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offshorebirder

Kenya: a west-to-east birding + mammal safari January 14-29, 2017

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Blue-headed Tree Agama

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This prologue is for a trip report covering a recent Kenya safari I took with my friend Roger, who is a fellow birder-naturalist. Conditions were DRY throughout our travels, which ran from January 14 - 29. Throughout much of Kenya, we learned that the short rains came late or little this year, or almost failed completely - depending on the area in question.

After reading @@michael-ibk's recent Kenya trip report, I suspect places like Kakamega Forest (that seemed OK when he visited) had dried out by the time we came through a few weeks later. Our guide Ben Mugambi said it was the driest he had ever seen Kakamega Forest - and also Aranbuko-Sokoke Forest on the coast. The forest trails and forest floor in Kakamega and Arabuko-Sokoke were carpeted with crispy dry leaves - which made moving quietly or stealthily pretty difficult.

Dry Kakamega undergrowth - January 18

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In the Mara, Musiara Swamp was almost completely dry, with dust devils blowing round. Orange-leafed Croton bushes were either shriveled or bare all around Mara North.

Dry and dusty Musiara Marsh with Governor's Camp and the Mara River in the background

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-- But we still did very well - and the theme of the trip was "quality over quantity". Another theme was "improbable chance meetings". We got almost all our major bird and critter targets and the Mara delivered fabulously again.

Some highlights of the safari included:

- Three big cat species in 19 minutes in Mara North Conservancy, followed by a sighting of the "Offbeat male Leopard" from the porch of our tent #4 after lunch. Viewing two male Leopards within a couple of hours of each other was a real treat!

Leopard stalking

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Leopard resting

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Cheetah

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- 18 Suni in Nairobi National Park! Photos and video obtained.

- Black Rhinos parading and sleeping in the open in Nairobi National Park. And the first Verreaux's Eagle sighting in Nairobi NP in over 10 years. And a pair of Crowned Eagles over the forest just west of Nairobi Tented Camp.

Black Rhinos

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- Golden-rumped Elephant Shrew in Arabuko-Sokoke Forest. (wait for that day's report for a photo)

- Frank and Jesse the Offbeat pride males, are still large and in charge in Mara North. Had good quality time with the Offbeat Pride of Lions with cubs of varying ages.

Jesse

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- A very enjoyable birding over lunch experience at Little Governor's Camp and finally meeting a "nemesis bird" - Schalow's Turaco.

Crossing_Mara_River

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- Great shorebirding and coastal birds at Mida Creek and the Sabaki River Mouth.

- A neat boat excursion on Lake Victoria to break up the drive from Kakamega Forest to the Mara.

- Stumbling on a great birding spot at a crest in the Tugen Hills and photographing a Narina Trogon.

Narina Trogon

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- Great birding at Lake Baringo and Lake Bogoria.

Heuglin's Courser

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Pygmy Kingfisher

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- Ongoing evolution and improvements at Offbeat Mara camp. They are so flexible and accommodating to guest desires. For example: one day we did a bush breakfast and all-morning game drive, then afternoon game drive, transitioning into a fine bush dinner with some other guests and then straight into a night drive ending up back at camp after a couple of hours.

Birding behind Offbeat Mara - down behind the dining tent, beside the Olare Orok River.

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- Shy and difficult-to-observe birds in Kakamega Forest

Spotted Flufftail

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Dusky-crested Flycatcher

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-- Before the trip, I had warned Roger that "something will go wrong" and that we would just go with the flow and with Ben and his network's help, things would work out. Sure enough we had a few blips during our time on the coast, but things worked out just fine.

Our first issue was before leaving the USA - our Emirates flight was very late departing JFK and we missed our connecting flight from Dubai to Nairobi. But we were met exiting the plane in Dubai with tickets for the next morning's flight to Nairobi, a hotel voucher, and an explanation that we did not need to collect luggage - it would be put on tomorrow's plane for us. So we got a free night in Dubai and had some good birding in the hotel garden that afternoon. The downside was that we would miss our day trip to Nairobi National Park on January 14 but I had a plan to address that.

Our itinerary ended up being:

