Tuesday 31 August 2010

Watch out for lesser crested terns

I have recently been blogging about my birding holiday in Senegal although my main birding takes place in Libya. There is at least one very direct connection between the two places.  Many Lesser Crested Tern are known to winter in Senegal and other places along the west African coast. 

The lesser crested tern is a very special bird for Libya because over 90% of the Mediterranean population breeds in Libya. I am reproducing a message posted on the African bird club discussion group today. I hope it explains all!

"For the third year in August 2010, 215 chicks of Lesser-crested Terns have been ringed in Libya by an international team led by Environmental General Authority (EGA - Tripoli) and Regional Activity Centre for Specially Protected Areas (RAC/SPA - Tunis). Details on this ongoing project on this webpage: http://www.cr-birding.be/
I would simply like to stress that for those of you who have plans to birdwatch along the coasts of Morocco to Benin, we would be very grateful if you could check legs of this species and report on cr-birding. Rings are white with 1 black letter followed by two black figures.

Pierre Defos du Rau

Saturday 28 August 2010

Journey towards bushland

non-breeding barn swallow, Dakar

This blog reports on the one day on my Senegal trip when we went in-land. The idea was to head north east towards drier scrub country.  The aim was to see different birds associated with the bush. Actually as you will see the land still appeared just as green. But we saw many of the scrub birds anyway! You'll have to wait til one third of the way down the blog to see these. Stay tuned!

Before heading in-land we took the opportunity to look at the coast on the skirts of Dakar. As well as the usual spur winged lapwing (I will discuss my reason for calling it a lapwing rather than plover later), there were little egret in the mini-lagoons and silverbill in the bushes. Another northern red bishop failed my quality control for photogrpahy. Again he was moulting.

I was a bit disappointed that the main flying bird was barn swallow.  I had come a long way to see this. There was the odd mottled spinetail in the air to re-satisfy me.

We made one more short stop on the edge of Dakar before the real journey. There is a short river course which we followed north. The habitat was similar to the river course at Banda. it was no surprise that we bumped into striated heron again. I colud just about see why their other name is green backed heron.

a pair of striated heron, near Dakar

Little bee eater also seems to like river courses. I suppose there are more insects there.

little bee-eater near Dakar

Finally got a chance to photograph an African collared dove in good light. It's underside is pinker and its wings more contrasting than a Eurasian collared dove. But I can see why people in the borderline areas find them hard to separate.

African collared dove, near Dakar

Now the real fun began when we had headed in-land towards Thies. Moussa describes the place as kilometre 50. So you can guess how far out of Dakar we were.

We stopped just outside a village and walked fairly randomly.  However I was very,very happy with what we saw. Sure enough some of the birds were different. In one field we saw three different types of lapwing. There were spur winged lapwing, wattled lapwing and black headed lapwing. Its only by seeing so many types together that I realised how imperfect it is to call these birds plovers. You can call sand plovers, grey plovers and golden plovers but these birds all looked like cousins of the northern lapwing. They are also clearly not (just) water birds. Hence my rebellion against the authorised African Bird Club name!  I'm going with the Collins European guide.

wattled lapwing en route to Thies

Nice bird, the (African) wattled lapwing and it was quite friendly too. A whole family didn't seem to mind my close proximity.

black headed lapwing en route to Thies

Then it was the turn of the black-headed lapwing. It was fairly confiding too.

We continued to walk around this area and climbed up to one of the highest points in central Senegal(actually its not very high - perhaps no more than 200 metres)

We were rewarded en route by seeing a yellow-fronted canary and white rumped seed eater. Two more "lifers" for me.

Other finch relatives in the area were well-behaved too. I finally found a northern red bishop which was not moulting. Clearly this bird was first named by a catholic.

northern red bishop en route to Thies 

There was also a village indigobird which appeared indigo.

village indigobird en route to Thies

A pair of red-billed firefinch were foraging near-by. Who knows they may have been the adoptive parents of the village indigobird.

red-billed firefinch en route to Thies

Even the grey - headed camoroptera was easily seen. Actually the more I think about it prehaps the main reason for the easier viewings here was simply because there is less cover in the bush. 

grey-headed camoroptera 

In the middle of one field was an isolated big bilbao tree. It was not alone in another sense. It housed a white-billed buffalo weaver' s nest and occupants. 

white-billed buffalo weaver and nest

Foraging near-by was a small group of the same bird including the female I photographed (see below).

white-billed buffalo weaver on ground

There was another black bird which we had tracked near-by. I had hoped it was a black scrub robin. When it got close enough we saw that it was. This bird is like its cousin the rufous bush robin that I see in Libya. Both like drier scrubland. I was lucky to see one so close to the city on the southern edge of its rangeHowever that was the idea of the day's trip!

black scrub robin en route to Thies

In this area, two larger birds were also added to my list of lifers. The first one was African cuckoo which was easily seen for some time.

