Saturday, December 3, 2011

Birding trip to Kenya November 2011

I went to Kenya for during November 2011 for 16 days looking for birds. Saw 452 on the trip of which 247 were new for me. During this time of year one sees a lot of European birds down for the winter and that included many I had seen in Europe.

I arranged the trip through Nature's Wonderland Safaris, a Kenyan company. They did a great job for me. My guide was Japheth Mwok and my driver was named Patrick. The itinerary was compiled to my specifications. I particularly wanted to visit the Indian Ocean coast for the Crab Plover. Many of the package trips do not visit that part of Kenya.

The tour started at Nairobi and I spent the night there after a two day flight from Indianapolis at the Nairobi Safari Club Hotel, a very nice high rise hotel with a great breakfast buffet. Left Indy at 2:00 pm on November 2 and arrived in Nairobi at 10:00 pm on November 3. A long trip, but one looses 7 hours on the way over.

I was met at the airport by Patrick who took me straight to the hotel. The next morning we headed to Amboseli National Park our first stop. On the way there we chalked up 36 birds, a few of the best being at a mud hole beside the road--Yellow-rumped Seedeater, Cut-throat Finch, Fischer's Starling, and Namaqua Dove. Amboseli is a beautiful place at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro. The grass there is green and the animals are plentiful--hundreds of elephants. I was told that the area lakes are fed by underground runoff from Kilimanjaro. We stayed at Amobseli Sentrim Camp, a very nice place to stay. We arrived during the heat of the afternoon and my guide gave me two hours to rest up before going out to look for birds.

I did not rest up. I instead walked around the camp (more like a resort actually) looking for birds. It was extremely fortunate that I did because I saw a Golden-winged Sunbird, the only one of the trip. This is a star bird. One of the hundred birds to see before you die birds. Check out the photo. Others that I saw during that rest period were Taita Fiscal, Common Fiscal, Grey-headed Silverbill, White-bellied Go-away-bird, Scarlet-chested Sunbird (a lot of these), Red-billed Buffalo Weaver, and a Rufous Bush-chat. This bird I was to see several times during my stay there. It sort of liked to hang out around my tent and along the path to the dining room. The camp compound is surrounded by an electric fence to keep tourists safe from the lions, cape buffalo, and elephants. The fence however was a nice perch for the Little Bee-eaters.

On the drive around the park that evening a few of the better birds we saw were a Martial Eagle, Wattled Starling, Buff-crested Bustard, Nubian Woodpecker, Two-banded Courser, Northern White=crowned Shrike, and Ruppel's Griffon Vulture. Also many common birds besides. During our two days there we saw a total of 106 birds there with the better being a male and female Pygmy Batis so close we could have reached out and touched them, a Bruru, Pearl Spotted Owlet, Goliath Heron, Long-tailed Fiscal, Pygmy Falcons, Beautiful Sunbird, Fischer's Lovebirds--at least 6, D'arnaud's Barbets (common and beautiful), Red-billed Firefinch, Von der Decken's Hornbills (abundant), Hidenbrandt's Starling. Lilac-breasted Rollers (common), and many many Superb Starlings. Two days at Amboseli really were not enough, but Tsavo West was the next stop and we had to leave. Here we stayed at Kilanguni Serena Lodge. At the entrance to the lodge was one of the grand treats of the trip--two Verreaux's Eagle-Owls. These birds are big--26 inches head to tail. Unfortunately, the lighting was very poor on the limb where they sat and my photos are unrecognizable except perhaps by an expert on these birds. Here we got our first looks at Orange-bellied Parrots and the only sightings of Golden-breasted Starlings (really beautiful birds). Also seen here were Somali Golden-brested Bunting, Sulfur-breasted Bush-shrike, Grey-headed Bush-shirke, Hunter's Sunbird, African Black-headed Oriole, African Green Pigeon, Purple Grenadier (a wow bird), Red-chested Cuckoo, Bateleur, Amethyst Sunbird, Purple-banded Sunbird, Black Cuckoo-shrike, and Norther Grey Tit (looks just like a distant cousin of the Carolina Chickadee) to name a few of the more interesting birds. When I explained to Japheth how in the US we refer to Tits as Chickadees he got a big kick out of that and from then on he referred to all the Tits as Chickadees. A surprise was the sighting of two Klipspringers--a small antelope of rocky areas. Japheth told me that they are common among the lava outflows here. These were an exciting find for me because I really had not expected to see them. They are easy to identify because the insides of their ears are black and white striped. By the time we had left Tsavo West the bird list was over 200 birds.

