There’s a handful of bird species here in Dakar that remain rather enigmatic, and whose status and patterns of occurrence remain to be fully understood. One of these is the Yellow-throated Longclaw (Macronyx croceus), a member of the pipits and wagtails. Longclaws are a genus that is entirely restricted to Africa where eight different species are known, some of which have small or patchy distribution ranges. The Yellow-throated Longclaw is certainly the most widespread species, but here in Senegal we’re right at the edge of its range: while nowhere common, it’s probably quite widespread in Basse-Casamance (Ziguinchor, Oussouye, Cap Skirring/Diembering, Kafountine/Abene… even Sedhiou a bit further inland). There are just a handful of observations from north of the Gambia, where the species is apparently on the decline, at least in coastal areas where very few recent sightings it seems. The scant information that we have is mostly based on old records from the Dakar peninsula, more on these later. It’s clear though that this is a very little known species that at best is obviously scarce and localised, and while I certainly have it somewhere in the back of my mind when visiting lac Rose, I didn’t think I’d ever see it here.
Until yesterday morning, when I came across not one but two of these cool “sentinels” as they’re called in French: first one on the margins of the Mbeubeusse wetlands (99% dry now!), a bird flying over a reedbed and landing out of sight quite a distance away. A rather frustrating sighting but just decent enough to confirm the id: broad wings, medium-long tail with white corners, vivid yellow throat and breast with black markings on side of throat. I may have heard it singing shortly before I saw it but not sure as it called only once and Crested Larks can sound a bit similar!
The second bird was found barely an hour later at lac Rose, right at the Bonaba Café on the northern shores of the lake, and “performed” much better than the first! Upon arriving at this site, I could clearly hear it singing for several minutes on end; it even allowed me to get quite close so I could document this bird on camera (and on sound recorder: a sample of its simple yet rather melodious one-note song here.
These are the old records known from the Dakar area:
- August 1968 – “seen several times in coastal region 20 km east of Dakar” (M.P. Doutre; Morel & Morel) – this may well be near lac Malika or Mbeubeusse
- 9 April 1977 – 2 singing, Lac Rose (W. Nezadal on eBird)
- January 1984 – “Dakar” (Paul Géroudet in M&M)
- February 1990 – one seen “north of Dakar” within the Dakar atlas square, but this could be anywhere between Guediawaye and Kayar… (Sauvage & Rodwell 1998)
- 17 February 1991 – 1, Lac Malika (O. Benoist on eBird)
More recently, there’s an observation of no less than five birds on 18 Jan. 2011 at lac Rose seen during a tour organised by Richard Ottvall for the Swedish AviFauna group. Almost five years later, another mention from the same site, unfortunately without any further comments other than that it was on 20 November 2014 at lac Rose (near the southern edge, not far from Le Calao lodge), by J. Nicolau during a scouting visit for Birding Ecotours. The only other recent record north of the Gambia that I came across was of two birds in the Saloum delta (though where precisely?) on 8 January 2017 (J. Wehrmann on observation.org).
Could it be that there are just a few birds that are mostly escaping us – some relictual population from greener days when rains were plentiful here? It’s hard to believe though that if they were present year-round, that we haven’t come across them since we do visit Lac Rose and Mbeubeusse fairly regularly, in all seasons. Or are they present only certain years, and if so at what time of the year? The series of observations from the late sixties up to early nineties is certainly intriguing and would suggest that the species was fairly well established in the Niayes region, especially when one factors in the even lower observer pressure than currently. With records from January (2), February (2), April (1), June (the two in this report), August (1) and November (1) it seems that they can be expected pretty much at any time of the year. More investigations are needed of course and we’ll see if we can find out more in coming months.
Some other good birds from the weekend…
Also on the lake shore were a few Lesser Black-backed Gulls with a second summer Yellow-legged Gull in the mix, some 33 Audouin’s Gulls (i.e. far less than last year at the end of June), Little Terns at colony, a female Greater Painted Snipe (first time I see this species here) and a few other waders (nine Sanderling, 40+ Common Ringed Plovers. a few Greenshanks and Grey Plovers, one Redshank), as well as at least three Brown Babblers – my first in the Dakar region I believe (Goélands brun, leucophée, d’Audouin; Sternes naines, Rhynchée peinte, Sanderling, Grand Gravelot, Chevaliers aboyeur, Pluvier argenté, Gambette, Cratérope brun).
