Bird of the week: Fox’s Weaver

Fox's Weaver

Despite the east African country of Uganda boasting a bird list of over 1060 species, including some iconic ones like Shoebill, Grey Parrot, African Pitta and Great Blue Turaco, the “Pearl of Africa” only has one endemic species, the little known Fox’s Weaver Ploceus spekeoides.

The first Fox’s Weaver was collected by Harold Munro Fox, an English zoologist, who visited Uganda in the early 1910s. Fox gave these specimens to Stephenson Robert Clarke, who presented his own (and these) African specimens to the British Museum in 1923. The Fox’s Weaver specimens were overlooked until 1947 when Captain Claude Henry Baxter Grant, a British ornithologist and collector, and Cyril Winthrop Mackworth-Praed, a British sport shooter & ornithologist, recognised this as a new species.

The male Fox’s Weaver is 14 cm long with a golden-yellow forehead, crown and nape, contrasting with a black throat, chin, lores and cheek. The eyes are orange-red and the bill black, and the back and mantle are black with the outer feathers having narrow yellow fringes. The female, as almost always in the avian world, is much duller! It looks so much alike some other African weavers that experts reckon most photographs of the Fox’s Weaver have actually been misidentified and are other species! Even part of the scientific name spekoides is Greek for “resembling”, meaning the species resembles another, namely Speke’s Weaver Ploceus spekei of northeast Africa.

Fox’s Weaver occurs only in a 10,000 km2 area of eastern-central Uganda, where it inhabits bushed and wooded grassland in swampy areas, particularly where papyrus grows. Very little is known about its feeding habits, but it is thought that it eats seeds and small insects.

There is equally little known about the breeding habits of the Fox’s Weaver, but it might be a colonial system. It is presumed that it is a resident species, with local movements depending on rain and water levels.

It is currently regarded as Near Threatened (IUCN 3.1) due to habitat loss as a result of human activity in its restricted range. For your chance to see this poorly-studied species, join us on our 14 day, small group, expert-guided birding tour to Uganda in August 2020. Who knows, you may even become a birding celebrity if you manage to get some good photographs or figure out what they eat or how they breed! For more information enquire directly at info@naturetravelbirding.com.

 

Rainforest Scops Owl

It is sometimes fun to sit back and watch all the clever scientists fight over a bird’s name or its place in its genus or family. Few fights recently have been bigger than the one over the Rainforest Scops Owl Otus rutilus of Madagascar.

Birding in Madagascar
The only thing they can agree on, is that is a species of owl in the family Strigidae and in the genus Otus. But that is about it – the rest is not so clear. It used to be lumped together with 3 other scops owls (Mayotte, Pemba and Torotoroka Scops Owls) but those have all since been split by some authorities and have been given full species status. Other experts dispute this, and feel that some of these do not merit having full species status on genetic grounds.

What we do know is that the Rainforest Scops Owl is a small owl (19–24 cm and 85-120 grams) with short, rounded wings and short ear tufts. There are three morphs recorded (grey, brown and rufous) but the colouring is extremely variable. Features which stand out on all morphs are the pale facial disc, pale eyebrows, light spots on the scapulars and the barring on the wings and outer tail feathers. Sometimes the crown and the underparts are streaked blackish. The bill has a black tip and the eyes are always yellow.

Birding in Madagascar

The owl is endemic to Madagascar where it is found in the north and east of the island. It prefers, as its name suggests, humid tropical forest, thickets and humid bush country, from sea level to 2,000 metres above.

The typical song is a series of between five and fifteen short, even-pitched, clear “tu-tu-tu-tu-tu” notes, repeated after a few seconds.
The Rainforest Scops Owl feeds mostly on insects, such as beetles, moths and spiders. It hunts almost exclusively at night, and roosts during the day, hidden in dense foliage, sometimes close to the ground. Little is known of its breeding biology.

On our magical Madagascar Birding Tour, we visit several areas and reserves where you have a very good chance of seeing this beautiful, if genetically controversial, owl . Our next small group, expert-guided, 14 day trip to the world’s fourth-largest island is in September 2020.

For more information enquire directly at info@naturetravelbirding.com about this bucket list birding trip to one of the most fascinating places on earth!

 

Iberian Magpie

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This week’s Bird of the Week here at Nature Travel Birding is the unmistakeable Iberian Magpie Cyanopica cooki, a bird in the crow family that occurs in southwestern and central parts of the Iberian Peninsula, in Spain and Portugal.

