Category Archives: Birds

Winter migrants and surprises at Bunyala Rice Scheme

The vibrancy of Bunyala’s birdlife can least be described as rich and surprising. Three years ago I recall timidly sharing what seemed an absurd disclosure to a friend who is also the owner of the birding tour company, Birdwatching East Africa. That I had seen what ‘looked like a Tropicbird’ trailing a three thousand strong or so flock of hunting Whiskered & White-winged Terns at Bunyala Rice Scheme.  Understandably, he dismissed my observation with mockery as hallucinatory and inexperienced me had to downplay what I believed was a record observation. What would a pelagic bird be doing 1000km inland anyway! Then those were still the days that I was still very slow on the camera and I did not capture the evidence.

Starting 01/08/2013, we have embarked on this year’s winter migration look out for any likely bird poison poaching. The arriving flocks of palaearctic migrants as ever remain an irresistible lure to the poisoning poachers. Nonetheless we keep doing what we began last autumn (northern season)-watching against the poisoning-in the hope that the species stopping over and wintering at Bunyala will be safe and be able to return to breed in the palaearctics come spring, next year. The skies get literally dotted with miniature bird silhouettes with each new wave of arrivals and our job is to record these sightings and following our presence keep the poachers away.

Picture1 (800x600)

Arriving waders at Bunyala Rice Irrigation Scheme

The waders once settled get straight to feeding to replenish their energy reserves spent over the many thousand miles flight. This is when they are most vulnerable and if a malicious poacher lays out easy food items laced with poison then the hungry birds will gorge on the easy food bounty without hesitating.

The species congregate in mixed flocks once here on site and therefore we have to be careful not to miss out on any unusual species or vagrants. At the moment, the following palaearctic species occur on site

 Picture2 (800x512)

A mixed flock of mostly Ruffs and Wood Sandpipers in a paddy plot being readied for planting

 Picture3 (800x504)

A confusing Curlew Sandpiper (to the left) with Ruffs just getting out of their palaearctic breeding dresses (dark feathers/blotches on their flanks)

 Picture4 (800x510)

A big ruff attempting to bully a small ruff but interjected by a pair of Madagascar Pratincoles

NB: I am saving the information on the Madagascar Pratincoles (an afro-tropical migrant) for last!

Other palaearctic migrants already on site include Common Greenshank, Marsh Sandpiper, Little Stint and Purple Heron. Also intra-African as well as palaearctic origin birds are constituted of the Glossy Ibises as well as Grey Herons.

There are also afro-tropic migrants, whose bulk of the population is leaving for their breeding quarters, slowly paving way to the in-coming palaearctics. They include the Fulvous-whistling Duck, Knob-billed Duck, Cattle Egret and African Openbill. A few of these are however resident and their relics will mingle with the larger palaearctic flocks

 Picture5 (800x578)

Resident Greater Painted Snipes at Bunyala

 Picture7 (797x602)

African Openbill; constituted of resident and intra-African migratory population is a species that has suffered immensely from deliberate poisoning

 Picture7 (640x579)

Sparing Openbills probably enjoying a little peace from being watched over

The Madagascar Pratincole is an interesting record of an afro-tropical migrant bird that is still available in Bunyala following a first observation on 17/08/2013. This species arrives from Malagasy (Madagascar) in April to coastal Kenya at the beginning of the southern hemisphere winter to return in September to breed. Like my dream Tropicbird 3 years ago, it is 1000km off its traditional range but I have been able to photograph it as proof and my camera’s GPS has the location ingrained in the images’ properties. The species record in Bumyala is most probably the first for Kenya this far inland.

Picture8 (800x588)

Madagascar Pratincoles resting on a rice plot embankment

 Picture9 (800x600)

A warbling Madagascar Pratincole

Keep checking our blog for the latest updates and you can comment as well as support our work.

Still staying on watch for birds in Bunyala

Dear readers excuse me for the momentary lack of of updates on the blog prompted by a technical hitch that resulted in difficulty in uploading any images on the blog but we now seem to have a solution given the successful publishing of this ‘testing post’. The frozen donation widget is also being looked into and should be working alright soon. This is important so that you can keep supporting us particularly during this crucial winter migration period when I will need to maintain as many scouts as possible to watch against the bird poisoning.

At this point I wish to thank the donors that have continued supporting our work even during the time when there have been no updates and have ensured that the monitoring continued on the ground. With respect therefore, Pirjo I. donated USD 210 during July 2013 and will continue supporting 1-2 scouts until the end of the year; Max O’Sullivan donated USD 420 during June 2013 and an additional USD 600 in July 2013. Allan Richards donated USD 450 during July 2013. We are grateful for your support and are able to continue keeping an eye on our birds against poisoning.I would therefore like to share the experience of our recent, July 2013 raptor road survey as part of our recent on-goings in the field. This involved 2 new members of the survey team-Eric & Kevin- who double up as our motorcyclists alongside being scouts in the field.

