Friday, 17 March 2017

Vagrant skylark near Akjoujt

Journeying to and from Atar, Mohamed Vall and I stopped twice on the way up and twice on the way back down. All stops were at Akjoujt or within 100 kilometres south.

The highlight by far was the stop on the way back at a large, natural open woodland about 30 kilometres south of the city. It is a remarkable site surrounded by semi-desert. Though it was the last stop of all over the weekend, we could admire its potential for a longer visit. Western orphean warbler, sub-alpine warbler and woodchat shrike were testimony to it's potential for passage birds.

However it was the sighting of a Eurasian skylark which made it so exciting on the day.

Eurasian skylark 1

There are only three records of skylark in Mauritania as far as I know. All are at Cap Blanc on the border with Western Sahara and near Nouadibou.

Eurasian skylark 2

However given how under-birded central and northern Mauritania is coupled with the fact it is not uncommon on the northern edge of the Sahara desert (this is close to the southern edge), I wonder if it isn't actually that rare. Time should tell.

Eurasian skylark 3

I don't know how far south it has been recorded in East Africa but this may just be the furthest south one has ever been recorded on the continent. Yet in Arabia, they are regularly found at this latitude.

skylark 4

When first seen, it was loosely associating with the only other lark we saw in the open woodland. That was bar-tailed lark. It dwarfed it for size and was obviously much darker. They looked an odd couple.

bar-tailed lark

A little earlier we had struggled to find any birding sites around the town of Akjoujt itself. The best we managed was the rubbish dump near the gold and iron mine. Here the brown-necked raven were mobbing two passing birds of prey. One was a black kite and the other was a smart adult male marsh harrier.

marsh harrier at Akjoujt

On the way out we had stopped at two sites further south. One was 100 kilometres south of Akjoujt while the other was 85 kilometres. The one was more open woodland while the more northerly one was flat dried grassland with a couple of scattered trees.

western Bonelli's warbler (courtesy of Mohamed Vall)

The woodland area had the expected passage warblers: western orphean warbler, sub-alpine warbler and chiffchaff. Western Bonelli's warbler was not really unexpected either.

black-eared wheatear

Both northern wheatear and black-eared wheatear were present. The males are easier to identify at this time of year in their breeding plumage.

The sparrows were worth a good look. The majority were Sudanese golden sparrow but at least two were desert sparrow.

Indeed the other stop in grassland, 15 kilometres further north gave us a whole flock of desert sparrow. It was a pleasure to see so many in close contact. 

desert sparrow

They were often mixing with black-crowned sparrow-lark. Other species there included hoopoe lark and cricket longtail.

hoopoe lark

The trip overall was a complete success. All target resident species were seen and two bonus birds were also added to the country list of which one was a vagrant.

I am grateful once again to Mohamed Vall for his companionship at birding, his photos when needed and his driving.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Atar and near-by villages

My first visit to Adrar took place last weekend. I teamed up with Mohamed Vall once again.

All four resident species which were targetted before we started out were added to my list and another species was a less expected bonus. On all counts it was a great success for both of us.

We stayed at Auberge Bab Sahara in Atar having arrived after dusk on Friday. We can recommend this accommodation to all.

We birded straight out of the Auberge on Saturday morning up the dry river bed and near-by farmland on the western side of the town.

The first successful addition to my list was African rock martin. Several were observed hawking for insects over some rubbish left in the river bed. They were feeding continually and in the end we left before the birds.

African rock martin

Earlier we had seen both fulvous babbler and Blue-naped mousebird in the early morning.

Fulvous babbler

Atar is only 80 kilometres south of the border of the Western Palearctic as defined by many. Indeed the area north of Atar is the only place in the western palearctic where blue-naped mousebird can be found.

blue-naped mouse bird

Three types of lark were easily seen. These were black-crowned sparrow-lark, crested lark and bar-tailed lark. However desert lark which was one of our resident target birds was not observed in this area.

black-crowned sparrow lark

White-crowned wheatear is clearly common here. However the wheatear population is currently swollen with migrant northern wheatear and black-eared wheatear.

white-crowned wheatear

In total 24 species were seen in Atar and they were varied. The full list is given at the end of the blog. 

