An unexpected sighting of a Short-eared Owl (Hibou des marais) migrating past Ngor this morning prompted me to have a closer look at the status of this bird in Senegal, and to attempt to assemble past records and available information about its distribution. It also so happens (a coincidence?) that there were several more records in recent weeks, including one seen just yesterday in the Saloum delta, and one early November in Senegal’s Far East, at Boundou nature reserve. Today’s post will be a rather short one, without any pictures to share – unfortunately (you do get lots of references instead!). [correction! I managed to take a few pics at the end of December, so I’ve inserted them here]
This morning, towards the end of a very quiet seawatch session, I noticed an unusual bird coming in over the ocean from a north-westerly direction, maybe about a kilometer away from land. It was easily identified as a Short-eared Owl thanks to its distinctive shape and plumage: pale plumage, long wings with pale yellow “hands” and a distinctive black comma on the underwing and dark primary tips, which distinguish it from Marsh Owl. It made slow progress, turning to the south and eventually reaching Ngor island, but proceeded without landing and seemed to continue towards the Almadies area (if I’d been at home, I may have seen it from my balcony!!). Could it perhaps have crossed from the Cape Verde islands, or hopped on a ship somewhere to the north of Dakar, and took off upon seeing the Mamelles in the distance?
In summary, Short-eared Owl is a scarce but seemingly regular (and likely annual) winter visitor to Senegal. Most observations are from the north, at Djoudj and Richard-Toll, with a scattering of records from elsewhere in the country: Dakar, Popenguine, Saloum, Boundou.
The earliest available reference is of course by Morel & Morel (who else?), who report to have seen it “on several occasions” around Richard-Toll, but don’t give much other detail other than that it is mainly seen on “autumn” and “spring” passage, with a mid-winter record in January 1978. The only record away from their study site that they mention is of a specimen collected at Sangalkam in the Dakar region, not far from Lac Rose, on 3/2/76 by Blancou.
In the early nineties, Short-eared Owl was regularly observed in the Djoudj national park, with at least 20 records “between 23 October and 29 March: three singles, 1990-91; 12 records in 1991-92 (max. 6 on 10 Dec 1991); five, 1992-93 (max. 3, Jan 1993). Previously only one record was known from the Djoudj (Dupuy 1971)” Elsewhere in Senegal, Sauvage & Rodwell add a single record of one bird at Palmarin in January 1992, but there’s also one from 27/2/91 at Popenguine which they seemingly were unaware of at the time (O. Benoist on eBird).
As is quite often the case it seems, there follows a gap in published data during the late nineties and first decade of the 21st century, and we need to fast-forward almost 20 (!) years until the next published records, listed below. All are of single birds between early November and late January.
- 22/1/10 two in Djoudj NP (N. Borrow et al., ABC Recent Reports, but see also this post on Ornithondar)
- 23/1/13 at Kousmar, Kaolack (S. Cavaillès), where the species is assumed to be a regular yet very scarce winter visitor.
- 15/1/14 in Djoudj NP (W. Jones on eBird)
- 12 or 13/11/14 at Iles de la Madeleine (P. Ricceri & M. Salvioni, Gambia and Northern Senegal trip report)
- 14/12/14 two at St Louis hydrobase (B. Gleitsmann on eBird)
- 24/1/15 Iles de la Madeleine (J. Rose et al., Malimbus 38, 2016: Observations ornithologiques au Sénégal, also noted the same day by this Spanish group)
- 15/11/15 at the Langue de Barbarie NP, photographed (R. Benjumea on Observado.org; see also ABC Recent Reports, and a short post on Ornithondar in which Frederic nicely summarises the status of Short-eared and Marsh Owls)
So just seven records from 2010-2016… and now for 2017:
- 3/11/17 in the Boundou nature reserve (T. Riviere & E. Tanguy on eBird), one of several recent additions to the reserve’s bird list
- 6/11/17 near Palmarin (J. Hooijmeijer, T. Jager)
- 30/11/17 at Kousmar, Kaolack (M. J. Valencia & C. Clemente on eBird)
- 1/12/17 at Palmarin (T. de Kruif on Observado.org)
- 2/12/17 at Ngor, actively migrating
- 14/12/17 at Guereo, roosting under a bush near the Somone lagoon (J. Buvat on Observado.org)
- 25/12/17 near Gandiol (south of Saint-Louis), roosting in a flood plain of the Guembeul area. See header picture and here.
