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|A Report from birdtours.co.uk
Watamu, coastal Kenya, 27th November – 4th December 2009,
This short trip report details a week-long trip to Watamu on the Kenyan coast. Being close to the famous (and superlative) Arabuko-Sokoke forest, this area is quite well-covered in trip reports. However, most of these cover all-inclusive tours, or at least tours with a Kenyan driver – guide. We visited this area basically to chill out on the beach for a bit (well, that was the proclaimed strategy for two of us!) with some casual birding tagged on as and when, preferably in the presence of large mammals (same two) or rather more thoroughly (me). For this reason, we simply booked some accommodation, and rolled up with our rucksacks, sorting everything out on the wing. This all worked fine and we were able to incorporate safaris to Tsavo East and Shimba Hills, as well as a good look at the Watamu area, and some day-tripping round Mombassa (unexpectedly excellent, and not in the least bit threatening. Nairobi it was not.)
We looked at various options for getting to the Kenyan coast. We found relatively few international flights (at least from the UAE, where we live) that went to Mombassa but going via Nairobi was going to entail two hellish drives of about 10 hours each, and, given that we only had a week’s holiday, this was ruled out. We ended up flying from Dubai to Mombassa, via Addis Ababa. This gave Ethiopian Airlines a chance to lose one or more of our bags (which they availed off) but also, and rather more memorably, a two-hour stop over in Addis in the daylight. This got the trip off to a flyer, with surely some of the best airport birding in the world, comprising, amongst others, seven species of raptor and two endemics, including the flying Maltese cross that is Thick-billed Raven. If I were you, I would forget about Mombassa and get out in Addis. However, assuming you do get back on the plane you may as well read on…
Places to stay
We had a total of 6 nights in Watamu (about 2 hours north of Mombassa). The first 3 were spent at the Marijani (email: marijani @ swiftmalindi.com) on the north side of Watamu village. This was fine being handy for the village and getting a taxi to the forest or Gede. They helpfully keep some very noisy parrots to assist you in getting out of bed early if you are going to the forest. It was right next to a small, seaweed-strewn beach liberally peppered with very tame waders, Sooty Gulls and gangs of terns, all impervious to the snorkellers, trinket sellers and beach bums that hang out along most of the Kenyan coast. We also spent three nights at A Rocha (http://www.arocha.org/ke-en/index.html), situated about 3 km south of town on the Turtle Bay Road. Here, the location is more remote and so the beach is pretty empty but getting into town is a bit less straightforward. However, it is a serene place to say, the food is great and, of course, there are a few other birders who can give you some tips and sort you out with some local guides. Not to mention the chance of moonlit Crab-Plovers when you go for a nocturnal swim!
Finally, in Mombassa, we had one night at the Lotus Hotel (http://www.lotushotelkenya.com/) which was fine, and handy for Fort Jesus and a walking trip round the Old Town. From here, the airport is a 30 minute taxi ride away.
This didn’t prove too tricky to arrange. The Marijani offer transfers from the airport to Watamu, so we availed ourselves of that. Once there, a motorbike-taxi, involving some precarious balancing if you have a tripod, from Watamu to the Arabuko-Sokoke forest entrance took about 10 minutes and could be grabbed in the village. The guides at the forest centre here can arrange a vehicle to get you right into the forest (the pipit and especially, the Scops-Owl are a serious and, in the heat, unforgiving, walk from the forest-entrance) and also had the contacts to arrange tours further afield: we made it to Tsavo East (about 2 hours drive inland on a rather bumpy and potholed track) and Shimba Hills (about 3 hours south, including an hour of inhaling diesel in the Mombassa traffic). This served as a transfer back to Mombassa, as we visited Shimba on our last full day and simply hopped out in the city on the way back. For visiting Gede Ruins and Mida Creek from Watamu, we rented a local driver (and his inevitable side-kick!) in town just by asking round at the hotel.
It is a very good idea (and maybe obligatory?) to hire a guide to visit Arabuko-Sokoke Forest. Not only does this provide local employment but these guys also ensures that you find a lot more birds. I have done a fair bit of African forest birding between inland Kenya, Ethiopia and South Africa and was fairly clued up but I still gained a lot by hooking up with a guide. In particular, extracting both Sokoke Pipit and Sokoke Scops-Owl without a guide would have taken lot of time and elbow grease, not to mention luck, if indeed it had happened at all.
