At the home of the rare Clarke’s weaver

Friday May 24 2013

Male and female Clarke’s weaverbirds. Photo/Courtesy

Male and female Clarke’s weaverbirds. Photo/Courtesy 

By RUPI MANGAT

Last month, Kenya became the centre of attention for conservationists when the nesting site of the Clarke’s weaver, an endangered bird found only in the country, was found in the Dakatcha woodland of Kilifi County. The woodland was then declared an Important Bird Area.

The Clarke’s weaver is a rare little yellow bird measuring a few inches, whose male has a black patch on the back, head and chest, while the female is pale yellow.

It was a landmark discovery, akin to finding a needle in a haystack, after decades of searching. It was also crucial for the survival of the species, as finding its breeding grounds would focus conservation efforts better.

The day we travelled to the Dakatcha woodland with a team from Nature Kenya, our excitement was palpable. To reach the little known 32,000 hectare Dakatcha woodland on the Kenya Coast, which has recently shot into the international limelight, I flew with renowned ornithologist Fleur Ng’weno of Nature Kenya from Nairobi to Malindi. We then headed for Hell’s Kitchen in Marafa, 50 kilometres in the county’s interior, arriving in the evening to set up camp in the moonlight.

The wetland

The following day, at the crack of dawn, we set off for the wetland filled with sedges and grass, and surrounded by a brachystegia forest and a maize field. Brachystegia is a family of hardwood known as miombo in Kiswahili.

When we got there, Fleur and the team of birders from Dakatcha Woodland Conservation Group found only empty nests in the sedges. No Clarke’s weavers and their young. The team could not hide their disappointment.

Earlier, on March 23, Fleur and her team from Nature Kenya and Dakatcha Woodland Conservation Group (DWCG) became the first people to discover the nesting site of the endangered Clarke’s weaver in the forests of Dakatcha and Arabuko-Sokoke, earning a place in the history conservation.

Fleur’s second mission a few weeks later was to see the breeding site.

The Dakatcha Woodland Conservation Group and A Rocha Kenya had observed the birds feeding their young in the nests in early April, thus confirming that seasonal wetlands are, indeed, the nesting site of Clarke’s weavers.

The indefatigable Fleur Ng’weno led this team. Prior to this discovery, no conservationist had associated the Clarke’s weaver with wetlands.
Fleur, a septuagenarian with the energy of someone half her age, has set out to find all about the rare bird.

“Nature Kenya identified Dakatcha Woodland as an area that really needed action because the Clarke’s weaver is globally threatened and only found in Kenya. We didn’t even know where it nested,” Fleur said.

The Clarke’s weaver has lived in the Arabuko-Sokoke forest for many years. Then in 1994, David Ngala, a guide at the forest, sighted them feeding their young in Marafa near Hell’s Kitchen, a naturally eroded sandpit of stunning sand sculptures in the Dakatcha woodland.

“Since there is a lot of brachystegia in the Dakatcha woodland, it was then presumed that Clarke’s weavers must nest here,” said Fleur.

Ngala is a recipient of the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund’s 2012 Conservation Hero award for his work in the Arabuko-Sokoke Forest and the Peregrine Fund’s raptor conservation projects in Africa.

Fleur joined the East Africa Natural History Society (Nature Kenya) on her arrival in Kenya in 1963. She is married to renowned publisher Hilary Ng’weno.

Since her first bird walk at the Nairobi Museum car park in February 1971, she has been doing it virtually every Wednesday morning.

In 1999, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in the UK awarded her a medal for her outstanding contribution to bird conservation in Kenya.

From the weekly database of the Nairobi bird walks and other records, Nairobi, with more than 600 species, is the world’s birding capital.

A spin-off from the Nairobi bird walks are bird-watching outings in Kisumu, Mombasa and other towns in Kenya.

No one knows the population of the bird, as the only records from the 1980s place their numbers between 2,000 and 4,000.

Since 2007, Fleur and her team at DWCG combed the Dakatcha woodland, day and night, in search of the Clarke’s weavers.

One of the guides, Julius Mwambire, recalled the first time they sighted the birds.

“We were driving in the afternoon after searching for wetlands when I spotted this one and asked Fleur if we could stop. She said yes and that is when we saw the flock of Clarke’s weavers.”

The wetland is in an area that was once earmarked for the establishment of a jatropha plantation. The seeds of the jatropha are used as biofuel, but conservationists have opposed the growing of the crop, as establishing the plantations on virgin land would destroy wildlife habitats.

Studies showed that jatropha cultivation would not have been sustainable, and spirited opposition to the project by Nature Kenya and other conservationists saved the Dakatcha woodland.

On the day we visited the forest, we were disappointed to miss the birds. In the depths of the forests, we did not have mobile phone services.

First message

But, en route to Malindi, our phones picked up network and the first message on Fleur’s cell phone from David Ngala raised our spirits.

He said he had seen Clarke’s weavers at a seasonal marsh land near Arabuko-Sokoke forest the day before. We picked up Ngala from his base at Arabuko-Sokoke and he led us to the Malindi-Mombasa highway. About 26 kilometres down the road at the edge of the Arabuko-Sokoke forest, we turned onto a murram road and drove four kilometres before we came to a small wetland.

Between the road and the site was a maize field, where a woman was working. She granted us permission to sit around and wait for the return of the birds. It was 3pm, and Ngala expected the birds to return at 6pm.

There were other weaver birds around: the beautiful bright yellow Golden Palm weavers and the black Grosbeak weavers.

Two hours later, Albert Baya, a guide at Gede and Arabuko-Sokoke forest who accompanied us, alerted us to the presence of a male Clarke’s weaver in the grasses. There was excitement around. And then the flocks began to arrive. About 200 Clarke’s weavers came in.

The birds seemed to nest in flocks. Fleur was not convinced that they were constructing nests, until Baya produced a picture of a male with a sliver of reed in its beak near a nest. The rest of the nests looked a little different from those found in the first wetland.

The Clarke’s weavers sighted on March 23 were alone, but here they were with the Golden Palm weavers and the black Grosbeak weavers.

“When I saw Clarke’s weavers in the first wetland, I was worried that if this is the only nesting site in the world, the population could be extinct in the near future,” Fleur said. Her hope was renewed with the discovery of the new breeding ground.

She had to see Clarke’s weavers constructing nests to prove that those near the Arabuko-Sokoke forest were indeed theirs.

“We know almost nothing about these birds,” she said. Nobody knows their breeding seasons, their movements or their population. But two things are certain – they live almost entirely in brachystegia forests and nest in wetlands.