Monday, 21 April 2014

Trip north to Karima

At the weekend I made my first trip up north to Karima. I went with my family and some friends and there was little opportunity for any proper birding, but I carried my equipment with me at all times and had a couple of brief trips down to the river. Overall I was a little disappointed not to see more, even though there were a few good sightings. I was particularly looking forward to the 300 Km drive across the Nubian Desert from Omdurman to where it meets the Nile again 90 Km south-west of Karima, as I was hoping I might see some bustards, sandgrouse or other good desert species. The habitat looked good, but there were very few birds, other than a couple of Brown-necked Ravens and a few doves. The final 90 Km stretch following the Nile up to Karima was a bit better, with a few good birds including a Lappet-faced Vulture and two Egyptian Vultures near an old carcass.

Lappet-faced Vulture

Egyptian Vultures

We stayed at the Nubian Rest House, which was very pleasant, though quite pricey. It lies at the foot of Jebel Barkal and I wandered over a few times to check out the birds. There were few resident birds on the rock itself, other than an active group of three Lanner Falcons (including at least one immature) and a few Striolated Buntings, but several other species were clearly using the thermals over the rock to help in migration. There were some quite big flocks circling high over the rock including hirundines, swifts (Little and Common) and lots of Eurasian Bee-eaters. Nearby at the pyramids a Western Marsh Harrier was cycling around, near an impressive flock of around 200 Yellow-billed Storks. I was a little surprised at these, as they are not supposed to be found any further north than this and I wonder where they were going. Another surprise was when I flushed a Common Snipe from very atypical habitat on the slopes of the jebel.

Lanner Falcons talon grappling

Yellow-billed Storks

I made one brief evening trip down to the river in the middle of town. One thing I was looking out for was weavers and there were lots of Village Weavers flying back and forth along the edge of the river, but none stopped in the section that I was able to access and it was not possible to locate any nests. I must have seen about 40 birds in total and several were in breeding plumage. Nikolaus gives the range of this species as south of Khartoum. I have previously seen them as far north as Sabaloka, but this is a major range expansion further north. A few years ago the first one turned up in Egypt and I would not be surprised to find populations reaching much further north up the Nile. The habitat around Karima reminded me a lot of Egypt and I wonder if they might be a future coloniser.

Karima is located at a point where the Nile has just rounded a big bend and flows towards the southwest, before bending around to the north and on into Egypt. That evening I noticed lots of birds, especially herons (about 200 Squacco Herons and about 50 each of Little Egret and Cattle Egret), heading north up the Nile (i.e. back upstream). They looked like migrants but, given the direction, I assumed they were just heading to an evening roost site. I was back again the following morning at dawn and was surprised to see more groups heading in the same direction (a similar mix as before, plus a group of about 20 Eurasian Spoonbills). This made me wonder about the use of the Nile as a migration route. These appeared to be heading 'north' up the Nile, but were presumably not going to continue following it as it bent back south again. Do these birds just follow the relevant sections then cross the desert when the Nile heads in the 'wrong' direction. I had previously assumed that they would just follow the Nile around all the bends until they reached the Mediterranean.

Eurasian Spoonbills

I was a little surpassed not to see any terns, especially given the numbers currently around Khartoum. There are no records of Whiskered Terns in Sudan north of Khartoum, which has to be an oversight given the huge numbers moving through. I had hoped to see some on this trip to fill this gap in the records, but it will have to wait for another visit.

While standing beside the Nile I saw a bird fly away from me across the river. From a rear view it reminded me a lot of a Wattled Starling, a bird I have been seeing lots of recently at Bahri. Unfortunately, I was unable to see it well enough to confirm the identification, as this would have been a significant northerly extension of the range.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Wattled Starlings at Bahri

Since February we have regularly been seeing flocks of Wattled Starlings at Bahri Sewage Pools, but on Saturday the flock was bigger than ever with up to 200 birds present. We tried to catch some, but as with our previous attempts we had no luck. The flock was about a 50:50 mix of adults and juveniles and it seems pretty certain that they must be breeding in the area. Nikolaus describes the species as a non-breeder and "fairly common in the southeast, rare elsewhere". By 'the southeast' he must be referring to what is now South Sudan, so they must have been quite rare in what is now Sudan. It seems that they have either changed their status here or were previously overlooked. I have seen quite a few elsewhere, including at Soba sewage pools and several times at the KICS stables, so I find it hard to believe they were overlooked.

