Friday 20 May 2011

Some migrants still moving up river at Sabaloka

I was out at Saboloka today for a family picnic. I was surprised to see large numbers of hirundines still moving up the river. The vast majority (many hundreds) were Sand Martins, but there were a few House Martins and Barn Swallows amongst them. There were also a couple of Spotted Flycatchers. We wondered at the lateness of this movement, as these birds will be arriving very late on their breeding grounds.

Monday 16 May 2011

Easter in Juba - Part 2

On Easter morning we travelled 58km along the Nimule Road which heads towards the frontier with Uganda. Unfortunately, Mark Boyd could not join us this day. It was immediately noticeable that the habitat was very different with far fewer Acacias. Our first stop was in an open area of grassland with scattered bushes a few km outside of Juba. We saw a number of new species, with Black-winged Bishops distinctive in flight, despite being in non-breeding plumage, and Flappet Larks making their distinctive song flights overhead. We heard a couple of Red-chested Cuckoos calling nearby, but try as we might we had no luck seeing them. This was a great spot for cisticolas and we had the chance to get good looks at several species and sort out their identification. Foxy Cisticolas were common (and never an ID problem); Red-pate, Croaking, and Siffling were also present, the latter being new for both of us.

Black-winged Bishop, Nimule Road near Juba 24 April 2011

As we continued along the road the vegetation got a bit thicker and we started to rise a bit in altitude. There were more trees, but mostly in small copses which housed many of the birds. We made several small stops, again with each providing several new species such as Black-bellied Firefinch, African Black-headed Oriole, Chestnut-crowned Sparrow-Weaver, Bronze-tailed Starling, African Moustached Warbler, Jacobin and Levaillant's Cuckoo. There were also a number of raptors soaring above, including an African Hawk Eagle, several Honey Buzzards and an Eleonora's Falcon. We believe the falcon is the first sighting for Southern Sudan (though they have been reported previously from satellite tracking).

Black-bellied Firefinch, Nimule Road near Juba 24 April 2011

African Hawk Eagle, Nimule Road near Juba 24 April 2011

Dark phase Eleonora's Falcon (by Mark Mallalieu), Nimule Road near Juba 24 April 2011

After 48km we reached the highest point on our journey. Some large shady trees beside the road had large stones underneath and it was an obvious spot to stop for lunch. During lunch we had Bataleur eagles soaring overhead and White-winged Tits were feeding in the trees. Our lunch spot looked out across a large area of forest. We spoke to a local farmer who told us that nobody lived in the entire area because of lack of permanent water, and that he had to bring in water for his family each day from 30km away. He told us that there was little hunting pressure in the area which contained Lion and many other large mammal species.

Forest 48km from Juba, Nimule Road 24 April 2011

This was clearly not the kind of place to explore at this time of day without proper provisions, but we decided to make a short trip down into the valley to have a look. The local farmer guided us down and into a forested area, with open patches farmed by him. A Greater Honeyguide called to us and seemed to be leading us to a bees nest. Our guide was familiar with honeyguides and presumably uses them to find bees nests. We had seen many people selling honey along the road, so this symbiotic relationship between honeyguides and humans (where humans are guided to nests by honeyguides, who benefit from the humans opening up the nest and getting them access to the honey) is probably commonplace. It was a very hard bird to photograph, because as soon as we approached it would fly further ahead to lead us on. Best birds of this trip had to be a spectacular pair of White-crested Turacos, though again they would not pose for the camera.

We were not particularly expecting much on the way back, but we noticed lots of Blue-cheeked and Eurasian Bee-eaters, Alpine and Common Swifts and quite a few hirundines. There were more Honey Buzzards, plus Red-necked Buzzard and Wahlberg's Eagle. We also spotted our first Fawn-breasted Waxbills.

Alpine Swift, Nimule Road near Juba 24 April 2011

Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, Nimule Road near Juba 24 April 2011

Wahlberg's Eagle, Nimule Road near Juba 24 April 2011

Another great discovery (noticed by our driver Bosco) on the return journey was that there were some big emergences of flying insects, causing big build-ups of birds in certain trees (and probably what had attracted all the bee-eaters, swifts and hirundines). There were lots of weavers in the trees including Heuglin's Masked and Little, several waxbill species, a Lesser Grey Shrike, a Black-billed Barbet and an Icterine Warbler (which might be a first record for South Sudan, as no records are shown in Nikolaus).

