Archive | Richard Toll RSS for this section

Iberian Chiffchaff in West Africa

We’re continuing our little series on the status of some lesser known passerines that spend the winter in Senegal. This time round we’re looking at Iberian Chiffchaff (Pouillot ibérique), yet another drab songbird that can be tricky to identify unless of course it’s singing. We won’t go much into its identification in this post; a lot has been written on the topic, though unfortunately the standard West Africa field guides lack sufficient detail and may oversimplify the matter somewhat. In addition, few if any of the local guides really know how to identify the species in the field, and not all visiting birders pay much attention to these LBJs.

There are a few subtle differences in plumage, but generally it’s not easy to identify these birds on plumage and “jizz” alone..  so maybe it’s useful after all to summarise key characteristics here. Lars Svensson, in what is still one of the main reference papers on Iberian Chiffchaff identification (2001), neatly listed the following field characters in comparison with Common Chiffchaff:

  1. As a rule, the entire upperparts of ibericus are purer moss green than on Common Chiffchaff, lacking the brown tinge on crown and mantle usually present in collybita in freshly moulted plumage in early autumn a very slight brownish tinge can be found on the greenish upperparts of some Iberian Chiffchaffs
  2. More tinged yellowish-green on sides of head and neck, and has no buff or brown hues at all, or only very little of it behind the eye and on ear-coverts. The breast is whitish with clear yellow streaking
  3. Typically, has vivid lemon yellow undertail-coverts, contrasting with a rather whitish centre to the belly
  4. Supercilium on average more pronounced and more vividly yellow, particularly in front of and above the eye
  5. On average, the legs are a trifle paler brown on Iberian than on Common Chiffchaff, though many are alike
  6. Bill is very slightly stronger [though I find this one of very little use in the field!]
IberianChiffchaff_Gandiol_IMG_2750_edited

Iberian Chiffchaf / Pouillot ibérique, Gandiol, 31 March 2016 (BP). Note yellowish supercilium, undertail and flank streaks, dull greenish upperparts, pale brown legs, whitish belly, and apparently also pale bill base

 

Clearly these are mostly subtle differences and when identifying on plumage alone, a combination of characters should typically be used. Confusion with Willow Warbler is not unlikely, even by experienced birders, and I’m assuming that at least some Iberians are noted as Willow Warbler, especially in mid-winter in northern Senegal when Willow Warbler should in fact be rare, as it winters chiefly in the forest zone further south. The longer wings, pale underparts and paler legs can indeed result in striking similarities between Willow and Iberian. A good pointer to separate these two is that the latter typically dips its tail while feeding, whereas Willow, Warbler characteristically flicks its wings while moving its tail sideways.

The two pictures below were taken by Frédéric Bacuez near Saint-Louis, on 18.4.16 (top) and 20.1.13 (bottom), and while it’s probably impossible to be certain, I do tend to believe these are Iberian Chiffchaffs.

 

Bango, April 2016 (© F. Bacuez)

2013 01 20 9h30. Pouillot fitis apr_s le bain, dans l'eucalyptus. Photo par Fr_d_ric Bacuez, IMG_9104 (2)

Iberian Chiffchaff or Willow Warbler? I tend to think it’s an ibericus (© F. Bacuez)

 

The vocalisations on the other hand are far more reliable and are indeed always ideal in order to confirm an Iberian Chiffchaff, particulary the song. While there’s some variation and there may be some “mixed singers”, the difference with Common Chiffchaff is usually obvious (though maybe a bit less so on this one from Wassadou). It’s worthwhile pointing out though that besides the quite distinctive song, a good yet undervalued criterion is the call of the species – see this nice summary on the Turnstones blog (and also Collinson & Melling 2008, who state that the call “in sharp contrast to that of Common Chiffchaff, is downwardly inflected, from 5 to 3 kHz, transcribed as ‘piu’ or ‘peeoo’, perhaps reminiscent of the call of Siskin” – now compare with my recording from Technopole (same bird as in the song recording): I wouldn’t say this sounds like a Siskin – and even less like a Bullfinch! – and at 3.5-6 kHz the frequency is clearly a bit higher as can be seen on the sonogram below (click to enlarge).

IberianChiffchaff_Technopole_20173112_call_sonogram_XC397677

 

 

Status & Distribution in Senegal

Up to not so long ago, most authors considered Iberian Chiffchaff to be a resident or partial migrant, mostly due to lack of reliable identification criteria at the time. Svensson (again!) provided the most comprehensive overview of our knowledge of the wintering areas in his 2001 paper, concluding that it is “a long-distance migrant which winters primarily in tropical Africa“. This assumption was however based on very few specimens and even fewer reliable field observations. One of these is of a bird “singing like an Iberian Chiffchaff” by Yves Thonnerieux from northern Ghana, and the only two specimens from wintering grounds are from Mali in 1932 (Segou) and 1955 (Bamako); both were found by Svensson in the museum of natural history in Paris (MNHN). A third specimen was collected in January 1955 in Tunisia, suggesting that some birds may winter north of the Sahara; Svensson also showed that the species is present during spring migration in Morocco (at least late March – early April).

