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|A Report from birdtours.co.uk
Kenya, June 17-30 2005,
This trip was organised and guided by Joseph Mwangi of Nature’s Wonderland Safaris, Nairobi ( www.natureswonderlandsafaris.com ).Joseph is working hard to establish a small company specialising in birding safaris. The dates were chosen to fit in with the schedule of Joseph’s other client, Bill Bigler from San Francisco, who had just done a Tanzania safari.
The cost per person was about £1300 for the 14 day safari, all inclusive, and my direct flights with British Airways cost £580. Accommodation was in good quality lodges and hotels, and we travelled in a standard pop-up roof safari van, superbly driven by Peter, who works regularly with Joseph.
I observed a total of 405 species, of which 19 were new for me – I had done two previous trips to Kenya in 1988 and 1989, the latter a comprehensive three week tour with Birdquest, expertly guided by Iain Robertson, that produced 614 species.
Day One, June 17
I arrived at Nairobi about 0700 and was met by Joseph and Bill. We headed straight for Nairobi National Park, met up with local ex-pat Mike Davidson, and birded from 0900 to about 1800 with a break for lunch at the nearby Carnivore restaurant. We saw 100 species in our seven hours birding, a low count for the park probably due to the cool and overcast conditions for much of the day, and also the height of the grass, which meant we saw no bustards and very few francolins. The main highlights were 2 Darters roosting by a small pond and large numbers of male widowbirds displaying over the grass – 20 Jackson’s, 40 Red-collared and 60 White-winged. One of the features of the trip was that weavers and bishops were in full plumage, unlike my two previous visits in July/August. I saw my first two lifers, a couple of Zebra Waxbills and a small party of Black-and-white Mannikins of the Rufous-backed race. Oh, and a Cheetah sizing up some Hartebeest.
Intercontinental Hotel, Nairobi. (Very posh.)
Day Two, June 18
The plan was to drive to Lake Naivasha in time for lunch with three main stops on the way. The first stop was a roadside pond at Limuru where we hoped to see both Macoa and White-backed Ducks but unfortunately thick fog prevented us seeing much at all. We did little better at the next place, Kieni Forest, as it started raining as we arrived and there was little activity though we did see a small party of Cabanis’s (Placid) Greenbuls and 2 African Hill Babblers. The third stop was by some tussocky pastures on the Kinangop plateau, renowned as the most reliable site for the endemic Sharpe’s Longclaw, but we had no luck as nothing at all was flying over the fields; our only consolation was Bill spotting an African Snipe chick, and later an adult, in the roadside ditch.
After a largely fruitless morning we drove on to Lake Naivasha and had an alfresco lunch on the extensive lawn. We birded around the grounds of the hotel and took a boat out on the lake for just over an hour, getting good views of Giant and Malachite Kingfishers, a selection of the standard African ducks, a Greenshank, and best of all a pair of African Water Rails, another lifer. We saw several African Fish Eagles and a Goliath Heron, plus close views of both White (40) and Pink-backed (10) Pelicans.
The grounds yielded a god selection of birds including a female Black Cuckoo-Shrike and a Horus Swift, both the only ones of the trip. At dusk 30 Fischer’s Lovebirds came to roost in trees above our room, and a Black Cuckoo fooled us into thinking it was a small owl calling. Despite the dismal morning we saw 107 species in the day.
Lake Naivasha Country Club.
Day 3, June 19
Before and after breakfast we birded the grounds of the hotel, dodging some heavy showers. We saw at least 4 Black Cuckoos (of the non-black gabonensis race) and 4 White-fronted Bee-eaters at very close range, plus both Black-lored and Arrow-marked Babblers.
Mid-morning we loaded up and headed off towards Lake Baringo, passing Lakes Elmenteita and Nakuru distantly and being amazed by the pink surroundings of both. Our single significant roadside stop at a series of pools produced our only Saddle-billed Stork, Marico Sunbird and Village Indigobird for the trip and an impressive mixed flock of swifts, dominated in size if not numbers by Mottled Swifts.
