Mount Kenya and Meru National Park Birding

Species lists, sound recordings and additional photos for this trip have been uploaded at — see the links in the text. 

It was on Monday 12 October 2020 that Pete Steward and I set off to explore Mount Kenya and Meru National Park. We were eager to pick up a few species (especially African Finfoot, Pel’s Fishing Owl and Black-and-white Shrike-flycatcher) for our Kenya and life lists on this birding trip, and it did not disappoint. 

Departing Nairobi, our first stop was at the Blue Post Hotel in Thika. From here we were able to walk along the Chania and Thika rivers for a few hours where we picked up a family group of Grey-olive Greenbuls, a pair of Brown-hooded Kingfishers, a Black-throated Wattle-eye, hundreds of Eastern Golden Weavers, a sub-adult Crowned Eagle and a pair of African Hobbys. ( checklist/S74814815). 

Getting back on Thika road we stopped briefly by the bridge over the Tana River for Hinde’s Babblers who readily appeared. From here, we went east around Mount Kenya headed for the Chuka Forest Station. We drove a little way into the forest on a surprisingly good road, but it was midday and very quiet except for a few pairs of Kenrick’s Starling, which flew over the road providing a welcome lifer for Pete. At one of our many birding stops in the forest, I looked up and saw what could only have been an adult Cassin’s Hawk Eagle soaring high over the forest. 

From Chuka, Pete and I drove north to our overnight destination of Marania Farm, which is at an altitude of 2500- 2700m. As soon as we arrived, the farm manager, Damian Fison, took us out to the tussock grasslands on the farm, where a pair of Sharpe’s Longclaws put in an appearance before it got dark. 

Back at the grasslands the next morning, we found they were heaving with high altitude specials. Common Quail seemed to call from every tussock, and Wing-snapping Cisticolas and Sharpe’s Longclaws displayed overhead. It was not long before the first Elgon Francolin (now a separate species from Moorland Francolin) called, but it took us a while to get a good look at them. After an hour of searching we found a confiding pair that fed and called a short distance from our car. ( checklist/S75437063) Not far from the francolins we found a family of Yellow-necked Spurfowl — quite bizarre to have both species present and breeding at the same site. 

After a quick breakfast we headed down the mountain to Imenti Forest and opted to bird along the tracks at the edge of the forest. Highlights included Crested Guineafowl, Brown-backed Woodpecker, White-eared Barbet, Moustached Tinkerbird, Purple-throated Cuckooshrike, Black-fronted Bush-shrike, Black-headed Apalis, and Waller’s and Kenrick’s Starlings. 

On the way back to the farm we took a quick detour into a forest area situated along the well-maintained road beyond Marania Forest Station. We found a recently constructed large dam having a pair of African Black Ducks and we had excellent views of Booted Eagle and a juvenile Crowned Eagle. In the early evening back on the farm Damian found us a stunning and confiding Mackinder’s Eagle Owl (https://ebird. org/checklist/S74814851). A brief drive later that night was interrupted by rain, but we did manage to see two servals, bushpigs, a few porcupine and plenty of Montane Nightjars. 

We left Marania Farm the following morning at dawn and decided to stop at Imenti Forest again, gladly adding a Common Whitethroat to our list. Driving east along the Nyambene Hills we headed towards Ngaia Forest and Meru National Park. This drive is spectacular and we wished we could explore the forest patches along the way. We arrived at Ngaia Forest at the worst possible time of day, but decided to try our luck regardless. However, the main track through the forest seems to be the route taken by farmers that live on one side of the forest and who farm on the other, and the result was a steady stream of motorbikes. 

This annoyance aside, the forest is spectacular and still of incredible quality. Our best birds here were a Southern Yellowbill, an Eastern Nicator and a very stoic Narina Trogon that happened to be perched and calling just metres away from music blasting from a broken down pikipiki (motorbike). 

Meru National Park 

We were pleased to find good numbers of migrants whilst driving through Meru National Park on the way to Rhino River Camp Wheatears (Isabelline, Northern, and Pied) and European Rollers. We arrived at camp late in the day and opted to spend the remaining daylight hours on the nature trail going through the camp. Highlights included a family group of Retz’s Helmetshrike, a Red-capped Robin Chat, calling Eastern Nicators, a family of White-eared Barbets and hundreds upon hundreds of Eurasian Bee-eaters ( S74814861). 

