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Quest for a Ghost

A day off and not much going on at Technopole recently (water levels are too low, most migrants have moved on) means that I finally have some time to write up this long overdue post. At long last I managed to “catch up” as they say on a very special bird, part quail, part plover – or is it half lark, a quarter courser and a quarter chameleon? Either way, our third attempt to find the unique Quail-Plover (Turnix à ailes blanches) finally paid off with some superb sightings of two different birds, nearly three weeks ago somewhere south of Touba/Mbacke in central Senegal’s barren bush country. I’m pretty sure that this diminutive bird, which of course is neither a plover, nor a quail or lark (let alone a chameleon), easily ranks in the top 10 of most wanted birds to be found in Senegal. Secretive yet not shy, it’s notoriously hard to find in the vast expanse of suitable habitat throughout central Senegal. and earlier attempts back in February and June 2018 failed to turn up any Quail-Plovers.

So, we set off ridiculously early (well maybe not for most birders, but for me 5.30am is VERY early) one Saturday morning and took the shiny new highway to Touba (merci la cooperation chinoise, Senegal now has an additional 1 billion or so Euros in debts to reimburse). Within no time we reached Touba and zoomed through the usually very busy town of Mbacke, all being quiet as it’s Ramadan season here. A few kilometres past the surprisingly clean town of Tip, for Senegalese standards that is, we took what looked like a more or less driveable track heading in the direction of a known spot for Quail-Plover. I somehow managed to get a pretty impressive puncture thanks to a sharp piece of bone (I’m guessing a goat’s femur, see below: opinions welcome), but by 8.30 we were out in the field, birding with a purpose.

QuailPloverPuncture

 

Endlessly kicking bushes and slaloming one’s way through the bush country seems to be the only way to nail down this ghost bird. Preferably in a large group, definitely not on your own or with just one mate…

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Quail-Plover country

 

Not really sure whether we really stood any chance, and hopes slowly diminishing as we kicked along without much of a result for about an hour, Miguel finally started frantically gesturing some distance away. Sure enough, he’d found one!

A short sprint later I finally saw what must be one of the most unique birds I’ve ever seen:

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YES!!

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Quail-Plover / Turnix à ailes blanches

 

We ended up watching this bird for at least half an hour as it slowly moved from one bush to another, typically rocking back-and-forth just like a chameleon, at times feeding but always keeping a watchful eye on us. We finally moved on, both of us all ecstatic of course, like two boys who just received their most wanted Christmas present. Barely five minutes later, I flushed a second bird, which again was very cooperative and allowed for great views from close-up, though it seemed more alert and more shy than the first bird, presumably its partner.

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Second bird

 

A typical Sahel species, the “Lark Buttonquail” is indeed most closely related to the buttonquails (Turnicidae), hence its French name. It was first described in 1819 by Louis Jean Pierre Vieillot based on a specimen from Senegal; its distribution runs from here and southern Mauritania in a fairly narrow belt throughout the Sahel all the way to Sudan, with what seems like a disjunct population in southern Ethiopia and arid country in Kenya.

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Bird & Man

 

To give a sense of how little is known about the species, here are some excerpts from the HBW Alive species page:

  • Voice: Apparently silent when flushed; otherwise a very soft, low whistle given from ground has been described, but context seems unknown.
  • Food and feeding: little specific information […] at least partly nocturnal […]
  • Breeding: Little known […] possibly monogamous […]
  • Movements: Poorly understood […]
  • Status and conservation: Not globally threatened. Uncommon to locally common […] in Senegal, may have become less common since 1930s […] Perhaps only a vagrant to Gambia (three recent records) […]

Our observations don’t add much to the above; we did see one of the birds feeding as it was walking slowly and every now and then quickly pecking either small insects (ants?) or seeds or other vegetable matter from the ground. When initially flushed, both birds silently flew a short distance (10-15 meters for the first, maybe 30 m for the second bird) and immediately took cover at the base of a bush. Interestingly, we found these birds in exactly the same spot as where it was reported back in January, suggesting it is present here and highly site faithful at least throughout the dry season.

Most recent observations in Senegal are made by tour groups on their regular circuit, who usually dedicate a stop (or two or three, depending on success rates!) between the north and the Saloum delta or Wassadou to their quest for the Quail-Plover. Abdou ‘Carlos’ Lo almost certainly has seen the most of these birds in the last few years, and has found the species in several spots now, so thanks certainly must go to Carlos here. There are also a few recent records from near Toubacouta, from Palmarin and from the Trois-Marigots reserve (see this post by Ornithondar, with as always a good summary of the status of not only Quail-Plover, but also its relative the Common Buttonquail). Morel & Morel mainly recorded the species around Richard-Toll, while Sauvage & Rodwell mention records from the late 80s and early 90s from Popenguine, Mbour (ORSTOM field station), the Niokolo-Koba NP, and Kaffrine. 

