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A birdwatcher’s dream: Four chirpy destinations that call out to you

SUNDAY MAGAZINE
By Jayne Rose Gacheri | February 28th 2021

Yellow-billed stork bird at Lake Elementaita. [Wilberforce Okwiri, Standard]

Our bird-watching adventure took days of planning. The question was, which destinations would serve this purpose, and who would be leading and guiding us on this trip?

After deliberations, we identified four destinations – two lakes, a woodland, and forest ecosystems. We also identified three professionals - Joseph Muchoge, Simon Joakim Kiiru, and James Ndung’u, all renowned tour guides, naturalists and ornithologists.

Ready to have an unforgettable adventure, we mapped our destinations thus: Lake Naivasha, and Elementaita (lake ecosystem), Solio Conservancy and the Aberdares Forest (forest and woodland ecosystems).

Lake Elementaita (450 species)

Our first stopover is Kikopey where we pick Joseph Mochoge, our guide for the day and proceed on to Lake Elementaita.

We scout for birdlife across the 18 square kilometres soda Lake Elementaita. We were lucky to come across a wide variety of birds, including the yellow-billed stork, pelicans, ruddy turnstone and the hornbill.

The hornbill has a long, down-curved bill that is brightly coloured and sometimes has a casqued upper mandible.

The yellow-billed stork, also referred to as the wood stork or wood ibis, is a large African wading bird from the stork species. “The storks walk with a high-stepped stalking gait in shallow water and their approximate walking rate has been recorded as 70 steps per minute,” says Mochoge.

The pelican and ruddy turnstone are the other wading birds. Pelicans have a long beak and a large throat pouch used for catching prey and draining water from the scooped-up contents before swallowing. “Pelicans have totipalmate feet, which means that on each foot there is webbing that connects all four toes,” explains the naturalist.

The ruddy turnstone, on the other hand is a small-wading bird that survives in a wide range of habitats and climatic conditions.

Other birds we saw include hemprichs, African fish eagle, Rupell’s starling, tropical boubou and white-crested helmet shrike.

Giant Kingfisher. [Wilberforce Okwiri, Standard]

Lake Naivasha (400 species)

Next stop was Lake Naivasha. “I remember a time not long ago when familiar bird songs filled the air here and life was correlated with bird sightings, but we should be able to capture about twenty species within three hours,” says Simon Joakim Kiiru, our guide on this leg at the briefing for our 6am expedition at Sawela Lodges.

I am out of bed by 5.30am for an early breakfast. The best time to watch the birds is between 6am and 9am when they are active before they disappear to quietness.

“Times have changed from when the hornbill arrived, and we would know the rains were near” explained the 61-year-old ornithologist, adding that some myths believed that when a buzzard showed a man his chest, it meant a visitor was imminent while when an owl called at night, it foretold a death.

Our next three hours are spent exploring the grounds within Sawela Lodges and Lake Naivasha. Here is what we captured on both binoculars and camera lenses.

Our first sighting was the giant kingfisher; a noisy pair of the species to be exact. Kiiru explains that the birds are in a courtship mood. Fascinated, we watch the unfolding drama as the female (bigger in order to be able to accommodate eggs), plays too hard to get. After about ten minutes, she gives in and after what seems to be a kiss, the act is finished and each bird flies away, “singing happily” in different directions.

The next was the Hadada ibis, or just Hadada. The bird is a native of Sub-Saharan Africa. It is named for its loud three to four-note calls uttered in flight especially in the mornings and evenings when it flies out or returns to its roost tree nest. “Hadada has adapted to many human-altered environments such as meadows, lawns, farmlands, and wastewater facilities,” explains Kiiru.

Then there was the Hamerkop, a medium-sized wading bird, the only living species in the genus Scopus and Scopidae family. Its closest relatives are thought to be the pelican and shoebill.

We were awed by its huge nest. “The nest is strong enough to support a man’s weight and is mud-plastered walls, complete with a nesting chamber and a security exit hidden at the back of the nest in case of an attack from a predator.”

Other birds we saw included the white-fronted bee-eater, the African grey woodpecker, Egyptian goose, Superb starling and grey-backed shrike.

Solio and aberdares

At Solio Conservancy with the guidance of Naturalist Ndung’u and Cecilia Mumbi, a birder and head of the rhino and lion monitor units at Solio Conservancy, we saw the saddle bill stock, bateleur, Verreaux’s eagle, black-headed heron, Augur buzzard, spoonbill stork, white-backed Vulture and a crested crown.

As we crisscross Solio Conservancy (bordering Laikipia), Ndung’u brings home the dire consequences facing the world’s birdlife. “Over the next 100 years, many scientists predict, 20 per cent to 30 per cent of species could be lost if the temperature rises 3.6 degrees to 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit,” says the ornithologist, adding that if the most extreme warming predictions are realised, the loss could be over 50 per cent.

Endangered birds here include the long-tailed widowbird, once common but now threatened, the Aberdare cisticola, Hartlaub’s turaco, and the longclaw.

Among the birds we find in Aberdares National Park and Reserve is the Egyptian goose, crested francolins, Hadada ibis, Hartlaub turaco, cinnamon chested bee-eaters, silvery cheeked hornbills, dwarf hornbills, Olive thrush, Robin chats, tawny eagles and the crowned crane.

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