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.

Monday 27 August 2012

Bat Hawk

A last chance to watch by the Nile at dusk: I spent a couple of hours at Afex camp this evening.  There was the usual cast of Striated and Purple Herons commuting along the river, Senegal Thick-knees, Malachite and Pied Kingfishers, African Palm Swifts, White-faced Whistling-Ducks, Long-tailed Cormorants, Cattle Egrets and Common Sandpipers.  There was also an African Harrier-Hawk and a single Rock Pratincole. Oddly, there were no Bruce's Green Pigeons, normally guaranteed here. But the best bird was a Bat Hawk seen flying across the river.  There are few previous records for South Sudan, though the species may be widely distributed.  I saw one about 80 kms south of Juba by the Nile during a rafting trip in February this year.

Lastly, flocks of 6,5, and 3 White-winged Terns flew purposefully up river on their southbound migration.

New habitat, new bird

This is almost my last post as I leave Juba permanently on 1 September.  There are still a good number of species that should occur here but that I've not found.  One was Plain-backed Pipit, which  occurs in open shortish grassland.  So this morning I was back up the Terekeka road searching the only apparently suitable piece of habitat: a large area from which all the trees have been removed (probably with future construction in mind) and now covered mainly by grasses.  I not only found the pipit - a single bird - but also several Zitting Cisticolas, a species I'd previously seen just once, in January 2011.  Not having found the cisticola since, I was contemplating removing it from my list.  I was able to get a record shot of the cisticola, but not the pipit.

Zitting Cisticola
I tramped through a marsh hoping to flush a crake, but no luck.  I did find an odd-looking cisticola that turned out to be juvenile Winding.  Note how different it is from adult Winding photographed back in June.

Juvenile Winding Cisticola
Adult Winding Cisticola (June 2012)
There were flocks of Fan-tailed Widowbirds, with males not yet in breeding plumage; a beautiful Yellow-crowned Bishop; a Western Banded Snake-Eagle; two Black-bellied Bustards; and in a fig tree, two Eastern Grey Plaintain-eaters, attracting attention with their crazy laughter.

Scruffy-looking male Fan-tailed Widowbird
Male Yellow-crowned Bishop
Eastern Grey Plantain-eater
The main Terekeka road marsh just outside Juba still seems to have too much water to attract herons and waders, but when the water level falls the habitat should become superb (sadly, I'll not be here).

Terekeka road marshland

Sunday 26 August 2012

And still they come!

New bird species that is.....

It may seem an odd choice of walk, but this morning Andrew and I walked along a road that leads to a sand quarry about 6 kms along the Terekeka road.  I'd looked on Google Maps, which showed that the road passes through a marsh just before the quarry.  Early on, there were lots of lorries, but once they had all reached the quarry the walk was more peaceful.

The marsh came up trumps with a displaying warbler that I originally took to be a Fan-tailed Warbler Schoenicola brevirostris. However, further research online shows that it is a Little Rush Warbler Bradypterus baboecala. It was too distant to photograph well.

Later, we found Common Waxbill, and then a flock of Zebra Waxbills flew overhead.  These were also new species for me in South Sudan, making three new birds in a day after I've lived here for nearly two years.  Amazing!

Common Waxbill (taken through long grasses with 500mm lens on manual focus)
Palearctic migrants are starting to appear, with an adult White-winged Tern moulting out of breeding plumage feeding over marshland, a Common Sandpiper and several swifts that were probably Eurasian Swifts.

The indigobird mystery did not unravel at all.  There were a number of Red-billed Firefinches, but the indigobirds did not have red legs and so were seemingly not Vidua chalybeata, which parasitises Red-billed Firefinch.  I did not see any of the host species that are parasitised by other indigobird species that might occur here.  The viduas I saw seem to have a blueish purple sheen, as shown in the second photo below (I've used colour saturation to exagerate the sheen).