Here’s the second bird again, showing much less white in the wing and a very crisp plumage:

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Quail-Plover / Turnix à ailes blanches

 

Of course, there are other birds to be seen here, even if diversity is pretty low especially at this time of the year, with most migrants gone and wet season visitors not arrived yet. Savile’s Bustard, Singing Bush Lark, Yellow-bellied Eremomela, and Desert Cisticola are the most notable other inhabitants of this region (Outarde de Savile, Alouette chanteuse, Erémomèle à croupion jaune, Cisticole du désert). A single Melodious Warbler (Hypolaïs polyglotte) was the only Palearctic migrant still around. See complete eBird checklists here and here.

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Desert Cisticola / Cisticole du désert

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A silent Singing Bush Lark / Alouette chanteuse

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Chestnut-bellied Starling / Choucador à ventre roux

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Long-tailed Lizard  / Lézard à longue queue

 

Third time lucky, as they say.

 

 

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Two Laughing Gulls, and other unexpected birds at Technopôle

Another visitor from North America showed up recently at Technopole: a superb adult Laughing Gull (Mouette atricille) was found by Miguel Lecoq and Ignacio Morales over the Easter weekend. First seen on 21.4, it was still present two days later when it was also heard calling. Amazingly, later that same week (25.4), Miguel found an immature (2nd year) in the same place!

Larus_atricilla_Ignacio_Morales_1_crop

Laughing Gull / Mouette atricille (I. Morales)

 

Identification is pretty straightforward, the main field characters being nicely visible here: dark grey mantle, almost entirely black outer primaries, narrow white trailing edge to secondaries and tertials, back hood with white “eye lashes”, fairly long dark crimson red bill, and rather long dark red to blackish legs. The young bird is also very distinct and is relatively easy to pick out amongst the numerous other gulls that are present at Technopole at the moment: Slender-billed Gulls mostly, but also Grey-headed Gulls (the immatures of which superficially resemble Laughing Gull), and still some Black-headed, Audouin’s and Lesser Black-backed Gulls (Goeland railler, Mouettes à tête grise et rieuse, Goelands d’Audouin et brun).

Proper rare bird record shot:

Larus_atricilla_MiguelLecoq_IMG-20190425-WA0001_crop

Laughing Gull / Mouette atricille (M. Lecoq)

 

This is the fourth American species to be seen in Senegal in less than two weeks, once again highlighting the potential of the country to find vagrant gulls and waders: the overwintering Lesser Yellowlegs (Chevalier à pattes jaunes) was last seen on 8.4, followed by a 2nd year Franklin’s Gull (Mouette de Franklin) on 13.4, the American Golden Plover (Pluvier bronzé) from Palmarin (15.4), and now Larus atricilla. And this is by just a small handful of active observers… just imagine what else there is to be found, if only there were more birders here.

There are just five previous records of Laughing Gull:

  • An adult in the Saloum delta on 18.3.85 (Dupuy, A.R. (1985) Sur la présence au Sénégal de Larus atricilla. Alauda 53. Two years earlier, a possible sighting in the same place of a bird apparently paired with Grey-headed Gull, could not be confirmed and should thus be ignored.
  • An adult at Guembeul (near Saint-Louis) on 12.1.95 (Yésou P., Triplet P. (1995) La mouette atricille Larus atricilla au Sénégal. Alauda 63)
  • A 2nd winter in the Saloum delta on 28.12.05, see picture below (A. Flitti; Recent Reports, Bull. Afr. Bird Club 13)
  • One flying past the Ngor seawatch site on 7.10.08 (P. Crouzier, P. J. Dubois, J.-Y. Fremont, E. Rousseau, A. Verneau; Recent Reports, Bull. Afr. Bird Club 16)
  • An adult at Saint Louis on 10.1.14; a 2nd winter possibly also present (M. Beevers; Recent Reports, Bull. Afr. Bird Club 21)

 

8122 Mouette atricille_Siné Saloum - AmineFlitti (small)

Laughing Gull / Mouette atricille, Saloum, Dec. 2005 (A. Flitti)

 

Elsewhere on the continent, there are records from Morocco, Mauritania, The Gambia, Guinea-Bissau (first records is yet to be published), and possibly elsewhere – most recently, an imm. photographed at the Bijol Islands in Gambia in December 2018. It’s an annual vagrant to western Europe, even in unexpected locations such as on this lake in the Swiss Alps where an adult overwintered in 2005/2006:

Larusatricilla_Merligen_20051226_Piot

Laughing Gull / Mouette atricille, Merligen, Dec. 2006 (B. Piot)

 

Unlike Franklin’s Gull, which has been recorded in all months except for November, with most records in May, July and August, Laughing Gull is obviously a species that is more to be expected in winter, with all records so far occurring between October and April.

