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offshorebirder

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

110 posts in this topic

So, Kenya is (also) a birder's paradise?!

 

Beautiful photos; I recon you have shot handheld as the tripod was busy with the spotting scope?! A few more words about the gear for us techno geeks, please, @@offshorebirder .

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Well worth missing the boat ride, I now know where all the flamingos went from Lake Nakuru! Really, quality photographs.

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@@xelas - thanks for the kind words. Yes indeed, Kenya is both a Naturalist's paradise and a birder's paradise.

 

Yes I shot handheld for the post part. I did use beanbags in Mara North and the Mara Reserve as well as Nairobi National Park. For a few photos at the coast (distant shorebirds) I removed the spotting scope, held it under my arm and put the camera+lens on the tripod.

 

The gear I used was a Canon 7D mkII with a 100-400 IS II lens. Some of the scenery and other shots were with a Canon S110 point and shoot an a couple of photos and one video clip were shot with an iPhone.

 

I will say that I missed my trusty Canon 300mm f/4 prime lens - for handheld work it is sharper than the 100-400mk II especially at full zoom. I will see what kind of different gear I am able to carry next safari.

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@ offshorebirder many thanks for showing us your welt of birds.

 

I'm really a bit jealous what we all missed. Wonderful birds. Maybe in my second life I would be able to take such nice pics of all this little birds not anymore in this one.

 

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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.

We focus on what we're passionate about. I'm passionate about stuffing my head with information in phases. I went through a spider phase a few years ago. I'm going through a scorpion phase now. Who knows what the next phase will be. As you say, being in Kenya is like pointing a fire hose at your mouth. There's so much to take in, even when you live here full time!

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@@Botswanadreams - you have also made me jealous many times with your excellent trip report about your fantastic journey. We each explore and enjoy in our own way!

 

@@Zarek Cockar - I know exactly what you mean by learning voraciously in phases. When I was a schoolboy, I was in a major "shark phase". In earlier life, I was in a "snake phase". Later I entered (and have not left) a "bird phase". I am in a minor dragonfly and butterfly phase. And plants too.

But you have a better study area than I for the natural world!

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January 17, 2017

We reluctantly checked out of the Tumbili Cliff Lodge after an early breakfast. I will definitely be back! Our plan was to stop and bird a bit with Francis at the Baringo Cliffs before starting the long drive to Kakamega Forest. Driving out of the Tumbili Cliff grounds, we spotted a Cape Hare and a Crested Francolin.

We met Francis at the base of the Baringo Cliffs where he had a Yellow-bellied Eremomela teed up in his scope. Then Francis spotted a beautiful tiny snake peeping out of a burrow in the sand. It was a Red-spotted Beaked Snake (Rhamphiophis rubropunctatus).

Red-spotted Beaked Snake

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We got to talking about possible bird species we might pick up on our final morning of birding. Over the course of the conversation, we learned of three interesting species that could be found on the east side of Lake Baringo. But Francis said we were not able to try for them because "bad people would have shot at us if we went over there." "Pokot?" I asked. Ben nodded and Francis just looked troubled. Francis is from the Tugen tribe and Baringo county has been having problems like so much of Northern Kenya the past few months.

We were brought back to the present by a very large bird flying high overhead. It was a Kori Bustard! Even if we had been on top of the Baringo Cliffs, it would have been far overhead - the world's heaviest flying bird flying very high.

Kori Bustard flyover

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We also saw some Bristle-crowned Starlings flying back and forth along the top of the cliffs. I got a pair in the spotting scope and I could see that one was flying close to another, mirroring its movements. And it had a large nut or piece of fruit in its bill. I snapped a couple of long-distance photos of what seemed to be a courtship flight of a pair of Bristle-crowned Starlings.

Bristle-crowned Starlings

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Then we had some nice looks at Cliff Chat and Dark Chanting-Goshawk. But we had no luck spotting Verreaux's Eagles, so it seemed that would have to wait until another time (or trip to Kenya).

Walking back to the vehicle, we saw a Somali Dwarf Mongoose and some more common birds. It was sad to say goodbye to Francis - he is such a sharp birder-naturalist and a very jolly fellow.

We drove south on the B-4 and in Marigat turned west on the C51 towards Kabarnet and beyond. Then Ben spotted something soaring and asked Simon urgently to pull over. It was a pair of Verreaux's Eagles! What luck. They soared a little closer to us before wheeling away to the north.

Verreaux's Eagle

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While stopped for the eagles, we also admired a Rufous-crowned Roller (AKA Purple Roller ).

We pushed on, starting to rise into the Tugen Hills. Patches of forest began lining the road. Then at 10am we pulled over in a very nice larger patch of forest. Our stopping point was just northeast of a scenic overlook, that was about a mile east of Kituro on the C51. According to Google Maps, the coordinates are roughly: 0.482229, 35.803177

This was a great place for birding and naturalizing! A path led downhill and birds were moving up-slope and down-slope. And birds were all over the place - a small flock of Yellow White-eyes, Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird, Red-fronted Tinkerbirds, a horde of Common Bulbuls, a Black-backed Puffback, and more.

Black-backed Puffback

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Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird

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Then we had a Tropical Boubou, Grosbeak Weaver and Variable Sunbird. Then Ben spotted a Narina Trogon! But it had its back to us, in very poor light. After we watched it for 5 minutes, it obligingly flew out from its perch, missed an insect, and landed closer to us in better light - facing us! I had seen a Narina Trogon briefly last year on Mount Kenya, but this was a far better look that also allowed for a few photos.

