Exceptional Encounter With Quail-plover in Tsavo West National Park.

In life, sometimes you encounter episodes that are hard to describe, or for others to believe. One such episode, happened to me with a group of Italians ornithologist I was guiding at Tsavo West national park in Kenya in 2018.

The park is 9065 km.sq and is teeming with wildlife. Wildlife of all sorts. Mammals are the main attraction but there is plenty more to see. Birds, reptiles, insects, amphibians, you name it you have it. There is an abundance, of both variety and numbers. It is a haven of natural wonders, for anyone with an interest in wildlife. From biologists to conservationists, from keen enthusiasts to amateur naturalists, all can be entertained. There is plenty for everyone to enjoy.

Quail-plover in Tsavo West.Photo by Michael Sammut

Our main target for this park was Red-naped Bushshrike,Friedmann’s Lark and Quail-plover .We managed to get the first two with minimum effort, the third one proved to be a hard-nut to crack .After one and half day of searching, we gave up, there was no point spending a lot of time looking for one bird while we had more places to go and things to do. As we were leaving Tsavo West for Taita hills the next morning, something happen! our driver was cruising through the vast park when one of my client notice a lark like flight with a unique black-and-white wing pattern which is a clear indicator that it might be our golden-priced target.

Photo by Michael Sammut

Our driver-guide had no choice but to reverse for approximately 800m, I really admire his patience with us. The six of us had our eyes all over the place and suddenly our guy was there, standing still just by the side of the road next to our car. It certainly started running away from us on a long the road and that is how we picked up this photos that I’m sharing with you today.

That was an incredibly rewarding trip for both the guest and myself.Everyone was happy!

Kenya is a True Hotspot for Birding and Biodiversity in Africa.

Kenya habour some of the continent’s most spectacular landscapes and wildlife. Its extraordinary biodiversity is inextricably linked to its diverse and complex landscape.Habitats range from coastal beaches,reefs and creeks,through deserts,arid and semi-arid country ,a great range of bush,grassland and woodland,lowland to montane forest, and extensive freshwater and alkaline lake system.

Nice Birding habitat in Mt.Kenya,Photo by Joe Aengwo

It has a bird list of nearly 1134 species,nearly twice the total for Europe,and well over the total for the whole of North America. This in itself is sufficient incentive for any birdwatcher to come to Kenya.The fact that any birder taking a three weeks birding trip across the country can easily pocket over 700 species is a reminder of the incredible birding possibility in this country. In Kenya, you don’t need to go far to see a lot and many sites with quality habitat which are easily accessible. All you need is to know where to visit,stay focused,and you can see literally see hundred of species.We have the second-largest collection of birds on the planet.

Lesser Flamingos at Lake Bogoria,Photo By Jan F.L Van Duinen

Going by the second edition of Bird of East Africa by Terry Stevenson and John Fanshawe, Kenya has eleven endemic species .They are William’s Lark,Sharpe’s Longclaw,Aberdare Cisticola,Tana River Cisticola,Kulal White-eye,Taita White-eye,Kikuyu White-eye,Taita Thrush,Taita Apalis,Hinde’s Babbler and lastly Clarke’s Weaver.The East Africa region in general is an extraordinary centre of endemism with over 71 species only found in this part of the world.Among the areas with rich endemic  profile are the Eastern Arc Mountains of South Kenya and Tanzania,the East African Coastal Region and the reknown Albertine Rift region .

Wildebeest migration in Masai Mara,Photo By Jurg Hosang

Lastly, Kenya has over 67 Important Bird Areas (IBA’s) most of them with well developed infrastructure to enable enjoyable birding experience.Network of hotels,lodges and campsites exist, and highly qualified ecotourist guide,many of them skilled birders are available.Specialist bird tour companies offer tours that visit many of these IBA’s,with itineraries designed to find hard to see species,including regional and national endemic.

Dedication to the Global Big Day, 8 May 2021.

