Category Archives: Sea birds

Teamwork, Large numbers and Rarities during the national waterfowl count 2014

Waterfowl count

They were wonderful days filled with new experiences and fun moments; Saturday 18th and Sunday 19th Jan 2014 when A Rocha was spearheading the waterfowl count for the National Museums of Kenya. Turtle Bay Hotel supported A Rocha with transport and catering while students from Pwani University and volunteers from Mida Creek aided the A Rocha team to do the counting. Our efforts covered the main sites ranging form Gongoni to Mida including Lake Jilore and Sabaki River Mount. The team had unifying moments as we all marveled at the beautiful creation of God. A sky filed with over 3000 Lesser Flamingos or the splendid colors of the Malecite Kingfisher. We endured long moments of standing under the heat as we diligently counted the birds, with a dedication that can only emanate from the heart. However, the difficulties were nothing compared to the electrifying moments that characterized the spotting of rare bird species. Among them Glossy Ibis, Purple Heron, Common Snipe and a very rare species at the coast the Grey-headed Gull. Furthermore, it was a learning experience for all of us especially for those joining the exercise for the first time. We thank God for making the 2014 NMK waterfowl count a success!

Terns Return To Turtle Rock

A Rocha Kenya is blessed to be located close to a colony of Roseate Terns, a species of seabird that must return from sea in order to breed. It is quite a priviledge because Kenya does not have many breeding seabirds.

And recently we were excited to discover a small number of the terns have laid eggs on Turtle Rock which is just off shore from a local resort called Turtle Bay Beach Club. Lots of people in the form of boats, fishermen, and tourists.

The challenge is that a majority of Roseate Terns only lay one egg and their nests are very vunerable to disturbances. Because of that A Rocha Kenya is doing what we can to educate the people that live and work around the fragile habitat of nesting Roseate Terns on the importants of staying off the rock while the birds are nesting there.

We are also surveying the colony on Turtle Rock in order to track the progress and success of this breeding event. Just another small example of our work to be good stewards of the community we have been entrusted with.

Roseate Tern colony in Watamu robbed of eggs by boys

A week ago, Corporal Said of KWS Watamu called me saying he had seen that there were clouds of birds over the islands way to the north of Watamu at Darakasi and asking if could go and look at them with him then and there. In the end we went on Thursday last week to check from the beach in the evening with a ‘scope. Sure enough there were probably a good 1,000 Roseate Terns and c.100 Sooty Terns over and on the islands, many were on the ground but it was hard to tell from that distance if they were nesting or simply roosting. An actual visit would be needed.

Roseate Tern - C.Jackson Roseate Terns

Sooty Tern Sooty Tern over the island

So today we headed over there at low tide with Steve & Jan and Karen from the supporting churches near Liverpool, UK who have been around to volunteer for a couple of weeks, and Neil & Kath + Joe visiting from Turi school. On arriving at the beach and checking with bins, we could quickly see that there were indeed terns there and behaving very much like they were breeding. The problem was there was also 4-5 people climbing one of the islands causing mayhem with the terns overhead.

We went as fast as we could with me having called the Warden as we went to report it and as we approached the boys, as they turned out to be, had come off the island and were starting to head back to Watamu. They came right past us and the one was carrying a shirt that was loaded with small round objects, the right size and shape of tern eggs. I asked if we could have a look at what they had and they refused saying they were just shells belonging to someone else and we couldn’t see… and then they took off at pace. 

 the boys at the base of the island


 the blue bag carried by the boy with yellow shorts is full of terns eggs. Two others were carrying clam shells they had dug up – again illegally

My estimate looking at the ‘bag’ would be c.250-300 eggs in there and on getting to the islands and walking around them there was only one place where there were any terns apparently sitting on eggs while there was plenty of ground surface which would have been ideal for nesting. There were also a lot of terns hanging around looking somewhat lost and perching on bushes and then on a sand bank nearby.

Basically, between this visit and what must have been previous visits, the colony has pretty much been wiped out by egg thieves leaving maybe 50-100 at most nests from what could have been a colony of 1,500 nests if judging from Whale Island is anything to go by. 

Roseate Terns nesting, Watamu The only section of the four islands where there was any sort of density of birds apparently incubating

Adult Roseate Tern in breeding plumage Adult Roseate Tern in stunning breeding plumage

Roseate Terns begnning to settle down

Just been to the cliff top to check how the terns are doing on Whale Island using the telescope and they’re piling onto the rock now, settling down along the bare edge and perching precariously on the leeward rim of the main rock just below the scrub. Glad to see they’re on there in force – was a little concerned on Tuesday when we were there that by the time we left the island there were only 50-100 overhead though didn’t think they’d have been put off by our visit since they weren’t beginning to make nests etc.