Black-billed Barbet, Nimule Road near Juba 24 April 2011

Icterine Warbler, Nimule Road near Juba 24 April 2011

Little Weaver, Nimule Road near Juba 24 April 2011

The final drive in to Juba also produced an African Pied Wagtail and African White-backed and Hooded Vultures feeding beside the road.

African Pied Wagtail, Nimule Road near Juba 24 April 2011

African White-backed Vulture, Nimule Road near Juba 24 April 2011

Hooded Vulture, Nimule Road near Juba 24 April 2011

We arrived back in town just before dark and had a drink overlooking the Nile at the Star Hotel. This turned out to be very productive, with a couple of Bruce's Green Pigeons and a Long-crested Eagle flying over and a few waterbirds we had not seen previously such as Senegal thick-knee, Striated Heron and Long-tailed Cormorant. One bird that had us stumped for a long time was a bulbul washing itself on the opposite bank. After lots of checking of field guides and poor photos Mark was pretty sure it was a Yellow-throated Leaflove, the version in southern Sudan actually having a white throat, but I was still dubious and would still need some convincing.

Monday was my last day and I had to fly back up to Khartoum in the afternoon, giving us only a few hours of birding. We were tempted to head back out along the Nimule Road to try the big forest area we had seen the previous day, but we realised that it would not be wise to rush it, so it would have to wait for another time. Instead we decided to try some river sites near Juba. We started with a walk along the Nile and soon came across a young Yellow-throated Leaflove being fed by a parent in almost exactly the habitat we had seen the bird the day before.  I was finally convinced by Mark's identification. In the nearby scrub we saw some Yellow-billed Shrikes, some Piapiacs, a couple of Grey Kestrels and a Red-necked Falcon.

Juvenile Yellow-throated Leaflove, White Nile Juba 25 April 2011

Piapiac, White Nile Juba 25 April 2011

Our next stop was on the Kit river, near where it joins the White Nile. This was a different habitat than we had visited before. Some patches of reeds along the river had several Red-faced Cisticolas, while Singing Cisticolas were in the neighbouring scrub. There were quite a few raptors here with flyover Hobby, Lanner Falcon, and a Gabar Goshawk. A pair of African Fish Eagles were a bit more obliging. Eastern Grey Plantain-eaters called from the other side of the river before giving us distant flight views. We also managed to catch up with Red-chested Cuckoo after many attempts.

African Fish Eagle, Kit River near Juba 25 April 2011

We ended the long weekend with around 185 species, with only a limited range of habitats visited, with no less than 27 species being raptors. Mark and I both agreed that this had been some of the most exciting birding that we had ever had. Even within a few kilometers of what will be the new capital of South Sudan there is excellent birding to be had. I hope to return soon; in the meantime I leave it to Mark to try and explore some new areas. This is not always easy with some places still having land mines and some worries still about security. Priorities must be to try and find access to some of the forested hills we saw to the south on our trip along the Nimule Road, or to enter the large area of forest we encountered 48 Km for Juba. I will be looking forward to more reports from Mark.

Tuesday 10 May 2011

Easter in Juba - Part 1

The recent posts by Mark Mallalieu from Juba were becoming a bit too much to bare and I had to go down and check out the area myself. We both had a long-weekend break over Easter providing a perfect opportunity for us. I arrived in Juba from Khartoum late on the 22nd April and we had a little time for some birding just outside town. On the drive we saw several Piapiacs and a Hobby. Surprisingly, and despite lots of rains, a local wetland area near town was almost completely dry and limited our birding as dusk approached. We spent time looking at cisticolas, seeing Rattling, Red-pate and Croaking.  This is a famously difficult group of warblers to identify; I have very little experience with them, but Mark has been working on them and our trip gave him the chance to sort out the identification of many.

