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.
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.
Below are a few pictures of other species seen during the 24 hours we spent at Palmarin.
Let’s see if this spring any American Golden Plovers turn up at Technopole again…
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
Many thanks to the finders for allowing me to write up this post, and to Olly Fox for providing info on the Kartong records.
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:
- 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
- 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
- Typically, has vivid lemon yellow undertail-coverts, contrasting with a rather whitish centre to the belly
- Supercilium on average more pronounced and more vividly yellow, particularly in front of and above the eye
- On average, the legs are a trifle paler brown on Iberian than on Common Chiffchaff, though many are alike
- Bill is very slightly stronger [though I find this one of very little use in the field!]
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.
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).
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.
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…
- Collinson & Melling, 2008. Identification of vagrant Iberian Chiffchaffs – Pointers, pitfalls and problem birds. British Birds 101.
- Svensson, L. 2001. The correct name of the Iberian Chiffchaff Phylloscopus ibericus Ticehurst 1937, its identification and new evidence of its winter grounds. Bull. B. O. C. 121.
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!).
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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:
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
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 Sense – wrote 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
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.
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.
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):
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.
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.
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.
In this picture of the same bird, the greyish scapulars and some grey mottling on the back are more apparent:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Last month I was lucky to be able to sneak out to Casamance for a few days, a region I hadn’t visited since May 2017 when I paid a brief visit to Kolda. Together with Bruno Bargain, resident birder in Ziguinchor, we explored several areas and managed to see a good number of interesting birds. But before going through the highlights of our trip, it’s about time we gave a few more details about the discovery of a new species for Senegal: Turati’s Boubou, found last October by Bruno near Ziguinchor. This West African endemic appears to be resident in small numbers in at least one locality, but it’s likely that it is actually well established in a few other forests of Basse-Casamance.
This latest addition to the national list was expected, so not a big surprise – but still significant, given that this species was so far only known to occur in Guinea-Bissau, Guinea and Sierra Leone. Our assumption that it should be present in Casamance was based on the fact that the species is present just across the border in northern Guinea-Bissau, and that suitable habitat exists in Basse-Casamance which up to recently was one of the least well known regions, ornithologically speaking, of Senegal. A member of the Malaconotidae, Turati’s Boubou is not uncommon within its restricted range, but its secretive habits make it difficult to find – something I experienced first-hand last month when trying to catch a glimpse of one of the Ziguinchor birds: impossible! Outside of the breeding season (likely just before and during the rains, i.e. May/June – October) they don’t appear to be very vocal and don’t necessarily respond to playback. We heard at least two birds singing briefly – a typical ghost-like boubou song – and while at one point one bird was calling just a few meters away in dense undergrowth at the edge of a remnant forest patch, it just did not want to show itself. Next time! The only recording I managed to obtain was of this call, which when we first heard it was a perfect match of the call recorded by Ron Demey in western Guinea, assumed to be that of a female (included in Claude Chappuis’s CD set). Bruno so far obtained just a single picture but was lucky to get good views of several birds, including an supposed pair (at least three different birds have been found since the first sighting on October 10th. Update 13.02: here’s a picture taken just this morning by Bruno, after an hour of patiently waiting for the bird to show…
More field work is of course needed to get a better sense of this little known species’ breeding cycle, distribution and population size in Casamance; I certainly hope to be able to contribute to this effort in coming months. So for now, here’s just a picture of the habitat in which these birds were found: note the dense undergrowth in otherwise fairly open, dry forest.
Of note is that there is at least one unsubstantiated record of Tropical Boubou in Casamance and as a result the species is often listed – incorrectly in my view – as occurring in Senegal: this sighting may in fact relate to Turati’s Boubou which Tropical resembles fairly closely. Even its vocalisations are extremely similar – Chappuis wrote that “it is barely possible to distinguish the two species acoustically” – so it wouldn’t be surprising were this actually Turati’s.
Another target of my short trip was Western Square-tailed Drongo, aiming to obtain sound recordings of this newly described cryptic species which is now included in the reference list maintained by the International Ornithological Committee (IOC 9.1) as a valid species, Dicrurus occidentalis. More on this discovery in this recent blog post. The latest IOC list, published just last week, also includes another taxonomic change in the Dicruridae that affects the Senegal list: the two subspecies of Fork-tailed Drongo D. adsimilis ranging from west to north-central Africa are now elevated to Glossy-backed Drongo D. divaricatus (Fork-tailed Drongo sensu strictu is found in central, eastern and southern Africa). More on the recent taxonomic revisions in a later post…
Anyway, back to Casamance: thanks to Bruno’s excellent field knowledge, we easily found Western Square-tailed Drongo in two locations, and several decent recordings were obtained. While more material is needed, we hope that these will eventually contribute to further our knowledge of vocal differences between occidentalis and its “sister species” Sharpe’s Drongo D. sharpei. As usual, my recordings can be found here on xeno-canto.
During our 72 hours in the field (16-19.01), we specifically targeted a few sites in atlas squares with no or very few records so far, particularly in the area between Bignona and Tionck-Essil where we spent one night in a campement villageois (more on the Casamance bird atlas further down and in this article). All in all we collected close to 400 records of some 175 species, which just highlights the richness of Basse-Casamance.
