendly locals. The gas-powered griddle almost blew up in our face, but the food was delicious.

A bit before dark we returned to the oasis and tried our luck again to find a snake there. No luck again and we were starting to think the locals were right. The owner of our hotel at least was always happy that we returned without snakes. It was the first thing he would jokingly ask whenever we returned.

This little outing however did give us a Mionecton skink (Chalcides mionecton), fast little guys.

Day 3: The gorge and Assa

We started the morning visiting a local gorge with a little water running through it. It was one of the most stunning places we visited and was well worth the effort of climbing up its terraces and through the abundantly flowering bushes.


The gorge. Photo: © Rob Andriessen.

The view outside the gorge. Photo: © Jesse Erens.

The irrigation channel at the lowest point of the gorge gave us a steady 1 amphibian per 4 meters, only Saharan frogs and Berber toads. The river gave us more Viperine snakes and lizard-fingered Gecko’s as well as some nice shade, as temperatures were on their way to 40ºC once again.

We returned on the high banks of the river and we encountered our first Golden fringe-fingered lizard (Acanthodactylus aureus) sunbathing on a rock and giving us a run for some pictures.

Notable birds were a little owl (Athene noctua) a male and female European Nightjar (Caprimulgus europeaus), Trumpeter finches with their weird little sounds (Bucanetes githagineus) and some reed warblers (Acrocephalus scirpaceus) singing in the bushes. During a little stop along the gorge, we were watched suspiciously by a nearby Gerbil (Gerbillus sp.) but it did not trust us and retreated to its burrow.

And on our way back to the main road we finally found one of the biggest lizards of the country, the Moroccan spiny-tailed lizard (Uromastyx nigriventris).

Natrix maura
A viperine snake (Natrix maura) a bit startled by our presence. Photo: © Jesse Erens.
Natrix maura
Berber toad (Amietophrynus mauritanicus) holding against the flow. Photo: © Maykel van Gent.
Mesalina sp.
Golden fringe-fingered lizard (Acanthodactylus aureus). Photo: © Jesse Erens.
Uromastyx nigriventris
Never could get quite close to the spiny-tailed lizards (Uromastyx nigriventris). These guys can run. Photo: © Jesse Erens.
Gerbil
The Gerbil (Gerbillus sp.) checking us out. Photo: © Gerjon Ikink.

After our hike, we went to the bordertown of Assa. The guards at the checkpoint stopped us for a passport check. They were very friendly and we asked them if there was anything to do in Assa. They said no. We still had hopes to find some snakes in the oasis at Assa and a circling short-toed Snake eagle (Circaetus gallicus) gave us some hope.

However, a pack of dogs roaming around the oasis made us decide to turn around, not willing to risk an encounter, not after earlier that day the watchdogs of a passing goat herd were quite diligently chasing us away and actually had me rushing back down to the riverbanks where the dogs did not follow.

Two other nice finds on our little outing to assa, were a little kestrel (Falco naumanni) flying around Assa and a Desert hedgehog (Paraechinus aegypticus) crossing the road in front of our car and quickly disappearing in the dark.

Falco naumanni
Little kestrel (Falco naumanni). Photo: © Gerjon Ikink.

On our way back to our oasis we made some stops along the way, to check out some water wells, which were empty, but also turn over another ton of rocks. This uncovered a few more Lizard-fingered gecko’s and Common gecko’s, but also gave us a beautiful Draa gecko (Tarentola boehmei).

Tarentola boehmei
Draa gecko (Tarentola boehmei). Photo: © Jesse Erens.

Day 4: Sidiifni + night

After a few very hot days, we needed to cool down and went to the coast and chilled down on the beach, where a pallid swift (Apus pallidus) and some cormorants (Phalacrocorax aristotelis) also made use of the cool winds. After sufficiently cooling down we made a little tour of the coastal cliffs, which did not deliver any reptiles for us, but produced a few interesting and big arthropods.


Mating grasshoppers (Eugaster sp.). Photo: © Maykel van Gent.
Argiope lobata
Argiope lobata in a web that was over a meter long. Photo: © Maykel van Gent.

On our way to Sidiifni we scouted the environment and it looked interesting, Euphorbia bushes, scattered wells and agricultural land. We wanted to check it out in the dark, so after a long meal in Sidiifni and an encounter with a diligent traffic cop, which cost us 700 dirham and an hour of our time for running a red light at the very last millisecond, we were back in the area outside of Sidiifni, ready for all sorts of interesting things to find. And this we did!

We started with a short stop at a well, where some more Common gecko’s roamed. But in this well was also a little toad that could not get out. With some materials lying around, we managed to get it up and saved it from a sure death. This also proved well for us as it was a new species for our list: A brongersma toad (Pseudepidalea brongersmai).

