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 the latter country. The presence in Guinea is based on an old specimen from Mount Nimba, which I was fortunate to examine in the collection of IFAN here in Dakar, picture below. 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.
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!
Just like last year we’re bringing our readers a summary of the past year, reviewing some of the ornithological highlights and discoveries made in Senegal, and recycling some of the pictures and posts that appeared on this website during the past 12 months.
2018 certainly has been a busy year!
We’ll start with the best of all: the discovery of what appears to be an isolated (?) population of Horus Swifts (Martinet horus), some 3,000 km from the nearest known breeding sites and more than 1,600 km from the nearest observations of the species (in northern Ghana). This is probably one of the least expected range extensions uncovered in West Africa in recent years, and something we’re of course quite excited (and rather proud!) of. We found these birds during an epic 4-day trip up north together with Frédéric Bacuez and visiting birder Filip Verroens from Belgium, in early January. Needless to say, the year started off with a bang! Read up the full story here and on Frédéric’s Ornithondar blog (in French). A few of these neat swifts were seen again in February by Frédéric and Daniel Nussbaumer, then in October by Vieux Ngom and myself when some 50 birds were present, again showing signs of local breeding and confirming that these birds are most likely residents here, and just last week a group of visiting American birders saw about 25 birds at Gamadji Sare.
Just a few days earlier, in fact on the first day of the year, we’d already found another species new to Senegal: a Meadow Pipit (Pipit farlouse) at the Yene-Tode lagoon just south of Dakar. This find was a bit more controversial – but probably more expected than those swifts! – in the sense that the pipit shows a fairly unusual plumage for Meadow Pipit and certain characters fit Red-throated Pipit better. However, the unstreaked rump and especially the diagnostic call, which was heard loud & clear several times at close range (but unfortunately not sound-recorded), safely rule out Red-throated Pipit, several of which were present in the area at the same time. Full story, description and many pictures here.
Continuing on the same theme, this past year saw the addition of two more species to the Senegal list: Brown-backed Honeybird – which had already been reported from Wassadou in 2015 but was not documented – and Turati’s Boubou. The former was found by Gabriel Caucanas and friends first at Dindefelo, then at Wassadou and later in the Niokolo-Koba NP (more info here), the latter by resident Casamance birder Bruno Bargain back in October. Both were more or less to be expected and back in July we’d actually predicted that the boubou would be found in Casamance some time soon, given that it is known to occur just across the border in Guinea-Bissau. We’ll write up more about this species in due course, and I hope to soon visit the Ziguinchor area again and see (and record) this little-known species – stay tuned!
With no less than four new species, 2018 definitely boosted the national list which now stands at a respectable 678 species; more on this in a blog piece we wrote on the topic of the national list, which contains a link to a handy spreadsheet with all species seen in Senegal, with English, French and scientific names.
Of course there were also the usual lot of vagrants, mostly Nearctic waders in the Dakar region and especially at Technopole, pretty much as usual!
- Common Shelduck (Tadorne de Belon): eight in the Djoudj NP on 17/1 were likely the same group as seen in the Diawling just across the border in Mauritania on 30/12, while one at Technopole on 18-19/2/18 confirmed the small influx that occurred during the ‘17/’18 winter: 8th and 9th records!
- Red-footed Booby (Fou à pieds rouges): one was photographed at Iles de la Madeleine on 26/1 but was only identified later on, while at Ngor up to two adults were seen on several occasions in spring (17/5-22/5, and again on 11 and 22/6) and one was seen twice in autumn (13 & 15/11). These are the 2nd to 4th records for this tropical seabird, which was seen for the first time in October 2016 only.
- Cinereous (=Black) Vulture (Vautour moine): an imm. west of Fatick on 30/1 and one (different bird) on 26/2 near Sagata, east of Kebemer. These observations coincide with the first records for The Gambia (Feb. ‘18) and Mauritania (Dec. ‘17). We also reported the first record of the species, which had not yet been published so far – more details on the status of this increasing Palearctic vagrant in this piece.
- American Golden Plover (Pluvier bronzé): one at Technopole on 8 April, followed by two autumn birds, at lac Mbeubeusse on 3/11 and barely a week later a different bird at Pointe Sarene near Nianing on 9-10/11. Read more on this species in Senegal here.
- European Golden Plover (Pluvier doré): one at Île de Saloulou (Basse Casamance) on 3/1.
- Lesser Yellowlegs (Chevalier à pattes jaunes): the 8th record was one at Technopole seen by a visiting birder on 8/2 and relocated on 19/2
- Baird’s Sandpiper (Bécasseau de Baird): the second for Senegal (and first properly documented) was found at Technopole on 25/3 and seen again on 8/4.
