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Kenya Ornithology

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Bird Watching in Kenya

There are over 1000 recorded bird species in Kenya making the country a paradise for bird watching. The soda lakes of the Rift Valley are probably the most popular areas for bird watching, but further off the beaten track the forests on Mount Kenya and the eastern highlands offer an excellent variety of birdlife, and maybe best of all is the less well known Kakamega Forest in western Kenya. All of the national parks and game reserves have good birdwatching, especially in raptors, and Samburu in particular has a diverse variety of birdlife with both desert species and woodland and forest species.


Lake Nakuru

Lake Nakuru is famous for having the largest number of greater and lesser flamingos of all the Rift Valley soda lakes and the best viewpoint for the amazing spectacle of hundreds of thousands of these birds is from Baboon Point. However flamingos are not the only attraction as over 450 species of birds have been recorded in the park. Rare migrant waterfowl gather here, as well as acacia-associated species and raptors.

Lake Naivasha

Probably the most popular of the soda lakes, Naivasha is renowned for it's diverse and colourful birdlife and offers the first time visitor to Kenya with an interest in birds a superb introduction. Over 400 species have been recorded and morning and evening bird watching walks to the Crescent Island Game Sanctuary are arranged by the Lake Naivasha Country Club.

For many visitors to Naivasha, the main attraction is the prolific bird life, and the lake is surely one of the best known of all birdwatching areas in Kenya. The water birds predominate, particular during the period October-March when the palearctic migrants travel from northern waters.

Many other species including fish eating birds such as pelicans, herons, storks and kingfishers are resident throughout the year. However if there is one bird which characterises Lake Naivasha, it would have to be the African Fish Eagle.

There are many species of raptor, the most rare being the bearded vulture or lammergeyer, which in the past nested regularly on the cliffs of Hell’s Gate. This bird is the largest raptor found in Kenya, with a swing span of nearly 2 metres. The well-kept gardens around the lake and the acacia thorn trees are home to many birds, from hoopoes and starling to woodpeckers and sunbirds, tits and doves to warblers and swallows.The highlight of many a bird watcher’s career has frequently been Lake Baringo, with (to date) 458 species having been recorded. Lake Bogoria with its saline waters lags behind on 373, but compensates by the magnificence of a million or so flamingo. The best time for water birds is from October to March, when large flocks of Palaearctic migrants fly south to Africa to avoid the northern winters. During this period, migrant waders are plentiful, occurring on both lakes.

Lake Baringo

The northern most of the soda lakes, Baringo is in a transitional zone and attracts a great variety of birds and is known as the birdwatching centre of Kenya. The Lake Baringo Club organises bird watching walks twice a day with a resident ornithologist and the wooded areas around the Club and Robert's Campsite is especially diverse in species. Over 450 species have been recorded in the area and the constant noise of the birdlife makes Baringo a very relaxing place to visit. On the mainland west of the lake, a walk along the cliffs in the early morning will yield a variety of bush birds, many of them endemic to the area.

Six varieties of hornbills occur, the nearest being Hemprich’s Hornbill. The Brown tailed Rock Chat is a specialty of the area, an all brown bird with no distinguishing marks. Birds of prey soar high over the cliffs, taking advantage of the thermals and a resident pair of Verreaux’s eagles dominate their 15 km long territory. Smaller falcons and kestrels can often be seen, and lucky visitors may see the rare White-faced Scops Owl. The boulders at the base of the cliffs are the home of the colourful and musical Cliff Chat, with its bright black and orange plumage, the make with starling white wing flashes. Barbets and wood doves, weavers and cuckoos also frequent this area, and except in time of severe drought, mixed flocks of seed-eating finches, cordon bleus and grenadiers.

In sharp contrast, the marshy land along the southern and western shores of the lake are home to flocks of pelicans, which fish in small groups in the water between the reeds. Goliath and Purple herons and great White Egrets stand motionless on the grassy reed islands, and the smaller Squacco Heron is common. Jacanas are usually seen, skittering effortlessly over floating vegetation. Malachite and Pied Kingfishers perch on reeds or posts waiting for their prey to swim by. Spoonbills, Storks and Black winged Stilts frequent the shallower areas, and flocks of White-faced Whistling Ducks enjoy the muddy areas where the reeds are short. Migrant waders including curlew Sandpiper, marsh Sandpiper, Greenshank, Spotted Redshank, Little Stint and Ruff are common during the October-Mach season and Terek Sandpipier, Whimbrel, Black-Tailed Godwit have also been recorded.

