My annual holiday this year was to be in Australia but the friends we were going with couldn't make it, so my wife, Lillian, and I decided to go to Kenya. From the UK one of the most economical ways to visit Africa is to go by overland truck. This means that you follow a preset itinerary and that you have to camp but we had a good time last year on our trip to Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe. We eventually chose a tour called "Faces of Kenya" with Guerba Expeditions and arranged our flights around the tour dates. We flew KLM uk from Edinburgh to Amsterdam Schipol and then by Kenya Airways to Nairobi.
My resources for the trip were the new Helm Field Guides Birds of Kenya and Northern Tanzania by Zimmerman, Turner and Pearson, The Lonely Planet Guide to East Africa and Nigel Wheatley's "Where to Watch Birds in Africa". I could not find many resources on the web but found a worthwhile web site at http://easyweb.easynet.co.uk/~paulh/index.htm. All of my previous African birding trips were in Southern Africa ,and common names differ between the two areas; bird names in this report will follow those in Zimmerman, Turner and Pearson.
East Africa is more expensive than southern Africa. The exchange rate when were there was 120 Kenya Shillings to the pound (c. 75 KSh to the US$). A bottle of local Tusker lager varied between 60 KSh at the bottle store and 220KSh at the Hotel Boulevard's garden bar. We paid 1750KSh each for the trip kitty to cover all our expenses. Curio sellers abound, and the prices are high compared to Zimbabwe, which put us off buying souvenirs until we got to Nairobi Airport where we found prices lower than in the curio markets.
My impressions of Nairobi were that this is a modern city but it has more visible poverty than the other African cities I have visited. It felt like a poorer and shabbier version of Harare but with more cars and worse drivers. It is nicknamed Nairobbery but the only problem I encountered was a poor attempt at a scam about sponsoring "sick students" at Nairobi University.
In towns the hassle factor is high, especially Namanga where the truck was surrounded by hawkers. The best tactic to deal with them is to ignore them; as soon as you acknowledge them they suck you into a dialogue as they will not take no for an answer. This may seem rude and unfriendly but all they are after is your money.
On the whole Kenyans are friendly and outgoing people with more confidence in dealing with "westerners" than their southern African counterparts. Away from Nairobi you are always greeted, usually with the KiSwahili "Jambo!" and kids wave at any passing Europeans. This confidence may be due to having been independent for twice as long so that the memories of colonial injustices are in the more distant past. Take plenty of cheap biro pens as kids will ask you for these and sometimes you will get a discount on a curio if you throw in a pen.
Our first two nights were spent in the Hotel Boulevard in central Nairobi. Our trip would be leaving from this hotel. The hotel was set in gardens and over the fence at the bottom was the Nairobi River and the well wooded grounds of the National Museum of Kenya. On the first afternoon I birded in the hotel gardens and got my first lifers. In the trees overhanging the river there was a colony of Baglafecht Weavers, mixed with Holub's Golden Weavers. The skies above were full of Yellow-billed Kites and Pied Crows, and the small birds in the garden consisted of Streaky Seedeater, Bronze Mannikins, Common Bulbuls, Olive Thrush and Variable Sunbird. That evening there was a roost of Sacred and Hadada Ibises in the tall trees while on the river I saw Pied Kingfisher, Mountain Wagtail and African Pied Wagtail. Sallying forth from the tall trees were some Bee-eaters which I initially misidentified as Little Bee-eaters but were in fact my first ever Cinnamon-chested Bee-eaters. Other species seen included African Grey and Paradise Flycatchers, Lesser Honeyguide, Grosbeak Weaver, Speckled Mousebird, African Citril and Plain Sand Martin.
The next day I went back to the bottom of the garden in the morning and found a noisy pair of Giant Kingfishers and a Hamerkop on the river. We decided to go to the Museum which was fascinating and well worth a visit, as was the Snake Park where I saw my first White-bellied Tit and Common Indigo-bird. Birds were plentiful in the grounds but didn't vary much from the Hotel gardens. On our return to the hotel I discovered a colony of Vitelline Masked Weavers on the other side of the grounds from our room.
That evening we met up with the rest of the trip and Patrick, our driver and tour leader, then I watched the Scotland vs Uruguay Rugby World Cup Match on the TV before we went for a group dinner. The next day we would be heading south to the famous Amboseli National Park.
We left Nairobi at 9am on the 9th October, heading south towards Amboseli on the Tanzanian border.
