(continued from our first blog post on this road trip)
After leaving Gamadji Sare behind, we made our way towards Podor with a few stops en route. A nightjar sheltering from the heat (and predators) was flushed by Vieux near forêt de Golette, just minutes after he casually mentioned that those bushes look good for nightjars! We were hoping for one of the rarer species of course, but it turned out to be a Long–tailed Nightjar after all, apparently a (young?) bird in very fresh plumage. Also several Knob-billed Ducks here, a Short-toed Eagle, Spotted Thick-knee, Vieillot’s Barbet and so on.
At the scenic Podor quay we had a Marsh Harrier, at least two House Martins and several Red-chested Swallows, some of which were on the opposite side of the river, meaning these were in Mauritanian territory: not insignificant since apparently there aren’t any solid records from our northern neighbour, despite the fact that the species surely must breed on the Mauritanian side of the Senegal delta. Just like in January, we also saw the species further downstream at Dagana. A Montagu’s Harrier and a Black Kite were seen just south of town.
Continuing our westbound journey, we cris-crossed the rice paddies with a few quick stops en route, including an emergency stop near Fanaye Dieri for a raptor which initially puzzled us both, and which turned out to be a young Beaudouin’s Snake-Eagle. This seems to be a (very) scarce wet season visitor to northern Senegal and to southern Mauritania where breeding has been confirmed.
At Dagana, the main feature was the constant stream of herons and Long-tailed Cormorants en route to their nigh roost (or in case of the Black-crowned Night-Herons, en route to their nightly feeding grounds). The roost is located in the swamps just east of Dagana, and hosts what must be several thousands of birds. Three Glossy Ibises flew into Mauritania, while Greater Swamp Warblers were singing on the northern river bank. An evening walk produced Nightingale, Barn Owl, Long-tailed Nightjar and more.
Day 4: Big Day! Dagana to Saint-Louis via Richard Toll and the lower delta
October 6 happened to be the first “October Big Day” organised by Cornell – more on this eBird page.
Pre-breakfast birding at Bokhol “forest”, then from Dagana to Richard Toll with a couple of stops en route and a visit to the sand quarry where I wanted to check on the Blue-cheeked Bee-eater colony: with some 500 nest holes, probably at least half being active nests, this is an impressive sight. Bonus species here were Northern Anteater Chat, Cricket Warbler, and especially two Standard-winged Nightjars flushed from “broom bushes” which were a real surprise here (but once again both were female type… so alas no standards!). The picture of the quarry shows the habitat of the latter two species in the background. Along the track into the sugar cane plantations, more White-throated Bee-eaters, both bishops, Black-rumped Waxbills, and a fine Pin-tailed Whydah.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves… at Bokhol, the fields were rather quiet and unlike in Gamadji Sare the previous morning we barely had any northern songbirds. The forest held goodies such as Senegal Batis, more Orphean Warblers, Fork-tailed Drongo, Brubru, a Red-necked Falcon with prey, and a much less expected Klaas’s Cuckoo singing in the distance (appears to be a rare breeder during the wet season in northern Senegal). Full species list here. Another Whinchat and a few other migrants were seen just west of Dagana.
Negotiating our way out of Richard Toll, we continued on to Ross Bethio, more specifically the ponds along the track to the Djoudj NP. This is where Vieux found a Lesser Jacana back in July: only the fifth record for the country (and second in the north), this was an exciting find of course, further highlighting the potential of this site which has received little attention from birders let alone from the National Park authorities – though the good news is that from this year on, the site is included in the monthly waterbird counts conducted by the Djoudj park staff. Full story on the jacana record on Ornithondar, merci Frédéric. During our visit there were loads of herons and whistling ducks, pelicans, several Black Storks and Yellow-billed Storks, more Eurasian Coots, etc. More unusually, we spotted several Marbled Ducks, counting at least 11 of these cool ducks. This appears to be an early date, and a rare record outside the nearby Djoudj NP: almost all observations tend to be from the same area in the national park, at the Grand Lac, typically between December and February. We’d already seen Little Grebes, but now Vieux also spotted a Black-necked Grebe, an adult coming out of its breeding plumage. Again an early date of an uncommon species in Senegal, typically seen in mid-winter in the north. All in all some 78 species were seen here, see eBird checklist.
