Senegal birding and the UK Birdfair 2017
Last summer I had the chance to be in the UK for the Birdfair 2017. This is the largest annual market in Europe for birdwatchers. There is some overlap with bird conservation and many Birdlife partners are there, but this is primarily a place for the buying and selling of everything that birdwatchers desire; books, optics, but especially birdwatching holidays, and this is big business! Bird tour companies from many South American and African countries had flown in staff to advertise their holidays.
At the fair, South African birder Micheal Mills launched The Birder’s Guide to Africa, which aims to tell birders what is most distinctive about each country’s list of birds and where to go in Africa to most easily see each of the continent’s species. Whilst I do not agree with everything in some of the book’s West African chapters, it is a good start for a discussion of bird tourism in Senegal – which for many reasons would deserve a more prominent place on the Africa birding map (one of the many down-sides of taking very much of a quantitative, purely list-based approach to defining birding destinations, as is done by Michael Mills, is that many countries do get the recognition they deserve).
What is unique? Should more birders visit Senegal, and if so what should Senegalese bird guides do to encourage them? It should be said that I am talking about a certain type of birdwatching tourism – visiting places to make lists of unusual birds – which is the profitable market in which the Birdfair sells. From this perspective, the spectacles of Djoudj, the Sine Saloum and Kousmar are still important, but not enough if the birding guide cannot also find the country’s more unique species.
So, how visible was Senegal at the Birdfair? The short answer is almost invisible! Let’s avoid the historical and perhaps linguistic reasons why The Gambia features at the UK Birdfair, and look at all of West and North-West Africa. Geopolitics affects tourism and, correctly or not, many of the region’s countries are seen as more difficult places to organise tours. Unfortunately, these days large parts of Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and northern Nigeria and Cameroon are off-limits to foreign visitors due to ongoing conflict and security concerns. Currently the two most advertised North-West/West African destinations for bird tours are Morocco and Ghana, as destinations for European, North American and South African birders, who are the three main groups.
Let’s take the African Bird Club country lists, which taxonomically almost follow the IOC World Bird List, and query the list. Which species regularly occur in Senegal, but not in Morocco or Ghana and also do not occur widely elsewhere in Africa? This query give Senegal at least 28 “special” species, which it would be a good investment for bird guides to be able to find. Please add your comments to this linked list, which is accessible for editing. Several more could – and probably should – be added, and it’s good to keep in mind that the national list stands at about 680 species (we hope to publish an updated list some time soon on this blog).
Most of the species on this list are birds of the Sahel and the drier, northern regions of the Sudan savanna. The USGS’ excellent recent resources on West African land use shows the western section of the Sahel bio-climatic region, which extends to northern Ethiopia.
Little Grey (or Sahelian) Woodpecker is a classic example. Its patchy distribution, which does not go further east than western Sudan, includes northern Senegal where most recent West African observations have been made, though WaBDaB, which coordinates bird observations for Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad, has a few records.
For the average bird tour operator, Senegal is the easiest destination and there are places where it is often seen (Les Trois Marigots and near to Richard-Toll), but probably many to be discovered – for instance, it was reported just last week “well south of Louga” by a Swedish group. This and many of the Sahel specials are much more species of the Middle Valley described in Bram’s recent trip, than of the more famous Djoudj/St. Louis area and many are not on the Djoudj list.
Other species in the 23 with similarly narrow ranges include Cricket Warbler (present in southern Western Sahara, but very localised it seems); River Prinia (header picture – cryptic species only present in the Senegal River delta, River Niger and Lake Chad, though probably overlooked elsewhere); Sennar Penduline Tit; Golden Nightjar (most recent records from Western Sahara where confirmed breeding, and from Chad); Quail-Plover (hard to find, but there are apparently a couple of reliable sites); and the commoner Black Scrub Robin, Sahel Paradise Whydah and African Collared Dove.
A second cluster of specials occur in and near the Dindefelo reserve, Senegal’s most recent addition to the country’s Important Bird Areas list. This is the only place outside Mali where the Mali Firefinch is reasonably reliably seen. Other species with strange and small global ranges including Dindefelo are Adamawa Turtle-Dove and Neumann’s Starling. The Kedougou area, and Dindefello in particular, probably has more surprises in store and is likely to yield additional Guinean species that just creep into Senegal.
Finally, the sea off Dakar makes the list. Away from the Cape Verde, the Cape Verde Shearwater is only reliably seen elsewhere in Africa, in season, off Dakar and the Iles de la Madeleine trio of Red-billed Tropicbird, Bridled Tern and the recent arrival Brown Booby are common enough in other tropical waters, but with few reliable places in Africa. The Tropicbirds are pretty much guaranteed at any time of the year, whilst the boobies and especially the terns and shearwaters are only present in certain seasons.
And the message from this? Any Senegalese bird guide who gets to know when and where to find these species should have a profitable business and most of the species are far from the hotspots of Djoudj and the Sine Saloum! And to potential visitors – come over and explore, with or without a local guide: you won’t be disappointed.
(post by Paul, with contributions from BP)