We arrived at Baringo in time for a late lunch, with a birdtable next to the restaurant attracting four species of yellow weaver (Golden-backed, Little, Northern Masked at its only regular site in Kenya, and Black-headed) and a pair of Fan-tailed Ravens. Also there were some ‘grey-headed’ sparrows which seemed intermediate between Grey-headed and Parrot-billed. After lunch we spent about three hours wandering around the grounds and studying the visitors to the feeders; a very tame Brown Babbler provided my fourth lifer, 2 Mosque Swallows seemingly dwarfed their relatives, and both Red-and-Yellow and d’Arnaud’s Barbets were quite common. A pair of Bristle-crowned Starlings betrayed how far north we had come.
This was Bill’s favourite day of the trip, despite him being badly bitten by insects at Naivasha during the morning. The species count for the day was the highest of the fortnight, 120.
Lake Baringo Club.
Day 4, June 20.
Pre-breakfast we birded the thorn-scrub and cliffs a few km back from Lake Baringo.
We failed to see some of the hoped for specialities such as Hemprich’s Hornbill but nevertheless we had a productive session. An immature Great Spotted Cuckoo flew past, a Pink-breasted Lark had us puzzling for a while, a pair of Cliff Chats posed on the cliffs, and amongst the thorns we found Northern Grey Tit, Yellow-spotted Petronias, Mouse-coloured Penduline Tits. Black-throated Barbets and a Yellow-bellied Eremomela. Our route along the cliffs was blocked by a flooded area but as we turned back Joseph chatted to a local boy who had been shadowing us along our walk, only to discover that the lad was confident he could show us a Greyish (or Spotted to non-splitters) Eagle Owl. Indeed he could, and not one but two, surprisingly well concealed in a small acacia and viewable from just a few metres.
After breakfast we headed for Lake Bogoria, less than an hour away. Our journey was lengthened by stops for Dark Chanting Goshawk on a pole, a flying African Harrier-Hawk, Madagascar Bee-eaters on some wires, 3 Black-headed Plovers and a couple of Silverbirds; we arrived at Bogoria at 1200.
Lake Bogoria is one of the smaller rift valley lakes and is more manageable from a birding point of view. You can drive close to the whole of one side and get good views. There were thousands of both Lesser and Greater Flamingos but little else on the shore except small groups of Cape Teals and a few Three-banded Plovers. Out on the water though was an amazing concentration of Black-necked Grebes, at least 1150 and including a few juveniles. The arid thorn scrub held some surprises, not least about 35 Magpie Starlings, a Black-and-white Cuckoo and 4 Dusky Turtle Doves. Emerald-spotted Wood-Doves were attracted to puddles on the track.
We had our box lunches by the thermal springs. Our journey back was punctuated by a walk around the Bogoria Hotel gardens (just a Woodland Kingfisher of note) and then a Peregrine feasting on a dove near the road, taking us to 103 for the day.
Lake Baringo Club.
Day 5, June 21
An early breakfast and then a very long journey to Kakamega Forest via Eldoret, where we stopped so that Bill could find a pharmacist to try and ease his bites from Naivasha, which had developed rather nastily. No birding stops along the way except when we noticed a Black-and-white Casqued Hornbill sitting by the road and later a few Fan-tailed Widowbirds. Brown Parrots flew across as we neared Kakamega town. We arrived at Rondo Retreat Centre in the middle of the forest at about 1400, had lunch, and then Joseph and I started to walk one of the local forest trails. We had not got far when it started bucketing down (it is a rain forest after all) and had to run back to join the resting Bill for afternoon tea and cake. During our brief excursion we managed to see a few species, including a lifer for me in Grey-winged Robin-Chat. For the rest of the afternoon we were again dodging showers but managed to see several of the Kakamega specialities including Luhder’s Bush-Shrike, Great Blue Turaco, Grey-throated Barbet, Snowy-crowned Robin-Chat and Brown-capped Weaver. Bronze Sunbirds were conspicuous in the garden.
Rondo Retreat Centre.