Even from this far you can pick out the Sootys and Noddys since they’re so much larger and darker. Every time a large wave would hit the island and send a tower of spray onto the rock, the terns would peel off the rock and spin low over the water before going back to settle down again. I reckon by 2 weeks time the first eggs will have been laid. Will be fascinating to follow the breeding success more closely this year.

This work is being sponsored by the British Birds Foundation who have kindly donated funds to A Rocha Kenya for this and other research and monitoring work.

Roseate & Sooty Terns return to Whale Island to breed

I’ve been checking from the end of our garden which overlooks Whale Island (a big advantage of having moved to this house earlier this year!) for several weeks now to see if the terns have arrived to breed there (Whale Island, that is – not the end of the garden!) as it’s around the time when I expect them to come.

Whale Island as from the end of our garden – you can see the ‘head / body’ and ‘tail’ of the ‘whale’ where it gets its name from…
Last friday I checked as usual and the island was quiet – no activity, not even a single bird to be seen. Sunday afternoon I go check again and was amazed to see between 3-500 birds circling over and around it! They had arrived – and not in ones and twos over a couple of weeks as I had expected but pretty much all at once!

– Whale Island at low tide as seen by GoogleEarth. You can see the greenish area of dense bush with a rim of bare exposed rock – which is where most of the terns nest.

Whale Island has been known for many years as a breeding site for terns in particular Roseate Terns with a handful of others – in the literature recorded as Bridled Terns, but all I’ve ever seen there are Sootys. Not sure if they were originally mis-identified or whether over the years the Bridled have vanished and been replaced by Sootys. Perhaps both occur and I’ve missed the Bridled and the earlier guys missed the Sootys?? Will need to look harder at all of them.

a photo of a Sooty that I took on Whale Island back in 2003.

The arrival of the terns therefore spurred us into action. I had to get to the island before the birds actually started settling down to nest so as to lay down a path of wooden planks through the low vegetation so that once they’d started nesting it would still be possible to move among the nests to count them and check the breeding success without the danger of stepping on eggs. After a good meeting with the new KWS warden of the Watamu Marine Park – Albert Gamoe – who is an excellent man doing a good job, we planned to go the next morning over low tide to take the planks and to mark out 1x1m quadrats which we would use for sampling the colony.

It was blustery and quite choppy the next morning when I with our centre manager Henry, Alba Baya (research assistant) and volunteers Andrew and Alex headed for the small beach at the end of the Watamu headland to wait for the KWS boat. We had a dozen or so planks of neem wood that we started to cut into short pieces while waiting to use for “stepping stones” around the colony. It took two trips to take us together with equipment and the Warden + two rangers who were manning the boat across to the island and as we approached it we could see the birds circling and wheeling in the air over the rock as well as chasing each other low across the water. There were probably 300+ birds in all, mostly the all white Roseates with the black crown but a handful of Sootys and then probably about 20 Brown Noddys – a species for which in the past we only ever recorded one or two every year – until two years ago when there was an explosion of them with an estimated 1,000 birds on the island! To see 20 again this time suggested therefore that there would be good numbers again this year – beautiful birds which are rarely seen as they are so much pelagic (oceanic) in their occurance.

the Noddys like to sit on the cliff in the lee of the wind and are amazingly approachable – this is taken with just a small digital camera from about 20ft away!

We flushed a lone Fish Eagle sitting at the top of the cliff as we climbed up to get to the flat top of the island – he was probably very happy to have the terns come back as he regularly feeds on both the adults and the chicks once they start hatching. There were no terns on the ground so we were just in time to be able to put the path down and set up the quadrats. Using ‘hot pink’ string left over by some visiting entomologists earlier in the year, we started marking out 1x1m squares and putting down a winding path of 1-foot long bits of plank. This was a long and slow process and it took a good 2 hours to mark out 22 quadrats and lay the path.

Andrew is a GIS expert and so he spent the time with the GPS marking and taking points all over the island so we can draw up a decent map of it.

By the time we finished the tide was well and truly on its way back up and when me Andrew and Alex were picked up by the second return trip of the boat we had to wade out through quite deep water to get to where the boat could reach without being slung onto the rocks.

Altogether a very successful trip – we now just wait for a couple of weeks and then head back to see how the breeding attempt is coming along. One worrying possibility is that there are rats on the island still (there was an infestation 2 years back and I’d hoped they’d have died out by now but there were signs that the rats are still around which we may have to do something about…).

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