Sunday 5 December 2010

Alwaha Farm

On Friday I made a visit to Alwaha Farm just south east of Khartoum. I was very fortunate to have operations manager Tarig Kheir to show me around plus his son Mustafa, who has an interest in birds and wildlife.  Alwaha is a large state-of-the-art farm that is at the forefront of developing agriculture in Sudan. One reason for my visit was to try and identify the species of bird that has been decimating their sorghum crop. There were a number of species eating from the heads of the sorghum, but it was no surprise to find the dreaded Red-billed Quelea as the main culprit. This is by far the biggest bird pest in Africa and it has been proposed as the commonest species in the world.

Red Bishop eating sorghum, 3rd December 2010, Alwaha Farm

As soon as we arrived I was impressed with the numbers of birds here. Unlike the Quelea, most of them are welcome here as they are predators of invertebrate pests. Many insect-eaters were present such as Siberian Stonechats, Crested Larks and Yellow Wagtails. Most noticeable, however, were the large numbers of raptors, including several species that I had not seen previously in the country and one (Beaudouin's Snake Eagle) that was a new species for me. Eurasian Griffon Vulture was the first vulture I had seen in Sudan, and is apparently quite a rarity; other species that I had not seen here previously were Pallid Harrier, Greater spotted Eagle and Eurasian Kestrel.

Beaudouin's Snake Eagle, 3rd December 2010, Alwaha Farm

Pallid Harrier, 3rd December 2010, Alwaha Farm

Other raptor species present included Yellow-billed Kite, Black-shouldered Kite, Western Marsh Harrier, Steppe Eagle, Short-toed Snake-Eagle, and Lanner Falcon. Eleven raptor species in one day at one location is very unusual.

Lanner Falcon, 3rd December 2010, Alwaha Farm

Western Marsh Harrier, 3rd December 2010, Alwaha Farm

Black-shouldered Kite, 3rd December 2010, Alwaha Farm

Also notable were the large numbers of Storks in the area. I have seen many Abdim's Storks around Khartoum, but here they were joined by good numbers of migrant White Storks and Black Storks.  

Abdim's Stork , 3rd December 2010, Alwaha Farm

Black Stork, 3rd December 2010, Alwaha Farm

 Several thousand Demoiselle Cranes were feeding in fields before taking off and heading on south. Another great find for me was a Northern Carmine Bee-eater, which was a second new species for me. There were also many other interesting migrant and resident passerine species.

Demoiselle Crane, 3rd December 2010, Alwaha Farm

Northern Carmine Bee-eater, 3rd December 2010, Alwaha Farm

All in all, this one one of the best mornings of birding that I have had in the country. In previous posts I have wondered about the relative lack of migrants on Tuti Island and hypothesised that it is due to them stopping off in other areas along the Nile. The numbers of birds at Alwaha makes me realise that this is probably the case. Alwaha is not open to the public, but I would imagine that other agricultural areas would also house good numbers of birds.

Saturday 27 November 2010

Yellow Wagtail variation at Fenti Golf Course

I made my second visit to Fenti golf course today, with Mark Mallalieu who is visiting Khartoum briefly from Juba. One species we saw early on was Black-rumped Waxbill. It was only my second sighting of this species (my first was beside the Blue Nile) and the first for Mark. There had clearly been a lot of movement of migrants. There were Red-throated Pipits scattered around the fairways on my last visit, but none this time. Where there had only been one White-winged Tern last time, there were now about 20. The mix of waders was different. There were no Northern Redstarts this time and only one Chiffchaff. Siberian Stonechat was the first we have seen in the country and Pied Wheatear had not been present on my last visit. There also appeared to be more Northern Wheatears.

Black-rumped Waxbill, Fenti November 27th 2010

Siberian Stonechat, Fenti November 27th 2010

However, the most noticable thing was the change in the Yellow Wagtails, Motacilla flava. This species has many different subspecies and large numbers of them clearly migrate through Fenti. What makes it harder is that there are also some intergrades that show characteristics of more than one subspecies. Some of them are bit hard to identify and I may have made some mistakes, so please let me know if you think any are incorrect. Some individuals were also a bit hard to approach on the open fairways, so please forgive the poor photos.
Up until a few weeks ago I had only been seeing beema (Sykes's Wagtails), and there were still a couple around today.  On my last visit to fenti I had also seen a couple of feldegg (Black-headed Wagtail), which is sometimes treated as a distinct species.  There had also been a Black-headed Wagtail with some white on the supercilium that I was unable to photograph.  We saw the same bird (or similar) again today, but again it was impossible to get a photo. it suggested superciliaris, but did not have a full supercilium as shown in the guides. I hadn't looked at them closely before, but I think I also saw a couple of lutea (Yellow-headed Wagtail) on my last visit and there were several around again today.

