NGILIA-TSAVO WEST, KENYA: Birds have been the major highlight of my work this year. I’ve achieved this by; sharing about different bird species found in Kenya, through photos and photo stories, and sharing their plight and how we need to support bird conservation action.
Earlier this year, my peers informed me about the Ngulia Migration Bird Ringing Project. I have always wanted to participate in Bird ringing but haven’t had the chance to. This year I planned to attend the Ngulia Migration Bird Ringing project.
Armed with my photographic equipment, I hitched a ride from a truck heading down to the ‘Mtito wa Ndei’. I never pictured myself doing this and I would have had no one to blame if a serial killer had stopped his truck. Instead there were two men, who not only accommodated me but also entertained discussions on birds, environment and indigenous knowledge about conservation. I know they had other things to talk about but they just indulged. I was impressed by how much knowledge they had about trees, bees, elephants, and anthropogenic activities that affect the environment.
The view of the landscape through the truck was captivating. I couldn’t wait to see the famous Ngulia and its birds- perhaps I would even touch a live one for the first time.
Ngulia is located within Tsavo-West National Park, Kenya. It lies on the east of Mt Kilimanjaro and experiences regular seasonal changes which effect vegetation and animal distribution, resulting in considerable movement of local birds. It is also recognized for a million long distance bird migrants each year from Europe and Asia to South Africa.
Ngulia is one of special site in the world to conduct bird ringing for the migratory birds because it is characterized, by very dark nights with thick fog. When high power lights are placed in the middle of the mist, they confuse the birds that fall and get trapped in the nets. It is a spectacular phenomenal.
Did you know that migrant birds are mostly nocturnal travelers and use stars to aide their navigation? Now you know.
Bird ringing was first done in Denmark 110 years ago, on birds called starlings. The gentleman who first did this was curious to know where the birds go to. So he made rings with his address and captured a few starlings and put the rings on them, every year he realized half of the birds that were ringed would come back and with birds that are not ringed. This was the beginning of bird ringing in the world. Bird ring is mainly done to understand bird routes, research and for education purposes.
Ngulia Migration Bird Ringing is currently in its 50th year since it began in 1968 mainly to ring as many European Birds that go through Ngulia to other destinations south of Africa.
At Ngulia, we divided the activity into three sessions; night ringing, day ringing and swallows ringing.
The process of bird ringing begins by setting up powerful lights by 10:00pm in the night, which are used to distract the birds. The team members stay all night waiting for the fog to descend-not me off course I love my sleep so much so I had to be woken up once the mist descends. When the mist descends, two mist nets of between 12-18 meters will be placed in the bushes just in front of Ngulia Lodge. The Birds will be distracted by light and will move towards the light and will be captured on the mist nets.
Extraction of the birds from the mist nets will begin; the birds caught will be placed inside Bird bags made of cotton. The bird bag may only hold up to 3 small birds at a time. Bigger birds and others such as shrikes (which are carnivore) are placed on their own bags to avoid any injury to other birds. This one night we caught up to 1,000 birds. Yes 1,000 birds, but was told by other veteran ringers that 1000 birds was less. You should have seen the look on my face.
The birds are then taken to the ringing table, where you find 4- 6 ringers (this depend on the number of birds captured and number of experienced ringers in the group). The ringers begin the ringing process for all the birds captured. This happens the whole night till 5:30am depending on the availability of mist. The night nets are closed.
After the night nets are closed, the day mist nets are put up in the far bushes away from the lodge to capture the birds that were resting during the night, the team members will flush them out and some will be captured on this mist nets. They are then extracted and taken to the ringing table. Being a European focused ringing project, any African bird caught will be labeled differently to assist in the ringing process. This will be done for about 3 hours max.
Latter in the day the mist nets for Swallows, who are aerial hunters, are set up at the same position of the night mist nets, and a call back is placed at the foot of the mist net to attract the swallows.
At the bird ringing table, the ringers record the following information: Name of the bird (species), Age if possible, and sex. Other details such as weight, wing length and fat may be recorded if the birds are few and when they are many this information will be obtained for every 10th bird.
After this the birds are released with the hope they may be re-trapped somewhere else and information is shared to the Ngulia project team.
This was the most amazing experience I have ever had this year. I will soon be sharing on how to be part of the Nairobi Ringing Group and where you may learn to ring birds and join the team of worldwide ringers to share bird knowledge and movements.