The eBird Global Big Day is a bird sighting event where birders all over the world observe birds on the same day and submit their observations on the eBird website. … Kenya took the leading position in Africa and emerged eleventh in the world, after 85 groups or individuals all over the country recorded 613 bird species.This year again,the event is happening on 8 May 2021. Any birder anywhere in the world is welcome to participate through your country technical committees who are leading the event.

Participating is easy—you can even be part of Global Big Day from home. If you can spare 5 or 10 minutes, report your bird observations to eBird online or with thier free eBird Mobile app. If you have more time, submit checklists of birds throughout the day. You never know what you might spot. Your observations help eBird scientist and biologist better understand global bird populations through products like these animated abundance maps brought to you by eBird Science.

Such kind of events encourages citizen science and active lifestyle which is generally a healthy way of spending time. Team Kenya is determined to out perform its previous records and perhaps challenge the South America giants like Colombia,Costa Rica,Ecuador,Brazil and Peru. With the leadership of Pete Steward,Washington Wachira and Doris Schaule ,Kenya is expected to perform exceptionally well during this year eBird Global Big Day.

Last year, Global Big Day brought more birders together virtually than ever before. More than 50,000 people from 175 countries submitted a staggering 120,000 checklists with eBird, setting a new world record for a single day of birding. You might want to help eBird surpass thier last year’s records? However you choose to participate, please continue to put safety first and follow your local guidelines.

How to participate

  • Get an eBird account: eBird is a worldwide bird checklist program used by millions of birders. It’s what allows us to compile everyone’s sightings into a single massive Global Big Day list—while at the same time collecting the data to help scientists better understand birds. Sign up here. It’s 100% free from start to finish.
  • Watch birds on 8 May: It’s that simple. You don’t need to be a bird expert or go out all day long, even 10 minutes of birding from home counts. Global Big Day runs from midnight to midnight in your local time zone. You can report what you find from anywhere in the world.
  • Enter what you see and hear in eBird: You can enter your sightings via our website or download the free eBird Mobile appto make submitting lists even easier. Please enter your checklists before 11 May to be included in our initial results announcement.
  • Watch the sightings roll in: During the day, follow along with sightings from more than 170 countries in real-time on our Global Big Day page.

On 8 May, we hope you’ll be a part of our global birding team. Have fun, enjoy the birds you find, stay safe, and share your sightings on eBird. Because in our world, every bird counts.

Lesser Jacana (Microparra capensis) is a Nice Record for Lake Baringo.

African Jacana (Actophilornis africanus) is the common species on the shores of Lake Baringo,one will therefore understand my excitement with the sighting of Lesser Jacana is this area, a new thing for us.In birding we like that element of surprises!. My thinking is that the current flooding experienced in the Lake as encouraged this species to venture out.

Photo by Joe Aengwo

Lesser Jacanan is the smallest of all Jacanas in the planet.Females are larger than males;infact in some species,they weigh two-third more.Jacanas sometimes described as lilytrotters are colourful,long-legged water birds that resemble rails and are found almost exclusively in tropical regions.Their long,spidery toes enables them to walk easily over lily pads or other floating plants,giving them the appearances of walking on water.

Photo by Joe Aengwo

The species spend long periods foraging in aquatic vegetation.It prefer wetland habitat;also reedbed,swamp,and areas of deeper water with suitable surface cover.Occasionally,the birds are also seen in fields and agricultural areas near wetland.

With the only exception of Lesser Jacana, Jacanas are polyandrous in nature(female mate with more than one male) and they also exhibit sex-role reversal.Males tend the nest and care for chicks while the larger, more aggressive females defend the territory from predators. Researchers have theorized that jacanas may have evolved with this unorthodox system to compensate for a high rate of egg and chick loss, which typically is greater than 50% due to their unstable aquatic habitat and attacks by water snakes, turtles, and larger birds.

Photo by Joe Aengwo

If females can spend less time sitting on the nest and more time mating with multiple partners, scientists argue, they can lay more eggs and contribute to the overall success of the species.