Other good birds found during Miguel’s frequent visits these past few days include two other additions to the Technopole list: Golden Oriole on 25.4 (Loriot d’Europe), and Pallid Swift on 23.4 (Martinet pâle). A late Mediterranean Gull (Mouette mélanocéphale) was also a good record, as was the count of 606 Sanderlings.

 

The site list now stands at 237 species. Which one will be next?

 

Update!

I wrote the preceding paragraphs yesterday, and since then I’ve been – at long last – back to Technopole, as I was up north last weekend and travelling abroad for work this past week. Well, we got the answer: species number 238 is Plain Martin (also known as Brown-throated Martin; Hirondelle paludicole). We had a single bird feeding over the water – often at close range – along with a couple of Barn Swallows (Hirondelle rustique) and several Little Swifts (Martinet des maisons), nicely showing its features. This is a rarely reported species from Senegal, and as it turns out the first eBird observation for the country! It’s rather patchily distributed throughout West Africa, being more common in Morocco, East Africa, and Southern Africa. Considered a non-breeding visitor to Senegal and Gambia, I could only find six old records from Senegal: Morel & Morel list four, followed by one in Jan. 1992 in the Djoudj and one from Mekhe in August 1992. Last year, Bruno Bargain found several at Kambounda (Sédhiou, Casamance), on 2.12.18, but other than those there do not seem to be any recent observations. Very nice sighting and an unexpected addition to my Senegal list – and a cool lifer for Miguel!

Alas no Laughing Gull this morning, but we did see the Frankin’s Gull again. Also another Pallid Swift, as well as new sightings of a colour-ringed German Gull-billed Tern (Sterne hansel) and a Norwegian Common Ringed Plover (Grand Gravelot), plus now two different Med’ Gulls. Let’s try again on Wednesday morning, who knows maybe the gull will be back. It may actually have been around for a few weeks now, as there was a possible sighting at Technopole on March 30th. It’s quite possible that the adult is hanging out by the harbour or elsewhere in the baie de Hann or even Rufisque, and will show up again at Technopole.

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Franklin’s Gull / Mouette de Franklin (BP)

 

 

 

The Great Re-Tern

April is Tern month!

From mid-March into May, lots of terns pass through Dakar on their way back home from the wintering grounds further south – some as far as South Africa! – and the first half of April is definitely peak time for many species. When conditions are right, literally thousands of these elegant birds may pass through on a single day, and sites such as Technopole can hold several hundreds of birds at any one time. So much that in the past week, I’ve had the chance to see 12 out of the 14 tern species that are known to occur in Senegal, the only ones missing being Bridled and the rare Sooty Tern.

On Monday 8.4 at Technopole, decent numbers of terns were about, mainly Sandwich Tern (+300, likely quite a bit more) with a supporting cast of the usual Caspian and Gull-billed Terns (the former with several recently emancipated juveniles, likely from the Saloum or Casamance colonies), but also several dozen African Royal Tern, a few Common Terns, at least two Lesser Crested, and as a bonus two fine adult Roseate Terns roosting among their cousins. And as I scanned one of the flocks one last time before returning back home, an adult Whiskered Tern in breeding plumage, already spotted the previous day by Miguel. I managed to read four ringed Sandwich Terns but far more were wearing rings, but were impossible to read.

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Gulls & Terns at Technopole

 

Yesterday 13.4, we went back to our favourite urban hotspot mainly in order to see if we could read some more of these rings. The main roost is close to the northern shore of the main lagoon, quite close to golf club house, which makes it possible to get close enough to the birds to read most rings. We saw most of the same tern species (except Roseate), with the addition of a fine moulting White-winged Tern and a small flock of Little Terns migrating over our heads. The first colour-ringed bird we saw was actually a Gull-billed Tern, but not the usual Spanish bird (“U83”) ringed in 2009 and seen several times herein the past three winters. This bird was even more interesting, as it was ringed in the only remaining colony in northern Europe, more precisely in the German Wadden Sea. Awaiting details from the ringers, but it’s quite likely that there are very few (if any!) recoveries of these northern birds this far south. It may well be the same bird as one that we saw back in November 2018 at lac Mbeubeusse, though we didn’t manage to properly establish the ring combination at the time.

