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Magnificent Frigatebird – first record for Senegal

Birding in Dakar just seems to be getting better by the day at the moment: after the American Golden Plovers and Red-necked Phalarope at Technopole, a record number of Cape Verde Shearwaters and lots of other good birds at Ngor (incl. 40 Sabine’s Gulls a few day ago), on Saturday morning we were fortunate to see a new species for Senegal: Magnificent FrigatebirdFrégate superbe.

Miguel Lecoq and I started our morning at Technopole (where else?) where we enjoyed the waders, terns and gulls that are still present in good numbers. We found all three American Golden Plovers, plus a new bird (we saw all four birds simultaneously) as well as several other good ones including Peregrine Falcon causing havoc among the waterbirds – at one point chasing one of the AGPs over a long distance, with several extremely close failed attempts at catching this bird – and Lesser Crested Tern.

We then made our way through the Saturday morning traffic to the plage de Soumbedioune as we wanted to visit the Iles de la Madeleine national park, mainly to see what was going on with the Brown Boobies. The park staff was exceptionally efficient this time round, and in no time we were on the boat making our way to the island. A Sandwich Tern, then an Arctic Skua flying close by the boat, a bit further a group of feeding Cape Verde Shearwaters, and then…. a bird high up in the sky which I initially took for a skua because it appeared all dark with a long tail. When I got my binoculars onto it, I immediately recognised the distinctive silhouette of a frigatebird and called it out, though I couldn’t quite believe what I saw. Miguel quickly got onto it while I fumbled with the camera to get a few desperate pictures to make sure that we could document the record and to aid with identification, as this is not always a straightforward matter with these birds. We got as close as possible to the bird which was soaring quite high up, and ultimately managed to get a few distant and mostly blurry record shots:

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Magnificent Frigatebird / Frégate superbe

After we arrived on the island, we picked the bird up again as it was still patrolling the area between the Madeleines and the mainland. Luckily we had a telescope with us which allowed for slightly better views, although it remained far out. Towards the end of our tour of the island we spotted it once again, meaning that it had been hanging out in the area for at least two hours. This morning I also learned (by chance) that a visiting birder saw it yesterday, behaving much in the same way as it did on Saturday. It would be great if someone could make it to the islands one evening or early morning to find out whether it spent the night in one of the baobabs there.

Identification

Four species of Frigatebirds should be considered as options off West Africa, though two of these (Greater and Lesser Frigatebird) are Indican Ocean species that are yet to be recorded along Africa’s western coastlines. The two others are Magnificent and Ascension Frigatebird. Luckily this was a female bird; males of the latter two species and of Greater Frigatebird may be impossible to identify given how close they are in plumage, requiring detailed and close-up views.

While its size was difficult to judge, the impression was of a large, heavy bird with a distinctive silhouette formed by the long, narrow wings and a long and deeply forked tail. Barely beating its wings, it soared and glided slowly between the island and the mainland, every now and then “dipping” down a short distance. Our bird appeared entirely black except for a contrasting white breast and pale bill. The breast patch did not visibly extend onto the underwing, and while it seemed rather rounded in the field, pictures show that its shape is very much in line with what is typical for adult female Magnificent Frigatebird Fregata magnificens.

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Magnificent Frigatebird / Frégate superbe

 

Status & Distribution

Magnificent Frigatebird is a fairly widespread tropical seabird, occurring both in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Unlike Ascencion Frigatebird which only breeds on one island, there are many colonies of Magnificent throughout its range, including in the Caribbean Sea, along the coast of Brazil, the Galapagos Islands, etc. The nearest site is on the Cape Verde islands, but it appears to be all but extinct there now: it used to breed regularly in small numbers, but now there are said to be only two females left at this relict site (maybe even just one at the moment, in the event that our bird came from Cape Verde!). Given how few birds remain there, a Neotropical origin is more likely. The second closest site to West Africa is Fernando de Noronha NP (Pernambuco, NE Brazil), which lies about 2,650 km from Dakar.

Outside the breeding season it is largely sedentary, with some dispersal of immature and non-breeding birds. It has reached Western Europe on a number of occasions, including Ireland, the UK, Denmark and Spain; there even are records from Alaska and Newfoundland which shows how far this ocean wanderer can disperse.

In West Africa, there are 2-3 older records from The Gambia, and there’s an unconfirmed record at sea off Nouakchott in April (year?) but this was not retained by Isenmann et al. in their Birds of Mauritania (2010). Likewise, the species is said to have been seen a few years ago in Dakar off Cap Manuel but this record has not been published and as far as I’m aware there are no photographs – trying to find out more about this. The Gambian records are from March 1965 and October 1980, with an additional unidentified Frigatebird seen from the coast in 2005. I could not find any records from Guinea-Bissau, Guinea or Liberia. As such, our sighting may represent the third record only for mainland West Africa, though it’s very likely that the species shows up from time to time in these waters without being noticed.

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It’s not every day that one gets to add a bird species to a country list, so one can only imagine our excitement! In addition, this was a very unexpected “lifer” for me (I had seen Greater and Lesser Frigatebird before, but each only once); Miguel had his lifer with the American Golden Plovers earlier that day. Even Falou, the eco-garde that accompanied us, seemed pleased with seeing a rare bird that he only knew from wildlife documentaries on TV.