The second was identified by Moussa as a shikra. I misidentified it!. In my defence it didn't stay put for very long and its not my biome anyway.

African cuckoo en route to Thies

We finally moved on to Thies for lunch. After lunch we visited a local forest. OK it wasn't bush but it looked interesting. On the wy there we saw a flock of chestnut-bellied starling which are more common in north and central Senegal. This was another postive result of our decision to go in-land.

chestnut-bellied starling, Thies 

We walked deep into the forest. In the middle was a clearing. This was a good vantage point. Here were rose-ringed parakeet, both types of local hornbill and a broad-billed roller. While the rose ringed parakeet were hyper-active, the broad-billed roller chilled out on a wire. It posed nicely for the camera. 
broad billed roller, Thies

There is one more blog to come on my Senegal trip. This one will be about Pink Lake. Here I saw many old friends. There were many more western palearctic migrants already there. This was much earlier than I had expected. The resident birds sprung a surprise too.

List of birds 50 kms in land en route to Thies (thanks to Moussa Diop)

Cattle egret
Pied crow
Black kite
African cuckoo
Black-headed lapwing 
Spur-winged lapwing
Wattled lapwing
Laughing dove
Abyssinian roller
Little bee-eater
Red billed hornbill
African grey hornbill
Crested lark
Common bulbul
Black scrub robin
Grey headed camoroptera
Scarlet-chested sunbird
Beautiful sunbird
White-rumped seed eater
Yellow fronted canary
White-billed buffalo weaver
Northern red bishop
Black-headed weaver
Village indigobird

List of birds seen in the Thies area (thanks to Moussa Diop)

Cattle egret
Pied crow
Hooded vulture
Black kite
Spur-winged lapwing
Laughing dove
Black billed wood dove
Abyssinian roller
Little bee-eater
Rose-Ringed parakeet
Western grey plantain-eater
Red billed hornbill
Common bulbul
Broad billed roller
Yellow-crowned gonolek
Greater blue-eared starling
Long-tailed glossy starling
Chestnut-belled starling
White-billed buffalo weaver
Yellow-backed weaver
Red-billed firefinch
Red-billed quelea

Friday 27 August 2010

The local sparrow

(hidden) river valley near Banda safari park, Senegal

After all the excitement of Warang, we headed back towards Dakar. The light was failing but we found a little time to walk down a river valley next to a big tourist attraction called Banda safari park. The first thing I noticed was that the monkeys had escaped again and they were on our side of the electric fence. However Moussa said they were harmless. I wasn't so sure.

Anyway we were attracted to a well-hidden river valley by seeing two pied kingfisher flying off. We has just seen a woodland kingfisher on a wire but seeing pied kingfisher normally means water is close.

I liked this valley. It was a new habitat for me. There were plenty of birds and plenty of weaver nests. I saw village weaver, black-headed weaver and little weaver. Indeed I chased two little weaver round a bush for some time trying to get a photo. They weren't shy or else they would have deserted the tree. They just didn't want their photo taking.

There was also another northern red bishop but it  failed my quality control - it was moulting and looked a real mess so I wouldn't photograph it.
I had seen striated heron at Warang but this was a more normal habitat for them. This one seems to have speared a fish to eat for supper.

striated heron, near Banda, Senegal

However the prize sighting from this short stop over were a flock of grey headed sparrow. They were almost falling over themselves trying to all hang off the same branch. This was my first sighting of the local sparrow. Yet another "lifer".

flock of grey headed sparrow

Thursday 26 August 2010

A little more on thick-knees

Thanks to all those who wrote into the African Bird Club when I asked yesterday about the identity of the thick knees I saw in Senegal. 

People commented from South Africa,Uganda and Niger.

So what was the conclusion? Well it looks like all the birds I saw were all Senegal thick-knee.

two Senegal thick-knee at Warang

These are the main points of the discussion

  • Others have had major difficult separating Senegal and water thick-knees in the past including in important winter water counts!
  • There does seem to be quite a bit of variation in Senegal thick-knee plumage.
  • A very narrow white bar above the wing panel exists in some Senegal thick-knee but is nowhere near as wide as for water thick-knee.
  • There is a larger white patch above the black wing bar in the Senegal thick-knee than the water thick-knee
  • Nobody seems to separate them on the basis of facial pattern
  • The best ways to separate them are either to see them in flight when the Senegal thick- knee has much bigger white patches on the upper wings than the water thick-knee OR if you get close enough you can see that the water thick knee plumage is vermiculated (has a wavy, worm like pattern)

Wednesday 25 August 2010

Troublesome thick knees and trouble-free terns

water thick-knee, Warang

When you go to Senegal and you see a thick-knee you expect it to be a Senegal thick-knee. Well I saw my first close up of thick knees at Warang (seen at great distance at Technopole). This is an open large lagoon with muddy flats next to the sea.

