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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Kenya in November

Samburu to the Masai Mara

2013 Narrative

In Detail: The tour started with an optional outing to Nairobi National Park, located just outside of Nairobi. Against a high-rise backdrop some stunning birds were seen as well as impressive mammals such as Hippo, both Rhino species, Giraffes, Zebra, ten antelope species including the world’s largest, Eland. Smaller mammals were also seen such as Olive Baboons, Vervet Monkeys, Bush Hyrax, Slender Mongoose etc. The rarity prize for a mammal sighting went to a charming Serval Cat along the road. On the birding front, we recorded over a hundred species on this first afternoon in the country. Prizes were African Water Rail, Greater Painted-snipe, five species of Eagles, Secretarybird, of course Ostrich and a whole host of slighter birds. A fine introduction to birds in Kenya.

The next morning we flew to Buffalo Springs. During our three nights there we notched up a remarkable tally of species associated with the drier climes (although it had rained heavily just before our arrival and the roads were full of puddles). Mammal sightings included the endangered Grevy’s Zebra, Reticulated Giraffe, Greater Kudu, the long-necked Gerenuk, impressive Beisa Oryx, Elephant, Desert Wart-Hog, Lion, on down to Unstriped Ground Squirrels and Scrub Hares. The most memorable mammal was probably the Striped Hyena at the lodge delicately (and probably nervously) picking its way around two beach-hauled Crocodiles of no mean girth. Birds were bountiful and beautiful, or in other cases big and bold. Colorful birds are a feature of the dry bush, with so many small birds adorned in brilliant and often fluorescent tones. Even somber-colored species such as Sandgrouse, francolins and bustards are finely and intricately marked with complex and bewildering patterns. Amongst the big and bold we saw the world’s largest bird with the Somali Ostrich, the world’s heaviest flying bird with the Kori Bustard, and amongst the top few of the world’s largest birds-of-prey were Martial Eagle and Lappet-faced Vulture. We also recorded the bird with the largest wing area ever recorded; Marabou Stork (Andean Condors average larger, but the largest recorded are still Marabous). So in addition to a horizon dotted with large mammals, large birds are also a constant feature. Of the small and bright birds we have to mention the sunbirds, with Beautiful, Eastern Violet-backed, Hunter’s and Black-bellied. Then of course there are Rollers which are incandescent, Bee-eaters fluorescent and starlings improbably iridescent. So ended the first full birding days in Kenya.

After the Buffalo Springs/Samburu area we visited Imenti Forest and Mountain Lodge. Both are on Mt Kenya and in totally different habitat. Birds here include bulky Silvery-cheeked Hornbills, Cinnamon-chested Bee-eaters, Montane Orioles, and Black-fronted Bush-Shrikes. Mammals included the startling and agile Black-and-White Colobus Monkeys, plus dainty Bushbuck and sleek Genets.

We then headed to Lake Nakuru, although an en route hike for Mackinder’s Eagle Owl (our third species of Eagle-Owl so far) punctuated the journey. The flooding of Lake Nakuru had restricted viewing, and the million flamingos normally around had dwindled to “only” tens of thousands; an amazing spectacle in its own right. We had a spectacular full day in the Park, finding in this new habitat a plethora of new birds for the trip, as well as special mammals such as Rothchild’s Giraffe, our third Giraffe species.

Lake Baringo was another lake with out of control flooding (the rising water has claimed many of the accommodations), but the birding is still incredible away from the encroachment. We found the local specialties with relative ease, probably not quite so quickly had we not had William with us, as he had located the birds prior to our arrival. Hemprich’s and Jackson’s Hornbills were new for us, and we were able to see a few roosting nocturnal species, such as Slender-tailed Nightjar, African Scops Owl, Spotted Thick-knee and Heuglin’s Courser. The place abounds in Weavers as well as a number of thornscrub species that were old friends from Buffalo Springs.

Kakamega was an entirely different world: just when the group thought they were getting familiar with the eastern species, everything changed as the bewildering variety of western species was thrust upon them. Most stately has to be Great Blue Turaco, most obliging was White-spotted Flufftail, and rarest, the Hyliota. The local Hyliota is currently treated as Southern in the field guides, but is really a separate species that still has not been formally described.

Along the Uganda border we found more western species, but this time they were grass and scrubland specialties, not of the thick forest. We then headed down to Kisumu and ate one of the most cordon-bleu (not the bird) meals of the tour. More than one person compared it to some of the best food they’d ever eaten! The setting along the shores of Lake Victoria with its papyrus specialties was a great way to break our fast in the morning.

The incomparable Mara was the next stop and the last location on the main tour. The Wildebeest spectacle was still present, and other mammals seen were Lion, Leopard, and horizon to horizon plains game. Birds were equally outrageous with color coming from Ross’s and Schalow’s Turacos, size from Ground-Hornbills and Saddle-billed Stork, and spectacle coming from another stork with the sudden decent of 3000 White Storks. In fact on that day we saw seven out of the eight African Storks, but had seen Abdim’s the previous day.

At Siana Springs in the eastern Mara we had a night drive, the highlight of which was the Aardvark that we followed for some time. Nothing describes an Aardvark, it can only be appreciated by the experience of meeting it.

In Nairobi we sadly bid to farewell Pierre and Marie, but for the remainder of the group the excitement was not over yet. We started our extension to Tsavo West National Park for an all too brief two-night stay. Whilst the Leopards coming and joining for dinner are impressive, what could be more amazing than sitting in the vehicle with 15,000 Amur Falcons, newly arrived from China, who have made the unlikely crossing of the Indian Ocean to eastern Africa on their way to South Africa. For just a fraction of a day they pass through Kenya, and we happened to coincide. They were all around us as far as the eye could see, flock after flock were dropping in to a rain puddle just in front of the car, and drinking and bathing. They skimmed past the windows catching flying termites which had emerged after the last shower. The falcons fell out of the sky whilst we were staggered by 3000 Eurasian Rollers that had appeared immediately prior, also having descended from higher than could be imagined.

Ngulia provided spectacular views as well as interesting birds, and we found many more new species for the tour. One participant celebrated her 70th Birthday here, so the staff baked a cake and arrived singing traditional songs whilst bathed in the flickering light of flares that they held. At this moment a family of Porcupines of immense dimensions arrived to see what was happening, and the Leopard tucked into its supper. It was an evening never to be forgotten.

That is what Kenya is all about, these spectacular wildlife events unparalleled in the world and etched in the mind forever. Add to that the constantly changing scenery which vies with any vista on the planet plus friendly people who always give just that little bit extra to ensure a memorable stay, and you have a unique place indeed.

The tour finally ended when we got back into Nairobi and ate a delicious Indian meal before the group departed in their different directions home.

To relegate this experience to numbers of species recorded seems trite, but in the 19 days we recorded 615 species of which 5% were heard only.

-          Brian Finch

Created: 19 December 2013