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Northern Senegal after the rains, 3-7 Oct. (Part I)

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 BrubruWoodchat Shrike, etc. etc. (Oie-armée, Prinia aquatique, Outarde de Savile, Glaréole à collier, Brubru, Pie-grièche a tête rousse)

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Purple Heron / Heron pourpré

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Eurasian Coot / Foulque macroule

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).

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Greater Blue-eared Glossy Starling / Choucador à oreillons bleus

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).

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Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse / Ganga à ventre brun

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Woodchat Shrike / Pie-grièche à tête rousse juv.

 

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).

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European Pied Flycatcher / Gobemouche noir

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!

Mission accomplished.

 

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:

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Trust me it’s a Horus Swift

Or even this:

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At least I got its shadow

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.

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At least 16 Horus Swifts are visible in this picture! (click to enlarge)

Further along the river bank we saw pretty much the same species as the previous evening, plus HamerkopLanner, Pallid SwiftGosling’s Bunting to name but a few (Ombrette, Lanier, Martinet pâle, Bruant d’Alexander).

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White-throated Bee-eater / Guêpier à gorge blanche

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White Wagtail / Bergeronnette grise

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Gosling’s Bunting/ / 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!).

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Dwarf Bittern / Blongios de Stürm

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Eurasian Reed Warbler / Rousserolle effarvatte

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Yellow-crowned Bishop / Euplecte vorabé

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!

 

 

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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!