Birding the forests of Basse-Casamance: of Cuckoos, Boubous, Bulbuls, Illadopsises & co.
Once again I recently had the chance to spend a few days in Casamance. In Bruno’s expert company, we targeted a number of little-explored forests in the south-west of the region, hoping to find some of the region’s special forest dwellers. Many of these are active and very vocal at this time of the year, and intra-African migrants such as cuckoos are now moving north with the rains. With the national park still being off-limits, we concentrated on some of the smaller forest in the Ziguinchor and Oussouye areas. We weren’t disappointed: in just three days in the field, we recorded no less than 186 species, not bad considering that we spent most of our time in various forests where diversity is not generally very high and birds can be difficult to detect. Our surveys also allowed to fill in a few more gaps in the distribution maps of the Casamance bird atlas, and we collected some interesting breeding records for a number of species.
In order of appearance:
Shortly after my arrival, a late afternoon stroll around the village of Kantène, just outside Ziguinchor, turned up the usual suspects as well as a couple of Pale Flycatchers and the first of many cuckoos of the trip: singing African and Diederik Cuckoos, both recently arrived in anticipation of the raining season, during which they breed in Senegal. Just warming up, getting ready for the next few days!
July 4: the forests around Oussouye
The next morning we got up ridiculously early so as to be in the Boukitingo forest shortly after dawn, the start of a full day out birding pretty much non stop around Oussouye. A pre-dawn pitstop at the Etome bridge brought a surprise under the form of a singing White-backed Night Heron, a poorly known species here that Bruno had already seen on a couple of occasions around Ziguinchor, even managing to find a nest at a disused gravel pit. The forest itself held cool birds such as Ahanta Francolin, White-spotted Flufftail, Black-throated Coucal, Puvell’s and Brown Illadopsis, White-tailed Alethe, Green Hylia, Green Crombec, Olive Sunbird – all species that in Senegal are largely restricted to the westernmost forests of Casamance. The flufftails, coucals and illadopsises were particularly vocal, as were African, Klaas’s and Diederik Cuckoos. We got decent views of the two illadopsis species, both usually difficult to see, and even the Alethe made a brief appearance! Perhaps best of all in terms of new records was at least one White-throated Greenbul, one of these very little-known species in Senegal that apparently hasn’t been reported for many years. Difficult to spot in the dark understorey of the forest, we only good poor views but luckily the bird was quite vocal, allowing us to confirm its identity later on (listen here). A pair of Red-breasted Swallows was a bonus as we emerged from our 3-hour tour of this part of the forest – eBird checklist here..
Moving on, a few stops en route to Elinkine produced several additional species including Piping Hornbill, Whistling Cisticola, Northern Black Flycatcher, two Lanner Falcons, Plain-backed Pipit (a small group with several juvs.). Mid-afternoon we visited the wetland near Kagnout where Cuckoo Finch was found last winter, and added more good stuff to the list: African Hobby, Greater Painted Snipe, Collared Pratincole, our first returning Wood Sandpipers of the season as well as five Black-tailed Godwits, Yellow-throated Longclaw, Quailfinch, and an adult Lesser Moorhen soon followed by two Red-headed Queleas – for both species, my first records in Senegal and just two of several additions to my country list. The queleas were in a large flock of Yellow-crowned Bishops, while two Yellow-mantled Widowbirds were seen on the edge of the marsh. Alas no Cuckoo Finches, maybe next time!
Next stop was a protected forest patch roughly half-way between Mlomp and Oussouye and located just witin one of the lesser explored atlas squares. Here we again had White-spotted Flufftail and Black-throated Coucal singing and more of the same as around Boukitingo, plus a pair of Western Square-tailed Drongos, Blue Malkoha, African Emerald Cuckoo, and Red-tailed Leaflove. This site clearly has a lot of potential and will hopefully be further explored in coming months.
July 5: Kamobeul/Essil forest, Boutoute wetland
There wasn’t a great deal of activity in the forest, but we did see or hear some good species such as Ahanta Francolin, African Emerald Cuckoo, Piping and African Pied Hornbills, Buff-spotted Woodpecker, Western Nicator, Grey-headed Bristlebill, Yellow-throated Leaflove, Puvel’s Illadopsis, and the unique Capuchin Babbler (nest-building; the westernmost race is now often considered a separate species, aka Grey-hooded Capuchin Babbler, Phyllanthus atripennis). Full list here.