A brief walk and a quick scan of the steppe to the north-east revealed a few Singing Bush Larks and the usual loose flocks of Kittlitz’s Plovers (31 birds including at least 2 small chicks and an older juv.), though no Temminck’s Coursers were seen this time round. Also here was another Osprey and a few Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters, which were also heard around the lake (Alouette chanteuse, Gravelot pâtre, Balbuzard pêcheur, Guêpier de Perse).
At Mbeubeusse, apart from the Longclaw the surprise du jour was a fly-over pair of Spur-winged Geese (Oie-armée de Gambie), no doubt looking for fresh water…
Target of the day however was Black-winged Stilt – well, in addition to a few others such as the gull flock I wanted to check on – as I was keen on gathering more breeding data. More on this in a later post, but here’s already a picture of an adult with one of its chicks, from Mbeubeusse where there’s hardly any water left in the small pond close to the main road (= near the end of the Extension VDN). Just like last year, several families and nests were found at Lac Rose, and this morning at Technopole I managed to do a fairly extensive count of the number of families and nests. The breeding season is still in full swing and I hope that many of the birds that are still incubating will see their eggs hatch: with low water levels, predation by feral dogs, Pied Crows, Sacred Ibises etc. may be even more of a risk than usual. Overall it certainly seems that there are fewer nests and fewer grown chicks than last year – again, more on this later!
Not a target but always a pleasure to watch these highly underrated doves:
Other stuff of interest from this morning’s visit to Technopole – shortly after the first rain of the season (a very small shower only, but nevertheless: first rain since early October!) – were four Broad-billed Rollers which just like last year seem to favour the area to the NW of the main lake, again Diederik Cuckoo singing, the same Yellow-legged Gull as the previous day at Lac Rose, close to 1,500 Slender-billed Gulls including the first juveniles of the year, as well as the first Black-tailed Godwits of the “autumn”: these are birds that have just arrived back from western Europe, most likely failed breeders. (Rolle violet, Coucou didric, Goélands leucophée et railleur, Barge à queue noire)
Full list here.
Visitors to Technopole should know that there is now a poste de contrôle (check point) near the entrance, just after the Sonatel building, manned by rangers from the DPN (National Park Service). This is the first tangible sign that the newly acquired protected status of the site is actually making a difference; hopefully their presence will help prevent illegal dumping and may give potential visitors more of a sense of security. Please do stop and explain that you’re there to watch birds (they will ask anyway, and if you don’t stop they’ll tell you off on the way out). Do note that entrance remains free to all, and that there’s no entrance fee.
Lots going on at Technopole at the moment, and hardly any time to write… pretty much as usual.
So here’s a quick update and a few pics, starting with some of the highlights:
- The two obliging Buff-breasted Sandpipers are still present, seen each time in the area behind the fishermen’s cabin. The country’s 7th or 8th record, and also by far the longest staying birds.
- This may be getting boring now and a bit of a déjà-vu, but yet again a Lesser Yellowlegs showed up in Dakar. This one was photographed on 8/2/18 by J. Dupuy and posted on observation.org; as far as I know this is the 8th record for Senegal and the third for Technopole (after singles in August 2015 and January 2016). Yesterday morning, a visit with French birders Gabriel and Etienne allowed us to relocate the bird, a very nice adult coming into breeding plumage:
- Almost just as good, and another first for Technopole (232 species on the list now), was this Common Shelduck – not totally unexpected given the small influx that took place this winter, but still a very good record and always nice to see this pretty duck showing up on my local patch. Unlike its name suggests, it’s definitely not common in Senegal, as there appear to be only about nine previous (published) records, two of which were also obtained this winter.
- Along the same lines, another scarce species showed up at Technopole recently, possibly still the same as the one I saw at the end of December: a Jack Snipe on 12 & 19/2. Only a few Garganeys are present at the moment, but Northern Shovelers are still numerous these days. At east three Eurasian Teal were with the preceding species (two males on 27/10, and a pair on 10/2).
