Saturday, 23 August 2014

First trips out after my summer break

I arrived back from my summer break a couple of weeks ago. I have yet to make any lengthy birding trips, but I popped out a couple of times to my local patch at the Soba Hospital sewage ponds. I was particularly interested in trying out some new recording equipment, but with little success, so I did not take any photos.

It was interesting to see that the Northern Masked Weavers are still nesting, with some birds still actively nest-building. Many of the rainy season visitors are still present, such as White-throated Bee-eater, Greater Blue-eared Starling, Abdim's Stork and Fulvous Whistling Duck; plus a number of migrants and winter visitors have already arrived, such as Gargany, Shoveler, Purple Heron, Night Heron, Little Stint, Common, Wood and Green Sandpiper, and White-winged Tern.

As is usual at this time of year, much of the area around the pools was flooded, which made it hard to see all of the birds and many would have been hiding in the thick vegetation. I counted at least 32 Hottentot Teal, but there were probably more. I hope to get out to Bahri next week with Marwa to see what is around.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Another trip down to Sennar

Term finished on Monday at the school where I work and I headed straight down to Sennar, because I wanted to know if the Cinnamon Weavers would be breeding. The irrigation ditches were all dry and there was little sign of any active nesting, though a few males were starting to moult in some orange feathers and there was some activity and calling that could indicate the early stages of breeding behaviour. However, the majority of birds were still in flocks and in basic, non breeding plumage, so my guess is that nothing will begin until the rains set in.

I was pleased to catch my first Great Reed Warbler, especially after catching a Clamorous Reed Warbler a couple of months ago. I include a photo of the Clamorous below for comparison, as it really shows the different bill shapes. I was also pleased to catch my first Beautiful Sunbird and Grey-backed Camaroptera.

Great Reed Warbler, north of Sennar 4th June 2014

Clamorous Reed Warbler (for comparison), Bahri Sewage Ponds 4th April 2014

Beautiful Sunbird, north of Sennar 4th June 2014

Grey-backed Camaroptera, north of Sennar 4th June 2014

There were quite a few Collared Pratincoles flying around, with about 10 hanging out at a small muddy puddle at the edge of the village, including a couple of juveniles. This allowed me to get excellent views and to take some photos.

Adult Collared Pratincole, north of Sennar 4th June 2014

Juvenile Collared Pratincole, north of Sennar 4th June 2014

I will be away for a while, visiting El Salvador, Colombia and Spain where the birding should be quite spectacular. I will be back in August in time for the autumn migration.

Friday, 30 May 2014

The start of the wet season

Last week we had our first big downpour to herald the start of the wet season. I will head off soon on my summer break, and as always, I will return to find a widely different set of birds. When I arrive back in August there will no longer be any of the winter migrants, plus there will be a number of new arrivals. Last week Marwa and I saw our first Intermediate Egret, which is apparently mainly a wet season visitor. Today there were two birds present. Cattle Egrets started breeding a few weeks ago and there is one colony with perhaps a couple of hundred pairs. It seems that the Little Egrets and Squacco Herons are not going to leave and there are many now in breeding plumage, though we have yet to find any breeding colonies. Black-winged Stilts have never been reported breeding in Sudan, but there were lots around today and many appeared to be in pairs and flying around being very vocal as if involved in courtship.

Cattle Egret nesting, Bahri 30th May 2014

Black-winged Stilts, Bahri 30th May 2014

Storks always arrive over the wet season, with Abdim's being the most noticeable around Khartoum. We had our first of the year today. Openbills and Maribous are less common in the city, but will soon be found in big numbers a bit further south. Both species of glossy starling will soon be in Khartoum, plus other wet season arrivals such as Abyssinian Roller and African Pied Wagtail. Today we saw lots of Fulvous Whistling Ducks, which we have not seen at this site previously.

Abdim's Stork, Bahri 30th May 2014

Today I was a little surprised with the number of winter migrants still present, and I wonder if they will all leave. There were 5 Garganys, a Greater Flamingo, and several hundred terns, including Gull-billed, White-winged and Whiskered.