January 14 - Arrive at JKIA one day late. Hit the Nakumatt, do some birding along Red Cross Road. Overnight Boma hotel.
January 15 - Drive to Lake Baringo for lunch and afternoon birding, Overnight Tumbili Cliff Lodge.
January 16 - Lake Baringo + Lake Bogoria. Overnight Tumbili Cliff Lodge.
January 17 - Drive to Kakamega Forest by way of Tugen Hills and Kerio Valley. Overnight Rondo Retreat.
January 18 - Kakamega Forest, overnight Rondo Retreat.
January 19 - Kakamega Forest, overnight Rondo Retreat.
January 20 - Drive to Mara North, via Kisumu. overnight Offbeat Mara.
January 21 - Mara North Conservancy, overnight Offbeat Mara
January 22 - Mara North Conservancy, overnight Offbeat Mara
January 23 - All day in the Main Reserve, lunch at Little Governor's, overnight Offbeat Mara.
January 24 - Morning game drive in Mara North, after lunch bush flight to Malindi, overnight Ocean Sports Resort in Watamu.
January 25 - Arabuko-Sokoke Forest. overnight Ocean Sports Resort in Watamu.
January 26 - Sabaki River Mouth and Mida Creek. overnight Ocean Sports Resort in Watamu.
January 27 - Morning birding at Mida Creek, fly to JKIA in Nairobi. Overnight Boma hotel.
January 28 - All day outing in Nairobi National Park. Overnight Boma hotel.
January 29 - Morning birding along Magadi Road south of Nairobi. Fly home in the late afternoon.

 

-- I talked to Ben and Roger and we agreed to cut a day off our time at the coast, in order to return to Nairobi a day early and get a full day in Nairobi National Park.

For this safari, I had obtained a new camera backpack - Think Tank Photo's Airport Commuter. I love this camera bag! It held my camera, lens, a Swarovski spotting scope, Swarovski binoculars, laptop, iPad, memory cards, batteries, a La Cie portable hard drive, cables, camera cleaning kit, and 1 day's clothing. I checked two bags, including a large duffel bag (Patagonia Black Hole Bag). This was to take my tripod, beanbag, and other bulky gear.

When we arrived at JKIA, there was a long line of dozens, maybe hundreds, or people in the e-Visa line. Roger and I walked up to an empty desk for Visa-on-arrival passengers. I see no reason at all to put forth the effort and time (and online credit card activity) for an e-Visa.

We spent part of our first afternoon in Nairobi birding Red Cross Road - the road where the Boma hotel and Boma Inn are located. We tracked down the ATM near the gate of the Boma Inn and of course we had our binoculars with us and started birding from the gate and out onto the sidewalk. There is a nice hedge and some trees across the street from the Boma complex - we had close to 30 bird species just standing by the gate. Both young security guards - a gentleman and a lady - were interested in the birds we were seeing. We loaned them our binoculars in turn - they could not both be distracted at once you know. They both relished seeing the birds closer and clearer and the young man in particular looked and looked at birds. He had fun tracking swifts and swallows especially.

Boma birding

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We were guided throughout the trip by the incomparable Ben Mugambi, of Ben's Ecological Safaris. I booked all the accomodations and bush flights through Ben's as well. Ben and his office staff handled everything deftly - including a few unforeseen hurdles. Ben knew people everywhere we went, which came in handy a couple of times.

The vehicles:

Offbeat Mara won "Best Safari Vehicle" again - closely followed by Ben's Ecological Safaris.

Offbeat continues to improve and evolve, and their vehicles are no exception. They seem to have taken @@pault's advice and added flat trays to the armrests of their game drive vehicles. These trays are great platforms for photo beanbags.

Offbeat photo tray

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While at Campi ya Offbeat, we had the same trusty Landcruiser as last time - with the photo tray improvements. This vehicle has pop-top roof hatches over both rows of rear passenger seats, and another pop-top hatch over the driver and spotter's seats. These hatches let you see and photograph birds and other things directly overhead. Or stand on the seat and observe + photograph from above roof level. Or sit on the roof in certain situations. Or close the hatch if you need a break from the sun.

Offbeat vehicle

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We used two of Ben's vehicles during the safari - his large Landcruiser for most of the non-Mara safari, then his pride and joy - a 1980 Toyota Landcruiser VX - in Nairobi National Park and Magadi Road the last two days of the safari.

Ben's primary safari vehicle, with Ben and driver Simon parked in front of a Baobab Tree near Mida Creek.

Ben's Safari Vehicle

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Ben's Landcruiser VX

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Ben's VX Landcruiser is the quietest safari vehicle (and quietest diesel SUV) I have ever seen! It is a 12-cylinder turbo-diesel and Ben has the idle speed turned down low. So it purrs along very quietly through field and forest.

Ben has some real war stories about using it to deliver late-arriving clients to the Mara late at night in stormy weather and passing abandoned Landrovers and other Landcruisers stuck deep in the muck.

The companions: We were fortunate to have Ben Mugambi with us the entire time. We also had great local guides helping in different areas. Super-sharp Francis Cherutich guided us on his home ground of Lake Baringo and Lake Bogoria. We were fortunate to have Josphat and Kapeen at Offbeat Mara. At Arabuko-Sokoke forest we had William (Willie), and on Lake Victoria and adjacent land birding we had Solomon.

I hope this teaser post stokes some interest.

Maybe a few videos will help:

 

 

 


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~ @@offshorebirder

 

What a trip report!

You've combined adventure with discovery.

Many, many THANKS for sharing images of your birding and travels with us.

I love it!

Tom K.

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Great teaser, I want more!!!

