Senegal is one of the few places to see the enigmatic Quail Plover. Photo: Kevin Du Rose.
Africa’s Sahel region is vast and surprisingly under-visited by western birders. Sandwiched between the Sahara Desert to the north and the lush forests of Upper Guinea to the south, it consists mostly of dry savannah, semi-deserts and dry woodland, but also supports some of West Africa’s most important wetlands. The Sahel holds a wealth of special birds not easily found elsewhere, and Senegal offers the most easily accessible route into this remarkable region.
We’ll travel to the countries northern reaches bordering the Senegal River. Here the dry acacia and semi-desert areas 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, which is now seen regularly in these parts. Arabian and Savile’s Bustards roam the arid grasslands, and 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 the famous roost of Scissor-tailed Kites and Lesser Kestrels numbering in the thousands. Continuing into the hilly and more wooded southeast region where Egyptian Plover has in recent years delighted us by our camp, 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 a host of other uncommon species such as White-fronted Black Chat and Pied-winged Swallow to entertain us.
Our final few days will be spent in the far south west, mainly in the Basse Casamance province. Once out of bounds due to internal strife, the region is now safe and open, 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 shall 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: Arrive late afternoon into Dakar where the tour begins this evening with a welcome talk at our hotel near the airport.
Day 2: An early departure sees us driving and birding our way north to the frontier town of Richard Toll. Birds should be conspicuous along the road, and we shall make numerous stops along the journey 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. We’ll keep an eye on the trees for such West African delights as Vieillot’s Barbet and Senegal Eremomela. Arriving in Richard Toll, our hotel sits on the banks of the Senegal River, and 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.
Days 3: From Richard Toll we’ll venture further 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 careful searching of the acacia groves is likely to be rewarded. Other species we can expect to see include African Collared and Namaqua Doves, Sudan Golden Sparrow, both Black and Rufous Scrub Robins and Senegal Batis, while there should also be many European migrants, such as Western Olivaceous and Western Bonelli’s Warblers, Woodchat Shrikes, Black-eared Wheatears and perhaps even the recently split Seebohm’s Wheatear. There is always the chance of some surprises when you are out on the frontiers like this, with perhaps the most unexpected being the apparent establishment of Horus Swift as a breeding species here, a mere 1600km from its nearest known colonies. Night in Gamadji Sare.
Day 4: Another full day in the acacia groves and scrub of the north, we will use today to either catch up with any species we may be missing, including trying for views of Golden Nightjar at its day roost or Fulvous Babbler in the more desert-like areas, not forgetting about Sahelian species such as Little Green Bee-eater and White-rumped Seedeater. 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 Park. We’ll no doubt explore a few of the dry rice paddies en route to the Djoudj, 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 for some afternoon birding and to get an initial impression of the delights on offer at this world-class wetland, which may include time to search for one of our major targets; the rather humble River Prinia. Only recently described, it is restricted to riverine wetlands in the Sahel, and those in the Djoudj are among the most accessible. Night in Djoudj National Park.
Day 6: The Djoudj National Park is a seriously impressive wetland. The first permanent fresh water south of the Sahara, these wetlands are seasonally refreshed and consequently hold vast numbers of Palearctic wildfowl in the winter, along with an excellent selection of West African waterbirds. White-faced Whistling Ducks and Garganey are likely to be in large numbers, but the huge colony of Great White Pelicans promises to be the most wondrous of spectacles and time permitting we will take a boat ride to get close to these. Other waterfowl here include Marbled Duck, Pintail, Shoveler, Fulvous Whistling Duck, Greater Flamingo, Spur-winged Goose and Knob-billed Duck. Innumerable waders, cormorants, herons, egrets, ibis and spoonbills will all contribute to the cacophony. Also here are Greater Swamp Warbler, Winding Cisticola and the very localised moptanus race of African Stonechat. Perhaps stalking with the herons or out in the drier areas, Black Crowned-crane is another Sahelian speciality we should find. Away from the water, and into the dry scrub and surrounding bushland, we will search for the stately and declining Arabian Bustard, although views of this are never guaranteed. Also present here are Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse and a couple of rather tricky estrildids; Quailfinch and Zebra Waxbill, while by now we should have become familiar with at least two forms of the taxonomically confusing Great Grey Shrike complex. Night in Djoudj National Park.
Day 7: Tearing ourselves away from the Djoudj, we will first head for an area of wetlands north-east of St Louis. Here we have our first chance at finding Savile’s Bustard, as well as searching for more classic wetland species such as African Swamphen and perhaps even Allen’s Gallinule or Lesser Moorhen. From here we embark on the long drive south to Mbacke. Again, we shall stop for any species of interest that we may see. Night in Mbacke.
