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Birding the forests of Basse-Casamance: of Cuckoos, Boubous, Bulbuls, Illadopsises & co.

Once again I recently had the chance to spend a few days in Casamance. In Bruno’s expert company, we targeted a number of little-explored forests in the south-west of the region, hoping to find some of the region’s special forest dwellers. Many of these are active and very vocal at this time of the year, and intra-African migrants such as cuckoos are now moving north with the rains. With the national park still being off-limits, we concentrated on some of the smaller forest in the Ziguinchor and Oussouye areas. We weren’t disappointed: in just three days in the field, we recorded no less than 186 species, not bad considering that we spent most of our time in various forests where diversity is not generally very high and birds can be difficult to detect. Our surveys also allowed to fill in a few more gaps in the distribution maps of the Casamance bird atlas, and we collected some interesting breeding records for a number of species.

In order of appearance:

Shortly after my arrival, a late afternoon stroll around the village of Kantène, just outside Ziguinchor, turned up the usual suspects as well as a couple of Pale Flycatchers and the first of many cuckoos of the trip: singing African and Diederik Cuckoos, both recently arrived in anticipation of the raining season, during which they breed in Senegal. Just warming up, getting ready for the next few days!

 

July 4: the forests around Oussouye

The next morning we got up ridiculously early so as to be in the Boukitingo forest shortly after dawn, the start of a full day out birding pretty much non stop around Oussouye. A pre-dawn pitstop at the Etome bridge brought a surprise under the form of a singing White-backed Night Heron, a poorly known species here that Bruno had already seen on a couple of occasions around Ziguinchor, even managing to find a nest at a disused gravel pit. The forest itself held cool birds such as Ahanta Francolin, White-spotted Flufftail, Black-throated Coucal, Puvell’s and Brown Illadopsis, White-tailed Alethe, Green Hylia, Green Crombec, Olive Sunbird – all species that in Senegal are largely restricted to the westernmost forests of Casamance. The flufftails, coucals and illadopsises were particularly vocal, as were African, Klaas’s and Diederik Cuckoos. We got decent views of the two illadopsis species, both usually difficult to see, and even the Alethe made a brief appearance! Perhaps best of all in terms of new records was at least one White-throated Greenbul, one of these very little-known species in Senegal that apparently hasn’t been reported for many years. Difficult to spot in the dark understorey of the forest, we only good poor views but luckily the bird was quite vocal, allowing us to confirm its identity later on (listen here). A pair of Red-breasted Swallows was a bonus as we emerged from our 3-hour tour of this part of the forest – eBird checklist here..

Moving on, a few stops en route to Elinkine produced several additional species including Piping Hornbill, Whistling Cisticola, Northern Black Flycatcher, two Lanner Falcons, Plain-backed Pipit (a small group with several juvs.). Mid-afternoon we visited the wetland near Kagnout where Cuckoo Finch was found last winter, and added more good stuff to the list: African Hobby, Greater Painted Snipe, Collared Pratincole, our first returning Wood Sandpipers of the season as well as five Black-tailed Godwits, Yellow-throated Longclaw, Quailfinch, and an adult Lesser Moorhen soon followed by two Red-headed Queleas – for both species, my first records in Senegal and just two of several additions to my country list. The queleas were in a large flock of Yellow-crowned Bishops, while two Yellow-mantled Widowbirds were seen on the edge of the marsh. Alas no Cuckoo Finches, maybe next time!

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Red-headed Quelea / Travailleur à tête rouge

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Yellow-crowned Bishop / Euplecte vorabé

 

Next stop was a protected forest patch roughly half-way between Mlomp and Oussouye and located just witin one of the lesser explored atlas squares. Here we again had White-spotted Flufftail and Black-throated Coucal singing and more of the same as around Boukitingo, plus a pair of Western Square-tailed Drongos, Blue Malkoha, African Emerald Cuckoo, and Red-tailed Leaflove. This site clearly has a lot of potential and will hopefully be further explored in coming months.

 

July 5: Kamobeul/Essil forest, Boutoute wetland

There wasn’t a great deal of activity in the forest, but we did see or hear some good species such as Ahanta Francolin, African Emerald Cuckoo, Piping and African Pied Hornbills, Buff-spotted Woodpecker, Western Nicator, Grey-headed Bristlebill, Yellow-throated Leaflove, Puvel’s Illadopsis, and the unique Capuchin Babbler (nest-building; the westernmost race is now often considered a separate species, aka Grey-hooded Capuchin Babbler, Phyllanthus atripennis). Full list here.

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The nest was located right at the base of the lowest branches, center of image

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Grey-hooded Capuchin Babbler / Phyllanthe capucin

 

The grasslands held several pairs of African Wattled Lapwings including at least one with a young chick. Also here were a flock of Pin-tailed Whydahs, Yellow-billed Oxpecker, two Violet-backed Starlings, and this beautiful snake, Philothamnus irregularis, aka the Common Bush Snake or Irregular Green Snake.

