Category Archives: endangered species

Dakatcha Clarke’s Weaver Search

The past week has seen a team of intrepid bird-watchers and guides scouring the Dakatcha Forest for the endangered and elusive Clarke’s Weaver.  This bird is a great unknown, without any information recorded on its breeding habits, habitat or breeding season, so finding it presented a great challenge!

I was representing A Rocha on the trip, after over-stretched leader Colin was forced to withdraw due to meetings and lack of vehicle (another story entirely!) so I was the highest ranking (and only) A Rocha member present.  The team was led by Fleur Ng’weno, a veteran and well-known birder from Nairobi, accompanied by myself and half a dozen local guides and birdwatchers.

We set off Monday afternoon from Malindi, after stocking up on provisions and gear, to Marafa, at the edge of the Dakatcha Woodland to meet the District Officer and let him know what we were up to, as well as visiting the local Woodland Support Group, volunteers supporting conservation of the forest and wildlife.  We continued on to Adu, a village on the far northern edge of the woodland, home to many of our party.  Near the town, we found an ideal campsite and pitched tents in a hurry to beat the sunset.  After dinner, everyone was eager to turn in early, in anticipation of a pre-dawn start the next day.

The Dakatcha Woodland is a unique area of forest populated mostly by majestic Brachystegia trees and an abundance of grasses and shrubs and is home to many rare birds and animals, and made a stunning place to camp, surrounded by owls, nightjars and frogs.

Tuesday morning, and the 8-strong group was setting off at 5.30am after hot chai and buttered bread, optimistic and excited about discovering the first known breeding site of the Clarke’s Weaver.  However, it was not be, though we did record many bird species, as well as some unidentified flowers and shrubs.  After a morning of walking, we returned to camp for lunch, then repeated the exercise in the afternoon, with a similar result.

The next 3 days looked much the same.  Though we searched different habitats, areas of the forest and farmland, from before dawn till after dark, the Clarke’s Weavers continued to escape us.  On previous surveys, a few birds have been spotted flying overhead, but this month not a single one was seen, a bit disappointing.

However, we did have some exciting finds.  5 new species were added to the list for Dakatcha, including the Spotted Thick-Knee and the Booted Eagle, which felt like a bit of a consolation prize!  The local guides (and myself!) also received some very valuable training from Fleur, and had plenty of time to appreciate the beauty of such a timeless forest.

Of great concern to the area is the highly destructive industry of charcoal.  Charcoal production and use is extremely inefficient, polluting and requires the cutting of ancient and precious trees for burning.  We saw a worrying number of charcoal kilns and timber harvesting sites deep in the woodland, far from any settlement.  Up to 7 lorries filled with charcoal are leaving the area each day, destined for Mombasa and Nairobi, taking invaluable material from the ecosystem and habitats from the wildlife.  If Clarke’s Weaver breeding sites are discovered, it will go a long way to protecting the area, as sanctuaries for the birds can be installed and monitored.

Friday, the final day of the search, and we had moved camp to a site in which a possible Clarke’s Weaver nest has been sighted in the past for one final look.  All week we had avoided the rain, with only a few showers while we had ben driving, but during our last effort, the forest decided to send us off with a drenching.  Half an hour into our walk, we were soaked to the bone, and dashed back to the car trying to shield binoculars and notebooks from the rain with our bodies, to little avail.

So, we left the forest wet, tired and Clarke’s Weaver-less, but still happy to have added new birds to the list, trained guides and witnessed some amazing countryside, and eager to renew the search!

Sam Oldland (A Rocha Kenya volunteer)

Dakatcha Woodlands under threat of ‘eco-(un)friendly’ jatropha biodiesel project

The Dakatcha Woodlands form one of the 61 internationally important sites in Kenya for bird conservation (and therefore by assumption other biodiversity as well) – known as an ‘IBA’ (Important Bird Area).

a view of the Brachystegia woodland in Marafa – a few years ago before it was hit with charcoaling

It is the only other place on the planet that Clarke’s Weaver Ploceus golandii can be found apart from Arabuko-Sokoke Forest 30kms to the south and it also holds several other Threatened species such as Sokoke Pipit and more recently we discovered a population of Sokoke Scops Owls Otus irenae there. We have been working with NatureKenya to have the woodlands protected, to encourage the local community to stop cutting trees for charcoal and timber and instead to use it sustainably.