Adult and juvenile Wattled Starling, Bahri Sewage Pools, 12th April 2014

We wanted to follow up on our capture last week of a Clamorous reed Warbler, so we tried playing some recordings (downloaded from Xeno Canto of birds in Egypt). We had no success, until we tried the area where we caught the bird last week. We had two birds calling back at us. One came in very close, but mostly stayed hidden from view. Hopefully we will be able to establish if there is a resident population here. Last week we also saw our first Crested Coot at Bahri and one was present again on Saturday. It is nice to confirm that they are not just at Khartoum sewage works. Interestingly, we saw none while the Eurasian Coots were here. They have now all left. 

Crested Coot, with Little Grebe, Bahri Sewage Pools, 12th April 2014

It is not often you get good views of a long-tailed Nightjar, but this one showed well after it was flushed from its day roost by a Spur-winged Lapwing. Here it can still be seen harassing the nightjar.

Long-tailed Nightjar and Spur-winged Lapwing, Bahri Sewage Pools, 12th April 2014

Last week we had a couple of Slender-billed Gulls at the site, but they had gone and were replaced by a group of 16 Black-headed Gulls.

Black-headed Gull, Bahri Sewage Pools, 12th April 2014

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Clamorous Reed Warbler netted at Bahri

In my previous post I discussed the hybrid weaver we netted last Saturday at Bahri sewage pools. However, we also saw some other good birds including a Clamorous Reed Warbler, which we netted. Nikolaus shows one record from the Nile Valley up near the Egyptian border, and shows a resident breeding population on the Red Sea coast, but nothing from anywhere near Khartoum. In this part of the world the species is non-migratory, which implies the species might have either spread down the Nile or somehow crossed from the Red Sea. I am very interested in finding out its origins, as Marwa and I are currently preparing a paper of our recent records, which discusses the potential spread of bird populations along the Nile between the Afrotropical and Palaearctic regions. This could be a good example of a species moving southward. Apparently, the Egyptian and Red Sea populations are a different subspecies, but the biometrics of this bird (see below) appear to be inconclusive.

Wing - 82 mm
Tail - 76 mm
Bill tip to skull - 25.1 mm
Bill tip to feathering - 20.7 mm
Bill depth - 5.5 mm
Bill width - 4.6 mm
Total head (bill tip to back of head) - 47 mm
Tarsus - 29.1
Weight - 29 g
Total length (hard to measure on live bird) 183 mm, then 190 mm, then 185 mm
P2 = P7
Longest primaries - 3 and 4
Emargination - 3 and 4 (with slight hint on 5th)

I hope to follow up on this bird to determine if there is a resident population at Bahri and to find out which form it is. Perhaps this can be done with tape playback.

Clamorous Reed Warbler, Bahri Sewage Ponds 4th April 2014

Wing of Clamorous Reed Warbler, Bahri Sewage Ponds 4th April 2014

There were plenty of other good birds around including lots of Sacred Ibis. There have been lots about all winter, but Nikolaus describes them as a summer visitor, so again this appears to be a recent change of status. Two Slender-billed Gulls were present, and a group of 22 African Openbill Storks was an uncommon site this far north. There were fewer migrants this week, but still plenty to look at.

Sacred Ibis, Bahri Sewage Ponds 4th April 2014

African Openbill Storks, Bahri Sewage Ponds 4th April 2014

Slender-billed Gull, Bahri Sewage Ponds 4th April 2014

Whiskered Tern, Bahri Sewage Ponds 4th April 2014

Wood Sandpiper, Bahri Sewage Ponds 4th April 2014

Friday, 4 April 2014

Probable Cinnamon X Northern Masked Weaver hybrid?

