Category Archives: Arabuko-Sokoke Forest

Volunteer ringing and an ancient brownbul

Hi, my name is Rehema Safari and I come from Watamu. I finished my ecotourism diploma in Air Travel and Related Studies Centre in Nairobi and came back to my home town and volunteer with A Rocha Kenya.

Being a bird enthusiast, I was very excited when I got to do the bird ringing training course while volunteering as I have never ringed birds before. This happens very early in the morning between five thirty and midday because it is the perfect time to catch birds. On one of the mornings when we were at Gede Plantations we got to ring over twenty birds including a white morph African Paradise Flycatcher which Alan was very keen on putting a ring on as he’s never had one in South Africa. He was so excited and spent the remainder of the day grinning from ear to ear.

Me with the Paradise Flycatcher

A Terrestrial Brownbul (ring number AA4334) was the highlight of the day being a re-trap with a ring not of A Rocha for Colin did not ring it and he has been ringing birds for years. We are yet to contact the original ringer of the bird and tell him the good news that his bird is still alive and we got to see it. I cannot wait for tomorrow’s ringing and see what happens next!

Terrestrial Brownbul AA4334

Ed’s note: We’ve heard back from the Ringing Scheme of eastern Africa (the EANHS) re. the Terrestrial Brownbul:

“Here is the ringing info:

1. Bird was ringed as Northern Brownbul – Phyllastrephus strepitans and not Terrestrial Brownbul.

2. The bird was ringed at Arabuko Sokoke Forest by the Spotted Ground Thrush Survey Project.

3. Date ringed 22.06.2003

4. Biometrics are: Age- F; Mass; 27gms; Wing – 80mm;”…this is interesting and in fact what I suspected when we caught it – that it was likely ringed as a Northern which is very similar. They are differentiated by the Terrestrial having a clear white throat that is more sharply demarcated from a brown breast – the Northern’s white throat merges gradually into the brown of the breast. Also Terrestrial has pinkish-purple legs whilst Northern has blue-grey legs. This was the only Terrestrial we caught in the plantations – all the others were Northern. Clearly the Spotted Ground Thrush Survey Project Team were hotter on Spotted Ground Thrush identification than plain brownbuls (not enough spots??!).

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Invaders from the North

At a few minutes past midnight on Tuesday morning Mwamba was taken over by a Finish invasion. 16 students, their teachers and driver arrived from the University of Helsinki. They’re travelling each day to Arabuko Sokoke, Mida Creek and as far as Dakatcha Woodlands to study the local geography and botany.

Unfortunately, on the way here their car broke down outside Tsavo Park and they were delayed by several hours. It was a strange experience to go to bed only to be woken up a short while later by Laurence, our night watchman. Then we got busy serving up meat, rice and salad to a dining room full of travellers who were very tired but still hungry at midnight!

We’ll continue in the Mwamba tradition of welcoming guests from all over the world next week when a similar sized group arrives from the USA.

Spreading the conservation net

On Tuesday a 5 day journey began for the Assets team across the Arabuko Sokoke Forest region. The purpose was to meet with as many of the Assets beneficiaries as possible for conservation classes. These classes are compulsory for those who want to receive the bursaries and ensure that the students understand why they receive them by learning about the dangers to their local environment. It’s also a good time to hand over report forms and discuss academic progress. Stanley and the team are working flat out and camping overnight in order to be at the schools early in the morning. If you want to find out more about AssetHolding up the Net.JPGs beneficiaries days or anything else about Assets please visit www.assets-kenya.org

Albert holding up a bird ringing net during the class

so, what’s this ringing thing all about anyway

It has come to our attention that many of you may not know what bird ringing is…..In case any of you have imagined us standing about in the forest use birds as hand bells, let me clarify things.

