Category Archives: Spotted Ground Thrush

First morning of ringing at Gede Ruins for Spotted Ground Thrush

Gede Ruins National Monument is an Important Bird Area (IBA) due to it being a known non-breeding site for the Endangered Spotted Ground Thrush Zoothera guttata. In the early 1990s and before, it was a relatively common species and when I first came to Watamu in 1998 the guides at the ruins talked of having seen it hopping around the offices regularly until 3-4 years previously. Today it is extremely hard to come by but we have been doing twice-per-year monitoring of the site using mist-netting in an attempt to see how many there might be and if there are new recruits to the population (i.e. recognisable first year birds).

We were there in May earlier this year (and didn’t catch an SGT) and this morning we did the first morning of our second session of the year. We put up 254m of net last night in the same sites we normally use and this morning opened them at 5:30am. Five hours later we closed having caught just 18 birds (which is actually not bad for this site!). Highlights were a stunning ‘Full Adult’ male Narina Trogon, an African Pygmy Kingfisher and a Juvenile Eastern Nicator. No SGT unfortunately.

Ringing a Red-capped Robin Chat Ringing a Red-capped Robin Chat

Totals were:

1/0 Narina Trogon  (first number = new birds, second number = retraps)

1/0 African Pygmy Kingfisher

1/0 Eastern Nicator

4/1 Red-capped Robin Chat

0/2 Bearded Scrub Robin (one retrap was ringed on 14/6/2006!)

0/2 Grey-backed Camaroptera

3/3 Olive Sunbird (oldest retrap was also from 2006 – 14th Oct)

Nets are still up so we’ll be back tomorrow to see if can get an SGT. We had three students from tourism courses on attachment join us for the morning which was great – learning their birds and getting excited about bird migration!

Narina Trogon being ringed

First Spotted Ground Thrush in Gede Ruins in 3 years

One Thursday last month we were back in the Gede Ruins National Monument forest – an area of beautiful indigenous forest with huge old trees surrounding the Gede Ruins – for the first monitoring session of the Spotted Ground Thrush this year at the ruins. It was great to have some good assistance in the form of four young volunteers from West Nairobi School (Anna, Stephanie, Natalie and Mario) together with Andrew (volunteering with GIS work), Alex (intern from Tsavo Park Institute) and of course my right hand man, Albert. As usual we finished putting up the 15 or so nets just as it was getting dark but managed to complete before we would have had to use torches / flash lights.

Up at 4:45am friday morning to be in the forest by 5:30am so as to open nets and be away from the catching area before the first bird starts calling at 6am. After a well-needed cup of chai and some bread and jam we did the first round to see what we had. Conditions were good – a couple of very light showers of rain only – and we were in high hopes for a good catch. Sure enough in the third net there was a huge ball of feathers at the far end of the bottom shelf! An African Wood Owl! and with a ring already which from our book turned out to be the bird we ringed there in July last year. That was in fact about it for ‘sparkle’ that morning other than a beautiful all-white morph African Paradise Flycatcher – though he was moulting his tail so wasn’t as glorious as he is sometimes.

There was a bit of rain but it wasn’t too bad and whilst it was good we put up the tarp to keep dry we didn’t really need it. Once we’d closed the nets we hid the stools and table behind the big baobab nearby and headed back to Mwamba to get on with other things planning to return the next morning for the second day of ringing (we normally do two mornings in a row).

That night we got everything ready as usual and went to bed early(ish)… I got up at 4:30am again, made tea for Albert (no milk) and climbed in the old Toyota landcruiser to go pick the others but as I turned the key all I got in response was a dull ‘wuw’ from the engine – the battery was flat! Disaster! – here I was stuck 2kms away from the centre, the other car was with Stanley 10kms away in Gede, there’s no slope around to push it down to kick-start it and no other car to do a jump-start… and we had 40 mins in which to pick everyone, get to Gede, then to the nets in order to open them in time. No chance! So I had to call Mwamba and tell Andrew and the four volunteers they could go back to bed – and the same to Albert who had walked 20mins from his home to get to Gede!

Such is life in rural Kenya esp with old second-hand and well-used vehicles!

