Year in review: 2018
Just like last year we’re bringing our readers a summary of the past year, reviewing some of the ornithological highlights and discoveries made in Senegal, and recycling some of the pictures and posts that appeared on this website during the past 12 months.
2018 certainly has been a busy year!
We’ll start with the best of all: the discovery of what appears to be an isolated (?) population of Horus Swifts (Martinet horus), some 3,000 km from the nearest known breeding sites and more than 1,600 km from the nearest observations of the species (in northern Ghana). This is probably one of the least expected range extensions uncovered in West Africa in recent years, and something we’re of course quite excited (and rather proud!) of. We found these birds during an epic 4-day trip up north together with Frédéric Bacuez and visiting birder Filip Verroens from Belgium, in early January. Needless to say, the year started off with a bang! Read up the full story here and on Frédéric’s Ornithondar blog (in French). A few of these neat swifts were seen again in February by Frédéric and Daniel Nussbaumer, then in October by Vieux Ngom and myself when some 50 birds were present, again showing signs of local breeding and confirming that these birds are most likely residents here, and just last week a group of visiting American birders saw about 25 birds at Gamadji Sare.
Just a few days earlier, in fact on the first day of the year, we’d already found another species new to Senegal: a Meadow Pipit (Pipit farlouse) at the Yene-Tode lagoon just south of Dakar. This find was a bit more controversial – but probably more expected than those swifts! – in the sense that the pipit shows a fairly unusual plumage for Meadow Pipit and certain characters fit Red-throated Pipit better. However, the unstreaked rump and especially the diagnostic call, which was heard loud & clear several times at close range (but unfortunately not sound-recorded), safely rule out Red-throated Pipit, several of which were present in the area at the same time. Full story, description and many pictures here.
Continuing on the same theme, this past year saw the addition of two more species to the Senegal list: Brown-backed Honeybird – which had already been reported from Wassadou in 2015 but was not documented – and Turati’s Boubou. The former was found by Gabriel Caucanas and friends first at Dindefelo, then at Wassadou and later in the Niokolo-Koba NP (more info here), the latter by resident Casamance birder Bruno Bargain back in October. Both were more or less to be expected and back in July we’d actually predicted that the boubou would be found in Casamance some time soon, given that it is known to occur just across the border in Guinea-Bissau. We’ll write up more about this species in due course, and I hope to soon visit the Ziguinchor area again and see (and record) this little-known species – stay tuned!
With no less than four new species, 2018 definitely boosted the national list which now stands at a respectable 678 species; more on this in a blog piece we wrote on the topic of the national list, which contains a link to a handy spreadsheet with all species seen in Senegal, with English, French and scientific names.
Of course there were also the usual lot of vagrants, mostly Nearctic waders in the Dakar region and especially at Technopole, pretty much as usual!
- Common Shelduck (Tadorne de Belon): eight in the Djoudj NP on 17/1 were likely the same group as seen in the Diawling just across the border in Mauritania on 30/12, while one at Technopole on 18-19/2/18 confirmed the small influx that occurred during the ‘17/’18 winter: 8th and 9th records!
- Red-footed Booby (Fou à pieds rouges): one was photographed at Iles de la Madeleine on 26/1 but was only identified later on, while at Ngor up to two adults were seen on several occasions in spring (17/5-22/5, and again on 11 and 22/6) and one was seen twice in autumn (13 & 15/11). These are the 2nd to 4th records for this tropical seabird, which was seen for the first time in October 2016 only.
- Cinereous (=Black) Vulture (Vautour moine): an imm. west of Fatick on 30/1 and one (different bird) on 26/2 near Sagata, east of Kebemer. These observations coincide with the first records for The Gambia (Feb. ‘18) and Mauritania (Dec. ‘17). We also reported the first record of the species, which had not yet been published so far – more details on the status of this increasing Palearctic vagrant in this piece.
- American Golden Plover (Pluvier bronzé): one at Technopole on 8 April, followed by two autumn birds, at lac Mbeubeusse on 3/11 and barely a week later a different bird at Pointe Sarene near Nianing on 9-10/11. Read more on this species in Senegal here.
- European Golden Plover (Pluvier doré): one at Île de Saloulou (Basse Casamance) on 3/1.
- Lesser Yellowlegs (Chevalier à pattes jaunes): the 8th record was one at Technopole seen by a visiting birder on 8/2 and relocated on 19/2
- Baird’s Sandpiper (Bécasseau de Baird): the second for Senegal (and first properly documented) was found at Technopole on 25/3 and seen again on 8/4.
- Buff-breasted Sandpiper (Bécasseau rousset): two birds stayed for a remarkably long time at Technopole, being present from 13/1 (at least one) up to 19/2 at least, then again on 25/3 though this was probably a new bird given that regular visits earlier in the month failed to relocate the two long-stayers; these are the 8th and 9th records.
