I often find myself in conversations about bucket list destinations – where would I most like to go on a trip – birding or otherwise. There are many places on that list ranging from the relatively close like finally getting to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon or a little farther away like finally getting to Magee Marsh in Ohio to much more distant and exotic places like Borneo or Ecuador. I hope to get to all of those places, but if the question were which place I have visited would be on top of my visit again list, there would be many wonderful runners-up, but the top spot would be held by Kenya.
I chronicled a favorite memory of my trip to Kenya in “The Circle of Life” blog which I published on October 4, 2016. That post included some birds but was primarily about “my father’s leopard”, a magical emotional encounter with this beautiful animal at Samburu National Park in November 2007 – perhaps a “gift” to me from my father who had passed away three months earlier. That will always be the best moment of that trip, but there were many more. Some are remembered here.
This was my third significant international trip but my first with a group. The two earlier ones were on my own to Australia in 2003 and Brazil in 2005. This trip was with Victor Emanuel Nature Tours – 20 days including very long flights. It is about 9,000 air miles from Seattle to Nairobi either nonstop or through London. I went through London and it was an ordeal. First a 9 hour red-eye flight to Heathrow and then a transfer to Gatwick with a ten hour layover before another 9 hour flight to Nairobi. I was met at the airport by a driver to take me to the Safari Park Hotel about 20 miles away. Despite very little sleep the past two days, I was so excited about being in Africa that the adrenalin was running high and I was raring to go. It was a beautiful sunny morning adding to the excitement. It should have been no more than 35 minutes to the hotel but…there was a big international marathon going on and the trip took well over an hour. I received a dose of reality fairly quickly. In the slow travel, I had my hand out the window in the rear of the town car. The driver noticed and said: “Please sir. Pull your arm in. They will cut it off to get your watch!!” Whoa…welcome to Africa!
Safari Park Hotel
The hotel was terrific and I had an afternoon to kill before meeting the group that night. The grounds were extensive and there were definitely birds to be seen. All were new and it was a great beginning for a great trip. Some highlights on the grounds were Hamerkop, Sacred Ibis, Black Headed Paradise Flycatcher, Superb Starling and several Sunbird species.
That evening I met with the group – all from the U.S. with our leader David Wolf and second mate Brennan Mulrooney, and the next morning after I birded on the grounds again myself, we birded as a group at the hotel and in the Nairobi area. There were so many birds and so many animals and so many interesting people and interesting places seen on this trip it would be take way too many pages and hours to include them all. And the same would be true for a day by day recounting of experiences and observations. Rather than go day by day and place by place, I am going to include “groups” of birds with photos of some favorites and do the same with the mammals. Altogether there will be photos of 50 species of birds – less than 10% of those seen and about 30% of those photographed. I was just starting to take photos and had pretty basic equipment so the quality is not great, but the subjects certainly were. I will also intersperse some comments on places visited and some special people that I met. There was so much that was fantastic, sadly many great people, places, birds and animals will be left out. Even with the painful omissions, this is my longest blog post. Writing it has brought wonderful memories.
Birds of Kenya
October 28th to November 17th, 2007 — 504 Species – 465 Life Birds
In a category all its own is the iconic Common Ostrich. With its long neck and long legs, it can reach a height of 9 feet and weigh in at 250 pounds – the tallest and heaviest of all birds. It cannot fly but running it can reach speeds of over 40 miles per hour. Our first observations were of a flock at Lake Nakuru National Park.
Common Ostrich — Lake Nakuru National Park, November 6, 2007
There were relatively few waterfowl – a total of only 12 species. The Northern Shoveler was the only species seen there and also in North America. I had my first Egyptian Goose – native to Kenya – and then later seen as an exotic in Florida ten years later.
Egyptian Goose — Mountain Lodge, October 31, 2007
Landfowl – Gallinaceous Birds
Six species including three Francolins, Harlequin Quail, and my favorites the Guineafowl.
Helmeted Guineafowl — Samburu National Reserve, November 1, 2007
Vulturine Guineafowl — Samburu National Reserve, November 1, 2007
Raptors – 33 species including eagles, kites, vultures, goshawks and my favorite the Secretarybird.
