Sunday 23 July 2017

River valley, south of Botanic Gardens, Minsk

On my second day in Minsk, I chose to bird an area which has not history of birding in the e-bird database. This compared with the day before's Botanic Gardens which is listed as a hotspot.

My chosen area was the river valley just south of the Botanic Gardens.  It was risk but in the end I actually saw slightly more species than the day before.

Theret was gloomy start so the pictures at first were not good quality.

My first two extra species were jackdaw and starling. Both were seen on the way to the river valley as I walked past the wall of the Botanic gardens.


The river had attracted a black-headed gull and later I observed a common tern too.

black-headed gull

As I walked down a path on one side of the river, I met two common redstart in front of me.

common redstart

On a wire next to where I had to cross a main road was a resting barn swallow. In Bulgaria there has been a very large drop in barn swallow over the past two years with a concurrent rise in house martin numbers. Even in Minsk there were more house martin than barn swallow. I had seen one of the latter the day before.

barn swallow

With the exception of the house martin, all the species I have mentioned in the blog so far were not seen in the Botanic Gardens the day before.

great spotted woodpecker

The run of good luck continued as I came across four great spotted woodpecker. Two were out in the open and mostly feeding off the grass. They were remarkably tame.


Also feeding in the grass were several fieldfare.


Both hawfinch and goldfinch were foraging on the forest edge which got quite close to the river in places.

female great spotted woodpecker

I couldn't make any of the great spotted woodpecker into white-backed woodpecker which would have been a lifer.

However I met four treecreeper which was a lifer. I had seen short-toed treecreeper in Bulgaria and Albania but this was a first. It was my only lifer in Minsk.

young siskin

Near-by the first two treecreeper, I spotted a single siskin just I had seen a single one the day before. It was very loosely associating with the more numerous goldfinch.

the river

Back in the forest area, I had a much better view of a local jay than the day before.


There were also a pair of very large and well-fed hare.

local hare

My Belarussian list is a basic 37 now. If I ever return it is something to build on.

Species seen in the river valley, south of the Botanic Gardens, Minsk
Black-headed Gull  
Common Tern  
Feral Pigeon  
Common Swift  
Great Spotted Woodpecker  
Eurasian Jackdaw  
Hooded Crow 
Barn Swallow  
Great Tit  
Eurasian Treecreeper  
Willow Warbler  
Eurasian Blackcap  
Spotted Flycatcher  
European Robin  
Thrush Nightingale 
Common Redstart  
Eurasian Blackbird  
Mistle Thrush  
European Starling  
White Wagtail 
Common Chaffinch  
Eurasian Siskin  
European Goldfinch  
Eurasian Tree Sparrow  

Botanic gardens, Minsk

I have just returned from a short break in Minsk, Belarus as part of my lifelong quest to visit every country in the world. I have now visited 107. I took advantage of Belarus's new policy of visa free access for EU citizens on short trips.

I stayed near the Botanic Gardens deliberately. It was to allow me to bird straight out of the hotel. When birding, my personal and financial preference where possible is to bird without commercial guides. I don't like using prerecorded calls either. This does mean I often miss special birds which guides have previously found, often by using calls. However, I do get lots of satisfaction at finding my own species whatever they may be.

map of Botanic gardens

The Botanic Gardens are on e-bird as a hotspot so this wasn't a leap in the dark. There are obviously plenty of different habitats as you would expect in a Botanic Gardens including some areas of untouched local forest.

The gardens don't open until 10 am but the relatively cool summers's days while I was there meant bird activity continued all day.

Before entering the park I came across rook grazing and plenty of common swift screaming overhead.

rook outside the gardens

Once inside, I soon saw a song thrush on the path and several robin of all ages. Blackbird was heard and then seen.

song thrush

Mistle thrush numbers were higher than song thrush. At one stage I was tracking what I assume was a family of mistle thrush when a juvenile goshawk swooped down. There was blind panic in the thrushes.

However this juvenile was way too noisy to be effective. I came across it several times during the day as it gave its presence away by screaming. I suspect these were begging calls from a bird that wasn't quite ready to fend for itself.