This bird was previously treated by scientists as the same species as the more east-occurring Azure-winged Mapie C. cyana, but recent genetic analysis has shown that they are distinct at species level.

The Iberian Magpie is about 35 cm (14 in) long and unmistakable within its range, where its combination of black hood, greyish-brown mantle and blue wings and tail are distinctive. It has a glossy black top to the head and a white throat. The underparts and the back are a light grey-fawn in colour with the wings and the feathers of the long tail are an alluring azure blue.

Iberian Magpies prefer open woodland with grassy clearings, including orchards and olive groves, and sometimes even large gardens. Stands of introduced eucalyptus are particularly favoured as communal roost-sites. They have been recorded locally up to 700 m (2,300 ft) above sea level in foothill gorges, but also occurs down to sea-level, with the largest concentrations in coastal wooded dunes of planted stone pines in southwestern Spain.

They find food as a family group or several groups making flocks of up to 70 birds. Their diet consists mainly of acorns and pine nuts, extensively supplemented by invertebrates, including caterpillars, millipedes, snails and leeches, as well as soft fruits and berries (including grapes, olives, mulberries and cherries), and also human-provided scraps in parks and towns. They are generally shy and very wary, but can become confiding where unmolested.

Iberian Magpies are believed to have monogamous pair-bond, pair-members that keep together within flocks. They are social breeders, forming loose colonies, but there are rarely more than one nest in a single tree. There are usually 6 to 8 eggs that are incubated for 15 days. Interestingly, their nests are very rarely, if ever, parasitized by cuckoos, unlike those of its Asian cousin.

Although most abundant in the southern Spain-Portugal border regions of Extremadura, and said to be increasing in Portugal, it seems that the total population of Iberian Magpies could be declining. Destruction of extensive stands of holm oak trees has been blamed for its disappearance over several areas, and competition with increasing numbers of Eurasian Magpie has also been suggested as a possible reason for local decreases.

Join us on a fantastic Spain birding tour coming up in the European spring in 2020 to see these beautiful near-endemic birds, along with many others. All our trips are small group, expert-guided trips. For more information browse to our website or enquire directly at info@naturetravelbirding.com.

 

 

Serendib Scops Owl

It is often said that there is nothing new under the sun. But in ornithological terms, this was proven to be totally false in the early 2000s. That was when prominent Sri Lankan ornithologist Deepal Warakagoda discovered the Serendib Scops Owl (Otus thilohoffmanni) in the Kitulgala rainforest in south-central Sri Lanka. He heard it there first and later saw it in the nearby Sinharajah rainforest. It was the first new bird discovered in Sri Lanka since 1868!

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Now nearly every birdwatcher living in, visiting, or planning to visit the island looks forward to seeing this attractive little creature. Endemic to southwestern Sri Lanka and known from only five forest reserves, this rainforest species is so secretive that it eluded all avifaunal surveys of the country, begun by the Dutch more than 200 years ago. The type description was published in 2004 and the species was given the scientific name Otus thilohoffmanni after Thilo W. Hoffmann, Sri Lanka’s leading worker for nature conservation. ‘Serendib’ was chosen as being an ancient Persian name for Sri Lanka and to signify the serendipity of the discovery. The bird is now so famous it even appears on the 2010 series of the 20 Sri Lankan rupee bank note!

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The Serendib Scops Owl is a small scops owl about 17 cm (7 in) in length, with a short tail, and almost uniformly rufescent upperparts but for the presence of small black spots all over the body. The face is a little darker (with a weakly defined facial disk), and underparts paler than upperparts, with the belly becoming whitish. It has no distinct, “true” ear-tufts. The irises are orange-yellow in the male and yellow in the female and juvenile. The beak, legs and claws are whitish. The legs are feathered on the tibia and upper tarsi.

It begins calling at dusk, its frequency rising again some two hours before dawn. The vocalisation comprises a single note, “pu’u’u”, repeated at long intervals. Male and female call in the same pattern but in different keys.

Like most owls, the Serendib Scops Owl is strictly nocturnal and hunts insects (e.g. beetles and moths) and small vertebrates close to the ground. Very little is known about its breeding habits.

The Serendib Scops Owl is considered Endangered (IUCN 3.1) and current estimates put its total population at between only 200 and 700 individuals.

