Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Nairobi - abundance

I've written before about the abundance if birds that you see in Equatorial Africa. I've been lucky enough to bird in tropical South America as well, but it can't compare with Africa, or at least East Africa. No doubt the overall levels of diversity are the same or greater, but presumably it's the habitat or, I like to think, perhaps, a longer history of cohabitation with humans, but in any case they're certainly easier to see in Africa than South America, in my limited experience.

To give an example, I think my overall list on my first visit to Amazonia was around 120 species. Bear in mind that this was proper rainforest birding, which is not straightforward, and that I was the only birder on the expedition, so I wasn't overwhelmed with help, but, still, it's not a vast figure for three weeks in the "torrid zones" (as they used, charmingly, to be called). By comparison I've seen 110 species in one day in Nairobi National Park, and my year list by this stage last year, which was almost all spent in Kenya, was almost 400 species.

Still, not all locations are created equal, and Nairobi does seen to have some sort of magic. Perhaps it's the altitude; at almost 2000 metres it makes for a near-perfect climate, neither too hot nor too cold, and ideal for spending a whole day in the field. Try that in Amzonia and you'll be exhausted pretty quickly. It's also perhaps the fact that Nairobi spans at least two distinct ecosystems - the open grasslands of the Athi plains, dotted with acacias, to the South, and the highland forest to the North. If you play your cards right, and even if you simply drive from the airport to the centre, you're going to bridge those two ecosystems and see birds from both habitats.

I had a day in Nairobi between my visits to Sudan and Somalia, and another day there after Mog. I spent most of that time in the leafy suburb of Karen, named after Karen Blixen, whose farm was there. How did it measure up?

My friend's hideaway in Karen

Well, I won't go into the usual list of species, partly because I'm on the road and can't be bothered to check their taxonomic names, but I'll add the list later. Suffice to say that having spent 5 days in Sudan, and seen 21 species, within 10 hours of arriving in Nairobi I'd seen 38, and had 45 before I left, and this without any real effort beyond sitting in my friend's garden with a beer.

All the effort I put in. Garden, binoculars and beer.

Amazingly this list included a LIFER - a bird that had eluded me all the time I lived here; a Common Scimitarbill (Rhinopomastus cyanomelas), which made sure I saw it by repeating its loud song so long, so insistently, and so close that I couldn't ignore it. And perhaps even more amazingly it included a species I managed to tick off while basically asleep after the early morning flight from Khartoum - the unmistakable and unmissable sound of a flock of migrating European Bee-eaters (Merops apiaster). Good luck to them. They've a long way to go and according to all the emails I've seen from my old Kenyan birding networks, the migration is very late this year.

Anyway, as I said, Nairobi has a certain magic, which perhaps comes across with my enthusiasm. But I mentioned that I'm on the road again. Where to? Well, the clue's in the photo below - a book I never would have believed in a million years that I would ever need. To my enduring amazement this is a work trip, but I'm taking the time to explore as much as I can while there. I'll post in due course.

Never, ever, thought that I would need this book. Not in a million years.

Saturday, March 21, 2015


Among the most minor of the innumerable and often vast tragedies that the Somali civil war has inflicted upon that country is the fact that this place could fabulous for birding, if only you weren't so likely to be killed doing it.

Mogadishu itself is perhaps not the best of the potential birding locations - those would lie on the banks of the two main rivers, the Shebelle and the Jubba - but in the right circumstances it would certainly not be bad. "Mog", as it is universally known to English-speakers ("Moga" to Italian- and French-speakers) is built into a coastal dune system immediately next to the shores of the Indian Ocean. But the surrounding city is surprisingly green, with quite a lot of shrub and low tree cover. Looking at the indispensible Redman, Stevenson and Fanshawe's Birds of the Horn of Africa you could perhaps rack-up a reasonable tally of species here if there was any freedom to travel and explore.