As we headed southwards we passed through the southern end of the Kenyan highlands and into the Masai steppe as we headed towards Namanga. The landscape on the uplands was open farmland and pastureland, interrupted by small towns with their flimsy looking shops, bars and "hotels" (diners are called hotels), surrounded by an unsightly halo of litter. It is densely populated, and there are people and their animals everywhere in Kenya. We see our first wild animals on this road, Common Zebras feeding among the herds of zebu cattle and goats.
Birding from the back of a large truck on bumpy roads is nearly impossible but I manage to identify a number of birds on the roadside wires. These include single examples of Lanner Falcon, Eastern Pale Chanting Goshawk and Rufous-crowned Roller and more numerous Common Fiscal, Long-tailed Fiscal and Superb Starling. We stopped at one of the towns where I was able to get my first good look at the beautiful Superb Starling as it foraged among the detritus. A Black-headed Heron watched it all from a vantage on top of a telegraph pole.
The further away from Nairobi we got the worse the road became, and we entered scrubland grazed by the Masai's cattle, goats and donkeys. We stopped for lunch, and I wandered off to see what birds I could find. It was hot and this was hard work, but a Tawny Eagle and two White-bellied Go Away Birds were found immediately. A more diligent search found some smaller birds before we continued on to Amboseli.
We reached Amboseli in the late afternoon and drove through the National Park to the public campsite. There were a lot of Common Zebra and Wildebeest in small groups as we crossed a dusty pan. Here we also passed herds of Masai cattle tended by young boys; these were on traditional grazing grounds which have been denied to the Masai by the creation of the National Park. The only birds on this dusty area were a few Masai Ostriches and Yellow-necked Spurfowl.
Soon the landscape changed as we approached the swamps created by the glacier fed runoff from Kilimanjaro. Throughout our stay in Amboseli the Mountain teased us with occasional glimpses of its spectacular peaks through the veil of clouds. These swamps were rich in life including many waterbirds as well as Elephants, Hippos and Cape Buffalo. The approach of winter in Europe was marked by the numbers of Palearctic shorebirds feeding around the edges of the pools among the more exotic Ibises, African Spoonbills and Egrets.
We camped at the public campsite where a Small-spotted Genet joined us for dinner, and Elephants browsed on the bushes after we had retired to our tents. The sound of an elephant's digestive system on the other side of a few centimetres of canvas is not my idea of a lullaby. In the mornings there were lots of birds around the campsite including Grey-headed Sparrows, Spotted Morning Thrush, Rufous Chatterers, doves and D'Arnaud's Barbets. In the evenings large numbers of bats flew around as did a Slender-tailed Nightjar. At all our campsites the call of the African Scops Owl was a familiar night sound.
During the day we followed the game drives, and I tried to bird when we stopped. I could see larks, pipits and longclaws in the grass and managed to identify most of them as Fischer's Finch-lark and Plain-backed Pipit. The only longclaw I saw was a Pangani Longclaw. Hirundines were plentiful, and all appeared to be either Plain Sand Martins or Barn Swallows but I am sure more species must have been present. Birds seen in the thornbush vegetation included White-headed Buffalo-Weavers, and because of these I finally spotted a pair of Pygmy Falcons, a species which had eluded me in Namibia last year, which breeds in the old White-headed Buffalo Weaver nests. Superb Starlings were ubiquitous, as they proved to be throughout almost all of Kenya, while larger bush birds included Kori and White-bellied Bustard as well as raptors such as vultures, Eurasian Marsh Harrier, Eastern Pale Chanting Goshawk, Martial Eagle and Tawny Eagle. The common species of Fiscal here appeared to be Taita Fiscal.
On 11 October we left Amboseli and headed over the dry bed of Lake Amboseli towards Namanga. Here we often flushed birds, and most of these were Crowned Plovers but I did see a few Black-faced Sandgrouse and a small group of Two-banded Coursers.
We stopped in Namanga where our truck was swamped with hawkers before heading on to a Masai Cultural Centre. This was run by Paul, a Masai who had been educated in the UK. The campsite was better than Amboseli with relatively clean drop toilets. There were birds around the campsite, mostly different species of dove and weaver. In the late afternoon we were shown around a Masai manyatta, and Paul explained some things about Masai culture and life, including an excruciating description of the ritual circumcision of boys as they become warriors which certainly made me cross my legs.
