The magic of Kenya
A tour of the main birding spots in Kenya took us through a huge variety of birds, animals, landscapes and culture. We travelled from the bustling city of Nairobi with its Black and Yellow-billed Kites and Bronze Sunbirds in the hotel grounds to the highlands of Mount Kenya for our first glimpses of mammals coming to a waterhole and early morning glimpses of many birds from a huge Verreaux's Eagle Owl to a tiny Black-throated Apalis. Next we travelled to Samburu where the bright red national dress of the local people was stunning on the eye and we saw our first views of zebra and giraffes. The numbers of bird species we saw almost overwhelming from Martial and Long-crested Eagles to the common but fascinating Village Weavers and Red-billed Hornbills. Experiencing the sunrises and hearing the sounds of baboons and other creatures as they woke up was stirring and humbling in equal measure.
The Rift Valley Lakes were next with their thousands of Lesser and Greater Flamingos creating swathes of pink along the lake sides. We observed different fishing techniques as Great White Pelicans swam together in groups surrounding the fish and African Fish Eagles dived. The brilliantly coloured Jacanas and Malachite Kingfishers dazzled us and our first sight of huge hippos swimming or lying in the heat was amazing. Our hotel rooms on the lakeside meant that we had a man with a stick escort us back after dinner each evening to keep us safe from the crocodiles and hippos which might be on the lawn. It’s not like that back at home!
We travelled next across the Aberdares (finding the elusive Aberdare Cisticola) on our way to Kakamega Forest – a stronghold for many elusive creatures which we managed to track down including several Greenbuls and the gorgeously coloured Red-headed Bluebill. Our list of species grows....
Then we head down South to the Masai Mara – the Northern part of the Serengeti. Again the bright reds and blues of national dress of the local people stands out against the vast plains. We get occasional sightings of lions, cheetahs and hyenas and more regular views of elephants, warthogs, giraffe. And, although it is not the main migration season we get a sight of the extraordinary numbers of wildebeest moving across the plains. Myriad birds from huge vultures to the rare Friedmann’s Lark. Similar sights awaited us Eastwards along the Tanzanian border with Mt Kilimanjaro appearing above the clouds and towering over the landscape.
Finally we neared the coast where a new set of birds await us in the Sokoke Forest. Peter’s and Green Twinspot together on the path, two tiny Sokoke Scops Owls allowing us to get so close, Blue-mantled Crested Flycather and a Flap-necked Chameleon were just a few of the amazing sights.
All of this was arranged and guided by the wonderful Ben of Ben’s Ecological Safaris. We had brilliant accommodation – all of a very high standard. We felt safe and well looked after. With well over 650 bird species and nearly 90 mammal and reptile species Kenya provides a wealth of experiences.
From a correspondent March 2011.
There are a number of organised birdwatching tours to Kenya. Companies which offer such trips include Birdfinders, Birding & Beyond, Birding Ecotours, Birdquest, Field Guides, Nature's Wonderland Safaris, Rockjumper, Safari Consultants, Safariwise and Sunbird.
Birdwatching East Africa offers a series of 1 to 24 day ready-made birding safaris or will tailor-make tours according to your requirements. Run by Chege Kariuki, an expert birder, this company offers a complete flexible birding and photographic safari packages.
Local guides are available at a number of sites.
Arabuko-Sokoke forest and surrounding areas: the Guides Association can be contacted through [email protected]. The well-known David Ngala has set up a small eco-tourism company with three other forest guides, Spinetail Safaris: [email protected].
Kakamega guides (Kakamega Environmental Education Program): [email protected].
Anthony W Raphael
Nairobi's Jomo Kenyatta International Airport has connections to many European, US and African cities. Buses operate between Kenya and Tanzania, the main routes being from Mombasa or Nairobi to Dar es Salaam and from Nairobi to Arusha and Moshi. The main border crossing into Uganda is at Malaba though Busia is an alternative if coming from Kisumu. Nairobi and the Ugandan capital Kampala are connected by road. There's a border crossing to Ethiopia frequently used by travellers and overland trucks run to / from Moyale. There's no safe way to enter or exit Kenya overland from Somalia or Sudan at present.
Kenya has several airlines connecting Nairobi with Mombasa and other cities as well as flights to Amboseli, Masai Mara and Samburu. Flying around Kenya and its neighbouring countries is a relatively safe and fairly cheap way to cover a lot of ground. The train from Nairobi to Mombasa is also a popular form of transport. Kenya has a network of regular buses, matatus and taxis.
Planning your own birding safari
Planning your own safari is a daunting prospect, especially in a large country such as Kenya, but will be very rewarding. Many organised safaris concentrate on mammals and often lack the flexibility you need to get the mix of birds, mammals and relaxation on the beach that you may require. If you are a keen birder, looking for a decent number of species, you definitely need to avoid the short safaris organised by many different companies and go for a specialised birding one. If there are 4-6 of you, it would be much better (& possibly cheaper) to organise your own tailor-made safari as you have the flexibility to choose better value accomodation etc. Van hire with driver will cost on average USD150 per day (including fuel) and expect to pay USD80 per person sharing per night at excellent lodges e.g. Mara Serena, Sarova Lion Hills, Lake Nakuru Lodge etc. Otherwise accommodation varies greatly and can go down to less US$ 30 per person sharing per night.
