Sunday, 18 February 2018

Maspalomas

During my week off work, the birding at Maspalomas was the least memorable but that was circumstance (I know it can be very good on the islands). It was only a stop-over for me before my main birding trip to Laayoune in Western Sahara.

Indeed I birded out of my lodgings and didn't head for any known hotspots near-by in the interior. 

However, I did make it to Charca Malpalomas which is a saline lagoon in the dunes. Furthermore, I added five species to my small but growing Spanish list so it wasn't all bad.


There were relatively few species at Charca but one of them was a Mediterranean gull which was an addition.

Mediterranean gull 1

I am not alone in finding it difficult to separate immature Mediterranean gull from Audouin's gull. I know this was personal correspondence. 

If I am lucky there will be a black-headed gull present which sets the size comparison up. Audouin's is obviously larger but Mediterranean gull is marginally so.

Mediterranaean gull 2

Both can have a dark mask though no Audouin's gull has one quite as large as the one in this bird. The line of bleached brown juvenile wing coverts marks it out as Mediterranean gull too.

Mediterranean gull 3

Also, the mantle is very pale. I must say that I don't find the sloping head on an Audouin's gull as easy to judge as it is often made out.

Audouin's gull

There was an adult Audouin's gull present.

lesser black-backed gull

Lesser black-backed gull was another addition.

yellow-legged gull

There were also black-headed gull and yellow-legged gull present. So that make four types of gull among the only eight or so there.

greenshank

At the far side of the lagoon were three greenshank. These were also additions to my Spanish list which has reached the mediocre heights of 91. However, that will change over the years with me having a relatively new second home near Valencia.

African collared dove

Just like an earlier visit to Las Palmas, last year, I found many more African collared dove than European collared dove. This is in stark contrast to records from some other visiting birders.

However, I am confident. I have large scale experience in separating these birds in Dhofar, Oman, south west Saudi Arabia and Nouakchott, Mauritania. I have worked in all three countries and there are few other places where they naturally overlap.

I implore visiters to look closely at these doves. Having said that I have only visited two urban areas in Gran Canaria. The situation may different elsewhere.

The pure white vent and under belly is characteristic of African collared dove. It is also more feminine and slightly smaller.

African collared dove

I understand that the African collared dove are introduced and were domesticated. They are sometimes called barbary dove. This domestication seems to have introduced genes which give them more colour variation than wild birds. In that sense they are a little like feral pigeon. The bird above is a good example.

laughing dove

While on the subject of doves, I found four laughing dove. I believe this is by far the easiest place to get this species on a Spanish list.

blackbird

Birding the dunes near the lagoon proved impossible. There were too many nudists around. I felt overdressed especially with my binoculars.

 INear the dunes, it was good to see blackbird and quite tame ones too.

Spanish sparrow

Spanish sparrow are the default sparrow on the island.

Sardinian warbler

Spring must be in the air on Gran Canaria. This sardinian warbler was carrying nesting material.

Gran Canaria is my main flight hub for travel outside Mauritania so I will be visiting again. I hope to do some more serious birding one time soon.

Saturday, 17 February 2018

Banc d'Arguin

Three weeks ago, my work organised a weekend trip to Banc d'Arguin National Park. After 18 months in Mauritania this was actually my first visit. All 294 species achieved on my country list before that day were outside this National Park. Ironically for many foreign ornithologists this is the main place in Mauritania they visit.

The complication was that this was not a birding trip. It was a weekend away organised for all staff. 

Nevertheless, I took as much advantage of the visit as possible and had several hours birding on the Saturday and Sunday.

We entered the park by turning off north of Chemi. We headed off road to Cap Tafarit where we had a late lunch.

I managed some birding in the area. It wasn't exceptional.

On the beach were a few Caspian tern and one grey plover. The most notiable bird though was cream-coloured courser. Two were twice seen running up and down the side of the beach.

Caspian tern

There was a Banc d'Arguin sub-species of grey heron (monicae) present. I have seen that the main difference between it and the nominate sub-species is the very light colour of the grey areas of the mantle and wings. This is consistent with the illustration in the book "Birds of Banc d'Arguin". Some confusion arises as there is a photograph of a monicae sub species in oiseaux.net where the black on the head pattern has almost disappeared and the bird is very nearly absolute white overall. I don't believe the head pattern is a reliable field mark and the bird in oiseaux.net is at the extreme of variation of monicae.

