American Golden Plover at Palmarin

Quick post to report yet another American vagrant, after the Franklin’s Gull from last Saturday and the Lesser Yellowlegs from just a week ago, both at Technopole.

This morning at Palmarin in the western Saloum delta, I found an American Golden Plover (Pluvier bronzé), likely a second year bird, feeding on the edge of a shallow lagoon together with a few other waders. It’s almost getting a bit of a standard spring sighting here in Senegal: this is the third consecutive year with records in April, and the species has been near-annual since 2012. Prior to this only three records were known, though it’s not clear whether this reflects a true increase in the number of “AGPs” that make it to West Africa or just a result of increased observer coverage – probably the latter. The Palmarin bird brings the total to 14 records involving at least 17 birds.

As can be seen in my hazy pictures below, the bird stood out mainly thanks to its very white supercilium extending behind the ear coverts, the dark smudge across the breast, and of course long wings extending well beyond the tail tip. As it flew a short distance, I could clearly see the greyish underwing.

More on the identification and on the occurrence of the species in Senegal in this post from last November and also here.

AmericanGoldenPlover_Palmarin_20190415_IMG_2908

American Golden Plover / Pluvier bronzé

AmericanGoldenPlover_Palmarin_20190415_IMG_2913

American Golden Plover / Pluvier bronzé

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American Golden Plover / Pluvier bronzé

AmericanGoldenPlover_Palmarin_20190415_IMG_2922

 

The same small lagoon just north of Ngalou village also held quite a few Slender-billed Gulls and several Caspian, Royal and Sandwich Terns (+ one Lesser Crested), six Avocets, three Black-tailed Godwits and a few other waders, though generally there aren’t loads of birds around at the moment (which is all relative of course: far out in the lagoons, there were hundreds of Little Stints and other small waders, just very far out… and at Diakhanor about a dozen Bar-tailed Godwits were seen).

Unlikely that anyone would go out to twitch the plover, but you never know so here’s a Google Maps link to the precise location where I saw the bird.

Besides the waders, a few remaining Lesser Black-backed and Audouin’s Gulls as well as two small groups of Barn Swallows, a couple of Yellow Wagtails and a few Western Olivaceous Warblers were the only other northern migrants still around.

Palmarin_20190414_IMG_2798

 

Below are a few pictures of other species seen during the 24 hours we spent at Palmarin.

BlackwingedKite_Palmarin_20190415_IMG_2893

Black-winged Kite / Elanion blanc

 

BrucesGreenPigeon_Palmarin_20190415_IMG_2881

Bruce’s Green Pigeon /  Colombar waalia

 

SlenderbilledGull_Palmarin_20190414_IMG_2838

Slender-billed Gull / Goéland railleur

 

YellowbilledOxpecker_Palmarin_20190415_IMG_2901

Spot the Yellow-billed Oxpecker hitching a ride (Piqueboeuf à bec jaune) (J. Piot)

 

Palmarin_20190414_IMG_2796

Unsuccessful attempt at reading a Caspian Tern with yellow ring (in any case a local bird) (J. Piot)

 

Let’s see if this spring any American Golden Plovers turn up at Technopole again…

 

 

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The Great Re-Tern

April is Tern month!

From mid-March into May, lots of terns pass through Dakar on their way back home from the wintering grounds further south – some as far as South Africa! – and the first half of April is definitely peak time for many species. When conditions are right, literally thousands of these elegant birds may pass through on a single day, and sites such as Technopole can hold several hundreds of birds at any one time. So much that in the past week, I’ve had the chance to see 12 out of the 14 tern species that are known to occur in Senegal, the only ones missing being Bridled and the rare Sooty Tern.

On Monday 8.4 at Technopole, decent numbers of terns were about, mainly Sandwich Tern (+300, likely quite a bit more) with a supporting cast of the usual Caspian and Gull-billed Terns (the former with several recently emancipated juveniles, likely from the Saloum or Casamance colonies), but also several dozen African Royal Tern, a few Common Terns, at least two Lesser Crested, and as a bonus two fine adult Roseate Terns roosting among their cousins. And as I scanned one of the flocks one last time before returning back home, an adult Whiskered Tern in breeding plumage, already spotted the previous day by Miguel. I managed to read four ringed Sandwich Terns but far more were wearing rings, but were impossible to read.

Gulls-Terns_Technopole_20190413_IMG_2765.JPG

Gulls & Terns at Technopole

 

Yesterday 13.4, we went back to our favourite urban hotspot mainly in order to see if we could read some more of these rings. The main roost is close to the northern shore of the main lagoon, quite close to golf club house, which makes it possible to get close enough to the birds to read most rings. We saw most of the same tern species (except Roseate), with the addition of a fine moulting White-winged Tern and a small flock of Little Terns migrating over our heads. The first colour-ringed bird we saw was actually a Gull-billed Tern, but not the usual Spanish bird (“U83”) ringed in 2009 and seen several times herein the past three winters. This bird was even more interesting, as it was ringed in the only remaining colony in northern Europe, more precisely in the German Wadden Sea. Awaiting details from the ringers, but it’s quite likely that there are very few (if any!) recoveries of these northern birds this far south. It may well be the same bird as one that we saw back in November 2018 at lac Mbeubeusse, though we didn’t manage to properly establish the ring combination at the time.

GullbilledTern_Technopole_20190413_IMG_2751

Colour-ringed Gull-billed Tern & Black-winged Stilts / Sterne hansel & Echasse blanche

 

So, back to our ring readings: all in all, we managed to decipher an impressive 14 Sandwich Tern rings – blue, white, yellow & red! – of birds originating from no less than four countries: Ireland, UK, Netherlands, and one from Italy (to be confirmed). Most of these are chicks that were born in summer 2016 and that logically spent their first two years in the Southern Hemisphere, and are now returning back to their breeding grounds for the first time. In addition, a Black-headed Gull with a blue ring proved to be a French bird ringed as a chick in a colony in the Forez region (west of Lyon) in 2018, while a Spanish Audouin’s Gull was a bird not previously read here. I’ll try to find some time to write up more on our ring recoveries, now that my little database has just over 500 entries!

Gulls-Terns_Technopole_20190413_IMG_2778

More gulls & terns

 

Others local highlights from these past few days are the Lesser Yellowlegs still at Technopole on 8.4 (but not seen yesterday… maybe it has finally moved on), also a superb breeding plumaged Bar-tailed Godwit, still a few Avocets, plenty of Ruff, Little Stint, Sanderling, Curlew Sandpiper and Dunlin, many of which in full breeding attire. And on 13.4, once again a Franklin’s Gull, but also a rather late Mediterranean Gull and what was probably the regular adult Yellow-legged Gull seen several times since December. Three Spotted Redshanks were also noteworthy as this is not a regular species at Technopole. The Black-winged Stilts are breeding again, and the first two chicks – just a couple of days old – were seen yesterday, with at least two more birds on nests; a family of Moorhen was also a good breeding record.

Full eBird checklist from 13.4 here.

FranklinsGull_Technopole_20190413_IMG_2786

A sleepy Franklin’s Gull / Mouette de Franklin

 

Earlier this week at the Calao was just about as good in terms of tern diversity: again the usual Sandwich Terns which are passing through en masse at the moment, with some LCT’s in the mix, several dozen Common Terns and the odd Roseate Tern hurriedly yet graciously flying past the seawatch spot, and of course more Royal Terns en route to Langue de Barbarie or Mauritanian breeding sites, a lone Caspian Tern, and this time round an even less expected White-winged Tern (and just two Black Terns). Oh and also the first Arctic Tern of the season! The first birds in spring are typically seen at the end of March or first half of April; earliest dates (2015-2018) are 16.3.18 and 25.3.16. The numbers of migrating terns were really impressive here on Saturday 6.4: a rough estimate puts the number of Sandwich and Common Terns passing through at 500 and 1200, respectively, in just two hours.