It wasn’t going to work to do it on the Sunday – I play the guitar at church and everyone takes the day off – so we planned for Monday morning. At least we were used to the routine by now and everything was sorted and we managed to get off easily by 5:30am and had nets open by 6am sharp. We were expecting 20+ of the BIOTA group who have been staying with us for 3 weeks on a course. They were keen to see some birds in the hand and learn a little about ringing so we were really hoping we would catch at least a few birds – though the second morning is nearly always worse, sometimes totally quiet, so it was a bit of risk. Sure enough the first 6 nets… nothing. But in the 7th net, an Olive Sunbird – phew, at least we has something to show them! But there was no need to worry as it got better with a couple of Red-capped Robin Chats… and THEN in about the 13th net… a whoop of delight from Alba as he came to a Spotted Ground Thrush hanging neatly up-side-down in the second shelf! In all 10 birds which was very reasonable for a second morning.

Spotted Ground Thrush being examined in the hand

We got back to the ringing table and had ringed just one when the 20 guys arrived and we were able to display the star of the day and discuss the conservation status of the thrush and the possible threats facing it. We had just about finished ringing and processing the thrush when the rain started. It started gently with just a few drops but within a few minutes had come on steadily and it decided to stay steady and if anything get really seriously hard! We at least had the tarp up over the ringing table – but it’s showing its age and has a few small holes so we were trying to push it up so the water would run off fast as well as squeeze 24 people under it and finish the last 2 birds! Mad. Needless to say we pretty much all got wet. The birds flew off fine and we snuggled closer together under the tarp. We spent the next hour and a half like that with a couple of net rounds which had no more birds (which is usual in the rain – they really don’t like to fly when its raining unless they have to) but we had plenty of time to discuss the ins and outs of ringing birds.

Amazing though to have caught another SGT – the first one recorded there since 2006. It’s always really encouraging to find one and to catch it in the net is an added bonus.

Finally! …an SGT!!!

YES!! We got one! We had to get up earlier this morning – 4:30am so as to get into the forest in time to open the nets before dawn since you catch most birds as they come out of roost and start moving about in the first hour of daylight (especially here on the coast as bird activity drops very quickly in the mornings, presumably because of it being so much hotter and more humid than inland). We had a rumple at the Kenya Wildlife Service office where we were to sign in and get a key for the barrier into the forest – even though we’d told them the day before we were coming, the key and book hadn’t been left out… so we had to go and wake the ranger to open the office to get the key. Albert leapt into action and found the guy and was back within 5 mins so we still made it to the barrier in time. As we drove the 3kms into the forest where we’d left the nets, there was a LOT of fresh elephant activity – they’d been ploughing up the road again during the night and the signs continued all the way to where we parked and started walking the last 100m to the nets! One set of dung looked very fresh but was cold so we knew it was probably 2-3 hours old but all the same we figured we’d not split up to open the nets and worked on them together – Albert, Mercy and me. At the second set of nets which were a little way into the forest, we ran into ‘siafu’ – ‘safari ants’ which some would say are to be more feared more than elephants… As we were trying to avoid the ants whilst open the nets there was a loud ‘crash’ not that far away – an ele breaking a branch off for breakfast. There was immediately a “CJ!… CJ! Ndovu! Twende!!” (CJ… elephant! Let’s get out of here!!) from Albert – so I finished opening the net I was at and we bundled for the road where we could run more easily!

First round of the nets is always the most interesting since you catch the most birds and particularly in a new site as you never quite know what you’re going to get – it’s a bit like Christmas and opening presents… it’s always a surprise! Sure enough, the first nets 45mins later were a surprise – just 1 bird in 5 nets in what looked like great habitat. But then we hit the net where we’d heard the ele earlier on and had Red-tailed Ant Thrush and Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher – beautiful forest specialists… but no SGT. It wasn’t until we reached the penultimate net that Alba let a hoot of ecstasty and dashed forward to a large, spotted bird in the second panel – a Spotted Ground Thrush!

A happy Albert extracting a Spotted Ground Thrush from a mist net

Back at the ringing table we began ringing and processing all the birds (taking biometric measurements & recording moult etc) and releasing them again.

Albert holding Spotted Ground Thrush A very happy Albert with the SGT

Spotted Ground Thrush caught for ringing

The SGT came out of the bag and was ringed and measured just when a group of community members came passed on their way to clear the track further into the forest. It was an excellent opportunity to show them this rare bird and explain about the importance of the forest for conservation and particularly this species. This is such a critical part of the work – talking to and engaging with the local community members, both adults and children to explain about caring for the environment – God’s world.