The Indian Ocean from Mog
Somalia has legions of endemic or near-endemic birds, particularly larks; the Obbia Lark (Spizocorys obbiensis), for instance, is restricted entirely to Somalia, and is named after the town of Hobyo, 500 or so kilometres North-East of Mog. The town is now best-known as the central base of the pirate groups who casued such havoc a few years ago. But this and other species like it are very unlikely to be seen in the restricted circumstances that anyone visiting Mog endures. Basically, you're limited to what you can see out of moving cars, whose windows cannot be opened, or from the inside of secured compounds.

But it turns out that's quite a lot. I've had a LIFER here before; a Northern Carmine Bee-eater (Merops nubicus) which perched in all its incongruous glory on the wire of the airport perimeter a year or so ago. And on this occasion, even before our plane had finished taxi-ing, I'd already seen five species; Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis), Pied Crow (Corvus albus), Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica), Namaqua Dove (Oena capensis) and Laughing Dove (Spilopelia senegalensis). Nothing I hadn't seen already this year, though.

But as we tooled around during the course of the day the list began to creep up - a Speckled Pigeon (Columba guinea) here, a flock of the indicus race of House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) there. Then, in quick succession, three Rollers sitting out on the barbed wire. The first was an inter-African migrant, the lovely Lilac-breasted Roller (Coracias caudatus), but the second two hold a fonder place in my heart. They were palearctic migrants - European Rollers (Coracias garrulus), which have bred near our house in Montenegro and in the countryside surrounding Belgrade, where we used to live. Could these be on their way there? If ever there's a place that makes you think - really think - about the perils of migration and the vast and increasing odds that these glorious birds have to face in getting to and from their breeding sites, that place is Mogadishu.

But Mog wasn't done with me yet, in terms of birds. At the end of the day, as I chatted with colleagues outside one of the countless CORIMEC containers that make up our accommodation and offices here, an insistent bird kwikiwikiwi'd at me from a nearby derrick. I could see that it was a small bird of prey, but I could hardly wander away from my conversation to check, much as I would have loved to. Thankfully the bird did if for me, lifting off into the wind and circling a few metres over my head so I could see it's pale barred underparts and grey-black wingtips. A Shikra (Accipiter badius) - and another LIFER for me in Mog.

The bird I've hoped for here, though, eluded me again. Forbes-Watson's Swift (Apus berliozi) breeds in caves along the coast. Like many Swifts, it is in principle devilishly hard to distinguish from other, similar species. But here's the thing. The similar species don't occur in the same area. So if you see a dark Swift, in numbers, on the Somali coast, the chances are that it's Forbes-Watson's. Not this time, though, and not any time on previous visits either. Maybe it just doesn't come to Mog.

At the end of this post I should perhaps put in a caveat and qualify my first paragraph. What I'm writing about here is what we commonly refer to as "South-Central" Somalia plus Puntland, thoughout which security is desperately bad and all travel requires very special preparation. The security situation in Somaliland is quite different, and the birding there also includes several species found nowhere else. A couple of intrepid companies run birding trips into Somaliland, including the wise precaution of armed guards for visitors, but aside from that recognising that tourism of a sort, including ecotourism, is possible there in a way it is not elsewhere in Somalia. But going on your own is certainly not recommended anywhere.

Friday, March 20, 2015


Khartoum was my first port of call on a quick visit to East Africa betwen 11 and 17 March. This was my first visit to Sudan, but I've been following Tom Jenner's mouth-watering Blog, Birding Sudan, since I started working on the country last summer. Have a look for yourself and you'll see a lip-smacking list of species, united, for the most part, by their affinity to water. Alas, Tom and I missed each other on this occasion, as he was travelling homebound as I arrived. I can't help thinking that my birding suffered grievously as a result.

A dusty day in Khartoum

Khartoum is built on the confluence of two of the world's great rivers, the Blue Nile, rising in Ethiopia, and the White Nile, flowing down from Lake Victoria. Their merger preduces the Nile, sensu strictu, and you'd think that a city built in such propitious geographical circumstances would open its heart to this miraculous surge of water passing through the parched land. But not a bit of it. In fact, travelling around the city between meetings, my only glimpses of water were as we crossed the Blue Nile over high bridges. Those roads that do follow the River do so at some distance, so you can barely catch sight of the glint of reflected light as you zoom (or crawl, depending on the time of day) from place to place. Charmingly, though, the land between these roads and the river is often, for now, given over to agriculture, even close to the city centre, and I'm sure these areas would be well worth exploring on a future visit. In fact I know they would be from reading Tom's blog.

