Tag Archives: David Pearson

Final tally, new species for Ngulia & wildly coloured pigeon

I had to leave Ngulia to get back to Watamu on the 30th November and the night was a clear one – no mist – and so… no birds. However we still opened the nets in the morning to see what we’d get and as we’d had the tapes on playing the song of Marsh Warbler, Sprosser, Whitethroat and River Warbler (the ‘Ngulia Mix’), we did get 285 migrants to ring and the swallows have finally turned up meaning 210 were ringed.

Service with a smile – Ian doing the Passionfruit Juice run during the early morning ringing…

There was a ‘dull’ ring – the first of the year – on a Marsh Warbler, but it wasn’t one from another scheme but one one of our own from a previous year – still, it’s interesting to trap birds that have flown into Tanzania, possibly Malawi, then returned to Europe and come back again following the same route as before. We also ringed a Sedge Warbler – the first of the year and a species I always enjoy catching as they look so smart with their strong white supercilium (eye brow) and streaked back.

However it was the Afrotopicals that took the lime light instead – a Paradise Flycatcher was the first for this year and is always popular with overseas ringers, but we did have a new species for the Ngulia ringing list: a Scaly Chatterer. A smart and slightly bizarre looking bird with naked skin around its eye and strongly decurved bill. Chege Kariuki of Birdwatching East Africa Safaris had seen them not far up the valley a week or so ago though had been surprised to see them there. But really it was the African Green Pigeon – only the 3rd ringed at Ngulia (though commonly seen) – that was by far and away the most outrageous and stunning bird we caught and drew the most ‘WOW!’s from people in its incredible combo of colours – beautiful green plumage with startling red feet and crazy blue eyes… Will get some pics to add to this later from other ringers as I didn’t have a camera at the time.

Another smart Afrotrop caught at Ngulia – Diederik Cuckoo

I’ve heard from David Pearson since the end of the ringing session and the final tally of migrants by the time they closed up and left was just over 10,800. Not so bad considering we had relatively few nights with mist – and good to get over the 10,000 mark – though certainly different to many of the seasons we’ve had over the past 15-20 years when we’ve caught over 20,000.

David has written up a major report on the ringing since the early 1990s that we hope to publish – we’ll let you know when and where it gets published.

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2,650 migrants ringed in a very smooth operation at Ngulia

Finally a night with ‘perfect’ mist! Action started at 00:30hours with the nets going up and very quickly we needed to wake most of the ringers up to come and assist in extraction, ringing and releasing. There had to be 3 extractors working non-stop on both nets in order to keep things under control at all – and all the time there were 20-30 birds still in the net to be taken out. Two tables of ringers started pretty much straight off and we closed nets at 3:30am having caught enough birds to keep us going non-stop til 5:30am when we would need to open the bush nets. Over 1,200 birds were caught in the night and a further 1,400+ in the bush in front of the lodge during the day. But even then, since we didn’t open all the nets at dawn – in fact the full suite of nets were only finally opened at about 8am – there wasn’t a totally uncontrollable rush of birds and whilst there was a threat of running out of bird bags and we actually closed 4 of the nets opened at first, it was all operated very smoothly and birds were ringed and released with no problems at all.

However… STILL no dull ring with ‘Bruxelles’ or something simiar on it!! Also the variety was very low with a huge percentage being Marsh Warblers and Sprossers, far fewer Whitethroats and only a handful of anything else – a couple of Basras, Olive-tree Warblers, 2 or 3 more Iranias (we probably have hardly reached 10 in total this year). Very odd how we had no overseas ringed birds last year at all… and again so far in almost 10,000 birds caught still none. There have been years when we’ve even had 6…

A little bit of excitement came during breakfast when Bernard came running up to the ringing by the pool saying we needed to radio Martin at the nets to warn him and the others to come quickly and quietly up along the cliff top as there was a lone bull elephant at the waterhole and that was making indications of being interested in trying to find a route through the net rides..! Thankfully he decided against it and wandered off down the valley again, but it was a reminder to our European team members that we’re not ringing in a friendly English woodland!

  Heading for the nets..??? (located beyond the tree)

No.. changed his mind and headed for the valley!