The long drive through the delta along the Djoudj track was pretty uneventful, and we only stopped briefly at Saint-Louis to watch a group of Black-tailed Godwits which unfortunately were feeding knee-deep in the lagoon, so no colour-rings could be seen. The Saint-Louis sewage works are always a hit, but too often they are ignored by visiting and local birders alike: I was thus keen to show Vieux this site even if we had just about half an hour left. As always, plenty of birds here, best of all being a Great Reed Warbler. We said our goodbyes here, and I continued onto Zebrabar where I’d spend the night, picking up several wader species new for the trip list as well as Brown Babbler on the camp grounds.
Day 5: final bit of birding at Langue de Barbarie et Guembeul lagoons
Up before dawn, I first went to the floodplain south of Guembeul: Savile’s Bustards singing in all directions, a flock of spoonbills of both species frantically feeding, and a good mix of warblers (Melodious, Subalpine, Bonelli’s, Common Whitethroat). The lagoons held Avocets, Black-tailed Godwits (including a ringed bird from northern Germany), lots of Little Stints, Dunlins, Curlew Sandpipers, and so on. A Pallid Swift was seen near Guembeul, and the lagoons near the STEP held a handful of Shovelers and White-faced Whistling-Ducks, including a family with some 11 ducklings, with Little Grebes also showing signs of local breeding.
Time to head back home… uneventful drive, with just a few quick stops between Mouit and Louga whenever I encountered vultures such as this one:
Ever since our first expedition to the Moyenne Vallée back in January I’ve been keen to return to this little-known part of Senegal, mainly to see whether our Horus Swifts would be still around and to find out what the rains season would bring here. Early October I had the chance to finally head back out there: here’s a glimpse of our five-day road trip to the Far North.
Where to start? We’ll take it in chronological order!
Day 1: Dakar to Lampsar lodge via Trois-Marigots
A pit stop at the lac Tanma bridge and a couple of brief stops at Mboro produced a few waders and Greater Swamp Warbler (niaye near the abandoned Hotel du Lac), African Swamphen and Levaillant’s Cuckoo (ponds at the start of the road to Diogo; Rousserolle des cannes, Talève d’Afrique, Coucou de Levaillant). From there it was pretty much non-stop all the way to the Trois-Marigots, an important wetland complex just past Saint-Louis. All lush and teeming with bird life following abundant rains in previous weeks, I could have easily spent half a day here but unfortunately could only spare a couple of hours before moving on to the Lampsar lodge.
Herons, egrets, ducks, waders, bishops and weavers were everywhere, many of them in full breeding attire and actively singing and displaying while Marsh Harriers (Busard des roseaux) were hunting over the wetlands. Two adult Eurasian Coots were the most unexpected species, and I already got a good flavour of things to come in the next few days: Spur-winged Geese flying around, noisy River Prinias everywhere, a distant singing Savile’s Bustard, lots of Collared Pratincoles, a Brubru, Woodchat Shrike, etc. etc. (Oie-armée, Prinia aquatique, Outarde de Savile, Glaréole à collier, Brubru, Pie-grièche a tête rousse)
Just like at Trois-Marigots, Yellow-crowned and Northern Red Bishops were very active in the fields around the Lampsar lodge, where quite a few northern songbirds were noted during a short walk at dusk: Western Olivaceous Warbler, Common Redstart, Garden Warbler, White Wagtail and many Yellow Wagtails – at least 135 flying towards a night roost on the other side of the Lampsar river (Euplectes vorabé et monseigneur, Hypolais obscure, Rougequeue à front blanc, Fauvette des jardins, Bergeronnettes grises et printanières). The Lampsar lodge certainly seems like a good base to explore this part of the Senegal delta, being located close the Djoudj and other birding hotspots in the area.
Day 2: Ndiael, Richard-Toll, Thille Boubacar to Gamadji Sare
Two Black-crowned Cranes were calling opposite the lodge at dawn, while Greater Swamp Warbler was singing along the Lampsar; the rice paddies and surrounding farmland held Winding Cisticola, River Prinia, and several waders including Common Snipe (Grue couronnée, Rousserolle des cannes, Cisticole roussâtre, Prinia aquatique, Bécassine des marais).