With increased “observer awareness” and better reporting systems, recent years have seen a clear increase in field observations from West Africa, described further below. Combined with the absence of any winter records from the Iberian peninsula, I think it’s quite well established now that indeed most if not all Iberian Chiffchaffs winter south of the Sahara.

To further refine its status in West Africa, we turn to our usual suspects: Morel & Morel  provide a single record, presumably obtained by themselves, of a singing bird at Richard Toll on 22-24.2.87 (this is probably the unpublished record “from tropical Africa” that Svensson refers to). This can safely be assumed to be the first published record for Senegal; identification was apparently largely based on song since they write that they compared the song with recordings by Claude Chappuis. It’s quite easy to miss out on this observation though, as ibericus (or brehmi as it used to be known) is only referred to in the annex of Les Oiseaux de Sénégambie (1990), as their sighting was obviously too recent to be included in the near-final manuscript of their book. Of course, the species was at the time still considered to be “just” a subspecies of Common Chiffchaff. Rather curiously, the Morels refer to a significant proportion of Scandinavian Common Chiffchaffs (ssp. abietinus) – up to half! – though we now know that these populations tend to winter in eastern Africa, heading in a south-easterly direction in autumn. Could it be that these were actually Iberian Chiffchaff rather than abietinus?

Moving on, Rodwell and colleagues (1996) refer to three records of calling (singing?) birds in the Djoudj NP in Jan 1990, Jan 1991 and Feb 1992. Sauvage & Rodwell (1998) do not provide any additional records: up to the mid-nineties, ibericus was obviously still considered a rare to scarce winter visitor to northern Senegal. More than a decade later, Borrow & Demey still consider the species’ distribution in Senegal as “inadequately known”, and their map only shows the lower Senegal valley.

As is the case with quite a few other little known taxa that were recently elevated to species rank – think Moltoni’s Warbler, Seebohm’s Wheatear, Atlas Flycatcher – these past few years our knowledge has greatly increased, and it is clear that Iberian Chiffchaff is indeed quite frequent in northern Senegal. Recent reports mainly come from the Djoudj NP – obviously a key wintering site, with decent densities – and from around Richard Toll and Saint-Louis (e.g. Bango, Trois-Marigots, Langue de Barbarie, and see picture above). There are however a number of recent records elsewhere that suggest that the species is more widespread: last winter I was lucky to find a singing bird at Technopole which is thought to be the first record from Dakar; there are also a few reports from the Somone lagoon, though not sure that these are reliable (I have suspected the species here before, but never been able to confirm based on call or song). Rather intriguingly, the species was also seen several times along the Gambia river at Wassadou these past two years: first in December 2017, then more than two months later at least one singing bird that we found on 24.2.18, and again this winter (7.1.19). Finally, another singing bird was reported near Kounkane, Velingara, on 28.1.18 (G. Monchaux) – to our knowledge the first record from Casamance. The observations in these southern locations suggest that the species is more widespread and that it can turn up anywhere in Senegal.

In Mauritania, it appears that up to recently the only records were obtained during extensive field work conducted by the Swiss Ornithological Station, with several birds captured both in spring and in autumn 2003 (Isenmann et al. 2010). There are several more recent reports from around Nouakchott mainly, presumably of birds passing through. In addition to the two aforementioned specimens from Mali, the only other record from that country that I’m aware of is of a singing bird that I recorded in a hotel garden in Bamako, where it was singing for at least a week in January 2016. Burkina Faso should also be part of the regular range, though there again there are just a couple of records, most recently a singing bird reported by van den Bergh from the Bängr-Weeogo park in Ouagadougou in December 2011.

The Xeno-canto range map, which is largely based on BirdLife data, is probably the most accurate when it comes to the winter range (though not for the breeding range, the species being absent from most of central and eastern Spain). It should also include all of northern Senegal, or at a minimum, the lower and middle river valley, particularly the Djoudj NP which is omitted from the map below. I’m not sure that the species has been reliably recorded from Gambia even though there are several unverified observations on eBird. Further north, there are several winter records from Western Sahara between early December and early February, mainly at coastal sites (Bergier et al. 2017), suggesting that not all Iberian Chiffchaffs cross the Sahara. Spring migration is noted from mid-February to mid- or end of April.

