Dressing to amaze

Choosing a soul mate is not an easy task. Many things are factored in, with the potential mate required to meet a set of minimums for consideration. Even if it means traversing rough terrains, climbing hills or descending steep valleys and slopes, the mission of pursuing a soul mate largely depends on a strategy invested in preparation.

Courtship behaviour in birds is one of the most fascinating. Both males and females may be choosy about their mates. Usually, it is the males who attempt to attract females by showcasing prowess in displays. They do so by wearing striking and attractive plumage and even singing out fine tunes to lure their potential mates.

If positive, females reciprocate by firmly standing ground and not moving away. If not interested, they fly off.

Females need to ensure they pair with quality and strong males. The females keenly look at several details before arriving at a decision. Males in good shape and have attained the right breeding plumage are often better placed to win over females. The intensity and frequency of displays give more attraction to the female. Males with previous mating success or experience often edge out new entrants.

The quality of the territory defended by males also determines the decision of the female. A neatly constructed nest in the best location wins the heart of many females to call it home.

Birding on Mt. Kenya

Dawn approaches, and Mount Kenya is preparing to wake up. The African sun, to the east, is on the rise, casting its rays over Kenya’s tallest mountain. Members of the Mount Kenya Biodiversity Conservation Group are on a bird-watching adventure. Their destination is Gathioryu forest, a block of the Mount Kenya forest.

Armed with binoculars, field guides, water and snacks, they hit the road. As they say, birding is mind therapy and draws one closer to nature. The group of enthusiastic birders is out to quench its thirst for a thrilling encounter with birds.

Sweet bird melodies fill the cold morning air. Sunbirds, bee-eaters, warblers, doves and weavers take turns in the morning dawn chorus. Here, birds are more heard than seen. Bird calls are key identification features. Apart from understorey dwellers, the majority spend most of their time in the high canopies.

We tick boxes on our bird checklist. Variable Sunbirds and Cinnamon-chested Bee-eaters are the first entries on the list. The diversity of birds here is broad, making it one of the top hotspots in the central Kenya region. The forest is home to other animals too.

Olive Baboons cling on tree trunks as they grab insects hiding in the bark. Their young ones playfully hop from tree to tree, spilling dry leaves on our heads. Black and White Colobus Monkeys lazily fed on leaves and seedpods, their long graceful tails dangling from the branches, evidently not bothered by our presence.

Mounds of elephant droppings cover the forest trail. It is fascinating to witness life emerge from relatively older droppings: seedlings sprouting, dung beetles taking off and landing. Francolins have scattered the dung profusely in their quest to hunt for insects to eat. The droppings are indeed magnets attracting an array of organisms.

As we proceed, a member of our troop recalls some information on elephants. An adult elephant can eat up to 200kgs of vegetative matter on a single day and equally excrete large amounts of droppings. These droppings contain seeds and nutrients. The seeds will germinate and grow, feeding on nutrients supplied by the droppings. Elephant calves will eventually wean on these plants to keep the cycle going. Quite a revelation!

More unravels. The shy and elusive bushbucks hop around and venture deep onto thickets, perhaps to conceal their identity from us. Our trail weaves deeper with every corner we take, opening up a new chapter of encounters to see and learn.

Our four-hour walk in the forest comes to an end with 30 bird species recorded. It’s been an exciting experience interacting with our natural world.

Safety in nesting

One Saturday afternoon, I took my five-year-old to a shopping mall. As usual, there were a lot of sale items on display at the mall. One, in particular, caught her attention: a dome tent. Curiously, she peeped inside the tent and asked me if she could have it as her home. I promised to buy her the tent the following week. The time came, and she came asking for her promise. Oops, it had slipped off my mind! She reminded me I had promised to get her a nest. A nest? I pondered. Yes, she insisted, saying I had promised to get her a house that looked like a bird’s nest for her to live in, referring to some weaver bird nests we had seen on a farm. Oh, I recalled amid some laughter. She meant the tent!

Talking of homes, it’s everybody’s dream to own one, a place to call their own. The array of numerous architectural marvels dotting our landscape exhibits the dynamics of modern building trends and designs. But what inspires all these home designs? Is it creativity? Is it necessity, functionality or the desire to fit?

A Village Weaver constructing a nest. PHOTO CREDIT :PETER USHER

For birds, it is a different notion altogether. Each species has a basic standard approach to nest building. Some birds seem to have mastered this art better than others. The nest-building skills, details and effort they display are beyond human imagination.

But what particular factors do birds consider when constructing their nests? Security is a prime consideration. Birds need to safeguard themselves and protect their eggs and young ones. They achieve this by strategically locating their nests.

An African Paradise Flycatcher nest. PHOTO CREDIT: PETER USHER

Many passerines (“songbirds” or “perching birds”) conceal their nests in thick bushes and lay ‘camouflaged’ eggs. Other birds resort to building numerous nests only to use one. The decoy nests serve to confuse predators. Some birds have nests with multiple false entrances.