At Ngor, regular morning sessions have yielded the usual Pomarine and Arctic Skuas, Northern Gannets, as well as a handful of Cape Verde Shearwaters feeding offshore on most days. Sooty Shearwaters passed through in good numbers on 6.4, while last Friday (12.4) was best for Sabine’s Gull: 73 birds in just one hour, so far my best spring count. Also several Long-tailed Skuas and the other day a South Polar or (more likely) a Great Skua was present, a rare spring sighting. All checklists for the recent Calao counts can be found on this eBird page.

 

CommonGreenshank_Technopole_20190413_IMG_2752

Greenshank & Black-winged Stilt / Chevalier aboyeur & Echasse blanche

 

 

Cuckoo Finch, New to Senegal

Following the addition of Turati’s Boubou (Ziguinchor, October 2018) and Willcocks’s Honeyguide (Dindefelo, January 2019), another scarce Afro-tropical species was recently added to the avifauna of Senegal: Cuckoo Finch, Anomalospiza imberbis (in French: Anomalospize parasite). Three birds were found on 17 February in moist grassland north of Oussouye in Basse-Casamance, by Bruno Bargain, Gabi Caucal and Adrien de Montaudouin.

While not necessarily straightforward in the field, their identification could be confirmed based on a few pictures that the team were able to obtain: small, compact drab-yellow finch with a short yet deep conical bill, short tail with pointed central rectrices, pale central crown stripe, small beady black eye, long pale claws. The two-toned bill (pale base of lower mandible contrasting with darker upper mandible) is typical of juveniles, while the yellowish underparts and throat suggest that this bird is a young male.

Anomalospize parasite - Kagnout 17 Feb 2019 - GabrielCaucal

Cuckoo Finch / Anomalospize parasite imm. male, Kagnout, Feb. 2019 (G. Caucal)

 

Several birds were seen again a couple of weeks later by Bruno, including two singing males: it’ll be interesting to see whether this little group is resident here and whether more will be found in nearby locations in coming months… there’s definitely a lot of potential, with quite a bit of suitable habitat elsewhere in the area.

As with the boubou, the discovery of this species in SW Senegal was to be expected given that it has been seen several times in recent years just across the border in Gambia, prompting me to include the Cuckoo Finch on our list of the birds of Senegal with a question mark (“presence to be confirmed”) when I initially compiled the list last year. The checklist is accessible through this new page that was recently added to the Resources section of this website. Cuckoo Finch is species number 679 on the national list! (though to be fair, this includes five for which definite proof is lacking, and which remain to be confirmed)

Cuckoo Finch is indeed a widespread yet local and uncommon species throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, and particularly in West Africa its status and patchy distribution remain poorly known. It occurs in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Cote d’Ivoire as well as in southern Mali, and probably also in Guinea and Guinea-Bissau though as far as I know there are no records in these two countries. In Gambia it was first recorded in 1969, on 24 September by O. Andrew. The only further details I found on this record are in Morel & Morel (1990), who state that “about a dozen were seen well in Sept.-Oct. 1969 near Banjul”. It then took more than 40 years for the next record to be obtained, more precisely at Kartong Bird Observatory where three birds were caught and ringed on 24 Feb. 2013; in subsequent years the species was again caught or seen on a few occasions at KBO, at most 14 birds on 27 April 2014, and again several birds in May-October 2017. All were non-breeding or young birds, with no evidence of local breeding (O. Fox, J, Cross).

Given these more or less regular sightings at Kartong, which lies right on the border with Casamance, it would make sense if the species were also present around Abene, Kafountine, Diouloulou or other nearby locations. We’ll try to explore some of these sites in coming months, particularly during the breeding season, i.e. during the rains. The finders are currently writing up a note to formally publish their discovery.

Also known as Parasitic Weaver, the “unusual finch” as per its scientific name is the unique representative of its genus, having previously been linked to weavers and even canaries. It is now included in the viduids as it is most closely related to the whydahs and indigobirds (see e.g. Lahti & Payne 2003). Just like these birds, it is a brood parasite, laying its eggs in nests of cisticolids (cisticolas and prinias), apparently up to c. 30 eggs per season (!), in batches of 1-4 eggs per “set”. Zitting Cisticola and Tawny-flanked Prinia may be the most likely host species in Senegal and Gambia.

There’s of course a lot more to be said about this peculiar songbird, for instance how females adopted a mimetic strategy to fool its hosts: Feeney et al. (2015) demonstrated how “female Cuckoo Finch plumage colour and pattern more closely resembled those of Euplectes weavers (putative models) than Vidua finches (closest relatives); that their Tawny-flanked Prinia hosts were equally aggressive towards female Cuckoo Finches and Southern Red Bishops, and more aggressive to both than to their male counterparts; and that prinias were equally likely to reject an egg after seeing a female cuckoo finch or bishop, and more likely to do so than after seeing a male bishop near their nest.” Fun fact: I happened to meet Claire Spottiswoode, one the co-authors of the paper and specialist of brood parasites, on their southern Zambian study site while they were conducting field work in March 2013… but I failed to find any Cuckoo Finches!

For some more on parasitic birds, here’s a good start.

Plenty of other good birds were seen in Casamance last month, including the first White-tailed Alethe (Alèthe à huppe rousse) in many many years, Lesser Moorhen (Gallinule africaine), Ovambo Sparrowhawk (Epervier de l’Ovampo), Bluethroat (Gorgebleue à miroir), Forbes’s Plover (Pluvier de Forbes), European Golden Plover (Pluvier doré), Yellow-legged & Kelp Gulls (Goélands leucophée et dominicain), and quite a few more scarce species. With a bit of luck, Gabi and Etienne will find some time to write up the highlights of what was once again an epic trip across Senegal.

Meanwhile in Dakar, seabird spring migration is in full swing, with the first Long-tailed Skuas, Sooty Shearwaters, Roseate Terns and so on passing through in recent weeks (Labbe à longue queue, Puffin fuligineux, Sterne de Dougall). More on this in due course.

 

ForbesPlover - Casamance - Bargain - DSC05592 (Copier)

Forbes’s Plover / Pluvier de Forbes, Casamance, Feb. 2019 (B. Bargain)

 

Many thanks to the finders for allowing me to write up this post, and to Olly Fox for providing info on the Kartong records.

 

Iberian Chiffchaff in West Africa

We’re continuing our little series on the status of some lesser known passerines that spend the winter in Senegal. This time round we’re looking at Iberian Chiffchaff (Pouillot ibérique), yet another drab songbird that can be tricky to identify unless of course it’s singing. We won’t go much into its identification in this post; a lot has been written on the topic, though unfortunately the standard West Africa field guides lack sufficient detail and may oversimplify the matter somewhat. In addition, few if any of the local guides really know how to identify the species in the field, and not all visiting birders pay much attention to these LBJs.