But we were just warming up… time to get serious. Vieux Ngom joined me at Lampsar from where we set off for the Ndiaël fauna reserve. Vieux is one of Senegal’s most enthusiastic and skilled birders, based out of the Djoudj as an eco-guide and is a great companion in the field – it was an absolute pleasure to spend the next few days in his company!
So, the Réserve Spéciale de Faune de Ndiaël: I’d only visited a couple of times before, and this was my first visit during the rains. The usually barren plains and dry acacia scrub were now all green, full of water, ponds with water lilies, acacias blooming, dragonflies hunting and butterflies fluttering everywhere… and birds of course: several Egyptian and Spur-winged Geese, a Knob-billed Duck, hundreds of White-faced Whistling Ducks (and one Fulvous Whistling Duck), two distant Black Storks and a Black-headed Heron, a couple of European Turtle-Doves, vocal Woodland Kingfishers (Ouette d’Egypte, Oie-armée, Canard à bosse, Dendrocygnes veufs et fauves, Cigognes noires, Héron mélanocéphale, Tourterelle des bois, Martin-chasseur du Sénégal). More Collared Pratincoles, a Montagu’s Harrier, and as we were watching the ducks and waders near the marigot de (N)yéti Yone, Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse started to appear in small flocks, flying hurriedly over the plain (Glaréole à collier, Busard cendré, Ganga à ventre brun). On the way back along the track, a few of these birds were bathing and drinking from small roadside pools. Oh and sparrow-larks everywhere, mainly Chestnut-backed but also a few Black-crowned Sparrow-larks. Over a hundred Sand Martins were feeding over the plain, with several Common Swifts also passing through (Moinelettes à oreillons blancs et à front blanc, Hirondelle de rivage, Martinet noir).
Next up: Richard Toll, where we paid a brief visit to the aerodrome area, known to attract some good species in winter but rarely visited at this time of the year (this actually applies to pretty much all sites we explored). Our first Southern Grey Shrikes were seen here, as were Green Bee-eater, Tree Pipit, Singing Bush-Lark, Chestnut-bellied Starling, and more (Pie-grièche méridionale, Guêpier de Perse, Pipit des arbres, Alouette chanteuse, Choucador à ventre roux).
Time to move on… with just 110 km to cover until Gamadji Sare, we could afford making a few more stops en route. First of all at the wetland past Thille Boubacar, where a quick scan from the bridge by Ndiayene Pendao produced two Egyptian Plovers (Pluvian). The pond on the other side of the river, which back in January had yielded quite a lot of good birds, was harder to access because its surrounding were all flooded, making it difficult to get decent views of the main water body. So no Pygmy Geese this time round. Several Black Herons and African Darters were around, while a European Pied Flycatcher and a few Subalpine Warblers were feeding in the acacia woodland (Héron ardoisé, Anhinga, Gobemouche noir, Fauvette passerinette).
An adult Short-toed Eagle was seen flying over the road, and a couple more stops produced our first Cricket Warblers of the trip, more singing Black-crowned Sparrow-larks, breeding Sudan Golden Sparrows, and Vieux was lucky to see a Fulvous Babbler (Circaète Jean-le-Blanc, Prinia à front écailleux, Moinelette à front blanc, Moineau doré, Cratérope fauve). Alas no Golden Nightjar which we searched for in an area where it is known to winter.
And at long last, we arrived at Gamadji Sare, just in time for another hour’s worth of birding – No Time to Loose! – and of course we were more than eager to find out whether those mystery swifts were still going to be around. I’d barely walked through the back door of the Jardins du Fouta hotel, and there they were: a handful of Horus Swifts were flying over the river, confirming our suspicions that the species is well established here and that our sightings from January (and Fred’s in February) were not of some vagrant groupe of birds. At least 10 birds were seen several times, often flying close to the cliff’s edge while calling excitedly, and entering disused Blue-cheeked Bee-eater nest holes as night was falling. Unlike in January, the bee-eater colony was in full swing, with dozens of birds noisily feeding young in and out of the nest holes.