Prior to Fregata magnificens, the most recent additions to the Senegal list were Red-footed Booby (Oct. 2016), Eurasian Collared Dove (May 2016), Freckled Nightjar (March 2016), Eye-browed Thrush (Dec. 2015), Mountain Wagtail (March 2015, see the latest Bulletin of the African Bird Club), and Short-billed Dowitcher (October 2012). Maybe one day I’ll find time to update the list with these and other additions… if only I could take a few months off work!

And the Brown Boobies? Well we saw at least seven birds! More on these in another post. Other birds seen on or around the island are the following:

  • Cape Verde Shearwater
  • White-breasted Cormorant (still a few juvs. on nests, but most of the breeding activity is over now)
  • Long-tailed Cormorant (four birds)
  • Northern Gannet (at least one imm., far out at sea)
  • Red-billed Tropicbird (a few birds flying around; we didn’t seek out any nests so as to avoid disturbance)
  • Osprey (at least four birds)
  • Yellow-billed Kite (a few dozen birds, including one on a nest in one of the cliffs)
  • Whimbrel
  • Common Sandpiper
  • Ruddy Turnstone (like previous species, just one bird)
  • Pomarine Skua (2-3 birds)
  • Arctic Skua (4-5 birds)
  • Royal Tern
  • Sandwich Tern
  • Arctic Tern (ca. 5 birds migrating)
  • Laughing Dove
  • Speckled Pigeon
  • Western Red-billed Hornbill
  • Pied Crow
  • Northern Crombec

What next? It’s hard to imagine that things will get even better henceforward, but surely there will be more surprises and more additions to the bird list in coming months and years.

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Shearwaters off Ngor, 15/04

First of all let me apologise for the stream of mostly blurred pictures that is about to follow. I’m pretty pleased with the picture above, but found it really difficult to get decent shots of moving birds from a moving boat, one hand on the camera and the other holding on to the boat… and this despite the fact that the ocean was really quite calm when we set out on a mini-pelagic last weekend.

We didn’t see a huge variety of birds but what lacked in diversity was made up for by the quality of our encounters and by the good numbers of shearwaters – mostly Cape Verde but also quite a few Scopoli’s Shearwaters and probably some Cory’s too. Three species of Skuas (Long-tailed, Arctic, Pomarine) were seen, but only a few Northern Gannets are left, while four storm petrels were seen too briefly to be sure (probably Wilson’s). Other than that a single Audouin’s Gull, two migrating Black Terns and of course Royal and Sandwich Terns, albeit in small numbers. Oh and a lone Barn Swallow migrating low over the waves. In 2015, a similar boat trip on almost exactly the same date (18/4) produced quite a few more storm petrels (European, Wilson’s, Madeiran), two additional shearwater species (Manx and Sooty) as well as several Sabine’s Gulls.

I should really go out more on these boat trips as there’s always something interesting to see, and it really is a unique experience to find oneself surrounded by seabirds feeding around you. Last week’s trip is also a good opportunity to review some of the ID challenges with our Calonectris shearwaters, so here we go:

Cape Verde Shearwater Calonectris edwardsii

By far the most numerous bird of the trip, with at least 200 birds spread mostly between two groups. When seen at close range this is also one of the easier ones to identify: a medium-sized shearwater superficially similar to Cory’s/Scopoli’s, but clearly smaller and more slender, with a longer tail and overall plumage being more uniform brown and darker above. Its bill is rather fine, mostly grey without any yellow tones; some may even appear almost pinkish (see 3rd picture down).

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Cape Verde Shearwater / Puffin du Cap-Vert

The upperparts aren’t as contrasted and largely lack obvious grey in the wings and back compared to Cory’s/Scopoli’s, and do not display a distinctive dark “M” (or W, depending how you see things!) across the wings as on Scopoli’s, only a slightly darker band across the arm:

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Cape Verde Shearwater / Puffin du Cap-Vert

Under strong light they do sometimes look paler and may show a slightly mottled back:

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Cape Verde Shearwater / Puffin du Cap-Vert

Especially on swimming birds, the dark head can be fairly distinctive and may even be reminiscent of Great Shearwater. The size difference with Cory’s is striking when seeing the two species together but of course this is much harder when watching these birds from land while they are feeding out at sea or flying a kilometer away from the shore. The Cory’s Shearwater in the picture below (yellow bill with dark tip, pale grey head) looks huge compared to the Cape Verdes, which suggest Cory’s rather than Scopoli’s – but see further down for a discussion on separation of these two closely related (sub-)species.

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Cape Verde Shearwater (& one Cory’s / Scopoli’s) / Puffin du Cap-Vert (& un P. cendré / de Scopoli)

Cape Verde’s underwing pattern is intermediate between Cory’s and Scopoli’s Shearwaters, usually showing a sharp demarcation between the dark primaries and underwing coverts. The paler inner webs on the primaries make the hand look more grey than black, though this is visible only under good light conditions and is less distinctive than on Scopoli’s.

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Cape Verde Shearwater / Puffin du Cap-Vert

Cape Verde Shearwater considered a globally threatened species, under the category Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List, owing to its moderately small population and range size. There are said to be around 10,000 breeding pairs (= ca. 30,000 birds in total), largely limited to just three islands of the Cape Verde archipelago. The population is thought to be declining owing mainly to uncontrolled levels of harvest. Indeed, “present-day harvests for food and bait have reached unprecedented levels and the threat this poses is augmented through motor-vessel use by fishermen […]. Currently, an estimated 5,000 chicks are taken from their nests on Raso and Branco each year. The species may also suffer predation from introduced species such as cats.” (BirdLife International, 2016).