There are a few subtle differences in plumage, but generally it’s not easy to identify these birds on plumage and “jizz” alone..  so maybe it’s useful after all to summarise key characteristics here. Lars Svensson, in what is still one of the main reference papers on Iberian Chiffchaff identification (2001), neatly listed the following field characters in comparison with Common Chiffchaff:

  1. As a rule, the entire upperparts of ibericus are purer moss green than on Common Chiffchaff, lacking the brown tinge on crown and mantle usually present in collybita in freshly moulted plumage in early autumn a very slight brownish tinge can be found on the greenish upperparts of some Iberian Chiffchaffs
  2. More tinged yellowish-green on sides of head and neck, and has no buff or brown hues at all, or only very little of it behind the eye and on ear-coverts. The breast is whitish with clear yellow streaking
  3. Typically, has vivid lemon yellow undertail-coverts, contrasting with a rather whitish centre to the belly
  4. Supercilium on average more pronounced and more vividly yellow, particularly in front of and above the eye
  5. On average, the legs are a trifle paler brown on Iberian than on Common Chiffchaff, though many are alike
  6. Bill is very slightly stronger [though I find this one of very little use in the field!]
IberianChiffchaff_Gandiol_IMG_2750_edited

Iberian Chiffchaf / Pouillot ibérique, Gandiol, 31 March 2016 (BP). Note yellowish supercilium, undertail and flank streaks, dull greenish upperparts, pale brown legs, whitish belly, and apparently also pale bill base

 

Clearly these are mostly subtle differences and when identifying on plumage alone, a combination of characters should typically be used. Confusion with Willow Warbler is not unlikely, even by experienced birders, and I’m assuming that at least some Iberians are noted as Willow Warbler, especially in mid-winter in northern Senegal when Willow Warbler should in fact be rare, as it winters chiefly in the forest zone further south. The longer wings, pale underparts and paler legs can indeed result in striking similarities between Willow and Iberian. A good pointer to separate these two is that the latter typically dips its tail while feeding, whereas Willow, Warbler characteristically flicks its wings while moving its tail sideways.

The two pictures below were taken by Frédéric Bacuez near Saint-Louis, on 18.4.16 (top) and 20.1.13 (bottom), and while it’s probably impossible to be certain, I do tend to believe these are Iberian Chiffchaffs.

 

Bango, April 2016 (© F. Bacuez)

2013 01 20 9h30. Pouillot fitis apr_s le bain, dans l'eucalyptus. Photo par Fr_d_ric Bacuez, IMG_9104 (2)

Iberian Chiffchaff or Willow Warbler? I tend to think it’s an ibericus (© F. Bacuez)

 

The vocalisations on the other hand are far more reliable and are indeed always ideal in order to confirm an Iberian Chiffchaff, particulary the song. While there’s some variation and there may be some “mixed singers”, the difference with Common Chiffchaff is usually obvious (though maybe a bit less so on this one from Wassadou). It’s worthwhile pointing out though that besides the quite distinctive song, a good yet undervalued criterion is the call of the species – see this nice summary on the Turnstones blog (and also Collinson & Melling 2008, who state that the call “in sharp contrast to that of Common Chiffchaff, is downwardly inflected, from 5 to 3 kHz, transcribed as ‘piu’ or ‘peeoo’, perhaps reminiscent of the call of Siskin” – now compare with my recording from Technopole (same bird as in the song recording): I wouldn’t say this sounds like a Siskin – and even less like a Bullfinch! – and at 3.5-6 kHz the frequency is clearly a bit higher as can be seen on the sonogram below (click to enlarge).

IberianChiffchaff_Technopole_20173112_call_sonogram_XC397677

 

 

Status & Distribution in Senegal

Up to not so long ago, most authors considered Iberian Chiffchaff to be a resident or partial migrant, mostly due to lack of reliable identification criteria at the time. Svensson (again!) provided the most comprehensive overview of our knowledge of the wintering areas in his 2001 paper, concluding that it is “a long-distance migrant which winters primarily in tropical Africa“. This assumption was however based on very few specimens and even fewer reliable field observations. One of these is of a bird “singing like an Iberian Chiffchaff” by Yves Thonnerieux from northern Ghana, and the only two specimens from wintering grounds are from Mali in 1932 (Segou) and 1955 (Bamako); both were found by Svensson in the museum of natural history in Paris (MNHN). A third specimen was collected in January 1955 in Tunisia, suggesting that some birds may winter north of the Sahara; Svensson also showed that the species is present during spring migration in Morocco (at least late March – early April).

With increased “observer awareness” and better reporting systems, recent years have seen a clear increase in field observations from West Africa, described further below. Combined with the absence of any winter records from the Iberian peninsula, I think it’s quite well established now that indeed most if not all Iberian Chiffchaffs winter south of the Sahara.

To further refine its status in West Africa, we turn to our usual suspects: Morel & Morel  provide a single record, presumably obtained by themselves, of a singing bird at Richard Toll on 22-24.2.87 (this is probably the unpublished record “from tropical Africa” that Svensson refers to). This can safely be assumed to be the first published record for Senegal; identification was apparently largely based on song since they write that they compared the song with recordings by Claude Chappuis. It’s quite easy to miss out on this observation though, as ibericus (or brehmi as it used to be known) is only referred to in the annex of Les Oiseaux de Sénégambie (1990), as their sighting was obviously too recent to be included in the near-final manuscript of their book. Of course, the species was at the time still considered to be “just” a subspecies of Common Chiffchaff. Rather curiously, the Morels refer to a significant proportion of Scandinavian Common Chiffchaffs (ssp. abietinus) – up to half! – though we now know that these populations tend to winter in eastern Africa, heading in a south-easterly direction in autumn. Could it be that these were actually Iberian Chiffchaff rather than abietinus?

Moving on, Rodwell and colleagues (1996) refer to three records of calling (singing?) birds in the Djoudj NP in Jan 1990, Jan 1991 and Feb 1992. Sauvage & Rodwell (1998) do not provide any additional records: up to the mid-nineties, ibericus was obviously still considered a rare to scarce winter visitor to northern Senegal. More than a decade later, Borrow & Demey still consider the species’ distribution in Senegal as “inadequately known”, and their map only shows the lower Senegal valley.

As is the case with quite a few other little known taxa that were recently elevated to species rank – think Moltoni’s Warbler, Seebohm’s Wheatear, Atlas Flycatcher – these past few years our knowledge has greatly increased, and it is clear that Iberian Chiffchaff is indeed quite frequent in northern Senegal. Recent reports mainly come from the Djoudj NP – obviously a key wintering site, with decent densities – and from around Richard Toll and Saint-Louis (e.g. Bango, Trois-Marigots, Langue de Barbarie, and see picture above). There are however a number of recent records elsewhere that suggest that the species is more widespread: last winter I was lucky to find a singing bird at Technopole which is thought to be the first record from Dakar; there are also a few reports from the Somone lagoon, though not sure that these are reliable (I have suspected the species here before, but never been able to confirm based on call or song). Rather intriguingly, the species was also seen several times along the Gambia river at Wassadou these past two years: first in December 2017, then more than two months later at least one singing bird that we found on 24.2.18, and again this winter (7.1.19). Finally, another singing bird was reported near Kounkane, Velingara, on 28.1.18 (G. Monchaux) – to our knowledge the first record from Casamance. The observations in these southern locations suggest that the species is more widespread and that it can turn up anywhere in Senegal.

In Mauritania, it appears that up to recently the only records were obtained during extensive field work conducted by the Swiss Ornithological Station, with several birds captured both in spring and in autumn 2003 (Isenmann et al. 2010). There are several more recent reports from around Nouakchott mainly, presumably of birds passing through. In addition to the two aforementioned specimens from Mali, the only other record from that country that I’m aware of is of a singing bird that I recorded in a hotel garden in Bamako, where it was singing for at least a week in January 2016. Burkina Faso should also be part of the regular range, though there again there are just a couple of records, most recently a singing bird reported by van den Bergh from the Bängr-Weeogo park in Ouagadougou in December 2011.

The Xeno-canto range map, which is largely based on BirdLife data, is probably the most accurate when it comes to the winter range (though not for the breeding range, the species being absent from most of central and eastern Spain). It should also include all of northern Senegal, or at a minimum, the lower and middle river valley, particularly the Djoudj NP which is omitted from the map below. I’m not sure that the species has been reliably recorded from Gambia even though there are several unverified observations on eBird. Further north, there are several winter records from Western Sahara between early December and early February, mainly at coastal sites (Bergier et al. 2017), suggesting that not all Iberian Chiffchaffs cross the Sahara. Spring migration is noted from mid-February to mid- or end of April.

