As is now a bit of a tradition on these pages, I’m again compiling a review of last year’s main birding events. Senegal’s bird year 2019 was a pretty good one, with the usual decent mix of new discoveries, rare vagrants, scarce migrants, range extensions and new breeding records.
First things first: last year saw the addition of two new species to the country’s avifauna, so rather similar to previous years – on average, there have been two additions per year during 2014-2018. First a Willcock’s Honeyguide in Dindefelo nature reserve found by Nik Borrow and his group in January, then the discovery of a small group of Cuckoo Finches at Kagnout in Casamance, in February by Bruno Bargain, Gabriel Caucal and Adrien de Montaudouin. As predicted back in 2018, both Dindefelo and Casamance are obviously key areas for finding new birds in the country. Both species are known to occur in neighbouring countries so these additions are not too much of a surprise, and will likely show up again in Senegal in coming years. These “firsts” bring the total number of species confirmed to occur in Senegal to 674, with seven additional species listed as requiring confirmation. The full checklist as per IOC taxonomy (v.8.1) may be found here.
Next up, the usual lot of vagrants: from North America, the now annual American Golden Plovers (Palmarin in April, and Yene in December), the country’s fourth Pectoral Sandpiper at Lac Mbeubeusse on 5.10, and a Lesser Yellowlegs wintering at Technopole – apparently the longest stay recorded in Africa (at least 71 days!), and most likely the same bird seen several years in a row now. Two Laughing Gulls that were present at Technopole in April-May – an adult in breeding plumage and a first-summer bird – were the 6th and 7th records; the immature was also seen at Ngor on 22.5. Also at Technopole were at least two different Franklin’s Gulls, one in January and two in April-May including an adult displaying to other gulls. A Lesser Jacana was found by Vieux Ngom on 16.3 on the Lampsar, while a Spotted Creeper on 17.12 at Kamobeul (Ziguinchor) was another rarely recorded Afro-tropical vagrant. And finally from Europe, a Little Gull – possibly not a true vagrant but rather a very scarce winter visitor – was seen on 8.3 at Ngor, and a European Golden Plover was at Saloulou island (Casamance) on 25.2.
Scarce migrants included a few species of ducks that are rarely reported from Senegal, starting with these three Gadwalls found by Simon Cavaillès at Technopole in January, which were probably the same birds as those seen in December 2018 in The Gambia. A Eurasian Wigeon was present at the same time; while the latter is regular in the Djoudj, both ducks were apparently seen for the first time in the Dakar region.
Almost a year later this pair of Ferruginous Ducks on a small dam at Pointe Sarène near Mbour on 24.12 were a real surprise in this location. Apparently they didn’t stick around: earlier today (19.1.20) I had the chance to visit the dam again but no sign of our two Palearctic ducks…
An African Crake found by Miguel Lecoq in a dry river bed at Popenguine NR on 12.7 was highly unusual. The two Short-eared Owls at Technopole in January (with one still here on 11.2) were possibly returning birds from the 2017-18 influx as they roosted in exactly the same location; another bird was found in the Djoudj on 26.12 by Vieux and Frank Rheindt. Perhaps more unexpected was a Marsh Owl that was actively migrating at Ngor on 8.10, coming from the north out at sea, but even more spectacular was the discovery of an Egyptian Nightjar by Frédéric Bacuez on his local patch at Trois-Marigots, on 23.10 (an early date and first in this location); in the Djoudj NP, a somewhat classic location for the species, three birds were seen several times from 23.11 up to mid December at least.
A few Red-footed Boobies were again seen at Ngor: an adult on 3.7 and likely the same bird again on 22.7, then daily from 9-12.8 (with two here on 17.8), and again an imm. seen twice in November. These are the 5th to 7th records, a remarkable presence given that the first record was in October 2016 only! As usual, several Brown Boobies were seen as well but we didn’t get the chance to properly check on the birds at Iles de la Madeleine this past year. Other scarce seabirds seen from Ngor were a Balearic Shearwater (18.11), a Bulwer’s Petrel (5.12), several Leach’s Storm-Petrels (11 & 13.11), and some 30 Barolo’s/Boyd’s Shearwaters that passed through in August and September. A Baltic Gull (fuscus Lesser Black-backed Gull) at Technopole 27.1 was our first record here.
Quite a few birds were reported for the first time from Casamance by Bruno and friends, and several resident forest species that had not been seen in many years were “rediscovered” this past year, such as Black-shouldered Nightjar, Black Sparrowhawk, White-throated and Slender-billed Greenbuls, Flappet Lark, Red-faced and Dorst’s Cisticolas – the online Casamance atlast can be found here. Several Senegal Lapwings were again seen towards the end of the rains, and a Forbes’s Plover at Kagnout on 17.2 was definitely a good record as the species had previously been reported only on a few occasions from the Niokolo-Koba NP.