In the gardens of the Lake Baringo Club and Island Camp readily available food and water attract many species of birds, particularly colonies of weavers and buffalo weavers.

Lake Bogoria

Flamingos are again the big attraction at Bogoria where the greater flamingo seem to outnumber the lesser. The scrubby landscape supports many dry country species and there is a good variety of waterfowl by the Lake shore.

The bush country, dry and barren, between Baringo and Marigat is home to many species, with shrikes being common. Tawny Eagle and cuckoos can be seen, and the Abyssinian Ground Hornbill is resident in this area, often seen in dry riverbeds.

Turning east at Marigat towards Bogoria, the road approaches swampy ground with large stands of papyrus and reeds right up to the edge of the road. Here water birds such as herons and kingfishers are resident throughout the year. Flamingo, both Greater and Lesser, are here most of the time, except when the level of the lake rises and the algae on which the Lesser feed dies back. Gulls and terns are common, and in the October to March period migrant waders such as Ruff, Curlew Sandpiper and Little Stint can be seen in amongst the flamingo. Doves are common, there are six species of bee-eater and in the bushy areas away from the lake crombecs, brubru and sometimes the vivid Narina’s Trogon can be seen. Large flocks of Eurasian Rock Swallows and Sand Martins occur at this time, and the rare Red-necked Phalarope has been sighted. In the riverine areas, which are well treed even though not well watered, sunbirds, various warblers, flycatchers and cuckoos can be seen.

Kakamega Forest

Located in the eastern most corner of the Congo-West African equatorial rainforest, over 320 bird species have been recorded in Kakamega, including 16 which are unique to the area. This is the last patch of relict equatorial jungle left in Kenya and this unique habitat is in severe danger of being wiped out by human encroachment. The area around the Bunyunga campsite is a good spot to get to know the more common birds and there are a number of nature trails in the forest. Guides can be hired at Bunyunga and Isecheno.The riverine forest near Rundo has the widest variety of birdlife in the forest. Narina’s Trogon, Cinnamon-chested bee-eater, Klaas’ Cuckoo, Golden rumped Tinkerbird and striped kingfisher are all commonly seen. Among the most colorful of the forest residents are the turacos. Four species are found in Kakamega – Hartlaub’s, Black-billed, Ross’s and Great Blue. This is the only place in Kenya to see the Great Blue Turaco. The many species of parrots are also colorful residents. Other species to be found include Blue-headed bee-eater, Crowned hawk eagle, Black and white casqued hornbill, Red-headed Malimbes, African thrush, Snowy-capped robin and many sunbirds. Nocturnal species include Red-chested owlet and Bat hawks.

Masai Mara

Over 500 resident and migratory species of birds are listed for the Masai Mara, a fascinating and diverse array ranging from the enormous ostrich to tiny sunbirds, from gaudy turacos to drab larks and cisticoias identifiable only by the experts.

The largest and most spectacular bird of the open plans is the ostrich. The subspecies found here is the common ostrich, which has a flesh coloured neck and legs that become coral pink in the breeding males. Other large birds of the grasslands are the secretary bird,kori, black-bellied and white-bellied bustards and and the turkey-like ground hornbill. These birds are not flightless like the ostrich, but they do spend most of their time on the ground.

Sometimes during the rains huge wheeling flocks of Abdim’s stork and the white stork pass over the Mara on their migration. After a storm, they alight in the grasslands in the thousands to eat the termites and frogs that emerge.

Crowned plover seem to delight in making as much noise as possible. Other noisy birds, usually seen in more thickly bushed or wooded habitats, are red-necked spurfowl and large flocks of helmeted Guineafowl.

Near the rivers and streams and in seasonal marshes such as the Musiara Swamp, you can see Egyptian geese, often in pairs, and the tall, solitary saddle-bill stork. Sacred ibis and blacksmith plover search for insects and grubs along the edges of Water courses.

Birds of prey and raptors abound in all habitats. Black-shouldered kite perch on acacia trees near roads and hover over the long grass in ditches looking for mice. Bateleur eagle soar endlessly overhead, easily recognized by their broad, pointed wings and short tails. The Augur buzzard is another common and easily recognized raptor. Adults have a white belly, black head and upper parts, white under wings and a red tail fanned out in flight.

