Tag Archives: elephant

The quiet season at Ngulia continues & Thrush Nightingales still dominate

17th Nov. At dinner of the 16th we had an unexpected visitor to the waterhole… the Leopard had come and gone and enjoyed his starter of a leg of goat and the Porcupine had also enjoyed their bread rolls… but then without warning a huge bull elephant rocked up at the waterhole and wandered around a bit, drank some water and then ambled off towards the raptor nets – though he missed them and went off into the bush. Just a reminder that anything can turn up while we are out at the nets…!

However once again there was no mist to speak of in the night, just low cloud that never came down. Tape recordings of the song of the three common Ngulia species were played from 3am in an attempt to encourage some birds down into the catching area and with some lowish cloud around, nets were put up with the vague hope of the low cloud producing birds… which it did just after going up in the form of a real quality bird, an Isabelline Wheatear – the first this year and only the second since 2005. We kept the nets up despite the lack of any real mist and ended up with 20 birds ringed – all others being Thrush Nightingales except for one Marsh Warbler. At dawn (yet again stunning views…) all the ‘bush’ nets were opened but we only managed another 12 migrants giving a grand total of 32 for the day:

Isabelline Wheatear: 1
Thrush Nightingale: 28
Marsh Warbler: 2
Common Whitethroat: 1

 Isabelline Wheatear

The Afrotropicals were more interesting with the 11th ever Green-backed Twinspot ringed (in 44 years), a stunning Diederik Cuckoo with molten bronze colours melting into the stunning deep emerald of its plumage, and then a pair of Rufous Chatterers with their gorgeous light yellow eyes and curiously curved bill. A retrapped Black-backed Puffback and Green-winged Pytilia both from previous years were of real interest to me since you can therefore know for certain that their plumage and soft part colours are those of a definite adult – which really helps when trying to correctly age a new one you might catch.

 A rather grumpy-looking but very smart Rufous Chatterer

Mida Creek Bird Club is born… & meets an elephant in Arabuko-Sokoke

A couple of weeks ago, I was at our community project at Mida – the 260m-long suspended walkway through the mangroves, and was approached by Juma who has become one of the main bird guides there for visitors who told me that a bunch of the youth there had got together and formed themselves into the “Mida Creek Bird Club” with a view of doing lots of birding and other bird-related conservation activities. He is chairman and promptly showed me their 10-page constitution and talked of their ideas which included a monthly bird walk on the first Saturday of the month somewhere in the local vicinity – the first one being planned for inside Arabuko-Sokoke Forest on 4th August (yesterday)… and could I be their guide?

So early on Saturday morning I picked up volunteers Martin (from Nairobi) and Brian (an ASSETS graduate from Dida to the west of Arabuko-Sokoke) and headed for the Mida entrance to the forest via Kenya Forest Service (KFS) to collect the key for the barrier. KFS have got an excellent understanding regarding community members and encouraging them in conservation of forests by working with them and had given permission for the group to enter the forest for no payment. An African Goshawk was calling (can’t reall call the “chip! chip! chip!” sound they make a song…) high overhead and the first bird singing otherwise was the ubiquitous Red-capped Robin Chat from the bush next to the forest station. On arriving at Mida there were just six members of the Bird Club waiting – but as we turned into the forest a seventh ran to catch up and after we had stopped at the first spot about 1km in three bajajis (motorbike taxis) turned up with another six so that in the end we were quite a healthy sized group! Most of the group had not done a lot of birding before and even more had done any forest birding so everything was new for them. We were on the look out for the stunning Peter’s Twinspot which is often on the track as you enter the forest… and sure enough, 700m in there was a pair doing their stuff feeding on grass seeds out in the open in front of us. A great start! We stopped at that point for a good 20 minutes as there was a feeding party of birds in the mixed forest around there and we added coastal specialities such as Little Yellow Flycatcher & Fischer’s Turaco to the list before moving on a few 100m to stop again to listen.

