Ngulia Tsavo-west Kenya
November Session 14th to 24th 2012
Many people have made the pilgrimage to this spectacular event over the last 4 decades, for me it was my 3rd time.
Since the late 60’s when Graeme Backhurst and David Pearson discovered the phenomenon of migrating birds being drawn into the lights of the Ngulia Lodge, over ¾ of a million birds have been ringed of a spectacular number of species.
Nairobi to Tsavo
I met my some of the team and friends Barry Williams and Richard Charles and Graeme Backhurst at the airport where we got the vehicles and set off on the Mombasa road to the park. Graeme was one of the first ever ringers to have discovered the migration phenomenon at Ngulia in the 60’s.
Along the route the development in Kenya was evident, so many trucks coming up from the coast, and going back down. It was good to see a few Black-chested and Brown Snake Eagles on the pylons.
We got to Hunters Lodge for a meal and drink and met the others, Kane Brides, Christopher Bridge and Dave Murdoch who were busy birding, the former two being their first time out here.
During the hour or so we recorded several Steppe and Lesser Spotted Eagles going over high as well as Steppe and Honey Buzzards.
We got to the park and just before entering managed to get a couple of feral pigeons in the village for the raptor nets!
The drive in was spectacular as ever, Martial were common and we even watched one nail a Guineafowl, dragging the carcase into the shade of a small bush. We saw 2 pairs of Secretary Birds, Eastern-chanting Goshawks and many more.
At the lodge it was great to see Colin Jackson and meet Andrew and Alex Kinzer who are with Arocha Kenya.
Whilst settling into the room, I stuck out a spring-trap in the hope of nailing one of the many Red-winged Starlings around the lodge. Not much happened until I put out the stuffed Eagle Owl I had bought up with me from SA! Suddenly the veranda was full of the starlings and the owl was taking a huge hammering, so I bought it in and in seconds, snap! Went the springtrap and we had Baz a real bogey bird tick!
Got the raptor nets set up in a ‘V’, set the dove in the middle and made a makeshift hide out of tablecloths filched from the restaurant! I spent a couple of hours in the hide making the dove flap up in the air everytine a raptor went over and got some birds interested, Tawny Eagle, Auger Buzzard and Steppe Buzzards would ‘lock up’ and come screaming down, but reckon were put off by the inefficiency of the hide.
|juv Levant Sparrowhawk|
No Mist in the night which was possibly a good thing to allow some of us to get a good nights sleep. There were a few birds caught in the night nets, namely Sprosser, but a very interesting turn up was a Singing Bush lark, a lifer for me and a first for the group! The day nets the next morning produced a few Afro-tropicals Pygmy Batis, but then, Colin handed me a bird bag with a long tailed something inside, saying ‘what do you reckon on this’! Gingerly extracting it I discovered a small sparrowhawk in juvenile plumage of whose ID was not immediately apparent. Looking at the breast one could be forgiven for saying African Goshawk, but this bird was far too small and its feet were true bird catchers with elongated middle toes. Also the yellow Cere was misleading for Af Gos, certainly was no African Accipiter I was familiar with. Someone mentioned Eurasian Sparrowhawk, but the juv plumage was completely wrong for that species. Eventually I came down on the possibility of Levant Sparrowhawk and looking in my in-hand raptor ID book by Bill Clark, immediately saw that it was perfect for Levant Sparrowhawk! A very rare bird in these parts and the first ringed at Ngulia.
The next few nights were mist free and people were beginning to get concerned that they would not get to see the incredible ‘Ngulia Phenomenon’. During the days we caught some interesting species, Common Rock Thrush, Rufous Chatterer, Nubian Woodpecker and another raptor, Little Sparrowhawk which chased something into the nets which got out, leaving the unlucky Sparrowhawk caught!
I had another go at the raptor nets, attracting Auger Buzzard, Bateleur, Peregrine Falcon and a huge Greater Spotted Eagle went over, but no luck. There were 2 pairs of resident Wahlberg’s Eagle, a species normally easy to catch like this, but each bird drifted over the dove, had a good look then took off.