Endemic Clarke’s Weaver Ploceus golandii (by Steve Garvie)

NatureKenya has been doing a great work with local groups of young people to encourage them to take up birding and other conservation activities. This is one of the groups with Dominic Mumbu, the NK manager 4th from the left.

This year, however, an even more devastating threat is looming – one that is masquerading as an ‘eco-friendly project’… for bio-diesel. The Malindi County Council has welcomed a proposal by an investor, Kenya Jatropha Energy Limited, to clear large tracts of land for growing Jatropha curcas.  This South American bush has been aggressively promoted in Kenya for the ‘biodiesel’ extracted from the oil in its seeds. It is now being tried in localities that range from rainfall-rich Western Kenya to desert-like Magadi area. Yet little is currently known of the plant’s suitability, its yield under different conditions, and the market capacity. Talking to Ann and Ian Robertson in Malindi – Ian being an experienced farmer and agriculturalist and Ann one of East Africa’s leading botanists – who have planted some jatropha in their garden out of interest, they report that the yield from jatropha is hugely unpredictable, some years it can be good and others it can be dire – and with no apparent reason. As a result it is highly unlikely to be suitable crop to grow on a large commercial scale and much better to be grown by small holders who can exploit the good years and get something out of it and make ends meet on the bad years with the other crops they are growing.

The jatropha / biodiesel issue is going to be one of the hottest debates going in East Africa environmentally in the next few years. A lot of businessmen are likely to jump on the band wagon where they can see big funding coming from the West to fund what some see as effectively covering up the West’s guilt complex for the vast amounts of carbon pollution it is producing – i.e. “give money to developing countries to produce biodiesel so that we can maintain our lifestyles and claim to have reduced carbon emissions – oh, and shame about that priceless forest or wetland that was cleared to grow an alien monoculture, but it’s all for the greater benefit of the planet…”

Anyway – this debate could go on quite a long time here! The point is Dakatcha Woodlands really are under threat of disappearing under an alien monoculture – and thus causing probably at least one species to go extinct.

As A Rocha Kenya we are committed to finding lasting, long-term solutions for conserving such habitats and sites whilst at the same time ensuring that local communities can improve their lifestyles and living standards but reduce their ecological footprint. We have already started working with churches in the Dakatcha Woodlands to introduce them to Conservation Agriculture, a form of farming that hugely improves productivity whilst conserving the soil and in fact improving the soil such that farms become more productive over the years and not less (as they do using the traditional farming methods). This is just one way of seeking to improve the lot of the local communities while teaching them the importance of caring for the environment – God’s creation.


Conservation Agriculture training by Paul Simpson in Marafa, Nov ’08 for church leaders

We’ve employed Gabriel Katana to work alongside the NatureKenya manager in Dakatcha and to also follow up on the Conservation Agriculture workshops we’ve held with church leaders there.

Katana – our right hand man in Dakatcha and doing a great job.
He’s also assisting in bird surveys and done some excellent work on finding how far the Sokoke Scops Owl is found as well as looking out for Clarke’s Weavers and keeping an eye open for where they might breed. The area is quite large however and currently he’s trying to do all this on just a bicycle or sometimes borrowing the piki (motorbike) that the NK manager uses. For him to be really effective we desperately need a piki for him – and then funds to cover its running. Katana’s salary has kindly been covered by a church in the UK, but any assistance towards purchasing a piki would be hugely appreciated.