However the remaining resident targets of trumpeter finch, house bunting and desert lark were nowhere to be seen in Atar itself.

We decided to head out south west to look in less urban and more hilly habitat for these in the afternoon.

distant shots of black kite

Having just gone through the police checkpoint on the southern edge of the town, 14 black kite were noticed flying north. We stopped and had a few minutes view before they disappeared on continued migration. This was an unexpected bonus sighting.

Midway between Atar and Hamdoun, 10 kilometres out of town, we elected to bird up the rocky hills and their associated wadis. After a lot of effort our first desert lark was finally tracked down. (Incidentally I birded the same place the next day while Mohamed was occupied and saw six of them). We were particularly disappointed in not seeing any trumpeter finch there on the Saturday.

Our next plan was to explore the village of Hamdoun which is half way down the plateau which Atar rests on.

Here we found more blue-naped mousebird as well as both black bush-robin and rufous bush-robin. Given the presence of palm plantations, it was no surprise that laughing dove a.k.a palm dove were very common. 

laughing dove

Mohamed Vall asked a local farm worker if there was any permanent water near-by. The worker directed us to some pools just off the main road. Permanent water is a scarse commodity and I knew from experience it is good to just sit and watch what comes to it.

Hamdoun pools

This proved to be a good decision. A pair of little ringed plover landed. They were presumably on passage.

little ringed plover (photo courtesy of Mohamed Vall)

What followed were both of our remaining resident target species. Several trumpeter finch landed to drink while two house bunting were seen too.

trumpeter finch (photo courtesy of Mohamed Vall)

Mohamed Vall had more success with pictures there and I am grateful for permission to use two of them.

With this success we returned to Atar for a very late lunch near the bus station. It was here we heard Eurasian collared dove while eating. Scanning around, we could see them on top of street lights from time to time.

Eurasian collared dove is expanding its range in north west Africa. I suspect sloppy identification by some who claim African collared dove in central and northern Mauritania. Just because it is a collared dove in Africa doesn't mean one can relax about identification. In Nouakchott for example, Eurasian collared dove outnumbers African collared dove at least 15 fold. Further north than Nouakchott, I find African collared dove very rarely.

Eurasian collared-dove (also courtesy of Mohamed Vall)

On Sunday morning we headed back towards Nouakchott but not without a few hours birding on the way. This included an early diversion to the tourist village of Terjit.

Here we saw all four of our original target species in one place. We got better pictures of all except for African rock martin too.

desert lark

Desert lark greeted us almost where we parked the car.

house bunting at Tergit

Over 20 house bunting were observed including five in one person's occupied house. They really live up to their name.

trumpeter finch at Terjit

Trumpeter finch were scattered in shaded places in the upper part of the village as well as on the rocks near the water cascades.

It was beyond the water cascades that we found yet another addition to the list. This one was not a predictable resident. It was a male blue rock thrush. Unfortunately we failed to obtain a clear picture.

white-crowned wheatear at Terjit

Other birds continued to interest us in the village though. White-crowned wheatear were seen throughout. A flock of blue-naped mousebird flew past.

sub-alpine warbler at Terjit

Like elsewhere in the district, a sub-alpine warbler was found.

After 90 minutes in Terjit we pressed on with our homeward journey only to stop soon after at a green wadi with varied trees and bushes at Yagref.