All the while some good movement of raptors, Steppe Booted and Tawny, a couple of Honey Buzzards and a pair of Verreaux’s Eagles come over at one point.
|Puff Adder being escorted off the premises!|
One evening after supper we had an unwanted guest in the form of a rather large Puff Adder which had made its way into reception. There was no way the snake was going to leave and so had to be taken out manually. I got hold of a wooden spear from a statue and managed to get a good grasp of the beasts’ neck and carried it out to let it go in the bush where it would hopefully feel more at home.
During the days after breakfast, we put the single panel nets up on the lawn a picked up a few hundred Barn Swallows over the days.
Finally on the 19th the fog came. It was all hands on deck as mist rolled in, bringing tens of thousands of bird down with it.
|3-5 birds per bag!|
The procedure was for 2 extractors to man the two night nets and runners to go and take birds off them. This was performed by the security night watchman who was a huge help. The ringing table was set up with 3-4 ringers and a single scribe, usually Alex as the ringers got stuck into the birds. On occasions there would be 4-5 hundred birds in bags strung out on bamboo poles waiting to be ringed.
Each evening one of the highlights of the lodge for many tourists was the baiting of the ‘Leopard Tree’ where a leg of goat was hung up and the local Leopard(s) would come and feed in front of all the cameras. This was all very well, but when you have to spend the night extracting next to the tree and the Leopard not very far away, it focused the mind somewhat!
In the night nets were mostly Sprosser, Marsh Warbler, Common Whitethroat, Irania, Spotted Flycatcher and River Warbler.
|Adult male Barred Warbler|
At dawn, we would open the day nets and all the hundreds of migrants which had occupied the thickets would be caught. Oddly there were a lot of new species caught like Red-backed and Isabelline Shrikes, Olive-tree, Upchur’s Barred and Basra Reed Warblers.
|Adult male Ortolan Bunting|
A great surprise for me was to get to not only finally catch up with after many years, but to ring a Gambaga Flycatcher, only a few have ever been caught at Ngulia! And another real surprise, Ortolan Bunting, the second ever! It was a cracking adult male, and the only Palearctic migratory seed-eater to come to Africa.
|David with his Wahlberg's Eagle|
One afternoon after ringing a couple of hundred Barn Swallows, we took a little drive and found a Wahlberg’s Eagle on a dead tree by the track. Got a Bal-chatri trap down and the bird came in straight away and eventually got caught. Took the bird into the lodge, much too all the tourists surprise where David Gitau ringed it. It was an adult and probably a female.
Some of the team had left so there were only now six of us left with a couple of busy nights ahead of us!
|sub adult Auger Buzzard|
Another raptor run the next day produced a sub adult Auger Buzzard again to the Bal-chatri and a very good tick for Richard.
There were a few other interesting birds to turn up in the nets, Asian Lesser Cuckoo, Isabelline Wheatear, Green Pigeon, Black and White Cuckoo, Golden Pipit, Donalson-smith’s and Plain Nightjars.
|Lovely male Golden Pipit|
The next night was a good one and we were kept busy till dawn extracting continually whilst the ringing table tried to keep up with the numbers. One of the most bizarre bird sightings at around 0300hrs was a Narina Trogon sitting in the thorn tree! Just goes to show what birds move and why, is always the big question. Another bird that regularly turned up in the night nets were Barn Swallows, not a species you would imagine to migrate at night.
|the Georgia ring!|
Finally one night around 0430hrs we were rewarded with a control Sprosser from Tiblisi, Georgia, this is what it is all about and later discovered it was ringed as a juvenile this year in August.
Eventually the moon became brighter each phase and the birds were beginning to dwindle, so on the last day we took down all the day nets and packed up all the considerable kit and set off for Nairobi.
Over the 10 days we spent at the lodge we had mist on 5 nights which enabled us to catch and ring 7800 birds.