If the 2001 estimate of 30,000 Cape Verde Shearwaters still holds true, then I saw about 18% of the world population this morning (24/4) while having coffee at the Calao terrace in Ngor, when at least 5,500 birds were visible from the Calao terrace, either passing through towards the NE, or feeding out at sea. A week ago I estimated about 1,100-1,200. Sure, some of these were Scopoli’s Shearwaters, though based on the few birds that were close enough to identify and going by our sightings from the boat about a week earlier these would account for 5-10% only. The species arrives on its breeding grounds from February-March, but egg-laying and incubation take place in May-July so the birds that are at Ngor at the moment may still head to Cape Verde – unless they’re all non-breeding birds of course. The species’ presence off Dakar seems rather unpredictable, but late winter and spring (Feb.-May, even June) is obviously the most reliable period to see them here; in certain years there are also good numbers in November (cf. Senegal Seawatching website).

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Scopoli’s Shearwater Calonectris diomedea

There were probably 10-20 birds in total, mixed in with the Cape Verde Shearwaters and mostly seen sitting on the ocean surface, and as such I have less useful pictures to share here. A shame because I’m not entirely sure that there weren’t any Cory’s Shearwater C. borealis as well, given that some birds looked really large and heavy-billed. Both species – formerly considered subspecies of Cory’s – share the same overall appearance of a large, grey-headed shearwater with a flashy yellow bill. Differences between the two are subtle and as such one would require good views or photographs in order to positively identify these birds; those see at a distance or under poor conditions are best left as Cory’s/Scopoli’s Shearwater.

The underwing pattern of Scopoli’s Shearwater is probably the most reliable field character, with the hand being less black and lacking the clear demarcation between the withe primary coverts and the dark primaries, which have white inner webs. This is often hard to see as flying birds are constantly shifting and often hold their wings down, hence the need for good pictures. Another feature of Scopoli’s is that is has a single black spot near the base of P10, whereas Cory’s has two on the outermost primary coverts (the 2nd one being detached from the dark edge of the wing – again, difficult to see other than on photographs). The size difference between Cory’s (which is slightly larger) and Scopoli’s is not very useful given that there is overlap and apparently much variation.

The picture below shows two Scopoli’s and one Cape Verde Sheawater: note the pale “hand” on the bird in the background, and yellow bill clearly visible on the bird in the front

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Scopoli’s Shearwater / Puffin de Scopoli

A good feature to pick up Scopoli’s among a group of Cape Verde Shearwaters, besides an obvious size difference and the yellow bill, is the much paler appearance of the head, mantle, and side of breast.

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Scopoli’s Shearwater / Puffin de Scopoli (at least 5 birds here)

The upperwing is clearly more contrasted than Cape Verde, with a dark zigzag across the otherwise grey wing, and mottled brown/grey saddle. This is especially true for Scopoli’s which is said to be greyer than Cory’s:

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Scopoli’s Shearwater / Puffin de Scopoli

As mentioned earlier, some birds looked really massive, including the thick bill, but I could not get any conclusive Cory’s – only a few suspected birds such as the one below. A shame that the underwing pattern isn’t clearly visible on this one:

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Scopoli’s or Cory’s Shearwater / Puffin de Scopoli ou cendré?

Further reading on separating diomedea and borealis can be had here and here, among others. There’s nothing much to be found on the occurrence in West Africa given that most records are of “Cory’s Shearwater” in the old sense, without distinction between the two species as currently recognised. Most records are from October-November and again around April, but the numbers are quite variable from one year to another. In 2016, we witnessed a strong passage of presumed Scopoli’s throughout November, but no birds could be labelled as obvious Cory’s.

Scopoli's Shearwater / Puffin de Scopoli

Scopoli’s Shearwater / Puffin de Scopoli

Skuas – another tricky ID category – may follow in a later post!

(post updated 24/4)

Les fous des Iles de la Madeleine, 27/11

Motivé par la visite au “PNIM” (Parc National des Iles de la Madeleine) par mes amis genevois une semaine auparavant, je suis enfin retourné sur ce site unique, situé un peu au large de la corniche de Dakar… et que je n’avais pas visité depuis juin 2015!

ilesdelamadeleine_panneauArrivés au bureau du parc  vers 15h, on a juste le temps de découvrir les nouvelles installations pédagogiques – par ailleurs très bien faits – puis toute la famille embarque sans délais sur le bateau au depart de la plage de Soumbedioune, par une mer remarquablement tranquille malgré le vent soutenu soufflant du nord (le retour en fin d’après-midi par contre se fera avec un gros retard, à l’indifference totale des écogardes et des plagistes dakarois – mais je ne vous embêterai pas avec cette histoire…).

Avant même d’arriver sur l’île principale, on aperçoit déjà quelques Phaétons à bec rouge, espèce emblématique du parc et objet de convoitise des ornithos de passage au Senegal. Puis en passant à côté du navire espagnol naufragé en août 2013 (on raconte que le capitaine du Almadraba Uno était ivre…), je répère un premier Fou brun, un bel adulte. C’est l’oiseau que j’espérais retrouver aujourd’hui, car il y a eu plusieurs observations récentes d’au moins 4 oiseaux ici (une semaine auparavant, les copains suisses avaient vu 2 adultes et 2 immatures).

Posé parmi plusieurs Cormorans à poitrine blanche, il sera vu seulement brièvement car le bateau ne s’arretera pas… on espère donc en retrouver plus tard lorsqu’on fait le tour de l’île à pied. Ce sera fait rapidement, lorsqu’on voit un immature en mer à deux reprises, probablement à chaque fois le même. Chose étonnante, celui-ci se prendra pendant un moment pour un labbe lorsqu’il poursuit un Balbuzard pêcheur portant un poisson dans les serres, mais il abandonnera au bout de quelques virevoltages sans trop inquiéter le balbu semble-t-il.