Day 6, June 22
Breakfast at 0630 and then a slow 7km walk along the main track through the forest as far as the Idungwa bridge. This was the highlight of the whole trip for me, as one forest denizen after another revealed themselves. We had some great views of most but frustratingly brief ones of others, and we missed out on all of the Illadopsis species except for a glimpse of a Brown.
Red-headed Bluebills teased us for a while but eventually a couple posed very well, my sixth lifer. At least 4 Blue-headed Bee-eaters showed well, as did a selection of forest weavers – Black-billed, Brown-capped, Dark-backed and Black-necked. No Vieillot’s though. Barbets were represented by Yellow-billed, Yellow-spotted, Grey-throated and the diminutive Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird. Greenbuls included Joyful and Yellow-whiskered as the most numerous and Shelley’s and Slender-billed both fairly common. Emerald, Diederik and Klaas’s Cuckoos were all calling but only the first showed well. A male Cuckoo-Shrike could have been either Black or Petit’s. White-headed Saw-wings flitted along the edges amongst the more numerous Black Saw-wings but otherwise it was a case of peering into the bushes and canopy to see such as Black-faced Rufous Warblers, White-chinned and banded Prinias, Uganda Woodland Warbler, Equatorial Akalat, Grey and Black-collared Apalis, Turner’s Eremomela and so on.
At about 1330 we boarded the vehicle – Peter had been following behind – and headed back for lunch. Afterwards Bill rested his bites while Joseph and I ventured out on the local trails until the rains came about 1700.
Rondo Retreat Centre.
Day 7, June 23
After breakfast, and a night of heavy rain, we drove back through Kakamega town and around to the northern section of the forest, which is more obviously set out as a forest reserve but receives less attention than the southern part. We had a very poor session, finding little activity on a cool and overcast morning. I was very lucky to get a few seconds view of 2 Red-headed Malimbes, a lifer, and glimpses of the heads of at least 2 Crested Guineafowls (Peter saw 20 or so cross the track way behind us) The only other significant species was Violet-backed Starling, 6+ of which gave poor views. Joseph was very disappointed as his previous visit to this part of the forest in April had been excellent; we decided to head back to the forest station area close to Rondo. This is where the well-known pumping station (no longer in use?) and Zimmerman grid tracks are located, and we started out on the former. There was rather more activity here, and we quickly saw 2 Dusky Tits, a Jameson’s Wattle-eye, 2 White-tailed Ant-Thrushes, a Grey-green (or Bocage’s) Bush-Shrike and a few of the species we had seen yesterday. After a box lunch by the forest station Peter took Bill back to rest and Joseph and I walked a couple of trails, dodging large groups of cattle and donkeys being herded along. A Ross’s Turaco was the highlight, but we also saw about 15 Black-and-white Mannikins of the black-backed form (hopefully a future re-split?) and 2 Southern Citrils (already split from African Citril, depending which book you read, and a lifer for me). And then the rain came just about on cue at 1630, and we signalled for Peter to catch us up and get us back for our afternoon tea and cake.
Rondo Retreat Centre.
Day 8, June 24
After an early breakfast we sadly left the excellent Rondo Retreat and headed for Kisumu on the shore of Lake Victoria. We paused for about half an hour just north of the town, where a roadside pool and marsh produced a Lesser Moorhen, our first Wattled Plovers and Open-billed Stork of the trip, a few Black-winged Red Bishops and a small colony of Yellow-backed Weavers.
Moving on we met up with Mike Davidson again – he had flown in from Nairobi to bird with us for the day and brought some more suitable treatment for Bill’s bites – and headed out to the Dunga Swamp area looking to find the papyrus specialities. The first area we tried, which Joseph had found excellent in April, produced at least 6 fantastic Red-chested Sunbirds and a single western race White-bellied Canary (lifer number 8) and a brief view of an enormous Greater Swamp Warbler (number 9) but very little else. A glib local guy, Tom, attached himself to us and despite not having binoculars he clearly knew the local birds. Between Joseph and Tom we eventually managed to find Papyrus Gonolek and Carruthers’ Cisticola – both were heard well but views were brief but good enough to give me another two lifers. We took an impromptu boat ride from the fishing quay to access the area where we saw them.A Black-headed Gonolek was seen in the same area. Earlier attempts on the landward side of the papyrus beds had produced just calls and no views of the main target species; we never even heard the three (White-winged Warbler, Papyrus Canary and the much rarer Papyrus Yellow Warbler). We did see a few new birds for the trip including Slender-billed and Lesser Masked Weavers and Yellow-fronted Canary.
