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OUT&ABOUT: A guide for Kenyan bird lovers

Saturday August 19 2017



The weaver bird at work. PHOTO| JOHN FOX

The weaver bird at work. PHOTO| JOHN FOX 

By JOHN FOX
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I like travel. I like birds. And someone has just produced a book that I really appreciate – and one that I am going to well use. That someone is the Kenya conservationist, Catherine Ngarachu. Her book is 50 Top Birding Sites in Kenya, which is published by Struik Nature, an imprint of Penguin Random House South Africa – and available now in our bookshops.

The British comedian, Bill Oddie, in his very informative as well as humorous Little Black Bird Book, claims there are three types of people who go birding: “birdwatchers”, identified by the way they wear tweed jackets and sling their binoculars over their shoulders; “birders”, who wear anoraks and hang their binoculars around their necks; “twitchers”, who are so fanatical about their hobby they will drop anything they are doing – even their jobs – to go off to see for themselves any rare species that has been sighted. 

I reckon I hover somewhere between the first two categories. My appreciation of birds is that they fly, they are beautiful, they sing, they have a fascinating range of behaviours – and to find and identify them is much more challenging than looking for animals as huge as elephants or as somnolent as lions.

I will never forget the time when a birder friend out here for a holiday from the UK put his binoculars to his eyes and swept the shore of Lake Naivasha. “My god,” he cried out, “I must have more than a dozen ‘firsts’ in this one sweep!”

I relish that Kenya, with its varied habitats – highlands and lowlands, forests and grasslands, wetlands and deserts – and with its 1,060 different species must be one of the best countries in the world for birding. In her book, Catherine notes that members of birding tours can tick off up to 800 species in a month’s trip around the country. Back in 1986, three birders set a world record here for spotting the greatest number of species in 24 hours; they logged 342 species – and they didn’t cheat, as my son does, by attracting them by using recordings of their calls.

So Catherine has selected 50 of the most popular birding hotspots across eight different regions of Kenya. There are the inter-tidal wetlands – areas that are submerged by the sea at high tide and exposed at low tide. Near them are the coastal forests with their high diversity of plants. Away from the coast is the semi-arid bush, like the extensive tracts of Tsavo along the Mombasa Road. Beyond it and Nairobi, the roads climb to the dry evergreen forests of the highlands. In the Rift, a number of specialised birds – the flamingos, of course – survive around the soda lakes. Here are also high-altitude grasslands and also freshwater wetlands. In the west there are remnants of rain forests; to the north there are the seemingly endless semi-deserts. You will find birding sites in Catherine’s book across all these habits.

As Catherine says, the sites she has chosen include well-known national parks and game reserves, private sanctuaries, urban parks, swamps, a sewage pond, rice paddies, forests, lakes, museums and specific “birding spots” along main roads. Some are open to the public; others are private – some are free; others charge a fee. But they all have interesting birds to be spotted, watched and enjoyed.

For each site there is a list of the various birds you are likely to see – and about those you would be very lucky to see. The introduction describes where the site is located and why it is a birding “hotspot”. A main reason is the habitat, which is outlined according to the physical features and the vegetation.

Each has a well-drawn map, with directions of how to get there – always starting from the nearest large town or main road – and what accommodation is available at or near the site. Sometimes, there is even a mention of the animals you might encounter. And, oh yes, the photographs – provided by some of Kenya’s expert birders – are excellent,

Thirty-two of the sites are designated Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs), such as the Taita Hills, with its Taita Apalis; Lake Bogoria with its Lesser Flamingos; the Yala Swamp with its Papyrus Gonolek.

If you want to join others in their birding, the book gives information about some key organisations and activities. First up is Nature Kenya, established as long ago as 1909 and still energetically working for conservation. To find out more about it, go to their website, www.naturekenya.org.

One of the activities described is the popular Wednesday morning bird walk of Nature Kenya. The participants meet every Wednesday morning at 8.30 at the Nairobi National Museum – and they go to a different site each week. Another is the Sunday Birdwatch, which meets also at the Museum at 9.30 every third Sunday of the month.

Both welcome new participants. I used to be a regular. Catherine’s book has prompted me to join them again.

 

John Fox is a Managing Director of IDC