Next stop was the Indian Ocean coast and the Arabuko-Sokoke Forest. Here I stayed at Tembo Point Resort near Watamu. This was an extremely nice resort right on the ocean with a small private beach and a very nice salt water pool. The resort caters especially to Italians. I was the only American there during my stay. Because of the clientele the buffet included both red and white wines and my favorite--Tusker beer. There was also made to order pasta every night. This was the only restaurant I ever ate at where the octopus did not taste like chewing rubber bands. I had no idea that octopus could actually be cooked to taste good until I arrived here. The room however though nice did not include a desk as such. It had a table but the TV sat in the middle of it. There are a lot of very special birds to see here. We had a local birding guide from the forest to help us find them. Among the stars were Dark-backed Weaver, Small Sparrow-hawk, Mombasa Woodpecker, Little Yellow Flycatcher, Black-headed Apalis, Chestnut-fronted Helmet-shrike (a star bird), Scaly Babbler, Retz's Helmet-shrike (also a star), Pallid Honeyguide (we looked and looked before we could finally find it in the tree), Malindi Pipit, African Golden Oriole, African Cuckoo-hawk, Green Barbet, Four-colored Bush Shrike, Lizard Buzzard, Sokoke Scops-Owl, East Coast Akalat, Forest Batis, Eastern Green Tinkerbird, Pale Batis, Amani Sunbird, Fischer's Turaco (we really had to work hard and get soaking wet to see this bird but it was worth it) and Fiery-necked Nightjar.

At Mida Creek we found a lot of Crab Plovers. This is THE bird. Another of the 100 to see before you die birds and Mida Creek is where you see them.

Next stop was Sabaki River mouth where we were treated to great views of the Golden Palm Weaver. The book does not do this bird justice. It has an orange breast and crown which the book neglects entirely. Others seen here were the Lesser (100s) and Greater Flamingos, Yellow-billed Storks, Sooty Gulls, and Zanzibar Red Bishop. Also lots of sandpipers but none unusual.

The next stop was Tsavo East. This is bush country. Here we spent the night at Aruba Ashnil Tented Camp. Birding here was not so good as it might have been. Only a relatively few were seen. Among the notables were White-bellied Bustard, Black-chested Snake-Eagle, Black-faced Sandgrouse, Klaas's Cuckoo, Somali Ostrich, Chestnut Weaver, Black-necked Weaver, and White-fronted Bee-eater. But the star here was the Lesser Kudu, the only one seen on the trip and also several Gerenuks. Gerenuk in Somali means Giraffe Antelope. When you see the Gerenuk you can imagine what the Giraffe might have looked like 200,000 years ago. You can also imagine what the Gerenuk might look like 200,000 years from now if it survives. Doubtful.

We drove back to Nairobi the next day and spent the night at Blue Post Hotel outside of town. This was not a tourist hotel but rather a local hotel and the atmosphere was entirely different. When we arrived there was a band playing on the grounds and a large crowd there. Everyone was having a great time. Fifteen minutes later the rain came down in buckets and the crowd vanished. This hotel is a great birding site. The stars here were the White-headed Barbets (3), Black-throated Wattle-eye, and Rupple's Robin Chat.

Our next destination was Mount Kenya. We spent the first night at Castle Forest Lodge, a great place for birds and the second night at Serena Mountain Lodge, a disappointment. At Serena Mountain Lodge you are basically stuck inside the lodge. You can walk about 50 paces to the parking lot and that is about it. Birding stinks. I was extremely dissatisfied.

On the way to Mount Kenya we traveled through Kenyan rice fields. Within the rice fields were hundreds of White-winged Widowbirds and Yellow-crowned Bishops. Also along the way were seen Red-naped Widowbird and Tacazi Sunbird.

