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Mauritania is a large but little-known and rarely-visited country in north-west Africa at the south-western edge of the Western Palearctic.
Although most of the country is desert, ornithologically it is famous as the winter haunt of large numbers of waders from northern Europe and Asia. More than two million shorebirds winter in the Banc D'Arguin National Park which stretches for 180km along the coast of northern Mauritania.
Formerly an estuary this area is now one of the largest coastal wetlands in Africa and consists of extensive shallow bays and lagoons, mudflats, sandbanks and islands. This is one of the most important areas for shorebirds in the Western Palearctic and was declared a national park in 1976. Since then it has also gained Ramsar Site and World Heritage Site status.
In addition to waders the Banc D'Arguin has wintering gulls, terns and it is an important breeding site for a number of species which are very scarce in the region. Situated where the Sahara meets the Atlantic, the Banc D'Arguin National Park provides a unique opportunity for more adventurous birders to see huge numbers of waders as well as some African and desert specialities.
Also of special importance are the seas of the Banc D'Arguin where the warm Guinean Current from the south meets the colder Canaries Current from the north. This has led to a unique flora in the area with the most northerly mangroves Avicennia africana on the West African coast as well as the southernmost point in the range of the grass Spartina maritima.
There are vast Zostera beds which provide food and shelter for large numbers of fish and invertebrates and these shallow seas are important nursery grounds for a great range of commercial fish species.
Breeding birds of the Banc D'Arguin include Great White Pelican and Greater Flamingo in thousands, Great Cormorant and, at the only breeding site in the Western Palearctic, Long-tailed Cormorant. Other breeders include Western Reef Heron and Little Egret and endemic races of Grey Heron and Eurasian Spoonbill.
Yellow-billed Stork and Intermediate Egret are probably regular visitors in spring and summer and Lesser Flamingo is now present throughout the year. Yellow-legged Gull is present, Slender-billed Gull breeds and Grey-headed Gull nests here at its only Western Palearctic breeding site although it is in decline and now rare. The only record of (Southern Black-backed) Gull in the Western Palearctic was of a bird paired with a Yellow-legged Gull on the Banc D'Arguin for several successive summers in the late 1990s. Among the terns breeding are Gull-billed Tern, Caspian Tern and West African Crested Tern, (again the only Western Palearctic site), and Bridled Tern, Common Tern and Little Tern.
All the regular waders from northern Europe and Asia occur here in winter with Ringed Plover and Grey Plover, Whimbrel, Red Knot, Curlew Sandpiper, Dunlin and Common Redshank particularly numerous. Gulls in winter include Black-headed Gull, Grey-headed Gull and Slender-billed Gull, Audouin's Gull and Lesser Black-backed Gull. Seabirds reported off the Banc D'Arguin include regular Wilson's Storm-petrel in late summer and autumn and Brown Booby which may occur regularly after dispersal from breeding sites further south.
Desert specialities include Cream-coloured Courser and Stone-curlew and both Barbary Falcon and Lanner Falcon. Passerines such as Brown-necked Raven, Bar-tailed Desert Lark and Greater Hoopoe-Lark and possibly Desert Sparrow can all be seen in the area and Sudan Golden Sparrow occurs at Cap Blanc.
In addition to Kelp Gull vagrants to the Banc D'Arguin have included tropicbirds and Marabou Stork, Black Noddy and Common Crane. Arabian Bustard has been recorded several times in the area but its status is unclear.
Birds you can see here include:
Wilson's Storm-petrel, Great Cormorant, Long-tailed Cormorant, Great White Pelican, Western Reef Heron, Little Egret, Intermediate Egret, Grey Heron, Yellow-billed Stork, Eurasian Spoonbill, Greater Flamingo, Lesser Flamingo, Lanner Falcon, Barbary Falcon, Eurasian Oystercatcher, Stone-curlew, Cream-coloured Courser, Little Ringed Plover, Kentish Plover, Grey Plover, Red Knot, Sanderling, Little Stint, Curlew Sandpiper, Dunlin, Bar-tailed Godwit, Whimbrel, Eurasian Curlew, Common Redshank, Common Greenshank, Ruddy Turnstone, Arctic Skua, Black-headed Gull, Grey-headed Gull, Slender-billed Gull, Audouin's Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Yellow-legged Gull, Gull-billed Tern, Caspian Tern, West African Crested Tern, Sandwich Tern, Common Tern, Bridled Tern, Little Tern, Black Tern, Little Swift, Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, Bar-tailed Desert Lark, Greater Hoopoe-Lark, Iberian Yellow Wagtail, Brown-necked Raven, House Sparrow, Desert Sparrow, Sudan Golden Sparrow
As well as birds there are mammals of interest in the Banc D'Arguin National Park including various carnivores such as Striped Hyena Hyaena hyaena, Golden Jackal Canis aureus, Fennec Fox Vulpes zerda and Ruppell's Fox Vulpes ruppelli, Honey Badger Mellivora capensis and Striped Weasel Poecilictis libyca and Sand Cat Felis margarita and African Wildcat Felis lybica. Small rodents are numerous but larger herbivores are scarce with only Dorcas Gazelle Gazella dorcas likely to be seen.
The area is well-known for cetaceans with species such as Common Dolphin Delphinus delphis, Bottle-nosed Dolphin Tursiops truncatus and Atlantic Hump-backed Dolphin Sousa teuzsii all present. Both occurring at the southernmost points of their ranges are the widespread Common Porpoise Phocoena phocoena and the now very rare Mediterranean Monk Seal Monachus monachus which may still survive in small numbers at Cap Blanc.
The Banc D'Arguin is also important for sea-turtles with Green Turtle Chelonia mydas, Loggerhead Turtle Caretta caretta and Hawksbill Turtle Eretmochelys imbricata all present and even Leatherback Turtle Dermochelys coriacea may be seen.
History and Use
There is a remarkable example of human-animal co-operation to be seen at the Banc D'Arguin each November. The Imraguen fishermen of this area summon dolphins into shallow water by beating the surface with long poles. The dolphins then rive large shoals of mullet inshore providing both themselves and the fishermen with a feast of fish.
Areas of Interest
Access and Facilities
Mauritania can be reached by air, generally to the capital Nouakchott, or overland from the neighbouring countries of Algeria, Mali and Senegal. The northern city of Nouadhibou is the best base from which to visit the Banc D'Arguin National Park and can be reached from the capital by internal flights, by rail or by road.
The national park office can be found on the main street in Nouadhibou. Within the country travel can be difficult as there are only two major roads and car-hire is expensive and only available in the capital. However, the trip north to the Banc D'Arguin is worth the effort for intrepid birders.
Accommodation is hard to find outside the capital, although there are expensive hotels in Nouadhibou the best option is probably to be prepared to camp.
Content and images originally posted by Steve