Very motivated to find more, we continued on the road back. We found a side road to park on and went back for a walk along the main road. We found another well, dry this time, but it contained a very nice surprise, a checkerboard worm lizard (Trogonophis wiegmanni) and a little group of very juvenile toads.

We were so absorbed by this stunning creature, that we almost did not notice a car stopping near us. A man walked up to us and asked us what we are doing. We tried to explain in our best French, but apparently that one sentence was about all this man could muster. And after a little bit of not understanding each other, the man got back in his car. After setting this worm lizard free again, we decided to go back to our car as well, but before we could reach it, our car was blocked in by the man and another car that came from that side road. Some more men came out of the car, carrying sticks and scythes. This might be a problem. One man that apparently had the respect of the others came forward and asked us what we are doing here, in Spanish.

So now on our side, we had English, French, Dutch and German and they had Spanish and some form of Arabic. We couldn’t agree very well. After trying gestures and showing pictures they calmed down, but wouldn’t let us go. It took them an hour of calling people to get someone that spoke French down to us. So after an hour or so, a civilian guard came up the road. He was a very nice guy and could immediately clear up all problems. The men from the village up the road had a good laugh and now managed to explain that apparently there were some thieves active in the region and they wanted to protect their ground. Apparently the ground along the road where we were inspecting the well was some of their holy property. So with mutual understanding we could once again be on our way and we learned a good lesson about knowing where to walk and search.

Pseudepidalea brongersmai
Brongersma toad (Pseudepidalea brongersmai) from the well. Photo: © Jesse Erens.
Trogonophis wiegmanni
Checkerboard worm lizard (Trogonophis wiegmanni). Photo: © Jesse Erens.
Pseudepidalea sp.
A little group of tiny Pseudepidalea sp. sitting on the bottom of a dry well. Photo: © Jesse Erens.
Trogonophis wiegmanni
A Moroccan Lizard-fingered Gecko (Saurodactylus brosseti) with a regenerated tail. Photo: © Jesse Erens.

Day 5: Desert trip

Because we thought our Dacia was not suited for true off-road duty, we decided to book a trip with a 4×4, to go a little deeper into the desert, away from the well-traveled routes. Even if we would not find any herps, this daytrip gave us some outstanding and beautiful landscapes and a hot spring that made this trip completely worthwhile.


Our happy driver. Photo: © Rob Andriessen.

Walking on. Photo: © Gerjon Ikink.

A savanna and sand dunes within 5 km of each other. Photos: © Gerjon Ikink.
Dromedary camels
Some curious dromedary camels. Photo: © Maykel van Gent.

Our first stop was at the source of the river that fed the oasis we stayed at. Here Viperine snake and Spanish terrapin were spotted easily.

From there we went off the road and the landscape changed quickly and provided us with many, many herps. In the days before we were lucky to encounter a herp every once in a while. They are really scattered, which we had not really expected, as we mainly herped in Europe before, where the numbers seem quite a lot higher. But here herping was good. The hot spring gave us Saharan frog and Berber toad again, but also the other green toad (Pseudepidalea boulengeri) was present here.

Moving into the desert we encountered Moroccan lizard-fingered Lizard, Bosks fringe-fingered lizard, Algerian sand geckos (Tropiocolotes algericus) Common geckos, Spiny tailed lizards, Bibron’s agama and a single Northern Elegant Gecko (Stenodactylus mauritanicus).

This trip was a good moment for our driver to catch up with the locals herders that passed by and he told us that the camel herder killed an Egyptian cobra (Naja haje) two days ago. This we heard before, but this became an even more interesting location.

Birding was also very nice here, with a.o.Golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos), black-bellied sand grouse (Pterocles orientalis), Southern grey shrike (Lanius meridionalis), bar-tailed desert lark (Ammomanes cinctura), Hoopoe lark (Alaemon alaudipes) and Cream-coloured courser (Cursorius cursor) all easy to spot.

At the end we made a little stop for tea in a village and the local where we had the delicious tea told us he just killed a sand viper last night that had entered his house. We were again too late. But this is definitely an area to visit again.

On our way back we found our first roadkill, which our driver actually caused himself. He shrugged it off, but apologized after we were a bit saddened by the demise of the spiny-tailed lizard.


Chilling out after a long drive. Photo: © Rob Andriessen.
Pseudepidalea boulengeri
North African green toad (Pseudepidalea boulengeri). Photo: © Jesse Erens.
Stenodactylus mauritanicus
Northern elegant gecko (Stenodactylus mauritanicus). Photo: © Jesse Erens.
Tropiocolotes algirus
Algerian sand gecko (Tropiocolotes algirus). Photo: © Jesse Erens.
Acanthodactylus boskianus
Bosks fringe-fingered lizard (Acanthodactylus boskianus). Photo: © Jesse Erens.
Cerastes cerastes
The unlucky Desert horned viper (Cerastes cerastes). Photo: © Maykel van Gent.
Uromastyx nigriventris
Also unlucky, the Moroccan spiny tailed lizard (Uromastyx nigriventris). Photo: © Rob Andriessen.
Lanius meridionalis elegans
This Southern grey shrike (Lanius meridionalis elegans) did not quite get what it wanted. Photo: © Maykel van Gent.
Cursorius cursor
Cream coloured coursers (Cursorius cursor) running along. Photo: © Maykel van Gent.