At kills, squadrons of vultures wait to clean up the carcass after the predators have eaten their fill. Six species of vulture occur in the Mara. They can be divided into pairs on the basis of their role in disposing of the carcass. Large lappet-faced and white-headed vultures have deep, broad backs adapted for tearing skin and other tough parts. They can rip open the dead animal making the viscera more accessible to white-backed and Ruppell’s griffon vulture which have long, bare necks and can reach deep inside the body. The hooded vulture and Egyptian vulture are smaller, with thinner beaks. They stand on the edge of the fray and pick up scraps and small bones. The tawny eagle and black kite can also be seen scavenging scraps and small bones.

Samburu

The arid bush country of northern Kenya supports an amazing variety of birds. The presence of water and riverine woodlands in the three Reserves increase this diversity. Almost 400 species have been recorded in these areas.
The race here is the Somali ostrich, the males having bluish necks and legs, unlike the southern race which has a pink neck and legs.
Birds of prey are abundant, form the magnificent martial eagle to the tiny, shrike like pygmy falcon. Look for the Bateleur, soaring endlessly on warm air currents, and performing acrobatic mating displays. It can be distinguished from the augur buzzard by its black in dry parts and very short tail, the buzzard having a red fan-shaped tail and broader wings. The pale chanting goshawk, a grey long legged hawk with a white rump, is commonly encountered sitting high in thorn trees.

Red-billed, Von der Decken’s and yellow-billed hornbills are the most common species. Hornbills nest in holes in trees.

Off the many species of so called "game-bird," Vulturine Guineafowl and sandgrouse are typical dry-country species.

Chestnut-bellied and black-faced sandgrouse flock to waterholes or steams to drink in the early morning, while Lichstenstein’s sandgrouse go in pairs or small groups to drink after dusk and before daybreak.

Other common ground-nesting birds include the cream-coloured courser and Fisher’s sparrow-lark which are typical of the drier bush areas of the Reserves. Grass-woven, gourd-shaped nest of white-browed sparrow weavers festoon branches of Acacia tortilis trees; Another common weaver is the large white-headed buffalo weaver; look for its bright red rump as it flies. Other exceptionally colorful species to watch out for are the rollers, superb and golden-breasted starlings, and white-throated bee-eater.

Along the rivers and in the swamps and springs, one sees a great diversity of waterbirds such as Egyptian geese, pied kingfishers, and wading plovers and sandpipers. A morning spent sitting quietly under the Acacia elatior trees will reveal many small sunbirds, warblers, flycatchers and doves. Noisy orange-bellied parrots nest in hole in old doum-palm trunks and nibble the hard brown fruits

Nairobi

Nairobi has a surprising variety of birdlife. In the early morning and late evening black kites and pied crows are a common site circling over the city. Other city dwellers include marabou storks, sacred ibises, red-winged starlings and silvery-cheeked hornbills.
The gardens next to the National Museum are home to many birds including cinnamon-chested bee eaters, several species of sunbirds and the African paradise monarch. In breeding plumage the rufous males have long streaming tail feathers.
The Museum Ornithology Society organises bird walks and bird drives around Nairobi which leave from the National Museum at 8.45 a.m. every Wednesday. For more information ring 02 749957 or 02 741049.

Kisumu Bird Sanctuary

Located about 8 km outside Kisumu, the bird sanctuary is a nesting site for hundreds of species and is best visited from April to May.

Rusinga and Mfangano Islands

These large islands located on Lake Victoria are best known as fishing safari destinations, but they are both excellent bird watching areas with over 100 recorded species.

Lake Magadi

Lake Magadi lies south of Nairobi near Namanga and can be visited on a day trip from Nairobi, alternatively there are a few lodges and campsites in the area.Birds are the main wildlife attraction of Lake Magadi and a wide variety of species can be seen from the eastern and southern shores. There are several causeways which provide an excellent means of observing the birds at close range. Birds also tend to congregate around the hot springs around the southern end of the lake.Lesser Flamingos usually outnumber their Greater relatives; not only are they smaller and their plumage is flushed deep pink, but the bill is a deep carmine-red, compared with the Greater Flamingo’s pale pink bill with a black tip. Both species tend to concentrate around the southern end of the Lake. The number of flamingos at Lake Magadi is rather unpredictable and can vary greatly even from week to week. They have very precise requirements for optimum feeding and birds regularly commute between Magadi and neighbouring Lake Natron, which lies just across the border in Tanzania, if conditions do not suit them. However they sometimes even breed at Lake Magadi.

White pelicans and Pink-backed pelicans cruise serenely across the water’s surface and Goliath Herons, Saddle-bill Storks, African Spoonbills and Little Egrets feed around the margins.