After a very slow and poor lunch at the Imperial Hotel in Kisumu we headed to the golf course for the afternoon. A walk along the edge produced a few birds, nearly all of which were by now commonplace to us, but we did see a few Gull-billed Terns and lots of Whiskered Terns over the lake. After dropping Mike at the ‘airport’ we tried to find some settling ponds that Tom had told us of but instead we found ourselves outside the fence of the local distillery. We just had time to sort out that there were both Black-winged and Southern Red Bishops (lifer number 12) present when a security official from the distillery told us that advanced permits were needed to be in the area. We had to leave.
Despite my four new birds it was a somewhat frustrating day as we had missed so much of what we had hoped to see.
Imperial Hotel, Kisumu (We advised Joseph that future trips should avoid the Imperial – for food and for sleeping).
Day 9, June 25
No sadness at leaving Kisumu! We headed straight for Lake Nakuru, no stops on the way – we declined the offers from Peter of photo stops at Thompson’s Falls and the tea plantations (forgetting that the former is a site for a couple of the scarcer starlings – whoops!). We reached the lake just before noon and birded our way to the Lion Hill lodge, with Common Scimitarbills in the acacia belt being lifer 13 and 4 Marsh Sandpipers and a Ruff boosting our meagre wader list. There were truly incredible numbers of Lesser Flamingos all around the lake, must have been millions, but hard as we searched we could not find a single Greater.
After lunch we were amazed to find a male Little Rock Thrush hopping around in the parking area. Other birds around the lodge were Brown-capped Tchagra, Speke’s Weaver and Yellow-bellied Waxbill. Nearby we found a Madagascar Squacco Heron on a small pool; it flew into a tree, just like the book said it would. A perched Lappet-faced Vulture, a soaring Black-chested Snake-Eagle, and a pair of Secretary Birds at their nest were the highlights of our afternoon ‘game-drive’ that also produced a White Stork and a rather out-of-range Somali Ostrich in breeding condition, presumably an introduction. The Somali Ostrich was with what looked like a hybrid. The first of two tire punctures caused a brief delay; Peter and Joseph were very quick at changing tires. Given the roads in Kenya it is a credit to Peter’s driving that we did not have greater road hazard problems.
After four days of lower totals we managed 101 today, and Bill’s spirits were picking-up as he was getting over his bites.
Lion Rock Lodge (very busy, vast improvement after the Imperial).
Day 10, June 26
A walk around the lodge gardens before breakfast produced a few birds, but not as many as I remember from my 1989 visit, and no Red-throated Wryneck. A pair of Hildebrandt’s Francolins and a White-bellied Tit were the highlights. After packing up we drove around to Baboon Cliffs, where we found a pair of Cliff Chats with three young. Out on the shore we realised that there were at least 15 White-winged Black Terns in amongst the Whiskered Terns. Views of a fine perched Lanner Falcon and then 2 Tawny Eagles slightly delayed our departure from the Lake Nakuru. Then there were 2 male Bearded Woodpeckers just outside the gate.
During a long drive east to Naro Moru River Lodge, we stopped when Joseph spotted Long-tailed Widowbirds (about 10).Later we had a Yellow Bishop on roadside wires and a stop fat a pond with little besides Red-knobbed Coots but Joseph did turn up a Brown Parisoma in a nearby tree.
