Tag Archives: Arabuko-Sokoke Forest

Hooting for clues: Sokoke Scops Owls in Dakatcha Woodlands

Any of you who are familiar with the bird research done here at A Rocha Kenya will have heard of the Sokoke Scops Owl.  This charismatic little bird is globally endangered and only found in the Arabuko-Sokoke Forest and the Usumbara Mountains of northern Tanzania.  At least, that’s what you’ll read in the bird books, however…

A Sokoke Scops Owl which we followed from 4am until 7am, when I managed to snap this!

A beautiful Sokoke Scops Owl which we followed from 4am until 7am, when I managed to snap this!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

While the main population of Africa’s smallest owl resides in Arabuko, we have been monitoring a small population in Dakatcha Woodlands, a little-known area to the north west of Malindi.  Since 2006, A Rocha Kenya has employed Gabriel Katana – a lifelong resident of the area and a core member of the Dakatcha Woodlands Conservation Group – to conduct transects through the forest in an attempt to keep tabs on the Sokoke Scops Owl population.  It is a population that faces dire threats in the form of un-restricted charcoal burning and land clearance for pineapple plantations, both of which totally destroy the Cynometra forest in which the owls live exclusively.

An example of the destruction left behind by charcoal burning.

An example of the destruction left behind by charcoal burning.

ARK is in the process of purchasing a plot of 2-300 acres of land in the Dakatcha Woodland at a location called Kirosa, with funds donated very generously by the Bob Scott Appeal.  The aim is to secure a patch of forest in which the Sokoke Scops Owls and other wildlife will thrive, away from the human disturbance and to work with the local community to help them improve their living conditions in sustainable ways and thus reducing their ecological impact.

Since early November I have been helping Katana in his efforts to survey the ARK plot and the forest surrounding it for Sokoke Scops Owls.  It is very important for us to get an idea of the size and density of such a delicately balanced population of this endangered species, particularly if ARK has the opportunity to protect more of the Dakatcha woodland in the future.

So, what sort of work is involved with monitoring this population?  It’s just counting, right?  How hard can it be…?

When you take into account that, like most owls, the Sokoke Scops Owls are entirely nocturnal, the task becomes a little more tricky.  Add to this the tiny size of the birds (only about 15cm tall – the smallest owl in Africa!), their camouflage plumage, their penchant for living in some of the densest forest available, and you start to get the picture.  The answer?  We don’t look for them, we listen.

I have been living in my tent, pitched in the middle of Katana’s village within the remote area of Kirosa, and experiencing first hand some of the hardships  of village life, shortage of decent drinking water being the main worry.  Despite having next-to-nothing, the people here are some of the most generous and welcoming I have ever come across, making my stay here an experience I will never forget.

Home in Kirosa.

Home in Kirosa.

On a typical “work” night, Katana and I set off as darkness falls.  Kirosa is located on the southwest edge of the woodland, and is not far from the main patch of Cynometra trees.  Katana carefully guides the little motorbike along our hazardous commute, ducking overhanging thorny branches, navigating steep slippery valleys and avoiding the many cavernous trenches that line our path.  I’m just thankful that my only job is to not fall off; we’ve had a few hairy moments in the last couple of months!

When we get to the forest, we begin walking on one of our mapped out transects, using a GPS to navigate the paths through the trees, which are mostly a length of about 2-3km.  Our method is to stop every 200m and imitate the Sokoke Scops Owls’ soft hooting call, then listen for responses.  The call is easy enough to perform with a few practices, and Katana has is down to a fine art!  Using a compass, we record the direction that the call comes from.  The tricky part is estimating the distance of the owl from our position.  “Ventriloquilistic” is a word used to describe the call in some of the bird books, and this sums it up nicely; for such a small bird, their voices can carry a surprisingly long way through the trees!  At the end of the transect, we turn head home for a much-needed wash and a hearty meal of ugali (maize meal) before bed.

As important as these surveys are, there are plenty of other birds to keep us busy during the day!  Dakatcha woodland is one of Kenya’s IBAs (Important Bird Areas), and with good reason; there’s a wealth of diversity here, and we’re trying to find exactly what lives in the ARK plot by conducting regular surveys.  Some of the highlights so far: numerous Palearctic migrant species including Spotted Flycatcher and Isabelline Shrike; the globally endangered Sokoke Pipit, and my personal favourite (I admit, I’m a bit of a raptor fanatic), Southern-Banded Snake Eagle.

Southern-Banded Snake-Eagle

Southern-Banded Snake-Eagle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What would really get 2013 off to a flying  start (no pun intended) is the discovery of a Sokoke Scops Owl nest!  Amazingly, nobody has every found one before, and we have a great opportunity, given the relatively small patch of woodland we have to search in.  Fingers crossed!

