Our main target during a brief visit to the Saloum delta national park, just last week, was a rather unique bird that had so far eluded us: the enigmatic Tigriornis leucolopha. Its presence in the area has been known for a few years only, but it quickly became a classic target species for visiting birders – particularly those touring the country with the excellent Abdou “Carlos” Lo who is based at Toubacouta. But it’s one of those birds that requires a bit of planning combined with a decent dose of luck. It’s certainly not enough to just get on a pirogue into the mangrove forest where it lives: thanks to Abdou’s expert advice, we made sure to set off at low tide even if this meant going out in the mid-afternoon heat.
I’d always thought that the White-crested Tiger Heron (Onoré à huppe blanche) was more of a nocturnal or at best a crepuscular species, but that’s obviously not the case: when the tide is low, it will come out to the edge of the mangrove to fish, apparently at pretty much any time of the day. We were extremely lucky to actually witness this first-hand: after an unsuccessful attempt in one of the bolongs near the island of Sipo, our piroguier Abdoulaye eventually spotted a Tiger Heron, very much out in the open as we drifted past at fairly close range. It quickly entered the dense mangrove forest only to re-appear in a more concealed area a few meters away, carefully navigating the labyrinth of roots and tangles.
As we were watching and photographing this dream bird, it caught a small fish, gobbled it down and quickly vanished back into the forest.
Note the rather cold colours and overall rather pale plumage of this individual, something that’s also visible in other pictures from the Saloum: possibly an adaptation to the mangrove environment here? Compare with the darker and more rufous birds found in e.g. Ghana and Gabon, for instance in the photo gallery of the Internet Bird Collection.
All in all, quite a surreal moment and a perfect Christmas present – Frédéric and I were of course hopeful we’d get a glimpse of this secretive heron, but certainly never thought we’d get such amazing views. It easily ranks in my Top 10 of Best African Birds Seen So Far, alongside the likes of Quail-Plover, Egyptian Plover, Crab Plover, Pel’s Fishing-Owl, Pennant-winged Nightjar, Böhm’s Spinetail, Little Brown Bustard, Wattled Crane and of course the most bizarre Grey-necked Picathartes (and Shoebill and Locustfinch and Spotted Creeper and… so on). Just like some of these species, the White-crested Tiger Heron – or White-crested Bittern as it is sometimes called – is the unique representative of its genus.
Here’s one more picture of this amazing bird, taken by Frédéric as we first spotted it – pretty cool, right?
Earlier that same day – much earlier actually, about 6.45 am to be precise! – we had already heard the rather ghost-like song that’s typical of the species, right from the small jetty at our campement villageois at Dassilame Serere. The song is not dissimilar to the Eurasian Bittern, a monotonous booming “whooooooom” uttered at a very low frequency, at 4-6 second intervals, which however got easily drowned in the dawn chorus of roosters, donkeys, dogs and goats of Dassilame… and which stopped abruptly just as daylight started to take over the night. The next morning I was better prepared and actually managed a few mediocre recordings when two distant birds were singing to each other deep in the mangrove, again pre-dawn and stopping before it properly got light. These turned out to be the first to be uploaded onto xeno-canto: check out the species page here (and make sure to turn up the volume to the max as the sound is quite subdued).
Tiger Bird habitat:
The Tiger Heron was initially thought to be restricted, in Senegal that is, to the Basse-Casamance region, where the first record is that of two nestlings collected and raised near the village of Mlomp (Oussouye) in 1979, followed by a few sightings in 1980-81 in the Parc National de Basse-Casamance and a nest found in Nov. 1980 north of Oussouye (A. Salla in Morel & Morel 1990); as far as we know, the next confirmed record was obtained in… 2017, at Egueye island, also near Oussouye, on January 1st, so almost 36 years later.
