Monday, August 17, 2009

Sharp-shins spotted soaring

In the midst of a morning run in magnificent 48-degree-F. sunshine today, I had a couple of sharp-shinned hawks (Accipiter striatus) come a-soaring overhead, apparently enjoying the clear, warming weather after the clouds and some bluster of yesterday. It was easy to see the size differential between the larger female and her mate.

I also flushed a small flock of rufous-sided towhees (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) in an alley -- the first of these I've seen this season.

Blogging this reminded me of several other notes that I've been intending to post in recent weeks but have been forgetting. So here are a couple of those:

Seeing the sharp-shinned hawks this morning made me think of the Cooper's hawk (Accipiter cooperii) that I saw briefly a week or so back as I was walking toward the ACU campus -- a fine predator if there ever was one. A day before or after that, on the same city block, I had an excellent look at a golden-fronted woodpecker on a mesquite trunk (Melanerpes aurifrons), a particularly attractive member of its family.

We've had good numbers of red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) in the neighborhood, and have been seeing kestrels (Falco sparverius) for the past few weeks, too.

On an overnight visit to Robert Lee in Coke County, Texas where my great-grandparents lived, we came across these birds that I thought worthy of note:

Curve-billed thrasher (Toxostoma curvirostre)
Brown towhee (Pipilo fuscus)
Greater roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus)
Inca dove (Columbina inca)

Several days ago there was a pair of Bewick's wrens (Thryomanes bewickii) clambering about amongst a pile of miscellaneous items on the small covered porch behind our house. Evidently they were terrorizing whatever arthropods had been taking refuge in the nooks and crannies -- a worthy service, as far as I'm concerned!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Seen on a mesquite

As we're getting settled in Abilene, Texas, I'm getting accustomed (again) to the slimmer set of avifauna that prevails in these parts as compared with southeastern Uganda. There have been some changes in bird populations here since the last time I spent much time in Abilene. White-winged doves were not present, at least per my observation, in Abilene in the late 1980s. Now they are the most numerous dove species here. Eurasian collared doves have also become common residents over the past several years. The mourning doves and Inca doves that are long-time indigenous species are still around, but they seem to be fewer than before.

A few minutes ago I was treated to the sight of a golden-fronted woodpecker (Melanerpes aurifrons) working the gnarled trunk of a mesquite tree in our neighbors' front yard. This was the first one I've seen in this neighborhood since moving here a few weeks ago, so definitely not an everyday sighting.

I caught sight of a Swainson's hawk (Buteo swainsoni) briefly overhead as I was standing in front of the house yesterday -- another one that we don't see on a daily basis inside the city limits.

Monday, July 6, 2009


Driving across Abilene yesterday afternoon, passing through a park in the central part of the city, we came upon a yellow-crowned night heron out for a day-time stroll. It had been uncharacteristically rainy for this time of year, so I suppose the normally nocturnal bird was taking advantage of the cooler, overcast weather to squeeze in more eating hours than it usually gets.

Saturday, June 20, 2009


OK, here are a couple of species that I overlooked or need to add to the list, having come across them in the last few days.

* Rose-ringed parakeet (in Houston; presumably this introduced species is expanding its range in urban areas)
* House sparrow
* House finch
* Red-headed woodpecker

I've heard some individual meadowlarks calling, so it's been possible to peg those, at least, as the Eastern variety.

I met with a large thrasher yesterday but need to do further investigation to determine which of the family it was.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Change of hemisphere

Since May 26 we have been in Texas, so the available avifauna is quite distinct from what we are used to in Mbale. Our travels around the state since arriving in Houston have not left much time for focused birding, but I have appreciated the "in-passing" encounters with several of the species that one can expect to see in these parts at this time of year. Here are a few that have crossed my path recently.

* Northern mockingbird
* Laughing gull (Gulf Coast at Galveston)
* Blue jay
* Northern cardinal
* Swainson's hawk
* Red-tailed hawk
* Barn swallow
* Cliff swallow
* Great-tailed grackle
* Common grackle
* Eurasian collared dove (ringed turtle-dove)
* Inca dove (in Abilene)
* Mourning dove
* White-winged dove
* Chimney swift
* American crow
* Yellow-billed cuckoo
* Cattle egret
* Mississippi kite
* Song sparrow
* American robin
* European starling
* Eastern bluebird
* Red-winged blackbird
* Green heron
* Black-crowned night-heron
* Yellow-crowned night-heron
* Killdeer
* Black vulture
* Turkey vulture
* Purple martin
* Loggerhead shrike
* Western tanager
* Meadowlark (unsure whether Eastern or Western; I need to get more field experience distinguishing these two)
* Scissor-tailed flycatcher
* Common nighthawk

I haven't been writing these down as I see them, so I'm sure I'm forgetting some. I'll add others as they come to mind.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Konge Hill

While enjoying the excellent hospitality of friends and coworkers Mark and Jamie Long atop Konge Hill on the southeastern edge of Kampala city, we had the pleasure of seeing some noteworthy birds.

High in a beautiful parasol tree (Polyscias fulva) in their front yard (looking out on to Lake Victoria) a pair of African hobbies (Falco cuvieri) are nesting. They are artists of the air, maestros even among their aerobatic falconid kin. We watched one bringing prey to the other, sometimes exchanging it talons to talons in the air.

There were also a couple of African grey parrots (Psittacus erithacus) that came through several times, snacking on the little reddish fruit adorning the branchlets of a Benjamin fig tree (Ficus benjamina).

