Sunday, March 31, 2024

The Less Visited Corners of Senegal

January 2023: Senegal

Part 2 - The South East and the South West

After the Sahel adventure we aimed to squeeze every last bird out of Senegal and so made a long drive to the South East of the country before hooking back to the seldom-visited South Western corner.

Sunday, February 5 - Travel to the SouthEast

After a final morning birding forests around Tabacouta it was time to head off to new parts of the country.  A long drive was punctuated by frequent birding stops and even a few goodies like Sahel Paradise-Whydah and Rüppell's Griffon.  As we travelled, the habitat slowly changed with more trees, more raptors, and a more typically 'African feel' with rocky outcroppings, thorn trees, and small villages scattered along the route.  Out based for the next three nights was a very comfortable Relais et Châteux hotel in Kedougou which was obviously the hub for traveling businessmen from France and beyond.  For us it was a great base to explore the local area and get to grips with it's special birds.

Having time to spare in the afternoon we went to a local 'stakeout' for Mali Firefinch, an area of rugged cliffs were we hiked up in search of water sources what would attract the birds.  Sure enough the fire finches appeared on cue and so we settled in to scan the rocky slopes in the hope of some Neumann's Starlings.  While we waited we enjoyed Adamawa Turtle-Dove, Mocking Cliff-Chat, and even a Lanner Falcon along the cliffs.  Ethan, as usual, spotted the starlings when a group of 18 (a record count for the country in eBird) moved along the cliffs above us giving excellent scope views.

Mali Firefinch and Piapiac.

Monday - Wednesday, February 6-8 - Kedougou area

Three days to explore the habitats around Kedougou saw us driving roads through the sandy forest and walking off-road along cattle/game trails to get closer to the birds.  We saw a lot of new species with notables including Dorst's Cisticola, Sun Lark, and Heuglin's Masked-Weaver.  The key event here though was a day-trip to the permanent water at Dindefelo which boasts a number a special birds.  A pair of Willcock's Honeyguides have taken up residence along the stream here, a tiny spot on the range map way outside their normal range, and we found them easily in their 'usual' tree.  Further up the stream, a thorough search finally turned up the hoped for Dybowski's Twinspots and they uncharacteristically stuck around to give us good looks and even some photos.  This is a bird with quite a broad range on the map but with practically no reliable sites to go find one on demand, having them here and cooperative was a real treat.  One of the highlights of the whole trip even if our excitement was perhaps a little confusing to the local villagers who use the stream here to do their laundry.

OK, not the best photo ... but they're Dybowki's Twinspots!

Thursday/Friday, February 9/10 - Wassadou

Turning around and heading back West for a morning of driving, along with a few good roadside birds like Abyssinian Ground-Hornbill, brought us to the famous Campement de Wassadou.  The delightful lodge, high on a bluff at a bend in the Gambia River has a stunning concentration of birds gathered at the permanent water.  There are also hippos, baboons, antelopes and other wildlife, something we saw very little of otherwise on our trip.

Guinea Baboon and Bushbuck.

After a nice lunch and a siesta we gathered at the boat dock for our 'touristy' boat ride, fending off several groups of non-birding French adventure-tourists to get the boat we'd booked.  Even with our first choice, the boat was sitting pretty low in the water but it seemed calm enough and so we drifted off down the river hoping the hippos kept to themselves.

Pied, Gray-headed and Blue-breasted Kingfishers.

There is something very pleasant about drifting down a river in a canoe, birds are relatively tame and sit close without flushing, and there's always the chance of surprising some other wildlife as you drift quietly round a bend.  Highlights here included Egyptian Plovers and Senegal Thick-knees, many kingfishers and bee-eaters, Hamerkop, and Wattled and White-crowned Lapwings.  The star bird though took a little more effort, a roosting White-backed Night-Heron was so well hidden that, even though the boatman knew exactly where it was, he had to re-position the canoe several times to give each person a glimpse into the narrow window in the dense bushes that allowed a view.  

