Tag Archives: migration

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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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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Thundering floods and storms hit Ngulia

I ended up last night with saying it was looking good for a busy night… Well, I couldn’t have been more wrong! About 10 mins after finishing writing at about 11pm, Ian, Niko and co. put the nets up – there was some low cloud and it looked like it might come lower and there were birds quite high up there. However within just 5 mins of finishing putting the nets, it started raining and within 3-4 mins was tipping it down… and continued that way until c.2am!! To begin with there were a lot of birds flying low in the rain and brought down partially by the lights, but they soon vanished and just left torrential rain. It let up for about an hour at 2-ish but came on again to pour down and only really stopped just short of dawn – enough to just open the night nets to let them dry and take down – though 6 birds were caught at that point which was a surprise.


In fact in the couple of hours that we kept the nets open (closed at c.8am), we managed 92 migrants and about 8 Afrotropicals. Best bird was an Isabelline Shrike – the first of the season – and another Garden Warbler. Though the two Lesser Honeyguides, Pygmy Batis and Diederick Cuckoo took the lime light pretty successfully over the Palaearctic birds.

Andrew extracting a Marsh Warbler

Andrew extracting a Marsh Warbler

So it was another very quiet day – no Swallows except for about 5-6 that went through earlier in the morning. Nothing responded to the tape so House Martin song was put on and within about half an hour we had about 50 House Martins sitting in the tree over the tape – but despite keeping it going for about 3 hours, not a single one went into the net! So it was either to bed or to working on our ringing database for the rest of the afternoon until the 80 or so guests rocked up for the evening.

…another day at Ngulia.

Waders leaving Mida Creek for breeding grounds in Asia

Friday morning saw a somewhat bleary-eyed and hilarious group of A Rocha Kenya staff and volunteers return from another all-nighter on Mida Creek catching and ringing waders – or doing our best to, at least! We’ve been focussing on trying to ring waders (shorebirds) at Mida over the past few months in particular the past 4-6 weeks to try and get data on the weights of birds and their moult patterns in the build up to them departing on migration back to their breeding grounds in Asia and eastern Europe. 

This is one of the most interesting times of the bird calendar in terms of these birds. They have just spent possibly even nine months in Kenya after the last breeding season hanging out on Mida where life is pretty easy for a wader – warm conditions so no cold to fight, not many predators to worry about just a bit of disturbance from fishermen and tourists. As a result they don’t need to feed too heavily nor carry much fat to survive any potential harsh conditions – unlike their cousins who are wintering in Europe where a cold spell can come in and freeze their food source and can lead to death if you’re not fat enough to live it out till a thaw comes in.

However at this time of the year, March-May, birds are frantically foraging to fatten for the 6,7 or even 10,000km journey that they’ll be making back to their breeding grounds in Asia. This means as we catch them for ringing and weigh them, over this period you can see the weights of the birds increasing steadily and then numbers of adults suddenly start to reduce as adults leave for the north while mostly the youngsters from last year’s season stay behind and probably won’t migrate but will chill til next year when they’ll head home to join the fray of trying and find a territory and a mate to raise a family.

Moult-wise, it is also interesting. Adults have all completed their non-breeding season wing moult and have fresh, new, strong feathers to take them back to Asia and bring them back to Mida in August. Young birds, depending on the species and the population, will either have simply retained the feathers they grew in the nest last year, or will be moulting some in preparation for the next year spent in the harsh sunlight of the tropics which bleaches feathers like crazy and wears them out fast. 

The other neat thing to see is to go to Mida in the evening in early May and watch for flocks of birds that are setting off for Asia. We did that not long ago – headed out about 6pm with the tide low and birds spread all over foraging away. There was already a clear reduction in the numbers of birds around but still there were adults in 70-90% breeding plumage who would be heading north at any point. At about 6:15pm a flock of c.40 very handsome Curlew Sandpipers in their brick-red breeding plumage landed about 60m from us calling excitedly and looking alert. They only were there a few minutes before they took off trilling loudly and started climbing higher calling as they went. They climbed steadily heading off across the water and then started circling whilst still climbing making 2 or 3 circuits still calling quite clearly. After the last circuit they then adjusted their bearings and headed off just east of north still climbing as they went and flew on and on until they were out of sight. 

