Saturday, September 26, 2009

Summer has arrived

Over the last three weekends, Simon Fellingham, Mike Cowley and I have headed over the Lualaba River and into the vast woodlands to the east of Kolwezi. This time of year the woodlands are very active with almost all of the species either attracting mates, preparing to nest or waiting in anticipation for the coming rains. The extra feeding, calling, chasing, building and hunting means that the birding activity in September is nothing short of spectacular.

Almost completely absent as little as three weeks ago, Cuckoos now seem to dominate the woodland. At least one representative of African, Red-chested or Black Cuckoo can be heard at almost any point. Klaas's and Emerald are less obvious, while Thick-billed requires a little bit more luck and a good vantage point. The ‘Coctet’ is completed with the locally uncommon Didric and the somewhat shy and the less than common, Common.

Other particularly vocal species at this time of year include the impressive Grey-hooded Kingfisher and African Golden Oriole. The comical call of the Racket-tailed Roller could easily be confused with something far larger and less avian. Rollers display around a nesting tree with a ‘shot in mid air and drop dead’ fly–by. Less spectacular and less confident in the air, but equally vocal are the hornbills, Pale-billed and Crowned.

The brachystegia woodland is of course characterised by a very distinctive suite of species. Although mixed flocks are less evident now than in other months of the year, many of these species such as White-breasted Cuckooshrike, Miombo Tit, Bar-winged Weaver, Miombo Wren Warbler, Red-capped Crombec, Black-necked Eromomela and Cabanis's Bunting still seem to move in loose assemblages. Canopy species include Yellow-bellied Hyliota, Black-eared and Reichards Seedeaters, Amethyst and Violet-backed Sunbird.

Pairs of Arnot’s Chat, Miombo Scrub Robin and Kurrichane Thrush avoid the crowds but are easily found on the woodland floor, which at this time of year is largely devoid of grass and freshly burnt. Rufous-bellied Tits, also seem to be shyer and disappear quickly into a concealed tree cavity. Higher above, a Bohm's Flycatcher enters and leaves a disused Red-headed Weavers nest. The seldom Spotted Creepers are more mobile and appear to be restricted to smaller and better defined territories, but remain difficult to pin down.

The flamboyant African Paradise Flycatcher is never far away from some action while the less dramatic Fan-tailed Flycatchers call incessantly as they glean their way through the thicker clumps of vegetation and around termite mounds. Ashy and Southern Black Flycatchers, although less obvious than some can be quite active. The sticky call of an African Dusky Flycatcher often gives away the presence of a shy spectator. No Spotted or Collared Flycatchers are around yet.

Apart from the seemingly omnipresent Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird, frugivores seem to be poorly represented. Concentrations of fruiting figs do however attract Crested and Black-collared Barbet and the splendid Schalow’s Turaco and Violet-backed Starling. If you are lucky you may chance across a group of Anchieta’s Barbet. A day in the woodland can produce up to five species of Woodpecker including Cardinal, Bearded, Golden-tailed, Bennet’s and Little Spotted.

A number of grassy hills renowned for their high copper content and associated vegetation types produce a slightly different suite of species to the woodland. Sooty Chat replace Arnot's and are normally the first to be seen. They are followed by a variety of hirundines including Pearl-breasted, Grey-rumped Angola, Red-breasted and Lesser Striped Swallows. The former species seem to make use of artisanal miner’s shafts. A waterway whose trees have long been converted into charcoal provides a grassy niche which is host to Red-cheeked Cordonbleau, Black-Sawwing Swallow, Orange-winged Pytilia and Holub’s Golden Weaver.

The area still supports a reasonably healthy population of Bateleur who together with a few pairs of African Hawk Eagle scour the woodland from above. Below African Goshawk and Lizard Buzzard wait while the ubiquitous Yellow-billed Kites are never far from a meal. Trilling, Rattling, Red-faced and Short-winged Cisticolas have, for obvious reasons, have been relegated to the second division. However despite their browns and beiges, their song adds to the general ambience and confirms that summer has arrived.