Quick note to report Senegal’s 12th and 13th American Golden Plovers, a species that is now near-annual here but which always remains a good find.
We found the first of the season last weekend at lac Mbeubeusse (north of Keur Massar) which we visited early afternoon on our way back from a very enjoyable trip to Popenguine – more on that visit in an upcoming post. Both the date (3 November) and the location are rather typical for this wader: out of the 11 previous records, eight are from the Dakar region, and three were obtained between mid-October and mid-December. Paul had already seen a bird in the same location back in March 2013: needless to say that lac Mbeubeusse ought to be visited much more frequently than just a handful of times per year: pretty much every visit is bound to turn up something good. As always we can only speculate about the number of Nearctic vagrants that pass through Senegal every year or that end up spending the winter here…
After spotting what looked like a suspicious Pluvialis plover (= anything but a Grey Plover), based on the fairly contrasted plumage, seemingly long-bodied and long-legged appearance combined with a small-ish bill, we had to wait a while, gradually approaching the lake’s edge, before we could confirm that it was indeed a “Lesser” Golden Plover (= American or Pacific GP). The important primary projection with wing tips reaching well beyond the tail, bronzy rump and lower back, dark-capped head with distinctive pale supercilium and forehead, and most significantly at one point the bird stretched its wings upwards which allowed us to see the grey underwing. Everything else about the bird was pretty standard for a first-year American Golden Plover. Bingo!
To get a sense of the potential of lac Mbeubeusse for waders and other waterbirds, check out our eBird checklist: other good birds here included hundreds of Northern Shovelers and many Garganeys, Ruffs, Little Stints and Common Ringed Plovers, several Curlew Sandpipers and Dunlins, quite a few Audouin’s Gulls, a few terns including all three species of Chlidonias marsh terns, 124 Greater Flamingos, at least one Red-rumped Swallow, etc. etc. All this with Dakar’s giant rubbish tip as a backdrop, spewing black smoke and gradually covering the niaye in a thick layer of waste on its western edge… quite a sad contrast with all the bird life. And definitely not the most idyllic birding hotspot!
Number 13 was found by Mark Finn barely a week later, on Friday Nov. 9th, at one of the lagoons near Pointe Sarène, south of Mbour. As I happened to spend the weekend at nearby Nianing and was planning on visiting Sarène anyway, I went there the following day and easily located the bird, an adult moulting into winter plumage. Unlike the previous bird, it was actively feeding on the shores of a seasonal pond surrounded by pastures and fields, along with several other waders including Ruff, Redshank, Greenshank, Redshank. Wood Sandpiper, Green Sandpiper, Marsh Sandpiper, Turnstone, Common Sandpiper, and Common Snipe. This appears to be the first record along the Petite Côte south of Dakar, at a site that has great potential for shorebirds and other migrants: around Nianing, Sarène and Mbodiène are several seasonal lakes that fill up during the rains, as well as coastal saltwater (or brackish) lagoons as can be seen on the map below. The marker shows where the AGP was feeding on Saturday.
Despite being a bit distant I managed some decent record shots of the bird, but unfortunately my camera was stolen later in the weekend… so these pictures are lost forever to humanity. Not that I would have won any prizes with them. So no more blurred pictures from the field on this blog for a little while.
The Sarène bird looked pretty much like this one, just slightly less black on the chest:
Anyway, as I think we’ve already mentioned in the past, “AGP” is the most frequent Nearctic wader in Senegal and more generally in West Africa, followed by Buff-breasted Sandpiper (nine Senegalese records so far) and Lesser Yellowlegs (eight). See this post for a list of the first eight known AGP records for Senegal. Since then (spring 2017), the following sightings are to be added:
- April-May 2017: an adult and two 2nd c.y. birds from 17.4 – 1.5 at least, with a fourth bird (= technically an additional record) up to 21.5., at Technopole (BP, Theo Peters, Wim Mullié, Miguel Lecoq, Ross Wanless, Justine Dosso)
- 8 April 2018: an adult or 2nd c.y. at Technopole (BP) – photos above and more info here.