The stop at Yagref give me mixed emotions. On the positive side we got good views of house bunting again. Incredibly we came across a second male blue rock thrush and this one was drinking very close to our hiding place.

blue-rock thrush at Yagref

On the down side, I heard what sounded like an owl calling in a tree. It sounded like some kind of alarm. As I got close to the tree two black bush robin flew out. Then a European scops owl flew out the back. I didn't see it but Mohamed Vall did. I wonder if the black bush robin had been mobbing it. Either way, I won't count it on my Mauritanian list without sight. This is my standard. Mohamed Vall can claim it though!

To add more to my misfortune, we had heard a flock of bee-eaters pass over while we had been deep in cover. They could easily have been European bee-eater which would also have been new to my country list. Such is the fine divide between pass and failure.

However all was not lost. The next blog will tell of our outward and homeward journeys especially in the Akjoujt area. Here the sightings included a true vagrant.

Species seen within Atar town
Eurasian Collared-Dove 
Laughing Dove 
Namaqua Dove 
Blue-naped Mousebird 
Eurasian Hoopoe  
Woodchat Shrike  
Bar-tailed Lark  
Black-crowned Sparrow-Lark  
Crested Lark  
Rock Martin  
Barn Swallow  
Common Chiffchaff  
Cricket Longtail  
Western Orphean Warbler  
Subalpine Warbler  
Fulvous Babbler
Black Scrub-Robin 
Rufous-tailed Scrub-Robin 
White-crowned Wheatear  
Black-eared Wheatear  
Western Yellow Wagtail  
House Sparrow  
Sudan Golden Sparrow

Seen in Terjit
Laughing Dove  
Namaqua Dove  
Blue-naped Mousebird  
Southern Grey Shrike  
Desert Lark  
Rock Martin  
Subalpine Warbler  
Blue Rock-Thrush     
White-crowned Wheatear  
House Bunting  
Trumpeter Finch  
House Sparrow  
Sudan Golden Sparrow  

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Early March around Nouakchott

This blog looks at visits to three different sites in the Nouakchott area over last weekend. It starts with North Nouakchott Lake.

As I have said before the lake is under considerable environmental pressure. One pressure is the large scale fly-tipping of household and building waste. The other main one is that the area of reeds looks set to be pumped out and replaced with landfill.

I actually wrote to Wetlands International for advice but received no reply.

Despite this pressure I discovered solid proof of local breeding of African swamphen for the first time on Sunday.

family of African swamphen

One adult African swamphen was observed with four juvenile swamphens. They were eating the reed for several minutes.

African swamphen

The colour of the bills suggests the birds are very young.

Juvenile African swamphen

This observation is well north of what had been thought was the breeding range in West Africa. 

little grebe at the lake

There are young Eurasian coot there too. That species seems to have no set breeding season here as I have seen very young birds every time I have visited over a four month period. 

I am less certain about the breeding times of little grebe and common moorhen. Both birds appear to keep their young better hidden.

three greenshank

After last week's discovery of a marsh sandpiper among the plentiful waders, I was on the look out for this species there again. My hopes were raised when three waders appeared but on closer inspection, they proved to be greenshank. At distance these two species can appear very similar particularly when there is no other wader near by to offer a size comparison.

yellow wagtail

Elsewhere on the site, I can report that yellow wagtail now out number white wagtail. The long standing Baillon's crake was also still present.

I had had more success with marsh sandpiper two days before at West Nouakchott pools. This salt water site provided me with a second marsh sandpiper in the space of a week having seen none all winter.

marsh sandpiper (l)

Marsh sandpiper are not common in West Africa. They breed much further east from central European Russia eastward. So it is a very westward route they have to take to winter here.

marsh sandpiper (r)

This bird gave me much better views than the previous observation.

marsh sandpiper (l)

Most Kentish plover are now in breeding plumage.

two Kentish plover

The pools are not as saline as the sea as can be shown by the presence of several wood sandpiper which don't like heavily salty water.

wood sandpiper

Actually this site is good for attracting both waders that prefer salt water and those which prefer fresher water.

grey plover

Larger waders (as well as smaller ones) such as greenshank, redshank and grey plover have been usually seen.