I was a bit perturbed when I saw a group of 5 birds. Only one looked like a Senegal thick-knee. The other four looked more like water thick knee.

My handbook says of the water thick-knee "greyish wing panel bordered by narrow white bar highlighted by black above". It says of the Senegal thick-knee "broad pale greyish wingbar bordered by a narrow black bar". Well for my money the birds I saw matched the water thick-knee description. In addition the water thick-knee picture in the book matches the face of the birds I saw.

zoom in on Water thick-knee, Warang

The face pattern of the bird in the book and the ones I saw shows a white strip which curves under the eye being strong and not diffuse like a Senegal thick knee. Now I am just a Western Palearctic birder who jumped over the Sahara for a break but I am quite confident about which is the better match! 

Below is a bird taken 3 days later at Pink Lake north of Dakar. I gave this one the benefit of the doubt- I think its a Senegal thick-knee - there is a much less apparent white top edge to the wing panel and the white curve under the eye is diffuse. But its not what I would call a "narrow" black bar!

Senegal thick knee, Pink Lake

I hope someone can explain my observations. Certainly Moussa agrees with me that many of the birds were water thick-knee and yet they are not really well recorded in Senegal (a case of very few birders actual record in the rainy season?) Or am I just not aware in the big variations in plumage?

Moving on. The reason we stopped at Warang was not because of thick-knees. They were a fortunate sighting. We stopped because the lagoon showed a lot of tern activity. In particular we saw many flights of the royal tern from the sea - backwards and forwards- to the far landward end the lagoon.

These birds look like a slightly larger version of lesser crested tern I see in Libya. 

Royal tern, Warang

We were only momentarily distracted from walking to the far end of the lagoon by a malachite kingfisher (too shy to be photographed well). This was another "lifer" for me.|

Many tens of royal tern and caspian tern, Warang 

When we got to the back of the lagoon we saw many tens of both royal tern and Caspian tern (and few heron and white faced whistling duck too) until wild dogs disturbed the flocks. 

Back at the seaward end of the lagoon I viewed my first striated heron of the trip. And in among the terns were a few much smaller black tern - a bird I had'nt seen since I left Azerbaijan. 

striated (green backed) heron

After leaving the lagoon, we hadn't got very far travelling back towards Dakar when we saw a pair of Abyssinian roller on the wires. The male is very distinctive. The female I can best describe with reference to the European roller (you can tell I bird in the western palearctic!). Its similar to a European roller except the dark bits are a beautiful electric blue.

male Abyssinian roller

female Abyssinian roller

Another eventful day. However it wasn't quite finished see my next blog for my first introduction to a local sparrow.

List of birds seen at Warang (thanks to Moussa Diop)

Pink-backed pelican
Long-tailed cormorant
Cattle egret
Striated heron
Western reef egret
Little Egret
Great white Egret
Pied crow
Black kite
Spur-winged plover
Black-winged stilt
White faced whistling duck
Caspian tern
Royal tern
Black tern
Laughing dove
Little bee-eater
Crested lark
Common bulbul
Pied Kingfisher
Malachite Kingfisher
Abyssinian roller
Black headed weaver
Senegal thick knee
Water thick knee

Monday 23 August 2010

Mbour is more than just a tourist resort

blue naped mousebird, woodland, Mbour research centre

On day two of my Senegal trip we went south to Mbour research centre. This french sponsored environmental research centre is about 50 kilometres south of Dakar as the pied crow flies. It's a lot further by road.

We had special permission to enter as it is normally closed to visitors in the rainy season. Thanks to Moussa Diop for arranging this.

Mbour is close to the possibly biggest tourist resort in Senegal at Saly but is a world away. It has three habitats in close proximity. There is woodland, a lagoon and the coast.

We started with a look at some allotments before a very long long walk through the woods. Around the allotments (and later near the several clearings and on the paths) were various finch and their relatives - black headed weaver, village weaver and red billed firefinch. We also saw little weaver for the first time.

