Yet another species was added to Senegal’s bird list recently. What follows is an account of recent observations of Brown-backed Honeybird by Gabriel Caucanas and friends, with some edits and additional information I managed to dig up – merci Gabriel!
January 20th 2018. We arrived in Dindefelo after 3 nights inside the Niokolo Koba National Park. Our team of French naturalists (Solenne Lefevre, Carine Lelaure, Geoffrey Monchaux, Valentin Motteau, Eric Sansault and myself) arrived at dusk at the “campement villageois” where our guide, Banna, had booked us for the night. The journey Simenti-Dindefelo was very long and we had many expectations for this wonderful place, as usual for birders. Will we find everything we are supposed to see, in just a single morning? No stress!
January 21st. About a hundred meters after the start of the path towards the waterfall: Blue-spotted Wood Dove, Klaas’s Cuckoo, Northern Puffback. Following the path inside the gallery-forest, we added Green Turaco, Narina’s Trogon, African Blue Flycatcher, Sulphur-breasted Bush-shrike… Even for me, living in Tambacounda for more than one year at that moment, discoveries went on as we saw Red-chested Goshawk, Yellow-breasted Apalis, Green-headed Sunbird, and even a pair of Mali (Kulikoro) Firefinches with two juveniles. What a pleasant walk!
Just like almost every wooded place in Senegal, many Common Bulbuls were foraging and singing along the path. One bulbul-like individual however attracted our attention. After a few seconds of watching the bird, we all agreed that it seemed a little bit smaller than a Common Bulbul with a bill clearly curved at the end, convex. Moreover the undertail was white and the tail seemed heart-shaped ended. Thirty meters above us, the bird sat quietly during a few minutes, looking around, perched on a thin branch. As none of us was a sub-saharan bird specialist, we were not able to identify the species. Fortunately, one of us managed to take a reasonably good picture of the bird. Nothing described in the book seemed to fit to this bird apart from Brown-backed Honeybird… but even if I knew that several new species for the country had been found recently in this gallery forest, no observation was confirmed for Senegal. Our trip in Senegal continued the following days, first around Dande, then in the Boundou Community Nature Reserve and Casamance for the luckier of us. Days were passing without giving us a chance to have time to identify the bird.
On February 4th, I visited Wassadou camp. Many interesting birds were around, as usual for this place: Adamawa Turtle-Dove, African Blue Flycatcher, African Finfoot, Cardinal Woodpecker (a pair carrying food into a hole in a branch of Ceiba pentandra) and the two regular Hippopotamus. Then around 4 pm, a strange bird, again bulbul-like, was foraging and gleaning insects from branches a few meters above me in one of the huge Kapok trees close to the “deck”. What a surprise! It looked exactly the same as the bird we saw a few days earlier in Dindefelo: black curved bill, brownish head, greyish above becoming white on belly, rounded heart-shaped tail and undertail coverts white ending more greyish… Definitely not a bulbul! I again read the page about honeyguides in the Birds of the Senegal and the Gambia (Borrow and Demey, 2011). Yes, it could fit for Prodotiscus regulus, but nothing was said about the heart-shaped tail that I noticed in both birds. How could this be? A new species for Senegal seen twice in less than twenty days, some 200 km away from each other? I was confused… maybe I was just seeing a common bird that I was unable to recognise.
March 10th, Wassadou one more time: White-headed Lapwing, African Pied Wagtail, Shining-blue Kingfisher, Oriole Warbler, Western Banded Snake-eagle… We decided to stay the night. Around 5pm, as I was standing near the deck, I noticed the same mystery bird foraging in the same Kapok tree! But this time, I managed to take decent pictures of it, and I had to admit it was clearly fitting Prodotiscus regulus. Back home, I sent pictures from Wassadou and Dindefelo to Bram and Simon who were able to confirm the identification. Simon added that one claim had been made by two Spanish birders on 30 Jan 2015 at Wassadou, but with no further documentation nor a formal publication (the record was mentioned with a brief description in their trip report, and was included in the ABC Recent Reports).
As such, the records from Dindefelo and Wassadou are the first documented observations for Senegal.
Brown-backed Honeybird, also known as Wahlberg’s Honeybird or Sharp-billed Honeybird (or Honeyguide) is a widespread species across the continent, occurring throughout East and Southern Africa, with a much more fragmented distribution in West Africa. It’s known to be a local “wanderer” within its vast range and as such it’s always quite an unpredictable bird to find, and it’s not clear whether there are any regular migration patterns.
Following his observations from Mali – the first for the country – Marco Thoma identified only 10 other published records for the species in West Africa, with several new ones obtained in recent years from across the region. The closest to Senegal was a single record from Gambia in Sept. 2006, less than 100 km away from Wassadou, then three birds near Bamako in Mali (Jan. 2010), one in Liberia (Mt. Nimba, Jan. 1968), one in Côte d’Ivoire (May 1989). At least four records are known from Ghana where the species was found in 2009 for the first time, followed by singles in 2011 and 2013 (both in January), and a bird seen in Mole NP in March 2016. Further east, there are records from Togo (Aug. 1969), Benin (first record on 21 May 2015), several in Nigeria and Cameroon, etc. It was added to the Guinean list earlier this year by Simon Cavaillès, and the second record for Guinea-Bissau was obtained just recently by Gabriel Caucal and Etienne Rogeau at Madina de Boé (Gabu region), on 6 Feb 18. It’s clearly an overlooked species, and one can expect more observations to be made in years to come (Simon even mentioned this to me [BP] following his record from Guinea – look out for the species in Senegal! How right was he, as always!).
The species is thought to breed in May-September in West Africa: except for a record of a juvenile seen in Nigeria in December, we haven’t come across any breeding records from the region, and while there are observations from pretty much all months, most recent records are from January to March it seems (this could of course be largely related to the much higher observer presence during the northern winter months). Just like other honeyguides and honeybirds – the Indicatoridae – it is a brood parasite, as nicely illustrated by this picture of a fledgling Brown-backed Honeybird being fed by a Bar-throated Apalis. Besides Yellow-breasted Apalis which occurs in both Dindefelo and Wassadou, Grey-backed Camaroptera, Yellow White-eye and various sunbird species are other potential hosts for Brown-backed Honeybird.
