Tag Archives: Barn Swallow

Clear night at Ngulia… and only 3 migrant birds ringed

Yes. It has happened – the dreaded totally clear, star-lit night at Ngulia when one wakes up every 1-2 hours and looks out of the window in the hope of seeing wisps of mist appearing from up the escarpment, the forerunner to thick mist and 100s of birds dropping out of the sky… but instead every time a crystal clear sky with the stars twinkling at you from the inky darknes. So at dawn (which, however is always stunning at Ngulia and almost more so on a clear night as the dark of night fades away from over the Yatta Plateau to the east) we opened the full compliment of nets – 19 to be precise equalling 267m of netting – but by 7a.m. had only caught 1 (yes, one) migrant – a Sprosser and in the hour between 7am and 8am just another two… This must be one of the quietest mornings I’ve had at Ngulia that I can remember!

 Ngulia dawn…

...And again…

 Extracting one of the Afros in front of the lodge in the dawn light

However we were saved by Barn Swallows… At 6:30am I noticed small flocks of 5-6 birds hacking fast and direct to the south and during our earlier-than-usual breakfast there were a number swooping around over the short grass in front of the dining room feeding on the mass of moths that had been attracted by the lights in the night. So we duely switched on the cassette (yes, not MP3 player… the old endless cassette still holds its own at Ngulia!) with the song of Barn Swallow and put up the superfine nets in the night net rides and just three other single panels… and by lunch time we had ringed 213 swallows! Total for the day… 216 birds of two species.

 Barn Swallows in the net waiting to be extracted

 Andrew with an Emerald-spotted Wood Dove on his shoulder – it’s amazing how these will very often just sit on wherever you place them before flying happily away!

We also caught a few nice Afrotropical species – the 8th White-browed Sparrow Weaver for Ngulia which is a species we will expect to catch a lot more of in the future as it has recently arrived as a breeding bird at Ngulia the past few years. The first one ringed was an odd wanderer in 1994 and no more until 2009 when three were caught, one in 2010 and two last year. Also a young African Paradise Flycatcher – which I had heard one calling around 4:30am out near the nets yesterday morning and is a well-known Afrotropical migrant.

Am sitting in the dining room in the afternoon typing this and keeping the baboons off our so(und equipment and just had a Eurasian Sparrowhawk zip past and land in the large Acacia in front of the lodge and then try for a weaver on the ‘owl’ tree before swooping off towards the back line. Otherwise very very few migrant raptors so far this year – a handful of Stepped Eagles and that’s it.

Graeme Backhurst (who started the ringing at Ngulia in 1969 but who has not been for the past 4 years) has just arrived which is great – with the boistrous British ringers who will make life more colourful yet(!) so the team will be up to its full compliment what with Bernard ‘Scopus’ Amakobe arriving later on the staff bus… Hopefully we’ll have mist tonight to keep them all busy…!

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

Thundering floods and storms hit Ngulia

I ended up last night with saying it was looking good for a busy night… Well, I couldn’t have been more wrong! About 10 mins after finishing writing at about 11pm, Ian, Niko and co. put the nets up – there was some low cloud and it looked like it might come lower and there were birds quite high up there. However within just 5 mins of finishing putting the nets, it started raining and within 3-4 mins was tipping it down… and continued that way until c.2am!! To begin with there were a lot of birds flying low in the rain and brought down partially by the lights, but they soon vanished and just left torrential rain. It let up for about an hour at 2-ish but came on again to pour down and only really stopped just short of dawn – enough to just open the night nets to let them dry and take down – though 6 birds were caught at that point which was a surprise.


In fact in the couple of hours that we kept the nets open (closed at c.8am), we managed 92 migrants and about 8 Afrotropicals. Best bird was an Isabelline Shrike – the first of the season – and another Garden Warbler. Though the two Lesser Honeyguides, Pygmy Batis and Diederick Cuckoo took the lime light pretty successfully over the Palaearctic birds.

Andrew extracting a Marsh Warbler

Andrew extracting a Marsh Warbler

So it was another very quiet day – no Swallows except for about 5-6 that went through earlier in the morning. Nothing responded to the tape so House Martin song was put on and within about half an hour we had about 50 House Martins sitting in the tree over the tape – but despite keeping it going for about 3 hours, not a single one went into the net! So it was either to bed or to working on our ringing database for the rest of the afternoon until the 80 or so guests rocked up for the evening.