IberianChiffMap_XC

 

Iberian Chiffchaff should be present in Senegal and generally throughout its winter quarters from about October to early or mid-April; the earliest observation I could find is one of a bird reported singing east of Richard Toll on 27.10.15. A Danish group reported two birds in Djoudj in early November 2017, but other than that almost all records are from December – February during the peak orni-tourist season.

Paulo Catry and colleagues (including our friends Miguel and Antonio!) showed marked differential distance migration of sexes in chiffchaffs, with females moving further south than males. Their study did not distinguish between Common and Iberian Chiffchaff, but because south of the Sahara (Djoudj mainly), sex-ratios were more male-biased than predicted by a simple latitude model, their findings suggest that among the chiffchaffs wintering in West Africa, a large proportion is composed of Iberian birds, providing further support that these birds are long distance migrants. The ringing data from Djoudj also showed that chiffchaffs display differential timing of spring migration, with males leaving the winter quarters considerably earlier than females [typically, male migrant songbirds arrive a little earlier on the breeding grounds than females, presumably so they can hold and defend a territory by the time the females arrive].

Finishing off with some essential ibericus reading…

 

 

 

 

Status & Distribution of Seebohm’s Wheatear in Senegal

This is the second part of a review of what we know about Seebohm’s Wheatear in Senegal, the first part covering its identification in autumn and winter. As already mentioned in that piece, this species has a pretty restricted range, breeding only in the Middle and High Atlas of Morocco and Algeria, generally above 1500 meters asl. Until fairly recently it was considered more of an altitudinal or short-range migrant, but it’s clear now that it’s actually a medium-range “total” migrant (i.e. all populations tend to migrate away from breeding grounds – not surprising given that much of it is covered in snow during winter!).

2018 04 24, 18h07. IMG_5216+ - small

Seebohm’s Wheatear / Traquet de Seebohm m. ad. on breeding grounds at Oukaimeden (Morocco), April 2018 (© F. Bacuez)

 

The non-breeding range of “Black-throated Wheatear” is given by the Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive as “West Africa (mainly SW Mauritania and Senegal to W Mali, occasionally in S Morocco)”. However, the HBW range map is rather incorrect: all regions of Senegal and Gambia and even Guinea-Bissau are included, although as far as I know the species has never been reported from the latter two countries. The same applies to Guinea and Burkina Faso which are also partly included in the range. Let’s hope that this will get corrected soon – the HBW species page of this newly recognised taxon (formerly considered a subspecies of Northern Wheatear) was only fairly recently published online, and is obviously work in progress.

The winter distribution in Shirhai & Svensson (2018) on the other hand seems more accurate, though perhaps a bit too conservative in that it includes only a very small part of western Mali. Judging by the data available on the Biodiversité Al-Maghrib portal, it’s clear that some birds winter may further to the north, much closer to the breeding grounds. Indeed, there are several observations from southern Morocco and from the Western Sahara from December-February, and it’s easy to imagine that it’s rather beneficial for these birds if they can avoid crossing the Sahara. There are also a few recent records from the Adrar region in Mauritania, e.g. this one and this one by Wim van Zwieten and friends seen at the end of December last year, suggesting that this area may also be part of the species’ winter range.

The Shirihai & Svensson map is most likely largely based on a paper on Seebohm’s Wheatear in West Africa by Förschler and colleagues (2008), which to date gives the most comprehensive overview of our knowledge of its wintering grounds in the Sahel, following field work they undertook in western Niger, Mali and Mauritania combined with a review of published data. They note that “although seebohmi was previously thought to be a resident or only a partial migrant by some authors, it is now considered a true migrant, with the majority of the population leaving Morocco and Algeria in winter. Browne (1982) found a major wintering area, roughly estimated to hold at least 50,000 individuals, in the eastern part of south-west Mauritania […].” They also refer to three more southern records from Djoudj NP (mentioned by Rodwell et al. 1996), and conclude that “the majority of this taxon’s population appears to winter immediately south of the Sahara, in the Sahel zone of southern Mauritania, northern Senegal and north-west Mali between 15–18°N and 09–16°W, although its wintering grounds may range even further east, including parts of central Mali.

SeebohmsWheatear_Adrar_Dec2018_WimvanZwieten

Seebhm’s Wheatear / Traquet de Seebohm, Atar 30 Dec 2018 (W. van Zwieten)

 

Away from its regular range, there are a few scattered records of Seebohm’s Wheatear in the Mediterranean and one from the Netherlands (April 2017), plus a couple of possible sightings from the UK: Italy (one in April 2014 in Sardinia), Gibraltar, Malta, Tunisia, and several times in the Libyan desert and even once from western Egypt. It’s also on the list of the Canary Islands, and apparently also reported from Cameroon, as per Arnoud B. van den Berg on DutchAvifauna,nl). So it’s definitely a species to have on one’s radar when encountering an unusual wheatear in western and southern Europe; I can imagine that one day a fine male will show up in spring in the Camargue, the Spanish coast or on the Balearic islands – or pretty much anywhere north of its range for that matter.