Fun fact: during the night of March 10th at Wassadou, I saw two Common Genets, an African Civet and heard Pel’s Fishing Owl calling several times. In the early morning, we saw it, from the boat!
Finally, going back to our subject of interest: I (BP) was lucky to see this elusive species on several occasions, in southern Rwanda for the first time (in a group of other species mobbing a snake, picture here), Harare, and most recently in Cape Town’s famous Kirstenbosch botanical garden, where I managed to record its song. And maybe one day I’ll get to see it in Senegal!
Addendum (4.6) – it turns out that my Swiss friends who spent several days at Wassadou in February also saw the honeyguide, though it wasn’t identified as such. A few blurry pictures taken of a brownish bird in the very same Kapok tree on Feb. 22nd, dug up by Alain, allow us to confirm that it was indeed the Brown-backed Honeybird.
A few references
Roy, K. (2009) First record of Wahlberg’s Honeybird Prodotiscus regulus for The Gambia, Bull. ABC 16(1): 90-91
Valentine, G. (2013) First record of Wahlberg’s Honeybird Prodotiscus regulus for Ghana, Bull. ABC 20 (1): 70
Gabriel (& Bram)
Sortie dominicale de routine au Technopole avant-hier 29/4, avec comme presque toujours quelques observations intéressantes à la clé.
A commencer par ces trois Goélands dominicains (Kelp Gull), espèce rarement observée au Technopole et à Dakar de manière générale : en scannant un groupe de laridés essentiellement composé de Goélands d’Audouin (quelques 85 inds. en tout, un bel effectif pour le site; Audouin’s Gull), un oiseau costaud sort du lot et lorsque j’arrive à voir son bec massif, je peux confirmer qu’il s’agit bien de Larus dominicanus, pas de doute possible cette fois. Un individu adulte ou presque, de taille nettement supérieure aux quelques Goélands bruns (Lesser Black-backed Gull) dans le même groupe, au bec énorme, un manteau bien sombre, et des pattes grises très claires tirant vers le vert. L’iris sombre est conforme à la ssp. vetula (Goéland du Cap, Cape Gull). A côté de lui se tiennent deux immatures avec la même structure et des pattes de la même couleur que l’adulte, soit trois Dominicains en tout. Les deux jeunes ont un âge similaire, ayant un plumage de type “2e cycle”, donc dans ce cas précis ce seraient des oiseaux nés en 2016. A part la taille et la forme du bec, la couleur des pattes est diagnostique et permet de rapidement repérer l’espèce au milieu de groupes de Goélands bruns, qui ont des pattes jaunes (adultes et subadultes) ou roses (immatures). Les trois oiseaux sont visibles sur la photo ci-dessous.
Pour plus d’infos sur l’identification des Goélands dominicains, voir notamment cet article de Jiguet et al. paru dans Birding World (2002), et aussi ici pour ce qui est des oiseaux de premier cycle.
Clive Barlow et Tim Dodman se sont penchés sur la population ouest-africaine, dont le petit noyau se trouve dans le delta du Saloum où l’espèce niche de manière régulière depuis 1980 au moins, lorsqu’un couple présumé mixte G. dominicain x G. brun fut trouvé sur l’Ile aux Oiseaux. Par la suite, des nidifications par des couples purs sont prouvées dès 1983 par Erard et al. Quelques individus fréquentent régulièrement la Gambie et la Mauritanie, et s’y reproduisent parfois, peut-etre aussi en Guinée-Bissau? Et avec l’intérêt grandissant que portent les ornithos européens au Sahara occidental – ou Sahara atlantique marocain, selon quel point de vue politique on adopte! – l’espèce est vue plus ou moins régulièrement en très petits effectifs plus au nord sur le continent, et il y a même quelques observations récentes au Portugal et en France. Clive et Tim émettent l’hypothèse que notre petite population isolée soit établie par quelques oiseaux égarés depuis l’Afrique australe (Afrique du Sud / Namibie), et que cette population soit maintenant autonome sans qu’il n’y ait de mouvements réguliers entres les populations australes et celle d’Afrique de l’Ouest. Il y aurait ainsi entre 20 et 50 couples dans la région. Une étude génétique est en cours ou du moins est-elle prévue, sauf erreur.
En région dakaroise, ce goéland hautement côtier est assez régulièrement signalée par des observateurs de passage, mais je ne suis pas sûr que toutes les observations soient réellement fiables… D’après mes propres données de ces trois dernières années le Goéland dominicain est très peu fréquent. Cela dit, je ne suis pas un larophile et si je faisais plus attention à ce groupe difficile que sont les grands goélands, j’en verrais probablement plus souvent!
Ainsi, Niklas Holmström et collègues en signalent pas moins de 20 entre le 13 et le 27/10/03 devant Ngor, mais un seul entre le 3 et le 16/10/05. Une équipe danoise en compte même 57 en « en migration vers le sud » du 22 au 29/10/04 – vraiment étonnant vu que l’espèce n’est présente qu’en très faibles effectifs plus au nord, et qu’en plus ils ne signalent aucun Goéland brun alors que c’est l’espèce dominante à cette période. En 2010, on passe à des effectifs plus raisonnables me semble-t-il, avec trois individus entre le 30/9 et le 8/10 (R. Lebrun) et autant du 25 au 31/10/10 (P. Crouzier & co.). Plus récemment, un Goeland dominicain est rapporté le 24/2 de Ngor par un groupe de naturalistes belges.
Pour ma part, ma seule autre observation au Technopole datait du 6/8/17, d’un immature que j’avais identifié comme dominicain et dont je reprends une des photos floues ci-dessous (l’autre est là) – commentaires bienvenus! Puis avec Manuel en février dernier on a également soupçonné un dominicain, mais trop loin et pas de photos pour confirmer l’identité de l’oiseau. Idem les 11 et 30/8/17 lorsque des probables dominicains passent devant Ngor.