Other than this an expected sighting, Lesser Jacana are found in Kenya highlands wetland lands,ponds and man-made dams.

Incredible Bird Watching sites for Day Trip Visits Around Nairobi.

If you are visiting Nairobi for a business meeting or joining one of those international conference that happen in this city frequently or basically just started a new job in town then this is your best option of getting started with birding and safaris around the country.In this case long overnight trips aren’t absolutely necessary for great birding in Kenya. Oh yes, they can help and, for some places and birds, are necessary and awesome but they aren’t the only options. “Good birding” is where the habitat is, it’s what you want to see and how you feel like doing your birding. Long distance twitches can however arrange special expeditions  to see rare birds in their wish list within this locality by emailing us through  joe.aengwo@gmail.com or residentnaturalist@gmail.com .If you have a personal birding goals,we will be more than willing to arrange a personalized birding itineraries that will suit your goals.

The following are some of the options you have for day trips birding tours if you are stationed in Nairobi. I will always suggest an early start and if possible order a packed lunch if you plan to venture out for the whole day.

1.       Nairobi National Park.

Nairobi national park lies only 7 kilometers from the city centre,and thus provides a useful starting place for any birdwatcher based in Nairobi.Although the park is only about 117 square kilometers in area it offers a wide variety of habitats which attract an excellent selection of birds .These habitats can be divided into natural and man-made dams and ponds,Open grassland plains,bush country and rock gorges,riverine woodland and highland forest.

With a good resident ornithologist (Guide)with a proper strategy you can easily see over 150 species of birds in a day visit to the park. Other than the great birding experience, the park also offer an incredible introduction to Africa big game and wildlife where you can easily see Zebras, Elands, Impalas, Heartbeest  Lions, Buffalos,Giraffes, Rhinos, Leopards and with great luck Cheetahs.

2.       Magadi Road,Olorgesailie Prehistoric Site and Lake Magadi

This is one of the most outstanding routes within a day’s drive of Nairobi both ornithologically and scenically.The 115 kilometers to lake magadi is on a good tarmac throughout.After leaving the Nairobi uplands the road crosses the end of the Ngong Hills before dropping down the side of the Rift Valley.The upland grassland habitat of the Ngong Hills gives way to the semi-arid bush country below. Frequent stops from now on will turn up an excellent selection of birds,particularly at the seasonal waterholes which attract large numbers of weavers,whydahs and finches.

Olorgesailie Archaeological site is well signposted to the left  65km from Nairobi,shortly after Oltepesi.Apart from its archaeological interest the site and immediate area hold good selections of birds.Large flocks  of weavers and finches are attracted to a water bath set next to the rest area,and trail around the perimeter of the site is good for coursers,larks,and Ashy Cisticola .

Lake Magadi is a classic example of a  Rift Valley soda lake,which being so close to Nairobi ,is a recommended place to visit.A certain proportion is worked by the Magadi Soda Company,but most of the lake is totally undisturbed.Large number of water birds congregate around the southern edges of the lake,flamingos being the most obvious,although many passage waders may be present.Lake Magadi is one of the best site to see the tiny Chestnut-banded Plover in Kenya.

3.         Gatamaiyu Forest,Manguo Pond,Limuru  and Kinangop Grassland.

This forest lies north of Nairobi at an altitude of 2200m,just beyond Gatamaiyu village . This forest provide a typical montane habitat and it can be cold and rainy sometimes, so a rain jacket and something warm cloths is a must.Examples birds likely to be seen in this forest includes; White-headed Wood Hoopoe,Abott Starling,Ayre’s Hawk Eagle,Bar-tailed Trogon, African Black Duck,Hartlaub’s Turaco Chestnut-throated  Apalis and Cinnamon Chested Bee-eater among others.