Horus Swift: check!
A short walk along the Doué river produced migrants such as Orphean and Bonelli’s Warblers, Pied and Spotted Flycatcher, and more Black Scrub Robins and Cricket Warblers (Fauvette orphée, Pouillot de Bonelli, Gobemouches noirs et gris, Agrobate podobé, Prinia à front écailleux).
Birding non-stop… what a day!
Day 3: Gamadji Sare, Podor and Dagana
Difficult for things to get even better than the previous day, right?
We spent some more time studying the swifts and observing their behaviour and trying to count them. Not an easy feat as the numbers kept fluctuating, with small groups appearing and disappearing constantly, and at one point there were some Pallid and Little Swifts mixed in with the Horus Swifts. In the end, we settled on a conservative minimum of about 45 birds, probably even more like 50 to 60! So more than double than our estimate in January. Trying to get some decent pictures proved to be even more difficult, most of my pictures resembling this:
Or even this:
More on the swifts may follow in an upcoming post. In any case, it’s pretty clear now that the species is well established and it would be surprising if they didn’t in fact breed here. And that other sites along the Senegal and Niger rivers and their tributaries are probably waiting to be discovered.
Further along the river bank we saw pretty much the same species as the previous evening, plus Hamerkop, Lanner, Pallid Swift, Gosling’s Bunting to name but a few (Ombrette, Lanier, Martinet pâle, Bruant d’Alexander).
A quick breakfast and some birding in the gardens which held Red-throated Bee-eater – just when we thought they were no longer around – and an unexpected Wryneck among many others; we then decided to go out to the rice paddies and the fields just to the north-east of the village (Guêpier à gorge rouge, Torcol fourmilier). Not really knowing what to expect, we weren’t disappointed: Bluethroat! Whinchat! Dwarf Bittern! …all species that in Senegal are tricky to see in one way or another (Gorgebleue à miroir, Tarier des prés, Blongios de Stürm!). The bittern was particularly cooperative: after it was accidentally flushed by Vieux, it landed on top of a bush, showing off its unique plumage – nice to finally catch up with this little beauty in Senegal (bringing my country list to 498 species!).
All in all, we got to see no less than 90 species in a single morning, all within walking distance from the guesthouse: pretty impressive I say. See the complete eBird checklist here.
We were now half way through our little expedition so it was already time to return west, to Dagana via Podor. This section, as well as days 4 (Foret de Bokhol, Richard-Toll again, Ross Bethio to Gandiol) and 5 (Langue de Barbarie and the Gandiol area, back to Dakar) will be covered in an upcoming Part II of this post… Thanks for reading up to here!
(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
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).
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.
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!
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!
Last summer I had the chance to be in the UK for the Birdfair 2017. This is the largest annual market in Europe for birdwatchers. There is some overlap with bird conservation and many Birdlife partners are there, but this is primarily a place for the buying and selling of everything that birdwatchers desire; books, optics, but especially birdwatching holidays, and this is big business! Bird tour companies from many South American and African countries had flown in staff to advertise their holidays.
At the fair, South African birder Micheal Mills launched The Birder’s Guide to Africa, which aims to tell birders what is most distinctive about each country’s list of birds and where to go in Africa to most easily see each of the continent’s species. Whilst I do not agree with everything in some of the book’s West African chapters, it is a good start for a discussion of bird tourism in Senegal – which for many reasons would deserve a more prominent place on the Africa birding map (one of the many down-sides of taking very much of a quantitative, purely list-based approach to defining birding destinations, as is done by Michael Mills, is that many countries do get the recognition they deserve).
What is unique? Should more birders visit Senegal, and if so what should Senegalese bird guides do to encourage them? It should be said that I am talking about a certain type of birdwatching tourism – visiting places to make lists of unusual birds – which is the profitable market in which the Birdfair sells. From this perspective, the spectacles of Djoudj, the Sine Saloum and Kousmar are still important, but not enough if the birding guide cannot also find the country’s more unique species.