- 3 November 2018: one 1st c.y. at lac Mbeubeusse, Dakar (BP, Gabriel Caucanas, Miguel Lecoq, Ross Wanless)
- 9-10 November 2018: one ad. at Sarène, Thiès region (M. Finn et al., BP)
Out of these 12 records, eight are from Dakar (mostly Technopole of course!), just one from the north – the first country record, in 1979 – and two are from Basse-Casamance where the species may well winter, at least occasionally. And six of these records are from just the past four years: one in 2015, four birds in 2017, and now already three birds this year. American Golden Plovers tend to mainly show up in spring (April-May) and in autumn (Oct.-Nov.) as shown in this little chart below; it’s also in spring that they linger the longest: in spring 2017, Technopole saw a continued presence during five weeks, involving at least four different birds. Note that birds that stayed for several days across two months are counted in both months.
A few more hazy pictures from the Mbeubeusse bird:
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!
Les fous des Iles de la Madeleine, j’en avais déjà parlé ici, en décembre 2016, pour faire le point sur le statut du Fou brun dans la région. Ce superbe oiseau marin est, depuis, signalé quasiment lors de chaque sortie au “PNIM” et plus particulièrement entre octobre et mai, et on le voit de temps en temps passer ou pêcher devant Ngor. Pas encore d’indices probants de sa nidification, mais ce n’est peut-être qu’une question de temps… voir plus bas.
Cette fois, c’est d’un autre fou dont il s’agit, et pas de celui que vous pensez – des Fous de Bassan, il y en a plein qui passent l’hiver dans les eaux dakaroises, et en ce moment même on les voit facilement de part et d’autre de la péninsule, que ce soit à Ngor ou devant les Mamelles.
En effet, il s’avère qu’un fou photographié le 26 janvier dernier par un groupe d’ornithos canadiennes (équipe 100% féminine, c’est assez rare chez les ornithos pour le souligner!), était en fait un Fou à pieds rouges (Red-footed Booby), et non un Fou brun (Brown Booby) comme initialement identifié. C’est grâce à une remarque laissée par un utilisateur d’eBird ayant mis en doute l’identité (« semble avoir les pieds étonnamment rouges pour un Fou brun! »), que la donnée est passée dans la liste à valider sur eBird, liste que je scrute de temps en temps en tant que vérificateur pour le Sénégal.
Et effectivement, l’oiseau pris en photo montre bien un Fou à pieds rouges, un individu de forme sombre – et qui du coup ressemble pas mal au Fou brun (et dont un oiseau était présent le même jour). Il se tenait sur la fameuse balise rouge et blanche qui sert très souvent de reposoir au Fous bruns, situé un peu au nord-est des îles.
L’identification est relativement facile ici, d’une part parce qu’on voit encore tout juste les pattes roses, d’autre part parce que le plumage est brun uniforme y compris sur le ventre, sans contraste (même flou) comme chez les Fous bruns immatures. De plus, le bec relativement court et peu épais pour un sulidé, avec une base rosée et un cercle orbital bleu, est typique pour l’espèce. Notre oiseau montre également un front légèrement bombé, alors que chez le Fou brun il n’y a quasiment pas de front: la base du bec épais est dans la prolongation directe de la calotte, rendant la tête moins rondouillarde que chez le brun.
L’âge par contre est moins facile à déterminer: très probablement un immature, car le bec n’est pas bleu mais plutôt gris sur fond rose et peut-être que la couleur des pattes (rose et non rouge vif) est également un signe d’immaturité.
A comparer maintenant avec le Fou brun immature : ci-dessous, un oiseau d’un voire deux ans, ici en avril 2017 en compagnie de deux adultes. Les critères le distinguant du Fou à pieds rouges de forme sombre sont notamment la couleur des pattes et du bec, le contraste entre d’une part le ventre plus clair et d’autre part la poitrine et le dessus sombres, ainsi que la coloration générale plus sombre et moins pâle que son cousin à pieds rouges.
C’est seulement la deuxième donnée de l’espèce au Sénégal, donc c’est loin d’être anodin comme observation! La précédente date d’octobre 2016, lorsqu’un oiseau est observé au cours d’une sortie en mer en marge du PAOC, à une vingtaine de kilomètres au large de Yoff – les détails de cette première observation pour le pays seront publiés dans le prochain bulletin de l’African Bird Club, à paraitre en septembre et que l’on partagera en temps voulu (Moran N. et al., First record of Red-footed Booby Sula sula for Senegal, voir photo ci-dessous).
