Fleur Ng’weno: My love affair with the birds

Fleur leads the search for the bird’s nesting site last month.    [PHOTOS: JECKONIA OTIENO AND COURTESY/STANDARD]

Since her first bird walk at the Nairobi Museum car park in February 1971, she has been doing it virtually every Wednesday morning. FLEUR NG’WENO, a mother, writer, editor and a naturalist shares the story of her journey with birds, and how she strikes a balance between all that with JECKONIA OTIENO

Until I met Fleur Ng’weno, I never had an idea what bird watching is all about, or rather I didn’t have interest in these creatures.

If it’s not on my dinner table, I cared less but being a bird enthusiast, Fleur changed my attitude. She convinced me that birds have feelings and they too, need safe homes to live in.

Having heard so much about Fleur from Nature Kenya, I was thrilled to meet the joyous woman in Elementaita during a celebration to mark the World Migratory Birds Day early last month. See, I couldn’t comprehend how people find birds exciting.

As Fleur was awarded during the celebrations, I struggled to scribble down her first name but her second name made me even more curious. As I later discovered, Fleur is married to veteran journalist, Hillary Ng’weno.

What she was being feted for got me even more interested. She is part of a team that discovered the breeding ground for one of the world’s rare species of birds, the Clarke’s Weaver.

In March, Fleur, together with other birdwatchers from Kilifi County’s Dakacha Woodland, discovered the breeding ground for the rare bird.

This bird is not just found in Kenya, but only exclusively in Kilifi County. In fact, it is only found either in Arabuko-Sokoke or Dakacha Woodlands.

I had to capture the nitty gritties of the discovery, so I booked an appointment with Fleur.

Sad encounter

I must confess our date took off on a sad note. I arrived late for the interview at Nature Kenya offices at the National Museums. Blame this on the incessant Nairobi traffic.  Fleur was not any bit amused but she still agreed to share her story and her love for the birds with me.

Fleur was born to a French family. Her father worked with the United Nations so she travelled a lot around the world. She took her studies in the US but her passion for nature and conservation began from an early age. 

She came to Kenya in 1963 to join her parents who were working here. 

“I came to Kenya in 1963 to visit my parents and it was then that I met my husband Hillary Ng’weno,” she recalls.

The two married towards the end of 1963, and have been together ever since.  During her early years in Kenya, the lack of literature for Kenyan children hit her conscience. She discovered most literature was imported and it was not in conformity with the African culture.

Together with Hillary, she started the weekly Rainbow Children’s Magazine, which later became a monthly.

 “We established the magazine in 1976 when our children were in primary school. We realised there was a serious lack of local material for children,” she says.

Fresh start

Fleur was the editor for the magazine while her husband was editor for the Weekly Review, which he also owned. The publications later folded opening a new chapter in her life.

 Fleur rekindled her love for nature. Having studied about birds at the National Audubun Society in the US, she knew what her next job would be.

She embarked on weekly bird walks every Wednesday morning, although she took part in initiating this project back in the day when she moved to the country.

 The project was established in the 90s by the East Africa Natural History Society, now Nature Kenya, with the aim of identifying important areas for bird conservation.

This meant looking for areas with birds that are globally endangered, birds with limited range and sites with big congregations of birds like flamingoes.

 “We had a meeting to prioritise these areas, and we found out that some had already been protected while others had not,” she notes.

It was during this time that she learnt about the Clarke’s Weaver in Kilifi’s Dakacha Woodland. Fleur developed interest in the bird and started watching it closely. She discovered it had a second home and embarked on a journey to find where this home was.

  “I realised these birds would disappear and appear after some time with young ones. My next job was to discover their breeding ground,” says Fleur.

Charcoal burners

She embarked on the search in 2007 at Dakacha Woodland but the region was, however, under great threat from charcoal burners.

“I discovered most of the people who burned charcoal in the forest were from neighbouring areas. They cared less about environment and animals that lived in them,” she says.

Fleur knew too well she couldn’t succeed in this fight on her own. She enticed the residents who agreed to join her conservation efforts.

They came up with names for 200 different species of birds in the woodland. One hundred of these names were in Giriama.

Despite the regular visits to the woodland by last year, Fleur and the group had not discovered Clarke’s Weaver’s breeding ground.

In January, the group discovered a small wetland where the birds could frequently visit but there were no nests.

“We thought we had found it but when we went back in March, the sages had been cut, the wetland was dry and there were no birds. I was depressed,” says Fleur.

Fleur didn’t give up though. In the same month, she started chasing the birds again and discovered their new home as well as their breeding ground.

Nesting site

 “We finally found the breeding ground of the rare bird — it is the only one known so far,” she says.

Fleur is, however, worried the woodland faces a threat of decimation and this might interfere with the birds’ existence. She says locals have, for long, lived with the birds but if the place is to be opened up for commercial farming, the wetlands might dry up.

Fleur says the area should be fenced off and the locals educated.