Catching a bird or two

April 2009

During the months of March, April and into May 2009 the Tanzanian bird Atlas (link) conducted a massive bird ringing exercise across the Maasai Steppe country of Northern Tanzania.

The goal being to try and judge just how important this area is for birds migrating back to Europe the Middle East, India and even on to the Artic or Mongolia.

The ‘gap’ between Kilimanjaro and Mt. Meru, which lies directly north of the steppe has long been known as an important route north for these countless numbers of birds, moving into Kenya and up the Rift Valley into Ethiopia or The Somali coast to the Red Sea. A thousand questions remain unanswered and it will take months for even a few of those questions to be addressed, written up or answers attempted by the Atlas Scientists and their guests from Europe that contributed to this effort.

As I have known, and in a small way contributed, to this atlas work over the last 20 odd years I was intrigued to visit their work camp for a few days in April as they were camped at a beautiful site only 3-4 hours drive South of Kilimanjaro International airport (KIA). With Ombeni who works for me, I packed some supplies, threw a couple of tents and mattresses in to my land rover and headed out to find the GPS reference they had given. What would I find, how many birds would be moving through and caught in the many mist nets they had erected? What tales of adventure would they have after having camped in numerous remote sites for the weeks before my visit? Had they found new species records for the area and which species had they caught? A hundred questions came to mind and as I always learn so much in their company, I was quite excited driving south. It was dry for April and the normal showers had failed so as I pondered these questions to ask them it became obvious that the lack of rain would affect the success and outcome of their work. But adverse conditions just throw up more questions!

The thing about bird scientists is that they remain quite positive in the harshest of conditions; they are doing what they love best, adding to their and our knowledge and handling bird species that they perhaps had never even seen before.

They camp in a simple and mobile way, shade is important for the captured birds as well as the scientists while they work, so as we drove into camp and pulled out the cold beers from my car fridge I was bombarded by stories of their encounters with elephants, wild dogs, lions and the varied people that they had met on their trip and the incredible amount of knowledge they had gained. Was it the cold beer or were they just happy to see us? I felt a little like a food relief worker must feel when taking supplies out to a refugee camp! As I had thrown in red wine and chocolate as well I became the popular guest quite quickly! But I must say that everyone was so welcoming and the many Tanzanian’s that were helping the effort out, some of which Ombeni and I have known for years, were also incredibly welcoming! What news of Arusha, the world? How had the football scores affected the league positions? The food that the camp cook can provide in such conditions always amazes me and during the meal that first night, helped by the wine, an avalanche of conversation filled the camp atmosphere as our bellied filled with good campfire grub! As I went to my tent I felt high from all the stories and the theories of bird migration that had enriched my mind!

Orange bellied ParrotOrange bellied Parrot

Some migrating birds were placed in a clingfilm container to judge which compass reading they pecked at the mostSome migrating birds were placed in a clingfilm container to judge which compass reading they pecked at the most

The team working the birds caughtThe team working the birds caught

The telephone birdThe telephone bird

Who is this birdWho is this bird

Who is this sharp clawed beautyWho is this sharp clawed beauty

A female Tsavo sunbird is given sugar water to recoverA female Tsavo sunbird is given sugar water to recover

A good stock of text books is neededA good stock of text books is needed

A Pringles puffback bitingA Pringles puffback biting

Female IraniaFemale Irania

Little Bee eaters are beautifulLittle Bee eaters are beautiful

Liz Baker adding dataLiz Baker adding data

Ok - Who is this thenOk - Who is this then

A male Tsavo sunbirdA male Tsavo sunbird

During the next couple of days many birds were caught, some of which I had never seen so close before and as I photographed a few special ones and listened more to the theories being thrown around by the scientists I knew, and the ones I had never met before, a feeling of just how little we really know, even when we think we know so much, overwhelmed me. My mind drifted each night before I slept and I thought about the overriding factor of ‘our world’ of over 6 billion people and how it seems so under threat not only from a bio diversity and natural resource point of view but also from a psychological standpoint. People are hurting and going a little crazy everywhere and Wars, famine, drought, abuse, protest, poverty and bankruptcy prevails! We are just too many for a healthy life style for all and the minds of the privileged that don’t get out into nature are hurting. They have become drunk on plenty – on far too much, and they seem confused about the real way forward; they seem drained of effort, no remaining stamina and resigned to decline and self protectionism, self interest.

At these times of doubt - which seem to happen more often these days, I refocus and look more closely at nature, at its beauty and its variety; I celebrate the diversity of life as well as the ingenuity of mankind. Being with birders usually helps! Out on the Maasai Steppe with thinking minds dedicated to knowledge and conserving bio diversity I get a jab of rekindled hope and belief. I firmly believe that getting out and into nature will always do us good and the more people that care about and are inspired by our natural world the more chance we stand of saving some of it for some of us. It is the planet’s good health that will aid more of us in this threatened future we have created not its constant dilution of resources and our desires for more and more. It just makes sense- doesn’t it? I think that people who do get involved in understanding nature and conserving it are healthier mentally because of it! Albeit to varying degrees!

I am sure that the findings of these dedicated scientists will appear on the Tanzanian Bird Atlas web site before long and I will cut and paste their summary e mails of this particular effort onto my web sites news section when I receive them. If you want to know more about the birds and conservation efforts in Tanzania just ask - I can link you with the people that are making a stand and working hard to change attitudes!