Finally, I must again say a huge thank you to the Bob Scott Appeal for making it possible to purchase this vital plot of forest, therefore opening up the possibility of studying and conserving such an important bird population.  Watch out for further updates on this project in the coming weeks.

Nick Gardner (A Rocha Kenya volunteer)

Busy week for birds in Watamu & Arabuko-Sokoke Forest

Last week was a very busy week for the Research and Monitoring staff and volunteers. On Monday morning, we went to Sabaki for a shorebird, gull, and tern count. Sabaki town is at the delta of the Sabaki River (which is also the Galana River in Tsavo East, and starts in Nairobi as the Athi River). There were five birds of prey flying around over the roosting waders and terns, including Marsh Harrier, Mantague’s Harrier, Black Kite, and two Peregrine Falcons. Unfortunately, they were scaring up all the birds we wanted to count, so instead we practiced our identification skills.The falcons were very impressive to watch as they swooped down from great height to catch a bird, but each time we watched this, no bird was caught.  On our way back to the vehicle, we saw two hippos playing in the surf at the very point where the river becomes the ocean.

Hippos playing in the surf

Colin mentioned that the delta has changed quite a lot in the last few years, with much less sticky mud, and mangroves starting to fill in where the water used to come up to. There are probably two reasons that these changes are occurring. One is that poor farming practices up river are causing a lot of erosion, which makes for a greater sediment load in the river, and then much more settling occurring at the delta. Secondly, there are a number of wells that have been drilled to pull water out of the river, and supply water to all of Malindi, Watamu, and the surrounding areas. To me, the habitat at the delta seems great for shorebirds, but I wonder what these changes will bring in the near and distant future.

On Tuesday afternoon and evening, we prepared for banding birds in the Arabuko-Sokoke Forest, the largest remnant dry coastal forest in eastern Africa. This forest supports many endangered species, one of which is the East Coast Akalat, a small robin, which is on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (www.iucn.org) Red List, indicating that it is critically endangered. With a group of college students visiting from Washington State, USA, we set up 11 18-m mist nets in three runs, ready to be opened early the next morning.

On Wednesday and Thursday mornings, we banded four new akalats, and recaptured two, one from 2010 and one from 2008. Andrew, Colin’s research staff person, who has been here for about  five months as an official employee and was here previously as a volunteer, has never even seen the East Coast Akalat (he was in Nairobi for our two banding sessions), and I got to help band them! This was very exciting for me. We also banded four new Fischer’s Greenbuls, three new Tiny Greenbuls, four new Eastern Bearded Scrub Robins, four new Forest Batis, and one new Grey-backed Camaroptera.We were also lucky to catch a Crested Guineafowl, the first one that Colin has banded, on our first morning. Our total count was 30 birds.

Finally, on Friday morning (i.e., 3:oo am), we were up and out to the beach setting nets to catch waders. When the tide is high, a lot of the smaller waders, like Greater and Lesser Sandplovers, leave Mida Creek and come to roost on the beach in front of Mwamba. When the high tide is overnight, we can set up our nets in the dark and catch the birds to ring them, because they can’t see the nets and will fly into them. When we were setting up the nets, there were very few birds around us, so Colin went down the beach towards Garoda, and “twinkled” the birds toward the nets. At the end of the morning (i.e., 8:00 am), we had caught 20 birds, with eight of them being retraps.

Ringing waders at Mwamba

It was a great week for the R+M staff here at A Rocha, with lots of field work and birds-in-hand. As a volunteer leaving in early April, I look forward to all opportunities to get into the field and learn about Kenyan wildlife and culture.

Post written by Maggi Sliwinski, a volunteer from New York, USA.

ASSETS Quiz Semi Final

On Friday, the ASSETS Inter-school Quiz wagon rolled into Bogamachuko, for the western forest semi-final between Boga and Malanga Primary Schools. Both schools had come strongly through their first round matches and were confident prior at the start of the quiz.

Indeed, it proved to be a titanic battle. Both teams were answering the majority of questions correctly, and when one team gave ground to the other, the deficit was swiftly recovered in the next round.

Quick-fire questions on General Knowledge, Environment and Health opened the quiz, before the pace was changed with a round that required students to create as many words as possible from the word ‘Elephant’. Ultimately the round that changed things was ‘Spell Check’, in the style of a Spelling Bee. Students were given a word and a sentence to contextualise it, and were then asked to spell the word. This is where Malanga began to open up a lead, gaining 13 points on Boga. Ultimately this advantage proved to be unassailable, and although Boga were able to make small gains in the ‘Bird Anatomy’ and ‘Water Cycle’ round, Malanga held their own in the other quick-fire question rounds and the Crossword game.


