Nakuru is a good place to find a dozing Leopard. Photo: David Tipling
The vast expanses of East Africa have long been part of every traveler’s dreams, a land of rolling grasslands dotted with acacia trees, snow-capped mountain rising above the limitless horizons, and riverine forests harboring colorful birds and troops of monkeys. Of course the large mammals of the East African plains are readily summoned to mind, and it is a wonderful fact that by visiting Kenya it is still possible to see huge concentrations of animals along with, not incidentally, 500 or more species of birds.
November is the time for Palearctic migrants, which pass through in vast numbers on their southbound passage. Our tour is designed to take full advantage of this annual phenomenon. Of course we won’t overlook the showy residents, either, and we’ll spend most of our time seeking out the area’s many specialties.
We now visit Samburu/Buffalo Springs National Reserves for three nights, adding Brian Finch’s favorite national reserve to the tour.
Day 1: Our tour begins this evening in Nairobi. Night near Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. For early arrivals, there may be a chance to do an optional afternoon outing to Nairobi National Park (extra fee).
Day 2: This morning we’ll take the 1 ½ hours flight to Samburu, located on the lower flanks of the north side of the Mt Kenya massif. The stunning setting of rolling scrubby plains is enhanced with a vista of impressive rocky outcrops in all directions. The Ewaso Nyiro River and tributaries are lined with Doum Palms, unique amongst palms in being many branched rather than single trunked. These create a marvelous foreground for the painted sunsets for which the region is famous. In spite of the arid terrain the area boasts a remarkable variety and density of birdlife, and the special mammals of the area also add a more than just pleasant distraction from the avian spectacle.
Days 3-4: Three unique, conjoined reserves make up the region called Samburu, and while we are here, we’ll visit all three. In the plains we’ll look for the commanding Somali Ostrich, the tallest living bird, and Kori Bustard, the heaviest flying bird on the planet. Also in the grasslands we may see Secretarybirds striding with determination, and comical families of Yellow-necked Spurfowl putting on mad spurts of speed before taking off in a maniacal cackle. Resplendent Vulturine Guineafowl forage in groups, their mixed purples and blues glowing as the light strikes them at certain angles.
Also in the scrub we can hope to see Somali Courser, Buff-crested and White-bellied Bustards, plus an array of raptors from the miniscule Pygmy Falcon to the ponderous Lappet-faced Vulture. Amusing White-bellied Go-Away Birds croak at us as we pass by the Salvadora bushes which could also contain Magpie and Wattled Starlings, plus the most improbably adorned Golden-breasted Starling, one of the world’s most spectacularly colorful species. In the riverine woodland there will be smaller species, such as the gem-like Black-bellied, Eastern Violet-backed and Hunter’s Sunbirds and possibly even the rarer Shining Sunbird. Pearl-spotted Owlets abroad in daylight will have their own following of small birds complaining about their presence. On the final morning we’ll visit Shaba Game Reserve, and look for William’s Lark, virtually only known from the one lava plain.
Of course we cannot fail to notice the mammals; Reticulated Giraffe, Grevy’s Zebra, Beisa Oryx, the bizarre long-necked and often bipedal Gerenuk and Gunther’s Dik-dik are all specialities of the Somali-biome. More widespread species such as Lion, Leopard and Cheetah, Grant’s Gazelle, Impala, and smaller species such as Dwarf, Banded and White-tailed Mongooses, Unstriped Ground-Squirrel down to a myriad species of bats including the unique Yellow-winged Bat, are all integral parts of the ecology that makes this region truly unique.
Day 5: After a final morning in the land of the Samburu, we’ll drive to Mountain Lodge on the slopes of Mt. Kenya.