Our raptor road counts around and beyond Bunyala constitute a parallel follow-up monitoring study to that on the ground at the rice plantation that should detect operational threats however latent they may be. And what better method of checking if there is still on-going poisoning than monitor birds of prey which may hint accordingly to underlying prevalence of the threat albeit seeming containment of the threat to the naked eye. In essence, it will be a while following MANY DAYS/YEARS of monitoring before we can draw necessary conclusions upon which to act on if need be; however we will also witness first-hand other threats that may be impacting on the species. The point I am putting across is that we have set running the warning alert system that will prompt investigations into a responsible threat which may not just lead to a re-exposition of poisoning but also other responsible threats whatsoever that would then be addressed .

We conduct at least two raptor surveys-paying special attention to Endangered Hooded Vulture and Vulnerable Beaudouin’s Snake Eagle-beyond and around Bunyala every month. The 2 monthly surveys are conducted between a 2-week break and this is better when the prevalent weather conditions at each survey are different. These raptor road count surveys have been facilitated in part by the Crowder-Messersmith Conservation Fund Grant of the Audubon Naturalist Society starting April 2013 particularly for the motorcycle purchase and a month-long involvement of the 10 scouts in the methodology training surveys. We are since able to do the monthly monitoring in which I am involved with one scout as a secondary observer in every survey. I must mention that the allowances of the involved scouts and cyclists are derived from donations which have recently been provided by the mentioned donors.

On 23rd July 2013, a 7-hour survey was conducted in smothering dusty conditions under excruciating solar radiation resulting in migraines and emptying of tens of litres of hydrating drinks. The survey yielded an overwhelming frequency of Wahlberg’s Eagles against any other raptor seen while we also had the highest ever number of Great Sparrowhawks observed since we began these surveys in April 2013.

WEg

Wahlberg’s Eagle from one of our surveys

Most of the Wahlberg’s were in pairs but not necessarily wooing. The single nest of the species known in our survey route was unoccupied and inactive and hopefully the immature bird observed in the previous 2 months had fledged.

 

Wally chick

A young Wahlberg’s Eagle in the nest during our April 2013 Survey

7 individuals of the Hooded Vulture turned up at the Northern turning apex of our survey route which was impressive having just been observing a maximum of 2 birds in the other surveys. To state the least of that survey, the collected data exceeded the data sheets I had brought along and I had to get creative to include all the information!

When the rains came thudding on the evening of the 26th of July 2013 I thought that was a welcome surprise to keep down the loose earth and I wondered how it would affect the birds. I thought this was a good chance to examine what the rains had flushed in or out and opted for the tougher survey(beyond the rice plantation) based on the earlier experience with the weather conditions. I proceeded to make calls to my 3 assistants for an impromptu raptor road count, hardly a fortnight before the last survey. At 0630hrs , we were leaving Bunyala Rice Scheme for Busia later to ride back to the rice scheme on a 120-km course.

 

Our raptor survey team on 27/07/2013

Observers, cyclists

Cyclists on the bikes: Kevin and Eric; observers Joseph (to the left) and myself(between the cyclists)

A couple hundred metres from the start point we encountered the first sighting of a pair of courting, cosy, Long-Crested Eagles and were frantic with anticipation of interesting observations this day. The ascent from the lake basin towards the little more elevated region to the north turned characteristically cool but this is usually quickly countered by the rising sun. This was however not the case that day and the cool weather became progressively chilly aggravated by the biting wind draft from our cruising motorcycles even though just at 30-40km/hr. There were the usual records but mostly solo sightings with the total exemption of the Wahlberg’s Eagles! There were also only 2 Hoodies at the northern extreme of our route.

Hoody

Hooded Vulture from last month’s survey

In addition, we encountered an exciting incidence of courting Grey Kestrels, making an entry and exit at an abandoned Hamerkop’s nest during the 2-minutes observation/photographing moment;  there was also a Long-Crested Eagle with chick prey clasped in her talons shortly after we left the kestrels and further as we edged nearer to our starting point in Bunyala we observed several Shikra pairs hunting at nearly every point that there were flocks of airborne swifts and swallows calling in raids at flying termites or in search of similar prey.

Grey K. female

One of the Grey Kestrels waiting for the mate

Long-crested Eag

Long-Crested Eagle with chick prey

In brief, on this survey, we were contented not in abundance but in various ecological domain and niche manifestations suggesting normalcy and whose continuity in a way we can boast is facilitated by our continued monitoring.