I visited Bahri sewage pools again today with Marwa to ring some weavers. For the first time we noticed a small group of Cinnamon Weavers near to the Northern Masked Weaver colony we have been netting at recently. It was nice to see them, but it does mean that it will be much more difficult to know what I am catching now, as the females seem to be almost identical and one of my main aims is to find a way to separate the two. So far my concerns have been about the identification of the females and non-breeding males, but today we caught a bird that threw another spanner in the works, as it seems to be a male that is intermediate between the two species. I wonder if it might be a hybrid - a distinct possibility given the similarity of the females, the almost identical nesting behaviour, and the presence of both species breeding together at one site (I assume the Cinnamon weavers are breeding nearby, as they were in breeding plumage).

Note that the bird is moulting out of its non-breeding (basic) plumage, which is why it still has some pale brown feathers on the head and whitish feathers on the underparts. This is nothing to do with it being a probable hybrid.

Probable Cinnamon x Northern Masked Weaver hybrid, Bahri Sewage Pools 4th April 2014

Probable Cinnamon x Northern Masked Weaver hybrid, Bahri Sewage Pools 4th April 2014

Probable Cinnamon x Northern Masked Weaver hybrid, Bahri Sewage Pools 4th April 2014

Probable Cinnamon x Northern Masked Weaver hybrid, Bahri Sewage Pools 4th April 2014

I have included some photos of male Northern Masked Weavers in breeding plumage below for comparison. Although the cinnamon colouring around the head and on the breast is quite variable, I have never seen anything close to the bird caught today.

Northern Masked Weaver

Northern Masked Weaver

Northern Masked Weaver

Northern Masked Weaver

From the photos above you can see that the hybrid has a lot more chestnut on the crown and underparts than the Northern Masked Weavers. It also has a bit more black on the crown than most Northern Masked, but less than most Cinnamons (see below), though the extent of black on the head of Cinnamon Weavers varies a lot, from little more than a face patch to almost a complete hood. The photos above show that the upperparts of the hybrid are much more like Northern Masked, being bright yellow rather than golden, though it does have a couple of the golden feathers (for example on the coverts of the open wing shot) that are more typical of Cinnamon.

Cinnamon Weaver

Cinnamon Weaver

Cinnamon Weaver

Cinnamon Weaver

This hybrid individual (I will assume this is a hybrid unless good evidence arrises to prove otherwise) is very similar to photos I have seen of Yellow-backed (or Black-headed) Weaver Ploceus melanocephalus. In particular, the yellow nape and upper parts contrasting with dark head and cinnamon underparts is quite distinctive. The main difference is that this hybrid bird has a black and cinnamon head, while Yellow-backed Weavers have an all black head. This species is found in South Sudan and in Eritrea and Ethiopia up to the Sudan border. Potential hybrids will clearly have to be considered when identifying birds in any of these areas, where all three species could occur.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Good painting of Red Sea swallow on photo bucket

I was just searching on Google for 'Red Sea Swallow' and I came across this good painting of one on photo bucket. I thought I would add the link here as others might be interested in seeing what they would look like if anyone ever gets the chance to see one. It was uploaded by Carlos Urdiales.


Thursday, 20 March 2014

Netting in Sennar

I have been on my mid-semester break this week, so I decided to head down to Sennar for a couple of days of ringing. My main hope was to try and catch some Cinnamon Weavers in non-breeding plumage. First priority was to locate the non-breeding flocks, so I drove around with my local helper Mohamed to try and find some birds. We also saw other good birds on our travels, with the best being my first ever Zebra Waxbills. We saw about 40 in total in two locations a few km apart. Although found throughout South Sudan, they have only previously been reported in Sudan from Darfur, making this a considerable range extension for the species. Some Winding Cisticolas were also in the same reed-filled ditches.

