Wader ringing reconnaissance to the Quirimbas archipelago, Quirimbas National Park
14-28 October 2008
This was my second trip to Quirimbas National Park to work with WWF on a project to assess bird diversity and develop bird-watching tourism in this very un explored and remote part of the world.
In addition to this I wanted to find concentrations or roosts of Palearctic migrant waders to trap and ring.
Arriving at the coastal town of Pemba I was met by Rebecca Marques-Phillips who is the WWF tourism officer for the Quirimbas National Park. I was to stay at a beach lodge accommodation in a nature reserve just outside of the town run by Brenda and Rudi, a magnificent area of coastal scrub and huge Baobab trees set inside the largest inland lagoon in Africa.
Got there just in time for sundowners and a tray of huge fresh cooked prawns, however thinking of work I surreptitiously dropped a Sherman trap behind the bar and carried on with my sundowner. Half a beer later I heard the familiar ‘snap’ of the trap and on inspection found a perfect sized rat for the following days journey into the bush!
It gets light here at 0400hrs as Mozambique doesn’t have any time zones but Pemba is 1000kn east of Maputo and so should be on the east African time zone, so it gets dark at 1700hrs!
At dawn took an early morning walk along the trail system which are perfect net-rides and got a very good list going including a couple of coastal endemics, Pale Batis and Brown-breasted Barbet. Found a Spotted Eagle-owl which had left it a little too late returning to roost and so got caught out by a mob of other goodies from Square-tailed Drongo, Blue-mantled Crested flycatcher and a pair of Black-throated Wattle-eye, listed as threatened by the IUCN and then rounded off the morning with a lifer in the form of another coastal endemic, Grey Sunbird!
It was low tide and there were only a few waders on the waterline Whimbrel, Terek Sandpiper, Greenshank and a few Lesser Crested Tern.
We got off late morning after loading up the vehicle and set off with Roger the driver and Ibraim who was a park field assistant form the historical island of Ibo where we were to visit.
About 30 minutes out of Pemba a Northern Wheatear flew across the road which subsequently has become the first record for Mozambique!
On the way through the park we spotted a few raptors, Bateleur, Brown Snake-eagle, Black-chested Snake-eagle and a Wahlberg’s Eagle.
Going through some nice tall Miombo woodland Rebecca spotted a real gem and threatened coastal endemic in the form of a Southern-banded Snake-eagle! I feverishly got the Bal-chatri trap out and shook the rat out of the Sherman all the while preying for the bird to sit, when the rat ungraciously rolled out of the Sherman dead as a doornail! Bugger! just didn’t cover it! Here we were in perfect position to catch a rare and little known bird of prey and we get let-down by the hardiest of hard rodents in the crucial stages.
One of the remarkable produces of this part of the world is bamboo. Perfectly sized net-poles in 3 and 3.5m lengths, everywhere! And unlike the UK prices we ended up paying 35p for 20 X 3m poles (that’s for the lot!), Ibraim thought we got ripped off, the mind boggles!
We got to the landing stage for Situ Island in thick mangrove where Mangrove Kingfishers were calling everywhere.
This coastal endemic has the strange migratory habit of breeding inland in lowland forest and spending the non-breeding season back on the coast in mangrove forest. Unfortunately much of its breeding habitat has disappeared and so this kingfisher if very rare over much of its range. On the way we spotted a Wahlberg’s Eagle sitting on a nest, interesting record for this species which is could be either a central African breeder or a breeding migrant to the south.
We were met by South African lodge managers Tess and Craig who in their very flash boat took us to the island of Situ.
Landing on the golden white beach in front of the lodge I struggled to think of a better sited ringing spot, (with the exception of the Rye Meads sewage ponds, in Hertfordshire) along the beach were a flock of 20 Greater Sandplover and ten Greenshank.
We spent an arduous couple of hours snorkelling off the beach on a fantastic little reef where I spotted an immature Emperor Angel Fish (very different to the adult and far more beautiful) 3 large Devil Firefish, Moorish Idol, big Puffer-fish, Parrot Fish a large Boxfish and many more.
Eventually we dragged ourselves to the sundowner spot watching Dimorphic Egrets and Black Herons heading to roost, when Rebecca asked me what the flock of birds were which were flying into the bay, casually glancing at them I dismissed them as Greenshanks, then did a double take and nearly choked on my G&T as there, coming into land at the other end of the beach were a flock of 60 Crab Plover!!!
Right now we had work to do!
It was too late now to put up a net as I would just flush the birds but would watch tomorrow and work out a plan to catch them at high tide as it was a spring tide and only one spot to take a catch on a sand spit the birds were using to roost. The trouble was the birds were coming in well before dark, so other than taking a day catch I had to try and catch them once they were at roost.
