Tag Archives: Lions Bluff

A last morning treat and surprise despite the lack of mist

I went to bed with the feeling that we wouldn’t probably be getting much mist during the night. However I duly woke at 2a.m. and sneaked around the room to not wake the slumbering volunteers and once dressed unzipped the door and stepped out into the cool night air to see… not a wisp of mist but a beautiful star-studded sky. Totally no point in going and sitting for an hour or two with the generator going as there was definitely not going to be any mist! So back to bed and up at just after 5am to go and open all the nets to see what would turn up in the first round.

Al contemplating a mistless morning from the Lions Bluff look out – the nets were positioned just below this.

Titus, Albert and Sam helped open the nets and as we were sitting with a cup of chai waiting to do the first round, Titus appeared with a bird bag saying “I have an African here”… He meant he had an Afrotropical bird, that I knew (he enjoys playing with words as do many Kenyans!) but I thought it would be a Common Bulbul or something like that and so wasn’t prepared to pay that much attention.. Imagine my surprise therefore when he put his hand in the bag and pulled out The Most stunning Beaut of a tiny but fiercely furious owl! There had been an African Scops Owl Otus senegalensis calling every night down just beyond the nets and so our first thought was we’d got it, but on measuring the wing length and checking the wing formula (relative length of each of the flight feathers to give the shape of the wing) we realised it was far rarer than that and was in fact a Eurasian Scops Owl Otus scops – only about my fifth that I’ve ever seen in Kenya. We caught one at Ngulia last year but the one before that had been scooped out of the Indian Ocean by a fisherman c.5-6kms offshore… There’s still plenty we don’t understand about these birds.

Tito having just taken his ‘Afro’ out of the bird bag..

Otus scops – the most beaut of a bird…

Alba holding the Scops Owl with Lions Bluff in the background

There were not many other birds caught, but one of them was another Garden Warbler Sylvia borin which was very nice to get have as they are not common birds this far east in Kenya. It was a good chance to let Sam, Al & Nick have a chance to ring a few birds – good to give them the experience at it (tho’ Sam ringed a fair few in the end, in fact).

Me assisting Al to ring a Marsh Warbler (probably one of those, anyway!). Alba looks like a classic laid-back scribe…

With not much else going on in terms of catching, it was easier to stop and to pack up though it of course took longer than I thought it would. We set off at 11am loaded up in the back of the pickup headed for Voi where Tito was to head to Nairobi and three others would drop to take the bus back to Watamu (we didn’t want to risk headaches with the police about carrying people in the back of an open truck..) Nick drew the ‘long’ straw and got to come with me in the car rather than fight it out on matatus and buses – at least Sam nobly gave up his place for Nick… As it turned out, it probably was the short straw as it was only 25-30kms out of Voi cruising on the main road that a whining sound I’d heard from the car but wasn’t sure if it was something to worry about, got suddenly louder and louder, turned into a shriek and then a scream and the car shuddered to a halt as I managed to pull off the road.


Way out in the middle of the bush. Limited mechanical knowledge. Hot. But at least we had mobile signal and I immediately called trusty Henry back at Mwamba for his very good mechanical knowledge for instructions at a distance. To me sounded like the differential had got chewed up and I wasn’t far wrong. Amazingly, thank God, it had happened only 3-4kms outside of Maungu – the next town from Voi after which there was probably nothing for 50-80kms which would have been much harder. So I started the engine and it moved and we hobbled into Maungu and found a fundi to check it out. “gear box”, he said (of course – the noise was from the front not the back of the car); it turned out the last service hadn’t checked the oil levels in the gear box and it was basically totally dry.

Kiboko – our Landcruiser – stuck at Maungu having some gearbox oil dribbled into it. Hot and dry – plenty of swallows (I was tempted to put up a net for them…)

Gear boxes don’t like being without oil, clearly, so after a very improvised means of getting the oil into the gear box using 3 bits of pipe, a cut in half old oil bottle, and some ‘African welding’ (inner tube strips) – rather than opening up around the gear stick and taking a long time to do it, 2 1/2 litres of oil were added (! it was dry!) and we set off again, at vastly reduced speed though after a while I got used to it and managed to push it up a bit. We finally got home around 8pm – sometime after Sam and Al had made it!

