Category Archives: Birding

The first vultures seen and some other raptors – but still no rain or mist

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…

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Back to third, not second record of Greater Short-toed Lark for Kenya

Yes – I’ve heard back from Brian Finch, one of Kenya’s top bird guides and birders, who confirms he had a single bird in central Kenya in November 2003. That therefore makes this record of ours the third one – though he has yet to submit the record to the Rarities Committee (as do I!).

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National rarity is rarer than I’d thought – Greater Short-toed Lark

A week or so ago, volunteer Al posted a blog for me about the amazing discovery of what turned out to be a national rarity – the two Greater Short-toed Larks Calandrella brachydactyla just in behind Turtle Bay Beach Club in Watamu. From the books it seemed like it was the third record for Kenya (the others being in 1964 at Diani on the south coast and a much earlier record in 1899) but it turns out that the 1899 record was misidentified and has since been rejected thus making this one (if it is accepted by the rarities committee of East Africa) as only the second record. The species is one that I used to catch and ring quite often in Portugal when I worked there and certainly saw many of – though that was getting on for 18 years ago and my memory isn’t as good as some!

Rehema, Albert & Al watching a pair of Greater Short-toed Larks near the mangroves of Mida not far from Turtle Bay…

This blog is mostly to post some images more of the bird with some annotations… make your own judgement of what it is – comments welcome!

  The small but visible dark patch on the side of the neck can be seen in the right hand bird here
quite finely streaked head and back
Note the buffy / yellowish bill, clear supercilium with dark post-ocular stripe (behind the eye); also the somewhat ‘bland’ face
bland face again clear here; also long tertials
The very plain underparts are an important ID characteristic together with the slight blotches on the side of the lower neck
The dark centres of the median coverts forming a dark wing bar are also a feature of the species
Here you can see the white outer tail feathers – just…
Clearly unmarked underparts

This one is a rather cool shot of it looking like a torpedo…


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3rd ever Kenyan sighting of Greater Short-toed Lark!

Ten years ago, whilst working with Turtle Bay Beach Club, Colin produced a map of the local area for the benefit of bird enthusiasts who were visiting the resort. The map covered nearby Turtle Bay and Dabaso areas and showed visitors taking a walk inland what kind of birds the might expect to see where.

In the intervening years, the local area has changed drastically as a result of development, but the map hasn’t been updated to indicate any changes to bird communities this may have caused. So, with a mind to change that, an intrepid group set out very early Thursday morning to see what they would see, with little anticipation of how significant the morning would be.

On the old airstrip by Dabaso rock, Colin noticed a pair of small brown birds feeding that he couldn’t immediately identify. Back at Mwamba, a study of the field guides suggested that it might be a rare sighting of the Greater Short-Toed Lark. On the suspicion  that  they might still be feeding there, another group hopped in the jeep and sped back out to the airstrip. Hopes were raised when they were immediately found again in the same spot and the view through the telescope confirmed that they were indeed Greater Short-Toed Larks!

The significance of this sighting is that according to the book ‘Birds of Kenya and Northern Tanzania’ by Zimmerman et al (1996), there are only two previous records for the whole of Kenya! The first was way back in 1899, whilst the most recent was 45 years ago in 1964! Whilst it is conceivable that there have been more sightings since the book was published, their rareity means that is unlikely that they would have happened without Mwamba Bird Centre hearing about it. Therefore, we can tentatively claim to have recorded Kenyas 3rd sighting!

Greater Short-Toed Lark (Calandrella brachydactyla longipennis)

Little Stint no-show at Sabaki River bird count

Early Saturday morning found us piling into the pick-up truck and making the drive to the Sabaki River, north of Malindi. There, we met the local bird enthusiast group, the ‘Sabaki Skimmers’ – Dixon, Michael, Joseph, Patrick and Sammy all guys from the village who are excited by conservation. A long walk through muddy mangroves and dunes to the river mouth followed and from there, we were ready to start counting the multitude of birds that were hanging out there.

Colin gives the Sabaki Skimmers a pep talk

Armed with a plethora of binoculars, telescopes, notepads, tally counters and the ubiquitous suncream (for the mzungus at least!), we split into two teams and started purposely pointing our lenses towards the fields of flamingos, Sanderlings and Crab-plovers and scribbling frantic notes.

As the morning wore on, we gradually made away up the delta, crossing hippo tracks and checking out the fish the local kids had caught, which amounted to a small handful of tiny baby fish. Disappointingly, there were several groups of kids out in the river fishing with mosquito nets. Not only is fishing illegal by national law in the river, fishing with a net with such small net sizes means that no fish can escape. Estuaries such as the Sabaki River Delta are vital habitats for juvenile fish, offering them protection amongst the mangroves from predators and other threats in the open ocean. Such non-discriminating fishing methods sweep up young fish and allow only the very very lucky ones to reach maturity and thus threaten the long-term viability of local fisheries. And yet, these kids need to eat. One of the challenges of conservation is ensuring the long term sustainability of habitats, as well as the livelihoods of the local people.