A venture out of the wooded areas lead to me seeing my one and only white wagtail of the day.

white wagtail

Although, chaffinch was numerous inside the woods, it was more easily seen in the parkland by the side.


The same went for tree sparrow. Incidentally I did not see a single house sparrow in all my time in Minsk.

tree sparrow

There was plenty of evidence of breeding birds in the gardens. Most of the many spotted flycatcher still had the speckled heads and upper back of very young birds and so did this collared flycatcher. This species was much less numerous.

young collared flycatcher

Some of the young birds had still not learned to be afraid.

young robin

One young robin in particular allowed very close approach.


The birds were often clustered. A couple of tall flowering and berried trees attracted a number of different birds. These included blackbird, mistle thrush, chaffinch, tree sparrow and a single young siskin.


The lake in the middle of the gardens was a little disappointing. The sides are landscaped so there isn't any reed or long grass growth. So potential acrocephalus warblers were not possible.

mute swan

At first I could only see a pair of mute swan. On closer inspection, a couple of mallard were hiding at the edge of the one small island. Given what mute swan can do to mallard in defence of their territory I am not surprised they were in cover.


In the sunnier parts of the gardens, there were different birds. On a border fence I observed my only red-backed shrike of the trip.

adult male red-backed shrike

More members of the crow family were out in the open. These included hooded crow.

hooded crow

I glimpsed a jay in a bush and then some magpie were seen more easily.


From my experience in Bulgaria, goshawk love the taste of the crow family so these birds need to take care.

Eventually I got down to the more difficult task of finding and identifying warblers.

young blackcap

A fruiting bush was attractive to blackcap.

female blackcap

There was also a common whitethroat there though I glimpsed it for seconds only.

common whitethroat

In a clearing in the forest I had a difficult identification. The bird below returned to the tall herbage in the clearing time and time again.

chiffchaff of the race abietinus

I sent these photos to birdforum. I also had a recording of the call which was a chiffchaff's. It is a shame that it is so very hard to post sound recordings on blogger even though videos are easy.


With the combination of photos and call there was no disagreement that it was a chiffchaff. Before I posted the call a minority view on forum was also considering willow warbler.

I knew abietinus had less olive and green tones than the nominate but this bird had none. You live and learn.

The next day I birded the river valley and adjacent woodland just south of the Botanic Gardens.

Slightly more species were observed and half were different from the gardens. I will blog about them next.

Birds seen at Botanic Gardens, Minsk
Mute Swan 
Northern Goshawk  
Common Swift  
Red-backed Shrike  
Eurasian Jay  
Hooded Crow 
Common House Martin  
Great Tit  
Common Chiffchaff  
Wood Warbler  
Eurasian Blackcap 
Common Whitethroat  
Spotted Flycatcher
Collared flycatcher  
European Robin  
Thrush Nightingale 
Eurasian Blackbird  
Song Thrush  
Mistle Thrush  
White Wagtail 
Common Chaffinch  
Eurasian Siskin  
Eurasian Tree Sparrow  

Sunday 9 July 2017

Two additions on my last weekend before leave

June is arguably the dullest month for birding in Nouakchott and so it had proved to be until the weekend of 16th and 17th. These two days showed that it pays not to be prejudiced when it comes to birding. 

It all started innocently enough. 16th June was actually quite a cool day and this allowed me to bird north Nouakchott lake more intensively than of late. 

squacco heron

Despite this I saw a total of only 17 species which is exactly half the record number I had seen in winter. This was along with expectations for June being the dullest month. However the 17 species included at least one which was anything but ordinary. There will be more on this in a moment.

Things started out normally though I don't always see squacco heron or grey heron. A single of both were present that Friday afternoon.

grey heron

The moorhen, African swamphen, little grebe and Eurasian coot all have young at the moment.

common moorhen

The single northern pintail that I had been seeing for weeks was still present. My prediction that it might over-summer is looking solid.

northern pintail

While the spur-winged lapwing show signs of pairing off, they have not bred like the water fowl. I suspect they breed in the rainy season such as it is in Nouakchott.

spur-winged lapwing

However it was in the air that I found my new species for my Mauritanian list and which made the visit that Friday so interesting. Along with the regular little swift, I came across two plain swift. They were relatively easily separated from common swift which is the only real confusion species.