Amazing to think that within a matter of hours they would be over Somalia and only a couple of days easily beyond the Middle East. Below is a photo of a Curlew Sandpiper on its nest in its lovely plumage. Then a few images of one of our recent wader nights..

 by Benjo Cowburn

Rings & equipment with Crab-plover behind by Benjo Cowburn

Lesser Sand Plover wearing it's shiny ring

The morning after at Mida Creek...

clear night followed by misty – famine and feast

The night of the 7th brought some excellent mist for a while from about half midnight. We had the nets up soon and caught for about 40-45 mins when completely out of the blue, the thick mist and busy catching (2 of us at each net extracting non-stop) a blast of freezing air (OK, that’s relative to anyone reading this in Europe or America right now… we were still in shorts and t-shirt, but it was certainly cold!) hit from the west that billowed the nets out like windsurfer sails and was now blowing birds into the net and holding them there by its force! Not only that but as we looked the birds that had settled in the trees around just lifted off and headed up high and away. There was lightening beyond the mountains to the west and it felt like it was about to rain – and sure enough 20 mins later it chucked it down. We had to then try and find a corner out of the wind and rain to do the ringing as our normal spot by the Leopard Cocktail Bar is in the line of a full blast from a westerly wind. The mist never returned and in the end we ringed 354 birds in the night. The rain did bring some birds down and it’s possible that some remained grounded after that initial mist because at dawn with all the nets open we caught a further 428 making an overall total for the day of 782 birds ringed.

There was a little more ‘colour’ in the catch, however with only 49% of the catch being Marsh Warblers. A second Sedge Warbler, 9th Upcher’s Warbler and 13th Barred. 29% of the catch were Thrush Nightingales which is higher than other days – but still no dull ring of a bird ringed overseas. The increased variety really seems to be a factor of good mist – on nights when there is not much mist, and particularly when we play the tape of Marsh, River Warbler and Sprosser, we pretty much only catch Marsh Warblers. Something interesting to look into and analyse a bit further..

We thought the 782 total was quiet – well the night of the 8th / morning of the 9th was completely clear – the first mistless night we’ve had so far. No nets were put up but Kevin from the Nairobi Ringing Group did manage to catch a Common Button Quail (also known by the wonderful name of ‘Andalusian Hemipode’ in some parts of southern Europe) by hand that had flopped into the lodge viewing area – the second for the year. I was working on comments on the EIA for the Bedford Biofuels fiasco of a project in the Tana River Delta which I must blog about seperately, but it meant I was up late also half keeping an eye on the mist. I was sitting next to one of the windows of the dining room that faces east and at about 2am there was a ‘thump!’ next to me on the glass and looking out there was a second button quail! I managed to creep round and grab it as well and since it was only slightly stunned we ringed it too! David & Ian then saw a third hit the wall of the lodge near them but it recovered immediately and took off before they could get it. Three in a night must be near a record..

Common Button Quail

But no mist meant no birds. We had the Marsh Warbler tape on which meant that we just managed to get over 100 – 113 – for the day, but it was a day for meetings and discussions and I had an excellent training session with the Nairobi Ringing Group guys going through the theory and logic of why you age a Marsh Warbler ‘3’ (first year) or ‘4’ (adult) which I think we all found stimulating.