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Trays good.

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Love the teaser, very much looking forward to this! Fantastic shots of the Trogon and Flufftail.

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Great start!

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Ah I've been looking forward to this! More, more!! :-)

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Thanks very much for the encouraging words @@Tom Kellie, @zyx99, and @@Patty.

 

@@pault - I thought of you as soon as I saw the photo trays.

 

@@michael-ibk - I was wondering what you thought of Rondo Retreat when I was staying there - sounds like we had equal mixed emotions about the place.

 

@@amybatt - thanks for your help getting updates on Amani and other aspects of Mara North Conservancy just before my trip. I hope you have a fantastic time on your upcoming safari!

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Traveling on January 13

After missing our flight to Nairobi on Friday January 13, we still had some daylight left after checking into the Copthorne Hotel in Dubai. It is apparently owned and operated by Emirates - we showed our Emirates hotel voucher and boarding passes at check-in and everything went smoothly.

After dumping our luggage in the room, we hurried out to the lush gardens and enjoyed some good birding before the sun began to set and bird activity died down. I did not unpack and assemble my DSLR so no photos of the Dubai garden birds unfortunately.

We saw some stunning all-blue Sunbirds that turned out to be Purple Sunbirds. We saw both males and females. Other life birds for me included Graceful Prinia, White-eared Bullbul (abundant and vocal), Red-eared Bublbul, Common Mynah, Rose-ringed Parakeet, Bank Mynah, Indian Silverbill and Indian House Crows. We also saw Laughing Doves, Eurasian Hoopoe, Eurasian Collared-Dove, House Sparrows and Rock Pigeon. Plus several unidentified passerine species (including a couple of sunbirds) that gave poor or fleeting looks. A lot of gulls flew over in the early morning but it was too dark to tell much about them.


Arriving in Nairobi on January 14

Saturday morning waiting for our flight to Nairobi, we met a delightful elderly Australian couple who were heading to Kenya for another lengthy stay. We compared notes on what we had heard about the drought and how it might affect things where we were going.

Upon arriving in Nairobi we went through immigration and customs quickly. Our checked baggage appeared quickly as well. Walking out the front of the airport, we saw Ben waiting; he greeted us warmly and led us to the vehicle to unload the luggage carts. After a quick stop at a Nakumatt for beer, shampoo and a few other items, we were delivered to the Boma hotel. I stayed at the Boma instead of the good old Purdy Arms in Karen this trip. Ben had dropped the most delicate of hints last year that getting out to Karen to pick us up in the mornings was a bit of a hardship for him; he lives on the north side of Nairobi up near Tigoni/Limuru. So for convenience's sake and the nice "Boma experience" we stayed there and enjoyed it a lot. But I do plan to stay at the Purdy Arms at least at the start of my next Kenya trip.

After birding a bit with the friendly gate guards, we went to dinner in the downstairs restaurant. We sat at an outdoor table, keeping an eye to the sky of course, and Roger kept pricking up his ears at the next table's conversation. It was two pilots talking about avionics apparently - and Roger is an Electrical Engineer on the aviation systems that are used at USA airports. Before Roger could introduce himself, one of the pilots said "Did you go to USC? Are y'all from the Carolinas?" Roger was wearing a University of South Carolina hat. Roger replied in the affirmative and it turned out the pilot was also a USC Alumni - from not long before Roger attended.

Then we learned that the pilots worked for Emirates, that the elder one was an instructor, and they had flown us to Nairobi! And that the USC Alumni lives in Charlotte - well his family does - and he is based out of Dubai. And he and his family spend a lot of time in Charleston and nearby Isle of Palms. Then Roger and the pilots got talking about all kinds of avionics systems and geeking out more than somewhat. The younger pilot was South African and we chatted about safaris and wildlife photography.

Funny how the small-world thing goes.

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Can't wait for you to get out your camera and work on those pictures. Not sure what you should do first...tell us about it, do the pics? Can you hurry up and do them both?

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@@offshorebirder what a fabulous start to to your TR, so looking forward to reading more when you have time. I always enjoy birding and safari with the locals - it sad that so few Africans have had the chance to see and appreciate the wildlife of their countries.

 

I like the photo of the Pygmy Kingfisher very much.

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Always look forward to your bird-centric reports :) And someday I hope to get back to Kenya for some serious birding, so I will follow this eagerly.

 

Question: how much did your camera bag weigh and did Emirates give you any problems (I assume it was over the 7 kg they allow!) We may end up on Emirates for our Zambia trip but I am always worried about that issue...

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@@offshorebirder thanks for a great start and wonderful photo's. Jesse is an impressive cat!

I will be following along.

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@@janzin - neither Emirates nor Jetblue ever hassled me about my heavy luggage! Both this year and last January. My carryon camera backpack was 20+ kilos.

