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Those Mystery Swifts: Horus, New to Senegal

(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!!!

2018 01 5, 14h38. Doué de Gamadji Saré. © Photo par Frédéric Bacuez, IMG_7122 (3)

Horus Swift / Martinet horus (© F. Bacuez) (1)

2018 01 5, 14h40. Doué de Gamadji Saré. © Photo par Frédéric Bacuez, IMG_7125 (3)

Horus Swift / Martinet horus (© F. Bacuez) (2)

 

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.

HorusSwift_XC_map

Horus Swift range map from xeno-canto

 

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.

2018 01 5, 16h17. Doué à Gamadji Saré. © Photo par Frédéric Bacuez, IMG_7133 (4)

Horus Swift / Martinet Horus (© F. Bacuez) (3)

2018 01 6, 8h40. Doué de Gamadji Saré. © Photo par Frédéric Bacuez, IMG_7362 (4)

Horus Swift / Martinet Horus (© F. Bacuez) (4)

 

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.

2018 02 12, 16h41. Doué. © Photo par Frédéric Bacuez,IMG_9557 (3)

Horus Swift / Martinet Horus (© F. Bacuez) (5)

2018 02 12, 16h28. Doué. © Photo par Frédéric Bacuez, IMG_9503 (3)

Horus Swift / Martinet Horus (© F. Bacuez) (6)

2018 02 12, 16h28. Doué. © Photo par Frédéric Bacuez, IMG_9506 (3)

Horus Swift / Martinet Horus (© F. Bacuez) (7)

 

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.

Plumage

  • 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.

2018 01 6, 8h40. Doué de Gamadji Saré. © Photo par Frédéric Bacuez, IMG_7362 (3)

Horus Swift / Martinet Horus (© F. Bacuez) (8)

 

Below are a final few pictures from the January series:

 

Now compare with these pictures:

  • Horus Swift

Horus Swift / Martinet horus (© C. Cohen, on ABC website)

Horus Swift / Martinet horus (© S. Helming, on IBC website)

  • White-rumped Swift

White-rumped Swift / Martinet cafre (© S. Harvančík on IBC website)

White-rumped Swift / Martinet cafre (© H. Teichmann on IBC website)

 

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.

GamadjiSare_20180105_IMG_8461

The Doue river by Gamadje Sare

 

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!)

 

References

  • 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.

 

 

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Identification of Kordofan Lark and Status in Senegal

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.

Identification

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.

KordofanLark_RichardToll_20180301-261A2963_1

Kordofan Lark / Alouette du Kordofan (Jan Heip)

Kordofan Lark / Alouette du Kordofan (Jan Heip) – with a tick hooked to the rear crown

 

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.

KordofanLark_TimWacher_3

Dunn’s Larks / Alouette de Dunn, Niger (Tim Wacher)

KordofanLark_TimWacher_1

Dunn’s Lark / Alouette de Dunn, Niger (Tim Wacher)

KordofanLark_TimWacher_2

Dunn’s Lark / Alouette de Dunn, Niger (Tim Wacher)

 

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.

Black-crowned Sparrow Lark / Moinelette à front blanc f., Khelkom, Senegal (Jean-François Blanc)

 

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.

Singing Bush Lark / Alouette chanteuse, Lac Rose, Senegal (Bram Piot)

Singing Bush Lark / Alouette chanteuse, Richard-Toll, Senegal (Simon Cavaillès)

 

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

Fishpool L., Oueda G. & Compaoré P. (2000). Kordofan Bush Lark Mirafra cordofanica and Desert Lark Ammomanes deserti, additions to the avifauna of Burkina Faso. Malimbus 22: 49-54.

Gee, J.P. (1984). The birds of Mauritania. Malimbus 6: 31-66.

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.

Lamarche B. (1980). Liste commentée des oiseaux du Mali. 2eme partie: Passereaux. Malimbus 3: 73-102.

Morel G., Roux, F. (1962). Données nouvelles sur l’avifaune du Sénégal. L’Oiseau et la Revue Française d’Ornithologie 32: 28-56.

Petersen B.S., Christensen K.D., Jensen F.P. (2007). Bird population densities along two precipitation gradients in Senegal and Niger. Malimbus 29: 101-121.

 

With thanks to Jean-Francois Blanc, Miguel Demeulemeester, Jan Heip, Tim Wacher.

 

Simon & Bram

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

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

Too many birds, not enough time, right?