The oddest thing the past 3-4 days has been the almost total absence of Barn Swallows around. Normally with the tape switching on you suddenly have 100s of them flying all over. However we put the tapes on and absolutely nothing happens. This stems back from the night we had the 2-hour long heavy storm and other rain around during the day too – it seems after this, the swallows just dried up, even when we had reasonable mist last night, the number of swallows was still pitiful. The previous days we had been catching over 200 per day and in the park there were birds all over – then they just disappeared. I discussed the possible reasons for why with David P but really couldn’t come up with much of an answer… Interesting. I never managed to get the photo uploaded of the home-made ring we had on a swallow – here it is:

Our ring is at the top, the home-maded one below

And so to the morning of the 10th. Immediately after supper while we were still having animated discussions with one of Kenya’s leading bird guides, Brian Finch, about various splits and lumping of species that is going on / needed… the mist started to come in and not long after that – by 10:30pm in fact – the mist was rolling in thick and beautiful and there were birds all over the place. The leopard had behaved wonderfully and come at 6:35 pretty much as soon as his leg of goat had been tied up, so there were no tourists waiting for it and we therefore went straight out and stuck up the nets catching 60+ birds in about 20 mins. We were therefore just getting settled in for a really big night… when the mist cleared and lifted and turned into a high film of cloud that wasn’t going to bring any birds in – and sure enough the catching evaporated. I figured I’d hit the sack and woke at 4:40am to find thick mist outside and two tables of ringers at it. The mist had returned at c.3:30am and was almost too thick and in fact persisted until almost 8am.

View from lodge at 6:15am on 10th Dec

Ngulia in the mist

Catching had been steady from then ending with a night total of 502 birds and once again some good variety with lots of Thrush Nightingales and Iranias. It meant, however that there were plenty of birds in the bush. We opened in the thick mist and in fact didn’t get the flurry of hectic activity that can so often be the case after a night of good mist – perhaps it was too thick and the birds stayed in bed as it were. But they continued coming and as a result we caught over 1,100 more giving a total of 1,623.

Kerry (yellow bag) & Ian (black coat) carrying poles of bags up to ringing tables

Bird bags full of birds by net

<DJP at the nets. < Sunrise through the mist

I’ve not got the breakdown of the species but there were several Rock Thrushes, Upcher’s, Olive-tree and Olivaceous Warblers, a v bright-eyed adult male Barred Warbler, several Basra Reeds, our first ‘Bog Thrush’ – Great Reed Warbler – for the season and the first Blackcap as well. What was interesting was a pulse of Willow Warblers – but not only that but many of them were of the very grey far eastern race, yakutensis, which were the first we’d seen this year. On the table where I was ringing with David & Kerry we had three in a row.

a very grey yakutensis race of Willow Warbler

DJP, professional scribe Fi, & Kerry at the ringing table

Swallows were a bit more in evidence but not greatly, but one of the major distractions of the morning apart from the variety was another of a very odd form of swallow that several had been caught of last week – a young bird that was very white underneath, had very large spots in the tail and had apparently already moulted its body feathers but was a few weeks behind all the other ‘normal’ swallows on its primary moult – a strategy / pattern that totally does not fit for normal Hirundo rustica.

That was the end of the ringing for me for the year as I have had to get back to work in Watamu. I left in the most thunderous rain at about 6pm driving our trusty old blue car that is part-owned by the Ngulia Ringing Group and had a very muddy hour’s drive over to Mtito to wait for the night bus back here. On the road I had no less than 3 scops owls – Eurasian? African? apparently nigh on impossible to tell in the field and I didn’t get good enough views to really say, though at least two were quite silvery which might have meant Eurasian. Also 2 Heuglin’s Coursers and a smattering of nightjars. Talking of nightjars, a dead Nubian Nightjar was found near the lodge walls during the swallow catching operations. It must have got dazzled and hit a wall in the night – a real shame as it’s probably our rarest nightjar at Ngulia and one of the most beautiful.

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Heavy rain, high mist, first Sedge Warbler, total 11,161 birds ringed

A very different night last night. A heavy rain storm came in at around 11pm and continued until almost 1am after which there was just a low cloud / high mist that didn’t really bring any birds down at all. During the rain, however, there was about 1/2 hour when apparently the birds dropping out of the sky were like moths, there were so many… a sight never to forget which I was sad not to see as I was trying to catch up on missed sleep. I was up at 3am to see what was happening but found no birds hanging waiting to be ringed, a very small crew standing around doing not a lot and no mist in sight – though no stars either, but just no birds coming in. So after sorting out a light issue with David P, I headed back to try and have a fitful 1 1/2 hours sleep before dawn.

