Senegal birding and the UK Birdfair 2017
Last summer I had the chance to be in the UK for the Birdfair 2017. This is the largest annual market in Europe for birdwatchers. There is some overlap with bird conservation and many Birdlife partners are there, but this is primarily a place for the buying and selling of everything that birdwatchers desire; books, optics, but especially birdwatching holidays, and this is big business! Bird tour companies from many South American and African countries had flown in staff to advertise their holidays.
At the fair, South African birder Micheal Mills launched The Birder’s Guide to Africa, which aims to tell birders what is most distinctive about each country’s list of birds and where to go in Africa to most easily see each of the continent’s species. Whilst I do not agree with everything in some of the book’s West African chapters, it is a good start for a discussion of bird tourism in Senegal – which for many reasons would deserve a more prominent place on the Africa birding map (one of the many down-sides of taking very much of a quantitative, purely list-based approach to defining birding destinations, as is done by Michael Mills, is that many countries do get the recognition they deserve).
What is unique? Should more birders visit Senegal, and if so what should Senegalese bird guides do to encourage them? It should be said that I am talking about a certain type of birdwatching tourism – visiting places to make lists of unusual birds – which is the profitable market in which the Birdfair sells. From this perspective, the spectacles of Djoudj, the Sine Saloum and Kousmar are still important, but not enough if the birding guide cannot also find the country’s more unique species.
So, how visible was Senegal at the Birdfair? The short answer is almost invisible! Let’s avoid the historical and perhaps linguistic reasons why The Gambia features at the UK Birdfair, and look at all of West and North-West Africa. Geopolitics affects tourism and, correctly or not, many of the region’s countries are seen as more difficult places to organise tours. Unfortunately, these days large parts of Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and northern Nigeria and Cameroon are off-limits to foreign visitors due to ongoing conflict and security concerns. Currently the two most advertised North-West/West African destinations for bird tours are Morocco and Ghana, as destinations for European, North American and South African birders, who are the three main groups.
Let’s take the African Bird Club country lists, which taxonomically almost follow the IOC World Bird List, and query the list. Which species regularly occur in Senegal, but not in Morocco or Ghana and also do not occur widely elsewhere in Africa? This query give Senegal at least 28 “special” species, which it would be a good investment for bird guides to be able to find. Please add your comments to this linked list, which is accessible for editing. Several more could – and probably should – be added, and it’s good to keep in mind that the national list stands at about 680 species (we hope to publish an updated list some time soon on this blog).
Most of the species on this list are birds of the Sahel and the drier, northern regions of the Sudan savanna. The USGS’ excellent recent resources on West African land use shows the western section of the Sahel bio-climatic region, which extends to northern Ethiopia.
Little Grey (or Sahelian) Woodpecker is a classic example. Its patchy distribution, which does not go further east than western Sudan, includes northern Senegal where most recent West African observations have been made, though WaBDaB, which coordinates bird observations for Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad, has a few records.
For the average bird tour operator, Senegal is the easiest destination and there are places where it is often seen (Les Trois Marigots and near to Richard-Toll), but probably many to be discovered – for instance, it was reported just last week “well south of Louga” by a Swedish group. This and many of the Sahel specials are much more species of the Middle Valley described in Bram’s recent trip, than of the more famous Djoudj/St. Louis area and many are not on the Djoudj list.
Other species in the 23 with similarly narrow ranges include Cricket Warbler (present in southern Western Sahara, but very localised it seems); River Prinia (header picture – cryptic species only present in the Senegal River delta, River Niger and Lake Chad, though probably overlooked elsewhere); Sennar Penduline Tit; Golden Nightjar (most recent records from Western Sahara where confirmed breeding, and from Chad); Quail-Plover (hard to find, but there are apparently a couple of reliable sites); and the commoner Black Scrub Robin, Sahel Paradise Whydah and African Collared Dove.
A second cluster of specials occur in and near the Dindefelo reserve, Senegal’s most recent addition to the country’s Important Bird Areas list. This is the only place outside Mali where the Mali Firefinch is reasonably reliably seen. Other species with strange and small global ranges including Dindefelo are Adamawa Turtle-Dove and Neumann’s Starling. The Kedougou area, and Dindefello in particular, probably has more surprises in store and is likely to yield additional Guinean species that just creep into Senegal.
Finally, the sea off Dakar makes the list. Away from the Cape Verde, the Cape Verde Shearwater is only reliably seen elsewhere in Africa, in season, off Dakar and the Iles de la Madeleine trio of Red-billed Tropicbird, Bridled Tern and the recent arrival Brown Booby are common enough in other tropical waters, but with few reliable places in Africa. The Tropicbirds are pretty much guaranteed at any time of the year, whilst the boobies and especially the terns and shearwaters are only present in certain seasons.
And the message from this? Any Senegalese bird guide who gets to know when and where to find these species should have a profitable business and most of the species are far from the hotspots of Djoudj and the Sine Saloum! And to potential visitors – come over and explore, with or without a local guide: you won’t be disappointed.