IberianChiffMap_XC

 

Iberian Chiffchaff should be present in Senegal and generally throughout its winter quarters from about October to early or mid-April; the earliest observation I could find is one of a bird reported singing east of Richard Toll on 27.10.15. A Danish group reported two birds in Djoudj in early November 2017, but other than that almost all records are from December – February during the peak orni-tourist season.

Paulo Catry and colleagues (including our friends Miguel and Antonio!) showed marked differential distance migration of sexes in chiffchaffs, with females moving further south than males. Their study did not distinguish between Common and Iberian Chiffchaff, but because south of the Sahara (Djoudj mainly), sex-ratios were more male-biased than predicted by a simple latitude model, their findings suggest that among the chiffchaffs wintering in West Africa, a large proportion is composed of Iberian birds, providing further support that these birds are long distance migrants. The ringing data from Djoudj also showed that chiffchaffs display differential timing of spring migration, with males leaving the winter quarters considerably earlier than females [typically, male migrant songbirds arrive a little earlier on the breeding grounds than females, presumably so they can hold and defend a territory by the time the females arrive].

Finishing off with some essential ibericus reading…

 

 

 

 

Évolutions taxonomiques de la liste Sénégal

La littérature disponible pour l’identification des oiseaux d’Afrique de l’Ouest a longtemps été très limitée, et ce n’est que depuis 2002 et la parution du guide Birds of Western Africa de Borrow et Demey que ce manque a été en grande partie comblé. Une deuxième édition de ce guide est sortie en 2014, ainsi que des traductions en français de ces ouvrages (Guide des oiseaux de l’Afrique de l’ouest en 2012 suivi de Oiseaux de l’Afrique de l’Ouest en 2015). Deux déclinaisons nationales de ce guide ont été publiées, à savoir Birds of Ghana (2010) et Birds of Senegal and the Gambia (2012) qui est le guide le mieux adapté pour l’ornithologue visitant le Sénégal, bien que limité à une version anglaise.

La taxonomie utilisée dans ce guide a évolué suite à la publication de nombreux travaux scientifiques, et il n’est pas rare que lorsqu’on parcourt un compte-rendu de voyage récent ou qu’on veuille saisir des données sur une base de données participative comme observado, ebird ou autre on tombe sur des espèces aux noms inconnus ou différents de ceux qu’on a l’habitude d’utiliser. La taxonomie, qui est la science s’attachant à nommer les organismes vivants, est comme son sujet d’étude : vivante. Elle évolue au gré des avancées scientifiques et technologiques, et permet de cerner les liens et différences entre espèces. Les noms donnés aux espèces peuvent donc évoluer, au grand dam de nombre de naturalistes. Cet aspect est à considérer, notamment quand on consulte la littérature ancienne. Un exemple de changement de nom d’espèce générant des erreurs d’appellation dans les carnets de terrain et sur les bases de données en ligne est celui du Pic goertan. Dans le livre de Morel et Morel Les oiseaux de Sénégambie (1990), ainsi que dans le vieux Serle & Morel (1993) – pendant longtemps l’unique guide de terrain pour l’Afrique de l’Ouest – le Pic goertan est nommé Pic gris, qui réfère aujourd’hui à une espèce différente, bien plus rare et présente au Sénégal uniquement dans le nord du pays, anciennement nommée Petit Pic gris.

Les concepts de délimitation d’espèces se font et se défont au cours du temps, et à l’heure actuelle les recherches ne permettent pas encore de lever le voile sur les liens taxonomiques au sein de certains groupes, comme c’est le cas chez la Pie-grièche « grise » que l’on observe au Sénégal, tantôt rattachée à la Pie-grièche méridionale et tantôt rattachée à la Pie-grièche grise. Parfois appellée “Pie-grieche grise du désert”, ce groupe comprendrait alors au moins trois taxons présents dans le pays: elegansleucopygos et algeriensis.

Dans cet article nous listons tous les changements de noms effectifs depuis la parution de la deuxième version du guide Birds of Western Africa, et l’article sera mis à jour à chaque évolution taxonomique. La liste d’espèces proposée par l’International Ornithological Committee (IOC) sera prise comme référence principale ; c’est aussi celle que nous avons suivi pour établir la liste des oiseaux du Sénégal. Nous ne tenons pas compte dans cet article des évolutions taxonomiques n’amenant pas à un changement du nom d’espèce, tels que le changement d’orthographe des noms scientifiques ou les changements dans les rangs taxonomiques supérieurs au rang d’espèce (changement de famille).

Il faut savoir que la plupart des noms nouveaux ne sont pas issus de la découverte de nouvelles espèces, mais de la réévaluation du statut taxonomique d’espèces ou de groupes d’espèces grâce à l’utilisation d’outils et de techniques d’analyse génétique récentes. Le résultat de ces études est le plus souvent un split, qui est la reconnaissance de différentes espèces à partir de taxons avant considérées comme appartenant à une seule espèce. Sur la base de différences génétiques, morphologiques, accoustiques et/ou d’aire de répartition on aboutit alors à la description de nouvelles espèces. D’autres ajouts taxonomiques proviennent de l’étude d’espèces cryptiques, comme chez les drongos dernièrement. Des analyses génétiques ont permis de reconnaître un ensemble d’espèces différentes chez des espèces à large répartition montrant des variations morphologiques mineures d’une région à l’autre.

Si tout le monde s’accorde pour dire que le nombre actuel d’espèces reconnues en tant que telles est sous-estimé, certains chercheurs pensent même qu’il y aurait en réalité plus de 18’000 espèces distinctes, soit près du double du nombre actuellement établi. Des travaux récents (Fuchs et al. 2018) ont par exemple révélé que le Drongo brillant, espèce couramment observée dans les savanes ouvertes africaines, comprend un minimum de cinq espèces, et que le Drongo de Ludwig présent dans nos contrées est en fait une espèce bien distincte auparavant passée inaperçue.

forktaileddrongo_kamobeul_20190119_img_2183

Glossy-backed Drongo / Drongo “brillant” (Dicrurus divaricatus), Ziguinchor, Jan. 2019 (B. Piot)

Les résultats de tels travaux scientifiques ne sont pas toujours reconnus par toutes les instances nationales et internationales en charge de la taxonomie et de la nomenclature, et certaines instances reconnaissent un plus grand nombre d’espèces que d’autres. Afin de se maintenir au courant des avancées récentes en termes de taxonomie, il est possible de consulter le site web de l’IOC qui résume biannuellement les résultats des travaux scientifiques dédiés.

Voici donc la liste des principaux changements taxonomiques à prendre en compte depuis la publication du Birds of Senegal and the Gambia (2012) :

Puffin de Macaronésie (Puffinus baroli) ⇒ splitté en deux espèces présentes au Sénégal : Puffin de Macaronésie – Barolo Shearwater (Puffinus baroli) et Puffin de Boyd – Boyd’s Shearwater (Puffinus boydi). Il n’y a pas si longtemps que cela, ces taxons étaient considérés comme faisant partie du “Petit Puffin” (P. assimilis).

Puffin cendré (Calonectris diomedea) ⇒ splitté en deux espèces présentes dans les eaux côtières du Sénégal : Puffin de Scopoli – Scopoli’s Shearwater (Calonectris diomedea) et Puffin cendré – Scopoli’s Shearwater (Calonectris borealis). Auparavant, même le Puffin du Cap-Vert faisait partie de C. diomedea. Nous avions résumé les principaux critères d’identification de ces trois puffins dans cet article.

Scopoli's Shearwater / Puffin de Scopoli

Scopoli’s Shearwater / Puffin de Scopoli, Ngor, Nov. 2017 (B. Piot)

 

Grand Cormoran (Phalacrocorax carbo ssp lucidus) ⇒ Cormoran à poitrine blanche – White-breasted Cormorant (Phalacrocorax lucidus) ; à noter que le Grand Cormoran (Phalacrocorax carbo) est également présent sur la liste Sénégal. Le rattachement de la sous-espèce maroccanus du nord-ouest de l’Afrique à l’une ou l’autre de ces deux espèces reste sujet à discussion.

Milan parasite (Milvus migrans ssp parasitus) ⇒ Milan d’Afrique – Yellow-billed Kite (Milvus aegyptius parasitus), appelé “Milan noir d’Egypte” sur observado.org ; le Milan noir (M. migrans) est présent en tant qu’hivernant. Ce split n’a pas été retenu par le HBW, contrairement à la plupart des autres références.

Autour tachiro (Accipiter tachiro) ⇒ Autour de Toussenel – Red-chested Goshawk (Accipiter toussenelii) ; en Afrique de l’Ouest c’est la ssp. macroscelides qui est présente.

Autour de Toussenel - Dindefelo Feb 2018 - Alain Barbalat - small.jpg

Red-chested Goshawk / Autour de Toussenel, Dindefelo Feb. 2018 (A. Barbalat)

 

Talève sultane (Porphyrio porphyrio) ⇒ Talève d’Afrique – African Swamphen (Porphyrio madagascariensis)

AfricanSwamphen_Technopole_20180822_IMG_3099

African Swamphen / Talève d’Afrique, Technopole, Feb. 2018 (B. Piot)

 

Calao à bec rouge (Tockus erythrorhynchus) ⇒ Calao occidental (ou Calao de Kemp) – Western Red-billed Hornbill (Tockus kempi)

20160319_WesternRedbilledHornbill_Guereo_IMG_2554_small

Western Red-billed Hornbill / Calao occidental, Guereo, March 2016 (B. Piot)

 

Hirondelle rousseline: la sous-espece domicella élevée au rang d’espèce devient l’Hirondelle ouest-africaine – West African Swallow (Cecropis domicella), résidente dans le sud et l’ouest du pays. L’Hirondelle rousseline (C. daurica) est donc également visible au Sénégal en tant qu’hivernant et migrateur venu des régions méditerranéennes.

Traquet de Seebohm – Seebohm’s Wheatear/Black-throated Wheatear (Oenanthe seebohmi) : Traité comme espèce par HBW et d’autres auteurs mais pas (encore) par IOC, pour qui c’est encore une sous-espèce du Traquet motteux ; voir notre récent article traitant de l’identification puis du statut de ce taxon.

Traquet à ventre roux (Thamnolaea cinnamomeiventris) ⇒ Traquet couronné – White-crowned Cliff Chat (Thamnolaea coronata) ; ce traquet inféodé aux milieux rupestres du sud-est du Sénégal hérite d’un nom on ne peut moins adapté à son plumage, sa tête étant uniformément noire.

Hypolaïs obscure – Western Olivaceous [= Isabeline] Warbler (Iduna opaca) élevée au rang d’espèce et séparée de l’Hypolaïs pâle – Eastern Olivaceous Warbler (Iduna pallida) ; si la première est très commune au Sénégal, la ssp. reiseri de l’Hypolaïs pâle est un visiteur bien plus rare et encore assez méconnu.

Eastern Olivaceous Warbler / Hypolaïs pâle, Guereo, mars 2016 (B. Piot)

Fauvettes « passerinettes » splittées en 3 espèces, dont 2 sont sur la liste du Sénégal : Fauvette passerinette – Western Subalpine Warbler (Sylvia inornata) et Fauvette de Moltoni – Moltoni’s Warbler (Sylvia subalpina). Nous avions résumé les connaissances sur l’aire d’hivernage de cette dernière dans un article paru dans la revue Malimbus en 2017.

Cisticole roussâtre (Cisticola galactotes) ⇒ Cisticole du Nil – Winding Cisticola (Cisticola marginatus)

Camaroptère à tête grise (Camaroptera brachyura) ⇒ Camaroptère à dos gris – Grey-backed Camaroptera (Camaroptera brevicaudata)

Gobemouche méditerranéen – Mediterranean Flycatcher (Muscicapa tyrrhenica) splitté du Gobemouche gris (M. striata) et également présent au Sénégal. Les deux taxons sont très délicats à identifier sur le terrain, et ce split n’a pas été adopté par toutes les instances.

Gobemouche de l’Atlas – Atlas Pied Flycatcher (Ficedula speculigera) élevé au rang d’espèce; le Gobemouche noir est bien sur également présent en hiver.

Pie-grieche méridionale ssp elegans et leucopygos – Southern Grey Shrike (Lanius meridionalis) ⇒ Pie-grièche grise – Great Grey Shrike (Lanius excubitor), attention taxonomie très fluctuante et potentiellement amenée à évoluer : il paraît assez logique que les Pie-grièches “grises” d’Afrique du nord et du Sahel soient élevées au rang d’espèce, la Pie-grièche du désert.

SouthernGreyShrike_Gandiol__20171225_IMG_7170

“Great” Grey Shrike / Pie-grieche “grise” ssp. elegans, Gandiolais, Dec. 2017 (B. Piot)

 

Pie-grièche isabelle (Lanius isabellinus) ⇒ splittée en 2 espèces, Pie-grièche du Turkestan – Red-tailed Shrike (Lanius phoenicuroides) et Pie-grièche isabelle – Isabelline Shrike (Lanius isabellinus), celle présente au Sénégal étant vraisemblablement la première.

Drongo brillant (Dicrurus adsimilis) ⇒ Dicrurus divaricatus (Glossy-backed Drongo, nom français pas encore connu; on pourrait logiquement retenir le nom d’origine donc Drongo brillant).

Drongo de Ludwig (Dicrurus ludwigii) ⇒ Drongo occidental – Western Square-tailed Drongo (Dicrurus occidentalis) – voir notre billet au sujet de ce taxon.

Bruant cannelle (Emberiza tahapisi) ⇒ Bruant d’Alexander – Gosling’s Bunting, parfois aussi appellé Grey-throated Bunting (Emberiza goslingi).

Gosling's Bunting / Bruant d'Alexander

Gosling’s Bunting / Bruant d’Alexander, Gamadji Sare, Jan. 2018 (B. Piot)

 

Plusieurs splits sont attendus dans le futur, notamment la séparation des populations africaines et américaines de la Sterne royale, le changement de statut de la sous-espèce africaine de l’Agrobate roux (Agrobate mineur, qui deviendrait alors Cercotrichas minor), la séparation entre le Tisserin à cou noir et le Tisserin pirate (Ploceus brachypterus), l’Amarante masqué splitté en trois taxons distincts (dans la sous-région, elle devient alors l’Amarante vineux, Lagnosticta vinacea). Et bien d’autres encore !

Sterne royale / Royal Tern ssp. albidorsalis, île aux oiseaux, delta du Saloum, mai 2012 (S. Cavaillès)

 

Affaire à suivre!

 

Simon & Bram

 

Status & Distribution of Seebohm’s Wheatear in Senegal

This is the second part of a review of what we know about Seebohm’s Wheatear in Senegal, the first part covering its identification in autumn and winter. As already mentioned in that piece, this species has a pretty restricted range, breeding only in the Middle and High Atlas of Morocco and Algeria, generally above 1500 meters asl. Until fairly recently it was considered more of an altitudinal or short-range migrant, but it’s clear now that it’s actually a medium-range “total” migrant (i.e. all populations tend to migrate away from breeding grounds – not surprising given that much of it is covered in snow during winter!).

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Seebohm’s Wheatear / Traquet de Seebohm m. ad. on breeding grounds at Oukaimeden (Morocco), April 2018 (© F. Bacuez)

 

The non-breeding range of “Black-throated Wheatear” is given by the Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive as “West Africa (mainly SW Mauritania and Senegal to W Mali, occasionally in S Morocco)”. However, the HBW range map is rather incorrect: all regions of Senegal and Gambia and even Guinea-Bissau are included, although as far as I know the species has never been reported from the latter two countries. The same applies to Guinea and Burkina Faso which are also partly included in the range. Let’s hope that this will get corrected soon – the HBW species page of this newly recognised taxon (formerly considered a subspecies of Northern Wheatear) was only fairly recently published online, and is obviously work in progress.

The winter distribution in Shirhai & Svensson (2018) on the other hand seems more accurate, though perhaps a bit too conservative in that it includes only a very small part of western Mali. Judging by the data available on the Biodiversité Al-Maghrib portal, it’s clear that some birds winter may further to the north, much closer to the breeding grounds. Indeed, there are several observations from southern Morocco and from the Western Sahara from December-February, and it’s easy to imagine that it’s rather beneficial for these birds if they can avoid crossing the Sahara. There are also a few recent records from the Adrar region in Mauritania, e.g. this one and this one by Wim van Zwieten and friends seen at the end of December last year, suggesting that this area may also be part of the species’ winter range.

The Shirihai & Svensson map is most likely largely based on a paper on Seebohm’s Wheatear in West Africa by Förschler and colleagues (2008), which to date gives the most comprehensive overview of our knowledge of its wintering grounds in the Sahel, following field work they undertook in western Niger, Mali and Mauritania combined with a review of published data. They note that “although seebohmi was previously thought to be a resident or only a partial migrant by some authors, it is now considered a true migrant, with the majority of the population leaving Morocco and Algeria in winter. Browne (1982) found a major wintering area, roughly estimated to hold at least 50,000 individuals, in the eastern part of south-west Mauritania […].” They also refer to three more southern records from Djoudj NP (mentioned by Rodwell et al. 1996), and conclude that “the majority of this taxon’s population appears to winter immediately south of the Sahara, in the Sahel zone of southern Mauritania, northern Senegal and north-west Mali between 15–18°N and 09–16°W, although its wintering grounds may range even further east, including parts of central Mali.

SeebohmsWheatear_Adrar_Dec2018_WimvanZwieten

Seebhm’s Wheatear / Traquet de Seebohm, Atar 30 Dec 2018 (W. van Zwieten)

 

Away from its regular range, there are a few scattered records of Seebohm’s Wheatear in the Mediterranean and one from the Netherlands (April 2017), plus a couple of possible sightings from the UK: Italy (one in April 2014 in Sardinia), Gibraltar, Malta, Tunisia, and several times in the Libyan desert and even once from western Egypt. It’s also on the list of the Canary Islands, and apparently also reported from Cameroon, as per Arnoud B. van den Berg on DutchAvifauna,nl). So it’s definitely a species to have on one’s radar when encountering an unusual wheatear in western and southern Europe; I can imagine that one day a fine male will show up in spring in the Camargue, the Spanish coast or on the Balearic islands – or pretty much anywhere north of its range for that matter.

 

Status & Distribution in Senegal

In Senegal, in addition to the aforementioned Djoudj records, the species has been reported from the Richard-Toll, Dagana, Podor and Ndioum areas, and at least once from the lower Senegal valley, on 2.3.09 by Frédéric Bacuez, Ornithondar. Of course, Frédéric had already provided a comprehensive overview of the distribution of Seebohm’s Wheatear in Senegal, more precisely in this blog piece from 2016. The Morels mention several spring records (13 March – 14 April) in the middle Senegal valley as far upstream as Salde, plus one from early January 1981 near Richard-Toll seen by Alan Tye. They also report the presence on two occasions some 60 km south-east of Richard-Toll. But that’s about it: not an awful lot of records to go by! It’s quite possible that it may also be found at least occasionally in the Ndiael reserve, around lac de Guiers and into the Ferlo (e.g. Six Forages). These sites are not very often visited by birders or ornithologists, and the recent records that I came across are typically from Richard-Toll and the Podor areas, with the exception of a first-winter male at Saot (ENE of Touba), seen by J-F Blanc in January 2010. No records are known from the Grande Côte, though it’s not impossible of course that the species shows up here at least from time to time.

As can be seen from the map below, northern Senegal is on the southern edge of the species’ winter range, which may explain why most birds seen here appear to be first-winter birds. Adults, and in particularly males, may well winter further north including on the other side of the Sahara as mentioned earlier. Though it’s certainly not rare, the species seems to be nowhere common across its range in Senegal. When we toured the middle valley in January last year, we saw the species in small numbers (1-2 ind. per site) at three different locations: Bokhol, in a sparsely wooded dune depression east of Ndiayene Pendao, and at Gamadji Sare. Some sites such as the Bokhol “fores” appear to be pretty reliable, and a dedicated search would probably reveal other sites where they may be regular and maybe even locally common; in 1973 Seebohm’s Wheatear  was said to be “the most common [wheatear] species in winter in the Podor region”, while Sauvage & Rodwell refer to a total of 18 ind. seen at three locations in February 1993 in the Podor atlas square. There may of course be annual variations, possibly depending on any cold spells in north-west Africa, but obviously more data are needed (as usual!).

The majority of sightings are made between December and early March, but this is when most birders visit the country and it’s likely that Seebohm’s is regularly present at least from (mid?) October and up to early April. In Nouakchott, it’s been seen as early as the end of September (see Rob Tovey’s eBird checklist with two pictures of a fresh autumn male), but when I last visited the Podor region in early October 2018 I did not see any birds on the sites that held several wintering individuals back in January, so it seemed that they had not arrived yet at that time.

SeebohmsWheatear_Bokhol_20180105_IMG_8145

Seebohm’s Wheatear / Traquet de Seebohm 1st winter m. on wintering site in northern Senegal, Jan. 2018 (B. Piot)

 

In short, the main wintering area of Seebohm’s Wheatear lies in Mauritania, northern Senegal and NW Mali, on the edge of the Sahara and in the northern Sahel zone. It is a regular winter visitor to northern Senegal, being scarce locally fairly common along the middle Senegal Valley, from October/November to March or early April.

The main winter range in West Africa should look something like this, though it possibly extends a bit further south in Senegal and further east along the Mauritania-Mali border. And as mentioned already, some birds may winter in southern Morocco and in the adjacent Adrar region of Mauritania, as well as along the coast north of Nouakchott: the below map may well need to be adjusted as such – comment welcome, as usual.

SeebohmsWheatear_Range

Approximate extent of main winter range of Seebohm’s Wheatear / Etendue approximative de l’aire d’hivernage du Traquet de Seebohm

 

Habitat

While its habitat in summer essentially corresponds to Alpine meadows with rocks and stone structures, usually devoid of any trees, in winter the species may inhabit light Sudano-Sahelian woodland, at least along the Senegal valley. Elsewhere, particularly further north in Mauritania, it probably occurs mostly in more open habitat. The Bokhol forest just east of Dagana seems to be a reliable place to find Seebohm’s Wheatear: it is comprised of a mix of Acacia, Balanites aegyptiaca and other trees growing on sandy soil with little or no undergrowth. Indeed, most of the winter range of the species is heavily overgrazed anyway, and away from the floodplains there is generally very little vegetation cover… the picture below gives an impression of the the sad state of what remains of northern Senegal’s “forests” – a very liberal concept here at these latitudes.