Day 8: Birding south of Mbacke, 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. However, here we have a realistic chance of finding one in the area’s dry bush and savannah, although it may require a lot of walking through suitable habitat before we do and success is largely dependent on the last season’s rainfall. Other species of the area could include Temminck’s Courser, Singing Bush Lark and Sahel Paradise Whydah, while up in the skies we are now entering the realms of 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 gathers on a riverine island near the town, along with equally impressive numbers of Lesser Kestrels. Numbers do vary according to local conditions with numbers ranging between 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.
Day 9: We start with another long drive, this time heading south-east to the largest and wildest area of land in Senegal.A huge area of river, savannah and forest, we’ll be staying at the wonderful and bird-filled Wassadou Camp for two nights, a superb spot on the Gambia River that offers some truly excellent birding. Here, Egyptian Plovers vie 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 shall be taking a short boat trip to get close and personal with these harlequins of the bird World. The possibilities here are great, 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. We’ll arrive in Wassadou in time for some late afternoon birding and a sundowner overlooking the Gambia River enjoying a sundowner in the company of Green Monkeys, Western Red Colobus and perhaps a snorkling Hippopotamus. Night in Wassadou.
Day 10: All day at 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, but 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, and it’s worth mentioning that all of these are possible from the close environs of the camp. Night at Wassadou.
Days 11-12: Continuing southeast takes us closer to the border with Mali and the bustling town of Kedougou. There is a lot to look for in this region, with the Mali (or Kulikoro) Firefinch high on our lists. Extremely range restricted, the birds in this area are probably the most accessible anywhere, although we shall have to check carefully as there are four other firefinch species possible here! On our full day in this area we shall take 4x4 vehicles down to the village of Dindefello located at the base of an imposing escarpment. Under the shade of the tall trees, Violet Turacos, Narina’s Trogon, Yellow-breasted Apalis, Green-headed Sunbird, Snowy-crowned Robin-chat and African Paradise Flycatcher can be expected, while Rock Martins quarter the cliffs and Orange-cheeked Waxbills forage among the houses. The drive to Dindefello can produce some excellent birding and we will be on the 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. Getting closer to the escarpment should provide a new set of species for us. 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. Also here should be more Mali Firefinchand also on the list of targets here will be Gosling’s Bunting and Pygmy Sunbird, while other possibilities in this area could include White-fronted Black Chat and Pied-winged Swallow. Nights in Kedougou.
Day 13: We may have chance for some final morning birding around Kedougou, but today we’ll drive slowly to Tambacounda, birding along the way. This gives us further chances for any key species we may have missed along the way. The roads in this area reward slow travel, and as the road goes through the middle of Niokolo-Koba NP we shall be on the lookout for any mammals that may be crossing. We shall also be keeping an eye openfor any 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 flocks of rollers and raptors can be attracted to feast on the fleeing insects. Night in Tambacounda.
Day 14: We have another long drive on the agenda for today, skirting the southern edge of The Gambia westwards deep into Basse Casamance, the most south-westerly province of Senegal and separated from most of the country by The Gambia. This journey may be long, but there will be stops for birding along the way, and species such as Brown and Beaudouin’s Snake-eagles should be present, along with Grasshopper Buzzard and Long-crested Eagle, while Martial Eagle is a 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 subsequently there will be a whole new set of birdswaiting for us.. Most importantly, a forest block near Ziguinchor holds a few pairs of Turati’s Boubou. Only discovered in Senegal in 2018, this species was thought to be restricted to the seldom-visited arc of Guinea-Bissau to Sierra Leone. Also present here 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. These forests here are just waiting for new discoveries to be made. 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 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 results in the birds in Senegal to 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, as Red-headed Quelea is possible among the many Red-billeds and the Yellow-crowned Bishops. Waterbirds will depend on water levels, but wintering Montagu’s Harriers and circling vultures should feature. Night in Ziguinchor.
Day 17: Mostly a driving day, 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 further forest areas that we may have time to explore. We shall then pass into The Gambia for a final days birding. Night in Serrekunda.
Day 18: Our final day will be spent at a few sites in The Gambia. This tiny country 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 shall try for Spotted Honeyguide, Standard-winged Nightjar and Greyish Eagle Owl, and perhaps Golden-tailed Woodpecker and Oriole Warbler. It is also a good area for White-fronted Black Chat and Pied-winged Swallow, should we need them. Depending on flight times, we shall 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 and where the tour will finish.
Updated: 30 March 2020