Our main target during a brief visit to the Saloum delta national park, just last week, was a rather unique bird that had so far eluded us: the enigmatic Tigriornis leucolopha. Its presence in the area has been known for a few years only, but it quickly became a classic target species for visiting birders – particularly those touring the country with the excellent Abdou “Carlos” Lo who is based at Toubacouta. But it’s one of those birds that requires a bit of planning combined with a decent dose of luck. It’s certainly not enough to just get on a pirogue into the mangrove forest where it lives: thanks to Abdou’s expert advice, we made sure to set off at low tide even if this meant going out in the mid-afternoon heat.
I’d always thought that the White-crested Tiger Heron (Onoré à huppe blanche) was more of a nocturnal or at best a crepuscular species, but that’s obviously not the case: when the tide is low, it will come out to the edge of the mangrove to fish, apparently at pretty much any time of the day. We were extremely lucky to actually witness this first-hand: after an unsuccessful attempt in one of the bolongs near the island of Sipo, our piroguier Abdoulaye eventually spotted a Tiger Heron, very much out in the open as we drifted past at fairly close range. It quickly entered the dense mangrove forest only to re-appear in a more concealed area a few meters away, carefully navigating the labyrinth of roots and tangles.
As we were watching and photographing this dream bird, it caught a small fish, gobbled it down and quickly vanished back into the forest.
Note the rather cold colours and overall rather pale plumage of this individual, something that’s also visible in other pictures from the Saloum: possibly an adaptation to the mangrove environment here? Compare with the darker and more rufous birds found in e.g. Ghana and Gabon, for instance in the photo gallery of the Internet Bird Collection.
All in all, quite a surreal moment and a perfect Christmas present – Frédéric and I were of course hopeful we’d get a glimpse of this secretive heron, but certainly never thought we’d get such amazing views. It easily ranks in my Top 10 of Best African Birds Seen So Far, alongside the likes of Quail-Plover, Egyptian Plover, Crab Plover, Pel’s Fishing-Owl, Pennant-winged Nightjar, Böhm’s Spinetail, Little Brown Bustard, Wattled Crane and of course the most bizarre Grey-necked Picathartes (and Shoebill and Locustfinch and Spotted Creeper and… so on). Just like some of these species, the White-crested Tiger Heron – or White-crested Bittern as it is sometimes called – is the unique representative of its genus.
Here’s one more picture of this amazing bird, taken by Frédéric as we first spotted it – pretty cool, right?
Earlier that same day – much earlier actually, about 6.45 am to be precise! – we had already heard the rather ghost-like song that’s typical of the species, right from the small jetty at our campement villageois at Dassilame Serere. The song is not dissimilar to the Eurasian Bittern, a monotonous booming “whooooooom” uttered at a very low frequency, at 4-6 second intervals, which however got easily drowned in the dawn chorus of roosters, donkeys, dogs and goats of Dassilame… and which stopped abruptly just as daylight started to take over the night. The next morning I was better prepared and actually managed a few mediocre recordings when two distant birds were singing to each other deep in the mangrove, again pre-dawn and stopping before it properly got light. These turned out to be the first to be uploaded onto xeno-canto: check out the species page here (and make sure to turn up the volume to the max as the sound is quite subdued).
Tiger Bird habitat:
The Tiger Heron was initially thought to be restricted, in Senegal that is, to the Basse-Casamance region, where the first record is that of two nestlings collected and raised near the village of Mlomp (Oussouye) in 1979, followed by a few sightings in 1980-81 in the Parc National de Basse-Casamance and a nest found in Nov. 1980 north of Oussouye (A. Salla in Morel & Morel 1990); as far as we know, the next confirmed record was obtained in… 2017, at Egueye island, also near Oussouye, on January 1st, so almost 36 years later.
The first mention of the species in the Saloum delta is from 1980 by A. R. Dupuy (1981), while the next published record is from 2004 only – see comment by John Rose on this blog post [updated 4 Jan 2020] and the short paper by Rose et al. (2016). The next observation that I could find is from January 2007, of a bird photographed near Missirah by Stéphane Bocca. The fact that we heard two birds singing from Dassilame Serere, the records near Toubacouta and Sipo as well as the observation from Missirah all suggest that the Tigriornis is fairly well established here, and may well be widespread throughout the vast mangroves of the Saloum delta: targeted searches are likely to turn up more birds in other parts of the delta. The species is also present in mangroves along the Gambia river, where first discovered in 1996 (Kirtland & Rogers 1997). Casamance and especially the Saloum delta are actually right on the edge of the distribution range of the species, which extends from central Africa through the Congo-Guinean forest zone. In Senegal and Gambia, it primarily inhabits the vast mangrove forests, though it may also still occur in the swamp forest of the Basse-Casamance NP, i.e. in similar habitat to that occupied further south such as in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana.
