Category Archives: Ngulia Ringing Project

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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A greener, wetter Tsavo brings hope for more migrants

It’s time for the second session of migrant ringing at the legendary ringing ‘hut’ of Ngulia Safari Lodge in Tsavo West National Park for 2009. I was up early in Nairobi after having got back from Naivasha and the work there over the weekend to get out to Nairobi airport to meet David (Pearson) and Ian (regular, solid pillar of Ngulia night-time ringing) and several others (Phil and Dave from Icklesham in Sussex, UK – over for a ‘holiday’ in that they’ve just ringed 52,000 birds at the farm there this year!!, Maria from Greece and Sergey from Kazakstan) and to head straight down to Ngulia to arrive for late lunch and start to put nets up.

Well… the best laid plans often don’t work out and sure enough, I was stopped by the police at the gates of the airport in my wee blue car (that was once Graeme Backhursts and used almost solely for this annual Ngulia trip…) and told that the insurance had expired. “No, it hasn’t”, says I very confidently as I know we’d renewed it in October when we were also stopped by the police and told the same thing. “Oh yes it has”, says Madam Rose (as it turned out her name was – “That’s a very pretty name” says Jackson trying his best to sweeten her up later on in the ensuing half-hour conversation! – it certainly helped, I reckon!).

“Oh no it hasn’t” says still ever confident Jackson, but now beginning to wonder ‘What on earth…?!?”

“Come and have a look” says Madam Rose – so Jackson switches off and gets out and sure enough, the insurance expired on 15th November… and it is now the 8th Dec. Hmmm.. (three months mandatory jail sentence I’m later told by a friend!). Then followed a long conversation of how grateful I was to her for showing me it, how it meant it was going to upset my plans for going to Tsavo to catch birds… “To do WHAT?” – which then opened the chance to talk about ringing and migration and how these tiny birds fly so far with no compass or GPS etc etc… which always impresses anyone and can distract from the issue at hand! and so eventually I persuaded her that really the best thing was for her to allow me to go and meet the wazee I was meant to meet and then I would zip back into Nairobi, get the correct sticker for the insurance since I had paid for more than just a month, and then I would proceed and all would be well. The only thing was she told me to stop on the way out of the airport and talk to her again.

So it was into the airport I went thanking God sana for letting me off and was able to meet up with David et al OK though now had to explain that there was a hitch in that I had to head back into town first… Ian had organised to hire a Suzuki from Concorde and so he and Phil, Dave and Maria decided to head off and get down to Ngulia while David, Sergey and I went to do battle with insurance. All was well until I stopped to talk to Madam Rose again only for her to say (for the 3rd time) “Let us go to the station – I will book you there now”! Ah. Not what was expected! “on the other hand, you could give me some ‘lunch’ to say thank you so I can let you go”… Here it was, then, the sadly totally expected outcome of being stopped by the police – asking for a bribe. However, I politely and quietly explained that as a Christian I really couldn’t do that (she then argued that Jesus gave lunch to people!!) and that really I could just thank her very very much for understanding and helping me… Thankfully it didn’t take too long before she was once again persuaded and we were on our way to fight traffic and eventually get the insurance. It’s too long to go into now why, but it took five hours to get it when it should have taken one, but got it we did and we were away.

The other excitement of the morning was that half way through the morning we get a call from Ian saying “errr… are we on the right road – we’re in a place called Namanga?”. Namanga for those who don’t know is the border town with Tanzania south of Nairobi. To get to it you turn right just outside Nairobi and head a very different direction to Tsavo – and for a good 2 hours of driving! I seriously thought he was joking with me – but he wasn’t! So as it turned out we ‘left’ Nairobi only about 1/2 hour behind them…

No other incidents happened. KWS at the Mtito Andei gate welcomed us with open arms and very friendly smiles and the same was true at Ngulia when we eventually rolled in at about 7pm. A green green Tsavo it has become since November and as you can see from the pics, a very different situation. I’ve immediately noticed the huge increase in Afrotropical birds – along the road from the gate we had literally dozens of trees laden with Chestnut Weaver nests – c.100-200 nests per tree. There must be 5,000-8,000 nests along that stretch!! An outrageous number – and in November we didn’t hardly even see a Chestnut Weaver!



