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.
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.