Tuesday 24 January 2017

Two types of lake

I visited two quite different water bodies in the city over the last weekend. The first, on Friday afternoon was West Nouakchott pools. This is a set of salty pools with no covering vegetation. However it does attract a signifacant number of waders.

I soon noticed a grey heron of the sub-species monicae. This is otherwise known as pallid heron because it is paler than any other grey heron.

monicae grey heron

It only breeds on Banc d'Arguin in Mauritania. It has a population of no more than 2,500. Some birds are known to migrate southward as far as Senegal but Mauritania is by far the best bet to see this bird. If it ever becomes a full species, I know some birders would feel compelled to come here just for it.

A few minutes into my visit the waders became very agitated as a lanner falcon swooped down.

very distant view of lanner falcon

It circled two or three times but was mostly into the sun. That and it's sheer speed prevented me once again getting a good photo of this species.

It is rather common in Mauritania. I wonder how common it would be in the Gulf if falconers had n't taken so many out of circulation over the generations.

West Nouakchott pools

None of the publically-accessible birding sites in the city are pictureque but they can be rewarding.

West Nouakchott pools is only 250 metres away from the edge of Cinquieme Gardens. The gardens are fresh water with much tree cover. They are fresh water because of the way the aquifers work in the city. They are supplied by the sea and by human waste water. The ground does a very effective job of cleaning the water up. Hence the fresh water nature of the two water bodies furthest away from the sea. The problem with Cinquieme is it is not safe mostly because of the hiding places for bad men. This is even though the city as a whole is very peaceful and basically safer than most others in sub-Saharan countries.

Returning to the pools, once again ruff were present. I haven't visited these pools often but every time this species has been there.


Since some of the pools are relatively deep, they attract some of the longer-legged waders. Greenshank is usual here.

sleeping greenshank

Little stint and common ringed plover were arguably the commonest waders. Indeed in nearly all water bodies, whether salt water or fresh, around the city these two waders are extremely common in winter.

grey plover

In contrast only one grey plover was seen.

white wagtail

Plenty of white wagtail make it this far south in winter and are most easily seen next to water.

The second water body visited last weekend was North Nouakchott Lake on Saturday morning and breifly again on Sunday evening.

I am persistently visiting this lake which is my local patch within walking distance of my house.

I don't expect it to change every day but I do want to observe any change when it does occur.

While there were no great changes on Saturday since visits within the previous seven days, I did notice that the little grebe are getting more territorial. I expect the breeding season to start soon.

two little grebe fighting

Fights between little grebe are very common at the moment. By the way, a wintering black-necked grebe was still present.

northern pintail

Duck numbers have fluctuated downwards over the past three weeks. Only one female pintail remained on Saturday and none at all on Sunday.

I can't believe they have headed north given the colder than average winter in southern Europe this year. That only leaves south.

soiled European spoonbill

Two European spoonbill were present. Unfortunately one has been heavily soiled.

Young coot

Unlike the little grebe which appears to have a discrete breeding season here, coot of all ages can be seen. These vary from day old chicks to young birds and adults. This bird and its sibling were very confiding.

squacco heron 1

There has been a single squacco heron on site for the past ten days. It has been scared easily but on Saturday it was more relaxed and finally allowed me reasonable photographs.

squacco heron

African swamphen are seen on almost every trip. Like the coot and moorhen they are confiding. There is no sign of hunting and shooting at the lake. This has clearly effected these birds' attitude towards people.

African swamphen

On Sunday late afternoon, I return to the lake. The idea was to look for crakes again. I tried more spots and worked hard.

Baillon's crake

The Baillon's crake was seen at the same spot and time as last time. It is a good bird anytime. However there was no hint of any other crake. The passage season may well be different.

The other piece of good news from Sunday was the sighting of a sedge warbler. My last one at the lake was in late November. I suspect it has wintered here but early passage is possible. The first barn swallow, sand martin and house martin that evening tells me the passage has begun for some brave birds.

Friday 20 January 2017

Baillon's crake at North Nouakchott Lake

I may not have too many significant birding sites in the city of Noaukchott but the few I do still produce very interesting results. My local patch, because it is within easy walking distance, is North Nouakchott Lake. It is fresh water created by the growing city under-ground aquifer finding an exit. It has grown from nothing in the last ten years apparently. I just wish it were turned into a nature reserve and not a dump for fly tippers.

Through all the rubbish, it is real gem. It has small clumps of dense reed beds and vast amounts of water. Some of which is contaminated, some looks nearly pristine.