- 31/12/17 at Technopole, Dakar, bringing this autumn’s total to eight birds
Addenda: several more Short-eared Owls were reported in January-March 2018:
- no less than three birds were seen near Palmarin on 22/1/18 by visiting Swiss birders C. Ruchet and Y. Menétrey,
- on the same day (22/1), one was found dead on the N2 road near the Ndiael Fauna Reserve (Daniel & Alix Mignot)
- one was seen on 24/1 “from our cars ‘in the middle of no-where’ north of Kaolack on the road to Louga, i.e. in the Sahel zone with scattered larger trees, by a Danish group (Hans Meltofte et al.)
- seven (!) were at Technopole on 3/2 (E. & J. Regala Ruiz). In subsequent weeks, at least up to late March, up to six birds were regularly reported here. These are also the first February and March records it seems
- one was at Iles de la Madeleine on 25/2 (E. & J. Regala Ruiz)
- one in Djoudj NP on 27/2 (M. Demeulemeester on Observado.org)
That’s now 14 records of at least 22 birds, and definitely a proper influx.
Surely there are other old (and new) records that are hidden in note books, travel reports, trip lists etc., and that were never reported to the ABC for inclusion in the Recent Reports round-up. And maybe even a few birds seen by local birders, eco-guides and park rangers but that were even less likely to have ever been reported, for lack of a proper bird records database. For instance, it has been mentioned from the Ndiael reserve (between Saint-Louis and Richard-Toll), but I didn’t find any records yet. It also turns out that the species has apparently been seen quite regularly in the Khelcom area in recent years, by Dutch researchers working on Montagu’s Harriers here. A shame though that they never reported or published their sightings.
Regardless, what stands out here is the good run of recent records, particularly this year. A coincidence, a real increase of the species, or better coverage and especially better reporting of data by observers? It’s unlikely that there is a real increase in numbers given its overall rather precarious conservation status in Europe. However, Short-eared Owl is known to have highly fluctuating population trends and tends to be a nomadic species with irruptive movements in certain areas, responding to abundance of rodents in both the breeding and wintering areas, so it certainly looks like it’s been a good year for them. Let’s see if other records resurface, or if more are seen in coming months. [note 31/12: several more birds have been seen since I originally wrote this, and one can definitely talk about a proper influx this autumn!]
What about elsewhere in West Africa?
The species is thought to be a regular winter visitor to Mauritania, where it is “recorded in small numbers on both passages (October/November and March/April)”. Isenmann et al. (2010) also mention that in winter the species is seen in open areas around wetlands and in coastal areas (northwards to the Banc d’Arguin). There are at least 12 records from Cape Verde, in August and October-March, from most islands but also including two records of birds “seen from ships at sea between the islands” (Hazevoet 2014), so these were likely of actively migrating birds, just like mine this morning at Ngor.
Short-eared Owl is thought to be a regular winter visitor along the Niger river in Mali (Lamarche 1980 even considers it “rather common” in the Delta Central) and around lake Chad in Nigeria and Chad. At the same latitude, Niger may also be part of its more or less regular range, as there are at least four known records. It is quite rare in The Gambia where there are a handful of observations, surprisingly perhaps mostly from the Upper River Division. The ABC Recent Reports mention one exception, of a bird disturbed while roosting at Pirang, close to Banjul, on 16 February 2003. Olly Fox kindly supplied two recent records from Kartong Bird Observatory, on the coast right on the border with Casamance: 30/10/15 and 24/11/17, both of singles flushed from dry grass/scrub amongst dune vegetation. At least two others were reported from The Gambia later on, including a bird again at Pirang which according to a local guide had been present in the area “most of the winter” (eBird record). The species was also reported in January or February 2018 from Guinea-Bissau for the first time – details will be added later.
Borrow & Demey show records of vagrants in Guinea and in Liberia, with one record each: a very old one from the Fouta-Djallon (Maclaud 1906, see Morel & Morel 1988, Liste des oiseaux de Guinée), while the observation in Liberia was of a bird “hunting insects every evening 18 November to 10 December 1983 on a road passing through a high grass savanna clearing at Tuzon” (Gatter 1998, Birds of Liberia). There also is one record further south, in Cameroon on 14/1/08, of what was obviously a vagrant, flushed “on a lava flow in the southern foothills of Mt Cameroon” (Riegert et al. 2008. The first record of Short-eared Owl Asio flammeus in SW Cameroon. Malimbus 30).
So let’s see if there will be more records this year – I certainly hope so, as it’s always a pleasure to see this special owl, wherever in its wide range that may be (it is indeed an extremely widespread species, with a more or less continuous breeding range throughout Eurasia, in North America, and even the Caribbean and South America).
Post updated several times with records supplied by Simon Cavaillès, Oliver Fox, Jos Hooijmeijer, Miguel Demeulemeester, Hans Meltofte, Edgar Ruiz and others (many thanks!)