- Buff-breasted Sandpiper (Bécasseau rousset): two birds stayed for a remarkably long time at Technopole, being present from 13/1 (at least one) up to 19/2 at least, then again on 25/3 though this was probably a new bird given that regular visits earlier in the month failed to relocate the two long-stayers; these are the 8th and 9th records.
- Red-necked Phalarope: (Phalarope à bec étroit): one at Djoudj on 27/2 is the 6th record at least, though it’s quite possible that the species is a more regular visitor than the handful of confirmed records suggest.
- Franklin’s Gull (Mouette de Franklin): one was seen five times between 20/5 and 20/9 at Technopole; we summarised the status and trends of the species in this post.
As usual there are also several African vagrants to be reported, such as Lesser Jacana (Jacana nain) seen on 31/1 and 17/2 (three birds!) at Médina Afia near Manda, Kolda dept., and at Ross Bethio on 15/7 – there are only a handful of previous records, including just one in the north (more on status of this species in this post by Ornithondar). A Pharaoh (= Desert) Eagle-Owl (Grand-duc ascalaphe) filmed at Richard Toll on 20/1 was the third record. Six Senegal Lapwings were found at Kamobeul (Ziguinchor) on 30/9 – apparently the first record in 38 years! Three other species with uncertain status in Senegal – true vagrants or scarce but regular visitors? – were seen in the Niokolo-Koba area: Mottled Swift in February and June; a Forbes’s Plover in June and an Ayres’s Hawk-Eagle on 6/3 (Martinet marbré, Pluvier de Forbes et Aigle d’Ayres) .
A special mention goes to the Kordofan Lark (Alouette du Kordofan) that was photographed at Richard Toll on 1/3 by a group of lucky Belgian birders; this is the first record in several years, and the first pictures to be made available online for this species, prompting us to discuss ID criteria and status in Senegal of this enigmatic Sahel special, see this blog piece co-authored with Simon Cavaillès – by far the most read article on the blog, with more than 500 views since its publication in April.
Several winter visitors were seen in higher than usual numbers or reached areas further south than their usual wintering grounds, such as Short-eared Owl (Hibou des marais; seen in six locations during January-March including a group wintering at Technopole, following the influx in Nov.-Dec.). Other scarce winter visitors included a Little Gull (Mouette pygmée) at Ngor on 12/1, while a group of five Cream-coloured Coursers (Courvite isabelle) near Maleme Hodar (Kaffrine) on 1/3 were possibly the southernmost record ever. Other examples include a Spectacled Warbler (Fauvette à lunettes) near Kaolack on 3/3, a “Desert” Grey Shrike (now surprisingly lumped again with Great rather than Southern Grey Shrike; Pie-grièche grise) in the Boundou reserve on 15/3, and five House Buntings (Bruant du Sahara) at Richard Toll on 1/3.
As usual, a few birds were spotted outside of their regular range in the country: several Pallid Herons on the Cap-Vert peninsula; an African Hawk-Eagle that gave us a bit of an ID challenge at Popenguine (3/11); a Greyish Eagle-Owl photographed at Trois-Marigots on 10/1 (only a couple of previous records from N Senegal, see story on Ornithondar); a Grey Phalarope on 25/2 at Médina Afia (a rare inland record!); a singing Klaas’s Cuckoo near Dagana on 6/10; a Broad-billed Roller at Bango (Saint-Louis) on 31/8; Grey-rumped Swallow at Technopole (7/7); an early Lesser Whitethroat at lake Tanma on 25/9; a Cricket Warbler near Gueuol (north of Kébémer) on 21/11 (Aigle fascié, Grand-duc du Sahel, Phalarope à bec large, Coucou de Klaas, Rolle violet, Hirondelle à croupion gris, Fauvette babillarde, Prinia à front écailleux). In the Djoudj, a Brown Snake-Eagle was reported on 5/12. Familiar Chat and Green Turaco were reported from the Niokolo-Koba NP for the first time, where further observations of Mali Firefinch were made (Traquet familier, Turaco vert, Amarante du Koulikoro). Several species were found for the first time in Casamance, including Glossy Ibis, Singing Bushlark, Plain Martin, Great Reed Warbler – details will follow shortly on this website (Ibis falcinelle, Alouette chanteuse, Hirondelle paludicole, Rousserolle turdoïde). Away from the better known wintering grounds in the north of the country, an Iberian Chiffchaff (Pouillot ibérique) was singing at Wassadou on 25/2, and the Technopole bird found on 31/12/17 continued its presence until 7/1 at least.
