Where to watch Pelagic Birds  - Senegal and the Cape Verde Islands


The Cape Verde Peninsula, in the West African nation of Senegal, juts out into the Atlantic Ocean. The seawatching potential of this locality has only just been realized and initial results are very exciting (see Baillon and Dubois, 1992; Marr and Porter, 1992). From early September to mid-October, Bailon and Dubois observed an extensive passage on jaegers/skuas totalling nearly 1000 in 40 hours of counting, while Marr and Porter reported spectacular northward passage in April including hundreds of Wilson's Storm-petrel, European Storm-petrel, Pomarine Jaegers, Sabine's Gulls, and 1,000s of terns including over 10,000 Black Tern. In addition, numbers of South Polar Skua and Cape Verde Shearwaters occur offshore in the fall (Porter et al., 1997; Newell et al., 1997). A detailed on-line account of spring and fall observations prepared by Tony Marr, Dick Newell and Richard Porter (based on an article in the Mar 1998 Bulletin of the African Bird Club, vol. 5) can be found on the African Bird Club site.

The best spring seawatching is from Pointes des Almadies in the ouskirts of Dakar, the capital city. This is only 8 km from the airport. You can watch the ocean from the car park or from a seafront restaurant. Unfortunately many of birds are on the other side of a reef and are thus very distant. Details of where to go can be found in Baillon and Dubois 1992. In the fall, Marr et al., recommend the nearby Isle Ngor since the birds pass closer than on the mainland. To go offshore, it is possible to hire boats from Dakar Harbor (Centre de Peche Sportive) reaching the continental shelf line (200m drop off). In spring, the northward passage was observed over a broad front between 5 and 25 km offshore. On windier days, birds (especially terns) seek shelter closer to shore in the lee of the peninsula.

Figure 1. Wilson's Storm-petrels occur in large numbers off Senegal in spring, as they move north from their Antarctic or Subantarctic breeding grounds and fan out over the vast expanses of the North Atlantic. Photograph copyright of Angus Wilson©, 1993.

Key References

Francoise Baillon and Philip Dubois (1992) Seawatching from Cape Verde, Senegal. Birding World 4(12): 440-442.

Tony Marr and Richard Porter (1992) Spring seabird passage off Senegal. Birding World 5(10): 391-394.

Richard Porter, Dick Newell, Tony Marr and Robin Jolliffe (1997) Identification of Cape Verde Shearwater. Birding World 10(6): p222-228.

Dick Newell, Richard Porter and Tony Marr (1997) South Polar Skua - an overlooked bird in the eastern Atlantic. Birding World 10(6): p229-235. Nice collection of photos of Catharacta skuas taken at sea off Senegal, West Africa.

Brown, R.G.B. (1979) Seabirds of the Senegal Upwelling and adjacent waters. Ibis 121: p283-292.

Depending on the time of year, the following species might be encountered:

Cape Verde Shearwater
Cory's Shearwater - mostly the Mediterranean race 'Scopoli's Shearwater'

Sooty Shearwater

Manx Shearwater

Mediterreanean Shearwater

Little Shearwater - non-breeders of the race boydi (endemic to Cape Verde Islands)

Bulwer's Petrel
Wilson's Storm-petrel - large numbers in spring

Band-rumped (Madeiran) Storm-petrel - small numbers

Leach's Storm-petrel - fall only

Brown Booby

Northern Gannet

Red-billed Tropicbird - breeds on nearby L'Isle des Madeleines

Red Phalarope

South Polar Skua
(reports of Great Skua may in fact refer to Brown Skua)

Pomarine Jaeger

Parasitic Jaeger

Long-tailed Jaeger

Sabine's Gull

Audounin's Gull - max nos in winter

Mediterranean Gull

Slender-billed Gull

Kelp Gull - typically moving northwards in autumn

Lesser Black-backed Gull

Little Gull - uncommon in autumn

Black-legged Kittiwake - uncommon in autumn

Bridled Tern -breeds

Caspian Tern

Royal Tern

Lesser Crested Tern

Sandwich Tern

White-winged Tern - regular in spring

Black Tern - very large numbers in spring

Gull-billed Tern

Little Tern

Common Tern

Arctic Tern

Roseate Tern - small numbers in spring


Risso's Dolphin

Common Dolphin

Spotted Dolphin

Bottlenose Dolphin

Striped Dolphin


Balearic Shearwater
Cape Gannet -1 probable 30 Aug 1990 (Baillon and Dubois)

