Tag Archives: Amur Falcon

Incredible, outrageous movement of Amur Falcons through Ngulia valley, Tsavo West NP, having come from China…

It was Jan, Fransie and Andrew’s last night and at least Fransie stayed up all night in the hope of setting nets as soon as the mist came in… which it did but only at 4:50am and only for about 15 minutes – enough to catch 6 birds…! All nets were opened at dawn and a lot of ringers stood around appreciating yet another stunning dawn at Ngulia – but extracting very little from the nets! Only a handful were caught and a couple of Afrotropicals such that by 9am we had closed nets and were packing up by the pool.

Instead of ringing large numbers of birds, it was a day for UNbelievable falcon migration… at around 9:30am most of the team were down on the open patio in front of the lodge looking for raptors as is the custom and a flock of Amur Falcons were seen quite high up moving mostly west, if not slightly north of west towards the Ngulia mountains. Ian and David started counting them as we do and were joined by others of us… and we didn’t stop for about 2 hours!! The sky was literally peppered with falcons spiralling together in flocks of 200-1,000 birds with more joining them and all moving off the same direction only to be followed by more… and more.. and more! Other flocks were seen off the escarpment and also coming in over it heading north-west as well and later still more over the small hills directly in front of the lodge.

Part of a huge flock of Amurs

Part of a huge flock of Amurs

Counting Amur Falcons

Counting Amur Falcons

The total quickly rose to 9,000… 10,000 birds and still more were pouring through! Eventually a grand total of an extraordinary 26,000 birds were counted – by far and away the largest flock of Amurs ever recorded in Kenya. A wonderfully stunning sight to watch and pretty much the highlight of the whole season.

Closer shot so you can really see they're falcons & not locusts

Closer shot so you can really see they're falcons & not locusts

More Amur 'pepper'

More Amur 'pepper'

Amur silhouette

Amur silhouette

DJP contemplating falcon migration - falcon numbers petering out but still some coming through

DJP contemplating falcon migration - falcon numbers petering out but still some coming through

The swallow nets were put up on the lawn infront of the lodge while the falcons were pouring over and by lunch 35 had been ringed, but it was really a day for raptors with not just the falcons but we also had another (the same? – probably, in fact…) Eurasian Sparrowhawk, a migrant Black Kite ssp. milgrans, Steppe Eagle and late morning a beaut of an adult Crowned Eagle appeared over the hill in front and cruised at mid to low altitude right over the lodge giving stunning views – a species which we have rarely recorded at Ngulia, in fact as it is very much a forest dweller. We had one more Ruppell’s Griffon Vulture over to add to the smattering of vultures we’ve been seeing this year.

Adult Crowned Eagle over Ngulia

Adult Crowned Eagle over Ngulia

Fransie & Jan left not long before lunch giving Andrew a lift with them thus leaving us with three less competent hands to handle birds. Andrew took measurements and photos of the tripods for the lights so that we can try and make some new ones as these ones which have lasted probably 30 years (for one of them) can be retired – or put in a museum – since they are beginning to break up!

Andrew photographing tripods...

Andrew photographing tripods...

Later in the afternoon Chris took myself, Kevin and Peter up to the Kalanga spring where Ngulia gets its water from on the hill to the west and saw some great stuff – a small microcosm of coastal birds with Red-capped Robin Chats, Bearded Scrub Robin singing away, African Pygmy Kingfisher, Yellow-bellied Greenbul – and a Buff-spotted Flufftail calling from some long grass and bush just as we were leaving. Stunning views from there too of the valley and lodge.

African Pygmy Kingfisher at Kalanga

African Pygmy Kingfisher at Kalanga

A night to catch up on sleep…

Perhaps it was the heavy storm during the day that came in from the west, but whatever it was that caused it, there was no mist at night and dawn broke with thick layers of cloud but very high and with no sign of any landfall of birds in any numbers. We opened all 22 nets at 5:40am and ended up catching and ringing just 96 migrants and a handful of Afrotropical species. Nothing to write home about with the migrants – mainly Marsh Warblers, Sprossers and Whitethroats – and just one Nightingale and one Garden Warbler. Afro-wise we caught a Lesser Honeyguide that was interesting as it had retained feathers that appeared like juvenile-type feathers thus allowing you to age it more accurately. Also there are a few Red-billed Quelea turning up which were not there a few days ago and the first Chestnut Weaver as well.

