I arrived back at Ngulia yesterday evening to find a full team of 18 ringers all keen to get into action in ringing the legendary thousands of migrant birds that come down to the lights of the lodge under the right conditions… but still so far there has been not a wisp of mist when it has been needed (the feature that together with the bright spot lights attracts the birds) and as a result we’ve only just passed the 1,000 bird mark today – of which over 900 are Barn Swallows!
I woke a couple of times in the night last night to check to see if the mist was rolling in and we’d be in action but to no avail and at 5:30am, the view of the front of the lodge looked like this:
Dawn Ngulia this morning – not a wisp of mist…
The three guys standing on the far right silhoutted are the Czech ringers who arrived at the weekend – seen below with Titus an half an hour later at the nets when things were at their busiest in terms of catching birds… yes, grand total for the morning catch was a mere 11 birds.
The unfortunate thing about not catching birds quite apart from having something to occupy the ringers that have come, is that we are missing a lot of very interesting and useful data on the numbers of birds that are passing through the area this year. The ringing here at Ngulia is a good way of monitoring population levels of the various migrant species – but only if we can get consistent conditions whereby we can catch good numbers of birds. As it is this year, we’ve not got anywhere near a representative number of birds with which to give any idea of how populations may be doing.
One thing that did happen today, however, was being able to keep an eye open for raptors moving through. Toby’s got a very good eye for picking them out a long way off and as we were at the net (mending one of the top shelves of a cliff-top net that was in bad need of a fix) we had three Ruppell’s Griffon Vultures cruise past heading north-east along the ridge. Vultures have become very few and far between in Tsavo these days when 20-30 years ago it was not hard at all to see vultures all over. Today, due mainly to poisoning I fear, numbers have plummeted and as a result these are the first ones we’ve seen at the lodge in a week… Large raptors are in serious trouble in Africa (as Simon Thomsett for one will confirm) and Tsavo – even as a National Park the size of Wales – is no exception. There has been a lot of poisoning going on around the edges of National Parks to kill predators that might threaten livestock and unfortunately birds of prey do not understand or adhere to park boundaries and end up feeding on the poisoned carcass left out and die in their hundreds.
There were a few other raptors today of interest – a Grasshopper Buzzard, the first Steppe Buzzard of the season at the lodge, 10-12 Steppe Eagles, the resident pair of Verreaux’s Eagles gave a stunning fly-by including some aerial display of towering stoops and climbs with one of them doing a complete 180 degree backwards roll at the top of one of its towers – awesome to watch. We had a several Wahlberg’s Eagles as well (apparently there’s a nest not far back along the road leading to the lodge) including a very very dark, practically black bird that was very smart to look at, two juvenile Black-chested Snake Eagles and a two African Hawk Eagles. Falcon-wise there were a couple of Euro Hobbies, one of the local pair of Lanners (pictured below banking at speed in a typically impressive falcon style), a single Amur falcon towards dusk, a juvenile Shikra in the trees around the lodge at breakfast and the pair of Verreaux’s Eagle Owls came to perch on the dead tree over the waterhole during dinner.
Lanner at Ngulia – not quite up to Simon Thomsett’s standard of photo!
As there were so few birds (even with walking through the bushes to flush any lurking Sprossers out – see Toby at work below…) we ended up putting up the swallow nets on the lawn (dirt, as it is this year….) earlier and catching c.75 birds over about 7 hours.
Some of the guys then decided to put up some nets in the quite significantly bushier area along the road leading into the lodge which is where we used to ring prior to 1995 when we started putting nets in front of the lodge as we found we caught many more migrants there. As its more bushy, there’s a greater chance of catching at least some more Afrotropical birds – for whom there’s just no cover nor food in the bush in front of the lodge yet given the lack of rain to stimulate vegetation growth. They caught a single Grey-backed Camaraptera and three aptly-named Superb Starlings – one of them pictured here.
Superb Starling having been ringed
The leopard came early to eat his snack satisfying the tourists many of whom come to Ngulia solely to see the leopard and meaning that if the mist comes in, we can put the nets up straight away without fear of disturbing tourists who’re staying up to watch for the leopard. It wasn’t looking too bad after dinner – we had a short briefing session to update all the team on where things stand and the plans for the night and morning and at the end of it the stars had disappeared and some lowish cloud come in. I went to bird early for once planning to get up at 00.30hrs to write this and wait for the mist to come in for real… of course when I got up just now, the cloud had cleared and it’s clear and starry once again and quite chilly. I reckon I’ll go hit the sack again once this has been posted and see if Peter can whistle up some mist during his watch from 3-4am.
Ngulia leopard having his snack…