Wild Dogs, Eagle Owls and Bushshrikes: Bird Atlassing in Tsavo West, Kenya

Wild Dogs, Eagle Owls and Bushshrikes: Bird Atlassing in Tsavo West, Kenya

On Sunday 22nd November, after two successful weeks of bird ringing at Ngulia Safari Lodge in Tsavo West National Park (as part of the Ngulia Bird Migration Project, run by the Ringing Scheme of East Africa), the whole team was heading back to whichever corner of Kenya they call home. A small group of us that were travelling together to Nairobi, including Colin Jackson, Kuria Ndung'u, Martha Mutiso and myself, decided to do a bit of bird atlassing on our way out of the park to get a full protocol list for one new pentad for the Kenya Bird Map project.

Most pentads in Tsavo still have no full protocol cards so finding one to cover would be relatively easy. We simply entered the Kenya Bird Map website and checked the Coverage Map to see where the coverage gaps were.

We were glad to see two blank pentads conveniently located along one of the roads to Mtito Gate. Both only had ad-hoc/incidental records, hence grey on the map (see legend). As our time was limited, we could only choose to do one in order to meet the minimum requirement of 2 hours spent birding within the pentad for a list to qualify as a full protocol. We chose to cover the one shown by the arrow above (pentad 0250_3810) and off we went.

We were using the BirdLasser app to record our list of course, so both recording and navigation were quite simple. Ngulia Lodge is located two pentads south of our target pentad, and both have a number of fp lists already as you can see from the map above, so we quickly drove through them on our way to the target.

This dark Wahlberg's Eagle (Hieraatus wahlbergi) feeding on what looked like a small francolin was one of the last birds we saw before entering our target pentad. If you squint hard, you can just see one of the francolin's feet projecting below the branch where the eagle is perched.

We entered the target pentad just before 11 am, and our expectations were not super high as this is the time of day when bird activity usually starts to slow down, especially in a hot environment like Tsavo.

Barn Swallow, Von der Decken's Hornbill, Madagascar Bee-eater, D'Arnaud's Barbet, Grey Wren-Warbler, Dodson's Bulbul and Slate-coloured Boubou were among the first birds on the list as we drove in.

Barely five minutes in, we bumped into this stunning juvenile Verreaux's Eagle Owl (Bubo lacteus). Clearly very recently fledged from its nest. One of the adults was perched less than 10 metres away in the neighbouring tree.

We carried on, adding many common birds as we went. Parrot-billed Sparrow, Vitelline Masked Weaver, Helmeted Guineafowl, Abyssinian Scimitarbill, Blue-capped Cordon-bleu, Tsavo Sunbird, Hunter's Sunbird, Crested Francolin, Yellow-necked Spurfowl, Fork-tailed Drongo, Black-throated Barbet, White-bellied Go-away-bird, Green-winged Pytilia, Pringle's Puffback, and Bateleur being among them. There were also good numbers of Eurasian (European) Rollers. Other Palearctic migrants seen included Marsh Warbler, Spotted Flycatcher, Turkestan (Red-tailed) Shrike, and Common Cuckoo.

Ashy Cisticola (Cisticola cinereolus) were fairly common and vocal. As were Rattling Cisticolas.

A juvenile Martial Eagle soared overhead. Surprisingly the only Martial I've ever seen in Tsavo West! We got distant views of Red-billed Buffalo Weavers, while Diederik Cuckoo, Variable Sunbird, African Bare-eyed Thrush, and Black-headed Batis were heard only. Eastern Chanting Goshawk and African Black-shouldered Kite (Black-winged Kite) added to our raptor tally.

We would periodically stop and listen just to see if we could pick up any faint sounds or spot something skulking in the thick bush (which was the dominant habitat throughout the pentad, with barely an opening here and there). On one of these stops, CJ noticed the calls of Red-naped Bushshrikes quite close to the road. As this was a lifer for me, I was desperate to see them, not just hear them! I quickly pulled out my audio recorder and recorded the calls and then played them back to see if we could lure the birds out. Within barely 5 seconds of the playback, two of them dashed out into the open and then flew across the road into the bushes on the other side. I managed to get a few good looks, albeit brief ones. Success!! Now I could confidently tick it off as a lifer. Next time I must get photos!