We spent the night here, passing through the verdant Mount Kenya foothills on our way to the Mountain Rock Lodge. As soon as we camped I began to notice different birds, especially the easily picked out White-eyed Slaty Flycatchers and the Black Saw-wings. There were also sunbirds including the Amethyst, Bronze and Northern Double Collared. In the evening we went to the bar where a troupe of local performers mixed circus skills with Kikuyu dances.
In the morning the campsite was visited by Red-fronted Parrots and Fischer's Turaco. We went on a walk through the forest to the "Mau-mau" Caves. The only birds I saw on the walk were a Mountain Greenbul, African Paradise Flycatcher and Black Saw-wings. A highlight were a troop of beautiful Black-and-White Colobus monkeys which disappeared through the trees before the photographers among us could focus.
The caves were a disappointment as they had been destroyed by the Royal Air Force during the Mau-mau rebellion in 1959, killing 300 rebels and destroying the roof of the cave. The walls were covered in graffiti, and everyone appeared to be suffering from the altitude on the way back to the hotel.
We left Mount Kenya after only one night and headed north to the Samburu National Reserve where we would camp for the next two nights while exploring the reserve and its neighbour, Buffalo Springs National Reserve. As we headed north it was cold and began to rain, but then we soon left the green hills of the Mount Kenya highlands behind and entered a semiarid, scrubby landscape reminiscent of many areas in Zimbabwe and Namibia. This landscape continued until we reached the Reserve and camels joined the usual group of African livestock.
It was late afternoon by the time we reached the gate of the Buffalo Springs National Reserve, perfect timing for a game drive to the Usao Nyiro river and across into Samburu National Reserve to pitch our tents. Here we saw our first Beisa Oryx, Grevy's Zebra and Gerenuks as well as Reticulated Giraffe and lots of Impala, Elephants and Thomson's Gazelle. I have always wanted to see Gerenuks, the Giraffe Gazelle, with their long necks and habit of standing on their hindlegs to reach into the tops of Acacia trees.
Large flocks of Guinea-Fowl were in evidence, both the widespread Helmeted Guinea-Fowl and the rarer Vulturine Guinea-Fowl. Among the large numbers of White-crowned Sparrow Weavers were smaller numbers of the less well marked Donaldson-Smith's Sparrow Weavers but most small birds were seen in the campsite including White-headed Buffalo Weaver, Black-headed Oriole, Slate-coloured Boubou, Bare-eyed Thrush, Hunter's Sunbird, Grey-headed Kingfisher, Lilac-breasted Roller and Grey-headed Sparrow. The common plover in this area proved to be the Spur-winged Plover.
In the afternoon of the second day we went to the Buffalo Springs Lodge to use the pool, and I saw a pair of Fan-tailed Ravens displaying over the lodge. That morning we had another game drive through Samburu and Buffalo Springs during which we had seen many raptors including Bateleur, Augur Buzzard, Tawny Eagle and Black-chested Snake Eagle. The highlights were, however, a pride of Lionesses with their kill and a mother Cheetah with a well grown cub with another kill.
These reserves are among the most beautiful of African reserves, plenty of wildlife surrounded by mountains clad in semi-arid thornbush. Our next destination, Nakuru, would be a contrast.
We left Samburu on the morning of the 15 October taking last looks at the Grevy's Zebras, Beisa Oryx and Gerenuks. We now headed back towards the Mount Kenya uplands, turning westwards through the tea and coffee plantations of the Aberdare Mountains towards the eastern wall of the Great Rift Valley. It was showery but dry when we got to the viewpoints over the Great Rift Valley. The valley was as spectacular as its name suggests, a great gash in the earth's crust which runs from Mozambique to the Jordan Valley. It was green too with lush vegetation on the walls amongst which were set small farms clinging to the valleys sides. We passed these as we descended into the valley on our way to Nakuru.
Our campsite at Nakuru was at the entrance to the National Park but as we arrived it was raining again and we had to pitch our tents quickly. It was a relatively late night for us as we had a bar nearby where we enjoyed a few beers.
The next day we went into Lake Nakuru National Park. The habitat here was a mixture of open grassland, scrubby hills and magnificent Yellow-barked Acacia woodland. The centrepiece of the park is the alkaline Lake Nakuru. The park was full of animals, and it was here that we had our best chance of encountering a leopard. We did see our only rhinos of the trip, all of them were White Rhinos, and a young calf was evidence that they were at home here. There are Black Rhinos here too but they stay in dense bush and so are less visible than the larger, more placid grazers that are White Rhinos. Other animals seen here were Cape Buffalo, Common Zebra, Thomson's Gazelle, Impala, Waterbuck, Rothschild's Giraffe, Olive Baboon, Vervet Monkey, Black-backed Jackal and Lions.