I had the good luck to bird with Johnson Kafulo (johnsonkafulo @ yahoo.com; phone 0723098884 or 0735739657) for two days in the forest and he also came with us to Tsavo. Willy Nganda (Willynganda @ yahoo.co.uk or Willynganda @ gmail.com) joined us for a late afternoon trip for his Scops-Owls and also accompanied us to Shimba Hills. He was ultra-professional and a lot of fun. Both these guides, and others, are well-known at A Rocha and, indeed, often work with them on their forest surveys. Finally, Chege at Birdwatching East Africa (http://www.birdwatchingeastafrica.com/) provided some helpful advice and information and can, if you want, organise your whole trip. At Mida Creek, guides are available for a nominal fee at the information booth on arrival and certainly added to our afternoon visit.
Despite being based in the UAE, we found this rather oppressive. The sun was fierce and in the absence of a breeze, the humidity sure cranked up. Nights were particularly stifling, in the general absence of any wind. Apparently, all this was a bit unusual; it isn’t normally that hot in early winter and normally there is rather more rain and cloud cover. That said, walking in the shady Brachystegia woodland of the forest was very pleasant indeed, and there was no difficulty in keeping going all day. It was another matter at Tsavo however; here it really was hot and there was little shade anywhere. We sure sweated for those Somali Coursers!
Some general comments on main sites visited are outlined below, along with the most notable (or memorable) species at each location.
A Arabuko-Sokoke Forest
For good reason, this is one of the most celebrated lowland forests in Africa. It is also, apparently, the biggest tract of coastal forest remaining on the continent. Not surprisingly it has lots of birds. I had two days birding here; the first hiking in from Gede Forest Station (so visiting mainly the Plantation and mixed forest) and a second by taking a car in to spend all morning in the Brachystegia and the afternoon in mixed forest and Cynometria. The latter in particular is a long way inland; you’ll need a vehicle.
Given that this was lowland rainforest and that it was oppressively hot at times, I was very impressed with the levels of bird activity. Anyone used to birding lowland tropical Thailand (for example) is in for a nice surprise here. Even by mid-morning there was still plenty going-on. The forest can be divided into four basic habitats and the birding highlights of each are detailed below:
Species generally common throughout much of the forest: Emerald-spotted Wood-Dove, White-browed Coucal, Trumpeter Hornbill, Green Barbet, Sombre Greenbul, Black-headed Apalis, Tropical Boubou, Retz’s and Chestnut-fronted Helmet-Shrikes, Black-bellied Starling, Black-headed Oriole, Olive Sunbird and Dark-backed Weaver.
1 The Plantation area, around the Gede Forest Station: This is a mosaic of cut-over forest, secondary scrub (including bamboo) and older, regenerating forest with some plantations of exotics such as gums and Casuarina. None of the specials occur here, but early morning birding is good as the disturbed forest is easy to view. Fischer’s Turaco is particularly notable (and relatively easy to see here) and we also saw Southern Banded Snake-Eagle, Lizard Buzzard, African Harrier-Hawk, Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl, bee-eaters overhead, Scaly-throated Honeyguide, Yellow-bellied Greenbul, Ashy Flycatcher and Little Yellow Flycatcher.
2 Mixed forest: this is the term used for native primary forest. Lots of it is very dense and shady with a very thick understory. Many forest birds are common here, and Equatorial Akalat is a special of the densest patches. There are several territories of this species along the ‘Nature trail’ (c. 2km walk, through the plantations, from Gede Forest Station) where they are easy to hear but damn hard to see.
We also saw: Narina Trogon (brilliantly!), Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird, and Eastern Bearded Scrub-Robin and Eastern Nicator (again both easy to hear but devils to see).
3 Brachystegia: This is far and away the most splendid forest. It occurs on lighter, sandy soils, generally inland of the mixed forest. This means that it entails a bit of a trek to get to from the main coast road that delineates the forest on its eastern edge: count on about a 6 km trek from the forest station. Further south, Brachystegia occurs closer to the road; there is a track (to Whistling Duck Pools) running inland opposite the main access track to Mida Creek and we visited Brachystegia maybe 4 km inland from there. Watch out for Peter’s Twinspot flicking up from the track early on. Brachystegia itself is a beautifully expansive, large limbed emergent and areas dominated by it are typically relatively open and sunny with patches of grassy woodland fringing more densely vegetated bits. This is prime habitat for Amani Sunbird (not difficult in the canopy) and, of course, Sokoke Pipit. We spent a long time creeping around for this monster and it didn’t disappoint once painstakingly located: super-furtive OBP meets White Thrush, with lots of extra streaks and colours thrown in! The fact that you are relying on barely audible seeps to locate it and that it remains almost invisible even at five metres range makes it an absolute Ace of Spades. Once this was in the back of the net, the lack of Clarke’s Weaver didn’t seem too much of an issue: this seems to be a particularly slippery character, being simultaneously erratic and even when present, decidedly evasive.