Autre observation intéressante, celle d’un probable Heron « pâle », la sous-espèce monicae du Héron cendré qui ne niche qu’au Banc d’Arguin et peut-être ailleurs sur les côtes en Mauritanie et que certains considèrent même comme une espèce à part entière (“Pallid” or “Mauritanian” Heron). L’aspect très clair était frappant, et malgré la distance on arrive à bien voir les petites stries noires, fines et courtes, sur le cou qui comme le reste des parties inferieures parait presque aussi blanc que la Grande Aigrette. Le manteau était d’un gris pâle à l’exception d’une tache plus sombre à « l’épaule ». Il y a juste le dessin de la tête qui peut sembler un peu top contrasté pour un monicae classique, mais en regardant de près les quelques photos d’oiseaux mauritaniens cela semble encore rentrer dans la normale pour cette sous-espèce. Pour compliquer la chose, il y aurait des oiseaux intermediaires, et peut-être que c’est donc aussi le cas pour notre oiseau du Technopole (visibement un adulte nuptial). Bien entendu je suis preneur d’autres avis!
Il doit s’agir d’un des ardéidés les plus rares au monde, la population totale ne comptant que quelques milliers d’individus, avec une aire de répartition très restreinte. Si c’est bien un mauritanien, alors il s’agirait de ma première observation d’un oiseau manifestement rare à Dakar. Ces derniers mois il y a eu au moins deux autres observations dans la région : un le 13/2 au parc de Hann (Gottlieb Dandliker, Cyril Schönbächler; photo ci-dessous) et un le 24/2 aux Iles de la Madeleine (M. Demeulemeester et al.). Monicae est plus fréquente en hiver dans les zones côtières du nord du pays, notamment autour de la Langue de Barbarie et Saint-Louis, mais même là le taxon reste d’observation plutôt aléatoire. Les observations d’Ornithondar permettent d’en savoir plus sur le taxon dans le Bas-Delta, et de comparer les photos avec l’oiseau du Technopole: articles bien instructifs ici et là.
Tout cela pour dire qu’en gros, aussi bien l’identification que le statut et la distribution au Sénégal restent encore à préciser! On trouvera quelques infos résumées sur la page dédiée au Héron cendré sur le site du groupe HeronConservation.
Troisième espèce inattendue, vue par chance alors que j’étais en train de quitter le site : six Bengalis zébrés (Zebra [Orange-breasted] Waxbill). Ce sympathique petits passereau avait été vu pour la première fois au Technopole en janvier-mars 2017, et depuis j’ai pu en voir également à Yène, plus précisément le 1er janvier dernier. On peut donc supposer que ce nicheur du Bas-Delta sénégalais et du Saloum soit un erratique plus ou moins régulier dans la région dakaroise.
Pour le reste, il y a de nouveau un petit groupe de Flamants roses (10 ind.), les premiers poussins d’Echasses blanches – juste trois pour le moment, déjà vus le 21/4 – et plusieurs adultes en train de couver; également un poussin de Vanneau éperonné; quelques Bécasseaux variables et surtout une bonne présence de Sanderlings (+150) et de Sternes caugeks notamment; une Hirondelle de rivage retardataire; et toujours quelques Spatules blanches et d’Afrique (Greater Flamingo, Black-winged Stilt, Spur-winged Lapwing, Dunlin, Sanderling, Sandwich Tern, Sand Martin, Eurasian & African Spoonbill). Sinon assez peu de limicoles, la plupart des chevaliers, pluviers, combattants et autres bécasseaux étant de retour en Europe maintenant: on attend déjà leur retour, d’ici deux mois à peine pour les avant-coureurs. Par contre, il y a toujours autant de Bihoreaux gris: une bonne trentaine (Black-crowned Night-Heron).
Le Souimanga cuivré est vu à chaque sortie en ce moment, et la semaine passée il y avait également un superbe mâle de Souimanga éclatant, photo ci-dessous (Copper & Splendid Sunbird).
(see also this Ornithondar post on the same topic, en Français!)
Back in January, when Frédéric Bacuez (Ornithondar), Filip Verroens and I visited the middle Senegal valley, we stayed the night at Gamadji Sare on the Doue river bank in the far north of the country. We had some really good birds here, such as Egyptian Plover, Red-throated Bee-eater, Fulvous Babbler, Cricket Warbler, and Seebohm’s and Isabelline Wheatears. We also encountered a flock of swifts which we initially took for White-rumped Swift as these had been reported from the Senegal valley before and since in Senegal this is the only swift with a white rump other than Little Swift.
However, something felt not quite right for this species, and luckily Frédéric was able to take a number of decent pictures – not an easy feat with these birds! Subsequent study of the pictures revealed that the birds did indeed not quite fit White-rumped Swift, and that they were something else… Frédéric was lucky to pay a second visit to the same site, in mid February, and despite very dusty conditions he obtained even better pictures. These provided a more definite clue to the identity of these mystery swifts, which we now feel confident are nothing less than HORUS SWIFTS!!!
Why do we get so excited about this one? It’s always exciting of course to find an addition to a country’s species list, but in this case we have a highly unexpected record since it comes down to a range extension of no less than 1,600 km, and because the species may even breed here. Plus, one can now safely assume that Horus Swift also occurs in Mauritania, Mali and Burkina Faso, and why not in northern Cote d’Ivoire and NE Guinea too (and for any WP listers out there: it may well make its way across the biogeographical border!). It also shows, once again, that there’s still so much to learn and to be discovered about birds in Senegal despite it being among the better explored countries in West Africa.
So far, the closest Horus Swift observations to Senegal were from Ghana, more precisely from Mole National Park and a few other locations in the NW of the country where they were first found in 2004, though it’s not clear whether these were incidental records of wanderers or whether the species is a resident here. It has also been recorded from SW Niger (‘W’ NP), several plateaux in Nigeria and the highlands in Cameroon, but only becomes relatively widespread in the highlands of East and Southern Africa.