Egyptian Plover and Hamerkop.

That night we spent a little time hoping for the resident Pel's Fishing-Owls but unfortunately drew a blank ... this bird is on its way to being a nemesis bird of sorts for me, I've now missed it in several places.  Next morning I woke up several hours before sunrise and spotlighted around the camp and river hoping that the owls would be more cooperative, but alas no.

In the daylight though we walked back down the river and picked up a few things we'd missed the day before, most notably African Finfoot (completes my personal set of the three finfeet? finfoots?), Bronze-tailed Starling and Oriole Warbler.  A tough spot to tear yourself away from but eventually we had to move on.  Lovely location, highly recommended.

Red-throated Bee-eater and Northern Carmine Bee-eater.

Saturday, February 11 - Forêt de Djibelor

But onwards towards our new base at Ziguinchor, stopping to check out some forest patches and fragments.  The forest here, what was left of it anyway, was wetter, and the birds were quite different with many new species joining our Senegal lists.  This area of Senegal had been largely closed to outsiders for much of the last 30-40 years because of a local insurgency and general instability.  Things seem to have settled down a bit now so we felt good about exploring, especially in a place where the birds were so little studied.  Unfortunately though, the peace that allowed us access to the area had also been a very bad thing for the forests which were being cleared at an alarming rate; some forest patches we had been directed to bird were simply no longer there.  Still, we were in new country and were going to make the most of it enjoying birds like Ahanta Spurfowl, Snowy-crowned Robin-Chat, Black-headed Paradise Flycatcher and even a day-calling Verraux's Eagle-Owl.

Sunday, February 12 - Mpak

Early next morning saw us in a scrap of forest and farmland right up against the border with Guinea-Bissau and me trying unsuccessfully to persuade the group to head down one of the smugglers trails to do some 'border-flirting' and get a new country on the eBird map (smarter heads prevailed).  Our target here was the Turati's Boubou, a bird recently discovered in Senegal and known from this one small area along the border.  We headed into the forest full of expectations and started to add a lot of new West African birds to our Senegal lists.  We had Western Nicator and LeafloveGreen Crombec and Green HyliaWestern BluebillPiping Hornbill and a really nice selection of forest birds ... but no boubou.  Admitting defeat we returned to the vehicle and stopped for a chat at the village (always good to be social and seek permission from local villagers, wherever you are in the world).  In conversation with the village chief, Ethan mentioned the boubou, showed him a picture and played him the song and the chief surprised us all by saying he knew the bird well and that we had been looking in the wrong place.  He led us to an area of village fields with some scattered scrub patches and sure enough, we had multiple singing Turati's Boubou and we able to pull some in to tape.  Local knowledge trumps the field guide yet again.

Green Hylia in the green forest

We also managed to squeeze in a visit to some local grasslands where we added a surprise record of Black-backed Cisticola (first eBird record for Senegal ... but then this area is less studied given the lack of access over the years), Yellow-throated LongclawPlain-backed Pipit and a nice selection of marsh birds.

Monday, February 13 - Diembéring Ecoparc

Our last day of birding and a few more targets to chase down.  Our main goal here with the Capuchin Babbler, a vexing species that may in fact be 2 or 3 different species.  It's also a bit of a skulker but after a couple of hours of work we managed to get a cooperative family group and get some good views.

Capuchin Babbler ... skulking ...

And then the trip was over and I flew back to Dakar, on to Paris, then on to New York.  We really did cover a lot of ground in Senegal and saw some very special birds that not many see.  Lovely country and gracious, welcoming people (with the exception of the police who were a little bribe-hungry, even by African standards, and very zealous with their traffic stops), but also a little depressing with the desertification in the North and deforestation in the South.  There were some wonderful birds to see though and I really enjoyed the trip, glad I went.

Saturday, March 30, 2024

Quail Plovers and Golden Nightjars in the Sahel

January 2023: Senegal (and Mauritania, sort of ...) 