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

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

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

SN_TripReport Nov2017 (4)

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

 

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

 

SN_TripReport Nov2017 (5)

White-crested Helmet-Shrike / Bagadais casqué

 

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

 

SN_TripReport Nov2017 (3)

Cricket Warbler / Prinia à front écailleux

 

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

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

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

 

SN_TripReport Nov2017 (2)

Zebra Waxbill / Bengali zébré

 

 

 

Senegal birding and the UK Birdfair 2017

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.   

WestAfrica_biomes_map

 

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.

Little grey Woodpecker / Pic gris

Little grey Woodpecker / Pic gris, Gandiolais (BP)

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.  

LittleGreyWoodpecker_map

 

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.

Sahel Paradise Whydah / Veuve a collier d'or

Sahel Paradise Whydah / Veuve a collier d’or, Lac Tanma (BP)

 

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. 

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Red-billed Tropicbird / Phaéton à bec rouge, Iles de la Madeleine (BP)

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)

 

 

 

Northern Specials (Part II)

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.

Day 3

Gamadji Sare

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.

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Fulvous Babbler / Cratérope fauve

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Fulvous Babbler / Cratérope fauve

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!

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Isabelline Wheatear / Traquet isabelle

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.

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Eurasian Hoopoe / Huppe fasciée ssp. senegalensis

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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.

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Spotted Redshank / Chevalier arlequin

 

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 GarganeysAfrican Swamphen, and various waders including Greater Painted-Snipe. A few Collared Pratincoles and several hirundines were hunting over the area.

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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!

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Short-toed Eagle / Circaète Jean-le-Blanc

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African Swamphen / Talève d’Afrique

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Le Ndiael

Day 4

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.

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Woodchat Shrike / Pie-grièche à tête rousse

 

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!!

 

 

Northern Specials (Part I)

We recently teamed up with resident Saint-Louis birder Frédéric Bacuez (Ornithondar) and visiting Filip Verroens from Belgium, for an epic 4-day trip to Senegal’s northernmost regions, the Moyenne Vallée (“Middle Valley”) around Dagana, Podor and Gamadji Saré. While there’s enough meat to keep us busy for a few posts, I’m already sharing a few pictures, and you should read this great summary by Frederic (in French).

The Journey

We started off with a fairly long but enjoyable drive from Dakar to Dagana on our first day, picking up Fred at Louga from where we headed towards Keur Momar Sarr. A few stops en route including Lac de Guiers and Richard-Toll, plus the usual opportunistic sightings along the road. Day 2 consisted pretty much of non-stop birding from dawn to dusk, between Dagana and Gamadji Saré. The next day we further explored the Doué river, then had to start making our way back towards Saint-Louis, with a small detour via Podor and a large pond near Thille Boubacar. A late afternoon visit to the Ndiael “special avifauna reserve” was a real treat before we returned to more familiar grounds at Bango. On our last day, an early morning visit to the Saint-Louis sewage works with a quick extension to the Guembeul lagoons was very enjoyable and we could easily have spent the day around Gandiol, but it was soon time to head back to Dakar… A pit-stop at the forêt de Pout, a brief Technopole visit, and a final seawatch session at the Calao in Ngor further boosted the trip list, which ended up close to 200 species.

Capture

The Birds

I took way too many pictures (as usual) but will try to keep it rather brief here, though it’s difficult to focus on just a few species given how much we saw – and what we saw! Almost all of the northern specials were found, including Sennar Penduline-Tit (a lifer!), Fulvous Babbler (another one!), Little Grey WoodpeckerSeebohm’s and Isabelline Wheatears, Cricket Warbler, and much more.

‘Nuff said… without further ado, and in order of appearance: these are some of the stars of our first two days:

Day 1: Dakar – Mboro – Louga – Keur Momar Sarr – Richard-Toll – Dagana

  • Between Keur Momar Sarr & Richard-Toll, on the eastern shores of lac de Guiers:
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Yellow-bellied Eremomela / Eremomele a croupion jaune

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Sennar Penduline Tit / Remiz du Soudan

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Lanner Falcon / Faucon lanier

  • Near the Richard-Toll airstrip:
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Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse / Ganga à ventre brun

 

Day 2: Dagana – Bokhol – Fanaye – Taredji – Gamadji Saré

  • Forêt de Bokhol:

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Northern Wheatear / Traquet motteux ssp. leucorrhoa

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Chestnut-bellied Starling / Choucador à ventre roux

  • The Kooya region near Fanaye:
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Black-crowned Sparrow-Lark / Moinelette à front blanc

  • Sand dunes near Taredji:
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Cricket Warbler / Prinia à front écailleux

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Cricket Warbler habitat (“arbustes à balai”)

  • Gamadji Saré, on the banks of the Doué river:
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Red-throated Bee-eater / Guêpier à gorge rouge

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Southern Grey Shrike / Pie-grièche méridionale

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Egyptian Plover / Pluvian d’Egypte

As you can see, lots of really good birds and some great landscapes, and above all a true pleasure discovering parts of Senegal that I hadn’t visited before (next target: the South-East!).

