On Sunday 22nd November, after two successful weeks of bird ringing at Ngulia Safari Lodge in Tsavo West National Park (as part of the Ngulia Bird Migration Project, run by the Ringing Scheme of East Africa), the whole team was heading back to whichever corner of Kenya they call home. A small group of us that were travelling together to Nairobi, including Colin Jackson, Kuria Ndung’u, Martha Mutiso and myself, decided to do a bit of bird atlassing on our way out of the park to get a full protocol list for one new pentad for the Kenya Bird Map project.
Most pentads in Tsavo still have no full protocol cards so finding one to cover would be relatively easy. We simply entered the Kenya Bird Map website and checked the Coverage Map to see where the coverage gaps were.
We were using the BirdLasser app to record our list of course, so both recording and navigation were quite simple. Ngulia Lodge is located two pentads south of our target pentad, and both have a number of fp lists already as you can see from the map above, so we quickly drove through them on our way to the target.
We entered the target pentad just before 11 am, and our expectations were not super high as this is the time of day when bird activity usually starts to slow down, especially in a hot environment like Tsavo.
Barn Swallow, Von der Decken’s Hornbill, Madagascar Bee-eater, D’Arnaud’s Barbet, Grey Wren-Warbler, Dodson’s Bulbul and Slate-coloured Boubou were among the first birds on the list as we drove in.
We carried on, adding many common birds as we went. Parrot-billed Sparrow, Vitelline Masked Weaver, Helmeted Guineafowl, Abyssinian Scimitarbill, Blue-capped Cordon-bleu, Tsavo Sunbird, Hunter’s Sunbird, Crested Francolin, Yellow-necked Spurfowl, Fork-tailed Drongo, Black-throated Barbet, White-bellied Go-away-bird, Green-winged Pytilia, Pringle’s Puffback, and Bateleur being among them. There were also good numbers of Eurasian (European) Rollers. Other Palearctic migrants seen included Marsh Warbler, Spotted Flycatcher, Turkestan (Red-tailed) Shrike, and Common Cuckoo.
A juvenile Martial Eagle soared overhead. Surprisingly the only Martial I’ve ever seen in Tsavo West! We got distant views of Red-billed Buffalo Weavers, while Diederik Cuckoo, Variable Sunbird, African Bare-eyed Thrush, and Black-headed Batis were heard only. Eastern Chanting Goshawk and African Black-shouldered Kite (Black-winged Kite) added to our raptor tally.
We would periodically stop and listen just to see if we could pick up any faint sounds or spot something skulking in the thick bush (which was the dominant habitat throughout the pentad, with barely an opening here and there). On one of these stops, CJ noticed the calls of Red-naped Bushshrikes quite close to the road. As this was a lifer for me, I was desperate to see them, not just hear them! I quickly pulled out my audio recorder and recorded the calls and then played them back to see if we could lure the birds out. Within barely 5 seconds of the playback, two of them dashed out into the open and then flew across the road into the bushes on the other side. I managed to get a few good looks, albeit brief ones. Success!! Now I could confidently tick it off as a lifer. Next time I must get photos!
Moving on, Fischer’s Starling , Zanzibar Sombre Greenbul (heard), White-headed Buffalo Weaver, Willow Warbler, Northern White-crowned Shrike, Red-cheeked Cordon-bleu, Straw-tailed Whydah, Eastern Violet-backed Sunbird and a few others made an appearance. Three White-backed Vultures rose on a thermal as a Common Scimitarbill was calling nearby. Red-fronted Warblers, Sprosser (Thrush Nightingale), and a female Isabelline Shrike were just off road.
Just a bit further ahead, we flushed a young Tawny Eagle that was perched near the road. And in a waterhole behind the tree it was perched in was this …
We sat with the hyenas for five minutes or so and then carried on. Just as we rounded the bend past the waterhole, we saw this incredible scene …
We admired them for a few minutes and then kept moving, as time was not on our side. And as we drove off, we noticed a juvenile Bateleur flying with purpose in the direction of the vulture and tawny. Among Africa’s eagles, the Bateleur and Tawny Eagles are the most ‘vulture-like’ of all, in that they scavenge quite frequently. Having both of them, as well as a White-headed Vulture and Spotted Hyenas in the same spot indicates that there was very likely a carcass nearby.
As we continued north towards Mtito, we added Laughing Dove, African Paradise Flycatcher, Little Grebe, African Orange-bellied Parrot, Red-billed Oxpecker and Vulturine Guineafowl to our list.
And then, as if the day’s fantastic sightings hadn’t been enough, we got our icing on the cake …
The dogs soon moved off and so did we as we neared the northern boundary of our pentad. By now we had done over 2 hours so had achieved our full protocol list. We crossed the boundary with 78 species on our list. Not bad for a midday drive in hot, flat thornbush!!
By now it was almost 2 pm. We drove to Mtito Andei Gate and added a few ad-hoc records to the pentads that we crossed through as we went. We exited the park at about 2.20 pm, feeling good after the day’s achievements!
Bird atlassing is always exciting as it leads you to explore places that you might otherwise have never gone to. Kenya still has very many unmapped pentads that need exploration to document which birds are there. Tsavo has its fair share of these, as do many of our other protected areas! Densely populated areas and farmland should also not be ignored as it’s important to document the impact of human development and population growth on Kenya’s birds. The pentads with less than four full protocol cards are also still under-atlassed and need more visits. Why not take a look at the Kenya Bird Map coverage map and see which new pentads you can explore and cover? You never know what you could find, not just in terms of birds but other things too!
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