Monday, September 17, 2007

Mbale owls & a cuckoo

Between 4 and 5 a.m. a few days ago I heard the unmistakable weird screech of a barn owl (Tyto alba) in our yard, first from one side of the house, then on another. A bit later, after returning from a morning jog, I noticed quite an assemblage of small birds fussing and agitated in the thick foliage of some trees in one corner of our compound -- bulbuls, mousebirds, sunbirds, etc. The reason for all the commotion had to be a predator of some sort, either a snake, a cat, or some bird of prey. So I crept up under the low branches hoping for a glimpse of whatever it might be. It took some searching, but finally I was able to discern the distinctive outline of a roosting barn owl. It did not seem disposed to leave, and I was glad to have it spend as much time with us as it might, especially if it reduces the rodent population in the neighborhood!

A few times at night or very early morning recently I've heard the high-pitched, somewhat mournful hoot of a white-faced scops owl. These seem to be fairly common in Mbale, at least for part of the year. A couple of years ago we found a slightly injured adolescent specimen on a nearby road at night. It was mature enough that we were able to feed it for a week or two and then release it. We called it Otis, suggested by its Latin name, Otus leucotis.

The other species of owl that is resident here in Mbale happens to be the largest on the continent -- the giant eagle owl (Bubo lacteus). As the name more than implies, these are eagle-sized birds and fierce predators. They roost by day high in the thickly leaved branches of the African mahogany trees that still line some stretches of road in this part of town. They are more often heard than seen, their low-pitched grunting notes a common sound not only at night but also an hour or so after sunrise and before sunset.

Once in a great while I've heard or caught a glimpse of African wood owls (Strix woodfordii) in the Mbale night-time, but it's been seldom enough that I do not think they are normally residents here.

Sunday I visited Kachede, a parish in Bukedea district, near some of the areas most devastated by recent flooding from the swollen Sironko River. It was not a day with impressive numbers of bird species noted, but I did have a brief look at a black cuckoo (Cuculus clamosus) that flew into a grove of grevillea and citrus trees nearby and proceeded to serenade us with its haunting, ascending three-note call, repeated over and over again. This is an intra-African migrant which, though reasonably common in its range, I have seen only a few times. Since they tend to call from inside the foliage of trees, often in forested areas, they are far more often heard than seen.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007


I was not far from the house on my morning run the other day when from up in a Neem tree ahead of me came the unmistakable two-phrase laughing song of a male paradise flycatcher (Terpsiphone viridis). These strikingly beautiful birds, common in much of their range, are an uncommon find in Mbale, so I stopped to take a look. Turned out to be a pair (in the past I've come across single birds only here in town) of them. The male did not have his breeding-plumage long tail streamers, but it was special to see both birds at once.

Not two minutes after leaving the flycatchers I came across an avian version of the odd couple. A female gray woodpecker (Dendropicos goertae) was excavating for insect larvae at wire level on a utility pole. Juxtaposed less than three handbreadths away, on the wire, was a white-browed robin chat (Cossypha heuglini) busy with its morningly outpouring of song. The two of them, absorbed in their respective endeavors, ignored me as I ran by, giving them considerably more attention than they had for each other.

Shortly thereafter I noticed yet another pair of flycatchers flying across the road in front of me -- African blue flycatchers (Elminia longicauda), cousins, actually, to the paradise flycatcher, in a group called monarch flycatchers (probably because most or all of them are crested/"crowned"). These guys are an unusual (among birds) powder-blue and never stay still for more than a couple of seconds at a time. I had a good view of them as they perched briefly on a power line before diving into the foliage of a jambulan tree near the road.

Monday, September 3, 2007


The start of migration season caught me by surprise today, as the familiar liquid notes of European bee-eaters (Merops apiaster) on the move came down from overhead this afternoon. September 3 isn't all that early to begin seeing these and other migrants escaping the cold European fall and winter, but I had not thought about the time being upon us already. A few minutes later, the similar but sharper-toned calls of a flock of blue-cheeked bee-eaters (Merops persicus) announced that they are also passing through. Nice to have both of these in the skies the same afternoon--an appropriate appetite-whetting experience as I look forward to having many other migrating species around in the next seven or eight months.

Just a couple of days ago I noticed the first large group of black kites (Milvus migrans) that I've seen in two or three months flying overhead in Mbale town. There has been a straggler or two in the neighborhood since most of them left for their seasonal relocation, but it looks like they're back. I did not have binoculars handy to check whether these were the European race (M. m. migrans) or the common African yellow-billed one (M. m. parasitus).

Had a nice view of a black-headed oriole (Oriolus larvatus) yesterday. It's a gorgeous bird, a bit larger than most American orioles I've seen, and decked out in stunning yellow plumage with black head and red bill.

Other notable sightings lately include:

Black sparrowhawk/goshawk (Accipiter melanoleucus) - I see these only occasionally in Mbale; this fellow was calling from the top of an African mahogany tree

Ross's turaco (Musophaga rossae) - always traveling tree to tree in groups, some of the most spectacular feathered inhabitants of our area