Calling them out

Today I am going into a forest. A mangrove forest. So, basically a swamp. Over the last decade or so, the area has been filled in with debris, rocks, and sand by the local people in order to make suitable platforms for building. And it is working splendidly, if slowly. In a few years it will be dry land, and the mangrove plants will dry out, too.

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The area has already been cut off from the primary water body that supplies the swamp. This is sad, but it only drives me to survey the area while it is still a suitable habitat for mangrove swamp birds, and perhaps record the changing species composition. Every trip here is an adventure because I am not sure what will have changed since the last time I visited.

I step off the road and take a winding path down the hill. The usual Splendid Starlings, Pied Crows, Cattle Egrets, and Common Bulbuls are going about their morning routine around the existing and upcoming housing structures. All three doves that occur here (Red-eyed Dove, Laughing Dove, and Blue-spotted Wood Dove) call from nearby or fly in front of me. I log them in my bird watching app and forge further away from the road.

My reward is an odd sight: a bird sprinting across the land. Odd because if I could fly, why on earth would I walk anywhere?? Especially places I’m in that much of a hurry to get to. It is about the size of a chicken, but not for a second do I mistake it for one of the others I’d seen on the way to this spot. It has a rich grey breast and body with brown wings and back separated by two white lines, green legs visible even from here, and a red beak tipped with yellow. I hasten to get the first bird pic of the day:

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I double check with the book, and verify that this is a Common Moorhen. I love the colors on this bird! I idly wonder if it is related to a Greenshank which has legs the same color, but realize it would most likely be related to the Double Spurred Francolin, another bird which, unreasonably, walks about a lot. I move on, from the spot and the thought.

I have been birding for 20 minutes when I heard it the first time, sharp and  clear, a whistle in three parts: whee-whe-whee! I record the Common Wattle-eye (heard). It’s good to know it’s here!

I see three birds off in the distance, one a beautifully patterned black, grey, and white. It has a tuft of feathers on his lower back that looks like nothing so much as a fluffy grey tutu when it flies. The other two are brown, with subtle streaks on their breasts and necks. This could mean an adult and two juveniles or a male and two females. All three have striking red eyes. They are quite far away, and seem to be involved in a heated exchange, or maybe an exchange of pleasantries. They take off before I get a good shot, but it’s the first time I’ve seen the Northern Puffback here, so I’m pretty excited.

The elusive wattle eye calls again, from a different direction than I was heading in. I change directions. I am determined to see the Common Wattle-eye today. I am a very sight oriented person and birder, and heard records are not my favorites, unless I’ve already seen the bird that day. A trio of sunbirds fly past, chattering away. I drift towards the small tree on which they have perched. No need. The green head and throat on a pale grey breast one tells me that these are Green-headed Sunbirds. The two females have green caps, but no green on their throats like the males. I return to the path to the Wattle-eye, but he has fallen silent now.

I follow a flash of blue, sure of the species before it lands. The orange beak and blue and black pattern on the wing are unmistakable. It finds a nice perch on a mangrove stem and just sits. After a minute of watching it, I lose interest (for shame, what birder is this??) and look around again for other things. I guess this trick works on insects, too, because the kingfisher takes off from his perch then and snatches one up in his beak, and returns to its perch. It whacks the insect against the stick a few times, then eats it. It returns to sitting innocently on the stem. The kingfisher will repeat this exercise often, unless something drives him from his perch or the insects available dwindle.

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This is a Woodland Kingfisher, but many Liberians call this bird a blue-jay. Perfectly understandable, as the blue on his wings is the most distinct thing about him, if you’ve never seen him fish for insects.

I move on, to see a bunch of waterbirds: two more Moorhens, a Squacco Heron, five Intermediate Egrets, and a Western Reef Heron. I walk across a small bridge, and several swallows swoop past, turning wildly in the air around me. It’s difficult to narrow it down to one species, because they are flying past so quickly. All I can see is a flash of white belly and dark blue back. Luckily, one of them perches on a stake a little ways away. I move closer, and note a chestnut colored (rufous) circle on its forehead. Its throat is a cream color in contrast to the white of its breast and belly.