 

Nobody batted an eye at my carryon throughout the journey. I put it in the rear of the cabin on the Mombasa Air flight from Mara North to Mombasa (we were supposed to fly to Malindi but that flight got canceled 2 days beforehand).

 

In terms of heavy checked baggage - I had to pay a little overage fee on an internal JamboJet flight in Kenya but that was it. The big bag weighed 25 kilos and the little one weighed 16.

 

Mombasa Air did not weigh the bags when they picked me up at Mara North airstrip.

 

My experience with Emirates is that if your carryon fits through the gate security infrastructure and in the overhead bin, you're good to go. But I'd recommend having it be able to fit under the seat in front of you, just in case of "carryon overload" on a particular flight.

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Posted (edited)

In the prologue, I neglected to mention how many bird species we saw during the safari. We ended up with just over 460 species for which everyone obtained clear positive identification views. There were 15-20 more "heard-only" species and another 10 or so that not everybody was able to see. We were pleased at our species total and how many target birds we saw, given the dry abnormal conditions.

Sunday January 15.

We left the Boma early after a delicious 6am breakfast. Once out of Nairobi, we made a couple of quick roadside birding stops to break up the journey. Then we made our way up the A-104 past Lake Naivasha and Naivasha Town. After Naivasha Town, but before Lake Elementaita, we saw four Southern Ground-Hornbills foraging in the grassy scrub to the left (east) of the highway! I did not get any good photos - Roger was a bit quicker before they moved into the vegetation. Looking at a map, the sighting might have taken place along the border of the Kigio Wildlife Conservancy.

Then at 9:30am as we approached the northeast corner of Lake Elementaita, Ben had a surprise for us. We turned off the highway into the driveway of the Sunbird Lodge. They have a great view of the lake and surrounding habitat, as well as bird feeders - both seeds and nectar. They also have lots of Sunbird-attracting flowering plants near their deck. So we enjoyed some relaxed birding over Espresso and Cappucino. The owner came and chatted with us and appreciated a few suggestions for even birdier habitat.

Sunbird Lodge view

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Driving in, we saw an African Grass Rat foraging under a bush. On the patio overlooking the lake, we scanned the lake with a spotting scope and saw Greater and Lesser Flamingos, White and Pink-backed Pelicans, Cormorants, Egrets, Grebes, and Herons. With our binoculars we watched numbers of swallows and swifts wheeling over the lake. We had crippling views (as the Brits say) of a Grey-backed Camaroptera and Bronzed Sunbirds flitted between flowers. Fischer's Lovebirds moved about in small flocks and White-browed Robin-Chats skulked in the undergrowth. A few Yellow Bishops still had some dashes of color left. We also had large flocks of Weavers and Starlings in the big Acacia trees surrounding the back of the patio.

Back on the road, we passed through Nakuru town and turned onto the B-4. Immediately the number of trucks dropped to zero. What a relief! We moved much faster despite all the speed bumps. Roger remarked that on this trip to Kenya, he would go over 20 years' worth of speed bumps back in the USA.

After driving north a while, we started passing herds of donkeys being driven north along the highway. Ben said they were being driven to the slaughterhouse - that rising Chinese demand for donkey meat was inflating donkey prices in northern Kenya. Apparently donkey rustling and theft is also on the rise. When we passed the slaughterhouse the smell was awful from a great distance up and down the road, and large numbers of Marabou Storks were spiraling down out of the sky to land in the area behind the slaughterhouse.

We kept driving north and before long we reached Marigat. Soon the Baringo Cliffs then Lake Baringo came into view.

Baringo Cliffs

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Lake Baringo

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We reached Tumbili Cliff Lodge (Tumbili means 'Monkey' in Swahili) and checked in. I really like this place! Unfortunately we were the only guests during our stay.

While we were waiting for lunch to be served, we stood in the restaurant entrance facing the lake and watched a parade of birds coming by. Some moved through the trees, some foraged on stage left in trees and shrubs, some foraged on the lawn and some came to the feeder platform. Northern Masked Weavers got displaced by Red-billed Hornbills, which got displaced by Jackson's Hornbill. Rupell's Long-tailed Starlings bounced around and the 'Dodson's' subspecies of Common Bulbul seemed to be everywhere. Their vocalizations were subtly but distinctly different from the Common Bulbuls we had been hearing in Nairobi.

Several of the bird species were opening and feeding on Acacia seed pods, which were plentiful on the ground and still on the trees.

Looking to the left, I had the best views I've ever enjoyed of Pygmy Kingfisher.

Pygmy Kingfisher

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White-browed Sparrow-Weavers were foraging on the lawn and perching in the trees, but always kept an eye to the sky for danger.

White-browed Sparrow-weaver

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Emerald-Spotted Wood-Doves trudged back and forth - they are striking creatures when the light catches their emerald wing patches.

Emerald Spotted Wood-Dove

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And some Unstriped Ground Squirrels crept in to eat some tender young shoots.

