Catching a bird or two
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 Parrot
Some migrating birds were placed in a clingfilm container to judge which compass reading they pecked at the most
The team working the birds caught
The telephone bird
Who is this bird
Who is this sharp clawed beauty
A female Tsavo sunbird is given sugar water to recover
A good stock of text books is needed
A Pringles puffback biting
Little Bee eaters are beautiful
Liz Baker adding data
Ok - Who is this then
A 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
|919||Common Whitethroat||232||(59 of these = 25% at Kisongo)|
|1187||Vitelline Masked Weaver||221|
|1202||Black-capped Social Weaver||118|
|356||Emerald-spotted Wood Dove||72|
|744||White-browed Scrub Robin||56|
|1084||Eastern Violet-backed Sunbird||36|
|1284||Kenya Grosbeak Canary||27|
|1283||East African Citril||15|
|1019||Sulphur-breasted Bush Shrike||9|
|1043||White Helmet Shrike||7|
|748||Spotted Morning Thrush||5|
|839||Grey Wren Warbler||4|
|1012||Grey-headed Bush Shrike||4|
|1273||Golden-breasted Bunting||3||12 sps caught x3 only|
|517||Von der Decken's Hornbill||2|
|558||Red & Yellow Barbet||2|
|1150||Southern Red Bishop||2|
|1233||Crimson-rumped Waxbill||2||10 sps caught x2 only|
|392||Great Spotted Cuckoo||1|
|660||Acacia Grey Tit||1|
|688||Black Cuckoo Shrike||1|
|805||Great Reed Warbler||1|
|1036||Lesser Grey Shrike||1|
|1201||Grey-capped Social Weaver||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