Croaking Cisticola, near Juba 22 April 2011

By coincidence, Mark Boyd was also visiting Juba that weekend with some friends and he was able to join us the next day. This was the first time the three of us had been out birding together since a great day of migration at Tuti back in September. Mark Mallalieu's driver Bosco took us out along the Tenekeka Road to about 20km north of Juba. We stopped at various locations on the way, birding mostly in Acacia scrub and occasionally in areas of patchy woodland. The rains had produced some flooded areas along the road and we saw several species of waterbird, including many flocks of Spur-winged Goose and Knob-billed Duck which Mark says had not been around in the dry season.

Knob-billed Duck, Terekeka Road north of Juba 23 April 2011

Spur-winged Goose, Terekeka Road north of Juba 23 April 2011

African Open-billed Stork, Terekeka Road north of Juba 23 April 2011

Wooly-necked Stork, Terekeka Road north of Juba 23 April 2011

Black-headed Heron, Terekeka Road north of Juba 23 April 2011

The Acacia scrub beside the road all looked quite similar but every time we stopped we found different species. At one point we came across a number of birds making loud noises in the undergrowth. From their actions they were almost certainly mobbing a snake, though we never actually got to see it. This one group included lots of White-billed Buffalo-Weavers, several Black-headed Gonoleks, some Brown Babblers, a couple of White-browed Robin-Chats, a Green-backed Camaroptera, and several weavers including a Heuglin's Masked Weaver.

Black-headed Gonolek, Terekeka Road north of Juba 23 April 2011

Green-backed Camaroptera, Terekeka Road north of Juba 23 April 2011

White-browed Robin-Chat, Terekeka Road north of Juba 23 April 2011

White-billed Buffalo-Weaver, Terekeka Road north of Juba 23 April 2011

Heuglin's Masked Weaver, Terekeka Road north of Juba 23 April 2011

We encountered a few patches of forest, but it was clear that the little still present this close to Juba was rapidly being cut for charcoal and we came across several pits where they bury the sticks before slow burning them to make the charcoal.

Charcoal pit, Terekeka Road north of Juba 23 April 2011

At lunch we pulled up in a shady location for a break, expecting things to calm down. However, birds kept calling and moving in the bushes around us, while White-headed, White-backed and Ruppell's Griffon Vultures soared overhead. Most impressive, though, was the large movement of birds that we saw drifting overhead, probably numbering in their thousands. Many were too high to identify but there were large numbers of Abdim's Storks and Marabou Storks, plus lots of raptors. There were some Steppe Buzzards and Aquila eagles, with several at least being Steppe and Tawny Eagles and probably about 20 Bataleur Eagles. One long-winged falcon was just too far to identify though could well have been Eleonora's or Sooty - neither of which has been seen in Southern Sudan (which will soon be the world's newest nation). Another surprise was to see several Alpine Swifts amongst them. The birds continued to pass overhead for about an hour. They appeared to be migrating, but were heading East rather than North. We wondered whether they were moving towards the Nile (which lay to the East) to use it as a migration route, or whether they were using the thermals over large jebels (rocky outcrops) to gain height and then soaring in stepping stones from one to the next. A large jebel lay in the direction from where the birds had come, so this could have been the reason.

Bataleur Eagle, Terekeka Road north of Juba 23 April 2011

Ruppell's Griffon Vulture, Terekeka Road north of Juba 23 April 2011

African White-backed Vulture, Terekeka Road north of Juba 23 April 2011

After lunch we continued on and there were still many good birds to see. Along the road we saw interesting species at every stop including Grasshopper Buzzards, Swallow-tailed Bee-eaters, and a number of other good species, including a pair of Rufous-chested Swallows building a nest in a culvert under the road.

Swallow-tailed Bee-eater, Terekeka Road north of Juba 23 April 2011

Grasshopper Buzzard, Terekeka Road north of Juba 23 April 2011

Rufous-chested Swallow, Terekeka Road north of Juba 23 April 2011

White-headed Buffalo-Weaver, Terekeka Road north of Juba 23 April 2011

We ended this amazing day having seen around 120 species, many of which were new for us. We had pretty much stuck to one habitat, making us wonder at the diversity of species in this area. Needless to say we were itching to know what there would be on offer over the next two days.