Manguo Swamp (Limuru Pond) is a fairly extensive are of water thickly lined with reeds along one side.Large numbers of duck congregate here between October and February,many being migrants such as Pintail,Garganey and Shoveler.Maccoa Duck are regular breeders, along with Red-billed and Hottentot Teal.The reeds hold a good selection of herons,crakes and warblers,whilst the boggy margins attract migrant waders such as snipe and Green Sandpiper.Large numbers of swallows regularly feed over the pond,and often include more unusual species like Banded Sand and Plain Martin,Mosque and Grey-rumped Swallows.In addition, the scrub around the pond can be good for sunbirds,cisticolas and Finches.

Kinangop grassland is around 2300 meters above the sea level and can be incredibly windy and cold sometimes of the year.The flat,raised plains extend for miles as far as the Southern Aberdare in the east. The original tussock grasses and swamps that are found in this plains have been greatly reduced by extensive farming going on in this very productive agricultural area,but the landscape still supports a variety of bird species not easily seen elsewhere. The most sought-after of these are Long-tailed and Jackson’s Widowbirds and the endemic Sharpes’s Longclaw.

4.       Lake Naivasha and Hell’s Gate National Park.

Lake Naivasha is a large freshwater Rift Valley lake situated some 80km north-west of Nairobi.Huge floating masses of papyrus continually changes the appearance of this lake,as do the fluctuations in the water level.The present high level has led to the loss of much of the interesting lakeside vegetation,but in turn has produced temporary muddy margins which can be excellent for wading birds.The lake is also invaded by water hyacinth Eichhornia crassipes ,Coypu and Louisiana Red Crayfish which were introduced into the lake way back 1950’s.

Despite these changes, Lake Naivasha is still one of the most exciting bird-watching spots in Kenya.A wealth of water birds are to be found here throughout the year,but more especially during  the winter months when good numbers of palaeactic ducks,waders,and terns can be present. Almost all the land bordering the lake is privately owned,but more than sufficient  access is provided to birders.

Hell’s Gate National Park is the only park in Kenya where walking and cycling is permitted .Its habitat consist of a number of sheer columnar basaltic cliffs overlooking open grassland and thick bush.Augur Buzzard,Peregrine Falcon and Ruppell’s Griffon Vulture all breed here,along with large colonies of mottled and Nyanza Swifts.The Scrub below the cliffs holds several species of Cisticola,and Arrow-marked Babbler,whilst the grassland is good for Pipit and Schalow’s Wheatear. Herbivores are also plenty in this park. So Zebras,Giraffes,Elands,Impalas and both Thomson’s and Grant’s Gazelle are present.

Discovering birds in Kenya in 2021.

Finding birds in Kenya is pretty easy.Look outside and there they are;Red-eyed Dove calling from a tree outside your balcony; Hadada Ibis powering past,Baglafecht Weaver doing its morning chores,Long-crested Eagle perched on top of electricity poll or Jackson’s Hornbill fighting furiously with  it’s reflection through your car side mirror or Olivaceous Warbler moving constantly above.Look around and there’s a lot more;a screeching flock of Red-fronted Parrot or Hartlaub’s Turaco showing off its magnificent crimson wing.

Ross’s Turaco. Photo by Juhani Vilpo

Keep looking and you keep seeing more but isn’t that the case for most places? Birds are out there but what about the birds we want to see the most? No matter how even-minded we are about seeing birds, even the greatest of Zen birders would still be tempted to make a mad dash for a Solitary Eagle, might forget about the common birds to gaze at a rare passing migrant.

We get great enjoyment out of watching birds, making that daily connection with nature, but we also enjoy seeing something new, testing ourselves in the field, seeing what each of us can discover. This is why we study the best times for birding, think about when and where to go, and get out of bed at some ridiculous early hour. It’s also  why so many birders make their way every year to this East Africa birdy place.

Golden-breasted Starling. Photo by Joseph Aengwo

At the moment, few birders are visiting Kenya but that’s the case for most places and we all know the reason. However, hope is there, waiting on a near horizon. It’s like waiting and holding at a starting line, holding in a limbo place for a gate that will eventually open and when it does, the race is for multi-faceted salvation. We each run at our own pace but as long as we are careful not to trip, not to make anyone fall, helping others along the way, we all reach a finish line where everyone wins.