So, how visible was Senegal at the Birdfair? The short answer is almost invisible! Let’s avoid the historical and perhaps linguistic reasons why The Gambia features at the UK Birdfair, and look at all of West and North-West Africa. Geopolitics affects tourism and, correctly or not, many of the region’s countries are seen as more difficult places to organise tours. Unfortunately, these days large parts of Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and northern Nigeria and Cameroon are off-limits to foreign visitors due to ongoing conflict and security concerns. Currently the two most advertised North-West/West African destinations for bird tours are Morocco and Ghana, as destinations for European, North American and South African birders, who are the three main groups.
Let’s take the African Bird Club country lists, which taxonomically almost follow the IOC World Bird List, and query the list. Which species regularly occur in Senegal, but not in Morocco or Ghana and also do not occur widely elsewhere in Africa? This query give Senegal at least 28 “special” species, which it would be a good investment for bird guides to be able to find. Please add your comments to this linked list, which is accessible for editing. Several more could – and probably should – be added, and it’s good to keep in mind that the national list stands at about 680 species (we hope to publish an updated list some time soon on this blog).
Most of the species on this list are birds of the Sahel and the drier, northern regions of the Sudan savanna. The USGS’ excellent recent resources on West African land use shows the western section of the Sahel bio-climatic region, which extends to northern Ethiopia.
Little Grey (or Sahelian) Woodpecker is a classic example. Its patchy distribution, which does not go further east than western Sudan, includes northern Senegal where most recent West African observations have been made, though WaBDaB, which coordinates bird observations for Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad, has a few records.
For the average bird tour operator, Senegal is the easiest destination and there are places where it is often seen (Les Trois Marigots and near to Richard-Toll), but probably many to be discovered – for instance, it was reported just last week “well south of Louga” by a Swedish group. This and many of the Sahel specials are much more species of the Middle Valley described in Bram’s recent trip, than of the more famous Djoudj/St. Louis area and many are not on the Djoudj list.
Other species in the 23 with similarly narrow ranges include Cricket Warbler (present in southern Western Sahara, but very localised it seems); River Prinia (header picture – cryptic species only present in the Senegal River delta, River Niger and Lake Chad, though probably overlooked elsewhere); Sennar Penduline Tit; Golden Nightjar (most recent records from Western Sahara where confirmed breeding, and from Chad); Quail-Plover (hard to find, but there are apparently a couple of reliable sites); and the commoner Black Scrub Robin, Sahel Paradise Whydah and African Collared Dove.
A second cluster of specials occur in and near the Dindefelo reserve, Senegal’s most recent addition to the country’s Important Bird Areas list. This is the only place outside Mali where the Mali Firefinch is reasonably reliably seen. Other species with strange and small global ranges including Dindefelo are Adamawa Turtle-Dove and Neumann’s Starling. The Kedougou area, and Dindefello in particular, probably has more surprises in store and is likely to yield additional Guinean species that just creep into Senegal.
Finally, the sea off Dakar makes the list. Away from the Cape Verde, the Cape Verde Shearwater is only reliably seen elsewhere in Africa, in season, off Dakar and the Iles de la Madeleine trio of Red-billed Tropicbird, Bridled Tern and the recent arrival Brown Booby are common enough in other tropical waters, but with few reliable places in Africa. The Tropicbirds are pretty much guaranteed at any time of the year, whilst the boobies and especially the terns and shearwaters are only present in certain seasons.
And the message from this? Any Senegalese bird guide who gets to know when and where to find these species should have a profitable business and most of the species are far from the hotspots of Djoudj and the Sine Saloum! And to potential visitors – come over and explore, with or without a local guide: you won’t be disappointed.
(post by Paul, with contributions from BP)
This is the second (and last) installment of the report on a trip to the middle Senegal valley, now more than three weeks ago. If we find time we’ll do a few more posts on some of the specials that we found during this mini expedition to a rarely visited part of Senegal – status & identification of Seebohm’s Wheatear (pictured above) and of “Greenland” Northern Wheatear, a flock of intriguing swifts near Gamadji Sare, Southern Grey Shrike subspecies, and maybe more to follow. For now, here are just some of the highlights of days 2 & 3.