Needless to say we didn’t put any nets up last night and I hit the sack as soon as possible. There was no mist so it was a solid night’s sleep (except for Ian who stayed up all night to wait for mist!) – but that takes me to “tomorrow’s” blog which will have to wait since it’s already half midnight and I need to get some shut-eye…

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A last morning treat and surprise despite the lack of mist

I went to bed with the feeling that we wouldn’t probably be getting much mist during the night. However I duly woke at 2a.m. and sneaked around the room to not wake the slumbering volunteers and once dressed unzipped the door and stepped out into the cool night air to see… not a wisp of mist but a beautiful star-studded sky. Totally no point in going and sitting for an hour or two with the generator going as there was definitely not going to be any mist! So back to bed and up at just after 5am to go and open all the nets to see what would turn up in the first round.

Al contemplating a mistless morning from the Lions Bluff look out – the nets were positioned just below this.

Titus, Albert and Sam helped open the nets and as we were sitting with a cup of chai waiting to do the first round, Titus appeared with a bird bag saying “I have an African here”… He meant he had an Afrotropical bird, that I knew (he enjoys playing with words as do many Kenyans!) but I thought it would be a Common Bulbul or something like that and so wasn’t prepared to pay that much attention.. Imagine my surprise therefore when he put his hand in the bag and pulled out The Most stunning Beaut of a tiny but fiercely furious owl! There had been an African Scops Owl Otus senegalensis calling every night down just beyond the nets and so our first thought was we’d got it, but on measuring the wing length and checking the wing formula (relative length of each of the flight feathers to give the shape of the wing) we realised it was far rarer than that and was in fact a Eurasian Scops Owl Otus scops – only about my fifth that I’ve ever seen in Kenya. We caught one at Ngulia last year but the one before that had been scooped out of the Indian Ocean by a fisherman c.5-6kms offshore… There’s still plenty we don’t understand about these birds.

Tito having just taken his ‘Afro’ out of the bird bag..

Otus scops – the most beaut of a bird…

Alba holding the Scops Owl with Lions Bluff in the background

There were not many other birds caught, but one of them was another Garden Warbler Sylvia borin which was very nice to get have as they are not common birds this far east in Kenya. It was a good chance to let Sam, Al & Nick have a chance to ring a few birds – good to give them the experience at it (tho’ Sam ringed a fair few in the end, in fact).

Me assisting Al to ring a Marsh Warbler (probably one of those, anyway!). Alba looks like a classic laid-back scribe…

With not much else going on in terms of catching, it was easier to stop and to pack up though it of course took longer than I thought it would. We set off at 11am loaded up in the back of the pickup headed for Voi where Tito was to head to Nairobi and three others would drop to take the bus back to Watamu (we didn’t want to risk headaches with the police about carrying people in the back of an open truck..) Nick drew the ‘long’ straw and got to come with me in the car rather than fight it out on matatus and buses – at least Sam nobly gave up his place for Nick… As it turned out, it probably was the short straw as it was only 25-30kms out of Voi cruising on the main road that a whining sound I’d heard from the car but wasn’t sure if it was something to worry about, got suddenly louder and louder, turned into a shriek and then a scream and the car shuddered to a halt as I managed to pull off the road.


Way out in the middle of the bush. Limited mechanical knowledge. Hot. But at least we had mobile signal and I immediately called trusty Henry back at Mwamba for his very good mechanical knowledge for instructions at a distance. To me sounded like the differential had got chewed up and I wasn’t far wrong. Amazingly, thank God, it had happened only 3-4kms outside of Maungu – the next town from Voi after which there was probably nothing for 50-80kms which would have been much harder. So I started the engine and it moved and we hobbled into Maungu and found a fundi to check it out. “gear box”, he said (of course – the noise was from the front not the back of the car); it turned out the last service hadn’t checked the oil levels in the gear box and it was basically totally dry.