Lunch at Naro Moru had been kept warm for a couple of hours and looked a bit iffy so I got my selection microwaved to be on the safe side. Afterwards we birded the lodge gardens for about four hours.The highlights included seven species of sunbirds, with our first Tacazze and Golden-winged of the trip. A Thick-billed Canary, 2 Mountain Wagtails and 2 Crowned Hornbills were seen along the river but there was no sign of the expected African Black Ducks. 15 Red-fronted parrots and 2 Olive Pigeons flew over.
After dark, from about 1900, we could hear Montane Nightjars and I glimpsed one. Later, at about 2100, the local Tree Hyrax population started making some of the weirdest animal noises you will ever hear.
Naro Moru River Lodge (It was not as good as in 1988 and 1989).
Day 11, June 27
A couple of early morning hours around the Naro Moru gardens produced an eighth species of sunbird, Scarlet-chested, and good views of Hartlaub’s Turaco.
Soon after leaving we saw an adult Martial Eagle over the road and then 11 Dusky Turtle Doves on the wires. After passing through the desert town of Isiolo we started seeing some of the real dry country birds such as Somali Courser and Rosy-patched Bush-Shrike.
We put the roof up and birded our way into Shaba National Reserve, the eastern part of the Samburu complex. Sadly, the first part of the park was occupied by herds of goats and cattle. Lunch at the upstairs restaurant overlooking the river was interrupted twice: first by a cheeky monkey grabbing my bread roll off my side plate and then by a Shikra that perched close to us to eat its own lunch, a lizard.
After lunch we split up and covered different parts of the grounds: I found very little except an intimidating mob of baboons but Joseph found 5 Orange-bellied Parrots that waited for Bill and me to see them. Our game-drive was excellent, rivalling the first morning at Kakamega for ‘session of the trip’. Many of the species we saw were ones that I had not expected to encounter on the trip, having not appreciated how far north we were. A Lichtenstein’s Sandgrouse on the track in front of the vehicle, both Golden-breasted and Fischer’s Starlings, Somali Bee-eater, Eastern Yellow-billed Hornbill, Taita Fiscal. Plus mammals such as Elephant, Gerenuks and Beisa Oryx.
As we walked back to the room at dusk a male Slender-tailed Nightjar was hawking over the river. That brought the total to 101 species for the day.
Shaba Sarova Lodge (excellent).
Day 12, June 28
We did a pre-breakfast drive on much the same route as yesterday afternoon, again well worthwhile. Good views of both Chestnut-bellied and Black-faced Sandgrouse, a Somali Golden-breasted Bunting, a close perched Gabar Goshawk, etc etc. After breakfast we packed up and set out for the short drive to the neighbouring lodge of Samburu Serena, guests of which do their game-drives in the Buffalo Springs section. As we left Shaba we started noticing large colonies of Donaldson-Smith’s Sparrow-Weavers alternating with equally large colonies of the more widespread White-browed Sparrow-Weavers. The long-overdue first Bateleur of the trip appeared. Moving into Buffalo Springs we passed the abandoned tented lodge of the same name and were amazed by the numbers of Beisa Oryx and Grevy’s Zebras to be seen – though we made no attempt to see mammals on our trip we actually ended up seeing almost everything except a Lion.
A Desert Cisticola perched up long enough for us to identify it, lifer number 14. Flocks of Somali Ostriches were now in the right place, unlike the Nakuru individual.
Both White-bellied and Buff-crested Bustards proved quite common along the roadsides, with two-day totals of 13 and 8 respectively, but the larger species (e.g., Kori) eluded us. We started passing colonies of Black-capped Social-Weavers, and a group of Sparrow-Larks proved to be not the expected Fischer’s but the scarcer Chestnut-headed Sparrow-Lark, another lifer for me. Other larks were scarce, and we only managed to convince ourselves of Pink-breasted and Foxy (Fawn-coloured), though Singing Bush-Lark was strongly suspected – I even managed to convince Bill we were watching one without convincing myself!
