Brian Finch elaborates on how knowing bird-calls is key to understanding their ranges.
In the previous “Paddock Diaries,” I detailed the discovery of a Goldentailed Woodpecker in the area. Had it not called, the bird would never have been recorded, as it is otherwise a secretive species. The Woodpecker was the 485th species for the “Finch Pentad,” (9km2), followed by three more impressive additions, all in the west of Nairobi National Park where the Paddock shares the same Pentad. These were Dickinson’s Kestrel, Steel-blue Whydah and African Snipe. The first is a vagrant to Kenya from central Tanzania, and the last was behaving as in breeding territory, having a song post and photographed whilst “singing!” All three birds were additionally new species for Nairobi National Park, whilst the Golden-tailed Woodpecker has still not been recorded there. But as it flew into the IUCN compound on one date, it came within a few hundred metres!
Over the course of time, I have been fortunate to make many interesting discoveries, adding species to checklists for birds of Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda. In so many of these my discovery was entirely due to birds telling me that they were there. Even if I did not recognise the calls of all of them, they were sounding different enough from anything else I knew to make me search out the bird for visual identification.
EAST AFRICAN BIRD FIRSTS THAT WERE HEARD BEFORE THEY WERE SEEN BLUE-BREASTED KINGFISHER
I was with a group of visiting birders at a bridge between Nambale and Madende on the then dirt road from Busia to Mumias in Western Kenya. As soon as I alighted from the vehicle I heard a Blue-breasted Kingfisher, (a bird I knew well from visits to Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Calmly I said to the group, “The bird that is calling is a new species for Kenya, it is a Blue-breasted Kingfisher and we have to see it.” Actually I was far from calm and bursting with excitement. The travellers shuffled out of the car and we walked along the dense edge of the creek, but could not see the calling bird. I had my binoculars and my recording equipment, but no camera. The visitors were struggling along, so I opted to go into the river and wade thigh deep under overhanging shrubbery. I advised the group to be very quiet as the birds are shy. The birds called again and I recorded them. I edged around a bend and there in front of me was a stunning pair of Blue-breasted Kingfishers posing in shafts of penetrating light. I advised my group but as they shuffled to see, the birds flew up river and out of sight. So where was the evidence with no camera? Safely on my tape!
When I produced sounds for the App, rather than use recordings from Uganda or DRC where the birds are common, the species is represented by birds recorded that morning in Kenya. The pair lived there for nearly two years, then the road was paved, the riverside vegetation levelled and they have never been seen in Kenya again.
ALL THREE BIRDS WERE ADDITIONALLY NEW SPECIES FOR NAIROBI NATIONAL PARK, WHILST HAS STILL NOT BEEN RECORDED THERE.
After I discovered the wonders of Madende, it did not take much convincing to get Don Turner and the sorely missed David Pearson to join me there. We were walking along the river’s edge where there was then good open grassland and woody patches. There was a bird calling we were not able to identify. I recorded the song, played it back and the bird flew in attracted by the “rival.” It was Kenya’s first Green Crombec, and we were very excited with this find. Subsequently the species was found in most wooded creeks in the Busia area, but this was the first. On the App, the species is represented by recordings in Kenya.
I was with Sir Jeffrey James, then British Ambassador to Kenya and an avid birder. We were on a trip to Lokichoggio in north-western Kenya close to the Sudan border, walking along the edge of a dry tributary of the Loparin River, lined with dense Prosopis. There was a call totally unfamiliar and I recorded it. Playing it back, the composer arrived but looked like a Tawny-flanked Prinia, but much whiter below. The common Prinia of the area was Pale, with a very long tail, and we had seen many that day. This time I had a camera, and managed to capture images, plus more recordings.
I had heard of a little known species from West Africa called the River Prinia, said to be identical to Tawny-flanked but with a different song. On returning to Nairobi I located a recording by Claude Chappuis of birds in Chad; it was the same song as the birds on the Loparin River. So this was an isolated population in East Africa, thousands of kilometres from the nearest known population in Chad. The recordings were sent to people in West Africa and they said there was no doubt that the birds were River Prinia. It won’t be in any current field guides, but when they are updated, the App will have the recordings from Lokichoggio.