Among the wading birds Black-winged Stilts and Avocet are the species most commonly found around the shores. Stilts are easily recognized by their black-and white plumage, long, thin bill and incredible long red legs. Avocets on the other hand have a distinctive, upturned bill with which they scythe through the water.

Magadi is renowned for the very rare Chestnut-banded Sand Plover and this is the only place in Kenya where it can be found. It occurs around the lake margins and can be recognized by its typical plover-like appearance and the narrow and pale, yet distinct chestnut band across the breast. It is roughly the same size and shape as the more widespread Kittlitz’s Plover

Amboseli

Dry-country birds are abundant in Amboseli. Ostriches are not difficult to find and there are several species of bustards present. The largest species is the Kori Bustard, the heaviest bird capable of flight, when the male is displaying his neck is inflated like a balloon and the tail raised over the back. Other bustards include White-bellied, Buff-crested and Black-bellied. Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse, Spotted Stone Curlew, Temminck’s and Two-banded Courser are other plains birds which may be seen.The bird life of Amboseli’s swamps is prolific. Expect to see White pelican, Pink-backed pelican, Little Grebe, African Darter, Squacco heron, Purple heron, Egrets, Egyptian goose and Knob-billed duck. Black-winged Stilts and Kittlitz’s Plovers feed around the margins, and Longtoed lapwings and Africa Jacanas skip across the surface vegetation. The swamps provide excellent opportunities for observing the tiny Black Crake and African Fish Eagles soar over the area

Mt Kenya

Bird life in the forests is prolific and many of the more characteristic species can be seen in the vicinity of the Naro Moru River Lodge. Giant Kingfishers are found along the long river courses. Marshy areas beside the water provide feeding grounds for the Green Ibis, a rare bird only found here and in the Aberdares.Hartlaub’s Turaco, a colourful bird that is found throughout the highlands of Kenya, is common and Olive Pigeons, Silvery-cheeked Hornbills, and Red-fronted Parrots are easy to find. Several species of sunbirds, including Eastern Double-collared, Tacazze and Malachite, are found at higher altitudes, where the forest opens out, among flowering bushes and shrubs.
The bird life of the open moorland is home to Mountain Chats, Alpine Swifts, Nyanza Swifts and the occasional Scarce Swift.
Sunbirds, including Tacazze and Golden-winged, feed on the flowering spikes of Afro-alpine plants. The Scarlet-tufted Malachite Sunbird is a speciality of Mt Kenya. Augur and Mountain Buzzards are among the birds of prey of the area and Montane Francolins are occasionally seen

Meru

The birdlife of Meru contains species that are familiar from further south in Kenya as well as a few species more characteristic of the northern regions.Somali ostriches are found on open grassland these differ from the species found in Nairobi Park and elsewhere in southern Kenya because the neck and thighs of the birds are blue as opposed to pink. Parties of Yellow-necked Spurfowl can be seen from the road as well as groups of guinea-fowl, both Helmeted and Vulturine, which come to areas of water to drink in the evenings. Several species of vultures and birds of prey can be seen, in particular look for Black-winged kite, Black-chested Harrier Eagle, Pale Chanting Goshawk and Martial Eagle. Also look out for Lilac-breasted Rollers, Broad-billed and Rufous-crowned Rollers and, from November to March, European Rollers which are migrants to the region.Marshy areas, such as the Mulika Swamp which lies near the Meru Mulika Lodge, attract an interesting variety of birds. Most conspicuous are species such as Crowned Crane, Yellow-billed Stork and Hammerkop, Crowned Plovers and Three-banded Plovers feed around the margins and Malachite Kingfishers can be seen on overhanging perches. From November to March, European bee-eaters which, like the Rollers are migrant visitors to Meru, are also seen.Peter’s Finfoot, which is somewhat elusive, can be seen along some of the quieter watercourses but requires patience or luck. Violet Wood Hoopoe, Scimitarbill, Grey-capped Warbler and Sulphur-breasted Bush-shrike are also resident.

Marsabit

Several different habitat types are found in Marsabit and a surprisingly wide variety of birds can be found in a comparatively small area. The crater swamps near Marsabit Lodge and Lake Paradise attract wetland birds such as ducks, herons and waders. The exact species present is dependent partly upon the time of year, migrants and winter visitors occurring from November to March, and on the water levels at the time. Most bird life is concentrated around the margins of the lake and swamp. The evergreen forests which cloak the mountain slopes harbour birds such as Narina’s Trogon, Yellow-whiskered Greenbul Grey Apalis, Robin chat and several species of sunbirds and weavers. Birds of prey, including Crowned hawk Eagle and Mountain Buzzards, are much in evidence in Marsabit. The fringes of Marsabit grade into semi-desert and desert, those regions to the north being especially interesting. Cream-coloured Courser, Masked Lark and Chestnut-bellied sandgrouse are among the most typical of the desert species and Heughlin’s bustard and the Somali ostrich also roam the area.