(post by Paul, with contributions from BP)
Trip up North: Gandiol & the “PNLB” (30/3-3/4)
Last week’s school holidays and a cancelled road trip to the Gambia and Casamance (border closed to road traffic!) were a perfect opportunity to return to the Gandiol area, just south of Saint-Louis. We first stayed a couple of nights at the pleasant Niokobokk guest house, then 2 nights camping at our favourite Zebrabar. Rather than writing a long report, here’s an overview in pictures, in chronological order:
- Acacia bush between Gandiol village and Niokobokk: a Brubru (more heard than seen), a Yellow-billed Oxpecker feeding between a donkey’s ears, a busy pair of Northern Crombecs, 1 or 2 Woodchat Shrikes, numerous Common Whitethroats, several Common Redstarts, etc.
- Niokobokk: A (probable) Iberian Chiffchaff in the garden of the guest house. Poor picture, but the well marked supercilium, whitish belly, pale legs (compared to Common Chiffchaff), shortish primary projection (compared to Willow Warbler) are more or less visible here. Unfortunately this bird didn’t call or sing, so I’m not 100% certain about this bird’s ID even if plumage, location and date all point in the Iberian direction.
- Guembeul reserve: Daniel, Charlie and I paid an afternoon visit to Guembeul, where we were met by local guide Pape who just like on our first visit last year was very enthusiastic and obviously quite knowledgeable about the area’s bird- and wildlife. Of interest were +250 Avocets, a single Lesser Flamingo, +60 Greater Flamingos, 2 Little Terns… but also Warthog, Patas Monkey, Striped Ground Squirrel on the mammal front.
- An entire morning out in the field with Frédéric Bacuez, Saint-Louis resident (well, almost!) birder and blogger, was undoubtedly the highlight of the trip. Fred’s knowledge of the birdlife and more generally of the biodiversity, geography and culture of the region is unique, making it was most definitely a privilege to be out birding together. Even more so because our excursion was highly successful in finding our main target: the little-known and elusive Little Grey Woodpecker, of which Fred recently found an active nest in an impressive baobab, somewhere in the “arrière-pays gandiolais” south of the Guembeul special fauna reserve. His blog Ornithondar contains a number of posts on this find, including a comprehensive report of our excursion together. It only took a short wait for the tiny Sahelian Woodpeckers as they are sometimes called to appear near their favourite tree.
We enjoyed watching, photographing and recording a fine adult male with a female or young bird, staying closely together while feeding in the acacia trees. After a while, the latter flew onto the branch containing the nest hole. As it approached, just before entering the cavity, another young or female left the nest: it seems that the local family continues using their nest hole even after the young have fledged.
A recording of the male calling loud & clear followed by constant softer contact (or begging?) calls is available on Xeno-canto. Seems that my recording is the only one that is publicly available, as the species was so far not represented in the extensive sound library, neither is it available in the AVoCet nor the Macaulay libraries.
A supporting act of various Palearctic passerines – Common Whitethroats everywhere, a single Subalpine Warbler, Orphean Warbler, Common Redstart, Bonelli’s Warbler – and a few “good” local species – Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse, Little Tern (a presumed pair performing their aerial display), Little Green Bee-eater, Senegal Batis – further made our mourning out all the more enjoyable. A quick stop at the sewage ponds on the way back from Saint-Louis added a few more to the list, in particular River Prinia and Greater Swamp Warbler.
- Parc National de la Langue de Barbarie (aka PNLB): the usual suspects around Zebrabar: a good diversity of waders of all sorts (Oystercatcher, Grey Plover, Curlew Sandpiper, Little Stint, Curlew and Whimbrel, etc.), noisy Royal, Caspian, Gull-billed, Sandwich and Common Terns; Slender-billed, Grey-headed and Lesser Black-backed Gulls; Brown Babbler; Western Olivaceous Warbler; Little Weaver.
- Gandiolais bush east of Mouit village: a late afternoon visit produced another Orphean Warbler, at least a dozen or so Common Whitethroats feeding for the most part on “prickly pear cactus” (Barbary Fig), more Sudan Golden Sparrows, and so on.
- A quick early morning walk around Zebrabar produced more of the same, plus an adult Peregrine Falcon (one of very few raptors seen in the area), another White Wagtail, more Senegal Batises, and a Bar-tailed Godwit to mention but a few.
- The return journey to Dakar took us once again through vulture country: from Potou to roughly Mboro, sightings of Hooded, White-backed and to a lesser extent Ruppell’s Vultures were fairly regular albeit in small numbers. Also seen were a roadside European Roller – a nice change from the common Abyssinian Roller – and several Mottled Spinetails between Kebemer and Mboro. A quick stop near one of the small Mboro lakes, pictured below, provided a snapshot of the potential of this area which I hope to explore more in coming weeks or months: an impressive density of African Swamphen, African Jacana, and Moorhen was remarkable, while a White-faced Whistling Duck, a pair of Little Grebes, an Intermediate Egret, Squacco Heron, a Black-headed Heron, Black-winged Stilt, Wood Sandpiper, and Palm Swift added more flavour. The Black-headed Heron was all the more surprising as this was the 2nd of the trip, after one flying over the new Lompoul road on our way northward, while the species is not known to regularly occur in the Niayes stretch between Dakar and the Senegal River. Also on the way up on 30/3, a pair of Bearded Barbets near Gokho village (north of Lac Tanma) was of interest as there are apparently few records this far north.
All in all, about 135 bird species were seen during this trip, once again confirming the sheer diversity of this part of Senegal.