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.