New breeding records include what appears to be the first confirmed breeding for the Dakar region of Little Tern in June at Lac Rose with at least 14 nests; in the same location we found a nest of Plain-backed Pipit, while a Quailfinch at lac Mbeubeusse on 18/11 suggests that the species may be breeding in the niayes region (Sterne naine, Pipit à dos uni, Astrild-caille). Successful breeding of White-backed Night-Herons (Bihoreau à dos blanc) was confirmed in two locations in Casamance and breeding is also likely along the Gambia river at Wassadou where Pel’s Fishing Owl (Chouette-pêcheuse de Pel) must also have bred. Black-winged Stilts (Echasse blanche) bred once again at Technopole where low water levels created decent conditions in April-June. And a nice breeding record was that of a female Standard-winged Nightjar found incubating two eggs at Pointe Sarène on 4/8 (Engoulevent à balanciers).
A few unseasonal visitors were noted, e.g. early Marbled Ducks and a Black-necked Grebe near Djoudj on Oct. 6th, Western Olivaceous and Melodious Warblers as well as a Woodchat Shrike and even two European Bee-eaters in June; an adult Sabine’s Gull at Ngor on 30/7 (first July record it seems?), and summer Yellow-legged Gulls at Lac Rose (Sarcelle marbrée, Grèbe à cou noir, Hypolaïs obscure et polyglotte, Pie-grièche à tête rousse, Guêpier d’Europe, Mouette de Sabine, Goéland leucophée). Up north, a White-throated Bee-eater and a Pygmy Sunbird were photographed in January near Saint-Louis (Guêpier à gorge blanche, Souïmanga pygmée).
We also continued our seabird migration monitoring efforts during 2018, both in spring and in autumn. Spring migration was summarised in two posts (covering April and May) but the autumn totals are yet to be published. Highlights included decent numbers of Long-tailed Skua (500!) and Grey Phalaropes (1,256!) seen in August when fairly strong north-westerlies created ideal conditions to see these highly pelagic migrants from the coast; both species saw new day records for West Africa it seems. Other good ones included at least 19 Barolo/Boyd’s Shearwaters in Aug.-Sept., a Sooty Tern on 17/9 and several Bridled Terns, while Great Shearwaters passed through in modest numbers around mid-November (Puffin de Barolo/Macaronésie, Sterne fuligineuse, Sterne bridée, Puffin majeur). A pelagic trip on October 1st yielded reasonable numbers of Wilson’s Storm-Petrels (Océanite de Wilson), some shearwaters and skuas, but no rarities this time round. A visiting birder was lucky to see a White-faced Storm Petrel on 3/12 at Iles de la Madeleine, while an observation of Band-rumped Storm Petrel was reported far offshore off Saint-Louis on 25/9 (Océanites frégate et de Castro).
On the ring recovery front, we managed to read some 100 colour rings, mainly of Audouin’s and Slender-billed Gulls (41 & 19, resp.) but also several Greater Flamingos from Spain, a Common Ringed Plover from Portugal, and the first mentions of Avocet in our database (two birds from Spain) as well as a French Mediterranean Gull (“RV2L”) which appears to be the first recovery of this species from Senegal (Goélands d’Audouin et railleur, Flamant rose, Grand Gravelot, Avocette, Mouette mélanocéphale). I now have some 420 ring recoveries in my little database: maybe this year I’ll find time to write up some of the key findings.
A few blog posts on birding sites and other topics were published in 2018, namely the following:
- Senegal as a destination for birders, written up by Paul Robinson following his visit to the UK Bird Fair in 2017
- Blog posts on the birds of Dindefelo and Wassadou following visits to these two major birding hotspots in the south-east of the country
- The Casamance Bird Atlas by the association APALIS
- Birding the Niokolo-Koba: guest blog by John Rose and Dimitri Dagone
- The formal protection of Technopole back in October was of course a major event
- A xeno-canto audio guide to the birds of Senegal
- Last but certainly not least, the last blog piece of the year covered the description of a new species of Square-tailed Drongo
We’ve also been pretty active writing up more formal pieces on birds in Senegal, with several articles published in 2018. This post is actually getting a bit too long so I’ll write about these recent publications in a forthcoming article. For now, go out birding!
Finally, thanks to all our readers for their support and encouragement throughout the year, which has seen a further increase in number of page views (almost 25,000) and website visitors. Oh and do let me know if I forgot anything in the above review, which is just an informal overview – nothing official here!
