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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative


2023 Narrative

IN BRIEF: This year’s Senegal tour was beyond successful finding all of our major targets and a few surprise bonus species as well. Beginning in the arid north, we had the iconic Golden Nightjar along with Little Gray Woodpecker, Sennar Penduline-Tit, Fulvous Chatterer, and Cricket Longtail. The vast lakes and rivers of the Djoudj National Bird Sanctuary provided an impressive list of waterbirds while further south, we had a record number of Quail-Plovers, a species that can be very unreliable. Closer to The Gambia, patience paid off with a White-crested Bittern, while the far southeast provided Mali Firefinches, a pair of Dybowski’s Twinspots, Egyptian Plovers, African Finfoot, and a record high count of Neumann’s Starlings. Finishing in the under-birded southwest part of the country, which is rarely visited by birders, we had a whole host of species more regular further south such as Gray-headed Bristlebill, Western Nicator, and Piping Hornbills, but most importantly Turati’s Boubou and Capuchin Babbler! We covered a lot of ground, but in doing so we cleaned up on our targets.

IN DETAIL: The tour began from the second-floor balcony of our accommodation where we met for our welcome talk and dinner. Afterwards, we headed down the road and ticked our first bird of the tour: a jaw-dropping Standard-winged Nightjar.  What a terrific start of the tour! The wind was blowing and when it would take flight, the bizarre long tail-feathers gave the appearance of two birds mobbing it as it flew around.

The next morning, we headed to a nearby nature reserve for an introduction to the local birdlife before hitting the road for the far northern reaches of the country. Village and Black-headed Weavers, African Gray and Western Red-billed Hornbills, Beautiful Sunbirds, and the gorgeous Yellow-crowned Gonolek were common while the large pond hosted a variety of waterbirds such as Senegal Thick-knee, Green Sandpiper, Gray-hooded Gulls, and a few herons and egrets. Being near the coast we also picked up several terns including the recently split West African Crested Tern as well as a distant Northern Gannet. The nearby acacia scrub hosted a selection of birds. Whistling the call of Pearl-spotted Owlet helped lure them out, and we had views of a good number of migrants such as Common Redstart, Greater Whitethroat, and Western Subalpine Warbler along with Little Bee-eater and Northern Crombec. A Gosling’s Bunting also made a very brief appearance.

After this, we began our journey north into the arid Sahel region. Before reaching our lunch stop, we picked up a few Piapiacs and Chestnut-bellied Starlings. We eventually made it to our accommodation for the night in Richard’s Toll, where we dropped our bags, and headed out in the early evening. Our main objective was Cricket Longtail and Fulvous Chatterer. Luck was on our side as they were both fairy easy to find as they were hanging out in their usual spots. Other highlights included Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse, Eurasian Thick-knee, Temminck’s Courser, Northern Anteater Chat, and our first of many Abyssinian Rollers. Great Gray and Woodchat Shrikes were well represented, and we saw our first hundreds of Sudan Golden Sparrows, which are the most abundant bird in this region. Back at the hotel, some of us enjoy the last daylight hours overlooking the Senegal River where we ticked birds for our Mauritania list with Black Crake, African Swamphen, Glossy Ibis, and Common Reed Warblers being some of the additions.

After breakfast the next morning, we did a short scan from the river’s edge where we had a good number of birds leaving their roosts such as White-faced Whistling-Ducks, Knob-billed Ducks, and a Hamerkop. We also had Eurasian Marsh-Harrier, a roosting Barn Owl in the carpark, a gorgeous African Green Bee-eater, and hundreds of Ruffs overhead migrating north.

East of Richard’s Toll we birded an area of scattered trees picking up Blue-naped Mousebird, Striped Kingfisher, Vieillot’s Barbet, Senegal Batis, Brubu, a large number of Western Bonelli’s Warblers, and eventually our two targets: Sennar Penduline-Tit and Little Gray Woodpecker. The Little Gray Woodpeckers were right back where we started excavating a hole almost directly over where the van was parked.