Kiboko – our Landcruiser – stuck at Maungu having some gearbox oil dribbled into it. Hot and dry – plenty of swallows (I was tempted to put up a net for them…)

Gear boxes don’t like being without oil, clearly, so after a very improvised means of getting the oil into the gear box using 3 bits of pipe, a cut in half old oil bottle, and some ‘African welding’ (inner tube strips) – rather than opening up around the gear stick and taking a long time to do it, 2 1/2 litres of oil were added (! it was dry!) and we set off again, at vastly reduced speed though after a while I got used to it and managed to push it up a bit. We finally got home around 8pm – sometime after Sam and Al had made it!

The lorry traffic at the weigh station on the Mombasa road had the most almightly traffic jam queing up to be weighed (and in most cases “allowed” through totally overweight thus destroying the roads…)

Quite an eventful end to a very good two weeks of fieldwork in Tsavo area. Also great news that Lions Bluff does work like Ngulia and it could be an optional spot to take people to ring 1000s of migrants.

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Mist, 700 birds ringed, Asian Lesser Cuckoos, Blythes Reed? and Wild Dogs…

Well I finished off last night at around 2a.m from where I was sitting it didn’t look very hopeful. However once I’d packed the computer away and went out onto the patio to look properly the cloud was lower than I thought and there were in fact one or two birds flying around. By 3:30am I figured it was worth giving it a go – so it was to wake Janette to get the night nets and Toby & Keith to help put them up – by 3:45am we had the first net up and pretty soon the second and had caught half a dozen birds – the Ngulia phenomenon had finally come! Others got up to help and then at around 4am it started to rain! and not just a few drops – very soon it was chucking it down and we had to close the nets as to have birds caught in a net and then drenched can cause them to chill very fast and die. We opened and closed the nets a couple more times as the rain stopped and came on again between then and dawn and in all caught just over 30 birds – at least a sample of weights and fat scores for the night which is always interesting.

So it was with renewed energy and anticipation that we went out at 5:40am to open the rest of the bush nets – I didn’t think there would be really huge numbers and sure enough, while there were certainly plenty of birds in the bush, it wasn’t really heaving as it can be and we ended up with a very reasonable catch of c.700 birds total. The diversity was the wonderful thing about the catch.

Scopus, David M and Tito ringing birds (finally!) at Ngulia

I get used later in December to catching 1000s of Marsh Warblers and often not much else (see last year’s blog 19th Dec 08 where we caught over 57% Marsh Warblers!). This time we had 3 or more Garden Warblers (some years we only catch 3 in total), 5 or 6 Sedge Warblers (again some years we only get 1 or 2), several Basra Reed Warblers, Olivaceous Warbler, a Rufous Bush Chat and then the stars of the show – a female Golden Oriole and no less than two Asian Lesser Cuckoos!

Asian Lesser Cuckoo – a first year bird

I was then hammering along through the Marsh and Whitethroats and pulled out of a bag a long-snouted but very small and greyish ‘Marsh Warbler’ that really did not look like a Marsh Warbler… Sure enough the notch on the second primary was way too long making it another Euro Reed Warbler, but then the winglenth was only 64 and basically all the Reeds we get at Ngulia have long wings of 68-72 mostly – this was in fact 2mm shorter than the shortest recorded. It also looked odd and so we looked very hard and long at it and got out lots of books to see if it wasn’t in fact a Blythe’s Reed Warbler – an central Asian species that winters in the far East (and so would be VERY lost if it was in fact one). They look very very similar to a Eurasian Reed so we took some time over it but in the end decided whilst certain features fitted Blythe’s, it was in fact just a very small Eurasian Reed.

small bird.. greyish… but no real supercilium

notice the very long notch

It was then time to head out with Titus and head for Lions Bluff Lodge in the Lumo Conservancy – a site where I suspected the ‘Ngulia phenomenon’ might also occur and it would be very interesting to see what birds we’d catch and if we caught any ringed at Ngulia just 55kms to the north. We eventually left on the staff bus and I fell asleep only to be awoken by the bus jolting to a stop and Tito waking me saying ‘look! look!’ – a pack of real, live (and very full stomached!) Wild Dogs!!! A friend had seen two Wild Dogs in Tsavo West about four years ago which we had got very excited about as this species is fast becoming rarer and rarer and is very hard to see. I remember as a lad growing up in Nairobi, we used to see them every time we went into Nairobi National Park – where they have now long been extirpated (locally extinct). These were the first I’ve seen in many many years and they were just loafing by the side of the road!!! If anyone reading this knows who this important record should be reported to, please let me know.

