Tag Archives: Basra Reed Warbler

Finally a misty night and 1,000s of birds

19th Nov. It has happened at LAST!! After wondering if we’d ever get the mist which is so necessary at Ngulia to bring in the birds, it was looking potentially good at dusk (but then it often does..!) and sure enough I was woken by Hamisi, the night watchman who has really got into the ringing (understandable, as a night watchman job is surely not the most stimulating of tasks!) at 11:55pm saying there was mist! Sure enough, it was rolling in thick and beautifully and birds were popping out of the sky.

 The mist with birds being extracted from nets

 some of the 1,000s of moths attracted to the lights

Andrew and I put up the two nets and immediately we were catching birds, mostly Thrush Nightingales but also a River Warbler and others and it was quickly clear that we needed the rest of the team up to assist. So it was all hands on deck and some frenetic extraction of birds and setting up the table with the night lights to get the ringing going. Mist turned into quite heavy rain at 3:15am and it stayed for an hour or more which was a blessing in disguise as we already had caught over 400 birds and with the one ringing team were being hard-pushed to clear them all.

 Nightwatchman extraordinaire Hamisi watching the night time ringing action

Dawn arrived in still thick mist though the rain had stopped and found us still ploughing through Marsh Warblers and Thrush Nightingales with a great smattering of Olive-tree Warblers, Rufous Bush Robins, quite a lot of Iranias (also known as White-throated Robins) and a couple of Eurasian Nightjars, another Plain Nightjar and towards the end of the catching, a dazzler of a Donaldson-Smith’s Nightjar – tiny and bright rufous with gorgeous white, black and brown spots.

Surprisingly, the bush nets were not nearly as busy as we’d thought they’d be – though the birds were there but just not moving out so much. However it was still plenty busy enough and by the end of the morning we’d caught and ringed just short of 1,400 birds… and there were swallows around in good numbers – so it was up with the swallow nets and one other one in the bush which was still heaving with migrants for a couple of hours of more trapping after lunch resulting in another 80 or so birds. Total for the day: 1,470 migrants and 26 Afrotropical birds!!

Other stars of the day were no less than five Golden Pipits – the brilliantly golden male being the most startling. Also Jacobin Cuckoo and a couple of Basra Reed Warblers.

 Stunning male Golden Pipit


By the time we were done with the swallows we were all totally ‘done’ and it was time to get a couple of hours sleep ready for the next night which promised to be good as well…


The perfect Ngulia effect at Lions Bluff – it works!

Fri 20th Nov 2009… Titus had done a check on the conditions at midnight and had not woken me so I woke at just before 2am to have a look, stuck my head out of the tent door and knew immediately that things were looking good – there was mist gently wafting all around! The walk from room no. 10 to the main lodge is about 200m and there are often buffalo and elephant that wander into camp during the night so it was with great care and stopping to listen into the mist every now and then to make sure I didn’t walk headlong into an ele’s backside that I reached the lodge and woke Solomon, the askari (night watchman), to turn the generator on. I didn’t wait to see if it would bring birds down before opening the ‘night nets’ – two nets we’d strung across the front of the spot-lit area below the main viewing terrace of the lodge, and stood there looking up and waiting in anticipation…

It actually took a good 5-6 minutes before the first bird appeared which is interesting and gives an idea of how far up / away they are flying to be able to reach and come down to the lights – though in fact the very first bird was a Ring-necked Dove that perched on a bush below the terrace! It didn’t take long after that, however, for several migrants to appear and for the first to hit the net… and escape. But the second stuck and was Lions Bluff’s first Marsh Warbler Acrocephalus palustris. Solomon kindly went back to the room to wake Titus and the others and by the time they’d come I had half a dozen birds already and it had started raining – turning into quite heavy rain by 02:40hrs. We stuck at it and managed to catch a few more during the rain and had a full dozen by 3a.m. The nets weren’t in the ideal position it turned out which I was expecting to discover, it being a learning experience, but Albert duly started putting up more nets which significantly increased our catch. Also the first two night nets, whilst being Gundreys which are great netting material for catching in damp conditions, were either quite old and holey or had the slightly larger mesh that is better for waders and so we had Marsh Warblers sometimes just flying through it pretty much.

The ringing station at 4am… you can see the mist in the background

The mist thinned a bit after the rain and the catch rate slowed down quite a bit but then as I started the ringing in the lodge it picked up a bit more and by the morning we had ringed 122 birds – mostly Marsh Warblers and Sprossers (Thrush Nightingales) Luscinia luscinina but also a Basra Reed Warbler Acrocephalus griseldis, several Spotted Flycatchers Muscicapa striata and a couple of River Warblers Locustella fluviatilis.

Basra Reed Warbler – and Iraqi speciality

We closed the nets at just before 5am to try and clear the back log of birds before opening all the nets at Dawn expecting there would be a big flush of birds in the first 1/2 hour of daylight. As it was, the catching wasn’t too hectic and we probably could have kept on catching a bit later. The place was alive with the sound of Sprossers peeping and churring and bushes were shimmering with Marsh Warblers and a scattering of Whitethroats Sylvia communis. A great and amazing experience!

Looking down from the viewing platform to the nets at dawn with the mist still thick…

By the end of the morning we finished up with 314 birds ringed which included an Olive-tree Warbler Hippolais olivetorum, several more River Warblers and Basra Reed Warblers. It was also very interesting that we caught 3-4 Garden Warblers Sylvia borin which are never very common at Ngulia and even rarer on the coast. Once again the swallow Hirundo rustica tape played up and we therefore didn’t manage to catch many of those though there was one during the night.

