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The Tigers of Toubacouta

Our main target during a brief visit to the Saloum delta national park, just last week, was a rather unique bird that had so far eluded us: the enigmatic Tigriornis leucolopha. Its presence in the area has been known for a few years only, but it quickly became a classic target species for visiting birders – particularly those touring the country with the excellent Abdou “Carlos” Lo who is based at Toubacouta. But it’s one of those birds that requires a bit of planning combined with a decent dose of luck. It’s certainly not enough to just get on a pirogue into the mangrove forest where it lives: thanks to Abdou’s expert advice, we made sure to set off at low tide even if this meant going out in the mid-afternoon heat.

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I’d always thought that the White-crested Tiger Heron (Onoré à huppe blanche) was more of a nocturnal or at best a crepuscular species, but that’s obviously not the case: when the tide is low, it will come out to the edge of the mangrove to fish, apparently at pretty much any time of the day. We were extremely lucky to actually witness this first-hand: after an unsuccessful attempt in one of the bolongs near the island of Sipo, our piroguier Abdoulaye eventually spotted a Tiger Heron, very much out in the open as we drifted past at fairly close range. It quickly entered the dense mangrove forest only to re-appear in a more concealed area a few meters away, carefully navigating the labyrinth of roots and tangles.

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White-crested Tiger Heron / Onoré à huppe blanche, Sipo, 25.12.19 . Check out its amazing yellow-and-burgundy eye

 

As we were watching and photographing this dream bird, it caught a small fish, gobbled it down and quickly vanished back into the forest.

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White-crested Tiger Heron / Onoré à huppe blanche

 

Note the rather cold colours and overall rather pale plumage of this individual, something that’s also visible in other pictures from the Saloum: possibly an adaptation to the mangrove environment here? Compare with the darker and more rufous birds found in e.g. Ghana and Gabon, for instance in the photo gallery of the Internet Bird Collection.

All in all, quite a surreal moment and a perfect Christmas present – Frédéric and I were of course hopeful we’d get a glimpse of this secretive heron, but certainly never thought we’d get such amazing views. It easily ranks in my Top 10 of Best African Birds Seen So Far, alongside the likes of Quail-Plover, Egyptian Plover, Crab Plover, Pel’s Fishing-Owl, Pennant-winged Nightjar, Böhm’s Spinetail, Little Brown Bustard, Wattled Crane and of course the most bizarre Grey-necked Picathartes (and Shoebill and Locustfinch and Spotted Creeper and… so on). Just like some of these species, the White-crested Tiger Heron – or White-crested Bittern as it is sometimes called – is the unique representative of its genus.

Here’s one more picture of this amazing bird, taken by Frédéric as we first spotted it – pretty cool, right?

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White-crested Tiger Heron / Onoré à huppe blanche (Frédéric Bacuez/Ornithondar)

 

Earlier that same day – much earlier actually, about 6.45 am to be precise! – we had already heard the rather ghost-like song that’s typical of the species, right from the small jetty at our campement villageois at Dassilame Serere. The song is not dissimilar to the Eurasian Bittern, a monotonous booming “whooooooom” uttered at a very low frequency, at 4-6 second intervals, which however got easily drowned in the dawn chorus of roosters, donkeys, dogs and goats of Dassilame… and which stopped abruptly just as daylight started to take over the night. The next morning I was better prepared and actually managed a few mediocre recordings when two distant birds were singing to each other deep in the mangrove, again pre-dawn and stopping before it properly got light. These turned out to be the first to be uploaded onto xeno-canto: check out the species page here (and make sure to turn up the volume to the max as the sound is quite subdued).

Tiger Bird habitat:

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White-crested Tiger Heron / Onoré à huppe blanche (yes it’s in the picture… just impossible to see, even when you know where it is! When we first saw it, it was out on the tiny patch of mud to the right)

 

The Tiger Heron was initially thought to be restricted, in Senegal that is, to the Basse-Casamance region, where the first record is that of two nestlings collected and raised near the village of Mlomp (Oussouye) in 1979, followed by a few sightings in 1980-81 in the Parc National de Basse-Casamance and a nest found in Nov. 1980 north of Oussouye (A. Salla in Morel & Morel 1990); as far as we know, the next confirmed record was obtained in… 2017, at Egueye island, also near Oussouye, on January 1st, so almost 36 years later.