Wild Dogs in Tsavo West

We eventually got to Mtito Andei (after seeing 15-20 Amur Falcons feasting on termites together with Stepped Eagles strewn all over the road picking termites off the road surface – the first Amurs we’ve seen. It’s amazing how at this time year, you get rain… and you get Amurs immediately after. They must see the rain from miles and miles away and come in for it as that’s where the good feeding is) and straight onto a bus for Voi. Getting there we were relieved to see ‘Kiboko’ – our land cruiser – with Albert, Nick, Al and Sam waiting patiently for us to turn up.

It’s not far from there to Lumo (c. an hour’s drive) though we were delayed on the way by elephant on the main road which we had to stop and admire. At the gate to Lumo, Agnes, one of the rangers, sorted our tickets very nicely and politely and we drove the 5kms to Lions Bluff seeing a Kudu on the way and discussing the potential for the site for ringing. We were given a wonderful welcome by the staff and immediately took Kobin to assist us in putting up a net and locating the best spot for the flood light we’d brought with us to compliment the lodge’s spot lights. In between some heavy rain and dinner we managed to get the nets and light up and left them open in the vague hope that the African Scops Owl calling not far beyond where we put the nets might come up to see what was going on and get caught (it didn’t!).

at the gate to Lumo Conservancy

Now it’s 3:45am and I got up to see what was happening with the mist. There was some not bad mist though a bit high when we went to bed at 10pm and Tito and I had seen 4-5 birds but they were staying high and not coming down. We figured we’d get some sleep and then try at 2am. The mist had lifted somewhat but there is still low cloud and I saw one or two birds just now (had to wake the night watchman to switch the generator on who has also kindly got me a couple of Masai shukas (red cloths) to keep a bit warm and fight off the mosquitos) but the mist hasn’t come in properly yet – at 5am Solomon (watchman) says… We’ll see! I might hit the sack again now and try to get some sleep – having said that a bird just flew into the window which is a hopeful sign. Perhaps I won’t be sleeping much again?!!! – I’ll tell you more tomorrow…

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Grand total of 1,240 birds ringed in 10 days but great rollers & raptors

It’s getting rather tedious and repetitive to report that once again there was no mist… When I went to bed last night at 3:30am and Peter took over the watch, there was low cloud clearly lit up by the lights and even 4-5 birds that I saw dropping down and flying just below the cloud level. This was looking encouraging and we thought Peter might wake us in just 1/2 hour… but it was not to be and the cloud lifted and the birds vanished with the stars coming out once more. 18 ringers were up at dawn (actually, I confess – when I woke at 5:15am and saw it was clear, I had an extra hour’s kip!) and at the 15 or so nets opened to catch any migrant that had arrived over night. The grand total for the day was just 11 migrants in the bush nets and then the redeeming Barn Swallows once again – giving a daily total of at least over 100 – 108 to be precise. This makes the grand total so far this year at only just over 1,200 birds – of which hardly 100 have been migrants other than Barn Swallows!! This is pretty much unheard of and at this rate it’ll be the worst year since 1987 when just 2,400 were ringed – though all of those would have been non-swallows making this even worse! There is the December session to redeem the totals, and still a week of possible nights here…

Toby and Keith had put up some additional 4-5 nets in the old original ringing site along the entrance road to the lodge in the hopes of increasing the catch – even the Afrotropical catch. Surprisingly they caught very few though did produce the first Spotted Flycatcher of the season.