When the Palaearctic birds slowed down towards the end of the morning, we caught a few more Afrotropicals – the first Vitelline Masked Weaver and a few Lesser Masked Weavers, several quelea, a couple of Tawny-flanked Prinias which we tried to turn into Pale Prinia but which were really too tawny to be pale! However these gave a really good opportunity to now go through the Afrotropical ageing methods and codes with Wairasho and Kevin with ‘Scopus’ (Bernard) giving his input too. The reason for putting all this effort into the ageing of the Afrotropical birds is that even now we don’t really have a system anywhere in Africa that is across the board and which has clear definitions as regards how to age birds into set, defined age categories which can then be used confidently to look at survival rates, breeding success, differences in moult and migration strategy between young and adult birds etc etc. Ageing in many ways is THE most important variable that is collected from a bird that is caught after its identification – and yet there has been relatively little effort put into this critical part of handling wild birds for research and conservation purposes. So it has been excellent over the years to work on a system together with David Pearson and others like Bob Medland that should be applicable anywhere in Africa – at least south of the Sahara. The challenge is getting it understood, accepted and then put into practice – we’re working on it!

Overall a really great morning of ringing – even the swallows started to come and almost 40 birds were ringed. A small flock of just 50 Amur Falcons were seen, a couple of flocks of Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters – but still no Rollers other than just 2 birds at dawn. None of the hundreds pouring through the valley heading further south that we are used to. An extremely interesting year…

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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 flood of Marsh Warblers & also several ‘Hippos’ caught & ringed

I left Ian, our Ngulia Ringing Group ‘night watchman’ + a few dedicated fellow mist watchers sitting on the wall of the dining room after dinner discussing whether they could put the nets up there and then since there was some thin mist around or whether they should wait until nearer mid-night since the leopard hadn’t come for his goat leg and we might upset tourists who would think we’d scared it off by wandering around near its bait extracting Marsh Warblers from nets in the mist… I headed for bed as I wanted a couple of hours kip before setting in to any work that might come with mist. When I woke at around 1am there was mist but also rain – and it didn’t get any lighter but rather heavier & I couldn’t see any action from my room so turned over and slept some more. I got up just before 3am when I woke to find it had stopped raining & went out to find David and Ian having just opened the one net that had been put up at midnight (so it turned out) and discussing putting up the second one. We then caught quite rapdily for about 3/4 of an hour and had the Kenyan contingent up and assisting before it chucked it down with rain again and we had to close. From then til dawn it was a cat and mouse game with the rain / mist of opening for a short while and being forced to close as the rain came in again. However we caught about 400 birds in total during the night.

Dawn arrived in a solid downpour of rain that delayed opening nets until 6am. We therefore missed what main Sprosser catch there might have been though in fact there were not that many in the night anyway and Marsh Warblers very much dominated the scene for the day.

It was busy for about 1/2 and hour but not overly so and before long the first ringing table was started up and we got going with ringing and releasing the Marsh Warblers – but finding among them some diversity, the best being an Asian Lesser Cuckoo – very smart in his boldly barred underparts and long black, barred tail, golden eye ring and legs. There were also quite a few ‘Hippos’ – Hippolais warblers, mostly Olive-tree Warblers but also a couple of Olivaceous and at least one Upcher’s. We also had 2-3 Common Rock Thrushes which are always great birds to handle and a beaut aduult male Barred Warbler showing off his barring and bright golden-yellow eye. A freshly plumaged Tree Pipit was also greatly admired and despite several more showers of rain we managed to end up clearing all birds by 10am with a total of 1,178 migrants ringed – and in fact only 3 Afrotropical birds – x2 Plain Nightjars during the night and one male Harlequin Quail, the first of the season.

An encouraging observation was 26 Ruppell’s Griffon Vulture heading west over the lodge mid-afternoon – encouraging because of the massive collapse of vultures in Kenya – in fact AFrica-wide – due to poisoning as well as habitat destruction and a reduction in wildlife that reduces their food source. Talking to David Pearson who has been running the ringing project here since 1970 there used to be many more around – even I can remember seeing 30-40 at a time over the lodge in the late 1990s.

One of the great things about Ngulia that I enjoy is spending time with the Kenyan ringers and revising or teaching ringing skills with them, particularly to do with Palaearctic birds which are not handled very much anywhere else in Kenya. Today, after the ringing had wound up I sat down with Gitau, Sylvester ‘Stallone’, Sameer, Nathaniel, Edson, Andrew and Chege and had what turned out to be a 3 hour session on age codes, ageing and discussing how the Ringing Scheme of Eastern Africa can develop and grow. We had a lot of fun trying to get our heads around the EURING age code system and then also the new Afrotropical age codes and seeing how and where they match – or don’t as the case may be.

