Senegal is the best place to see the beautiful Golden Nightjar. Photo: Steve Rooke
Sandwiched between the Sahara Desert to the north and the lush forests of Upper Guinea to the south, Africa’s Sahel region consists mostly of dry savannah, semi-desert, and dry woodland, but it also supports some of West Africa’s most important wetlands and a wealth of special birds not easily found elsewhere. Senegal offers the most accessible route into this remarkable region.
We’ll travel to Senegal’s northern reaches bordering the Senegal River. Here the dry acacia and semi-desert hold several specialities, including the often-demonstrative Cricket Warbler and the far more retiring Little Grey Woodpecker and Sennar Penduline Tit. We’ll also search for the formerly near-mythical Golden Nightjar, now seen regularly in these parts, and Arabian and Savile’s Bustards which roam the arid grasslands. For a total contrast we’ll also visit the Djoudj National Bird Sanctuary’s wetlands, home to vast numbers of waterbirds and perhaps a few surprises such as Allen’s Gallinule. Moving south and east, we’ll hope for a few enigmatic birds, with Quail-plover featuring high on the most-wanted list, and spectacles such as a famous roost of Scissor-tailed Kites and Lesser Kestrels possibly numbering in the thousands. Continuing into the hilly and more wooded southeast region where Egyptian Plover has in recent years delighted us, we should be fortunate enough to spot African Finfoot, Adamawa Turtle Dove, and Red-throated Bee-eater. The real prizes here will be Mali Firefinch and Neumann’s Starling, along with an entertaining host of other uncommon species such as White-fronted Black Chat and Pied-winged Swallow.
We’ll spend our final few days in the far southwest, mainly in the Basse Casamance province. Once out of bounds due to internal strife, the region is now open and safe and is beginning to reveal some real treasures. The forests here are home to some highly-localised species such as Turati’s Boubou, Capuchin Babbler, and White-throated Greenbul, and further exploration is likely to turn up new surprises. Finally, we’ll spend a day in The Gambia looking for any species we are missing, some of which are likely at the many ”water bars” maintained for birds.
Day 1: The tour begins this evening in Dakar, Senegal, with a welcome talk at our hotel near the airport.
Day 2: We’ll depart early, making our way north to the frontier town of Richard Toll. Birds should be conspicuous along the road, and we’ll make numerous stops to see what we can find. Charismatic Sahel species, such as Long-tailed Glossy and Chestnut-bellied Starlings and both Abyssinian and Rufous-crowned Rollers, may be among the first to entertain us, and the skies should be filled with plentiful Yellow-billed Kites and occasional groups of White-backed, Griffon, and Rüppell’s Griffon Vultures. If we are lucky, we may find a carcass bedecked with a horde of these huge and charismatic scavengers. Common species along the road will no doubt include Hooded Vulture, African Grey Hornbill, Piapiac, Pied Crow, Vinaceous Dove, and Little Bee-eater among many others, and we’ll keep an eye on the trees for Vieillot’s Barbet and Senegal Eremomela. Arriving in Richard Toll, we’ll find our hotel sitting on the banks of the Senegal River. Enjoying a sundowner overlooking the comings and goings along the river will no doubt be an excellent and relaxing end to our first full day. Night in Richard Toll.
Day 3: From Richard Toll we’ll venture farther east to the area around Podor and Gamadji Sare. Here, where the Sahel borders the Sahara, the acacias and low scrub are home to some very special birds. Our main targets will be some classic birds of the region - Cricket Warbler, the tiny Sennar Penduline Tit, Little Grey Woodpecker, and Golden Nightjar. Only the first is relatively straightforward, but, by carefully searching the acacia groves, we at least hope to see them all. Other species we can expect include African Collared and Namaqua Doves, Sudan Golden Sparrow, both Black and Rufous Scrub Robins, and Senegal Batis. There should also be many European migrants, such as Western Olivaceous and Western Bonelli’s Warblers, Woodchat Shrike, Black-eared Wheatear, and perhaps even the recently split Seebohm’s Wheatear. When we are out on the frontiers like this, there is always the chance of a surprise - for example, the recent establishment of Horus Swift as a breeding species a mere 1,000 miles from its nearest known colonies. Night in Gamadji Sare.
Day 4: We’ll spend another day in the acacia groves and scrub of the north, perhaps catching up with Little Green Bee-eater, White-rumped Seedeater, or species we might be missing. We’ll also try for views of a day-roosting Golden Nightjar or Fulvous Babbler in the more desert-like areas. Night in Richard Toll.
Day 5: We’ll have the option of a final morning’s birding around Richard Toll before we drive back westwards to the Djoudj National Bird Sanctuary. We’ll no doubt explore a few of the dry rice paddies en route, where hordes of Red-billed Queleas and Yellow-crowned Bishops may be feeding and a Greater Painted-snipe or two may be lurking in a quiet corner. We should arrive at the Djoudj in time to get an initial impression of the delights on offer at this world-class wetland and to search for one of our major targets: the rather humble River Prinia. Only recently described, this unassuming speciman is restricted to riverine wetlands in the Sahel, and those in the Djoudj are among the most accessible. Night in Djoudj National Bird Sanctuary.
