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A Report from

Kenya, 1st Dec 2003 - 16 Dec 2003,

Robert Butlin

Many people travel to new birding locations such as Kenya, only to spend lots of time in vehicles, having new bird species pointed out to them by guides of varying skills. Deciding that this was not for me I enrolled with Earthwatch, a charity committed to conservation work throughout the globe. My work took me to Mwea National reserve situated about 150 kms North-east of Nairobi on the north shore of one of a series of reservoirs formed by damming the Tana river. The reserve does not have any other inhabitants, though we did see fishermen on the lake.

I hoped that by spending 10 nights in one place I would be able to gain at least some knowledge of the local birdlife, as well as absorbing information from the Principal Investigators Dr Samuel Muchai (henceforth Muchai) and Dr Gabor Lövei (Gabor), a naturalised New Zealander of Hungarian decent living in Denmark. I am delighted to say that my hopes were fulfilled. Accompanying us were Nicodemus Naliyana (Nico), Patrick Gichuki (Gichuki), and Timothy Mwinami (Timo) from the Ornithology Dept of the National Museum, plus five further volunteers, Vicky and Chris, who were both American women, a British man Ian, an Indian woman Piyali and a Bangladeshi man Assad.

Earthwatch is primarily a scientific organisation, which wishes to expand the frontiers of knowledge in a wide range of areas. The project I joined was called Europe Africa Songbird Migrations. Its primary purpose was to try to ring and take biometric and other data from Palearctic Migrants wintering in Africa. All birds, including the Afro-tropical birds had standard biometric data, such as wing length, and moult condition taken. Palearctic birds also were measured to see the extent of body symmetry, to see whether the hypothesis that successful migrants (ie those in Africa) were more symmetrical than the generality of the species ringed in either Hungary or Italy. Palearctic birds were also tested for West-Nile Virus and new afro-tropical species had blood taken for a DNA bank held at the University of Copenhagen. 

Ian and I had arrived together in Nairobi on an overnight flight and were met by a driver he had booked through his bank. Only problem was that we were delivered to the Serena Hotel, a very plush establishment rather than the Sirona Hotel, a less plush place in which all the volunteers plus Gabor were staying. A soft drink later we were on our way to the correct hotel. Seeing we were near the National Museum, our meeting point we decided to walk, but failed to follow the not too clear directions. Back to the hotel we got better direction and made it to the Museum, and its café without any problem. Three of the four other volunteers were waiting for us, with the fourth arriving shortly afterwards. As we sat in the café the small wooded courtyard was gently birded, revealing Cinnamon Chested Bee-eater, Common Bulbul, Olive Thrush, Variable Sunbird, Streaky Seedeaters, African Paradise Flycatchers, House Sparrows and a female Grosbeak Weaver. These I added to the Marabou Storks, Black Kits and Cattle Egrets seen on the way in. I'm also fairly sure I got a brief look at an Augur Buzzard. 

We met up with Gabor, Nico and Muchai that afternoon and had a quick tour of the museum's stuffed bird collection where some of the more common Palearctic Migrants such as Willow Warbler and Thrush Nightingale were laid out for us. We were to get many similar views, but of live bird in the ten days to come. On Monday evening we all went for a meal this time including the three Kenyan volunteers Nico, Gichuki and Timo. For me it was an early night. Morning saw more Variable Sunbirds, plus Speke's Weavers in the trees.  The broad intention was to leave around 10, but problems with the campsite delayed departure till around 1pm. In the interim period we had a walk round the museum gardens, where Bronze Mannickins were in numbers and a Great Sparrowhawk was nesting in a Eucalyptus tree. Diederik Cuckoos were calling away, and pleasant surprises were a Mountain Wagtail on the river bank and a Common (Steppe) Buzzard on a tree, looking small and rufus as the books said it should. A Yellow Rumped Tinkerbird called away as did Rattling and Singing Cisticolas. Red-billed Firefinch, Amethyst Sunbird, African Citril, Black-headed Weaver and Speckled Mousebird were all added later on. The museum grounds also held plenty of Hadada Ibises, including one nesting pair. 