The first mention of the species in the Saloum delta is from 1980 by A. R. Dupuy (1981), while the next published record is from 2004 only – see comment by John Rose on this blog post [updated 4 Jan 2020] and the short paper by Rose et al. (2016). The next observation that I could find is from January 2007, of a bird photographed near Missirah by Stéphane Bocca. The fact that we heard two birds singing from Dassilame Serere, the records near Toubacouta and Sipo as well as the observation from Missirah all suggest that the Tigriornis is fairly well established here, and may well be widespread throughout the vast mangroves of the Saloum delta: targeted searches are likely to turn up more birds in other parts of the delta. The species is also present in mangroves along the Gambia river, where first discovered in 1996 (Kirtland & Rogers 1997). Casamance and especially the Saloum delta are actually right on the edge of the distribution range of the species, which extends from central Africa through the Congo-Guinean forest zone. In Senegal and Gambia, it primarily inhabits the vast mangrove forests, though it may also still occur in the swamp forest of the Basse-Casamance NP, i.e. in similar habitat to that occupied further south such as in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana.
Other good birds seen during our boat trip included several majestic Goliath Herons, Palm-nut Vultures, a colour-ringed German Osprey (more on this later), a few Blue-breasted Kingfishers and Common Wattle-eyes (both heard only), as well as an unexpected Swamp Mongoose seen in full daylight (Héron goliath, Palmiste africain, Balbuzard, Martin-chasseur à poitrine bleue, Pririt à collier, Mangouste des marais).
During our stay in the Toubacouta area, we also visited the Sangako community forest, Sandicoly, and bush/farmland near Nema Ba: plenty of birds everywhere, though no real surprises here, except maybe for a fine pair of Bateleurs, a species that’s right on the edge of its regular range here. Other goodies for us northerners included Swallow-tailed Bee-eater, Grey-headed Bushshrike, White Helmetshrike, Bruce’s Green Pigeon, Four-banded Sandgrouse and many more of course (Guêpier à queue d’aronde, Gladiateur de Blanchot, Bagadais casqué, Colombar waalia, Ganga quadribande). Also a nice series of owls heard from our campsite: Greyish Eagle Owl, African Scops Owl, Pearl-spotted Owlet and Barn Owl! (Grand-duc du Sahel, Petit-duc africain, Chevêchette perlée, Effraie des clochers).
With the addition of the Tiger Heron but also Ferruginous Duck (a pair on a small dam near Mbodiene, 24.12; Fuligule nyroca), my Senegal list now stands at 530 species: which one will be next?
Last month I was lucky to be able to sneak out to Casamance for a few days, a region I hadn’t visited since May 2017 when I paid a brief visit to Kolda. Together with Bruno Bargain, resident birder in Ziguinchor, we explored several areas and managed to see a good number of interesting birds. But before going through the highlights of our trip, it’s about time we gave a few more details about the discovery of a new species for Senegal: Turati’s Boubou, found last October by Bruno near Ziguinchor. This West African endemic appears to be resident in small numbers in at least one locality, but it’s likely that it is actually well established in a few other forests of Basse-Casamance.
This latest addition to the national list was expected, so not a big surprise – but still significant, given that this species was so far only known to occur in Guinea-Bissau, Guinea and Sierra Leone. Our assumption that it should be present in Casamance was based on the fact that the species is present just across the border in northern Guinea-Bissau, and that suitable habitat exists in Basse-Casamance which up to recently was one of the least well known regions, ornithologically speaking, of Senegal. A member of the Malaconotidae, Turati’s Boubou is not uncommon within its restricted range, but its secretive habits make it difficult to find – something I experienced first-hand last month when trying to catch a glimpse of one of the Ziguinchor birds: impossible! Outside of the breeding season (likely just before and during the rains, i.e. May/June – October) they don’t appear to be very vocal and don’t necessarily respond to playback. We heard at least two birds singing briefly – a typical ghost-like boubou song – and while at one point one bird was calling just a few meters away in dense undergrowth at the edge of a remnant forest patch, it just did not want to show itself. Next time! The only recording I managed to obtain was of this call, which when we first heard it was a perfect match of the call recorded by Ron Demey in western Guinea, assumed to be that of a female (included in Claude Chappuis’s CD set). Bruno so far obtained just a single picture but was lucky to get good views of several birds, including an supposed pair (at least three different birds have been found since the first sighting on October 10th. Update 13.02: here’s a picture taken just this morning by Bruno, after an hour of patiently waiting for the bird to show…
More field work is of course needed to get a better sense of this little known species’ breeding cycle, distribution and population size in Casamance; I certainly hope to be able to contribute to this effort in coming months. So for now, here’s just a picture of the habitat in which these birds were found: note the dense undergrowth in otherwise fairly open, dry forest.
