May ’22 Global Big Day

Bird watchers in Kenya joined the rest of the world in participating in the Global Big Day on May 14. On this day, birders from around the world venture out to enjoy birds and submit their observations through the eBird mobile app. The day is also celebrated as the World Migratory Bird Day.

Seventeen Site Support Groups (SSGs) affiliated to Nature Kenya took part in the event in Tana River Delta, Mumoni Hill forest, Lake Elmenteita, Mt. Kenya, Sabaki River mouth, Mutitu Hill forest, Dunga Swamp, Kereita Forest, Kinangop grasslands, Mida Creek, Dakatcha Woodland, Yala Swamp, Lake Ol’ Bolossat, Maasai Mara, Taita Hills forests, Arabuko-Sokoke Forest and Gede Ruins Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs).

Kenya was ranked 9th in the world with 739 species with 293 checklists completed. Top Kenyan eBirder was Henry ole Sanoe from Lake Elmenteita Community-based Organization, the Nature Kenya site support group for Lake Elmenteita KBA with 201 species. The country’s top hotspot was Nairobi National Park with 213 species – in one day.

Hunting down the deadly – It’s a Snake Eagle’s world

Snakes can’t fly. So when they drop down from the sky, something is amiss, right? An incident that occurred in June 2021 in Kitui caused quite a stir. A man was bitten by a snake while driving. The snake landed on the car’s roof and made its way inside through an open window. It then tangled around the man’s arm and bit him. 

Luckily, passersby came to the man’s rescue, killing the snake and freeing him from the deadly grip. More drama ensued. As the passersby prepared to burn the dead snake, a large bird swooped, grabbed the snake and made away with it. The spectacle left many baffled. Social media platforms and news outlets were full of speculations, bordering from bizarre theories to superstition. 

Being a bird enthusiast and naturalist, let me share some insights into the mysterious bird’s action. Many reports indicate it was an eagle. The peculiar behaviour displayed by the bird is typical of a bird of prey. My guess is a Snake Eagle. 

Snake Eagles, as the name suggests, specialize in hunting snakes. Like other eagles, Snake Eagles are agile, have a very sharp vision, and strong feet equipped with great curved talons. Additionally, a thick overlay of scales protects their feet from snake bites. Snake Eagles are medium-sized eagles with large rounded heads, striking yellow eyes, bare legs and an upright stance when perched.

A Snake Eagle hunts from a perch, or while soaring up in the skies. Once it spots prey on the ground, the eagle descends and snatches it, then quickly flies upwards. When it comes to hunting down some of the swiftest and deadliest snakes in the world, like cobras and black mambas, there is no room for errors. Neutralizing any potential harm comes first. The eagle crushes or rips off the serpent’s head while airborne. It then swallows the entire snake, head first. 

Occasionally, the snake may break free from the eagle’s grip and drop to the ground. Such was the case in Kitui. 

Several species of Snake Eagles occur in Kenya. They include the Black-chested, Brown, Southern Banded and Western Banded Snake Eagles and the rare Short-toed and Beaudouin’s Snake Eagles. The Beaudouin’s is listed as Vulnerable, and Southern Banded as Near Threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). 

Indeed, eagles are fascinating birds of prey that display unique hunting skills. Unfortunately, many of these raptors are experiencing a decline in their populations. Habitat destruction, collision with energy infrastructure, hunting, and pollution are among contributors to the dwindling numbers. A lot needs to be done to keep these skilled, soaring hunters airborne. 

Bees without stings

When you think of bees, the first things that comes to mind are yellow and black stripes, a buzzing sound, and the possibility of getting a painful sting. Can you imagine bees without a sting? 

Actually, those do exist! Such bees are called meliponines or simply stingless bees. Worldwide, more than 600 species of stingless bees exist. However, only a fraction of them has been studied to date. 

Stingless bees are distinguished from ordinary honey bees by their size, with meliponines being smaller, having reduced wing venation, and characteristically lacking a sting. This does not mean they are defenceless, as they are known to bite possible intruders. 

Like honey bees, stingless bees are eusocial insects, forming perennial colonies that consist of a single queen, workers, and temporary males. In the wild, they build their nests in a variety of habitats such as tree cavities, holes in the ground, dead wood, cracks in stone or mud walls and abandoned termite nests. 

Stingless bees play an important role in the environment as pollinators of various flowering plants, since they feed on pollen and nectar. Stingless bees have also shown potential as pollinators for agricultural systems. Some species have shown promising results in the pollination of vegetable crops such as capsicum, leading to an increase in their yields. 