Nairobi traffic wasn't too bad and once on the road reasonably good progress was made on roads significantly better than I had expected and much better than the worst Europe (ie Albania) can offer. A couple of stops for diesel saw a chance to look at Lesser Striped Swallows, Plain Martins, and White-crowned Sparrow-weavers. Superb Starlings were ubiquitous, as they were to be in most parts of Kenya. We soon saw our first Barn Swallows, a bird that was to cause of intense pleasure later on.  

We arrived in Mwea at about 5pm. Stopping at the gates we saw our first, and only Speckled Pigeons, plus our first hornbills, in the case Red-Billed. An African Grey Flycatcher caught flies while up above Lesser Striped Swallows mingled with Little and White-rumped swifts. The drive down to the campsite added Eurasian Hobby and Helmeted Guineafowl. We got down to the campsite, unloaded our stuff and checked out our accommodation. This turned out to be single tents for us volunteers, which pleased me as it enable me and me alone to be responsible for what was in the tent. There was a central tent at which we eat, sat and chatted, with nearby access to the lake shore. Food was cooked for us by the camp staff on the other side of the road. This left the Investigators and volunteers, both Kenyan and foreign to concentrate on the bird work. 

The 3rd saw something of a lie in, as were up by 7 am. First job was to put up nets, initially near the campsite, then in the afternoon at the first roving site, which was either side of a normally dry river. We also had a chance to go down to the lake shore, where we picked up a good collection of waterbirds, including African Darter, Osprey, Eurasian Marsh Harrier, Egyptian Goose, Yellow-billed Stork, Long-tailed Cormorant, Grey Heron, Pink-backed Pelican, Little Egret and of course Pied Kingfisher. The lake had plenty of terns, some of the Whiskered were approaching breeding plumage and relatively easy to identify, as was the Gull-billed Tern by size, but distinguishing non-breeding White-winged and Whiskered was not easy. There were also a few rather smaller terns that probably were Saunders. We also went out to see look over the lake from a set of rocks, adding Goliath Heron, Purple Heron, African Spoonbill, Marsh Sandpiper, Curlew Sandpiper, Common Sandpiper, Greenshank, Black Winged Stilt, Spur-Winged Plover and a much discussed Shikra in the tree behind us.  On the land side I saw Black and White (Jacobin) Cuckoo, Wire-tailed Swallow, Chin-Spot Batis, Spotted Flycatcher and Eurasian Golden Oriole and my first Willow Warbler. We also heard Thrush and Common Nightingale

The ringing was organised so that Hippo Point (the campsite) had the nets in place for all of the eight days that were ringed. We also set up nets at four roving sites, successively riverine woodland, Commiphora/Acacia Woodland higher up, and open site with small trees and bushes higher up still and finally a second, though rather lower Commiphora site. At Hippo Point the nets were opened up at between 5.45 and six, with the first collecting round at 7am. 6.20 to 7 was mostly for birdwatching, often down at the lake. Breakfast would be taken at a quiet time, usually after the third of fourth round, ie 9.45/10.45 although the home team, with over 40 birds caught on day one, never managed any breakfast at all. The final 11am round saw the nets furled til the following morning. The roving sites had two days each with the team setting off so that the nets could be opened before 6am, this meant leaving around 5.30 am, ie when it was still pitch black. After opening the team had breakfast, and set off for the 7,8,9,10 and 11 rounds as the morning wore on. The second day at the roving sites would see the nets taken down, with the new site being cleared that afternoon. The afternoon of the first day was spent on a vegetation survey.

As in Nairobi it rained overnight on both our first two nights in Mwea, though it had stopped by daybreak. I was in the roving team with Gichuki, Chris, Piyali, Muchai and Timo on 4 December. We set off at 5.30 for the 15 minute drive to the site. But the road was wet and the mud very slippery. We slid gently down a hill and found ourselves heading nearer and nearer the side of the road, until, with a log in front of us we were bogged down. Despite Gichuki's best efforts there we stayed. We tried the winch but without success, though many of us did get very muddy indeed. In the end we had to walk, getting the nets up around 7am. Gichuki later went back for the Land Rover, and dug it out; driving up in the mud covered vehicle looking absolutely shattered about 11am. 