We are currently on vigilant monitoring the winter migration having commenced and I have been able to engage the  10 scouts during this month thanks to the donors. At the moment the larger portion of the rice scheme remains fallow but little by little more of this fallow land is being ploughed and the migrant birds are congregating in it. Having successfully tested that I can now put up written and pictorial updates on the blog again, I will  write you an update during this week on the  already arrived bird migrants at Bunyala so please keep checking, reading and supporting us on the blog.

 

The tail of the migration

Today’s update is a quick note to inform you that much of the monitoring in the coming days will be local (rather than beyond the irrigation field). The rains have intensified in the week gone & while the floods have not been as intense as in the past year in the region (due to the renovation of the dyke wall to guard against the notorious flood waters of river Nzoia), we are having to wade to get to the roads (& beyond the rice scheme) which are also not usable because they are all ‘soft’ & sticky.

In the coming few days we will be focused on:

  1. Monitoring the dynamics of the migrants on site
  2. ‘Class room’ identification lessons; the component of monitoring raptors demands technical identification expertise & many of the scouts have had a frustrating fortnight with many having to rely on the instructor’s identification. So I will be dedicating attention to individual persons to ensure they can identify more species independently during our next raptor road census survey (next week).

Importantly however, the rains seem to have flushed in a few more migrants. The species numbers are however small but this is not unusual since the spring migration period is in its final stages. Over the past 4 days we have observed not more than 5 Black-winged Stilts, variable number (4-13) of White-winged Black terns donned in breeding dress (Black bodies and underwing linings), 2-38 Wood Sandpipers and 4 Black-tailed Godwits.

Godwits

Transiting Black-tailed Godwits

Our excitement is in the godwits classified by IUCN as globally Near Threatened.  The species was the most poisoned of the migrants according to a study in 2009-2010 and we feared poisoning may have been playing a significant threatening role in the population migrating through Bunyala. The 4 Black-tailed Godwits were first observed in our morning survey on 16/04/2013 and are still present at their site of choice (even though they may leave nut return to roost) – a small section constituted of 4 adjoined plots flooded with water in the southern end of the rice scheme.

Godwits in their site of choice

The Godwits in flooded paddy plots

The waders seem fat even from scrutiny with bare eyes and are fairly approachable by my team (which we do discretely everyday).

Godwits, healthy

This is a good sign that they are well-fed and have not been traumatized by poacher’s activities and when the time is right in the coming few days, they will leave for their breeding northern latitudes.

Raptors at risk as effective scare decoys to parasitic birds

Our campaign against poisoning of wildlife has for the past 4 years focused on the special ground case of Bunyala. Bunyala is remotely located and otherwise latent atrocities against wildlife are easily detected here compared to less remote sites in our republic thereby offering an opportunity to illustrate the threat issues (starting with poisoning), flag up these conservation concerns and furnish the public on the status quo and relevant authorities on need to act. The latter and ultimate intended aim has however on the general remained unattended to leaving us with no options but to act in our own capacity however small.

In our vigilance approach to minimize/prevent the indiscriminate poisonings of birds….and most probably humans in Bunyala, my team and I stumbled on bird trapping/snaring of birds particularly raptors during September 2012. The first discovered case of LOST the Long Crested Eagle snared & killed in Bunyala was an awakening call to watch out for all threats to birds for their protection. The perpetrator’s defence was that the bird habitually took on his newly hatched chicks, a genuinely understandable reason but even then, decent, effective screens/shields for baby chickens against raptors are locally available and sold cheaply. My scouts however purport that some raptors are snared for human consumption. The Long Crested Eagle is a locally abundant species at the site and is said not to be spared by some of the bird-eaters. When I rescued LOST, one onlooker stated in local vernacular that ‘this boy has just snatched away one hell of a rooster that would have supplemented Ugali’. From my stand point, this is sufficiently authentic of the raptor-eating allegation.