Besides pollinating plants, meliponines also produce honey. Their honey has a high medicinal value due to its antibiotic properties. Stingless bee honey is one of the most sought-after and highly-priced therapeutic natural products. Their propolis and wax also have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.

Africa Cranes Ringing Program

Background: 

Grey Crowned Cranes are being ringed to study their movements and timing, determine regional populations, mortality and other aspects of their natural history such as age at first pairing and breeding. Ringing involves placing a metal or coloured ring or band on the bird’s leg. This is a joint initiative of several organizations (NMK, KWS, NABU, ICF/EWT and Cranes Conservation Germany). The focus for now is to mark a substantial population of Grey Crowned Crane (GCC) across the range States. 

Colour bands or rings: The ringing program being adopted for Kenya and the rest of the GCC range is from the European Crane Ringing Program that has been running since early 1990s led by Cranes Conservation Germany. In Kenya, the program was rolled out in December 2017, and by August 2020, a total of c.60 flightless chicks had been colour-marked in Lake Ol’ Bolossat and Mugie Wildlife Conservancy – initially considered as one population (NB: Kenya is perceived to have six GCC populations but GPS data is proving otherwise!). A few individuals were additionally fitted with GPS tags. 

Why ring flightless chicks? These have the advantage of avoiding the use of traps that could injure delicate waterfowl such as cranes, and give us the certainty of both origin (hatching place) and age (GCC chicks fly from 12 weeks of age) – compared to an adult with an unknown past. Due to chick mortality (especially from predation by stray dogs and mongoose) and mysterious disappearances (likely from poaching for the bird trade), we prefer to mark them at age 10 or 11 weeks – just when they are about to fledge. 

Colour Combinations: Currently, there is a choice of 7 colour rings. A set of three is placed on each leg. The following is an interpretation of each ring: 

LEFT LEG: The top and bottom rings are the country colour code which for Kenya is Blue (Bu) while the middle ring is the population. We have been using Green (G) for the Lake Ol’ Bolossat basin population, and western Kenya has settled on Red. The combination is read top to bottom thus BuGBu. 

RIGHT LEG: This is the unique individual combination of any 3 colours from a choice of 7 [Green (G), Blue (Bu), White (W), Yellow (Y), Red (R), Brown (Br) and Black (Bk)]. The combination is also read top to bottom: GRG. 

GPS tags: At the moment, two types of solar-powered tags are in use: a backpack, and one glued to the colour rings. 

Some findings so far: Re-sighting of colour-marked individuals has been very poor, especially after the chicks take to the air as they disperse to join the non-breeding (‘floater’) flocks. The most rewarding data is from individuals marked with GPS tags. 

Report marked crane sightings: This study is just starting and we hope to spend quite some time unravelling the little-known life of the Grey Crowned Crane. We would therefore appreciate it if any information on marked cranes is shared with us at Wanyoike Wamiti wwamiti@gmail.com (WhatsApp +254 733 599 686) with a cc to George Muigai georgeccv.ke@gmail.com. Your records will be highly appreciated and acknowledged. 

Brood parasitism in birds

Ever been out on a bird walk and encountered birds exhibiting some extraordinary behaviours? Nature never ceases to amaze! Every moment outdoors has its surprises. Such was Jeam Agutu’s experience during a birding trip in Homa Bay. A White-browed Robin Chat feeding a Red-chested Cuckoo chick? Where did this relationship begin, and how did it happen?

This bird behaviour is called brood parasitism. It occurs when one bird lays eggs in the nest of another bird (the host). The host then plays foster parent to the chick of the parasitic bird. Brood parasitism occurs only in birds of different species. About one per cent of the world’s birds are brood parasites. They include some cuckoos, a duck, honeyguides, whydahs and indigobirds.

But how do they manage to lay their eggs in other birds’ nests? Brood parasites may spend long hours patiently watching their hosts’ nest, anticipating an opportunity. Time is of the essence when the chance arises. The brood parasite lays its eggs in quick succession.

Some species even remove some of the host’s eggs. Others lay identical eggs to their specific host, making it difficult for them to distinguish the intruder’s eggs.

The eggs of brood parasites develop quickly and are usually the first to hatch. The nestlings of some species even kill the young of the unsuspecting host bird to get all attention.

In the case of the Village Indigobird that lays eggs in the nests of Red-billed Firefinches, the young indigobirds and firefinches grow up and feed together.