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Colour-ringed Gull-billed Tern & Black-winged Stilts / Sterne hansel & Echasse blanche

 

So, back to our ring readings: all in all, we managed to decipher an impressive 14 Sandwich Tern rings – blue, white, yellow & red! – of birds originating from no less than four countries: Ireland, UK, Netherlands, and one from Italy (to be confirmed). Most of these are chicks that were born in summer 2016 and that logically spent their first two years in the Southern Hemisphere, and are now returning back to their breeding grounds for the first time. In addition, a Black-headed Gull with a blue ring proved to be a French bird ringed as a chick in a colony in the Forez region (west of Lyon) in 2018, while a Spanish Audouin’s Gull was a bird not previously read here. I’ll try to find some time to write up more on our ring recoveries, now that my little database has just over 500 entries!

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More gulls & terns

 

Others local highlights from these past few days are the Lesser Yellowlegs still at Technopole on 8.4 (but not seen yesterday… maybe it has finally moved on), also a superb breeding plumaged Bar-tailed Godwit, still a few Avocets, plenty of Ruff, Little Stint, Sanderling, Curlew Sandpiper and Dunlin, many of which in full breeding attire. And on 13.4, once again a Franklin’s Gull, but also a rather late Mediterranean Gull and what was probably the regular adult Yellow-legged Gull seen several times since December. Three Spotted Redshanks were also noteworthy as this is not a regular species at Technopole. The Black-winged Stilts are breeding again, and the first two chicks – just a couple of days old – were seen yesterday, with at least two more birds on nests; a family of Moorhen was also a good breeding record.

Full eBird checklist from 13.4 here.

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A sleepy Franklin’s Gull / Mouette de Franklin

 

Earlier this week at the Calao was just about as good in terms of tern diversity: again the usual Sandwich Terns which are passing through en masse at the moment, with some LCT’s in the mix, several dozen Common Terns and the odd Roseate Tern hurriedly yet graciously flying past the seawatch spot, and of course more Royal Terns en route to Langue de Barbarie or Mauritanian breeding sites, a lone Caspian Tern, and this time round an even less expected White-winged Tern (and just two Black Terns). Oh and also the first Arctic Tern of the season! The first birds in spring are typically seen at the end of March or first half of April; earliest dates (2015-2018) are 16.3.18 and 25.3.16. The numbers of migrating terns were really impressive here on Saturday 6.4: a rough estimate puts the number of Sandwich and Common Terns passing through at 500 and 1200, respectively, in just two hours.

At Ngor, regular morning sessions have yielded the usual Pomarine and Arctic Skuas, Northern Gannets, as well as a handful of Cape Verde Shearwaters feeding offshore on most days. Sooty Shearwaters passed through in good numbers on 6.4, while last Friday (12.4) was best for Sabine’s Gull: 73 birds in just one hour, so far my best spring count. Also several Long-tailed Skuas and the other day a South Polar or (more likely) a Great Skua was present, a rare spring sighting. All checklists for the recent Calao counts can be found on this eBird page.

 

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Greenshank & Black-winged Stilt / Chevalier aboyeur & Echasse blanche

 

 

Cuckoo Finch, New to Senegal

Following the addition of Turati’s Boubou (Ziguinchor, October 2018) and Willcocks’s Honeyguide (Dindefelo, January 2019), another scarce Afro-tropical species was recently added to the avifauna of Senegal: Cuckoo Finch, Anomalospiza imberbis (in French: Anomalospize parasite). Three birds were found on 17 February in moist grassland north of Oussouye in Basse-Casamance, by Bruno Bargain, Gabi Caucal and Adrien de Montaudouin.

While not necessarily straightforward in the field, their identification could be confirmed based on a few pictures that the team were able to obtain: small, compact drab-yellow finch with a short yet deep conical bill, short tail with pointed central rectrices, pale central crown stripe, small beady black eye, long pale claws. The two-toned bill (pale base of lower mandible contrasting with darker upper mandible) is typical of juveniles, while the yellowish underparts and throat suggest that this bird is a young male.

Anomalospize parasite - Kagnout 17 Feb 2019 - GabrielCaucal

Cuckoo Finch / Anomalospize parasite imm. male, Kagnout, Feb. 2019 (G. Caucal)

 

Several birds were seen again a couple of weeks later by Bruno, including two singing males: it’ll be interesting to see whether this little group is resident here and whether more will be found in nearby locations in coming months… there’s definitely a lot of potential, with quite a bit of suitable habitat elsewhere in the area.