Vitelline Masked Weaver, Bahri 30th May 2014

As always, most of the morning was spent netting weavers. One nice capture was our first Vitelline Masked Weaver. I had wondered how easy it would be to notice among the Northern Masked Weavers, but it was pretty obvious with its brighter yellow underparts, reddish eye, all pale bill and plain coloured face (more reminiscent of female Cinnamon Weaver). In the hand it had a short bill (shorter than any of the Northern Masked I have captured). Another characteristic appears to be the wing structure, with the 2nd primary falling in length between the 5th and 6th primaries, whereas Northern Masked almost always falls between the 7th and 8th. It was a female in breeding condition with a brood patch, though I have not seen any signs of a colony around the site. Today we accessed a new area of the sewage works and found a large colony of Village Weavers. We have seen a small colony previously, but they seem to avoid nesting in the reeds and this colony was in a row of larger trees at the edge of the site. Northern Masked Weavers were nesting in the reeds below them.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Recent trips to Bahri

I haven't yet written up my last two trips to Bahri, on May 9th and 23rd, so I thought I would mention some of the sightings. Most of the effort was based around netting weavers, but we also caught a few other good birds. On the 9th we caught a couple of Red-billed Queleas, which is a species I rarely see this far north. They are a nightmare for farmers further south, where vast flocks of over a million individuals can destroy an entire crop, but they are still quite attractive birds.

Red-billed Quelea, Bahri Sewage Pools 9th May 2014

Another species I was pleased to finally catch was Ethiopian Swallow. We often see them flying around the reed beds, but they had yet to enter the net. This bird was caught on the 23rd.

Ethiopian Swallow, Bahri Sewage Pools 23rd May 2014

We saw a few other good birds around the sewage pools, mainly on the 23rd. Best was probably an Intermediate (or Yellow-billed) Egret, which I have only seen once before in Sudan. Nikolaus says that they move north during the rains, which probably explains my lack of sightings, as I am mostly out of the country during the peak of the rainy season. We also saw our first Green-backed Heron at the sight, which is surprising given how common they are on the river. Another good bird to see was a Painted Snipe, which was also our first at Bahri.

Intermediate Egret, Bahri Sewage Pools 23rd May 2014

The migration is still far from over. There were still lots of White-winged and Whiskered Terns around, plus a few waders. I was a little more surprised to see a White Wagtail, as I think of these as quite early migrants.

Friday, 2 May 2014

Searching for wetlands in Omdurman

For the last few months Marwa and I have been having amazing success birding at wetland sewage sites in Khartoum and Bahri, but we had still not been anywhere in Omdurman. I searched the internet for any information about sewage sites in Omdurman, but nothing came up. I then resorted to searching Google Earth for potential sites. It was soon pretty clear that there was no major sewage works in the city, but a number of smaller wetland sites looked worthwhile. The map below shows the main locations I hoped to visit. Marwa and I met up with Shazali, a Biologist from Omdurman who is currently working in Juba South Sudan, but was luckily in town today. He took us to the first location (marked A). Shazali told us that it is quite a large pool during the wet season, but that it mostly dries up throughout the year. Today it was down to a couple of small ponds and was clearly very polluted as it lies right in the middle of a built up area and is used to dump rubbish. The only birds around were House Sparrows. This information let us know that the Google Earth satellite photos were taken in the wet season and that many of the areas shown would probably only be seasonal wetlands.

Potential wetland birding sites for checking in and around Omdurman

We then headed up towards the north of the city. We by-passed the locations marked E and F, which appear on the satellite image to be smaller versions of A, and which Shazali assured us would be dry. The location marked B was much more interesting. There is a major underground water pipe that sprung a leak 4 years ago and which they have been unable to fix. This has resulted in the formation of a small stream that runs down the hill and forms several small pools, the biggest about 30 m across. There were some small patches of reeds (bulrushes rather than the type we find at the sewage sites) and a bit of open water. There were surprisingly few birds around considering the arid surroundings and water availability, but we did see a Little Grebe and a couple of Little Swifts, plus a few other commoner species. We headed further north to check out a group of small pools (location C) that from satellite images appeared to be very similar to the sewage pools I regularly visit near Soba Hospital. They were hard to find and when we asked around we soon found ourself at location D, which is the main water treatment facility in Khartoum State. There was no open water at the site, but it was interesting to find a dead Barn Own on the ground. Apparently they see them there regularly. Nikolaus describes them as uncommon, and I have not come across them before in Sudan. We headed back down to the pools at location C and found them to be water ponds for a cattle farm, with no surrounding vegetation and no real interest ornithologically.