Part 1 - The NorthWest

As a young birder in the UK, yearning for opportunities to travel, I used to look jealously at the early birding package holidays offered to the Gambia.  All those exotic West African birds so close to home but alas well beyond my financial means at the time.  These days, while folks still go to Gambia, the surrounding country of Senegal has become more of the go-to birding destination, offering a number of species not available along the narrow Gambia River.  Some friends had been in recent years so when the dates of a Wings trip, led by intrepid young world birder Ethan Kistler meshed with my calendar I took the plunge and booked the trip.

Saturday, January 28 - Popenguine

A direct flight from New York to Dakar, well that was easy.  Today was basically the 'arrival and buffer' day for the group to assemble at a comfortable hotel in the Dakar suburb of Popenguine.  Of course with a group of keen birders all arriving on time some local birding was bound to happen and so we checked out some local reserves and scraped together a lit of 65 species in the local area, finishing with spectacular Standard-winged Nightjar quite close to the hotel.

Sunday/Monday, January 29/30 - Richard Toll area

Some early local birding around town added mostly more of the same but good views of Gosling's Bunting were a treat,  Then we headed North into the fabled Sahel region where goats seems to outnumber people and green vegetation is but a distant memory in these degraded lands slowly devolving into desert under the weight of human and livestock pressure. 

The birds definitely had an African feel with Greater Blue-eared and Chestnut-bellied Starlings, Piapiacs, Abyssinian Rollers and Western Red-billed Hornbills.  A visit to the 'zone aéroport' in Richard Toll added some really nice Sahel specialties with Cricket Longtail and Fulvous Chatterer both showing very well and Eurasian Thick-knees and Temmink's Courser scattered through the scrub.  Even though it was a long day, it felt like we were exploring, new vistas, new habitats, and new birds so a group of very happy birders arrived at our hotel on the banks of the Senegal River feeling pretty good about what we'd seen.

Habitat shot with Eurasian Thick-knees

One of the traditions on these Senegal trips is a 'virtual' visit to Mauritania.  If you look at other birder's eBird maps, many have some birds seemingly just across the border but most, myself included, were actually safely scoping from the Senegal side of the river.  Is this kosher?  Maybe not, but it's fun and even has a popular term to describe it, it's called 'border flirting' and it certainly added interest to our evening at the hotel.  In the end we were able to spot around 30 species across the river, making sure that each species was over the opposite bank and safely in Mauritania as the border here hugs the North side of the river.  Nothing very exciting but I do enjoy that large, pleasingly yellow block on my eBird map.

Sudan Golden-Sparrow

The next day we kept picking away at the special Sahel birds in the area, tracking down Sennar Penduline-Tit and Little Gray Woodpecker among thorn trees completely devoid of any sort of undergrowth and swarmed with ravenous goats.  We also had an owl experience here.  I almost never find owls and joke that I simply do not have the 'owl gene' but today was an exception and I looked up to see a Northern White-faced Owl and, as we got closer realized it was actually group of three of them.  This never happens for me.

Sennar Penduline-Tit and Northern White-faced Owls

Our last stop of the day was the fabled Diatar Track, famous as the 'go to' site for Golden Nightjar. Unfortunately we'd had depressing news the day before, suggesting that much of the habitat has just been destroyed for some sort of development.  When we arrived it seemed that the reports were true, construction equipment on site and most the habitat stripped bare.  There were a few scraps of habitat left however so we formed a line and walked-in hoping to flush a straggler and sure enough, not 10 minutes later, Ethan shouted out that he had a nightjar and we all enjoyed wonderful views.  How long this site remains a 'go to' spot, who knows, but I feel we were lucky and I was very glad to see this spectacular goatsucker up close.

Golden Nightjar

Back to the hotel to celebrate and get ready to head back South in the morning.  The NorthWest corner of Senegal was good to us, now to try some of the other areas.