As with the boubou, the discovery of this species in SW Senegal was to be expected given that it has been seen several times in recent years just across the border in Gambia, prompting me to include the Cuckoo Finch on our list of the birds of Senegal with a question mark (“presence to be confirmed”) when I initially compiled the list last year. The checklist is accessible through this new page that was recently added to the Resources section of this website. Cuckoo Finch is species number 679 on the national list! (though to be fair, this includes five for which definite proof is lacking, and which remain to be confirmed)

Cuckoo Finch is indeed a widespread yet local and uncommon species throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, and particularly in West Africa its status and patchy distribution remain poorly known. It occurs in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Cote d’Ivoire as well as in southern Mali, and probably also in Guinea and Guinea-Bissau though as far as I know there are no records in these two countries. In Gambia it was first recorded in 1969, on 24 September by O. Andrew. The only further details I found on this record are in Morel & Morel (1990), who state that “about a dozen were seen well in Sept.-Oct. 1969 near Banjul”. It then took more than 40 years for the next record to be obtained, more precisely at Kartong Bird Observatory where three birds were caught and ringed on 24 Feb. 2013; in subsequent years the species was again caught or seen on a few occasions at KBO, at most 14 birds on 27 April 2014, and again several birds in May-October 2017. All were non-breeding or young birds, with no evidence of local breeding (O. Fox, J, Cross).

Given these more or less regular sightings at Kartong, which lies right on the border with Casamance, it would make sense if the species were also present around Abene, Kafountine, Diouloulou or other nearby locations. We’ll try to explore some of these sites in coming months, particularly during the breeding season, i.e. during the rains. The finders are currently writing up a note to formally publish their discovery.

Also known as Parasitic Weaver, the “unusual finch” as per its scientific name is the unique representative of its genus, having previously been linked to weavers and even canaries. It is now included in the viduids as it is most closely related to the whydahs and indigobirds (see e.g. Lahti & Payne 2003). Just like these birds, it is a brood parasite, laying its eggs in nests of cisticolids (cisticolas and prinias), apparently up to c. 30 eggs per season (!), in batches of 1-4 eggs per “set”. Zitting Cisticola and Tawny-flanked Prinia may be the most likely host species in Senegal and Gambia.

There’s of course a lot more to be said about this peculiar songbird, for instance how females adopted a mimetic strategy to fool its hosts: Feeney et al. (2015) demonstrated how “female Cuckoo Finch plumage colour and pattern more closely resembled those of Euplectes weavers (putative models) than Vidua finches (closest relatives); that their Tawny-flanked Prinia hosts were equally aggressive towards female Cuckoo Finches and Southern Red Bishops, and more aggressive to both than to their male counterparts; and that prinias were equally likely to reject an egg after seeing a female cuckoo finch or bishop, and more likely to do so than after seeing a male bishop near their nest.” Fun fact: I happened to meet Claire Spottiswoode, one the co-authors of the paper and specialist of brood parasites, on their southern Zambian study site while they were conducting field work in March 2013… but I failed to find any Cuckoo Finches!

For some more on parasitic birds, here’s a good start.

Plenty of other good birds were seen in Casamance last month, including the first White-tailed Alethe (Alèthe à huppe rousse) in many many years, Lesser Moorhen (Gallinule africaine), Ovambo Sparrowhawk (Epervier de l’Ovampo), Bluethroat (Gorgebleue à miroir), Forbes’s Plover (Pluvier de Forbes), European Golden Plover (Pluvier doré), Yellow-legged & Kelp Gulls (Goélands leucophée et dominicain), and quite a few more scarce species. With a bit of luck, Gabi and Etienne will find some time to write up the highlights of what was once again an epic trip across Senegal.

Meanwhile in Dakar, seabird spring migration is in full swing, with the first Long-tailed Skuas, Sooty Shearwaters, Roseate Terns and so on passing through in recent weeks (Labbe à longue queue, Puffin fuligineux, Sterne de Dougall). More on this in due course.

 

ForbesPlover - Casamance - Bargain - DSC05592 (Copier)

Forbes’s Plover / Pluvier de Forbes, Casamance, Feb. 2019 (B. Bargain)

 

Many thanks to the finders for allowing me to write up this post, and to Olly Fox for providing info on the Kartong records.

