Sunday, 29 April 2012

Migration: White-winged Terns, European Honey-buzzards and more

Today started well today when I found a Greyish Eagle-Owl (Bubo africanus cinarescens) in a neem tree next to the entrance to my office.

Greyish Eagle-Owl

Later, I took some work down to Afex Camp on the White Nile in Juba - better than sitting in the office.  Afex is perhaps the best place to watch birds by the river, but today was exceptional.  The day had dawned grey, cloudy and wet, brightening in late morning.  I arrived soon after midday and soon noticed plenty of birds of prey over the far bank.  I guessed that they were mainly Yellow-billed Kites and Hooded Vultures.  Mostly they were, soaring along with several tens of Marabou Storks, and 1-2 Wahlberg's Eagles, African White-backed Vultures, plus a Long-crested Eagle.  Then I saw a 'buzzard': much more likely to be a European Honey-buzzard, I reckoned.  It was indeed this species and soon I found more, all moving north beyond the east bank on the river, and none crossed to the near bank.  At one point I saw 12 in the air together - and this a species for which there was only one record for South Sudan prior to last year, when Tom Jenner and I encountered several on migration at about the same time, also east of the White Nile.

European Honey-buzzards

Part of a flock of 12 European Honey-buzzards

The dull weather and a brisk north-easterly wind may have contrived to push the birds close to Juba.  I wonder if they use the river as a migration guide and keep to the east bank.

I chatted to a couple, newly arrived in Juba.  A nice coincidence as they were John and Lesley Henderson.  Lesley commented on one of my recent blogs. Welcome to Juba.

There was more to come.  Big flocks of White-winged Terns started moving downriver, flying fast, low over the river to start with.  Later, at least one flock spiralled up before continuing northwards.  The biggest flock was of about 2,000 birds and I estimated roughly 6,000 altogether in three hours from 12:30 hrs to 15:30 hrs.

Mass movement of White-winged Terns

A very quick estimate suggests that the flock in the photo immediately above may hold 1,500 birds. Other birds on the move included Woolly-necked Storks (a flock of six); Abdim's and Yellow-billed Storks; some bee-eaters that were mainly unidentified apart from a few Northern Carmines; and a few hirundines, probably mainly Sand Martins.  Over the river were half a dozen Rock Pratincoles and some noisy Senegal Thick-knees.

Saturday, 28 April 2012


With heavy rains on several recent days and nights, large areas of marshland are forming just north of Juba.  The two photos below show the extent of the transformation since early April: the first was taken on 8 April after light rains had produced a flush of new grass for the Mundari herders' cattle. The second was taken today, when people were fishing with nets and spears, catching lots of catfish.

5 kms north of Juba, 8 April
nearby, 28 April

One of the first birds I saw was an immature gull, presumably Lesser Black-backed or Heuglin's (any thought very welcome). The legs were pinkish.

Presumed Lesser Blacked-backed or Heuglin's Gull

Next, I walked across another area of marsh that becomes impenetrable later in the rains.  There was a large Mundari cattle camp on its fringes.  I came across a female Black-bellied Bustard in the less wet edge of the marsh, whilst out in the middle were a pair of Saddle-backed Storks along with numerous Great Egrets, Wood Sandpipers and some Long-tailed Cormorants.  A hundred of more Cattle Egrets were feeding among the cattle, and hundreds more flew overhead.
Saddle-billed Stork
Black-bellied Bustard

Walking back to the car through light woodland, now with a carpet of green grass and bright new leaves on the acacias, bauhinias and other trees, I found a flock of eight or so Green Wood-hoopoes.  This should be a common species in the area, but today's sighting was inexplicably my first in nearly two years.
Green Wood-hoopoes

Other species included some calling Red-chested Cuckoos that, unusually, I managed to see and even photograph, as well as Levaillant's and Klaas's Cuckoos, a Woodland Kingfisher and several Black-billed Barbets. I glimpsed an eremomela, but could not photograph or identify it.

Woodland Kingfisher
Red-chested Cuckoo

Heading back to Juba, Bosco, my driver, saw a bird of prey with white in the tail, which turned out ot be my second Western Banded Snake-Eagle for the area.  Further along, a Pink-backed Pelican flew over, whilst a scan of the marshland in the first photo on this blog revealed Ruffs, Black-winged Stilts and a Goliath Heron, though all too distant to photograph well.

Western Banded Snake-Eagle

Pink-backed Pelican

Sunday, 22 April 2012

The Mundri road

The Mundri road heads west from Juba. I've only birded along it once before: the bush is extremely degraded due to wood extraction for charcoal.  Nevertheless, last year it turned up the only Emin's Shrike and almost the only Green-backed Eremomelas I've seen around Juba.  Yesterday I found three Fox Kestrels near a rocky outcrop about 15 kms out of town.  This may well be a 'stake-out' for this species as the habitat seems suitable for breeding.  About 35 kms out I worked over the area where I'd found the first two species mentioned above.  I was unable to track down either, but did find White-winged Black Tits, Chestnut-crowned Sparrow-Weaver and Black-bellied Firefinch, none of which are particularly easy to locate in the Juba area. 

