Technopole updates – waders, gulls, and a hybrid heron
It’s been a while since I last talked about Technopole on this blog, so here’s a quick update on recent sightings at our favourite Dakar hotspot. I’ve been fortunate to visit several times in the last few weeks, most recently on August 22nd and September 2nd. At the end of August, the site was the driest it’s been in many years: barely any water left on what I usually refer to as the “central lake”. Only some shallow water remained on the far south end along the main road, and even less in the north-east corner close to the golf club house. Even the level of the large reed-fringed lake on the north-east side has dropped substantially.
As a result, there are far fewer birds around than would usually be the case at this time of the year, when the first rains start filling up the lakes again. There are now very few waders, herons and cormorants, hardly any ducks and fairly few gulls and terns (which is more usual during late summer). With the rains finally arriving in Dakar – though just four or five decent showers so far – the site has rapidly started filling up in the past two weeks and is becoming more attractive once again.
This is what it looked like roughly between June and the end of August: hardly any water!!
Despite the low water levels, diversity remains pretty high, with still some 70-75 species typically seen on recent visits. The highlight on Aug. 22nd was yet again a Franklin’s Gull among the flock of Slender-billed Gulls, most likely the same 2nd c.y. bird as in May and June, seen here for the fourth time (see this piece about the species’ status in Senegal and more broadly in West Africa).
Great White Pelicans are particularly numerous this year, with an impressive 650-700 birds present at the moment. They most likely come from the Djoudj colony; unlike in previous years the species is also present daily at Ngor, though in much lower numbers than at Technopole. And a few days ago I even had four flying over the house at Almadies, yet another garden tick.
Besides the ever-present Black-winged Stilts and Spur-winged Lapwings, (both still with several older chicks and quite a few locally hatched juveniles), Ruff is now the most numerous wader, though there are 30-40 birds only… compare with the ∼500 Ruffs counted last year in August! Also just four Black-tailed Godwits (also a Bar-tailed on Aug. 12th), single Whimbrel, Marsh Sandpiper, Dunlin, 4-5 Little Stints and just a handful of Sanderlings, while the first Curlew Sandpipers were seen on Sept. 2nd. On the same day, a Little Ringed Plover was present near the fishermen’s hut – there don’t seem to be many “autumn” records at Technopole of this species. A Kittlitz’s Plover was seen again on Aug. 22nd, following several records in previous months: could the species have bred at Technopole? In June we found a nest containing two eggs and several additional terrtitories near Lac Rose.
On July 7th, a presumed hybrid Little Egret x Western Reef Heron was seen along the track leading to the golf course: interesting bird, as it may mean that there are mixed broods at the Parc de Hann colony, unless of course it was born in the Somone or another heronry. Or that it may be breeding there at the moment, as our bird was obviously an adult in breeding plumage, judging by the pink-reddish feet, bluish lores and long feathers extending from the back of the head. While difficult to judge, the bill length and shape also seems to be more like Little Egret. In addition to the features in the pictures below – in particular the whitish head, central neck and lower belly – we noted a fair amount of white on the wing, mainly towards the base of the outer hand.
Now compare with this typical Western Reef Heron, photographed during my most recent visit to Technopole:
Our bird corresponds to presumed hybrids found in southern Europe and in Morocco, though we can’t rule out the possibility that it is in fact a rare dark morph Little Egret, as these do seem to exist… mcuh remains to be learned about these egrets! For more on the identification of Western Reef Heron and Little Egret, see Dubois and Yésou’s article in British Birds (1995).
Talking of herons, here’s a breeding-plumaged Great Egret: note the entirely black legs and feet as well as the mostly dark bill, with just the some yellow still apparent on part of the lower mandible. The bare skin around the eye and on the lores could be described as pale turquoise, though it transitions from light green to more bluish tones. Quite amazing how these birds completely change the colour of their bill and legs during breeding season!
Besides the above waterbirds, Technopole of course holds lots of good other birds: at the moment, there are a few Broad-billed Rollers that appear to be breeding, and other wet-season visitors such as Woodland Kingfisher and Diederik Cuckoo are also around. And while breeding wasn’t confirmed this year, Red-necked Falcon is still seen on most visits, usually flying around or actively hunting. Zebra Waxbill was more of a surprise, as I’d only seen this species on a few occasions in winter. The lack of rain may have prompted these birds to wander about and somehow make it to Technopole.