We made it to the Podor area where we had lunch and a short afternoon break, before heading out again for one of the biggest targets of the tour: the cryptic Golden Nightjar. We had recent news that a lot of the habitat was destroyed and that previous groups had great difficulty finding a nightjar. But, despite this deflating news, it only took several minutes before we were face to face with this gorgeous nightjar. A big sigh of relief! It sat extremely still using its camouflage to ‘hide’ as we obtained excellent photos and extended views in the scope. A nearby Atlas Wheatear, a recent split, was a nice addition.

After breakfast the next morning we did a short walk from our accommodation where we had around fifteen Horus Swifts nesting on a riverbank. This colony was only discovered a few years ago and was at the time a considerable range expansion.  We also enjoyed Black Scrub-Robin, White-rumped Seedeater, and detailed views of Western Olivaceous Warbler where we discussed the subtleties between them and the very similar Eastern by sight and sound. We worked our way back west along the northern border, making a couple different stops before lunch where we had Green Woodhoopoe, Yellow-bellied Eremomela, Shikra, Common Chiffchaff, and African Silverbill.

After lunch we headed for the Djoudj National Bird Sanctuary along the Senegal River Delta, a 16,000-ha area and UNESCO World Heritage Site. This region is very important for migratory birds, particularly waterfowl, with numbers reaching over a million of individuals. With our conveniently located accommodation and two nights, we had plenty of time to explore this bird-rich region. In the evening we did a short drive where we scanned through over 25,000 White-faced Whistling-Ducks picking out a few Fulvous Whistling-Ducks. We also had Northern Shovelers, both Greater and Lesser Flamingos, Pied Avocet, Kentish Plover, Black-tailed Godwit, and Eurasian Spoonbill to name a few. A small wetland hosted several Greater Painted-Snipes, a highlight for many, while a nearby scrub provided a pair of River Prinias.

The next morning, we were awakened to Long-tailed Nightjars calling around our accommodation. After breakfast we headed over to a boat, which would take us on a leisurely cruise to see an impressive pelican breeding colony. Along the way we picked up a migrant Bluethroat. We were greeted right away by Great White Pelicans, but nowhere near the numbers we were about to see. There was also a nice variety of waterbirds, both Eurasian and African Spoonbills, Black Crake, Yellow-billed Stork, and several “Iberian” Yellow Wagtails along the shorelines. After passing a few impressive flotillas of pelicans, we reach the island, which pushed our pelican count to well over 2,000 individuals.

Before lunch we did a walk through a scrubby area where we made our first attempt for Arabian Bustard. Although we dipped this first time, we were still awarded to excellent views of a half-dozen Short-eared Owls, a Short-toed Snake-Eagle, and several Black-winged Kites. Before lunch we stumbled upon our first Yellow-billed Oxpeckers on a small group of cattle.

In the afternoon we focused our attention to a large lake, where the waterfowl numbers were no less than exceptional. Northern Pintail, Northern Shoveler, and Garganey numbers reached 8,000, 7,000, and 5,000 individuals respectively, while smaller numbers of “Eurasian” Green-winged Teal, Knob-billed Duck, and others were also present. Greater Flamingos reached 15,000 individuals, far outnumbering the Lesser Flamingos. The shoreline had a selection of shorebirds including Marsh Sandpiper, Spotted Redshank, Black-tailed Godwit and Kentish Plover along with several hundred Whiskered Terns. While scanning, someone shouted, “Arabian Bustard!” and we turned around to see two walking between shrubs, offering excellent scope views. This is a very challenging species to find! Before arriving back in the evening, we had several Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse before stumbling upon a growing flock of Black Crowned-Cranes amassed for the night. We tallied 121 individuals, a new national high-count record!

After a successful run around Djoudj, the next morning we began working our way south. Before reaching Saint Louis, we birded along a river lined with reeds and small wetlands. Our main targets were the petite African Pygmy-Goose and the secretive Allen’s Gallinule. It didn’t take long before we found both along with Winding Cisticola, Greater Swamp Warbler, and African Stonechat. In Saint Louis, a coastal town, the tide was up so there weren’t too many birds, but we did pick up Sanderling, Ruddy Turnstone, and a Black-bellied Plover on our way through. A couple stops before reaching our destination for the night, we had our first White-backed Vulture and a single Mottled Spinetail mixed in with several dozen Little Swifts. 