A Brown-throated (= Plain) Martin feeding over the lagoon at Technopole on 28.4 was a first for Dakar; this species is rarely seen in Senegal it seems. A few Moltoni’s Warblers were reported in autumn including at least one on 20.10 at Mboro, where Miguel also noted several northward range extensions such as Fine-spotted Woodpecker, Grey Kestrel, Splendid Sunbird, and Orange-cheeked Waxbill. The observation of two Mottled Spinetails some 15km south of Potou (Louga region) is the northernmost so far and seems to confirm the presence in this part of the country, following one in the same region in January 2018. A pair of Little Grey Woodpeckers at Lompoul and the discovery of Cricket Warbler in the Gossas area (Diourbel) are also noteworthy as they are just outside known distribution ranges for these two Sahelian species. More significant is the observation of a Long-billed Pipit on the Dande plateau near Dindefelo on 9.2, as this is the first record away from the Djoudj area, raising the possibility that the species is breeding in the vicinity.
Additional good records for the Dakar region included a White-throated Bee-eater on 12.8, a Red-breasted Swallow near Diamniadio on 11.10 and Grasshopper Warblers at Yene lagoon on 8 & 15.12, as well as at Lac Tanma (Thiès region) on 27.10 – and more surprisingly, one was found aboard a sail boat some “400 Miles South West Of Dakar” on 13.9. Last year we documented oversummering of Yellow-legged and Mediterranean Gulls on the peninsula.
We also continued our modest efforts to survey breeding Black-winged Stilts at several sites in Dakar, Ziguinchor and Saint-Louis; the findings of these should be formally published later this year. The Horus Swift colony was visited on several occasions (Jan.-March and Nov.-Dec.) with further evidence of breeding. A pair of Tawny Eagles at their nest site on a high tension pylon near Ndioum, where they are known since at least 2015, were seen again in December by Frédéric and Jérémy. Yellow-throated Longclaw was found to be breeding at lac Mbeubeusse and probably at lac Rose as well: more on the species in this post.
In July we found several additional pairs of Turati’s Boubou right on the border with Guinea-Bissau, a bit further to the south of the site where Bruno initially found the species, in October 2018 near Ziguinchor. Also in Casamance, breeding was confirmed for Common Buttonquail, Golden-tailed Woodpecker, and a whole range of other species.
Another noteworthy record is that of a group of 113 Eurasian Griffons in the Djoudj NP on 2.11 – apparently the largest flock ever recorded in Senegal! This surely reflects the general increase in numbers of what used to be a rather scarce species it seems – read up more on the status of this vulture in Senegal in this post on Ornithondar.
As usual, a few interesting ring recoveries were obtained, including several returning birds, providing further evidence for site fidelity and local movements between key sites for e.g. Black-tailed Godwits and Ospreys of course, but also for a Eurasian Spoonbill from Spain – more on this in a future post. A Gull-billed Tern from the Neufelderkoog colony in northern Germany was also a good recovery, just like the many Sandwich Terns that we managed to read at Technopole in April-May with birds originating from Ireland, the UK, the Netherlands and Italy! Also of note were a French Black-headed Gull, the first colour-ringed Greenshank and wing-tagged Marsh Harrier in our ever-growing database, and last but not least the first recovery of a Croatian-ringed bird in Senegal, an Audouin’s Gull seen at three sites in Dakar in January and February.
During 2019 I was fortunate to continue our regular coverage of Technopole but also for the third consecutive year of seabird migration at Ngor, and managed a few trips further afield: the northern Saloum delta (Simal, Palmarin), three trips to Casamance (January, May, July), the Petite Côte (at long last explored the lagoons at Mbodiene!), the Langue de Barbarie and Trois-Marigots in April, the Djoudj and other parts of the lower Senegal valley (November), and finally Toubacouta in December. Oh and a memorable day trip on a successful quest for the enigmatic Quail-Plover!
Another series focused on recent ornithological publications relevant for Senegal, in three parts. I’m not sure how I managed but in the end I was involved in quite a few articles published in 2019: the autumn migration of seabirds at Ngor and the status of Iberian Chiffchaff in West Africa (the latter with Paul Isenmann and Stuart Sharp) in Alauda, the first records of Eurasian Collared Dove and of Turati’s Boubou in Senegal (the latter with Bruno Bargain) published in Malimbus, and finally two papers in the Bulletin of the African Bird Club: a short piece on the hybrid shrike from lac Tanma in 2017 (with Gabriel Caucanas), and a review of the status of the Short-eared Owl in West Africa, following the influx during winter 2017/18.
Many thanks to all visiting and (semi-)resident birders who shared their observations through eBird or other channels, particularly Miguel, Frédéric and Bruno. The above review is of course incomplete and probably a bit biased towards the Dakar region: any additions are more than welcome and will be incorporated!