Last Sunday I paid an early morning visit to Yène-Tode, but despite the recent rains the lagoon is still largely dry and didn’t hold many birds… The first few puddles had formed, but I reckon it’ll take several more decent showers before the lagoon fills up again. The highlight were two Spur-winged Geese, a species that is rarely seen in the Dakar region and that somehow manages to largely avoid Technopole. To be continued!
Of lists, listing and listers: how many bird species in Senegal?
I have a bit of a confession to make. I’m a bit of an obsessive lister, always counting and collecting birds, new ones if at all possible. Or rare ones. I have a Life List, a Senegal List, Africa, Western Palearctic, a Technopole list. A list of colour-ring recoveries. And so on. Maybe not as far as keeping year lists or garden lists or self-found lists or lists of birds seen while writing up blog posts, but still I’m pretty much counting species all the time. I won’t go through great lengths to “tick” new birds and I don’t take the whole listing thing too seriously, neither will I keep track of my buck-per-bird expenditure rates (yes, it seems that some birders calculate this), but still… lots of obsessive listing.
I’m sure that some of our readers will recognise this – do we need group therapy? Maybe it’s just human (male?) nature, to be collecting and classifying things. Some of these lists may actually be quite useful especially when covering little-known regions as I sometimes get the chance to do on my work trips (think South Sudan, Somaliland, Burundi…), but for the most part they’re just my own little checklists sitting in an old Access database… time to upgrade, right?
Luckily there’s still lots of new species to be counted, we’re not quite done yet – I’ve only seen less than a quarter of the world’s birds, mostly in Africa (ca. 1,370 species, Wilson’s Indigobird a couple of weeks ago near Lac Togo being the most recent addition), so there are still many new ones to discover.
By now, my Senegal list stands at about 495 species, after three and a half years of pretty active birding in the country. But how “good” is 495? How many species have been reliably recorded in Senegal? This may be an easy question, but the answer is certainly not so straightforward. First of all, what taxonomic reference to follow? Depending on which reference one uses, certain subspecies are elevated to species rank while others are not, and with current tendencies to split species it can be hard to keep up with the understandably dynamic nature of bird taxonomy.
Several years of “service” in the Swiss national rare bird committee and a French regional records committee taught me a bit of discipline in keeping count of records and numbers for rare or scarce species, in ensuring appropriate documentation, in reassessing status of vagrants and scarce migrants, keeping track of changes in taxonomy and advances in identification criteria, and so on. And then there’s the status categories: “A” (species occurs naturally in the wild, seen at least once in modern ornithological history, eg. since 1950), “B” (same as A but not recorded since the cut-off year), “C” (introduced exotic species that have established autonomous breeding populations), “D” (the dreaded uncertain origin category), and finally “E” (escapes). Only species that are in the A, B or C categories are part of a country’s national list. In Senegal, the only established exotic species appears to be House Sparrow (unless Eurasian Collared Dove is also introduced or escaped, though this is far from certain; wild Rock Doves apparently still exist in the Kédougou escarpments).
So, in order to answer our question of the number of species occurring in Senegal, let’s start by identifying an appropriate taxonomic reference. The IOC (International Ornithological Committee) is nowadays usually considered the standard authority, being followed by many countries and authors. The Handbook of the Birds of the World (HBW) is another reference, I guess a bit more progressive than IOC, and was adopted by BirdLife and the IUCN. I won’t go into reviewing the differences between these and other lists such as Howard & Moore or Sibley, though we should mention that the African Bird Club follows IOC which as such should be an obvious choice here. Unfortunately, the ABC is not very good at remaining up-to-date to the extent that the current version dates back to 2010 – and at the time of writing, the page to download country checklists was non functional… The ABC now also has new “Dowsett country lists” which are largely based on the more conservative Howard & Moore taxonomy. More than anyone else, the Dowsetts are of course a major reference in their own right when it comes to African birds, and it would be great to have up-to-date checklists for each country. To make matters more complex, the ABC also links to checklists by their “partner” iGoTerra; unfortunately, their Senegal list is highly unreliable as it contains about a dozen species that have never been recorded in Senegal as well as several obvious missing species… and I assume that it’s the same for other countries. Really surprising (and disappointing) that the ABC endorses these lists. Similarly, other country checklists, e.g. the Avibase list, contain several serious errors and should be avoided. As such, we hope that the Senegal list that we’re making available here will be of use to local and visiting birders alike.