Despite the French colonial influence, the food in Senegal was more
'hearty' than distinctive.  The beer was good though ... 

Tuesday, January 31 / Wednesday, February 1 - P.N. du Djoudj

I'd been looking forward to this site for a while.  'The Djoudj' as it's known is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and globally important habitat for water birds, the first really major wetland South of the Sahara on the Atlantic Coast.  As such it's stuffed with birds in Winter, quite literally hundreds of thousands of birds crammed into its lagoons and scrapes.  It's quite a spectacle and we basically had a day-and-a-half to enjoy some really high quality birding.

Our hotel at 'The Djoudj'.

The first afternoon we couldn't wait for the baking mid-day heat to ease a little and to get stuck in to the birds we could see and hear in the distance while we had lunch at our hotel.  Once we got to the scrapes, the birding did not disappoint with tens of thousands of White-faced Whistling Ducks anchoring a supporting cast of duck species, thousands of Greater and Lesser Flamingoes and a good selection of shorebirds all close and easy to see.  There were even some lifers to some in the group, with Greater Painted-Snipes in the marshes and for me too when we were able to tease out a River Prinia, a bird with a small and scattered distribution across the Sahel.

The next morning we were up early and off for a full-day in the reserve.  The day started with a boat ride, meant to show the spectacle of breeding Great White Pelicans to tourists but also an excellent way to get into the marshes and see more birds.  In the end, the pelicans alone were worth the price of admission, flocks numbering in the thousands feeding, swirling overhead and noisily squabbling at the colonies.  There were plenty of other water birds too with African Darters, African Spoonbills, Spur-winged Geese and a host of others all easy to see from the boats.  By the time we got back to the dock I think we all felt we'd had our fill of birds but a whole afternoon, and some key target species lay ahead.

Great White Pelicans.

A West African Nile Monitor, a herp spectacular enough to
distract us from the birds.

The boat ride, and the area nearby, also gave us a few non-birds for the list.  Intricately patterned Nile Monitors basked alongside the channel and at one point we encountered a mother Warthog with her family enjoying the peace of a reedy sanctuary.  Most interesting to me though were the African Golden Wolves which sat, seemingly unafraid near the tracks, dozing through the heat of the day.  I'd heard that there was a change to see this species here but had assumed they'd be nocturnal and so expected no more than a glimpse of a canid crossing a trail at dawn perhaps.  In the end they were quite confident and allowed a relatively close approach in the van.  Always good to see a wild canid.


African Golden Wolf.  Once considered a jackal, more recent DNA analysis suggests this is a complex
species with DNA from Ethiopian Wolf and (European-type) Gray Wolf.  A little like our Eastern
Coyotes, its lineage suggests a bit of a journey.

In the afternoon we headed to some scrubby areas with more lagoons and enjoyed thousands of dabbling ducks (8,000 Garganey!), more flamingoes, a good selection of waders and even flushed a number of Short-eared Owls.  The targets here though were bigger birds and after failing to track down an Arabian Bustard by line-walking through the scrub we were gifted when one of the local guides spotted one walking behind us while we were scanning for shorebirds.  As for Black-crowned Crane, I was feeling pretty good about myself for spotting two incredibly distant birds but we soon had better looks when we bumped into a flock of over 100 feeding together in a single dry lagoon.  All in all a very satisfying day of birding.

Black-crowned Cranes and Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse

Thursday, January 2 - St. Louis

Mostly a travel day but productive stops added goodies like Allen's Gallinule and African Pygmy-Goose.  We ended up in the St. Louis area and, having made good time, decided to give the local star attraction a quick go to 'take some of the pressure off' our needing to find all the birds the next day.  As it turns out we did remarkably well, finding five (!) Quail-Plovers, Desert Cisticola and Horsefield's Bushlarks at our first stop.  Well that went well.


