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A Report from

Kenya [Coast and Tsavo], 19th Oct - 4 Nov 2005 ,

Bob Biggs


This was a family holiday  - my wife, Lorraine, and my son, Phil, and me. Phil was 11 in October so we decided he was old enough to go on safari. We arranged three nights in Tsavo National Park [two at Voi Lodge in Tsavo East and one at Ngulia Lodge in Tsavo West] before we left. This was done through someone we knew and I am sure we saved a fair amount of money so there is little point in sharing all the details. Saleem, our Guide/ Driver was brilliant at spotting animals. Like others, he was less good at spotting birds. Nevertheless, we saw several good birds along the way so I shouldn’t be too greedy.

We stayed at the Turtle Bay Beach Hotel in Watamu. I booked this through Thomson Worldwide. It was an excellent place to stay, particularly for families. Steve Baines had already made me aware of the hotel via his report on the Birdtours website and subsequent e-mails. He was right about how good the hotel is. Thoroughly recommended but very few species of bird to be seen in the grounds.


Our package involved scheduled flights with Kenya Airways from Heathrow to Nairobi, then onto Mombasa. All flights were good but we had to wait around the airports for too long for our liking.


We got a few bites but nothing too serious. We had the jabs before we left and took Malarone, which is very expensive but has no known side effects.

All food at the Hotel was well cooked. We heard of no illness. We were on an “all inclusive” package so ate well and often. The food at the Lodges was also fine.

We could have done without some of the hassle on the beach and outside the Hotel but we got used to it. It’s a shame you can’t go far without being stopped to buy something but it’s understandable. We never felt in any danger [from humans anyway!]


We got out a few times and used the staff at the hotel to arrange most trips. Tumu and Gertrude work in the “Eco” Division and were very helpful and nice people. From a birding point of view, I appeared to be the only serious birder at the hotel. The hotel trips are based on 4 people being present and are priced accordingly. The costs were too prohibitive for me to go it alone. Lorraine and Phil accompanied me on one trip to a nearby woodland/Mida Creek. Tumu came along too. Our Guide at Mida was Sammy Sabaganga []. He was a great guy and he really knew his stuff, whether it was birds, trees, insects or crabs! We were so taken with him and the Mida area in general that we returned under our own arrangements for a second trip. If you are going to Mida Creek and want an interesting guide, Sammy’s your man. He is looking to set up a “base camp” on site so if you have a tent, you can stay at his place too! Pretty cheap accommodation I should think but handy if you are on a tight budget. I’m too old to rough it but I know some birders who would be attracted by the value for money opportunity!! Sammy is saving up with a view to providing tents shortly. For the record, I also made one afternoon trip to the Sokoke Forest with two other people from the hotel who wanted to photograph the Owls.

Tumu arranged for me to be guided around the area opposite the hotel on the morning before I left. I should have done this much earlier. Steve Baines had told me to get out in the early morning to maximise birding. The locals had put me off a little when I had walked this area previously. Therefore, I felt it was easier not to bother again with all of the offers of “help”. However, the prospect of seeing a few new birds was too great a temptation so I asked Tumu to arrange something for me and she said she would find me a guide with good birding experience. I met Jonathan Baya at the hotel and he escorted me through the areas I had visited previously – only this time, I saw lots of birds. Jonathan was excellent and I would recommend him to anyone wanting a couple of hours’ birding before breakfast. If I learned anything, it is that you have to do your birding early in the day. It goes very quiet after 9 am. Jonathan is contactable via e-mail at or through Tumu at the hotel. He is also available and experienced to guide at other local sites.


Wednesday 19 October

Left Newcastle at 2.00 p.m. for the 8.00 p.m. Kenya Airways flight to Nairobi from Heathrow.

Thursday 20 October

Arrived 8 hours later at Nairobi.  Sorted visas out at US$50 each.  Made our way to the domestic flights terminal and were ‘hi-jacked’ half way by three ‘porters’, who pushed our cases 20 yards and demanded payment.  We’d arrived …

Our flight was not due to take off for another four hours and it was hard to watch two flights to Mombasa leave while we waited.  The ‘lounge’ was very uncomfortable and there was little fresh air so eventually, we asked to leave and went for a walk outside.  It wasn’t very pretty but the stroll got our legs going and we found a small café, which allowed us to kill some time and get the bird list underway.