 

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…

 

 

 

 

Évolutions taxonomiques de la liste Sénégal

La littérature disponible pour l’identification des oiseaux d’Afrique de l’Ouest a longtemps été très limitée, et ce n’est que depuis 2002 et la parution du guide Birds of Western Africa de Borrow et Demey que ce manque a été en grande partie comblé. Une deuxième édition de ce guide est sortie en 2014, ainsi que des traductions en français de ces ouvrages (Guide des oiseaux de l’Afrique de l’ouest en 2012 suivi de Oiseaux de l’Afrique de l’Ouest en 2015). Deux déclinaisons nationales de ce guide ont été publiées, à savoir Birds of Ghana (2010) et Birds of Senegal and the Gambia (2012) qui est le guide le mieux adapté pour l’ornithologue visitant le Sénégal, bien que limité à une version anglaise.

La taxonomie utilisée dans ce guide a évolué suite à la publication de nombreux travaux scientifiques, et il n’est pas rare que lorsqu’on parcourt un compte-rendu de voyage récent ou qu’on veuille saisir des données sur une base de données participative comme observado, ebird ou autre on tombe sur des espèces aux noms inconnus ou différents de ceux qu’on a l’habitude d’utiliser. La taxonomie, qui est la science s’attachant à nommer les organismes vivants, est comme son sujet d’étude : vivante. Elle évolue au gré des avancées scientifiques et technologiques, et permet de cerner les liens et différences entre espèces. Les noms donnés aux espèces peuvent donc évoluer, au grand dam de nombre de naturalistes. Cet aspect est à considérer, notamment quand on consulte la littérature ancienne. Un exemple de changement de nom d’espèce générant des erreurs d’appellation dans les carnets de terrain et sur les bases de données en ligne est celui du Pic goertan. Dans le livre de Morel et Morel Les oiseaux de Sénégambie (1990), ainsi que dans le vieux Serle & Morel (1993) – pendant longtemps l’unique guide de terrain pour l’Afrique de l’Ouest – le Pic goertan est nommé Pic gris, qui réfère aujourd’hui à une espèce différente, bien plus rare et présente au Sénégal uniquement dans le nord du pays, anciennement nommée Petit Pic gris.

Les concepts de délimitation d’espèces se font et se défont au cours du temps, et à l’heure actuelle les recherches ne permettent pas encore de lever le voile sur les liens taxonomiques au sein de certains groupes, comme c’est le cas chez la Pie-grièche « grise » que l’on observe au Sénégal, tantôt rattachée à la Pie-grièche méridionale et tantôt rattachée à la Pie-grièche grise. Parfois appellée “Pie-grieche grise du désert”, ce groupe comprendrait alors au moins trois taxons présents dans le pays: elegansleucopygos et algeriensis.

Dans cet article nous listons tous les changements de noms effectifs depuis la parution de la deuxième version du guide Birds of Western Africa, et l’article sera mis à jour à chaque évolution taxonomique. La liste d’espèces proposée par l’International Ornithological Committee (IOC) sera prise comme référence principale ; c’est aussi celle que nous avons suivi pour établir la liste des oiseaux du Sénégal. Nous ne tenons pas compte dans cet article des évolutions taxonomiques n’amenant pas à un changement du nom d’espèce, tels que le changement d’orthographe des noms scientifiques ou les changements dans les rangs taxonomiques supérieurs au rang d’espèce (changement de famille).

Il faut savoir que la plupart des noms nouveaux ne sont pas issus de la découverte de nouvelles espèces, mais de la réévaluation du statut taxonomique d’espèces ou de groupes d’espèces grâce à l’utilisation d’outils et de techniques d’analyse génétique récentes. Le résultat de ces études est le plus souvent un split, qui est la reconnaissance de différentes espèces à partir de taxons avant considérées comme appartenant à une seule espèce. Sur la base de différences génétiques, morphologiques, accoustiques et/ou d’aire de répartition on aboutit alors à la description de nouvelles espèces. D’autres ajouts taxonomiques proviennent de l’étude d’espèces cryptiques, comme chez les drongos dernièrement. Des analyses génétiques ont permis de reconnaître un ensemble d’espèces différentes chez des espèces à large répartition montrant des variations morphologiques mineures d’une région à l’autre.

