In praise of wetlands and wetland birds

January is the season of the annual African Waterbird Census. It’s a time to meet old friends as volunteers come together to monitor our precious wetlands. The counts are organized by the National Museums of Kenya, Kenya Wildlife Service and Nature Kenya in collaboration with local institutions and volunteers. Thanks to AFEW and others who supported the counts this year.

Lake Bogoria was the first Rift Valley lake to be counted, and some 2,400 Greater and 160,000 Lesser flamingos were estimated. Compared to January 2017, Lesser Flamingos recorded an almost three-fold increase. Contrary to a recent report in the press, there is no water hyacinth in this alkaline water – the water hyacinth is invading neighbouring Lake Baringo.

At Lake Nakuru, the north end of the lake still looks like another world, with part of the acacia woodland still flooded – standing dead trees in the water, fallen dead trees on the land. A wide variety of water birds, including African Darters (and land birds such as parrots, rollers, woodpeckers, oxpeckers) were making use of the standing dead trees.

At its southern end, however, Nakuru seems to be reviving as an alkaline lake: Thousands of Greater and Lesser Flamingos, brilliant in the golden light; Great White Pelicans, including a brown immature, fishing together; a family of Pink-backed Pelicans in breeding plumage, with black “eye make-up” and a little dark crest, also with an immature; a line of African Spoonbills fishing intensively behind the pelicans; rows of silvery gulls and terns on a sandbar; Pied Avocets and Black-winged Stilts foraging in the shallows; and more!

Greater Flamingos still outnumbered Lessers, and both flocks included greyish immatures. Some of the Greater Flamingos were mating. To top it all, a small flock of African Skimmers, also with an immature, flying right in front of us, slicing through the water with their brilliant red beaks.

Elmenteita and Naivasha with its associated lakes were next. The water levels were still high, but going down. The weather featured hot sunny mornings and scattered thunderstorms in the afternoon. Highlights at Naivasha included large numbers of African Fish Eagles, a flock of about 250 endangered Grey Crowned Cranes, an even larger number of Spur-winged Geese, several Giant Kingfishers and again a small group of African Skimmers.

Lake Oloidien at the tip of Lake Naivasha was still fresh water, and teeming with Tilapia. While counting there, an intrepid member of our group waded out into the shallow water to rescue an African Grey Woodpecker that had become trapped in an old fishing net tangled in a flooded low acacia bush.

At Lake Ol’Bolossat in the highlands, the water level was low and the surrounding grassland was dry. There were small flocks of migratory ducks – 20 Northern Pintail, over 200 Northern Shoveler, a few Garganey – and large numbers of some local species: 4,000 Red-knobbed Coot, over a thousand Glossy Ibis, over 500 Yellow-billed Duck. It was encouraging to observe about 450 Grey Crowned Cranes, some with chicks.

 Wetland sites near Nairobi were counted during Nature Kenya’s regular Wednesday and Sunday bird-watching outings. The counts continue as we go to press.

What do the bird counts tell us? They remind us that our wetlands are places of incredible beauty and inspiration. Wetlands also regulate our water, provide food and support agriculture, tourism and biodiversity. However, we noted that our wetlands are under intense pressure – siltation and wastes in Nakuru, invasive species in Baringo and Naivasha, encroachment by settlements on lakes Naivasha and Elmenteita and in Limuru and Kiambu, climate change all over.

 The counts also recorded very few migratory ducks from the north. Was this due to a change in migration patterns because of climate change, a change in food availability in our wetlands, a change in the breeding habitat or increased killing of birds along the migration route? Only further research and monitoring will tell.

 Wetlands desperately need to be given the priority and care that they deserve.