For a chance to see this recently discovered avian superstar, and many other incredible species, join us for a small group, expert-guided trip to sensational Sri Lanka! For more information get in touch with us atinfo@naturetravelbirding.com or browse to Sri Lanka Birding Tour on our website.

Andean Cock-of-the-rock

The spectacularly bizarre Andean Cock-of-the-rock Rupicola peruvianus is perhaps the most popularly recognised bird of the cloud forests of the Andes Mountains of South America, and high up on the of “birds you have to see before you die” list.

The national bird of Peru, this medium-sized passerine species is readily identified by its fan-shaped crest and brilliant orange-red plumage, both of which are evident to a lesser degree even in the duller female.

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It occurs all the way from Venezuela to Bolivia, in montane forest, especially in ravines and along streams, from 500 to 2,400m above sea level.

The Andean Cock-of-the-rock is a highly polygamous species in which no pair-bonding has been recorded. The males’ way of attracting the female’s attention is another standout feature of this incredible bird. Males gather in communal leks typically located in steep forested ravines. 8 to 14 males display in each lek and segregate themselves into approximately three different display areas comprised of about 2 to 4 males. Within these smaller groups, they display toward each other. Females observe these competing displays in a central area within the “arena” of the lek. The displays typically occur early in the morning and late in the afternoons.

Displays consist of wing flaps, head bobbing and bowing, arching push-ups and abrupt facial movements along with loud crowing vocalizations and beak clapping. The females choose their mate by pecking at his neck after watching the displays. Once they have mated, the female departs and the male returns to the arena to continue displaying in the hope of attracting another female.

Their name is derived from their preference for rocks and ledges as substrates for their mud cup nests. The females construct these nests in locations inaccessible to predators. In order to ensure that their nests adhere to the surfaces upon which they are built, they utilize a combination of mud and saliva. These nests are located fairly close to the location of the lek where the female typically finds a mate. Clutch size is believed to be 2 eggs, and only the female incubates for about 25 to 28 days.

Fruits and insects are the largest components of the Andean Cock-of-the-Rock’s diet. They typically eat high protein fruits. Additionally, it has been reported that they feed on small amphibians, reptiles, and there have even been rare sightings of consumption of small mice.

Luckily these birds are not globally threatened. They occur in several protected areas, like Cueva de los Guácharos National Park in Colombia, Podocarpus National Park in Ecuador, and Manu Wildlife Reserve in Peru. Their preference for steep, thickly vegetated ravines and streamsides ensures little human disturbance.

To see this incredible bird and many others almost equally fascinating and colourful, join us on a Nature Travel Birding trip to Peru in August 2020 Not only will you see more than 500 species of birds, along with a chance of spotting a Jaguar, but you will also visit iconic Machu Picchu!

For more information, browse to Peru Birding our our site or talk to us on info@naturetravelbirding.com.

Gorgeous Bushshrike

One of the most beautiful birds in all of South Africa is also unfortunately one of the least seen and photographed. The Gorgeous Bushshrike (Telophorus viridis) is known as much for its stunning colouration as its skulking, secretive and shy behaviour.

Gorgeous Bushshrike
The Gorgeous Bushshrike is part of the Malaconotidae family that includes the puffbacks, tchagras, boubous, gonoleks and all the other bushshrikes. The quadricolor subspecies of the Gorgeous Bushshrike is the one that occurs in South Africa and Swaziland. It prefers thick undergrowth and dense vegetation in woodland areas, particularly along riparian margins and in coastal evergreen forests.

The Gorgeous Bushshrike is, as the name suggests, a stunning species, with the unmistakable male sporting a dark olive-green crown, hindneck and upperparts, a yellow forehead line, blackish tail, a crimson red and black pattern on the throat and chest and an orange-yellowish belly suffused with green. The poor female is as always, far duller!

The song is also beautiful; a loud far-carrying liquid ko, kok or kong followed immediately by 1 or 2 upslurred kowick or kowee notes. The call is also often described as an emphatic kon-kon-koit repeated for long periods; “Konkoit” is actually the bird’s Afrikaans name. These calls are often the only way you know that there is a Gorgeous Bushshrike nearby…

Their diet consists of moths, caterpillars, beetles, wasps and spiders. They are agile hunters, moving silently and quickly in trees, on branches and within leaf litter on the ground.