Bird ringing, also known as bird banding, refers to the process of catching birds in the wild, tagging them with a number, recording basic statistics such as wing length, age and weight and then releasing them back into the wild. Hopefully, these ringed birds will one day be recaptured, providing important information about their movement patterns and other life history traits.

coling-with-bird-2.jpg  Colin clamping a ring on a bird

The bird ringing process begins with nets – lots of nets, made from fine dark twine which blends nicely into the forest and seems to tangle itself into knots whenever we turn our backs. We set up walls of this fine nearly invisible netting and hide in the bushes as the sun is rising, drinking tea,  hoping that  unwary birds will fly into our nets.  As we untangle birds from the nets, they are dropped unceremonially into small cloth bags which are then hung on spare wrists and arms and whatever other limbs are available, as we make the rounds of the nets, collecting our catch.

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Bernard and Colin
The ringing itself involves securing a small metal ring engraved with an identification number onto a sometimes less than willing bird leg. Once the ring is closed, the bird is weighed and measured and then set free to get back to its birdy business.  Today was our last day of ringing with Colin, our director but the ringing will go on! For at least a few more days…….

Ringing Continues at Arabuko-Sokoke Forest

Ringing has continued with gusto and Colin has been encouraging everyone to get up earlier and earlier!  Today it was 04:30am!  We have had 4 days ringing so far and we’ve ringed 106 birds of which 11 have been re-traps from this week.  We still only have one Spotted ground thrush, which is worrying because it is an indicator of how healthy and undisturbed this forest and the breeding grounds in Tanzania are.  New birds since Tuesday have included the Blue mantle crested flycatcher, the Yellow bellied bulbul and today’s special catch, the Grey backed camaroptera.  In the Arabuko-Sokoke Forest this bird is special because scientists think the ASF Grey backed camaroptera has different DNA from Grey backed camaropteras elsewhere.  For this reason, after ringing the bird and recording its details, Colin took a small blood sample which will be sent away to have its DNA analysed.  The difference in DNA means that the  ASF Grey backed camaroptera could be an endemic species.

Grey backed camaroptera

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Meet Jonathan Baya, our Conservation Officer

jonathan.jpg 

My name is Jonathan Baya.  I started working for A Rocha Kenya in 2002 after a long period of 22 years serving the former owner of the field study centre – Barbara Simpson.  I started as a gardener in the years 1982, then she found me as an enthusiastic person, who was very keen in participating on plants sale, flower shows and local community awareness. I was made a member of the Kenya Horticultural Society and was now able to compete with high class artists and florists.  I would bite them down in winning first classes etc in exhibits.  I became a driver in the year 1987 so that I could drive Mrs Simpson’s guests to the Arabuko-Sokoke forest for bird watching.  This made me even more interested in nature and I was called in 1996 to Kakamega District in Western Kenya for a para taxonomy course and to Nairobi for a first aid course.  In 1997 the Arabuko-Sokoke forest was under threat of being invaded by squatters, asking for 3,000 hectares on the Southern part of the forest.  I, together with other guides, went to visit homes every day, telling them the importance of the forest other than farming.  We succeeded and more than 100 people were driven out with Machetes. When Barbara died I was a hopeless person.  I was working as a taxi driver and was earning a lot of money, but to me it meant nothing, as I felt there was something lacking in me – ‘building the broken world.’  A Rocha Kenya was in the directorship of Colin Jackson, whom I had previously spent time camping with in the forest, close to Mida creek.  We had also been with Jeff Davies.  While chatting around the camp fire we had talked about finding a place to establish an office for A Rocha Kenya close to the forest but Colin was a bit vague on land policy.  He never knew the the plans of God for him – that one day A Rocha Kenya would own Barbara’s property for the office.  Me, I did not know that I would join him and continue to work for the community.  I have worked for Assets for the last 7 years now on tree nurseries.   conserving-nature-for-the-future.jpg

In the picture above, the little baby has joined the parents of the Girimacha Primary School tree nursery.  She is very happy but not really understanding what is happening around her – being out on a hot day, building seed beds for a tree nursery.  We want to re-construct the broken environment from our forefathers, for future generations.

Jonathan Baya – A Rocha Kenya Conservation Officer

Finally! …an SGT!!!

