Vol 10 No 5
New Outdoor Classroom
Reforestation and Reach Out Programome: Part 2 - The Project Launch
Marine Fish Programme
Archers of Sungei Buloh
Bird ringing in Kenya, East Africa
Bird ringing in
Kenya, East Africa
ringer and trainer at Sungei Buloh
safari lodge is situated in the Tsavo west national
park in Kenya, East Africa. Built in 1969, it stands impressive on the Ndewe escarpment 1,000 metres above sea-level. The original
purpose of the lodge was to house visitors on short safaris in the park and
as a viewing point for the leopards that Ngulia is
renowned. The lodge has sets of electric lights around pools where the
wildlife come at night, attracted to the prospect of cool refreshing water.
It was noticed that during the misty new moon nights at the years end, flocks of migrating birds from East
Europe and West Asia heading for their winter quarters in Southern Africa
were attracted by the night lights in their thousands at Ngulia.
Two expatriate Britons, keen ornithologists, living in Kenya thought that Ngulia would be an excellent place to set up a ringing
study area to monitor the Palaearctic migrants and in 1969, the first of many
ringing sessions was organised. Every year since then, ringers gather at Ngulia to continue the research. The volunteer teams hail from many countries and since the conception of the project,
nearly 370,000 migratory birds have been ringed, together with nearly
12,000 birds of the local African species.
I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to be a participant on two
expeditions in recent years. It is an experience that I would recommend to
anyone who is keen to see many different species of birds and to wonder and
be amazed at the sheer number of birds that pass through this major flyway.
The ringing activities are extraordinary and extremely interesting! For
example, when we were out catching birds at night that are attracted into the
trees lit by the night lights, we were very much mindful that we were using
the same tracks as the leopards that are attracted to a tree, where food was
put out for them each night. Every sound I heard while retrieving the birds
out of the mist nets was treated with a certain degree of nervousness and
apprehension, wondering if the leopard had returned for a second helping!
We have had occasions when small herds of elephants
dropped by for a drink at the pool at night. A fantastic sight indeed but a
little disconcerting when we realised that the herd decided to move off after
quenching their thirst in the direction of the lines of furled mist nets that
we had permanently set up while at the site!
It is then just nothing short of amazing that throughout my two weeks at Ngulia, the elephants did not once damage any of the nets
or the poles but instead carefully manoeuvred their bulky bodies to avoid
contact with them.
The same care that was made by the elephants however cannot be said for the
local Baboon population, which took great delight in pulling down the poles
holding up the nets. Some of the baboons even went as far as to swing
themselves on the nets and are generally a nuisance. The baboons are of
course not too popular with the bird ringers.
To make matters worse, the baboons will steal almost anything and one has to
be careful not to leave binoculars, cameras or any movable equipment lying
about otherwise it is likely to end up as a toy for a raucous baboon!
Despite the tribulations of ringing in the African bush, the rewards are
spectacular. Most of the migrant birds that are caught are from the Eastern
Consequently, many bird species encountered are either rare, or do not appear
in Britain where I live. The most common species that were caught are the
Marsh Warbler (Acrocephalus palustris),
and the Thrush Nightingale (Luscinia luscinia). Both these species appeared in huge numbers,
during my stay in Ngulia in 2004. We caught over
3,500 of each species and this, when the peak migration period had not yet
Other common species that occur in Ngulia are the
Barred Warbler (Sylvia nisoria), Red-backed Shrike
(Lanius collurio), River
Warbler (Locustella fluviatillis)
and Basra Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus griseldis) birds that most western Europeans in their
countries rarely see, if at all. We caught birds that had been previously
ringed in countries such as Slovenia, Kazakstan and
Russia and the data collected will add to the body of knowledge about their
Local sedentary African bird species are also studied. Catching local species
allows the Nairobi Museum to do work on the ageing and sexing characteristics
of Kenyan birds. The ringing teams always include people from the Museum who
record plumage characteristics and in the process gain much useful knowledge
about the local birds.
For me, the ringing of African birds is a great experience. The colours and
diversity of the African species are a stark contrast to most of the birds I
am used to handling in Britain. I was fortunate to catch and ring two new
species for Ngulia during my last visit - a
Wire-tailed Swallow (Hirundo smithii)
and Rupells Long-tailed Starling (Lamprotornis purpuropterus).
The opportunity to study new bird species adds to the thrill of ringing in
such an amazing place.
If anyone desires a truly unforgettable bird-watching experience, Ngulia during the bird migration period is certainly the
place to visit. The national park is also host to many of Kenyas
famous large mammals such as the giraffe, zebra, hippopotamus, various
antelope species and sometimes the lion.
But definitely the birds are the stars for me. To witness thousands of birds
dropping out of the night sky into bushes within a few feet from where one is
standing, is without doubt one of the most amazing sights I have seen. Ngulia is one of the few places in the world where one
can experience this phenomena and I for one will be back there again.