We were all 15 of us out of the pick-up and starting to walk along the track when without any warning a hunking great bull elephant stepped out of the forest and onto the track about 100m ahead of us… and started walking down the track straight towards us!! There was a moments panic among the group but we stood and marvelled at such an awesome sight! It hadn’t seen or smelt us as we were down wind of it and it just kept on coming straight at us – until it was about 60m off and I thought I’d better warn it of us being here and waved my arms and shouted at which point it wheeled around and vanished into the forest to the left! A really awesome sight and a huge treat for everyone.

Here’s the guy on the road… and see the video clip at the end as well!!

After that there was a bit of nervousness about any noise coming from the forest on the left but otherwise it was down to some serious birding and pointing out the various bird calls we could hear. A little further down the track is a spot I know for an East Coast Akalat territory… and sure enough within a minute of arriving there, he started singing though kept deep in the forest and didn’t show. We then moved on to the Brachtstegia woodland habitat which lies beyond the Mixed Forest habitat along the Mida track and which is a beautiful habitat for birding and walking. Brachystegia is known further south in Africa as ‘Miombo woodland’ and we are basically located in the northernmost extent of the habitat in Africa. It’s also the habitat for our endemic Clarke’s Weaver – though we didn’t see any this time but did catch up with Pale Batis, Chestnut-fronted Helmetshrike, Mombasa Woodpecker and Black-headed Apalis among others.

The group were hugely enthusiastic about the excursion and to add to the events of the day as we drove back to Mida Creek itself to drop everyone off, there was a Golden Pipit on the edge of the vlei you drive past down to the creek’s edge. My first here though the Mida guides had said one had been around in recent times.

As the club is still starting out, A Rocha Kenya is committing to helping them grow and strengthen – the first part of which is to give them some organisational training and capacity building on issues such as setting up a simple but robust financial system, how to run committee meetings etc. The finances in particular is something which countless small community groups (and even larger NGOs etc!) have fallen apart and collapsed over when not run transparently and properly and it’s a privilege to be in a position where we can contribute and help a group like this one become strong and effective.
Eastern Green

 Elephant in Arabuko-Sokoke video:

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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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Mist, 700 birds ringed, Asian Lesser Cuckoos, Blythes Reed? and Wild Dogs…

Well I finished off last night at around 2a.m from where I was sitting it didn’t look very hopeful. However once I’d packed the computer away and went out onto the patio to look properly the cloud was lower than I thought and there were in fact one or two birds flying around. By 3:30am I figured it was worth giving it a go – so it was to wake Janette to get the night nets and Toby & Keith to help put them up – by 3:45am we had the first net up and pretty soon the second and had caught half a dozen birds – the Ngulia phenomenon had finally come! Others got up to help and then at around 4am it started to rain! and not just a few drops – very soon it was chucking it down and we had to close the nets as to have birds caught in a net and then drenched can cause them to chill very fast and die. We opened and closed the nets a couple more times as the rain stopped and came on again between then and dawn and in all caught just over 30 birds – at least a sample of weights and fat scores for the night which is always interesting.

So it was with renewed energy and anticipation that we went out at 5:40am to open the rest of the bush nets – I didn’t think there would be really huge numbers and sure enough, while there were certainly plenty of birds in the bush, it wasn’t really heaving as it can be and we ended up with a very reasonable catch of c.700 birds total. The diversity was the wonderful thing about the catch.

Scopus, David M and Tito ringing birds (finally!) at Ngulia

I get used later in December to catching 1000s of Marsh Warblers and often not much else (see last year’s blog 19th Dec 08 where we caught over 57% Marsh Warblers!). This time we had 3 or more Garden Warblers (some years we only catch 3 in total), 5 or 6 Sedge Warblers (again some years we only get 1 or 2), several Basra Reed Warblers, Olivaceous Warbler, a Rufous Bush Chat and then the stars of the show – a female Golden Oriole and no less than two Asian Lesser Cuckoos!