- Remember that influx of Short-eared Owls? Well it looks like it’s not finished yet, with the discovery of no less than seven (maybe even more!) Short-eared Owls roosting together, on 3/2, by Edgar and Jenny Ruiz (at least two birds were still in the same place on 18/2).
Switching categories now – ring reading! Even with such a diversity and sheer numbers of ducks, waders, terns, gulls to go through, we’re still paying attention to ringed birds. And making very modest contributions to our knowledge of migration strategies, survival rates, and much more – one bird at a time. Since the start of the year we’ve been able to read about 50 rings of more than 40 different birds, mostly Audouin’s, Lesser Black-backed and Slender-billed Gulls, but also a few more original species:
- The flock of 170-180 Avocets that are still present contains at least two colour-ringed birds, both from SW Spain where they were ringed as chicks in… 2005! That’s nearly 13 years for both birds – a respectable age, though it seems that this species can live way longer that that: the record for a British (& Irish) Avocet is nearly 24 years (impressive… though not quite as much as a that 40-year old Oystercatcher!). Interestingly, “RV2” had already been seen at Technopole five years ago, by Simon, but no other sightings are known for this bird.
- A few Black-tailed Godwits are still around though the majority has now moved on to the Iberian Peninsula from where they will continue to their breeding grounds in NW Europe. Reading rings has been difficult recently as birds tend to either feed in deeper water, or are simply too far to be read. This one below is “G2GCCP”, a first-winter bird that hatched last spring in The Netherlands and which will likely spend its first summer here in West Africa. Note the overall pale plumage and plain underparts compared to the adult bird in the front, which has already started moulting into breeding plumage.
- Mediterranean Gulls are again relatively numerous this winter, with some 8-10 birds so far. As reported earlier, one bird was ringed: Green RV2L seen on 21 & 27/1, apparently the first French Med Gull to be recovered in Senegal.
- The Caspian Tern “Yellow AV7” is probably a bird born in the Saloum delta in 2015 – awaiting details.
- The regular Gull-billed Tern U83, ringed as a chick in 2009 in Cadiz province, seems to be pretty faithful to Technopole: after four sightings last winter, it’s again seen on most visits since the end of January.
A morning out to Lac Rose on 11/2 with visiting friends Cyril and Gottlieb was as always enjoyable, with lots of good birds around:
- The first Temminck’s Courser of the morning was a bird flying over quite high, uttering its typical nasal trumpeting call. The next four were found a little further along, while yet another four birds were flushed almost from under the car, allowing for a few decent pictures:
- The now expected Greater Short-toed Larks were not as numerous as last year, with a few dozen birds seen, sometimes side by side with Tawny Pipit. No Isabelline nor any Black-eared Wheatears this time round, but one of the Northern Wheatears was a real good fit for the leucorrhoa race from Greenland (& nearby Canada and Iceland).
- As usual, a few Singing Bush Larks were about, though not very active and as always quite difficult to get good views of as they often remain close to cover, even sheltering under bushes.
- Quite surprisingly, we saw lone Sand Martins (twice), a House Martin, and especially Red-rumped Swallow – the latter a long-awaited addition to my Senegal list. Already on the move, or are these hirundines overwintering in the area?
- A final stop on the edge of the plain, where the steppe transitions into the dunes on one side and a seasonal pond (now dry) on the other. Here we found a couple of species that I’d seen in the same spot before, particularly two that have a pretty localised distribution in western Senegal it seems: Yellow-fronted Canary, and Splendid Sunbird. Also seen here were another Red-necked Falcon, Mottled Spinetail, Vieillot’s Barbet, etc.
- And plenty of gulls by the lake! First time I see this many gulls here, with at least 800 birds, mainly Audouin’s (ca. 350) and some 500 Lesser Black-backed Gulls. Lots of ringed birds of course, but most were too far and we didn’t take the time to go through the entire flock.
And elsewhere in Dakar…
- A “Pallid Heron” Ardea (cinerea) monicae was found by Gottlieb and Cyril at Parc de Hann on 13/2 (but not relocated yesterday…). A rare Dakar record!