Either way, we settled on the IOC list – the choice of which can of course be debated, but it seems to make sense given that ABC is following it and that there is no proper reference committee for Africa (such as the AERC for Europe, though they’re not quite as authoritative as they ought to be, with many national committees following different standards). Anyway… let’s move on.
So, I took the African Bird Club country list for Senegal as a starting point, and updated it as per the latest IOC version. As our regular readers will surely know, quite a few species have been added to the national list in recent years, so these were of course included in the list. Several species on the ABC list are marked as uncertain, since at the time no proper documentation existed, such as Blue-throated Roller and Black-and-white Mannikin. I’ve removed those that seem unlikely, as well as Tropical Boubou which is yet to be confirmed (and I replaced Red-fronted Warbler, which was included in error, by Cricket Warbler). I’ve added Vieillot’s Black Weaver based on the account that Lesson described this species in 1840 based on a specimen from Casamance (it’s on the Gambian list, but not on the ABC list for Senegal). Here again, in the absence of a national or regional rare birds committee, these are personal choices and I’d be happy to revise these if there’s a good case to do so.
Below are the new species seen in the last 12 years, in chronological order. Those marked with a * were formally documented, typically through publications in the ABC Bulletin or in Malimbus; records with a ° symbol await publication or will be written up shortly:
- Western Sandpiper (15.1.07, Langue de Barbarie, Saint-Louis; N. Borrow et al.)
- Black Guillemot* (11.10.08, Ngor, Dakar; Crouzier et al.)
- Lesser Jacana (29.07.09, at a reservoir near Kédougou; ABC Recent Reports)
- Common Crane (22-25.03.10, Djoudj NP; ABC Recent Reports)
- Narina Trogon* (13.4.10, Dindéfélo, Kédougou; Aransay et al. 2012)
- Red Kite (23.2.12, Toubacouta, Fatick; ABC Recent Reports)
- Pacific Golden Plover* (10.5.12, Delta du Saloum, Fatick; Cavaillès et al.)
- Short-billed Dowitcher* (4.10.12, Gandiol, Saint-Louis; A. Hiley)
- Eurasian Sparrowhawk (27.01.14, Tiougoune/Lompoul-sur-Mer, Thiès; J. Wright et al.)
- Mountain Wagtail* (6.3.15, Dindéfélo, Kédougou; Pacheco et al. 2017)
- Eyebrowed Thrush* (10.12.15 Gandiol, Saint-Louis; R. Benjumea & B. Pérez 2016)
- Freckled Nightjar* (21.3.16 Dindéfélo, Kédougou; J.-Y. Blanc et al. 2018)
- Eurasian Collared Dove° (May 2016, Dakar; BP)
- Red-footed Booby° (16.10.16, Dakar, N. Moran et al.)
- Magnificent Frigatebird* (29-30.4.17, Iles de la Madeleine, Dakar; M. Lecoq & BP; G. Caucanas; Piot & Lecoq 2018 – link to ABC note forthcoming)
- Meadow Pipit* (1.1.18, Yène-Tode, Dakar; Piot 2018)
- Horus Swift° (5-6.1.18, Gamadji Sare, Podor; F. Bacuez, BP, F. Verroens)
- Brown-backed Honeybird° (21.1.18 Dindéfélo, Kédougou; G. Caucanas et al.)