We started out the next day in the park’s Rhino Sanctuary where we had a calling Eastern Black-headed Batis. We then drove straight towards the Rojeweru River area east of Elsa’s Kopje and then proceeded to drive the tracks near the river. A female African Finfoot gave us a brief, but satisfactory, view. Other interesting birds included a Trumpeter Hornbill, at least two Eurasian Hoopoes, numerous Black-bellied Sunbirds, and a pair of Golden-breasted Starlings. On the way back to camp we found a Secretarybird, two Western Banded Snake Eagles, a few Steppe Eagles, and a few pairs of nesting Wahlberg’s Eagles ( checklist/S74917617). 

A somewhat depressing observation was the complete absence of vultures and Tawny Eagles in the park. No doubt these birds persist here, but they must be in very low numbers. I hope I am wrong. 

In the evening we opted to explore the area surrounding the old Kampi ya Nyati site in the park. On a small track we flushed a pair of finches that drew our attention. We were elated when they flew up and we found ourselves staring at a pair of Orange-winged Pytilia. Over the next 30 minutes we found multiple pairs in this general area and at one point we had 7 birds in view at the same time. 

As the sun was setting, we were walking on the road back into camp when suddenly we heard a distant, but distinctive solitary hoot from along the Rojaweru River. We froze and listened carefully for a few minutes. Every 10 seconds or so the bird would call and it was the deep pure bass hoot of a Pel’s Fishing Owl. We rushed back to camp to pick up a microphone to make a recording, but the bird unfortunately did not call again that evening. (https:// 

We spent our final day birding around the campsite. Highlights included a confiding Southern Yellowbill, a pair of Lizard Buzzards, Jameson’s Firefinch, a family of Hinde’s Babblers, and finally one of our target species — a pair of Black-and-white Shrike-flycatchers that flew into camp right as we were leaving — a new bird for both our Kenya lists! (https://ebird. org/checklist/S75024643). 

This article by Stratton Hartfield and Peter Steward appears in the current issue of Kenya Birding magazine.


The Yala Bird Ambassadors

Meet the birdman Ayiro Lwala 

As you walk through the compound in the morning, the sweet singing of birds fills the air. White-browed Sparrow Weavers, White-browed Robin Chats, and African Thrush are just a few of the birds that congregate at the scattered makeshift birdfeeders. Welcome to Ayiro Lwala’s homestead in the small village of Kanyibok, in Siaya County. 

“People are curious to know why I feed birds that eventually fly away. That’s my cue to initiate a conversation on the importance of protecting birds and their habitats,” says Ayiro, a passionate naturalist. 

Ayiro’s deep-rooted love for birds developed when he was a boy. He recalls adoring the White-browed Robin Chat for its singing. “People who sang so well were referred to as Hundhwe (the local name for Robin Chats) back then. I was mesmerized by its singing and the sound of singing birds remains my inspiration,” he says. 

Ayiro’s fondness of birds blossomed and now he has placed ‘feeding corners’ around his homestead to attract birds. He is often spotted either in the company of other birders or undertaking waterfowl counts at the mouth of River Yala. Fellow villagers have nicknamed him the birdman. 

It is no wonder then that Ayiro was the first member of the community to be contacted by Walter Tende, a fisherman from Usalu village when he rescued an injured Osprey with a Finnish tag. Through Ayiro’s efforts the Osprey was evacuated to Nairobi for treatment, making news locally and internationally. Unfortunately, the Osprey died, but Ayiro’s efforts did not go unnoticed. Kenya Birds of Prey Trust called Ayiro to offer him a training opportunity on the handling and caring for birds of prey. 

“The Osprey incident generated a lot of public interest. We took advantage of this to sensitise the community on the importance of conserving birds and their habitats. Some community members are even willing to dedicate part of their land for conservation, and this is very encouraging,” he says. 