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Philothamnus irregularis

 

A short visit late afternoon to the wetlands near Boutoute just outside Ziguinchor – a local hotspots that would merit proper protection – was quite rewarding, and the 76 species that we recorded in less than an hour nicely illustrate the sheer diversity of its birdlife. Two of these were very much unexpected here: first a small group of obliging Bar-breasted Firefinches feeding near the cultivated plots at the entrance of the area, and towards the end of our small tour a Great Spotted Cuckoo. A singing African Emerald Cuckoo was also a nice addition to the site list.

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Boutoute marsh / marais de Boutoute

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Bar-breasted Firefinch / Amarante pointé

 

Waterbirds were plenty, likely because there aren’t many places with fresh water left at this time of the year, and included several Allen’s Gallinules, Moorhens, African Swamphens, Greater Painted-Snipes, Spur-winged Geese and a Green Sandpiper to name but a few. A few West African Swallows (sometimes considered a race –  domicella – of Red-rumped Swallow) were feeding together with Wire-tailed and Red-chested Swallow, as were some 15 Fanti Sawwings. Short-winged Cisticola and Oriole Warbler were also noteworthy.

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Allen’s Gallinule / Talève d’Allen imm.

 

July 6: Mpak bush, farmland and remnant forest

A cool Long-crested Eagle was one of the first birds that we saw after reaching this largely unexplored site – just a stone-throw away from the border with Guinea-Bissau – shortly after dawn. We soon encountered some similar forest dwellers to those seen in other locations the previous couple of days: Western Nicator, Grey-headed Bristlebill, Yellow-throated Leaflove, Puvel’s Illadopsis, Yellow-breasted Apalis etc. A Western Bluebill was heard only, singing just one of its characteristic strophes in thickets but remaining invisible. In the same area we enjoyed watching a pair of Blue Malkohas, for once rather well showing themselves and possibly nesting in a vine-covered tree, while Diederik, Klaas’s, African and Red-chested Cuckoos were all singing around us.

Making our way through a small patch of secondary forest, we heard a now familiar sound: Turati’s Boubou! This was actually one of our targets, keen to find out whether it occurs away from Djibelor. Check. We even ended up with some decent views but boy are these birds secretive and difficult to spot, in stark contrast with their vocal activity. In typical Laniarius fashion, pairs were actively dueting, sometimes even three birds together. On the sonogram, one can clearly see the double low plaintive whistle given by the male, and the female “responding” with a harsh slow chatter. Listen here and here to get an idea. With at least 3 or 4 pairs/territories in the area, we more than doubled the known population of the species in Senegal. It’s highly likely that more searches between Ziguinchor and the border will reveal more territories.

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The overgrown farmland held a good variety of birds, including Red-winged Warbler, Whistling & Singing Cisticola, and a rather unexpected Moustached Grass Warbler that revealed itself only later, thanks to Miguel who correctly identified what we assumed was Whistling Cisticola singing, on this recording. African Firefinch was seen in two locations; this is one of those birds that up to recently was still considered as unconfirmed in Senegal, but which in fact appears to be rather widespread (though nowhere common) in Casamance and possibly the Kedougou regions. New birds kept popping up left and right, and we ended up with a very respectable 80 species in this area.

Our excitement was only tempered by the sad state of the forest here, much degraded and still actively being logged and cleared for agriculture. At one point as we were heading towards a remnant patch of large trees, a couple of villagers (hunters? contraband loggers? rebels…?) made us turn back, maybe not wanting any intruders to see the forest being cleared right there on the spot. Probably best not to argue when one of them is carrying a gun… On the flip side, it’s probably as a result of the ongoing logging that suitable habitat is created for Turati’s Boubou, allowing it to gradually spread north from Guinea-Bissau whereas up to 10-20 years ago most areas between Ziguinchor and the border were proper forest.

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Turati’s Boubou habitat, Mpak

 

These depressing Google Earth images illustrate how much has changed in recent years in this very area: note how in March 2008 there’s still a continuous dark belt of what seems like largely healthy forest running diagonally from SW to NE, while in April 2019 there are only a few patches are left in the SW corner of the area. Unfortunately this is the sad state of many of Senegal’s forests, protected or not, and more widely throughout the region. We roughly covered from the top right corner (close to a small village) to the central part of this area, which is where the boubous were found.

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At this point, the rains arrived, concluding our highly satisfying and pretty successful exploration. Hopefully there’ll be more opportunities in the near future to investigate other forests and further our knowledge of Casamance’s birdlife.

 

 

Technopole – more gulls, breeding waders & more

It’s been a while since Technopole last featured here, mostly for a lack of birds… With water levels now extremely low – the main pond only has a few shallow patches of water left – and as a result bird numbers are very low. Just a few hundred Black-winged Stilts, and Spur-winged Lapwings, 100-200 Slender-billed Gulls, the odd Audouin’s and a few oversummering Black-headed Gulls, a few lone waders here and there, 6-8 Greater Flamingos and that’s about it. Luckily there’s always something to see at Technopole, and even if overall numbers of migrants are low at the moment, there’s always some of the local species for which it’s now breeding season!

But more about the gulls first.