Day 6: The Djoudj National Bird Sanctuary is a seriously impressive, seasonally refreshed wetland. The first permanent fresh water south of the Sahara, it holds vast numbers of wintering Palearctic wildfowl along with an excellent selection of West African waterbirds. White-faced Whistling Duck and Garganey are likely to be in large numbers, but the huge colony of Great White Pelicans promises to be a wondrous spectacle, and, time permitting, we’ll take a boat ride to get close to them. Other waterfowl include Marbled Duck, Northern Pintail, Northern Shoveler, Fulvous Whistling Duck, Spur-winged Goose, and Knob-billed Duck. Innumerable waders, cormorants, herons, egrets, ibis, spoonbills, and flamingos will contribute to the cacophony. Also here are Greater Swamp Warbler, Winding Cisticola, and the very localised moptanus race of African Stonechat. Out in the drier areas, perhaps stalking with herons, we should find Black Crowned-crane, another Sahelian speciality. Away from the water in the dry scrub and surrounding bushland, we’ll search for the stately and declining Arabian Bustard, although views of this are never guaranteed; Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse and a couple of rather tricky estrildids; and Quailfinch and Zebra Waxbill. By now we should have become familiar as well with at least two forms of the taxonomically confusing Great Grey Shrike complex. Night in Djoudj National Bird Sanctuary.
Day 7: Leaving the Djoudj, we’ll first visit an area of wetlands north-east of Saint-Louis where we have our first chance for Savile’s Bustard, as well as classic wetland species such as African Swamphen and perhaps even Allen’s Gallinule or Lesser Moorhen. From here we’ll embark on the long drive south to Mbacké, as always stopping for any species of interest that we may see. Night in Mbacké.
Day 8: Birding south of Mbacké, our main focus will be on the taxonomically and geographically enigmatic Quail-plover. Now considered an aberrant buttonquail, it is nowhere common or regular in its huge range across the drier parts of West and East Africa. If the previous season’s rainfall has been good, we’ll have a realistic chance of finding one in the dry bush and savannah, although it may require a lot of walking before we do. Other species could include Temminck’s Courser, Singing Bush Lark, and Sahel Paradise Whydah, while up in the skies we’ll hope to see Beaudouin’s Snake Eagle, Bateleur, and one of the key species for the tour: the beautiful Scissor-tailed Kite. Although we may find individuals hunting the savannah during the day, in the early evening a large roost of these graceful birds gathers on a riverine island near the town, along with equally impressive numbers of Lesser Kestrels. These numbers do vary according to local conditions, ranging from many hundreds to many thousands. Nearby is an area of scrub that has proven excellent for Savile’s Bustard, should we need another opportunity. Night in Kaolack.
Days 9-10: We’ll begin Day 9 with another long drive, this time southeast to a huge area of savannah and forest along the Gambia River, the largest and wildest area of land in Senegal. We’ll arrive in Wassadou in time for some late afternoon birding and a sundowner overlooking the Gambia River in the company of Green Monkeys, Western Red Colobus, and perhaps a snorkelling Hippopotamus.
We’ll stay two nights at the wonderful, bird-filled Wassadou Camp, a superb spot on the Gambia River where Egyptian Plover vies for attention with African Finfoot and White-crowned Lapwings, and the highly-localised Adamawa Turtle Dove is also present in good numbers. Gorgeous Red-throated and Northern Carmine Bee-eaters breed along the river, and we’ll take a short boat trip to get close to these harlequins of the bird world. The possibilities here are many and include Palm Nut Vulture, Western Banded Snake Eagle, Giant, Blue-breasted, and Shining Blue Kingfishers, Blue-bellied Roller, Stone Partridge, Swamp Flycatcher, Grey Tit-flycatcher, African Blue Flycatcher, Bronze-tailed Starling, and Black-faced Firefinch (here of the highly-localised race vinacea, sometimes treated as a separate species Vinaceous Firefinch) among many, many others. Night in Wassadou.
Our two nights here give us two evenings and two dawns to search for one of the more sought-after of Africa’s owls: Pel’s Fishing Owl. Sightings are never guaranteed, and the camp can go weeks without seeing them; nonetheless, we have a realistic chance of finding one, along with other nocturnal species such as Northern White-faced Owl, White-backed Night-heron, and Long-tailed Nightjar. It’s also worth mentioning that all of these are possible from the camp itself. Nights at Wassadou.