David Gitau – one of the long-standing (16 years) and most experienced Kenyan ringers and a regular at Ngulia

Sameer (Right) looking up ageing information on a bird he has just ringed. Andrew training with a Sprosser (left) and Fransie scribing for them

One of the UK ringers had handed me a pair of brand new ringing pliers to give to the most deserving Kenyan ringer who I felt would really use them – but it was really hard to decide who should have them, so in the end I decided to put together a little ‘quiz’ for them about ageing and identification of the Palaearctic migrants at Ngulia and the winner would then get the pliers. So last night after supper and our briefing session with everyone I sat them down and gave them 10 questions such as ‘how do you age a Common Whitethroat?’ or ‘what is the key identification feature of a Sprosser against a Nightingale in the hand?’. It was again a lot of fun to do and the Kenyans told me I should have done this two or three times while they had been there. Gitau was the overall winner and is now the proud owner of a very fine pair of Porzana ringing pliers.

Ringing a Marsh Warbler

One of the key things to come out of the discussions was again the very real and urgent need to get the ringing permit system operating in Kenya – it is very difficult for a Kenyan to just take nets and go and ring anywhere if s/he does not have some sort of documentation to allow them to catch and ring birds and so as a result none of the young ringers actually go out and od their own ringing apart from the project work they are involved with (mostly someone else’s project as well). The stage we’re at is that we have submitted the proposed system of training and qualifying to the KEnya Wildlife Service who we need to have fully on board and to endorse and suppor the whole concept and system if it is going to have the authority and weight it needs to succeed. The response has been positive so far, but there is still a long way to go – we’re trusting those in charge will recognise the advantages of such a system and will support it whole heartedly.

Sameer studying the ageing guide

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Ngulia 2011 – ringers arrive in rain and set up ready for migrants

Thursday night saw us back at Mida Creek for another wader ringing session – two nights in fact, Thurs & Friday (which was last night…) before coming up to Ngulia today to start the migrant passerine ringing project for 2011. This time at Mida we had very helpful assistance from Niko and his team (Monika, Jan and Franziska) together with volunteers John (from Kinangop – Rift Valley) and Josephat (from Voi Tourism Training College). Niko had come with some outrageous 30m wader nets and so we set up 324m of net and sat back for the action. There was a lot of rain around and threat of wind as well but God was awesome and we had a dry two nights and wind dropped to very little.

A total of 159 birds were caught over the two nights, with quite different composition from one to the other – a good number of Grey Plovers the first night and only one Crab-plover, a few Terek Sandpipers and sand plovers, and on the second night 11 Crab-plovers, two Whimbrel, only 2 Tereks – and no Curlew Sandpipers the second night. In fact numbers for this latter species have really seemed to reduce in our catches – something worth looking further into…

 Andrew attaching colour flag to Lesser Sand Plover

Results for the 2 nights were as follows:

   

17-Nov

18-Nov

 

 

Species

 

New

Rtrp

New

Rtrp

Total rg’d

Total caught

Crab-plover

Dromas ardeola

1

0

10

0

11

11

Ringed Plover

Charadrius hiaticula

0

1

0

0

0

1

White-fronted Plover

Charadrius marginatus

0

0

0

0

0

0

Lesser Sandplover

C. mongolus

10

4

10

3

20

27

Greater Sandplover

C. leschenaultii

18

4

13

1

31

36

Grey Plover

Pluvialis squatarola

5

2

2

0

7

9

Little Stint 

Calidris minuta

30

2

11

0

41

43

Curlew Sandpiper

C. ferruginea

5

6

0

0

5

11

Whimbrel

Numenius phaeopus

0

0

2

0

2

2

Common Greenshank 

Tringa nebularia

0

0

0

0

0

0

Wood Sandpiper

Tringa glareola

0

0

0

0

0

0

Terek Sandpiper

Xenus cinereus

11

1

2

0

13

14

Saunders’ Tern

Sterna saundersii

1

0

1

0

2

2

Common Tern

S. hirundo

3

0

4

0

7

7

Total

 

84

20

55

4

139

163

So it was a very successful couple of nights wader ringing – and all sand plovers and Terek Sandpipers now are sporting a gaudy coloured flag with inscription on them in the hope we’ll get some recoveries of sighted birds elsewhere. Franziska also colour-ringed the Grey Plovers we caught as part of her studies back in Germany – and she promptly saw one of Thursday night’s birds on Friday foraging on the reef at low tide off Ocean Sports c.4km from where we ringed it…

  Common Tern

But back to Ngulia.. we left this morning eventually at 8am, somewhat bleary-eyed after a 2:30am return from the waders, but being ably driven by James in his minibus and by 3pm were in Mtito Andei. KWS at the gate gave us a great welcome and were hugely helpful in letting us in with the letter we had from HQ – thank you again to KWS for that assistance. 