The legs are generally pinker too on monicae than a compariably aged or seasoned nominate bird.

The bird below was so pale I thought it was great white egret when I first turned round a corner to see it in the distance. This is not reflected adequately in the picture.

grey heron (monicae)

I studied the grey plover for some time. I couldn't make it into an American golden plover. It is always worth looking hard at waders on the Mauritanian coast. The coast sticks out into the Atlantic and, American vagrants are seen regularly despite the lack of birders.

grey plover

A notable bird at Cap Tafarit was long-tailed cormorant. There were two present. Cap Tafarit is towards the northern end of the park and must mark something of a northern limit to the range of long-tailed cormorant in West Africa.

long-tailed cormorant

Our party moved off to Iwik in late afternoon.

There was only about 40 minutes of daylight on arrival. I managed to bird most of it.

stone curlew

This was time enough to see a stone curlew. Apparently this species is a regular sighting at Iwik.

I went to the small fishing village soon after dawn.

On the way there I looked out towards the shallow inlet and the sea grass. Many Flamingo, grey heron (nominate and monicae) were easiest to pick out. On the shore were several whimbrel searching out crabs to eat.

great white pelican

Only a single great white pelican was bobbing up and down in the water at the village.

beach at Iwik

On the beach were lesser black-backed gull and slender-billed gull as well as sanderling and bar-tailed godwit.

At one stage a flock of around 40 western reef heron landed just in front of me. They were a mix of colour morphs though the photo captures only dark morph.

western reef heron

The pale looking bird in the left of the photo was another monicae grey heron. It too had a black head pattern.

While looking out to sea, I soon noticed that there were European storm petrel in shore. This was bird 295 on my Mauritanian list and a bird I had hoped to see on a boat trip organised for staff. Instead I got it from the shore. Indeed as I had to join the boat trip I left the petrels behind without a good photo. It was agonising but I had to be sociable with my work colleagues.

The boat was moving too fast for easy bird watching. I had hoped to see a grey phalarope but I wasn't lucky. Sandwich tern, Caspian tern and Gull-billed tern were no substitute. Distant views of many tens of flamingo and great white pelican weren't either.

Two dolphins which followed the boat for five or ten minutes were the real highlight.

When we returned to shore, the rest of our work group moved off to our accoommodation or to walk close to it. I stayed where the boat was moored.

European storm petrel 1

It didn't take long before I caught up with the European storm petrel again. My fear was that they would have moved on while I was at sea. They hadn't.

European storm petrel 2

Spaeaking to Mohamed Vall on my return to Nouakchott, he told me that they are very regular at this particular place every January and early February.

European storm petrel 3

It seems the addition of this storm petrel to my list was the very least I could have expected.

On the way back home we stopped at Gare du Nord service station. I knew from past experience that this was a good place to see desert sparrow. A quick walk round the back and there they were. Two house sparrow were also in with a flock of a dozen desert sparrow.

house and desert sparrow

The next blog covers a short stop I made at Maspalomas, Gran Canaria where the birding wasn't great but I still made five addtions to my Spanish list.  Gran Canaria is the nearest rest and recreation to Nouakchott. I suspect I will visit it many times over the next few years.

Friday, 16 February 2018

A hint of spring?

The work load in my job increased substantially in September with a promotion. It has been difficult to find time to bird watch and to blog. However, I will keep at it.

I have a backlog of four blogs at the moment. Two are from different parts of Mauritania, one is from Gran Canaria and the last one will be from Laayoune in Western Sahara.

Bear with me.

This one is from the third week of January when I returned to the waste water treatment site just north of Nouakchott. The site has been good except in mid-winter. I expect soon it will be good again as the passage season starts up in earnest.

great spotted cuckoo 1

Indeed even in the third week of January, there was a hint of passage. I found a great spotted cuckoo.

great spotted cuckoo 2

Although this species breeds in southern Mauritania in the rainy season (mostly parasitising pied crow), birds seen in Nouakchott are wintering birds from Spain and passing through.

