Working for birds in Africa


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Kulikoro (Mali) Firefinch Lagonosticta virata, Nando, Mali, February 2010

Image Credit: 
Arne Møller

The descent into Nongoburu


Habitat prefered by Kulikoro (Mali) Firefinch


There are more species on the descent to Ireli. Rock Doves Columba livia and Speckled Pigeon C. guinea are on the cliff face. Several species of swifts are here including Mottled Swift Tachymarptis aequatorialis which is larger than the others.


The walk along the bottom of the escarpment gives a chance to see many other species that live in the Sahel zone such as Little Green Bee-eater Merops orinetalis, Rose-Ringed Parakeet Psittacula krameri and Greater Blue-eared Glossy Starling Lamprotornis chalybaeus. Many Pied Crows Corvus albus soar on the updrafts, but watch for Brown-Necked Ravens C. ruficollis as well.


Koulikoro Firefinch Lagonosticta virata and White Helmet-Shrike Prionops plumatus photographed in March 2012 at Mali's National Park, Bamako.

Image Credit: 
Paul Robinson

Koulikoro Firefinch Lagonosticta virata and White Helmet-Shrike Prionops plumatus photographed in March 2012 at Mali's National Park, Bamako.

Image Credit: 
Paul Robinson

Kanadjiguila NW, Mali


Kanadjiguila NW stream, Mali


Kanadjiguila SE stream, Mali


Kanadjiguila SE, Mali

Finding the Endemic Kulikoro (Mali) Firefinch in Dogon Country

Article and photographs by Mary Crickmore.

The Dogon Cliffs are the primary tourist attraction in Mali, for cultural experience and scenic views. A major tourist destination is the town of Sanga, although the accommodations are basic and public transport does not run there daily. Most tourists going to Sanga travel with a commercial tour operator in 4 wheel drive vehicles. Tourist season is November - February when the temperatures are relatively mild (high 20s and low 30s Celsius).

Hiking through the cliffs and villages around Sanga should always be done with a guide in order to avoid misunderstandings with the local people, most of whom speak only their Dogon language. Even with a guide it is inevitable in villages that you will accumulate a string of children following you and asking for gifts. Be sure to take plenty of drinking water and snacks; a couple of villages do have stands that sell beer and soft drinks.

There is a six-and-a-half hour hike down the escarpment and back up again which includes an area where it is easy to find the endemic Kulikoro (Mali) Firefinch Lagonosticta virata. The starting point is Sanga and the walk goes through the Nongoburu valley on the way to the village of Ireli. The valley is where I have seen the Firefinch.

Starting from Sanga at sunrise, you will get into the valley before the sun is very high. Kulikoro Firefinches prefer rocky areas protected from the sun where there are trees and shrubs.

I have not been able to find any Malian guide in Dogon country who is skilled in bird identification. Fortunately, almost all of the species that prefer the cliff habitat are conspicuous and easy to view. Neumann’s Starling Onychognathus neumanni, Cinnamon-breasted Rock Bunting Emberiza tahapisi and House Bunting Emberiza striolata are both noisy and abundant; Rock Martins Ptyonoprogne fuligula are overhead; Fox Kestrel Falco alopex is common; Cliff Chat Thamnolaea cinnamomeiventris is not shy. Stone Partridge Ptilopachus petrosus is the one species that you will hear but probably not sight - its sound is loud, unique and echoes on the cliff face.

A good option for accommodation in Sanga is at the “Mission Protestante” which used to be a house for missionaries but was turned over to the local church and is operated as a guest house for income generation. It costs just 5,000 CFA per person, roughly $11 US. It is screened, there is solar lighting, and an indoor bathroom and shower with running water. There are three bedrooms that can sleep a total of 6 or 7, a collection of books left by previous residents and visitors, a living room with an ancient out-of-tune piano, and a dining room with enough plates, cups and silverware to serve four people. There is a water filter and a kerosene freezer that can be used as a fridge, but we were not able to cook except to heat water for coffee in the morning when Samuel Dougnon the caretaker brought over a gas burner. For reservations call Samuel (he speaks French but not English) at country code (223) 504 3202. He can also arrange a guide. One pleasant and competent guide that I can recommend is Azariah Kodio, a student who is home in Sanga during holiday breaks. His number is country code (223) 603 9279.