…another day at Ngulia.

Gambaga Flycatcher, Shikra and 1000s of Marsh Warblers at Ngulia

Internet access is worse than last year here at Ngulia so the chance to post blogs is even less. Also it has been wonderfully busy meaning I’ve had little time to sit and tap out any updates. It’s after 11pm now and I’m hoping to get up at 1am to assist with whatever ringing is going on so this will have to be short.

Yesterday the rest of the main team arrived – Dr David Pearson and 8 others from the UK together with 4 from the Nairobi Ringing Group / National Museums of Kenya. However before they came we had the third night with just the Aussie group and 4 others and yet another excellent night it was. The mist came in sooner and thicker than before and whilst we put up 2 nets at 1am we only actually used the second one for about 30 mins before closing it and working just the one net. There was some heavyish rain showers which helped bring the birds in and by the end of the night we had ringed a total of 668 birds. At dawn we opened the ‘L’ again but after 20 mins closed most of it in order to handle the vast number of birds going into the nets – our difficulty being that another 500 bird bags were not yet with us so we were running out of bags to put birds in. In the end it worked fine and we managed to stay in control and ring 1,015 birds during the day making a daily total of 1,683.  Once again an excellent total for a group who only have about four experienced Ngulia ringers.  

There were a couple of surprises, the best one being a Gambaga Flycatcher – again not a Palaearctic migrant, but rather an Afrotropical species but one that is hard sought after by birders and in fact was new for me since I’ve never been the Kerio Valley hunting for it. Strangely it came through in the end of the morning – about the same time that we finally got ones of the three Hippolais warblers (Olivaceous, Upcher’s and Olive-tree).

There was a magnificent movement of Eurasian Rollers not long after dawn with an estimate of 5-700 birds going through southwards in about 1 1/2 hours. There were also several Amur Falcons around at dawn and later in the afternoon probably several hundred moving through quite high with a handful cruising down lower to investigate the lodge.

So it was that Ian (joined these days by Kerry) took up his annual role of “Mist Watcher” – staying up all night waiting for the mist to roll in so that as soon as it does we can have the nets up and can be catching birds… I confess that when I finally managed to get to bed, I was out cold until 4:45am by which time the nets had been opened and furled and the majority of the 700-odd birds caught at night had been ringed. Nothing out of the ordinary during the night – just lots and lots of Marsh Warblers. In fact of the birds ringed so far, a massive 57% of them have been Marsh Warblers – but still none with a dull ring with some exotic script on it with a message from a far flung corner of Europe telling us where the bird has originated from… but it’ll come!

Nets open at dawn and it really felt very slow – a very different picture to yesterday, however birds were going into nets and in fact continued to go into nets well into the morning such that we closed at c.10:30am and had a network of swallow nets up with an army of ringers handling them. As a result, the day catch was in fact considerably higher than yesterdays and ended up at almost 1,300 birds! Total for the day was 2,047 Palaearctic migrants. There were a good number of Afrotrops as well including yet more Donaldson-Smith’s Nightjars and the first Slender-tailed Nightjar for quite a few years. These were ringed just before dawn and were gently placed on the ornamental dead tree at the base of the dining room stairs once again – where they in fact stayed the whole day even with hordes of tourists and noisy ringers gavorting around them within 2-3 metres!

Three Eurasian Rollers were ringed and another 2 Euro Nightjars. Several Harlequin Quail, a Common Button Quail, Red-wing Starling, Golden-breasted Bunting and a mad catch of the day was Janette and Nick going for a couple of Cattle Egrets on the pond in which they were 50% successful and got one of them…  and at the same time a Shikra was caught in a swallow net and half an hour later Ngulia’s 7th Green Sandpiper (I’ll need to double check on this, but it’s not much more than that).

The swallow catchers continued all day until 5pm catching a total of 307 Barn Swallows.