Zebra Waxbills, near Sennar March 2014

Winding Cisticola, near Sennar March 2014

We headed down to a farm beside the Blue Nile owned by a friend Husam. We could't find any weavers in the area and Husam commented that they sometimes bred nearby, but mostly were in the fields along the irrigation ditches, which is where I was netting them back in October and November. There were a few good birds around, including an African Skimmer fishing on the river, plus an Osprey, a yellow-billed Stork and some Grey Herons.

African Skimmer, near Sennar March 2014

We headed back to the main nesting areas the next morning and found some big flocks of weavers in some of the fields, but it was very open and the birds were unapproachable, so it was necessary to set nets at the field edges near some bushes. This was not very successful and all the first birds I caught were Village Weavers. Closer observation showed that most birds in the flock were this species, so we moved to a new location near where we had seen the Zebra Waxbills, where we had also seen a few Cinnamon Weavers. There were not many around and we only caught 4. However, as always, there were some other good birds that entered the nets. Most exciting was a couple of Malachite Kingfishers, which proceeded to put on a bit of a display.

Malachite Kingfisher, near Sennar March 2014

Malachite Kingfisher, near Sennar March 2014

Another surprise was this Squacco Heron which flew up into the net when we were trying to flush some weavers from a bush.

Squacco Heron, near Sennar March 2014

Cinnamon Weaver, near Sennar March 2014

I was very pleased to catch this Eastern Bonelli's Warbler. I have been looking out for them for a long time, but without success and this was my first in Sudan. Warblers are often very difficult to observe well in Acacia trees and many interesting birds have to be left unidentified. This is one area where a mist-net can be a big help. I was surprised with how bright the rump was, as this is not a feature I have noticed when I have seen this species in the field. Usually the bright yellow-green edges to the flight feathers are more easily noticeable.

Eastern Bonelli's Warbler, near Sennar March 2014

Black-Scrub-Robin, near Sennar March 2014

Isabelline Shrike, near Sennar March 2014

I have seen surprisingly few Red-billed Queleas in Sudan. Sometimes referred to as the Sudan Dioch, this species is renowned for forming huge flocks that decimate farmers crops, and they are supposedly abundant in the area of the Gezira Scheme, the large area of land between the two Niles irrigated by various canals and ditches. This is the first time that I have seen big numbers of them in this area. 

Red-billed Quelea, near Sennar March 2014

Rufous Scrub-Robin, near Sennar March 2014

Although they are supposedly present, I have yet to see a Tawny-flanked Prinia anywhere around Khartoum, where the Graceful Prinia is ubiquitous. On this trip there seemed to be Tawny-flanked Prinias all over the place. I wonder where the cut off point is in their distribution, or whether there is a place where one species gradually gives way to the other.

Tawny-flanked Prinia, near Sennar March 2014

While using nets I do not carry my camera, so I was unable to take shots of a female Black-bellied Bustard that flew overhead at the ringing site. Fortunately, I had my binoculars and the evening before I had been brushing up on the identification of bustards, so I was able to tell what it was. This is my first sighting of a bustard in Sudan. I am very keen to see some of the others.

Grey-crowned Crane - a new species for South Sudan

I recently received information about this record of 4 Grey-crowned Cranes in Juba by Henrik Mikkelsen on 31st October 2013. He first heard the sound and then looked up to see 4 cranes flying overhead heading north. The colouring of the cheek in the photo below (mostly white with a red patch above) clearly shows that these were Grey-crowned Cranes. The Black-crowned Cranes that are known from South Sudan have mostly a red cheek with a paler patch above. To my knowledge, this is the first record for the country. Birds of South Sudan (1989) by Gerhard Nikolaus gives no records, but mentions that it "might occur as a visitor from Uganda along the southern border". Congratulations to Henrik on an excellent record, and thanks also for giving permission to publish his record and picture. He tells me he saw around 200 species during his 6 month stay in Juba. I would love to hear about his other records.

Grey-crowned Crane, Juba 31st October 2014 (Henrik Mikkelson)