Afternoon storm clouds from Ngulia over Cherangani Hills

Afternoon storm clouds from Ngulia over Cherangani Hills

There was more going on in terms of visual observation therefore and while ringing we had a couple of flocks of Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters go over heading south, a couple of Booted Eagles, only 2 Barn Swallows but about 520 Amur Falcons counted. A beaut of a young male Peregrine came and sat in a tree beyond the far nets for 10 mins or so giving great views through the scope before being chased off by a Bateleur Eagle. A large eagle went passed at one point that was identified as a Lesser Spotted Eagle which is not commonly reported in Kenya, and a group of guys who went out in a car briefly had a flock of over 1,000 Common Swifts, a few Mottled and just one Alpine Swift. A lone Black Kite of the migrant race milgrans was around in the afternoon clearly showing its black bill.

Rock Agama at Ngulia

Rock Agama at Ngulia

Overall is was quite a quiet day – I spent the whole afternoon with Bernard Amakobe, the Coordinator of the Ringing Scheme of East Africa, going through Ringing Scheme admin and giving ideas and input into various ringing issues. Chris Wade arrived mid-afternoon who is the last of the arrivals to come and join the team this year.

Bernard explaining warbler ageing to Helen

Bernard explaining warbler ageing to Helen

Not a wisp of mist means more rhinos seen than birds caught!

Well it had to happen at some point… yes, no mist. We went to bed last night fearing the worst as we could see stars after supper and it had got quite chilly. Gitau had volunteered to get up at midnight to check – though Scopus said he’d back him up as from his experience DG had trouble waking up without three or four attempts, and sure enough it was Scopus who spent the hour and a half awake on the stoop watching to see if the stars would disappear and mist come in – but to no avail. David P put the tapes on at 2am and went back to bed and we woke pretty much every hour after that to look out of the window and finally got up at 5am to be ready to open the bush nets at 5:40am.

As expected dawn was hugely beautiful with the sunrise… but there were no birds.

img_0266.JPG  Sunrise over the plains below Ngulia – from the nets..

In fact Mike remarked on how he had seen more rhino than birds after 1/2 an hour – 3 Rhino were together in an open patch of mud below the lodge and he’d only extracted 2 birds! There were 5-6 Amur Falcons around the lodge at dawn joined by the local Lanner again – more powerful and heavier, which are always stunning to watch in action. There was even a rhino in the valley just down from the lodge – my first ever to see here and one of those released out of the Rhino Sanctuary this year and very neat to have just 400m away.

We had a small wager on how many birds we’d catch – which ranged from 60 (David P) to 350 (Rachel and Anthony). I guessed 120 but it was David who was nearest with a total of 73 birds only!!

img_0260.JPG  Bernard taking out one of the few birds caught this morning…

But there were 3 ‘Warden Gobblers’ (Garden Warblers) in there which was very nice (some years only 3 the whole season) and a couple of shrikes and as predicted a lot more Afrotropical birds – 36 in fact (compared to sometimes only 3 or 4 when there are vast numbers of migrants chasing the locals out). Stars of the show were a non-breeding plumage Paradise Whydah, White-browed Scrub Robin, another Fork-tailed Drongo (why haven’t we caught them all these years?!), a female Paradise Flycatcher and a pair of Purple Grenadiers. There were lots of Red-billed Quelea which are not exactly ‘exciting’ since we catch so many of them but you never know, one day we might have one recovered somewhere else since they are known to move even over 1,000kms.

img_0270.JPG  White-browed Scrub Robin wing – showing older juvenile (brown) feathers & new adult (black) feathers in the wing

img_0282.JPG  Fork-tailed Drongo – again a young one showing pale tips to feathers on its vent & not such a bright red eye

So we packed up and shut the nets at 8:30am and gave those with less ringing experience a chance to do some ringing. David P and I continued our discussions on what is the best fat scoring methodology and checked a few wing lengths against each other to calibrate the measurement and basically had a very relaxed morning. It ended off with some discussion with Scopus about a new order of rings for the Ringing Scheme of eastern Africa until I started to doze off and headed to bed for a kip followed by a swim to wake up. We’ll see what happens tonight. Yoav and Nadav left today and Jeff & Kate (+ Brennan aged 2 – a ringer in early training!), Erik & Rachel arrived this afternoon, so we hope there will be mist so they can see some ‘action’.

