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Topic : Rare Birds

Article 33 bullet 17 July 2007

East Coast Akalat

by Hugh Chittenden and Derek Coley

East Coast Akalat Sheppardia gunningi or Gunning’s Robin as it used to be called, is one of the smallest and least known of the robins in southern Africa. It is confined to the wooded thickets and sand forest regions north of Beira where it’s not that uncommon. It also occurs in the degraded vegetation adjacent to rural communities that have cleared land for agricultural use. The original specimen was first discovered by the well-known trader and collector, P. A. Sheppard. This specimen was sent to the Transvaal Museum in Pretoria where it was named in honour of the then director Dr J.W. B. Gunning. In November 1998, nearly 90 years later, while on one of our birding expeditions to the region, Derek Coley found the first active nest in southern Africa and we were able to get the close-up photographs of the shy, little forest inhabitant. This diminutive little robin is listed as being globally threatened. It is also found in two other regions on the continent, the lowland forests surrounding Lake Malawi near Chincheche and Nkhata Bay, and in eastern Tanzania through to the well-known Arabuko-Sokoke forest north of Mombasa in Kenya.

An adult East Coast Akalat at its nest entrance

An adult East Coast Akalat at its nest entrance.

East Coast Akalat is one of 8 Sheppardia species that occupy the forests of Africa. Once you get to know this little robin’s continuous low-pitched call, you will find they are not difficult to locate. In these remote lowland regions north of Beira we were privileged to spend many fascinating hours sitting quietly in the under-canopy of sand forest learning about the everyday life of this little-known robin species. What impressed us most about this confiding little songster was the way it is able to ‘turn on and off’ the two little stars or ‘headlights’ it has in front of the eyes. These stars or supraloral spots are similar to those of the White-starred Robin (whose stars are above the eyes), but they are able to expose them in display while singing, by erecting the feathers in front of the eyes. As they start to sing, the ‘headlights’ come on, and are then ‘switched off’ at the end of the song phrase.

male and Female Akalat

These akalats usually occupy the lower 2 m of the forest thickets.

The nest found by Derek was in the leaf litter on the flat forest floor. It was a semi-domed shaped structure placed at the base of a forest sapling. The nest contained three downy, blackish chicks. The base of the nest cup was slightly below ground level so that when the female brooded the chicks, her exposed head was almost level with the surrounding leaf litter and extremely well camouflaged.

East Coast Akalat

Seven pairs of these little robins occupied a small sand forest patch about 4.5 hectares in size.

As these birds are sexually monomorphic, we were unable to separate their food delivery ratios. Both adults brought moths, spiders, small crickets and other small invertebrates to the nest. This pair occupied one of seven territories in a small forest patch measuring about 4,5 hectares. The average territory size for each pair was thus approximately 0,64 hectares, which is similar in size to that of White-starred Robin measured by Terry Oatley (Robins of Africa, 1998).

East Coast Akalat Nest

The nest was placed in the leaf litter on the forest floor.

With small territories, it is understandable that the volume of their song is relatively subdued. Singing birds in neighbouring territories are often only 30 – 40 m away. What they lack in volume, however, they make up for in stamina, as males, at the onset of the breeding season (October to January), will sing almost continuously from dawn to dusk!

Sadly, Mozambique’s magnificent sand forests which are the prime habitat for this globally threatened species, is under serious long-term threat from logging and it is hoped that the government will formally protect some of these forests sooner than later.

Opening statement: East Coast Akalat Sheppardia gunningi or Gunning’s Robin as it used to be called, is one of the smallest and least known of the robins in southern Africa



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