On hindsight, the identification as Horus Swift is actually relatively straightforward, the key id features of Horus Swift being the following:
- Broad rectangular white rump patch extending well onto the sides of the lower flank (not narrow and U-shaped as in White-rumped)
- Moderately forked tail, intermediate in depth between Little and White-rumped Swifts
- Absence of white trailing edge to secondaries (a feature that’s almost always present in White-rumped)
- Overall structure and flight action closer to Little than White-rumped Swift, which is a slender bird with a graceful flight.
All of these are clearly visible on the pictures, some of which are shown below (merci Fred!). The option of a hybrid Little x White-rumped Swift was initially suggested, but all features fit Horus perfectly, and a hybrid would be slimmer with a smaller throat patch and some white edges to secondaries. Plus, it would be (near) impossible to have 18-20 hybrids together, without any pure birds. All swifts looked similar in the field, though pictures reveal that there may have been a Little Swift in the lot as well (picture here). A presumed hybrid was reported from Spain recently, see this eBird record. Our identification was confirmed by Gerald Driessens, illustrator of the reference guide to the swifts of the world.
The next three pictures are from February 12th, i.e. some five weeks later than our first observation when Frederic and Daniel Nussbaumer visited the site. Only a few birds were present, at least one of which showed a heavily worn plumage, see picture (6). Besides the shallow tail fork and large rump patch, the extensive white throat patch extending onto the upper breast is obvious here.
Here’s a more detailed description, largely based on the ca. 50 pictures by Frédéric :
Structure: typical swift build with a body shaped like a fat cigar and long and pointy wings, and a moderately forked tail, the fork being about a third of the length of the outer rectrices when closed.
- The wing shape resembled Little Swift much more than White-rumped, which has narrower wings. It often appeared to be fairly broad, particularly in the middle (inner primariers and outer secondaries). As can be seen on several of the images, the wing shape varied considerably throughout the birds’ flight action – for instance, compare pictures (3) and (4) which give very different impressions, and see also (8).
- The tail always appeared to be broad throughout, never pointed as is often the case in caffer (1) & (2). When completely fanned out, the fork appeared very shallow, quite similar to House Martin (2). At times it disappeared nearly entirely, thus resembling Little Swift: compare (6) and (7), of the same bird taken at an interval of a few seconds.
- Overall very dark brown to black plumage except for the white throat, the very pale forehead extending to just above the eye (4), and the white rump;
- The rectangular white rump patch (4) clearly extended onto the flanks and was thus visible from below, e.g. pictures (5) and (6).
- The throat patch was similar to or larger than Little Swift, obviously extending onto the upper breast. Both features are nicely visible on (6) and to some extent on (1).
- Several photographs clearly show the relatively contrasting underwing pattern, stemming from a combination of paler brown leading edge-coverts, dark lesser underwing coverts, again paler median coverts, and slightly darker greater coverts – see header picture and (3) and (6). In White-rumped Swift, the lesser and median coverts are all darker than the remainder of the underwing.
- Upperwing entirely dark, without white trailing edge to secondaries. The latter appear slightly greyer or browner than the black mantle and scapulars (the “saddle”).
Voice: slightly lower-pitched trills than Little or White-rumped Swift; the short sound recording that I managed to obtain can be found here and contains two different calls, including a typical shrill swift call and a slower “twittering” of more melodious quality. It matches the recording by C. Chappuis quite well, both by ear and on sonogram, even if I find it hard to hear clear differences with some White-rumped Swift recordings (compare with e.g. this recording from Zambia). HBW describe the most common Horus call as a reedy trilled ”prrreeeeoo” or “prrreee-piu”. Of note is that until now, no recordings were available on xeno-canto or other online sound libraries.
Behaviour: the swifts were mostly feeding over the river and nearby banks, though usually remained above the water at various heights, occasionally flying right above the surface. They mostly remained in a loose flock, sometimes with 2-5 birds flying closely together and swooping close to the sand bank above which we were standing, sometimes calling in the process – a behaviour that’s indicative of breeding… The picture below shows two such birds “chasing” one another.
Below are a final few pictures from the January series:
Now compare with these pictures:
- Horus Swift
- White-rumped Swift
The habitat in which we found these birds is also very much in line with what is to be expected from Horus Swift. Quite unlike most (all?) other swifts, the species breeds in “old burrows of bee-eaters, kingfishers and martins” (Borrow & Demey), i.e. typically in sandy banks along rivers – exactly the kind of place where we found these birds, which were seen “visiting” the Gamadji Sare cliff (approx. 6-8m at its tallest). Our swifts either rested on the cliff, or inside holes: at dawn on 6/1, several birds visibly left the river bank while the previous evening they were flying very close to or into the cliff, oftentimes calling (unfortunately, because we were positioned on top of the cliff, we could not confirm that they actually entered any nest holes). We estimated there to be about 18-20 birds on Jan. 6th, while the previous afternoon we saw just four.
It may thus even breed by the Doue river which likely has Pied Kingfisher and Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters, and possibly also Red-throated Bee-eater nesting here – something that we really ought to confirm in coming months (just before, during, or right after the rains?). White-rumped Swift typically breeds in disused swallow or Little Swift nests, though sometimes also “in crevices or on ledges within rock fissures or buildings” (Chantler & Driessens 1995). It may well breed at Popenguine for instance, where in September 2015 I saw two birds entering and leaving one of the World War II bunkers.
As I was typing this up, I started wondering why a rather unassuming little bird such as this one was named after one of the most significant ancient Egyptian deities. Well, I’m not quite sure! It was described in 1869 by German zoologist Theodor von Heuglin, who spent many years in north-east Africa in the mid-19th century. One can assume that he collected the type specimen in Sudan or especially in Ethiopia where Horus Swift is locally fairly common. And that Heuglin somehow must have been inspired by Horus, depicted as a falcon-headed man, when coming up with a name for this species.
