Wednesday, June 18, 2014

South Africa Limpopo March 2014

A Bunch of Raptor Mad Canadian Banders come to South Africa!
March 2014
Picked up an excited Nigel and his 5 trainees, Charlotte, Amanda, Bronwyn, Maya and John at the airport and got out of town!
There was a huge weather system coming all the way down from Angola with big rains predicted, so we very quickly turned the white vehicle brown on the dirt roads.
We got 3 Black Shouldered Kites on the way, 2 on one trap! It’s amazing how many of this species get ringed in this area and I still catch new adults, it’s so tantalizing as to where birds go and come from!
There were loads of migrants about, Lesser-grey and Red-backed Shrikes, A Wahlberg’s Eagle, several Steppe Buzzards, European Bee-eaters roadside bushed noisy with calling European Marsh Warblers and hundreds of Lesser Kestrels and Amur Falcons hunting over the fields. At one point a huge flock of Black-winged Pratincoles flew north over the road, easily a couple of thousand birds.
Netting first thing proved slow, Red-backed Shrike, Willow Warbler, Arrow-marked Babbler and a few weavers. What was quite remarkable were 3 Mynah Birds on the garden lawn, feeding 3 juvenile Greater Spotted Cuckoos!  We set a sneaky 2 panel through a small shrubbery, which the birds were going into cover in and eventually got 2 of the cuckoos! The spring traps did well here catching a few Magpie Shrikes.

Raptoring in the area produced a few birds, 2 Steppe Buzzards (dropped for about 20!) a huge juvenile female Lanner, which came into a Zebra Finch lure, a female Lesser Kestrel and a very long waited for Black Kite!
Amanda was the lucky one to get the Lanner, it had a load of Quelea mush all round its beak, so in good shape at nearly 1kg!
The Steppe Buzzards were playing their usual wary hard-to-catch selves, but the best result was the Black Kite. Not many of them caught on a BC, it took 30 minutes of a stand-off between it, a Pale-chanting Goshawk and a Steppe Buzzard. The PCG must have been ringed as it unusually showed no interest in the mouse and eventually the buzzard took off and the Kite saw its chance! (dopey juv!).
Owling in the night proved frustration to say the least, we had a pair of Spotted Eagle Owls standing guard over a Bal-chatri no more than 3 m away! A Barn Owl flew over the big net a few times and the Pearl-spotted and Southern White-faced Owls, just shouted back at the sound system!
Woodbush Forest
Heading north the next day, we saw an adult male Montague’s Harrier, a ‘fall’ of some 20 Black Kites sitting in the rain. We tried to tempt one of these northward bound migrants but only succeeded in attracting a Black-backed Jackal!
We managed a Steppe Buzzard and a Greater Kestrel on the way up and dropped for a load of Steppe Buzzards and one each of Black-chested and Brown Snake Eagles. At Woodbush we saw a couple of uncatchable Long-crested Eagles, and got to the lodge to set up nets.
At dusk we were surprised by a European Hobby feeding over the field in front of the lodge! Later on we had 4 (2 pairs) of Wood Owl calling back at the sound system!
It was very wet and foggy, but we managed a few Lesser Double-collared Sunbirds, Dusky Flycatchers, Chorister Robin, Cape Robin Chat, Bar-throated Apalis and Cape White-eyes (the dark eastern race).
Went out on a raptor run, very hard conditions, rain hampered things and we unsuccessfully dropped for 12 birds, mostly S Buzzards, but also Jackal Buzzard and a 2 Forest Buzzards. We were plagued by showers for the rest of the day so in the evening set up another owl net with the stuffed Spotted Eagle Owl decoy. Which worked very well producing a lovely sub adult Wood Owl! There was no doubting who wanted to band this bird the most and the look on Charlotte’s face said it all!

Heading north still, we got a lovely Long-crested Eagle, almost missed it in the Fog! We also caught a couple of adult (!) Steppe Buzzards and at one point had 5 jackal Buzzards in the air over 2 traps! Eventually we managed to get one down near a trap. The bird behaved most strangely, walking up and down the track, eating a few squashed beetles and grasshoppers, until it eventually wound its way back to the trap and very half-hardheartedly managed to get itself caught.
Well it was ringed! This would explain its behavior, but looking up the number we discovered it was ringed some 50km away by Nigel 2 years ago!! What were the chances?!