At Castle Forest Lodge Olive Thrush, Olive Pigeon, White-bellied Tits, Hunter's Cisticola, Streaky Seedeater, Thick-billed Seedeater, Chestnut-throated Apalis, Abbot's Starling, Red-fronted Parrots, and the star bird--Hartlaub's Turaco. Other birds besides.

On the way to Serena Mountain Lodge, we stopped at Waljee Camp. This is THE place to see the Hinde's Babbler, maybe the only place. There was a flock of about 8 to 10 of these fluttering through the underbrush. We got only quick glimpses of them as they passed from bush to bush before disappearing.

At Serena Mountain Lodge the only birds worth mentioning were about 50 Silvery-cheeked Hornbills, and a White-starred Robin. On the road out though things improved greatly though. We saw a Cape Robin Chat, Moustached Green Tinkerbird, Black-collared Apalis, Purple-throated Cuckoo Shrike, and African Golden-breasted Bunting.

We headed for Buffalo Springs for three days at Samburu Ashnil Tented Camp. Upon our arrival there, inside the reception area was a mirror on the wall and at the mirror were two Bristle-crowned Starlings trying their best to chase away those in the mirror. I tried to take a photo but it was too dark. This area is supposed to be dry bush country. You would not have known that while we were there. It rained every day and we got stuck in the mud buried up to the axle. Ashnil sent a truck to pull us out with an armed guard. I asked if they could not pull us out were they going to shoot us. I got a broad smile in return which I didn't like the looks of. Fortunately, but just barely they were able to pull us out with the second tow rope after snapping the first. I actually thought they might snap the undercarriage of the vehicle. Because of the rain we saw a few birds that we had not expected to see here--Black Crate, Common Snipe, Moorhen. We looked hard to find the Somali Courser. After finding the first they popped up everywhere. Temminck's Courser was also found.

The Ashnil Camp is situated within a cluster of Doum Palms along the river. As a result the Violet Wood-hoopoe is a bird that is found at the camp. It is found usually where the Doum Palms are found. We saw several. Looks just like the Green Wood-hoopoe.

Since it was raining heavily, the termites were flying out of the nests on the morning of the second day. It is a sight to behold. The sky was full of them. The flight lasted about one hour or perhaps a little longer. We watched a Lesser Kestrel flying overhead. It would pick the termites out of the air with its talons reach up put them in its mouth then reach for another. Back and forth it flew for several minutes picking the termites out of the air. After the termites had cleared, we spotted vultures descending a couple of miles from us so we headed over to see what was so interesting to them. There were about a dozen vultures and eagles at a not so fresh kill by the road. The bones were picked clean. It surprised me that the hide was all that was left besides the bones. One of the Lappet-faced Vultures was doing its best to dispose of that, but without a great deal of success. The eagle was a Tawny Eagle. The other vultures were African White-backed.

From Buffalo Springs we went to Lake Nakuru. This stop was an after thought for me. Since I was in Kenya, I wanted to be certain to catch the two flamingos and this is the place to do so. When I planned the trip I did not know that I would for certain see them on the coast. They were of course at Lake Nakuru but they were not there is vast numbers because the rains had diluted the salinity of the lake considerably. The lake level was about 12 feet above normal. There were thousands of Pink-backed Pelicans there and still numbers of flamingo. The really good birds of Nakuru were the Amur Falcon, Hildebrandt's and Coqui Francolins, Northern Anteater Chat, Long-tailed Widowbird, Scaly-throated Honeyguide, and Little Rock Thrush.

That evening I had to catch a plane home but before that was a visit to Nairobi National Park. I didn't see much there. It was raining and the wildlife seemed to be somewhere else. The three birds of note were African Mostached Warbler, Jackson's Widowbird, and African Quail Finch another star bird at least by in my mind.

It was a great trip. My guide and driver were wonderful. On the way to Lake Nakuru, we lost the clutch in the car. Patrick got on the phone and within two hours here came another car to take us to a meeting with a car from Nairobi to take us on to Lake Nakuru. Amazing. Patrick stayed with the bad clutch, called for a spare and a mechanic and before the end of the day the mechanic had come out with the spare, fixed the car on the spot and Patrick was back Nairobi before sundown while we were looking for birds at Lake Nakuru.

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