The lorry traffic at the weigh station on the Mombasa road had the most almightly traffic jam queing up to be weighed (and in most cases “allowed” through totally overweight thus destroying the roads…)

Quite an eventful end to a very good two weeks of fieldwork in Tsavo area. Also great news that Lions Bluff does work like Ngulia and it could be an optional spot to take people to ring 1000s of migrants.

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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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Could Lions Bluff, Lumo Conservancy, be a second Ngulia migration study site?

Following the last blog posting, I duly hit the sack and didn’t emerge until 5:15am to open the nets at dawn.. a beautifully crystal clear dawn with awe-inspiring views for miles and miles across the plains from Lions Bluff which stands some 200m above the surrounding plains. Whilst it was dire for catching migrants, it was still stunning and the most beautiful morning.

  Dawn at Lions Bluff – looking across to Chawia peak of the Taita Hills

We duly went ahead and put more nets up being assisted by Chris and Kobin who are keen birders working at the lodge. By a lateish breakfast we had 8 nets up and set more for Barn Swallows with a recording of their song going underneath – which had a magical effect on the swallows bringing them in a huge swirling flock over the speaker but unfortunately not low enough to get caught in the nets – perhaps too exposed? too windy? We caught a few but not the dozens I was hoping, and then the iPod packed up and started freezing / crashing which didn’t help matters.

The (slightly) early start of 5:45am for some others meant that with the slow pace of catching that we were having, Al gently nodded off in between net rounds…

Working the volunteers too hard??!

In total we caught about 35 birds, about 10 of which were migrants including a female Irania (also known as White-throated Robin) which was v nice, and several Spotted Flycatchers. Best bird was probably the White-headed Buffalo Weaver pair that were caught in the swallow nets. I’d not realised just how huge they are – and they have a powerful peck as Albert and Titus found out when ringing them

  Titus with White-headed Buffalo Weaver

As we had some time on our hands, it was a good chance to get out and do a Eurasian Roller survey. Chris joined us together with Bernard, one of the Lumo Conservancy rangers who is also keen on birds, and we piled into the back of ‘Kiboko’ our trusty pick-up and headed for the plains. We actually hit pretty large numbers of Rollers in the somewhat open wooded grassland at the base of the hill as well as having four Grasshopper Buzzards which I don’t see very often. As we neared Lion Rock we saw several tourist vans clumped together and predicted it would be a lion – sure enough, there she was perched on top of an exposed rock only about 60m from the track. We of course had an open pick-up full of juicy lion tidbits in the back and it was amazing to see her suddenly perk up and show a lot of interest in us – particularly Sam for some reason! Needless to say we didn’t hang around but continued on (allowing Albert to find us a Spotted Eagle Owl not far from the lion in a fig tree).

It was a very successful roller survey and we had some other good things to see too – well worth the expedition.

out on the Lumo plains – looking at a huge Baboon Spider nest by the pick-up when we’d stopped for a Red-winged Lark

view of Lions Bluff from the plains below – our netting site is at the right hand end of the photo just below the brow of the hill

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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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Grand total of 1,240 birds ringed in 10 days but great rollers & raptors

It’s getting rather tedious and repetitive to report that once again there was no mist… When I went to bed last night at 3:30am and Peter took over the watch, there was low cloud clearly lit up by the lights and even 4-5 birds that I saw dropping down and flying just below the cloud level. This was looking encouraging and we thought Peter might wake us in just 1/2 hour… but it was not to be and the cloud lifted and the birds vanished with the stars coming out once more. 18 ringers were up at dawn (actually, I confess – when I woke at 5:15am and saw it was clear, I had an extra hour’s kip!) and at the 15 or so nets opened to catch any migrant that had arrived over night. The grand total for the day was just 11 migrants in the bush nets and then the redeeming Barn Swallows once again – giving a daily total of at least over 100 – 108 to be precise. This makes the grand total so far this year at only just over 1,200 birds – of which hardly 100 have been migrants other than Barn Swallows!! This is pretty much unheard of and at this rate it’ll be the worst year since 1987 when just 2,400 were ringed – though all of those would have been non-swallows making this even worse! There is the December session to redeem the totals, and still a week of possible nights here…

Toby and Keith had put up some additional 4-5 nets in the old original ringing site along the entrance road to the lodge in the hopes of increasing the catch – even the Afrotropical catch. Surprisingly they caught very few though did produce the first Spotted Flycatcher of the season.