Other good birds seen during our boat trip included several majestic Goliath Herons, Palm-nut Vultures, a colour-ringed German Osprey (more on this later), a few Blue-breasted Kingfishers and Common Wattle-eyes (both heard only), as well as an unexpected Swamp Mongoose seen in full daylight (Héron goliath, Palmiste africain, Balbuzard, Martin-chasseur à poitrine bleue, Pririt à collier, Mangouste des marais).
During our stay in the Toubacouta area, we also visited the Sangako community forest, Sandicoly, and bush/farmland near Nema Ba: plenty of birds everywhere, though no real surprises here, except maybe for a fine pair of Bateleurs, a species that’s right on the edge of its regular range here. Other goodies for us northerners included Swallow-tailed Bee-eater, Grey-headed Bushshrike, White Helmetshrike, Bruce’s Green Pigeon, Four-banded Sandgrouse and many more of course (Guêpier à queue d’aronde, Gladiateur de Blanchot, Bagadais casqué, Colombar waalia, Ganga quadribande). Also a nice series of owls heard from our campsite: Greyish Eagle Owl, African Scops Owl, Pearl-spotted Owlet and Barn Owl! (Grand-duc du Sahel, Petit-duc africain, Chevêchette perlée, Effraie des clochers).
With the addition of the Tiger Heron but also Ferruginous Duck (a pair on a small dam near Mbodiene, 24.12; Fuligule nyroca), my Senegal list now stands at 530 species: which one will be next?
En route pour rejoindre la bande de copains suisses à Palmarin où ils concluent une tournée de 15 jours d’ornitho mémorables, je reçois un coup de fil de Cyril me disant qu’ils sont devant un Jabiru d’Afrique, posé dans une lagune. Cool, une espèce que je n’ai pas encore vue au Sénégal.
A peine quinze minutes plus tard, alors que je m’approche déjà de Joal, nouvel appel: comme si la cigogne ne suffisait pas, ils viennent de trouver un Bécasseau rousset!!
Needless to say, j’accélère un poil afin de rejoindre l’équipe sur place, et grâce à la nouvelle route goudronnée – et oui c’est ça aussi le progrès! – j’admire ce superbe limicole moins d’une demie heure plus tard…. quelle coche! C’est une espèce que j’ai toujours rêvée de voir un jour, mais je ne pensais pas que ce serait ici.
J’en oublie presque le Jabiru et le cortège d’autres echassiers présents en nombre: Flamants roses (et 4 nains) mais surtout toute une serie de limicoles – Avocettes, Becasseaux cocorlis, sanderling et minutes, Pluviers argentés, Grands Gravelots, Gravelots pâtres, Gravelots à collier interrompu, Gravelots à front blanc, Barges à queue noire et rousses, …
Toujours présente le lendemain matin, la bête se laissera observer à faible distance, toujours occupée à se nourrir frénétiquement – un peu logique vu le long voyage depuis la toundra canadienne qu’elle a dû parcourir – en compagnie des divers gravelots et Sanderlings. Si le groupe de limis dans lequel le rousset se trouve est plutôt nerveux, après chaque envol ils reviennent dans la même zone près de la route pour se laisser admirer par sept observateurs heureux. Le soir, c’est un autre limicole arctique qu’on trouve non loin de là: un Phalarope à bec large.
Au final, le Becasseau rousset sera présent pendant au moins trois jours, soit du 24 au 26 novembre; à voir s’il aura été revu par l’équipe senegalo-hollandaise actuellement sur place à Palmarin pour le suivi des Barges à queue noire.
Il s’agit de la deuxième¹ observation de l’espèce au Senegal, la première datant d’il y a plus de 30 ans… plus précisement du 22 avril 1985 lorsqu’un oiseau est vu au Lac Rose “sur une pelouse halophile […] en compagnie d’autres limicoles dispersés” par J. J. Guillou (Morel & Morel).
Si l’espèce est d’observation annuelle en Europe de l’Ouest, il n’en est pas de même sur le continent africain: Borrow & Demey font état d’à peine huit observations en Afrique de l’Ouest et Centrale jusqu’en 2014, dont seulement quelques données récentes: Gambie, Sierra Léone, Ghana, Benin, Gabon. Plusieurs observations supplementaires proviennent des îles de l’Atlantique Ouest au large des côtes africaines (Madère, Açores, Canaries et Cap Vert), bien plus propices à la découverte d’espèces néarctiques.
Mes quelques photos médiocres – de bien meilleures devraient suivre dans un compte-rendu de voyage à venir – montrent tout de même assez bien les principaux critères d’identification de ce sympathique becasseau atypique: taille légèrement supérieure aux Sanderlings et gravelots (cf. photo ci-dessous), petite tête ronde peu marquée, bec noir presque droit et plutôt court (et qu’on compare parfois à un petit cigare!), pattes jaunes de longeur moyenne, corps élongé avec parties supérieures rappelant le Combattant varié.