I visited the lake again on Wednesday afternoon after work. I checked the gulls for rarities. Once again with no success. I scanned the water for any new water birds. I spent a lot of time inspecting the reeds for passerines but only came up with (lots of) chiffchaff this time.

I deliberately stayed late to look for crakes. I selected two spots which had the most potential. I could not believe my eyes when I turned up at the second spot to see a Baillon's crake walk on to the scene.

a Baillon's crake arrives

The water in this spot has a covering of vegetation but only a small clump of reeds. I presummed the thin covering would hold a crake's weight and I was right.

Baillon's crake in the reeds

Given the small size of the reedbed, the crake spent much of its time in the open on the top surface of the water.

crake back on the water

Identifcation was a little tricky since it was showing a large number of primary tips. This is usually associated with a little crake. However the plumage including the lack of a red base to the bill and streaked top of the breast as well as number of spots on the mantle fitted Baillon's crake. The reason for the large number of primary tips was because the tertials had become folded. The identification was tested and confirmed on BirdForum.

Baillon's crake from the rear

Baillon's crake is much rarer in western Europe than eastern Europe and Asia so the number of wintering birds is less. It's not yet on the e-bird list for the country.

Baillon's crake as dusk approaches

BirdLife International, The Birds of Western Africa and the Mauritanian Bird Atlas show it wintering in the Senegal River delta. Indeed that area appears to be the primary wintering place for birds throughout western Europe. The Mauritanian Bird Atlas suggests that there is strong breeding evidence there too. Elsewhere it is unexpected and certainly not in Noaukchott in mid winter.

African swamphen at dusk

As I headed for home, I glimpsed an African swamphen in the last embers of light. 

I have made a note to investigate the site for nightjars at night though I need to get equipment and security sorted.

northern wheatear 1

Earlier, as I have said, I concentrated a lot on passerines. As well as chiffchaff in the reeds, Sudanese golden sparrow were present again and a second northern wheatear was seen for the first time.

northern wheatear 2

There is still time this winter for the cold weather further north to push new passerines down or even ducks for that matter. Then spring may bring both returning Euoprean and intra-African migrants. The lake still holds prospects.

Thursday 19 January 2017

Some changes at the fishing port

My second most visied birding spot in Nouakchott is south of the fishing port where sandbanks have been made into a small artifical lagoon by the environment minstry. It is a very inexpensive but innovative way of creating some sort of natural refuse even though there are no accompanying bushes or other cover.

I was pleased to see a pied avocet there almost on my arrival.

pied avocet

It spent much of its time sleeping. I took this as an indication that it had travelled some distance very recently.

sleeping pied avocet

Terns have been very scarse in the past six weeks or so. It was good to see a couple of Caspian tern also present.

Caspian tern

The weather in Noaukchott has been calm all winter. However on Sunday it a little bit rougher on the ocean than usual though nothing fierce. This increased the number of gulls on shore. The majority were lesser black-backed gull and black-headed gull.

resting Audouin's gull

Once again I was looking for exceptions. One was a resting Audouin's gull.

Mediterranean gull

Most of the few Mediterreanean gull were first winter though a smart second winter one caught my eye. As usual they were mixing mostly with the black-headed gull. Six slender-billed gull were in the same area. I have been seeing around this number on every visit since September.

grey plover

Among the waders, grey plover have been present all winter alongside sanderling and little stint.


Other waders have been more variable but usually included one or more greenshank.

I had not seen a curlew sandpiper at the site for over two months until Saturday.

curlew sandpiper

They are generally more easy to separate from dunlin in Mauritania than those in the Gulf. This is partly because the predominant sub-species of dunlin that passes down through West Africa is relatively short billed.

curlew sandpiper

This curlew sandpiper was unmistakable with its long legs, long bill and good views of its obviously pure white tail and rump.

crested lark

Birding the lagoon and ocean was halted for a short time when I saw a lark on a bush. Crested lark rarely sits on bushes but thekla lark does more often. Since there have been a few reports of the latter around the fishing port over the years, I investigated. A quick look at the paucity of streaking on the upper breast and the shape of the crest (peaked not fanned) and I gave up interest in this bird being other than a crested lark. I am still a little cynical about the thekla lark sightings but I would love to be proved wrong.

western reef heron

A western reef heron, two grey heron and twenty-five cattle egret in near-by scrub were the members of the heron family observed on Sunday.  Indeed I don't recall seeing any other heron species at this site since I started visiting.

great white pelican

Two great white pelican flew along the coast briefly. These are another regular observation.

gulls on the beach

Given the larger number of gulls on land than usual, I searched those on the beach thoroughly for any exceptions. I don't particularly enjoy this type of birding. I probably don't enjoy it because I have yet to find a rare gull among the many seen so far in Mauritania. A grey-hooded gull must be the most likely at this coastal setting but it hasn't happened yet.