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White-crested Tiger Heron / Onoré à huppe blanche, Egueye Jan. 2017 (Photo by Campement Egueye)

 

The first mention of the species in the Saloum delta is from 1980 by A. R. Dupuy (1981), while the next published record is from 2004 only – see comment by John Rose on this blog post [updated 4 Jan 2020] and the short paper by Rose et al. (2016).  The next observation that I could find is from January 2007, of a bird photographed near Missirah by Stéphane Bocca. The fact that we heard two birds singing from Dassilame Serere, the records near Toubacouta and Sipo as well as the observation from Missirah all suggest that the Tigriornis is fairly well established here, and may well be widespread throughout the vast mangroves of the Saloum delta: targeted searches are likely to turn up more birds in other parts of the delta. The species is also present in mangroves along the Gambia river, where first discovered in 1996 (Kirtland & Rogers 1997). Casamance and especially the Saloum delta are actually right on the edge of the distribution range of the species, which extends from central Africa through the Congo-Guinean forest zone. In Senegal and Gambia, it primarily inhabits the vast mangrove forests, though it may also still occur in the swamp forest of the Basse-Casamance NP, i.e. in similar habitat to that occupied further south such as in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana.

Other good birds seen during our boat trip included several majestic Goliath Herons, Palm-nut Vultures, a colour-ringed German Osprey (more on this later), a few Blue-breasted Kingfishers and Common Wattle-eyes (both heard only), as well as an unexpected Swamp Mongoose seen in full daylight (Héron goliath, Palmiste africain, Balbuzard, Martin-chasseur à poitrine bleue, Pririt à collier, Mangouste des marais).

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Goliath Heron / Héron goliath ad.

 

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Palmnut Vulture / Palmiste african ad.

 

During our stay in the Toubacouta area, we also visited the Sangako community forest, Sandicoly, and bush/farmland near Nema Ba: plenty of birds everywhere, though no real surprises here, except maybe for a fine pair of Bateleurs, a species that’s right on the edge of its regular range here. Other goodies for us northerners included Swallow-tailed Bee-eater, Grey-headed Bushshrike, White Helmetshrike, Bruce’s Green Pigeon, Four-banded Sandgrouse and many more of course (Guêpier à queue d’aronde, Gladiateur de Blanchot, Bagadais casqué, Colombar waalia, Ganga quadribande). Also a nice series of owls heard from our campsite: Greyish Eagle Owl, African Scops Owl, Pearl-spotted Owlet and Barn Owl! (Grand-duc du Sahel, Petit-duc africain, Chevêchette perlée, Effraie des clochers).

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Swallow-tailed Bee-eater / Guêpier à queue d’aronde

 

With the addition of the Tiger Heron but also Ferruginous Duck (a pair on a small dam near Mbodiene, 24.12; Fuligule nyroca), my Senegal list now stands at 530 species: which one will be next?

 

 

 

New Trip Report – the North, Saloum, Wassadou & Dakar

It’s always a pleasure to read good trip reports by birders who visit Senegal. More and more visitors now report their sightings through eBird or Observation.org, but few go through the effort of writing up their notes – despite best intentions, as I can sadly testify to myself.

Too many birds, not enough time, right?

A small Danish team visited Senegal last November, and I happened to meet them while seawatching at the Calao at the start of their visit, together with guide Carlos who expertly showed them a great deal of excellent birds – and then again towards the tail end when we briefly met up in Toubacouta. I recently received their trip report, one of the few good ones that were published on Senegal recently. There are useful sections on travel arrangements, weather, timing, pets, and resources (many thanks for mentioning this site!). And very importantly, a brief review of key places visited during the trip: Dakar, Trois-Marigots & Djoudj, Richard Toll, Kousmar, Wassadou & the Niokolo-Koba National Park, Toubacouta & Delta du Saloum, and finally Popenguine. Information on key species is provided along with some info on accommodation and access, and almost all are illustrated with pictures showing local habitats. Next up are species lists by site, followed by a comprehensive list of bird and mammal species seen.