- Seawatch sessions at Ngor continue to deliver good species, most notably good views of several European Storm-Petrels these past couple of weeks. Lots have been seen along the Petite Cote (Saly, Somone, Toubab Dialaw) recently, and especially at the Gambia river mouth where several dozen birds were counted.
In recent weeks I’ve had the chance to pay a few visits to several of the Niayes wetlands, first at Mboro (twice, on Nov. 16 and 18), then Lac Tanma and the wetlands between Mbayakh and Kayar (Dec. 11), and finally near Lac Rose (Dec. 18). Lake Tanma has already featured several times in these pages, and Technopole is of course one of the most prominent and often visited sites, but little has been written about some of the other wetlands along the “Grande Côte”.
Since they are considered an “IBA” (Important Bird Area) by BirdLife International, there’s a pretty good description of the area on BirdLife’s website, so rather than coming up with my own overview I’ll quote from those pages. The Niayes are “a string of permanent freshwater lakes and additional temporarily wet depressions (niayes) lying along a line running north-east from the outskirts of Dakar to around 60 km south-west of St Louis. The lakes lie behind the ridge of coastal sandy dunes, in shallow depressions at 1–4 m above sea-level, over a distance of c.150 km. They are replenished both by rainfall and from the underlying water-table, which lies close to the surface. The wetlands cover 40 km² at low water [i.e. during the dry season]; at high water, all the lakes can increase their surface area five-fold.”
As is the case with many other IBAs in Senegal, the Niayes face quite a number of threats and have no legal protected status: “The whole site is threatened by human encroachment and various forms of development, particularly those niayes such as Hann Mariste and Pikine-Guédiawaye [= Technopole!] that are within or close to Dakar and to the main road leading east and north out of the capital. One of the main threats is from drainage and land reclamation for building, which is proceeding very fast. Over-abstraction of water and various forms of pollution threaten the hydrology and water quality of the underlying water-table. In addition to their immediate conservation value, the niayes represent a huge educational resource (large numbers of easily visible, interesting birds, very close to dense urban centres), which will also be lost if the site is further degraded.”
The two images below, taken in opposite directions just a few minutes apart, nicely illustrate the effect the presence of water has on the landscape – and by extension on its wildlife: dry dunes with sparse thorny shrubs on one side, lush vegetation and cultivated fields on the other.
The small lake just south of Mboro (near the ruins of Hotel du Lac, a couple of hundred meters off the main Mbayakh-Mboro road) is one of several wetlands around this busy little town, and a perfect spot for a quick stop while traveling from Dakar to northern Senegal (or for the return journey!). While we only scratched the surface, the lake can obviously be a very rewarding birding site both for local and migrant species. There are impressive densities of African Swamphen, African Jacana, Common Moorhen and Squacco Heron, and several Black-headed Herons have been seen here on every visit. In November, a handful of Pintails and White-faced Whistling-Ducks were here, as were a few waders: Black-winged Stilt, Wattled and Spur-winged Lapwings, Wood Sandpiper, Common Redshank, Common Snipe. Several Little Grebes were around, including at least one breeding pair. During a quick stop on 4/1/17, in addition to most of the species already listed there were 8 Shovelers, a Garganey and ca. 18 Ruff here.
The area is obviously quite good for raptors, with African Hobby (a presumed pair), Marsh Harrier, and Short-toed Eagle seen on both visits in November, as well as Black-winged Kite on Nov. 18th. While checking the sky for raptors, Mottled Spinetail could easily be seen among the Little Swifts, while the bushes on the slope above the lake held African species such as Purple Roller, Northern Anteater Chat, Piapiac, Yellow-billed Shrike, and Fork-tailed Drongo.
Also here was a Gambian Sun Squirrel Heliosciurus gambianus which was spotted by my friends shortly after I’d left the site. Unlike the Striped Ground Squirrel, it’s not an easy species to see in these parts of the country.