It’s not every day that a new bird species is described from West Africa, but thanks to some remarkable detective work by Jérôme Fuchs and colleagues, we now know that the “Square-tailed Drongos” occurring in West African forests should be considered a separate species. The researcher from the French National Museum of Natural History and his co-authors from Guinea, Denmark and the US describe what they named Western Square-Tailed Drongo Dicrurus occidentalis in a paper published earlier this year in the journal Zootaxa: Taxonomic revision of the Square-tailed Drongo species complex (Passeriformes: Dicruridae) with description of a new species from western Africa. The full paper is available on ResearchGate and a nice summary is to be found on this site. The abstract is reproduced below.
In summary, Western Square-tailed Drongo is genetically distinct from its “sister species” Sharpe’s Drongo D. sharpei which occurs further east, but cannot be safely identified in the field. The only morphological differences as per current knowledge are bill shape and size: culmen length, bill width and bill height were found to be sufficiently different from Sharpe’s. The authors provide a detailed description of the holotype, a bird collected by Raymond Pujol and Jean Roché on 18 December 1959 in Sérédou in the N’zérékoré region of Guinea. According to the authors, Western Square-tailed Drongo and Sharpe’s Drongo diverged about 1.3 million years ago, resulting in substantial genetic divergence (6.7%).
Here’s one of the only pictures I could find online of what should now be considered D. occidentalis, from La Guingette forest near Bobo-Dioulasso in Burkina. There’s also this one in the Macaulay Library of a bird in the hand from central Nigeria in 1981.
And for comparison purposes, here’s one of D. ludwigii from South Africa:
Western Square-tailed Drongo is known to occur in secondary forest and gallery forest from coastal Guinea to Nigeria, likely as far east as the Niger/Benue River system in Nigeria. It also occurs in Senegal and in nearby Gambia, more precisely in the forests of Basse-Casamance but also in the Dindefelo area where it was recently found. Of note is that the only publicly available sound recording of this taxon is from Dindefelo¹, made by Jean-François Blanc and friends in March 2016 when they found several Square-tailed Drongos on the edge of the Dande plateau (see Blanc et al. 2018. Noteworthy records from Senegal, including the first Freckled Nightjar, ABC Bull. 25 (1), for more details and a photograph of one of the drongos). There are several relevant recordings on Claude Chappuis’s CD set, one from SW Senegal and a few different call types from gallery forests in S Ivory Coast.
More sound recordings are needed to establish the extent of vocal differences between the various taxa within the Square-tailed Drongo “species complex”; it is mentioned in the species account on HBW that there are clear regional differences in vocalisations: in W Africa more muted calls compared with E birds, which have more “ringing” tone – not surprising now that it is clear that these are different species! As is often the case with closely related and morphologically very similar species, the song and calls are often sufficiently different to be useful to safely identify the species. I have some from Mozambique, but now just need to go to Casamance – another good excuse to make it out there¹.
Of course, I was now wondering whether any of the drongos that we saw in February in the Dindefelo forest and along the nearby Gambia river, were Square-tailed rather than Fork-tailed Drongo which is the default species throughout… but at least on the picture below Fork-tailed can be confirmed.
The “new” species also occurs further east, creeping into SW Mali and S Burkina Faso where some decent gallery forest still remains. In this respect, the distribution map in the paper isn’t very accurate and slightly misleading as it doesn’t include these two countries, and the range shown for Senegal is way too large. Hopefully the precise distribution, both in Senegal and elsewhere in West Africa, will be further refined in coming years.
We describe a new species of drongo in the Square-tailed Drongo (Dicrurus ludwigii) complex using a combination of biometric and genetic data. The new species differs from previously described taxa in the Square-tailed Drongo complex by possessing a significantly heavier bill and via substantial genetic divergence (6.7%) from its sister-species D. sharpei. The new species is distributed across the gallery forests of coastal Guinea, extending to the Niger and Benue Rivers of Nigeria. We suspect that this taxon was overlooked by previous avian systematists because they either lacked comparative material from western Africa or because the key diagnostic morphological character (bill characteristics) was not measured. We provide an updated taxonomy of the Square-tailed Drongo species complex.
¹ Update 2.1.19: in mid-January I managed to sneak out to Casamance for a few days, where I obtained several decent recordings of these drongos, now available on xeno-canto. I also managed a couple of decent pictures, one of which can be found here.
Bruno Bargain nous présente l’association APALIS et leur travail remarquable d’inventaire et de cartographie des oiseaux de Casamance.
