Category Archives: Volunteers

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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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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Roseate & Sooty Terns return to Whale Island to breed

I’ve been checking from the end of our garden which overlooks Whale Island (a big advantage of having moved to this house earlier this year!) for several weeks now to see if the terns have arrived to breed there (Whale Island, that is – not the end of the garden!) as it’s around the time when I expect them to come.

Whale Island as from the end of our garden – you can see the ‘head / body’ and ‘tail’ of the ‘whale’ where it gets its name from…
Last friday I checked as usual and the island was quiet – no activity, not even a single bird to be seen. Sunday afternoon I go check again and was amazed to see between 3-500 birds circling over and around it! They had arrived – and not in ones and twos over a couple of weeks as I had expected but pretty much all at once!

– Whale Island at low tide as seen by GoogleEarth. You can see the greenish area of dense bush with a rim of bare exposed rock – which is where most of the terns nest.

Whale Island has been known for many years as a breeding site for terns in particular Roseate Terns with a handful of others – in the literature recorded as Bridled Terns, but all I’ve ever seen there are Sootys. Not sure if they were originally mis-identified or whether over the years the Bridled have vanished and been replaced by Sootys. Perhaps both occur and I’ve missed the Bridled and the earlier guys missed the Sootys?? Will need to look harder at all of them.

a photo of a Sooty that I took on Whale Island back in 2003.

The arrival of the terns therefore spurred us into action. I had to get to the island before the birds actually started settling down to nest so as to lay down a path of wooden planks through the low vegetation so that once they’d started nesting it would still be possible to move among the nests to count them and check the breeding success without the danger of stepping on eggs. After a good meeting with the new KWS warden of the Watamu Marine Park – Albert Gamoe – who is an excellent man doing a good job, we planned to go the next morning over low tide to take the planks and to mark out 1x1m quadrats which we would use for sampling the colony.

It was blustery and quite choppy the next morning when I with our centre manager Henry, Alba Baya (research assistant) and volunteers Andrew and Alex headed for the small beach at the end of the Watamu headland to wait for the KWS boat. We had a dozen or so planks of neem wood that we started to cut into short pieces while waiting to use for “stepping stones” around the colony. It took two trips to take us together with equipment and the Warden + two rangers who were manning the boat across to the island and as we approached it we could see the birds circling and wheeling in the air over the rock as well as chasing each other low across the water. There were probably 300+ birds in all, mostly the all white Roseates with the black crown but a handful of Sootys and then probably about 20 Brown Noddys – a species for which in the past we only ever recorded one or two every year – until two years ago when there was an explosion of them with an estimated 1,000 birds on the island! To see 20 again this time suggested therefore that there would be good numbers again this year – beautiful birds which are rarely seen as they are so much pelagic (oceanic) in their occurance.

the Noddys like to sit on the cliff in the lee of the wind and are amazingly approachable – this is taken with just a small digital camera from about 20ft away!

We flushed a lone Fish Eagle sitting at the top of the cliff as we climbed up to get to the flat top of the island – he was probably very happy to have the terns come back as he regularly feeds on both the adults and the chicks once they start hatching. There were no terns on the ground so we were just in time to be able to put the path down and set up the quadrats. Using ‘hot pink’ string left over by some visiting entomologists earlier in the year, we started marking out 1x1m squares and putting down a winding path of 1-foot long bits of plank. This was a long and slow process and it took a good 2 hours to mark out 22 quadrats and lay the path.

Andrew is a GIS expert and so he spent the time with the GPS marking and taking points all over the island so we can draw up a decent map of it.

By the time we finished the tide was well and truly on its way back up and when me Andrew and Alex were picked up by the second return trip of the boat we had to wade out through quite deep water to get to where the boat could reach without being slung onto the rocks.

Altogether a very successful trip – we now just wait for a couple of weeks and then head back to see how the breeding attempt is coming along. One worrying possibility is that there are rats on the island still (there was an infestation 2 years back and I’d hoped they’d have died out by now but there were signs that the rats are still around which we may have to do something about…).