I'd planned to come to Khartoum fully a month before I actually managed to do so, and as a consequence I arrived after the heat had already returned. The days were baking - high 30s and even low 40s Celsius - though it's a dry heat which is a good deal more manageable than the sauna of Mogadishu I experienced afterwards. Nights were cooler and pleasant. Dust blew in on my second day in town, hanging in the air like a mist, and was followed by a steady wind for the last couple of days.

Just in case you couldn't see it first time. It was quite dusty.

Since I was deprived of the river and its banks, the birds I saw in the city were restricted to roadside verges, the small hotel garden, and the sky overhead, and they certainly had an arid flavour to them. The sky brought me Black Kites (Milvus migrans aegyptius), of course, including my first migrant nominate birds of the year (M.m. migrans), plus African Palm Swifts (Cypsiurus parvus), Laughing Doves (Spilopelia senegalensis) and Namaqua Doves (Oena capensis). Roadside verges added Spur-Winged Lapwings (Vanellus spinosus). The hotel garden was honestly a bit of a disappointment; huge numbers of House Sparrows (Passer domesticus), making a din like a forest-load of cicadas in the morning, a Graceful Prinia (Prinia gracilis) or two, some African Mourning Doves (Streptopelia decipiens), a pair of Spur-Winged Lapwings and a few Common Bulbuls (Pycnonotus barbatus). The only real surprise was a goodly number of Blue-naped Mousebirds (Urocolius macrourus) whistling away from the top of a bamboo hedge like a gang of slightly drunken Eurasian Scops-Owls (Otus scops).

A Spur-winged Plover (Vanellus spinosus) and a male House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) hanging out on the hotel terrace.
And so passed my two and a half days in Khartoum. And that would have been it, for a normal business trip, but since I was travelling onward within the region afterwards, and since I have to spend the weekend somewhere, I and a colleague elected to do so in Sudan, and were rewarded with a sneaky trip in the desert North-East of the city for the penultimate night of our stay.

This is scrubby desert, with occasional stretches of stony ground bereft of plant life, but without large expanses of sand. There are numerous small trees and bushes and good expanses of dried grass and other low herbiage, but very few large trees, and, needless to say, almost no open water (except for a single waterhole that we saw beset on all sides by vast flocks of goats). I've had a limited experience of desert birding, and knew that I couldn't expect a cornucopia. Like all life in such marginal habitats, birds are relatively few and far between. Still, even I was shocked by the almost complete lack of any birds at all on the long drive through the scrub after we left the tarmac. I began to think I'd brought my binoculars for nothing but to get the lenses covered in sand.

The desert. More Sahel than Sahara and a bit of a lurid picture.
But as we approached our intended camp site, things began to look up. The first sign was four Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse (Pterocles exustus),  a LIFER for me, flushed from beneath a bush. Then came the Bar-tailed Larks (Ammomanes cinctura), another LIFER, and then the first of several big flocks of Greater Short-toed Larks (Calandrella brachydactyla), which must have added-up to at least 300 or 400 birds in total. A Great Grey Shrike (Lanius excubitor - or Southern Grey Shrike, Lanius meridionalis, if you prefer - in either case of the "Aucheri" race) was the only predatory bird I saw, but there were large flocks of African Silverbills (Lonchura cantans) in one location, and quite a few Black-crowned Sparrow-larks (Eremopterix nigriceps), again a LIFER, scattered around. All this before we'd stopped the car.

While camp was set up, I took a walk around as the heat faded. I'd already picked-up three LIFERS, and soon added two more; a pair of strutting Greater Hoopoe-Larks (Alaemon alaudipes) and a few skulking Cricket Warblers (Spiloptila clamans), some of which responded to pishing.