I presume they return very early to make sure they are in place to lay eggs in corvid nests. Unlike common cuckoo which parasitises birds which are also migrates, great spotted cuckoo parasitises resident birds which can start breeding earlier. Hence the need for a late January migration.

This bird was not an isolated record either. Mohammed Vall had seen another at F-Nord lake two days before.

common chiffchaff

A look at the wintering warblers shown little change over the previous month. The three main species were sardinian warbler, Iberian chiffchaff and common chiffchaff. The balance of Iberian chiffchaff to common chiffchaff had moved more towards common chiffchaff though. It was good also to see two sub-alpine warbler this time.

little ringed plover

Kentish plover was the most common wader alongside little stint. However, ringed plover and little ringed plover were also present.

spur-winged lapwing

Spur-winged lapwing have been present on every visit to this site over the past year. Yet, I have never seen any evidence of breeding. Either they don't breed there or it happens in July and early August when I am out of country. This coincides with beginning of the "rainy" season.

teal

On recent visits, one small duck has been semi-detached from the large group of wintering teal. However, it too is a teal. I have to wonder if it is unwell.

ruff

Ruff have been present all winter whereas other large waders such as greenshank are not always seen.

male teal

Having tracked the odd duck out, I finally caught up with the main group of teal. Most of the males were now close to breeding plumage.

Sudanese golden sparrow

Sudanese golden sparrow are more numerous even than house sparrow at the site at present. Though unlike last year, there are no stray red-billed quelea among them.

Namaqua dove

It is the less common birds that often get photographed. Laughing dove outnumber Namaqua dove almost ten-fold currently yet the Namaqua dove gets the photo.

A week after this visit, I went to Banc d'Arguin for the first time. Not surprisingly there was an addition to my Mauritainan list. I will blog about this next.

Saturday, 13 January 2018

Rewarding weekend in Nouakchott

Last weekend's birding got off to a fairly dull start but ended with a bang.

On Friday afternoon, I went to the waste water site. This was the first visit for nearly two weeks but the weather was again dusty and visibilty was poor. The birding wasn't too good either.

The 16 common teal had become the 9 common teal.

The passerines had become mostly limited to common chiffchaff, Iberian chiffchaff, sardinian warbler and Sudanese golden sparrow. These are not bad birds for someone first arriving in Mauritania but are the bare mininum I have come to expect at this site in winter.

Sudanese golden sparrow

There have been three or more kestrel on the site for a few weeks now. They were still there.

common kestrel

There were also three different marsh harrier there at various times though I believe one of them, at least, moved on during the session. I doubt any of them will stay as long as the kestrel. There is no history of long staying marsh harrier at the site. Though I could be proved wrong in my prediction.

marsh harrier

I spent nearly four hours at the site. Given the paucity of passerines this time, I concentrated on the waders. Unfortunately there were no rarieties. It can't happen every time or else they wouldn't be rarities. My main strategy is to look for American vagrants given my previous success here with pectoral sandpiper.

little stint

I spent some time with the bird on the left above. It appears flatter, squatter than the more obvious little stint on the right. It has a slightly longer bill. The black lore is almost broken by a paler area. The tail looks attentuated. The breast band looks quite dense. The mantle has dark elements. However I am told it is still a little stint

Having never seen a Baird's sandpiper, which I was considering, I found working out of a book and without practical experience to be tricky. It would appear a real Baird's sandpiper must have shorter legs and an even more attentuated tail with more obvious primary extention beyond the tail to be worth consideration. You live and learn.

ruff

All the ruff were obvious ruff. This time I spent no time considering the couple of potential American vagrants with similarities.

On Saturday morning, I teamed up with Mohamed Vall. We had a very successful day.

First we went to the fishing port area. At the waste dump, there were many white wagtail and a single yellow wagtail as well as several cattle egret. However, the range of plovers made for the most interest.

I had previously believed all Kittlitz's plover left Nouakchott in winter. However, an adult and the juvenile below were seen.