The totals for today are being double checked, but up until yesterday they looked like this:

Ngulia Ringing Totals – 2010                                                                                                

Species/month                         Nov                                                                   Dec                     

date                                            29        29       29       30       30       30          1          1            1

night (N), day (D), total (T):                N          D         T          N         D         T             N         D            T

Tringa ochropus                                                                                                                             

Oxylophus jacobinus                                                                                                                     

Caprimulgus europaeus                                             4                     4             1                         1

Coracias garrulus                                                                                                                           

Hirundo rustica                                     21       21       3         230     233        2          157        159

Delichon urbica                                                                                                                              

Anthus trivialis                                                                                                                               

Luscinia megarhynchos                                             3         2         5                                         

L. luscinia                                  20        30       50       135     175     310        90       172        262

Cercotrichas galactotes                                              1         1         2                                         

Irania gutturalis                       2          2         4         10       29       39          29       21          50

Phoenicurus phoenicurus                                          1                     1                                         

O. isabellina                                          1         1                                                                            

Monticola saxatilis                              1         1                                                                            

Muscicapa striata                                2         2                     2         2                         9            9

Locustella fluviatilis                 5          6         11       9         7         16          19       27          46

A. griseldis                                             1         1                     1         1                         3            3

A. scirpaceus                                                                                                                                   

A. palustris                                26        39       65       343     286     629        482     496        978

Hippolais pallida O’vacs                                                        1         1             1          1            2

H. languida  Upchers                                                              1         1                         1            1

H. olivetorum O’tree                                                               1         1                         1            1

Sylvia nisoria                                                                           1         1                         7            7

S. communis                              13        26       39       62       120     182        37       93          130

S. borin                                                                                     1         1                                         

P. trochilus                                2                     2         4                     4             6          8            14

Lanius collurio                                      4         4         1         13       14          1          16          17

L. isabellinus                                         1         1         2         5         7                         3            3

Number of full species           6          12       13       13       17       20          10       15          16

Daily total                                  68        134    202     578     876     1,454     668     1,015    1,683

Running totals                          68        134    202     646     1,010 1,656     1,314  2,025    3,339

Night as % of whole day’s total 34%                            40%                                40%                     


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Has the drought returned? …still no mist or birds but more ringers arrive

I’m still in Nairobi but heading back to Ngulia tomorrow so this will be short but the news from the lodge via Titus is that yet again there was no mist last night and no sign of rain on the plains to add moisture to the air and therefore hopefully bring mist… instead the numbers of ringers have increased by half again with three Czechs arriving and two more Brits making it an even more international affair. There were only 80 birds ringed today and of those only about 10 were not Barn Swallows – so even the swallows are reducing in number. No mention of anything unusual so I imagine it was mainly Sprossers with a good representation of Marsh Warblers and a handful of Whitethroats…

Here are a shot or two from the November session a couple of years ago when you can see just how desperately dry it is at the end of the dry season and before the rains really set in.

Sprosser hanging in the net waiting to be carefully extracted

(left to right) Kuria, Chege and Nico by the bush nets – who were the team with me that year. Nico is back this year with Tito and John

I’m on the bus in the morning back down to Mtito Andei and then waiting for the staff bus to give me a lift back to the lodge in the evening. Will hopefully have something to report on tomorrow.

Barn Swallow caught with a piece of string tied around its leg… & over 800 birds in 30 mins

An odd night – the mist kind of came in at around 1:00am and there were birds around but it lifted after only about 10 minutes and there was just a low cloud. The catch rate was only c.30 in an hour until we turned the tapes on of the Marsh Warbler, Sprosser and Whitethroat song which then brought the birds popping out of the sky and into the trees and bushes. We caught and ringed 700 birds between 2:30am and 4:45am and expected good numbers at dawn.

In classic style, after opening the nets at 5:40am there weren’t hardly any birds going into the net… until 6am when the Marsh Warblers started to move – and move they did!! The nets were loaded and it was all hands on deck to get them out as fast as possible. This lasted literally for 20-25 mins so that by 6:30 it was pretty much all over – a good 800 birds, 95% of them Marsh Warblers, in just 30 mins!!

img_0058.JPG  Marsh Warbler – our commonest bird

We then had to ring them… but with two more ringers (from Israel) joining us last night, we had three tables of ringers going and we were able to get rid of them fast.

When we had the swallow nets up late morning, a large group of community members came through on a visit and were able to release a swallow and learn a bit about the amazing story of migration that these birds do – Clive Minton again was superb in sharing his enthusiasm for birds and migration as seen in the pic here:


The crazy thing this morning tho’ was the swallow we caught with a piece of red binding twine / string tied around its leg. This is about the 4th swallow we’ve caught in 5-6 years with home-made rings on their legs… we’re still waitng for the guy who’s doing this to catch one of ours with an addressed ringand get in touch!