Un peu plus tard, on arrive sur la petite plage au sud de l’île d’où l’on a une bonne vue sur le fameux bateau qui sert maintenant de site de repos (et de nidification? J’ai cru entrevoir un nid…) aux oiseaux du PNIM. Il y a comme toujours quelques cormorans sur les mas, cheminées et autres perchoirs, mais point de sulidé en vue. Deux fous adultes sont posés sur la balise rouge et blanche bien loin derrière le navire, donc je me dis que les photos ce sera pour une prochaine fois. Mais à peine quelques minutes plus tard, un adulte passe tout près puis vient se poser de nouveau sur le bateau, d’abord sur un mat, puis il change de reposoir… permettant de belles observations et quelques clichés pas trop floues.

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Le nombre d’observations de Fous bruns est visiblement en augmentation ici à Dakar, et je doute que ce soit uniquement le résultat d’une plus forte pression d’observation. Si auparavant la plupart des observations provenaient des séances de seawatch en automne à Ngor ou aux Almadies, il y a maintenant des données de presque tous les mois, surtout en avril-juin et octobre-janvier, et les Iles de la Madeleine semblent particulièrement fréquentées depuis un ou deux ans au moins – et surtout, le fait d’avoir plusieurs oiseaux ensemble dont en tout cas 2 adultes est tout à fait nouveau. C’est à se demander si ces fous ne pourraient pas un jour tenter de nicher dans le parc, ce qui somme toute ne serait pas trop étonnant: l’habitat est favorable, la protection assurée, la nourriture abondante. D’ailleurs, d’ou viennent les deux jeunes oiseaux? Si ça se trouve ils ont reussi à nicher discrètement cette année déjà (les deux adultes en tout cas étaient déjà présents le 2 janvier, voir ce compte-rendu, avec photo des deux fous). Les nicheurs les plus proches se trouvent au large de la Guinée et aux Iles du Cap-Vert, donc pas bien loin de Dakar à vol de fou. A surveiller!

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Brown Booby / Fou brun ad.

On remonte la côte rocheuse, le sentier passe tout près d’une des zones de nidification des phaétons, le fameux “Paille-en- queue” dont les Iles de la Madeleine hébergent l’une des rares colonies de l’Ouest Atlantique (et de loin la plus proche de la terra firma du continent africain).

Faits réjouissants, la population locale est de nouveau bien suivie et les effectifs semblent plutôt à la hausse ici. Pour en savoir plus, voici un poster très instructif de la doctorante Ngoné Diop et ses collègues sur l’abondance, la phénologie et le succès de reproduction des phaétons de la Madeleine (format PDF, taille 1,6 MB). Enfin, ce poster sur l’avifaune de l’île a été présenté par l’équipe du PNIM lors de la conférence PAOC en octobre dernier. A noter toutefois que quelques imprécisions se sont glissées dans le texte de ce deuxieme document, en particulier la mention de Balbuzards nicheurs sur l’île, et que contrairement à ce qui est affirmé en conclusion, ce parc n’abrite pas une “grande diversité spécifique au niveau des oiseaux” – bien au contraire, le nombre d’espèces d’oiseaux est très faible, comme on peut logiquement s’y attendre pour une île de superficie restreinte et depourvue d’un mélange de biotopes variés. Le document contient toutefois des information intéressantes sur la place de cet îlot rocheux au sein de la culture léboue, expliquant du coup comment cette petite île a pu rester à l’écart du développement frénétique – et sans freins ni considérations environnementales – d’une grande métropole comme Dakar.

La photo ci-dessous est d’un adulte sur le nid en train de couver; il ne devrait pas encore y avoir de jeunes à cette date. [A noter que ce n’est pas dans mes habitudes de prendre des photos d’oiseaux au nid, donc je tiens à souligner que comme beaucoup d’autres espèces d’oiseaux marins, le phaéton ne semble pas trop perturbé tant qu’on ne reste que brièvement à proximité.]

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Red-billed Tropicbird / Phaeton à bec rouge

On avance donc pour boucler notre tour de l’île volcanique, et c’est là qu’on passe entre les baobabs remplis de nids de Cormorans à poitrine blanche. En effet, la colonie du PNIM est visiblement en pleine expansion, au point ou tous les baobabs (dont l’arbre sacre des Lebous!) sur cette partie de l’ile sont maintenant remplis de nids. Lors de mes précédentes visites en 2015 et 2013, elle ne debordait pas encore du secteur oriental de l’ile principale (et a propos de baobabs: en raison des vents et peut-etre le sol pauvre – et le degré de salinité? – ceux des iles de la Madeleine poussent plutot en largeur qu’en hauteur, leur donnant un aspect tout applati!)

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Ci-dessous d’abord un cormoran adulte en plumage nuptial: notez la poche (ou sac) gulaire verte et la tache jaune en-dessous de l’oeil, qu’on ne trouve pas en dehors de la saison de nidification. Ensuite, l’un des tout jeunes cormorans au nid et dont j’ai pu enregistrer les cris de quémande incessants, à écouter ici.