Eating in Sanga is challenging; if not with an organized tour, there are no fast food places, no grocery stores, and the three rustic hotels are oriented to serving meals that were arranged in advance for their guests. They might show you a menu which is completely meaningless because they don’t have any of the items listed. The system is “sur commande” which means: place your order many hours in advance and hope for the best. To avoid the hassle and uncertainty you can travel with your own food that does not require cooking (bread and sandwich spread and the like), or with a camping stove and mess kit.

Other Hotspots

In Bamako and its vicinity:

Mali’s National Park at Bamako and the Kulikoro Firefinch: Mali has converted the old Arboretum, between the National Museum and the Zoo in the capital Bamako, into a national park. There are playgrounds, a botanical garden with medicinal plants, three restaurants, and many walking paths. The park is open daily from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. (Unfortunately not early enough to enjoy the coolest hours of the early morning).  Access is limited to those buying tickets at the entrance, so the park is not crowded, and there are plenty of security staff.

The most birds are on the “Parcours Jogging” and “Parcours VTT” paths that are close to the cliffs and where the vegetation has been left in its natural state.  Look for Lavender Waxbill Estrilda caerulescens and Koulikoro Firefinch Lagonosticta virata in this area. Both may come right up by the path. Other species easy to see in rainy season (June to September) are Scarlet-chested Sunbird Chalcomitra senegalensis, African Thrush Turdus pelios, Yellow White-eye Zosterops senegalensis and Vitelline Masked Weaver Ploceus vitellinus.

Kanadjiguila: This area of mango groves and farms alongside a stream is one kilometer outside of the Bamako city limits on the road to Guinea. You pass through the Sebenikoro neighborhood, at a sign showing a turnoff to Kangaba go straight, and pass a large electric transfer station on the left (the Guinea road goes under the powerlines). Here you will see the mango groves and there are dirt roads to the right and the left where you can turn off and park.

If you take the dirt road to the right (northwest side of the Guinea road) you will cross the stream on a bridge and you can walk through cultivated fields with a large number of shea butter trees to the cliffs. Here we have seen Red-throated Bee-eater Merops bullocki, Fox Kestrel Falco alopex, and Senegal Parrot Poicephalus senegalus. The Malian farmers do not mind birders if you stay on the paths; to be polite, when you pass by you should always say a greeting (“Bonjour”).

On the southeast side of the Guinea road there are many footpaths through the mango grove and one that parallels the stream. Here we have seen Blackcap Babbler Turdoides reinwardtii, Black-necked Weaver Ploceus nigricollis, White-Crowned Robin-Chat Cossypha albicapilla, and African Paradise Flycatcher Terpsiphone viridis.

The following photos by Heidi Scherrer are from August, which is the peak of rainy season. The area is much dryer during October-May.

The Niger River at Kabala: 18 kilometers from Bamako’s New Bridge is a location with easy access to the Niger river, but many houses are now being constructed there. The amount of good wooded, grassland, and seasonal wetland habitat is decreasing as the city grows; although the waterbirds on the Niger are not so much affected. Following signs for “Le Cactus” hotel-campground, continue straight on the paved road until it turns to laterite and then turn right following the sign to “Fleuve Kabala.” This laterite road ends at the river, and Egyptian Plover Pluvianus aegyptius is regularly present on the banks and small islands, as is Malachite Kingfisher Alcedo cristata. Slightly downstream (follow the dirt road used by sand trucks) is a grove of trees where African Paradise Flycatcher Terpsiphone viridis and Bearded Barbet Lybius dubius have been observed.

The Sotuba Research Station is at the end of the paved road that runs through the “Zone Industriel”. This is a large government agriculture research station that has many large broad-leafed trees. African Bird Club has permission to bird on the grounds, and the manager Mr. Cisse desires that birders call him ahead of their visit so that he can arrange for the guard to let your vehicle through the gate. There are hundreds of fruit bats in the trees at the main entrance, but working eastwards you are likely to find African Golden Oriole Oriolus auratus, Fork-tailed Drongo Dicrurus adsimilis, Bearded Barbet Lybius dubius, and abundant Senegal Parrots Poicephalus senegalus and Rose-ringed Parakeets Psittacula krameri. Right by the Sotuba Research Station is the Niger river and what is called the “Chaussée” or submersible bridge which is used only when the water level is low. This is an extensive area of rocks and rapids, and attracts migratory shorebirds and terns during the northern winter (although not in the large numbers found in the interior Delta near Mopti.) From  the Research Station it is just a few hundred meters to go to the river and walk on the rocks to view waterbirds and Crested Larks Galerida cristata.