With spare time before dinner, we opted to head to the nearby Quail-Plover spot to try our luck as a backup before our planned morning visit. Luck was certainly on our side for this highly prized species! It didn’t take long at all, only fifteen minutes, before we spotted our first couple Quail-Plovers eventually tallying five! This represents a new high-count record for Senegal for this unique buttonquail. We also picked up Desert Cisticola and several Horsfield’s Bushlarks.

With our target in the bag, we were able to sleep in a little the next morning before we continued our travels south. With some spare time, we birded a promising area for an hour where we amazingly found two more Quail-Plovers! As if that wasn’t enough, we also tracked down our first Savile’s Bustard.

After checking into our comfortable hotel in Kaolack, we headed back out in the afternoon and birded a dry scrub area which produced another Savile’s Bustard and a bonus White-bellied Bustard. The latter is rarely recorded on this tour and was a nice addition to this productive trip. We also had a Short-toed Snake-Eagle and several Chestnut-backed Sparrow-Larks. Closer to dusk, we headed to a nearby island in the river where we waited for the throngs of Scissor-tailed Kites and Lesser Kestrels that come and roost on this protected landmass. After a while and a Montagu’s Harrier later, they started to stream in overhead and fill the treetops of distant trees. We had fewer than normal this year, but 900 individuals still doesn’t disappoint!

This year we added a new location to our itinerary, the town of Toubakouta, which is located on the Saloum Delta. In addition to being a great hotel and a wonderful place to explore vast mangroves by boat, it also offers an excellent chance at finding the scarce White-crested Bittern. We made our first attempt in the morning at high tide where we had the enormous Goliath Heron, a Blue-breasted Kingfisher, the drab Mouse-brown Sunbird, and small numbers of acrobatic Swallow-tailed and Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters, but alas no bittern.

After an excellent lunch, we headed back out for a second attempt, but this time at low tide. After a bit of searching, we finally spotted one hidden among some mangrove roots, obtaining incredible views of this secretive bird. The celebrations soon followed… our hard work paid off! On the way back we spotted a color-banded Whimbrel on a sandbar. After some research, we found the bander and learned the bird was banded the year prior in York, United Kingdom. It’s important to note that West Africa is an important wintering ground for Eurasian shorebirds.

Before heading off the next morning, we birded a nearby forest patch. Brown and Blackcap Babblers made an appearance from a trailhead while a nearby Red-necked Falcon offered extended scope views. Heading into the forest, we picked up a few new birds including Stone Partridge, Broad-billed Roller, Northern Puffback, and Scarlet-chested Sunbird to name a few. Mostly a travel day, we made a few stops along the way towards Tambacounda picking up Rüppell’s Griffon, Rufous-tailed Scrub-Robin, and a male Sahel Paradise-Whydah.

As we headed towards the southeast corner of Senegal, the habitat rapidly changed with more trees, terrain, and with that, a new variety of birds. Before reaching Kedougou, our base for the next three nights, we made a stop picking up Double-spurred Spurfowl, Giant Kingfisher, Red-throated Bee-eater, Fine-spotted Woodpecker, Black-rumped Waxbills, and large groups of Purple Starlings. Before reaching town we picked up Beaudouin’s Snake-Eagle, White Helmetshrike, and Banded Snake-Eagle along the road.

We had lunch, checked into our comfortable accommodation and headed back out in the late afternoon. Our main target for the evening was the very localized Mali Firefinch and a productive escarpment offered a good chance at this tricky species. Heading straight to the spot they were last year, it only took a few minutes before we found a group of four, which cooperated very well for extended scope views and photographs. What a great start! Other birds in the area include Adamawa Turtle-Dove, over a half-dozen Mocking Cliff-Chats, a migrant European Pied Flycatcher, and a shocking 18 Neumann’s Starlings, which represents the high count record for all of Senegal!