Kittlitz's plover

My new hypothesis is the vast majority migrate the short distance south but if there is some late breeding than the family is obliged to stay on. This looks like a case of late breeding. Either way the sightings were my first winter ones of Kittlitz's plover in two such seasons here.


barn swallow

Throughout the day, we were seeing barn swallow in the city. We didn't work out which way they were migrating.

cream-coloured courser

An unusual bird to see in the city, which was at the dump, was a cream-coloured courser. I have seen them visit dumps in villages before but not within an urban area.

Mediterranean gull (centre)

Next we headed off to the coast for some sea watching. There were an extremely large number of lesser black-backed gull. However, we set about looking at the minority gulls. These were Audouin gull, Black-headed gull and Mediterranean gull. We didn't see an obvious yellow-legged gull or any slender-billed gull this time. It was beginning to look like a below average session.

However, things turned round when we decided to walk north up the coast and straight through the fishing port and out the other side. The area directly in front of the fishing port had very little as usual.

Yet, the coastal strip just south of the port gave us good views of several terns. They were mostly common tern with the odd sandwich tern and Caspian tern. We spent quite some time trying to pick out any arctic tern without success.

common tern

The real success was just north of the fishing port, where we came across a great skua. It's white flashes on the upper wing and lower wing were noticed straightaway and made it a fairly easy identification even from distance. Somehow I managed a photo from 500 metres away with my bridge camera. This obviously large bird was terrorising a common tern at the time.

You can see why people say it gives the appearance of common buzzard.

great skua with a common tern

Great skua became species 293 on my Mauritanian list.

On the way back home, we stopped off at central lake. This is the one in the west of Tevragh Zeina where I recommend discretion when birding as it is close to embassies. Sometimes security prevents birding. Nevertheless, we birded the area of deepest water away from the road.

Very surprisingly, there were eight Eurasian crag martin foraging for insects over the water. 

Eurasian crag martin

They are darker and certainly duskier than the African rock martin which is found in the Adrar region of the country. The latter bird does n't migrate either.

dark underwing coverts of Eurasian crag martin

Mohamed Vall and I took a long time trying to capture the dark underwing coverts in a picture. This is a good feature to help separate from African rock martin.

The distribution map in Birds of Western Africa shows Eurasian crag martin wintering down the Mauritanian coastal districts but this was my first sighting.

Within the space of an hour, my Mauritanian list had gone up again. This time to 294. It has been a long time since I have seen two new species in the city.

little grebe

The authorities have been messing with the water compartments, salinity and levels at this lake since I arrived nearly one and a half years ago. It is wonder that birds like little grebe haven't deserted the place. They need deep water and found it in just one small compartment. Long may there hang on in there.


Thursday, 11 January 2018

Day three: from Diawling to Rosso

On New Year's Day, Mohamed Vall and I returned to Nouakchott the long way round. We detoured by following the Senegal River up to Rosso before heading north.

We took all day to return. We passed both fishing hamlets in Diawling on the way out of the National Park for one last time but not without stopping at both.

We were still looking for giant kingfisher which is known to like these locations. Again we failed to spot one.

pied kingfisher

Some sort of compensation was had by the sight of three pied kingfisher in one bush.

three pied kingfisher

We got our best views of African spoonbill at the first hamlet too. Though these were still distant.

African spoonbill

In contrast a group of great white pelican came up close to shore.

great white pelican

The big attraction for the birds at the hamlets is clearly fish. For the gulls it is dried fish.

grey-hooded gull

The fishermen didn't seem to bother as a grey-hooded gull walked over some drying catch.

juvenile black-crowned night heron

Two other birds were seen eating live fish. The first was a juvenile black-crowned night heron.


long-tailed cormorant

The second was a long-tailed cormorant which was fishing in shallow water.

many African swamphen

Between the two hamlets, we found an area with a high density of African swamphen.

At the second hamlet, this time there were far closer views of a yellow-billed stork than elsewhere on the trip.

yellow-billed stork (left)

There was also an opportunity to see several black crake for longer than before.

black crake

The best bird came from an unexpected quarter. It was an African reed warbler which was foraging around and in a tamarisk bush.

