Birding in Africa: Week 3

Full Moon: A perfect example of the kind of full moon it is not worth trying to catch moths under.

Mark Wilson updates us from Nigeria. Read his first and second posts.

26th February

Last night was a night of sensory overload. First it was my sense of smell that was afflicted, by an overwhelming scent of flowers. There’s a bush in bloom outside my room, I think it might be Jasmine, whose flowers were powerful enough to give me the sensation I was sleeping in a bowl of pot-puree. The smell is barely noticeable at all this morning, so I reckon the bush is probably pollinated by night-flying beasties such as moths.

Hopefully we’ll be moth-trapping outside the guesthouse later this week, and the bush could well act as an added draw to supplement the light we’ll be using. Anyway, although it was more concentrated than I’d have wished for, I quite like the smell of jasmine, and I wasn’t far from sleep when a Long-tailed Nightjar came and sat outside my window.

Mantis: What the moth trap didn’t attract in terms of moths it made up for in praying mantises, which are very common here now.

There are four species of nightjar that have been recorded around Amurum forest – the other three are Freckled (or Rock), Pennant-winged and Standard-winged. I really want to see the other two, as they both have such ridiculous wing ornaments it would be hard to credit a grounded specimen with the power of flight. However, because nightjars are nocturnal, they are seen more often than they are heard, and all four species here can be distinguished from one another by their song. Freckled Nightjar sounds a bit like the ‘plipp’ of water dripping from a height into a lightless pool in a cavern underground. Pennant-winged is like a machine gun, each round of which sounds like a high-pitched squeaky hinge, or a Dunnock. Standard-winged sounds like a bunch of bush crickets, and probably blends into the African night-time orchestra from anything but a close distance. Long-tailed, however, sounds like a European Nightjar. Which is to say, like a tonally pure but extremely penetrating pneumatic drill.

Harmattan: The hills you can’t really see in the background are obscured by the dust of Harmattan.

My first thought was that it couldn’t be a nightjar because the sound was too constant and too loud. I thought nightjars sang from the wing (which indicates how little I know of nightjars) and figured the sound should be more varied if coming from a bird in flight. So I searched my room for something like a cicada, or a drilling gnome, and tracked the noise down to my open window. I walked round to the back of the house and the noise stopped instantly. I approached a long shape I could vaguely see on the ground (the moon has been bright enough these past few nights to allow one to walk around easily after sundown), and saw the nightjar take off and fly away. About half an hour later I heard the call again, but this time from a long way off.

And literally just now, as if Amurum didn’t want my sight to be left out, a Laughing Dove flew in through the main door of the house and perched on top of the kitchen door. The wildlife here is beautiful, varied and full of idiosyncrasy, and is a treat to experience.

Speckled Mousebird: During the late morning, it can seem as if every bird is a Speckled Mousebird. They are quite common, and gang about in large, widely dispersed flocks – a bit like Long-tailed Tits in this respect.

3rd March

The days and weeks are flying by now.

Less airborne are the hopes for moth trapping that I articulated in the last blog entry. We got the light bulb, and a long cable to connect it to the mains indoors (which is referred to here as “the light”), so I gave it a trial run on Tuesday. We didn’t have a white sheet, but I laid some flipboard sheets of paper on the ground beneath it in the hope that at least some of the moths attracted by the light would land on them.

The first night we caught one moth with hardly any markings, which I recognised as being a worn individual that we had previously seen inside. I blamed this on a startlingly clear night with a full moon that was giving off enough light to see by quite clearly. The following night was quite cloudy, warm and still – perfect for moth trapping. On the second run we caught one moth of reasonable size, which I’m pretty sure was the same individual we had caught the night before, and about four tiny and nondescript ‘micromoths’. I emailed Will to tell him about our disappointing hauls, and he said that this was to be entirely expected at this time of year, and that if you want to moth trap here you do it during (or just after) the wet season, which starts in late April/early May.

Gonolek: This bird is one of my favourite birds here, and is called a Yellow-crowned Gonolek. Like other bush-shrikes, the male has a distinctive and far-carrying call, which consists of a metallically fluting whistle, usually followed immediately by a hard “chack-kik” from a nearby female – the two calls so closely synchronised that they sound as if they are being made by the same bird. Although one of the most beautifully plumaged birds in the area, they are remarkably hard to get a good look at, as they tend to stay in dense cover.

Apart from lack of rain (and moths), what characterises this time of year is Harmattan, a dry wind that comes from the Sahara bearing lots of fine, white dust. This gives everything outside a kind of powdery feel, and is such a predictably pervasive influence that this time of year is often referred to here by the same name. I now realise that what I took to be mist on the drive to APLORI from the airport in Abuja was dust. On windy days there is so much dust in the air that last week, Arrin (one of Emma’s field assistants) was helping me to put away a net when I noticed that his arm had turned partly white. When I asked him what had caused it he didn’t blame the dust, or the weather, he just said “Harmattan”.

Mocking Cliff Chat: A better picture of the bird in last week’s blog. This is a male, and reminds me a little of a huge Redstart. The female looks quite different, with plumage that is reminiscent of Rock Thrush.

I’m almost through my block of formal teaching now, and for the remaining two weeks will be mostly be trying to reinforce some of the new techniques the class has learned (particularly Distance analysis and ordination), and also getting the class to do some presentations, as well as polishing their Masters Project proposals. Progress hasn’t been as rapid as I’d originally envisaged, but this is more down to my relative lack of experience teaching in solid blocks like this than to any failings of the students. Indeed, I reckon I’ve learned every bit as much as they have over the past few weeks!


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