L’association APALIS a vu le jour courant 2016 avec pour objet principal de soutenir et relayer les activités du GEPOC, l’association-sœur en Casamance, qui a pour vocation d’étudier et de conserver les oiseaux de cette région ainsi que les milieux dont ils dépendent et plus généralement à valoriser son patrimoine ornithologique.
Ce n’est qu’en 2017 qu’APALIS a réellement pris son essor, avec la mise en ligne de son site internet « Oiseaux de Casamance » qui a commencé à la faire connaître (site bilingue français-anglais).
Depuis lors, nous avons cherché à améliorer cet outil pour le rendre plus attractif et en particulier pour restituer rapidement les observations faites sur le terrain via les cartes de répartition par espèce ou par maille. Il manque encore un module qui permettra à tout observateur la saisie en ligne de ses données, mais d’ores et déjà ce site a permis d’enregistrer de nouvelles adhésions et a commencé à susciter des rencontres fructueuses en Casamance d’ornithologues amateurs et professionnels au-delà du cercle restreint initial.
L’avifaune de Casamance est riche d’au moins 531 espèces :
- 318 s’y reproduisent potentiellement, la plupart sont sédentaires, d’autres effectuent des déplacements au sein de la zone tropicale ;
- plus de 115 migrent depuis la zone paléarctique vers la Casamance durant la période internuptiale ;
- le reste concerne des espèces d’occurrence plus ou moins occasionnelle.
Cette belle diversité s’explique par la grande variété des habitats – dunes et plaines côtières, lagunes, cours d’eau, mangroves et marais, rizières et autres zones cultivées, savane arborée… et surtout, la présence de forêts guinéennes encore relativement bien conservées.
L’objectif prioritaire de notre association est, faut-il le rappeler, l’inventaire atlas des oiseaux de Casamance. Pour y arriver, il faut parcourir à différentes périodes de l’année, l’ensemble des 330 carrés 10×10 de la région, ce qui représente un travail colossal pour une poignée d’observateurs ! Durant l’année qui vient de s’écouler, plusieurs missions de quelques jours ont permis d’augmenter significativement le nombre de carrés prospectés. Par ailleurs, plusieurs ornithos africains et européens ont rejoint récemment notre petit groupe de départ, ce qui permet d’envisager une accélération de notre connaissance de l’avifaune régionale. La base de données d’APALIS compte actuellement plus de 20 000 lignes d’informations.
L’atlas est accessible directement à travers ce lien, ou bien depuis la page d’accueil du site Oiseaux de Casamance. La carte ci-dessous donne une idée du niveau de couverture actuel et de l’effort de prospection: la couleur de chaque carré représente le nombre d’observations, alors que le chiffre indique le nombre d’espèces trouvées dans la maille.
De plus, nous sommes conscients que nous devons aussi affiner les connaissances sur les périodes de reproduction des différentes espèces du territoire, les dates d’arrivée et de départ des migrateurs intra-africains et des migrateurs paléarctiques. Nous avons également démarré le dénombrement de quelques espèces coloniales (hérons, cormorans, spatules…) autour de Ziguinchor. Et nous avons en projet d’étendre ces comptages à toutes les colonies de la Basse Casamance en utilisant un drone (un dossier sera déposé dans les prochaines semaines à diverses fondations pour obtenir un financement). Un autre projet, en cours, consiste à inventorier les oiseaux de la partie casamançaise du Parc du Niokolo Koba durant un cycle annuel. Bref, le travail et les idées ne manquent pas !
Le poids d’une association et la qualité de ses actions dépendent du nombre et du dynamisme de ses membres. Nous vous invitons donc à nous rejoindre nombreux, via notre site internet. Votre contribution financière sera bien utile pour acquérir un minimum de matériel pédagogique. Et si vous avez l’opportunité de venir en Casamance, vos observations de terrain pourront être orientées et facilitées en prenant contact avec nous par mail avant votre séjour. Vos données viendront enrichir la base de données.
Une lettre électronique faisant état de la vie et des actions de l’association, de l’actualité ornithologique et de l’avancement de l’atlas est envoyée deux fois l’an à chaque adhérent.
Si vous avez l’occasion de visiter la Casamance – peut-être que ce petit billet vous aura donné envie! – n’hésitez pas à prendre contact avec l’association avant votre voyage afin de voir s’il y a des especes particulieres à rechercher ou de savoir quelles zones à couverture encore insuffisante sont à cibler. Une manière de combiner l’utile à l’agréable et de contribuer à l’amélioration de notre connaissance des oiseaux du Sénégal. Et faites comme moi, adhérez à APALIS! – BP