YES!! We got one! We had to get up earlier this morning – 4:30am so as to get into the forest in time to open the nets before dawn since you catch most birds as they come out of roost and start moving about in the first hour of daylight (especially here on the coast as bird activity drops very quickly in the mornings, presumably because of it being so much hotter and more humid than inland). We had a rumple at the Kenya Wildlife Service office where we were to sign in and get a key for the barrier into the forest – even though we’d told them the day before we were coming, the key and book hadn’t been left out… so we had to go and wake the ranger to open the office to get the key. Albert leapt into action and found the guy and was back within 5 mins so we still made it to the barrier in time. As we drove the 3kms into the forest where we’d left the nets, there was a LOT of fresh elephant activity – they’d been ploughing up the road again during the night and the signs continued all the way to where we parked and started walking the last 100m to the nets! One set of dung looked very fresh but was cold so we knew it was probably 2-3 hours old but all the same we figured we’d not split up to open the nets and worked on them together – Albert, Mercy and me. At the second set of nets which were a little way into the forest, we ran into ‘siafu’ – ‘safari ants’ which some would say are to be more feared more than elephants… As we were trying to avoid the ants whilst open the nets there was a loud ‘crash’ not that far away – an ele breaking a branch off for breakfast. There was immediately a “CJ!… CJ! Ndovu! Twende!!” (CJ… elephant! Let’s get out of here!!) from Albert – so I finished opening the net I was at and we bundled for the road where we could run more easily!

First round of the nets is always the most interesting since you catch the most birds and particularly in a new site as you never quite know what you’re going to get – it’s a bit like Christmas and opening presents… it’s always a surprise! Sure enough, the first nets 45mins later were a surprise – just 1 bird in 5 nets in what looked like great habitat. But then we hit the net where we’d heard the ele earlier on and had Red-tailed Ant Thrush and Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher – beautiful forest specialists… but no SGT. It wasn’t until we reached the penultimate net that Alba let a hoot of ecstasty and dashed forward to a large, spotted bird in the second panel – a Spotted Ground Thrush!

A happy Albert extracting a Spotted Ground Thrush from a mist net

Back at the ringing table we began ringing and processing all the birds (taking biometric measurements & recording moult etc) and releasing them again.

Albert holding Spotted Ground Thrush A very happy Albert with the SGT

Spotted Ground Thrush caught for ringing

The SGT came out of the bag and was ringed and measured just when a group of community members came passed on their way to clear the track further into the forest. It was an excellent opportunity to show them this rare bird and explain about the importance of the forest for conservation and particularly this species. This is such a critical part of the work – talking to and engaging with the local community members, both adults and children to explain about caring for the environment – God’s world.

Colin explaining to community members about the Spotte Ground Thrush

The SGT was identified as an adult due to the lack of any brown juvenile feathers amongst the white spots on its wings and we released it. The concern is that in six intensive days of ringing in prime Ground Thrush habitat, we’ve only caught the one bird. 15 years ago it was a different picture with thrushes being seen and caught quite frequently. The challenge is to work out what has gone wrong and the even greater challenge is to address the problem and turn it around – if indeed it is possible. The likely cause is destruction of the forests in southern Tanzania where the thrush breeds since Arabuko-Sokoke is pretty much as it has been for the past 20 years.

In total we caught 33 birds of 10 species which is quite reasonable for 12 nets in a coastal forest where bird densities are not very high – just what you catch is very special!

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Arabuko Swamp mixed forest and a Narina’s Trogon

We moved the nets yesterday from the Nature Trail to a new site near the ASSETS tree platform that overlooks Arabuko Swamp. ‘Swamp’ sounds a bit unpleasant and it’s not a good name for the site as it is fact a seasonal vlei / pool surrounded in long grass and with waterlilies and often amazing numbers of wetland birds. The forest immediately adjacent to it is of the ‘Mixed Forest’ type – once dominated by Afzelia quanzensis, the Pod Mahogany but that was all cut out by the British loggers in the 50s and 60s, so foresters renamed the habitat as simply ‘mixed’ as it has quite a diversity of trees. This Mixed Forest type is the preferred habitat for the Spotted Ground Thrush and a couple of years ago I found two here, one which I watched for almost 2 hours! So we put 12 nets up yesterday and ringed this morning.