It has now emerged that there is more than one motive to killing raptors at the rice irrigation scheme. Raptors kill smaller birds for their meal. I reckon one or two well-fleshed queleas/weaver birds per day are sufficient for an accipiter, a large kestrel or a falcon. Larger raptors like the Ayres’s Hawk Eagle in the locality may go for larger doves but then again just a couple of these per day are adequate. Hundreds of thousands of smaller birds come to feed at the rice scheme which at the moment is a combination of habitats ideal for all species. Certain plots are fallow while others are flooded and being readied for planting. A few have the crop ready and is being harvested but in a majority, the rice crop is maturing up. The maturing/mature crop is the main attractant for parasitic seedeaters and raises concern for raptors which local farmers are aware terrify the seed-eating raiders but are crudely and unsustainably harnessing this use of raptors.

maturing Rice crop

Rice Crop in maturing stage

 

Bunyala Rice FieldsRice field with crop at different developmental stages; in the foreground the crop is almost ready; in the middle ground & further out the crop is still in the vegetative state

 Locust birds

Hundreds of thousands of seedeaters arriving at Bunyala Rice Scheme at dawn

As the raptors hunt in the natural setting, they certainly cause panic as they ambush the smaller birds and the emanating frenzy sends the assailed birds scurrying and scattering away from the rice field. However, the shock wave is only effective over a narrow front of just a few acres leaving many thousands hectares unscathed with the parasitic hordes enjoying their cereal meal!

We have observed that most modes of scaring away the likes of queleas, waxbills and weavers from the crop are ineffective. These range from vocal cord ripping yells, hitting or churning of shakers to human-form scarecrows otherwise just secured polythene bags flapping in the wind. The case of suspending hawks in mid-air to mimic a raptor on decent to a kill is said to work wonders and keeps most if not all parasitic bird species from destroying the rice crop. Our latest victim is a Grey Kestrel that a poacher employed his taxidermy skills to preserve the bird’s feathers and body in perfect condition but for the messed up head and neck that the snap-trap struck the subject.

Grey Kestrle, carcas

Snared then propped Grey Kestrel decoy to scare parasitic birds from rice fields

In an attempt to find out if for sure this method works, I picked a random neighboring plot and realized the farmer in the nearby plot actively engaged in chasing away the birds by hitting on some percussion container (plastic container laden with stones) as the raiding locust birds stubbornly gorged on his crop. The farmer in the plot with the suspended preserved kestrel sat down clearly with little or no concern for the parasitic birds I bet from guaranteed security from the poor murdered watchman’s carcass guarding over his farm!

Scare-ccrow & human watchmen

Scaring away queleas, weavers & waxbills using human-form scarecrows & human watchmen; also note suspended polythene bags flapping in wind in the background

 Hawk scare

Lazy farmer enjoying the services of a killed kestrel to keep off parasitic queleas, weavers & waxbills

This is not the only incident and my scouts describe at least one other incident of a raptor that I infered to be the African Marsh Harrier, possibly a juvenile from their description (a mostly all-brown raptor with some white speckling on the nape region  harrying just above the rice fields, head down-facing,).

In seeking a solution, one is quickly forced to suggest toxic aerial spraying which we know full well falls in the very category of the misdeeds that our campaign seeks to address. This is because aerial spraying would be indiscriminate, affecting other species and also raptors when they go for the easy, dying intoxicated smaller birds with a further translocation of the poison (and resultant poisoning) to areas afar by the intoxicated, but still able to fly birds. I wish to ask yet again anyone/experts to share information of known effective methods of scaring the parasitic birds away which we could possibly introduce in Bunyala and help conserve our raptors.

Keep reading our blog for the latest updates.

Motorcycle Raptor Surveys beyond Bunyala Rice Scheme

Every morning flocks of small birds come to forage at Bunyala Rice Scheme mostly from the northern direction. With them come the lured raptors that up till now, 23 species have been observed at the site. Despite results from the study that quantified the effect of poisoning to birds in Bunyala including 3 raptor mortalities, we felt that birds of prey were misrepresented and most fatalities went unobserved & unrecorded. This is because raptors are not the direct target of deliberate poisoning but are not absolutely safe from the poisoning. While they are avid hunters, they are likely to carefully select weaker, intoxicated smaller birds for their quary. The result however is that in the event of intoxication, birds of prey although with higher lethal doses, greater resistance to toxic loads and being extensive flyers may succumb at far flung sites beyond our deliberate observation and detection. We are focusing especially on Beaudouin’s Snake Eagle & Hooded Vulture, both globally threatened and in our study area range.

We have therefore embarked on a monitoring survey, where I am currently training my scouts on motorcycle raptor road counts. The route covers the area between Bunyala & Busia along an elliptical route between these 2 limit points.

 RRC, western Kenya

RRC, wetsrn KenyaOne of the trainees & myself on survey

We hope to obtain comparative data over time for their population trends. Of conservation merit however, the data can simply be an inference of effect of poisoning to raptors where we will crudely compare the local population & diversity of raptors to that of the surrounding population & diversity (observed during the road counts). Further, though a study that will gather data, it will also be a preventive vigilance survey to curb the poisoning paying special attention to birds of prey which have not been focused on keenly before, though a critical component of birdlife.

Here are some of the species that we observed & are staying alert for to ensure they are unharmed by poisoning & other threats.