Le Fou à pieds rouges est une espèce marine tropicale plutôt répandue, et est classée non menacée par l’UICN bien que la population globale soit considérée comme étant en déclin. Les colonies les plus proches se trouvent sur l’île d’Ascension dans l’Atlantique Sud et sur l’archipel Fernando de Noronha (NE du Brésil). Il hiverne sur des îles tropicales sur tous les océans, en gros entre les deux tropiques.
Jusqu’à récemment l’espèce était un visiteur rare aux Îles du Cap-Vert, mais en octobre 2016, au moins 17 individus étaient présents à Raso, puis en octobre 2017 apparemment une centaine!! Autant dire que c’est l’explosion des effectifs, même si aucune nidification certaine n’a été rapportée pour le moment – du moins pas à notre connaissance. On peut donc s’attendre à d’autres observations dans les eaux sénégalaises à l’avenir, et j’espère bien sûr le voir un jour passer devant le Calao ou encore au PNIM. [addendum du 17/5/18: ce matin j’ai eu la chance d’en voir deux en train de pêcher longuement devant Ngor, non loin du rivage! Je ne pensais pas que je verrais l’espèce aussi rapidement…]
Ailleurs dans la région, Sula sula a été vu devant les côtes mauritaniennes (au moins un en oct.-nov. 2012), et des individus ont été signalés aux iles Canaries, aux Açores, et à Madeire. L’espèce est très rare plus au nord, avec p.ex. tout juste deux observations en France (un sur le lac de Sainte-Croix dans les Alpes-de-Haute-Provence en juillet 2011, puis un en juin 2017 en Bretagne dans la colonie des Fous de Bassan des Sept-Iles – voir l’article sur Ornithomedia). Ou encore cet oiseau trouvé épuisé sur une plage de l’East Sussex en septembre 2016, le premier pour la Grande-Bretagne.
Je reviens encore brièvement sur les Fous bruns, car samedi dernier (14/4) lors d’une visite aux Iles de la Madeleine nous avons pu observer de nouveau au moins sept individus : cinq posés dans leur falaise habituelle des îles Lougnes¹ (trois adultes, un subadulte, et un jeune au plumage similaire à celui de la photo d’avril 2017), puis encore deux adultes sur la fameuse balise marine, en train de parader lorsque nous passons à côté en bateau… Situation très similaire voire identique donc à celle d’avril-mai 2017, et toujours aussi intriguante: à quand la première nidification de l’espèce? Ci-dessous encore une photo médiocre de quatre de ces oiseaux dans leur falaise, prise lors de notre visite la plus récente, pour vous donner une idée.
Samedi dernier il restait encore quelques Fous de Bassan, deux Courlis corlieux et deux Balbuzards, mais sinon peu d’oiseaux sur l’île. Lors de la traversée depuis Soumbedioune on a pu voir un Océanite de Wilson passer tout près, un Labbe pomarin, et plusieurs sternes (Dougall, arctique, pierregarn, caugek, voyageuse et royale) ainsi que quelques Guifettes noires en migration active (Northern Gannet, Whimbrel, Osprey, Wilson’s Storm-Petrel, Pomarine Skua, Roseate, Arctic, Common, Sandwich, Lesser Crested, Royal & Black Terns). Et bien sûr les Phaétons à bec rouge, emblème du parc, dont la nidification bat encore son plein; on a d’ailleurs eu la chance de renconter l’experte Ngoné Diop en train de faire le suivi de la colonie, qui abriterait cette saison au moins 40-50 couples nicheurs (Red-billed-Tropicbird).
Merci aux observateurs tout d’abord: Hélène Gauthier, Marie O’Neill, Lorraine Plante, Diane Thériault. Et à Nick Moran et Barend van Gemerden pour avoir fourni les photos et la version finale de l’article sur la première observation sénégalaise. Et enfin, à tout seigneur tout honneur: c’est Brennan Mulrooney qui à signalé la donnée sur eBird, sans quoi elle aurait bien pu passer à travers les mailles du filet!
¹ Les îles Lougnes sont cees îlots rocheux inaccessibles faisant partie du parc national, photo ici.
(see also this Ornithondar post on the same topic, en Français!)