 

Status & Distribution in Senegal

In Senegal, in addition to the aforementioned Djoudj records, the species has been reported from the Richard-Toll, Dagana, Podor and Ndioum areas, and at least once from the lower Senegal valley, on 2.3.09 by Frédéric Bacuez, Ornithondar. Of course, Frédéric had already provided a comprehensive overview of the distribution of Seebohm’s Wheatear in Senegal, more precisely in this blog piece from 2016. The Morels mention several spring records (13 March – 14 April) in the middle Senegal valley as far upstream as Salde, plus one from early January 1981 near Richard-Toll seen by Alan Tye. They also report the presence on two occasions some 60 km south-east of Richard-Toll. But that’s about it: not an awful lot of records to go by! It’s quite possible that it may also be found at least occasionally in the Ndiael reserve, around lac de Guiers and into the Ferlo (e.g. Six Forages). These sites are not very often visited by birders or ornithologists, and the recent records that I came across are typically from Richard-Toll and the Podor areas, with the exception of a first-winter male at Saot (ENE of Touba), seen by J-F Blanc in January 2010. No records are known from the Grande Côte, though it’s not impossible of course that the species shows up here at least from time to time.

As can be seen from the map below, northern Senegal is on the southern edge of the species’ winter range, which may explain why most birds seen here appear to be first-winter birds. Adults, and in particularly males, may well winter further north including on the other side of the Sahara as mentioned earlier. Though it’s certainly not rare, the species seems to be nowhere common across its range in Senegal. When we toured the middle valley in January last year, we saw the species in small numbers (1-2 ind. per site) at three different locations: Bokhol, in a sparsely wooded dune depression east of Ndiayene Pendao, and at Gamadji Sare. Some sites such as the Bokhol “fores” appear to be pretty reliable, and a dedicated search would probably reveal other sites where they may be regular and maybe even locally common; in 1973 Seebohm’s Wheatear  was said to be “the most common [wheatear] species in winter in the Podor region”, while Sauvage & Rodwell refer to a total of 18 ind. seen at three locations in February 1993 in the Podor atlas square. There may of course be annual variations, possibly depending on any cold spells in north-west Africa, but obviously more data are needed (as usual!).

The majority of sightings are made between December and early March, but this is when most birders visit the country and it’s likely that Seebohm’s is regularly present at least from (mid?) October and up to early April. In Nouakchott, it’s been seen as early as the end of September (see Rob Tovey’s eBird checklist with two pictures of a fresh autumn male), but when I last visited the Podor region in early October 2018 I did not see any birds on the sites that held several wintering individuals back in January, so it seemed that they had not arrived yet at that time.

SeebohmsWheatear_Bokhol_20180105_IMG_8145

Seebohm’s Wheatear / Traquet de Seebohm 1st winter m. on wintering site in northern Senegal, Jan. 2018 (B. Piot)

 

In short, the main wintering area of Seebohm’s Wheatear lies in Mauritania, northern Senegal and NW Mali, on the edge of the Sahara and in the northern Sahel zone. It is a regular winter visitor to northern Senegal, being scarce locally fairly common along the middle Senegal Valley, from October/November to March or early April.

The main winter range in West Africa should look something like this, though it possibly extends a bit further south in Senegal and further east along the Mauritania-Mali border. And as mentioned already, some birds may winter in southern Morocco and in the adjacent Adrar region of Mauritania, as well as along the coast north of Nouakchott: the below map may well need to be adjusted as such – comment welcome, as usual.

SeebohmsWheatear_Range

Approximate extent of main winter range of Seebohm’s Wheatear / Etendue approximative de l’aire d’hivernage du Traquet de Seebohm

 

Habitat

While its habitat in summer essentially corresponds to Alpine meadows with rocks and stone structures, usually devoid of any trees, in winter the species may inhabit light Sudano-Sahelian woodland, at least along the Senegal valley. Elsewhere, particularly further north in Mauritania, it probably occurs mostly in more open habitat. The Bokhol forest just east of Dagana seems to be a reliable place to find Seebohm’s Wheatear: it is comprised of a mix of Acacia, Balanites aegyptiaca and other trees growing on sandy soil with little or no undergrowth. Indeed, most of the winter range of the species is heavily overgrazed anyway, and away from the floodplains there is generally very little vegetation cover… the picture below gives an impression of the the sad state of what remains of northern Senegal’s “forests” – a very liberal concept here at these latitudes.