The second part of this post will hopefully follow shortly, and will cover days 3 (Gamadji Saré – Podor – Thille Boubacar – Ndiael – Bango) and 4 (Bango – STEP Saint-Louis – Louga – Thiès – Dakar). And more northern specials!

 

 

 

Le PNOD, le PNLB, la RNICS & la RNP en images

Si vous arrivez à déchiffrer les acronymes du titre, alors chapeau! Faute d’un meilleur intitulé pour ce billet, et faute de temps pour écrire un long article sur tout ce qu’on a pu voir ces huit derniers jours, je vous présente ici quelques images prises lors de notre virée dans le Djoudj (le PNOD – parc national des oiseaux du Djoudj), le PN de la Langue de Barbarie (PNLB), la réserve naturelle d’intérêt communautaire de la Somone (RNCIS), et la réserve de Popenguine (RNP). Huit jours a se ressourcer en pleine nature, en agréable compagnie de nos amis Jan, Maria, Kajsa et Marnix venus découvrir le Sénégal – le bonheur.

PNOD

A commencer par ces Courvites isabelles vus vers le Grand Mirador du PNOD, trouvés par l’excellent guide Vieux Ngom (qui en passant salue toute l’équipe de Genevois!), dans une atmosphère poussiéreuse comme je l’ai rarement vue. Les courvites aussi j’en avais rarement vus, même jamais en fait! Belle coche donc pour commencer les vacances de fin d’année, d’une espèce régulière dans le nord du pays mais qui jusqu’ici m’avait toujours échappée, ici comme ailleurs d’ailleurs.

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Cream-coloured Courser / Courvite isabelle

Voici pour vous faire une idée des conditions météo, qui se résument tout simplement en “vent + froid + sable + poussière”, mais que notre ami d’Ornithondar a très bien expliqué ici. Jamais eu aussi froid au Sénégal… A peine 15 degrés au petit matin… suffisamment peu pour justifier au moins trois couches pour sortir.

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Aussi vus dans le Djoudj, dans le désordre: les habituelles Grues couronnées, une ou deux Talèves d’Allen, deux couples d’Anserelles naines, Sarcelles d’hiverPie-grièches méridionales, Glaréoles à collier, Tarier d’Afrique, Prinia aquatiquePygargue vocifère, Fauvette orphée, Alouettes calandrelles, et j’en passe. (Pygmy-Goose, Common Teal, Southern Grey Shrike, Collared Pratincole, African Stonechat, River Prinia, African Fish Eagle, Orphean Warbler, Short-toed Lark). Par contre peu de canards et très mauvaise visibilité sur le Grand Lac, mais Jean-Louis et Maha ont tout de même eu quelques Sarcelles marbrées deux jours plus tard, tout comme l’Outarde arabe et plein d’autres choses (Marbled Teal, Arabian Bustard).

Mais aussi Loup africain, Phacochères à volonté, un Crocodile du Nil, et pas moins de trois Pythons de Seba pour le grand bonheur de tout le monde mais peut-être surtout pour mes amis Jean-Louis et Maha, à peine arrivés au Sénégal.

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Warthog / Phaco

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African Rock Python / Python de Seba

PNLB

Passons maintenant au PNLB, ou l’on a passe deux nuits dans notre lodge favori au Senegal: le Zebrabar, niche entre lagunes et ocean, un petit havre de paix qui invite à la relaxation et au far niente… si ce n’était pour tous les oiseaux qu’il y a à découvrir! Même le jour de Noël on ne chôme pas, bien au contraire: en fin de matinee je passe d’abord à la STEP de St. Louis qui comme toujours grouille d’oiseaux, dont le Prinia aquatique, la Rousserolle des canes, plusieurs centaines de Dendrocygnes veufs et fauves tout comme quelques Canards souchets, et une bonne diversité de limicoles (River Prinia, Greater Swamp Warbler, White-faced & Fulvous Whistling-Ducks, Northern Shoveler). Mais surtout, je tombe sur une belle surprise sous la forme d’une Marouette de Baillon que je lève en bordure du sentier entre les deux plans d’eau principaux. Et que j’aurai ensuite le plaisir d’observer et de photographier pendant plus d’une demie heure – quel bonheur! Seulement ma deuxième obs de l’espèce, mais bien meilleure que la première, il y a près de 10 ans aux Pays-Bas.

