Sunday, 2 September 2012

Farewell South Sudan

I write this listening to Hadeda Ibis at the Fairview hotel in Nairobi. Yesterday I left South Sudan at the end of my two year posting in Juba.  Being there before, during and after the birth of the new country was a privilege.  It was tough, and for many months solid work, with no time to get out in the bush.  Eventually, work pressures eased a bit...and that's when I started this blog.  I hope to return.

My last trip had to be along the Terekeka road, the most productive easily accessible areas near Juba.  I only went a few kilometres up the road - I still had to pack for my flight.  Some birds posed in the morning sunshine, including a Black Coucal and a Black-and-White Cuckoo. 

Black Coucal
 Black-and-White Cuckoo
As predicted in my last but one post, as the marshland water levels drop, herons and waders are returning to feed in the shallower pools.  There were a dozen or more Common Squacco Herons, two Little Egrets and two Long-toed Lapwings.  I often see Purple Herons flying quite high, suggesting migration, though local feeding movements may be a more likely explanation.  There were several birds today, including these two.

Purple Herons
One question I have been unable to resolve is whether both Western and Eastern Violet-backed Sunbirds occur.  Today, I stalked a pair of sunbirds and managed a few grainy photos (the sun had disappeared behind clouds by now).  The photograph below is of the female. The white, rather than yellow, under-tail coverts are diagnostic of Eastern Violet-backed Sunbird.  All the violet-backed sunbirds I was able to identify have been of this species.

 Female Eastern Violet-backed Sunbird
I then attempted to photograph two batis: these are attractive small flycatchers.  There are two possible species here: Black-headed Batis and Grey-headed Batis.  So there is an obvious plumage difference?  Not so, as Black-headed Batis can show a grey crown stripe.  These two birds could therefore be Black-headed even though they have the grey crown stripe.  The only call they gave was a quiet "prrp", which I doubt is diagnostic (my books are all packed). The songs are very different, by the way.

Black-headed or Grey-headed Batis
Surprisingly, there were two male Exclamatory Paradise-Whydahs, and at least one female.  This species parasitises Red-winged Pytilia, which I have only seen well to the east of Juba along the Nimule road.  My post of 13 August commented on some of the features that distinguish this paradise-whydah from the very similar Eastern Paradise-Whydah.  Male Eastern's also have a more graduated tails, whilst female Exclamatory has a pinkish-toned bill, according the "The Birds of the Horn of Africa", which is the best reference field guide for this species pair. The sister volume "The Birds of East Africa" does not include Exclamatory Paradise-Whydah (at least my edition does not).

Exclamatory Paradise-Whydah (top two: male; 3rd: female)
In the same area were nesting Grey-capped Social-Weavers, the birds being unusually confiding.

 Grey-capped Social-Weaver, pair and nest
On the way back I stopped by the bridge about 3kms along the Terekeka road and walked along a path that runs west by the seasonal river.  I'd always meant to explore this path but in recent weeks it was completely flooded.  Today it was passable in wellies.  There are a number of fig trees that were fruiting among a mixture of other trees, scrub, reeds, grasses and patches of cultivation.  The fig trees were attracting numbers of Bruce's Green Pigeons and I obtained the best photos I have taken of this attractive bird with its soft shades of greens, yellows, greys and mauve: it's made for watercolour painting.

 Bruce's Green Pigeon
There was also a Puffback, a bird I've seldom seen here.  Then a Wahlberg's Eagle flew overhead, giving excellent views. It's "flying cross" silhouette is diagnostic, at least with practice.

 Wahlberg's Eagle
Lastly, and almost inevitably, my final outing produced yet another new species: a pair of Cardinal Woodpeckers.  The streaked underparts immediately ruled out other woodpecker species I'd seen around Juba (Nubian and Grey).  They should be of the subspecies Dendropicos fuscescens lepidus

Cardinal Woodpeckers (male has red on crown)
I would like to especially thank Tom Jenner, who was the inspiration for this blog, and who continues to blog at We only managed one joint trip, back in April 2011 (see Tom's blog for an account of our exploits, including seeing South Sudan's first Eleonora's Falcon).
I'd also like to thank Lesley, Andrew, Richard, Laura and Martin for their company on many of the more recent outings; and Bosco, who often drove the vehicle whilst also seeing birds without binoculars that I'd struggled to find with binoculars.
I found around 330 species of birds within a 50 kilometre radius of Juba.  I only twice travelled west along the Mundri road, and only once down the Yei road.  I never explored the west bank of the White Nile south of Juba; I climbed Jebel Kujur but once; and made only occasional visits to Gondokoro island.  I predict that another 30 species could be found by enthusiastic future birders quite easily, and another 50 or so may occur more rarely.  So a species list of over 400 for the Juba area as defined above, seems quite plausible.  And travelling further afield in any direction would add many more species, with the hills along the southern borders of the country being especially species rich.
I hope that this blog inspires others to follow where I leave off, and I particularly hope that a generation of keen South Sudanese naturalists will emerge in the coming years.
I may add an occasional post here if friends in Juba send interesting reports, but otherwise all the best to my readers.