Thursday, July 24, 2008

Ringing in the Albertine Rift Valley

Uwinka Highland Forest Station - Nyungwe Forest, Rwanda

Guide-training workshop and ringing demonstration

5 – 18 June 2008

I had just opened a set of mist-nets and went to find the 7 guides I was training here in the spectacular montane forest at 2590m asl.

It had been raining all night and in the bitter cold of dawn the far carrying screams of a distant group of chimpanzees, made me think what a dreadful night the beasts must have had.

The day before we had had a wonderful day spotting no less than 15 Albertine Rift Endemics in one morning, there are 28 in Nyungwe.

Montane-masked Apalis, Rwenzori Apalis, Red-faced Woodland Warbler, Red-throated Alethe, Handsome Francolin, Rwenzori Turaco, Strip-breasted Tit, Grauer’s Warbler, Rwenzori Batis, Dusky Crimsonwing, Archer’s Robin-chat, Blue-headed, Rwenzori double-collared, Purple-breasted and Regal Sunbirds. All before noon!

The symphonia trees were in flower creating magnificent dashes of crimson across the steep forested valleys. In each of these trees were a resident pair of Purple-breasted Sunbirds and views of this spectacular bird were perfect from the steep sided slopes.

Rwenzori Turaco’s were everywhere making their explosive whistling calls.

During the morning we caught 3 Red-throated Alethe including a juv with single tale-tale brown feather in the head.

Yellow-whiskerd Greenbul were by far the most vocal and common, but caught only three.

We caught a White-starred Robin, African Yellow White-eye, an adult male and female Rwenzori Double-collared Sunbird, the male in breeding plumage everything now breeding, as it was the end of the rainy season.

A pair of Rwenzori Batis offered a great opportunity to hold side by side to see the subtle difference in eye colour, the guide-books make it so obvious, but apart, the sexes are not so easy to distinguish.

But the most exciting catch of the morning was a Strange Weaver, an albertine rift endemic and living up to its name by being quite different to any other weaver I have caught. For a start it was the most well behaved weaver I have ever handled with a remarkably long bill.

During the morning I got to a net to find a sparrowhawk bouncing around in the net which I got to just as the bird got out, wrong side of the net. Probably an African Goshawk, but hopefully a Rufous-chested Sparrowhawk if it were to come back for the mangled white-eye it left in the net, bugger.

Closed at noon and tried to entice a pair of White-necked Raven with some mints, with the idea of trapping them in a cube net. The birds gave me a look as if to say, ‘you need counselling’.

However they appeared at lunch and polished of a good two cupfuls of rice. But then once I got the net out it had the effect a shotgun would have had if I had taken a few pot shots at them!

In the afternoon I opened up again and fist off caught an Olive-breasted Mountain Greenbul, Andropadus kikuyuensis which in these parts used to be, A. nigriceps, Mountain Greenbul, now Black headed Mountail Greenbul, a Tanzanian endemic, altogether a complicated group at the best of times without them all having to be split further!

Other new birds were an adult male Regal Sunbird, arguably one of the most spectacular sunbirds, the accipiter which turned out to be an African Goshawk, which had still been lurking round the nets and this time I was the right side of the net.

It was a second year/plumage bird and a male on size at 217g.

Kamiranzovu Swamp

We set off for here at the disgraceful time of 0700hrs as the driver had arrived late. We got to the track leading down to the swamp, a 20minute descent to 1950m and stood in awe in the middle of a great expanse of swamp vegetation surrounded by thick forest rising up form the swamp edge.

This small sea of sedges and rushes was a paradise for crakes, rails and small warblers. As we stood there the extremely localised endemic Grauer’s Rush Warblers called as they conducted their short display flight, flying 5-10m over the rushes to drop out of sight. A Red-chested Flufftail called at our feet from the depths of the rushes.

It was here that the first Grauer’s Rush Warbler nest was described.

I slowly walked into the spot and found a natural depression in the vegetation and put up a line of 3 single panel nets and retreated to the small base we had made in the edge of the forest.

We next put up a line of 60’ nets along the perfectly managed trail system here. This done it was time to check the singles and walking out to them I felt very privileged to be in this famous place. The first net was empty as was the second and my spirits sank, but there right at the end was a small brown job. With a shakey hand I took it out and indeed there it was, a bird I have seen only a handful of times and only dreamed about catching.

The bird is a typical Bradypterus with an amazingly worn out tail, the middle 4 tail feathers just spines! It weighed 17g and had a wing of 63mm. I quickly photographed it and walked it back out to the site to release where it dived back into the rushes.

The incessant calling of the Red-chested Flufftail was starting to bug me for ideas when all of a sudden a plan occurred to me.

Putting a single panel on the ground along the excellent boardwalk, I played the call on the ipod leaving it in the middle of the net and backed off to watch with the guides. Approximately 10 seconds later were rewarded with an adult male flying across the track and straight into the net! I have only seen this bird twice in my life whiz across a narrow ditch in the reeds and never flying so to have the thing in the hand was wonderful!