Beaudouin's SEBeaudouin’s Snake Eagle

 LCE

Long-Crested Eagle

 Banded Snake Eagle

Banded Snake Eagle

 Peregrine

Peregrine Falcon

 In our next post, I will inform you on a looming threat to raptors at Bunyala Rice Scheme as they are killed, preserved & used as ‘scarecrows’ to pest birds to the rice crop.

Keep reading, keep supporting.

Evident control over the Bunyala Bird Poisonings; thanking my supporters

It has been a long haul in an attempt to check the bird/possible human poisonings in Bunyala Rice Irrigation Scheme in Western Kenya. I can attest to the fact that the poisoning practice has waned and with our continued persistent efforts, I foresee a total control of the situation.

Perharps the most significant indication that the birdlife populations are recovering is the increase in number or resident White-faced Whistling Ducks. Only between 2 & 5 individuals remained between 2009 and 2011 following their intense poisoning for human consumption. These were evidently traumatized and would fly off from suspicion if we attempted to get near them. At the moment, about 100 individuals reside at the site. The population may constitute individuals that may have moved in from other external subpopulations which may still suggest traumatic nasty poisoning has reduced.

 Whistling Ducks, Bunyala

White-faced whistling ducks roosting at Bunyala Rice Scheme

Lead Scout, Bunyala

 

Joseph, my lead scout looking complacent

CM Award syrveys 031 

We can afford to look bored at the ‘NO POISONING SIGHT’ on this night survey 2 days ago

When this problem of deliberate bird poisoning was first presented to the pesticide regulatory authorities- the Pest Control Products Board of Kenya- & the local manufacturers of pesticide control substance, Agrochemicals Association of Kenya (Crop Life Kenya), it was received with vehement denial, contempt and even deemed a fabrication by the champions that spoke out about it notably Paula Kahumbu & myself. With hard evidence from the field, it became acknowledged but little attended to. Rather, a majority marvelled at the gravity of the malpractice. Nonetheless, many still supported this research & conservation campaign against the poisonings & my appreciations go especially to Wildlife Direct; grant organizations including International Foundation for Animal Welfare, Rufford Small Grant for Nature Conservation, African Bird Club, Crowder Messersmith Conservation Fund; also individual donors whom I have never met but one. Amongst the donors, I have in addition to their regular funding support, had online correspondence with at least 4 with whom I have directly asked for advice, shared with ideas, problems on the ground & even keep in mind their words of encouragement when the going gets tough. I must also mention that our twitter account @EndBirdPoaching was opened and is managed by one of my key donors (Pirjo Itkonen). Finally, my team of scouts has done/continues doing a commendable job and is the machinery behind the realized results. Amongst these are the very poachers that poisoned the birds but have joined this noble course.

I shall put up an update on our survey for raptors with my team of scouts against poisoning around the rice scheme & beyond in our next post. This is one of our newly added activities to our expansion to the vigilance strategy against deliberate bird poisoning so please keep checking our website, follow us on twitter @EndBirdPoaching and keep supporting us since we are still far from ending our vigilance.

“…Being able to fund your workers in the project is oh so important. We cannot save wildlife and ecosystems if we don’t provide incomes for local people and communities. All successful conservation projects around the world involve local communities in some way….”

– Brenton Head (one of our key donors)

Extensive anti-poisoning surveys, the last of the palaearctic migrants & crop harvesting at Bunyala Rice Irrigation Scheme

Dear readers,

It has been a while since my last update from Bunyala Rice Fields but with life being back to business as usual after our general elections, I should keep you informed with up to date information on the state of affairs from these rice fields. I will also be updating you on our ‘extended surveys’ with my team of scouts especially aimed at monitoring against possible poisoning of raptors beyond the rice irrigation scheme (thanks to Crowder-Messersmith Conservation Fund of the Audubon Naturalist Society). In particular, we will focus on the Hooded Vulture whose range is in the neighbourhood of Bunyala & Beaudouin’s Snake Eagle whose recent sightings have been made on site then again both raptors are known to be threatened and are victims of poisoning in their traditional range areas.