Unstriped Ground Squirrel

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After a delicious lunch, we briefly went to our room to grab a couple of things - on the way, Roger spotted a Verreaux's Eagle-Owl perched in a large tree.

Verreaux's Eagle Owl

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We briefly birded the grounds of the Tumbili Cliff Lodge complex before going to meet Francis for some stakeout birding. We enjoyed Black-headed Weavers, Jackson's Golden-backed Weavers, and Pygmy Batis. Suddenly a GREAER HONEYGUIDE flew in and perched in the big tree between the restaurant and the lake. Then we had Grey Wren-Warbler, Grey-headed Bush-Shrike, Spotted Morning-thrush and some Rufous Chatterers.

Rufous Chatterer

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Moving to the other side of the main building, we enjoyed Northern Beautiful Sunbird, Willow Warbler, a pair of Eastern Violet-backed Sunbirds, a Red-fronted Warbler and Hunter's Sunbird. White-crowned Shrikes were also scattered about.

Now it was time to go meet the "Big Boss Man" as Ben mischievously called Francis Cherutich. The bird guiding business has not been enough to keep Francis busy all the time so he has opened a small general store. But he took time from proprietor's duties to guide us, as he does with other clients.

We met up with Francis, who was very glad to see me again and to meet Roger. I made good on a promise to bring Francis an unused spotting scope that had been sitting on my shelf for a decade. It is a nice little scope - a Swarovski ATS-65 HD. Francis is now the envy of the "Baringo Boys" - local youth - now grownups - who Terry Stevenson started training long ago when he worked at the Lake Baringo Club.

We rode a little way to where Francis had the first nocturnal birds staked out. The technique the local guides use is: be very familiar with the favored roosting areas of certain species. Then when the guides have clients coming - go out the morning of their visit to find the particular tree, bush, crevice, etc. where each target is roosting that day. Because most species will be somewhere else tomorrow and must be found again after the sun rises.

At our first stop, where we were looking for Northern White-faced Scops Owls, Francis advised us: "be very quiet - they scare easily and if they fly, they will fly very far and we will not see them again today". So we all moved with utmost silence. Francis led us around and we had nice views of a pair of White-faced Scops Owls. Some twigs and branches foiled any good photos but we were happy to see the cute little owls and glad to leave them completely undisturbed.

Northern White-faced Scops Owl

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Our second target was Slender-tailed Nightjar. I had seen them in flight last January at Buffalo Springs but seeing them perched on the ground allows one to appreciate their exquisite camouflage. Francis led us right to this beauty:

Slender-tailed Nightjar

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Our third target, and one of my major targets for the safari, was Heuglin's Courser. They are a shy, beautifully patterned little shorebird that lives in dry scrubland habitat. They are mostly nocturnal, and roost during the day in hiding places under bushes, or among rocks.

Francis led us to a gorgeous single bird roosting among some rocks. The bird was partially hidden, and the angle was not great. I would rather miss a good photo than push or disturb a bird off its roost, so the Heuglin's Courser photos are not the best...

Heuglin's Courser

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Francis led us to the final day's target in fading light - a pair of Spotted Thick-Knees roosting under a tree. Again I settled for a substandard photo, rather than get too close trying to use flash or otherwise disturb the birds.

Spotted Thick-knee

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By then it was getting dark so we went back to the lodge. Before dinner Roger and I enjoyed a few cold beers while we did our countdown and recording of the day's bird species with Ben. On the wall to the right of the bar were some interesting little spiders. They seemed to have swallow-tails. Perhaps @@Zarek Cockar or another insect expert might know what they are.

Tumbili Cliffs spider

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Our driver Simon at first settled at another table to eat - we insisted he eat with us and that our entire team share meals together the rest of the trip. We enjoyed talking with Simon - whose degree was as a chef in culinary arts. Simon is a smart, funny person - Ben is lucky to have such a good driver and chef. Having both abilities in one person makes a great combination for some of Ben's mobile camping trips.

Edited by offshorebirder
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@@offshorebirder

Great start. Really enjoyed the teaser at the beginning, especially the flufftail photo!
Your spider above is a Long-Spinnered Spider of some sort, from the Family Hersiliidae. Harmless, by the way (though I know you didn't ask, that question may have been on some readers' minds).

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@@offshorebirder

I have been looking forward to this.

The Pygmy Kingfisher is stunning. I really like your enthusiasm, and your care for the welfare of the birds shines through.

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Wow - thanks very much @@Zarek Cockar! Glad to know the type of spider - I am amazed at your extensive insect knowledge.

 

Thanks for the kind words @@TonyQ - I thought of you and @@Thursday's Child a few times when good birds popped into view and posed for photos. For what it's worth, I cannot understand how anyone could fail to be enthusiastic on safari. Being in Kenya is like trying to drink from a fire hose - so many disciplines to explore. I really need to get my cousin the geologist to go - he would be in heaven!