White-winged Tern

Cape Verde Islands

The Cape Verde Island archipelago lies are some 500 km west of Senegal. There are 10 main islands, of which 9 are inhabited. These dry islands support a number of interesting endemic landbirds (Cape Verde Swift, Raso Lark, Cape Verde Cane Warbler, Rufous-backed Sparrow) as well as many Afro/European species, some of which are endemic subspecies (e.g. Cape Verde Barn Owl). Lying on the southwestern most boundary of the Western Palearctic faunal region, the islands have recieved increased attention from European birders, most notably the pioneering research of Dr. Cornelis Hazevoet (Noeske and Pfu tzke, 1994). Importantly, the breeding species include a number of poorly-known endemic seabirds: Fea's Petrel, Cape Verde Shearwater and Cape Verde Little Shearwater. I am not aware of any studies of seabird migration through the islands, but there is obviously great potential.

The Cape Verde Shearwater was originally treated as a distinct species before being lumped as a race of Cory's Shearwater. There is now a strong move towards restoring this distinctive form to full species status. Endemic to the Cape Verde archipelago, the local name is 'Cagarra' in mimicry of its call. Large numbers of chicks are dried and salted for food, presenting a severe stress to the population. The main colonies are on Brava, Branco and Raso with smaller numbers elsewhere. Population estimates of 10,000 pairs during the 1990's may be optimistic.

The population of Red-billed Tropicbirds was once estimated at ca.1000 pairs but has declined seriously in recent years. These are most easily seen on the island of Raso. Cape Verde Petrel can be seen from land or on boat crossings between the islands. White-faced Storm Petrels breed on several small uninhabited islets. If possible, landing should be avoided so as not to crush their fragile burrows. Although Magnificent Frigatebird nests on two islets off Boavista, there are only about five breeding pairs in total, representing the entire eastern Atlantic breeding population!

Depending on time of year, the following species might be encountered:

Fea's Petrel
Cape Verde Shearwater
Cape Verde Little Shearwater
Bulwer's Petrel
White-faced Storm Petrel
Band-rumped (Madeiran) Storm Petrel
Red-billed Tropicbird - breeds but suffering steep decline

Brown Booby

Magnificent Frigatebird - breeds on two small islets off Boa Vista

Red Phalarope - migrant

Useful Literature

Andreas Noeske and Sefan Pfu tzke (1994) The Cape Verde Islands: tropical birding in the Western Palearctic. Birding World 7(4): 152-160. Describes a 3 week trip in March 1993. Many superb photos.

Hazevoet, C.J. (1999) Notes on birds from the Cape Verde Islands in the collection of the Centro de Zoologia, Lisbon, with comments on taxonomy and distribution. Bull. Brit. Orni. Club, 119(1): 25-31.

Hazevoet, C.J. (1998) Third annual report of birds from the Cape Verde Islands, including records of seven taxa new to the archiplego. Bulletin Zoologisch Museum, University of Amsterdam, 16(9): 65-71.

Hazevoet, C.J. (1997) Notes on distribution, conservation, and taxonmy of birds from the Cape Verde Islands, including records of six species new to the archiplego. Bulletin Zoologisch Museum, University of Amsterdam, 15(13): 89-100.

Hazevoet, C.J. (1996) Conservation and species lists: taxonomic neglect promotes the extinction of endemic birds, as exemplified by taxa from eastern Atlantic islands. Bird Conservation International, 6: 181-196.

Hazevoet, C.J. (1995) The Birds of the Cape Verde Islands: BOU Check-list No. 13. Tring: British Ornithologists' Union.

Hazevoet, C.J., Fischer, S. and Deloison, G. (1996) Notes on distribution, conservation, and taxonmy of birds from the Cape Verde Islands, including records of six species new to the archiplego. Bulletin Zoologisch Museum, University of Amsterdam, 15(3): 21-27.

Hazevoet, C.J. and Wenzel F.W. (1997) A record of a Mediterranean Monk Seal Monachus monachus from the Cape Verde Islands. Lutra 40: 21-22.


Many thanks to Dr. Kees Hazevoet (Curator of Ornithology, Universidade de Lisboa) and Dick Newell for helpful comments on this page and for providing useful information on the wonderful seabirds of the Cape Verde Islands and adjacent Senegalese waters.

Page and photos copyright of Angus Wilson© 2002 All rights reserved.
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