Hooded Vulture 070

Hooded Vultures photographed from neighbouring Busia Town

 Circaetus beaudouinii

Beaudouin’s Snake Eagle at Bunyala Rice Scheme

Having been here for just about 5 days this year (but now set to be here for many months coming), I owe many thanks to my lead scout, Joseph who in tough conditions and lack of funds kept the monitoring going. I am also very thankful to my recent donors, Elizabeth ($20) & Max O’Sullivan ($500) which is supporting/will support my scouts in the field. Joseph & the team have done a good job and prevented numerous poison-baiting incidents but for reported escalating cases of poisoning during February where there were 4 incidences of African Openbills killings. I should inform you that between September 2012 & December 2012, only 6 cases of poisoning were reported while a massive 18 were prevented by the scouts.

openbill,bunyala

African Openbill above is the most targeted species & whole flocks are wiped each year

The migrants however remained safe during this year and after lingering for weeks on site (probably due to the extended winter in the north) have only managed to leave, perharps the flock in the image below being of the last individuals of this spring’s migration that we may see leaving for northern latitudes.

migrating waders

Waders in Exodus, today from Bunyala Rice Irrigation Scheme

At the moment, following thorough surveys during last Monday & today, it appears 16 out of the 17 migrant waterbirds at Bunyala have migrated into Europe & the Oriental world. We can only find Wood Sandpipers & even these occur singly or in pairs gorging on the last worms before they leave for their breeding ranges in the north.

 wood sandpipers

Scantily occurring Wood Sandpipers

Elsewhere in the rice scheme, most farmers are engaged in manual harvesting. They however have to deal with incessant crop raids from the parasitic bird species! Red-billed Queleas are here by their tens of thousands and completing the band of raiders are Village Weavers, a variety of waxbills, finches and manikins! Anyone with a solution to this menace that does not include poisoning is welcome to share via a comment on this post.

humans harvesting rice crop

Crop harvesting by humans

 queleas et al

Crop harvesting by parasitic birds!

Keep reading our blog for the latest news from Bunyala Rice Irrigation Scheme and do not forget to support us in any manner or kind.

Non-poisoning cases of the African Openbill and Collared Pratincoles

Dear readers,

During bird migration seasons in Africa and additionally the palaearctic bird migration from Europe and Asia, we experience increase in bird species and numbers, naturally in Africa. This is between August and May of the following year.  Technically it is a period that most of the world’s birds may be said to be on the African continent though distributed variously in different areas known as stopovers and/or wintering sites. Nonetheless every stopover (where birds break to eat and rest after flying many miles from their breeding grounds before proceeding on) and wintering site (where birds settle to eat until it is spring in their winter grounds in time for their return) on the continent is therefore vital for their preservation. And so we keep watch against bird poisoning at Bunyala Rice Scheme which is one of such stopovers for some species and a wintering site for others.

A mixed flock of resident egrets and palaearctic migrant waders at Bunyala Rice Scheme

The high prevalence of the problem of bird poisoning at Bunyala Rice Scheme over the years has my team always expectant that any bird death on site is as a result of poison-poaching. In the event that we come across a dead bird especially this season, we are then left wondering how we missed the poisoning and yet we still keep vigilant watch through our daily scouting!

In the past week, we walked on a drowning African Openbill on a flooded paddy plot. We quickly thought the disoriented bird may have been poisoned and while the ingested poison dose with bait may not have attained the lethal dose, the bird had dropped into the pool of water and we arrived just in time to find it struggling for its life in the pool. We were late to rescue the bird but even then some of us thought we could not especially if he had been poisoned and was now drowning. In the 1 minute or so that the bird was still alive I was able to examine it and establish that there were no signs of poisoning that we have ever observed of other victims. The eyes were not tearing and there was no foaming in the mouth. The wings were also not drooping; a state which many atimes for the poison used in Bunyala is coupled with stiffness at the wrist/wing joint. I checked for any stiffness in the wing and leg joints and these seemed to be folding and stretching normally. I proceeded to open the bird’s beak to check just in case there was a snail bait (Openbills feed on and are baited using snail bait in Bunyala) caught in its mouth or upper gut (usually the case for most cases of poisoning) but there was none.

I was skeptical that this was a case of poisoning! Another look at the likely indications of poisoning and I saw partially hidden in feather legging a tibial (of upper leg) tear on the bird’s left leg. The injury was reminiscent of a partially roasted strip of meat! The leg-bone was also exposed alongside a blood vessel taut like a guitar string!…a painful site to gaze at but nonetheless a  revelation of the most probable reason that may have contributed to the Openbill’s death. The wound may have impaired the bird’s ability to successfully wade and fly from the rice field filled with water hence the death of the victim. I posit the bird may have had prior collision on an electric transmission cable as he flew in high speed just above and past the cable thereby ripping backwards his thigh muscles.

On 29/11/2012, I stumbled on 2 Collared Pratincoles on the ground in the rice cultivation fields while on a lone evening survey. I had spotted a flock of about 300 Collared Pratincoles roosting on one of the ploughed but still to be cultivated fields.

Collared Pratincoles on the ploughed ground just waking for the day at Bunyala Rice Scheme

I inched on the flock to have a good look and while I was counting the birds, I got distracted by some squeaking call about a meter from where I stood. Right there were the 2 seemingly limp birds.