On average, that’s just one or two additions per year – though note how 2012, 2016 as well as 2018, only half-way through, already stand out with no less than three new species. Also note how four out of these 18 records were also new to sub-Saharan Africa or even the African continent as a whole: Western Sandpiper, Short-billed Dowitcher, Black Guillemot, Eyebrowed Thrush. The records of Eurasian Collared Dove and Horus Swift, both possibly/probably breeding, constitute major range extensions in West Africa. The fact that another four of the above records are from the Dindéfélo area is also quite remarkable: it just shows how a previously largely ignored border area harbours several species that just creep into the country. Dakar, being relatively well watched in recent years, also stands out as a national “hotspot”, as is the Gandiol/Langue de Barbarie area to a lesser extent.
Add to this list the Canary Islands endemic Plain Swift, which thanks to geolocators was recently shown to transit through Senegal on its way to the newly discovered wintering grounds in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea (Norton et al. 2018) – a nice example of modern technology solving one of the many remaining mysteries in the field of migration. Eleonora’s Falcon is another species that was confrmed to occur thanks to satellite tracking programs (Gschweng et al. 2008) but that is yet to be seen in natura.
Then there are two special cases, both of hybrids: a Greater x Lesser Spotted Eagle, that was GPS-tracked from its Central European breeding grounds into Mauritania, Senegal and Gambia; neither of the parents have been confirmed from Senegal as “pure” birds, but does this mean that this bird somehow needs to make it to the national list? To a lesser extent, the probable Woodchat x Red-backed Shrike seen last year is also an interesting case since the latter parent species has never been recorded in Senegal, though there are records from nearby Mauritania. Logically, hybrids should not be included on the national list, but I’d be happy to be convinced otherwise (in this specific case though, we cannot be 100% that the second parent of the hybrid shrike was indeed a Red-backed Shrike).
So now for the list: with the recent additions, and following the latest IOC taxonomy, we end up with at least 671 species. The full list is available HERE as a handy Google spreadsheet – of course it’s work in progress and I’d be happy to receive contributions. You’re more than welcome to download the list as an Excel file and use it as a checklist for the country. I did include a small number of species for which there are unconfirmed older records but that are likely to be present; these are marked with a ? in the list, and if confirmed would bring the total to 676 species. One of these is likely extinct in the wild by now: Common Ostrich, marked with an “E” (and Secretarybird probably shares the same fate though could still show up as a wanderer). Vagrants are listed as “V” in the list; for some of these – e.g. Little Gull – it’s not quite clear whether they should be considered as true vagrants or whether they are merely rare migrants that do in fact make it to Senegal on a more or less regular basis.
For those who tend to prefer the HBW/BirdLife taxonomy, the Senegal list should be at least 664 species – quite surprisingly this is quite a few species less than the IOC list, due to several splits that aren’t recognised by HBW (Boyd’s & Barolo Shearwaters are treated as part of Audubon’s Shearwater, White-breasted Cormorant is a ssp. of Great Cormorant, Yellow-billed Kite is rather suprisingly considered conspecific with Black Kite, Barbay Falcon part of Peregrine Falcon, African Reed Warbler a ssp. of Eurasian Reed Warber, and Atlas Flycatcher a ssp. of Pied Flycatcher). The only additional species is Seebohm’s Wheatear which surprisingly is not recognised by IOC, despite it being very distinctive from Northern Wheatear. Other splits do not directly affect the number of species on the Senegal list, though names may differ (e.g. Black-faced Firefinch is now known as Vinaceous Firefinch Lagnosticta vinacea, endemic to West Africa). When I find the time, I’ll also include a link to the HBW country checklist.
There are probably a few other species missing from the list, as not everyone goes through the effort of writing up notes or publishing pictures of potential first records. For instance, what would be the first record of Cinereous Vulture was only just recently uploaded to eBird and while it certainly seems like a credible observation, I’m awaiting further details from the observers. Likewise, there’s only one formally published record of Citrine Wagtail, but I found a reference to another observation that pre-dates the 1999 Technopole bird, which was mentioned along with a succinct (but in my view sufficient) description in the waterbird expedition report by Schepers and colleagues (27.1.97 at Djiffer, Saloum), and found out recently that a British tour operator that regularly visits Senegal has a few records of the species from Nianing. Once again, a real shame that the commercial birding companies rarely contribute to our knowledge of the areas that they visit. Corrections are more than welcome of course.
