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Taita Hills: a short note, September-November 2004,
This is a short note for independent travellers who want to visit the Taita Hills (southeast Kenya). Directions to this site on the internet and in the books I found false or unclear. This note should enable you to find this not-to-miss spot as it is holds 3 Red Data (endangered) endemics nowhere else found in the world. Best part is: you can see them in 1-2 mornings of birding: the Taita White-eye, Taita Thrush and the more enigmatic Taita Apalis.
The Taita Hills form a green island in the dry bush of southern Kenya. It is relatively isolated and therefor a very interesting area for birding. The birdlife is a mix of three distinct zones: the central highlands, the coastal forests and the northern Tanzanian mountains (e.g. Usambara).
Other forest patches remain in the area (Chawia, Fururu, Vuria) and they hold the 3 endemics as well, but these sites are smaller and less accessible for birders. Other sites don't hold the apalis.
1. Cross the bridge and turn right. The road will turn into a gravel road.
2. After about 5 km you enter a small village. You'll see a sign 'mwarungu youth polytech'. Take a sharp right, following the signs to the Ngangao Sec. School.
3. After about 2 km turn left at the Holiday Bar. Again following the sign Ngangao Sec. School. This track is 4WD only! If you have a 2WD car you can walk to the spot, it is a 1 km walk.
4. You'll reach at the top the sportfields of the Ngangao Sec. School (NSS). Turn directly left here and drive over the sportfields. Keep to your right and ignore the road to the left. At the end go to the right (after about 300 meters). Ignore the first two tracks to the right. After about 500 meters take the track to the right.
5. Here is the ranger's house. At the crossing is a sign 'Hakuna Njia' on a tree. The ranger / forest guard, but probably also the present researchers can show you the 3 endemics. If you have troubles, ask for the forestranger, in the area everybody knows where he is to be found. You've reaced the montane forest of the Ngangao Forest, home to the 3 endemics which are nearby the ranger's house.
Seeing the endemics
1. Taita White-eye (Zosterops silvanus). The most common of the 3 endemics. You'll probably see them without help during mornings and late afternoons. Listed endangered by Birdlife (population estimate 5400 birds).
2. Taita Thrush (Turdus helleri). Very difficult in the late afternoons, although with a lot of effort the ranger managed to show me one. The following morning I saw loads of trushes on a particular spot. Listed critical endangered by Birdlife (population estimate 1350 birds)..
3. Taita Apalis (Apalis fascigularis). I missed this one. Most birders however have more luck and saw the species during one birding. The ranger and researchers said that you have a 60% change to see this species in one morning. If you don't want to miss this species, I'll recommend 2 mornings of birding.
If you manage to find tapes of the apalis, this could be very helpful. Listed critical endangered by Birdlife (population estimate 50-249 birds).Formely treated as a subspecies of Bar-throated Apalis (Apalis thoracica)
Some people say it's necessary to ask permission at the UNDP office. We did and had written permision within 30 minutes. We forgoy to show the permission to the ranger, so I think you can skip this detour. It was alright probably because very few birders visit the forest (why?).
I think it's oke if you give the ranger and the researchers some money after they have showed you the species. Two Dutch girls were at the ranger station for researching nesting behaviour of the White-starred Robin and they told me the guys at the forest station are very poor.
In Wundanyi are 2-3 hotels. We stayed at the Ndara Ranch along the Nairobi-Mombasa road, 17km east of Voi. The ranch changed ownership and is nowadays called differently (forgot the name). The accomodation was very pleasant, relatively cheap, with nice food, full of birds and with a nice manager (Jennifer). Highly recommendable for trips to Taita Hills and Tsavo East NP. To the Taita Hills it is a 1,5 hour drive.
Maybe it is still possible to camp next to the ranger's house, it was in the past. Note that you buy your own food and drinks
Other birds in the area
In the forest I also saw Fischer's Turaco, Hartlaub's Turaco, White-starred Robin, Str ipe-cheecked Bulbul and Cabanis Bulbul. Also present in the forest are Crowned Eagle, Mountain Buzzard, Taita Falcon, Scarce Swift, Sharpe's Starling, Abbott's Starling, Moustached Green-Tinkerbird, Orange Ground-Thrush, Striped Pipit, Green-backed Twinspot, Yellow-throated Wood-warbler. Birdlife's website report 21 resident red data species in Taita Hills.
Barnes, Roger & Brooks, Thomas (1997) Birding World 10: 437-8 (number 11) The Taita Hills, Kenya. The article contains more information about directions to other forest patches in the area.
Heaps of information about endangerd species and endagangerd bird areas all over the world, including the Taita Hills. E.g. read why these 3 Taita Hills endemics are red data species: Taita Hills forests have been isolated for a long time from other moist forests, and have themselves been fragmented for at least a century. Forest loss since the 1960s has been very substantial, with estimates of 99% for Vuria, 95% for Sagalla, 85% for Chawia, 50% for Ngangao and under 50% for Mbololo.
My visit to the Taita Hills was a part of a 5 week trip to Kenya and Northern Tanzania in September-November 2004. I saw 624 species including many endemics to Kenya/Tanzania. It was a fantastic trip to one of the best birding areas of the world. I rented a 4WD and travelled independently. One of the many hightlight of the trip was a group of 80 Clarke's Weavers in Sokoke Forest, near Malindi.
The taxonomy of African birds is developing. The Birds of Africa, south of the Sahara by Sinclair & Ryan is the most up-to-date.