Day 6: Road trip

We decided on a change of scenery and went on a little road trip and see where we end up. Our first stop was a little further south, for a last stint of birding to find some of the most southern species. A very productive visit, with a.o. Crowned sandgrouse (Pterocles senegallus), Hoopoe lark (Alaemon alaudipes), Temminck’s horned lark (Eremophila bilopha), Tristrams warbler (Sylvia deserticola), Red-rumped wheatear (Oenanthe moesta) and Thick-billed lark (Rhamphocoris clotbey). On top of that a Jird (Meriones sp.) came out to play. Here we also found a new fringe-fingered lizard, Acanthodactylus erythrurus, an exciting find for the non-birders in the group.

We made our way up north making a few stops along the way. We found some more lizard-fingered gecko’s and a many-scaled skink (Chalcides polylepis). We were pointed to a newly built road, that was a pleasure to drive and we made good time. What they didn’t tell was that it stopped halfway and turned into a gravel road. This road became so adventurous that it actually was a part of the Tour du Maroc, a rally course, winding its way through gorges and the anti-atlas mountains. It was a spectacular ride through equally spectacular landscapes as we were looked upon by the tour officials. The barren tops of the mountains provided excellent habitat for Spiny-tailed lizards and Bibron’s agama, which were abundant along the route. We made camp at a little village. We did some urban exploring in the night through the village and all we found was a bunch of scorpions and some more Lizard-fingered gecko’s.

Meriones
Jird (Meriones sp.) nonchalantly keeping track of us. Photo: © Gerjon Ikink.

The layered mountains with many Agama and Spiny tailed lizards. Photo: © Gerjon Ikink.
Atlantoxerus getulus
Finally a Barbary ground squirrel (Atlantoxerus getulus) would stay still long enough for a picture. Photo: © Rob Andriessen.
Uromastyx nigriventris
Spiny tailed lizard (Uromastyx nigriventris). Photo: © Gerjon Ikink.
Agama impalearis
Bibron’s agama (Agama impalearis). Photo: © Rob Andriessen.

We finished the Tour. Photo: © Maykel van Gent.

One of many scorpions we saw all throughout the trip. Photo: © Maykel van Gent.
Saurodactylus brosseti
An intensely colored Lizard-fingered gecko (Saurodactylus brosseti). Photo: © Jesse Erens.

Day 7: mountain hike

We thought we had not been active enough so on our last full day, we decided to do a hike in the mountains. The temperatures had now dropped a bit to a pleasant 25ºC, good for a nice day out. We found some hiking trails along some grassy slopes and up we went.

But we were already slowed down, because right where we parked our car to start, was a hole in the ground with a Montpellier snake (Malpolon monsspessulanus) in it. It was warmed up, because within the same second of spotting it, it disappeared again, leaving us with only the faint afterimage of yet another fleeting encounter with a new snake species.

But the next hole also contained a nice surprise:a bunch of Oudri’s fan-footed Gecko (Ptyodactylus oudrii) were keeping to the shade of this hole. A very nice surprise indeed.

So with a spring in our step we went up the trail, accompanied by Woodchat shrikes (Lanius senator), Corn buntings (Emberiza calandra), Rock buntings (Emberiza cia) and Barbary partridge (Alectoris barbara). A group of wild boar (Sus scrofa) also crossed our trail and finally high up, we got another reward. A happy looking Moroccan Day Gecko (Quedenfeldtia moerens) greeted us in all its beauty.

There the trail ended as well, so we returned to our car to find a hotel for our last night. But not before we made a few short stops along the way. And a last little gift turned up in one of the wells: A Mediterranean Tree Frog (Hyla meridionalis).

Ptyodactylus oudrii
Oudri’s fan-footed Gecko (Ptyodactylus oudrii). Photo: © Maykel van Gent.
Quedenfeldtia moerens
Moroccan Day Gecko (Quedenfeldtia moerens). Photo: © Jesse Erens.
Lanius senator
Woodchat Shrike (Lanius senator). Photo: © Maykel van Gent.
Donkey
Plenty of grass for this donkey. Photo: © Gerjon Ikink.

Can you spot the piglets? Photo: © Gerjon Ikink.

Up and up. Photo: © Gerjon Ikink.
Hyla meridionalis
Mediterranean tree frog (Hyla meridionalis). Photo: © Maykel van Gent.

Day 8: To the airport

The hotel we did find, luckily. And after a good night’s rest we said goodbye to the warmth of the country and its people, sure to return for more amazing encounters.