It’s that time of the year again… the new moon period in the Nov/Dec short rains when a small band of mostly amateur ornithologists converge on a lodge perched high on an escarpment with panoramic views of miles and miles of African bush on a quest to catch and ring 1000s of migrant warblers and thrushes winging their way from Asia and eastern Europe to their wintering grounds in tropical Africa. I’ve been coming now every year since 1994 and this time have had to come up from Cape Town where I’m doing a sabbatical to try and write up some of the data.
I arrived yesterday from the beach in Watamu where I’d dropped by Mwamba to catch up on things briefly and to pick up some spare bird bags & ringing equipment. The usual hectic Jackson departure trying to make sure I’d transferred all I needed to off my computer to Carol’s (our Administrator) and vice versa for project reports and accounts before heading to Malindi to get the ‘Express matatu’ to Mombasa – “express” meaning non-stop which saves you a good half hour as the other ‘mats’ as we call them stop-stop all the way down to pick and drop passengers. This driver was a good one as he clearly had his speed governor working and not over-ridden as so many of them do! (A speed governor is required by law in public transport vehicles that limits the max speed to 80kmh – which hugely cuts down on road accidents). The road has been repaired as well so we got to Mombasa by midday and a tuk-tuk ride later (small 3-wheeler taxi that makes a sound like ‘tuk-tuk-tuk…’ hence the name!) I was at Coast Bus and booked on the 1pm bus. These guys run a good service & even though I was on the back seat, the road is just about smooth enough to let you sleep and I knew I’d be up at 2am ringing so made the most of some kip before the night’s work.
Reaching Mtito Andei at c. 5pm I didn’t have long to wait for the Ngulia Safari Lodge staff bus and enjoyed catching up with Ambrose, the KWS ticketing officer at the gate who used to work in Malindi and who told me how much he enjoyed the marine environment and that if he’d not have been transferred to Tsavo he would have far advanced in his diving etc. A real shame that KWS shift their staff around almost randomly it seems, particularly those who are keen and interested in their work.
Sometimes you see lion and elephant on the road as you bump the 50 or so kms to Ngulia on the bus, especially as it’s getting dark which is when animals are becoming more active again. There were a lot of Barn Swallows feeding on insects disturbed by the bus as it passed, swooping low along the road in front of us and every km or so another pair of crazily spotted Helmeted Guineafowl which made a real fuss as we passed – very disgruntled that we were forcing them off the road. As it got dark nightjars would flush in front of the bus and often leave it almost too late – in fact one was clipped as we passed and after that Mwangi, the driver, would hit the brakes as soon as he saw one – I think he was very aware of me in the bus as a ‘mtu wa ndege’ – a “bird man” – and that hitting nightjars wasn’t something I’d appreciate!!
15 nightjars later of mixed Plain, quite a few Dusky and probably a couple of Eurasian, we arrived at Ngulia and I dragged by bag to reception to be greeted by Samson, one of the long-lasting pillars of the lodge keeping a tight rein on visitor numbers and payments and a very good man to have around. David Pearson and the others I’d met in Nairobi off the plane on Thursday morning had made it down no problem that same day and had had 2 nights of ringing already and were relaxing at the front with a cold beer waiting for the leopard to come for his meat that’s hung up every night as bait for him – himself bait for the many tourists that flock through Ngulia on a one-night stand with the leopard. In fact, at this time of the year, when it’s been raining and there’s water all over the park for game, there’s not much else to bring a tourist 15 kms down a dead-end track to Ngulia unless you’re a manic birder and ringer as, apart from the leopard and a few baboons, the White-tailed Mongoose at night and of course the incredible phenomenon of the bird migration, there’s precious little wildlife that comes to the lodge waterhole to attract a tourist here in November.
David together with Graeme Backhurst have been running the Ngulia bird migration project at Ngulia since it started in 1969 when the lodge was first built and the phenomenon was discovered. As I’m local and have been coming for 15 years, I’ve joined them in helping to organise and manage the ringing here when I can and it has been a privilege to work alongside them all these years. David has an encyclopedic knowledge of the birds – both migrants and local Afrotropical species and it is always fascinating to listen to his descriptions and theories of migration routes, moult strategies, variation of races and distribution of birds across Africa, Asia and eastern Europe. Graeme has an awesome capacity to organise systems and pay great attention to detail -something which is essential for producing high quality data from a ringing excercise. Last year he missed coming for the first time since 1969 due to other pressures so it is great to have him back on board this year.
Having been introduced to the dozen or so other ringers who had already arrived, I shifted into room 10 in the front to share with David and settled down to a good pile of Ngulia chow that sets one up for the hoped for nocturnal activity of putting nets up, extracting birds and ringing them… We got to bed at around 10pm and I was pretty flunked after a hectic couple of days in Watamu and the bus trip (despite dozing on the bus!) and Bernard (known to most as ‘Scopus’ – it’s a long story why and I’ll have to explain it later…) had kindly offered to do the first night shift from midnight to 2am to wait for The Mist to come in – which brings the birds. If it came in he would come bashing on doors to wake us up to put the nets up otherwise I set the alarm for 2am when I was going to take over the night shift. The last few years we’ve had Ian from the UK with us who has an unnatural ability not to sleep very much and would stay up all night every night to wait for the mist to come in. Very sadly due to bereavement in the family the day before he was to come, he hasn’t been able to make it this year and will be sorely missed!