M. f. beema (Sykes's Wagtail), Fenti November 27th 2010

M. f. feldegg (Black-headed Wagtail), Fenti November 27th 2010

M. f. lutea, Fenti November 27th 2010

The biggest change today was the arrival of birds that were superficially like Black-headed Wagtails, but on closer inspection had only a black face and a grey crown and nape. This suggested that they are thunbergi, Grey-headed Wagtail. However, even within these birds there was a lot of variation. A couple  had white on the malar (suggesting melanogrisea) and one also had it just above the lores. Yellow Wagtail expert Christopher Bell pointed out (on that the large bill of this bird was not typical of thunbergi (which has a short, spiky bill), but was more reminiscent of the larger billed southern subspecies feldegg or melanogrisea. Another bird had a hint of a white supercilium just above the eye, separating a greyer crown from blacker ear coverts (suggesting cinereocapilla). However, Christopher thought that this last one is just a variant of thunbergi. I didn't even think of looking at the females (that seemed to be fewer in number than the males).

M. f. thunbergi (Grey-headed Wagtail), Fenti November 27th 2010

Another M. f. thunbergi (Grey-headed Wagtail), Fenti November 27th 2010

A large-billed wagtail resembling thunbergi, but with white on the tops of
 the malar and above the lores, possibly a variant of feldegg or melanogrisea,
Fenti November 27th 2010

The same individual shown above, but in side view to show its similarity
 to M. f. thunbergi, but also its large bill, Fenti November 27th 2010

M. f. thunbergi, but with a hint of a supercilium making the ear coverts appear darker
making it resemble cinereocapilla, Fenti November 27th 2010

The last one is probably also lutea. However, it has a white supercilium, rather than a yellow one.

Probable M. f. lutea, Fenti November 27th 2010

I want to thank Christopher Bell for helping make corrections to an earlier version of this post. His discussion of the photos can be found on birdforum

Saturday 20 November 2010

Trip to Meroe

The other day I visited the pyramids at Meroe with my family and some friends. The habitat is much drier than I have seen around Khartoum and immediately apparent was the low numbers of birds in the region. There were very few birds seen on the 4 hour drive each way and there were only a handful of species at the pyramids themselves. One good species was Desert Sparrow, which seemed quite common in the area near our campsite which was in desert scrub just south east of the pyramids. The species is described as uncommon to rare in Sudan by Nikolaus (1987). One pair was building a nest and another was feeding young. The only other species I saw there were Laughing Dove, Desert Wheatear, Isabelline Wheatear, African Silverbill and Southern Grey Shrike. I also tried searching for nightjars at night with a torch by looking for eye-shine, but without success.

Male Desert Sparrow with nesting material
Meroe, 19th November 2010

Nest tree of Desert Sparrow. The nest was in the dark
gap just above the middle of the photograph.

Female Desert Sparrow feeding young
Meroe, 18th November 2010

On the way back we stopped off for some lunch beside a large boulder outcrop about half way between Meroe and Khartoum. I had half an hour to pop out and check for birds and immediately had some good luck. There was a group of Crag Martins flying around the outcrop, plus a number of Striolated Buntings on the boulders and in the dry desert scrub at the base. This species was recently separated from the closely related House Bunting that is found in north west Africa.

Crag Martin, Road to Meroe, 19th November 2010

Striolated Bunting, Road to Meroe, 19th November 2010

Also in the area was an interesting wheatear with a red rump that appears to be a Kurdish Wheatear. This is the first I have ever seen and I am still trying to get confirmation of the identification from people on A Pied Wheatear was at the base of the rocks and a species I have not seen in Sudan before. There were also several common species around plus a pair of large falcons that flew over but too distant to identify. I wonder what made this patch so much better for birds than the site at Meroe.

Probable Kurdish Wheatear, Road to Meroe, 19th November 2010

Female Pied Wheatear, Road to Meroe, 19th November 2010

Wednesday 17 November 2010

Another trip to Jebel Aulia

I used the Eid vacation for an overnight camping trip to Jebel Aulia with my family and some friends. This time, I focussed a bit more on the water birds.  There were several that I had not seen previously in Sudan, including Eurasian Curlew, Curlew Sandpiper, Collared Pratincole, Ruddy Turnstone and Black-headed Gull. There were several Lesser Black-backed Gulls, plus a paler bird that was probably either a Heuglin's Gull or a Caspian Gull. Nikolaus (1987) describes Heuglins's Gull as a vagrant inland in Sudan, whereas Caspian Gull (the more probable of the two) has never been reported in the country to my knowledge. Unfortunately, the photos may not be good enough to confirm an identification.