Chestnut-crowned Sparrow-Weaver

Despite the poor habitat, I also saw a Yellow-billed Shrike as well as another Lesser Grey Shrike (after the good showing last weekend).  Starlings have started to reappear. I thought at the time that they were Lesser Blue-eared, but the photo below appears to show the distinctive large yellow eye/ eyering of Purple Starling, Lamprotornis purpureus.  I was also able to photograph a confiding immature Bateleur.

Purple Starling

Immature Bateleur

Lastly, I noticed last year that Black Scimitarbills have broad whitish tips to about five outer primaries, a feature not shown in Stevenson and Fanshawe's 'Birds of East Africa', though clearly visible on at least one photo, from The Gambia, that I found on the internet. I noticed the same feature on this bird I photographed yesterday.

Black Scimitarbill

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Along the Nimule road

Last April, the Nimule road turned up a terrific range of birds for Tom Jenner and me, so I retraced part of that trip today.  The onset of the rains transform the birdlife here and again it was a great outing. Highlights were three new species for my South Sudan list, all of which I had been looking out for: Black-faced Firefinch, Pale Flycatcher and Fox Kestrel.  The firefinch is atypical, lacking extensive red in the plumage.  It also has a distinctive pale blue eyering, not illustrated in Stevenson and Fanshawe's 'Birds of East Africa', though photos on the Web show this feature.  There were a pair of Pale Flycatchers, one of which behaved aggressively towards intruding Lesser Grey Shrikes. I'm pretty sure now that Tom and I saw Pale Flycatchers last year.  The Fox Kestrel was close to what would be called a 'kopje' in South Africa - a possible nesting site as it had some cliff faces.

Male Black-faced Firefinch

Pale Flycatchers

Fox Kestrel

In his 'Birds of South Sudan', Nikolaus noted that there were no spring records of Lesser Grey Shrikes. I've seen a very few before now, but today was remarkable as I encountered at least a dozen individuals, in groups of up to four, and often in association with Woodchat Shrikes.

Lesser Grey Shrike

There were also good numbers of Willow Warblers.  As I simply stopped at random in three places in a habitat covering several hundred square miles, it seems likely that thousands of Willow Warblers are passing through this part of South Sudan.  Overhead there were a hundred or more Eurasian Swifts and 10 or more Steppe Buzzards, as well as a distant swarm of bee-eaters, likely to be Blue-cheeked or Eurasian.  There were no Alpine Swifts or European Honey-buzzards, both of which Tom and I saw last year, albeit a few days later.

African migrants including over 100 Abdim's Storks - there'll be thousands more soon - and Red-chested and Black-and-White Cuckoos.  Another cuckoo was either a Common or African. Other specialities of this area included Black-bellied Firefinch.  I also had prolonged views of the usually shy Spotted Morning-Thrush gathering mud and vegetation for its nest.

Black-bellied Firefinch

Spotted Morning-Thrush

Birds of prey were plentiful as usual around Juba, with a Grey Kestrel allowing close approach.

Grey Kestrel

Sunday, 8 April 2012

White Nile at Juba

This morning I walked about 3 kms along the east bank of the White Nile opposite Juba, just downstream from the bridge.  The bank here, as in many places along the river around Juba, is covered with large mango trees.  People collect the ripe mangoes but the local market is too small for the huge amount of fruit, so I was walking on a carpet of ripe and rotting mangoes.

Birds included a Goliath Heron - I've seen very few here, though they are no doubt regular. 

Goliath Heron

Also a close up view of a Grey-headed Kingfisher, a common species at the moment.

Grey-headed Kingfisher

A Bar-breasted Firefinch allowed a close enough approach to take a photograph that shows the bars on the side of the breast.  The sexes look alike, unlike Red-billed Firefinch.

Bar-breasted Firefinch

The resident Senegal Thick-knees were also confiding.

Senegal Thick-knee

Other species not photographed (or only enough to i.d. the species) included Lesser Honeyguide, Copper Sunbird, Rock Pratincole and Black Crake.  I also glimpsed what looked like a Little Bittern.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Raining in Juba

The rains have started here in Juba.  Just listening to it beating down feels good.  A trip 10 kms up the Terekeka road revealed that one immature African Spoonbill was lingering on the borrow pit where I saw several on 17 March.  There was little evidence of migration of Palearctic species today, though the pit held singles each of Curlew Sandpiper and Common Ringed Plover along with a couple of Greenshank and a few Common Sandpipers.  There were also more Steppe Buzzards around, one of which was more confiding that most.

Steppe Buzzard

Some African species were on the move: a flock of Spur-winged Geese, more Grey-headed Kingfishers than usual and an African Pygmy Kingfisher.

Spur-winged Geese

Some species were showing breeding activity: Grey-capped Social Weavers, Grey-headed Sparrows, Black-headed Batis and Rufous-chested Swallows all nest-building (the sparrows in a hole in a dead tree, the swallows in a corrugated iron culvert).

Rufous-chested Swallow (bird on right has mud in bill)

Some swifts that looked different turned out to be my first White-rumped Swifts since I came to Juba. The grainy photo below shows the whitish trailing edge to the secondaries as well as a glimpse of the white rump.
White-rumped Swift