Ayiro is also the Chairman of the Yala Ecosystem Site Support Group (YESSG). Armed with just basic skills and tons of enthusiasm, members of this group are spurring birding interest in villages within the Yala Swamp Important Bird Area (IBA). The group regularly holds bird walks, carries out biodiversity surveys, conducts school outreach, and shares bird information and photos on their social media platforms. They are also in the process of developing a bird checklist for Yala Swamp that will feature local bird names.

Meet David Marenya, an artist and a nature lover 

David is another member of the group. He combines talent, skill and passion to transform waste into unique artworks. Art pieces featuring birds form a large part of his collection. But why birds? 

“Our ancestors considered birds sacred. Birds were seen as diviners, predictors of seasons. They could forecast imminent disasters. In Lake Victoria, they helped fishermen and sailors in navigation. All through the ages, birds have played a significant role in human lives. Their ability to interact with humans in many ways adds to their appeal,” he explains. 

David has done art pieces featuring the Long-crested Eagle, Great Blue Turaco, Pied Kingfisher, Papyrus Gonolek, and other birds found in Yala. The pieces are exhibited at local, regional, national and international forums. Through his art, David occasionally attracts visitors to Yala to see the birds portrayed in his pieces.   

Meet Patrick Kung’abi, an aspiring bird guide 

Patrick was mentored by YESSG and has an outstanding ability to quickly spot and identify birds while giving tidbits of information about their natural history. 

“The relationship between birds and humans was well manifested in our traditional festivals. For instance, it was common for the turkey-sized Southern Ground Hornbill to grace cultural occasions, having been drawn to the rhythmic drum beats. The bird would easily mingle with the dancing crowds. This close interaction with birds is part of our cultural heritage and we are striving to preserve it through bird watching,” says Patrick. 

Patrick can name birds in his native Bunyala dialect and is using his knowledge to help translate the bird checklists from English into the local Bunyala language. 

Meet Boniface Kesa and Edwin Onyango, members of the YESSG team who run school and mentorship programmes in Bunyala, Busia county. They organise bird walks for schools, inspiring school children to take up bird watching as a hobby, something they love to do. 

“Helping children look through a pair of binoculars opens up a new world of birds to them,” acknowledges Boniface. 

“Sharing my interest in conservation through birding encourages the community and school children, in particular, to appreciate birds,” notes Edwin. 

“Children enjoy listening to stories of birds of prey and waterbirds, which they can easily identify. Quite often you will see them interrupting stories to dramatise the birds’ actions,” adds Boniface. 

The YESSG team is working with six primary schools and the popularity of the school bird watching programme, is on the rise. “During the holidays children come knocking on my door on Saturday mornings asking to go out birding,” says Edwin. 

Yala’s Indigenous and Community Conserved Area

Yala Swamp, including lakes Kanyaboli, Namboyo, and Sare, is one of the most extensive freshwater wetlands in the country. It is one of the few shelters of the nationally threatened sitatunga antelope and Lake Kanyaboli provides a safe haven for critically endangered haplochromine cichlids fish species. The swamp provides critical stopover habitat for thousands of migratory birds, including Barn Swallows and Yellow Wagtails. 

Some 8,404ha in the heart of Yala Swamp have been designated as an Indigenous and Community Conserved Area (ICCA). This is helping protect critical habitat for wildlife, including migratory birds. 

Within the ICCA, local community conservation champions, the Yala Ecosystem Site Support Group (YESSG) has worked hard to restore 66.7 ha of degraded wetland by planting papyrus. This is in keeping with the ICCA management committee guidelines for promoting the natural regeneration of papyrus in degraded and riparian areas. 

YESSG has also planted 69,622 indigenous trees in the lower Yala River riparian zone and trained 90 crop-farming households in climate-smart farming techniques. These farmers are increasingly adopting agroforestry practices that keep trees in place even as they plant crops. 

These measures are improving the swamp for birds. For the first time in five years a Giant Kingfisher was recorded in January 2020, in the lower stretches of the swamp (Bunyala- Sitome village) and in February 2020 along the fringes of Lake Sare in Usalu village. It was sighted again in February 2021, both at the manmade Lake Bob next to Bungu village and along Dhogoye causeway. 