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I’m sure now these are Ethiopian Swallows. I remain uncertain of their number, because they swooped past me so many times I lost count, and had no way of knowing if these were returning individuals. Alas.

A small bird flies ahead of me, and in the stretch of ten seconds, occupied four different positions in the shrubs. Warblers, man. The bird is a dull golden color, with a streaked head and wings. Its eyebrow stripe (supercilium) is a slightly lighter color, and its bottom beak is pale. It has a dark stripe across the eye, and two such almost matching stripes across the wings. I take a quick photo before it disappears behind the foliage again. That’ll have to do for now.

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The bird, a Sedge Warbler, takes off again, obviously in a hurry to mock some other birder. A black and white bird about the size of a phone flies past, keeping close to the waterline. It looks like a small flying zebra. Ridiculous I know, but now that image is stuck in your head. You’re welcome. It hovers above the waterline, dives down, and then perches off in the distance.

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This bird, a Pied Kingfisher, is one the largest hovering birds. Most birds fly, obviously, or soar on the currents, but this Kingfisher is the largest of those few birds that truly hover. Hovering in birds refers to beating their wings in a way that allows them to remain aloft in one position for a period of time. The hummingbirds of the Americas are the smallest hovering birds.

It has been an hour, and I must start to return the way I had come, along a different path. I want to see the wattle-eye, because I haven’t seen this species in Liberia before, and because I assume that if they were calling to each other, one of them must be a female. I’d never seen the female of the species before. I go to the music folder on my phone, and search ‘wattle-eye’. The search results gives several, but I select ‘Brown-throated Wattle-eye’. The bird is odd because this name is taken from the female. Many birds are named for the males, you see. Pin-tailed Whydah, Scarlet-chested Sunbirds, Citrine Wagtails, Red-shouldered Cuckoo-Shrike, Northern Red Bishops, Red-cheeked Cordon bleus, and  Indigobirds are all species whose females have none of the nominate features. Basically, if I see a flamboyantly colored bird, I assume it is a male.

The call plays from my phone, a slightly different one than I’ve been hearing. I hold still. It sounds again, and a few of the distant wattle-eyes respond. Victory! It seems the calls are similar enough.  A minute later, I see a smallish black and white bird fly into a thick bush nearby. It is tilts its head so and so. The wattle-eye is named for the red features around the eyes. It has a white belly and black back and collar, and a white streak across the wings. This is a male, because his throat is a clean white above the black collar. The call sounds from my pocket again. He responds with a strong whee-wee-whee! He tilts his head this way, searching for the challenger or perhaps, potential mate. As he gets closer, his call becomes louder and more insistent. I guess he must have decided that this was a challenge. Because that is all this could be. Why would another Wattle-eye be calling in his territory. In my territory? I’ll show you! Every time the call sounds, it is a challenge, and he meets it by returning a louder and more melodious call. Whee-wee-whee! This is war! Show yourself, come out here and sing to me like a bird! And he postures atop the bush, furiously whistling at his invisible foe. Eventually, I bow out graciously. After taking about thirty photos. 🙂

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I am still wrapped in the haze of my victory when I hear the buzz of a prinia. My head snaps that way. All I see is a shaking bush. I know that within is a Tawny-flanked Prinia mocking me just out of sight, with an almost intentional shaking of the bushes, so much movement for such a small bird. At least it is giving me more than the Wattle-eye had initially. I could stare at the bushes until I catch a glimpse of the shaker, but why should I? I know how to deal with this problem now.

A half minute later, the call of the prinia rings out from my phone, ‘dwe-dwedwe-dwedwe’. A bush shakes to the left, and I turn. The call sounds again, and a little grey head pokes out of the bushes. The call sounds a third time, a faster variant, and the prinia in the bush responds. Dwedwe! It wasn’t a challenge, it seemed more like a ‘who’s there?’ He remains there long enough for me to take his photo, then I stop the playback and he returns to his foraging exercise.

I must return, too, to the road.As I cross the small bridge again, the Sedge Warbler alights on the debris below, and ignoring me, begins to look for food. I take some photos from 10 meters away. :)))))

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I greet the builders as I move out, already planning the next trip. This has been a good day for swamp birds.

 

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