A day off and not much going on at Technopole recently (water levels are too low, most migrants have moved on) means that I finally have some time to write up this long overdue post. At long last I managed to “catch up” as they say on a very special bird, part quail, part plover – or is it half lark, a quarter courser and a quarter chameleon? Either way, our third attempt to find the unique Quail-Plover (Turnix à ailes blanches) finally paid off with some superb sightings of two different birds, nearly three weeks ago somewhere south of Touba/Mbacke in central Senegal’s barren bush country. I’m pretty sure that this diminutive bird, which of course is neither a plover, nor a quail or lark (let alone a chameleon), easily ranks in the top 10 of most wanted birds to be found in Senegal. Secretive yet not shy, it’s notoriously hard to find in the vast expanse of suitable habitat throughout central Senegal. and earlier attempts back in February and June 2018 failed to turn up any Quail-Plovers.
So, we set off ridiculously early (well maybe not for most birders, but for me 5.30am is VERY early) one Saturday morning and took the shiny new highway to Touba (merci la cooperation chinoise, Senegal now has an additional 1 billion or so Euros in debts to reimburse). Within no time we reached Touba and zoomed through the usually very busy town of Mbacke, all being quiet as it’s Ramadan season here. A few kilometres past the surprisingly clean town of Tip, for Senegalese standards that is, we took what looked like a more or less driveable track heading in the direction of a known spot for Quail-Plover. I somehow managed to get a pretty impressive puncture thanks to a sharp piece of bone (I’m guessing a goat’s femur, see below: opinions welcome), but by 8.30 we were out in the field, birding with a purpose.
Endlessly kicking bushes and slaloming one’s way through the bush country seems to be the only way to nail down this ghost bird. Preferably in a large group, definitely not on your own or with just one mate…
Not really sure whether we really stood any chance, and hopes slowly diminishing as we kicked along without much of a result for about an hour, Miguel finally started frantically gesturing some distance away. Sure enough, he’d found one!
A short sprint later I finally saw what must be one of the most unique birds I’ve ever seen:
We ended up watching this bird for at least half an hour as it slowly moved from one bush to another, typically rocking back-and-forth just like a chameleon, at times feeding but always keeping a watchful eye on us. We finally moved on, both of us all ecstatic of course, like two boys who just received their most wanted Christmas present. Barely five minutes later, I flushed a second bird, which again was very cooperative and allowed for great views from close-up, though it seemed more alert and more shy than the first bird, presumably its partner.
A typical Sahel species, the “Lark Buttonquail” is indeed most closely related to the buttonquails (Turnicidae), hence its French name. It was first described in 1819 by Louis Jean Pierre Vieillot based on a specimen from Senegal; its distribution runs from here and southern Mauritania in a fairly narrow belt throughout the Sahel all the way to Sudan, with what seems like a disjunct population in southern Ethiopia and arid country in Kenya.
To give a sense of how little is known about the species, here are some excerpts from the HBW Alive species page:
- Voice: Apparently silent when flushed; otherwise a very soft, low whistle given from ground has been described, but context seems unknown.
- Food and feeding: little specific information […] at least partly nocturnal […]
- Breeding: Little known […] possibly monogamous […]
- Movements: Poorly understood […]
- Status and conservation: Not globally threatened. Uncommon to locally common […] in Senegal, may have become less common since 1930s […] Perhaps only a vagrant to Gambia (three recent records) […]
Our observations don’t add much to the above; we did see one of the birds feeding as it was walking slowly and every now and then quickly pecking either small insects (ants?) or seeds or other vegetable matter from the ground. When initially flushed, both birds silently flew a short distance (10-15 meters for the first, maybe 30 m for the second bird) and immediately took cover at the base of a bush. Interestingly, we found these birds in exactly the same spot as where it was reported back in January, suggesting it is present here and highly site faithful at least throughout the dry season.
Most recent observations in Senegal are made by tour groups on their regular circuit, who usually dedicate a stop (or two or three, depending on success rates!) between the north and the Saloum delta or Wassadou to their quest for the Quail-Plover. Abdou ‘Carlos’ Lo almost certainly has seen the most of these birds in the last few years, and has found the species in several spots now, so thanks certainly must go to Carlos here. There are also a few recent records from near Toubacouta, from Palmarin and from the Trois-Marigots reserve (see this post by Ornithondar, with as always a good summary of the status of not only Quail-Plover, but also its relative the Common Buttonquail). Morel & Morel mainly recorded the species around Richard-Toll, while Sauvage & Rodwell mention records from the late 80s and early 90s from Popenguine, Mbour (ORSTOM field station), the Niokolo-Koba NP, and Kaffrine.
Here’s the second bird again, showing much less white in the wing and a very crisp plumage:
Of course, there are other birds to be seen here, even if diversity is pretty low especially at this time of the year, with most migrants gone and wet season visitors not arrived yet. Savile’s Bustard, Singing Bush Lark, Yellow-bellied Eremomela, and Desert Cisticola are the most notable other inhabitants of this region (Outarde de Savile, Alouette chanteuse, Erémomèle à croupion jaune, Cisticole du désert). A single Melodious Warbler (Hypolaïs polyglotte) was the only Palearctic migrant still around. See complete eBird checklists here and here.
Third time lucky, as they say.