One thing the early starts did allow us to do was a bit of nocturnal birding, especially for nightjars. I certainly saw Dusky Nightjars, and am pretty sure I also saw Eurasian Nightjars as well. Finally one really small bird must have been Donaldson-Smith's Nightjar. We also came across a couple of Water Thick-knees on one of our early morning drives. In fact the driving to the sites proved about as effective as longer night drive that we went on after dinner one night. That produced more nightjars, but also on the mammal front, a few rabbits and a civet, plus the very distinct smell of elephants to go with the obvious footprints. But try as we did we failed to see any. We had though seen Impala, Zebra and Giraffe on the way back from the Open site. He first had survived a period of poaching; the latter two had been re-introduced. 

Ringing provided us with an opportunity to see birds that would otherwise only be heard, or in the case of some of the migrants, and indeed African species, birds that were normally silent in December. Bird ringed come into two categories, the first being those seen and ringed, the second ringed only. Seen and ringed include Emerald-Spotted Wood-dove, Barn Swallow Red-Fronted Tinkerbird, Eurasian Golden Oriole, Slate-Coloured Boubou, Sulphur-Breasted Bush-shrike, Northern White-Crowned Shrike, Brown-Crowned Tchagra, Common Bulbul, African Golden Weaver, Red-faced Crombec,  Willow Warbler, Yellow-breasted Apalis, Chin-spot Batis, Red-Billed Firefinch, African Firefinch, Red-cheeked Cordon-Bleu and Purple Grenadier. 

Conversely I never saw the relatively common Pygmy Kingfisher, Northern Brownbul, Eastern-bearded Scrub-Robin, Red-capped Robin-Chat, White-browed Robin-Chat, Rüppel's Robin Chat, White-browed Scrub Robin, Marsh Warbler, Common Whitethroat, Blackcap, Olivaceous Warbler, Nightingale, Thrush Nightingale, Rufus Chatterer, Abyssinian White-eye Collared Sunbird, Abyssinian White-eye, Eastern Violet-backed Sunbird, Collared Sunbird, Beautiful Sunbird, Peter's Twinspot, Purple Grenadier, Red-capped Robin-chat, Zanzibar Sombre Greenbul, Grey Wren Warbler, Grey-Backed Cameroptera, Yellow-spotted Petronia Peter's Twinspot or Green-winged Pytilia, other than in the net. Much less common birds ringed include River Warbler, Olivaceous Warbler, Bare-eyed Thrush and White Crested Helmet Shrike,

Equally there were plenty of birds seen but not ringed. This obviously included the waterbirds mentioned earlier and raptors such as Black-Shouldered Kite, Eastern Pale-Chanting Goshawk, African Fish-eagle, African Harrier Hawk, Osprey, Little Sparrowhawk, Great Sparrowhawk, Common Kestrel, Martial Eagle, and Bateleur Eagle. But we also failed to catch a good few smaller birds, including Klas's Cuckoo, Red-fronted cuckoo, Brown Parrot, Bearded Woodpecker, Cardinal Woodpecker, Yellow Wagtail, Brown-crowned Tchagra, Eurasian Bee-eater, Flappet Lark, Isabelline Shrike, Superb Starling, Rüppel's Long-tailed Starling, Wattled Starling, Greater Blue-eared Starling, Red-headed Weaver, and Cinnamon Chested Bunting. 

As an aside Mwea is one of the few known Kenyan sites for Hume's Pied Babbler, a Kenyan endemic with a restricted range. We'd brought a tape record along should tape luring be needed (the birds go round in familial parties which check out any other birds or sounds of other birds). The tape luring did work, though we only used it a couple of times. The birds in fact proved to be not too elusive and they were heard and seen on other days without any sign of a tape recorder.  