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~ @@offshorebirder

 

The Baringo Cliffs! Your photo is the one that I failed to take.

The Emerald-spotted Wood Dove — lovely.

The inquisitive White-browed Sparrow-Weaver is a delight!

What @@TonyQ wrote is what I feel. Your deep and abiding love and respect for the environment shows through your commentary.

Many thanks for all of this.

Tom K.

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@@Treepol - thanks for your kind words. I completely agree that it is fun to help locals appreciate their treasures when one has a chance.

 

The Pygmy Kingfisher was a challenging setup - I shot it from the porch of the dining area, through a little window in some branches and I had to contort a bit to get lined up and shoot things handheld. A handful of the 50 photos I shot ended up coming out OK.

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The Pygmy Kingfisher was a challenging setup - A handful of the 50 photos I shot ended up coming out OK.

 

~ @@offshorebirder

 

In most settings, if one or two images are satisfactory, I deem it as having been a big success!

You did very well, indeed!

Tom K.

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Your pictures are fantastic, thank you for taking the time to post them and tell us about your sightings. Love the cliffs! I will definitely keep them in mind for a future trip...boy, I hope I live several lives and hit the lottery, so I can see all the places I want to see.

 

Maybe your setup for getting the Pygmy Kingfisher was challenging, but the results are worth it. Love it.

Sometimes I might get lucky, manage a single picture before the bird flies away, and it's good (or at least decent). But a lot of times out of many, only 1 or 2 are 'keepers'. And who cares? That's all that matters, right? Of course, then are the other times when out of many, none is good...oh well...

 

Looking forward for more.

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@@offshorebirder Stunning images. Thank-you.

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What stunning photographs, they must make up for the delay in getting to Nairobi? Looking forward to the rest of your report.

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Posted (edited)

Correction: My reported number of species was incorrect! I just totaled things up in a comprehensive spreadsheet and we are at 484 bird species for the safari.

January 16, 2017.

After an early breakfast, the plan was for a 7am boat ride on Lake Baringo. But I decided to pass on the boat ride and let Roger and Ben go. I opted to stay and bird around the extensive grounds and scattered thickets of Tumbili Cliff Lodge.

Lake Baringo sunrise from Tumbili Cliff Lodge

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I figured that most or all the waterbirds, Hippos and other things the boat ride might produce are ones I had seen well already. And that photography from the narrow boat would be challenging. Instead I wanted to take some quiet time and really tune in to the alluring birds and critters I had been noticing around the Tumbili Cliff Lodge's grounds and surrounding brush. And then "follow my nose" as it were. I have had some of my favorite nature experiences when I get to go slowly and quietly by myself in productive habitat. I can get more attuned to the natural frequencies without distractions, sounds, etc. from other humans - even naturalists with good fieldcraft. I can linger under partial cover and just watch and listen to things as long as I like - without having to worry if the other person is ready to move along. When I am able to tune in properly, I sort of forget that I am a human.

The only people stirring were in the dining hall, so the critters and I had the grounds to ourselves at 7:01am. Close to a dozen Northern White-crowned Shrikes were in view - drowsily waiting for some warming sun.

Northern White-crowned Shrike

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And an African Mourning Dove foraged for seeds and legumes.

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In the trees, White-bellied Canaries were moving and vocalizing, and an African Paradise-Flycatcher swooped for its breakfast. Then up popped some Crimson-rumped Waxbills and a Black-throated Barbet in quick succession. I could see the jagged line where the Barbet's upper and lower mandible met - like the grip of a beartrap as far as prey are concerned.

Crimson-rumped Waxbill

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Black-throated Barbet

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Now the sun was starting to shine on lower branches of trees and bushes. A Yellow-breasted Apalis threw me a glance as it foraged in an Acacia tree.

Yellow-breasted Apalis

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Just then I saw a Parus thruppi - Northern 'Grey Tit' also known as 'Somali Tit' also known as 'Acacia Tit'. It was perched out in the open vocalizing repeatedly - not scolding a threat - more like proclaiming territory.

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Then suddenly it flipped around and plucked a young Acacia seed pod.

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Then it hopped over to another perch and held the seed pod dangling ostentatiously

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Then it hopped - without using its wings - down to a lower but more prominent perch.

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The little fellow was swashbuckling. The (presumably male) Tit sat on its stage, brandishing the seed pod to and fro.

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Then it dropped the seed pod, flew back up near the original perch, and started vocalizing again.

Soon the birds started coming too fast to process - swifts and swallows zipping overhead, Speckled Mousebirds and White-bellied Go-Away Birds sitting up on perches, and multiple skulkers crept about in the undergrowth.

Speckled Mousebird

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Mr. and Mrs White-bellied Go-Away Bird

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One of the skulkers turned out to be a Three-streaked Tchagra! I got some photos - they have the most marvelous eyes. Striking with a ring of blue dots around the iris.

