Sunday, 24 June 2012

An egregious bird and other marshland encounters

Crakes and other rallids have been a major interest of mine during previous periods living in Africa - in Malawi and Kenya.  Last Friday evening I was pondering why, with all the extensive marshland and wet grassland north of Juba, I'd seen no crakes at all.  I decided to go out on Saturday in my wellies and tramp through some suitable looking habitat.  I travelled about 5 kms along the Terekeka road and started walking through some damp grassland on the edge of acacia scrub.  I followed a narrow trail, walking fast - if you walk slowly crakes will simply run away and not flush.  After no more than 3 minutes a bird's head peaked up just ahead on the track, then the bird flushed: an African Crake Crex egregia
With that start, I expected to see more African Crakes, but extensive searching then and this morning have produced no further sightings.  My guess is that the species is sparsely distributed over a large area, though may be locally common.  However, in my experience, crakes are mostly rather demanding in terms of habitat. The composition, height and density of vegetation; the water level; and extent of disturbance and grazing are all significant factors. If birds start calling they will be easier to locate, though African Crakes were not that vocal where I've come across them in the past.  Ideally, you need an enthusiastic dog to sniff out crakes and flush then - a technique I used in Kenya using a water-loving spaniel/mongrel cross called Lucky. 

I was unable to photograph this bird, and the next good species, the first Black Bishop I've seen here, was very distant so this photograph is simply evidence of the species' occurence here.  Note that most of the back is black in this breeding plumage male, unlike Black-winged Red and Northern Red Bishop.  It is Euplectes gierowii of the race ansorgei.

Male Black Bishop

To compensate, I did manage to secure some decent shots of Winding Cisticola (see last post), whilst the bird was singing, so I'm now 100% sure of the identification.  However, the birds have very little rufous on the crown, which is also lightly streaked and in this respect are quite different from the illustration of this species (or subspecies) in Redman, Stevenson and Fanshawe's "Birds of the Horn of Africa".  They are remarkably confiding - perhaps they spend the dry season deep in the Sudd.

Winding Cisticola

I then took some photos of a Red-pate Cisticola in its unstreaked breeding plumage.  This bird is much more like the illustrations in the main field guides.

 Red-pate Cisticola
Spur-winged Geese were still present, feeding close to the road.

Spur-winged Geese

In the marshland the Black Egrets were still present yesterday, though not today.  I can't resist posting more pictures of these birds fishing.

Black Egrets

An immature Black-headed Heron and a Goliath Heron were hunting close to the road.
Imm. Black-headed Heron
Goliath Heron

Yesterday, eight Purple Herons flew high northwards: this looked more like local migration than a feeding movement, but I'm just guessing.

Purple Herons on the move

Other noteworthy sightings in the marshland included a first Collared Pratincole for my Juba list, presumably of one of the subspecies that breeds in sub-Saharan Africa, and a long overdue Greater Painted-snipe, regarded by Nikolaus (Birds of South Sudan) as common 'from Juba south....'.

I'm still trying to identify the weavers as they attain breeding plumage. On the basis of leg and eye colour the bird immediately below is possibly Heuglin's Masked Weaver (though it could be a Lesser Masked), but the other bird has me stumped.  Will try birdforum [I did, and one suggestion was Little Weaver].

Heuglin's or Lesser Masked Weaver
Unidentified weaver

Altogether, two excellent shorting outings with four new species.  After 18 months of birding here, there is clearly much still to discover.  Night birds (owls and nightjars especially) are a particular gap, mainly due to the security considerations here.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Almost a cold day on the Terekeka road

With more early morning rain, it felt almost cold this morning, at least driving in the vehicle with the windows down.  It was probably about 22 degrees centigrade in reality.  Richard Trewby and I went to see if the egrets etc from last weekend were still around. At first glance the marshland looked rather empty, with no Black Egrets in view.  However the five Black Egrets flew in as we waited and although there were fewer egrets and herons present, the number of species was again high.  This time there was a Goliath Heron as well as an immature African Fish Eagle, species not seen last weekend.

Goliath Heron

Immature African Fish Eagle

The bushland further on produced a good mix of species including Western Banded Snake-Eagle, White-billed Buffalo-Weavers, Black-bellied Bustard, White-rumped Swifts, a Diederik Cuckoo and a male Parasitic Weaver that allowed remarkably close approach - most small birds are really flighty, no doubt something to do with small boys and catapults.  I've only seen two Parasitic Weavers around Juba before today.  The females lay their eggs in the nests of cisticolas and prinias.