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Pour le reste, comme toujours il y a peu d’oiseaux sur l’île: deux faucons sont vus brièvement et trop loin pour en faire quelque chose donc il resteront des grands faucons indéterminés (d’autant plus qu’aussi bien le F. de Barbarie, le Pelerin et le Lanier ont tous les trois ont déjà été signalés sur ce site), quelques Courlis corlieux, un Tournepierre à collier, quelques Goélands bruns, 2-3 petits vols de Travailleurs à bec rouge, et 3 Moineaux dorés.

Egalement un Trachylepis (=Mabuya) perrotetii (le Mabouya, un lézard) et ces étonnants coléoptères trouvés en nombre vers l’un des baobabs “nains”: Analeptes trifasciata, considérés comme une peste car s’attaquant aux baobabs et autres arbres de la sous-région. Cet article nous apprend que le cycle de vie de ce gros coléoptère est assez classique: l’écorce de l’arbre hôte est sectionnée de manière à empecher la sève de couler, assèchant ainsi cette partie du bois ce qui permet à la femelle de déposer oeufs. Une fois éclos, les larves se nourrissent du bois, causant dégâts plus ou moins sérieux, apparemment surtout en saison des pluies lorsque les baobabs de l’île fleurissent. A espérer qu’ils ne finiront pas par avoir raison des seuls arbres poussant sur l’île, d’autant plus qu’une bonne partie vient d’être colonisé par les cormorans nicheurs… ce qui ne laisse pas bonne augure pour la survie des fameux baobabs nains de la Madeleine.

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September Seabirds

The majority of systematic seabird counts in Dakar have been conducted in October (see e.g. Dubois et al. 2009 and the Seawatching in Senegal website) when diversity and intensity of south-bound passage at sea is usually highest. Many species migrate much earlier of course, some leaving their breeding grounds already in July or early August, so it’s no surprise that seawatch sessions earlier in the season can be productive too even if the number of birds passing through is less important. Last year I made just a handful of visits to Ngor and Pointe des Almadies in September, but this year I managed to squeeze in quite a few sessions so far, often short (45 minutes to an hour and a half, usually around 8-9am) but sufficient to get a better sense of what’s passing through at this time of the year.

Below are some of the highlights, based on three visits in August (5/8, 19/8 and 26/8) and eight between 9 and 26 September.

Except for one session from Ngor island on 19/8, all observations were made from the terrace of the Calao Club Hotel just north of the Ngor bay. This spot provides a slightly elevated view point with convenient shelter from the sun, and access to decent (though overpriced) coffee. It has recently been upgraded, providing more space and a less run-down feel than before – just in time for the PAOC which will take place later this month and which should see a substantial number of birders come to the terrace throughout the week of the conference.

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Best days were 13/9 for waders, after a morning of intensive showers and under continued light rain, while for true “pelagics” (Sooty Shearwater, skuas, Sabine’s Gull) best were 25 and 26/9 when winds were relatively strong (5-6 Bf?) from the NW.

Shearwaters

  • Cape Verde Shearwater (Puffin du Cap-Vert): at least three shearwaters probably belonging to this species on 5/8, but no others so far. This species is usually more numerous in late winter and spring, though this is highly variable from year to year it seems.
  • Sooty Shearwater (Puffin fuligineux): one on 9/9 (evening), at least 61 (+ 5 sp.) on 16/9, 17 (+ 4 sp.) on 21/9, only 3 on 23/9  but then a decent 108 on 25/9 (in 85 mins.) and an impressive 131 on 26/9 in just 45 mins. On the latter date I couldn’t stay any longer unfortunately, and even if the strength of the winds gradually diminished over the course of the morning one can imagine that on 25-26/9 there must have been close to if not more than a 1000 of these neat shearwaters passing by.

Waders

  • Oystercatcher (Huîtrier pie): 8 on 18/9, 3 on 23/9
  • Common Ringed Plover (Grand Gravelot): singles on 21 and 23/9
  • Whimbrel (Courlis corlieu): 8 migrating on 13/9 and 3 on 16/9, in addition to the 2-3 local birds feeding amongst the volcanic rocks on most days
  • Common Redshank (Chevalier gambette): ca. 10 on 13/9 under light rain
  • Common Sandpiper (Chevalier guignette): no active migrants, but usually 2-5 birds feeding on the rocks in front of Le Calao.
  • Dunlin (Bécasseau variable): a flock of about 25 birds on 9/9, and 2+8 on 13/9
  • Sanderling (Bécasseau sanderling): a flock of ca. 40 on 19/8, 3 on 13/9
  • Turnstone (Tournepierre à collier): min. 5 on 9/9

Skuas

  • “large” Skua sp. (“grand” Labbe sp.): one on 25/9 was too far out and too fast to say much about this bird other than that it appeared fairly slim / small compared to Great Skua. Could well have been a South Polar Skua, which is thought to be the more frequent of the Catharacta skuas off Dakar.
  • Arctic Skua (Labbe parasite): one on 19/8, 11 on 16/9, 5 21/9, 1 23/9, 26 on 25/9
  • Pomarine Skua (Labbe pomarin): at least 10 on 9/9, 26 on 16/9, 3 on 21/9, 2 on 23/9, 13 on 25/9
  • Long-tailed Skua (Labbe à longue queue): at least 4 on 9/9, 3 on 25/9
  • Unidentified skua sp. (Labbe indéterminé): 1 Arctic / Long-tailed on 19/8, ca. 15 Arctic/Pomarines on 9/9, just one on 13/9, 7 on 21/9, 44 on 25/9 (resulting in a total of 87 skuas), and 33 on 26/9 when the majority of these were probably Arctic Skuas.