Birdlife around the lake was prolific with reasonable numbers of both species of flamingo as well as White and Pink-backed Pelicans, egrets, herons, plovers and sandpipers. We saw our first Secretary Birds of the trip and my second ever European Roller (the first was in Scotland). The viewpoint on Baboon Cliffs was teeming with swifts and hirundines. We drove through the park in search of Leopards, despite the rain, but failed to see this or the Red-necked Wryneck, one of the area's avian specialities.
That evening we ascended to higher ground to stay at a private campsite on a farm. We arrived late and just had time to pitch our tents, grab a shower and head to the restaurant to enjoy an excellent meal of marinated Eland. In the morning I was able to see a few new birds before we headed back north to Lake Bogoria.
It was a long drive to Lake Bogoria but it was worth the detour. This is another National Reserve but it has few large animals. The main reason for coming was to see the thousands upon thousands of Lesser and Greater Flamingos. From a distance it looked as if there were blankets of pink water lilies all over the lake but concentrated around the shoreline. When we arrived we stopped for lunch and watched the geysers and hot springs. I birded in the bush seeing a few species, including my first ever Eleonora's Falcon. This dark, long-winged and long-tailed falcon was spotted among the clouds of hirundines which appeared to be passing through the area. These were mainly Barn Swallows, possibly from eastern Europe and Russia on their way south. From here we headed back south to our last stop in the Great Rift Valley, Lake Naivasha.
We arrived at Fish Eagle Inn campsite on the shores of Lake Naivasha in the late afternoon, and after pitching our tent I walked through the Yellow-barked Acacias to the lake shore. The shore was lined with Papyrus, but there were egrets and ibises feeding there, and out on the lake I could see Whiskered Terns, Grey-headed Gulls, Pelicans and Cormorants. There were, naturally, lots of Fish Eagles. The next day I got up early and birded the lake shore again, as well as the Acacias.
After breakfast we went to town to exchange money which meant that our walk in Hells Gate National Park had to be curtailed. It was, nevertheless, an interesting day with the Fish Eagle Lodge's resident naturalist Joseph Ouma Oluoko. If you are ever in the area you can hire Joseph to take you on walking safaris, he is extremely knowledgeable about the ecology and conservation of the whole area and despite losing his binoculars to baboon has a sharp eye for birds. His address is PO Box 1064, Naivasha, Kenya and he is contactable by email on firstname.lastname@example.org. I will be sending him my copy of Zimmerman Turner and Pearson in the near future so at least he will have a field guide.
Anyway, Hells Gate is magnificent with lots of mammals and raptors set in a splendid landscape of rock pinnacles, cliffs and dormant volcanoes. We didn't make it as far as the Gorge where there are colonies of vultures, including Egyptian, but we did see enough to realise what a gem this park is. This was one of the warmest days so far, and my legs were sunburnt.
After Hells Gate Joseph took us to Elsamere which was Joy Adamson's home. He took us on a birdwalk in the grounds where the others saw some mote Black-and-White Colobus Monkeys. We walked back to camp with Joseph, and he showed us the resident Fischer's Lovebirds beside the Fish Eagle Inn. The next day we said goodbye to Joseph and started our journey to the world famous Masai Mara National Reserve and the last leg of our tour.
We left Naivasha in the morning and enjoyed relatively good roads until we got beyond the town of Narok, then we were back on the dirt tracks. We reached our campsite early in the afternoon so we had time to pitch our tents before going out on an evening game drive. The Masai Mara is the Kenyan part of the Serengeti ecosystem, although the landscape is a mosaic of scrubby woodland and open grasslands set among hills instead of wide, open grassy steppe. The herds of grazers were still in the Masai Mara and had not yet crossed back into Tanzania so there were Common Zebra, Wildebeest, Kongoni, Topi and Thomson's Gazelle everywhere. The predators were here too, and on that first day we saw a female Cheetah with five young cubs and some lionesses with a kill.
There were always plenty of raptors in the sky throughout our time at the Masai Mara, and some Hooded Vultures roosted in a tree overlooking our camp. The commonest species were Bateleur, Tawny Eagle, White-backed Vulture and Rueppell's Griffon Vulture. We found the nest of a Lappet-faced Vulture in an isolated spindly tree. On the second day the Cheetah family had killed a Thomson's Gazelle, and a huge conclave of vultures and Marabou Storks gathered around them. The cubs entertained themselves by harassing the vultures.