First bird was Red Winged Starling, quickly followed by 4 Speckled Pigeon, African Palm Swift and Common Bulbul.  Lorraine spotted 2 birds of prey high up on a tower.  They were both Lanner Falcons.  A small bushy area then gave us Speckled Mousebird (3), a female-type Sunbird, a Dove species and Lorraine is sure she saw a female Blackcap. Above us was fairly busy too with Swallow, Little Swift, Rock Martin and 3 Pied Crows flying high.

Eventually, we felt we were outstaying our welcome at the café so we got back to the departure lounge, still with nearly 2 hours to wait.  I could see some action through the window on the tarmac.  There were half a dozen Superb Starlings under a ‘plane!  Further away, I could see some Bee-eaters flying up from a fence.  I got my ‘scope out and was soon asked not to take photographs!!  I didn’t have the energy to argue…

Our flight to Mombasa only took 45 minutes and then we were off in our van to the Turtle Bay Beach Club.  We were well and truly whacked and somehow even I managed to sleep for a while – not easy on the road from Mombasa to Watamu!  House Crows apart, there was little to see, until a flash of red ahead of us caught my eye.  Two Carmine Bee-eaters at 40 m.p.h. to lift the spirits…

We arrived at the hotel mid-afternoon and went for a quick look around.  I saw a Tern flying close by and numerous Weavers at the hotel itself.  We slept well.

Friday 21 October

A quiet day after our 25 hours’ worth of travel.  I just checked the beach, which gave me a few waders and an Osprey.  At the hotel, I identified the Weavers as African Golden and Golden Palm.  A pair of African Wagtails gave me a nice bonus lifer.

Saturday 22nd October

All three of us chanced a walk outside the hotel after breakfast.  I knew there was good birding to be had there from Steve Baines’ report.  However, we had left it too late and it was quiet, apart from several offers of assistance from the locals, who do tend to accompany you.  We ran the gauntlet a couple of times but the third pair was more determined.  This led to an interesting hour or so, walking around the local village.  We saw a Fork-tailed Drongo, Common Bulbul and an unidentified bird of prey.  I agreed to meet up later for a 4 p.m. trip, which would surely give me more birds.  Well, it did but very few.  Golden Oriole, Pin-tailed Whydah and my first certain Black-bellied Starlings were the only birds I saw until we came across an Emerald Spotted Wood Dove.  That was better.  However, I knew that I was going to struggle without local expertise.  In between the two walks, we saw a Fish Eagle out on Turtle Bay rock.

Sunday 23rd October

Another quiet day as we prepared for our safari.  Lorraine had a good start though by seeing a Red-fronted Tinkerbird in the hotel gardens.  I was going to have to see one of those …

Monday 24th October

We were up early for our 6 a.m. start.  We knew we had the luxury of having the van to ourselves.  Saleem got us away and after about 20 minutes, we arrived at the place where the 7 am convoy of vans leaves for  Tsavo East’s Sala Gate.  This is the quickest route into the park but has been known to offer opportunities for attacks on vehicles.  The convoy has protection from rifle-carrying army personnel so presumably that keeps the local bandits at bay.

It’s a dusty road and it takes over two hours to reach the Gate from the meeting point.  We were pleased to get out of the vehicle just before the gate to walk around and use the local facilities.  This was a birdy area too.  Behind the loos, we walked toward the river, where there were a number of crocs on the banks.  There were Carmine Bee-eaters flying around, with a Jacana, waders, herons and smaller birds for support.  Near to the van, we saw 3 Grey Headed Silverbill, 2 Fischers Starlings and a yellow Weaver with a thick black bill and no tail.  I don’t know what it was.

We were staying at Voi Lodge, which was still a number of hours away.  We went through the gate and animals and birds came thick and fast.  5 Golden Breasted Starlings were the pick of the bunch with Vulturine Guineafowl getting the vote for ‘lovely but weird’ bird! Our first close views of Elephants were special and we soon saw several species of Antelope. Then it was the Zebras’ turn to impress, followed by Buffalo, Giraffe and Hippo. It was all too much really.

We arrived at Voi Lodge just in time to have lunch. There were Elephants at the Water hole, while we ate. Less impressive were the Marabou Storks – but lifers all the same. At the Lodge, Black headed Weavers flew around excitedly in large numbers, while a Spotted Morning Thrush increased the life list. A Woolly Necked Stork then flew in and did the same.