Placing nests in hard to reach areas is another trick employed by birds for security. Some species build nests at the tips of thin branches that cannot support the weight of potential predators. Many birds of prey nest in inaccessible cliffs. Barbets, hornbills and woodpeckers find safety in holes on tree trunks, while bee-eaters prefer to burrow in the ground.

A nest Spot-flanked Barbet. PHOTO CREDIT: FRANCIS MUNGAI

Communal nesting for many of the weavers provides strength in numbers in mobbing predators and deterring them from accessing the nests. Some perch their nests’ entrances on thorny barricades.

Sparrows and some weavers have learnt the trick of securing their nests by building them close to human habitation. Interestingly, some birds engage ‘external protectors’ for their nests. They do so by building them near colonies of dreaded insects like ants, wasps or even bees!

Plovers simply gather small rocks or loose soil to lay and conceal their eggs.

All in all, nest building is a fascinating phenomenon, a marvel of our natural world, so to speak. Let’s go outdoors and enjoy nature’s thrilling experiences.

Do you know that:

Contrary to popular belief, birds don’t generally sleep in nests. While actively incubating eggs or raising chicks, birds may occasionally sleep on their nests. Once chicks are grown, the parent birds don’t return to their nesting sites to spend the night.

Birds uniting people

On Saturday, May 8th, Kenya joined the rest of the world to appreciate birds around them during the eBird Global Big Day. More than 51,000 people from 192 countries took part in arguably one of the biggest global bird watching event. The day saw a record one billion bird observations registered!

Kenya ranked 6th in the world with 811 bird species recorded, reaffirming its position as one of the global birding giants. In the top ten country list, Kenya was the only non-Americas (South and North). It was indeed a fantastic day for the birding fraternity in the country.

 

Appreciation goes out to the Nature Kenya Site Support Groups (SSGs) members from South Nandi Forest, Lake Elmenteita, Arabuko-Sokoke Forest, Mida Creek, Taita Hills, Mt. Kenya forest, Kinangop grasslands, Yala Swamp, Mumoni Hills and Tana River Delta for their outstanding contributions.  Kudos to Henry Ole Sanoe (Lake Elmenteita) and Ibrahim Ogolla (Yala Swamp) for making it to the country’s top ten eBirders list with 235 and 197 recorded species, respectively.

A special mention also goes out to Nature Kenya staff for their submissions to boost the Kenya list. They include Emily Mateche and Moses Nyawasa (Yala Swamp), Jennifer Adero (Tana River Delta), Juliet Mbaka (Loresho swamp), Paul Gacheru (Gitathura dam), Richard Kipngeno (Nairobi National Museum grounds) and Peter Muriithi (Paradise Lost).

It was great to see such enthusiasm from birders of all walks of life. Salute to you all. You made Kenya proud.

All in all, the Global Big Day in Kenya was a great success. The next event is on October 9th. It may sound far off, but early preparations are necessary.

 

Croc here to stay?

In February, we reported the sighting of a Nile Crocodile on the banks of the Nairobi River at the Michuki Memorial Park. Interest, fear and skepticism greeted news of this unusual sighting in equal measure. Guess what, our reptile friend is still around, at the very same spot!

Today we stumbled on the croc, doing what it loves doing: basking by the river bank. It was not alone, though. Four Hadada ibises stood next to the croc, evidently maintaining a social distance.

Surprisingly, the recent rains seem not to have swept the crocodile further downstream. Interestingly, it also appeared to be well-nourished.

 

Crocodile aside, we were fortunate to spot a Great Sparrowhawk. The raptor flew in and perched high on a tall eucalyptus tree, a short distance from the nesting site (see the previous post). Eagerly, we waited to see if the sparrowhawk would fly to the nest. Well, it did not. The bird stayed put on the same spot for over 20 minutes.  By the time we left, it had not budged a single inch.

 

Our walk took us on almost a similar path to last week’s. There were many birds to listen to and watch. We started at the courtyard. Several Pied Crows were on the courtyard’s cabro-paved floor, pecking on termites that had flown out of their mounds the previous evening. Moving towards the Peace Path, we came across some White-eyed Slaty Flycatchers and Variable Sunbirds. Down near the Nairobi National Museum-Michuki Memorial Park boundary, we encountered Willow and Grey-capped Warblers, Holub’s Golden and Baglafecht Weavers, Northern Olive Thrush (now also called Abyssinian Thrush), Streaky Seedeaters, Bronze Mannikins, Singing Cisticolas, African Citrils, among others.

   

At Michuki Park, we spotted Village Indigobirds, Spectacled and Village Weavers, Montane White-eyes, Silvery-cheeked Hornbills, a Lesser Honeyguide, to mention a few. Today’s count was 29, plus of course, the crocodile.