Early afternoon on the second day was spent enjoying the facilities at a lodge and watching the birds attracted to the garden flowers and trees. Even here there were vultures, Augur Buzzards and Marabous in the air at all times, joined by the occasional White-necked Raven. On our last full day of the trip we drove to the Mara River to see the abundant hippos there. As we prepared lunch we were overseen by Vervet Monkeys and a Slate-coloured Boubou while a pair of Bateleurs circled above us.
We left on the morning of the 22 October and returned to Nairobi.
We ate at the famous Carnivores restaurant the previous evening and had arranged an excursion around Nairobi for today. We started at Nairobi National Park which is an amazing place, a real wilderness set on the doorstep of Kenya's capital where you can see Giraffes and Lions with the tower blocks of the city as a backdrop. Raptors were plentiful here, again mostly Vultures, but we saw Grey Crowned Crane, Secretary Birds and lots of Larks. A pleasant surprise was seeing a Red-backed Shrike, another reminder that Autumn was well underway back home. If you are ever in Nairobi the park is well worth a visit, even if you have been on safari elsewhere.
From the National Park we went to the Giraffe Centre where a sanctuary has been established for Giraffes. As you entered you were given some cattle pellets. When you feed the giraffes they slime your hands with their tongues so I resorted to throwing the pellets into their mouths. The staff here saw my binoculars and told me they had a birdwatching trail of around 1 km, but the rest of the party wanted to see the Karen Blixen Museum, so I had to forgo that pleasure. The Karen Blixen Museum is set in beautiful gardens and run by the National Museum of Kenya. This was the home of the author of "Out of Africa" and has been restored with a mixture of original items and props from the movie. There were a few birds in the gardens but nothing new.
Mrs Kelly's sister had recommended Zanzibar to us, and so we ended our holiday by flying from Nairobi to this near mythical island via Mombasa. When you arrive at the airport, the first thing you notice are the abundance of coconut palms. No wonder Swahili cooking involves a lot of Coconut milk.
We stayed near the harbour, and apart from the introduced House Crows and House Sparrows this was relatively birdless. As someone from a coastal town I expect harbours to be full of birds but all Zanzibar's harbour could muster were a few Sooty Gulls, a single dark phased Dimorphic Egret and a circling pond heron. The Pond Heron was over our hotel on the last day and based on its all white plumage I identified it as a Madagascar Pond Heron.
On our second day we took a "Spice Tour" to the government of Zanzibar's own Spice Plantation. This was fascinating, and we bought some local spices to bring home after seeing how they were cultivated. At a ruined bath house for a former Sultana, called Sheherazade, I was surprised to see a Pratincole fly overhead. The shallow fork in the tail meant it was a Madagascar Pratincole. Within the plantation we saw displaying Mangrove Kingfishers in the high treetops. After the spice tour we went to the main Conservation area on Zanzibar, the Jozani Forest, but few birds were seen. We did, however, see the endemic Zanzibar Red Colobus monkey as well as Syke's Monkey and Red-tailed Coastal Squirrel.
On our third day we went to Prison Island where there was a colony of Aldabran Giant Tortoises. These were brought here about 100 years ago and are now part of a breeding programme for this endangered species. Again I saw few birds here other than the House Crows, Olive Sunbird and Indian Peafowl. In the afternoon we went to the east coast to enjoy a nearly empty pristine white beach. With hindsight we should have spent our first and last nights in Zanzibar town with a night in an east coast resort sandwiched between them. The bush here had more birds in it, and if I had stayed in the resort I could have birded it at a more suitable time.
Zanzibar is not the place to go for birds. I have never been anywhere else with so few birds evident, but it is a beautiful island with an exotic ambience. The people were friendly, and hassle was minimal compared to mainland Africa. We arranged all our excursions with Mr Solomon on the waterfront, and he made sure we got the "cheapest price". I only hope that as tourism grows on the island it does not have a negative effect on the Zanzibaris friendly and respectful attitude to visitors.
From Zanzibar we began the long journey back to Scotland touching down in Mombasa, Nairobi, Amsterdam and eventually Edinburgh. We had thoroughly enjoyed our trip and look forward to our next African holiday. Lillian wants to see the total eclipse in Zimbabwe on 21/6/2001, so we will be paying her sister in Harare another visit around then.
So here are the species lists. * marks a lifer for me.
Total 292 species.
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