The breeding season in South Africa is from October to December. After a spectacular territorial and courtship display by the male, breeding commences. The nest is a rather thin platform of twigs, roots, stalks, leaves and grasses, hidden 60–160 cm above the ground on a woody fork or among twigs or creepers. The clutch is usually 2 eggs, with incubation done mainly by the female. The chicks are brooded by the female and fed by both parents. The fledglings remain with the parents for at least four months.
Luckily the Gorgeous Bushshrike is not threatened and the best place to see one in South Africa is probably in the Soutpansberg-Blouberg foothills, the northern Lowveld and eastern Kwazulu-Natal.

Join us on a birding tour in South Africa to experience fantastic birding. To get in touch , email us on info@naturetravelbirding.com.  For more info go to Nature Travel Birding and browse to South Africa to see our current trips.

Rockrunner

One of the sixteen or so of Namibia’s near-endemic bird species, is the striking terrestrial babbler-like Rockrunner Achaetops pycnopygius.

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It has been called the Damara Rockjumper in the past, but is actually a member of the Macrosphenidae family of Crombecs and African warblers. It is the only member of the monotypic genus Achaetops.

It occurs in southwestern Angola and north and central Namibia, preferring sloping rocky areas and outcrops with scattered thorn trees, especially along watercourses, in dry hilly and mountainous areas.

The Rockrunner really is a beautiful bird, with the chest peppered black and white, heavily streaked dark back, with tawny flanks and rump, and a rufous belly. The face is similarly richly striped and patterned.

As its name would suggest, it has the habit of hopping or flying short distances from boulder to boulder; this behaviour aids in identification. Another distinctive feature is the Rockrunner’s song, a rich, robin-like warbling song, usually given from a prominent perch: tip tip tootle tootle ti tootle tootle too.

The Rockrunner feeds mainly on invertebrates, almost exclusively on the ground. It moves with its tail frequently held cocked, and has a mouse-like running habit. It also flies in a laboured manner, with the tail held downwards, and then cocked on alighting. It is rarely found in trees, except when singing or when alarmed.

In terms of breeding, it is solitary and territorial. The nest is a large, thick, untidy structure of grass and leaves, lined with fine soft grass. It is normally well hidden close to the ground in the middle of large clumps of grass or in a low, large-leafed shrub. The clutch is usually 3 eggs, the incubation period about 15 days. The young leave the nest at a relatively early age, before they are able to fly, and hide in the grass. They are fed by both adults until they are independent.

The Rockrunner is a fairly common bird, but very localised. Although the total population of the bird is estimated at 50,000, it can be a tricky bird to find in Namibia. Regional population density is quite variable, dependent mostly on elevation and rainfall patterns.

For your chance to see this striking rockhopping bird and many others, join us on a small group, expert guided Nature Travel Birding tour in Namibia, Botswana and Zambia. For more information browse to our Namibia, Botswana & Zambia Birding tour or enquire directly at info@naturetravelbirding.com.

Grey Parrot

Although it is one of the most popular “exotic pets” in the world, the Grey Parrot Psittacus erithacus is actually a beautiful and majestic wild avian wonder.
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It occurs naturally in lowland moist forest, savannah woodland and cultivations in equatorial Africa, including northern Angola, Cameroon, the Congo, Gabon, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Kenya and Uganda. It is also known as the Congo grey parrot or African grey parrot.

It is a fairly large parrot, with an overall grey appearance, a bare facial area around the whitish eye and a bright red tail and tail coverts. Its size, notably that of the bill, is individually variable independent of age, as is the intensity of the grey and the amount of red, which sometimes extends onto the belly.

Grey Parrots are highly social creatures, sometimes foraging in noisy flocks of up to 30 individuals and travelling long distances through the forest in search of food. They eat mainly fruits, seeds and nuts, preferring the fruit of the African Oil Palm. They will also occasionally eat insects and snails.

The Grey Parrot is monogamous, only mating with one companion at a time. They also display intricate behaviour such as bi-parental care (both parents look after their little chicks) and show altruistic behaviour such as grooming each other and regurgitating food to feed others.

These parrots are among the world’s most intelligent animals, with research showing that they can identify, request, refuse, categorise and quantify more than 80 different objects! They may live up to 60 years in captivity, but in the wild rarely make it past 25 years.

