Mount Kenya and Meru National Park Birding

Species lists, sound recordings and additional photos for this trip have been uploaded at ebird.org — 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. (https://ebird.org/ 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. (https://ebird.org/ 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 (https://ebird.org/checklist/ 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 (https://ebird.org/ 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:// ebird.org/checklist/S74917619). 

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.

 

Climate-smart Agriculture boosting resilience in Tana Delta

Green greets your eyes as you step into Kimanzi Ndavi’s farm in Shaurimoyo, Kipini, Tana River Delta. Unlike neighbouring farms, the sesame crop in his piece of land appears unaffected by the drought ravaging many parts of the delta. In a few weeks, Ndavi will be harvesting his crop.

“Simsim (sesame) is not affected so much by drought,” he says.

Ndavi is one of the 104 farmers from the Tana Delta who received sesame seeds from Nature Kenya. Five acres of his land are currently under sesame cultivation, and things are looking promising. Sesame, notes Ndavi, yields a better income compared to maize.

“A bag of simsim can fetch up to Ksh. 10,000. If you compare it with maize, simsim is more profitable. That is why I decided to venture into its farming,” he adds.

Ndavi expects to harvest at least three tonnes of the crop out of the five acres.

Nature Kenya is promoting cultivation of oilseed crops such as sesame and sunflower in the Tana Delta under a climate-smart agriculture initiative. Climate-smart agriculture uses farming practices that improve farm productivity and profitability and enable farmers to adapt to the adverse effects of climate change. This approach addresses the interlinked challenges of food security and climate change.

Under the climate-smart agriculture initiative, farmers receive improved crop seeds, training in crop husbandry and extension services. Crops identified for this initiative include green grams, cowpeas and maize. Sesame and sunflower have also been picked as high-value crops suitable for the Tana Delta landscape. The selected seed varieties for these crops are drought-resistant and fast maturing.

The climate-smart agriculture initiative is a component of the Community Resilience Building in Livelihood and Disaster Risk Management (REBUILD) project funded by the European Union.

Nzilani Esther, a farmer from Mapunga, Kisiwani area, is another beneficiary of the project.

“Apart from receiving improved crop seeds, we have also been taught how to time the rains and sow correctly,” says Nzilani, who has planted two acres of green grams.

According to Boniface Musyoka, an agronomist working for Nature Kenya in Tana Delta, 1,570 farmers drawn from Kipini, Garsen and Tarasaa areas are actively engaged in climate-smart agriculture.

“A majority of the farmers we have engaged in our in climate-smart agriculture initiative are women. The initiative seeks to build climate change resilience among communities in the Tana Delta,” says Boniface.

Nature Kenya is also working closely with the Tana Delta Farmers’ Cooperative in the climate-smart agriculture initiative. The cooperative manages the Ngao Farmers’ Field School. This facility offers climate-smart agriculture, greenhouse technology and conservation agriculture training to farmers.

Guardians of Lake Bogoria

Lake Bogoria may be on the bucket list for many travellers in search of flamingoes, and now it has an active group of Friends.

Friends of Nature Bogoria is a community-based organisation that started in 1996 and was officially registered in 2003. It has grown to become one of the vibrant Nature Kenya Site Support Groups (SSGs) in the Rift Valley, with research and monitoring activities keeping track of the health of the Bogoria ecosystem.

“In 1996, we realised there were a lot of changes within the Bogoria ecosystem. We realised that Greater Kudus were becoming rare, yet this is their area of concentration within the county. We also realised there was need to monitor waterfowls,” notes Patrick Kurere, the group’s coordinator and manager.

Friends of Nature Bogoria has participated in the annual waterfowl counts since 2002 and maintains a waterfowl database that tracks trends in Lake Bogoria. The group is also actively engaged in monitoring the Greater Kudu, its distribution and threats to its survival.

Their vibrant activities have enabled them to attract funding to expand their research and monitoring activities within the ecosystem, which is a Ramsar site (a wetland of international importance), a World Heritage Site and an Important Bird Area – which now becomes a Key Biodiversity Area.

“Through funding from the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and Darwin Initiative, we have been able to conduct a kudu census and develop a kudu program. This program details the population and distribution of greater kudus within the catchment area,” Mr Kurere said.

Lake Bogoria National Reserve warden James Kimaru, who doubles as the coordinator of the group, says that they have expanded their programs to target schools, as well as training community tour guides.

As part of raising awareness on the conservation of the Greater Kudu, group members have been advocating the use of wooden carvings as an alternative to kudu horns used in traditional ceremonies.

“We are now trying to let the community know that they can carve replica horns out of wood instead of using kudu horns for ceremonies,” says Raphael Kimosop.

The SSG oversees three community conservancies covering 10,000 hectares – Kiborgoch, Tuine and Irong – which are critical distribution sites of the Greater Kudus.

The group plans to expand their kudu research programme to incorporate tagging of at least three kudus. This will offer additional information on their breeding habits and sites within community-owned land.

Friends of Nature Bogoria were among the stakeholders that developed the Lake Bogoria Management plan. The SSG is also part of a team engaged in mapping sites for the Baringo County Geopark. The Geopark is the first of its kind in Kenya.

Other activities that the Friends are engaged in include bee-keeping, selling artefacts and souvenirs and offering professional tour guiding services.

“In the group, we make sure that everyone is active at doing something useful to the environment. While some have been doing value-addition to aloe products, others have been engaging in bee-keeping and even planting of hay,” says Kimosop.

Three more African raptors now listed Endangered

Africa once again risks losing more of its birds of prey, including some iconic ones. Martial Eagles, Secretarybirds and Bateleurs are the latest African raptors uplisted to Endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.

The three recently joined the alarming growing list of threatened African raptors, which includes seven vulture species. Poisoning, either primary or secondary, is a common cause of the rapid decline of the raptor populations, as is the case with vultures. Other drivers linked to the decrease in numbers include electrocution and collision with power lines, habitat degradation and nest disturbance.

Martial eagles top the list as the largest eagles in Africa. These mighty eagles can weigh up to 6.5 kg and prey mostly on other birds, reptiles and even mammals. Martial eagles have incredible eyesight and are capable of spotting prey up to 6 km away! The current estimate of remaining Martial eagles remains unknown.

Martial eagle PHOTO BY LORENZO BARELLI

Easily identifiable by their conspicuously long legs and dramatic black crests of feathers on the back of their heads, Secretarybirds are endemic to Africa’s savannas, grasslands, and shrub lands. Unlike other birds of prey, Secretarybirds hunt on the ground instead of from the air. Their diet consists of small rodents, amphibians, and reptiles. BirdLife International puts the current population of Secretarybirds at between 6,700 to 67,000 individuals. Human induced threats and prolonged droughts top the list of threats facing this species whose adults do not have a natural predator.

Secretarybird PHOTO BY LORENZO BARELLI

Bateleurs are mid-sized eagles native to Africa and small parts of Arabia. These colourful raptors have bushy heads and very short tails. These, together with their white underwing coverts, make them unmistakable in flight. No data is available for the Bateleur’s population.

Bateleur PHOTO BY LORENZO BARELLI

 Another raptor uplisted to the Endangered category is the Saker Falcon, the strongest and fastest falcon species on earth.

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.