We also saw: Mombassa Woodpecker, Bohm’s Spinetail (uncommon), Thick-billed Cuckoo (very local and elusive but materialised in the tree we were scouring for a calling Pallid Honeyguide), Red-billed Woodhoope with Common Scimitarbill, Crowned Hornbill, Red-tailed Ant-thrush, Pale Batis, Black-crowned Tchagra, and Rufous-backed and Bronze Manikin.
4 Cynometria This is the dominant forest type on the inland, loamy soils. Much of it is thicket rather than forest and is really dense and impenetrable. Its not actually a lot of fun and nearly all bird species are more easily found elsewhere, with one important exception: Sokoke Scops-Owl seems to occur only in this forest type. Willy has several pairs that he calls on regularly and we scored at the first attempt. Some Scops-Owls are better than others, and this is certainly proved to be one of the more memorable ones: close, fully exposed and beautifully marked.
The Cynometria area we visited was on the north-western edge of the forest. A few kilometres further is large lake amidst agricultural land; all the guides know about it (and it is on the main “road” you will take if you go to Tsavo East). We had displaying Zanzibar Red Bishop here, plus Open-billed Storks, lots of wintering hirundines (the only Palearctic passerine winterers we saw, save for Spotted Flycatcher and a single Golden Oriole, until we visited Tsavo) and some other common bush birds.
Mammals species: the most famous is Golden-rumped Elephant-Shrew which, in terms of novelty and memorability is much closer to the former than the latter; don’t miss it! The ‘Nature trail’ in the Mixed forest seemed a particularly good place to see them. We also logged Syke’s Monkey, Yellow Baboon, Suni and Red-bellied Ground Squirrel.
B Gede Ruins
Any taxi can take you to these serene and beautiful ruins. They date from the 13th Century at least and are surrounded by thick forest. It is probably excellent early morning birding here (but presumably not as good as the main forest a few km further); we went in the afternoon. It was well worth taking a local guide; the one we got proved to know exactly what he was talking about and masqueraded as a consummate comedian to-boot. There were few birds but they were notable, including Whalberg’s Eagle, Palm-nut Vulture, Trumpeter Hornbill and Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl (look up into the biggest trees amidst the ruins themselves; we found a nest with an adult and large chick nearby). We combined our taxi trip here with one to Mida Creek.
C Mida Creek
This is an expansive estuary that lies inland from Watamu with an outlet to the sea about 5 km south of town. We didn’t try to visit it here, instead we accessed from the other side at Mida; a track from the coastal highway winds down from to watchpoint amongst the mangroves. An information point here has been established by A Rocha and local guides have been trained to escort visitors. Visiting at the correct part of the tidal cycle is critical; we got there as the tide was starting to drop and were able to splodge out over the mud for magnificent close-ups of arriving waders. Late afternoon is also good, as the sinking sun is then behind you. Sandplovers, calidrids (Little Stints and Curlew Sandpipers) and Whimbrel were the main species, but over 100 Terek Sandpipers were notable. We inexplicably missed Crab-Plover here; they seem to fly in rather later (when the tide is lower). Other notables included African Fish-Eagle, Woolly-necked Stork and both Amethyst and Purple-banded Sunbirds in the grassland / mangrove edge behind the creek. Mangrove Kingfisher is possible here, but very thin (and intermittent?)
D Around Watamu
There wasn’t actually loads going on here. Wandering about on the beach and coastal scrub and gardens gave some great close-ups of waders and 3 species of tern (including Saunders’s); garden birds included Trumpeter Hornbill, the odd Spotted Flycatcher, Parrot-billed Sparrow, Golden Palm Weaver, Red-fronted Tinkerbird and Black-bellied Starling. Keep looking up for Mottled Spinetail (all those Little Swifts need a second glance!), while A Rocha has Grey Sunbird nesting around the buildings. The beach here had a few roosting waders, nocturnal Crab-Plovers and a couple of Water Thick-knees.