Si tout le monde s’accorde pour dire que le nombre actuel d’espèces reconnues en tant que telles est sous-estimé, certains chercheurs pensent même qu’il y aurait en réalité plus de 18’000 espèces distinctes, soit près du double du nombre actuellement établi. Des travaux récents (Fuchs et al. 2018) ont par exemple révélé que le Drongo brillant, espèce couramment observée dans les savanes ouvertes africaines, comprend un minimum de cinq espèces, et que le Drongo de Ludwig présent dans nos contrées est en fait une espèce bien distincte auparavant passée inaperçue.

forktaileddrongo_kamobeul_20190119_img_2183

Glossy-backed Drongo / Drongo “brillant” (Dicrurus divaricatus), Ziguinchor, Jan. 2019 (B. Piot)

Les résultats de tels travaux scientifiques ne sont pas toujours reconnus par toutes les instances nationales et internationales en charge de la taxonomie et de la nomenclature, et certaines instances reconnaissent un plus grand nombre d’espèces que d’autres. Afin de se maintenir au courant des avancées récentes en termes de taxonomie, il est possible de consulter le site web de l’IOC qui résume biannuellement les résultats des travaux scientifiques dédiés.

Voici donc la liste des principaux changements taxonomiques à prendre en compte depuis la publication du Birds of Senegal and the Gambia (2012) :

Puffin de Macaronésie (Puffinus baroli) ⇒ splitté en deux espèces présentes au Sénégal : Puffin de Macaronésie – Barolo Shearwater (Puffinus baroli) et Puffin de Boyd – Boyd’s Shearwater (Puffinus boydi). Il n’y a pas si longtemps que cela, ces taxons étaient considérés comme faisant partie du “Petit Puffin” (P. assimilis).

Puffin cendré (Calonectris diomedea) ⇒ splitté en deux espèces présentes dans les eaux côtières du Sénégal : Puffin de Scopoli – Scopoli’s Shearwater (Calonectris diomedea) et Puffin cendré – Scopoli’s Shearwater (Calonectris borealis). Auparavant, même le Puffin du Cap-Vert faisait partie de C. diomedea. Nous avions résumé les principaux critères d’identification de ces trois puffins dans cet article.

Scopoli's Shearwater / Puffin de Scopoli

Scopoli’s Shearwater / Puffin de Scopoli, Ngor, Nov. 2017 (B. Piot)

 

Grand Cormoran (Phalacrocorax carbo ssp lucidus) ⇒ Cormoran à poitrine blanche – White-breasted Cormorant (Phalacrocorax lucidus) ; à noter que le Grand Cormoran (Phalacrocorax carbo) est également présent sur la liste Sénégal. Le rattachement de la sous-espèce maroccanus du nord-ouest de l’Afrique à l’une ou l’autre de ces deux espèces reste sujet à discussion.

Milan parasite (Milvus migrans ssp parasitus) ⇒ Milan d’Afrique – Yellow-billed Kite (Milvus aegyptius parasitus), appelé “Milan noir d’Egypte” sur observado.org ; le Milan noir (M. migrans) est présent en tant qu’hivernant. Ce split n’a pas été retenu par le HBW, contrairement à la plupart des autres références.

Autour tachiro (Accipiter tachiro) ⇒ Autour de Toussenel – Red-chested Goshawk (Accipiter toussenelii) ; en Afrique de l’Ouest c’est la ssp. macroscelides qui est présente.

Autour de Toussenel - Dindefelo Feb 2018 - Alain Barbalat - small.jpg

Red-chested Goshawk / Autour de Toussenel, Dindefelo Feb. 2018 (A. Barbalat)

 

Talève sultane (Porphyrio porphyrio) ⇒ Talève d’Afrique – African Swamphen (Porphyrio madagascariensis)

AfricanSwamphen_Technopole_20180822_IMG_3099

African Swamphen / Talève d’Afrique, Technopole, Feb. 2018 (B. Piot)

 

Calao à bec rouge (Tockus erythrorhynchus) ⇒ Calao occidental (ou Calao de Kemp) – Western Red-billed Hornbill (Tockus kempi)

20160319_WesternRedbilledHornbill_Guereo_IMG_2554_small

Western Red-billed Hornbill / Calao occidental, Guereo, March 2016 (B. Piot)

 

Hirondelle rousseline: la sous-espece domicella élevée au rang d’espèce devient l’Hirondelle ouest-africaine – West African Swallow (Cecropis domicella), résidente dans le sud et l’ouest du pays. L’Hirondelle rousseline (C. daurica) est donc également visible au Sénégal en tant qu’hivernant et migrateur venu des régions méditerranéennes.

Traquet de Seebohm – Seebohm’s Wheatear/Black-throated Wheatear (Oenanthe seebohmi) : Traité comme espèce par HBW et d’autres auteurs mais pas (encore) par IOC, pour qui c’est encore une sous-espèce du Traquet motteux ; voir notre récent article traitant de l’identification puis du statut de ce taxon.