Quail-Plover was undoubtedly my most wanted bird on this trip.  It is of course not a quail and definitely not a plover, but people 'think' it's probably a diminutive Button-Quail, a Hemipode if you like.  They are most definitely unique and even their behavior is eccentric, the shuffle and dance their way across the sandy floor of their scrubby home.  Having seen them only in books I had thought they were larger than they actually were and flushed two before I realized what I was looking at.  We had a few on the ground eventually and got our fill watching them.  What a cool bird, definitely worth the trip.

Friday, February 3 - Forêt Classée de Kousmar

Onwards and a second visit to good Quail-Plover habitat yielded two more (!) Quail-Plovers and a Saville's Bustard then more driving took us to the Kaolak area and lunch at our hotel. In the afternoon we headed out onto sun-baked scrubby plains (Mad Dogs and Englishmen?) but were rewarded with Saville's and White-bellied Bustards and Chestnut-backed Sparrow-Larks before heading to the area's major birding attraction.

Saville's Bustard.

At dusk, most nights, a small island nearby hosts an impressive roost of thousands of Scissor-tailed Kites and Lesser Kestrels.  We arrived early but one look at the ancient leaky dugout canoe, and muddy banks of the waterway we'd have to cross to get to the island, convinced us to stage our watch safely from the river bank.  The kites did come though, hundreds if not thousands, and higher than some nights but it was a spectacle for the raptor-inclined.

Saturday/Sunday, February 4/5 - Toubacouta area

The famous Saloum Delta and some mouthwatering target birds ahead.  Our main goal this morning was the scarce, and hard to find White-crested Bittern (sometimes White-crested Tiger-Heron).  This is a trophy bird indeed, thinly spread and prone to hiding in dense mangrove forests, I was really excited at the chance to see this one.  We set off for our morning boat-ride full of anticipation and had a great morning in the mangroves with Goliath Heron, Mouse-brown Sunbird and Swallow-tailed Bee-eater among the highlights.  The boatmen clearly knew where the bitterns were often seen and we worked back and for past one area in particular but alas today there were no bitterns.  After a rather lavish consolation lunch, we tried again and went to a couple of new areas where Ethan pulled the rabbit from the hat and spotted a bittern in the mangroves close to the waterway.  This bird wasn't at all shy and allowed us to pull the boat up quite close for photos and close views for all.  A very nice bird to add.

Goliath Heron and African Darter

White-crested Bittern

And so on to the East of Senegal ....

Sunday, March 24, 2024

The Quest for the Cherry-throated Tanager

 August 2022: A Trip to Espirito Santo for a Very Special Bird

Sometimes you go somewhere on a whim.  I had never been to the state of Espírito Santo, Brazil despite having been to all the states surrounding it.  An old friend who lives in the capital city Vitória saw my eBird map and concluded, not unreasonably, that I was avoiding him somehow.  Ironically I had actually long wanted to go, having made some financial donations to the conservation of the Red-billed Curassow many years before, but in the end it was another bird that gave me the excuse to finally visit.

Thursday, August 25 - Domingos Martins / Pedra Azul

The temperature was a delight, so refreshingly chilly compared to the oppressive heat and humidity of the Amazon basin.  After a long flight first to São Paulo, then to Viiória, Pablo and I had picked up a rental car and headed off into countryside more reminiscent of Northern Italy then of the lowlands of Brazil we had left behind.  A little local birding, then we made our way to our hotel, a delightful place celebrating a family that had emigrated to Brazil from the Italian Alps and which even boasted a fondue restaurant.  

Some very hearty local fare for dinner ... we had left the land of
rice and beans behind ...

After a substantial local dinner we opted to walk a bit and digest some of those carbs so decided to do a little owling.  The suburban setting didn't seem all that promising but the in the end we heard a Black-capped Screech-Owl so declared victory and then settled in for a well earned night of sleep, ready for adventures tomorrow.