The park is really green and there had been a really heavy storm come through just ahead of us as the road was very wet and pretty slick. We had several sightings of elephant on the way and a family of giraffe were keeping their feet dry on the road rather than in the wet grass – so it seemed – and which were greeted with glee by our German visitors.

Bird-wise there were not that many migrants – c.6 Eurasian Rock Thrush were nice to see and a flock of c.50 Amur Falcons as well. Next to no Barn Swallows were seen and just one Euro Roller. 

At the lodge we met David, Ian, Richard and Julia having arrived only some 20mins ahead in our ‘Blue Crane’ – ancient Nissan Sunny which used to be Graeme Backhursts before we bought it off him… They had a puncture in the circle just outside reception – and the spare it turned out was also without air…! An answer to prayer that it happened at the lodge and not in the middle of the park!! (and I tell you – the age of that car… I was totally praying they’d arrive safely!). As the generator was off, we used a hand pump to inflate the spare enough to move the car out of the way of other cars…

We took time in finding Chege to open the store to access our gear eventually managed and had the main ‘L’ of nets in the bush up and ready for the morning before the leopard bait was put up for the big cat. He came early this time – immediately after the meat was tied to the tree and even before the waiter was off the lawn, the leopard was on the bait and entertaining the punters.Good news – means we can put the nets when we want without fearing putting off the leopard for the tourists.

 

During dinner a solid rain storm moved in and has been raining on and off for 2-3 hours now including quite thick mist… but next to no birds at all, which is very bizarre. It is easing now as I tap but the mist has also lifted. Ian is stopping ‘on guard’ as it were for the mist arriving. The rest have hit the sack… which I’m going to do likewise with to try and catch up on that which I’ve missed over the past 3 nights.

Some pics from the day….

 mist at dinner – and it was raining hard.. but no birds

 David watching the mist – I guess the ‘not’ was cut off in the photo??!

 David & Ian not very impressed with the lack of birds in the mist.

Final tally: 17,174 migrants ringed – but no controls

It’s now almost two weeks since I left Ngulia. David Pearson, Bernard “Scopus” Amakobe and the others left on the 14th and David has sent the final tally of numbers – 17,174 of which 1,691 were Barn Swallows or House Martins which were tape-lured at the front of the lodge during the day and so in some ways don’t ‘count’ for the tally of migrants brought in by the mist which can then be compared to previous years.

A good year all round though one of my first when we haven’t had a single foreign-ringed bird caught. We’re just going to have to hope that we get some recovered of our own instead.

I had an eventful drive out from Ngulia that last night – just as I was about to leave the heavens opened and it thundered down with a classic tropical storm – and it rained most of the way back to the gate, all 55kms of it. It was getting dark as well as left but it meant there were some excellent birds on the road in the early evening: no less than 3 scops owls – probably African Scops but one of them might have been the rarer Eurasian. Also 2 Heuglin’s Coursers which are very dapper birds. Along one particularly wet section I flushed up a Corncrake as well – which I think is the only record from Ngulia this year unless there was one I didn’t hear of. I managed to get to the gate without slipping into a ditch which would have made life ‘interesting’ and got the night bus around midnight to get me back to a hot and sticky Watamu by dawn. Now we have the task of looking to see how we can analyse the data and get something interesting out of it…

The final tally for each species for the year (Palaearctic species at least) is given below for your interest. I’ll try and get the Afrotropical list done too…

Species                                 Total

Green Sandpiper                              1

Common Cuckoo                             1

Eurasian Scops Owl                         1

Eurasian Nightjar                              8

Eurasian Roller                                 5

Red-backed Shrike                       102

Isabelline Shrike                            55

Barn Swallow                             1,703

Common House Martin                  60

River Warbler                                355

Basra Reed Warbler                       47

Great Reed Warbler                          1

Sedge Warbler                                  3

Eurasian Reed Warbler                    4

Marsh Warbler                           9,393

Eastern Olivaceous Warbler          65

Upcher’s Warbler                            24

Olive-tree Warbler                          10

Willow Warbler                             143

Common Chiffchaff                          1

Blackcap                                            1

Garden Warbler                              18

Barred Warbler                                25

Common Whitethroat                1,695

Thrush Nightingale                   2,832

Common Nightingale                     49

Irania                                              505

Rufous Bush Chat                           14

Redstart                                             1

Isabelline Wheatear                          1

Pied Wheatear                                  2

Rock Thrush                                   12

Spotted Flycatcher                         35

Tree Pipit                                           1

Totals                                       17,174

Ngulia migrant ringing project starts off well in Tsavo West National Park

It’s that time of the year again – New Moon in November / December during the short rains. It’s this time of the year that birds are pouring out of Asia and Europe to escape the cold winter conditions and into Africa to look for warmer and more friendly weather and food supplies. Every year over the New Moon since 1969 nets have been put up at the Ngulia Safari Lodge in Tsavo West National Park and to date almost half a million migrant birds have caught, ringed and released to continue their journey.