Walking into the woods, one of the first birds we saw were a small group of blue naped mousebird.  I hope you can see why it gets its name from the picture below.

rear view of blue naped mousebird

The woods are beautiful in the rainy season. I was lucky throughout my week in Senegal that it didn't rain even though it was the middle of the season. Fortunately for the locals it had rained well in the weeks before and the Savannah areas were very green.

landscape, woodland, Mbour research centre

Both local types of hornbill were present: red-billed hornbill and grey hornbill. I got my first chance to photograph the grey hornbill here.

grey hornbill, woodland, Mbour research centre

Another finch relative was seen at various points along the paths. The bird has the wonderful English name name of red-cheeked cordon bleu. This small bird is quite confiding and not difficult to pick out. 

red cheeked cordon bleu, woodland, Mbour research centre

One of the nicer things about birding around Dakar is the superior quality of their doves compared with Europe and north Africa!  The birds of prey seem to deter large pigeon populations in the city and in the woods there are some exotic species. Here I  saw the ubiquitous laughing dove but also African mourning dove and black-billed wood dove

black billed African wood dove, woodland, Mbour research centre

In the woodland, I suppose it was no surprise we saw woodland kingfisher and it was easily seen. We had to work harder to see a grey woodpecker which we heard (and later viewed) around a large bilbao tree.

woodland kingfisher, Mbour research centre

Another feature of West African birds seems to be a relatively larger proportion of parasitical birds. Birds such as cuckoos which lay eggs in other birds nests. Here we viewed a Levaillant's cuckoo.  But it is prehaps more surprising that the village indigobird is a parasite. I understand this attractive dark blue bird lays its eggs in the nest of the even more attractive red-billed firefinch.

village indigobird, Mbour research centre

Of course another feature of sub Saharan African birding is the vivid colours of a significant proportion of  its bird species. Two which we saw in the woods were yellow-crowned gonelek (poor photo- sorry below) and the northern red bishop. You'll have to wait for future blogs for a good picture of the latter bird which I snapped a couple of days later.

yellow crowned gonolek, Mbour research centre

After the woods we headed for the lagoon which is separated from the sea by a sand bar. (see the list of birds below for other birds seen in the woods).

The most abundant resident birds here were probably grey headed gull and caspian tern. The latter bird has a remarkable breeding distribution many breed in the baltic sea and the north of the caspian. Some breed near the those birds wintering grounds - for example in Senegal and a few even breed en route between the two places. We have a breeding colony at Farwa Island in Libya.

Grey headed gull, Lagoon, Mbour research centre

I was pleased to finally get a photo of sorts of a pink-backed pelican. These birds proved to be very shy at Technopole. Likewise they fled the lagoon on first sight of people. I caught one in flight.

pink backed pelican, near lagoon, Mbour research centre

Another resident bird seen at Technopole was the western reef egret.This bird has less problem with people.

western reef egret, lagoon, Mbour research centre

However one the biggest surprises of this visit was the presence of western palearctic migrants in mid August.  Their presence was hinted at at Technopole although the few seen there could have over-summered. There were more here and as you will read in later blogs there were many more migrants elsewhere. They seem to be becoming more common as the week progressed. The most obvious migrant was ruddy turnstone.

ruddy turnstone, lagoon, Mbour research centre

However, there were also at least a couple of whimbrel present. We had thought these may have over summered but we saw a large number later in the week suggesting they were early winterers. From a distance and without a scope we also caught sight of a few unidentified sandpipers. 

whimbrel, lagoon, Mbour research centre

The third habitat at Mbour is the coast itself. I regret that we didn't find time to look out to sea for seabirds. One new bird that we did see was actually a land bird - Vieillot's barbet in a tree where the wood grades into coastal heath. I don't think we did this habitat justice but time was short. This was a bird we could also have seen in the woods. One barbet we had seen there was a bearded barbet.

vieillot's barbet, coastal dunes, Mbour research centre
We left the research centre for a late lunch to pass the hottest hours of the day away. Then it was on to an open lagoon which turned out to be very interesting. I'll write about it in my next blog.  

List of birds seen at Mbour (thanks to Moussa Diop)
Pink-backed pelican
Long-tailed cormorant
Cattle egret
Western reef egret
Great white Egret
Pied crow
Black kite
Spur-winged plover
Black-winged stilt
Ruddy turnstone
Grey headed gull
Caspian tern
Laughing dove
Black billed wood dove
African mourning dove
Senegal coucal
Levaillant's cuckoo
Blue-naped mousebird
Woodland Kingfisher
Grey headed Kingfisher
Pied Kingfisher
Little bee-eater
Barbed barbet
Vieillot's barbet
Red billed horbill
African grey hornbill
Grey wood pecker
Crested lark
Common bulbul
Grey headed camoroptera
Scarlet-chested sunbird
Beautiful sunbird
Yellow-crowned gonolek
Yellow-billed shrike
Greater blue-eared  starling
Long-tailed glossy starling
Northern red bishop
Village weaver
Black headed weaver
Little weaver
Red-cheeked cordon bleu
Red-billed firefinch
African silverbill
Bronze mannikin
Village indigobird
Red-billed quelea