Many thanks to François Baillon, Simon Cavaillès, David Cuenca, Ron Demey, Gerald Driessens, Miguel Lecoq, Carlos Sánchez and others who commented on the identification or provided reference material.
Bram & Frédéric (une co-production Senegal Wildlife & Ornithondar!)
- Chantler, P. & Driessens, G. (1995) Swifts. A Guide to the Swifts and Treeswifts of the World. Pica Press.
- Chantler, P. & Boesman, P. (2018). Horus Swift (Apus horus). In: del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., Sargatal, J., Christie, D.A. & de Juana, E. (eds.). Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
Kordofan Lark (Mirafra cordofanica) is a poorly documented African lark species occurring in the Sahel. In West Africa it is known from Mauritania, Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso and its status in Senegal is considered to be that of a vagrant. A recent observation by a Belgian tour group led by Miguel Demeulemeester in March 2018 gives us a good opportunity to have a closer look at this species’ identification and its occurrence in Senegal.
Despite the quite broad range occupied by Kordofan Lark, which covers eight countries, it appears to be a highly localized resident. It is quite remarkable to note that there is not a single picture or video available on the Internet Bird Collection, nor are there any sound recordings on xeno-canto and other online sound libraries! It is probably the only bird species found in Senegal in that case. This is probably because the countries where the species is regular are not top birding destinations nowadays. A thorough internet search only takes you to a set of pictures taken in Niger by Tim Wacher, though it appears that these birds are actually Dunn’s Lark and not Kordofan as initially thought – see further down for a discussion of identification. The pictures taken by Jan Heip are therefore a very good contribution to the online presence of this scarce lark. As it turns out, they may well be the only pictures available online!
Kordofan Lark in Senegal
The first record of the species has been published by Morel & Roux (1962). Since this first observation a few more records have been added, which in most cases are not documented.
- Collected or observed 4 or 5 times in grassland close to Richard Toll, April to June 1960 (Gérard Morel)
- One close to Bakel, January 1983 (H. Schifter in Morel & Morel 1990)
- At least one in the Richard Toll area, during a visit from 30 December 1993 to 5 January 1994 which “produced single records of Golden Nightjar, Little Grey Woodpecker and Kordofan Bushlark […] (per TG).” (Recent Reports, African Bird Club)
- One record of a single bird NE of Louga (15°41´N, 16°7´W) on 30 July 2004, during North-South transects as part of a study on bird population densities along two precipitation gradients in Senegal and Niger (Petersen et al. 2007)
- 4 individuals, Ndiaël, 4 December 2004 (Richard Cruse in Recent Reports, African Bird Club Bulletin)
- 1 individual, southern part of Ndiaël, 14 February 2006 (Richard Cruse in Recent Reports, African Bird Club Bulletin)
- One individual feeding close to Richard Toll, March 1st 2018 (Miguel Demeulemeester et al.)
There have been a couple of claims in the past years that refer to other lark species, and probably undisclosed genuine observations as well, as most observations of guided tours remain in notebooks. Most Kordofan Lark records from Senegal should be considered with care when they are not documented.
Kordofan Lark in surrounding countries
In Mali the species is reported as uncommon but widely distributed from 15°N to 23°N by B. Lamarche (1980), adding that the species undertakes local movements with evidence of breeding from May to July near Tombouctou. In mid-June 2004, several Kordofan Larks were in song in sand dunes south-west of Gao, where the spiky grass Schoenefeldia gracilis was dominant (Robert Dowsett & Francoise Lemaire; ABC Bulletin). Similarly, L. Fishpool recorded the song in June in NE Burkina Faso, by a bird “perched on a bush 2m above ground, on sandy soil (mainly of reddish tint)”. This recording was included in the legendary set of sound recordings of African birds by Claude Chappuis (2000).
For Mauritania the following information is given by Isenmann et al. (2010). The Kordofan Lark is thought to be a resident breeder in the Sahelian part of the country. Gee (1984) only found this lark 50-60 km north of Rosso where it was rather common and probably breeding (displaying and diversion behaviours). This location is close to the Senegalese border, and all observations of Kordofan Lark in northern Senegal most likely refer to birds breeding in this area, as there is not yet any evidence of breeding in Senegal. In fact, the species is so poorly known that its nest and eggs remain undescribed.
As written by Nik Borrow & Ron Demey in their reference bird guide, Kordofan Lark is a “small, pale sandy-rufous lark with stout whitish bill and distinctive tricoloured tail pattern (rufous, black and white). When fresh upperpart feathers fringed buff with narrow blackish subterminal crescents”. Its structure is rather similar to Singing Bush-Lark, but the plumage is noticeably different. The picture shows a head and breast pattern that nicely fits the plate in Borrow & Demey, with limited well-defined brownish streaking on the upper breast, sandy-brown head with paler supercilium and nape and a white throat patch extending below the ear coverts. The bird also shows a few fresh scapulars with a neat white fringe and a subterminal dark bar, typical of the species. Its bill also perfectly corresponds with the description given in the Handbook of the Birds of the World, describing the bill as “pale whitish horn, slightly darker tip and dorsal side of upper mandible“. The juvenile is said to have “broader pale feather fringes on back and wing-coverts, heavier dark spotting on breast“.
To sum up, the main characters to look at are the bicoloured bill, brown-rufous upperparts, pattern of fresh upperparts feathers, upperbreast streaking, pale supercilium and the tricoloured tail. These characters are a unique combination amongst larks from the desert.
The group of birds photographed by Tim Wacher show a very pale plumage without breast streaking or contrasting upperparts, an entirely pale bill except for the tip, and no rufous tones in the plumage. At first sight the tail pattern (and length) fits Kordofan, but it lacks the rufous central tail feathers that should be obvious here, and which are clearly visible on the Richard Toll bird. The central tail feathers in the birds below appear more sandy brown than rufous/rusty. These birds also don’t show any white-tipped mantle feathers. As already suspected by Tim, the features shown by these birds thus correspond much more with Dunn’s rather than Kordofan Lark – including the tail pattern, which is quite similar to what can be seen here for example. It’s important to point out (thank you Tim!) that the tail of Dunn’s Lark can apparently also show a considerable variation in length, and that the white margins visible in the photos from Niger are not always evident (or present?).