Up at the crack of dawn, we returned the Doué river bank – our small hotel was located right behind it, so we’d literally walk out of the back door and birding could start straight away. First up were a flock of swifts that we’d seen the previous evening and that seemingly came to spend the night in or on the cliffs. More on these later – they’re a bit of a mystery for now. Next, one of our “targets” that we hadn’t seen the previous days: a group of Fulvous Babblers! Really cool birds to watch as they made their progress from one bush to another, looking for food by meticulously inspecting each corner – always with a bird on the look-out, prominently perched on a nearby bush or tree.
We finally found an Isabelline Wheatear, a fairly approachable typical individual right by the river bank. Doesn’t seem to be a common species, even this far north!
This Hoopoe of the local senegalensis subspecies was one of several singing birds in the area. Other notable birds here included three Knob-billed Ducks, and again a few Cricket Warblers just like the previous day. And an impressive labyrinth of Pale (= African Sand) Fox burrows, probably shared with African Wild Cats – a species we’d got a glimpse of the previous day, on the Senegal river bank near Bokhol.
We then proceeded onto Podor, with a bit of roadside birding en route (Hamerkop being the most notable). Booted Eagle, more Subalpine and Orphean Warblers (though still no Moltoni’s!), yet another Southern Grey Shrike and a few other species were seen on the floodplain to the NE of this former colonial outpost along the Senegal river. The plain next to the air strip, wrapped by the curves of the Senegal river, is the northernmost location in Senegal, so we expected to find some more Saharan migrants, especially given the cold weather of the previous couple of weeks… but didn’t see much out of the ordinary. Several Red-chested Swallows in the old part of town, along the quay, suggest that the species may now be regular here as well, continuing its expansion along the Moyenne Vallée (a few others were noted during our trip).
A couple of stops along the way were quite productive, and included Spotted Redshank (a species I don’t get to see often near Dakar), Marsh Sandpiper and a few other waders such as Little Ringed and Kittlitz’s Plovers, and Bonelli’s Warbler.
Next target: a large pond near Thillé Boubacar, one of the only proper wetlands we’d visit during our trip. The seasonal lake is fringed by extensive carex growth which just like the numerous water lilies provides ample cover for a range of birds: at least 13 African Pygmy-Geese, several Northern Shovelers and Garganeys, African Swamphen, and various waders including Greater Painted-Snipe. A few Collared Pratincoles and several hirundines were hunting over the area.
Time to make our way back to the Lower Senegal valley… though not without a stop at the Ndiael reserve, which although it didn’t hold very many birds was a real pleasure to visit again, my first since 2014. After a while we reached the Nyeti Yone marigot, which was teeming with various waterbirds including a large flock of Black-crowned Night-Herons. The fringes attracted quite a few songbirds as well, including a very obliging Grasshopper Warbler, my first in Senegal, as well as a Montagu’s Harrier probably en route to a night roost. Short-toed Eagle seems to be particularly common here; the steppe also held a few Tawny Pipits and Greater Short-toed Larks (though alas no other larks). And of course Warthogs!
We paid an early morning visit to the Saint-Louis sewage works (the STEP), where we failed to relocate the Baillon’s Crake that I’d seen a couple of weeks earlier, but found a range of other good ones – Eurasian Coot, White-winged Tern, River Prinia, and more. A brief visit to the Gandiol lagoons was rather quiet, the highlight being a group of Patas Monkeys feeding on Barbary Figs.
On the way back, Filip and I had another Booted Eagle (the fourth of the trip, incl. one dark morph in the Ndiael), a few more vultures, and most surprisingly a Mottled Spinetail – roughly in the same location, between Louga and Gueoul, where I’d already suspected seeing it on our northbound journey three days earlier. A proper northward “range extension”, beyond its regular range in Senegal, or was this just a wanderer? Time may tell… maybe. A pit-stop at forêt de Pout (Thiès) added Green-winged Pytillia to the trip list. At Technopole, along with the usual suspects the Iberian Chiffchaff was heard again, while Northern Gannets and a few skuas rounded off the total to nearly 200 species seen in just four days. I certainly hope to make it back to Dagana and Podor one day – so much to see and to explore!!