We left at 4pm for our afternoon game drive. We quickly caught up with Lilac Breasted Rollers, Long Tailed Fiscals, Northern White Crowned Shrikes and a couple of Hornbill species. A distant Secretary Bird gave frustrating views but Yellow Necked Spurfowl were more accommodating. A Grey Wagtail was a surprise, as was Saleem’s shout of “Lion”. We drove to a near-by waterhole to see a Lioness drinking vast amounts, following a recent kill by the look of her blood-stained mouth. We returned to the Lodge to find hundreds of Little Swifts flying under and around the roof. After our meal later on, we walked to the “tunnel” next to the floodlit waterhole to see close up Elephants and a very large Verraux’s Eagle Owl.

Tuesday 25th October

Another early start for our early morning drive.  We seemed to be up before the birds.  Good views of Lesser Kudu and Gerenuk kept us going before Saleem got a message that there were lions close by.  We drove to an open area to find a group of 18 (5 lioness and the rest young).  Vehicles came from all around.  There were small groups of Sparrow-Larks close to the lions and waders/larks and wheatears in the muddy pools.  It was difficult to identify everything, as we tended to go past most of them while ‘cruising’ around.  We went back to the lodge for breakfast and then returned for a further drive before lunch.  This gave us good views of White Browed Sparrow Weavers, Blue-naped Mousebird, Red Billed Buffalo Weavers, Oxpeckers and a Brown Snake Eagle; we also saw a Brubru, Von Der Decken’s Hornbill and a distant Bateleur.

The period after lunch was relatively quiet at the lodge although the elephants returned for their midday drink and bath.  Our late afternoon drive commenced under ever-darkening skies.  Brilliant views of a Secretary Bird gave us a great start and we then came across a small group of birds, which included White Crested Helmet Shrikes, Red and Yellow Barbet, Red Cheeked Cordon-Bleu and Amethyst Sunbird.  It was getting very dark by now so a ‘white’ bird in the distance easily caught my eye.  It proved to be a male Pallid Harrier.  The rain started slowly, we had time to see a Rosy Patched Bush Shrike and a few Ground Hornbills before Rain Stopped Play – big time!

Wednesday 26th October

First stop after leaving the Lodge was to see a female Cheetah with two young, having Dik Dik for breakfast! We were still under grey skies and it looked as though we could be in for further rain. We were soon on our way to Tsavo West and made good progress along an excellent road [the main road from Mombasa to Nairobi – more of which later!]. We arrived at the Gate after an hour or so and we made our way along the track, seeing White-bellied Go-Away bird and Black-bellied Bustard as we did so. We arrived at Mzima Springs and were escorted by an armed Guide, who showed us various trees, fish and wildlife in general. Hippo and Crocs were numerous. We saw Giant and Pied Kingfishers and a Long Tailed Cormorant on the river. After the tour, I wandered around the car park and saw Abyssinian White-Eye and a Northern Crombec. Shortly after leaving, we had fantastic views of Giraffe and later, a Chameleon did its impression of John Cleese’s “Ministry of Funny Walks” for us. We continued towards Ngulia, seeing our only Saddle-billed Stork at a waterhole. Also present in a pool close by were two Malachite Kingfishers, Black Crake, Hippo [9], Giraffe and a small group of Lion, looking longingly at the Giraffe!

We arrived at the Lodge for lunch. There was plenty of bird life, including Grey Headed Sparrow, Superb and Red Winged Starlings, D’Arnaud’s Barbet, Weavers and 3 small brown birds, which I identified from a photo two weeks later as being Straw Tailed Whydahs – at least I think they are! Frustrating birds included a Cisticola Sp., a Bunting, probably Cinnamon - Breasted, and a distant Bird of Prey. Our afternoon drive yielded little but the back of a Black Rhino [not seen by me] and a Little Bee-eater.

We returned to the lodge and as night fell, we wondered whether a Leopard would show.  We were told that there had been no show on the previous evening.  Thankfully, as early as 6.30 p.m., the guest star arrived.  With ‘scope set on the piece of meat provided, we got great views of this truly magnificent animal.  Then, out of nowhere, a second appeared by the waterhole!  However, once the lights were put on, it ran off.  A hyena made a brief appearance and later on, dinner was put to one side by the majority of diners when a Crested Porcupine arrived to see what was on the menu.

Thursday 27th October

We had an early breakfast and took a final look out over the area immediately next to the Lodge. We saw most of the birds seen on the previous day, plus 3 Yellow Rumped Seedeaters. We then set off for our epic voyage back to the Turtle Bay Hotel. We knew it was going to be tough going – and it was! It started well enough. Saleem stopped and we looked over the Rhino Sanctuary area. He immediately picked up a distant Black Rhino and we got excellent views through the scope. There were 4 Oxpeckers taking a ride on its back. We then went to the edge of the Sanctuary area to see whether we could get closer to it but we couldn’t. We lost quite a bit of time so we then had to head for the Gate to make sure we were out of the Park within our allocated time. We did see an Eastern Pale Chanting Goshawk and a few other birds but speed was of the essence.