Flamingos at Lake Bogoria.Photo by Jan F.L Van Duinen

One vaccine very soon, let’s hope it all goes smooth and more becomes available. In the meantime, we can also plan birding trips to Kenya because they are going to happen and the birding will be more exciting than you imagined. Here’s some tips for finding more Kenya  birds in 2021:

Learn About Habitats.

One of the keys to knowing where to watch birds in Kenya .To see certain birds, you need to go to their homes, need to know how to recognize their realms. In Kenya, at the macro scale, this means knowing what the major habitats are and where they occur:

  • Montane Forest-Dry evergreen forests that are found in the highlands and mountain ranges of central and western Kenya. These areas are Mt.Kenya forest reserve and Mt.Kenya National Park, Aberdare National Park, Mau forest, Mt.Elgon and Taita Hills.
  • Coastal Forest-Coastal forests are among the most biologically important forests in Africa,owing to their high plant diversity and many endemic  animal diversity. For this particular time of habitat,I highly recommend that you visit Arabuko Sokoke forest in Kilifi or Malindi and some remnant forest patches in Diani and Ukunda area.
  • Semi-Arid Bushland-Most part of Kenya is hot and dry for much time of the year and is covered by vast expanses of open Acacia and commiphora woodland. Examples of sites exhibiting this kind of Habitat includes; Tsavo West and East National park,Samburu national reserve,Lake Baringo,Bogoria and Magadi, Kerio Valley ,Kongolai Escarpment and Meru national park.
  • Tropical Rain Forest-Kakamega forest is the only remnant of tropical rainforest in Kenya.
  • Intertidal  Wetlands-Intertidal wetlands are areas along the coastline that are submerged by the sea at high tide and exposed at low tide. Mida Creek in Watamu and Sabaki estuary in Malindi are examples of birding sites with these kinds of habitats.
  • Alkaline Lakes-The beautiful soda lakes of the Rift Valley in Kenya are highly saline,hostile environments,which are often fed by hot springs and rivers. Lake Bogoria, Magadi,Nakuru  and Elementaita are examples of such habitat.
  • Freshwater Wetlands-These includes soft water lakes of Lake Victoria,Baringo, Jipe and Naivasha and permanent swamps  and ponds.
  • Highland Grassland -This where you find the tussock grass. This type of grass is ideal habitat for the endemic Sharpe’s Longclaw. Kinangop grassland is a classical example of this habitat.
  • Grassland Savanna-Plain grasslands are found at mid-to low elevations and are characterized by grass expanses with scattering trees are riverine woodlands. Masai Mara Game Reserve is a renowned example of this habitat.
  • Semi-desert Drylands-Water is scarce in these rocky drylands,and animals found here are adapted to survive with little water.The drive from Isiolo all the way north Marsabit and North Horr to Loyangalani at east shores of Lake Turkana provides this invaluable habitat.

Learn Which Birds are Common, Which are Rare

Speaking of the Zen birding approach, the path is easier to follow when you have some idea about abundance and how easy or difficult it might be to see so and so species. This will then help you to figure out your target species and design a strategy to find them in a very convenient way.

Sokoke Scops Owl. Photo by Joseph Aengwo

Don’t Expect to See Everything

These  go for birding anywhere. However, it’s still worth mentioning because it’ so easy to want to see a bird so much that you end up kind of expecting to see it during the trip. Remember to keep it easy and enjoy every bird that fits itself into your field of view. Remember that some  bird species in Kenya is naturally rare and/or naturally tough to see. Also remember that the more birding you do in large areas of mature forest, the more likely you will run into the rare ones.