The grasslands held several pairs of African Wattled Lapwings including at least one with a young chick. Also here were a flock of Pin-tailed Whydahs, Yellow-billed Oxpecker, two Violet-backed Starlings, and this beautiful snake, Philothamnus irregularis, aka the Common Bush Snake or Irregular Green Snake.
A short visit late afternoon to the wetlands near Boutoute just outside Ziguinchor – a local hotspots that would merit proper protection – was quite rewarding, and the 76 species that we recorded in less than an hour nicely illustrate the sheer diversity of its birdlife. Two of these were very much unexpected here: first a small group of obliging Bar-breasted Firefinches feeding near the cultivated plots at the entrance of the area, and towards the end of our small tour a Great Spotted Cuckoo. A singing African Emerald Cuckoo was also a nice addition to the site list.
Waterbirds were plenty, likely because there aren’t many places with fresh water left at this time of the year, and included several Allen’s Gallinules, Moorhens, African Swamphens, Greater Painted-Snipes, Spur-winged Geese and a Green Sandpiper to name but a few. A few West African Swallows (sometimes considered a race – domicella – of Red-rumped Swallow) were feeding together with Wire-tailed and Red-chested Swallow, as were some 15 Fanti Sawwings. Short-winged Cisticola and Oriole Warbler were also noteworthy.
July 6: Mpak bush, farmland and remnant forest
A cool Long-crested Eagle was one of the first birds that we saw after reaching this largely unexplored site – just a stone-throw away from the border with Guinea-Bissau – shortly after dawn. We soon encountered some similar forest dwellers to those seen in other locations the previous couple of days: Western Nicator, Grey-headed Bristlebill, Yellow-throated Leaflove, Puvel’s Illadopsis, Yellow-breasted Apalis etc. A Western Bluebill was heard only, singing just one of its characteristic strophes in thickets but remaining invisible. In the same area we enjoyed watching a pair of Blue Malkohas, for once rather well showing themselves and possibly nesting in a vine-covered tree, while Diederik, Klaas’s, African and Red-chested Cuckoos were all singing around us.
Making our way through a small patch of secondary forest, we heard a now familiar sound: Turati’s Boubou! This was actually one of our targets, keen to find out whether it occurs away from Djibelor. Check. We even ended up with some decent views but boy are these birds secretive and difficult to spot, in stark contrast with their vocal activity. In typical Laniarius fashion, pairs were actively dueting, sometimes even three birds together. On the sonogram, one can clearly see the double low plaintive whistle given by the male, and the female “responding” with a harsh slow chatter. Listen here and here to get an idea. With at least 3 or 4 pairs/territories in the area, we more than doubled the known population of the species in Senegal. It’s highly likely that more searches between Ziguinchor and the border will reveal more territories.
The overgrown farmland held a good variety of birds, including Red-winged Warbler, Whistling & Singing Cisticola, and a rather unexpected Moustached Grass Warbler that revealed itself only later, thanks to Miguel who correctly identified what we assumed was Whistling Cisticola singing, on this recording. African Firefinch was seen in two locations; this is one of those birds that up to recently was still considered as unconfirmed in Senegal, but which in fact appears to be rather widespread (though nowhere common) in Casamance and possibly the Kedougou regions. New birds kept popping up left and right, and we ended up with a very respectable 80 species in this area.
Our excitement was only tempered by the sad state of the forest here, much degraded and still actively being logged and cleared for agriculture. At one point as we were heading towards a remnant patch of large trees, a couple of villagers (hunters? contraband loggers? rebels…?) made us turn back, maybe not wanting any intruders to see the forest being cleared right there on the spot. Probably best not to argue when one of them is carrying a gun… On the flip side, it’s probably as a result of the ongoing logging that suitable habitat is created for Turati’s Boubou, allowing it to gradually spread north from Guinea-Bissau whereas up to 10-20 years ago most areas between Ziguinchor and the border were proper forest.
These depressing Google Earth images illustrate how much has changed in recent years in this very area: note how in March 2008 there’s still a continuous dark belt of what seems like largely healthy forest running diagonally from SW to NE, while in April 2019 there are only a few patches are left in the SW corner of the area. Unfortunately this is the sad state of many of Senegal’s forests, protected or not, and more widely throughout the region. We roughly covered from the top right corner (close to a small village) to the central part of this area, which is where the boubous were found.
At this point, the rains arrived, concluding our highly satisfying and pretty successful exploration. Hopefully there’ll be more opportunities in the near future to investigate other forests and further our knowledge of Casamance’s birdlife.