Great White Pelican, Jebel Aulia, 16th November 2010 

Maribou Stork, Jebel Aulia, 16th November 2010

Caspian Tern, Jebel Aulia, 16th November 2010

Lesser Black-backed Gull, Jebel Aulia, 16th November 2010

Possible Heuglin's or Caspian Gull, Jebel Aulia, 16th November 2010

Wood Sandpiper, Jebel Aulia, 15th November 2010

Ruddy Turnstone, Jebel Aulia, 16th November 2010

Curlew Sandpipers, Jebel Aulia, 16th November 2010

There were also a number of landbirds around, with several that I had not seen previously in Sudan, such as Desert Wheatear, Isabelline shrike and Orphean Warbler. I haven't seen an Orphean Warbler for 25 years, so this was a good find for me. However, it proved hard to see well as it skulked deep in the Acacia bushes. Fortunately it was the eastern subspecies (sometimes split as a full species) which has distinctive dark smudges on the undertail coverts making it easy to separate from the similar, but smaller, Lesser Whitethroat.

Orphean Warbler, Jebel Aulia, 16th November 2010

Desert Wheatear, Jebel Aulia, 15th November 2010

I was pleased to finally get good views of some African Collared Doves. I see lots of African Mourning Doves in Khartoum, but it took me a long time to confirm the identification because the books say they should have a red orbital ring. For a long time I was unsure whether they were African Mourning Doves or African Collared Doves, until I realised that the subspecies in Khartoum does not show this feature. Having now seen the collared doves (shown below) I can see the difference. The two species seem to be separated by habitat, with the collared doves being in the drier habitats.

African Collared Dove, Jebel Aulia, 16th November 2010

I included a photo of a Cricket Warbler in the blog of my last trip to Jebel Aulia, but its a favourite of mine and I have included another below. They are generally fairly easy to approach and this bird was hopping around on the floor near my feet.

Cricket Warbler, Jebel Aulia, 15th November 2010

At night I went out with a torch to look for nightjars, but without success. However, I kept getting a distinctive eyeshine of a medium sized mammal that appeared to be a small cat or fox. The eyeshine was visible from a great distance, but the actual animal was very hard to see.  Eventually, one hid in a large bush and I was able to get some reasonable views and identify it as an African Wild Cat - the original ancestor of the domestic cat. That was definately the best sighting of the trip. 

Sunday 14 November 2010

Fenti Golf Course

On Friday I had my first opportunity to walk around the new Fenti Golf Course. It only opened last month, so I was surprised to see how much good habitat was available for birding. Needless to say, the open grass of the fairways was excellent for wagtails (mostly Yellow), pipits (Red-throated and Tree) and wheatears (Northern, Isabelline and Black-eared). The only lapwings were Spur-winged Lapwing (the flight picture below showing the wing spurs that give it its name), but some of the migrant species are on their way (see blog entry 'The Amazing Journey') and there must be a chance that they will be attracted to a habitat such as this.

Spur-winged Lapwing, Fenti, 12th November 2010

Northern Wheatear, Fenti, 12th November 2010

Tree Pipit, Fenti, 12th November 2010

The surrounding vegetation is still growing up and will improve for birds with time. However, there was still plenty to see, with migrants such as Common Redstart and Chiffchaff, and resident species such as Graceful Prinia, Northern Red Bishop, White-throated Bee-eater, and Crimson-rumped Waxbill.

Crimson-rumped Waxbill, Fenti, 12th November 2010

Graceful Prinia, Fenti, 12th November 2010

Perhaps the biggest surprise was how much the ponds were already attracting water birds. Little Grebes had clearly been breeding there, with an immature bird attended by an adult pair. There were a couple of Long-tailed Cormorants, a White-winged Tern, and waders, such as: Green Sandpiper, Common Sandpiper, Common Ringed Plover, and Little Ringed Plover. While I was enjoying breakfast on the balcony of the pavilion an Osprey circled over the water looking for fish. I would have imagined that the artificial ponds would take longer to become productive, but it seems that they are already attracting birds.

Little Grebes, Fenti, 12th November 2010

Long-tailed Cormorant, Fenti, 12th November 2010

Osprey, Fenti, 12th November 2010

Sunday 7 November 2010

A second visit to Jebel Aulia

Last week I had the chance to spend a couple of nights camping at Jebel Aulia with students from my school. I had little chance for any real birding, but there were still plenty of good birds around.
I had a lot of pleasure watching the Cricket Warblers, which were common in the Acacias in the more open areas. Other new species for me included Yellow-breasted Barbet, Great White Pelican and Maribou Stork, with the latter two also being quite common.  There were huge numbers of Sand Martins throughout the area and on the drive down, with tens of thousands in total. Other migrants seen in reasonable numbers included Red-throated Pipit (not seen by me previously in the country), White and Yellow Wagtails.

Cricket Warbler, Jebel Aulia 3rd November 2010

Namaqua Dove, Jebel Aulia 3rd November 2010

Yellow Wagtail, Jebel Aulia 3rd November 2010