Back in January, when Frédéric Bacuez (Ornithondar), Filip Verroens and I visited the middle Senegal valley, we stayed the night at Gamadji Sare on the Doue river bank in the far north of the country. We had some really good birds here, such as Egyptian Plover, Red-throated Bee-eater, Fulvous Babbler, Cricket Warbler, and Seebohm’s and Isabelline Wheatears. We also encountered a flock of swifts which we initially took for White-rumped Swift as these had been reported from the Senegal valley before and since in Senegal this is the only swift with a white rump other than Little Swift.
However, something felt not quite right for this species, and luckily Frédéric was able to take a number of decent pictures – not an easy feat with these birds! Subsequent study of the pictures revealed that the birds did indeed not quite fit White-rumped Swift, and that they were something else… Frédéric was lucky to pay a second visit to the same site, in mid February, and despite very dusty conditions he obtained even better pictures. These provided a more definite clue to the identity of these mystery swifts, which we now feel confident are nothing less than HORUS SWIFTS!!!
Why do we get so excited about this one? It’s always exciting of course to find an addition to a country’s species list, but in this case we have a highly unexpected record since it comes down to a range extension of no less than 1,600 km, and because the species may even breed here. Plus, one can now safely assume that Horus Swift also occurs in Mauritania, Mali and Burkina Faso, and why not in northern Cote d’Ivoire and NE Guinea too (and for any WP listers out there: it may well make its way across the biogeographical border!). It also shows, once again, that there’s still so much to learn and to be discovered about birds in Senegal despite it being among the better explored countries in West Africa.
So far, the closest Horus Swift observations to Senegal were from Ghana, more precisely from Mole National Park and a few other locations in the NW of the country where they were first found in 2004, though it’s not clear whether these were incidental records of wanderers or whether the species is a resident here. It has also been recorded from SW Niger (‘W’ NP), several plateaux in Nigeria and the highlands in Cameroon, but only becomes relatively widespread in the highlands of East and Southern Africa.
On hindsight, the identification as Horus Swift is actually relatively straightforward, the key id features of Horus Swift being the following:
- Broad rectangular white rump patch extending well onto the sides of the lower flank (not narrow and U-shaped as in White-rumped)
- Moderately forked tail, intermediate in depth between Little and White-rumped Swifts
- Absence of white trailing edge to secondaries (a feature that’s almost always present in White-rumped)
- Overall structure and flight action closer to Little than White-rumped Swift, which is a slender bird with a graceful flight.
All of these are clearly visible on the pictures, some of which are shown below (merci Fred!). The option of a hybrid Little x White-rumped Swift was initially suggested, but all features fit Horus perfectly, and a hybrid would be slimmer with a smaller throat patch and some white edges to secondaries. Plus, it would be (near) impossible to have 18-20 hybrids together, without any pure birds. All swifts looked similar in the field, though pictures reveal that there may have been a Little Swift in the lot as well (picture here). A presumed hybrid was reported from Spain recently, see this eBird record. Our identification was confirmed by Gerald Driessens, illustrator of the reference guide to the swifts of the world.
The next three pictures are from February 12th, i.e. some five weeks later than our first observation when Frederic and Daniel Nussbaumer visited the site. Only a few birds were present, at least one of which showed a heavily worn plumage, see picture (6). Besides the shallow tail fork and large rump patch, the extensive white throat patch extending onto the upper breast is obvious here.
Here’s a more detailed description, largely based on the ca. 50 pictures by Frédéric :
Structure: typical swift build with a body shaped like a fat cigar and long and pointy wings, and a moderately forked tail, the fork being about a third of the length of the outer rectrices when closed.
- The wing shape resembled Little Swift much more than White-rumped, which has narrower wings. It often appeared to be fairly broad, particularly in the middle (inner primariers and outer secondaries). As can be seen on several of the images, the wing shape varied considerably throughout the birds’ flight action – for instance, compare pictures (3) and (4) which give very different impressions, and see also (8).
- The tail always appeared to be broad throughout, never pointed as is often the case in caffer (1) & (2). When completely fanned out, the fork appeared very shallow, quite similar to House Martin (2). At times it disappeared nearly entirely, thus resembling Little Swift: compare (6) and (7), of the same bird taken at an interval of a few seconds.