Dead Barn Own, water treatment works Omdurman 2nd May 2014 

We then headed to the south of the city, to an area beside Omdurman Islamic University (OIU on the map). It was hard to find, but well worth the effort. It is clearly quite a large wetland in the wet season, but the southern end appears to be a small permanent wetland created from sewage - presumably from the university. The whole area is only about 1 or 2 hectares, but about half of it is thick reed beds and the rest an area of open water. We quickly saw a few Hottentot Teals and several Common Moorhens, including lots of juveniles. There were some Northern Masked Weavers in the reeds and a few shorebirds around the edge of the pools, including some Kittlitz's Plovers. There were lots of Chestnut-backed Sparrow-Larks, including some juveniles. Migrants included a European Bee-eater and a Common Hobby hunting over the pools.

Hottentot Teals, Omdurman Islamic University 2nd May 2014

Kittlitz's Plover, Omdurman Islamic University 2nd May 2014

Adult Chestnut-backed Sparrow-Lark, Omdurman Islamic University 2nd May 2014

Juvenile Chestnut-backed Sparrow-Lark, Omdurman Islamic University 2nd May 2014

We ran out of time at the end and were unable to visit another small group of pools lying south-west of Omdurman (location G). I hope to check these some time in the near future. I also hope to return to this new site at Omdurman Islamic University to see what is present in the early mornings.

Friday, 25 April 2014

Hybrid weavers building nests

Marwa and I caught a few Northern Masked Weavers at Bahri today and we saw a couple of Cinnamon Weavers before driving around the pools making our normal counts. We noticed a new colony of Northern Masked Weavers in the bare branches of some flooded bushes and stopped to check. One had a lot of chestnut colouring on the underparts and was very similar to the hybrid Cinnamon x Northern Masked Weaver we trapped three weeks ago, but it had no ring so was a different bird.  There were three male Northern Masked Weavers in the same bush and they all rushed to their half-built nests and started to display when a female showed up. The hybrid did the typical display, flapping its wings as it hung below the beginnings of it's nest; then it perched nearby flapping its wings, flicking its tail and bending its head forward. At least some of the time the female was inspecting the nest of one of the other birds. I will keep an eye on this nest, as it will be interesting to see if it attracts a mate and, if so, whether it produces young. We drove on a bit further and then noticed another bird that could well have been a hybrid, though it was not as clear cut as the first. Again it was in a colony with Northern Masked Weavers.

Hybrid Cinnamon x Northern Masked Weaver, Bahri Sewage Ponds 25th April 2014

Hybrid weaver at 'nest', Bahri Sewage Ponds 25th April 2014

Hybrid weaver displaying, Bahri Sewage Ponds 25th April 2014

Northern Masked Weaver from the neighbouring nest, Bahri Sewage Ponds 25th April 2014

A second possible hybrid weaver, Bahri Sewage Ponds 25th April 2014

One of the first birds we saw today was a Clamorous Reed Warbler, which flew across the path as we drove up and proceeded to sing to us from right beside the car. They are probably a resident population. The big group of wattled Starling seen two weeks ago seemed to have dissipated and we only saw one flock of about 15 birds which flew over the ringing site. the Spur-winged lapwings were as vocal as ever and we saw a couple of young birds beside one of the pools. We caught one adult in a net, giving us the chance to look at the odd-looking spur on the wing which gives the bird its name. Apparently they sometimes use these spurs to attack predators that approach their chicks.

The wing spur on a Spur-winged Lapwing, Bahri Sewage Ponds 25th April 2014 

Little Bee-eater, Bahri Sewage Ponds 25th April 2014

The number of wintering birds is falling each week and there were no ducks today, other than the resident White-faced Whistling ducks, which have paired up and are probably starting their breeding season. Most Whiskered Trens have left, but there were still lots of White-winged Terns. 

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.