The next day at dawn I put up a net in the mangrove for the afore mentioned Kingfisher and a riot of birds coming into a fruiting bush but ended up with only a single Sombre Greenbul. We walked/waded through the mangrove putting up hundreds of the delightful mud-skippers and found small islands with giant Baobabs the air above twittering with the strange looking tail-less Bohm’s Spinetail.
Before the Crab Plovers were scheduled to come into roost, we got 3 X 40 foot 2 panel nets up covering the sand-spit and left it open to wait for the birds. Eventually they came round the headland and were making a strong line directly to the nets and with heart in mouth hoped they were as dopey as Thick-knees when it came to catching in daylight. At the last second, the whole flock veered out to sea again to come round several times, eventually landing on the beach on the near side of the nets well below the high-tide mark, I had miss-judged the tide by 4 metres!
At 2130 I moved the line of nets down the beach to be in 1 m of water at high tide and furled.
At 0300hrs I crept along the beach to open the line, when half way along had the eerie sensation that I was being watched. Looking round in the now low moon right up on the top of the beach behind me was the entire flock of Crab Plovers some 10 metres away! Talk about getting caught with ones pants down. What to do? I quietly finished opening the line and carried walking on past the last net to think. It was soon going to be light so I had to do something now and decided to wade across the channel flowing out of the mangroves which formed the sand spit the birds were on and tried to get right behind them with the idea of flushing them out to sea and into the nets, simple yes, but a shorebird’s a shorebird and the lot then began to walk along the beach out of the line of nets so I then decided to charge them and watched as they all passed by the last net pole, however a single bird, the thick one, went the wrong side and into the net!
But what a bird! It was in primary moult and had brown streaking on the head making it a young bird in its second year. More like a robust tern than a wader but with very long legs!
Taking down later we caught a consolation Common Sandpiper!
After breakfast Craig announced a fishing trip so we all set off in the nice ski boat and out to sea. The sea was like a millpond and we soon found shoals of feeding Skipjack Tuna, jumping out in pursuit of fleeing baitfish, some of which were the amazing Flying fish zipping out of the water to glide 20-30m before landing back in the water, what an adaptation!
In no time at all we were stuck into fish, stripping metres of line of the small multiplier reels and after a great fight landed a pair of 12lb specimens.
Once we had 4 fish we called it a day and headed back to land when all of a sudden a tremendous explosion of air made us all jump and look round to see a huge Humpback Whale with calf surface 100 metres away! We watched them for 20 minutes before they sounded not to be seen again!
Thinking it couldn’t get any better the water in front of the boat erupted with jumping Bottle-nosed Dolphins! They spent 10 minutes playing around us before going back to chasing baitfish.
To get to the landing for Ibo Island we had to drive north on the mainland for 3 hours through beautiful miombo woodland and visited a campsite the park was preparing which would have chalets and a bar to be run by the local community. The mist-netting potential here looked fabulous with nice thick bush just next to a wetland and a huge roost of African Open-billed Storks, Great White Egret and lots of other herons.
We arrived at the Ibo landing site in the dark and loaded the park boat with all the equipment and set off with Greater Galago screaming right next to the boat from the dense mangroves.
Ibo island is like an architectural museum of art deco and 14th centaury Portuguese. We got to the famous Ibo island Lodge and met Kevin the owner who promptly filled us up with a big plate of monster prawns and cold beer!
At first light I went to inspect the sea in front of the lodge and noticed that the tide was going out revealing a sandbar at one end of the sea wall. As this sandbar got bigger I noticed lots of waders landing on it having come from roost. I walked up along the sea wall and got quite close to see mostly Whimbrel, Grey Plover, Curlew and Terek Sandpiper, Greater Sandplover, Little Stint, Sanderling, Turnstone, Greenshank, Bar-tailed Godwit and scatterings of White-fronted plover.
Pretty good variety and approximately 2000 birds.
The tide went out to reveal a wonderful inter-tidal mud-flat where Dimorphic Egrets, Black Herons, Yellow-billed Storks and thousands of waders began feeding.
So, the high tide was at 1800hrs and I reckoned on setting a line on the sandbar to catch birds on the incoming tide and again on the outgoing tide.
At 1600hrs with the help of half the kids on Ibo, we set a line of 3 X 40’ and set up on the sea wall not too far away so we could watch the progress of the birds.
As the tide soon came in, birds started to congregate toward the sandbar but it was still too light for any birds to start flying into nets and so we watched as birds began to leave well before the tide was fully in.