- Overall very dark brown to black plumage except for the white throat, the very pale forehead extending to just above the eye (4), and the white rump;
- The rectangular white rump patch (4) clearly extended onto the flanks and was thus visible from below, e.g. pictures (5) and (6).
- The throat patch was similar to or larger than Little Swift, obviously extending onto the upper breast. Both features are nicely visible on (6) and to some extent on (1).
- Several photographs clearly show the relatively contrasting underwing pattern, stemming from a combination of paler brown leading edge-coverts, dark lesser underwing coverts, again paler median coverts, and slightly darker greater coverts – see header picture and (3) and (6). In White-rumped Swift, the lesser and median coverts are all darker than the remainder of the underwing.
- Upperwing entirely dark, without white trailing edge to secondaries. The latter appear slightly greyer or browner than the black mantle and scapulars (the “saddle”).
Voice: slightly lower-pitched trills than Little or White-rumped Swift; the short sound recording that I managed to obtain can be found here and contains two different calls, including a typical shrill swift call and a slower “twittering” of more melodious quality. It matches the recording by C. Chappuis quite well, both by ear and on sonogram, even if I find it hard to hear clear differences with some White-rumped Swift recordings (compare with e.g. this recording from Zambia). HBW describe the most common Horus call as a reedy trilled ”prrreeeeoo” or “prrreee-piu”. Of note is that until now, no recordings were available on xeno-canto or other online sound libraries.
Behaviour: the swifts were mostly feeding over the river and nearby banks, though usually remained above the water at various heights, occasionally flying right above the surface. They mostly remained in a loose flock, sometimes with 2-5 birds flying closely together and swooping close to the sand bank above which we were standing, sometimes calling in the process – a behaviour that’s indicative of breeding… The picture below shows two such birds “chasing” one another.
Below are a final few pictures from the January series:
Now compare with these pictures:
- Horus Swift
- White-rumped Swift
The habitat in which we found these birds is also very much in line with what is to be expected from Horus Swift. Quite unlike most (all?) other swifts, the species breeds in “old burrows of bee-eaters, kingfishers and martins” (Borrow & Demey), i.e. typically in sandy banks along rivers – exactly the kind of place where we found these birds, which were seen “visiting” the Gamadji Sare cliff (approx. 6-8m at its tallest). Our swifts either rested on the cliff, or inside holes: at dawn on 6/1, several birds visibly left the river bank while the previous evening they were flying very close to or into the cliff, oftentimes calling (unfortunately, because we were positioned on top of the cliff, we could not confirm that they actually entered any nest holes). We estimated there to be about 18-20 birds on Jan. 6th, while the previous afternoon we saw just four.
It may thus even breed by the Doue river which likely has Pied Kingfisher and Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters, and possibly also Red-throated Bee-eater nesting here – something that we really ought to confirm in coming months (just before, during, or right after the rains?). White-rumped Swift typically breeds in disused swallow or Little Swift nests, though sometimes also “in crevices or on ledges within rock fissures or buildings” (Chantler & Driessens 1995). It may well breed at Popenguine for instance, where in September 2015 I saw two birds entering and leaving one of the World War II bunkers.
As I was typing this up, I started wondering why a rather unassuming little bird such as this one was named after one of the most significant ancient Egyptian deities. Well, I’m not quite sure! It was described in 1869 by German zoologist Theodor von Heuglin, who spent many years in north-east Africa in the mid-19th century. One can assume that he collected the type specimen in Sudan or especially in Ethiopia where Horus Swift is locally fairly common. And that Heuglin somehow must have been inspired by Horus, depicted as a falcon-headed man, when coming up with a name for this species.
Many thanks to François Baillon, Simon Cavaillès, David Cuenca, Ron Demey, Gerald Driessens, Miguel Lecoq, Carlos Sánchez and others who commented on the identification or provided reference material.
Bram & Frédéric (une co-production Senegal Wildlife & Ornithondar!)
- Chantler, P. & Driessens, G. (1995) Swifts. A Guide to the Swifts and Treeswifts of the World. Pica Press.
- Chantler, P. & Boesman, P. (2018). Horus Swift (Apus horus). In: del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., Sargatal, J., Christie, D.A. & de Juana, E. (eds.). Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
Kordofan Lark (Mirafra cordofanica) is a poorly documented African lark species occurring in the Sahel. In West Africa it is known from Mauritania, Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso and its status in Senegal is considered to be that of a vagrant. A recent observation by a Belgian tour group led by Miguel Demeulemeester in March 2018 gives us a good opportunity to have a closer look at this species’ identification and its occurrence in Senegal.