 

One of the Collared Pratincoles on the ground

 

Seemingly limp bird when it was picked up

I picked up the 2 birds and found that one was energetic but for some reason would not successfully fly away. He would stand alright on the palm of my hand but when he attempted to fly away, he only dropped on the ground. I examined both birds as I had the Openbill and nothing seemed to point to poisoning. If anything both birds seemed alert but for their inability to fly! I held the stronger bird for a little longer on my palm in a manner a ringed bird would be in readiness for release and a few moments later he successfully took to the wing. The other bird, however also alert made attempts to fly away was unsuccessful.

One of the Collared Pratincoles seeming in perfect form

I was not yet done with the survey and therefore had to device a means of securely carrying my acquired baggage. My hat just did fine.

 

Myself with one of the recovered collared pratincoles

Collared Pratincole in my hat

An hour or so later, the bird was still not able to fly away and I had to return to camp with it. I was totally disturbed by what the matter with the bird was and what to do. The day time temperatures had been uncomfortably high with likewise high humidity; the night time did not seem any better. As a gamble, I decided to give the bird water, an exercise that required much patience. I was then gone for refreshing and supper. When I returned, my flash light startled the bird, prompting him to fly around my tent from his hat nest! I knew he had improved for whatever reason. I carefully captured him and put him back in the hat keeping conditions totally dark lest he became restless. In the morning, just before first light I took the Collared Pratincole and released him close to where the others were roosting.

The paranoia of bird poisoning in Bunyala dominates the minds of those of us who have witnessed for long the birds poison-poaching activities at the site. To find casualties or near casualties affected by other factors but poisoning is a breather and indication that other threats to birds in Bunyala are no longer totally masked by the threat of poisoning as must have been the case for many decades. This in essence suggests a reduced trend in the poisoning which is the very objective of our vigilance strategy this palaearctic bird migration season.

Keep reading our updates on the blog and support our work.

Two more species of flocking migrants at Bunyala Rice Scheme

Dear readers,

In the last one week we have continued to observe new Palaearctic and Intra-African migrants as well as short-distance local migrants arrive at Bunyala Rice Irrigation Scheme. We continue to monitor them to better understand the vulnerability to poisoning on site but also very importantly, for their safety from the heinous poisoning activities by the poachers. We continue to record their numbers and take note of their occurrence dynamics on site.

Sample field notes; a page showing notes taken during monitoring on 29th October 2012

It is interesting to note that from our data we are realizing nearly predictable trends in arrival/departure of the migrant species. At this time of the year the prevalent wind system in Bunyala is dominated by Westerly winds (usually alternating with the easterlies and especially if the afternoons turn stormy). On mornings when the winds are blowing easterly or south easterly and especially the latter, it has been noted that the numbers of migrants of the species on site reduce (migrate on) and/or others arrive during such days. Bunyala is located just north of the north eastern extension (Winam Gulf) of Lake Victoria into Kenya with a substantial stretch of the gulf further east. It is most probable therefore that rather than go around the gulf, the birds cross the Winam Gulf with the aid of the southerly/easterly gusts without much flight effort. This is in favour of their need to ‘economize’ their acquired energy resource at Bunyala which is needed on their yet incomplete migration to southerly latitudes.

Arriving, soaring Abdim’s Storks over Bunyala Rice Scheme

The situation is even better when humidity and temperatures are high. In the last 5 days, the average highest daily temperatures have ranged between 27 -30 degrees centigrade with 78-82% humidity. The humidity and temperatures jointly determine quality of thermals (hot air columns) created over land. The resultant is that there are better buoyant conditions especially for soaring birds some of which are migrants. Just two days ago, under these circumstances we received 2 additional migratory soaring species- The Lesser Kestrel, Falco naumanni and the Abdim’s Stork, Ciconia abdimii which in the past years have suffered from deliberate bird poisoning at the site.

Lesser Kestrel photographed 1 day ago at Bunyala rice Scheme

Lesser Kestrel feeding on the ground, yesterday

Abdim’s Stork at Bunyala Rice Scheme

The Lesser Kestrel which is a palaearctic migrant was until this year classified as Vulnerable while the Abdim’s Stork, an Intra-African Migrant continues to suffer population declines according to IUCN red list documentation. The Abdim’s Stork is deliberately targeted for poisoning for wild bird meat at Bunyala and a flock mortality of its individuals of 89% was reported by a study during 2009. The Lesser Kestrel was also thought to be in possible danger from deliberate poisoning (as reported in a post on this blog in 2009) though in accidental circumstances for this species. Poachers were observed to lace grasshoppers or winged termites with Furadan solution then bait the Abdim’s Storks. The winged termites were lured from their ground nests by each poacher hitting two sticks rhythmically over the termite hills. It was explained to me that the hitting deceived the insects that there was light rain (although it may just have well disturbed them). The termites would then come out during which time they would be captured and put into a container or plastic bag into which a solution of Furadan poison would be sprinkled.