The first morning in a new site you always catch quite a bit and sure enough our first round of the nets produced 17 birds – the subsequent rounds only produced one or two! Sadly no ground thrush and the area has been brutally hammered by elephants with huge trees pushed over and smaller ones twisted and ripped up thus opening up the canopy to more light and allowing denser vegetation grow close to the ground. The SGT prefers slightly open understorey and I wonder if it hasn’t moved from this site now… Anyway the first round produced once of the beauties of the forest – a female Narina Trogon (see below). She may be a beauty, but the picture doesn’t let you smell how atrocious a stink they make…! (typical of large insect-eating birds, it seems!).

Narina Trogon being ringed

The morning ended up with some sparkle as well in the form of a male Peter’s Twinspot – again, outrageous colours and a gem of a bird to see close up in the hand.

Peter’s Twinspot

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Spotted Ground Thrush surveys

One of the main reasons for coming back to Watamu from my sabbatical in Cape Town has been to help Albert, the A Rocha Kenya Research Assistant, with ringing (bird banding) surveys for the Globally Endangered Spotted Ground Thrush Zoothera guttata. This handsome and enigmatic bird exists in a few populations in Africa but numbers are seriously dwindling and we are really concerned for it’s future. Here in Kenya it is a non-breeding visitor from southern Tanzania and probably northern Mozambique (tho’ relatively little ornithological work has been done there to look for it). We know it comes from Tanzania as about eight years ago one was found in Mombasa (in the Tamarind Resraurant gardens in fact!) with a ring that had been put on it by Neil & Liz Baker in the forests in southern Tz.
A beaut of a shot of an “SGT” by Steffen Forster taken in Gede Ruins forest.

Since the early ’90s survey work has shown an 80% decrease in the numbers of birds occuring in Arabuko-Sokoke Forest and Gede Ruins forest – the main sites for the species in Kenya. These forests, whilst having suffered quite a lot of illegal logging (esp ASF), are basically still intact and it’s unlikely that the decrease has been due to problems here. Much more likely is the forests where the bird breeds in southern Tanzania are getting flattened… A Rocha Kenya has been given a small grant from the Critical Ecosystem Profile Fund (CEPF) through NatureKenya to do 18 months of more thorough survey of the species in Arabuko-Sokoke. Albert has been doing the main observation transects – walking quietly and slowly through the forest on a path and stopping every 100m to listen and record all he sees, but so far in over 25kms of transect has only seen two birds. We also want to do several sessions of ringing in different sites to try and pick up the bird – but Albert can’t do it on his own, hence why I’m here to help.

So the past two mornings we’ve had nets up on the Nature Trail near the Gede forest station – the main station for Arabuko-Sokoke – which is known to be the best site to try and see the thrush. I’ve been ringing there since 1998 and there were others before that and we sometimes catch birds that were ringed way back. Yesterday we caught 23 birds including a couple of East Coast Akalats which is another Globally Threathened species that we get in the forest and otherwise a lot of greenbuls, some sunbirds, thrushes and flycatchers. The star of the show was, however, a Sokoke Pipit Anthus sokokensis which is the first I’ve caught for a very long time and the first for this site – and what a beaut of a tiny pipit it is!

On the second day you always catch fewer birds – 14 today – with three African Pygmy Kingfishers Ispidina picta which are stunning little blue jewels. Sam was the photographer and got a shot of one hanging in the net before we carefully extracted it – and it shows off its colours superbly!

The blue fire of the forest – an African Pygmy Kingfisher caught in a mist net

Albert carefully extracting the kingfisher – these are
migrants from Tanzania and Mozambique as well as the ground thrush
though we’ve not yet had a ringed one found to know exactly where they
go.

This sort of work is so important for keeping track on what the bird populations are doing, how long birds are surviving, if there are young birds around to tell you the species is successfully breeding still etc. We’ve got a bit of funding from CEPF to cover the transport and salary costs to do the surveys, but I’m realising just how hammered our mist nets are becoming after 10 years of use for some of them! There are a few holes that an ostrich would fit through and which are not easy to mend. These are not cheap – $100-$140 each depending on the length – and is something that would hugely useful to replace.