After a hot dusty morning the lunch break was very welcome, as was the Tusker beer (even at the ridiculous price of 235 shillings, compared with 110-150 at most places). Afterwards we did another game-drive from 1445-1830 that produced point blank views of all three sandgrouse species seen at Shaba, several Eastern (Pale) Chanting Goshawks, 2 Vulturine Guineafowls hiding amongst a flock of Helmeted, a couple of Lappet-faced Vultures, and Red-billed Hornbills everywhere. Plus smaller birds such as Mouse-coloured Penduline Tits, Red-fronted Warblers, and another lifer, Pale Prinia. The lodge itself was relatively birdless, with just a few Rufous Chatterers and a glimpse of a Northern Puffback. At dusk a pair of Verreaux’s Eagles settled on a crag across the river; then 12 Vulturine Guineafowls flew up to roost alongside Hadada and Sacred Ibises, in trees along the river bank. Best of all, three Slender-tailed Nightjars over the river were joined by a single Dusky (Sombre) Nightjar, another new bird for me.
Samburu Serena Lodge (very posh and commercialised - $6 to watch a Samburu dance group).
Day 13, June 29
The early morning drive through the thorny areas we had covered yesterday managed to turn up some new birds – the best from my point of view was a Three-streaked Tchagra, lifer number 18. Hildebrandt’s Starling and Southern Black Flycatcher were also additions to the trip list, and we saw the eastern form of White-bellied Canary, which complemented the western one seen at Kisumu.
After breakfast we started to struggle a bit. We were trying to find Denham’s and Kori Bustards in more open grassy areas and in fact saw very little at all - just 3-4 Pygmy Batises and a huddle of 20 Vulturine Guineafowl in the shade of a bush. The afternoon drive, again looking for the large bustards, was the first session of the whole trip when we did not see any new species, but we did see the very unusual sight of two Secretary Birds in full flight high up, flapping and soaring like storks. Nine Somali Coursers included a pair with two chicks. Mammals brightened up the afternoon – first we saw a couple of Bat-eared Foxes, then a Leopard sprawled out in a tree near the track, and finally we had to wait ten minutes while a herd of Elephants slowly crossed the track just in front of us.
Samburu Serena Lodge
Day 14, June 30
The lodge gave us champagne with our breakfast as a parting token. We were loaded up and away by 0715, with a 350 km journey back to Nairobi ahead of us, plus two planned stops. Our first halt was an unplanned one, at a pond that had a Southern Pochard asleep amongst a flock of White-faced Whistling-Ducks. Next we visited Wajee Nature Park on the lower slopes of Mt Kenya. Here we eventually saw 3 Hinde’s Pied Babblers, a Kenyan endemic and quite difficult to see – my 19th lifer. The local guide David also showed us a pair of roosting African Wood Owls, only our second owl species for the trip, and Joseph got us on to a juvenile White-starred Robin before it dropped out of view never to re-appear.
After eating box lunches at the nature park we headed on to Thika, where we had brief looks at two small ponds on the edge of the extensive coffee and fruit plantations. On the first we saw 3 White-backed Ducks and on the second there was the second Lesser Moorhen of the trip and nearby were 2 Zebra Waxbills.
A final stop at the Blue Post Hotel gardens in Thika could have provided several good birds to finish off the trip, (Purple-crested Turaco and Black-throated Wattle-eye were expected) but as it turned out there was very little to be seen. Joseph got a couple of glimpses of a Dark-capped Yellow Warbler, which would have been a new bird for me, but the best Bill and I could manage was an Abyssinian White-eye, the only one of the trip.
All that remained was a slow drive through traffic-clogged Nairobi at rush hour and then saying our farewells at the airport.
I have a spreadsheet detailing species, and some numbers, seen each day that I can email to anyone interested.
Submission of records
Details of species marked X in the 1996 edition of the Birds of Kenya checklist have been submitted to the EANHS Ornithological Sub-committee (if it still exists?), and all significant records have been added to the www.worldbirds.org/Kenya database.
Thanks to Joseph Mwangi for organising and guiding the trip so efficiently and to Peter for his safe and expert driving.
And thanks to Bill Bigler for his at all times amicable and enjoyable company, despite his suffering for much of the trip.
Steve Lister - email@example.com