Lifers are highlighted in yellow on BirdLasser. A beautiful sight to see on your list!
Moving on, Fischer's Starling , Zanzibar Sombre Greenbul (heard), White-headed Buffalo Weaver, Willow Warbler, Northern White-crowned Shrike, Red-cheeked Cordon-bleu, Straw-tailed Whydah, Eastern Violet-backed Sunbird and a few others made an appearance. Three White-backed Vultures rose on a thermal as a Common Scimitarbill was calling nearby. Red-fronted Warblers, Sprosser (Thrush Nightingale), and a female Isabelline Shrike were just off road.
A few Cut-throat Finches (Amadina fasciata) were also nearby, along with White-winged Widowbirds and a vocal Red-faced Crombec.
Sadly, we also found this immature African Hawk-Eagle (Aquila spilogaster) dead in a tree. Suggested possible causes of death are leopard attack and poisoning.
Just a bit further ahead, we flushed a young Tawny Eagle that was perched near the road. And in a waterhole behind the tree it was perched in was this ...
A very big female Spotted Hyena (Crocuta crocuta) seemingly cooling off in the mid-day heat
And soon joined by this sub-adult
There were actually at least three, but the third one was less confident and quickly slunk off into the bush when we arrived
We sat with the hyenas for five minutes or so and then carried on. Just as we rounded the bend past the waterhole, we saw this incredible scene ...
A White-headed Vulture (Trigonoceps occipitalis) being closely shadowed by an immature Tawny Eagle (Aquila rapax), probably the same one we flushed earlier. They were circling very close to where the hyenas were. (Photo by Martha Mutiso)

We admired them for a few minutes and then kept moving, as time was not on our side. And as we drove off, we noticed a juvenile Bateleur flying with purpose in the direction of the vulture and tawny. Among Africa's eagles, the Bateleur and Tawny Eagles are the most 'vulture-like' of all, in that they scavenge quite frequently. Having both of them, as well as a White-headed Vulture and Spotted Hyenas in the same spot indicates that there was very likely a carcass nearby.

(Best book on Africa's vultures and other raptors: African Raptors)

As we continued north towards Mtito, we added Laughing Dove, African Paradise Flycatcher, Little Grebe, African Orange-bellied Parrot, Red-billed Oxpecker and Vulturine Guineafowl to our list.

And then, as if the day's fantastic sightings hadn't been enough, we got our icing on the cake ...
A pack of African Wild Dogs (Lycaon pictus)! Or African Hunting Dog or Painted Wolf. Whichever name you prefer. At least two adults and around seven pups. This is the second time I've seen this species in Tsavo West and they are seen rather frequently by others, so they might be doing quite well in Tsavo. Being Africa's second most threatened carnivore, it's always very exciting to see them.
The pups were quite curious and came very close to our car. This adult however clearly didn't trust us and gave out two loud growls, which immediately sent all the pups running back into the bush. It's almost like the adult told them "don't talk to strangers!" It was an incredible bit of behaviour to witness.

The dogs soon moved off and so did we as we neared the northern boundary of our pentad. By now we had done over 2 hours so had achieved our full protocol list. We crossed the boundary with 78 species on our list. Not bad for a midday drive in hot, flat thornbush!!

By now it was almost 2 pm. We drove to Mtito Andei Gate and added a few ad-hoc records to the pentads that we crossed through as we went. We exited the park at about 2.20 pm, feeling good after the day's achievements!

One of our final sightings before leaving the park.

Bird atlassing is always exciting as it leads you to explore places that you might otherwise have never gone to. Kenya still has very many unmapped pentads that need exploration to document which birds are there. Tsavo has its fair share of these, as do many of our other protected areas!

Densely populated areas and farmland should also not be ignored as it's important to document the impact of human development and population growth on Kenya's birds. The pentads with less than four full protocol cards are also still under-atlassed and need more visits.

Why not take a look at the Kenya Bird Map coverage map and see which new pentads you can explore and cover? You never know what you could find, not just in terms of birds but other things too!

How the pentad we covered looks now after we submitted the full protocol card.

Learn more about Africa's amazing birds from our Birds of Africa blog.

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