Eventually at dark, all birds had left and so we waited for the tide to go out to see what that would do. At 1930 I went to inspect the nets and low and behold there were two Crab Plovers in! At 2000hrs I got another Crab Plover and thought that if only all the other waders were doing what the crab Plovers were doing, coming into the revealing mud and sand to feed. I left it till 2100hrs when the tide was not well out and nothing was moving to take down and get some sleep.
The following day we set off to explore a small island called Manual de Silver and found a considerable roost at high tide of mostly Whimbrel, Greater Sandplover and Grey Plover around 2-300 birds. We also had a Eurasian Curlew here too. Then we found a roost of 200 Crab Plovers on a sandy beach before getting back on the high tide as leaving it too late we faced a long walk across the mud and sand.
Back on Ibo the flats outside the lodge had a good number of birds. Again that afternoon we set the same line of nets plus 2 more 60’, I had to be aware of the fact that I was the only ringer present and if I did take a big catch, could get into trouble.
The high tide was now going to be an hour later and darker so hoped we would take a catch of birds leaving for roost. However the birds just left earlier and to the north away from the nets, I don’t think they had seen them.
Left it till 0100hrs and caught a Lesser Sandplover, Terek Sandpiper and a White-fronted Plover. The Crab Plovers were moving as we could hear the distinctive calls out across the bay.
Next day at high tide we took the boat to explore another part of the archipelago and crossing the bay got 4 Humpback Dolphins, a rare and unusual estuarine cetacean and great that they had survived the Chinese nets which are all over the place. We then had to pass through a fantastic maze of mangrove for an hour along impossibly tight channels, how the boatman knew was a mystery to me.
Out on the other side we passed a long spur of grey-brown jagged coral rock and thought what an odd colour, till we suddenly realised it was coverd in countless birds, what a shock! Here was The roost! Just on one side I estimated there to be at least 6-8,000 birds and possibly 10,000. It would be an easy site to work as the sea all round the roost was only a metre deep at high tide and completely dry at low tide. Hmm, would need a few more hands for that, but noted it and we moved on.
That evening we set nets again and caught another Crab Plover, Terek Sandpiper, Common Sandpiper, closed then opened again at 0300hrs and got another Terek, Curlew Sandpiper and a White-fronted Plover and took down.
There was a Black-chested Snake Eagle on the island and during the night we had some success with the Sherman trap and had got a decent sized rat. However getting the beast into the balchatri was not so easy and Florentine the French dive master whom we had been staying with decided to fast track the process and grab the tail of the animal before I could stop him. Needless to say the creature savaged his thumb, eliciting thundering Gallic curses and made off in the direction of the long-drop!
Ok so scrap that plan!
However at that point Demitri, another French dive master on the island wandered in with a plastic bottle containing another rat which we successfully transferred to the balchatri. At the airstrip we couldn’t find the Black-chested Snake Eagle but dropped for a Black-shouldered Kite which with utter distain flew off to better things.
We packed the boat up and made off for Matemo Island and set up camp in the park HQ hut and took a walk along the beach to the very posh Rani Lodge. On the way we stopped to count a flock of 65 Roosting Whimbrel and suddenly realised that the entire area in front of us was covered with roosting birds. Mostly Greater Sandplover, Curlew sandpiper, Terek Sandpiper and Greenshank.
Wow! there must have been 5000 birds and not 15m away from where we stood! They were all congregated on a slightly raised bit of the beach where it came to a point, very subtle but a perfect roost.
We went and said hello to the lodge managers and got some alarmed looks from the guests (I tend to look a bit ‘bush’ after a few days of limited facilities!) before returning to make a plan for the coming night tide.
At dusk we set the 4 nets again, thinking I was probably taking a risk here and retreated to the beach head to wait, high tide was at 2130hrs. At 2100hrs I took a peek as I could not hear anything and took out a single Greater Sandplover. At 2130 went to see and there was one Curlew Sandpiper and a Water Thick-knee! Blast, missed judged the positioning as I could hear the roost very close of lots of birds. Waited till 1050hrs and took out a Sanderling before closing at 1230hrs.
At dawn we went to look at the site and 15m past the end net were the thousands of footmarks in the sand! Took down and thought about the following night.
Went to check on two other roosts within walking distance both smaller but one had a European Oystercatcher, a rare bird for this part of the world.
It was now a neap tide and so it would be the same as last night so that evening we set the same line of nets further out to cover the roost.
High tide was to be at 1110hrs and so other than a Terek Sandpiper and Greater Sandplover, had nothing till 1000hrs before taking a look.
OK now we were in business! The last two nets had caught a considerable number of birds, 87 to be exact!