Three-streaked Tchagra

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Then I had great looks at an obliging Lead-colored Flycatcher

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I won't detail every species, but I had a blast. Before I knew it two hours had passed and the boat party was back. We were ready to go meet Francis for some more dry-country birding near the Baringo Cliffs.

Getting out of the car, we had Little Weaver, Mouse-colored Penduline-tit, and Green Wood-Hoopoe.

Mouse-coloured Penduline-Tit

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Then as we walked up a rocky path, we enjoyed d'Arnaud's Barbet, Eastern OlivaceousWarbler and Pygmy Batis. I was confounded trying to get a decent photo of the warbler and the batis, and a Brown-tailed Rock Chat as well. Looking left, I saw a geologist's playground.

 

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Looking down, I saw lots of flaky rocks pressed together on their side.

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A few steps later and we were walking over what was obviously volcanic rock with little hardened bubble holes.

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As we moved higher we had Yellow-spotted Petronia and a pair of Green-winged Pytilia that played peekaboo with us. Then we were at the Grayish Eagle-Owl roost. This bird's taxonomy is vexed - some people consider it a full species, others a subspecies of Spotted Eagle Owl (occurring north of the equator). We did not have to climb down a ravine like @@michael-ibk - the owl was perched in a tree growing up out of the ravine. But it was partly obscured by foliage. We did not mind - it was nice to watch the bird from a distance through the spotting scope.

Greyish Eagle-Owl (also called Northern Spotted Eagle-Owl)

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Just past the Eagle-Owl, we saw a male dragonfly proclaiming his territory (tail held high).

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And we saw several Rock Hyrax scurrying back and forth.

Rock Hyrax

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But unfortunately, we missed the Verreaux's Eagles we were so keen to see. These Hyrax predators are one of Lake Baringo's avian attractions. Francis said a pair of Verreaux's Eagles was moving from the nest that had been occupied + handed down for 40 years. They were halfway through building the new nest. But the birds were not seen over the two days we looked at the nest sites.

On the walk back to the vehicle, we enjoyed Parrot-billed Sparrows, Northern Crombec, Nubian Woodpecker and Cardinal Woodpecker. Then we drove to the famous Lake Baringo Club.

Except it was more like an overgrown ghost town. Ben used to be the resident birder-naturalist guide. He told us how British soldiers from a camp across the lake used to ride over in boats to belly up to the bar at the Lake Baringo Club and next door at the Thirsty Goat - the bar at Robert's Camp. And how a steady stream of birders from all over the world used to come for the great birding. Now just a few peep in now and again.

Now the buildings have been flooded and ruined for years, and vegetation is taking over. But the birding on the grounds is very good. Walking in the gate, we had Lesser Honeyguide overhead, Grey Wren-warbler and Red-billed Quelia. Then Francis spotted a pair of African Scops Owls roosting next to each other. One was completely passed out and the other kept tabs on the scene through a slitted eyelid.

African Scops Owl 1

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African Scops Owl 2

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We tore ourselves away from the owls to look at Rufous Chatterers, African Oriole, Spot-flanked Barbet, Spotted Flycatcher, Brou Brou and a Red-fronted Barbet. The we saw Hunter's Sunbird, Beautiful Sunbird and multiple Violet-backed Sunbirds in rapid succession. Then we stalked a flock of Brown Babblers as they flitted low through the undergrowth.

After a bit more birding we headed next door to check out Robert's Camp. Lots of nice birds ensued - White-browed Coucal, Red-billed Hornbills, several weaver species, Blackcaps, Willow Warbler. Then we heard a mob of small birds scolding something. Francis and I took one look at each other and started slow-hustling to see what it was.

We spotted the Pearl-spotted Owlet at the same time. It was glaring to and fro at the mobbing birds. In the second photo you can see the Owlet's false eye spots - those are anti-predator features. They are thought to fool potential predators into thinking the owlet sees them, and not launching a strike as often as a result.

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After admiring the owl in the spotting scope, we returned to Robert's Camp and birded from the shady porch of the Thirsty Goat. We saw neat birds bathing in a lawn sprinkler, neat birds at the feeding table, neat birds out on the lake and neat birds in the trees and shrubs. The bar was closed unfortunately or a Stoney Tangawizi might have gone down well.

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Eventually we birded our way back to the vehicle to go back to Tumbili Cliff Lodge for lunch.

After lunch, it was time to go to Lake Bogoria! I was really looking forward to some shorebirds. And flamingos too of course. One the road in, we saw some Zebras and Ostrich (Maasai Ostrich) in some grasslands and a Common Sandpiper and Yellow Wagtail by a muddy pool.

At the gate to Lake Bogoria National Reserve, we watched the staff sitting around. After seeing things in the park, I am sorry the rules are not enforced better away from the office building. The park on the west of the lake down to the shore was intermittently roamed by sheep, goats, semi-feral dogs and bored mischievous children.