Those ringers for who it’s their first time here are beginning to wonder if it’s all just stories – that of 1,000s of birds in just a few hours – and I don’t blame them! We did catch a retrap Nubian Woodpecker which was very nice to have – the first known adult bird retrap I’ve handled and good to make some notes on. It was a shame that Bruria from Israel and John Musina (Nairobi museum) had to leave today without seeing even one night of mist and real Ngulia action, though both seemed to have enjoyed their time anyway.

Due to it being so quiet, it was perfect to do the Eurasian Roller survey and raptor road count that I started last year and hope to do at least once per year while here at Ngulia. Keith, Toby, Mike and David kindly offered to take me in their Suzuki Maruti (not the world’s most spacious of vehicles…!) and so we set off at about 11am with me standing up through the open roof between Mike and David. For the Rollers we use the Distance Sampling method of recording the distance from the road for each bird seen and the distance travelled for the transect. This is then fed into the Distance program which will give you an estimate of overall density of birds in a given area. I’ve not done the Distance calculations but we saw a total of 42 Rollers today, some of them just a metre or two from the road.

Eurasian Roller by Peter Usher

But it was the raptors that really made the day – particularly a large, light brown Accipiter first seen chasing and trying to catch a cisticola (tho’ the cisticola was too agile for the Accipiter and escaped being lunch) and then mobbing a Wahlberg’s Eagle in a tree. It had heavy dark barring underneath, a plain throat, bright yellow eyes and a very clear supercilium – that made it very much an adult female Eurasian Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus – the first record I’m aware of for Kenya for c.5-6 years and one of what must be less than 20 records ever. Toby managed to get a very reasonable shot of it:

Eurasian Sparrowhawk in Tsavo West by Toby Collett

Not long after that with a herd of very red elephant as a backdrop, we watched a wonderful aerial display of a Brown Snake Eagle with a snake being harassed high in the sky by first one Steppe Eagle, then another, then a pair of Wahlberg’s Eagles joined in the fray doing some steep diving display flight for boot and then finally a massive juvenile Martial Eagle came hammering in from about a km away and laid into first a Steppe Eagle which turned up-side-down with talons bared about 1,000feet up in the sky and then the Martial went for the other Steppe which was not far behind one of the Wahlberg’s – all of them spiralling and towering way up in the sky… Meantime over to the left a ways was the female White-headed Vulture, an increasingly rare bird to see and definitely one to really watch out for these days.

Steppe Eagle – by Toby Collett

Total count for the day was as follows:
Wahlberg’s Eagle – 7
Steppe Eagle – 13
Tawny Eagle – 5
Martial Eagle – 2
African Hawk Eagle – 2
Black-chested Snake Eagle – 2
Brown Snake Eagle – 3
African Fish Eagle – 2
Eurasian Sparrowhawk – 1
Bateleur Eagle – 6
White-backed Vulture – 9
Ruppell’s Griffon Vulture – 7
White-headed Vulture – 1
Secretary Bird – 3
Augur Buzzard – 1
Gabar Goshawk – 1

White-backed Vultures in the sunset by Toby Collett

Well – it’s 2a.m and the cloud is somewhat high – at least there is cloud and it’s not starry and clear, but unless it drops down further, we’re unlikely to get much of a catch again. I’ll post this and head to bed again and let Peter take over in an hour… Tomorrow I leave with Tito and head fo Lions Bluff Lodge – exactly 53km due south of here. I’m meeting up with Albert from Mwamba together with three volunteers (Sam, Al and Nick) to go and set nets in front of a spot light by the lodge to see if there is a similar effect as we have here at Ngulia. If it works, it could be very very interesting to compare with what we catch here – and you never know, we might even catch a bird ringed at Ngulia!

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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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Rhinos worrying ringers and still no mist…

Am sitting in Mtito Andei waiting for the Ngulia staff bus and where it is hot, hot, hot and dry though with some clouds around which I can only hope means there’s at least some moisture in the air – but we badly need them to dump some rain on the land… I figured that since I don’t want to stay up late tonight struggling with trying to get a good spot for network on the eastern side of the dining room (the best spot is out on observation point but after dark the leopard likes to wander around there and it’s probably not a very clever idea to sit in the dark there blogging…!), that I would do the blog now.