Setting up camp. The first, and most essential stage - brewing-up.
Camp consisted of three old portable iron bedsteads with thin mattresses drawn-up in the lee of the parked car, but though we lay and wondered at the stars, we didn't go straight to bed, instead venturing out in the car again to see what a vast halogen lamp could reveal of the nighttime wildlife. The desert floor was full of holes, and it soon became apparent that these were almost all made by Desert Jerboas (Jaculus jaculus), who careered around in front of the car in large numbers like a host of miniature clockwork kangaroos. There were a few Scrub Hares (Lepus saxatilis) around, as well.  But the highlight was a tiny Fennec Fox (Vulpes zerba) which pelted along with its tail flat behind it, not much bigger than the Hares we'd just seen.

The morning of the last day dawned surprisingly slowly, and surprisingly coolly, giving me time for a bit more wandering before the heat set in. Aside from the species of the day before, there were two more to be found; a pair of Lichtenstein's Sandgrouse (Pterocles lichtensteinii) flushed from a tiny depression in the ground, and, my last LIFER for Sudan, two softly-spoken Brown-necked Ravens, (Corvus ruficollis).

Sunset in the desert. Waiting for the Nightjars and Owls that never came.
You can't beat a night in the desert. It's a salve for the soul, and there's something primordial about lying there with nothing between you and the sky. Not that I slept very well. It was windy as hell. But never mind. Those stars and the resounding sound of silence (at least before my colleague started snoring) will stay with me for a while.

Still, from a birding perspective, and despite my six LIFERS, it was, frankly, a rather disappointing trip. I saw only 21 species in my time in Sudan, including the time in Khartoum. I was surprised at the lack of Nightjars, or of Owls, or of any bird of prey, in the desert. We were there for more than 24 hours, so I can't put this absence down to a want of searching. And at least as far as Owls are concerned there was no shortage of prey in the Jerboas. Have they been hunted out, or is this just such a marginal habitat that they're merely very thinly-spread?

I thought that this might be my first and last trip to Sudan, but it seems I will probably be back fairly soon, and next time I would dearly love to spend more time next to, or even just near, the river. And I'll certainly make more of an effort to ensure that when I go I can meet up with Tom Jenner, if he's free and keen. This is not a country in which you can wander around with binoculars hoping for the best. That lesson has definitely been learned.

Sunday, March 08, 2015


I'm heading off for a major business trip next week, covering four countries in ten days. Like many of us in a similar situation I'm getting into the mood by constantly reading-up before I head off.

We birders like to convince ourselves that when we study bird books before travelling, we do so in order to prepare ourselves; to study the difference between species we're familiar with, and those we're not. How, exactly, do you tell the difference between the Steppe Buzzard (Buteo buteo vulpinus) you know and the Mountain Buzzard (Buteo oreophilus) you don't? And - let's remind ourselves once again - is it the Greater Sandplover (Charadrius leschenaultii) or the Lesser Sandplover (Charadrius mongolus) that has the longer legs and the squarer head?

There's some truth in this. Studying bird books like this does help us to learn. I have an extensive collection and I look at them with staggering regularity. I simply must be better informed and a better birder as a result. I also remember reading a blog by The Urban Birder, David Lindo, describing himself as curling up in bed with "The Bible", meaning the 2nd Edition of the Collins Bird Guide. He certainly thought then that he was learning something, and I don't doubt that he was. I spent a couple of days birding with him in Serbia once, and he put me completely to shame with his identification skills.

But the truth of the matter is that for most of us most of the time when we do this, we're not so much preparing or informing ourselves as indulging our desires. It's about imagining that we're going to see species we've dreamt about for years. In my case, with this trip in mind, I've got a fixation on Pacific Golden Plovers (Pluvialis fulva) and Bonelli's Eagles (Aquila fasciata). The point is that I'm not sure that I'm better informed for having looked at texts and pictures of these specific species for days on end. I'm just fuller of desire to see these damned things which have eluded me for so long. 