Pretty much all the “specials” were found, both up North and in the Saloum and Niokolo-Koba areas. Also a few less expected birds, such as a high count of Stone-Curlews at Richard Toll (90! with 12 more at Trois-Marigots), a slightly out-of-range African Hobby at Trois-Marigots, a couple of Temminck’s Stints, Shining-blue Kingfisher at Wassadou (though apparently it’s quite regular there at the moment), and an Aquatic Warbler seen during the boat tour to the Djoudj pelican colony (they’re present of course, but seeing one is rare!). And a good breeding record of Fulvous Babbler – apparently one of the few confirmed in the country – with a bird on the nest at Richard Toll.

Oh and I almost forgot – the report is stuffed with brilliant pictures including many of the country’s iconic birds, such as this pair of perfect Swallow-tailed Bee-eaters seen near Toubacouta, or the stunning Cricket Warbler from Richard Toll further down (all pictures in this post by Morten Heegaard, Stig Jensen & Jon Lehmberg).

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Swallow-tailed Bee-eater / Guêpier à queue d’arronde

 

And make sure to read through to the very end, where you’ll find an enjoyable bonus section on the raptor roost at Ile de Kousmar near Kaolack. To quote the authors, “Why a lot more birders aren’t visiting this roost is a total mystery to us, and that some are even spending a night in Kaolack without coming here is simply beyond belief”. I, for one, am ashamed to say I have not made it to Kousmar yet: next winter, sans faute.

 

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White-crested Helmet-Shrike / Bagadais casqué

 

The report can be downloaded directly from here (PDF, 5 MB), or from the Cloudbirders site, which contains a number of other good trip reports on Senegal, many of which are from tours combined with Gambia. Many are fairly dull species lists, but among the more recent ones this report by Birdquest from February 2017 (Podor, Dindefelo, Wassadou, Saloum etc.) is worth a read for those planning a trip to Senegal even if it fails to provide any useful information on where to find the most wanted birds (and there are a few errors as well, e.g. Mali Firefinch is not restricted to Kedougou in Senegal, and Marbled Teal is very much a regular visitor to Djoudj). I guess that’s one of the differences between commercial tours that rush from one place to another (imagine spending just a single day in Dindefelo?!) and a bunch of passionate friends who are keen to share their explorations. Dieuredieuf, Morten, Stig & Jon!

 

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Cricket Warbler / Prinia à front écailleux

 

And since we’re talking trip reports – a really enjoyable report in very much a different style is this recent one from The Gambia: BIRDBLOG GAMBIA 2018. Woodsmoke…dust…many birds!

“The ironically named Singing Cisticola showed well, but sang very, very badly, however Scimitarbill and Grasshopper Buzzard rebalanced the cool scale”

Proof that birding trip reports don’t have to be boring reads – highly recommend it, I had a real good laugh!

 

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Zebra Waxbill / Bengali zébré

 

 

 

Toubacouta avant les pluies

Toubacouta, enfin !

Si mon article précédent avait comme sujet les sites hors sentiers battus, celui-ci vous présente un des spots assez classiques des circuits ornithologiques, et que je n’avais jusqu’à présent pas eu l’occasion de découvrir: les environs de Toubacouta. On se trouve ici tout juste sous la latitude 14° N, soit en pleine zone de transition entre la savane sèche et les forêts guinéennes qu’on trouve au sud du fleuve Gambie. Du coup, plusieurs espèces se trouvent ici en limite septentrionale de leur aire de repartition, comme le Touraco vert (Guinea Turaco) ou encore le Loriot doré (African Golden-Oriole). Certaines remontent depuis la Casamance ou de la Gambie en saison des pluies, comme l’Hirondelle fanti (Fanti Sawwing) dont plusieurs individus seront vus lors du séjour. On est ici d’ailleurs tout proche du petit pays voisin, aberration de l’histoire coloniale: à peine 25 km jusqu’à la frontière. J’ai donc passé deux nuits à Toubacouta (ou Toubakouta), site touristique plutôt agréable surtout en cette basse saison, situé en bordure de mangrove du vaste parc national du delta du Saloum.