More to follow…

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First Spotted Ground Thrush in Gede Ruins in 3 years

One Thursday last month we were back in the Gede Ruins National Monument forest – an area of beautiful indigenous forest with huge old trees surrounding the Gede Ruins – for the first monitoring session of the Spotted Ground Thrush this year at the ruins. It was great to have some good assistance in the form of four young volunteers from West Nairobi School (Anna, Stephanie, Natalie and Mario) together with Andrew (volunteering with GIS work), Alex (intern from Tsavo Park Institute) and of course my right hand man, Albert. As usual we finished putting up the 15 or so nets just as it was getting dark but managed to complete before we would have had to use torches / flash lights.

Up at 4:45am friday morning to be in the forest by 5:30am so as to open nets and be away from the catching area before the first bird starts calling at 6am. After a well-needed cup of chai and some bread and jam we did the first round to see what we had. Conditions were good – a couple of very light showers of rain only – and we were in high hopes for a good catch. Sure enough in the third net there was a huge ball of feathers at the far end of the bottom shelf! An African Wood Owl! and with a ring already which from our book turned out to be the bird we ringed there in July last year. That was in fact about it for ‘sparkle’ that morning other than a beautiful all-white morph African Paradise Flycatcher – though he was moulting his tail so wasn’t as glorious as he is sometimes.

There was a bit of rain but it wasn’t too bad and whilst it was good we put up the tarp to keep dry we didn’t really need it. Once we’d closed the nets we hid the stools and table behind the big baobab nearby and headed back to Mwamba to get on with other things planning to return the next morning for the second day of ringing (we normally do two mornings in a row).

That night we got everything ready as usual and went to bed early(ish)… I got up at 4:30am again, made tea for Albert (no milk) and climbed in the old Toyota landcruiser to go pick the others but as I turned the key all I got in response was a dull ‘wuw’ from the engine – the battery was flat! Disaster! – here I was stuck 2kms away from the centre, the other car was with Stanley 10kms away in Gede, there’s no slope around to push it down to kick-start it and no other car to do a jump-start… and we had 40 mins in which to pick everyone, get to Gede, then to the nets in order to open them in time. No chance! So I had to call Mwamba and tell Andrew and the four volunteers they could go back to bed – and the same to Albert who had walked 20mins from his home to get to Gede!

Such is life in rural Kenya esp with old second-hand and well-used vehicles!

It wasn’t going to work to do it on the Sunday – I play the guitar at church and everyone takes the day off – so we planned for Monday morning. At least we were used to the routine by now and everything was sorted and we managed to get off easily by 5:30am and had nets open by 6am sharp. We were expecting 20+ of the BIOTA group who have been staying with us for 3 weeks on a course. They were keen to see some birds in the hand and learn a little about ringing so we were really hoping we would catch at least a few birds – though the second morning is nearly always worse, sometimes totally quiet, so it was a bit of risk. Sure enough the first 6 nets… nothing. But in the 7th net, an Olive Sunbird – phew, at least we has something to show them! But there was no need to worry as it got better with a couple of Red-capped Robin Chats… and THEN in about the 13th net… a whoop of delight from Alba as he came to a Spotted Ground Thrush hanging neatly up-side-down in the second shelf! In all 10 birds which was very reasonable for a second morning.

Spotted Ground Thrush being examined in the hand

We got back to the ringing table and had ringed just one when the 20 guys arrived and we were able to display the star of the day and discuss the conservation status of the thrush and the possible threats facing it. We had just about finished ringing and processing the thrush when the rain started. It started gently with just a few drops but within a few minutes had come on steadily and it decided to stay steady and if anything get really seriously hard! We at least had the tarp up over the ringing table – but it’s showing its age and has a few small holes so we were trying to push it up so the water would run off fast as well as squeeze 24 people under it and finish the last 2 birds! Mad. Needless to say we pretty much all got wet. The birds flew off fine and we snuggled closer together under the tarp. We spent the next hour and a half like that with a couple of net rounds which had no more birds (which is usual in the rain – they really don’t like to fly when its raining unless they have to) but we had plenty of time to discuss the ins and outs of ringing birds.

Amazing though to have caught another SGT – the first one recorded there since 2006. It’s always really encouraging to find one and to catch it in the net is an added bonus.

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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