The final area reported here is the Riyadh district at the southern edge of the city. I went there on Saturday with Mohamed Vall. There are two main sites there. One is the water works to the east and the other is the city rubbish dump to the west of the main road.

The main news from the water works, which has about 80 metres of artificial river, is the rapid grown in the red-billed quelea population. We estimate there were over 400 present. Last time we saw about 40 and the time before none at all. We suspect this new water site is attracting them to the north of their natural range.

red-billed quelea

A booted eagle may have been interested in them but was mobbed by a pied crow and moved on.

namaqua dove

Namaqua dove may be a bird of arid open woodland but it is very attracted to water bodies. There were plenty scattered around the site.

I had hopes of seeing red-throated pipit there but these were dashed once again though both yellow wagtail and white wagtail were observed.

Waders included little ringed plover, common ringed plover, little stint and wood sandpiper.

The only larks were black-crowned sparrow lark.

The city rubbish dump in the same district was a let down once again and we decided it is scarsely worth a visit.

hoopoe lark

The only notable view was a hoopoe lark which provided a distraction display presumably to take us away from its young.

Overall though the weekend was very interesting especially taking into account the visits to the fish marker area as well as the sites in this blog.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Considerable change at the fish market

I visted the area just south of the fish market with Mohamed Vall once again on both late Friday afternoon and early Saturday morning. It was worth a second visit since there has been a noticeable change in the make-up of the bird population since my last visit. The static winter situation of the past two months has given way.

There are two main places to see south of the fish market. One is the rubbish dump where rotten fish are among the waste. It is seriously unpleasant but attracts plenty of birds. The other place is the artifical lagoons which you can look into or look out to sea. A third venue is the scrubland around these places but they weren't looked at over the latest two visits.

Kittlitz's plover

All four small plovers were foraging around: little ringed plover, Kentish plover, common ringed plover and Kittlitz's plover. The latter was a first sighting in Nouakchott since October. They appear to be short distance migrants as there are plenty of winter records in Senegal.


Sanderling and little stint were the other waders present. 

Both yellow wagtail and white wagtail were on site although the hoped-for red-throated pipit were not with them. This is still a target bird for me in Mauritania.

cattle eget on a pile of rotting fish

Cattle egret, northern wheatear and house sparrow were the other species seen at the dump.

northern wheatear

The scrubland between the rubbish dump and the lagoons needs proper inspection to find everything there. However on our two walks to the lagoons we weren't looking seriously. Neverthess northern wheatear, crested lark and white wagtail are difficult to miss.

The lagoons provided me with species 229 on my country list. A grey-hooded gull was briefly but clearly seen resting with other gulls. It was in full breeding plumage and easy to recognise.

Unfortunately a local person chose the wrong moment to become inquisitive about us and his movements scared all the birds away. Sadly the grey-hooded gull was not seen again. Indeed the main reason we came back on the Saturday morning was to try to obtain a photograph.

mixed sea birds

The seabirds are more varied at the moment. For example the terns: as well as several Caspian tern, one each of lesser crested tern, sandwich tern and white-winged tern were seen. The sandwich tern is mostly obscured between a Caspian tern and an Audouin's gull in the bottom left of the picture above.

The white-winged tern is shown in the picture below.

white-winged tern

Many of the black-headed gull are now nearing their summer plumage.

black-headed gull

By comparison none of the Mediterranean gull comes close.

Mediterranean gull 1

Though I can't rule out the idea that we are being left with the Mediterranean gull which are slowest to moult and that others are moulting further north on passage or on arrival.

Mediterranean gull 2

Some Audouin's gull are still down here too.

Audouin's gull (left)

Notable among the waders were red knot which is only occasionally seen at the lagoons.

red knot

I counted three western reef heron which was the highest number since my arrival in Mauritania.

western reef heron

I am sure that Mohamed Vall and I will visit the lagoons again soon as the birds of the place are once again in flux.