We’re including the pictures here for comparison purposes, and also because Dunn’s Lark is likely to be found at some point in northern Senegal, given its nomadic habits and that it occurs not far over the border with Mauritania.
Beware also of the possible confusion with rusty females of Black-crowned Sparrow Lark, which can look superficially similar, but show a different tail pattern and proportions. The shorter tail and legs combined with a proportionally large head give a plump silhouette to the bird. Sparrow-larks are also smaller and more compact, and their upper breast is not streaked.
The only other Mirafra species occuring in Senegal is the Singing Bush Lark Mirafra cantillans. This species is fairly common in dry savanna and grassland, and shares some characteristics with Kordofan Lark. The bill can be similarly coloured, the tail can appear tricoloured as well (though less obviously so, and less neatly separated, than in Kordofan – check out variations below) and upper breast is also streaked. In adult plumage the upperparts of Singing Bush Lark is scaly, identification is then straightforward. But in fresh plumage Kordofan Lark shows a scaly plumage as well, thus separating both species can become tricky.
Then what to look at? Global coloration of upperparts seems to be the clue, ground colour being cold sandy-brown for Singing Bush Lark and cinnamon-rufous for Kordofan Lark. Pay also attention to the fresh upperparts feather pattern, Kordofan Lark showing a clear dark subterminal band absent in Singing Bush Lark (this dark line remains on the photographed Kordofan Lark, which shows a fairly worn plumage; this detail is probably only visible at close range). Singing Bush Lark, at least in fresh plumage, typically has a more contrasted head pattern and appears more mottled overall, especially on the mantle and shoulders, with stronger breast streaking than Kordofan.
Obviously, much is still to be learnt about the various Sahelian larks, be it in terms of identification, status & distribution, or ecology!
A few references
Isenmann P., Benmergui M., Browne P., Ba A.D., Diagana C.H., Diawara Y. & El Abidine ould Sidaty Z. (2010). Birds of Mauritania – Oiseaux de Mauritanie. Société d’Etudes Ornithologiques de France, Paris, 408 p.
Morel G., Roux, F. (1962). Données nouvelles sur l’avifaune du Sénégal. L’Oiseau et la Revue Française d’Ornithologie 32: 28-56.
With thanks to Jean-Francois Blanc, Miguel Demeulemeester, Jan Heip, Tim Wacher.
Simon & Bram
This post – including its title – was modified on 8/4 after we found what is supposed to be the same bird, and re-identified it as Baird’s Sandpiper rather than White-rumped.
Last Sunday (25/3), during a routine Technopole visit with Miguel and Antonio, we picked up an odd looking sandpiper among a group of Common Ringed Plovers. Slightly yet noticeable larger than the numerous Little Stints that are currently present, it mainly stood out by its peculiar elongated shape, due to its long wings projecting well beyond the tail tip: could it be a Baird’s or White-rumped Sandpiper?
Adrenaline levels rising fast, we quickly tried to get some pictures while studying the bird. When it moved next to a Little Stint, we could clearly see that this was not just another oddly shaped Little Stint but something different, and that it could only be one of those two American waders. It was closer in size to Common Ringed Plover, appearing intermediate between Little Stint and Dunlin. The bird was actively feeding now, probing for food in the mud, and we could see the moderately long and clearly down-curved bill (longer than Little Stint, but shorter than Dunlin), a faintly streaked breast, white underparts, brown-grey upperparts with some new scapulars in an otherwise seemingly very worn plumage. And then that elongated body shape combined with short black legs giving it a silhouette and posture unlike any other calidrids I’d seen thus far.
Then it took off – maybe because of yet another Peregrine blitz – and even though views were brief and quite distant, we each thought that we saw that the rump was mostly white (in fact it’s the uppertail coverts, but “White-uppertailcovered Sandpiper” somehow doesn’t sound quite right). This clinched the id for us even though none of use were fully familiar with the subtle differences between Baird’s and White-rumped, other than the difference in uppertail / rump pattern. I found what was most likely the same bird again on 8/4 (after not seeing it on two previous visits), and this time got much better views including of the rump in flight, which was not white at all: Baird’s Sandpiper!! So not a White-rumped after all… It just shows how one false impression in the field can lead to wrong conclusions, and that you should not take our id’s for granted! And that we still have lots to learn. It also explains why we were confused and felt that the bird looked more like Baird’s, but given that we thought we saw a white rump we could only announce it as a fuscicollis… Maybe when we saw the bird flying, rather in the distance, we were in fact somehow looking at a Curlew Sandpiper.
The distant pictures that follow show an overall fairly brown sandpiper with a diffuse yet clearly demarcated breast band and otherwise white underparts, a feature that actually fits Baird’s more than White-rumped. However, the pictures may be somewhat misleading as the impression in the field was of a slightly paler and colder-toned bird with less uniform plumage – for instance, the upper breast was finely streaked, incl. on the upper flanks. Some mantle feathers had already moulted and the crown was very finely streaked. That said, it appears that White-rumpeds in winter can have quite a bit of variation, some birds being browner overall and (almost) lacking any streaks on the flanks that are otherwise considered to be typical of the species – we found pictures of a few such birds online, e.g. here (IBC) as well as in this useful series of Baird’s and White-rumped from their wintering grounds in Argentina (beware though of the second Baird’s picture, which I think is actually a White-rumped Sand’). We suspect that this was a first-winter bird starting to moult into its first summer plumage, though without better pictures we can’t rule out that it was a full adult.
The bill shape appears subtly different from one picture to another, but the first photograph is probably the most accurate: fairly thick at the base and slightly curved. This fits Baird’s quite well, though many birds appear to have a more straight bill than this one (another reason why we were lead to believe it was White-rumped!).