Another striking species that we do not see in Mbale but were greatly pleased to observe throughout the afternoon that we spent at the Longs' house is the double-toothed barbet (Lybius bidentatus) -- a remarkable bird with its scarlet, black and white plumage and heavy-duty double-toothed bill. These were harvesting the figs as enthusiastically as the parrots.

Back home in Mbale, yesterday was the first time in many months that I've heard the call of the greater honeyguide (Indicator indicator -- how's that for understandable Latin!) . I actually caught a glimpse of what was definitely a honeyguide a bit later in the day, but could not be sure of the species. It may have been a female or juvenile greater honeyguide, if I were to hazard a guess.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Minullus at meat

I noticed, around 4 this afternoon, a persistent high-pitched whickering call coming from the upper branches of one of our musizi trees. It was the sort of call one would expect from a small accipiter, and since it was different from any sound I've ever heard from a shikra (little banded goshawk - Accipiter badius) I figured there was a chance it could be an African little sparrowhawk (Accipiter minullus). I've been enjoying a number of sightings of adults of this species for the past several months in our area, but had not heard their voice. Son Jonathan eventually located the bird, which appeared to be eating something held in the talons of one foot. I dashed inside the house for binoculars, with the aid of which I was able to confirm its identity -- minullus indeed -- in juvenile plumage. It was feasting on some kind of small bird, and seemed immensely pleased with itself, pausing between every couple of beak-fulls of its meal to sound its boast around the neighborhood. We had a splendid view of it for quite some time.

P.S. This is probably evidence that the adults that I've been seeing have bred successfully in the area.

Morning owls

As I was out and about this morning just before sun-up (it takes a bit longer to see the disc itself here in Mbale town, cheek-by-jowl as we are against the western side of Wanale mountain), I heard both white-faced scops owl and giant (Verreaux's) eagle owl calling. No visual on either, but it's pleasing to hear them and know they're around.

The gigantic African mahogany trees are in full bloom these days, and their buttery fragrance pervades the neighborhood, especially in the evenings and early mornings.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Morning hunt

I was out and about this morning, perhaps a bit later than prime time for birding, and did not encounter as much variety in bird species as usual. There was a red-chested cuckoo making quite a racket, the first I've heard in many months in Mbale. These fellows are heard far more often than seen, calling as they do typically from high in a well-foliaged tree. But I did get a glimpse of this one as he flew from one giant African mahogany to another.

What I would not have wanted to miss was seeing an African hobby on the hunt. As I was on what has in the past been the municipal golf course, a hobby started into the air and made a few wide, leisurely reconnaissance circles. As a point roughly overhead and maybe 50 or 60 meters up, it stooped abruptly away to the south. Propelled by gravity and powerful wing strokes, the falcon accelerated to optimal pursuit velocity in less than four seconds. A sudden upturn and flare of spread wings signaled the end of the mission, still 20 or 30 meters above ground -- it was too distant for details, but the hobby had snatched what must have been a palm swift in flight. Leveling out, the successful hunter continued on her way toward a suitable treetop to settle down and eat.

The experience put me in mind of Gerard Manley Hopkins' poem "The Windhover" in which he writes of his own morning encounter with a falcon (most likely a kestrel). It's one of my all-time favorites, and Hopkins himself once wrote to a friend that it was the best thing he had ever written. (I took the text below from

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–89). Poems. 1918.

The Windhover

To Christ our Lord

I CAUGHT this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Black-shouldered kites

On my morning run today I noticed a black-shouldered kite carrying nest-building material to the top of a cypress tree, at least 25 meters up. This is at the west edge of what has been in the past the municipal golf course, near the southern edge of town. I've seldom or never seen these birds inside the built-up area of Mbale town, but they are regular in the more open country on the outskirts and farther afield. The derelict golf course still has enough open grassy/scrubby sections to make excellent hunting grounds for the rodents and insects that provide most of the kites' diet.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Rwanda & Bunyonyi

We took a family trip to Rwanda and Lake Bunyonyi (SW Uganda) the first week and a half or so of January -- our first time into Rwanda, where we visited friends in Kigali, and a return to often-enjoyed Bushara Island in Lake Bunyonyi. Of course, there were a lot of nifty birds along the way, especially at Bunyonyi, where many species are especially fearless and confiding, presumably because of not being hunted or threatened by people with any regularity.

Some of the "roadside" birds that we saw en route, and that we don't usually encounter in Mbale:

* Lilac-breasted roller, fork-tailed drongo (both of these in and around Masaka town)
* Augur buzzard (several in the mountainous Kabale area)
* Several sizable eagles, probably either resident tawny or migratory steppe eagles (difficult to distinguish in the field unless one observes at close range for a reasonable duration; also in the vicinity of Kabale)

Especially enjoyable sightings on and near Bushara Island:

* Blue-headed coucal
* Red-chested cuckoo
* Klaas' cuckoo
* Tropical boubou
* Paradise flycatcher
* Chubb's cisticola
* Streaky seed-eater
* Thick-billed seed-eater
* Grey crowned crane
* Black-lored babbler
* Cape wagtail
* Large (Holub's) golden weaver
* Chin-spot batis
* Common (brown-throated) wattle-eye
* Cinnamon-chested bee-eater
* Malachite kingfisher
* Mackinnon's fiscal
* European hobby
* Black goshawk
* Pair of harrier hawks on nest
* Cardinal woodpecker
* Pin-tailed whydah