Arrivée le samedi après-midi après 4h de route depuis Dakar en passant par Kaolack, séance d’observation dans la brousse au sud du village en fin de journée, puis ornitho intensive quasi toute la journée du dimanche : d’abord la « palmeraie » de Sandicoly, ensuite la brousse entre Sandicoly et Sokone, sieste en début d’après-midi, incursion dans champs et vergers autour de Keur Mama Lamine, pour finir la journée dans la forêt de Sangako. Le lendemain, sortie matinale dans un autre secteur de la forêt avant de reprendre le chemin du retour, avec escales rapides du côté de Keur Wally Ndiaye et un crochet à la station de l’IRD de Mbour pour y examiner la dizaine de Fauvettes passerinnettes de la collection du centre.

Résultat des courses, quelques 145 espèces observées, dont plusieurs que je n’avais pas encore eu le plaisir de voir au Sénégal. Entre autres, cinq espèces de coucou, quatre rolliers, sept (!) martins-pêcheurs, Guêpier à queue d’aronde (Swallow-tailed Bee-eater), Grand Indicateur (Greater Honeyguide), Irrisor noir (au nid ! Black Scimitar-bill), Petit-duc africain et plusieurs Chevêchettes perlées (African Scops Owl, Pearl-spotted Owlet), un couple de Courvites de Temminck (Temminck’s Courser), Echenilleur à épaulettes rouges, Bulbul à gorge claireSpréo améthyste, Zosterops jaune, Tisserin masqué, etc. etc. (Red-shouldered Cuckoo-shrike, Yellow-throated LeafloveViolet-backed Starling, Yellow White-eye, Heuglin’s Masked Weaver)

La première sortie de terrain, en compagnie de Carlos, guide ornitho polyglotte très compétent basé à Toubacouta, nous a permis d’observer plusieurs espèces typiques du coin. Parmi celles-ci, cet Autour unibande qui s’est posé un moment dans un arbre alors que nous étions en train de suivre le manège de deux Coucous de Klaas mâles en train de s’affronter.

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Lizard Buzzard / Autour unibande

Ci-dessous: Coucou de Levaillant, Martins-chasseurs à poitrine bleue et à tête grise, Martin-pêcheur pygmée (cliquez sur les photos pour agrandir ; Levaillant’s Cuckoo, Blue-breasted, Grey-headed, African Pygmy Kingfishers) :

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GreyheadedKingfisher_Toubacouta_20170618_IMG_2610  AfricanPygmyKingfisher_Toubacouta_20170619_IMG_2675

Rollier à ventre bleu (Blue-bellied Roller) à l’ombre d’un palmier:

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L’étonnant Bagadais casqué (White-crested Helmetshrike) :

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Choucador pourpré (Purple Starling) :

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Pic à taches noires (Fine-spotted Woodpecker), qui semble plutot commun ici:FinespottedWoodpecker_Toubacouta_20170619_IMG_2693

Comme d’hab’ j’ai cherché à enregistrer les piafs du coin autant que possible – voir (et surtout écouter) les prises de son sur xeno-canto (lien direct ici). J’étais particulièrement content de mon enregistrement de ces deux Noircaps loriots (Oriole Warbler) chantant en duo.

Côté mammifères, j’ai eu la surprise de voir mes premiers Babouins sénégalais dans la mangrove de Sandicoly. Plus classiques, quelques Singes “rouges” (patas) et une famille de Phacochères sont vus dans la forêt de Sangako.

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Egalement plusieurs obs des deux écureuils les plus répandus au Sénégal: Ecureuil terrestre (= E. fouisseur, Striped Ground Squirrel) et – arboricole celui-ci – de Gambie (Gambian Sun Squirrel).

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La prochaine fois, on ira faire un tour dans la mangrove à la recherche du rare Onoré à huppe blanche (White-crested Tiger-Heron), Souimanga brun (Mangrove Sunbird) et autres spécialités de cette partie du delta. Rendez-vous pris pour fin novembre!

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Enfin, si vous passez à Toubacouta je vous conseille vivement de prendre contact avec Carlos, guide unique en son genre avec une très bonne connaissance de la faune locale, qui vous fera un plaisir de vous faire découvrir cette partie du pays – voire au-delà, ayant parcouru une bonne partie des sites ornithos sénégalais. Me contacter si vous souhaitez avoir ses coordonnées.

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Observations faites du 17 au 19 juin