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 and semi-deserts 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 begin in Senegal’s buzzing capital, Dakar, then travel to its 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 tens of 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 prize here will be Kulikoro Firefinch along with a host of other uncommon species such as White-fronted Black Chat and Pied-winged Swallow to entertain us.
In addition to offering a route into the Sahel, Senegal offers a fascinating cultural mix of old French colonialism, vibrant, contemporary cities and nightlife as a backdrop to some exceptional birdwatching.
Day 1: The tour begins this evening in Dakar. Night in Dakar.
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. Common species along the road will no doubt include Hooded Vulture, Short-toed Snake Eagle, African Grey Hornbill, Piapiac, Pied Crow, Vinaceous Dove and Little Bee-eater among many others. The arid grasslands in this area also support a population of Savile’s Bustards, and we shall devote time to search for this, the smallest of the region’s bustards. While we look, we’ll keep an eye on the trees for such West African delights as Vieillot’s Barbet, White-rumped Seedeater 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 while watching for the local and distinctively pale monicae race of Grey Heron will no doubt be an excellent and relaxing end to our first full day. Night in Richard Toll
Days 3-4: From Richard Toll we’ll venture a few miles further east to the area around Podor. Here the colonial houses mirror the hues of the land, and 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 we have two evenings and two mornings to dedicate to finding them all, and careful searching of the stunted acacias is likely to be rewarded. Other species we can expect to see include Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse, African Collared and Namaqua Doves, Sudan Golden Sparrow, both Black and Rufous Bush Robins, Pygmy Sunbird 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, and recent sightings of Kordofan Bush Lark give hope for a rarity or two. Nights in Podor.
Day 5: We’ll have the option of a final morning’s birding around Podor before we drive back westwards to Djoudj National Park, concentrating during the journey for any species we may be missing so far - in this part of the world any roadside stops can and does produce new species and wonderful birding. We’ll no doubt arrive at Djoudj in time for some afternoon birding and to get an initial impression of the delights on offer at this world-class wetland. 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. Other waterfowl here include 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, but the star of the show promises to be a much more subdued and skulking affair. Only recently described, the River Prinia is restricted to riverine wetlands in the Sahel, and those in the Djoudj are among the most accessible. Also here are Greater Swamp Warbler, Winding Cisticola and three rather tricky estrildids; African Silverbill, Quailfinch and Zebra Waxbill. Perhaps stalking with the herons or out in the fields, 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. Night in Djoudj National Park.
Day 7: Tearing ourselves away from the Djoudj, today is mainly a travel day, as we embark on the long drive south to Kaolack. Again, we shall stop for any species of interest that we may see, including a second chance of finding Savile’s Bustard should we need it. Night in Kaolack.
Day 8: Birding around Kaolack, 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. Other species of the area should 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 later afternoon a huge roost of thousands gathers on a riverine island near the town, along with equally impressive numbers of Lesser Kestrels, and this is sure to be a major tour highlight. Night in Kaolack.
Days 9-10: We start with another long drive, this time heading east and south to the largest and wildest area of land in Senegal; the Niokolo-Koba National Park and its environs. A huge area of river, savannah and gallery forest, we’ll experience a small sample of it from our two bases. Firstly, we shall stay at the wonderful and bird-filled Wassadou Camp for two nights, a superb spot on the Gambie 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 on the cards. Gorgeous Red-throated Bee-eaters breed and Pel’s Fishing Owl is also seen on occasions. The possibilities here are great, and include White-backed Night-heron, Stone Partridge, Western Banded Snake Eagle, Northern White-faced Owl, Shining Blue Kingfisher, Northern Carmine Bee-eater, Swamp Flycatcher, Grey Tit-flycatcher, African Blue Flycatcher, Bronze-tailed Starling and Oriole Warbler among many, many others. Nights in Wassadou.
Days 11-12: Continuing southeast through the Niokolo-Koba National Park towards Kedougou, we shall explore this bird-rich area in search of the Mali (or Kulikoro) Firefinch. 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 in this area! Over our two days here, we should rack up an exciting species list, with such delights as Fox Kestrel, Neumann’s Starling, Yellow Penduline Tit, Exclamatory Paradise Whydah, and Gosling’s and Brown-rumped Buntings. The birding amongst the savannah, rocky hills and forest edges in the foothills of the Fouta Djallon highlands is excellent, and the diversity of species reflects the habitats. In more open areas we can expect Blue-bellied Roller, White-fronted Black Chat, Pied-winged and West Africa Swallow and perhaps, with luck, Denham’s Bustard. In the more wooded areas we are likely to see Violet Turaco, Yellow-bellied Hyliota, White and Snowy-crowned Robin-chats, African Paradise Flycatcher, Western Violet-backed and Green-headed Sunbirds, Yellow-throated Leaflove, White Helmet Shrike, Red-shouldered Cuckooshrike and perhaps Greyish Eagle Owl and Abyssinian Ground Hornbill just for starters. This is one of the most bird-rich areas of Senegal, and our extended time here should be perfect for getting to know it well. Nights in Kedougou.
Day 13: Today we’ll drive slowly back to Wassadou, 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, but we’ll arrive in Wassadou in time for some afternoon birding and a sundowner overlooking the Gambie River and its wild residents. Night in Wassadou.
Day 14: The long drive back to Kaolack is on the agenda for today, birding as we go. Raptors are a feature of any journey in West Africa, and this should be no exception, with possibilities including Tawny, Martial, Wahlberg’s, African Hawk and Long-crested Eagles, Bateleur, Red-necked Buzzard, Dark Chanting Goshawk, Lizard Buzzard, Grasshopper Buzzard, Brown Snake Eagle and perhaps White-headed and Lappet-faced Vultures. Less conspicuous are the Grey Kestrels, Red-necked Falcons and Lanners that frequent the area. Night in Kaolack.
Day 15: We’ll drive back to Dakar arriving in the early evening where the tour ends. Depending on flight times, we may find time for further views of Scissor-tailed Kites near Kaolack.
Updated: 20 June 2019