Traquet à ventre roux (Thamnolaea cinnamomeiventris) ⇒ Traquet couronné – White-crowned Cliff Chat (Thamnolaea coronata) ; ce traquet inféodé aux milieux rupestres du sud-est du Sénégal hérite d’un nom on ne peut moins adapté à son plumage, sa tête étant uniformément noire.

Hypolaïs obscure – Western Olivaceous [= Isabeline] Warbler (Iduna opaca) élevée au rang d’espèce et séparée de l’Hypolaïs pâle – Eastern Olivaceous Warbler (Iduna pallida) ; si la première est très commune au Sénégal, la ssp. reiseri de l’Hypolaïs pâle est un visiteur bien plus rare et encore assez méconnu.

Eastern Olivaceous Warbler / Hypolaïs pâle, Guereo, mars 2016 (B. Piot)

Fauvettes « passerinettes » splittées en 3 espèces, dont 2 sont sur la liste du Sénégal : Fauvette passerinette – Western Subalpine Warbler (Sylvia inornata) et Fauvette de Moltoni – Moltoni’s Warbler (Sylvia subalpina). Nous avions résumé les connaissances sur l’aire d’hivernage de cette dernière dans un article paru dans la revue Malimbus en 2017.

Cisticole roussâtre (Cisticola galactotes) ⇒ Cisticole du Nil – Winding Cisticola (Cisticola marginatus)

Camaroptère à tête grise (Camaroptera brachyura) ⇒ Camaroptère à dos gris – Grey-backed Camaroptera (Camaroptera brevicaudata)

Gobemouche méditerranéen – Mediterranean Flycatcher (Muscicapa tyrrhenica) splitté du Gobemouche gris (M. striata) et également présent au Sénégal. Les deux taxons sont très délicats à identifier sur le terrain, et ce split n’a pas été adopté par toutes les instances.

Gobemouche de l’Atlas – Atlas Pied Flycatcher (Ficedula speculigera) élevé au rang d’espèce; le Gobemouche noir est bien sur également présent en hiver.

Pie-grieche méridionale ssp elegans et leucopygos – Southern Grey Shrike (Lanius meridionalis) ⇒ Pie-grièche grise – Great Grey Shrike (Lanius excubitor), attention taxonomie très fluctuante et potentiellement amenée à évoluer : il paraît assez logique que les Pie-grièches “grises” d’Afrique du nord et du Sahel soient élevées au rang d’espèce, la Pie-grièche du désert.

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“Great” Grey Shrike / Pie-grieche “grise” ssp. elegans, Gandiolais, Dec. 2017 (B. Piot)

 

Pie-grièche isabelle (Lanius isabellinus) ⇒ splittée en 2 espèces, Pie-grièche du Turkestan – Red-tailed Shrike (Lanius phoenicuroides) et Pie-grièche isabelle – Isabelline Shrike (Lanius isabellinus), celle présente au Sénégal étant vraisemblablement la première.

Drongo brillant (Dicrurus adsimilis) ⇒ Dicrurus divaricatus (Glossy-backed Drongo, nom français pas encore connu; on pourrait logiquement retenir le nom d’origine donc Drongo brillant).

Drongo de Ludwig (Dicrurus ludwigii) ⇒ Drongo occidental – Western Square-tailed Drongo (Dicrurus occidentalis) – voir notre billet au sujet de ce taxon.

Bruant cannelle (Emberiza tahapisi) ⇒ Bruant d’Alexander – Gosling’s Bunting, parfois aussi appellé Grey-throated Bunting (Emberiza goslingi).

Gosling's Bunting / Bruant d'Alexander

Gosling’s Bunting / Bruant d’Alexander, Gamadji Sare, Jan. 2018 (B. Piot)

 

Plusieurs splits sont attendus dans le futur, notamment la séparation des populations africaines et américaines de la Sterne royale, le changement de statut de la sous-espèce africaine de l’Agrobate roux (Agrobate mineur, qui deviendrait alors Cercotrichas minor), la séparation entre le Tisserin à cou noir et le Tisserin pirate (Ploceus brachypterus), l’Amarante masqué splitté en trois taxons distincts (dans la sous-région, elle devient alors l’Amarante vineux, Lagnosticta vinacea). Et bien d’autres encore !

Sterne royale / Royal Tern ssp. albidorsalis, île aux oiseaux, delta du Saloum, mai 2012 (S. Cavaillès)

 

Affaire à suivre!

 

Simon & Bram

 

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!).

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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.

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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

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