Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The snake that wasn't

This morning my attention was drawn to the mix of small trees and various shrubs along the upper side of our compound. A small cacophony of avian hysteria, of the sort that typically announces the presence of a predator--cat, snake, owl, or something like that--made me sure that something was upsetting the frantic birds. As I approached, I noticed several species in the party, including olive-bellied sunbird, red-cheeked cordon-bleu, speckled mousebird, common bulbul, tawny-flanked prinia and white-browed robin chat. Scanning the branches and foliage to find out what they were upset about, I saw this:

That horizontal shadow running across the middle of the image is thicker than any of the other branches in the vicinity, and my first impression was exactly the same as the birds', I'm sure: This is one monster of a cobra!

Taking a closer look, though, I realized our collective mistake. The top third or so of the attenuated trunk of a pawpaw tree that has been dying for several months had finally bent over and was lying across the upper parts of the woody shrubs beneath it. The fact that it had not been there in that position before, its slightly curved shape, and the greyish, somewhat scalloped and scaly texture of its surface all combined to give a very snaky initial impression!

So, no snake on this occasion, and I'm not overly disappointed, even if I was temporarily the victim of a natural scam. It was at least as effective as a scarecrow in a grain field in fooling the local bird population, besides taking me in too.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Good week for unusual sightings

It's been a better-than-average week for unusual sightings here in Mbale. On an early morning walk along Wanale Road I heard a distinctive contact call and then caught sight of the russet in the plumage of an African paradise flycatcher (Terpsiphone viridis). This has been one of my all-time favorite birds ever since I got acquainted with them at home in Malawi in the 1970s. They are fairly common in many places, but for some reason I rarely see them inside Mbale town (three or four times in eleven years). The one I saw a couple of days ago was either a female or juvenile/non-breeding male, without the signature long tail streamers of the adult male in breeding regalia.

Then this morning, on the upper side of our neighborhood, right before one begins to ascend in earnest the lower slopes of Wanale mountain, I heard a bird call that stood out as different from the usual avian symphony in our neighborhood. It sounded familiar, just out of place. Turned out to be a pair of darkish starlings, which, if I had not heard them calling, I'd have identified from a distance as Ruppell's long-tailed. The liquid call notes, however, made it obvious that these were red-winged starlings (Onychognathus morio). This species does occur, I'm sure, on the flanks and cliffs of Wanale mountain above Mbale town, but I've never before seen them down here in our backyard, so to speak. I guess this pair was just out a-wandering away from their home turf.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Levaillant's (Striped) Cuckoo

I was walking in our neighborhood around 7 a.m. the other day and noticed a commotion of sorts in the middle of a terminalia (umbrella) tree. Turned out to be a pair of Levaillant's Cuckoos (both light-morph, with mostly white underparts), one of the more spectacular of East Africa's crested cuckoos. It was my first time to see them definitely, too, which made it even more enjoyable, especially as I've been looking for one for several years. I don't think they're all that uncommon, but as with many cuckoo species, they tend to be wanderers and one never knows where they may turn up. At 16 inches / 40 cm in length, and with crest and striking black and white plumage, they make quite a visual splash.

A few weeks ago a dark-morph crested-type cuckoo passed through our yard, harvesting hairy caterpillars out of the musizi trees. I didn't see it well enough to be certain whether it was a Jacobin (Black-and-white) Cuckoo or a Levaillant's, since the dark morphs of the two species are very similar.

Thursday, December 7, 2006

Kingfisher Safaris Resort trip birds, 24-27 Nov 06

The Kingfisher Safaris Resort sits on a bay on the northern shore of Lake Victoria, just a few hundred meters from where the fabled White Nile spills out to begin its odyssey north to the Mediterranean Ocean. Like most locales in Uganda, birding there is excellent. I was able to see or hear the following species on this trip with only a couple of hours spent specifically looking for birds. Here's a picture of one I heard but didn't lay eyes on (typical with flufftails!)--a male white-spotted flufftail, illustrated on a stamp from neighboring Rwanda:

1. Marabou
2. Red-chested sunbird
3. Scarlet-chested sunbird
4. Green-throated sunbird
5. Black-headed heron
6. Little egret
7. Cattle egret
8. White-browed robin chat
9. Black-headed gonolek
10. Golden-backed weaver
11. Common camaroptera
12. Tawny-flanked prinia
13. Yellow-fronted canary
14. Brimstone canary
15. Palm swift
16. Yellow-billed kite (at nest)
17. Broad-billed roller
18. Bronze mannikin
19. Splendid starling
20. Lesser blue-eared starling
21. Yellow-fronted tinker bird
22. Black and white shrike flycatcher (male and female)
23. Common bulbul
24. Yellow white-eye
25. Eastern grey plantain-eater
26. Long-tailed cormorant
27. Paradise flycatcher
28. White-throated bee-eater
29. European hobby (pair)
30. African thrush
31. White-browed coucal
32. Woodland kingfisher
33. Pygmy kingfisher
34. Variable sunbird
35. Brown-crowned tchagra
36. White-spotted flufftail (voice)
37. African hobby
38. Double-toothed barbet
39. Piapiac
40. Red-billed firefinch
42. Lizard buzzard
43. African goshawk
44. Openbill stork
45. Hamerkop
46. Winding cisticola
47. Grey-headed sparrow
48. Red-eyed dove
49. Laughing dove
50. Speckled mousebird
51. African pied crow
52. Pied wagtail
53. Yellow wagtail
54. Ruppell's long-tailed starling
55. Palm nut vulture
56. Baglafecht weaver
57. Black-headed oriole (voice)
58. Grey-backed fiscal shrike
59. White-breasted cormorant
60. Pied kingfisher
61. Hadada ibis
62. Sacred ibis
63. Grey heron
64. Black-headed weaver (nesting colonies)
65. Shikra
66. African darter
67. African fish eagle
68. Harrier hawk (gymnogene) pair of adults
69. Osprey
70. African green pigeon
71. Hooded vulture
72. Long-crested eagle
73. Grey woodpecker
74. Blue-cheeked bee-eater
75. Brown-throated wattle-eye
76. Brown parrot
77. Black bishop
78. Red-faced cisticola
79. Squacco heron
80. Malachite kingfisher
81. Yellow-throated greenbul
82. Striated (green-backed) heron
83. Giant kingfisher
84. African jacana
85. Pink-backed pelican
86. Speckled pigeon
87. Grey-cap warbler (voice)
88. White-headed barbet
89. Spectacled weaver
90. Blue-spotted wood dove
91. Northern puffback
92. Black-crowned waxbill
93. African blue flycatcher
94. Little swift
95. Barn swallow
96. Black-shouldered kite
97. Ross’s turaco (voice)
98. Grey hornbill
99. Common sandpiper
100. Large number of migrating warblers, including willow warblers and other similar species
101. Single quail overhead one evening, probably a harlequin
102. Unidentified medium-sized falcon