A team of 12 of us arrived on Sunday afternoon at Ngulia made up of a a group of seven from Australia led by in indomitable Clive Minton (actually, one of the group, Nick, is in fact from Cambridge, but we’ll call him an Aussie for the sake of it… though his accent is certainly not Aussie!), four others from the UK and myself from Kenya. The park was wonderfully green as we drove through and there were plenty of Eurasian Rollers along the way (counted 110 in fact) and clearly there was rain about though the pools were not full suggesting it hadn’t rained for a few days. Elephant and Giraffe and a few birds were the only thing to stop us along the way as well as a stop to appreciate the view of the Ngulia valley up which migrant birds probably travel at night and see the lodge lights which they get attracted to. A pair of Pygmy Falcons with young was a bonus as this tiny raptor is not seen every time you visit Tsavo.

On arrival we managed to get the store opened where the Ngulia Ringing Group equipment is kept and pull out some very dusty boxes, spot lights, old car battery etc including my gum boots which I leave here since I never use them at the coast – only they’d been used as a foundation for a wasp to make its mud palace in though the young wasps had hatched and left behind just large clumps of mud to knock out… Armed now with pangas (machete type knife) and slashers (efficient grass-cutting implements) and nets we set out to put up the ‘L’ of nets in the bush just in front of the lodge and prepare the lines where we put the night nets – managing to do so just in time before the leg of a goat got strung up on the tree in front of the lodge and literally c.8 mins later a leopard was on it enjoying the free snack it gets offered every night in return for being flashed at by innumerable tourist cameras. I guess it was watching us put the nets up…

IMG_4035

After a full on Ngulia dinner and a great welcome by the hugely friendly staff, we had a briefing about the project and how things operate and then headed for bed with a thin cloud hanging not too far above the lodge but not down enough to really pull in the birds. I was finished as I’d had two very late nights in Nairobi working and had a deadline to complete on a document so didn’t sleep till after midnight, managed to mis-set my alarm and was (finally) dragged from deep sleep by Dr David Murdoch at 3:50am with the thin cloud now more or less at tree top level and a few birds in evidence flying around. In the next hour we managed to catch 68 birds which was a good introduction to night ringing for the team and then opened the ‘L’ at dawn to get another 134 making a total of 202 for the first day. Not too bad and in fact totally perfect given that the Aussies (doing not as well as they’d like in the Ashes…) had never even seen a Marsh Warbler let alone any Acrocephalus warbler and so were on a steep learning curve and so needed to take it slowly.

Bird of the day was certainly the Isabelline Wheatear – the first I’ve seen ringed at Ngulia for many years – and also the White-browed Sparrow Weaver, not a migrant of course, but also very uncommon at the lodge.

Totals for the day:

Ngulia Ringing Totals – 2010

Species/month                           November

date                                                               29           29          29

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

Hirundo rustica 21          21

L. luscinia 20           30          50

Irania gutturalis 2              2             4

Oenanthe isabellina 1             1

Monticola saxatilis 1             1

Muscicapa striata 2             2

Locustella fluviatilis 5              6             11

Acrocephalus griseldis 1             1

A. palustris 26           39          65

S. communis 13           26          39

Phylloscopus trochilus 2                             2

Lanius collurio 4             4

L. isabellinus 1             1

Number of full species                           6              12          13

Daily total                                                 68           134       202

Running totals                                        68           134       202

Night as % of whole day’s total       34%

Last night / this morning was a different story. It started raining during our brief at 7pm and continued on and off heavy rain until I slept at just after 10pm with piles of birds coming down around 8:30pm including Euro Rollers. It was clearly going to be a good night… Sure enough, Dr Dave woke me again but this time at just after midnight with good mist and plenty of birds to be seen so it was to work once again and nets up by half past and over 100 in the first half hour. It was busy until about 2:30am when the mist lifted a bit and then there was a flurry of birds again at 4am just before we closed at 4:30am to try and clear the backlog. 537 birds ringed during the night it turned out with 6 Donaldson-Smith Nightjars, 4 Eurasian Nightjars and 3 Plain and a Dusky as well. Bird of the night however has to be the Common Redstart that emerged from a bag just before dawn, which will be about only the 13th or 14th since 1969.