Other waterfowl species which were previously uncommon or rarely seen, but are now frequently recorded include Lesser Moorhen, Water Thick-knee, Common Snipe, Spotted Redshank, Collared Pratincole, Abdim’s Stork, Black-crowned Night Heron, Black-headed Heron, and African Darter. The Endangered Grey Crowned Crane now inhabits the previously flooded rice paddies where Dominion Farms used to operate. Papyrus endemics — Papyrus Gonolek, White-winged Swamp Warbler and Carruthers’s Cisticola can be spotted with ease even along Kombo dyke at Lake Kanyaboli. 

“The planting of papyrus will maintain and even increase the kind of habitat needed by papyrus endemics and migratory birds,” states Moses Nyawasa, the Project Extension Officer. “It also means that the prospects for people living around Yala Swamp, an area which could potentially attract ecotourism, will improve,” he adds. 

This article by Emily Mateche appears in the current issue of Kenya Birding magazine.

Tana Delta Green Heart Initiative to spur economic growth, promote conservation efforts and contribute to climate change mitigation and adaptation

The Tana Delta is located in the coastal region of Kenya at the end of Kenya’s longest and largest river, the Tana River. Approximately 90% of the Delta lies in Tana River County and about 10% lies in Lamu County. The Delta is an Important Bird Area, a Ramsar Site, a Key Biodiversity Area (KBA), a Global Biodiversity Hotspot, and part of the Coastal Forests of Eastern Africa Hotspot. The Delta provides valuable natural resources such as rich soils, vegetation, and wildlife. The aim of the project is to create an Indigenous and Community Conserved area (95,000ha), within the middle of the Delta which is around 130,000ha and home to 120,000 people. 

Nature Kenya has worked with Tana Delta communities since 2007, firstly mounting a national and international campaign against more than seven land-grabbing projects. Subsequently, Nature Kenya successfully encouraged and facilitated national and county governments to formulate a community-led Land Use Plan (LUP) informed by a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA). During the development of the LUP, a lot of data on the Delta was gathered by Nature Kenya and partners. Nature Kenya has conducted numerous surveys in the Delta since 2012, including over 100 villages, consulting men and women, youth, heads of households, and village and area leaders and elders. Their views, aspirations, plight, and suggested solutions informed all the surveys and consultations that culminated to the highly consultative LUP. 

The project, led by RSPB, was designed to demonstrate how the LUP could be implemented in the heart of the Delta, where biodiversity is richest and access to water and land is hotly contested. The Darwin Initiative supported the implementation of the Tana River Delta Land Use Plan, a framework that guides the management of land and natural resources at the Delta. The plan incorporates the adaptation of climate-smart agriculture by farmers and pastoralists which is key in improving livelihoods, building resilience to climate change, and conserving the 130,000ha Delta. The project design was aligned to respond to biodiversity conservation provisions of The Wildlife Conservation and Management Act (that allows for development of wildlife conservancies) and the Forest Conservation and Management law (that provides for community forests) offering a framework for Indigenous Community Conserved Areas (ICCAs). 

Nature Kenya also explored sustainable financing options through the Tana Delta Green Heart Initiative, alongside a plan-vivo approach to generate carbon credits to enhance livelihoods and nature values within the Delta. Although the Darwin project has recently come to an end, the Green Heart Initiative is the future hope for climate smart solutions that generate jobs, improve livelihoods and conserve biodiversity. The Tana Delta Green Heart Initiative’s vision is designed to deliver the preferred strategy set out in the Tana River Delta Land Use Plan (2014). The initiative seeks to transform the lives of people living within and around the Tana River Delta by promoting sustainable economic growth and protection of the environment, creating new jobs and livelihoods, and boosting the regional and national economy. 

“Maintaining spaces for biodiversity alongside development will be beneficial, as these ecosystems will provide a range of benefits to humans. Tana Delta Green Heart Initiative will work towards achieving this,” says Dr Paul Matiku, Executive Director, Nature Kenya. 