2am came way too soon – falling asleep to the sound of the frogs croaking was such a familiar sound and despite the clear skies and sight of stars suggesting there might not be any mist, with the moisture in the air from the recent rains, there was a good chance of mist later in the night. On staggering out of bed and going to the stoop / veranda there was no mist but the cloud was quite low and the odd bird flitting across quite high distinguished from the several bats feeding on the gazillions of moths by being a bit more random & less focussed in their flight path. David joined me to go see what was going on and switch the tapes on and relieve Scopus so he could get some sleep. He happily headed to bed and we stood discussing the weather and likelihood of mist and how the lights were working for half an hour before David went back to bed and I joined our Aussie rep, Rachel who’d also got up, to look for frogs in the slime of the waterhole. Actually there was one large pale frog, a Chiromantis sp, that was sitting on the glass over the visitor comments box – he seemed to be reading what comments had been made and pondering over those somewhat inane ones such as ‘great place but get rid of the bugs’ – particularly as those are exactly what he survives on and it is of course a National Park where even bugs should be protected – not many comments of ‘too many zebra around here – get rid of them’!!
It was while we were photographing a pair of mating rocket frogs that I looked up and the mist was just starting to swirl in – ACTION!
Immediately there were birds flying low and flicking between bushes and it meant a dash to the room to wake David, grab the night nets and put them up. Even as we were putting the net up we started catching Marsh Warblers and we quickly needed two extractors per net to take birds out as soon as they went in. The mist stayed down pretty well the rest of the night, lifting a bit at times and the catch rate slowed but by dawn we still had about 80 birds left to ring as the rest of the ringers who hadn’t got up in the night appeared for the dawn opening of the rest of the nets further into the bush.
Rachel ferrying bags full of birds from the night net – Nico (in blue) is standing next to the end pole of the net.
It must be one of the most awesome birding experiences to be at the nets in warm swirling mist next to a tree with a leg of goat hanging in it to attract a leopard and dozens of birds dropping out the sky filling the bushes and popping into the net beside you. Tiny, 10g of delicate feather and awesome navigational material that have travelled possibly 7 or 8,000 kms to reach us here possibly doing it for the 5th, 6th or even 10th time with some of the real survivors. An incredible testimony to me of a God with outrageous creativity who puts real purpose and meaning into the understanding of the wonder and mystery of wildlife and the environment around us…
As most of the team have not been before and so were not familiar with the birds and the ageing of them esp at night, David and I ended up doing the bulk of the ringing whilst others were extracting, ferrying birds and releasing them after they had their shiny ring. The majority of birds at night were by far Marsh Warblers, the commonest species caught here. Not that many Sprossers and a fair few Whitethroats – the other two common species. Quite good numbers of River Warblers, however, and 3-4 Nightingales were nice. No shrikes at all was interesting since we should be getting them in reasonable numbers by now and nothing else of particular interest. One Harlequin Quail which can be very common sometimes but was the first for some of the visiting ringers to see in the hand.
At 5:40am I continued the ringing with Rachel as scribe while the rest of the team headed for the bush to open nets and catch the first flush of birds leaving roost in the 15 nets already set but closed overnight up to c.120m in front of the lodge. It was excellent conditions – still misty and no rain but there was not really that many birds in the bush and in fact by 7:30-8:00am the catching had slowed right down and nets were furled to wait till tomorrow morning 5:40am.
Scopus and the 3 other Kenyans from the Nairobi Ringing Group – Sylvester (more often known as ‘Stallone’ – no explanation needed there!), Mercy and Nico were getting their eye back in with the ringing as the pace slowed down and some of the other new visiting ringers were learning the ropes as the pressure was off to get birds away before more were caught. I didn’t see them but at the other ringing table to where I was working (we had two tables of ringers going flat out to clear the birds asap) there were a couple of Basra Reed Warblers and a Rufous Bush Chat which are always smart birds to handle. There were also a few Olivaceous Warblers, a petite grey ‘cousin’ of the Marsh Warblers and always lovely to handle.
We had the swallow nets up on the lawn at the front of the lodge by the waterhole after breakfast and caught over 100 before tourists arrived at lunch and we took them down and started heading for bed. Other than sleeping it’s time to sit at the front of the lodge enjoying the view and birding – there are always raptors coming through to keep you interested.
Later in the afternoon we went and put up a couple of extra nets on the end of the back line – about 150m infront of the lodge for those mornings when there aren’t too many birds and you want to bump up the numbers (the more you catch the higher the probability of catching one with a foreign ring…).
(from left) Mercy, Clive, David and Anthony by net we’ve just finished putting up
Total for the night/day – a very fair 861 migrants ringed. Looking forward to tonight and hopefully better mist and more birds – and even more hopefully one with a dull ring saying something like ‘Bruxelles’ on it!!