  Olive-tree Warbler – you can see the tip of the tail in the second photo is darker than the base. This is a “fault line” and is an indication of a young bird. The fault bar is formed when the tail is growing and the parents have trouble feeding the young in the nest for a day or two (bad weather, disturbance etc) so a weakness is formed right across all feathers showing up in this way.

Overall it was an awesome success and very exciting to have it work the way I had hoped it would. We just need to get some better condition nets and work out the best positions for them.

Lions Bluff Manager David taking a photo of a bird held by Tito. Nick (blue top) is supposedly scribing but looks like he’s taking a quick 40 winks!

A few of the other decent birds we caught included the following photographed:

Nightingale – Luscinia megarhynchos

Black-necked Weaver Ploceus nigricollis – this handsome guy is often hanging around the lodge

Speckle-fronted Weaver Sporopipes frontalis – this was one of the major surprises in terms of Afrotropical species as its range is apparently a couple of hundred kms to the west of here

As it had been a bit of an early start, we had a kip after lunch for a couple of hours and then headed out again with Kobin, Chris and Bernard from the lodge to do another Eurasian Roller survey and to see what else we could find. Again we had a good number of rollers though we’d left it a bit late to do a very long section but at least got 10kms of transect in. We then took the long route home in the hope of finding some nightjars on the road after dark… but in the typical way for Jackson – whenever I’m out actually looking for nightjars on the road I never see them, but when just driving from A to B there are loads!! It was early to bed after dinner in the hopes of another 2am start with mist – but it wasn’t looking good as the skies were clear in the evening and there hadn’t been any rain on the plain in the late afternoon.

clear evening skies at sunset except for clouds too far off to really make a difference…

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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

Thicker mist brings in more migrants

Nico and Stallone did the early stint watching for mist last night – midnight to 2am. When my alarm went off again at 2am I sneaked an extra 6 mins of dozing as I could see through the window there was no mist but then took pity on them and climbed quietly out of bed so as not to disturb the others.

the scene before the mist and leopard have arrived… Setting the scene – leopard bait tree with leg of goat hanging from the top beam on the RHS. Spot light surrounded by moths on left.

I grabbed my laptop as I figured if there was no mist I could spend the time catching up on email and try and do this blog… well, I got about 20 mins of time as David Murdoch, one of the other ringers, appeared eager not to miss any action and Graeme was also hanging about ready to get things going. There was low cloud again and as with last night a few birds flitting across quite high with one or two perched higher in the trees. The mist started to spread out a bit more and there were definitely more birds flicking around at net level so at 3am on the dot I went and got the night nets and we started putting them up. About 10 mins after they were up the mist really came in for real and there was a flurry of activity with over 100 birds in about 30 mins and then it died down but came and went a bit until nets were taken down at 4:45am to give time to clear the night birds before the main rush of the dawn catch.

Graeme & David Murdoch extracting an Ap

David Murdoch (left) and Graeme at the net extracting an Ap or two…

The vast majority of night birds were Marsh Warblers Acrocephalus palustris – in fact we record them as ‘Ap’ in the book and they’re often referred to as this – and very few Sprossers Luscinia luscinia (“Ll”) and just a smattering of Whitethroats Sylvia communis (yes, you guessed it: “Sc”). Again a good number of River Warblers Locustella fluviatilis (actually all other species are less common and are abbreviated less: “L. fluv”) but not really anything else at all until the last bag which had two Willow Warblers in it Phylloscopus trochilus. We timed it better this time and Raimund (from Germany) and I managed to finish all the night birds by 6am and go and assist with extracting birds from the bush nets.

After shifting all the stuff up to the day ringing site by the swimming pool (at night we ring by the cocktail bar…) I headed down to the nets in still quite thick mist only to find people having cleared the main rush of birds which had then rapidly petered out leaving extractors standing around discussing the merits of mist and the lack of birds.

Stallone by mist nets in the mist  Stallone by empty mist nets (most appropriately named here!)

Scopus through the mist at 6am

Scopus by the mid line of nets through the 6am mist

As there now wasn’t much of a rush on getting the birds away due to no more being caught, it was possible for those who’d not done so much ringing this year so far to get their eye in. The Kenyan team manned the nets until 7:30am and then I was left on my own to patrol them keeping mongoose and baboons away and taking out whatever went in until almost 8:30. Very few birds caught but some quality stuff – Basra Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus griseldis), Olive-tree Warbler (Hippolais olivatorum) and a single Garden Warbler (Sylvia borin) sometime known as ‘Warden Gobblers’… We caught a few more Afrotropical species today including a male Variable Sunbird in spanking plumage – pictured here held by Clive Minton.

Clive Minton with Variable Sunbird

Clive’s is an extremely well-known name in ringing circles, particularly wader ringing as he has pioneered catching waders using canon nets (rocket-fired nets over flocks of roosting birds) and is very well known in Australia where he has now lived for 30 years. It has been great to finally meet him and his wife Pat and they are not only extremely well respected for the work they’ve done but also delightful to spend time with.

So things quietened down pretty fast today – by 11am it was all over. We normally switch on tape recording of swallows with nets on the lawn in front of the lodge after breakfast and have caught 800 swallows in a day there… but there were very few today and they only trickled in. However the final total for the day was more than yesterday and almost 1,000 – 940 to be exact. Again, a very reasonable result and puts the total for the season up to 2,670.

861 migrant birds ringed in the mist in the heart of Tsavo National Park

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’!!

Chiromantis frog reading visitor comments

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!

Mating rocket frogs

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 carrying bird bags from night net 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.

Olivaceous Warbler Hippolais pallida

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…).

David Pearson (in khaki shirt), Clive Minton (in red), Mercy Njeri and Anthony (hat) by furled net(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!!