The long wings, crossed like scissors, are quite well visible on this picture, as is the overall “flat” appearance of the species. The whitish supercilium extends well beyond the eye, a pro-fuscicollis feature, but apparently still ok for Baird’s. One may expect the primary projection to be longer, but there again there seems to be quite a bit of individual variation.
Unfortunately, the rump can’t quite be seen in this picture:
A useful discussion on separation of Baird’s and White-rumped Sandpipers, even if it mainly focuses on birds in summer and autumn when most likely to show up in the UK, is to be found here. The European and North American field guides were surprisingly unhelpful when it comes to describing the variation in winter plumage of both species. I thus turned to Faansie Peacock’s excellent field guide to the Waders of Southern Africa, which provides a more relevant Southern Hemisphere perspective on wader identification. Along with the author’s other publications (LBJs, Pipits of Southern Africa) this easily ranks among the finest bird guides that are currently available¹. Let’s just hope that ornithodippiasis doesn’t get the better of him and that he can author many more books.
We moved to the main track as we were hoping to relocate our sandpiper given that it seemingly had landed in the area. After careful scrutiny of the numerous Little Stints, Curlew Sandpipers and Common Ringed Plovers (and finding a Buff-breasted Sandpiper in the process!), we ended up seeing it just as we were about to give up. Even worse pictures followed (distance, heat haze are the usual excuses) and the bird settled down to sleep, so we eventually moved on as we still wanted to check the other side of the main lake (where we saw Short-eared Owl and Copper Sunbird; other good birds at Technopole included an imm. Yellow-billed Stork, African Spoonbill, and Mediterranean Gull).
Here’s a picture from this morning 8/4, where the bill appears less curved and thinner at the end, and it clearly is all black (which all fits Baird’s perfectly):
Baird’s is a rare vagrant to Africa, with just a single claim from Senegal (Dec. 1965 in or near the Djoudj, as per Borrow & Demey, but I could not find the original reference so far), one from The Gambia (Nov. 1976), plus a record from November 1987 in Nouakchott but which was not retained by Isenmann et al. As such it seems that our bird is the first record for the subregion.
White-rumped Sandpiper is equally rare, with most continental records from South Africa during winter. In West Africa, there appear to be just a handful of records: one from Cote d’Ivoire (Oct.-Nov. 1988), and two from Ghana (Dec. 1985 & 2012). Given that it’s relatively frequent in Western Europe in autumn, and that in the Cape Verde and other East Atlantic islands the species is also quite regular, surely they must be pretty much annual visitors to West Africa. More generally, one can only speculate how many American and other vagrants truly pass through Senegal each year.
Both species are long-distance migrants, breeding in the Nearctic tundra, and spending the winter in South America.
The same goes for the Buff-breasted Sandpiper; this bird was likely one of the two that were seen on most visits between 13/1 and 19/2, but then again it may also have been a new bird that was just passing through.
So now we just need to find a proper Calidris fuscicollis, and finally add it to the national list.
In fact, how many bird species have been sighted in Senegal thus far? We’ll try to answer that question in a future blog post!
¹ Peacock, F. 2016. Chamberlain’s Waders. The Definitive Guide to Southern Africa’s Shorebirds. 256 p., Pavo Publishing. See the author’s website for more info.
New Year, New Birds! Apparently I found another new species to Senegal – needless to say that this resulted in a rather successful day out birding. Which left me wondering, rather pointlessly, how many country firsts have been found on the first day of the year.
So I first went to Lac Rose, and more specifically the steppe to the NE of the lake as this area had produced a lot of good birds last winter, including three or even four Buff-breasted Sandpipers. I was keen to go back and see if any of the “specials” were around again this winter. One of the first birds I found in the short grass was Greater Short-toed Lark, so things were off to a good start.
As I started walking on the far end of the steppe, I found a very pale wheatear: a textbook Isabelline Wheatear, just like last year in January.
The same area held three Tawny Pipits and a few other birds, though not the hoped-for Temminck’s Coursers.
Towards the end of my visit I came across this Southern Grey Shrike – cool bird, but a bit too flighty to allow for decent pictures.
Also around were several Kittlitz’s Plovers (+ Common Ringed and Kentish on the lake shores), at least four Quailfinches thus confirming the species’ presence in the Niayes IBA, a Black-headed Heron, Vieillot’s Barbet dueting in the distance, and so on.
Next up: the Yène-Tode lagoon. While on my previous visit, barely two weeks earlier (17/12), there was still a good amount of water, by now the lake has all but dried up: just a little trickle here and a small pool there, with just a handful of Black-winged Stilts, Spur-winged Lapwings, a lone Knot, Common Sandpiper and a few other waders. With all the waterbirds gone, I didn’t think I’d see much on this visit, but was soon proved to be very wrong!
Shortly after getting out the car, I located a small flock of Yellow Wagtails feeding on a green patch in what used to be the lagoon just a few weeks earlier. A pipit amidst the wagtails was either going to be a Tree or (more likely) a Red-throated Pipit, so I got the bird in the scope… and was a bit puzzled at first that it didn’t fit either species?! As I approached, it flew off and called a few times, confirming my suspicion: a Meadow Pipit!! It landed a hundred meters or so further in more dense vegetation. I knew this was a good species for the country and wanted to get better views and maybe even a few pictures (I didn’t quite realise it had never been confirmed in Senegal before!), so I went after it, flushed it and again heard the diagnostic hurried hiist-ist-ist-ist flight call. It returned to the original spot, and this time round I got really good views plus a few record shots:
Note the dense streaking on a pale buffy background with streaks clotting together on middle of breast, general lack of warm tones (as would be the case for Tree Pipit), fine bill with diffuse yellowish base, absence of clear pale lines on the mantle (as in Red-throated), the “gentle” expression with fairly pale lores, an indistinct supercilium and narrow-ish submoustachial (what a word!) stripe. The rump was clearly unstreaked (thus ruling out Red-throated Pipit) and while I didn’t manage any good pictures of the hind toe, it did appear quite long and pictures show it to be only moderately curved (ruling out Tree Pipit). These pipits are no easy birds to identify on plumage, but luckily the call is so typical and unlike any other pipit that it allowed for a safe ID while I was watching the bird, and I was lucky to get a few decent shots. A few people have asked me to provide more pictures, so here they are – all are originals without any editing except for cropping.