Local fisher-kids

Nearly 3 and a half hours later, with the mzungu skin truly beginning to crisp, we made our final counts. A successful morning indeed – we counted 42 species  and a total of 7,305 individual birds. Of these, it was particularly interesting to  large numbers of White-cheeked Terns and surprisingly, a major lack of Little Stints, a reason for which still baffles!

Counting flamingos

Should the Church be involved in conservation & climate change issues?

I’ve been away for a couple of weeks in Nairobi for a Micah Network conference discussing the church’s response to Climate Change. It was an awesome week involving people from c.46 nations and making a strong statement that the church has no option but to be fully involved in making a difference to reduce carbon emissions and the impact of climate change on particularly the poor and disadvantaged.

When I talk of A Rocha Kenya as a Christian conservation organisation I get a lot of people being quite surprised to hear that we are a specifically Christian organisation that is doing on-the-ground conservation work – doing biological research and monitoring surveys, working with communities and also environmental education in schools etc. It seems that amazingly few people (Christians and non-Christians alike) have really made the link between the environment and Christian living / biblical teaching. In fact a famous essay in 1967 by Lynn White Jr put the blame of the ecological crisis fair and square on the church’s shoulders – something which in many ways, Christians cannot deny as many have, sadly, misinterpreted the bible to say that we have the right to use the environment around us just as we want to – rather than to be the good stewards that in fact God would have us be. To use the world, yes – but to use it wisely and respectfully and not to harm it nor degrade it.

It was therefore awesome to be in a conference with such a diverse group of people who unanimously agreed that the church should be in fact leading the way in fighting against the environmental degradation we see in the world today and particularly to be lobbying governments to implement legislation to reduce carbon emissions as well as teaching their congregations to change their lifestyles to something more sustainable. A statement was written with input from everyone there that is aimed at the global church together with another one for the politicians of the world – to be tabled at the summit in Copenhagen later this year. This statement can be found on the Micah Network website so do check it out.

I of course managed to get some birding in and actually found a tiny patch of highland forest that is still clinging on amongst the tea fields of Limuru where we had great views of some forest birds – White-browed Crombec, White-starred Robin, Abyssinian Hill Babbler, Brown Woodland Warbler, Grey Apalis (and three other species of apalis – Chestnut-throated, Yellow-breasted and Black-collared) and Cabanis’ Greenbul. At the conference centre – Brackenhurst – they’ve cut down some eucalypt plantations and planted indigenous forest trees which are now 5-10m tall and the bird life has really increased. Cinnamon Bracken Warbler, Yellow-bellied Waxbill, 9 species of sunbird and Giant Kingfishers in the small dam at the bottom of the hill.

Giant Kingfisher

This was followed by a Sunday morning at Lake Nakuru National Park joining the team from the National Museums of Kenya Ornithology Section doing the July waterfowl counts – which was awesome… we counted over 15,000 Great White Pelicans in one flock in front of us and about 45,000 lesser flamingo… stunning, stunning views (whilst dodging grumpy buffalo at the same time). A very good couple of weeks away!

Rare Frigatebird distrupts the routine

Monday mornings are not the most exciting times of the week and with the prospect of a morning full of meetings, one doesn’t expect v much of great excitement to happen. Having said that, since our meeting ‘room’ is on the flat roof of the centre with a makuti (palm frond) roof over our heads and a great view of the Indian Ocean from it, I’ve in fact got quite a healthy species list of birds that I’ve seen during meetings from there! Stanley & Roni were having a brief meeting pre-Monday Morning Meeting (weekly staff planning meeting) up on top and I went up just to check something with them… As I was talking a movement caught my eye beyond and above them – a huge black bird with long sharply angled wings giving it a keenly rakish feel was hanging in the sky only about 100m away at tree-top level.. a frigatebird!!! Chaos erupted as I charged downstairs shouting for binoculars and a garbled message to others to come and see. I grabbed the bins and galloped back up to the top to see if it was in sight – marvel of marvels it was and not just that but it turned as if spinning on a dime and effortlessly drifted back along the shoreline to pass right overhead about 70ft high giving stunning, nay – ‘crippling’ views, as they say, of what must be one of the most spectacular birds of the oceans!

The bird was clearly a young one from its off-white head and white breast patch which we carefully noted did not extend onto the underneath of the wings thus making it a Greater Frigatebird, not a Lesser – which is the rarer of the two. However even Greaters are not exactly common as this is probably only the 6th frigatebird I’ve seen in 11 years though I know others have been reported on occasion. They are very much the pirates of the oceans mostly snatching their food off terns which they bully to make them regurgitate or drop the fish they’ve caught and then performing the most outrageous of aerobatics to catch the prey before it hits the water. They are totally the masters of the oceans air space and are a huge delight to just hang out and watch. God had some mega ideas when he designed those things!!

Greater Frigatebird