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Baillon’s Crake / Marouette de Baillon

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Baillon’s Crake / Marouette de Baillon

Au retour de la STEP, brève escale au bord de la piste qui mène au Niokobokk: une Pie-grièche mériodionale (ou doit-on dire Pie-grièche du désert maintenant? voir cet article sur Ornithondar). J’essaierai de revenir sur la question des (sous-)espèces en 2018…

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Southern Grey Shrike / Pie-grieche méridionale

En fin d’après-midi, je pars dans la plaine et la brousse derrière Mouit, là où j’avais eu entre autres Outarde de Savile, Coucou-geai, Oedicnème tacheté et cie. lors de mes précédentes visites. Parcourant la steppe à la recherche de fauvettes (le site me semble idéal pour la Fauvette à lunettes notamment) ou autres pipits, je tombe sur ce Hibou des marais – le sixième au moins depuis début novembre au Sénégal, confirmant ainsi le petit (?) afflux qui a visiblement lieu encore en ce moment. Combien passent inaperçus? J’ai donc une fois de plus dû mettre à jour l’article que j’y avais consacré il y a quelques semaines, avec l’image en plus et quelques obs supplémentaires (dont une de la lagune de Somone).

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Short-eared Owl / Hibou des marais

Ci-dessous le biotope:

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RNICS

Ensuite, après un crochet par Lompoul (Outarde de Savile, Oedicneme tacheté, Petit Moineau, Guêpier d’Orient et j’en passe; Savile’s Bustard, Spotted Thick-knee, Bush Petronia, Little Green Bee-eater), on pose les valises au Dalaal Diam près de la lagune de Somone.

Là, j’en profite pour retourner dans mon coin à Engoulevents à balanciers: rien vu! Ils ont dû repartir sous d’autres cieux. Curieusement, comme en octobre, une Bondrée (Honey Buzzard) me passe par-dessus la tête en filant vers le sud. Vu le plumage c’était un autre individu qu’en octobre, un jeune individu assez roux. Et à la place des Petits-ducs africains, cette fois ce sont au moins deux Chevêchettes perlées (Pearl-spotted Owlet) qui se font entendre de nuit (et parfois de jour) dans le jardin du lodge. Une Cigogne noire (Black Stork) survole le site, un Busard cendré chasse en bordure de la lagune, des centaines de Moineaux dorés du Soudan se mêlent aux Travailleurs a bec rouge et autres tisserins. Et curieusement toujours, je trouve deux Hypolaïs pâles (Eastern Olivaceous Warbler) non loin de la zone où j’avais déjà observé cette espèce peu connue en Sénégambie, en mars 2016. Hiverneraient-ils dans le secteur? Les deux oiseaux évoluaient ensemble et étaient peut-être en couple, à moins qu’il ne s’agisse de deux mâles se disputant un buisson stratégique… Quoiqu’il en soit, l’identification était relativement simple car les deux oiseaux hochaient activement la queue tout en ouvrant les ailes vers le bas, et la structure (notamment le bec plus fin) et les critères du plumage concordent; le chant semblait aussi assez différent de l’Hypolaïs obscure – je dois encore traiter et analyser les quelques prises de son, qui je l’espère ne seront pas trop affectés par le vent.

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Eastern Olivaceous Warbler / Hypolaïs pâle

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Eastern Olivaceous Warbler / Hypolaïs pâle

RNP

Point de photos de Popenguine à part un jeune Circaète Jean-le-Blanc (Short-toed Eagle) un peu flou, mais à signaler notamment neuf ou dix Hirondelles de rochers (Crag Martin), deux Monticoles bleus (Blue Rock Thrush), quelques discrets Bruants d’Alexander (Gosling’s Bunting), 4-5 Beaumarquets melba, 2-3 Sporopipes quadrillés (Speckle-fronted Weaver). Visite depuis Guéréo, hier matin 29/12. Au retour, on passe par le Lac Rose, ce qui permet d’ajouter le Goéland d’Audouin à la liste.

Voilà pour ce tour d’horizon, pas si rapide finalement.

Prochaine expédition: la moyenne vallée du fleuve, dans une semaine à peine. Avant cela, on va essayer de profiter des quelques jours de congés restants pour passer au Technopole, les steppes du Lac Rose ou encore la lagune de Yene.