Mida Creek

Mida Creek is one of the best birdwatching spots on the Kenyan coast. Throughout the year there are herons, egrets, waders and terns in abundance but the numbers of resident birds is boosted by migrants from Europe and Asia which flock here outside the breeding season. Many species arrive in August and stay until the following April.Mida Creek is fringed with mangroves and those along the northern shore in particular provide a natural hide form which to view the mudflats. Mida Creek supports a great number and variety of waders including Crab plovers which have striking black-and-white plumage. Whimbrel, curlew, Greenshank and Grey Plover are non-breeding visitors that are present from August or September until April or May.Both Greater and Lesser Sandplovers occur in considerable numbers, several thousand being present at times, which provides a rare opportunity to compare these two similar species side-by-side. Curlew, Common and Marsh Sand-pipers, spotted stone curlew, Little Stint and Ringed Plover also feature in good numbers, and less common species include Terek or Broad-billed Sandpiper.

Sabaki River

The Sabaki River is one of Kenya’s most important watercourses. It starts life in the hills near Nairobi and then flows south-east through Tsavo National park. After tumbling over Lugards Falls, it becomes the Galana River and finally, where it empties into the sea, it is called the Sabaki River. At its mouth, extensive mudflats are exposed at low tide which attract large numbers of waterbirds.The rivermouth is reached by walking north from Malindi town along the road which runs parallel to and closest to, the coast. About a kilometre from the town, the road bears left; continue straight ahead on a track signposted to the golf course. Follow the track through the golf course until you arrive at the sand dunes. Then follow one of the many paths north.Many of the hollows between the dunes harbour wet flushes and lagoons where herons and waders congregate. Some of the birds that are found in the sand dunes are extremely colourful. Zanzibar Red Bishops, have striking red-and-black plumage. They are resident along the coast while the equally attractive Carmine Bee-eater, which has deep carmine-red plumage and bluish face and long tail streamers, is a visitor from September until March. The Mozambique nightjar is more difficult to spot with it’s superb camouflage. Waders such as Black-winged Stilts and Spur-winged Plovers feed in the lagoons and the plovers nest here. Larger lagoons may harbour Crested Terns and African Skimmers. Which have bills with the lower mandible longer than the upper. Pratincoles also occur in small numbers and from July to September, there are large flocks of Madagascar Pratincoles to be found. Madagascar Pratincoles, like common Pratincoles, are unusual waders, with a swallow-like silhouette in flight. They both have red underwings but Madagascar Pratincoles are much smaller and shorter-tailed.

Sabaki River

The best time for birdwatching is on a rising tide and from August until the following April or May, the mouth of the Sabiki River is a wonderful place for viewing waders. Hundreds of Greater and Lesser Sandplovers are present. The Sand plovers, together with Ringed Plovers, are non-breeding visitors, present in numbers only from September until April. They join the resident White-fronted Sand Plover and Kittlitz’s Plovers and often feed together.Large waders include Whimbrel, Curlew and Greenshank as well as several smaller species. Curlew Sandpipers are common and recognized by their long, down curved bills and white rumps in flight, and Marsh Sandpipers are also easily found. Little stint, Wood Sandpiper and Sanderling feed on the mudflats. Highlights are the Terek Sandpipers and Broad-billed Sandpipers which are also found here in small numbers. Terek Sandpipers are easily recognized by their long, up curved bill. The Broad-billed Sandpiper has a straight bill with a broad, down-curved tip.Waders are not the only birds found on the mudflats. Great Egrets, Little Egrets, Grey Herons, African spoonbills and Sacred ibises can also be seen. African Fish Eagles also regularly hunt here.The sand spit at the mouth of the Sabiki river is an ideal roosting spot for birds at high tide and provides an excellent opportunity for the birdwatchers to compare species, especially among the numerous terns.Caspian terns, with their immense orange-red bills, are the largest and most distinctive species. Crested and Lesser Crested Terns are slightly smaller species but are larger than the White-Cheeked and Roseate Terns that roost with them. Smallest of all is Saunder’s Little Tern.Sooty Gulls are much in evidence on the sand spit and less common are White-eyed Gulls.

Last Updated on Wednesday 25th November 2009

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