Despite the quite broad range occupied by Kordofan Lark, which covers eight countries, it appears to be a highly localized resident. It is quite remarkable to note that there is not a single picture or video available on the Internet Bird Collection, nor are there any sound recordings on xeno-canto and other online sound libraries! It is probably the only bird species found in Senegal in that case. This is probably because the countries where the species is regular are not top birding destinations nowadays. A thorough internet search only takes you to a set of pictures taken in Niger by Tim Wacher, though it appears that these birds are actually Dunn’s Lark and not Kordofan as initially thought – see further down for a discussion of identification. The pictures taken by Jan Heip are therefore a very good contribution to the online presence of this scarce lark. As it turns out, they may well be the only pictures available online!
Kordofan Lark in Senegal
The first record of the species has been published by Morel & Roux (1962). Since this first observation a few more records have been added, which in most cases are not documented.
- Collected or observed 4 or 5 times in grassland close to Richard Toll, April to June 1960 (Gérard Morel)
- One close to Bakel, January 1983 (H. Schifter in Morel & Morel 1990)
- At least one in the Richard Toll area, during a visit from 30 December 1993 to 5 January 1994 which “produced single records of Golden Nightjar, Little Grey Woodpecker and Kordofan Bushlark […] (per TG).” (Recent Reports, African Bird Club)
- One record of a single bird NE of Louga (15°41´N, 16°7´W) on 30 July 2004, during North-South transects as part of a study on bird population densities along two precipitation gradients in Senegal and Niger (Petersen et al. 2007)
- 4 individuals, Ndiaël, 4 December 2004 (Richard Cruse in Recent Reports, African Bird Club Bulletin)
- 1 individual, southern part of Ndiaël, 14 February 2006 (Richard Cruse in Recent Reports, African Bird Club Bulletin)
- One individual feeding close to Richard Toll, March 1st 2018 (Miguel Demeulemeester et al.)
There have been a couple of claims in the past years that refer to other lark species, and probably undisclosed genuine observations as well, as most observations of guided tours remain in notebooks. Most Kordofan Lark records from Senegal should be considered with care when they are not documented.
Kordofan Lark in surrounding countries
In Mali the species is reported as uncommon but widely distributed from 15°N to 23°N by B. Lamarche (1980), adding that the species undertakes local movements with evidence of breeding from May to July near Tombouctou. In mid-June 2004, several Kordofan Larks were in song in sand dunes south-west of Gao, where the spiky grass Schoenefeldia gracilis was dominant (Robert Dowsett & Francoise Lemaire; ABC Bulletin). Similarly, L. Fishpool recorded the song in June in NE Burkina Faso, by a bird “perched on a bush 2m above ground, on sandy soil (mainly of reddish tint)”. This recording was included in the legendary set of sound recordings of African birds by Claude Chappuis (2000).
For Mauritania the following information is given by Isenmann et al. (2010). The Kordofan Lark is thought to be a resident breeder in the Sahelian part of the country. Gee (1984) only found this lark 50-60 km north of Rosso where it was rather common and probably breeding (displaying and diversion behaviours). This location is close to the Senegalese border, and all observations of Kordofan Lark in northern Senegal most likely refer to birds breeding in this area, as there is not yet any evidence of breeding in Senegal. In fact, the species is so poorly known that its nest and eggs remain undescribed.
As written by Nik Borrow & Ron Demey in their reference bird guide, Kordofan Lark is a “small, pale sandy-rufous lark with stout whitish bill and distinctive tricoloured tail pattern (rufous, black and white). When fresh upperpart feathers fringed buff with narrow blackish subterminal crescents”. Its structure is rather similar to Singing Bush-Lark, but the plumage is noticeably different. The picture shows a head and breast pattern that nicely fits the plate in Borrow & Demey, with limited well-defined brownish streaking on the upper breast, sandy-brown head with paler supercilium and nape and a white throat patch extending below the ear coverts. The bird also shows a few fresh scapulars with a neat white fringe and a subterminal dark bar, typical of the species. Its bill also perfectly corresponds with the description given in the Handbook of the Birds of the World, describing the bill as “pale whitish horn, slightly darker tip and dorsal side of upper mandible“. The juvenile is said to have “broader pale feather fringes on back and wing-coverts, heavier dark spotting on breast“.