The standard safari vehicle is a minivan that can seat 6-7 people in the back plus the driver and guide in the front. These vehicles have a safari roof that raises up which allows the passengers to stand up and view or photograph game and birds. When hiring a van, it is worth making sure you get one with 4-wheel drive, which seats seven people in a seating arrangement that has two rows of 2 seats with a gap in the middle followed by the back row which seats three. Some vans have 3 seats on the front row but this makes for cramped conditions and it is much better to go for the 2, 2, 3 version but these are not always available. The ideal number for a safari is 4-6 people since every tour participant has a window seat. Distances between sites in Kenya can be large and the roads vary in quality from excellent to awful. Many are at the lower end of the scale, so comprehensive safaris will involve many, fairly uncomfortable, hours sat in a safari bus. You should also note that in parks (apart from Hell’s Gate and Saiwa Swamp National Park and many picnic sites in the parks) virtually all of your birding will be done from inside a bus. If getting outside is important, you need to take this into account when planning your itinerary.
Rainfall occurs seasonally throughout most of Kenya and safaris during the wet seasons are likely to be difficult and uncomfortable. The coast, eastern plateaus, and lake basin experience two rainy seasons, which include the long rains extending roughly from March to June and the short rains which extend from approximately October to December. The highlands of western Kenya have a single rainy season, lasting from March to September. Temperatures vary enormously. February and March are the hottest months and the coldest are in July and August.
Unless you have an excellent knowledge of where to go and what to see, you will need to either do a lot of research or rely on the knowledge of the guides. Although you can do a completely independent safari, it is recommended that you have a driver/guide as this makes the whole process much smoother and they will have the local knowledge to find more species. Several companies will help you organise your tailor-made safari and will provide a driver/guide and will make all the bookings for you. Accomodation in park lodges ranges from good to luxurious and the basis is usually full-board with drinks as extras so you do not need to worry about carrying large amounts of money once you embark on your safari.
Which company to choose? There are many different companies to choose from. Birders in the past have used Somak www.somak.com. They are a large company and have been reported to offer efficient service but are not a dedicated birding company.
Birding and beach trips
Increasingly popular amongst birders is the beach and birding holiday on the north coast of Kenya. By being based in Watumu or Malindi, the birder is able to take advantage of some excellent birding in the nearby Arabuko Sokoke Forest, great hotels as well as being able to relax on white sandy beaches. The advantage of these is that it is possible to take the non-birding members of the family as well and they can sit on the beach while the birder goes off for a mornings or day birding. For background, it is well worth reading the article in ABC Bulletin vol. 1(2) Birding Arabuko-Sokoke Forest and Kenya's northern coast by John Fanshawe.
Birding around the area includes Arabuko Sokoke Forest, with its six threatened species (the 'Sokoke six' ) which include the enigmatic Sokoke Scops Owl, Sokoke Pipit, East Coast Akalat, Spotted Ground Thrush, Amani Sunbird and the Kenya’s endemic Clarke’s Weaver. Mida Creek is a hotspot for waders (up to 1,000 Crab Plover) and other waterfowl, some good forest birding can be had around the Gede ruins and more Palaearctic migrants and scrub birds can be seen around the entrance to the Sabaki River mouth. There are interesting mammals in the forest as well, including two species of Elephant Shrew, monkeys, Aardvark, Elephants, Caracal, African Civet, Genet, and several species of duiker including the threatened Ader's Duiker.
Luckily tourism is set up to access this great birding - and in a sustainable manner. ASSETS (www.assets-kenya.org) is a pioneering community eco-conservation project that encourages community participation in conservation efforts by promoting child education and alleviating poverty. ASSETS distributes funding from eco-tourism to provide bursaries (scholarships) for secondary school children who would otherwise be unable to afford the school fees. It encourages the local people to value the forest and creek by equally distributing the benefits from eco-tourism throughout the local communities.
Spinetail Safaris (www.assets-kenya.org/spinetailsafaris.htm) are locally based and will donate 10% of the guiding fee to ASSETS. On visiting Mida Creek you will be required to pay an entrance fee of 100 KSh (approx. 1.5 US Dollars) which goes straight to ASSETS and donations there are particularly welcome to help communities around the area and secure these sites for the future. Please support this initiative as, without local support, these habitats may well have disappeared. Arabuko-Sokoke forest is run the Kenya Wildlife Service - a USD10 entrance fee is payable. For forest birding, hiring a guide is essential to see all the species, especially the owl, so contact the guides or Spinetail Safaris.
Mida Creek is set up so you can drop in at any time, but the best time to visit for waders is 2 hours before high tide - your hotel can inform you of when this is. You can hire a knowledgeable guide there (100 KSh an hour - worth doing once) or walk about on your own. The best place to view waders is from the hide overlooking the estuary, which is reached by a raised walkway above the mangroves. This rope bridge is not for the fainthearted and care is needed, but it is the best way of seeing waders and only 10 minutes from the information centre - but remember be in the hide 2 hours before high tide to get the best views. The tide comes in quickly and is is very easy to miss the best birding by a few minutes. From the hide at the end of the walkway, Crab Plovers are the star attraction but at the right times of year large numbers of Curlew Sandpipers, Greenshank, Little Stint, Greater & Mongolian Sandplovers, Terek Sandpipers, Grey & Ringed Plovers, as well as smaller numbers of Curlew, Whimbrel, Ruff & Turnstone can be seen. Greater Flamingos also occur.
Safety and health issues are no different from those in many east African countries. Guidebooks, travel companies and websites provide much of the advice one needs, but key points warrant repetition here: (1) be aware of the risk of malaria and seek current advice, sleep in a sealed tent or under a net and take prophylaxis as recommended; (2) always ensure you have sufficient water and some method of purification (even if this comprises a pot and a campfire for boiling); (3) do not underestimate the danger of being in the sun for too long, ensure you use sun-block, drink plenty of water and wear a hat; (4) be aware of the risk of AIDS; (5) ensure that you take a reasonably-equipped first-aid pack with you including supplies of hypodermic and suturing needles. See the following 2 websites for the latest safety and travel information: US Travel and UK FCO.