A Green Heartland, covering the entire Delta, will be established to include farms where production services in the area will be based on green development principles. In the model, outgrowers will practice environmentally friendly means to boost production of fish, livestock meat, milk, vegetables, rice, fruits, honey, and prawns among others. It will also include conservancies where tourists will enjoy scenery and wildlife and river boat rides as well as industrial estates where private companies, including local entrepreneurs, will set up their manufacturing, processing, collection and packaging bases. Public funds will be made available to assist in the creation of basic infrastructure, including roads, electricity, and water and sanitation facilities. Warehouses for storage will be constructed by private investors. 

The European Union, through the Community Resilience Building in Livelihood and Disaster Risk Management (REBUILD) project, and the Global Environment Facility (GEF), through the Restoration Initiative project, are supporting components to set the foundation and catalyse actions in line with the objectives of the initiative. Nature Kenya, working with the Tana River County government, is scouting for potential investors and partners to ensure that the initiative’s goal is realised. There are plans to develop a follow-on Darwin project to ensure that the dream unearthed by the project 24-013 is made into a reality.

This article by John Kiptum appears in the September 2021 Darwin Initiative newsletter.

Bird Ringing in 2021 Nairobi National Museum Gardens

Ringing sessions (and training), take place weekly at the Nairobi National Museum grounds. Nature Kenya members and the general public are welcome to come and appreciate birds at close range. 

The passage of migratory Willow Warblers, Garden Warblers, Red-backed Shrikes and Lesser Grey Shrikes was outstanding this year. On one April morning, the Nairobi Ringing Group caught, ringed and released 29 Willow Warblers at the Museum grounds in the heart of Nairobi. 

The Nairobi Ringing Group was started in June 1994 in recognition of the demand for training in the techniques of bird ringing, and monitoring bird distribution and movement around Nairobi. It is a practical and participatory means through which both scientists and bird enthusiasts have been encouraged to support conservation initiatives. The main objective of the group is to recruit and train bird ringers to a high ethical and scientific standard. Trainee bird ringers are drawn from both professional ornithologists and amateur bird watchers who are keen to learn the skills and techniques to be competent and independent in handling and ringing birds. 

With the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, ringing activities were put on hold from March last year. Ringing activities slowly resumed in early October 2020. This coincided with the opening of the Michuki Memorial Park, now managed by the Kenya Forest Service, and enjoined to the Museums botanical garden as a single ecosystem. A fence, providing security for birders and the general public recreation area around the Museum, now encloses the park. Since the President declared the site a park, with full protection, we have realized an increase in species diversity and some species have even increased in numbers at our ringing site. 

In a span of five months from October 2020 to March of this year we captured – and released – a total of 241 birds, out of which 47 were recaptures. A total of 33 species were captured and ringed within Nairobi National Museums ground during this time. 

As usual, the most captured species were Baglafecht Weaver (167 individuals), Red-billed Firefinch (144 individuals) and for the first time, Willow Warbler (75 individuals — the highest number of Willow Warblers captured at the Nairobi Museum ringing site). This was followed by Streaky Seedeater (48 individuals) and Northern Olive (Abyssinian) Thrush (37 individuals). Sunbirds are the most species-rich group of birds in the Museum grounds, with eight species captured. None of these have been recaptured at the site. 

Besides Willow Warblers, a good number of other Palearctic warblers were captured from November until May, with many recaptured. These included Marsh Warbler (35 individuals), Blackcap (8 individuals), and Garden Warbler (23 individuals). A Common Rock Thrush was captured for the first time on the Museum grounds. This first year (immature) bird was among early southward migrants. Most (82%) of the migrants were captured in March and April, including three Sedge Warblers, which were all captured in April. Our last migrants were captured in late mid-May. 

Some special Afrotropical species have included Green-backed Honeybird and Lemon Dove. One amazing record was of a Blue-spotted Wood Dove, a species that was not just new for the Museum grounds, but also new for the entire Nairobi region. 

All these success stories, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, show how consistent bird ringing at a common site can provide important ecological information on both local and migratory bird species. 

(We want to express our appreciation for interns at the Museums’ Ornithology Section, who regularly turned out to put up nets in the evening even during rainy days in readiness for the morning’s ringing) 

This article by Titus Imboma and Fleur Ng’weno appears in the current issue of Kenya Birding magazine.