Unfortunately populations of the Grey Parrot are rapidly decreasing worldwide, and it is currently regarded as Endangered on the IUCN Red List. Humans are, as always, the main threat to their survival. The extensive harvesting of wild birds for the pet trade, in addition to habitat loss and use as bush meat, has led to a rapid decline in numbers of Grey Parrots across their range. In order to address the threat from the cage bird trade the species was moved to Appendix I in 2016, thus banning international trade.

For your chance to see this magnificent parrot in the wild, join us on a birding trip to Uganda in 2020. Not only will you see the Grey Parrot, but you are guaranteed a superb birding and general wildlife experience. Get in touch with us on info@naturetravelbirding.com for more info on this amazing tour to Uganda or any other birding tour.

Sickle-billed Vanga

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The island of Madagascar is one of the most ecologically important places on the planet. It has incredible beauty, but more importantly, some truly unique fauna and fauna species that occur no one else on earth. From an avian perspective, the island has over 100 endemic species, including the Vangidae family of vangas.

The Sickle-billed Vanga (Falculea palliata) is a member of this family and a beauty of a bird! It is the largest of the vangas (32cm/13 in), with a white head, neck, throat and underparts. This is strikingly contrasted with black upperparts with a blue sheen. The strongly decurved bluish-grey bill that the bird is named for can reach up to 77mm (3 in) long, and is tipped ivory white. The inside of the mouth also has a unique, intense black colour.

The Sickle-billed Vanga prefers dry deciduous forest and tropical dry shrubland as well as wooded areas around villages, mostly in western Madagascar, from sea level up to 900 metres (3,000 ft) above.

The bird’s most characteristic call is a loud “wa-aah”, almost like a crying baby, but it can also utter loud screeching and chortling sounds, especially when going to roost.
The diet of the Sickle-billed Vanga consists of invertebrates, including spiders, cockroaches, crickets, grasshoppers, worms and beetles. It also sometimes eats geckos and chameleons. It uses that long hooked bill to probe into holes and crevices in trunks of trees, levering off the bark and taking the insects off surfaces.

They are gregarious, often forming flocks of up to 30 individuals, and often mixing with other birds in feeding parties. Their breeding behaviour is interesting in that it is a bit reversed from the usual, with the female doing the displaying when looking for a mate. She then copulates with several males. The entire group feeds the young ones and all the makes defend the territory while the female performs the nesting duties.

The Sickle-billed Vanga is not globally threatened and good numbers exist in several protected areas in Madagascar, including Ankarafantsika, Kirindy and Berenty.
For a chance to see this unique endemic bird and some other incredible ones too, join us on a small-group, expert-guided trip to the “eighth continent” of Madagascar!

For more information, browse to our Madagascar Birding Tour on the website or enquire at info@naturetravelbirding.com We still have limited space available on our September 2020 tour; see you in Madagascar!

Collared Falconet

Birds of prey can’t often be called “cute”, but there is one bird of prey in northern India that is most certainly cute!

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The Collared Falconet Microhierax caerulescens was first described by European ornithologist George Edwards in 1750, as “the little black and orange colour’d Indian hawk”.

It is only 14 to 18 cm long, with shortish wings, mid-length tail and powerful legs. It has a thick black eye stripe and glossy black upperparts, and a rufous throat, belly and legs. The white collar is distinctive, and it is this feature together with the black eye stripe that gives it that “cute” appearance; almost as if it were wearing makeup!

It is found in the eastern Himalayas, from Uttarakhand and Nepal to northeastern India. It frequents open deciduous forest, plantations and evergreen forest edges, often near rivers and streams. It occurs from sea level up to 2,000 metres above.

The Collared Falconet hunts from a perch, like a flycatcher or a small shrike rather than a falcon, performing several foraging sallies. Prey include large insects such as butterflies, moths, dragonflies, grasshoppers, beetles and cicadas, but it also takes small birds, lizards and even small mammals.

It roosts and nests in cavities in trees, usually abandoned by barbets or woodpeckers. The breeding season takes place between February and May. The female lays 4-5 dirty white eggs and both adults incubate them. The adults are very aggressive towards intruders, both humans and animals, if they approach the nest site.

To see this incredibly “cute” little raptor, join us on our Nature Travel Birding trip to Northern India in January 2020. There are still very limited space available on this incredible small-group, expert-guided trip.

Browse to our website and go to Northern India to get more information. Or get in touch with us on info@naturetravelbirding.com.