Birding from dawn to dusk – brilliant!
In addition to the boubou and drongo, some of the highlights were Spotted Honeyguide (lifer! recording of its distinctive song here), Ovambo Sparrowhawk (poorly known and rarely reported species in Senegal), Woolly-necked Stork (a bird flying in from mangroves near Elana), great views and good recordings of Ahanta Francolin which seems to be far more widespread and less of a forest specialist than field guides suggest. And of course, a range of other typical forest species that in Senegal are largely restricted to this part of the country: Buff-spotted Woodpecker, Piping Hornbill, Grey-hooded Capuchin Babbler, Green Crombec, Green Hylia, Little Greenbul, Guinea Turaco, Grey-headed Bristlebill, Puvel’s Illadopsis, Olive Sunbird, etc. (Indicateur tacheté, Epervier de l’Ovampo, Cigogne épiscopale, Francolin de l’Ahanta, Pic tacheté, Calao siffleur, Phyllanthe capucin, Crombec vert, Hylia verte, Bulbul verdâtre, Touraco vert, Bulbul fourmilier, Akalat de Puvel, Souimanga olivâtre).
Obtaining good views – or any views at all for that matter – of these forest specials was often difficult, so I don’t really have any good pictures to share. The two below illustrate quite well how challenging this can be in the forest, especially with my bottom-of-the-range camera:
A few scarce Palearctic migrants were seen, including Booted Eagle, European Bee-eater, House Martin, Grasshopper Warbler – the latter in dense grasses on the edge of dry rice paddies near Ziguinchor, a rare record this far south although the species is probably regular in winter (Aigle botté, Guêpier d’Europe, Hirondelle de fenetre, Locustelle tachetée).
This African Pygmy Goose was one of at least nine birds seen on a pond close to those same extensive rice paddies, where they seem to have bred. Other birds in this area, which we visited late afternoon on my first day in town, included Giant Kingfisher, Purple Heron, Piping Hornbill, Quailfinch, Lanner, Whinchat, and so on (Martin-pêcheur géant, Héron pourpré, Calao siffleur, Astrild-caille, Faucon lanier, Tarier des prés).
Similar habitat often holds pairs of Abyssinian Gound Hornbill which appears to still pretty common in Casamance, allowing me to finally see this impressive bird – by some considered to be one of the ugliest birds roaming our planet, though I beg to differ! – which somehow had managed to elude me so far in Senegal. I’d only ever seen it in Awash NP in the Ethiopian Rift Valley, many years ago… We found a small family group feeding in fields just east of Bignona, and another two birds a few kilometers further along the road to Elana. In the end I saw or heard several birds I hadn’t seen before in Senegal, including 4 lifers, bringing my country list to 507 species by the end of the trip. With the addition of Turati’s Boubou, the national list now stands at 677.
I’d like to highlight once again the fabulous work that Bruno and colleagues from the APALIS association are doing in Casamance: with very limited means – but with a great deal of passion and perseverance – they are slowly but surely putting together a comprehensive picture of the distribution and abundance of birds across the region, currently covering some 450 species. Not an easy feat considering how remote and inaccessible many parts of this remarkable region of Senegal are; Casamance is arguably the most diverse and in many ways the most pleasant and most exciting part of the country, and I for one certainly wish I were able to spend more time there. The latest APALIS newsletter (in French, available here as a PDF) contains multiple interesting records and new discoveries, such as the first records in nearly 40 years in the region of White-crested Tiger Heron (with a brilliant picture!), Senegal Lapwings (six near Kamobeul on 30.9.18; despite its name this is a real rarity in Senegal!), and Winding Cisticola; the first regional records of Glossy Ibis, Sun Lark, Singing Bush Lark, Brown-throated Martin, Great Reed Warbler, confirmed breeding of White-backed Night-Heron, and much more (Onoré à huppe blanche, Vanneau terne, Cisticole du Nil, Ibis falcinelle, Cochevis modeste, Alouette chanteuse, Hirondelle paludicole, Rousserolle turdoïde, Bihoreau à dos blanc). The most significant records will be included in the next “Recent Reports” of the African Bird Club bulletin, to be published in March.
In addition to the routine atlassing field work, our friends are now embarking on a project to survey some of the main heronries and other water bird colonies, using a drone to take aerial pictures of the colonies located in dense inaccessible mangroves, thus enabling estimates of the number of nests for each species. The association is currently raising funds to finance the purchase and operating costs of the drone, so please chime in, every bit helps! Link to fundraising campaign here. And please consider supporting APALIS by becoming a member, which at just 15 Euros is just a, well, bargain 😉
And of course, if you have the opportunity to visit Casamance, please get in touch so we can make sure that your observations get incorporated into the database; Bruno can offer advice about where to go or which birds to target more specifically. Nearly three times the size of Gambia, with a good range of different habitats represented, there’s something for everyone. Any birder coming to Senegal should definitely consider visiting this region, and more generally try to get off the beaten birding track – forget about Djoudj, Richard Toll, the Saloum or even Wassadou (and yes even Technopole): Casamance is the place to be!
Enfin, un grand merci à Bruno et sa petite famille pour l’accueil à Kantène!