Bateleur — Samburu National Reserve, November 2, 2007
Martial Eagle — Samburu National Reserve, November 2, 2007
Eastern Chanting Goshawk — Samburu National Reserve, November 1, 2007
African Fish Eagle — Lake Nakuru National Park, November 5, 2007
Secretarybird — Samburu National Reserve, November 3, 2007
Hornbills and Hoopoes – 9 species of Hornbills and 3 Hoopoes
Eurasian Hoopoe — Samburu National Reserve, November 3, 2007
Crowned Hornbill — Naro Moru River Lodge, November 5, 2007
Northern Red Billed Hornbill — Samburu National Reserve, November 1, 2007
Jackson’s Hornbill — Lake Baringo, November 7, 2007
Shorebirds: 23 Species
Black Headed Lapwing — Lake Nakuru NP, November 6, 2007
Black Winged Stilt — Lake Baringo, November 7, 2007
Three Banded Coursers — Lake Baringo, November 7, 2007
African Jacana — Mountain Lodge, October 31, 2007
Waders (Storks, Cranes, Herons, Flamingos. Egrets etc): 21 Species
Gray Crowned Crane — Mountain Lodge, October 31, 2007
Marabou Stork — Lake Nakuru NP, November 6, 2007
Flamingos Hunted by Hyena — Lake Nakuru NP, November 6, 2007
Goliath Heron — Lake Baringo, November 7, 2007
Cuckoos, Turacos and Go Away Birds: 15 species
Great Blue Turaco — Kakamega Forest, August 10, 2007
Hartlaub’s Turaco — Mountain Lodge, October 31, 2007
Red Chested Cuckoo — Safari Park Hotel, October 30, 2007
White Bellied Go Away Bird — Samburu National Reserve, November 2, 2007
Kingfishers and Bee-Eaters: 14 Species
Little Bee-Eaters — Samburu National Reserve, November 3, 2007
Cinnamon Chested Bee-Eaters — Safari Park Hotel, October 28, 2007
Gray-Headed Kingfisher — Samburu National Reserve, November 1, 2007
Rollers and Barbets: 17 Species
Rufous Crowned Roller — Samburu National Reserve, November 1, 2007
Red and Yellow Barbet — Samburu National Reserve, November 2, 2007
Woodpeckers and Wrynecks – 8 species
Nubian Woodpecker — Samburu National Reserve, November 2, 2007
Falcons and Parrots – 6 Species
Red Fronted Parrot — Samburu National Reserve, November 1, 2007
Sunbirds – 18 Species
Snowy Crowned Robin Chat — Kakamega Forest, November 10, 2007
Cut-throat — Samburu National Reserve, November 2, 2007
Red-cheeked Cordonbleu — Safari Park Hotel, November 29, 2007
White Headed Buffalo Weaver — Samburu National Reserve, November 1, 2007
Fischer’s Sparrow Larks — Samburu National Reserve, November 3, 2007
MacKinnon’s Fiscal — Kakamega Forest, November 11, 2007
Golden Breasted Bunting
Mammals of Kenya
Reticulated and Rothschild’s Giraffes – Samburu National Reserve
Probably after the big cats, the Giraffes were my favorites. They are stately and gigantic. Their size and speed means the adults are rarely hunted, but the young often are.
This was one of my favorite animals (and I loved them all). It is the thinnest of all antelopes and has evolved to be able to rear up on its hind legs to feed on leaves on the bushes that are not reached by others.
The “River Horse” is considered by many to be the most dangerous of the African mammals for man with its unpredictability and mean temper. This was not a comforting thought as our small boat was immediately next to these giants at Lake Naivasha.
White Rhinoceros and Black Rhinoceros
The White Rhino got its name from its “wide” snout. The Afrikaans/Dutch word for that is “Veidt” which turned into “White”. The smaller Black Rhino has a smaller snout and smaller horn. They are browsers in the grasslands.
We saw many Elephants in herds. Sometimes we were quite close. It is amazing how large they are and how fast they move even when just walking. African Elephants are larger than the Indian/Asian Elephants and have significantly larger ears. The latter are somewhat domesticated in Asia. The African Elephants remain wild.
We only saw two Cheetahs – a brother and sister team that still hunted together. Incredible camouflage in the grass.
This may have been the only small disappointment of the trip. We saw only three Lionesses. No male Lions at all. But they were close – very close. They were literally only feet away from us in our open vehicles. We were assured that they did not attack humans – in vehicles. We survived to tell the story.
This is “my father’s Leopard” chronicled in my “Circle of Life” Blog post. By far my favorite experience and animal of the trip – maybe of my life. I was the one who first saw this cat which materialized out of nowhere behind us as we looking at a Lilac Breasted Roller and then we followed it with great excitement as it climbed a tree.
Grevy’s and Plains Zebra
We saw two races of Zebra. The Grevy’s has a white belly and the Plains Zebra is striped all the way.
