First records of Brown-backed Honeybird in Senegal
Yet another species was added to Senegal’s bird list recently. What follows is an account of recent observations of Brown-backed Honeybird by Gabriel Caucanas and friends, with some edits and additional information I managed to dig up – merci Gabriel!
January 20th 2018. We arrived in Dindefelo after 3 nights inside the Niokolo Koba National Park. Our team of French naturalists (Solenne Lefevre, Carine Lelaure, Geoffrey Monchaux, Valentin Motteau, Eric Sansault and myself) arrived at dusk at the “campement villageois” where our guide, Banna, had booked us for the night. The journey Simenti-Dindefelo was very long and we had many expectations for this wonderful place, as usual for birders. Will we find everything we are supposed to see, in just a single morning? No stress!
January 21st. About a hundred meters after the start of the path towards the waterfall: Blue-spotted Wood Dove, Klaas’s Cuckoo, Northern Puffback. Following the path inside the gallery-forest, we added Green Turaco, Narina’s Trogon, African Blue Flycatcher, Sulphur-breasted Bush-shrike… Even for me, living in Tambacounda for more than one year at that moment, discoveries went on as we saw Red-chested Goshawk, Yellow-breasted Apalis, Green-headed Sunbird, and even a pair of Mali (Kulikoro) Firefinches with two juveniles. What a pleasant walk!
Just like almost every wooded place in Senegal, many Common Bulbuls were foraging and singing along the path. One bulbul-like individual however attracted our attention. After a few seconds of watching the bird, we all agreed that it seemed a little bit smaller than a Common Bulbul with a bill clearly curved at the end, convex. Moreover the undertail was white and the tail seemed heart-shaped ended. Thirty meters above us, the bird sat quietly during a few minutes, looking around, perched on a thin branch. As none of us was a sub-saharan bird specialist, we were not able to identify the species. Fortunately, one of us managed to take a reasonably good picture of the bird. Nothing described in the book seemed to fit to this bird apart from Brown-backed Honeybird… but even if I knew that several new species for the country had been found recently in this gallery forest, no observation was confirmed for Senegal. Our trip in Senegal continued the following days, first around Dande, then in the Boundou Community Nature Reserve and Casamance for the luckier of us. Days were passing without giving us a chance to have time to identify the bird.
On February 4th, I visited Wassadou camp. Many interesting birds were around, as usual for this place: Adamawa Turtle-Dove, African Blue Flycatcher, African Finfoot, Cardinal Woodpecker (a pair carrying food into a hole in a branch of Ceiba pentandra) and the two regular Hippopotamus. Then around 4 pm, a strange bird, again bulbul-like, was foraging and gleaning insects from branches a few meters above me in one of the huge Kapok trees close to the “deck”. What a surprise! It looked exactly the same as the bird we saw a few days earlier in Dindefelo: black curved bill, brownish head, greyish above becoming white on belly, rounded heart-shaped tail and undertail coverts white ending more greyish… Definitely not a bulbul! I again read the page about honeyguides in the Birds of the Senegal and the Gambia (Borrow and Demey, 2011). Yes, it could fit for Prodotiscus regulus, but nothing was said about the heart-shaped tail that I noticed in both birds. How could this be? A new species for Senegal seen twice in less than twenty days, some 200 km away from each other? I was confused… maybe I was just seeing a common bird that I was unable to recognise.
March 10th, Wassadou one more time: White-headed Lapwing, African Pied Wagtail, Shining-blue Kingfisher, Oriole Warbler, Western Banded Snake-eagle… We decided to stay the night. Around 5pm, as I was standing near the deck, I noticed the same mystery bird foraging in the same Kapok tree! But this time, I managed to take decent pictures of it, and I had to admit it was clearly fitting Prodotiscus regulus. Back home, I sent pictures from Wassadou and Dindefelo to Bram and Simon who were able to confirm the identification. Simon added that one claim had been made by two Spanish birders on 30 Jan 2015 at Wassadou, but with no further documentation nor a formal publication (the record was mentioned with a brief description in their trip report, and was included in the ABC Recent Reports).
As such, the records from Dindefelo and Wassadou are the first documented observations for Senegal.
Brown-backed Honeybird, also known as Wahlberg’s Honeybird or Sharp-billed Honeybird (or Honeyguide) is a widespread species across the continent, occurring throughout East and Southern Africa, with a much more fragmented distribution in West Africa. It’s known to be a local “wanderer” within its vast range and as such it’s always quite an unpredictable bird to find, and it’s not clear whether there are any regular migration patterns.
Following his observations from Mali – the first for the country – Marco Thoma identified only 10 other published records for the species in West Africa, with several new ones obtained in recent years from across the region. The closest to Senegal was a single record from Gambia in Sept. 2006, less than 100 km away from Wassadou, then three birds near Bamako in Mali (Jan. 2010), one in Liberia (Mt. Nimba, Jan. 1968), one in Côte d’Ivoire (May 1989). At least four records are known from Ghana where the species was found in 2009 for the first time, followed by singles in 2011 and 2013 (both in January), and a bird seen in Mole NP in March 2016. Further east, there are records from Togo (Aug. 1969), Benin (first record on 21 May 2015), several in Nigeria and Cameroon, etc. It was added to the Guinean list earlier this year by Simon Cavaillès, and the second record for Guinea-Bissau was obtained just recently by Gabriel Caucal and Etienne Rogeau at Madina de Boé (Gabu region), on 6 Feb 18. It’s clearly an overlooked species, and one can expect more observations to be made in years to come (Simon even mentioned this to me [BP] following his record from Guinea – look out for the species in Senegal! How right was he, as always!).
The species is thought to breed in May-September in West Africa: except for a record of a juvenile seen in Nigeria in December, we haven’t come across any breeding records from the region, and while there are observations from pretty much all months, most recent records are from January to March it seems (this could of course be largely related to the much higher observer presence during the northern winter months). Just like other honeyguides and honeybirds – the Indicatoridae – it is a brood parasite, as nicely illustrated by this picture of a fledgling Brown-backed Honeybird being fed by a Bar-throated Apalis. Besides Yellow-breasted Apalis which occurs in both Dindefelo and Wassadou, Grey-backed Camaroptera, Yellow White-eye and various sunbird species are other potential hosts for Brown-backed Honeybird.
Fun fact: during the night of March 10th at Wassadou, I saw two Common Genets, an African Civet and heard Pel’s Fishing Owl calling several times. In the early morning, we saw it, from the boat!
Finally, going back to our subject of interest: I (BP) was lucky to see this elusive species on several occasions, in southern Rwanda for the first time (in a group of other species mobbing a snake, picture here), Harare, and most recently in Cape Town’s famous Kirstenbosch botanical garden, where I managed to record its song. And maybe one day I’ll get to see it in Senegal!
Addendum (4.6) – it turns out that my Swiss friends who spent several days at Wassadou in February also saw the honeyguide, though it wasn’t identified as such. A few blurry pictures taken of a brownish bird in the very same Kapok tree on Feb. 22nd, dug up by Alain, allow us to confirm that it was indeed the Brown-backed Honeybird.
A few references
Roy, K. (2009) First record of Wahlberg’s Honeybird Prodotiscus regulus for The Gambia, Bull. ABC 16(1): 90-91
Valentine, G. (2013) First record of Wahlberg’s Honeybird Prodotiscus regulus for Ghana, Bull. ABC 20 (1): 70
Gabriel (& Bram)