What will be the next species to be added to the country list? One can surely make a few predictions in terms of what species are likely to be added in the future – think various American vagrants with Ring-necked Duck and White-rumped Sandpiper being the most obvious candidates (and why not Wilson’s Phalarope or Solitary Sandpiper, or a Forster’s Tern or maybe even a Stilt Sandpiper), tropical seabirds such as Swinhoe’s Storm Petrel, Fea’s and Black-capped Petrels or Masked Booby, various desert passerines (Dunn’s Lark in particular should be sought for in the far north, White-crowned Wheatear is also a good possibility in winter), songbirds from northern Europe and Siberia such as Richard’s and Olive-backed Pipits or even Little Bunting, all of which have been reported from Mauritania. The lists goes on and on really – lots of potential to find new stuff!
Key areas to search for northern and American vagrants are of course the coastal wetlands, while the northern border regions should be targeted for winter vagrants and desert species. Finding new seabirds will likely require pelagic trips and a decent amount of luck¹ – and it’s likely that seabird monitoring programs that use satellite tracking will turn up some new species in Senegalese waters. For those lucky to go out birding in Casamance, chances are that Turati’s Boubou and Preuss’s Cliff Swallow are already established in a few localities and that they are just waiting to be discovered. Quailfinch Indigobird may well occur but apparently remains to be confirmed. And for those making it to the far south-east, why not search for Rock Pratincole which should occur at least occasionally along the Gambia river (or even along the Falémé), or try for low-density species that occur not too far out in Mali or Guinea of the likes of West African Seedeater and Cabani’s Bunting, and that may well just creep over the border into Senegal.
And then there are of course those species that one may expect the least, such as our Horus Swifts earlier this year – an incredible range extension (if confirmed to be regular) of some 1,600 km at least. Or Damara Tern, known from a single recent record from Mauritania (in 2006, Isenmann & Benmergui 2018). Only time will tell – what’s clear is that there’s still lots to discover.
Now, time to get out there and find new birds. And keep listing.
Bram, with useful contributions by Simon and Frédéric – merci à eux!
¹ and chum.
A Mystery Shrike
Yesterday, Gabriel and I paid a visit to Lac Tanma – our first of the season and of what will hopefully be a series of regular visits there.
We’d barely arrived near the lake, after a couple of failed attempts to find a driveable track towards the lake (too muddy!), when we noticed a shrike sitting on top of a thorny bush. The overall appearance was that of a fairly large, greyish shrike, but quite a few things were just wrong for a Southern Grey Shrike (which given the time of the year would have been surprising to see here, as it typically shows up between December and February/March).
Suspecting a hybrid, we took a number of pictures before the bird flew off, which allowed us to compare with photographs and descriptions of known hybrids. I vaguely remembered that a few years back (it turns out this was in 2010) a similar hybrid had been reported from the French Jura, and that there was a drawing of another French bird in the excellent Shrikes – A Guide to the Shrikes of the World (Lefranc & Worfolk 1997).
This is what our bird looked like:
In typical shrike fashion, this bird had a distinctive black “Zorro mask” with an otherwise grey head and largely grey back (faintly mottled brown); white scapulars; black wings with a fairly large, elongated off-white patch at the base of the primaries; entirely pale salmon-pink underparts (from the throat all the way to the vent); and a white rump contrasting with its long black tail. In the field we noted some narrow pale borders to tertials, but these are not well visible in the pictures.
While a lot of hybrids between two bird species typically resemble both parents in one way or another, showing intermediate characteristics, this is not the case here. Our bird superficially looks like a Southern Grey Shrike, but clearly isn’t one: the buffish underparts especially, but also the seemingly all-dark tail (no white outer rectrices) and the lack of distinct white markings on the tertials and secondaries. Moreover, the structure and size – even though our bird seemed quite large – were not right for Southern Grey which is larger and more powerful (cf. a couple of pictures taken last winter in Palmarin). The same pretty much applies to Lesser Grey Shrike, which in addition has a black mask that extends to the forehead and lacks the white scapulars.
