Birding in Kenya
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The variation in habitat across Kenya means that different areas of the country have very different bird lists, making it a fascinating part of the world for birders to visit. Since so much of the coutry is open grassland or bush the birds are also relatively easy to see. Some specialist tours reckon on 5-600 species in a two week tour. Taking it fairly gently, without a specialist bird guide, but going on some of the bird walks available at lodges we've managed 350 species in two weeks; there's a lot of birds out there.
There are a number of different types of organised tours available in Kenya. Probably the most common is the classic wildlife safari. This offers a good chance to see a number of different parks and habitats. It can however be very frustrating for birders. The tours are generally aimed at "the big 5" (Lion, Elephant, Cape Buffalo, Leopard and Rhino). This can often mean whizzing past a tree full of interesting looking birds in pursuit of a herd of elephants; and persuading five or six non-birders that it's worth spending 20 minutes watching and identifying an insignificant looking little brown job is something of a lost cause. That's not to say that such tours are a waste of time- they're not. Many of the guides are quite knowledgeable and quite happy to point out interesting looking birds and many of the lodges are themselves home to lots of species and often have their own bird walks through the grounds. You'll still see plenty of species but are more likely to miss out on a few good opportunities.
There are also a number of companies doing specialist bird tours. From watching them (almost as interesting as watching the birds sometimes) they vary from tours where people actually stop and watch the birds in a fairly leisurely manner to ninety-mile an hour twitcher specials where the apparent aim is to rack up as many species as possible in the shortest possible time. As noted above, some of them are very successful with a trip lists in excess of 500 birds in a couple of weeks.
Some companies offer a variation on the standard safari where you pay extra and have the safari-bus or car plus driver/guide to yourself, and even draw up your own itinerary. This can be fairly expensive, but has the great advantage that on game drives you stop when you want, watch what you want and with only a few people in a safari-bus you can always get to a window on both sides. Alternatively take one of the standard tours, but book with a group of birders. It should then be possible to get all the birders on the same bus. Your only problem then is persuading the driver that yes, you really do want to stop to look at that tiny brown bird perched on the reed instead of chasing after another lion with everyone else.
With the growth in the number of birders visiting Kenya a number of lodges now employ bird guides to take guests around the grounds. In our experience the quality of the bird walks on offer is variable. For example at Lake Baringo Lodge the chief ornithologist (Simon) is an active member of the Kenyan birding community and has a deep interest in the subject. His knowledge of the local birdlife including migration patterns, nesting habits and rare and unusual sightings is impressive. At some other lodges we have been disappointed to find that our own knowledge far outstripped that of the resident expert. However for some places the concept of birding as an interest is really rather new and novel and the quality of the guides is gradually improving.
When to Bird?
For sheer numbers the best time is between October and April when more than 120 migrant species have arrived from the Northern hemisphere, mostly from the Palearctic but with some African migrants such as Forbes-Watson's Swift; there is also the chance of finding one of the passage migrants such as the Sooty Falcon in March-April and October-December. If you're interested in bird-ringing, the latter period is when there's a large bird ringing exercise at Ngulia in Tsavo National Park. The coast is particularly good during this period with large flocks of water birds congregating at Mida Creek and Sabaki Estuary, while The Rift Valley lakes and Amboseli attract a lot of northern waterfowl.
From April to October the Northern Migrants are replaced by birds from the southern hemisphere and Madagascar, but these are much fewer, no more than 10 or 12 species. It is however the time when many of the birds are in breeding plumage following the long rains, which makes species such as the various weavers much easier as well as much more colourful. This is also the best time of year for big game. In July and August the huge herds of wildebeest and zebra enter the Maasai Mara and provide spectacular game watching. This also makes vultures much easier to find because of the numbers of animals that don't survive the migration. The Mara River regularly collects mixed flocks of vultures and Marabou feeding on the animals that failed to cross the river. There's usually a fair number of crocs as well!
The other variable is the weather, Kenya's seasons come in two basic flavours - wet and dry. Aside from the obvious disadvantages of trying to peer through binoculars in a tropical storm the rainy seasons can leave many roads and tracks unusable, especially if you don't have the advantage of 4WD. This can leave some parks, or parts of some parks, totally unreachable. The long rains are usually between March and June with the highest levels of rainfall in April and May. The short rains start in late October and go through to December. It does however vary throughout the country and Northern Kenya is generally happy for any rain it can get.
Despite the importance of tourism to the Kenyan economy, the road system, like much of the country's infrastructure, is poor. Long stretches are rutted and full of pot-holes, with frequent gaps where the road surface has been washed away. This makes any journey a bit of an adventure and you have to be prepared to spend time just waiting for someone to come and pull you out of the mud. On the plus side drivers in Kenya seem to react well to this adversity and always stop to help one another out. This is particularly true with safari companies, whose drivers always look out for one another and never leave a tourist in the lurch.
However it is advisable not to be out on the roads at night in many areas of the country. Some regions are notorious for putting glass and nails down to stop cars/buses so that they can rob the passengers. In daylight these occurences are rare, although you are advised to put valuables out of site and away from the windows when travelling through Nairobi.
Most of Kenya is perfectly safe for foreign tourists, and certainly we have never encountered any problems. On some routes in the south, notably between Amboseli and Tsavo National Parks you are advised to take advantage of the local armed guards who will travel with you to deter bandits. The North of the country is a very different matter with frequent bandit attacks near the borders. In fact Kenya currently has a problem with militia groups from Ethiopis crossing the border and terrorising Kenyan villagers. We err on the side of caution and avoid travelling in these northern border areas.
Some people do find the attention of hawkers selling fruit, masks, animal carvings, souvenir spears and shields rather intimidating. We find that simply saying "no thank you" in a polite, friendly but firm tone does the trick. Also having a small stock of biros which can be given to children for school helps smooth the way. Other than that we have relied on the advice and good sense of our local guides to provide advice on where to shop and what to watch out for.
The information on these pages is drawn partly from our own personal experience but also from a number of other sources. These include magazines such as Kenya Birds (mentioned above) and also a number of books, including:
Birds of Kenya and Northern Tanzania by Zimmerman, Turner et al.