- Red-necked Phalarope: (Phalarope à bec étroit): one at Djoudj on 27/2 is the 6th record at least, though it’s quite possible that the species is a more regular visitor than the handful of confirmed records suggest.
- Franklin’s Gull (Mouette de Franklin): one was seen five times between 20/5 and 20/9 at Technopole; we summarised the status and trends of the species in this post.
As usual there are also several African vagrants to be reported, such as Lesser Jacana (Jacana nain) seen on 31/1 and 17/2 (three birds!) at Médina Afia near Manda, Kolda dept., and at Ross Bethio on 15/7 – there are only a handful of previous records, including just one in the north (more on status of this species in this post by Ornithondar). A Pharaoh (= Desert) Eagle-Owl (Grand-duc ascalaphe) filmed at Richard Toll on 20/1 was the third record. Six Senegal Lapwings were found at Kamobeul (Ziguinchor) on 30/9 – apparently the first record in 38 years! Three other species with uncertain status in Senegal – true vagrants or scarce but regular visitors? – were seen in the Niokolo-Koba area: Mottled Swift in February and June; a Forbes’s Plover in June and an Ayres’s Hawk-Eagle on 6/3 (Martinet marbré, Pluvier de Forbes et Aigle d’Ayres) .
A special mention goes to the Kordofan Lark (Alouette du Kordofan) that was photographed at Richard Toll on 1/3 by a group of lucky Belgian birders; this is the first record in several years, and the first pictures to be made available online for this species, prompting us to discuss ID criteria and status in Senegal of this enigmatic Sahel special, see this blog piece co-authored with Simon Cavaillès – by far the most read article on the blog, with more than 500 views since its publication in April.
Several winter visitors were seen in higher than usual numbers or reached areas further south than their usual wintering grounds, such as Short-eared Owl (Hibou des marais; seen in six locations during January-March including a group wintering at Technopole, following the influx in Nov.-Dec.). Other scarce winter visitors included a Little Gull (Mouette pygmée) at Ngor on 12/1, while a group of five Cream-coloured Coursers (Courvite isabelle) near Maleme Hodar (Kaffrine) on 1/3 were possibly the southernmost record ever. Other examples include a Spectacled Warbler (Fauvette à lunettes) near Kaolack on 3/3, a “Desert” Grey Shrike (now surprisingly lumped again with Great rather than Southern Grey Shrike; Pie-grièche grise) in the Boundou reserve on 15/3, and five House Buntings (Bruant du Sahara) at Richard Toll on 1/3.
As usual, a few birds were spotted outside of their regular range in the country: several Pallid Herons on the Cap-Vert peninsula; an African Hawk-Eagle that gave us a bit of an ID challenge at Popenguine (3/11); a Greyish Eagle-Owl photographed at Trois-Marigots on 10/1 (only a couple of previous records from N Senegal, see story on Ornithondar); a Grey Phalarope on 25/2 at Médina Afia (a rare inland record!); a singing Klaas’s Cuckoo near Dagana on 6/10; a Broad-billed Roller at Bango (Saint-Louis) on 31/8; Grey-rumped Swallow at Technopole (7/7); an early Lesser Whitethroat at lake Tanma on 25/9; a Cricket Warbler near Gueuol (north of Kébémer) on 21/11 (Aigle fascié, Grand-duc du Sahel, Phalarope à bec large, Coucou de Klaas, Rolle violet, Hirondelle à croupion gris, Fauvette babillarde, Prinia à front écailleux). In the Djoudj, a Brown Snake-Eagle was reported on 5/12. Familiar Chat and Green Turaco were reported from the Niokolo-Koba NP for the first time, where further observations of Mali Firefinch were made (Traquet familier, Turaco vert, Amarante du Koulikoro). Several species were found for the first time in Casamance, including Glossy Ibis, Singing Bushlark, Plain Martin, Great Reed Warbler – details will follow shortly on this website (Ibis falcinelle, Alouette chanteuse, Hirondelle paludicole, Rousserolle turdoïde). Away from the better known wintering grounds in the north of the country, an Iberian Chiffchaff (Pouillot ibérique) was singing at Wassadou on 25/2, and the Technopole bird found on 31/12/17 continued its presence until 7/1 at least.
New breeding records include what appears to be the first confirmed breeding for the Dakar region of Little Tern in June at Lac Rose with at least 14 nests; in the same location we found a nest of Plain-backed Pipit, while a Quailfinch at lac Mbeubeusse on 18/11 suggests that the species may be breeding in the niayes region (Sterne naine, Pipit à dos uni, Astrild-caille). Successful breeding of White-backed Night-Herons (Bihoreau à dos blanc) was confirmed in two locations in Casamance and breeding is also likely along the Gambia river at Wassadou where Pel’s Fishing Owl (Chouette-pêcheuse de Pel) must also have bred. Black-winged Stilts (Echasse blanche) bred once again at Technopole where low water levels created decent conditions in April-June. And a nice breeding record was that of a female Standard-winged Nightjar found incubating two eggs at Pointe Sarène on 4/8 (Engoulevent à balanciers).