One of the previous winter’s Mediterranean Gulls remained up to 10 June at least but only allowed for a few poor records shots, rather unusually a 2nd summer (rather than 1st summer) bird. Apparently the first June record for Senegal, of what in the past 10-20 years has become a regular winter visitor in small numbers to the Dakar region. The last Yellow-legged Gull (Goéland leucophée) was seen on 2 May, also a rather late date.

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Mediterranean Gull / Mouette mélanocéphale

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Mediterranean Gull / Mouette mélanocéphale

 

Actually I just realised that I hadn’t shared some of the better pictures of the star bird of the spring here: the 2nd c.y. Laughing Gull, which ended up staying from 25 April until 22 May at least. With the exception of the adult bird this spring (which was seen only twice by two lucky Iberian observers 🙂 on 21-23 April), all previous records were one-day-wonders.

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Laughing Gull / Mouette atricille 2 c.y. (BP)

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Laughing Gull / Mouette atricille 2 c.y. (BP)

 

And while we’re at it, here’s the stunning adult Franklin’s Gull in breeding plumage, which unfortunately didn’t linger and was seen just once, on 30 April, at fairly long range hence the hazy pictures:

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Franklin’s Gull / Mouette de Franklin ad. (BP)

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Franklin’s Gull / Mouette de Franklin ad. (BP)

 

This bird is from the following day, probably the 2nd summer seen several times between 13 April and 2 May:

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Franklin’s Gull / Mouette de Franklin, 3 c.y.? (BP)

 

Several Black-winged Stilts are still on the nest, but breeding success appears to be low (because water levels are too low, making the nests more vulnerable?). Only a handful of little stiltlets are seen on each visit, and hardly any older juvs. are around. Wondering whether those at Lac Rose may be more successful this year…

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Black-winged Stilt / Echasse blanche

 

A welcome surprise though was a tiny Kittlitz’s Plover chick (Gravelot pâtre), barely a few days old, seen on 10 June. Previous breeding records here were in June 2016 (probable) and July 2012.

Greater Painted-Snipe (Rhynchée peinte) may also be breeding as a pair was seen on 23 June and a male two weeks earlier in the same area (past golf club house on edge of lake near the small baobab!).

And this year there are quite a few Little Bitterns around, quite obviously more than in previous years, with sightings including several singing birds and pairs in at least five locations. I guess the number of territories all over the Grande Niaye de Pikine could easily exceed 10-12 pairs/singing males. Here’s a rather poor picture of a pair seen on our most recent visit, just before it flew off:

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Little Bittern / Blongios nain

 

Little Grebe (Grèbe castagneux) was once again confirmed to be breeding, though later than in previous years: an adult with a still downy juv. (aged 1-2 weeks?) was on the small pond past the golf course on 10 June, in the same site as in previous years. Previous  records in central and northern Senegal were during Dec. – April (read up more about the breeding status of Little Grebe in Senegal & Gambia in this paper that we published in Malimbus last year)

Another nice surprise last Sunday (23/6) was the first Diederik Cuckoo (Coucou didric) of the season in these parts of the country: a singing bird flew high over the pond coming from the Pikine side, then was heard again later on in the tree belt near the football field. Almost as good as hearing the first Common Cuckoo in early April, back “home” in Geneva!

We’re almost there! In the end, there’s been quite a lot to catch up on since early May…

This colour-ringed Gull-billed Tern which I think I’ve mentioned before is indeed from the small colony of Neufelderkoog in northern Germany – the only site where the species breeds north of the Mediterranean region – and as it turns out it’s only the second-ever resighting of one of their birds in Africa. The first was that of a first-winter bird seen in February 2017 in Conakry, Guinea. Our bird ended up staying at least 16 days, from 13 – 28 April. It was ringed on 18 July 2017 by Markus Risch (“WRYY”: white-red/yellow-yellow) and was a late or replacement brood, and the bird was among the latest fledglings of all.

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Gull-billed Tern / Sterne hansel

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Same bird, almost 2 years earlier! (M. Risch)

 

This Common Ringed Plover was around for some time in April / early May, ringed in Norway (details yet to be submitted).

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Common Ringed Plover / Grand Gravelot

 

Also on the ringing front, we’re still waiting to hear back for some of the 40-50 Sandwich Tern ring readings Miguel and I managed to make this spring. One of the most recent birds, seen on May 1st, was ringed in June 2017 at Hodbarrow RSPB reserve in Cumbria (UK), and was already spotted on 25/11/17 at Kartong in Gambia (4,720 km, 148 days). While 2nd c.y. birds all stay in Africa during their first summer, third calendar-years such as this one may already migrate back to Europe. 

Rounding off the overview with the most recent addition to the Technopole list: African Wattled Lapwing (Vanneau du Sénégal), which surprisingly had not been seen so far, at least not as far as I know – seems like the species actively avoids dense urban areas, since they are regular just outside Dakar but obviously a bit of a vagrant here in town. One was seen flying past, calling a few times, on 10 June.

Species number 239!

Let’s see if we can manage to find 240 in the next few weeks.