The flight of the Augur buzzard on a cold June morning is spectacular. The pair of raptors does a lazy drift in the air before settling on a tree close to the fig tree that was planted by Mzee Jomo Kenyatta.
At midnight on December 12, 1963, the Union Jack was lowered and independent Kenya’s new flag hoisted. Naturally, the name of the green space where the skies were lit by fireworks that night became known as Uhuru Gardens.
It’s a busy morning for the birds – and the independence gardens are proving to be a thrill. Away from the flock of singers under the canopies, the grass glades are peaceful.
“It’s a small park,” says chief birder Fleur Ng’weno. “But it has many habitats; the grasslands, the acacia woodlands and the seasonal wetlands following the rains. So it has interesting birds and plants.
So far we’ve seen the common fiscal, the palm swifts that were rare in Nairobi until everyone started planting palm trees, the red-rumped swallow and the pretty lovebirds in feathers of green, orange and yellow.
Free to fly
“Originally there were two species of lovebirds living in Tanzania,” Fleur tells us.
Being so pretty, they became favourite pets, and many were caught and caged, but some escaped and bred. Some even became feral.
But it’s the widowbirds that steal the show. There are red-collared widowbirds in the green hedge facing the famous Carnivore restaurant. The male with his long black tail is feeding the young.
This is followed by sightings of the Jackson’s widowbird, and finally flocks of the white-winged widowbird emerging from the tall grasses by the seasonal wetland where we stop for a mid-morning coffee.
The wetland is a remnant of the rocky outcrops with seasonal wetlands that once covered the hillside but have now been destroyed by road and house construction.
A rare plant is spotted; it’s the Brachystelma lineare. But that’s not all. A tiny frog, no more than an inch long, sits on a stalk of grass a few centimetres off the ground. It’s so cute that everyone is clicking away.
The pictures are sent to the herpetology department at the National Museums of Kenya, but even they cannot identify it so they will embark on a mission to the same spot in search of the frog.
As the widowbirds fly off, there are big metallic birds landing at Wilson Airport. Being a Sunday, the enormous trucks being used in the construction of the Southern Bypass are parked in the yard by the gardens.
Much as we need the bypass, it’s vital that we save the integrity of our few wild spaces and I hope that the highway will not go into Nairobi National Park or Uhuru Gardens.
The tall stalks of wild grasses sway. We seriously need a book on identifying grasses.
“Wild grasses are important because they sequester (eliminate) carbon,” Fleur explains.
Ripping out wild grasses and replacing them with trees makes no sense. They are just as important as indigenous forests because they protect the soil, catch rain, provide food and habitats and so much more.
The bird list keeps expanding. We’ve walked along the acacia forest, stopped for a picnic near the swamp with its tall reeds decorated with the hanging nests of the – oops, I forgot which weaver. But I have to tell you this: Kenya boasts the most species of weaver birds in the world!
You can become involved as a research assistant to the scientists working on weavers – all you need is a camera, but it’s not necessary. Google PHOWN (stands for Photos of Weaver Nests) and you will get to one of the sites. It’s an exciting project – so make sure to log on and get started.