ForetdeBokhol_20180105_IMG_8156

Foret de Bokhol – typical lightly wooded habitat of Seebohm’s Wheatear in northern Senegal

 

We’ve also encountered the species on several occasions at Gamadji Sare, where part of the area is also made up of light woodland, not dissimilar to Bokhol, though less mature. Some birds here were seen in more open areas, including right by the bank of the Doué river where this picture was taken:

SeebohmsWheatear_GamadjiSare_20180106_IMG_8554

Seebohm’s Wheatear / Traquet de Seebohm f. (prob. first winter), Gamadji Sare, Jan. 2018 (B. Piot)

 

In much of its range, the species is cohabiting with Northern (ssp. oenanthe and probably also libanotica), ‘Greenland’ (leucorhoa) and Isabelline Wheatear, probably locally also with Black-eared and Desert Wheatears though the latter two species are typically very scarce in Senegal it seems. Heuglin’s Wheatear is also possible in winter in northern Senegal, but it’s much rarer and was added to the national list only recently, following a record in the Djoudj NP in January 2007 (and was found breeding even more recently in the Kédougou region).

 

A brief etymology¹ of Seebohm’s Wheatear

SeebohmsWheatear_Mayaud_1951

Noël Mayaud’s illustrations of Oenanthe oenanthe seebohmi (1951!)

The HBW Alive lists this taxon as Black-throated Wheatear, another rather boring and unimaginative English name. I’ll stick to Seebohm’s. Alternatively, Atlas Wheatear would be a pretty good one as it nicely highlights the restricted breeding range of the species; this name is already in use in Spanish and German, and no doubt in other languages.

But actually, why Seebohm’s Wheatear? Tim Birkhead – author of (at least) two great books, The Wisdom of Birds and Bird Sensewrote about Henry (or should it be Harry?) Seebohm, a 19th century British industrial and ornithologist, most famous for his fieldwork in Siberia. Which doesn’t really explain why our wheatear from the Atlas goes by his name… enter Charles Dixon, who formally described the taxon in 1882 based on a specimen from the Algerian Atlas. A contemporary of Seebohm, Dixon collaborated on Henry Seebohm’s British Birds opus, so I think it’s safe to assume that Dixon named his newly described chat in honour of his friend. 

The term “wheatear” apparently comes from “white” and “arse”, referring to the prominent white rump found in most species.

 

¹ Etymology is the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history. Applied to vernacular and scientific bird names, this comes down to retrieving the origins of these names.

 

Thanks once again to Frédéric Bacuez and Wim van Zwieten, and now also to Jérémy Calvo for making available some of their pictures from Mauritania and Morocco

SeebohmsWheatear - Oukaimeden - April 2018 - © Photo par Jérémy Calvo, DSC_8452-2 - small

Seebohm’s Wheatear / Traquet de Seebohm m. ad. on breeding grounds at Oukaimeden (Morocco), April 2018 (© J. Calvo)

 

 

Identification of Seebohm’s Wheatear in Senegal

Last winter, I had the chance to have a closer look at a species that is relatively little-known, particularly on its wintering grounds: Seebohm’s Wheatear, a former subspecies of Northern Wheatear that was fairly recently (though long overdue it seems) recognised as a full species by many authors, though surprisingly not yet by IOC. These neat little birds have a pretty restricted breeding range, only occurring in the Atlas mountains of Morocco and Algeria. A couple of years ago I had the chance of seeing these birds for the first time, more precisely in May on their breeding grounds at Oukaimeden, birding  hotspot incontournable of the Moroccan High Atlas. As such it was particularly nice to meet up with them on their Sahelian wintering grounds a few months later, during our memorable trip up north in January 2018.

Wheatears can be tricky birds to identify, with several species often posing a bit of an ID challenge, and Seebohm’s is no exception. However, nothing much has been written about the identification of first-winters and adults in non-breeding plumage¹, and depictions in standard field guides may be misleading or even incorrect. In an effort to further our knowledge of the species, we thought it may be useful to summarise what we know based on our limited experience with Oenanthe seebohmi in the field here in Senegal, combined with a brief study of available pictures. Note though that by no means is what follows necessarily a comprehensive overview; additions and corrections are most welcome as usual.

A second blog post will focus on the status & distribution of the species.

SeebohmsWheatear_GamadjiSare_20180106_IMG_8554

Identification in winter

While straightforward to recognise in spring, Seebohm’s Wheatear on its Sahelian wintering grounds can be difficult to identify, mainly because they may superficially resemble Desert or Black-eared Wheatear, while young birds and some females may look like Northern Wheatear. We’ll start by reviewing field characters as found in the most relevant literature: mainly the excellent Robins and Chats (Clement & Rose 2015), Nils van Duivendijk’s Advanced Bird ID Guide (2010), and the recently published seminal reference guide by Shirihai & Svensson (Handbook of Western Palearctic Birds: Passerines, 2018). Let’s see how these can be applied to some of the pictures of presumed Seebohm’s taken in winter.