Located in the heart of the Mount Kenya Forest Reserve, the lodge is a superb place, and the rooftop balcony overlooking a water hole is always delightful. Groups of Silvery-cheeked Hornbills and Bronze-naped Pigeons are common, and Crowned Eagles are regularly seen soaring over the trees. From the roof of the lodge we’ll look for Moustached Green Tinkerbird, Waller’s Starling, Rüppell’s Robin-Chat, White-starred Forest-Robin, Mountain Greenbul, Gray-headed Negro-finch, and White-browed Crombec, along with many other species. After dark, the waterhole attracts a variety of mammals, among them African Buffalo, Bushbuck, and the occasional Bushpig or Giant Forest Hog. Large Spotted Genet sometimes visits a floodlit feeding station, and if we’re lucky, a Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl will be in residence. Night at Mountain Lodge.
Day 6: After a morning at Mountain Lodge, we’ll take a picnic lunch on our drive to the next destination, birding along the way. We may see Hartlaub’s Turaco, Crowned Hornbill, African Paradise Flycatcher, and up to eight species of sunbird among many others. After lunch we’ll continue with birding stops on to Lake Nakuru. Night in Lake Nakuru National Park.
Day 7: We’ll spend the day birding around the lake, world-famous for its vast flocks of flamingos and its wealth of waterbirds. The acacia woodland around the lake is a fine example of this habitat, and we’ll look for such species as African Thrush, Red-throated Wryneck, Arrow-marked Babbler, and Red-headed Weaver. Hildebrandt’s Francolins wander the shaded tracks, and shy Tambourine Doves hurtle through the undergrowth. There is a good population of White Rhinoceros at Nakuru, and we’ll likely see one or more of these magnificent beasts grazing along the lakeshore. Water levels at the lake vary greatly, but under normal conditions dense flocks of thousands of Lesser Flamingos feed in the shallows, while doughnut-shaped rings of White Pelicans are scattered across the lake. This memorable sight is surely one of the natural wonders of the world. Night in Lake Nakuru National Park.
Day 8: We’ll leave Lake Nakuru this morning and drive north in the Great Rift Valley. We’ll look for Dark Chanting-Goshawk and Silverbird along the way and before long we’ll arrive at Lake Baringo. Night at Lake Baringo.
Day 9: Before breakfast we’ll visit cliffs near our lodge where Cliff Chat nests, and in the scrub along the escarpment’s edge we’ll look for Hemprich’s, Jackson’s, and Yellow-billed Hornbills, Brown-tailed Rock-Chat, and Bristle-crowned Starling. This is also a regular nesting site for a pair of Verreaux’s Eagles. The rest of the morning will be spent exploring the bird-rich habitats around Lake Baringo. After lunch we’ll drive west to the eastern edge of the great Congo rainforest at Kakamega and our wonderful accommodation within the forest where Great Blue Turacos breed in a large tree on the front lawn and White-spotted Flufftails live by the fish ponds. Night in Kakamega Forest.
Day 10: Nearly eighty species in Kakamega and the nearby Nandi Forest occur nowhere else in Kenya. Even with just one full day here, we’ll make a good dent in the list. Skulkers such as White-tailed Ant-Thrush, Equatorial Akalat and four species of Illadopsis require extra effort as they hide in the deep recesses of the scrub. Other species are flamboyant and easily seen, including White-headed Wood-Hoopoe, Dark-backed and Black-billed Weavers and Green, Green-throated and Green-headed Sunbirds, along with a number of more somberly colored but no less interesting species. We’ll probably have a picnic lunch to make the most of our full day here. Night at Rondo Retreat.
Day 11: After a final morning in Kakamega continuing our search for trogons to hylias and from bee-eaters to honeyguides, we’ll take our picnic lunch and head for the Busia grasslands. Leaving Kakamega, we’ll stop at a bridge that is the only known Kenyan site for Rock Pratincole; we may also find glowing Red-chested Sunbirds and rainbow-colored Yellow-backed Weavers here, and perhaps a Yellow-shouldered or Fan-tailed Widowbird. Continuing to the relict scrub and grasslands, we’ll look for such local species as Senegal Coucal, Blue-breasted Bee-eater, Red-headed Lovebird, Swamp Nightjar, Green Crombec, Compact Weaver and the skulking Locust Finch. Night in Busia.
