Tsavo West shimmering green & news of mist & migrant birds for the 44th year of monitoring at Ngulia

The 2012 season for the Ngulia Bird Migration Project – the 44th since it started in 1969 – has begun! Yesterday I arrived at the lodge in the heart of Tsavo West Nat. Park together with Andrew Kinzer, Silas Ekesa and Niko Gerhard and his niece Samina – Niko looking as much the pirate as ever and full of energy and keen to get nets up. Tsavo is green – and there is sign of recent rain including large pools along the road – though only a surface green with the grey of the dry bush and brown earth through the thin grass still evident. Give it a week and some more rain and this will be gone under a thick carpet of lush vegetation…

 Wet conditions along the road to Ngulia in Tsavo

However en route along the 48kms to the lodge we saw very few migrants – in fact just 1 Eurasian Cuckoo, 1 wheatear (probably Northern) and 1 Red-backed Shrike. None of the swarms of Barn Swallows we are often greeted by, no migrant raptors nor warblers or thrushes flushing out of the bush along the road as we passed…

 Looking up the valley towards Ngulia

It was great to arrive at Ngulia and be welcomed by the “Ngulia Faithful” – the staff who know us well now, several having been at the lodge for over 2 decades. On arrival at the lodge we focussed on important things first which was to get the main nets up before it got dark. All the equipment was perfectly put away by David at the end of last season so it was easy to identify the correct nets and we set to on the ‘L’ in front of the lodge. Due to the lack of bush and vegetation there was next to no cutting and clearing needed which speeded it up and we managed to erect the whole ‘L’ + the single 12m ‘Niko’ net up the slope near the lodge before having to head in as leopard time was nearing. Again few birds of note at this point – other than a flock or two of Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters moving south quite high overhead.

 Looking down the valley from Ngulia – just turning green

 Not a lot of bush in front of the lodge

The Leopard behaved very nicely and came in very soon after the meat was put out for him – and by 7pm was cracking bones and demolishing the goat leg tied up for him just 25m behind Andrew & I who were fixing one of the spot lights on the steps down from the lodge. This meant that after dinner, the 10 or so tourists in the lodge didn’t stay up but headed for bed by 10:30pm leaving the floor clear for us to put nets up when we wanted. There was a thin, high mist by that time and while I went to bed for a couple of hours, Niko, Andrew & Silas put up the 2 night nets at 11pm and started catching a handful of birds – actually, just 10 by midnight and by 00:00hrs the mist cleared completely and stars came out such that at 01:30hrs we packed up and went to bed…

I woke at 03:00hrs to check if there was mist only to find Niko was already up and the nets up! There was good, thick mist and conditions looked perfect – only that the moon was going to be coming out soon which reduces the catch. It wasn’t busy as such, but we caught fairly steadily and by the end of the night we had 126 birds ringed – as well as a Striped Kingfisher (only the 8th ever ringed here and the first since 1984!) and a Singing Bush Lark (16th ringed & first since 2007 – though am trying to ‘turn it into’ a Friedmann’s Lark…!). At dawn we opened the full ‘L’ and caught a few birds though not many until 8am when we closed as it had gone quiet… and by now Niko really needed his sleep! The mist had faded away to a thin high cover at around 4am and so probably a lot of the birds grounded earlier in the night had headed off before dawn and continued their journey south.

 Dawn…

 A study of the Ngulia spot light soon after dawn…

On clearing the nets and heading up to the swimming pool area to where we ring during the day, we had a real shock – the small banda / shaded area along the side of the pool has been demolished and a railway siding type shed cover has been built behind where it was over the grass instead. Whilst far from the most beautiful poolside shelter I’ve seen, it actually might work very well for the ringing, particularly in that a) it won’t leak, b) it has a hugely high roof which therefore both lets in lots of light and also provides a better view of the sky to watch for raptors and c) there are no low-lying beams to take unsuspecting ringers heads off… We have yet to experience it in the rain, however, to see just how much rain will come in from the side…

 The new pool side shed

 Niko & Samina cleaning bird bags in front of the shed

 Not bad for raptor watching from inside the shed

Totals for the day therefore stand at the following:

184 Palearctics ringed:

Red-backed Shrike          6

Isabelline Shrike               2

River Warbler                    4

Marsh Warbler                  6

Olive-tree Warbler          1

Barred Warbler                 1

Common Whitethroat   10

Thrush Nightingale          149

Nightingale                         3

Irania                                     1

Rufous Bush Robin          1

…and 12 Afrotropical birds caught including two Plain Nightjars

Once again KWS (Kenya Wildlife Service) have been fantastic in their support of this really important and unique migrant monitoring project and the officers at the gate were very friendly and remembered us from last year and welcomed us in as old friends. We are very grateful to them for the support and hope that a few staff members will be able to drop by to join in the ringing at some point this week.

 Kinzer at breakfast – one of the joys of Ngulia!

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