African reed warbler 1

African reed warbler is difficult to separate from Eurasian reed warbler which winter in Diawling. While the bird looks very short winged supporting African reed warbler, it is the yellow juvenile gape that is also critical information. A bird born in Europe in May should not show this much gape but a bird born in the African rainy season in September would do so.

African reed warbler 2

Whilst these factors are already enough to clinch its identification, the fact that it chose tamarisk to spend 15 minutes while next to extensive reed beds is also of some import. African reed warbler will take to drier terrain than Eurasian reed warbler. I saw several  African reed warbler (and some tawny-flanked prinia) in similar Tamarisk just the other side of the Senegal River in Saint Louis in early May 2017.

African reed warbler 3

Sadly, the African reed warbler had a bad skin infection around the neck.
.
African fish eagle

Also at the second hamlet, we spotted a sub-adult African fish eagle.

African mourning dove

We got one last good close look at African mourning dove which is the dominant dove of the wetter parts of the park.

There is one final open stretch of water before the terrain becomes marshland, then grassland then semi-desert over a few kilometres (along the north east road out of the park).

black stork

Here we had our best views of wintering black stork.

Eurasian spoonbill and pied avocet

There were very large numbers of both Eurasian spoonbill and pied avocet. The numbers were the highest I have ever seen in my life for both species.

garganey

Try as we might, we never found any Palearctic small or medium duck other than garganey. The larger ones were common shelduck, northern shoveller and also northern pintail but on day one only.

gull-billed tern

Still no marsh terns were seen either, although Caspian tern, gull-billed tern and a small number of sandwich tern were regularly seen.

Finally outside the national park, we elected to take the river road to Rosso rather than the more northerly route through Kaur Macene. 

Much of the route to Rosso consisted of semi-desert with tamarisk on the left and impenetrable reed beds on the right.

It was only when we reached within 25 kilometres of Rosso that irrigation channels and farming began to provide a landscape amenable to most birds. At the very beginning of this new habitat we found a row of tall trees next to the River's reed beds. We managed to accidentally flush over 100 sleeping black-crowned night heron. It was also the only one of two places over the weekend where we found red-billed firefinch.

Our only other stop in this area west of Rosso was at an abandoned palm plantation where land remediation is not really complete. 

Despite this, we flushed no few than six long-tailed nightjar having just got out of the car. 

long-tailed nightjar 1

That made a total of nine birds in two different places on the weekend trip. I don't know whether we were just lucky.

long-tailed nightjar

The pools and very close by to them were the best places for birds at the old palm plantation. Other areas are still too degraded. More red-billed firefinch were observed. In the water, little stint, greenshank, ruff and marsh sandpiper were found. Marsh sandpiper is a Russian bird and not many come through Nouakchott from this very eastern breeding area. Yet in the south west corner of Mauritania they proved not uncommon. 

marsh sandpiper

Our final stop for the weekend was made after a light lunch in Rosso. It was just 12 kilometres north of the town on the Nouakchott road. Here is the limit of continous woodland out of Rosso. Further north there are increasingly isolated patches of natural woodland.

short-toed snake eagle (photo:Mohamed Vall)

The area from Rosso and eastward along the Senegal River is a major wintering place for short-toed snake eagle. Though we were at the extreme western edge of this strip, we saw one.

At our stop, we came across a watering hole which was almost dry but which is fairly obviously quite large in the rainy season and had lasted over three months since it finshed.

African silverbill

African silverbill were frequent drinkers there. A small flock of white-billed buffalo weaver were hiding in the adjacent trees.

Elsewhere laughing dove and Namaqua dove were numerous and obvious.

Namaqua dove

Interesting birds included black-crowned tchagra.

black-crowned tchagra

We got close and prolonged views of a group of cricket longtail.

cricket longtail 1

This was effectively the last bird we sighted on an eventful long weekend south. I ended up with a Mauritanian list twelve higher at 292. The so called "line of shame" of 300 species (as invented in the UAE as the name of a target which proves one has extensively birded a Middle Eastern North African country) is within my grasp.

cricket longtail 2

I got even closer to the line of shame in Nouakchott last weekend. For the first time in months I added two birds to my country list in the city. I will blog about that next.