Blouberg nature Reserve
Getting into ‘dryer’ thornbush, we picked up 4 PCG’s and dropped for a juv Gabar Goshawk which we would have caught if its sibling had not came in and started a fight about it, both birds disappeared!
Saw a couple of snake eagles and had a Brown get off a trap (so frustrating) and got to camp to set nets. Later that night we got an African Scops Owl.
Netting was very slow, this rain and cold weather making it very difficult to catch good numbers. Caught a pair of Striped Kingfishes, Grey-headed Bush Shrike, Southern Black Tit, African Paradise Flycatcher, Golden Breasted Bunting and 3 White-crowned Helmet-shrikes.
Raptoring produced a couple of Steppe Buzzards, lost a Black-chested Snake Eagle off the trap. There are so many Steppe Buzzards in the area, all waiting for the right conditions to head north on a broad front.
Owling that evening made up for the day’s raptoring producing a White-faced Scops Owl, Pearl-spotted Owlet and a nice big Spotted Eagle Owl!

Mpangubwe Limpopo River and Zimbabwe Border
Moving off the next morning we struggled to find birds, but eventually came across a preening Black-chested Snake Eagle. It took ages to get the bird to see the trap (stuck right under its beak!) and eventually got the bird! Maya was a very happy camper to have ringed it!).
That evening we watched a great passage of birds moving north out of the weather system. There were Verreaux’s Eagles up in the ‘kettle’ of raptors which included many Steppe Buzzards, Wahlberg’s Eagles, Montague’s and Pallid Harrier, a flock of some 100 Amur Falcons, 2 Peregrines and a Black Stork!
We were restricted by where we could go as so many roads were washed out after torrential rain all night. We did manage to get a Black-chested Snake Eagle and an immature African Hawk Eagle which Amanda was very happy to ring! We also got a pair of Dark-chanting Goshawks and a Shikra. We were now seeing quite a few more snake eagles and had a couple come in and off traps. Saw a pair of huge Kori Bustards in a field.
Tried for owls and nightjars in the evening, but the rain came in and it hammered down all night. So much so a Python got washed off the roof!
Making our way west along the Limpopo Valley, we dropped for a couple of Wahlberg’s Eagles, but too wet and soggy for any serious interest but caught another immature African Hawk Eagle.
The long anticipated Barn Swallow roost which numbered over 1 million 2 years ago, failed to deliver. We set a line of nets along the maize field and managed only 20 birds out of a possible 100. The farmer told us the main bulk of birds had moved out in front of this weather system!
Raptoring in the area is always interesting and leaving the camp we saw an adult Martial Eagle at the gate, managed to get a trap down for it and it came closer to look, we were unsighted and so getting closet to drop another trap, the bird flew!! Agonising! A bit later we came across a pair of Hawk Eagles on a pylon and dropped for them eventually the male came in which we got, and whilst we were processing him, the female came in but too trap shy.
We were seeing plenty of birds now, Wahlberg’s, and Snake Eagles, we managed to catch 2 BC and 3 Brown Snake Eagles, one a big bird of 2.2 kgs. At one point in the morning 2 flocks of 300 and 600 White Storks came over the road all heading north.
Back at the camp the Limpopo River had begun to overflow! I decided to park our vehicle up on higher ground for the night and just as well! In the morning we had to enlist the help of the farm workers to get all our equipment out, and wade across the flooded landscape to the vehicle!
In fact the whole area was put under emergency flood measures. The Lapalala River was over the bridge which we had crossed the day before! Getting to our next camp was out of the question. We decided to head south and get out of the danger area, not before catching another adult BC Snake Eagle in the same tree the Martial had been in!
On the way south we came across another Martial, a huge white juvenile on a pole. We managed to get a trap down for it and eventually the bird came in and hovered (!) over the trap and landed next to it. With hearts in mouths we waited, the bird took one lunge at the trap before a vehicle came along and flushed the bird. That was that, sooo frustrating! Later on that day we were rewarded with my first ever Brown Snake eagle ‘double header’! We dropped for one bird which came in immediately, but then a second unseen bird came in too, and we caught both!

Overall we did ok considering the wet conditions, the rain had flooded most of the province and we did well to avoid serious stranding’s with only a few detours and had to retrace our tracks once or twice.
We ringed 52 birds of prey in total, including 10 Steppe Buzzards, 7 Pale-chanting Goshawks, 3 Shikra, 3 African Hawk Eagles 7 Brown and 6 Black-chested Snake Eagles.
Altogether we got 63 species of 160 individuals.