  • Size & overall impression are very similar to Northern Wheatear, though it is slightly smaller than that species – something that’s not necessarily obvious in the field unless maybe in direct comparison to nominate Northern; it’s clear though that Seebohm’s definitely doesn’t look larger than Northern as is the case with ‘Greenland Wheatear’ (= ssp. leucorhoa) where the size difference is usually obvious in the field.
  • Structure is typical of wheatears and does not appear to be very different from Northern either; the wing is supposedly slightly shorter, though this is not really obvious in the field, several of the pictures presented here actually show rather slender long-winged birds with an important primary projection, rarely giving a more compact appearance. On most pictures presented here we can however verify that the primary projection is slightly less than the length of exposed tertials (Shirihai & Svensson).
  • The bill and tail are said to be “rather longer” than Northern, but these differences are again likely of little use in the field, and I’d imagine that there’s some overlap between species – more measurements on museum skins are likely needed to confirm this.
  • In all plumages, the black terminal tail band is narrower than in Northern Wheatear (on outer tail feather, ca. one third of the length of the feather is black), though yet again this is not a very useful field character unless good pictures of the tail are obtained.
  • Another key difference is that the underwing coverts are entirely black in males, while in females there are pale streaks on dark underwing coverts, unlike in Northern.
2018 02 12, 13h07. Traquet de Seebohm. Forêt de Bokhol. © Photo par Frédéric Bacuez, IMG_9431 (2)+ - small

Seebohm’s Wheatear / Traquet de Seebohm, Bokhol, Feb. 2018 (F. Bacuez) showing blackish underwing coverts.

 

Adult and second-year males are generally straightforward to identify in autumn and winter, when they largely retain their distinctive head pattern, only to a limited degree obscured by pale fringes, combined with very pale underparts and “largely greyish or slighly sandy-grey” upperparts. As a result, adult males should be easy to pick out in autumn and winter, despite not showing the crisp black/grey/white plumage typical of spring males. Still, they remain very distinctive and are unlikely to be confused with any other species, such as this one from the end of March on wintering grounds in southern Mauritania, photographed by the late Robert Tovey (Birding for a lark blog):

SeebohmsWheatear_Aleg_20180331_RobertTovey

Seebohm’s Wheatear / Traquet de Seebohm, m. ad. in spring, Aleg (Maurtiania), 31 March 2018 (© R. Tovey). Note pale buff undertail and lower vent, but otherwise white underparts

The two birds below were photographed in Nouakchott by Rob Tovey, at the end of September and mid-October, respectively. Both are clearly males, and while not very grey, I believe both are 1st year birds (note moult limit on first bird). However, ageing of these birds “requires close inspection of moult and feather wear and pattern in wing” (Shirihai & Svensson) and is often not straightforward – more on this below. This bird on Afbid from January near Richard-Toll, photographed by Nik Borrow, clearly shows an adult-type male, with a largely grey crown, mantle and scapulars.

SeebohmsWheatear_Nouakchott_20170923_RobertTovey

Seebohm’s Wheatear / Traquet de Seebohm, m. ad. in autumn, Nouakchott (Maurtiania), 23 Sept. 2017 (© R. Tovey). Note cold colours, grey & pale brown back, slender appearance, very pale underparts and longish pointed bill

SeebohmsWheatear_Nouakchott_20161015_RobertTovey

Seebohm’s Wheatear / Traquet de Seebohm, m. in autumn, Nouakchott (Maurtiania), 15 Oct. 2016 (© R. Tovey). Fairly similar bird to the previous one but browner and less marked on chin and throat.

 

There appears to be some confusion about the plumage of adult females in the literature, with some authors only mentioning that adult females have a “(dark) grey mottled throat” (van Duivendijk), whereas Svensson in the Collins Bird Guide writes that “females and imm. are often inseparable from [Northern] Wheatear unless showing hint of mottled grey throat (rare though)”. Clement & Rose provide illustrations of an adult male and a dark-throated adult female, but don’t bother illustrating typical females, nor do they show any birds in autumn and winter. They do note that females are variable, ranging from closely resembling typical females of Northern Wheatear, to showing brown ear-coverts and having black or blackish-brown lores to chin and throat tipped with buff, grey or sandy colour – thus more resembling the males in head pattern. Not very clear!