Asian Lesser Cuckoo – a first year bird

I was then hammering along through the Marsh and Whitethroats and pulled out of a bag a long-snouted but very small and greyish ‘Marsh Warbler’ that really did not look like a Marsh Warbler… Sure enough the notch on the second primary was way too long making it another Euro Reed Warbler, but then the winglenth was only 64 and basically all the Reeds we get at Ngulia have long wings of 68-72 mostly – this was in fact 2mm shorter than the shortest recorded. It also looked odd and so we looked very hard and long at it and got out lots of books to see if it wasn’t in fact a Blythe’s Reed Warbler – an central Asian species that winters in the far East (and so would be VERY lost if it was in fact one). They look very very similar to a Eurasian Reed so we took some time over it but in the end decided whilst certain features fitted Blythe’s, it was in fact just a very small Eurasian Reed.

small bird.. greyish… but no real supercilium

notice the very long notch

It was then time to head out with Titus and head for Lions Bluff Lodge in the Lumo Conservancy – a site where I suspected the ‘Ngulia phenomenon’ might also occur and it would be very interesting to see what birds we’d catch and if we caught any ringed at Ngulia just 55kms to the north. We eventually left on the staff bus and I fell asleep only to be awoken by the bus jolting to a stop and Tito waking me saying ‘look! look!’ – a pack of real, live (and very full stomached!) Wild Dogs!!! A friend had seen two Wild Dogs in Tsavo West about four years ago which we had got very excited about as this species is fast becoming rarer and rarer and is very hard to see. I remember as a lad growing up in Nairobi, we used to see them every time we went into Nairobi National Park – where they have now long been extirpated (locally extinct). These were the first I’ve seen in many many years and they were just loafing by the side of the road!!! If anyone reading this knows who this important record should be reported to, please let me know.

Wild Dogs in Tsavo West

We eventually got to Mtito Andei (after seeing 15-20 Amur Falcons feasting on termites together with Stepped Eagles strewn all over the road picking termites off the road surface – the first Amurs we’ve seen. It’s amazing how at this time year, you get rain… and you get Amurs immediately after. They must see the rain from miles and miles away and come in for it as that’s where the good feeding is) and straight onto a bus for Voi. Getting there we were relieved to see ‘Kiboko’ – our land cruiser – with Albert, Nick, Al and Sam waiting patiently for us to turn up.

It’s not far from there to Lumo (c. an hour’s drive) though we were delayed on the way by elephant on the main road which we had to stop and admire. At the gate to Lumo, Agnes, one of the rangers, sorted our tickets very nicely and politely and we drove the 5kms to Lions Bluff seeing a Kudu on the way and discussing the potential for the site for ringing. We were given a wonderful welcome by the staff and immediately took Kobin to assist us in putting up a net and locating the best spot for the flood light we’d brought with us to compliment the lodge’s spot lights. In between some heavy rain and dinner we managed to get the nets and light up and left them open in the vague hope that the African Scops Owl calling not far beyond where we put the nets might come up to see what was going on and get caught (it didn’t!).

at the gate to Lumo Conservancy

Now it’s 3:45am and I got up to see what was happening with the mist. There was some not bad mist though a bit high when we went to bed at 10pm and Tito and I had seen 4-5 birds but they were staying high and not coming down. We figured we’d get some sleep and then try at 2am. The mist had lifted somewhat but there is still low cloud and I saw one or two birds just now (had to wake the night watchman to switch the generator on who has also kindly got me a couple of Masai shukas (red cloths) to keep a bit warm and fight off the mosquitos) but the mist hasn’t come in properly yet – at 5am Solomon (watchman) says… We’ll see! I might hit the sack again now and try to get some sleep – having said that a bird just flew into the window which is a hopeful sign. Perhaps I won’t be sleeping much again?!!! – I’ll tell you more tomorrow…

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