Congo January 2014

This next trip to RNT and Conkoati NP was with my old chum Dr Stuart Sharp from Lancaster University who was awarded a small grant from the African Bird club to do some surveying by conducting a series of point counts.
Very soon we had a line of nets up at the sanctuary and a nice surprise and a new one for the reserve were Great Reed Warblers! Amazing that they were absent from September to December, makes one think about their route.
We also got a good few Garden Warblers, Spotted Flycatchers and new ones being, Black-faced Canary, Black-bellied Seedcracker, an awesome looking bird, 
and a real bogey bird for me later that morning, a female Black and White Flycatcher!
A Bat Hawk went over in the morning mist which was a great lifer for Stuart. We tried another area below the sanctuary and got a pair of Black Coucals very interested in the sound system as did a couple of African Crakes which had until now not been seen on the reserve. A lifer for both of us was a Black-collared Bulbul.
That night a spot of dazzling with the landing net produced a Square-tailed Nightjar and a Swamp Nightjar.
Went to Mpili putting 14 African Crakes up along the way and ringed in the forest there and were rewarded with a new one for RNT, a Fire-crested Alethe and another Blue-breasted Kingfisher, that’s 3 from the same spot!
Next spot were the 3 islands. We set our usual nets in their rides and got some crackers, Chestnut-breasted Nigrita, Red-chested Goshawk, Blue-throated Brown Sunbird. Nkulengu Rails calling in the night!
Took a canoe up the Ntombo River, tributary of the Kouilou and got Black Bee-eater, Finfoot, Cassin’s Spinetail, White-throated Blue Swallow and Cassins Flycatcher.
At the river mouth we got a real surprise lifer each by finding several Grey Pratincoles on the sand! Amazing little birds, so well camouflaged. As usual there were 10,000 plus Royal Terns and this time a good 60 odd African Skimmers.
Conkoati National Park
After an interesting and serious 4x4 hour drive of 4 hours, we got to camp in a fantastic setting on the banks of the Lanumbe River.
In the night we heard African Wood Owls and a pair of Vermiculated Fishing Owls, close to camp! With Black-casqued Wattled Hornbills and African Grey Parrots flying overhead, we set a line of nets and soon got busy. New birds included Black-capped Illadopsis, Sabine’s Puffback, White-tailed Ant-thrush, Golden Greenbul and the usual Yellow-lored Bristlebills and Yellow-whiskered Greenbuls.
I set a cheeky net up over the river stretching from an old sunken tree to the bank and after a while were rewarded with a White-throated Blue Swallow, extracting it from a Pirogue required some dexterity and balance! What a stunner! We also caught a pair of equally smart White-bellied Kingfishers.

In the evening we set a big net across the old rotten road bridge and played the call for Vermiculated Fishing Owl. At one stage we had a bird either side of the net, but no luck in bringing them down out of the trees.
Next morning we did a walk from camp and came across fresh Elephant tracks where our nets had been! Also got a lifer, Joanna’s Sunbird whilst waiting for the Land Cruiser. On the way back we set a few small single panel nets at the Kouilou River mouth and after a few hours of twinkling and gently herding a load of Grey Pratincoles, we got one!
Doing some of the point counts we got a few new birds for the reserve list. Fan-tailed Grassbird, Great Snipe, Thick-billed Cuckoo and a Brown Snake Eagle (new to the country!).
Totals were 163 birds ringed of 60 species!

That’s it for the Congo for now. Will be back in June and July this year, a different season, let’s see what new species turn up then.

November 2013 a Rosy time!

RNT November 2013
The first Management Plan Workshop with a Rosy Bee-eater Break!
A month later I was back to Tchimpounga Nature Reserve in the Republic of Congo. This time to attend the first ever management plan workshop for the reserve.
In the time either side of the workshop I intended to do a bit of exploring to find the elusive Rosy Bee-eater colony. One day I went off with a ranger and after walking for 6 hours through some fantastic old grown forest with Red-billed Dwarf Hornbills calling. Eventually we came out into a clearing to an idyllic grassland, surrounded by tall forest. It felt totally unexplored and to my complete and utter joy, there, right at the far end was the Rosy Bee-eater colony with hundreds of birds in residence! At a guess, I reckoned there were over 500 pairs in the colony.

So a very good opportunity to get a few rings on these birds! I did an evening session back at the sanctuary and got 6 Garden Warblers and a new one for me, Simple Greenbul! Went to check on the Mpili African River Martin Colony and found it all happening! Birds were now feeding young. I set a net and got a single bird, they were bringing in Hawk Moths, obviously gleaned from the forest canopy.
I got the chance and went back to do the Rosy Bee-eater colony and set one 2 panel net to one side of the colony so as not to disturb it and in 2 hours managed to catch 53 birds!

One of the highlight was to have Martin Cheek from Kew gardens show us the single specimen of Tessmania dawei, a tree which had been lost to science for 100 years and now rediscovered in RNT!

Republic of Congo - Swamps Rivers Forests Grasslands and Beach!
Visit to Tchimpounga National Nature Reserve.

October 2013
I was accompanied by my friend, Niall Perrins, on this occasion, a passionate birder and accomplished photographer to Tchimpounga national nature Reserve (RNT).