At “lake” Mbaouane (or Mbawan as it seems to be spelled locally) there are extensive moist grasslands as seen on the first picture in this post, and there’s a sort of oasis running from the town of Mbayakh to the lake. I’ve been wanting to visit for quite some time but it’s only recently that I decided to head out there. That morning I first went to Lake Tanma, but this has completely dried up by now, with only the two small ponds on either side of the bridge now holding some water. As a result, all the ducks, waders, gulls and terns have left the site, with only a lone Osprey to be seen where less than a month before there were thousands of birds. We’ll now need to wait until August next year for the lake to fill up again. (Birding was still good though: a Short-toed Eagle, a pair of Temminck’s Coursers, a juvenile Green-winged Pytillia, 2-3 Purple Rollers, plus the usual suspects and a young African Wolf all made up for the lack of waterbirds).
One of the first birds I saw after getting out of the car near Mbaouane was a Blue-bellied Roller, a species that I hadn’t seen so far in the Dakar area (my only record up to now was in Casamance). It’s likely a rare resident or maybe a wet season visitor up to this latitude and surely it’s at the edge of its range here. Morel & Morel mention that they can be seen up to around Thies, which is just a bit further inland. It turned out that there were two birds here, presumably a pair (in the picture below, one can see that the bird on the left has longer tail streamers; I assume this to be the male).
Another interesting record here was that of a Quailfinch, which in typical fashion flew over hesitantly while uttering its distinctive call. This species is well known from the Saloum delta and is also present in the lower Senegal delta, albeit in lower densities it seems, but is not regularly recorded from the Niayes as far as I know (which admittedly is most likely a reflection of the absence of birders in this part of the country!). Regardless, the fact that this is largely a resident species and that December corresponds to the breeding season in Senegambia, one can assume that the species occurs routinely in the area.
Some of the other birds seen here were Purple and Black-headed Herons, while Mottled Spinetail, Red-chested and Mosque Swallows were flying overhead.
Also known as Lac Retba, this is a bit of an unusual Niayes lake in the sense that it is a permanent salt water body, well known for its salt industry. As such, bird life is quite different from the other wetlands in the region: besides a few gulls, Greater Flamingos and a few waders, few birds are present on the lake itself. During my recent visit to the place, there were no flamingos – only a single Audouin’s Gull, the usual Ospreys (probably 15-20 in total), but a decent gathering of waders was found towards the eastern edge of the lake: Common Ringed and Kentish Plovers, Grey Plover, Whimbrel, Little Stint, Sanderling, and Turnstone. Also here was a White Wagtail, while the plains to the north-east of the lake held Singing Bushlark, Chestnut-backed Sparrowlarks, Tawny Pipit, Yellow Wagtails, etc.
I then made my way to the edge of the seasonal lakes (now all dried up) and the dunes even further towards Kayar, where a good mix of local species was to be found: Black-headed Heron, Double-spurred Francolin, Vieillot’s Barbet, Grey Woodpecker, Brown Babbler, Splendid Sunbird, White-rumped and – more surprisingly – Yellow-fronted Canary to name but a few. Common Whitethroat was the only northern migrant here.
On the way back, a quick scan of a grassy field produced the surprise of the day under the form of three Buff-breasted Sandpipers loosely associating with a flock of Kittlitz’s Plovers – see my earlier post on this exceptional record, plus the bonus picture below.
As if one Nearctic wader weren’t enough, today I was lucky to find two transatlantic vagrant species. We had planned a family weekend at Lac Rose which we haven’t visited in a long time, but a change in plans meant that we had to cancel our reservation at the Gite du Lac Rose. As I had my mind set on a few sites that I wanted to explore near Lac Rose, I decided to make the trip there this morning – and wasn’t disappointed!
I’ll report on some of the more interesting sightings in an upcoming post (think Tawny Pipit, Singing Bushlark, Brown Babbler etc.), but for now I just want to share a few pictures of no less than three BUFF-BREASTED SANDPIPERS. I found these pretty birds while scanning a grassy plain where I’d seen a few Kittlitz’s Plovers, 32 to be precise, while on my way back to the lake (I’d been exploring the area to the north-east of the lake). The sandpipers appeared to loosely associate with this flock, and were constantly feeding in hurried fashion. I was of course hoping to find something special in this area, say a Cream-coloured Courser that came down with the cold weather of the last few days, or more Greater Short-toed Larks, but didn’t think I’d come across three of these beauties.