Gulls

  • Lesser Black-backed Gull (Goéland brun): 2 on 21/9, 6 23/9 and 25/9, 2 26/9 – always immatures either flying S or feeding out at sea.
  • Sabine’s Gull (Mouette de Sabine): 4 on 16/9, 1 on 21/9, and ca. 16 on 26/9 including a group of about 12 birds together. Almost always during W/NW winds, flying quite far out at sea and often low over the waves. Probably more numerous further out at sea.

Terns

  • Gull-billed Tern (Sterne hansel): 2 on 19/8 from Ngor island. This species appears to be rarely seen migrating at sea, preferring brackish and freshwater lakes.
  • Caspian Tern (Sterne caspienne): regularly 3-5 birds which are not necessarily actively migrating; highest count 13 on 18/9
  • Royal Tern (Sterne royale): seen in small numbers during each session but migrating birds were not always obvious as small groups and singles regularly fly past in both directions, or would feed out at sea. Low maximum of 25 on 13/9.
  • Sandwich Tern (Sterne caugek): only small numbers so far, with a maximum of ca. 40 in 40 minutes on 9/9 (evening), and 138 on 13/9.
  • Lesser Crested Tern (Sterne voyageuse): singles seen on 13/9, 16/9, 23/9 (flying NE on the latter date)
  • Arctic Tern (Sterne arctique): at least 85 on 19/8 in ca. 35 minutes, and more than 30 on 9/9; smaller numbers on other days.
  • Common Tern (Sterne pierregarin): seen in variable numbers, but difficult to count as several birds often feed out at sea and fly back and forth, and because many birds would remain unspecified Common/Arctic Terns.
  • Roseate Tern (Sterne de Dougall): regular sightings of small numbers: at least 1 on 9/9, 4 on 13/9, 1 on 18/9, 2 on 21/9 (flying NE), and 2 on 23/9.
  • Little Tern (Sterne naine): 6 on 13/9, lower numbers (1-4) on several other dates
  • Black Tern (Guifette noire): seen on most days, with a max. of at least 98 in an hour on 5/8 and 250 on 16/9 in 50 mins., 50 on 18/9.
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Sandwich Tern / Sterne caugek

Others

A real surprise was a juvenile Barbary Falcon which was well seen on 18/9, first hunting over the bay, then eating a prey (an unidentified passerine) on one of the cranes next to the Calao. Tricky bird to id but especially the finely streaked underparts except for lower vent and undertail covers, yellow cere, fairly narrow “moustache” and pale ear covers, and general slim structure set it apart from Peregrine, which is usually seen here from mid-October onward.

Osprey: singles seen regularly from 26/8 onward, so far only singles.

Pied Flycatchers were seen on 18/9 in the hotel gardens, which usually also hold a few good local migrants or residents, e.g. Shikra and Senegal Eremomela.

Last but not least, I had 3 sightings of unidentified dolphins moving NE – always a nice change from our feathered friends even if it’s usually pretty hard to get good views given the distance and brief (and very partial!) appearances above the surface.

 

Marsh Terns, Ducks & More Waders (28/8)

Last Sunday I went to Lac Tanma – first visit since January – and, of course, Technopole. I picked up Miguel Lecoq who recently arrived in Dakar to work for BirdLife (yes! a new birder in town!), and we headed straight for Lac Tanma to see what was about there at the start of the raining season. This shallow seasonal lake has started to fill up and conditions were pretty good for waders, even if some were a bit distant: a few dozen Wood Sandpipers and Black-winged Stilts, several Greenshanks and Common Redshanks, a Marsh Sandpiper, a few Common Sandpipers, Dunlin, Curlew Sandpiper, Little Stint, Common Ringed and Kittlitz’s Plover (including a still downy juvenile, confirming local breeding), Ruff, a lone Whimbrel, and a bunch of Common Pratincoles. The latter appear to also breed in the area or at least in the vicinity of the lake: out of about 15-20 birds, at least 8 were juveniles. Also present were the resident Spur-winged and African Wattled Lapwings as well as Senegal Thick-knees, a Black-winged Kite, and a flock of about 95 Greater Flamingos including 30 juveniles.

Only a handful of ducks are present at the moment: 4 White-faced Whistling Ducks and a single Garganey, which appears to be an early date for the species in Senegal. Later on in the season, when water levels further rise and aquatic vegetation develops, the lake becomes an important stop-over site for Garganeys and Shovelers.

Best of all was at least one White-winged Tern, nicely showing its distinctive black underwing coverts as it was flying around the lake. There may have been more, though most of the other marsh terns (which mainly were roosting quite far out) were Black Terns. Besides the waders and terns (including Gull-billed and Caspian), a few Lesser Black-backed and Audouin’s Gulls and 5 or 6 Ospreys, the only other northern migrant that was seen was a single Sand Martin. Along the road back to Mbayakh, a Broad-billed Roller flew past, while Shikra was another wet season visitor that was seen near the lake.

Another surprise was this small group of what turned out to be Lesser Blue-eared Glossy Starlings rather than their more widespread counterpart, Greater BEGS. Both species are extremely difficult to separate based on adult plumage (when call is the best identification feature). These birds remained silent, but thanks to the 3 juveniles in the flock it was possible to clinch the ID, as Lesser shows brownish underparts whereas Greater youngsters are entirely dark.