Of note is that there is at least one unsubstantiated record of Tropical Boubou in Casamance and as a result the species is often listed – incorrectly in my view – as occurring in Senegal: this sighting may in fact relate to Turati’s Boubou which Tropical resembles fairly closely. Even its vocalisations are extremely similar – Chappuis wrote that “it is barely possible to distinguish the two species acoustically” – so it wouldn’t be surprising were this actually Turati’s.
Another target of my short trip was Western Square-tailed Drongo, aiming to obtain sound recordings of this newly described cryptic species which is now included in the reference list maintained by the International Ornithological Committee (IOC 9.1) as a valid species, Dicrurus occidentalis. More on this discovery in this recent blog post. The latest IOC list, published just last week, also includes another taxonomic change in the Dicruridae that affects the Senegal list: the two subspecies of Fork-tailed Drongo D. adsimilis ranging from west to north-central Africa are now elevated to Glossy-backed Drongo D. divaricatus (Fork-tailed Drongo sensu strictu is found in central, eastern and southern Africa). More on the recent taxonomic revisions in a later post…
Anyway, back to Casamance: thanks to Bruno’s excellent field knowledge, we easily found Western Square-tailed Drongo in two locations, and several decent recordings were obtained. While more material is needed, we hope that these will eventually contribute to further our knowledge of vocal differences between occidentalis and its “sister species” Sharpe’s Drongo D. sharpei. As usual, my recordings can be found here on xeno-canto.
During our 72 hours in the field (16-19.01), we specifically targeted a few sites in atlas squares with no or very few records so far, particularly in the area between Bignona and Tionck-Essil where we spent one night in a campement villageois (more on the Casamance bird atlas further down and in this article). All in all we collected close to 400 records of some 175 species, which just highlights the richness of Basse-Casamance.
Birding from dawn to dusk – brilliant!
In addition to the boubou and drongo, some of the highlights were Spotted Honeyguide (lifer! recording of its distinctive song here), Ovambo Sparrowhawk (poorly known and rarely reported species in Senegal), Woolly-necked Stork (a bird flying in from mangroves near Elana), great views and good recordings of Ahanta Francolin which seems to be far more widespread and less of a forest specialist than field guides suggest. And of course, a range of other typical forest species that in Senegal are largely restricted to this part of the country: Buff-spotted Woodpecker, Piping Hornbill, Grey-hooded Capuchin Babbler, Green Crombec, Green Hylia, Little Greenbul, Guinea Turaco, Grey-headed Bristlebill, Puvel’s Illadopsis, Olive Sunbird, etc. (Indicateur tacheté, Epervier de l’Ovampo, Cigogne épiscopale, Francolin de l’Ahanta, Pic tacheté, Calao siffleur, Phyllanthe capucin, Crombec vert, Hylia verte, Bulbul verdâtre, Touraco vert, Bulbul fourmilier, Akalat de Puvel, Souimanga olivâtre).
