Lilac breasted roller on a wildebeest skull. How quaint.
The beautiful red & yellow barbet.
I recently visited Kenya. I was there because I have a son who studies Hyenas in the Masai Mara. We traveled around a bit, saw loads of hyenas and gnus. I counted some birds. Here is what went down.
Day 1. Nairobi to Lake Baringa. 49 species. Bird of the day: White-headed buffalo weaver because it looks like a sports uniform should. Stylin’. Just to confess, as twichers go, I am an advanced beginner (I can tell a finch from a frigate bird). I can attribute my interest in nature, biology and the reason I am a professor to a childhood fascination with birds. During my teens I kept a bird life list and proudly watched it grow through my youth. However, I was never very sophisticated. I did not, for example, explicitly link birds to habitats much other than waterfowl to water. I think that I still own the Golden Guide to Birds of North America, and I could probably count how many I had ticked off by the time I was about 20. What I can’t do is accurately say how many I have added to that list since I was 20. While in Kenya, I guessed that it was about 160. So, that was our goal: 160 species of birds in two weeks.
Day 2. 24 species. Still at Lake Baringo. Bird of the day: Abysinnian scimitarbill. Pretty cool bird with a super cool name. How can you beat that? Even though I don’t keep track of North American birds, when I travel I like to bring the binoculars and acquire the best local bird guide I can to count what I see. I am fairly strict. I need to see it. I need to be very certain of the ID. If there are look alike species that differ in range, I will use the range map to dictate which one I saw and count it. I will use local guides. For example September 4 and 5 (yesterday and today) we had Elias on the journey who knows the local birds quite well. This helped quite a lot (78 in 2 days).
Day 3.15 species. Now at Mpala just west of Mount Kenya in the Likipia Valley. Regionally, this seems like a great example of integrating local enterprise (cattle and goat grazing) with conservation of nature. We are closing in on 100 species in three days. Now, I know that the real experts get something like 400 species in 24 hours. As I said, advanced beginner. We are not dedicating the day to birds, but we do pay attention. Bird of the day: Secretary bird. How can it not be? That might be the coolest bird in the world. We have moved locations and so expect a bit of a bump.
Day 4. 13 species. Still at Mpala. We have reached 100! Bird of the day: Hoopoe. Sorry. I can’t help it. I was fascinated the first time I saw a picture of one when I was about 12 and have loved that species ever since. About 12 years ago in China I stopped a conversation in mid-sentence with “I’m sorry” to chase after the first one I ever saw. Among other things, the hoopoe has a crazy large distribution. It nests from southern Europe through to the east coast of Asia, south of Siberia. It also is distributed south to the southern tip of Africa (skipping over the Sahara and the Congo. It likes open country, and there is lots of it in Asia and Africa. That conversation in China was with my dean and a reporter from a leading Chinese newspaper. Bad dog. So, 12 years later I see a hoopoe for the 3rd time; still just as exciting!
Days 5 and 6. 21 species. We spent these days driving south, through Nairobi and then out to the Maasai Mara. Bird of the days: Yellow-billed duck. Africa has a huge diversity of most bird groups. The number of falcons, for example, is mind-boggling. However, with no recent glaciation and few lakes, there just aren’t many ducks. Perhaps with all the crocodiles, water is a dangerous place for ducks. The Egyptian goose seems to be the only duck-like thing that has figured out the water. Hence, the y-b duck may be the first real duck I have seen in Africa. Maybe there are places with lots of ducks, but I haven’t seen them. (you can start an African duck dynasty, though). OK, I did not get a picture of the dang duck, and they aren’t photogenic anyway. Hence, second bird of the days: Lilac breasted roller because they seem wicked smart and are beautiful to boot.
Days 7-11. 26 species. Five days in the Mara Conservancy near Serena Lodge at the Hyena research camp. Bird of the week: Black and white casqued hornbill. This is a very cool representative of a very cool group of birds. We barely had a glimpse at the pair of these before they flew off, so this is more a nod to the hornbills generally, of which we have now seen 5 species. About here I started a campaign for two birds before breakfast. This was easy because we generally did hyena observations at dawn and did not get back to camp until 9:30. Hence, breakfast was mid-morning. Going pretty well. In fact, most days we got exactly 2 birds before breakfast. Our days are mostly filled with hyena observations and watching the Wildebeest migrations (crossings at the Mara River with loads of very large crocodiles). So, mostly francolins, spurfowls, vultures, hawks and other birds easily visible in open country. with no picture of a black and white casqued hornbill, here is a picture of a ground hornbill. Nearly as cool; spiffy eyelashes!
Days 12-14. 22 species. Bird of the days: English sparrow, Yellow-throated sandgrouse, D’Arnaud Barbet. You have to hand it to the English sparrow, they get around. As for the Yellow-throated sandgrouse, simple elegance abounds. Elegant plumage, elegant call, elegant powerful flight. The D’Arnaud barbet is not the most elegant of the barbet’s (the one I saw days earlier and pictured to the left is), but pretty spectacular as bush birds go. This brings the total to 170, or 10 more than my estimate of my childhood in North America. Yea!
OK, so we ended up with 176 bird species in total. I was totally jazzed. [ post script note. I counted my approximated North American bird list, it is closer to 300]. We saw wildebeest crossing the Mara River, complete with crocodile predation. Hyenas doing unmentionable things to each other. I could not possibly identify my favorite experience. It was the trip of a lifetime. However, at the same time as I saw the vulture pictured below, I saw another with its head completely up a dead zebra's ass (check out the 23 second video)!