The early Charlotte catches the birds …


(Posted 14th May 2021)

(All pictures credit to Charlotte Beauvoisin)

Global Big Day is an annual celebration of the birds around us. It takes place on World Migratory Bird Day and was a chance for the Sunbird Hill team, on the edge of Kibale National Park in western Uganda, to contribute to a citizen science project: How many species will we identify in one day?

The early bird catches the worm but the early Charlotte catches the birds …

My first sighting is a vibrant pair of Red-headed Bluebills. What a colourful start to our count!

Robert has been birding since 6 am and he has already recorded 70 bird species on the free eBird Mobile app by the time he arrives at Sunbird Hill.

Brian has travelled the furthest; he has three Scaly Francolins to add to the tally. These large, loud birds scuttle along the ground along the edge of Kibale Forest.

I hope you’re going to stay with us all day,” teases Hilary. “I will try my best,” I reply. I know these guys; they are on a mission to get the maximum number of species!

At 7.30, we leave the comfort of the Birders’ Lounge at Sunbird Hill and walk towards the forest edge. It promises to be a bright morning. We hear the loud call of the Western Nicator and the two-tone call of the Lead-coloured Flycatcher (usually the first bird to kick off the dawn chorus).

We hear the bop bop of the Yellow-billed Barbets and the loud call of the (shy) White-spotted Flufftail. The Green Crombec appears on many of my bird lists (but have I ever seen one?)

"Did I tell you I saw magpie mannikins up in the trading centre?" says Hilary. We add them to our list.

Down at the swamp, steam rises off the vegetation. It is 8 o’clock. Sunshine catches the thread of a spider’s web. The White-breasted Negrita’s call reminds me of a Woodland Kingfisher; Robert is quick to compare its call to the Blue Malkoha (Yellowbill) and even a fourth bird. Debates continue. I love hanging out with expert birders, it is always a learning experience.

As we move from the forest edge towards farmland, the bird diversity changes. A Blue-headed Coucal calls. Sightings come thick and fast: Lesser-striped Swallow, Brown-backed Scrubrobin. We are in Yellow-fronted Canary territory. A pair of Pin-tailed Whydahs fly above our heads, the male bouncing his ornamental tail-feathers to catch the female’s attention. A Yellow White-eye darts in and out of the branches of the Candelabra cactus (an unusual plant for this part of Uganda).

We identify Brown-crowned Tschagra, Blue-spotted Wood Dove, Cape Wagtail (a seasonal visitor). We cross the maize fields. Ahead of us, Eastern Grey Plantain-eaters fly low over the eastern edge of Magombe Swamp. The easily confused Brimstone Canary and African Citril sit side by side in the same bush (to allow us an easy comparison). We hear the cry of an African Harrier Hawk.

Mid-morning we return to base for our first rest of the day. Mzee Silver, our reformed poacher cum ranger, shares his list of 77 birds. He adds a Grey-throated Barbet that he has heard along the forest-edge. “Wow!” We all say as one, impressed at our elder birder’s knowledge.

We debate bird names: the Cameroon Sombre Greenbul (according to Fanshawe and Stevenson’s “Birds of East Africa”) is known as a Plain Bulbul on the eBird app. We are being tested! Similarly, the Grey-green Bush-shrike sounds like a first for me but I know it as the Bocage’s Bush Shrike, a striking black and white bird. (Thankfully eBird and our bird book agree on most species names).

The team pauses to identify butterflies, such as the strident Forest Pearl Charaxes. An electric blue-coloured damselfly buzzes past. Robert explains the difference between dragonflies and damselflies: a damselfly folds its wings behind its body: its wings are shorter than its abdomen and its eyes are far apart.

I can hear the African Emerald Cuckoo but I just can’t see it inside the dark vegetation. Hilary gestures to the exact spot, describing the angle, the curve, the colour of the branch so I can locate the bird. Giving good directions is an art.

After lunch, we walk along the tarmac road that passes through Kibale National Park. We hear a Narina Trogon and a Black Cuckoo. (I see that we hear these birds because it’s often impossible to see them in the dark forest and an audio identification is an accepted ID). This section of the forest is alive with Greenbuls: a Slender-billed Greenbul, Toro Olive Greenbul and Honeyguide Greenbul.

Have you seen the renegade Blue Monkey?

Kibale Forest has 13 types of primates. A small troupe of Uganda Mangabeys sit next to the road watching us. I discuss the chimpanzee habituation experience with Brian, who is a chimp researcher at Ngogo.

"I don’t think I have ever seen a Blue Monkey," I tell him.

"There is one in Bigodi Wetlands Sanctuary," he says. "I didn’t believe it when people told me, but I’ve seen the photos. It became separated from its troupe and is staying in Magombe Swamp with the Red Colobus for protection." It’s not uncommon for monkeys of different species to be seen together.

"I smell a snake" says Davis.

"You know what that means don’t you?" Brian says. "It means a snake has shed its skin." We don’t see that particular (smelly) individual but do find two other snakes that have been flattened by passing traffic.

I’m going to disappoint Hilary today; I have a phone call scheduled and I have to head back home.

The boys continue their march in search of the Cassin’s Flycatcher that is often perched on a rock in the Dura River. They hear the chimps close by.

The other members of the Sunbird Hill team head up to Rwengobe where they find a Square-tailed Nightjar on its nest. They even hear a Black-billed Turaco! (I am jealous).

Back at base, the team compares and compiles lists. Identifications include Velvet-mantled Drongo, Red-chested Owlet; Black-headed Gonolek; Papyrus Gonolek; Red-shouldered Cuckoo-shrike; two species of Guineafowl; three species of Turaco; six Cuckoos; five Kingfishers; three Bee-eaters; five Barbets; three Tinkerbirds; five Woodpeckers; four Cisticola; six Starlings; nine Flycatchers; ten species of Weaver and 14 species of Sunbirds!

The Sunbird Hill team of Robert, Brian, Hilary, Francis, Davis, Charlotte and Dillon (aged 10) covered 25 km on #globalbigday May 8th 2021. The team recorded 210 bird species.

More about Global Big Day

Bird observations through citizen science projects like Global Big Day help scientists understand global bird populations and issues such as climate change. On Global Big Day 2020, more than 50,000 people from 175 countries submitted 120,000 checklists with eBird, setting a new world record for a single day of birding.

On a personal level, the event provides a life-affirming few hours connecting with nature!

Charlotte is best known for her blog Diary of a Muzungu. She is a travel writer, influencer, marketing manager and trainer. She lives at Sunbird Hill on the edge of Kibale National Park.

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