ForetdeBokhol_20180105_IMG_8156

Foret de Bokhol – typical lightly wooded habitat of Seebohm’s Wheatear in northern Senegal

 

We’ve also encountered the species on several occasions at Gamadji Sare, where part of the area is also made up of light woodland, not dissimilar to Bokhol, though less mature. Some birds here were seen in more open areas, including right by the bank of the Doué river where this picture was taken:

SeebohmsWheatear_GamadjiSare_20180106_IMG_8554

Seebohm’s Wheatear / Traquet de Seebohm f. (prob. first winter), Gamadji Sare, Jan. 2018 (B. Piot)

 

In much of its range, the species is cohabiting with Northern (ssp. oenanthe and probably also libanotica), ‘Greenland’ (leucorhoa) and Isabelline Wheatear, probably locally also with Black-eared and Desert Wheatears though the latter two species are typically very scarce in Senegal it seems. Heuglin’s Wheatear is also possible in winter in northern Senegal, but it’s much rarer and was added to the national list only recently, following a record in the Djoudj NP in January 2007 (and was found breeding even more recently in the Kédougou region).

 

A brief etymology¹ of Seebohm’s Wheatear

SeebohmsWheatear_Mayaud_1951

Noël Mayaud’s illustrations of Oenanthe oenanthe seebohmi (1951!)

The HBW Alive lists this taxon as Black-throated Wheatear, another rather boring and unimaginative English name. I’ll stick to Seebohm’s. Alternatively, Atlas Wheatear would be a pretty good one as it nicely highlights the restricted breeding range of the species; this name is already in use in Spanish and German, and no doubt in other languages.

But actually, why Seebohm’s Wheatear? Tim Birkhead – author of (at least) two great books, The Wisdom of Birds and Bird Sensewrote about Henry (or should it be Harry?) Seebohm, a 19th century British industrial and ornithologist, most famous for his fieldwork in Siberia. Which doesn’t really explain why our wheatear from the Atlas goes by his name… enter Charles Dixon, who formally described the taxon in 1882 based on a specimen from the Algerian Atlas. A contemporary of Seebohm, Dixon collaborated on Henry Seebohm’s British Birds opus, so I think it’s safe to assume that Dixon named his newly described chat in honour of his friend. 

The term “wheatear” apparently comes from “white” and “arse”, referring to the prominent white rump found in most species.

 

¹ Etymology is the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history. Applied to vernacular and scientific bird names, this comes down to retrieving the origins of these names.

 

Thanks once again to Frédéric Bacuez and Wim van Zwieten, and now also to Jérémy Calvo for making available some of their pictures from Mauritania and Morocco

SeebohmsWheatear - Oukaimeden - April 2018 - © Photo par Jérémy Calvo, DSC_8452-2 - small

Seebohm’s Wheatear / Traquet de Seebohm m. ad. on breeding grounds at Oukaimeden (Morocco), April 2018 (© J. Calvo)

 

 

Identification of Seebohm’s Wheatear in Senegal

Last winter, I had the chance to have a closer look at a species that is relatively little-known, particularly on its wintering grounds: Seebohm’s Wheatear, a former subspecies of Northern Wheatear that was fairly recently (though long overdue it seems) recognised as a full species by many authors, though surprisingly not yet by IOC. These neat little birds have a pretty restricted breeding range, only occurring in the Atlas mountains of Morocco and Algeria. A couple of years ago I had the chance of seeing these birds for the first time, more precisely in May on their breeding grounds at Oukaimeden, birding  hotspot incontournable of the Moroccan High Atlas. As such it was particularly nice to meet up with them on their Sahelian wintering grounds a few months later, during our memorable trip up north in January 2018.

Wheatears can be tricky birds to identify, with several species often posing a bit of an ID challenge, and Seebohm’s is no exception. However, nothing much has been written about the identification of first-winters and adults in non-breeding plumage¹, and depictions in standard field guides may be misleading or even incorrect. In an effort to further our knowledge of the species, we thought it may be useful to summarise what we know based on our limited experience with Oenanthe seebohmi in the field here in Senegal, combined with a brief study of available pictures. Note though that by no means is what follows necessarily a comprehensive overview; additions and corrections are most welcome as usual.

A second blog post will focus on the status & distribution of the species.

SeebohmsWheatear_GamadjiSare_20180106_IMG_8554

Identification in winter

While straightforward to recognise in spring, Seebohm’s Wheatear on its Sahelian wintering grounds can be difficult to identify, mainly because they may superficially resemble Desert or Black-eared Wheatear, while young birds and some females may look like Northern Wheatear. We’ll start by reviewing field characters as found in the most relevant literature: mainly the excellent Robins and Chats (Clement & Rose 2015), Nils van Duivendijk’s Advanced Bird ID Guide (2010), and the recently published seminal reference guide by Shirihai & Svensson (Handbook of Western Palearctic Birds: Passerines, 2018). Let’s see how these can be applied to some of the pictures of presumed Seebohm’s taken in winter.

  • Size & overall impression are very similar to Northern Wheatear, though it is slightly smaller than that species – something that’s not necessarily obvious in the field unless maybe in direct comparison to nominate Northern; it’s clear though that Seebohm’s definitely doesn’t look larger than Northern as is the case with ‘Greenland Wheatear’ (= ssp. leucorhoa) where the size difference is usually obvious in the field.
  • Structure is typical of wheatears and does not appear to be very different from Northern either; the wing is supposedly slightly shorter, though this is not really obvious in the field, several of the pictures presented here actually show rather slender long-winged birds with an important primary projection, rarely giving a more compact appearance. On most pictures presented here we can however verify that the primary projection is slightly less than the length of exposed tertials (Shirihai & Svensson).
  • The bill and tail are said to be “rather longer” than Northern, but these differences are again likely of little use in the field, and I’d imagine that there’s some overlap between species – more measurements on museum skins are likely needed to confirm this.
  • In all plumages, the black terminal tail band is narrower than in Northern Wheatear (on outer tail feather, ca. one third of the length of the feather is black), though yet again this is not a very useful field character unless good pictures of the tail are obtained.
  • Another key difference is that the underwing coverts are entirely black in males, while in females there are pale streaks on dark underwing coverts, unlike in Northern.
2018 02 12, 13h07. Traquet de Seebohm. Forêt de Bokhol. © Photo par Frédéric Bacuez, IMG_9431 (2)+ - small

Seebohm’s Wheatear / Traquet de Seebohm, Bokhol, Feb. 2018 (F. Bacuez) showing blackish underwing coverts.

 

Adult and second-year males are generally straightforward to identify in autumn and winter, when they largely retain their distinctive head pattern, only to a limited degree obscured by pale fringes, combined with very pale underparts and “largely greyish or slighly sandy-grey” upperparts. As a result, adult males should be easy to pick out in autumn and winter, despite not showing the crisp black/grey/white plumage typical of spring males. Still, they remain very distinctive and are unlikely to be confused with any other species, such as this one from the end of March on wintering grounds in southern Mauritania, photographed by the late Robert Tovey (Birding for a lark blog):

SeebohmsWheatear_Aleg_20180331_RobertTovey

Seebohm’s Wheatear / Traquet de Seebohm, m. ad. in spring, Aleg (Maurtiania), 31 March 2018 (© R. Tovey). Note pale buff undertail and lower vent, but otherwise white underparts

The two birds below were photographed in Nouakchott by Rob Tovey, at the end of September and mid-October, respectively. Both are clearly males, and while not very grey, I believe both are 1st year birds (note moult limit on first bird). However, ageing of these birds “requires close inspection of moult and feather wear and pattern in wing” (Shirihai & Svensson) and is often not straightforward – more on this below. This bird on Afbid from January near Richard-Toll, photographed by Nik Borrow, clearly shows an adult-type male, with a largely grey crown, mantle and scapulars.