A few unseasonal visitors were noted, e.g. early Marbled Ducks and a Black-necked Grebe near Djoudj on Oct. 6th, Western Olivaceous and Melodious Warblers as well as a Woodchat Shrike and even two European Bee-eaters in June; an adult Sabine’s Gull at Ngor on 30/7 (first July record it seems?), and summer Yellow-legged Gulls at Lac Rose (Sarcelle marbrée, Grèbe à cou noir, Hypolaïs obscure et polyglotte, Pie-grièche à tête rousse, Guêpier d’Europe, Mouette de Sabine, Goéland leucophée). Up north, a White-throated Bee-eater and a Pygmy Sunbird were photographed in January near Saint-Louis (Guêpier à gorge blanche, Souïmanga pygmée).
We also continued our seabird migration monitoring efforts during 2018, both in spring and in autumn. Spring migration was summarised in two posts (covering April and May) but the autumn totals are yet to be published. Highlights included decent numbers of Long-tailed Skua (500!) and Grey Phalaropes (1,256!) seen in August when fairly strong north-westerlies created ideal conditions to see these highly pelagic migrants from the coast; both species saw new day records for West Africa it seems. Other good ones included at least 19 Barolo/Boyd’s Shearwaters in Aug.-Sept., a Sooty Tern on 17/9 and several Bridled Terns, while Great Shearwaters passed through in modest numbers around mid-November (Puffin de Barolo/Macaronésie, Sterne fuligineuse, Sterne bridée, Puffin majeur). A pelagic trip on October 1st yielded reasonable numbers of Wilson’s Storm-Petrels (Océanite de Wilson), some shearwaters and skuas, but no rarities this time round. A visiting birder was lucky to see a White-faced Storm Petrel on 3/12 at Iles de la Madeleine, while an observation of Band-rumped Storm Petrel was reported far offshore off Saint-Louis on 25/9 (Océanites frégate et de Castro).
On the ring recovery front, we managed to read some 100 colour rings, mainly of Audouin’s and Slender-billed Gulls (41 & 19, resp.) but also several Greater Flamingos from Spain, a Common Ringed Plover from Portugal, and the first mentions of Avocet in our database (two birds from Spain) as well as a French Mediterranean Gull (“RV2L”) which appears to be the first recovery of this species from Senegal (Goélands d’Audouin et railleur, Flamant rose, Grand Gravelot, Avocette, Mouette mélanocéphale). I now have some 420 ring recoveries in my little database: maybe this year I’ll find time to write up some of the key findings.
A few blog posts on birding sites and other topics were published in 2018, namely the following:
- Senegal as a destination for birders, written up by Paul Robinson following his visit to the UK Bird Fair in 2017
- Blog posts on the birds of Dindefelo and Wassadou following visits to these two major birding hotspots in the south-east of the country
- The Casamance Bird Atlas by the association APALIS
- Birding the Niokolo-Koba: guest blog by John Rose and Dimitri Dagone
- The formal protection of Technopole back in October was of course a major event
- A xeno-canto audio guide to the birds of Senegal
- Last but certainly not least, the last blog piece of the year covered the description of a new species of Square-tailed Drongo
We’ve also been pretty active writing up more formal pieces on birds in Senegal, with several articles published in 2018. This post is actually getting a bit too long so I’ll write about these recent publications in a forthcoming article. For now, go out birding!
Finally, thanks to all our readers for their support and encouragement throughout the year, which has seen a further increase in number of page views (almost 25,000) and website visitors. Oh and do let me know if I forgot anything in the above review, which is just an informal overview – nothing official here!
Identification of Kordofan Lark and Status in Senegal
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
Fishpool L., Oueda G. & Compaoré P. (2000). Kordofan Bush Lark Mirafra cordofanica and Desert Lark Ammomanes deserti, additions to the avifauna of Burkina Faso. Malimbus 22: 49-54.
Gee, J.P. (1984). The birds of Mauritania. Malimbus 6: 31-66.
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.
Lamarche B. (1980). Liste commentée des oiseaux du Mali. 2eme partie: Passereaux. Malimbus 3: 73-102.
Morel G., Roux, F. (1962). Données nouvelles sur l’avifaune du Sénégal. L’Oiseau et la Revue Française d’Ornithologie 32: 28-56.
Petersen B.S., Christensen K.D., Jensen F.P. (2007). Bird population densities along two precipitation gradients in Senegal and Niger. Malimbus 29: 101-121.
With thanks to Jean-Francois Blanc, Miguel Demeulemeester, Jan Heip, Tim Wacher.
Simon & Bram