The ‘L’ was opened at 05:35hrs and the Sprossers hammered into the nets until 6am on the dot when the Marsh Warblers took over and continued for about half an hour before calming down. We opened a second ringing book and had two tables of ringers going as now several of the Ngulia newcomers were getting up to speed and finally took the swallow nets down which Clive, Nick and Robin had manned at 12:30pm. A full 12 hours of ringing producing a very healthy total of 1,454 birds. Bird of the day must be the Common Redstart, though to catch 6 Donaldson-Smith Nightjars was a treat – our smallest and most brightly coloured nightjar. One we caught just before dawn was kept snoozing in a bag till later and when released was placed gently on the dead tree that decorates the base of the stairs into the dining room where it sat very happily continuing its snooze for a good two hours before shifting to one of the beams in the ceiling…

Yet again we had a very bizarre capture – one of the 233 Barn Swallows had yet another home made ring. ‘Yet again’ as it must now be about the 4th we have caught at Ngulia with such a ring. This time it was a beautfully crafted ring of wire on its left leg. Someone, somewhere presumably in Eastern Europe has been putting their own tags on ‘their’ Barn Swallow that no doubt breeds in their cow shed just to see if it is the same bird that comes back after the winter…

The lodge electricians have done an awesome job in resurrecting our second spot light that had blown the first night so we’re back up to full speed the day before major reinforcements arrive in the form of 9 British and 4 Kenyan ringers including David Pearson who is the Project Leader having been coming every year since 1970. So all we’ll need is thick mist and we’ll have enough for people to do… otherwise there will be a lot of hanging around and looking for ideas for how to get birds into nets.

I’ll try and update again tomorrow. The internet access is proving too poor to get photos uploaded but I’ll try and add them later.

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Ngulia update – probable first record for Africa: Blyth’s Reed Warbler

It’s now two months since I was at Ngulia – I had to leave early from the second session after just a couple of nights and head for South Africa for an awesome “white Zulu” wedding way out in the bush which was great to be at… but it did mean that I missed one of the most significant rarities that Ngulia has had for a long time…
 
David Pearson, who has been running the Ngulia ringing since 1970 with Graeme Backhurst, was leading the session and I left him at it together with Ian with not many birds ringed (c.f my last blog on that) but more to come. David writes (with a bit of extra from Ian):

The December session started badly with no mist for the first week and thus only 1,000 warblers caught. They then had mist most of the second week, but by then migration must have falling off badly anyway though they did manage over 5,000 that week however with two nights of about 1,500. It was in the midst of these two busiest nights that the two specialities appeared. I think it was Bernard ‘Scopus’ who first pulled the “odd Acro” out of the bag which was fully moulted (very very few Marsh have moulted by then, and Reed Warblers tend to have longer wing lengths of 68 and over for us). Ian and David commented on it:

“The dumetorum was fully moulted and it had a 13mm notch, emarginated on fourth primary, bill and claws different. The only thing was the wing length was at top of range for dumetorum rather than around the 63mm mean. However its not that long since DP was handling them somewhere and when we showed it to Sergey (a garden bird to him ) his first response was “dumetorum” .”

“The Blyth’s would be a first for Africa, and as it had a rather long wing I’m waiting to get a DNA result from a blood sample. I suppose some unexpected hybrid might be a possibility but it wasn’t a Marsh or a Reed Warbler and wing formula, moult and everything fitted Blyth’s.”

Blyth’s Reed Warbler Acrocephalus dumetorum at Ngulia

I’ve not heard the result of the DNA test yet (and in fact the samples got slightly delayed – lost?! – in the post but have apparently arrived now!), but it certainly all looks good for a Blyth’s Reed Warbler. The other excitement was a Palaearctic Red-rumped Swallow – also a first for East Africa and nicely compared to a local African one which was caught the next day.

Palaearctic Red-rumped Swallow – note the pale ear coverts

Ian also wrote: “Also on the elephant front, Phil and I had a male join us at the back line but was quite happy with us being there as he fed and we did our best not to spook him. And as usual with all the elephants around the netting area they didn’t damage one net or guy, I’m sure they sense things very well. Also had one of the male elephants scratching against the big acacia out the front one night and as it did 100 Marsh Warblers shot up in the air!! Don’t know if you heard as well, but there was a leopard in the dining hall chasing hyrax one afternoon (no guests!) and had a porcupine join me as I was doing the totals and a 6 ft snake that went from under the tea / coffee table, up the steps and across the dining hall!!”