SeebohmsWheatear_Nouakchott_20170923_RobertTovey

Seebohm’s Wheatear / Traquet de Seebohm, m. ad. in autumn, Nouakchott (Maurtiania), 23 Sept. 2017 (© R. Tovey). Note cold colours, grey & pale brown back, slender appearance, very pale underparts and longish pointed bill

SeebohmsWheatear_Nouakchott_20161015_RobertTovey

Seebohm’s Wheatear / Traquet de Seebohm, m. in autumn, Nouakchott (Maurtiania), 15 Oct. 2016 (© R. Tovey). Fairly similar bird to the previous one but browner and less marked on chin and throat.

 

There appears to be some confusion about the plumage of adult females in the literature, with some authors only mentioning that adult females have a “(dark) grey mottled throat” (van Duivendijk), whereas Svensson in the Collins Bird Guide writes that “females and imm. are often inseparable from [Northern] Wheatear unless showing hint of mottled grey throat (rare though)”. Clement & Rose provide illustrations of an adult male and a dark-throated adult female, but don’t bother illustrating typical females, nor do they show any birds in autumn and winter. They do note that females are variable, ranging from closely resembling typical females of Northern Wheatear, to showing brown ear-coverts and having black or blackish-brown lores to chin and throat tipped with buff, grey or sandy colour – thus more resembling the males in head pattern. Not very clear!

Luckily, Shirihai & Svensson are more precise, stating that adult females are “almost identical to ad. f. (and young m.) libanotica Northern Wheatear, and contrary to previous descriptions nearly always lacks dark bib.” Black- or grey-throated females are thus considered rare. They go on to describe the upperparts as “largely pale grey (with limited sandy-brown suffusion) including on crown. Usually has duskier or almost blackish lores and ear-coverts; whitish supercilium often narrow and short, hardly extending to forehead […].”

Here’s a typical female in spring on the breeding grounds at Oukaimeden, and this picture on Afbid is from May at Ifrane. Adult females in autumn are said to be much as in spring but warmer.

2018 04 24, 18h07. Oukaimeden. © Photo par Frédéric Bacuez, IMG_5214+

Seebohm’s Wheatear / Traquet de Seebohm f. at the end of April, Oukaimeden (© F. Bacuez). This bird may appear darker than usual because of the drab conditions and poor light (yes that’s snow falling there!)

 

The ageing criteria for first-winter birds, according to van Duivendijk, are as in Pied Wheatear [everyone knows these criteria by heart, right?!]: primary coverts with slightly frayed broad white fringes (ad autumn: often narrower and sharply bordered); primaries brown to brown-black often with pointed and worn tips; pale fringes to secondaries complete and cream-coloured; sometimes moult limit visible in greater coverts. There you go, just in case you’d forgotten. Ageing is thus largely based on moult limits, with first winter birds retaining juvenile primaries, primary-coverts and outer greater coverts, whereas in adults these are evenly fresh.

Back to Shirihai & Svensson, who state that first-winter males are “more female-like and rather feature-less, but still approaches fresh ad. m., having greyer upperparts and darker face with exposed black mottling especially on sides and lower throat; warmer below (Variation poorly known and requires more study)”, and that first-winter females have the “least contrasting plumage, with paler face pattern, and browner/duller ear-coverts.”

Let’s put the above to the test on some of our pictures from Senegal!

The following four photographs show three different birds from January; all are presumed to be first-winter males with varying levels of black extent on the face and throat. I initially assumed these to be adult males, but judging by the description of non-breeding males (by Shirihai & Svensson mainly) and compared to some of the pictures presented earlier on and those in Förschler et al., I now tend to label them as first-winter birds – mainly because of the overall sandy-coloured upperparts, mostly lacking grey tones. Again, keep in mind that ageing of these birds can be tricky and is not always possible! In the first bird, note the largely black throat and face appearing rather “smudged”, a fairly large white front merging into a clear whitish eyebrow extending well beyond the eye, and largely pale sand-coloured mantle and scapulars, the latter with a hint of light grey. The wings in the bird below appear relatively contrasted black and white, with extensive white fringes to the secondaries.

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Seebohm’s Wheatear / Traquet de Seebohm, first-winter (?) male, Gamadji Sare Jan. 2018 (B. Piot)

In this picture of the same bird, the greyish scapulars and some grey mottling on the back are more apparent:

SeebohmsWheatear_GamadjiSare_20180105_IMG_8287

Seebohm’s Wheatear / Traquet de Seebohm, Gamadji Sare, Jan. 2018 (B. Piot)

This one taken earlier that same day in a different location shows a bird with less white on the chin and gives a very “cold” impression, though this is certainly exaggerated by the subdued early morning light. See also this picture of the same bird, as well as the second picture in this post (the one with spread out wings) which may well show the same bird, five weeks later in the same spot. Not sure about sex here – probably a male, but we probably can’t exclude a dark-throated female.

SeebohmsWheatear_Bokhol_20180105_IMG_8140

Seebohm’s Wheatear / Traquet de Seebohm, Bokhol, Jan. 2018 (B. Piot). Besides the black “smudge” on the face, note the cold colours and pure white underparts. Tentatively identified as a first-winter male.

The same goes for this one from last December, taken by Wim van Zwieten near Podor. This bird also has fairly little black on the face but extensive pale fringes to greater and primary coverts as well as to secondaries, suggesting a first-winter male, though again not sure it can safely be sexed. These birds may be mistaken for Desert or Black-eared Wheatear (the black-throated form of which sometimes occurs in Senegal, though it’s probably rare), even by experienced birders.

SeebohmsWheatear_Podor_Dec2018_WimvanZwieten

Seebohm’s Wheatear / Traquet de Seebohm, near Podor, Dec. 2018 (© Wim van Zwieten)

The next bird gives a very pale impression, with uniform light sandy upperparts and a white lower breast, flanks, belly and vent. The upper breast are warmer tinged with a buffish wash extending down from the ear coverts, and so are the undertail coverts. The black or dark brown loral stripe is reminiscent of Isabelline Wheatear, but it has a narrow yet distinct supercilium both in front and behind the eye and has a different ‘jizz” and wing pattern than Isabelline. I’ve concluded that it’s a first-winter female, but as always would stand happy to be corrected. Either way, the very white underparts and pale upperparts stand out and should immediately point to Seebohm’s.

Seebohm's Wheatear / Traquet de Seebohm

Seebohm’s Wheatear / Traquet de Seebohm presumably 1st winter female, Gamadji Sare, Jan. 2018 (B. Piot).

 

Of course, identifying a female or 1st winter bird in a vagrant context is something else. While not necessarily impossible, it will require a combination of characters as well as proper photographic documentation of underwing and tail pattern in particular. There have been at least two suspected birds in autumn in the UK but which could not be confirmed as definite Seebohm’s (read up more on these tricky birds here on Birding Frontiers). The first confirmed sighting for NW Europe was of a male in May 2017 in the Netherlands, a typical case of “overshooting” by North African or Mediterranean species during spring migration. Elsewhere in Europe, the species has been reported as a vagrant from Gibraltar, Italy, Malta, the Canary Islands.

Stay tuned for part II!

 

– Bram, with thanks to Frédéric, Simon, and to Wim for the use of his picture. And most importantly, a posthumous tribute to Robert Tovey who in a short few years made valuable contributions to our knowledge of birds in Mauritania, before unexpectedly passing away in September last year. 

 

¹ Note (19.2.19): The only exception is actually a remarkable paper written by Mayaud in… 1951, in the French journal Alauda (19:88-96): Le plumage prénuptial d’Oenanthe oenanthe seebohmi (Dixon), in which the author provides a detailed description of birds in non-breeding plumage.