A key aspect of birding is to know where and when to go look for birds.
This is pretty easy in many countries that have abundant resources under the form of “WTWB” (Where to watch birds) guides, bird clubs, web portals with latest sightings, and other online resources with highly detailed information on what birds to look for in a given location and season – sometimes down to the precise coordinates of each bird hide or view point in a given area
Not so in countries like Senegal.
Sure, the country is visited by quite a few birders, mainly Europeans, but they typically visit a fairly small number of sites that are known to harbour particular target species and are sure to boost one’s bird list. Senegal’s standard birding circuit covers places such as the Langue de Barbarie and Djoudj national parks, the Ndiael and Trois-Marigots reserves, a small patch of scrub near Richard-Toll’s airport, two or three of the Dakar hotspots, maybe one or two places along the Petite Côte (Somone, Popenguine), the Saloum delta of course (Palmarin, Kousmar, Toubacouta). For the highly motivated orni-tourists there’s the more remote Niokola-Koba national park and, in recent years, the Dindefelo area. A few adventurous spirits may venture into Basse-Casamance or spend some time in the Khelcom area, but that’s about it. Add to this that most birders will visit between November and March only, even though the other half of the year is certainly no less rewarding – frequent readers of this blog will know that there are many exciting birds to be found during spring wader migration, during the period before and during the rains when afro-tropical migrants arrive out of nowhere, and early on in autumn when many songbirds (and seabirds) pass through.
Away from these hotspots, there’s so much else to explore and to discover though… yet so little time! And to be fair, going out birding in a place that you know will have interesting birds to be seen is of course the easy option and offers the best return on investment so to speak. We’re always keen though to go off the beaten bird track, for instance to the little-known Lac Tanma, to other wetlands of the niayes area NE of Dakar (e.g. Mbaouane, Mboro), to the savanna around Lompoul, even Lac Rose which is rarely visited by birders despite there being a lot of good birds around. Work trips have so far taken us to Toubab Dialaw and Kolda, each time yielding interesting records.
When trying to identify good birding sites, here’s a tool that has made our life so much easier: Google Earth. I could literally spend hours getting lost in Google’s satellite imagery, looking for the next place to explore. The forêt de Pout is one of these, and yesterday morning Miguel and I ended up visiting this “forest” (a term used very liberally in Senegal to describe pretty much any area that has a lot of bushes and/or trees).
We spent about two and a half hours in the forest, mostly walking slowly through the bush and around a small valley flowing out of the escarpment. Pout forest is located right on the edge of the Thiès plateau, and despite it being seriously overgrazed (and its slopes heavily eroded), it still gives one a good sense of what the original vegetation looks like here – vast expanses of shrubbery, thorn bushes, the occasional Acacia and Balaenites tree, and regularly spaced baobabs towering majestically above all the rest. The forest stretches for some 12 km between the North/South oriented escarpment and the road from Thiès to Mont-Rolland, and is up to about 5 km wide.
Before we’d even found a spot to park the car, we’d seen or heard a few decent birds by the side of the road: Helmeted Guineafowl, Singing Cisticola, Sahel Paradise-Whydah, Northern Red Bishop – all of which we’d encounter again during our hike. Black Scrub-Robins were singing their melancholic little song, while Stone Partridge and Hoopoe were only heard distantly; also Black-headed Lapwings, Vieillot’s Barbet, a Senegal Batis and even two elusive Spotted Thick-knees: rather a good start, given that we really didn’t know what to expect here.
By this time we’d made it to the edge of the escarpment, where we weren’t disappointed by the view over the plain below us: all the way to lac Tanma and the dunes near Kayar! The picture below doesn’t quite do it justice – blame the grey sky…
Here, we encountered Northern Anteater Chats, Namaqua Doves, Cut-throats, Northern Crombec, more lapwings, and even a species that had so far eluded me in Senegal: a Brown Snake-Eagle patrolling the escarpment, looking for a juicy snake or lizard. A Diederik Cuckoo was singing in the distance, perhaps recently arrived here in anticipation of the rains to come.
On the way back, we added African Harrier-Hawk, Chestnut-backed Sparrow-Lark, Senegal Eremomela, and Chestnut-bellied Starling and a few others to the list. More Sahel Paradise-Whydahs were around; males were actively transitioning into their spectacular breeding plumage, such as this one:
Of course we only scratched the surface during this short visit, so future trips here throughout the seasons will certainly yield additional species. Green-winged Pytillia should obviously be around as it’s the host to the Paradise-Whydah, and the area may be good for Purple Rollers, Greater Honeyguide, and a range of Palearctic songbirds transiting through or spending the winter here. The fields on either side of the forest may hold birds such as Temminck’s Courser and, in winter, wheatears from Europe.
I’d definitely recommend this place to visitors who have limited time and who want to get a snapshot of Senegal’s savanna species, and more generally to anyone who’s looking for a nice place to go for a hike. Descending the slope into the valley, walking through the dry riverbed, then climbing back up to the plateau was definitely one of the highlights of the morning! Given how flat the country is one doesn’t often get the opportunity to do so over here. And all this barely an hour’s drive from downtown Dakar – go for it!