The routine was only broken on the sixth ringing day, which dawned dreary and continued very wet indeed. At Hippo point it was never dry enough to even open the nets, those at the Open site did get the nets opened and one round in, before giving up, but not after a bedraggled Red-fronted Tinkerbird was revived by the Land-Rover's heater.  I'd told Ian that with a heavy due both Wellingtons and waterproof trousers were needed, something I'd failed to do the day before so getting myself nicely damp from the due on the grass on the early rounds. Ian took a good waterproof, and Wellingtons, but no waterproof trousers. He, like Timo, Muchai and Gichuki, came back looking very drowned indeed, the first thing he did was empty at least an inch of water from inside his boots.

But the next day dawned dry and having used a period of drizzle to put up the nets on the final site, I with Gabor Nico, Piyali and Chris set out on a slippery journey to the final roving site. Opening the nets we heard what sounded like a roost in the distance. Looking down the hill we could see a reed-bed which seemed to be where the noise was coming from. This was also in the general direction that we'd all been seeing swallows heading to each and every evening. Gabor and Muchai decided that we'd all go there on our final evening.

The rains had stimulated termites to emerge, attracting a wide variety of bird to feed on them. This raged from the acrobatic, and to be expected Barn Swallows, to equally effective spotted flycatchers and less effective African Golden-weavers and Slate-coloured Boubous. Seeing the swallows, including the odd Red-rumped and one Wire-tailed, hoover up the alites was most impressive. But best of all for me was returning from a ringing round at Hippo Point to discover that instead of swallows doing the feeding it was sea swallows, ie Whiskered and White-winged terns. I know they feed on insects so this behaviour is not unusual but I'd certainly never seen a couple of hundred terns flying up and down a road picking up termites on the wing barrelling upwards, turning and returning in the opposite direction. I stood virtually mesmerised for 20 minutes, while a few swallows joined in. Eventually the bird had had their fill, though the termites kept coming. So in the end the termites won; by sheer numbers at least some would survive to fight another day.

I'd known that Mwea had had a huge swallow roost, but Gabor said that it had moved between 2001 and 2002, and that they'd failed to find it in the latter year. Our last night was the final chance we'd have to see if the 2003 one could be located. We arrived around 17.30, found the reedbed and more importantly a way in through the bush on to the muddy, but relatively firm bank. The site was at the point where the Tana river flows into the reservoir itself. We had water in front of us for about 20 metres, with a flat grassy bank for a further 30 metres before bushy vegetation took hold. The river curled in to our right, some 30 metres wide as well. The reedbed was the other side of the river.  We saw some Hippos, and a few waterbuck in the distance. Yellow Wagtails in their hundred started to congregate on the far bank, while African Jacanas and Spur-winged Plovers waited on the far bank. Little and Cattle Egrets flew by, and I saw my first Green-backed Heron and second Black-Crowned Night-heron. Swallow numbers, and wagtail numbers gradually increased until by 18:00 the wagtails must have numbered 30,000 as the chattered away in the reedbed, occasionally flying off in loose flocks over the water before settling again.

But while wagtail numbers peaked around 18:00 the swallows just kept coming. We were on the edge of the roost, so looking away and over the reedbed meant looking through the vast throng of birds. With the naked eye it was spectacular, through binoculars the numbers were uncountable, and for me almost unimaginable. We'd truly found the roost, and we could only watch open mouthed as more and more birds came into sight. Those who'd seen locust swarms suggested that this was like a small one. Those like me who'd never seen anything like it stood around in awe as the sky gradually got darker and the bird swooped down into the reeds. We were only disturbed by a single, rather tame Malachite Kingfisher, which very kindly sat still while photographs were taken. Not standing still were the hippo family, which were getting increasingly restless and they saw their way out for food blocked by us. Eventually as the last light faded from the sky we headed back to the Land-Rover and drove to the camp. A truly spectacular end to a wonderful ten days, and without any doubt the best experience of all my birdwatching days.


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