Those ringers for who it’s their first time here are beginning to wonder if it’s all just stories – that of 1,000s of birds in just a few hours – and I don’t blame them! We did catch a retrap Nubian Woodpecker which was very nice to have – the first known adult bird retrap I’ve handled and good to make some notes on. It was a shame that Bruria from Israel and John Musina (Nairobi museum) had to leave today without seeing even one night of mist and real Ngulia action, though both seemed to have enjoyed their time anyway.

Due to it being so quiet, it was perfect to do the Eurasian Roller survey and raptor road count that I started last year and hope to do at least once per year while here at Ngulia. Keith, Toby, Mike and David kindly offered to take me in their Suzuki Maruti (not the world’s most spacious of vehicles…!) and so we set off at about 11am with me standing up through the open roof between Mike and David. For the Rollers we use the Distance Sampling method of recording the distance from the road for each bird seen and the distance travelled for the transect. This is then fed into the Distance program which will give you an estimate of overall density of birds in a given area. I’ve not done the Distance calculations but we saw a total of 42 Rollers today, some of them just a metre or two from the road.

Eurasian Roller by Peter Usher

But it was the raptors that really made the day – particularly a large, light brown Accipiter first seen chasing and trying to catch a cisticola (tho’ the cisticola was too agile for the Accipiter and escaped being lunch) and then mobbing a Wahlberg’s Eagle in a tree. It had heavy dark barring underneath, a plain throat, bright yellow eyes and a very clear supercilium – that made it very much an adult female Eurasian Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus – the first record I’m aware of for Kenya for c.5-6 years and one of what must be less than 20 records ever. Toby managed to get a very reasonable shot of it:

Eurasian Sparrowhawk in Tsavo West by Toby Collett

Not long after that with a herd of very red elephant as a backdrop, we watched a wonderful aerial display of a Brown Snake Eagle with a snake being harassed high in the sky by first one Steppe Eagle, then another, then a pair of Wahlberg’s Eagles joined in the fray doing some steep diving display flight for boot and then finally a massive juvenile Martial Eagle came hammering in from about a km away and laid into first a Steppe Eagle which turned up-side-down with talons bared about 1,000feet up in the sky and then the Martial went for the other Steppe which was not far behind one of the Wahlberg’s – all of them spiralling and towering way up in the sky… Meantime over to the left a ways was the female White-headed Vulture, an increasingly rare bird to see and definitely one to really watch out for these days.

Steppe Eagle – by Toby Collett

Total count for the day was as follows:
Wahlberg’s Eagle – 7
Steppe Eagle – 13
Tawny Eagle – 5
Martial Eagle – 2
African Hawk Eagle – 2
Black-chested Snake Eagle – 2
Brown Snake Eagle – 3
African Fish Eagle – 2
Eurasian Sparrowhawk – 1
Bateleur Eagle – 6
White-backed Vulture – 9
Ruppell’s Griffon Vulture – 7
White-headed Vulture – 1
Secretary Bird – 3
Augur Buzzard – 1
Gabar Goshawk – 1

White-backed Vultures in the sunset by Toby Collett

Well – it’s 2a.m and the cloud is somewhat high – at least there is cloud and it’s not starry and clear, but unless it drops down further, we’re unlikely to get much of a catch again. I’ll post this and head to bed again and let Peter take over in an hour… Tomorrow I leave with Tito and head fo Lions Bluff Lodge – exactly 53km due south of here. I’m meeting up with Albert from Mwamba together with three volunteers (Sam, Al and Nick) to go and set nets in front of a spot light by the lodge to see if there is a similar effect as we have here at Ngulia. If it works, it could be very very interesting to compare with what we catch here – and you never know, we might even catch a bird ringed at Ngulia!

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