Then we were out onto our favourite main road. This was a joy to travel along and we did so for several hours. About 50 miles from Mombasa, we stopped at a shop/toilet, where we got well and truly sorted by the main man at the shop. We came out with £50 worth of ornaments that we didn’t want or need. We only went in for a wee!! Off we went, along the same road and then…it disappeared! I can’t imagine how decisions are made about spending on roads in Kenya but it would seem to me that the best roads should be where the majority of traffic is. However, the reverse seems to apply and so the closer we got to Mombasa, the worse the road became. This wasn’t much fun, having already travelled for several hours. To add insult to injury, we then spent a little time in Mombasa where we walked along the main street, trying to ignore the repeated requests for money or anything else we had. Eventually, Saleem returned and we started on our last leg of the trip back to Watamu. We were pretty fed up by the time we arrived at the hotel. It had taken us the best part of 9 hours, including stops.

Friday 28th October

I have no notes for that day. Still in shock I think….We spent the day at the Hotel, doing very little.

Saturday 29th October

This was our day for the trip to the “Wildwoods” and Mida Creek. The woods tour was interesting but not very birdy, except for a Zanzibar Sombre Greenbul and Hadada Ibis. We sat out of the sunshine and drank lovely cold water after our walk, unaware of the Green Mamba that was curled up in the roof above us!

We moved on to Mida Creek and Sammy took us on a tour in very hot conditions. We started close to the car parking area, where he had made a couple of wooden structures out in the open for Carmine Bee-eaters to sit on. Good start, particularly as there were two sat on them. We took some time to study them closely – beautiful birds. We moved on and Sammy tried to persuade a Mangrove Kingfisher to show itself but it just would not play the game. I saw a flash of blue though….The mudflats were covered in waders and I took some time to look through the scope to confirm Terek Sandpiper and Greater Sandplover. Then I scoped 4 Crab Plovers, reasonably close in. That was the main panic over [or so I thought!]. We went back through the trees and saw African Paradise Flycatcher, Black and White Mannikins and a few Grassland Pipits. We arrived back at the van for a much-needed water stop. Tumu said we had about 30 minutes left so I said we would just nip out to the hide and come back fairly quickly. Now, I’d heard that the boardwalk to the hide was a little challenging but I hadn’t expected a trip like that! Not particularly enjoyable, I’d say. Obviously, that’s an old man talking as Sammy did it with my scope and tripod in one hand and two large bottles of water in the other!! Anyway, there were lots of Crab Plovers to see when we got to the hide, plus a few African Spoonbill, Sacred Ibis, Yellow Billed Storks and hundreds of other waders. It was interesting to see how quickly the tide came in. Within minutes of our arrival, the birds had flown off and the area was covered by water. We then made our way back to the van. I was glad to make terra firma again! We then returned to the hotel.

I returned to birding duty about an hour later! I went to the Sokoke Forest with two other guests and we met Willy Kombe there. Willy is a well-known birding guide in this area. He is part of the team of guides who work for Spinetail Safaris. The van took us to an area where the Owls are known to roost. Unfortunately, they were not where they were supposed to be. We waited for them to call and eventually, they did. Willy was quick to find them and we saw two birds just as the light began to fade. Incredibly, given the reputation of the Forest, these were the only birds we saw, apart from a Tropical Boubou from the van as we made our way along the track earlier. I had intended to visit the Forest in the early morning but in the end, could not arrange it. That will be my first port of call when I go to this part of Kenya next time.

Sunday 30th and Monday 31st October

These were very quiet days. Lorraine and others went for a walk on the Monday along the beach, with staff from the hotel. She came back to say she had seen Bee-eaters in the distance. They had been too far away to identify but I guessed that they would have been White-Throated, which are reasonably common in this area.

I checked the beach each morning and saw my usual handful of waders but all in all, there was little to excite, apart from my football and volleyball skills on the beach and my ever-improving table tennis and darts at the hotel!