Termite bait in plastic bag

Poacher stirring up purple Furadan solution

 

Ready bait and poison solution of which the latter would be sprinkled on the former

The flying live individuals from the termite hills attracted both species of the birds. Once lured, the termite holes would be sealed and the poison-laced insects, some of which were still alive and crawling scattered about for the birds to eat….only to die.

Some of the murdered Abdim’s Stork victims during 2009

 

Lesser Kestrel on the ground close to a poisoning point and that may well have consumed crawling bait

Yesterday’s count estimates of the Lesser Kestrels and Abdim’s Storks that just arrived at Bunyala rice Irrigation Scheme was 60 and 1500 birds respectively. Our monitoring may yet facilitate these species’ successful migration this season.

Keep reading and supporting our work on the blog.

Decoy Poachers

Dear readers,

Preventing poisoning or any other poaching of birds in Bunyala entails never getting into the ‘comfort zone’ that the situation is now contained however it may seem. The poachers will always try to outsmart my team in order to procure bird meat as the scouts strategize against the likely manoeuvres to be employed by the poachers. It is therefore often a game of counteractions!

It has been over a week since I resumed monitoring with my scouts after my trip away from Bunyala. There has been rigorous scouting especially following the poisoning of migrant waders nearly 2 weeks ago. While my presence warrants some degree of reverence from the still practicing poachers, we have remained on high alert knowing that some poachers might be masqueraded amongst the many farmers working in the rice scheme and these could quietly perform their hideous poaching activities. Nonetheless, the situation has remained auspicious with no incidences reported. Further, flocks of migrants have come and migrated on successfully while others have swelled more the numbers of those on site. During this month, we have noted drastic increase in the palaearctic migrant species inclusive of Yellow Wagtails, Ringed Plovers. Black-winged Stilts and Little Stints. The numbers of Ruffs, Green Sandpipers, Wood Sandpipers, Marsh Sandpipers and Common Greenshanks have also been building up and while other flocks of these have been noted to have likely migrated on, currently these seem at home on site. Yesterday, after close to one month, a flock of about 200 Black-tailed Godwits were observed on site. This is a new flock since the other migrated from the site about a month ago. Such data collection has been the norm in building the site’s bird inventory by my team when the situation has been peace and quiet for the birds. Further, I have been photographing the individual species and my followers on Facebook are able to view some of the images.

This evening however when we were about to head home, one of the renowned poachers passed my scouting pair-with Joseph- as we were watching a resident Grey Kestrel hunt at the central section of the rice scheme.

The Grey Kestrel that we were observing today at Bunyala Rice Scheme

A few minutes later, we noticed a second person, estranged to the both of us, watching us from a distance. He pretended to be inspecting his rice plot but clearly his gaze was in our direction most of the time. Joseph then discovered a boy probably in his early teenage run away in what seemed to be a dash to chase birds from a rice seedbed. This was however a move to fool us. We found out that he had laid a decoy bird with bait and then headed away from the set up to avert our attention from the decoy bird.

Decoy African Open-billed Stork; waders preparing to roost in the background

A keen scrutiny through our binoculars and we discovered the decoy bird standing sentry, feathers all ruffed up with characteristic rubber band on beak. This was an Openbill decoy! Around the bird were snail baits laced with a purple poison that locals refer to as Furadan.

Openbill decoy bending in an attempt to eat the snail baits

 

Snail bait showing purple poison purported to be Furadan

I walked towards the bird beckoning the boy to come over. The young man however fled and Joseph also noted the other well-known poacher walk hastily away. The whole point in using this boy in the staging the bird poisoning was because the poacher knew well that we would recognize him but not the boy and we would therefore not pay much attention of the poisoning activity being executed right under our noses.

Examining the decoy Openbill, he was in bad shape with the bill-that should be open-fastened tightly with a rubber band like the shearing ends of a pair of scissors! We were nonetheless able to set free the bird and hopefully he recovers from the trauma.

 

Tightly fastened bill of the decoy bird

 

Untying the rubber band from the decoy bird’s bill then setting him free

No bird was poisoned today and we remain focused to keep the site safe from the poisoning. We therefore continue staying vigilant in Bunyala against the poisoning and other poaching and urge our readers to keep reading, sharing and supporting us.