Year in review: 2019
As is now a bit of a tradition on these pages, I’m again compiling a review of last year’s main birding events. Senegal’s bird year 2019 was a pretty good one, with the usual decent mix of new discoveries, rare vagrants, scarce migrants, range extensions and new breeding records.
First things first: last year saw the addition of two new species to the country’s avifauna, so rather similar to previous years – on average, there have been two additions per year during 2014-2018. First a Willcock’s Honeyguide in Dindefelo nature reserve found by Nik Borrow and his group in January, then the discovery of a small group of Cuckoo Finches at Kagnout in Casamance, in February by Bruno Bargain, Gabriel Caucal and Adrien de Montaudouin. As predicted back in 2018, both Dindefelo and Casamance are obviously key areas for finding new birds in the country. Both species are known to occur in neighbouring countries so these additions are not too much of a surprise, and will likely show up again in Senegal in coming years. These “firsts” bring the total number of species confirmed to occur in Senegal to 674, with seven additional species listed as requiring confirmation. The full checklist as per IOC taxonomy (v.8.1) may be found here.
Next up, the usual lot of vagrants: from North America, the now annual American Golden Plovers (Palmarin in April, and Yene in December), the country’s fourth Pectoral Sandpiper at Lac Mbeubeusse on 5.10, and a Lesser Yellowlegs wintering at Technopole – apparently the longest stay recorded in Africa (at least 71 days!), and most likely the same bird seen several years in a row now. Two Laughing Gulls that were present at Technopole in April-May – an adult in breeding plumage and a first-summer bird – were the 6th and 7th records; the immature was also seen at Ngor on 22.5. Also at Technopole were at least two different Franklin’s Gulls, one in January and two in April-May including an adult displaying to other gulls. A Lesser Jacana was found by Vieux Ngom on 16.3 on the Lampsar, while a Spotted Creeper on 17.12 at Kamobeul (Ziguinchor) was another rarely recorded Afro-tropical vagrant. And finally from Europe, a Little Gull – possibly not a true vagrant but rather a very scarce winter visitor – was seen on 8.3 at Ngor, and a European Golden Plover was at Saloulou island (Casamance) on 25.2.
Scarce migrants included a few species of ducks that are rarely reported from Senegal, starting with these three Gadwalls found by Simon Cavaillès at Technopole in January, which were probably the same birds as those seen in December 2018 in The Gambia. A Eurasian Wigeon was present at the same time; while the latter is regular in the Djoudj, both ducks were apparently seen for the first time in the Dakar region.
Almost a year later this pair of Ferruginous Ducks on a small dam at Pointe Sarène near Mbour on 24.12 were a real surprise in this location. Apparently they didn’t stick around: earlier today (19.1.20) I had the chance to visit the dam again but no sign of our two Palearctic ducks…
An African Crake found by Miguel Lecoq in a dry river bed at Popenguine NR on 12.7 was highly unusual. The two Short-eared Owls at Technopole in January (with one still here on 11.2) were possibly returning birds from the 2017-18 influx as they roosted in exactly the same location; another bird was found in the Djoudj on 26.12 by Vieux and Frank Rheindt. Perhaps more unexpected was a Marsh Owl that was actively migrating at Ngor on 8.10, coming from the north out at sea, but even more spectacular was the discovery of an Egyptian Nightjar by Frédéric Bacuez on his local patch at Trois-Marigots, on 23.10 (an early date and first in this location); in the Djoudj NP, a somewhat classic location for the species, three birds were seen several times from 23.11 up to mid December at least.
A few Red-footed Boobies were again seen at Ngor: an adult on 3.7 and likely the same bird again on 22.7, then daily from 9-12.8 (with two here on 17.8), and again an imm. seen twice in November. These are the 5th to 7th records, a remarkable presence given that the first record was in October 2016 only! As usual, several Brown Boobies were seen as well but we didn’t get the chance to properly check on the birds at Iles de la Madeleine this past year. Other scarce seabirds seen from Ngor were a Balearic Shearwater (18.11), a Bulwer’s Petrel (5.12), several Leach’s Storm-Petrels (11 & 13.11), and some 30 Barolo’s/Boyd’s Shearwaters that passed through in August and September. A Baltic Gull (fuscus Lesser Black-backed Gull) at Technopole 27.1 was our first record here.
Quite a few birds were reported for the first time from Casamance by Bruno and friends, and several resident forest species that had not been seen in many years were “rediscovered” this past year, such as Black-shouldered Nightjar, Black Sparrowhawk, White-throated and Slender-billed Greenbuls, Flappet Lark, Red-faced and Dorst’s Cisticolas – the online Casamance atlast can be found here. Several Senegal Lapwings were again seen towards the end of the rains, and a Forbes’s Plover at Kagnout on 17.2 was definitely a good record as the species had previously been reported only on a few occasions from the Niokolo-Koba NP.
