Birding in Nigeria

 

Senegal Coucal – Extracted yesterday when trying to catch Whinchats. Not nearly as fierce as he looks (though apparently they often decapitate smaller birds caught in the net)!

Dr. Mark Wilson, a post-doctoral researcher at BEES, with broad interests in animal behaviour, bird biology, forest ecology and conservation writes from Nigeria:

I’ve been in Nigeria for just over a week now, and though I am without a doubt still a Nigeria newbie, I am already a fan.Especially of the wildlife, but also of the people, who have been sufficiently friendly and welcoming that I have been made to feel wonderfully at home, despite the fact that I am anything but!

Temperatures here are surprisingly comfortable, there being only a few hours in the middle of the day when the sun punishes anyone foolish enough to venture out of the shade by bludgeoning them with unreasonable heat. Jos (and the nearby A. P. Leventis Ornithological Research Institute where I am based) is in Plateau State, so named because most of the state is situated at a much higher altitude than that of the surrounding States. I am currently at 1320m, not much more than 100m shy of Ben Nevis! This helps to keep the heat down at manageable levels.

Special mentions have to go to the two groups of people I have spent most time with since coming here. Firstly the students, who have endured my hastily prepared lectures stoically, participated gamely in discussions relating to various aspects of conservation practice and theory, and acquitted themselves admirably well in the few practical exercises I have set them (DISTANCE analysis, point counts and GPS navigation being the main ones, so far). Their friendliness, enthusiasm and good humour have made the teaching a pleasure.

APLORI – A near-aerial view of the institute taken early this morning from the top of the rocky outcrop to the west, which I climbed with two of the students.

The second group of people consists mainly of PhD student Emma Blackburn, with notable appearances by her crew of field assistants. I share the guest house in APLORI with Emma, and she’s been uncommonly good company, as well as a welcome touch point to home (Emma is from Preston in Lancashire). Her PhD project, supervised by Will Cresswell at St Andrews, involves studying the behaviour of Whinchats on their breeding grounds and, starting last week, fitting 50 of them with geolocator tags to better understand when, where, and via what migratory route Whinchats here go to breed. I’ve been privileged to get out into the field to help and observe the catching and tagging efforts, and it’s been fascinating to watch the tiny remote tracking devices being fitted onto birds that are roughly the same size as sparrows. I’ve also enjoyed getting to know Arrin, John and Emma’s other field assistants who expertly operate the nets to catch the birds, and have been generous with their knowledge of Nigeria’s wildlife.

Whinchat with geolocator – First tagged bird of yesterday. All birds flew well, but Emma will be relieved when she comes in September and starts retrapping birds to get the loggers off them.

Much of this wildlife can be seen from the comfort of the guest house porch. We are regularly visited by Vervet monkeys in the APLORI compound, which are sufficiently confiding that it may only be a matter of time before one of them ends up in the guest house!

Rock Hyraxes – Rodents of Unusual Size? Or mini-elephants? You decide.

As I write, Rock Hyraxes are screaming piteously from the rocks opposite the guest house. For one of the elephant’s closest extant relatives, hyraxes don’t look much like pachyderms. More like cliff-beavers, or an amiable-looking version of the ROUS (Princess Bride reference). For fans of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, the sound they make is like a prudish Nazgul that someone has walked in on unexpectedly while it was getting dressed. Otherwordly distress, leavened with comedy melodrama.

But it’s the birds that have been the real highlight of my trip so far. Shamefully, I haven’t been keeping a tally of all the species I’ve seen, but I can say that during fourteen 10 minute point counts carried out at random locations within the reserve, Manu (the tremendously able and friendly director of the Institute) and I saw and heard 61 species. I’d guess that this is roughly half of the species that I have seen so far, which include several that are outrageously coloured and patterned.

Red-throated Bee-eater – A jewel of a bird that landed on a tree in front of us as we came this morning on the way back down from the outcrop.

With each of my blog entries I’ll include a few photos of some of the choicest birds I’ve seen (note that not all the photos are as choice as their subjects), in the hope of striking envy into the heart of birders (who will wish they were here) and non-birders (who will wish they were birders) alike!

Croaking Cisticola – Before coming here, I decided to learn at least one bird call by changing the ring tone on my phone to sound like a Nigerian bird. I chose Croaking Cisticola, so was surprised when the second bird I ringed here was of the same species (it isn’t even very common). I haven’t seen or heard it since!

When I started writing the sun was high in the sky, but already falling fast. Now it’s dark and crickets are doing their best to sing me to sleep. ‘Setting’ is too gradual and deliberate a word to describe the disappearance of the sun here – ‘plummeting’ would be better. The same thing seems to be happening with my time here – it’s hard to believe that a week is gone already. I’d hoped to be writing entries on the blog more frequently than this, but if I manage one entry a week I’ll be doing well, I think!

So, thanks for reading, and enjoy photos.

Mark.

Lesser Blue-eared Starling – The starlings in Africa are considerably more glamorous than those we have back home, all of them much bigger, and typically sporting glossy blue, green or purple plumage and brightly coloured eyes. Ironically, they are a lot harder to identify, as there are 4 or 5 species around APLORI, all of which are equally striking!

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