Baboons, Colobus, Sykes and Black Faced Vervet Monkeys
We saw several species of monkeys but not in great numbers. Baboons are Old World monkeys and are one of the few monkey species without tails – why they are most often seen on the ground.
Impalas were seen on a number of occasions. In their own herds or mixed with other antelopes especially Gazelles. The “M” pattern on the rear identifies them easily and quickly.
One of the so-called African Big Five, the African Buffaloes were seen often – always in herds and often resting.
A large antelope, the Oryx is to me a very striking and “handsome” animal. Its markings remind me of the Black Throated Sparrow.
Grant’s and Thompson Gazelles
Nile Crocodile (Granted not a Mammal)
People and Places
David Wolf – Our Trip Leader at Mountain Lodge
Smoking was probably David’s only “fault”. He was great finding and identifying birds and animals and was even keeled throughout the entire trip. Good company.
Netting around Bed at Lion Hill
Contrary to expectations, the only insects I saw either outdoors or indoors were some cicadas and a long line of army ants. Nary a mosquito and no flies. And the weather was fantastic as well.
Thomas and Bernard – Our Excellent Drivers
These guys never missed a beat as they navigated on dirt roads and on roadless tracts. Fun stories and good guys all around.
Most of our time was in remote areas but we stayed at very nice lodges. In the field we often saw quite primitive living conditions. There is great poverty but for the most part we saw it only as we drove past it.
Shoe Store and Markets along the Road
We saw many similar scenes as we drove through small towns. Produce, dry goods and clothing for sale. There were very few cars – mostly people on foot or bicycles and some on motor bikes or scooters.
Early one morning as we were moving to another lodge, we passed an intersection where a number of men from one tribe were armed with sticks and bows and arrows. Our drivers inquired and found that they were waiting for members of a neighboring village to come by. There was to be retribution for a theft of this groups most treasured possessions the night before — their goats.
Birding in the Field
Our vehicles had pop tops. A necessity as in most places it was not allowed to be out of the vehicles – nor a smart idea. Our co-leader – Brennan Mulrooney is the dude with the ponytail. An excellent birder.
Mt. Kenya and Thomson Falls
There was beautiful scenery everyday but for the most part we were looking for animals and birds and not going to famous landmarks. At just over 17,500 feet, Mt. Kenya is the highest mountain in Kenya and the second highest behind Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa. Thomson Falls was a stop along the way. It is just under 250 feet.
My Cabin and the Main Lodge Lobby at Samburu
Accommodations were excellent – and always near game and birds. We never stayed at tented lodges which would be fun some day. The food was excellent as well.
There were ten birders, two guides and two drivers – a perfect sized group. The photo of me is the only one from the trip. I sure look younger back then – I guess understandable since it is now 11 years ago – hard to believe.
Some Favorite People Pix
The young girl was carrying wood that would fuel cooking fires or even be used in construction. Wood was scarce. We saw many women carrying young children in the towns especially. The bicycle scene is of a woman going to work by “taxi” – a luxury. The tribesman feeding the birds was at Samburu – Hornbills and Go Away Birds came in close for photo ops. Note the slingshot. He was an adept hunter with it.
Lost (or Found?) in Translation
This was a favorite sign. With us, there would be no “lighting of fires” and we were not going to hunt either “Velvet” or “Vervet” Monkeys. We often saw signs that would begin with “Polite Notice” before their admonitions or warnings. A very dignified approach.
My Favorite “Local”
I spent a long time talking with this woman in one of the Lodge souvenir stores. She had her university degree but this was the best job she could get and she was happy to have it. In addition to her work and taking care of her family, she also had started an after school project for young girls to encourage them to better their lives. A fascinating person – engaging and instantly likable. Maybe my small contribution to her project helped in some way. The only souvenirs from this trip other than a great bird list, photos and many memories were a plate and a carved antelope from this shop. Both have been on my mantel ever since.
The List and a Farewell Dinner
After every day in the field, the group would gather at our lodge for a drink, making the list for the day and then dinner. A very civilized way to bird. Back in Nairobi at the end of the trip we had a great dinner at the Carnivore Restaurant where the menu included wild game and the food, setting and service were excellent.
Our Tour Route
We visited 8 different locations and lodges with the longest stay at Samburu. Each added something to the trip including a variety of bird and animal habitats. I would go back in a minute but would also love to visit other parts of Kenya and neighboring Tanzania. In 2014, I visited South Africa on a joint ABA/Rockjumper tour. Another fabulous tour which I hope to write up someday soon.