Kabalakoro rocks Just twenty minutes drive out of Bamako are some gorgeous balancing rock formations where Mali's only endemic species Mali Firefinch Lagonosticta virata can usually be found by a persistent observer. The striking Lavender Waxbill Estrilda caerulescens and Black-rumped Waxbill Estrilda troglodytes are very common here. Neumann's Starling Onychognathus neumanni, Cliff Chat Thamnolaea cinnamomeiventris and Cinnamon-breasted Bunting Emberiza tahapisi are readily seen, and with luck you might observe Fox Kestrel Falco alopex.

To get to this area, take the road to Segou out of Bamako. Pass the Nyamana "douane" stop where many trucks and public transport vehicles are stopped. After a few kilometers you pass a hotel on the left called "TiziMizi." If you want, stop for birding in the wooded areas near the hotel. After a few more kilometers you reach an area of rocky outcrops where we have seen Mali Firefinch Lagonosticta virata.

A good option to park is by Club Farafina, right underneath some of the most impressive rock formations. A bit farther on there is a dirt road by a sign that says "Vie Autonome-Internat." Turn off on this little road and park, and look in the fields, trees, and mango grove for savanna species such as Fork-tailed Drongo Dicrurus adsimilis. To find the firefinches and other birds that frequent the rocky habitat, hike through the hills listening for bird calls and looking for leafy shrubbery that is in the shade. It is best to go for the side of the hills that is protected from the sun.

Torokorobougou is a neighborhood of Bamako near the new bridge that gives easy access to islands in the Niger river. It is not expensive to hire a pirogue and boatman to take you onto the river. There are many herons, kingfishers, lapwings, jacanas, and in the winter, many species of waders.

Around Segou:

Konodimini is 11 km before Segou when coming from Bamako. It is an area of rice fields. Notable species are Hamerkop Scopus umbretta, African Swallow-tailed Kite Chelictinia riocourii, Egyptian Plover Pluvianus aegyptius, and Osprey Pandion haliaetus during the northern winter. Gull-billed tern Sterna nilotica and many herons and waders are also present.

Ferme de Soninkora is a farm in Segou with many representative Sudan savanna species of doves, glossy starlings, weavers, shrikes, etc.

Around Mopti:

Mopti-Sevaré: There are many birds to be seen in the immediate vicinity of Mopti and even on the grounds of Hotel Kanaga. Areas to explore: the rocky hills around Sevaré; the waterways around Mopti (in a pirogue), the dikes around Mopti (in car and on foot). The Mopti market, waterfront, and mosque are must-see tourist attractions as well.

Lac Débo and Korientze: From Mopti it is possible to rent a boat to take you up into these lakes in the interior Niger delta. There are also large boats called "pinasses" that offer public transport on regular routes and also transport freight. The delta wetlands host tens of thousands of wintering waterbirds from Europe.

Konna: This is a town on the main paved road 70 km north from Mopti-Sevaré. It is on the river and a predominant ethnic group is the Bozo fishing people. A big open fish market is held here on Thursdays. For the best birding one should rent a pirogue to go on the river as well as explore the area on foot. Lapwings, herons, egrets, and cormorants are abundant here.

Dogon Country (pays Dogon): This encompasses the Bandiagara IBA and the main tourist routes will take you through the towns of Bandiagara, Bankass, and Sanga. Species that frequent this habitat include: Brown-rumped Bunting Emberiza affinis, Cinnamon-breasted Bunting E. tahapisi, Northern Anteater Chat Myrmecocichla aethiops, Stone Partridge Ptilopachus petrosus, Speckle-fronted Weaver Sporopipes frontalis, Cliff Chat Thamnolaea cinnamomeiventris, and Yellow-billed Oxpecker Buphagus africanus.

In the South (Region of Sikasso):

Waterfall "Chutes de Farako": This is a few minutes drive from the city of Sikasso. Drive to the site and park, then walk around the area of the falls. Many species of sunbirds are here and White-crowned Robin-Chat Cossypha albicapillus has been observed.

Yanfolila: A three-hour drive from Bamako by way of Bougouni. Yanfolila is a large village close to the border with Guinea, in the area called "Wassoulou," a heartland of Malian music and culture. Both a swamp and woodland are near the village. Yellow Penduline Tit Anthoscopus parvulus, Broad-billed Roller Eurystomus glaucurus, and Northern Carmine Bee-Eater Merops nubicus are among many species here. On excursions from Yanfolia many forest species can be seen.

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