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During dinner, a pair of Greater Galagos (bushbabies) come and take bread of a ‘bushbaby table’ – very fluffy and beautiful creatures that are very hard to see normally…

Stunning blue, violet, green and red Allen’s Gallinule caught… in a bedroom!!

 At dinner last night we really thought we were going to be busy… it was raining and the mist was swirling in already and birds pirouetting around the lights and settling in the trees. The leopard had come already and there were very few tourists so we were tempted to put the nets up at 10pm… (if Ian had been with us, I’m sure he would have done!) However as most of the team were somewhat tired and had already gone to bed, we refrained. I was talking with David and Anthony just before heading to the room when one of the ladies working at Ngulia came up to us and said ‘I have a bird in my bedroom’ – clearly begging the response of ‘OK, we’ll come and get it’ – which David duely did. We seriously thought it would be a Marsh Warbler so you can be sure we were very surprised to see him come back carrying a large bird with long gangly legs, enormous toes and a stunning red bill. In the orange light of the sitting area our first reaction was ‘Lesser Moorhen’ and it was only when Graeme came along and pointed out it had BLUE feathers that it slowly sank in that we were in fact holding our second ever Allen’s Gallinule!!! And WHAT a beaut of a bird it was too!!

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Anthony was very chuffed to clamp the ring on (you can see below how much he was…!). The lady on the right is the ‘I have a bird in my room’ lady…

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img_0244.JPG  Allen’s Gallinule – a close up of a very  beautiful bird (God had some outrageous ideas!!)

…and Samson from reception (a pillar of the lodge!) was also very chuffed to be photographed holding it just before we released it.

We reckoned we were in for a heavy night again though new the risk of rain in the evening which often washes out the mist – and sure enough by midnight the mist had gone and there was just somewhat higher cloud. David put the nets up with Alain & Raymund at 1:00am and put the tapes on and a small team worked the night through to dawn to ring a very reasonable 278 birds.

David Gitau ringing a marsh warbler DG ringing a marsh warbler

During the day we had c.900 in the bush nets (all opened) and then 550 Swallows. Not many raptors around today though about 25 Amurs at dawn hawking over the lodge and netting area with a Lanner hacking through them chasing the odd one and feeding on the flying ants as well.

img_0199.JPG  Irania in the net

Many more Sprossers were caught today with about 200+ ringed – the most so far this year which is very bizarre and not the usual story for Ngulia. Otherwise two more Upcher’s caught by Scopus and also two Sedge Warblers which are only our 3rd and 4th this year – all in the swallow nets.

FINALLY!! a Marsh Warbler wearing a ‘PARIS’ ring!

Conditions at night were good and we started ringing at 12:30am in near perfect mist. Nico, Mercy and Stallone left yesterday and David Gitau (‘DG’) and Felista Malaki came to take their place. DG took the midnight watch and woke us immediately as the mist was down and birds all over. We only set the one net and still caught 794 birds from it by dawn and needed three tables to handle the number of birds. The trees and bushes were literally heaving with birds – as seen in the picture here:

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At 1:30am Yoav came in from the one net with a triumphant: “we have a PARIS ring!!!”. Hallelujah and GLowRy!! As expected it was a Marsh WArbler (70% of all our recoveries are from Marsh Warblers!) and it was indeed bearing a dull and chunky ring with ‘MUSEUM PARIS’ and its number stamped into the soft aluminium metal. This is one of those moments that make it all hugely worthwhile.

This time no rain and conditions were perfect to open nets at dawn to catch birds… and birds we caught indeed. The mist persisted into the first hour or so of day and nets were laden with migrants from Europe and Asia.

first round at Ngulia

Clive, Bert and Alain at the cliff nets loaded with birds – don’t worry, that’s not quite the size and shape of Clive’s stomach – he’s stuffed his empty bird bags down his shirt for easy access for when he needs them!

We took it as it came but didn’t have time to play around with swallow nets and ended up with a very comfortable 2,465 birds that really didn’t ‘feel like’ so many as it all went so efficiently and effectively – all ringed and released by 11:30am. The remarkable thing was we didn’t open the back line at all except the 2 cliff nets & we didn’t put nets up for swallows;

Highlights: quite a few River Warblers in the night and then very few in the day catch which was odd; two Eurasian Rollers were caught in the first round in the mist – our first this year and part of the major movement of Rollers coming south down the valley and over the escarpment heading to Tanzania and beyond. Otherwise it was the usual species again, perhaps slightly more Sprossers that before.