Ce que je ne savais pas, c’est que cette espèce était naguère abondante en Amerique du Nord, alors qu’elle est maintenant considérée comme très peu commune, au point où elle a actuellement le statut de “quasi menacée” (NT). La raison serait la chasse importante au tournant des 19e et 20e siècles ainsi que la dégradation de son habitat sur les sites d’escale et même sur ses lieux d’hivernage, soit la pampa en Argentine. A espérer que l’oiseau de Palmarin retrouvera, d’une manière ou d’une autre, ses congénères d’ici le printemps prochain…
¹ Des recherches supplémentaires ont fait état de deux autres observations à Palmarin en décembre 1994, passées inaperçues jusqu’a maintenant. Notre observation constitue donc la 4e donnée pour le pays. Voir cet article sur notre blog pour les détails.
Previously published on the blog Quest of Quist in 2009.
It is the time of the year when we should lean back and search the skies for migrating Ospreys, which are already a daily presence along the coast at Dakar.
In December 2008, Professor Dr. Bern U. Meyburg requested my assistance to retrieve a GPS transmitter from an Osprey, which had died in the Sine Saloum delta in Senegal. This gave me some insight into a fantastic migration story.
Through his programme, Raptor Research, Professor Meyburg has for many years studied the migration of raptors between breeding areas and the wintering sites, in recent years with the use of solar powered GPS transmitters.
On the 21st of June 2008, an Osprey was trapped and fitted a small GPS transmitter, no.81340. This happened at Lake Müritz in northern Germany only 16 kilometers from the place where it was ringed as a nestling 8 years earlier. Four times daily the GPS transmitter would upload position, speed, heading and altitude of Osprey 81340 on its 3,100 km migration route from northern Germany to Senegal.
Osprey 81340 started its southwestern trip across Northern Germany, into Holland, Belgium, through France and across Spain. Then it did something unusual. Instead of taking the short route over the strait of Gibraltar, which offers only 15 km open water, it crossed the Iberian coastline near the Spanish/Portuguese border and headed into the Atlantic by night. It did not turn towards the African Continent until much further south in Morocco.
Osprey 81340 continued south in Morocco, left the coastline and crossed Western Sahara and Mauritania inland. By October it reached northern Senegal.
Once again Osprey 81340 did something unusual. According to Professor Meyburg the majority of Ospreys have small winter home ranges along rivers in Senegal or the Gambia. But in October and November 81340 stayed for a long while at the Atlantic coast approximately 130 km north of Dakar. Professor Meyburg asked me to explore the area based on coordinates.
It was an arid area – quiet different to Osprey 81340’s flush and green breeding area in Germany. Behind a white sand beach was a 200 – 300 meter broad belt of wind bent trees. This was where 81340 rested. And behind the tree belt was semi-desert (photo). There were a few villages but not many people. The nearest tarmac road is 30 km to the east.
In mid December Osprey 81340 left its sandy and windy beach and continued east of the Dakar peninsula and flew via the coastal region south of Dakar towards the Sine Saloum delta. Shortly before Christmas, Professor Meyburg unfortunately received a telephone call that Osprey 81340 had been found dead in the Sine Saloum delta. (His telephone number was printed on the GPS).
Professor Meyburg asked me to retrieve the GPS transmitter and I went to an area inland of Joal-Fadiouth, where I met the finder and his family. The finder told me that he was out fishing with cast net in the delta (photo), when he discovered Osprey 81340 perch ill or exhausted in one of the mangrove bushes. When he returned a couple of hours later the bird was dead and the finder secured the GPS transmitter and its rings.
The finder and his family were poor people. Their diet consisted almost entirely of locally produced couscous, because rice was too expensive. They got protein by eating small carp caught in the delta. A pig was bound behind one of the huts. It waited (not with glee) for a festival. A pig is an unusual domestic animal in Senegal. The Finder and his family were Catholics in the 89% Muslim country.
But what did Osprey 81340 actually die off? This was discussed thoroughly in the African Bird Club’s mail group. According to Professor Meyburg it had only flown very short distances in the days up to its death. Not distances which in any way could exhaust it.
It was suggested that it by accident could have become tangled in fishing net while foraging, but I did not see fixed net installations at all where the bird was found, and this did not tally with the finder’s explanation.
How Osprey 81340 really died will remain a mystery. But perhaps, when it comes to it, an Osprey is not necessarily on top of the food chain.
Anyway, the brave bird did 1,300 km from Lake Müritz in Germany to Sine Saloum delta in Senegal.