We were quite keen to get out of the grime and noise of Point Noire and get to the reserve and to Mpili, a wonderful mosaic of grassland and tall rain-forest with very little edge, and to see the colony of Rosy Bee-eaters which we had located last time.
When we got to this magical place we were thrilled to find an active colony of around 500 African River Martins!!
So it would seem that either Rosy Bee-eaters or River Martins will use the same site, depending on who gets there in good numbers first!
African River Martins coming into the colony

We set a low key 2 panel net on the edge of the colony, not completely closing it off to allow movement of birds in and out. We then sat back in the Land cruiser to watch some 150m away.
Every now and then a Palm-nut Vulture, or in one case a Red-necked Buzzard, would put the whole colony up in alarm, a huge ball of 3-400 birds clustered together over the forest canopy.
After some 40 minutes, there was to be a ‘change over’ where one partner took over incubation duties from the other. The incoming flock would get lower and lower, bit like a Swallow roost, and eventually birds would drop to the ground and run across to their respective holes as the outgoing birds took flight. In this way after an hour we caught 8 birds, to have done more at this late stage of the day may have caused problems for the colony.

Next morning we ringed in the forest adjacent to the colony as well as sticking another 2 panel up for the Martins. We got 3 more ARM's and a Blue-breasted Bee-eater. There were a few Rosy’s about. In the forest nets we got a pair of Spectacular Blue-breasted Kingfisher as well as an assortment of Sunbirds and Greenbuls.
Went to Lake Foni to have a look round and were very happy to find 21 Hartlaub’s Ducks resting on the banks. This very unique and scarce Duck is a data deficient species and dependent on forests.

On a short drive to Madingo Keys, just north of the reserve, along a forested path of road, something flew across the road and I just saw enough of the bird to get my heart going. We skidded to a stop and immediately and hit the sound system, playing what I thought I saw, and were rewarded after a few seconds with an absolute cracking adult Long-tailed Hawk!! Not only did we get an eyeful of this stunner, but it sat up on a dead branch calling for ages!! What a bird! And not something you see every day!
 We set a line of nets one day near the sanctuary, which is the HQ of the reserve and home to some 300 orphaned and confiscated chimps as a result of the bush meat trade. Catching was slow going, but saw a Black-headed Bee-eater carrying food! Just about the last net round I went to check and saw a raptor in the net right at one end! I legged it and was very fortunate to get hold of a Chestnut-flanked Sparrowhawk, what a stunning bird!

 Next it was off to Ngombe, Tchbebe and Tchinzulu islands in the Kouilou River.
Set nets in nice rides and caught a lovely assortment of birds, best being a Blue-headed Wood Dove, Emerald Cuckoo, Swamp Palm Greenbul and Western Bluebill and the grey blue backed ‘Naumanni’ race of Red-bellied paradise Flycatcher.
 On Ngombe Island we met up with Scott Weidensal, an accomplished ornithologist from The USA. He had a group who were coming to visit the sanctuary and the Chimpanzee holding facility on the island.
On the way back to the Sanctuary, we had a Rufous-thighed Sparrowhawk cross the river and in the Mangrove found a Mangrove Sunbird. Out at the river mouth we guesstimated some 10,000 Royal Terns in the roost with a few African Skimmers.

We did another session at Mpili for the African River Martins and got 13 more birds, two Northern Marsh Harriers and a Honey Buzzard went through. A passage of around 100 Common Swifts went over. Coming back we saw a Red-footed Falcon, a new one for the reserve and a Red-necked Buzzard.
A netting session at Lake Foni produced few birds including Snowy-headed Robin-chat, Western Nicator, Brown-throated Wattle-eye, Olive and Purple-banded Sunbirds, Brown Illadopsis and a new on in the form of a Lowland Sooty Boubou. Walking back to the main road we flushed a pair of Bates’s Nightjars!

Netting back at the sanctuary we got a nice mix including Willow, Garden and Icterine Warblers, Rufous-tailed Palm Thrush, Black-necked Weaver, Spotted Flycatcher, Carmalite and Green-headed Sunbirds and Sooty Chat (in spring traps).
Went to explore an old logging road in the forest over towards Lack Foni and whilst wading through mud and pools, flushed a White-crested Tiger Heron!
On the way back, we spotted a termite alates with a hundred or more Rosy Bee-eaters feeding on the emergence! We quickly set a single two panel net and after a wait of about 10 minutes, the birds came back and we managed to catch 13 birds as well as a Banded Martin! What a lovely bird in the hand, some birds were gravid and we observed some carrying food, proof that there was a colony somewhere nearby.

Ringing totals were 277 birds ringed of 66 Species, not a bad return.