Male Parasitic Weaver

By the way, I did not include in my last post some photos of cisticolas taken yesterday as I was unsure of the species.  I am reasonably sure now that they are Winding Cisticolas Cisticola marginatus of the race C. m. marginatus. This race is confined to South Sudan and northern Uganda. The birds do not much resemble the painting in Fanshawe and Stevenson's Birds of East Africa, though a Winding Cisticola that I photographed here in January in non-breeding plumage is much more similar. Views welcome.

Presumed Winding Cisticolas.

Lastly, a species that does not make onto many wild bird blogs I imagine, Helmeted Guineafowl:

Helmeted Guineafowl

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Old Nimule road after morning rain

This morning there was a rainstorm that started just as I was about to leave the house.  I had a coffee and set off an hour later, going across the Nile over Juba bridge and driving slowly down the old Nimule road, stopping frequently.   Much of the habitat was scattered trees with grassland, although many areas are being cleared for cultivation.

The grasses were attracting flocks of Northern Red and Black-winged Bishops as well as the first Red-billed Queleas I've come across in South Sudan, and a few Red-headed Queleas, only my second record.  All these species were coming into, or had attained, breeding plumage.

Male Northern Red Bishops coming into breeding plumage

Male Red-headed Queleas

Male Red-billed Quelea

There were several weaver species, certainly Northern Masked and Village Weavers, one Spectacled Weaver (only my second), and what appears to be a Heuglin's Masked Weaver.

Presumed Heuglin's Masked Weaver

I saw a Long-tailed Cormorant flying low not far off the road and went to investigate.  There was a small pond that produced a good find: a Lesser Moorhen.  It was extremely shy, so I struggled to get even these photos.

A very shy Lesser Moorhen

Whilst there was still light rain falling I came across this dejected-looking Long-crested Eagle.  On the way back, once the sun was out, it was much more dignified.

Wet Long-crested Eagle

That's more like it...

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Egrets black and white

I'm back in Juba after a long period of leave in UK, with a week in Portugal as well.  Today I went a short distance north from Juba and found a mass of egrets and other large waterbirds in the now flooded open country about 6 kms out of town.

Egrets and other waterbirds

This gave a good opportunity to observe the feeding techniques of different species, all of which appeared to be catching small fish, and also enabled me to secure some portraits of several species at close range.  Most remarkable were the Black Egrets, a rare bird in South Sudan and the first I have seen here.  This species has a well-known umbrella feeding behaviour, using its spread wings to shield the water surface from glare.


Black Egrets using the "umbrella" fishing technique

The Little Egrets used a slow stalking technique, often extending their bodies forward in a snake-like manner.

Little Egrets

The Great Egrets were also using a stalking technique.

Great Egrets

There were a number of Yellow-billed Egrets, a species which I have seldom seen in the Juba area. The shorter gape, not extending behind the eye and the shorter bill, are distinctive, though the species is very similar to Great Egret, despite belonging to a different genus.

Yellow-billed Egret

Squacco Herons are considered to be uncommon at this season and not to breed.  However, there were well over 50 present, some in full breeding plumage.  Hunting birds waded in water up to their underparts and extended their necks and bodies forward prior to striking.

There are at least 40 Squacco Herons in this photo

Hunting Squacco Heron

Squacco Heron in full breeding plumage

By contrast, an adult and juvenile Yellow-billed Stork tended to stand still for periods, submerge their partially-open bills and wait for fish to swim into the trap, presumably relying on feeling the fish moving.

Yellow-billed Storks, adult and juvenile

Two immature African Spoonbills used the usual technique of this species to locate prey, a sideways motion of their partly-submerged bills.

Immature African Spoonbills

This Night Heron had no doubt been fishing the previous night, but just flew in and perched in low vegetation among Squacco Herons.

Immature Night Heron

Other species present, including smaller birds, included two Grey Herons, Long-tailed Cormorants, Black-necked Stilts, over 100 Spur-winged Geese, Knob-billed Ducks, White-faced Whistling-Ducks, African Jacanas, 1-2 Greenshanks, Spur-winged Lapwings, Pied Kingfishers and Northern Carmine Bee-eaters.
Northern Carmine Bee-eater

The spectacle was absorbing and I lingered for an hour or so.  Afterwards, I worked through two areas of bush, locating a Black-bellied Bustard in typical grassland habitat (it flushed too fast for me to photograph it) and many other species, including several Yellow-billed Shrikes, a rather unpredictable species to track down, and a Green-winged Pytilia.

Yellow-billed Shrike

Green-winged Pytilia

Referring back to my last post, male Northern Red and Black-winged Bishops were only starting to assume breeding plumage, whilst male Black-headed Weavers had almost completed their moult into breeding dress.