After breakfast, we walked a productive two-hour loop just outside of town. Upon stepping out of the vehicle, we were instantly greeted to a trio of Bruce’s Green-Pigeons sitting in a nearby tree. Keeping our ears open and the occasional Pearl-spotted Owlet whistles, we picked up Brubru, White-shouldered Black-Tit, Red-winged Prinia, Dorst’s Cisticola, Chestnut-crowned Sparrow-Weaver, Red-winged Pytilia, and after a lot of scrutinizing the common Vitelline Masked-Weaver, we finally picked out a couple Heuglin’s Masked-Weavers.

After lunch and a short afternoon break during the heat of the day, we ventured back out visiting another patch of habitat on the other side of town. Our main target hear was Sun Lark, and it didn’t take long before we found three feeding under the shade of a bush. A pair of Tawny Eagles was a nice addition. Before retiring for the day, we did one more walking loop, but things had quieted down, but we still managed to pick up another Sun Lark, which was singing overhead and then dropped from the sky nearly landing on our heads! A Gray Kestrel was also a nice addition as were three Violet Turacos roosting near the river.

The next morning, we took the long bumpy journey towards Dindefelo. Along the way we had plenty of raptors perched up including our first Brown Snake-Eagle and Grasshopper Buzzard. Just before the village we hopped out a did a short walk where we had an excellent variety of birds including a large colony of Red-throated Bee-eaters breeding in the walls of a large ditch, a Gabar Goshawk, several Brown-throated Wattle-eyes and Northern Yellow White-eyes, and a locally rare Western Violet-backed Sunbird, before stumbling upon a group of a half-dozen Black-faced Firefinches.

From Dindefelo, we headed up the trail, which eventually leads to a waterfall where we immediately picked up the resident pair of Willcocks’s Honeyguides, which were only first discovered here several years ago. Further along we had Guinea Turaco, Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird, Familiar Chat, and Green-headed Sunbird. In the more closed canopy forest we had no fewer than five African Blue Flycatchers before we came upon a major highlight of the tour, a pair of Dybowski’s Twinspots. They remained in the open along a small stream for an extended amount of time offering excellent views and photographic opportunities. Typically, this scarce species is quite timid and flies off at first sight of humans, so we were very fortunate. On the way back to Kedougou, we stopped for a pair of Four-banded Sandgrouse, which were walking right along our vehicle.

After all of the success in the southeast, we backtracked a few hours through the Niokolo-Koba National Park, where we spotted several groups of Abyssinian Ground-Hornbills tallying nine individuals and our first Bateleur, a small distinctive eagle.

We arrived at Wassadou Camp, which is situated on a bluff overlooking the Gambia River and an excellent base to explore the surrounding by foot and boat. Before lunch we walked a loop around camp where we picked up Mourning Collared-Dove, White-headed Lapwing, Hamerkop, Wahlberg’s Eagle, Cardinal Woodpecker, and Wire-tailed Swallow among other common species in this region.

In the late afternoon we took a very productive boat trip down the Gambia River.  One of the first birds we laid eyes on was an immature White-backed Night-Heron sitting motionless in some tangles over the water. Shortly after, we picked up another major highlight: a pair of Egyptian Plovers on an open sandbar allowing a very close approach. We were able to rest the boat on the shoreline and watch them right up close as they fed around us. Further along we picked up Gray-headed Kingfisher, Swamp Flycatcher, and White-crowned Robin-Chat, before reaching a large Red-throated Bee-eater colony, which had a small number of Northern Carmine Bee-eaters mixed right in.

The next morning we walked along the the river’s edge to a nice viewpoint where we spent the morning scanning the river and waiting to see what would come in to drink. A Senegal Coucal sat out in the open, a Black Crake worked the water’s edge, two distant Egyptian Plovers joined over fifty Wattled Lapwings on a large sandbar, and Common and Green Sandpipers made several passes. A Malachite Kingfisher briefly teed up on some reeds while a pair of Oriole Warblers sang their beautiful duet from across the river, but the real surprise was an African Finfoot made an appearance as it worked the water’s edge. After finally getting a finfoot after missing it on the boat trip, we worked our way back to camp where we picked out a few Bronze-tailed Starlings among the Purple Starlings. We packed up and began our drive west towards the stopover town of Kolda.