To sum up, the main characters to look at are the bicoloured bill, brown-rufous upperparts, pattern of fresh upperparts feathers, upperbreast streaking, pale supercilium and the tricoloured tail. These characters are a unique combination amongst larks from the desert.
The group of birds photographed by Tim Wacher show a very pale plumage without breast streaking or contrasting upperparts, an entirely pale bill except for the tip, and no rufous tones in the plumage. At first sight the tail pattern (and length) fits Kordofan, but it lacks the rufous central tail feathers that should be obvious here, and which are clearly visible on the Richard Toll bird. The central tail feathers in the birds below appear more sandy brown than rufous/rusty. These birds also don’t show any white-tipped mantle feathers. As already suspected by Tim, the features shown by these birds thus correspond much more with Dunn’s rather than Kordofan Lark – including the tail pattern, which is quite similar to what can be seen here for example. It’s important to point out (thank you Tim!) that the tail of Dunn’s Lark can apparently also show a considerable variation in length, and that the white margins visible in the photos from Niger are not always evident (or present?).
We’re including the pictures here for comparison purposes, and also because Dunn’s Lark is likely to be found at some point in northern Senegal, given its nomadic habits and that it occurs not far over the border with Mauritania.
Beware also of the possible confusion with rusty females of Black-crowned Sparrow Lark, which can look superficially similar, but show a different tail pattern and proportions. The shorter tail and legs combined with a proportionally large head give a plump silhouette to the bird. Sparrow-larks are also smaller and more compact, and their upper breast is not streaked.
The only other Mirafra species occuring in Senegal is the Singing Bush Lark Mirafra cantillans. This species is fairly common in dry savanna and grassland, and shares some characteristics with Kordofan Lark. The bill can be similarly coloured, the tail can appear tricoloured as well (though less obviously so, and less neatly separated, than in Kordofan – check out variations below) and upper breast is also streaked. In adult plumage the upperparts of Singing Bush Lark is scaly, identification is then straightforward. But in fresh plumage Kordofan Lark shows a scaly plumage as well, thus separating both species can become tricky.
Then what to look at? Global coloration of upperparts seems to be the clue, ground colour being cold sandy-brown for Singing Bush Lark and cinnamon-rufous for Kordofan Lark. Pay also attention to the fresh upperparts feather pattern, Kordofan Lark showing a clear dark subterminal band absent in Singing Bush Lark (this dark line remains on the photographed Kordofan Lark, which shows a fairly worn plumage; this detail is probably only visible at close range). Singing Bush Lark, at least in fresh plumage, typically has a more contrasted head pattern and appears more mottled overall, especially on the mantle and shoulders, with stronger breast streaking than Kordofan.
Obviously, much is still to be learnt about the various Sahelian larks, be it in terms of identification, status & distribution, or ecology!
A few references
Isenmann P., Benmergui M., Browne P., Ba A.D., Diagana C.H., Diawara Y. & El Abidine ould Sidaty Z. (2010). Birds of Mauritania – Oiseaux de Mauritanie. Société d’Etudes Ornithologiques de France, Paris, 408 p.
Morel G., Roux, F. (1962). Données nouvelles sur l’avifaune du Sénégal. L’Oiseau et la Revue Française d’Ornithologie 32: 28-56.
With thanks to Jean-Francois Blanc, Miguel Demeulemeester, Jan Heip, Tim Wacher.
Simon & Bram
New Year, New Birds! Apparently I found another new species to Senegal – needless to say that this resulted in a rather successful day out birding. Which left me wondering, rather pointlessly, how many country firsts have been found on the first day of the year.
So I first went to Lac Rose, and more specifically the steppe to the NE of the lake as this area had produced a lot of good birds last winter, including three or even four Buff-breasted Sandpipers. I was keen to go back and see if any of the “specials” were around again this winter. One of the first birds I found in the short grass was Greater Short-toed Lark, so things were off to a good start.
As I started walking on the far end of the steppe, I found a very pale wheatear: a textbook Isabelline Wheatear, just like last year in January.
