Djoudj and Richard Toll
The weekend of 23-25 March I travelled up to Djoudj and Richard Toll, with the specific task, helped at Djoudj by fine resident birder Idrissa Ndiaye, of locating a few less common Sahel and Senegal River delta species for a fellow resident birder. The following notes might be useful for others.
Djoudj is the only publicised, reliable (at least to birders) site in Senegal for Arabian bustard. This is not to say there are not many more, but a review of its status we provided to Birdlife last year revealed nothing but a few opportunistic records confirming its coarse scale range across the Senegalese Sahel has not changed over several decades, whilst its density has probably declined. The Sahel south and east of Richard Toll is simply seldom bird-watched.
Each of our two days of searching at Doudj quickly produced birds; a male and female in flight and the photographed bird, whose dull plumage points to an immature. In the same general area a male pallid harrier, not an easy species to find in Senegal, was a bonus.
The reed fringed dykes near the station biologique were still full of European reed warblers. Several great reed warblers, one seen briefly in flight, were giving loud sub-song, easily audible even in the windy conditions. Easier to see were the occasional river prinias and small groups of african pygmy goose and, west of the station, lesser moorhen. The elegantly marked moptana sub-species of common stonechat (male in the photo below) seems also to be regular by station biologique. This one was along the dyke if one turns left out of the station and takes the first right, with reeds on your right. This is a very localised sub-species, confined to the Senegal River delta and the inner Niger delta (Mali).
If there was a national red list, the attractive zebra waxbill (above) would probably be included. It is associated with taller grassland, often near water, so vulnerable to overgrazing and the tidying associated with agricultural development. The Morels noted its decline in Senegal and Barlow has few recent records from the Gambia. It was good therefore to see several flocks of fifty or more along the route to the Grand Lac. With one group, in shorter vegetation, were a few african quailfinch; picked out by their call and stumpier build in flight. They flew separately from the waxbills and only landed on the ground, usually amongst grasses, making observation more difficult and attempts at photography a failure.
On to Richard Toll, which the newly surfaced tarmac road made an easy 45 minute drive from Rosso Bethio in the dead hours of the hot, late morning. The town is used as a base by the very occasional birders who visit the Sahel east of Djoudj to see a few range restricted species not present near St Louis, or not easily found there. There is probably nothing special about the Sahel near Richard Toll other than its accessibility from the town and that the town has a comfortable river side hotel to recover from the heat and dust; a feature not available further east. One exception to this statement may be the target species fulvous babbler. We had no detailed information on the whereabouts of this species. It is more characteristic of the Sahara and listed by Birdlife as restricted to the Sahara-Sindian biome of Mauritania and further north. It appears to have colonised further south during the Sahel drought period form the1970s-90s (Morel has three records from 1976-82), but not spread out from Richard Toll. This statement goes with the usual caveat that no one is really looking much in the Sahel!
For Richard Toll we precisely followed the guidance in a trip published on Surfbirds for January 2010, itself based on guesswork, but which did find cricket warbler, our prime target species. Following instructions (5km along the Podor road after the bridge in Richard Toll take a track right and scan the grassland and bushes) we located the track and dead annual grasses with occasional low scrub to the right of the first settlements. We started birding in the mid-day heat, not expecting too much activity and concentrating effort on the small clusters of Balanites shrubs that provided a little more cover. The first Sahel species were a couple of the tiny yellow-bellied eremomela. Armed with playback of calls courtesy of the wonderful xeno-canto and its facilities to download MP3s of most of the world’s bird species, the cricket warbler call was used and almost immediately one appeared at the top of the Balanites in which it must have been seeking shade. It was a brief view and encouraged more close search of denser shrub for hidden birds, which soon revealed a group of five fulvous babblers. This was a huge bonus! The birds were reluctant to fly and on doing so moved rapidly to the foot of the next bush, then climbing up the branches to hide in the interior. They were followed briefly to obtain the photos below and then left to rest in the shade.
After a couple of hours respite we returned to the same track and tried a kilometre further away from the Podor road. Birds remained few and there were no further sightings of the desired cricket warblers, but new were spotted thick-knee, speckle-fronted weaver and, in the third photo below, inconclusive views of non-breeding plumage paradise whydahs.
Senegal has both the exclamatory and sahel paradise whydahs, separated behaviourally by the species on which they are brood parasites. Even in breeding plumage the differences are slight and until someone tells me otherwise, these photographed birds remain a mystery. As with my first view of non-breeding pin-tailed whydahs, their behaviour picked them out. The birds vigorously scraped the bare ground with their claws, then pecking on whatever they had disturbed.