From Kolda, we began heading west once more stopping at a protected forest patch. Here we added Brown-backed Woodpecker, a small flock of Lesser Blue-eared Starlings, and no fewer than 50 Pygmy, 20 Scarlet-chested and ten Beautiful Sunbirds. Further along we stopped for a Blue-bellied Roller sitting on a telephone pole in a small village before reaching our destination, Ziguinchor, our home for the night.

In the late afternoon we enjoyed a long walk through a small patch of forest, which is one of the last remnants of what used to be a much more forested region. Here we targeted species that are more common to the Guinean forests of West Africa and not common further north in the more arid regions of Senegal. Black-billed Wood-Doves were replaced with Blue-spotted Wood-Doves, African Paradise-Flycatchers were replaced with Red-bellied (Black-headed) Paradise-Flycatchers, and the common sunbirds were now Collared, Olive, Splendid, and Variable. Other new species included Snowy-crowned Robin-Chat, Gray-headed Bristlebill, Swallow-tailed and Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters, and a calling pair of Verreaux’s Eagle-Owls and a single Ahanta Francolin, which remained hidden.

The next morning we headed to a very promising patch of forest, not far from the Guinea-Bissau border, where our main target would be the Turati’s Boubou. This species was only recently discovered in Senegal and doesn’t occur anywhere that regularly sees birding tours. We arrived at sunrise and began poking around some towering trees with scrubby undergrowth adding African Green-Pigeon, African Pied and Piping Hornbills, African Golden Oriole, Western Nicator, Green Crombec, Green Hylia, Singing Cisticola, Leaf-Love, Copper Sunbird, and a heard-only Western Bluebill. After no Turati’s Boubou, we met up with the chief and explained what we were looking for. He immediately knew the bird and had us follow him to another site. Once in the area he said to play their call and we immediately had a couple different pairs duetting and, after a while, had some good views of one pair as they skulked back and forth in the thick shrubbery. Despite only being ‘discovered’ in Senegal in recent history, the chief explained how he grew up hearing this bird his whole life and was quite knowledgeable on their habits and behaviors. It’s a good lesson that locals will know more about birdlife in their regions than any visiting birder.

After much celebration and, thanks to the chief, we headed back to town to pack up and have lunch before working our way further west towards the coast. By 2pm, we were at another patch of forest where we’d try our luck at a few other species that barely extend into Senegal. Despite the heat, we were able to find a Black-throated Coucal, heard a distant White-spotted Flufftail, and picked out a couple Rufous-chested Swallows flying overhead.

Our final stop of the day was an area of expansive grassland and wet fields. A short walk here rewarded us with White-throated Bee-eater, Plain-backed Pipit, Yellow-throated Longclaw, and a surprise pair of Black-backed Cisticolas. The latter, although expected here, was the first eBird record for Senegal and proves just how under-birded the southwest corner of the country was.

On our final morning, we found ourselves at a patch of forest right along the coast north of Cap Skirring where Capuchin Babbler can be found. This localized babbler can be quite the skulker. Meandering our way along a trail, we had a very brief glimpse of a couple babblers before they disappeared. We also had a Blue Malkoha, a migrant Great Spotted Cuckoo teed up, up close views of Bearded Barbet on a fruiting tree, and a whole host of other birds. Although the birding was excellent, we still needed better views of Capuchin Babbler. We hung around the usual spot for them for quite a while, but with the wind increasing, we decided to try a new spot more hidden from the wind. Sure enough, we peaked around the corner and had better views of several Capuchin Babblers and eventually counted ten individuals as they flew one-by-one across the trail. An excellent way to end the tour!

                                                                                                                                                                            -          Ethan Kistler

Created: 10 March 2023