…all adds to the interest of ringing at Ngulia! What an awesome place…

We’ve now got an amazing data set on migrant warblers at Ngulia over the years and one of the reasons I made the effort to get down to Ngulia for the two days was to chat to David about analysing it and writing some papers out of it for publication. This is going to be the challenge for the year ahead!

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Clear nights, elephant, rhino & Friedmann’s Larks

10th Dec
I’m actually a day behind on the blog – the post for the 8th was done at midnight last night (9th) in the face of a bitterly cold westerly wind (ok, ok – I know that might be a relative term for Europeans & north Americans, but for the likes of us coastal Kenyans, it really was bitter…!). Anyone who knows Ngulia will know that a westerly wind
spells a full nights sleep as the mist which brings the birds comes from the east, up the escarpment. This is exactly what we’re not there for – sleep-filled nights. What we pray for is a gentle, warm moisture-filled wind from the east that as it cools with the on-set of evening, forms a thick swirling mist (fog, actually) around the lodges spotlights and within five minutes you have piles of birds humming around the bushes and lights leading to large numbers caught and ringed and hopefully one with a dull ring from Slovenia or Kazakstan or somewhere like that!

Anyway to back track… There was no mist yesterday morning (9th) & so we started in putting up nets at a relaxed 6.30am, starting on the main ‘L’ while David & Ian did a complete re-sort of the nets as some have started to show some wear & tear. We left them open as we put up the next nets & caught a smattering of birds through the morning including several River Warblers but in fact more Afrotropical birds than migrants of which several
were Chestnut Weavers – one of the only two Afrotropical birds ever ringed at Ngulia in almost 40 years to be recovered anywhere away from the lodge. It was found in Kitui some 300kms north & west of Ngulia. The other was a Harlequin Quail that was found in Uganda of all places!

So it wasn’t a very noteworthy day as regards birds caught – a Black-&-white Cuckoo was the first bird ringed & there was also a Diederick Cuckoo. The most noteworthy thing of the day was an awesome fly-by at almost eye-level along the escarpment of no less that 42 Ruppell’s Griffon Vultures that then spiralled & ‘kettled’ above
the hill in front of the lodge to gain height before moving off northwards! There was another 21 today (10th) all of which is excelllent news given the current plight of vultures worldwide with hundreds being poisoned and populations significantly decreasing.

42 Ruppell’s Griffons over hill in front of Ngulia

Close-up shot of some of them…

Not many raptors around during the day – no Steppe Eagles though a beaut display by one of the local Verreaux’s Eagles at one point & a male Eurasian Marsh Harrier quartering the grass in the valley.

Ian slept the afternoon off (as he’d not only driven for c.11 hours but had then stayed up all night to keep an eye open for mist!) & one or two others of us also had a kip before putting up more nets at c.5pm (waiting, of course, for just when it started to rain!). So it was after dinner that I sat to do the blog with Ian & trying to get a good enough mobile signal to connect to the internet.

I left Ian at about 00.30hrs to hit the sack & apparently he had some action of a rhino & an elephant appear out of where the nets were & have a stand off over the water hole followed by a second leopard looking for scraps of meat left over from the first during dinner! However the main point was the lack of mist and it was a rather déjà vu experience as per November opening nets with a clear sky & stunning sunrise & clumps of eager ringers standing around idly chatting & discussing the 2-3 birds we’d caught in the past half hour! But there were a few & by the time I hitched a lift with Alain & Hendrick to Mtito Andei to catch the bus we’d ringed c.30 migrants and had some unusual Afro species – particularly Pygmy Batis & a male Red-billed Buffalo Weaver.

Idle chatting around the end of the net with clear skies..

David & I had a good chat with Stephen, the lodge Assistant Manager who is doing an excelllent job in trying to make Ngulia more competitive & improve especially in a climate of generally reduced tourists.

We left for Mtito at c.11am to do a Eurasian Roller survey combined with a raptor count along the 40kms to the gate. Incredibly few rollers (2, to be precise) and not as many raptors as in Nov, but a pale phase Booted Eagle was v nice; also more vultures, a pair of Long-crested Eagles & two Grasshopper Buzzards.

Grasshopper Buzzard near Mtito Andei

The best bird, however was a small bird displaying wit wings being raised high above it in a deep ‘V’ while making a loud “tyee-oo-wee!” – the rare & little-known Friedmann’s Lark! Hendrick got some excelllent video clips through his scope (will try & post it sometime perhaps) & I got the following not-so-hot shot, but a record at least!

Friedmann’s Lark…

So that’s the end of my involvement with Ngulia for this year. I hope to get some updates from Ian / David and put it up on the blog or at least a final result. Apparently the total for the first session didn’t even quite make 5,000 birds – the lowest catch for a long time. It should be better this time as there’s plenty of rain around and that should bring mist. We’ll see…!