Crowned Eagle.Photo by Juhani Vilpo

Consider Hiring a Local Guide

And that previous bit of information is why it’s so worth it to hire a local guide. Not just any guide either but someone who knows the local birds very well. Even so, not every guide will know where or how to see birds in Kenya or even the secretive Sokoke Scops Owl. Granted, some of those species are naturally difficult to find and require some serious time to locate but as with any place, the more experienced the guide, the more likely your chances are of finding rare target species. I should also mention that as with any place, in Kenya , although many guides are experienced, a few stand out because they stay up to date on the latest in bird identification, where certain birds are found, and know about sites that are off the beaten track. Many guides will work out fine but if you want to have a better chance at  rare birds, those few, highly experienced guides are the ones to hire.

Beautiful Sunbird (Cinnyris pulchellus)

Photo by Tony Crocetta

Given the array of color presented by the male’s plumage the name seems appropriate: a pair of yellow bands on either side of a red chest, green on head and back, blue on the lower back and black on the belly and tail. The females are plumaged instead to be inconspicuous and safer from predators: yellowish chest and belly with gray-brown back. Beautiful sunbirds take flower nectar and insects as food. It is a very common species in arid and semi-arid regions of Kenya especially Samburu, Tsavo West,Lake Baringo and Amboseli.

They generally frequent flowering plants and therefore provide necessary conditions for photography.

Northern Red Bishop, the scarlet beauty found on the shores of Lake Baringo.

Photo by Tony Crocetta

Baringo, a shallow freshwater Lake, lies 110 km north of Nakuru town.  500 species of birds are one of its biggest draws. Baringo’s bird population rises and falls with the seasons. The dry season is normally the leanest time for birders, but the lakeshore resounds with birdsong at most times of year.

The shoreline is bursting with birds and photography is prime here because the birds quite approachable. Egrets, Herons, Kingfishers and Bee-eaters are the stars here.

If you are in the area at the right time of the year when the male Northern Red Bishop is on its full breeding plumage, you have the privilege to witness its courtship flight. Photographic opportunities are immense as the polygamous male tries to impress the females.  

This species is sexually dimorphic and polygynous, with the males being particularly larger than the females. The genus Euplectes is notorious for sexually selected characteristics, including elaborate displays and elongated tail feathers. The bright orange-to-yellow plumage with a contrasting dark black pigment is for attracting mates.

Northern Red Bishop inhabits tall open or bushed grassland. It closely associated with giant grasses and a tall crop like millet and sorghum, but also occurs in open habitats with ranks weedy vegetation. At night it roost in thicket or tall grass. Enjoy your birding.

African Orange-bellied Parrot in Samburu National Reserve!

Photo by Jan F.L Van Duinen

Samburu national reserve is one of the most impressive site to go birding in Kenya. Its proximity to Buffalo springs and Shaba national reserve makes it a nice base to explore the entire area extensively.

Whats give this country side life is the Ewaso Nyiro river that flows through the park. In the mid-mornings and afternoons, driving along the river on either side of the park will yield remarkable results from the stunning Kirk’s Dik dik, elegant Grevy’s zebra, reserved leopard to the gigantic elephants quenching their thirst.

African Orange-bellied Parrot is a star in this ecosystem that is hard to ignore because its high pitch call betrays its presence. They like to feed on the fruits of Kigelea africana trees that grows a long the river. This species is diamorphic in nature, with the orange belly being restricted to the males only!, females tend to have a uniformly green colour on their bellies.

Other than Samburu game reserve, this species can also be seen in Meru, Amboseli, Tsavo West and Tsavo East national park.

African Plains Beauties: Rosy-breasted Longclaw

Photo by Joe Aengwo

Longclaws are birds of African plains. They are easy to pick up when you are at the right location and habitat. Rosy-breasted (shown above) and Yellow-throated Longclaw are found in mid-altitude elevations. They are easily seen in Masai Mara game reserve and central Kenya grassland .

Pangani Longlaw is found in low altitude elevations and you have a great chance of seeing them in Nairobi, Amboseli and the Tsavos national park. However, it is important to note that I have seen on several occasion the Rosy-breasted, Yellow-throated and Pangani Longclaw in Amboseli national park.

Lastly the endemic Sharpe’s Longclaw is restricted to the high altitudes grassland of Kinangop.