Having the little swift present it was simple to compare size. The plain swift were not much larger than the little swift whereas common swift is obviously so. Furthermore, there was no obvious pale throat to see and the tail was noticeably forked. The flight mode was very different to common swift too. It was very erratic as well as fast. All these features fit with plain swift

Indeed the erratic movements made it impossible for me to get a good picture.

Here is something strange. There are more records of plain swift in June in Mauritania than any other month. Indeed the e-bird database has that species available from the drop down list in June but not common swift. This is consistent with my observation.

Incidentally, I have discovered that the more precise name of North Nouakchott Lake is F-Nord lake. F-Nord is one of two districts in north Nouakchott. From now on, I will refer to the lake as F-Nord lake.

The next day, early on Saturday morning, I made my now familiar walk out westward through central lake, west Nouakchott pools to south of the fish market. This too was more much eventful than of late.

black-tailed godwit at central lake

Flying above the central lake was another plain swift suggesting the day before's observations were not a fluke.

sanderling and common ringed plover at west Nouakchott pools

I moved on to west Nouakchott pools fairly quickly as it is in a secure embassy zone. 

There was more variation in the waders in the pools there than of late.

Kittlitz's plover

I observed my first common redshank for a month or two.

common redshank

One I had thought was possibly a green sandpiper and the first for nearly as long.

distant wood sandpiper

I got close to it.  Green sandpiper in breeding plumage is quite white-spotted and can look very like a wood sandpiper in non-breeding plumage. Furthermore, this bird had a very weak supercilium supporting green sandpiper. I don't think knowing that wood sandpiper is overall lighter than green sandpiper always helps in these types of cases and in such bright conditions as are usual in Nouakchott. 

In the end I think the best characteristic to look at in this case is the barring on the undertail. The narrow bars here are characteristic of wood sandpiper

close-up of the sandpiper

There was a nice gathering of spur-winged lapwing though like at F-Nord lake the day before there was no sign yet of nesting.

four spur-winged lapwing at west Nouakchott pools

After an hour or so at west Nouakchott pools, I walked  the final two kilometres to the coast just south of the fish market.

Here again, there was more bird activity the last couple of visits and a pleasant surprise.

Firstly, I noticed more terns. There were royal tern, gull-billed tern, Caspian tern and a very late migrant black tern.

black tern

The big news was over the sea. While watching the terns I glimpsed what I thought was a Wilson's storm petrel literally flying over where the waves broke onto the shore. I could not believe my eyes that one had come in so close.

record shot of Wilson's storm petrel

I changed my birding tactics to spend 30 or 40 minutes only looking for storm petrels. A second one did exactly the same as the first one and flew along the beach, only metres into the water.

I saw five more further out to sea including one which I got a record shot off 300 metres out and in front of a fishing boat.

There has been an observation of a flock of several tens of thousands of these summer visitors from the southern hemisphere. This was in July and 100 kilometres out to sea off Nouakchott.

Other smaller (but still large) flocks have been regularly seen here too. They seem to be particularly attracted to the zone of cooler North Atlantic water just north of the inter-tropical convergence zone. This cooler water begins near Nouakchott. 

Give the many thousands of Wilson's storm petrel that must migrate in May and June, is not unsurprising that a few ventured close to the shore near fish market on 17th June.

It was a fitting last observation before I left Mauritania for my summer holiday. it made species 262 on my country list.