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Lesser Blue-eared Glossy Starlings / Choucador de Swainson

 

At Technopole, the main surprise was a flock of 11 Fulvous Whistling Ducks, a vagrant here which I hadn’t seen before in the Dakar area. It’s reasonably common in the Senegal delta (though still massively outnumbered by the White-Faced WD’s) and apparently also in the south of the country, but it’s generally absent from central and western Senegal. Hazy rarity picture below. Another good one was Whiskered Tern, with one or two birds feeding among the Black Terns. Chlidonias hat trick today!

As expected, water levels here have substantially risen in the last two weeks, leaving only small sand banks favourable for the smaller wader species. Still quite a few Ruff & co were present, but far fewer calidrids than on my previous visit. An Avocet was here again, while two Little Terns were another good record for Technopole as the species is seen only infrequently here. An Acrocephalus warbler was either a Eurasian or African Reed-Warbler. We both tended toward the latter but didn’t get good enough views, and as it turns out it seems that many Palearctic insectivores are ahead of schedule this year, as reported by Fred Bacuez from Saint-Louis. By now some at least should have reached Dakar!

Greater Flamingos are still present in moderate numbers, but we didn’t find any more ringed birds unlike the 3 French birds early August for which I now received details from the Tour du Valat research station in the Camargue: all were ringed as chicks in the sole French colony, but in different years (2013, 2014 and 2015). Ring recoveries from French birds in Senegal are apparently pretty rare, unlike in Mauritania where there are fairly regular sightings of French, Spanish, Italian and Algerian birds (and even one from Turkey!).

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Fulvous Whistling Ducks / Dendrocygnes fauves

 

The previous morning I did a car transect from Dakar’s main slaughterhouse (route de Rufisque at Dalifort), which already early morning was bustling with activity, to Bel-Air and the Hann bay, looking for roosting Hooded Vultures. My count is part of an effort lead by Wim Mullié to get a better sense of the current status of the species in Dakar. As with almost all other vulture species, the Hooded Vulture has declined substantially in most if not all parts of its range, and is now considered to be Critically Endangered. BirdLife International recently “uplisted” the species’ conservation status as it has increasingly become clear that Hooded Vultures are declining at an alarming rate over much of its range, at the point where it is considered to be at serious risk of extinction: Hooded Vulture populations are thought to be dwindling with an estimated 83% decline (range 64-93%) over three generations, or a period of about 53 years (Ogada et al. 2015). This may be difficult to believe in places such as Conakry (where I’m writing this post from), which still has what seems to be a healthy Hooded Vulture population – e.g. this morning I counted at least 75 birds roosting in the city’s CBD, and later saw about 60 flying around in scattered groups. Same in Bissau or Banjul where the species is still very common.

There are several important sites where our local vultures spend the night – especially UCAD, Dakar’s main university campus – but it appears that there are also lots of singles or small groups that spend the night in scattered places, usually in filaos (Casuarina equisetifolia, Australian Pine Tree) or on buildings ,and almost always near the waterfront. Saturday’s little transect was moderately successful, finding a total of 15 birds in 3 sites.

More on this topic to follow in due time; the Dakar results are to be announced at the upcoming Pan-African Ornithological Congress (PAOC 14) in October, after which I’ll write more about our local vultures.

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Hooded Vultures roosting on a hydrocarbon storage tank / Vautours charognards sur leur dortoir, un depot d’hydrocarbures

 

In Parc de Hann, the now usual Eurasian Collared-Doves were singing in their usual spots, just like a Blue-breasted Kingfisher and Splendid Sunbird which are two other “specials” of the site. The heronry is now full of young egrets and cormorants and is noisy as ever!

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Cattle Egret / Heron garde-boeuf juv.

 

 

 

 

Spring migration at Ngor (25.03)

Quick stop at the Calao terrace this morning (8:45-9:30) to see what’s on the move at the moment. Spring migration has obviously picked up, or at least it was more visible today compared to last Sunday, with the majority of birds flying north or north-east.

  • Cape Verde Shearwater: 2+1 birds flying NE at fairly close range
  • Scopoli’s Shearwater: at least one, probably belonging to this species, feeding out at sea
  • Northern Gannet: at least 80, the majority of which flying NE. As usual a mix of all possible ages with very few full adults in the lot.
  • Pomarine Skua: 3 immatures flying past in different directions, and 9 adults slowly following a fisherman’s pirogue
  • Arctic Skua: 3 birds, including one nice adult
  • Lesser Black-backed Gull: 7, all towards the NE
  • Sandwich Tern: +50 flying NE, some feeding at sea
  • Lesser Crested Tern: 3 NE
  • Royal Tern: 3 NE
  • Arctic Tern: 20-40 NE, difficult to count because often flying low over the water (possibly also some Common Terns among them)

Also present were one of the usual Peregrines on the Ngor Diarama hotel, an Osprey, Whimbrel and Common Sandpiper.

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Hazy view from Le Calao towards Ngor island

 

Meanwhile in Almadies, I had a garden tick with 11 Chestnut-bellied Starlings flying rapidly past, but easily recognisable thanks to their diagnostic pale wing patches. A garden tick? If you’re unfamiliar with the term and think I’m referring to parasitic arthropods, then here’s a good read: The Garden List (and like Nigel, I tend to take the more liberal view of counting anything that’s visible from my garden – or in this case balcony).

Little Bee-eaters have reappeared in recent days, one Hooded Vulture was patrolling the area while noisy Senegal Parrots and Western Plantain-eaters mostly remained invisible today. And the usual little jobs are around of course: African Silverbill, Red-billed Firefinch, Variable and Beautiful Sunbirds, Black-headed Weaver, Tawny-flanked Prinia.