Yoav ringing Roller  Yoav ringing the Roller

Rachel with roller

Rachel very happy being bitten by the Roller

I had been planning to do a Eurasian Roller survey in Tsavo while here at Ngulia since the A Rocha France project have got a major focus on the species (their study site in southern France has the highest recorded breeding density of Rollers in Europe).  As we were finished so soon I decided it was a good time to do this so Yoav, Nadav and Rachel joined me to do a 50km transect around the park counting Eurasian Rollers and also doing a “raptor road count” – recording all raptors seen from the road as you drive.

There were huge numbers of Rollers still moving through the park heading south and we found many groups of them spread out perched on trees along the road. Using Distance Sampling, I hope we’ll be able to estimate the density of them in the park today. The lighting was awesome with storms in the distance and that unbeatable African evening lighting causing the expansive and stunning landscape to glow.

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We saw a fair few Steppe Eagles, a pair of African Hawk Eagles as well as another adult + young and later a single juvenile, Brown Snake Eagle, Pale Chanting Goshawk and some more Amur Falcons. Of course we met Simon Thomsett and Laila in their funky Range Rover that Simon has done up for their trans-Africa raptor safari – great to see them again.

Almost 3,000 birds ringed in 12 hours with record numbers of Marsh Warblers & flocks of migrating Amur Falcons

It was a busy and hectic night made worse by rain on and off and then a huge downpour at 5:30am just before we opened nets. We therefore only opened 2/3 of the ‘L’ of nets to start with expecting the Marsh Warbler ‘boom’ that happens at around 6am when they start moving out of roost – but it didn’t come. With the rain and thick mist which then continued on into the morning till about 9:30am the birds just sat in the bushes and only moved off slowly throughout the morning. We had to close nets at about 7:30 due to rain but already had 1,000 birds to ring which we worked through and as the weather cleared up at 10am opened up nets again and kept catching, then opening the swallow nets too and ending up working through to 3pm!! Total for the day: 2,95 birds ringed!

Two of the three ringing tables we had going to handle the number of birds at the Leopard Cocktail Bar:

Ringing at the Leopard Cocktail Bar
A truly international team: From left: Alain (Switzerland), Yoav (Israel), Raimund (Germany), Bert (Holland), Mercy (Kenya), David Pearson (UK), Graeme Backhurst (Kenya), Bernard (Kenya).

The vast majority of birds were Ap’s – i.e. Marsh Warblers… and in fact it was a record-setting day in that well over 2,000 were ringed, the most we’ve ever ringed of a single species in one day in 39 years!! The previous high was 1,500 Sprossers in 1995.

With the rain around suddenly there were falcons – mostly Amur Falcons though a couple of Sootys were also seen. We estimated a good 500-700 Amurs came through in about 2-3 hours feeding on flying ants some just over our heads, others peppering the sky in the distance. Along with these were the Eurasian Rollers – again several 100 moving up the valley and over the ridge heading for Tanzania. It’s awesome to see the migration actually happening!!

Highlights ringed – not a huge variety, but again good numbers of Basra Reed Warblers, at last a few more Irania (White-throated Robin), a few Garden Warblers, a few more Upcher’s Warblers and a Sedge Warbler.

Hippolais languida Upcher’s Warbler Hippolais languida – note the blacker tail and you can see the old (brown) wing feathers contrasting with new (black) feathers.

Also through the day we finally had a load of Steppe Eagles, huge migrants (compared to the warblers!) from Asia that had been conspicuously missing so far.

A Great White Heron chugged around overhead the night nets for a while in the night followed by a flock of Cattle Egrets attracted to the lights an hour or so before dawn. They stayed all day in the end – pictured here perched all over the dead tree outside the lodge like Christmas decorations (see pic below). There was also a Dwarf Bittern flopping around in the bush but managed to avoid the nets and a Squacco Heron was part of the Cattle Egret contingent but realised it was in the wrong tour group once the sun came up and it slunk off into the bush on its own.

Cattle Egrets on tree - Ngulia