Days 11-12: Continuing southeast, we’ll approach the border with Mali and the bustling town of Kedougou. There is a lot to look for here with the extremely range-restricted Mali (or Kulikoro) Firefinch high on our list, although we’ll have to check carefully as there are four other firefinch species possible! On our full day, we’ll take 4x4 vehicles to the village of Dindefelo, located at the base of an imposing escarpment. The drive can produce some excellent birding, and we’ll be on lookout for Fox Kestrel, Four-banded Sandgrouse, and Sun Lark, while other possibilities include Abyssinian Ground Hornbill, Yellow Penduline Tit, Exclamatory Paradise Whydah, Western Violet-backed Sunbird, and White Helmet Shrike. As we approach the escarpment, we should encounter a new set of species. Neumann’s Starling is restricted to rocky areas in the Sahel and is hard to find in most places, but here we have a realistic chance. Under the shade of the tall trees, Violet Turaco, Narina’s Trogon, Yellow-breasted Apalis, Green-headed Sunbird, Snowy-crowned Robin-chat, and African Paradise Flycatcher can be expected, while Rock Martins quarter on the cliffs and Orange-cheeked Waxbills forage among the houses. There should as well be more Mali Firefinch and Pygmy Sunbird, while Gosling’s Bunting likes these wooded and rocky slopes. Other possibilities could include White-fronted Black Chat and Pied-winged Swallow. Nights in Kédougou.
Day 13: We may have chance for some morning birding, after which we’ll depart Kédougou and drive slowly to Tambacounda, birding along the way. These roads reward slow travel, as they go through the middle of Niokolo-Koba National Park. We’ll keep a sharp lookout for any mammals that may be crossing and for bird species we might be missing at this point, such as Lesser Blue-eared Glossy Starling which can sometimes occur in roadside flocks. Bush fires are worth investigating as well, as flocks of rollers and raptors can be attracted to feast on the fleeing or baked insects. Night in Tambacounda.
Day 14: We have another long drive, skirting the southern edge of The Gambia westwards deep into Basse Casamance - the most southwesterly province of Senegal and separated from most of the country by The Gambia. This journey is long, but there will be stops for birding along the way. Brown and Beaudouin’s Snake-eagles should be present, along with Grasshopper Buzzard and Long-crested Eagle, while Martial Eagle is a distinct possibility. Night in Ziguinchor.
Day 15: Basse Casamance is little visited by birders, but that seems set to change. Here, the last reaches of the Upper Guinea forests end at the Casamance River, and here we’ll find a whole new set of birds waiting for us. A forest block near Ziguinchor holds a few pairs of Turati’s Boubou, a species thought to be restricted to the seldom-visited arc of Guinea-Bissau to Sierra Leone and only discovered in Senegal in 2018. Also present are Leaf-love, Western Nicator, Green Hylia, and the recently split Western Square-tailed Drongo. From here, we’ll move to a nearby forest that holds White-spotted Flufftail, White-browed Forest Flycatcher, Green Crombec, White-throated Greenbul, Grey-headed Bristlebill, Brown Illadopsis, and Chestnut-breasted Nigrita among many others. The forests here are just waiting for new ornithological discoveries. Night in Cap Skirring.
Day 16: A short drive takes us to a small area of forest where another highly-localised species can be found: the distinctive Capuchin Babbler. Good numbers of them inhabit this forest, along with Senegal Parrots and Red-bellied Paradise-flycatchers. As if Capuchin Babblers were not hard enough to see in West Africa, a new proposal to split the species into three has resulted in the birds from Senegal to the western Ivory Coast becoming “Grey-hooded” Capuchin Babblers. We’ll spend the afternoon in an area of marshes and dry paddy fields where exploration is the key. Quailfinch should be found, and it’s one of the last remaining places for Yellow-throated Longclaw in Senegambia. The weavers here are worthy of close attention, too, as Red-headed Quelea is possible among the many Red-billed and the Yellow-crowned Bishops. Our luck with waterbirds will depend on water levels, but wintering Montagu’s Harriers and circling vultures should feature. Night in Ziguinchor.
Day 17: Today is mostly a driving day, but we have plenty of time to investigate the roadside wetlands and scrub on our way north to the border with The Gambia. The road passes through mangrove and intertidal areas that are haven for scores of wintering Palearctic shorebirds, and there are more forest areas that we may have time to explore. We’ll then pass into The Gambia for a final day’s birding. Night in Serrekunda.
Day 18: The tiny country of The Gambia benefits from having a host of keen local birders and guides, and several species are easier to see here than anywhere else. In particular, we’ll try for Spotted Honeyguide, Standard-winged Nightjar, Greyish Eagle Owl, and perhaps Golden-tailed Woodpecker and Oriole Warbler. The Gambia is also known for White-fronted Black Chat and Pied-winged Swallow, should we need them. Depending on flight times, we’ll spend most of the day birding before retiring to a hotel for packing and dinner and then heading to Banjul airport to connect with flights. The tour concludes this evening in Banjul.
Updated: 01 July 2020