Species seen at F-Nord lake on 16th June
Northern Pintail  1    
Little Grebe  30
Grey Heron  1
Cattle Egret  6
Squacco Heron  1
African Swamphen  6 
Common Moorhen  32
Eurasian Coot  35    
Black-headed Gull  1
Speckled Pigeon  4
Laughing Dove  5
Little Swift 6
Plain Swift  2    
Barn Swallow  4
Common House Martin  2    
House Sparrow  18
Sudan Golden Sparrow  12
Red-billed Quelea  1

Species seen south of the fish market on 17th June
Wilson's Storm-Petrel  9
Kittlitz's Plover  1
Kentish Plover  4
Common Ringed Plover  1
Bar-tailed Godwit  1   
Little Stint  3
Lesser Black-backed Gull  3    
Gull-billed Tern  2
Caspian Tern  1
Black Tern  1
Royal Tern  6
Laughing Dove  2
Little Swift  2
Crested Lark  3
Barn Swallow  4    
House Sparrow  8

Saturday 8 July 2017

Westward in early June

I am well behind with my blogs but I am on summer holiday now so I have time to catch up. I have two to post and both are from June. 

These recount observations during Ramadan when I was restricted to walks out of the house.

I had expected June to be dull as it is an in-between month. That is to say most Palearctic migration is over for a couple of months and no rains are usually expected for the same period. The rains often bring intra-African migrants. August in particular is an exciting month in southern Mauritania even in Nouakchott apparently for such birds.

I must admit my walk out westward on June 4th was relatively dull with only a couple of bright points. There is no escaping that. However the next walk two weeks after was a complete surprise and birding was unexpectedly good.

Sadly, this blog covers the duller (relatively) walk. 

I went out to the fishing port via the central lake (freshwater) and west Nouakchott  pools (saline).

Starting at the end first, the sea around the fishing point was extremely quiet. Only a small number of over-summering lesser black-backed gull were seen. 

I soon retreated from the coast and went to look close to the fish dump. This smelly place often attracts interesting land birds.

Thekla lark has been claimed in this area on about three occasions in recent years though I remain skeptical even having seen the photos.

crested lark 1

Nevertheless I will still inspect as many of the crested lark as I can especially on quieter days.

There was one candidate which had a short bill. It caught my attention. It was also relatively streaked on the breast too.

crested lark 2

However despite its plumage, I believe this is a young bird and I can see the remains of juvenile yellow gape. This explains the short bill to me.

crested lark 3

What kept my attention for so long was not a plumage feature though, it was its feeding action. I never saw it dig for food once. It pecked. However one feature out of three in favour is not enough. 

I will keep looking but remember I have visited this site more than 15 times now in nearly all seasons. I am pretty sure thelka lark is not resident. If it is ever here at all surely it must be an occasional dispersal from much further north.

white wagtail

Arguably the best sighting near the fishing port was a white wagtail. What is one doing here in June? It should have migrated many weeks ago.

cattle egret

Pretty much all of the cattle egret that frequent the fish dump were in breeding plumage.

Kittlitz's plover

This dump is a good place to find Kittlitz's plover all year except the winter months of December to February inclusive. The city is denuded of this species then. They undertake a short distance migration south probably no further than the Senegal River delta where records show them all year round.

slender-billed gull at central lake

Earlier I had walked past the central lake. It is best not to loiter too long here as it is ear-marked for the new Senegal embassy and patrolled.

moorhen at central lake

I finally managed a photo of one of the common moorhen which are always to be found there. it is one of only three places i know in the city where they can be seen.

black-winged stilt

It is the only place in the city where black-winged stilt can be guaranteed on every visit.

speckled pigeon

It's also a good place to find speckled pigeon in numbers.

black-tailed godwit

The west Nouakchott pools are midway between the central lake and the fishing port. They are undoubtedly the best place in the city to see the largest numbers of waders.  I really don't know where the black-tailed godwit and the two curlew sandpiper there were coming or going. It was an odd time for migrants. Over-summering is a possibility especially as the latter birds had virtually no summer plumage.

plenty of common ringed plover

Common ringed plover were once again numerous on site. I broke the e-bird filter which thinks it is rare to see three or more in June. Here were 23. All observations add to knowledge.

The next blog looks at my birding in the city over the weekend of June 16th and 17th. To my great surprise I added two species to my Mauritanian list. The birding couldn't have been different actually and psychologically. I went on my summer break on a high.