 Female Red-billed Firefinch
Male indigobird (with female partly in view)
Same indigobird [photo added in response to comment]
There were noisy d'Arnaud's Barbets, which for once I managed to photograph, albeit distantly.

 d'Arnaud's Barbets
At the quarry we saw a Long-crested Eagle, which started mobbing another bird of prey.  This turned out to be an immature Western Banded Snake-Eagle.  In these photos its head looks very large as the feathers are fluffed out, perhaps in annoyance at the Long-crested Eagle's attention.

Immature Western Banded Snake-Eagle
Other noteworthy species included three sightings of Black-bellied Bustard; a Lesser Honeyguide that was chasing a Vitelline Masked Weaver, a species it may parasitise; Little Weaver; Grey-headed Sparrow; and a displaying male Beautiful Sunbird.  There was an unexpected bonus with the sunbird photos as the female was also in the picture and reacting to the male's display.

Lesser Honeyguide
Male Little Weaver
Grey-headed Sparrow
Displaying Beautiful Sunbirds
Again we found some attractive butterflies (i.d. by Andrew).

Probably Colotis protomedia (three butterflies with black markings); Eureme hecabe (yellow butterflies); yellow and brown butterfly: i.d. uncertain
Nearly back in Juba, we noticed that White-rumped Swifts were breeding in an old concrete structure, possibly occupying old nests of Ethiopian Swallows, which I recall also seeing using this structure earlier in the year.

5 star accommodation for White-rumped Swifts

Saturday 25 August 2012

Walk to the Nile at Rejaf

I went with Lesley and Andrew down the Old Nimule road this morning.  After a rewarding short walk through the acacia scrub a few kms down the road, we stopped just short of Rejaf village and followed a track for about a kilometre down to the Nile.  At first the habitat was mainly short grassland and bushes, giving way to taller grasses and with a few trees and bushes, then to a more wooded area right by the Nile. By the river bank we met two men hoeing land to plant mango and orange trees.

Rejaf village, with tukuls and church in the distance
An early highlight was a Red-necked Falcon feeding on a male Euplectes bishop.  The red in the photo below is the feathering of the deceased bishop, not blood!

Red-necked Falcon with prey
As often happens, having found African Quail-Finches last weekend, there were more today, and in almost identical habitat: mainly short grass in disturbed fairly flat ground with sandy gravel patches, surrounded by denser and taller grasses and bushes. 

We found a flock of about 20 Parasitic Weavers, a species only encountered in singles hitherto. A smart bird and good to find in numbers.  As we walked towards the river, we saw a Black-and-White Cuckoo, as well as several Diederik Cuckoos. 

Male Parasitic Weaver
Black-and White Cuckoo 

There were Ring-necked Parakeets, a Black Bishop, Violet-backed Starlings, African Moustached Warblers, Black Coucal, Croaking and Winding Cisticolas, a male violet-backed Sunbird (either Western or Eastern), a Nubian Woodpecker looking out of place in the open bush- and grassland, a Little Bee-eater, Red-headed and Cardinal Queleas and both Vitelline and Northern Masked Weavers.

Closer to the Nile, we found some beautiful Red-throated Bee-eaters, an African Pygmy Kingfisher, several Red-rumped Swallows and, over the water, two Plain Martins.  Across the Nile we saw distant Eastern Grey Plantain-eaters and heard their call, 'maniacal laughter' as the field guide rightly says.

Red-throated Bee-eaters 
Red-rumped Swallow
Of interest from an i.d. perspective, there were good numbers of Lesser Blue-eared Starlings along the Old Nimule road, whilst by the river I photographed an immature starling that seems to have a much stouter bill.  I wonder if this could be Greater Blue-eared, though the tail does not seem very long.
Lesser Blue-eared Starling
glossy starling, i.d. uncertain
There was plenty of entomological interest today, with these dragonflies and butterflies [I'll add the i.d. for some later, once Andrew has commented].
Odonata, genus/species not known 
Female yellow pansy Junonia hierta
 probable junonia spp
Odonata, genus/species not known
Ringlet, Satyridae
Andrew also found this grass mantis producing an egg case (Ootheca). He notes that the egg case can contain several hundred eggs, which hatch out after about two weeks, the young mantis's looking like tiny black ants.
 Praying Mantis
 Andrew photographing the mantis, with Lesley