Tuesday 1 November

I decided I ought to check out the Bee-eater area so I spoke to one of the chaps who spend their day on the beach, trying to sell safaris and glass-bottom boat trips etc. His name was Nimmo and I’d spoken to him earlier in the holiday. Clearly, he had some interest in birds and knew a little so I thought I would put a little trade his way and he could be my guardian while I walked up the beach! There wasn’t much doing but we did come across a Purple Heron in the bay some 200m from our hotel. It was the only one I saw. We then went to the area where Lorraine had seen the Bee-eaters but there was no sign. Nimmo decided we should have a walk around the area so I agreed even though it was very hot. What a decision. First bird in the bushes was a Red Fronted Tinkerbird! Phew..couldn’t wait to tell the Missus! We then crossed over the beach road in to the area I had visited previously. Oddly, there were a few birds showing even though it was nearly midday. Lilac-Breasted Roller, Tawny Flanked Prinia [4], Red Cheeked Cordon Bleu and Purple Banded Sunbird were all seen in half an hour or so. It was a nice break from lazing around. The problem was that the clouds were building up and we were going back to Mida Creek at 3.30.

It rained and it rained and by the time we left the hotel, we thought we were wasting our time. We arrived at Mida Creek and sheltered for 15 minutes or so with Sammy and some of his friends. It seemed hopeless but then it stopped and we thought we’d give it a whirl. Unbelievably, it didn’t rain again that afternoon. We were so lucky. We had another great tour and saw several more interesting bits and bobs. Bird-wise, we added White Throated Bee-eaters [3], Black Crowned Tchagra [2], Yellow Throated Longclaw, Yellow Fronted Canary, Black Headed Oriole and a few others to our Mida Creek list. We left with the feeling that we would have to return.

Wednesday 2 November

I met Jonathan Baya in Reception at 6am and off we went across the road. There were few people about and perhaps this is the reason for others having far less hassle on previous trips. It was still cloudy and rain soon threatened. Jonathan knew the area very well and we spent some time in a small bushy area where there were many birds, including Red Billed Quelea [30], Golden Oriole, White Browed Coucal, Pin Tailed Whydah, Black and White Mannikin, Lesser Masked Weaver and a number of irritating Sunbirds, including Purple Banded and Mouse Coloured, and, probably, Olive but they wouldn’t stay still long enough!

Jonathan then heard a Grey Headed Bush –Shrike and he whistled it out so I could see it easily. Handsome brute. We then had a fly-by Yellowbill and heavy rain!! We sheltered under a shack while young children looked on at this odd-looking, bedraggled birder. It stopped long enough for us to move on. A Wahlberg’s Eagle was a lifer, as were a pair of Black Cuckoo-Shrikes. We searched in vain for a Mangrove Kingfisher. Jonathan said that the majority would be moving away at this time of year in any event. A Black Kite, Black Bellied Starling and a few frustrating potential lifers [seen but not heard] later, we arrived back at the hotel. Jonathan is good value.

The rest of the day was taken up with sports and thinking about packing.

Thursday 3 November and Friday 4 November

I decided that I wasn’t going to rush around as we had a fair amount of travelling ahead of us. I checked the beach again first thing but there was little to see. I had another walk along the beach with Nimmo, this time in the opposite direction. I was hoping to see Terns and Gulls, which are known to roost in this area. However, I had to be content with 2 Ospreys. At the end of the walk, I decided to let Nimmo have my “Birds of Kenya“ field guide in the hope that this will encourage his interest further. (Later in the day I saw the first Gulls of the trip go past but I hadn’t got my bins! They were big!)

We left at 3.30, arrived in Mombasa at 6pm and left there 2 hours later, arriving in Nairobi at 9pm. Thankfully, we arrived at the International Airport terminal so didn’t have to mess about outside. Our flight left just before mid-night and it was a long 3 hours’ wait. Even I slept for a minute or two on the way back. Phil got several hours in and Lorraine about half of that. Another long wait at Heathrow and eventually, we arrived at Newcastle at 10.50am. That was 13 50 in Kenya so we’d been on the go for over 22 hours. It takes the edge off it….

Final thoughts

It was an excellent holiday. I made mistakes about making best use of my “birding” time. I should have gone to the Forest for early morning birds. Sabaki River Mouth and Lake Chem Chem would have been excellent places to visit too. It was just so expensive that I decided that I couldn’t justify the cost. I estimated that each trip would have cost me about £75 for half a day. However, I’m sure it would be cheaper if the guides were contacted direct. Obviously, they do not have to make the same kind of profits as the hotel.

On safari, the animals were superb and I think there is a birding sacrifice to be made in order to enjoy them. It would be difficult to stop for everything you see. A bus full of birders is probably the only answer!

If I can be of any help to anyone intending to visit, please contact me at “”.

Bird Species Seen


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