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A greener, wetter Tsavo brings hope for more migrants

It’s time for the second session of migrant ringing at the legendary ringing ‘hut’ of Ngulia Safari Lodge in Tsavo West National Park for 2009. I was up early in Nairobi after having got back from Naivasha and the work there over the weekend to get out to Nairobi airport to meet David (Pearson) and Ian (regular, solid pillar of Ngulia night-time ringing) and several others (Phil and Dave from Icklesham in Sussex, UK – over for a ‘holiday’ in that they’ve just ringed 52,000 birds at the farm there this year!!, Maria from Greece and Sergey from Kazakstan) and to head straight down to Ngulia to arrive for late lunch and start to put nets up.

Well… the best laid plans often don’t work out and sure enough, I was stopped by the police at the gates of the airport in my wee blue car (that was once Graeme Backhursts and used almost solely for this annual Ngulia trip…) and told that the insurance had expired. “No, it hasn’t”, says I very confidently as I know we’d renewed it in October when we were also stopped by the police and told the same thing. “Oh yes it has”, says Madam Rose (as it turned out her name was – “That’s a very pretty name” says Jackson trying his best to sweeten her up later on in the ensuing half-hour conversation! – it certainly helped, I reckon!).

“Oh no it hasn’t” says still ever confident Jackson, but now beginning to wonder ‘What on earth…?!?”

“Come and have a look” says Madam Rose – so Jackson switches off and gets out and sure enough, the insurance expired on 15th November… and it is now the 8th Dec. Hmmm.. (three months mandatory jail sentence I’m later told by a friend!). Then followed a long conversation of how grateful I was to her for showing me it, how it meant it was going to upset my plans for going to Tsavo to catch birds… “To do WHAT?” – which then opened the chance to talk about ringing and migration and how these tiny birds fly so far with no compass or GPS etc etc… which always impresses anyone and can distract from the issue at hand! and so eventually I persuaded her that really the best thing was for her to allow me to go and meet the wazee I was meant to meet and then I would zip back into Nairobi, get the correct sticker for the insurance since I had paid for more than just a month, and then I would proceed and all would be well. The only thing was she told me to stop on the way out of the airport and talk to her again.

So it was into the airport I went thanking God sana for letting me off and was able to meet up with David et al OK though now had to explain that there was a hitch in that I had to head back into town first… Ian had organised to hire a Suzuki from Concorde and so he and Phil, Dave and Maria decided to head off and get down to Ngulia while David, Sergey and I went to do battle with insurance. All was well until I stopped to talk to Madam Rose again only for her to say (for the 3rd time) “Let us go to the station – I will book you there now”! Ah. Not what was expected! “on the other hand, you could give me some ‘lunch’ to say thank you so I can let you go”… Here it was, then, the sadly totally expected outcome of being stopped by the police – asking for a bribe. However, I politely and quietly explained that as a Christian I really couldn’t do that (she then argued that Jesus gave lunch to people!!) and that really I could just thank her very very much for understanding and helping me… Thankfully it didn’t take too long before she was once again persuaded and we were on our way to fight traffic and eventually get the insurance. It’s too long to go into now why, but it took five hours to get it when it should have taken one, but got it we did and we were away.

The other excitement of the morning was that half way through the morning we get a call from Ian saying “errr… are we on the right road – we’re in a place called Namanga?”. Namanga for those who don’t know is the border town with Tanzania south of Nairobi. To get to it you turn right just outside Nairobi and head a very different direction to Tsavo – and for a good 2 hours of driving! I seriously thought he was joking with me – but he wasn’t! So as it turned out we ‘left’ Nairobi only about 1/2 hour behind them…

No other incidents happened. KWS at the Mtito Andei gate welcomed us with open arms and very friendly smiles and the same was true at Ngulia when we eventually rolled in at about 7pm. A green green Tsavo it has become since November and as you can see from the pics, a very different situation. I’ve immediately noticed the huge increase in Afrotropical birds – along the road from the gate we had literally dozens of trees laden with Chestnut Weaver nests – c.100-200 nests per tree. There must be 5,000-8,000 nests along that stretch!! An outrageous number – and in November we didn’t hardly even see a Chestnut Weaver!

November…
December…

November…
December…

Needless to say we didn’t put any nets up last night and I hit the sack as soon as possible. There was no mist so it was a solid night’s sleep (except for Ian who stayed up all night to wait for mist!) – but that takes me to “tomorrow’s” blog which will have to wait since it’s already half midnight and I need to get some shut-eye…

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