Could they be new arrivals, or have they been hanging around here for a while now? It may well be that they end up spending a few weeks in the area, given the late date for passing migrants, plus the habitat here seems to be just perfect for this species, and definitely more typical than the mudflats at Palmarin where we found Senegal’s second Buff-breasted Sandpiper barely three weeks earlier. In fact, could it be that this is exactly the same spot where the country’s first record was obtained in April 1985?
Getting decent pictures was tricky – first because of the distance (I spotted the group while counting the plovers, from the car), then because of the wind and especially the restlessness of all three birds, which just wouldn’t stop moving. The picture above is the only one of reasonable quality that shows all three birds together, and it quite nicely illustrates today’s windy conditions.
The obliging sandpipers allowed for a fairly close approach, up to approx. 20 meters at times, and the only time they flew up was when a local dog – perhaps realising that I was somehow particularly interested in these three little birds – decided to start chasing the sandpipers! Luckily it lost interest after a couple of minutes, and the trio settled again and continued feeding.
All content to have found not one but three American sandpipers close to home, and wondering just how many vagrant waders show up in Senegal every year, I decided to make a real quick stop at Technopole on the way back home. Main purpose was to check whether I could relocate last week’s Jack Snipe, but of course things rarely go according to plan here… This time, while doing a quick scan of the waders behind the golf club house, a fairly dark Pluvialis plover caught my attention. It was partially concealed in a group of Black-tailed Godwits, but the contrasting plumage with a pale supercilium, dark cap and obvious “smudge” across the breast all shouted American Golden Plover!
I eventually managed to get better views, including of the wing tip, revealing an important primary projection and primaries extending beyond the tail tip. Getting good views was tricky but I ended up getting a few usable pictures, which I thought at the time should be sufficient to document this potential 10th record for Senegal, if I counted correctly.
However… looking back at these pictures now more than a year later (I’m updating this post in April 2018), I’m much less confident and I feel that the bird is too grey, too bulky and especially the bill is too heavy for American Golden Plover. Probably a slightly unusual Grey Plover after all?
No more time to go look for the snipe, though as it turned out I ended up getting back home more than an hour later than planned thanks to two flat tires which took a while to get fixed at a local vulcanisateur in nearby Pikine. Surely the odds of getting two flat tires at the same time (and obviously with just one spare tire in the boot) are close to those of finding an American wader species in Senegal… lucky day!
I won’t be able to return to either site before the end of the year, but it may well be that both the sandpipers and the plover stick around for a while.
To be continued, hopefully.
…and continued it has! A few days ago (this edit was made on 25.12) , I learned that Frédéric Bacuez (ornithondar) found a Buff-breasted Sandpiper on 8.12 though it was positively identified only on 21.12 when Fred saw it again in the same spot, in the lower Senegal delta close to St. Louis. Which means that in the space of 4 weeks, a total of 5 of these sandpipers were spotted in Senegal, bringing the total to 4 national records. Real influx, or just pure luck (being in the right place at the right time kind of thing)? It doesn’t seem like autumn 2016 was particularly “good” for the species in Europe, but in France, about a dozen were reported in September – slightly more than usual I believe – though there were just two (at least) in the Azores this autumn. As usual, several were reported in Spain, including at least one in the Canary Islands (Tenerife, 29.10). The Netherlands had at least 8 records between the end of July and October (as per Dutch Birding).
Another addendum (Jan. 5th) is needed here as I just came across another Buff-breasted Sandpiper record, this one from 1994, and which was overlooked by Borrow & Demey (2015) – and which probably was published too late to include in Sauvage & Rodwell’s paper (1998). Indeed, five birds were seen near Palmarin on 2.12.94 by an expedition organised by the Danish Ornithological Society, as published in Malimbus 19:96-97: “Four of them were feeding together on short grassland and in some shallow ponds close to the shore. The fifth was observed simultaneously c. 1 km to the north, by other members of our group. The birds were very unafraid and we could approach to 20 m.” (Kenneth Bengtsson 1997: Some interesting bird observations from Mauritania and Senegal). Strictly speaking, these observations would qualify as two separate records, meaning that with this new information, we now have 3 old records (1965 and 1994) and 3 from 2016, bringing the national total to 6 records involving 11 birds.