The sight was something to behold in the dark, but now the tide was doing something very odd, it was coming in very fast and was already way beyond where it should have been. Getting stuck into the birds I worked with Rebecca holding bags and then running them up the beach to the camp. To make matters worse a wind had got up and things looked rather dire as the tide was now coming in fast!
I ran back and got one of the ‘pop-up’ tents to put birds in to save time but going to put the first lot in realised the wind had taken the tent out to sea!
Back for the other one this time with large rock and gradually filled it with birds.
I extracted the last bird at 1230hrs, with the sea up to my waist and furled. I then got stuck into the lot with Rebecca scribing and finished ringing the last bird at 0400hrs! quite an epic catch by normal standards and no casualties !
We collapsed on the wet sand at our feet to try and sleep, but the adrenalin had kicked in big time so I went to take down the nets at first light 20mins later and found the missing pop-up tent on the shoreline!
Birds from just the two nets were;
Greater Sandplover 3
Lesser Sandplover 1
Terek Sandpiper 52
Curlew Sandpiper 22
Little Stint 1
The reason we later found out for the freak tide was a big cyclone to the north which had upset all the tides. Just goes to show how one can be caught out. Fortunately the shore gradient was very slight so no danger of complete submergence!
We had now come to the end of the archipelago trip and so made for the mainland in a heavy sea to meet up with Roger on the mainland. We spent a few hours heading south to Taratibo, on the way we spotted a Western Banded Snake Eagle, quite a good record and a first for the park, only being recorded as far as the western border with Zambia in the past.
Taritibo is a beautiful place, set at the base of a massive inselberg in pristine Miombo forest, the birding was gong to be interesting in the morning!
At 0500hrs (lie-in) we set off and soon got a bird party with Pale Batis, Dark-backed Weaver a party of 8 Chestnut-fronted Helmet-shrike, and a pair of crowned Eagle above us causing havoc among the Samango Monkeys.
I put a net up to try and get the Chestnut-fronted Helmet-shrikes but got a pair of Striped Pipits and an Emerald-spotted Wood-dove instead!
Then Rebecca spotted a pair of sunbirds which disappeared before I could get onto them. She described them as Ulunguru Violet-backed Sunbirds, quite a rarity in this part of the world and would be a new species for the park, after an hour of searching I found them again and indeed they were indeed Ulunguru Violet-backed Sunbirds, the only species to have both male and female with metallic plumage.
Last stop was Pemba and back to the beach lodge and this time with nets!
We got there and put up a line of 4 x 60’ nets and furled for the morning.
Went down to the fire on the beach where Rudi had prepared a feast of prawns and sea fish again.
Opened at 0430hrs and before I had finished birds were piling in. mostly Sombre Greenbuls but all sorts of other stuff too.
At one point I got hassled by a male African Goshawk, grabbing a Sombre Greenbul before I could get to it, the Greenbul was ok, but next net round he was in the net again again and this time I managed to get him. Then something big was bouncing around in the end net which prompted a quick dash to the last net and I had the female as well!
Considerably bigger at 378g compared to the male at 226g wings were 260mm for the female and 214mm for the male.
Netting here was such a pleasure and everything so convienient from the accommodation to the net lanes, not to mention the abundunce of birds. With more time and people it woould be a great wader site as well putting nets on the beachfront.
Here follows a list of species caught;
African Goshawk 2
Emerald-spotted Wood-dove 1
Little Bee-eater 1
Burchell’s Coucal 1
Brown-hooded Kingfisher 1
Sombre Greenbul 47
Yellow-bellied Greenbul 2
Terrestrial Brownbul 3
Dark-capped Bulbul 1
Tropical Boubou 4
Brown-crowned Tchagra 1
Black-backed Puffback 4
Square-tailed Drongo 3
Orange-breasted Bush-shrike 1
Eastern Nicator 2
Red-capped Robinchat 13
White-browed Robinchat 1
Bearded Scrub-robin 3
Eastern Olive Sunbird 10
Purple-banded Sunbird 1
White-bellied Sunbird 3
Variable Sunbird 1
Collared Sunbird 3
Grey Tit-flycatcher 1
Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher 4
Green-backed Camaroptera 8
Black-throated Wattle-eye 2
Dark-backed Weaver 1
Yellow Weaver 2
Spectacled Weaver 4
Green-winged Pytillia 3
Red-throated Twinspot 2
Red-billed Firefinch 5
Blue Waxbill 1
Red-faced Cisticola 4
Altogether over 3 mornings ringing I caught 146 birds of 35 species and a total of 107 Waders of 12 species.
All in all a great trip and with a team of 6 or so, considerably more birds could be ringed.
I will be returning to Quirimbas National Park over the next few years with the aim of training a team to carry out CES style ringing.