Luckily, Shirihai & Svensson are more precise, stating that adult females are “almost identical to ad. f. (and young m.) libanotica Northern Wheatear, and contrary to previous descriptions nearly always lacks dark bib.” Black- or grey-throated females are thus considered rare. They go on to describe the upperparts as “largely pale grey (with limited sandy-brown suffusion) including on crown. Usually has duskier or almost blackish lores and ear-coverts; whitish supercilium often narrow and short, hardly extending to forehead […].”

Here’s a typical female in spring on the breeding grounds at Oukaimeden, and this picture on Afbid is from May at Ifrane. Adult females in autumn are said to be much as in spring but warmer.

2018 04 24, 18h07. Oukaimeden. © Photo par Frédéric Bacuez, IMG_5214+

Seebohm’s Wheatear / Traquet de Seebohm f. at the end of April, Oukaimeden (© F. Bacuez). This bird may appear darker than usual because of the drab conditions and poor light (yes that’s snow falling there!)

 

The ageing criteria for first-winter birds, according to van Duivendijk, are as in Pied Wheatear [everyone knows these criteria by heart, right?!]: primary coverts with slightly frayed broad white fringes (ad autumn: often narrower and sharply bordered); primaries brown to brown-black often with pointed and worn tips; pale fringes to secondaries complete and cream-coloured; sometimes moult limit visible in greater coverts. There you go, just in case you’d forgotten. Ageing is thus largely based on moult limits, with first winter birds retaining juvenile primaries, primary-coverts and outer greater coverts, whereas in adults these are evenly fresh.

Back to Shirihai & Svensson, who state that first-winter males are “more female-like and rather feature-less, but still approaches fresh ad. m., having greyer upperparts and darker face with exposed black mottling especially on sides and lower throat; warmer below (Variation poorly known and requires more study)”, and that first-winter females have the “least contrasting plumage, with paler face pattern, and browner/duller ear-coverts.”

Let’s put the above to the test on some of our pictures from Senegal!

The following four photographs show three different birds from January; all are presumed to be first-winter males with varying levels of black extent on the face and throat. I initially assumed these to be adult males, but judging by the description of non-breeding males (by Shirihai & Svensson mainly) and compared to some of the pictures presented earlier on and those in Förschler et al., I now tend to label them as first-winter birds – mainly because of the overall sandy-coloured upperparts, mostly lacking grey tones. Again, keep in mind that ageing of these birds can be tricky and is not always possible! In the first bird, note the largely black throat and face appearing rather “smudged”, a fairly large white front merging into a clear whitish eyebrow extending well beyond the eye, and largely pale sand-coloured mantle and scapulars, the latter with a hint of light grey. The wings in the bird below appear relatively contrasted black and white, with extensive white fringes to the secondaries.

SeebohmsWheatear_GamadjiSare_20180105_IMG_8288

Seebohm’s Wheatear / Traquet de Seebohm, first-winter (?) male, Gamadji Sare Jan. 2018 (B. Piot)

In this picture of the same bird, the greyish scapulars and some grey mottling on the back are more apparent:

SeebohmsWheatear_GamadjiSare_20180105_IMG_8287

Seebohm’s Wheatear / Traquet de Seebohm, Gamadji Sare, Jan. 2018 (B. Piot)

This one taken earlier that same day in a different location shows a bird with less white on the chin and gives a very “cold” impression, though this is certainly exaggerated by the subdued early morning light. See also this picture of the same bird, as well as the second picture in this post (the one with spread out wings) which may well show the same bird, five weeks later in the same spot. Not sure about sex here – probably a male, but we probably can’t exclude a dark-throated female.

SeebohmsWheatear_Bokhol_20180105_IMG_8140

Seebohm’s Wheatear / Traquet de Seebohm, Bokhol, Jan. 2018 (B. Piot). Besides the black “smudge” on the face, note the cold colours and pure white underparts. Tentatively identified as a first-winter male.

The same goes for this one from last December, taken by Wim van Zwieten near Podor. This bird also has fairly little black on the face but extensive pale fringes to greater and primary coverts as well as to secondaries, suggesting a first-winter male, though again not sure it can safely be sexed. These birds may be mistaken for Desert or Black-eared Wheatear (the black-throated form of which sometimes occurs in Senegal, though it’s probably rare), even by experienced birders.

SeebohmsWheatear_Podor_Dec2018_WimvanZwieten

Seebohm’s Wheatear / Traquet de Seebohm, near Podor, Dec. 2018 (© Wim van Zwieten)

The next bird gives a very pale impression, with uniform light sandy upperparts and a white lower breast, flanks, belly and vent. The upper breast are warmer tinged with a buffish wash extending down from the ear coverts, and so are the undertail coverts. The black or dark brown loral stripe is reminiscent of Isabelline Wheatear, but it has a narrow yet distinct supercilium both in front and behind the eye and has a different ‘jizz” and wing pattern than Isabelline. I’ve concluded that it’s a first-winter female, but as always would stand happy to be corrected. Either way, the very white underparts and pale upperparts stand out and should immediately point to Seebohm’s.