Only in this position can one see the ‘fluff-tail’!

Doing a net round along the 60’s we were lucky to get a juvenile Archer’s Robin-chat, and in its mottled plumage very difficult to separate from any of the other forest akalats, alethes and robin-chats, but the clincher was size.

Also caught were 3 Yellow-whiskered Greenbuls and a pair of African Hill Babblers of the endemic race ‘atriceps’ which is considered by some to be a true species, ‘Rwenzori Hill Babbler’ and if so an albertine rift endemic.

Back out in the marsh I couldn’t believe it when there again this time in the first net was another Grauer’s!

During the rest of the day we caught a wonderful assortment of birds, Archer’s Robin-chat, White-bellied Robin-chat (smaller and with the distinctive black central tail feathers of the robin chats). We caught a pair of Equatorial Akalat, tiny legs for the size (2.3mm ring for a 17.7g 75mm wing bird) and a pair of Cinnamon Bracken Warbler at last, having been hearing them all over the place. They had such a rich rufous coloured plumage and typical Bradypterus worn tails, although nothing like the Grauer’s.

At midday I went to take down the single panels in the marsh as it was getting too warm and there again was another Grauer’s Rush Warbler!

In the afternoon we proceeded to catch in the forest nets, 4 Olive-breasted Mountain Greenbul, 3 Rd-throated Alethe and a pair of White-bellied Crested Flycatchers, such dainty little things.

Sitting in our little spot in the forest we heard the beautiful and evocative calls of a displaying Crowned Eagle and the subsequent nervous starts of a troop of L’Hoest’s Monkeys these animals also being an albertine rift endemic.

Other raptors hunting over the swamp were a pair of Mountain Buzzards (collecting nesting material) and a single Long-crested Eagle.

Hiking down into this beautiful swamp I had dreaded the hike out but it went by in a dream, especially when finding another Albertine rift endemic, Yellow-eyed Black Flycatcher!

That evening back at Uwinka I put up a new line of 60’ and got a White-starred Robin before closing. A huge flock of swifts were going over and reckoned they were Scarce Swift, among them I spotted at least 4 Mottled Spinetails, the typical fluttering flight quite distinctive. These birds constitute a new record for Nyungwe national park and possibly even Rwanda.


Opened at 0530 and got a Yellow-whiskered Greenbul then an unfortunate incident of a troop of Blue Monkeys taking out a bird from the net, from the remains of the feathers I deduced it was a Yellow-whiskered Greenbul. I closed the nets.

In the afternoon we prepared a site at 2000m below Uwinka to get the birds used to the disturbance over the next 24 hours and walked back the long way round and spotted a Western green Tinkerbird and a flock of White-headed Wood-hoopoe.

The following afternoon we set 5 x 60’ nets and got a pair of Equatorial Akalats before closing for the night.

I climbed down at 0500 in the dark which was exciting to say the least, especially with the blood-curdling screaming of a few Tree Hyrax going on! I could hear a group of Angola Black and White Colobus starting up in the distance, a huge group of 500 came through the previous day.

During the morning we caught some crackers! We got 5 Yellow-whiskerd Greenbuls, 2 Olive Sunbirds of the race vincenti, another Equatorial Akalat,a Red-faced Woodland Warbler and a Lemon Dove of the race jacksoni, a Montane Oriole, Chestnut-throated Apalis and a Doherty’s Bushshrike.

In the afternoon we set a couple of nets in another site near Uwinka and got a retrap Olive-breasted Mountain Greenbul and Rwenzori Batis.

New birds were a pair of Red-faced Woodland Warbler and a new endemic, a Dwarf Honeyguide!

This little bird is so unobtrusive, even when calling it is so hard to see and was a lifer for all the guides and my 3rd having caught one some years ago in Bwindi, Uganda. What I found interesting was that I had been playing the call of a Strip-breasted Tit at the net and this possibly attracted the Honeyguide that was looking for a breeding pair to parasitize.

The last day was a birding day and we hiked up the Bigugu trail and found a flock of 6 Red-collared Mountain Babbler! This endemic was a lifer for me and what a fantastic looking bird to end the trip on!

We caught 65 birds altogether of 26 different species including 9 Albertine Rift Endemic.

I also discussed plans with ORTPN (Rwanda Office of Tourism and National Parks) to return with groups of ringers and birders to continue ringing related projects and guide-training activities.

Next time I would like to camp in the Kamiranzovu Swamp and mist-net again in that fantastic forest for things like Kivu Ground-thrush, Shelly’s Crimsonwing, Rockefeller’s Sunbird and Yellow-crested Helmetshrike.

1 comment:

Marcell Claassen said...

Excellent stuff Malcolm - the things birding dreams are made of. Shame I didn't know about the ringing workshop, would've loved to join in and learn some ringing.