So who are the parents? Based on comparisons with pictures of hybrid shrikes and with the drawing and description in Lefranc & Worfolk, these types of birds are considered to be hybrid Woodchat x Red-backed Shrikes. The former is the most common Palearctic shrike species in Senegal, while the latter doesn’t usually occur in West Africa. The black mask, grey head, and “pinkish-white” underparts are typical of Red-backed, while the white scapulars, rump and wing patch are indicative of Woodchat. The grey back is a bit odd but has also been observed on other presumed hybrids with these two species as parents, and the faint brownish mottling hints at a hybrid origin. Another option would be a hybrid Woodchat x Lesser Grey Shrike, though there’s apparently only one such suspected bird that has been observed, in Hungary in 1979 (Handbook of Avian Hybrids of the World, McCarthy 2006). Much less likely, and one would expect at the minimum a black front on such hybrids¹.
Now compare our bird with the painting of a hybrid noted in France in 1995, fig. 26g:
Comments on the identification of this bird are more than welcome of course!
As far as I know, this is the first record of such a hybrid in (West) Africa; all other published data are from birds on migration or on breeding grounds in Europe. In recent years there’s been one such bird in Switzerland (April 2014), one in the French Lot department (May 2014), while hybrid males have bred (successfully!) with female Red-backed Shrikes in 2005 in South-East Belgium (short note available in PDF here), and in 2010 and 2011 in France. Pictures of the 2010 Jura bird can be found e.g. here and here. At least 12 mixed pairs have been found in France, but it seems that nothing is known on the whereabouts of these birds outside the breeding season: do they migrate to East Africa just like Red-backed Shrikes, or can they be found anywhere in Woodchat Shrike’s wintering grounds? Lefranc & Worfolk describe the latter as “a vast belt running across the African continent just south of the Sahara and largely north of the huge forest areas”. Our observation would suggest that they can show up anywhere in that area.
Other than our peculiar shrike, we had a pretty good morning out birding, with close to 100 species seen. Lac Tanma didn’t hold an awful lot of waders (a few hundred only, mostly Black-winged Stilts) but we did confirm breeding once again of Kittlitz’s Plover, while a female Knob-billed Duck also showed signs of breeding as it was seen flying around several times (and sometimes calling, which is associated with courtship behaviour). There were about 250 Greater Flamingos (and ca. 220 more at lac Mbaouane), several Gull-billed, Caspian, and White-winged Terns, but very few herons. A surprise find was that of three Spotted Thick-knees on the edge of the lake’s floodplain, quite close to the main road. Several Diederik, African and Jacobin Cuckoos were seen or heard, as were a few Broad-billed Rollers (another wet season visitor) and a single Purple (=Rufous-crowned) Roller. As usual, Mosque Swallows were hawking insects above the lake shore and the baobab forest; the latter also had a singing Hoopoe and several Woodland and Grey-headed Kingfishers. Besides the shrike, the only European songbirds that we spotted were two Melodious Warblers.
A Purple Heron at a small marsh near the village of Beer was my first of the season; we also found African Swamp-hen, Red-eyed Dove, and African Thrush here. Lac Mbaouane was visited only briefly and we just scanned the NW side of the lake, which had a few dozen Common Ringed Plovers and some Little Stints, while a few Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters were flying over and a Red-necked Falcon dashed over the lake as it was hunting.
(Regular readers will wonder what’s happening at Technopole. Well, I paid my first visit in three (!) weeks this morning, together with Theo. Water levels are rising with every shower, so conditions are getting less ideal for waders. Still a few hundred Ruffs, some Curlew Sandpipers, ca. 50 Sanderling and a few Little Stints, a handful of Black-tailed and a single Bar-tailed Godwit, Marsh, Green, Wood & Common Sandpipers, Greenshank, Redshank, a few migrating Whimbrels, etc. Also Shikra, a Hoopoe, and again a Broad-billed Roller to name but the most interesting records. The most unusual record this past week was actually one from Almadies: a Hadada Ibis flying over our house one morning! More on that one later, if I get the chance to write something up.)
¹ N. Lefranc mentioned that a mixed pair senator x minor was found in France last year. And that so far, no hybrid or mixed pairs senator x meridionalis have been recorded.