Friday, August 26 - Reserva Kaetés

The Cherry-throated Tanager has a total world population of perhaps 12 individuals, all of which live in one tiny reserve in Espírito Santo.  For some reason this species had been on my mind all year.  A nesting pair had been photographed the previous year and the photos just peaked my interest.  Eventually I had to ask Pablo if he was interested in making a trip to see it, figuring his connections as a bird researcher might open the door and allow us to visit.

As it turns out, the local researchers from Instituto Marcos Daniel, the organization that had established and manages the reserve, were delighted to have some birders come and visit to see their work and their birds.  It not being the breeding season, we knew the birds would not hanging around a nest site, but we also knew that they would be somewhere in the vicinity (they literally have no-where else to go unfortunately) so we allowed ourselves two days to walk the trails at the reserve and see the tanagers.

Spot-breasted Antvireo and While-collared Foliage-gleaner

The technique for seeing tanagers when they aren't nesting seemed straightforward.  Walk back-and-for along the two long, straight trails that run through the reserve and intersect at the center.  The tanagers, likely in a small family group will be moving around and calling as they feed and, with luck, your path and that of the tanagers will intersect at some point.  Sounded simple enough, and with two days allocated it sounded simple enough; on the first morning I was actually wondering what we would do with our second day once we had seen the tanagers ...

Atlantic Black-throated Trogon and
Ochre-faced Tody-Flycatcher

And so off we went and the reserve was indeed very birdy.  On the first morning we saw or heard around 45 species, including some nice things like Hooded Berryeater, Robust Woodpecker and Sharpbill.  We weren't at all worried that we hadn't bumped into the tanagers and took a break trail-side for lunch and a rest, before hitting the trails again for round two.

The afternoon session produced more of the same, lots of birds and plenty of tanagers ... Azure-shouldered, Brassy-breasted, Rufous-headed, and Black-goggled ... but not the ones we came for.  We eventually had to admit defeat and headed off for more of that delicious local food (after two weeks of rice and beans in the Amazon, the food was a big plus) and some sleep.  There was always day two ...

Did I mention that the food here was good?

Saturday, August 27 - Reserva Kaetés

Back to the trails and had a really nice morning of birding.  We took the time to get a good look at White-breasted Tapaculo, a bird that sounds more like a toad than like something with feathers.  We also saw (not just heard) Brown Tinamou and Such's Antthrush while quietly stalking ground birds.  But as for the target ... no luck.  At this point my anxiety was starting to rise and I asked if it might be possible to stay another morning for a fifth chance at the birds.

Two of my favorite bird names ... Black-goggled Tanager and
Sibilant Syrystes

So the afternoon, and session number four.  We started at the center of the reserve and chose a direction to walk covering about a half mile before turning around to head back and perhaps try another trail.  Then, a flurry of excitement.  One of the researchers heard Cherry-throated Tanager calls and we ran up the trail to where they seemed to be.  For an instant there was a fast moving flock of birds in the canopy overhead, multiple people calling directions and the birds were moving fast, and away from the trail.  Hard to describe my relief when I got my bins on a bird, but no time to waste and I whipped the camera around and employed a technique know as 'spray and pray' firing a volley of shots into the leaves where I thought the bird might be.  And then ... they were gone, the whole encounter lasted only a couple of minutes.   But I had a record shot!

OK, it wasn't a good shot ... but that didn't really matter ...

So a success, and a lot of fist-bumps and high-fives.   Birders who visit the reserve during breeding season are usually shown to the nest site and easily see the birds but we had to work for ours and, after the fact, that felt pretty good.  This really is one of the rarest birds on earth which makes the experience of seeing them special but also rather poignant.  There are plans to expand the reserve so perhaps there's a glimmer of hope for the this species but otherwise its future does not look good.  There are many challenges for any species that gets this close to extinction but you have to admire the tenacity of the last survivors who continue to breed in the last, tiny sanctuary.  I really hope they make it.

Sunday, August 28 - Vitória

Dinner and social time and a reluctant final packing before returning to the US after nearly a month in Brazil.  More Brazil trips to come, I hope so ...

OK, I may have overdone the food here but ...