I’ve heard from Titus and an email from Graeme that the ringers have had some excitement with a rhino in the or near the netting area! I’ll only find out the real details once I get back tonight, but apparently on Friday evening a rhino was seen somewhere near enough to frighten people into taking down the back line of nets and moving nearer to the lodge. As far as Tito has said it was only Friday it was seen and the news is that KWS have released another few rhino from the rhino sanctuary into the main park – hence the appearance of one at the nets!

However the news on the catching is just the same – no mist still and only about 80 birds ringed today. Dire or what?! We’ve got 18 ringers all champing at the bit and eager as anything to ring a couple of thousand migrants and there’s hardly enough for each person to ring more than a couple each! One of the nightmares that we fear each year at Ngulia as it doesn’t take long for people to get quite frustrated. There may a case for putting a couple of nets up at the back for some local birds (who have also seemed to have deserted the main netting area in front of the lodge).

So that’s news from here for now. I’m sitting in the KWS education centre just inside the main gate and had an Upcher’s Warbler feeding in the bush just outside the window half an hour ago and a female Paradise Flycatcher as I type; Black Cuckoo singing too, and a Spotted Flycatcher around as well as other usual Tsavo birds – White-bellied Go-Away-Bird, Slate-coloured Boubou etc..

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Has the drought returned? …still no mist or birds but more ringers arrive

I’m still in Nairobi but heading back to Ngulia tomorrow so this will be short but the news from the lodge via Titus is that yet again there was no mist last night and no sign of rain on the plains to add moisture to the air and therefore hopefully bring mist… instead the numbers of ringers have increased by half again with three Czechs arriving and two more Brits making it an even more international affair. There were only 80 birds ringed today and of those only about 10 were not Barn Swallows – so even the swallows are reducing in number. No mention of anything unusual so I imagine it was mainly Sprossers with a good representation of Marsh Warblers and a handful of Whitethroats…

Here are a shot or two from the November session a couple of years ago when you can see just how desperately dry it is at the end of the dry season and before the rains really set in.

Sprosser hanging in the net waiting to be carefully extracted

(left to right) Kuria, Chege and Nico by the bush nets – who were the team with me that year. Nico is back this year with Tito and John

I’m on the bus in the morning back down to Mtito Andei and then waiting for the staff bus to give me a lift back to the lodge in the evening. Will hopefully have something to report on tomorrow.

STILL no mist – but the third Hippo species, at least!

Once again no mist during the night – woke at 1am and 3:30am and Janette did the 2am spot and it was just clear… of course at dawn the mist rolled in beautifully – like from 5:15am, which was a total waste of mist-making energy as by that time it was already getting too light for any birds to be distracted by the flood lights and so once again we were out by empty nets cracking jokes and otherwise thoroughly enjoying the beaut of another morning at Ngulia. A Euro Hobby sprinting around overhead was awesome to watch and we had two random tourists come down to the nets to see what these odd people were doing wandering around in the bush way beyond the sign that says ‘DO NOT GO BEYOND THIS POINT’! I fielded them and at least had one Sprosser in a bag to show them and then Richard called us over with a weaver in the net to demo to them extraction and to see something a little more bright and interesting than an all-brown Sprosser (ok, ok, the Sprosser does migrate from Finland which a weaver could never do…).

I had to leave quite soon on – or at least there was a lift I could get with Antti from the Finnish Embassy (yes, he was very chuffed to see a bird that had possibly come from Finland – despite it not being very colourful!) down to Voi to get a bus to Nairobi. This was a real blessing as the staff bus was only leaving the lodge around 12pm which would have been way too late to get a bus up to Nairobi by the time it reached Mtito at 1:30pm if not later. I travelled with Sameer – a delightful young Kenyan bird guide who is also a ringing trainee and who will be back at Ngulia next week to assist with the ringing. He was guiding Antti and doing a very good job at it and it was great to have company for the bus ride up to Nairobi.