Day 12: This morning we’ll search the Busia grasslands for species we might not have found the day before. Hoped-for species include White-crested Turaco, Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird, Speckle-breasted Woodpecker, Marsh Tchagra, Red-shouldered Cuckoo-shrike, Yellow-throated Leaflove, Purple Starling, Olive-bellied and Copper Sunbirds, Black-winged and Black Bishops, Marsh Widowbird, Brown Twinspot, Bar-breasted Firefinch and Fawn-bellied Waxbill. After lunch we’ll descend to Kisumu for our first look at the birds of Lake Victoria. Night at Dunga Point.
Day 13: In the morning we’ll search the nearby papyrus swamp and lake edge for Open-billed Stork, African Hobby, Banded Snake-Eagle, Eastern Gray Plantain-eater, Black-billed Barbet, Black-headed and Papyrus Gonoleks, Black-lored Babbler, Carruthers’s Cisticola, White-winged and Greater Swamp Warblers, Swamp Flycatcher, Slender-billed and Northern Brown-throated Weavers, and Papyrus Canary. In the afternoon we’ll drive to the Mara National Reserve. Night in the western Mara.
Day 14: In some respects, the Mara is the most spectacular part of the trip, with its long views over flat-topped acacias and grassy plains filled with animals. We’ll spend the days driving in the reserve and should see most of the plains species for which East Africa is famous: Lion, Cheetah, Wildebeest, Hartebeest, Topi, Thompson’s and Grant’s Gazelles, and many others. Birdwatching here will be delightful, and highlights should include Temminck’s Courser, Yellow-throated Sandgrouse, and, with luck, Black-bellied Bustard. Night in the western Mara.
Day 15: After another morning in the western Mara, we’ll drive across the reserve to Siana Springs Lodge. Here we’ll have a rare opportunity for a night-time game-and-bird excursion, and we have a chance of meeting some of the more rarely seen mammals such as Civet, Porcupine, or White-tailed Mongoose. Birds could include Dusky and Square-tailed Nightjars, Spotted Thick-knee, and Heuglin’s Courser. Night at Siana Springs Lodge.
Day 16: This morning before breakfast we’ll visit a nearby valley, home to several species that are on the edge of their ranges in Kenya. The attractive pied Magpie Shrike with its liquid call is here, as well as the diminutive Tabora Cisticola. Other species include African Scimitarbill, Flappet Lark, Red-throated Tit, and the colorful Green-winged Pytilia. In the early afternoon we’ll drive back to Nairobi where we have a final dinner before catching our international flights home.
Day 17-18: After breakfast on Day 17 we’ll drive to Tsavo National Park, where we’ll spend two nights at Ngulia Lodge, situated on a dramatic escarpment overlooking the vast expanse of Tsavo stretching out below. The lodge has become famous for the huge numbers of European and Asian migrants that pass through on their way south, and in November, we might find the bushes alive with Thrush Nightingales, Marsh Warblers, and Isabelline Shrikes, while careful searching usually reveals splendid male White-throated Robins and Barred, River, Olive-tree, Upcher’s, Olivaceous, and the enigmatic Basra Reed Warblers. Ngulia is also a great place for nightbirds, and during the day European Nightjars roost on the beams in the open-fronted restaurant before joining Plain, Dusky, and Donaldson-Smith’s Nightjars in hawking insects around the lodge. Away from the lodge, large migrating flocks of European Rollers can sometimes be found, often with one sitting on every bush, and the giant baobab trees can hold resting parties of Amur Falcons. Nights at Ngulia Safari Lodge.
Day 19: After a final morning around Ngulia, we’ll return to Nairobi in time for a final dinner and our flights home.
Updated: 19 December 2013
* Tour invoices paid by check carry a 4% discount. Details here.
Maximum group size 6 with one leader.