(More about the discovery of this species in Swara Vol 27 No.1 Jan-March 2004).
PALE WREN WARBLER
When I lived in the Maasai Mara I found many interesting species not yet recorded in the region. One was a Wren Warbler, which had a call so different from Grey Wren Warbler, and more like a Lesser Honeyguide. Now this is another important factor about learning bird calls, as you progress and your mental library expands, it is easier to remember and describe a call if you can make such comparisons. “Wow, this bird sounds just like a Lesser Honeyguide without the introductory first note.”
Pale Wren Warbler is common in the Mara. This form occurred in the Mara and Loitas, extending in Leleshwa east of Narok. However, it was just considered a race of Grey Wren Warbler (which takes a lot of imagination), but is now given full species rank.
MANDA BLACK BOUBOU
You can read about the discovery of this species in Swara Vol 27 No.1 July-Sept 2010 under Erlanger’s Boubou. While it lives alongside the East Coast Boubou, the vocalisations are vastly different. The original specimens were called a black form of this bird; National Museums of Kenya maintain five in drawers.
TANZANIA FORBES-WATSON’S SWIFT
Jorie Butler Kent and I were checking out lagoons south of Dar es-Salaam, where there were plenty of waders and migrating flocks of White-throated Bee-eaters.
Suddenly hundreds of medium-sized black Swifts arrived and started swooping around our heads. I recognised the birds with the extensive white throat and rasping calls as Forbes-Watson’s Swifts, regular in coastal Kenya. However never before had I been exposed to the species like this; they were all around us, very close and very noisy; such has never happened to me again. I got the recorder ready and managed to get some nice material. So the recording on the App is not from Kenya, but Tanzania’s first record of the species, and still the only record for that country.
UGANDA OLIVE IBIS
Terry Stevenson and I were in Uganda, exploring the incredible Semiliki Forest. The evening we set up camp, noisy Spot-breasted Ibis flew overhead, followed by a chorus of Nkulengu Rails sounding like a conga-line. The next morning we were on the Kirumia River Trail, at oxbows along the route to the Semiliki River. Suddenly from the edge of an oxbow, two ibis flew up very close to us, and started calling. The only forest ibis recorded anywhere in Uganda was Spot-breasted, but these sounded like Olive Ibis in moorland Kenya. I recorded the calls, the first record of the species from Uganda, and still the only record for the country, and these were the representatives used on the App!
I was on the Kirumia River Trail with a local guide. The skies opened; I got drenched, my recording equipment got waterlogged, but not before I managed to record rarely encountered Capuchin Babblers. That night outside my tent I heard an unpleasant scraping call, interspersed with deep guttural grunts. It reminded me of Madagascar Wood Rail. I was sure I was hearing a Forest Rail; what recordings I could have had if it hadn’t been for the soaking. A few years later they were seen and heard in the same area.
I knew this species from visits to DRC, where it is found in the rainforest and adjacent gardens. With the exception of the unique calls of Black, all other coucals are quite similar in tone and pattern of delivery, but always an arrangement of “poop” notes, identical, rising or falling. The Blueheaded Coucal is widespread and common in open swampy areas of Uganda. That should have been my clue. On the day of the drenching on the Kirumia River Trail, I heard coucals with deep booming notes. I put them down to Blue-headed, and erased them. Since then Black-throated Coucal has become a regular sound on that trail. I would have had Ugandan recordings for the App, but sadly deleted them!
RWANDA WILLARD’S BOUBOU
I was in Nyungwe Forest in the south-west of the country, travelling with a small group. At the western end near the big swamp I heard a rapid bell-like series from a dense gulley below. The pattern of the call was very like a Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher, but unknown near here. A few years later I heard the call again near the same area but still unable to identify the caller. On a later visit, as a black Boubou was moving through the mid canopy, I videoed it, but it remained silent. When I looked at the video I could not believe my eyes; it was not a Mountain Sooty Boubou, as it had a clear pale greyish-white eye, not black. I had videoed a Willard’s Boubou, only recently described from Uganda. Back in Nairobi I tracked down a call of Willard’s attached to the original paper describing the species. When I played it I was delighted but probably not too surprised to hear what sounded like a muffled Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher!