Official journal of the Netherlands Ornithologists' Union
|Zwarts L., Bijlsma R.G. & van der Kamp J. (2023) Seasonal shifts in habitat choice of birds in the Sahel and the importance of ‘refuge trees’ for surviving the dry season. ARDEA 111 (1): 227-250
|Every year, hundreds of millions of migratory birds cross the Sahara to spend the northern winter in the Sahel. After their arrival in September the region does not receive any rainfall until June while temperatures increase. Birds inhabiting the Sahel have several strategies to cope with this seasonal advent of drought. Most ground-foraging and arboreal migrants actually remain in the desiccating Sahel, although Northern Wheatear Oenanthe oenanthe remains in the arid zone only in a wet year, but moves from the arid to the semi-arid zone in a dry year. Some arboreal migrants stay for 1–2 months in the Sahel during the early dry season, but move on to the more humid zone further south for the rest of the northern winter. Common Redstart Phoenicurus phoenicurus is the only Sahelian arboreal migrant that moves southward in this period. Counterintuitively, Curruca species move northward after the early dry season to the arid zone where they concentrate in woody plant species whose attractiveness increases later in the dry season. This is either because those plants then gain berries (Toothbrush Tree Salvadora persica) or because they develop flowers (six desert species). In the semi-arid zone, tree-dwelling bird species disappear from tree species when these lose their leaves. However, in tree species which do not shed their leaves, bird numbers remain either constant (those using Desert Date Balanites aegyptiaca) or increase (those using Winter Thorn Faidherbia albida, a tree that foliates during the dry season). On floodplains bird numbers in acacia trees increase during the dry season. As a consequence, birds become concentrated in fewer tree and shrub species during their stay in the Sahel. After wet rainy seasons, trees have more flowers and leaves and shed them later, giving the birds more foraging space. At the end of their stay in Africa after dry rainy seasons, the number of arboreal birds is only half that after wet rainy seasons, suggesting higher mortality in dry years. Clearly, in such years mortality would be even higher without what can be seen as ‘refuge trees’: the acacias on floodplains, and Faidherbia and to a lesser degree Balanites in the rest of the Sahel.