Cheers and just get out more - Paul Oliver

Maasai Steppe ringed birds Feb - April 2009

(Steppe specials highlighted in yellow, palearctics in blue) 19 palearctic migrants and 13 Masai Steppe specials

no. caught
919 Common Whitethroat 232 (59 of these = 25% at Kisongo)
1187 Vitelline Masked Weaver 221
1202 Black-capped Social Weaver 118
1256 Green-winged Pytilia 103
908 Willow Warbler 78
1263 Purple Grenadier 76
356 Emerald-spotted Wood Dove 72
1205 Chestnut Sparrow 59
744 White-browed Scrub Robin 56
918 Garden Warbler 55
1131 Abyssinian White-eye 50
837 Grey-backed Camaroptera 48
1170 Masked Weaver 45
710 Yellow-bellied Greenbul 42
732 Yellow-vented Bulbul 37
951 Chin-spot Batis 36
1084 Eastern Violet-backed Sunbird 36
1128 Variable Sunbird 35
1006 Slate-coloured Boubou 33
1116 Beautiful Sunbird 33
678 Scaly Chatterer 32
762 Irania 31
927 Grey Flycatcher 31
541 Black-throated Barbet 30
968 Paradise Flycatcher 29
1180 Chestnut Weaver 29
1284 Kenya Grosbeak Canary 27
818 Yellow-breasted Apalis 26
925 Red-faced Crombec 25
346 Ring-necked Dove 21
1285 White-bellied Canary 21
763 Sprosser 20
1141 Yellow Bishop 17
1262 Blue-capped Cordonbleu 15
1283 East African Citril 15
1001 Pringle's Puffback 14
1022 Brown-crowned Tchagra 14
1176 Black-necked Weaver 14
888 Olivaceous Warbler 13
920 Barred Warbler 13
1048 Violet-backed Starling 13
1276 Somali Bunting 13
804 Bare-eyed Thrush 12
351 Laughing Dove 11
854 Rattling Cisticola 11
953 Pygmy Batis 10
1208 Yellow-spotted Petronia 10
535 Red-fronted Barbet 9
899 Banded Parisoma 9
913 Tawny-flanked Prinia 9
1019 Sulphur-breasted Bush Shrike 9
1041 White-crowned Shrike 9
1241 Red-billed Firefinch 9
566 Lesser Honeyguide 8
585 Cardinal Woodpecker 8
999 Black-backed Puffback 8
1073 Fischer's Starling 8
1122 Scarlet-chested Sunbird 8
1207 Rufous Sparrow 8
945 Spotted Flycatcher 7
1043 White Helmet Shrike 7
1193 Red-billed Quelea 7
9052 Swahili Sparrow 7
388 Didric Cuckoo 6
491 Little Bee-eater 6
507 Abyssinian Scimitarbill 6
557 d'Arnaud's Barbet 6
583 Nubian Woodpecker 6
619 Pink-breasted Lark 6
634 Barn Swallow 6
860 Winding Cisticola 6
1030 Red-backed Shrike 6
1159 Baglafecht Weaver 6
1210 Speckle-fronted Weaver 6
1228 Black-cheeked Waxbill 6
1280 Yellow-rumped Seedeater 6
552 Red-fronted Tinkerbird 5
596 African Broadbill 5
748 Spotted Morning Thrush 5
916 Red-fronted Warbler 5
1020 Brubru 5
1144 Black Bishop 5
1216 Pin-tailed Whydah 5
1235 Peters' Twinspot 5
563 Greater Honeyguide 4
809 Marsh Warbler 4
839 Grey Wren Warbler 4
878 Yellow-bellied Eremomela 4
1012 Grey-headed Bush Shrike 4
1029 Common Fiscal 4
1052 Wattled Starling 4
1261 Red-cheeked Cordonbleu 4
9080 Tsavo Sunbird 4
107 Little Sparrowhawk 3
459 Speckled Mousebird 3
461 Blue-naped Mousebird 3
644 Drongo 3
663 Red-throated Tit 3
886 Upcher's Warbler 3
1051 Ashy Starling 3
1074 Hildebrandt's Starling 3
1101 Hunter's Sunbird 3
1171 Golden-backed Weaver 3
1191 Cardinal Quelea 3
1273 Golden-breasted Bunting 3 12 sps caught x3 only
436 Fiery-necked Nightjar 2
517 Von der Decken's Hornbill 2
558 Red & Yellow Barbet 2
649 Black-headed Oriole 2
716 Eastern Nicator 2
769 Rock Thrush 2
1135 Red-headed Weaver 2
1139 Red-naped Widowbird 2
1150 Southern Red Bishop 2
1233 Crimson-rumped Waxbill 2 10 sps caught x2 only
111 African Goshawk 1
131 Gabar Goshawk 1
182 Crested Francolin 1
369 Orange-bellied Parrot 1
389 Emerald Cuckoo 1
391 Klaas' Cuckoo 1
392 Great Spotted Cuckoo 1
393 Jacobin Cuckoo 1
395 Eurasian Cuckoo 1
396 Black Cuckoo 1
406 White-browed Coucal 1
497 Eurasian Roller 1
518 Red-billed Hornbill 1
540 White-headed Barbet 1
594 Bearded Woodpecker 1
612 Rufous-naped Lark 1
651 Golden Oriole 1
660 Acacia Grey Tit 1
685 Rufous Chatterer 1
688 Black Cuckoo Shrike 1
776 Schalow's Wheatear 1
805 Great Reed Warbler 1
887 Olive-tree Warbler 1
1021 Rosy-patched Shrike 1
1034 Red-tailed Shrike 1
1036 Lesser Grey Shrike 1
1103 Bronze Sunbird 1
1165 Village Weaver 1
1201 Grey-capped Social Weaver 1
1206 Grey-headed Sparrow 1
1214 Straw-tailed Whydah 1
1239 African Firefinch 1 32 sps caught x1 only

Plus 10 hybrid lovebirds at Kisongo - Marc's and 2 unidentified non-breeeding Euplectes.

Total = 2366 birds ringed