This bird was obviously in a fresh plumage, and can be aged as a first-winter bird based on the shape and colour of the median coverts: the ‘tooth’ on the dark centre with a clear white tip (Svensson 1992) is quite visible in the pictures.
Meadow Pipit is of course a common species throughout much of Europe, be it as a breeding bird or on passage or as a winter visitor. Its non-breeding range covers western Europe and most of the Mediterranean Basin, extending along the Atlantic coast down to the Canary Islands and Morocco. In Mauritania it is considered to be scarce but regular, reaching as far as the Senegal river delta, more or less as shown on the map below (borrowed from xeno-canto). Surely it must occur at least irregularly in northern Senegal, given its status in nearby Mauritania?
While relocating the Meadow Pipit, I also flushed no less than eight Red-throated Pipits as well as three Common Quails. Two Collared Pratincoles were hanging out by the last puddles; the Marsh Harriers and most of the Ospreys are now gone, but there were still at least two Short-toed Eagles in the area, with another two along the track back to Rufisque. Two Mosque Swallow were also around, while two Zebra Waxbills were rather unexpected, given that they’re not supposed to occur in the Dakar region (see last year’s post on the sighting of a group at Technopole). Tawny Pipit was another addition to the site’s ever-growing list.
Following a very successful morning yesterday at Technopole (Short-eared Owl! Iberian Chiffchaff! Jack Snipe!) I stopped by to have a closer look at the numerous waders, given that yesterday I’d forgotten my telescope at home… Nothing out of the ordinary to report today, just tons of waders, gulls (incl. two Mediterranean Gulls) and lots of Caspian Terns (+150, and now also 27 Greater Flamingos (nine were present yesterday). And I relocated the Iberian Chiffchaff quite easily as it’s singing regularly, and tends to keep to a single bush – more on this in another post.
Oh and happy new year!
Quick note today to report on the first Nearctic vagrant of the season: a Lesser Yellowlegs, seen yesterday at the Yenne-Todé lagoon.
After a very productive few days at Guereo, Bandia, and Popenguine – more on this later – I made my way back to Dakar via Yenne, the first village on the north end of the Petite Cote. I’ve known for a while that there’s a good lagoon here, but never visited at the right time of the year. A few weeks ago, Miguel had a great morning at the site (105 species including Dwarf Bittern, Spur-winged Goose, lots of Garganey), which prompted me to go see what’s about at the moment… Expectations were high, and I wasn’t disappointed: hundreds of ducks, many herons, a few gulls and quite a few terns, and most of all an incredible diversity of waders: 26 species!! Almost all regular migrant waders plus several of the local species were noted, some of which in decent numbers (e.g. nearly 30 Marsh Sandpipers, a few hundred Little Stints and Common Ringed Plovers, +120 Ruff). The site, which apparently is called the Niayetir lagoon, is easily accessible from different sides, mainly along the road coming from Toubab Dialaw but also from the village itself.
After I visited the main wetland just north of the road to Yenne, I stopped at the lagoon just behind the village, along the road back to Bargny. While scanning the numerous waders, I noticed a medium-sized wader with bright yellow legs: Yellowlegs!! It was actively feeding amidst the other waders, close enough to get good views through the telescope, but just a bit too far for decent photos…
Its flashy yellow legs made it stand out against all other waders here (bird names don’t need to be complicated!). Identification as Lesser Yellowlegs was pretty straightforward thanks to its relatively fine bill about equal to the length of the head, as well as overall structure. The straight all-dark bill of medium length and fairly uniform brown-grey breast and upperparts, as well as the smaller size and more slender appearance, distinguish it from the much rarer Greater Yellowlegs (which has never been recorded in Senegal). Moreover, the size of this bird was roughly the same as Marsh Sandpiper with which it was seen side by side, just slightly bulkier and with a marginally heavier bill. The Marsh Sandpiper is just about visible on the picture below:
A long-distant migrant, Lesser Yellowlegs mainly breeds throughout Canada and Alaska, and winters in a variety of wetland habitats from coastal areas of the US all the way down to the southernmost tip of South America (Tierra del Fuego). It is a rare vagrant to West Africa, with only six previous records in Senegal that I’m aware of, all of single birds between August and March:
- 6-7/1/91 at Hann, Dakar, “Feeding with Ruff, Wood Sandpipers and Marsh Sandpipers” (Sauvage & Rodwell)
- 3/3/07 in the Djoudj NP (Julien Piette)
- 18/3/13 at the Kaolack saltpans (Simon Cavaillès)
- 3-12/1/15 at Keur Samba Han near Kaolack (Simon Cavaillès)
- 15/8/15 at Technopole (BP)
- 17/1/16 at Technopole (BP, Boris Droz, Jérôme Gremaud)
As such, it’s the second most frequently noted American wader in Senegal together with Buff-breasted Sandpiper. Only American Golden Plover has been seen more often, with 10 records so far; and if last winter’s trend continues then Buff-breasted Sandpiper will soon overtake Tringa flavipes (no less than four records of six birds were obtained between mid-November 2016 and early January 2017!)
Elsewhere in Africa, Lesser Yellowlegs has mostly been noted on the Cape Verde islands, and there are a handful of records from Mauritania (22/3/04 and 6/2/14), The Gambia (January 1976, 13/10/08; possibly others), Ghana (at least two, incl. on 16/10/08), and Nigeria (Feb.-March 1969). Further north it’s been reported from the Canary Islands, Madeira, Morocco, and Tunisia. There are also a few records from South Africa (including one on Tristan da Cunha island in the South Atlantic), Namibia, and even Botswana.
I’ll try to go back over the weekend and see if it’s still around – and why not find another Yank this time!