The same area held three Tawny Pipits and a few other birds, though not the hoped-for Temminck’s Coursers.
Towards the end of my visit I came across this Southern Grey Shrike – cool bird, but a bit too flighty to allow for decent pictures.
Also around were several Kittlitz’s Plovers (+ Common Ringed and Kentish on the lake shores), at least four Quailfinches thus confirming the species’ presence in the Niayes IBA, a Black-headed Heron, Vieillot’s Barbet dueting in the distance, and so on.
Next up: the Yène-Tode lagoon. While on my previous visit, barely two weeks earlier (17/12), there was still a good amount of water, by now the lake has all but dried up: just a little trickle here and a small pool there, with just a handful of Black-winged Stilts, Spur-winged Lapwings, a lone Knot, Common Sandpiper and a few other waders. With all the waterbirds gone, I didn’t think I’d see much on this visit, but was soon proved to be very wrong!
Shortly after getting out the car, I located a small flock of Yellow Wagtails feeding on a green patch in what used to be the lagoon just a few weeks earlier. A pipit amidst the wagtails was either going to be a Tree or (more likely) a Red-throated Pipit, so I got the bird in the scope… and was a bit puzzled at first that it didn’t fit either species?! As I approached, it flew off and called a few times, confirming my suspicion: a Meadow Pipit!! It landed a hundred meters or so further in more dense vegetation. I knew this was a good species for the country and wanted to get better views and maybe even a few pictures (I didn’t quite realise it had never been confirmed in Senegal before!), so I went after it, flushed it and again heard the diagnostic hurried hiist-ist-ist-ist flight call. It returned to the original spot, and this time round I got really good views plus a few record shots:
Note the dense streaking on a pale buffy background with streaks clotting together on middle of breast, general lack of warm tones (as would be the case for Tree Pipit), fine bill with diffuse yellowish base, absence of clear pale lines on the mantle (as in Red-throated), the “gentle” expression with fairly pale lores, an indistinct supercilium and narrow-ish submoustachial (what a word!) stripe. The rump was clearly unstreaked (thus ruling out Red-throated Pipit) and while I didn’t manage any good pictures of the hind toe, it did appear quite long and pictures show it to be only moderately curved (ruling out Tree Pipit). These pipits are no easy birds to identify on plumage, but luckily the call is so typical and unlike any other pipit that it allowed for a safe ID while I was watching the bird, and I was lucky to get a few decent shots. A few people have asked me to provide more pictures, so here they are – all are originals without any editing except for cropping.
This bird was obviously in a fresh plumage, and can be aged as a first-winter bird based on the shape and colour of the median coverts: the ‘tooth’ on the dark centre with a clear white tip (Svensson 1992) is quite visible in the pictures.
Meadow Pipit is of course a common species throughout much of Europe, be it as a breeding bird or on passage or as a winter visitor. Its non-breeding range covers western Europe and most of the Mediterranean Basin, extending along the Atlantic coast down to the Canary Islands and Morocco. In Mauritania it is considered to be scarce but regular, reaching as far as the Senegal river delta, more or less as shown on the map below (borrowed from xeno-canto). Surely it must occur at least irregularly in northern Senegal, given its status in nearby Mauritania?
While relocating the Meadow Pipit, I also flushed no less than eight Red-throated Pipits as well as three Common Quails. Two Collared Pratincoles were hanging out by the last puddles; the Marsh Harriers and most of the Ospreys are now gone, but there were still at least two Short-toed Eagles in the area, with another two along the track back to Rufisque. Two Mosque Swallow were also around, while two Zebra Waxbills were rather unexpected, given that they’re not supposed to occur in the Dakar region (see last year’s post on the sighting of a group at Technopole). Tawny Pipit was another addition to the site’s ever-growing list.
Following a very successful morning yesterday at Technopole (Short-eared Owl! Iberian Chiffchaff! Jack Snipe!) I stopped by to have a closer look at the numerous waders, given that yesterday I’d forgotten my telescope at home… Nothing out of the ordinary to report today, just tons of waders, gulls (incl. two Mediterranean Gulls) and lots of Caspian Terns (+150, and now also 27 Greater Flamingos (nine were present yesterday). And I relocated the Iberian Chiffchaff quite easily as it’s singing regularly, and tends to keep to a single bush – more on this in another post.
Oh and happy new year!