Judging from the extreme skittishness of the shorebirds and ducks, I would guess that the children liked throwing things at the birds (and other wildlife?) for entertainment. I tried not to fixate on the bad stuff, and enjoy the birds and wildlife in the moment. And file away the other stuff for possible later treatment.

Among the good things I suppose - is that the lake level is getting lower. A road that Ben said was submerged two months before was now driveable. In fact, a school bus drove it at one point.

As we approached the lake, we saw large but narrow flocks of flamingos - mostly Lesser with a few Greaters scattered in little clusters. A flock took off and shifted left to join a larger group - looking up we briefly saw a raptor's shape go sailing across the lake. We did not figure that one out...

Flamingos shifting

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Then we saw some flocks of shorebirds and we got out to scope them. This was why I had lugged my Swarovski spotting scope this far and why Ben brought his. I saw one, then two Phalaropes among the other shorebirds! They were Red-necked Phalaropes - arctic-breeding shorebirds that should be spending their northern winter out to sea, where they float better than ducks.

I took some documentary shots but the distance, light and haze conspired against good photos. Eventually we counted ten Red-necked Phalaropes! Ben said that was most unexpected - noteworthy since he is on the East African Bird Records Committee.

Red-necked Phalarope

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We took a break from shorebids and turned our attention to the flamingo hordes. We could tell there were more way down the lake, but there were still quite a few here on the upper end of the lake.

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We photographed them from a respectful distance and then we saw a group of what looked like mud flamingo nests. But partially eroded ones. Ben said it was from young birds "playing house" and building nests but not using them.

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There were hundreds of Black-winged Stilt - arranged in groups of a dozen to fifty out in the lake and scattered along the shoreline.

Immature Black-winged Stilt

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Adult Black-winged Stilt

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Flock of Black-winged Stilt

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A few hundred Ruff were also present. Some swam around like Phalaropes or ducks, others probed in the shallows and others stalked the shoreline. A few were white-variant Ruff still in a bit of breeding plumage. Or were they "already" coming into breeding (alternate) plumage? One of them was strangely well camouflaged among the soda-encrusted sticks by the shoreline.

Soda crusted Ruff

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Most American birders would be giddy over Ruff but Roger and I see two or three per year in South Carolina - we are the Ruff capitol of North America...

Accompanying the Black-winged Stilts and Ruff were dozens of Pied Avocets. Some gracefully fed together in flocks, some foraged alone, and some rested with heads under wings.

There was a Kittlit'z Plover on a small bare island, and it was nice to see so many basic-plumaged Curlew Sandpipers. They occur in the USA as vagrants and I wanted to study them in winter or basic plumage. They are easy to tell when they begin showing splashes of red color in spring and summer. But in fall, winter and early spring I am glad to know what to look for.

We also saw LOTS of basic-plumaged Little Stints - another good thing for Roger and me to study. I spotted the lone Temmink's Stint among hundreds of Little Stint as a lone brown little sandpiper (with green legs) among a sea of grey sandpipers (with black legs). Blacksmith Lapwing pairs occurred at regular intervals and Common Ringed-Plovers and Little Ringed-Plovers roamed the shore and shallows. Wood Sandpipers waded deeper in the lake than their shorter cousins.

Ruff and Wood Sandpiper

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I also got to know Marsh Sandpipers well - they are such delicate and graceful-looking creatures.

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Soaring over the shallows and surrounding dry land were lots of Plain Martins and Wire-tailed Swallows. Pied Wagtails and Yellow Wagtails were plentiful and Spur-winged Plovers were here and there. Ducks included Northern Shovelor, Southern Pochard, Cape Teal, and Hottentot Teal.

Common Sandpipers bobbed around the shoreline with the stints and wagtails.

We were all having so much fun with the shorebirds that we forgot about flamingos. So when light began failing we regretted not carving out some time for flamingos. Oh well - next time.

On the way back to the lodge, as we approached the southern end of Baringo Cliffs, we started seeing lots of bats sailing between the highway and the cliffs. Suddenly Francis yelled "BAT HAWK". Music to our ears! We stopped and pulled over, tumbled out of the vehicle, and scanned and scanned. Northing for four minutes. Five minutes. Six. Francis said "maybe it caught one and is perched somewhere feeding".

Then Roger said "got it. high over the cliff - more than a binocular width" We all got on it and had 5-6 second views of a very dashing flier as it twisted and turned in its hunting. I suppose if you catch bats for a living, you must be maneuverable. It was falcon-like in its flight but a bit "twistier". Then the Bat hawk descended below the cliff horizon and we strained to stay on it in fading light - then gone - not to be seen again. But no matter. We had seen the Bat Hawk! Oh happy day. Francis is the man!

We tallied 130 bird species for the day.

Edited by offshorebirder
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