Team Malanga


Team Boga

So it is Malanga who will be making the trip to the other side of the forest on November 14th, to meet Mijomboni Primary school in the Quiz Final at Turtle Bay Beach Club on the coast in Watamu. The final will constitute the last part of a Local Ocean Day, a day designed to engage local schools and community groups of Watamu in fun beach-based activities and increase levels of enthusiasm and education in the health of the ocean environment. We hope that there will therefore be a great audience for the quiz and that the finalists receive the support that their efforts deserve.

Introducing A Rocha Kenya’s Environmental Education Officer – Tsofa Mweni

I was born on 27 september 1967 in Shimba Hills (south of Mombasa) where my dad was working as a schoolteacher, and had settled after being transfered from Malindi. I come from a family of 7 (5 brothers and 2 sisters) and went to school in Shimba Hills and later joined Kenyatta High School in Taita (about 200kms inland) for my secondary school, then later to Kilifi (just south of Watamu) for my Advanced Level education.

tsofa_in_blue.jpg Tsofa Mweni – Env Ed officer for A Rocha Kenya – often introduces himself as “Tsofa, so good” or “Tsofa as in sofa set”..

All through my school days, I was a member of the Wildlife Clubs Kenya (WCK) group and participated in many school organised events, both at local and national level. e.g. essay competitions, and also I was very keen on drama. I participated in many WCK drama fetes.

I then went to train for a Diploma in Education at Kisii College (1992) so as to become a secondary school teacher. In college, I was elected the College Clubs Coordinator-and was responsible for planning all college club itineraries and liaising with the college admin. I was also the Chair for the Environmental Club, and an avid member of the Drama club. I emerged winner of the national Drama competition in dramatised poem in 1992.

When I completed my training I was posted to Voi, Taita, and later transfered to Kakuyuni Secondary School, near Malindi. In my days at Kakuyuni, I was a very active Wildlife Club patron, and chaired the Malindi WCK patrons Action Group. My school, Kakuyuni is located right next to Arabuko-Sokoke Forest and thus we had a lot of interaction with the forest.

It was during the school WCK meetings that I was informed of the job advertisement at the ASF Management and Conservation Project (funded by Birdlife International) for the post of Conservation Education Officer. I was encouraged by many to apply for the position, a 3 year contract
job; this meant forgoing a government permanent job with it’s securities which was a risk, but I thought of it as a challenge then, and due to my interest in conservation from even the past… I decided to go for it, and believed the God will show me the way.  And that is how I got fully involved in conservation work.

The 3 years (1999-2001) in ASF was a great eye-opener for me. I learned a lot from the many people whom I interacted with at the forest. I also used my teacher training to develop better teaching and awareness raising strategies that helped improve the undestanding of the forest to the local people and more so among the school children and teachers.

tsofa_giving_tree_nursery_lesson.jpg  Tsofa teaching WCK students how to make a tree nursery

At the end of the 3 years, I joined the newly established A Rocha Kenya and I thank God for guiding me through. I have enjoyed working for ARK, I have enjoyed seeing it grow, and I have grown along with it. My work experience has grown, and my faith in the Lord has grown too… and God be praised for that.

Tsofa, our Education Officer, helping a boy release a bird after it has been ringed  Tsofa helping a student release a bird after it has been ringed

Tsofa with Willy demonstrating bird ringing - with a soft toy! Tsofa (on right) and Willy (Forest Guide) demonstrating how to ring and measure a bird

Thanks for support!

Just to add a word of thanks to Michael and Lynton who both have made donations to our work earlier in July totalling $30 – both very much appreciated.

Over the next few weeks I hope to introduce you to the rest of our A Rocha Kenya team based in Watamu on the north Kenyan coast. As well as the research work which I posted several times about in early July and the conservation action / campaigning component of our work such as for the Tana River Delta, we’ve run an Environmental Education programme with schools around Arabuko-Sokoke Forest and Mida Creek and operate our field study centre, Mwamba, as a place for people to come on holiday and/or join in on our work. Life is very busy and full in Watamu despite the coast having the reputation for being ‘laid back and easy-going’ – which I think you’ll agree with as the story unfolds.

Tsofa, our Education Officer, helping a boy release a bird after it has been ringed Tsofa, our Env. Education Officer, helping a school boy release a bird after it has been ringed at the A Rocha Kenya centre, Mwamba

I’d better stop and get on with entering data and answering email – core activities of conservation (unfortunately! If only it was all fieldwork…)

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
go.

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.