Tuesday, February 02, 2016

South Sudan

When I first started working on the part of Africa I now cover, I began searching for Blogs that would aid me when I had a chance for birding between meetings in the region. One that I've mentioned before was Tom Jenner's Birding Sudan, now sadly defunct as he has left the country, though it's still well worth checking-out if you're heading there. Another is it's counterpart - Mark Mallalieu's Birding South Sudan. Even when I began reading Mark's Blog it had already "ceased publication" after he also had moved on from the country in late 2012. But it still makes for gripping reading, if birds are your thing, and I've been dreaming of the possibilities of raising my binoculars in the country ever since.

Alas, Mark's Blog was written in a different age, at a time when it was still possible to hope that the dreams of independence that had burned for decades and been finally realised in 2011, would result in a future of peace and prosperity.

It didn't work out that way, unfortunately. The ruling elite fell out amongst themselves in December 2013 and what followed was months of horrific fighting in which, of course, the civilian population was the victim. Despite a peace agreement that, even as a diplomat, I'm prepared to say has at most a 50% chance of holding in the medium term, fighting is erupting all over the place, and it's not pretty. Nowadays Juba, the capital, is febrile and nervous, and movement outside it highly restricted. It's not Mogadishu. But it's not a picnic either.

As a result of this, my first visit to South Sudan at the beginning of last week was a whirlwind of meetings restricted to the capital only. My only chance for some furtive birding was when I had lunch by the Nile one day. It's wide here, but surprisingly swift with the hint of rapids, and with several small islands covered with rushes dotted across its breadth. Mark Mallalieu describes days here with hundreds if not thousands of White-winged Terns (Chlidonias leucopterus) migrating up the river. Mine was not that day. There were a couple of Common Sandpipers (Actitis hypoleucos), though, flitting nervously between the islets. Pied Kingfishers (Ceryle rudis) used a small boat as a lookout point, and Black-headed Herons (Ardea melanocephala) and Squacco Herons (Ardeola ralloides) patrolled the water's edge. Overhead was the usual African scene of hundreds of Yellow-billed Kites (Milvus migrans parasitus) and Marabou Storks (Leptoptilos crumeniferus). The surprise, though, was a hulking great Goliath Heron (Ardea goliath) on a rock in the middle of the river. It's not a bird I associate with cities and it's one I had missed entirely last year. It sat, almost completely immobile, for the entire time we were there.

Lunch by the Nile. My only chance for birding in Juba

I would hope to visit Juba in more propitious circumstances. And I'd love to get out of the city and explore a little. But the chances of this are not as great as they should be, I fear. For now we'll just have to read Mark's Blog, and dream.

A quick stop in Addis Ababa produced two local endemics - some White-collared Pigeons (Columba albitorques) at the airport and some very tame Brown-rumped Seedeaters (Serinus tristriatus) at our hotel. As an indicator of how tame, the photo below was taken with my phone.

A Brown-rumped Seedeater with biscuit crumbs in Addis

From Addis it was another jump to Nairobi. This city is unsurpassed for urban birding in my experience, and Friday was no exception. After a day in the office we crawled out through Nairobi's appalling traffic to a friend's place in Karen - a suburb to the West of the city. I've written about this place before, and it didn't disappoint this time. Yet again, with no more effort than sitting at the table in the garden with a beer, a new species found its way to me. A Cabanis' Greenbul (Phyllastrephus cabanisi) - indeed a whole family of them.

But even this pales into insignificance in comparison to Nairobi National Park, where I spent the majority of the weekend. That, though, deserves a post of its own.

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