E Tsavo East
Getting here at all was actually a bit of a bonus; we hadn’t realised it was a feasible day trip until we arrived and started making some enquires. The journey takes a bit over two hours and is along a pretty seriously pot-holed track. You want to start as early as possible to ensure you are close to the gate soon after dawn. We didn’t quite achieve this as the last 10 km before the Sala gate was pretty birdy in the early morning. We made arrangements simply by asking round in Watamu when we arrived, about 36,000 Kenyan Shillings all-in was about the going rate. Between three people this was fairly reasonable; entrance on its own is 50 USD per person.
From Sala, we did a simple route: west along the Galana River for about 30km, and then back by the Aruba-Sala round. This, of course, meant that we only touched the tip of the iceberg that is Tsavo but did allow lots of stopping. The park is very, very open: shade is practically none-existent and, of course, there are very few places where you can disembark. The habitat close to the Sala Gate, being thick Acacia scrub, is rather like Southern Ethiopia (and with a comparable avifauna) but this gives way to very open, sparsely scrubbed stony grassland once in the park proper. There was very little standing water save for the odd roadside puddle, but everything was reasonably green; it had rained at least a bit recently.
Despite the fierce heat, birding was very good for much of day, although the dryer, barest plains away from the river were, of course, less productive. My favourites were: a low pair of African Hawk-Eagles, a male Somali Ostrich very close, Kori Bustard even closer, display-flighting Buff-crested Bustards, a group of 10 Somali Coursers including a juvenile found late on, Black-faced Sandgrouse (easiest near Sala, flying round early on), masses of the sensational, butterfly-like Golden Pipit (giving Sokoke a close run, actually!), a Rosy-patched Bush-Shrike was surprisingly easy to see and the lucky break of Fire-fronted Bishop in a damper valley.
Other species included Secretary-bird, Whalberg’s Eagle, Pygmy-Falcon, Vulterine Guineafowl (at dawn on the track in), Black-headed Lapwing, Jacobin Cuckoo, Northern Carmine Bee-eater, Red-winged Lark, the cisticola-come-pipit that is Pink-breasted Lark, Chestnut-headed Sparrowlark (latter two very numerous), and Golden-breasted and Fischer’s Starlings. We also found far more Palearctic migrants than anywhere else here, with the best including some 30 European Rollers, 8 Turkestan Shrikes and 3 Rock Thrushes. The absence of any northern Aquilias was a bit disappointing, however.
Finally, to mammals. We got into the main body of the park rather late for these, so didn’t do too well in this department. Generally they appeared rather thinly spread. We reached 12 species in all, with the best being many very close Giraffes, two single Besia Oryx and a total of 8 Gerunuks.
F Shimba Hills
The day we visited here was our last full day in Kenya, and we made arrangements with Willy at Arabuko-Sokoke. He arranged a driver and came with us as well, for a total price of 21,000 Kenyan Shillings. Despite an early departure, we spent a while snarled up at Mombassa and had some hanging around at the Likoni Ferry. This all meant that we rolled up at about 0800 which, again, was a tad late. Shimba Hills is a mosaic of grassland and forested hills at 200-300 metres, bisected by maze of never-ending tracks. There is also a nice walk of 4km return to Sheldrick Falls to do and we spent the hot middle of the day at the amazing old-style Shimba Lodge, which was clearly lifted out of the Aberdares sometimes in the 1920s.
The main attraction of Shimba Hills is Sable and we spent rather a long time looking for them. We eventually found three late in the afternoon and, during the search had also accumulated an Elephant, many Buffalo and Giraffe. Red-bellied Coastal Squirrels are very tame and photogenic around Shimba Lodge. The most notable birds were Southern Banded Snake-Eagle (complete with mamba on the access track!), Steppe Buzzard, Crested Guineafowl creeping under the lodge boardwalk, Corncrake (flushed by a troop of baboons we were watching!), European Bee-eater, White-eared and Green Barbets and Flapped Lark display-flighting. Green-headed Oriole is plausible here but on our visit forest activity was rather limited; groups of Chestnut-fronted Helmet-Shrikes and Crowned Hornbills were the best we could manage.
From Shimba, downtown Mombassa is less than 45 minutes away. We had a nice final morning here, adding Brown-breasted Barbet in the grounds of Fort Jesus and lots of history and walking before having to go for our flight.
If you require any further information on this report, please feel free to contact me at the address noted above.