East Coast Akalat in the east-african lowland forest of Arabuko-Sokoke/ Kenya

BlauflügelrötelA somewhat melancholy, often repeated melody from the dense undergrowth reveals the “tropical robin”. It is an East Coast Akalat (Sheppardia gunningi) of the subspecies sokokensis. We are in the so-called mixed forest. The beginning of our morning trip is not going well. However, a Red-legged Sun Squirrel (Heliosciurus rufobrachium), can be seen briefly on the edge of the track. Suddenly there is loud chirping from the dense bush. Here we leave the car, as obviously a Bird Party is on the way. Our guide says to hear an East Coast Akalat out in the thicket. We play the vocals from the East Coast Akalat by band. But unfortunately, there is nothing to see. Perhaps the large troop of Chestnut-fronted Helmetshrike (Prionops scopifrons) is responsible for the East Coast Akalat not venturing out. So we have to beat ourselves into the bushes. That turns out to be very productive. First of all, I see the Golden-rumped Elephant-shrew (Rhynchocyon chrysopygus) scurrying across the ground. Then we play the song of the East Coast Akalat from the tape again. This time we have a prompt response.

The East Coast Akalat comes first on a branch. Unfortunately he does not stay there for a long time, but at least I can photograph it in the semi-darkness. Only a short time later, it sits even very nicely exposed on a branch right on the track we passed in the jungle. The whole area looks very typical like the place at the Chintheche Inn on Lake Malawi, where I had already photographed the East Coast Akalat. It turns out in further research, however, that the occurring in Malawi birds (ssp.bensoni) is clearly different from the subspecies sokokensis occurring here. So maybe it’s about 2 different types. Everywhere fallen leaves are lying on the ground. Lianas hang out in an otherwise quite tidy forest. We try the East Coast Akalat again to lure with the tape. But obviously without success. Then we try again on the song of the Red-tailed Ant-thrush (Neocossyphus rufus). Lo and behold, the East Coast Akalat sits quite still on a branch. The East Coast Akalat has turned his back on us. He does not move at all. The distance is certainly under 10 meters. I then photograph the “Tropical Robin” extensively – going down with shutter speed to 1/30 sec. Then the East Coast Akalat disappears again. A little later it sits in the dark shadow of the thicket again – this time facing us head-on. When our guide plays the tape again, the East Coast Akalat comes out indignantly. He lands on a twig sitting strikingly exposed and gets a great picture.

After one of the highlights of the coastal forest of Kenya, the Sokokee owl (Otus ireneae), which is called Scops-Owl in English Sokoke, we have now seen another specialty of the endemic nature reserve. There is an interesting article by BirdLife International titled “Distribution, Habitat Selection and Behavior of the East Coast Akalat Sheppardia gunningi sokokensis in Kenya and Tanzania”, Bird Conservation International (2000) 10: pp. 115-130,  which is a good preparation for could represent the quest for the East Coast Akalat. It is interesting to note that the population density in the mixed forest in the study is significantly lower than in the forest with dominant Cynometra webberi trees. We, however, were able to prove the East Coast Akalat practically only in the mixed forest. The area mapping showed that the East Coast Akalat near the nature trail (in the mixed forest) had territorial sizes with a diameter of about 100 to 200 m. In Comanometra webberi dominated Komani area, the birds were more even and denser with an area diameter of only about 70 m.

After the real highlight of the coastal forest of Kenya, the Sokoke Scops-Owl (Otus ireneae), , we have now seen another specialty of the endemic nature reserve. Besides the Sokoke Scops-Owl and the East Coast Akalat, Sheppardia gunningi sokokensis, there are 4 special bird species occurring in the forest. These are the Sokoke Pipit (Anthus sokokensis), Spotted Ground Thrush (Zoothera guttata), Amani Sunbird (Anthreptes palidigaster) and Clarke’s Weaver (Ploceus golandi). The weaver was the only bird, we did not see during 3 day trips to the forest.

A 5th “special” is now the Malindi Pipit (Anthus melindae), which has abandoned it former home ground, the Sabaki River Delta, due to agriculture pressure had reduced the available habitat. In the vicinity of Malindi is is now found near the Arabuke Sokoke Forest near the so-called elephant swamp.

Arabuko-Sokoke is splitted in three quite different forest biozomes. The one is the aforementioned Mixed forest in the east, on grey sands. This relatively dense, tall and undifferentiated forest includes a diversity of tree species. The second forest habitet is characterized by Brachystegia woodland on white soil. This relatively open habitat, dominated by Brachystegia spiciformis, runs in a strip through the approximate centre of the forest. The 3rd forest, more to the west is Cynometra low-canopy forest and thicket, dominated by Cynometra webberi.

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