Dawn came in a torrent of rain from the west and a freezing wind (well, freezing for here..). For pretty much the first time I can remember in 18 years of coming we had to wait 20 mins before opening the nets at dawn and even then it was raining a bit still. In the night all the hundreds of birds that had come down in the rain had clearly drifted off as there was very little going into the nets and the total for the day ended up as a mere 391 birds – next to no Swallows in sight even with the tapes on so nets were closed early and instead some lengthy discussions on ageing of Afrotropical birds and wader moult and migration studies were had around either a cold beer or a hot coffee…

There was a highlight in the morning catch – the first and only Sedge Warbler of the season which are one of my favourite migrant warblers with their handsome stripy head and streaked back. Very cool. Also a Eurasian Cuckoo was caught in the thick of the heavy rain – soaked and waterlogged on the lawn and pretty much unable to fly. After a couple of hours in a warm bird bag it looked like a cuckoo once again and was released with its ring – a fortunate bird as otherwise it would not have survived the drenching. With some interesting moult in a couple of immature weavers and a Crimson-rumped Waxbill, some of us had some good stuff to talk about.

Marsh Warblers continue to make up the vast majority of the catch with 62% of todays birds being this species and 59% of the years total. I’ve tried to put the last two days totals with the season’s total as well below – hope it comes out OK on the blog.

The mist seems to be coming in already and it’s only 11:30pm. The leopard hasn’t come for his leg of goat but we may put the nets up soon anyway if the birds are coming in…

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Species/month                     Dec                                                                                                      

date                                      6           6          6              7          7           7              2010     2010     2010

night / day / total:               N          D          T              N          D          T              night    day       total

Tringa ochropus                                                                                                                  1           1

Oxylophus jacobinus                                                                                                           1           1

Otus scops                                                                                                             1                        1

Caprimulgus europaeus                                                1                       1              8           1           9

Coracias garrulus                                                                                                   2           3           5

Hirundo rustica                                 209      209          1          4           5              9           1668     1677

Delichon urbica                                 26        26                                                                  60         60

Anthus trivialis                                                                                                                                  

Luscinia megarhynchos       2                       2                                                       7           6           13

L. luscinia                             42         34        76            29        53         82            500       664       1164

Cercotrichas galactotes       2           2          4                                                       4           5           9

Irania gutturalis                   11         12        23                        3           3              69         107       176

Phoenicurus phoenicurus                                                                                       1                        1

O. isabellina                                                                                                                        1           1

Monticola saxatilis                           2          2                                                       1           4           5

Muscicapa striata                             4          4                                                                    21         21

Locustella fluviatilis             20         11        31            5          5           10            97         104       201

Acrocephalus schoenobaenus                                                               1              1                        1    1

A. arundinaceus                                                                                                                                

A. griseldis                           2           7          9              1          4           5              4           21         25

A. scirpaceus                                     1          1                                                                    3           3

A. palustris                           635       642      1277        37        207       244          3061     3475     6536

Hippolais pallida O’vacs      2           11        13                                                     4           26         30

H. languida  Upchers           1           1          2                                                       1           7           8

H. olivetorum O’tree                        4          4                                                                    11         11

Sylvia nisoria                                                                             1           1              1           12         13

S. communis                        57         117      174          1          27         28            321       683       1004

S. borin                                              1          1                                                       1           4           5

P. collybita                                                                                                             1                        1

P. trochilus                           11         7          18                        5           5              38         30         68

Lanius collurio                      1           9          10                        5           5              6           76         82

L. isabellinus                                     6          6                          1           1              5           24         29

Number of full species        12         19        20            7          12         13            22         27         30

Daily total                            786       1,106   1,892       75        316       391          4,142    7,019    11,161

Running totals                     4,067    6,703   10,770     4,142   7,019    11,161     4,142    7,019    11,161

Night as % of whole day’s total       42%                                 19%                                   37%         

% Ap of day’s catch:            67%                                  62%                                  59%                  

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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…


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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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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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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