Seebohm's Wheatear / Traquet de Seebohm

Seebohm’s Wheatear / Traquet de Seebohm presumably 1st winter female, Gamadji Sare, Jan. 2018 (B. Piot).

 

Of course, identifying a female or 1st winter bird in a vagrant context is something else. While not necessarily impossible, it will require a combination of characters as well as proper photographic documentation of underwing and tail pattern in particular. There have been at least two suspected birds in autumn in the UK but which could not be confirmed as definite Seebohm’s (read up more on these tricky birds here on Birding Frontiers). The first confirmed sighting for NW Europe was of a male in May 2017 in the Netherlands, a typical case of “overshooting” by North African or Mediterranean species during spring migration. Elsewhere in Europe, the species has been reported as a vagrant from Gibraltar, Italy, Malta, the Canary Islands.

Stay tuned for part II!

 

– Bram, with thanks to Frédéric, Simon, and to Wim for the use of his picture. And most importantly, a posthumous tribute to Robert Tovey who in a short few years made valuable contributions to our knowledge of birds in Mauritania, before unexpectedly passing away in September last year. 

 

¹ Note (19.2.19): The only exception is actually a remarkable paper written by Mayaud in… 1951, in the French journal Alauda (19:88-96): Le plumage prénuptial d’Oenanthe oenanthe seebohmi (Dixon), in which the author provides a detailed description of birds in non-breeding plumage.

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

(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 Longtailed 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.

LongtailedNightjar_Podor_20181005_IMG_3769

Long-tailed Nightjar / Engoulevent à longue queue

 

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.

BeaudouinsSnakeEagle_FanayeDieri_20181005_IMG_3787

Beaudouin’s Snake-Eagle / Circaète de Beaudouin

 

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.

 

BluecheekedBeeeater-Colony_RichardToll_20181006_IMG_3819

Blue-cheeked Bee-eater colony at Richard Toll, with Cricket Warbler habitat in the background

 

PintailedWhydah_RichardToll_20181006_IMG_3851

Pin-tailed Whydah / Veuve dominicaine

 

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.

GreenBeeeater_Bokhol_20181006_IMG_3795

Green Bee-eater / Guêpier d’Orient at Bokhol

 

Psammophiselegans_Bokhol_20181006_IMG_3798

Elegant Sand Racer (Psammophis elegans), Bokhol

 

AfricanGroundSquirrel_Bokhol_20181006_IMG_3806

West African Ground Squirrel / Ecureuil fouisseur (Xerus erythropus)

 

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.

BlackwingedKite_STEP-SaintLouis_20181006_IMG_3856

Black-winged Kite / Elanion blanc

 

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.

SpurwingedLapwing_Gandiol_20181007_IMG_3886

Spur-winged Lapwing chick / poussin de Vanneau éperonné

 

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:

RuppellsVulture_Louga_20181007_IMG_3907

Rüppell’s Vulture / Vautour de Rüppell

 

 

 

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)

PurpleHeron_TroisMarigots_20181003_IMG_3345

Purple Heron / Heron pourpré

EurasianCoot_TroisMarigots_20181003_IMG_3351

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).

GreaterBlueearedGlossyStarling_Lampsar_20181003_IMG_3372

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).

ChestnutbelliedSandgrouse_Ndiael_20181004_IMG_3425

Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse / Ganga à ventre brun

WoodchatShrike_Ndiael_20181004_IMG_3381

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).

PiedFlycatcher_NdiayenePendao_20181004_IMG_3454

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:

HorusSwift_GamadjiSare_20181005_IMG_3595

Trust me it’s a Horus Swift

Or even this:

HorusSwift_GamadjiSare_20181005_IMG_3626

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.

HorusSwift_GamadjiSare_20181005_IMG_3651

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).

WhitefrontedBeeeater_GamadjiSare_20181005_IMG_3514

White-throated Bee-eater / Guêpier à gorge blanche

WhiteWagtail_GamadjiSare_20181005_IMG_3567

White Wagtail / Bergeronnette grise

GoslingsBunting_GamadjiSare_20181005_IMG_3611

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!).

DwarfBittern_GamadjiSare_20181005_IMG_3710

Dwarf Bittern / Blongios de Stürm

EurasianReedWarbler_GamadjiSare_20181005_IMG_3750

Eurasian Reed Warbler / Rousserolle effarvatte

YellowcrownedBishop_GamadjiSare_20181005_IMG_3722

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!

 

 

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