So this activity, which I suspect we all indulge in, isn't always about informing ourselves; it's often just smut, it's informed fantasising. It's pornithology.

My guilty secret. Full of Tits, Shags and Boobies.

On the margins - 48 hours in Addis Ababa

No photos this time. I'm just back from 48 hours in Addis Ababa - my first, but not my last, visit to sub-Saharan Africa this year and my first, but not my last, visit to Ethiopia itself.

Ethiopia is well-known as a birding paradise, with a spectacular diversity of species overall and high levels of endemicity. But this was very much a work trip and I knew I'd have little if any time for proper birding.

Though I'd not previously visited Addis, I have flown via the airport before and know that the city hosts large numbers of raptors - in numbers that can be disconcerting as they drift perilously close to landing aircraft. But on this occasion I arrived in the middle of the night and had to wait until the following morning to see what the city could offer.

The initial answer was - not very much. Even if a country, and even a city, are good for birding, there are a few minimum requirements to ensure that a hotel is. It needs, at the least, to have a fairly unencumbered view of the sky. And ideally it should have a garden. My hotel (the Radisson, for future reference) had neither; a concrete yard, surrounded by a high wall and backing onto a building site on one side, and a largish road on the other. Not a great start. But despite these shortcomings I'd soon managed to get my eye in and had two LIFERS to my name before lunch; a Brown-rumped Seedeater (Serinus tristriatus) in the tiny yard and several White-collared Pigeons (Columba albitorques) flying around. I knew the White-collared Pigeons, an Ethiopian highland endemic, were common in the city, but I was nonetheless surprised by just how easy they were to see. In addition to these two lifers I'd also managed to secure a new subspecies of Common Bulbul (Pycnonotus barbatus schoanus) and my first Milvus migrans parasitus subspecies of Black Kite this year.

Despite these early gains, that feeling of abundance that I've mentioned in an earlier post, was notably absent in the morning. It wasn't until we headed to the African Union Headquarters that it returned. Being "on duty" I wasn't able to identify most of the species that flitted before me, over me, or past me, but there were a few old favourites from Nairobi days that I managed to identify immediately: Speckled Mousebird (Colius striatus), Rock Martin (Hirundo fuligula), Pied Crow (Corvus albus) and Greater Blue-eared Glossy Starling (Lamprotornis chalybaeus). That's more like it.

The following day was more promising. A walk to the UN HQ brought me a Hadada Ibis (Bostrychia hagadash), a pair of Augur Buzzards (Buteo augur), one of many Dusky Turtle Doves (Streptopelia lugens), a strangely solitary Little Bee-eater (Merops pusillus), two African Dusky Flycatchers (Muscicapa adusta) and a few of many Streaky Seedeaters (Serinus striolatus) seen during the day. Lunch at the Institut Francais added Olive Thrush ("Mountain Thrush", ssp. Turdus olivaceus abyssinicus) and Common Waxbill (Estrilda astrild), and then, the piece de resistance; I managed to grab 10 minutes alone with my binoculars between two meetings at the Sheraton hotel and dashed round the garden, adding Speckled Pigeon (Columba guinea), Singing Cisticola (Cisticola cantans), Variable Sunbird (Nectarinia venusta), Tacazze Sunbird (Nectarinia tacazze) and Baglafecht Weaver (Ploceus baglafecht).

In addition to these I also bagged myself two LIFERS; an adult Abyssinian Slaty Flycatcher (Dioptrornis chocolatinus) and several Swainson's Sparrows (Passer swainsonii) - the local variant of the Grey-Headed Sparrow complex. And, finally, a lovely palearctic migrant - the only one for this short visit - a beema Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla flava beema).

The day went late, but these were the last of the birds. I loved Addis and will certainly be back. Since I can't afford to stay at the Sheraton I'll do what all birders do and stay at the Ghion instead, though only for a night before heading into the mountains. On this occasion 48 hours produced 25 species, of which 24 were year ticks and 4 were lifers. Not bad for a place where I had genuinely 10 minutes for active birding and where everything else was picked up in glances during work conversations. That's Africa for you.