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A night at Mida Creek ringing waders about to leave for Asia

The waders (shorebirds) are just about to leave for their breeding grounds in Asia and it’s a very interesting time to collect data from them to understand their migration strategies better. We usually invite volunteers and any guests staying at Mwamba to join us for the night – or part of it. Laura and Jonny, volunteers from England with us for six weeks tell of their experience…

A normal Saturday night for this average British teenager is not usually spent knee deep in Mida Creek with a bird in both hands and dark shadows under my eyes. Yet this is where I found myself on the 4th of April 2009.

The field trip commenced at 4:30pm, battling against the wind to assemble 10 nets, with the aim of catching, ringing and then releasing as many wading birds as possible.

putting nets up at Mida

By sunset the team (Colin, Albert, Ian, Yop, Marika, Jonny, I and later Ruth) were ready and waiting, not just for birds, but also the delivery of supper. At 8:30pm we were joined by Henry and Roni bringing guests, food and most importantly chai (tea brewed together with milk).  Some of the group had a great and wobbly time experiencing the ASSETS boardwalk in the moonlight! A check of the nets at 9:30pm produced four birds (two Terek Sandpipers – both with rings on already that we had ringed them with in 2006 and 2007 – and two Curlew Sandpipers) to ring before the guests left, minus the cushions from the car we had poached for ourselves.

the beautifully up-turned bill of a Terek Sandpiper

By 11pm morale was low. Everyone but CJ was tired, the wind was much stronger than we would have liked, and worst of all we were running out of Milk Chews. But things turned around at midnight with the net round producing 22 waders whose plans for the evening had been disrupted when they found themselves in our research nets! Among these were a bemused Wood Sandpiper:

and an angry Gull-billed Tern. I was informed by those more knowledgeable about birds that this was very exciting! [Ed. the Wood Sand is the first one we’ve ever caught at Mida and is rarely seen there being more of a freshwater bird, and the tern is also uncommon to actually catch though is commonly seen there.]

Colin very chuffed holding the Gull-billed Tern

As we were excitedly transferring our catch from the bird bags to the holding cages, I noticed a bird that looked suspiciously like a Sandpiper sneaking off into the night. There was the sinking realization that one of the three holding cages had a bird-sized hole in it, and that to prevent anymore bids for freedom we would have to store all the birds in the remaining cages. To everyone’s relief, the Wood Sandpiper had not escaped!

After this mini crisis had been resolved, most of the group succumbed to fatigue, and had crashed out in the van, on stools and the ground. It’s amazing how comfortable stone is when you’re exhausted! At 3.30am we were roused by Yop and Marika who were laden with a huge number of wriggling bird bags. They gave us the great news that they needed to go back out to the creek with more bird bags.

Once the nets had been emptied, from 5am we became a human conveyor belt, transferring birds from the holding cages to Colin and Albert who ringed the birds and collected the biometric data whilst Ruth scribed, and then releasing the wobbly and accessorized birds at the edge of the creek. By 9:30am 79 Lesser and Greater Sand Plovers, Grey Plovers, Little Stints, Curlew and Terek Sandpipers, Crab-plovers, Ringed Plovers, a single Common Greenshank

ringing a Crab-plover

Crab-plover ready to go – including with it’s blue colour-ring with white letters that will allow it to be identified by simply readying the letters through a telescope – anyone reading this in the Middle East keep a look out for these birds!

…and even a very unexpected Sedge Warbler (normally found in reed beds or thick scrub – not in the top panel of a wader net several 100m away from the nearest bush or tree!) had been sent back on their way to Mida Creek.

Then the exhausted (apart from CJ!) team loaded up the land cruiser and returned to Mwamba for some well deserved fruit salad and a much needed shower!

Ed: Total tally for the day was 105 birds ringed which is a very reasonable number for a night out. There was some excellent diversity and it was excellent to get a good number of weights of birds many of whom are about to leave on migration and so are really fattening up for the journey.

a Lesser Sandplover

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