We ended up leaving Ngulia around 10am and left Tito, Nico and John getting their eye in with the ringing and nets being put up for swallows once again. I called Tito just now to find out the days results and he told me it was 113 birds in total, mostly Barn Swallows again but there was a special visitor just before I left – the third of the three Hippo species (ok, that’s a ringer’s abbreviation for a Hippolais warbler – i.e. a member of the Hippolais genus, a genus which is much less common than many others and is hard sought after by keen birders). We’d caught an Eastern Olivaceous Warbler Hippolais pallida the first morning (the smallest of the trio), an Olive-tree Warbler H. olivetorum yesterday at lunch time (the big brother of the trio) and today the least common and most sought after, Upcher’s Warbler H. languida.

I’m away for two nights and I bet they’ll have mist now that I’ve gone! I’ll hopefully get a report from Tito tomorrow and be able to blog something for those who are following this. Otherwise it’s time to watch the Springboks beat the French in rugby now so I’ll sign off here… No photos today as I left the camera at Ngulia ready for Sunday when I get back.

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Final tally for Ngulia ringing this year tops 20,000 – and a Sovenian Marsh Warbler to end on

Well… it has taken till now to finalise the tally for the number of birds ringed at Ngulia in the 2008 session. David has trogged through the 5 ringing books and reports 20,278 Palaearctic migrants ringed of which 59% were Marsh Warblers – an unprecedented number of them and by far the highest proportion we’ve ever caught of them. There were two days when we caught over 1,500 Marsh Warblers – the only other time in 39 years that more than 1,500 of a single species has been caught is once with Sprossers in 2005. It would therefore appear that Marsh Warblers are doing pretty well in Europe and Asia!

Below is a chart showing the daily totals together with the number of Marsh Warblers to show the high proportion of them. The two nights when we had no mist on the 2nd and 3rd Dec (c.f. the blog) show very clearly between the misty nights with high catches demonstrating just how variable the catching can be and dependant it is on the presence of good mist.


In contrast to the Marsh Warblers, we only caught one each of the following species: Eurasian Cuckoo, Eurasian Nightjar, House Martin, Rock Thrush, Great Reed Warbler, Blackcap, Yellow Wagtail. The cuckoo, Blackcap and wagtail are not surprising to have only caught the one bird as they’ve never been a common species at Ngulia being either relatively low in numbers anyway (the cuckoo) or simply not a Tsavo species. Even the House Martin is not surprising as before we started seriously tape-luring them we never caught any – only the past 6-8 years have we tried using a tape and discovered there are often many around (and ringed several 100 in a day even!). But it is very interesting to note the lack of particularly the Rock Thrush. Whilst again not ever having been exactly a ‘common’ species we would certainly have caught significantly more than this. Around Watamu I have also noticed over the past 10 years that this species has drastically reduced in numbers – at the end of the 90’s we would see one on every 4-5th telegraph pole sometimes whereas I have not seen that number in many years. Could this be something related to the global climate change we are experiencing? It’s certainly something worth looking into further.

The other exciting news was on the very last morning / night when there were only 5 ringers left (David P, Alain, Raymund, Rachel & Scopus), they only put the night nets up and caught a mere 400 birds (an awesome catch for most ringers anywhere in the world however!!) amongst the first of which was a Marsh Warbler with a dull ring on it! This time it was from Slovenia and had been ringed in August this year as a young bird. The details for it were:

A.palustris, 1y/3, 69 mm, 12,7 g
Date: 01.08.2008
Place: Hauptmance, Ljubljansko barje, SLOVENIA
Ring. coord.: 45.59 N / 14.31 E
Ringer: J.Bricelj
Resultat: 128 days / 5,921 km / 157° / SSE

Not bad!! I’ve plotted this and the French bird on Googleearth and this is a snapshot of where they came from (it’s not too easy to pick them out but if you know were Slovenia is just below Austria you can see that one – the French one’s label is just below England…):

On that note I’d better stop and say HAPPY CHRISTMAS to you all!! Roni and I are away for two weeks in Kwa-Zulu Natal and Lesotho visiting friends, hopefully Rosalie in Watamu will continue to post news from Mwamba over Christmas which sounds like it’s going to be hectic but fun and we’ll be back in touch in the New Year!

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