A Brown-throated (= Plain) Martin feeding over the lagoon at Technopole on 28.4 was a first for Dakar; this species is rarely seen in Senegal it seems. A few Moltoni’s Warblers were reported in autumn including at least one on 20.10 at Mboro, where Miguel also noted several northward range extensions such as Fine-spotted Woodpecker, Grey Kestrel, Splendid Sunbird, and Orange-cheeked Waxbill. The observation of two Mottled Spinetails some 15km south of Potou (Louga region) is the northernmost so far and seems to confirm the presence in this part of the country, following one in the same region in January 2018. A pair of Little Grey Woodpeckers at Lompoul and the discovery of Cricket Warbler in the Gossas area (Diourbel) are also noteworthy as they are just outside known distribution ranges for these two Sahelian species. More significant is the observation of a Long-billed Pipit on the Dande plateau near Dindefelo on 9.2, as this is the first record away from the Djoudj area, raising the possibility that the species is breeding in the vicinity.
Additional good records for the Dakar region included a White-throated Bee-eater on 12.8, a Red-breasted Swallow near Diamniadio on 11.10 and Grasshopper Warblers at Yene lagoon on 8 & 15.12, as well as at Lac Tanma (Thiès region) on 27.10 – and more surprisingly, one was found aboard a sail boat some “400 Miles South West Of Dakar” on 13.9. Last year we documented oversummering of Yellow-legged and Mediterranean Gulls on the peninsula.
We also continued our modest efforts to survey breeding Black-winged Stilts at several sites in Dakar, Ziguinchor and Saint-Louis; the findings of these should be formally published later this year. The Horus Swift colony was visited on several occasions (Jan.-March and Nov.-Dec.) with further evidence of breeding. A pair of Tawny Eagles at their nest site on a high tension pylon near Ndioum, where they are known since at least 2015, were seen again in December by Frédéric and Jérémy. Yellow-throated Longclaw was found to be breeding at lac Mbeubeusse and probably at lac Rose as well: more on the species in this post.
In July we found several additional pairs of Turati’s Boubou right on the border with Guinea-Bissau, a bit further to the south of the site where Bruno initially found the species, in October 2018 near Ziguinchor. Also in Casamance, breeding was confirmed for Common Buttonquail, Golden-tailed Woodpecker, and a whole range of other species.
Another noteworthy record is that of a group of 113 Eurasian Griffons in the Djoudj NP on 2.11 – apparently the largest flock ever recorded in Senegal! This surely reflects the general increase in numbers of what used to be a rather scarce species it seems – read up more on the status of this vulture in Senegal in this post on Ornithondar.
As usual, a few interesting ring recoveries were obtained, including several returning birds, providing further evidence for site fidelity and local movements between key sites for e.g. Black-tailed Godwits and Ospreys of course, but also for a Eurasian Spoonbill from Spain – more on this in a future post. A Gull-billed Tern from the Neufelderkoog colony in northern Germany was also a good recovery, just like the many Sandwich Terns that we managed to read at Technopole in April-May with birds originating from Ireland, the UK, the Netherlands and Italy! Also of note were a French Black-headed Gull, the first colour-ringed Greenshank and wing-tagged Marsh Harrier in our ever-growing database, and last but not least the first recovery of a Croatian-ringed bird in Senegal, an Audouin’s Gull seen at three sites in Dakar in January and February.
During 2019 I was fortunate to continue our regular coverage of Technopole but also for the third consecutive year of seabird migration at Ngor, and managed a few trips further afield: the northern Saloum delta (Simal, Palmarin), three trips to Casamance (January, May, July), the Petite Côte (at long last explored the lagoons at Mbodiene!), the Langue de Barbarie and Trois-Marigots in April, the Djoudj and other parts of the lower Senegal valley (November), and finally Toubacouta in December. Oh and a memorable day trip on a successful quest for the enigmatic Quail-Plover!
Other blog posts this past year covered the status and distribution (and a bit of identification!) of Seebohm’s Wheatear, Iberian Chiffchaff, and Western Square-tailed Drongo.
Another series focused on recent ornithological publications relevant for Senegal, in three parts. I’m not sure how I managed but in the end I was involved in quite a few articles published in 2019: the autumn migration of seabirds at Ngor and the status of Iberian Chiffchaff in West Africa (the latter with Paul Isenmann and Stuart Sharp) in Alauda, the first records of Eurasian Collared Dove and of Turati’s Boubou in Senegal (the latter with Bruno Bargain) published in Malimbus, and finally two papers in the Bulletin of the African Bird Club: a short piece on the hybrid shrike from lac Tanma in 2017 (with Gabriel Caucanas), and a review of the status of the Short-eared Owl in West Africa, following the influx during winter 2017/18.
Many thanks to all visiting and (semi-)resident birders who shared their observations through eBird or other channels, particularly Miguel, Frédéric and Bruno. The above review is of course incomplete and probably a bit biased towards the Dakar region: any additions are more than welcome and will be incorporated!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
This bird is from the following day, probably the 2nd summer seen several times between 13 April and 2 May:
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…
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:
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.
This Common Ringed Plover was around for some time in April / early May, ringed in Norway (details yet to be submitted).
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.