 

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Senegal Parrot / Perroquet youyou (picture taken from our balcony a couple of weeks ago)

 

 

Oiseaux marins et encore le Technopôle

Profitant d’une pause dans mon calendrier de voyages professionnels, j’ai eu plusieurs opportunités pour visiter mes sites favoris à Dakar ces derniers temps. Tout d’abord donc quelques news rapides du Technopôle, site visité l’après-midi du 27/2 en compagnie de Frédéric en visite depuis Saint-Louis (voir son blog Ornithondar), Jérémy fraîchement arrivé de la Haute-Savoie, et Etienne de Ouakam; puis dimanche matin 6/3 avec Geoffroy. Entre ces deux visites, le nombre de limicoles a doublé, avec hier une centaine de Becasseaux minutes, quelques cocorlis, env. 80 Chevaliers aboyeurs, une quarantaine de Grands Gravelots et Combattants, etc.

Au moins un Blongios nain se montre bien dans un bout de roselière: vu les tons roux prononcés au cou il s’agit visiblement d’un oiseau de la ssp. africaine payesii, apparemment peu signalée au Sénégal. Une cinquantaine de Spatules blanches fréquentent le site actuellement, malheureusemnt trop loin pour lire les bagues des 2-3 individus décorés. Un regroupement d’au moins 25 Herons ardoisés fait exploser mon petit record local d’une dizaine d’oiseaux à peine. La présence d’au moins 6 Sarcelles d’été cachées dans la végétation suggère un faible passage ici au printemps.

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Little Gull / Mouette pygmee

Côté Laridés, nous avons la chance de découvrir une Mouette pygmée de 1er hiver, au plumage bien use, parmi les Mouettes rieuses et à tête grise, les Goélands railleurs, Goélands bruns et autres Sternes caspiennes. En limite méridionale de son aire d’hivernage, cette espèce est visiblement rare à Dakar, aussi bien pendant l’hiver paléarctique qu’en automne (vue seulement 2 sur 9 sessions de seawatch en octobre et début novembre, entre 1995 et 2008). Pareil autour de Saint-Louis, où la Mouette pygmée n’est notée qu’occasionnellement. Plus classique, une Mouette mélanocephale se trouvait également dans le tas, là aussi un oiseau de 1er hiver.

Les Phragmites des joncs chantent toujours de maniere aussi assidue, alors qu’un Rougequeue à front blanc était probablement seulement en escale, l’espèce n’hivernant pas sur ce site.

Il y a comme toujours des dizaines de Milans d’Afrique qui tournent dans la zone, dont voici cet oiseau que nous avions d’abord pris pour un Milan noir (l’œil foncé indique un oiseau immature donc de 2e année en ce moment, d’où le bec sombre)

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Yellow-billed Kite / Milan d’Afrique

…à comparer avec cet adulte au bec jaune bien marqué:

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Yellow-billed Kite / Milan d’Afrique

 

On quitte cette incroyable zone humide urbaine pour cette fois tourner le regard vers la mer, d’abord avec Frédéric et Jérémy depuis le Club Calao (27/2) et depuis l’île de Ngor et le Calao (28/2), puis le 4/3 depuis le golf du Meridien à la Pointe des Almadies. Les oiseaux les plus en vue en ce moment sont les Fous de Bassan, avec en tout cas une soixantaine pêchant devant les côtes, en nombre et mouvements variables d’un jour à l’autre. Les Labbes pomarins (max. +25) et parasites (5-10) répondent à l’appel, mais à part un ou deux puffins de type cendré/Cap Vert au loin, point de puffins à l’horizon alors que l’an dernier à la même période il y en avait plusieurs dizaines. Un groupe de 12 à 15 Grands Dauphins (Bottlenose Dolphin) passent en direction du nord le 29/2 et se laissent, pour une fois, assez bien observer au téléscope – l’un d’eux faisant même un saut impressionnant complètement hors de l’eau.

A marée basse, l’îlot devant le Calao sert de reposoir aux sternes et goélands et est actuellement surout occupé par les Sternes royales et caugeks, ces dernières maintenant en plumage nuptial complet pour la plupart, alors que les autres espèces de sternes n’ont pas encore complété leur mue. Parmi elles se trouvent quelques Sternes voyageuses et pierregarins, une poignée de Goelands bruns et 3-4 Goelands d’Audouin. Sur la terre ferme, l’imposant hôtel Diarama sert toujours de falaise de substitution au couple de Faucons pelerins hivernant ici. Au minimum 3 Balbuzards sont vus, dont un individu provenant d’Allemagne ou du Royaume-Uni à en croire sa bague noire (non lue car trop loin).

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Osprey / Balbuzard pecheur

A part quelques groupes de Caugeks, peu de migration active est visible. Le 29/2, une Bergeronnette grise passe à la Pointe des Almadies, peut-être en route vers l’Islande d’ou semble provenir une bonne partie des hivernants d’Afrique de l’Ouest. Ce même jour également mon premier Moineau doré de la saison, ma dernière obs à Dakar remontant au mois de novembre au Calao. Et surtout, des vols réguliers de centaines voire de milliers de Travailleurs à bec rouge (queleas), certains volant loin au large.

J’allais encore vous parler des Vautours charognards urbains car on vient d’aller voir un nid actif dans le centre-ville de Dakar, mais ce sera pour un prochain article. En attendant, voici déjà une photo prise il y a quelques jours depuis mon balcon:

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Hooded Vulture / Vautour charognard adulte