Obtaining good views – or any views at all for that matter – of these forest specials was often difficult, so I don’t really have any good pictures to share. The two below illustrate quite well how challenging this can be in the forest, especially with my bottom-of-the-range camera:
A few scarce Palearctic migrants were seen, including Booted Eagle, European Bee-eater, House Martin, Grasshopper Warbler – the latter in dense grasses on the edge of dry rice paddies near Ziguinchor, a rare record this far south although the species is probably regular in winter (Aigle botté, Guêpier d’Europe, Hirondelle de fenetre, Locustelle tachetée).
This African Pygmy Goose was one of at least nine birds seen on a pond close to those same extensive rice paddies, where they seem to have bred. Other birds in this area, which we visited late afternoon on my first day in town, included Giant Kingfisher, Purple Heron, Piping Hornbill, Quailfinch, Lanner, Whinchat, and so on (Martin-pêcheur géant, Héron pourpré, Calao siffleur, Astrild-caille, Faucon lanier, Tarier des prés).
Similar habitat often holds pairs of Abyssinian Gound Hornbill which appears to still pretty common in Casamance, allowing me to finally see this impressive bird – by some considered to be one of the ugliest birds roaming our planet, though I beg to differ! – which somehow had managed to elude me so far in Senegal. I’d only ever seen it in Awash NP in the Ethiopian Rift Valley, many years ago… We found a small family group feeding in fields just east of Bignona, and another two birds a few kilometers further along the road to Elana. In the end I saw or heard several birds I hadn’t seen before in Senegal, including 4 lifers, bringing my country list to 507 species by the end of the trip. With the addition of Turati’s Boubou, the national list now stands at 677.
I’d like to highlight once again the fabulous work that Bruno and colleagues from the APALIS association are doing in Casamance: with very limited means – but with a great deal of passion and perseverance – they are slowly but surely putting together a comprehensive picture of the distribution and abundance of birds across the region, currently covering some 450 species. Not an easy feat considering how remote and inaccessible many parts of this remarkable region of Senegal are; Casamance is arguably the most diverse and in many ways the most pleasant and most exciting part of the country, and I for one certainly wish I were able to spend more time there. The latest APALIS newsletter (in French, available here as a PDF) contains multiple interesting records and new discoveries, such as the first records in nearly 40 years in the region of White-crested Tiger Heron (with a brilliant picture!), Senegal Lapwings (six near Kamobeul on 30.9.18; despite its name this is a real rarity in Senegal!), and Winding Cisticola; the first regional records of Glossy Ibis, Sun Lark, Singing Bush Lark, Brown-throated Martin, Great Reed Warbler, confirmed breeding of White-backed Night-Heron, and much more (Onoré à huppe blanche, Vanneau terne, Cisticole du Nil, Ibis falcinelle, Cochevis modeste, Alouette chanteuse, Hirondelle paludicole, Rousserolle turdoïde, Bihoreau à dos blanc). The most significant records will be included in the next “Recent Reports” of the African Bird Club bulletin, to be published in March.
In addition to the routine atlassing field work, our friends are now embarking on a project to survey some of the main heronries and other water bird colonies, using a drone to take aerial pictures of the colonies located in dense inaccessible mangroves, thus enabling estimates of the number of nests for each species. The association is currently raising funds to finance the purchase and operating costs of the drone, so please chime in, every bit helps! Link to fundraising campaign here. And please consider supporting APALIS by becoming a member, which at just 15 Euros is just a, well, bargain 😉
And of course, if you have the opportunity to visit Casamance, please get in touch so we can make sure that your observations get incorporated into the database; Bruno can offer advice about where to go or which birds to target more specifically. Nearly three times the size of Gambia, with a good range of different habitats represented, there’s something for everyone. Any birder coming to Senegal should definitely consider visiting this region, and more generally try to get off the beaten birding track – forget about Djoudj, Richard Toll, the Saloum or even Wassadou (and yes even Technopole): Casamance is the place to be!
Enfin, un grand merci à Bruno et sa petite famille pour l’accueil à Kantène!