Colin explaining to community members about the Spotte Ground Thrush

The SGT was identified as an adult due to the lack of any brown juvenile feathers amongst the white spots on its wings and we released it. The concern is that in six intensive days of ringing in prime Ground Thrush habitat, we’ve only caught the one bird. 15 years ago it was a different picture with thrushes being seen and caught quite frequently. The challenge is to work out what has gone wrong and the even greater challenge is to address the problem and turn it around – if indeed it is possible. The likely cause is destruction of the forests in southern Tanzania where the thrush breeds since Arabuko-Sokoke is pretty much as it has been for the past 20 years.

In total we caught 33 birds of 10 species which is quite reasonable for 12 nets in a coastal forest where bird densities are not very high – just what you catch is very special!

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Spotted Ground Thrush surveys

One of the main reasons for coming back to Watamu from my sabbatical in Cape Town has been to help Albert, the A Rocha Kenya Research Assistant, with ringing (bird banding) surveys for the Globally Endangered Spotted Ground Thrush Zoothera guttata. This handsome and enigmatic bird exists in a few populations in Africa but numbers are seriously dwindling and we are really concerned for it’s future. Here in Kenya it is a non-breeding visitor from southern Tanzania and probably northern Mozambique (tho’ relatively little ornithological work has been done there to look for it). We know it comes from Tanzania as about eight years ago one was found in Mombasa (in the Tamarind Resraurant gardens in fact!) with a ring that had been put on it by Neil & Liz Baker in the forests in southern Tz.
A beaut of a shot of an “SGT” by Steffen Forster taken in Gede Ruins forest.

Since the early ’90s survey work has shown an 80% decrease in the numbers of birds occuring in Arabuko-Sokoke Forest and Gede Ruins forest – the main sites for the species in Kenya. These forests, whilst having suffered quite a lot of illegal logging (esp ASF), are basically still intact and it’s unlikely that the decrease has been due to problems here. Much more likely is the forests where the bird breeds in southern Tanzania are getting flattened… A Rocha Kenya has been given a small grant from the Critical Ecosystem Profile Fund (CEPF) through NatureKenya to do 18 months of more thorough survey of the species in Arabuko-Sokoke. Albert has been doing the main observation transects – walking quietly and slowly through the forest on a path and stopping every 100m to listen and record all he sees, but so far in over 25kms of transect has only seen two birds. We also want to do several sessions of ringing in different sites to try and pick up the bird – but Albert can’t do it on his own, hence why I’m here to help.

So the past two mornings we’ve had nets up on the Nature Trail near the Gede forest station – the main station for Arabuko-Sokoke – which is known to be the best site to try and see the thrush. I’ve been ringing there since 1998 and there were others before that and we sometimes catch birds that were ringed way back. Yesterday we caught 23 birds including a couple of East Coast Akalats which is another Globally Threathened species that we get in the forest and otherwise a lot of greenbuls, some sunbirds, thrushes and flycatchers. The star of the show was, however, a Sokoke Pipit Anthus sokokensis which is the first I’ve caught for a very long time and the first for this site – and what a beaut of a tiny pipit it is!

On the second day you always catch fewer birds – 14 today – with three African Pygmy Kingfishers Ispidina picta which are stunning little blue jewels. Sam was the photographer and got a shot of one hanging in the net before we carefully extracted it – and it shows off its colours superbly!

The blue fire of the forest – an African Pygmy Kingfisher caught in a mist net

Albert carefully extracting the kingfisher – these are
migrants from Tanzania and Mozambique as well as the ground thrush
though we’ve not yet had a ringed one found to know exactly where they

This sort of work is so important for keeping track on what the bird populations are doing, how long birds are surviving, if there are young birds around to tell you the species is successfully breeding still etc. We’ve got a bit of funding from CEPF to cover the transport and salary costs to do the surveys, but I’m realising just how hammered our mist nets are becoming after 10 years of use for some of them! There are a few holes that an ostrich would fit through and which are not easy to mend. These are not cheap – $100-$140 each depending on the length – and is something that would hugely useful to replace.