Audouin's gull

The best I managed among the hundred or so on the beach was two Audouin's gull.

black-headed gull on the beach

Despite the sighting of the pied avocet I left the fishing port area slightly disappointed. It was made worse by my usual in-town driver not making the pick-up point. 

I elected to take the long walk home. Things have improved even since.

First I found that West Nouakchott pools, en route home, had not dried up since the end of the rainy season (four months ago) as I had presummed. These salty pools were full of waders and will be well worth more prolonged looks especially with a scope in the coming weeks.

common redshank and other waders

Things improved more dramatically when I went to North Nouakchott lake mid-week after work. I will blog about what I saw next.

Sunday 15 January 2017

North Nouakchott Lake or bust

I am without private transport for the next three weeks. Unless I take a long distance minibus I am grounded in Nouakchott.

Furthermore, Noaukchott is short of public birding sites. The embassies and government buidings are mostly very green but out of bounds. The small public areas had plenty of passage birds in autumn but are thin pickings at the moment. The waste water disposal site north of the city was ruined at least temporarily by the disposal of highly contaminated waste. The salt marshes are very low outside the rainy season. Cinqueieme gardens is deemed dangerous. 

That leaves the fishing port and North Noaukchott Lake. The latter is within walking distance of my home and is excellent birding. However its not going to change every day. Nevertheless it is the lake or bust.

I visited the lake both on Friday afternoon and Saturday morning.

little grebe

As ever, the sheer numbers of little grebe, common coot and common moorhen hit you as soon as you arrive.

common coot

On my last visit, all the ducks had gone so I was pleased on Friday to count 14 northern pintail

black-headed gull and northern pintail

I spent a lot of time once again looking through the gulls trying to find expections to the black-headed gull and Mediterranean gull.

black-headed gull 1

One exception I found was a black-headed gull starting to produce it's dark chocolate coloured head found in breeding plumage.

black-headed gull 2

This change in plumage is at least four weeks premature and is quite unusually early.

lesser black-backed gull

The other exception was a lesser black-backed gull. It was probably the same one I saw on Tuesday afternoon.

yellow wagtail

A yellow wagtail of the iberiae sub species was also seen again as on Tuesday though it was in a different place and so might be a different bird.

One important bird which wasn't seen on Friday but was on Tuesday was the dwarf bittern. A thorough search of the same area produced no sign. Though I did find a number of chiffchaff and my first bluethroat at the site for several weeks.


I returned to the site on Saturday morning.

African swamphen

It is lovely to see African swamphen close up but the birds here are relatively tame and do allow this. I saw two but not a juvenile which I had seen on Friday. That juvenile was the first proof I have had that this species breeds here.

In news about other larger birds, the duck population has continued to re-bound. I saw five wigeon and one common teal in addition to Saturday's pintail. The ducks clearly have a second place which they travel to and from. It is most likely central lake which is more saline but equally as large. Unfortunately it is adjacent to three embassies and so I can't watch there.

cattle egret at the lake

On Saturday I caught up with the spotted redshank which has been seen on and off. It was with three greenshank.

wood sandpiper

Wood sandpiper and common ringed plover remain the most numerous waders.

common snipe

There have been a small number of common snipe on site all winter. I suspect there are three. 

On Saturday, I observed Sudanese golden sparrow at the lake for the first time. They seemed to be attracted to the lake to drink. This is not really a city bird and was still outnumbered by house sparrow yesterday.

male Sudanese golden sparrow

Most of the males are now in breeding plumage. I suspect breeding in Nouakchott starts soon though I have no idea yet whether they continue to breed into the rainy season (summer).

female Sudanese golden sparrow 1

This female fooled me when it flew off in a different direction to the males it was with and ended up with a flock of house sparrow.

female Sudanese golden sparrow 2

I am still getting used to the colour variations of Sudanese golden sparrow based on season and gender.

yellow backed male 1

One male got my attention. It did not have a fully chestnut back. Indeed it had a yellow rump and a mottled chestnut and yellow back. In many ways it looked how I would imagine an Arabian golden sparrow-Sudanese golden sparrow hybrid to look.

yellow backed male 2

A goolge search provided me with a similar bird labelled Sudanese golden sparrow and it was from Burkina Faso. My new working assumption is that this colour is within normal variation for a male bird.