Narina Trogon

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We enjoyed more good birding with multiple Blackcap, Yellow-whiskered Greenbul, and Hartlaub's Turaco.

Yellow-whiskered Greenbul

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Eventually we had to tear ourselves away from the bird parade and press on. As we passed through Kiptilit, we stopped to admire a Double-toothed Barbet Ben spotted. Then we saw a Crowned Hornbill and Alpine Swift in rapid succession.

Then we had to get underway again and press on without as many stops. We did stop at the edge of the Kerio Valley to admire the scene and her a little from Ben about the ecology and history of the valley. Driving on, we crossed the valley, ascended the far side and passed through Kessup and then Iten. We saw several runners by the road - they were really moving! Iten is where runners from all over the world come to trian with Kenya's best.

We eventually came to Eldoret and hit a wall of traffic. It was interesting to see all the entrepreneurs setting up little mini-shops in front of other businesses. One enterprising seamstress seemed to have a longer line of customers than the larger business behind her.

Eldoret seamstress

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Crawling along, we made our way to the Boma Inn for lunch. It was a very good buffet. The garden dining area had a few birds - Pied Wagtail and Variable Sunbird among them. There was a large-flowered vine on a trellis that people called a Honeysuckle vine - but it sure looks different than the honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) that I am used to!

Kenyan "Honeysuckle"

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From Eldoret, we went south on the C39, passing through Chepterit and Kapsabet. West of Kapsabet, we began passing through forest fragments just north of the South Nandi Forest. In one of the forest fragments, we saw a Black-and-white Colobus monkey posing near the road. We pulled over and managed a few photos.

Black-and-white Colobus

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Before long, we turned off the C39 and soon we were entering Kakamega Forest! But this forest reserve was full of people, trucks, boda bodas, cattle and more. Ben said the dirt road through the forest is used as a shortcut by large trucks heading to Kakamega Town.

Crane Flower in front of reception at Rondo Retreat

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We arrived at Rondo Retreat not long before dinner and spotted a few birds in the garden. After checking into our room, I decided to try and shower before dinner, having heard it was a formal affair. Roger and Ben went birding (and scored a Ross's Turaco darn them).

When I went to shower, I found there was no hot water! I gave up, got dressed again and went to reception - which was deserted. So I ended up going to dinner somewhat disheveled and not feeling a bit guilty about it.

The humorless waiter let me know that one had to flip a switch in a corner of the bathroom for the hot water to get heated (on the way to the shower head). And that the switch to the hot water for the washbasin was on the outside of our cabin around on the rear wall. Flipping that one never worked and the hot water in the shower was tepid at best throughout our stay.

I was a little annoyed that such obscure hot water quirks had not been explained when we were checking in. I was more annoyed at the terrible pillows in our room. The next room in our cabin had slightly better pillows, so I swapped them.

The food at Rondo Retreat leaves much to be desired. Some dishes are OK - others are terrible. For example, someone needs to tell the cook that you don't fully cook pasta before assembling lasagna. It was a predictable mush with triple the cheese it needed. Simon and I clucked at the chef's blunder and the replacement pizza was no better.

Later when I talked to the female manager about some problems I had enountered, she showed no contrition at all. Similarly, my efforts to engage her on potential improvements to the grounds for birds, habitat and general ecology (for example Rondo Retreat has a terrible light pollution problem), she made it clear she was not interested.

Rondo Retreat exterior lighting - not shielded, not down-facing - it illuminates in all directions (with incandescent bulbs).

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The overwhelming conclusion I have after spending three nights at Rondo Retreat is: they need some competition! They have been the only loding option around for decades and it shows. And nowadays they have a steady pipeline of religious groups constantly staying there, at all times of year. The groups do not seem to care about problems with the service, infrastructure or environmental responsibility (or lack thereof) at Rondo. So management does not care as much about pleasing birders or nature enthusiasts as they once did. I think a competing lodge that did things right would sort out Rondo in short order. But until then or some other serious change, Rondo will remain as hidebound as its owner.

Speaking of owner, I had read that Rondo was owned by a religious order- the Trinity Fellowship. But from what I gathered during our visit: an elderly gentleman owns it - perhaps he is the Trinity Fellowship. He certainly does like his rules - sadly none of them seem to apply to customer service (more like customer hindrance).


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@@offshorebirder wow, Lake Baringo and Tumbili Cliffs seem to be a very rich birding area, what a wide range of species you saw. Thanks for this detailed TR and the wonderful photos. I plan to be travelling in the footsteps of both you and @@michael-ibk in 2018, although your comments regarding Rondo Retreat are a bit off-putting!

 

The Narina Trogon is a very handsome bird.

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Very rewarding outings for you at Baringo and Bogoria, and happy you got the Verreaux´s after all! I think some of the birds you saw must be the same individuals we found, like the Eagle-Owl or the Nightjars. The Narina Trogon is stunning, and I really love the Snake peeing out - very nice shot. I know exactly who you are referring to as the "humourless" waiter, and i agree, Rondo needs some competition, although it was not as bad for me as for you apparently. The water thing was explained (and worked), and food was not excactly brilliant but servicable.

 

Looking forward to see what you found in Kakamega!

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Posted (edited)

January 18, 2017.

Things were still dark when we entered the dining hall for breakfast. Upon exiting, we saw the Blue-headed Turacos waking up in their roost tree outside the registration area. We left Rondo's gate at 7am, heading for the Kakamega Forest Station and the "Pump House Trail" into the forest.

After turning right at the security checkpoint, we stopped, hopped out of the vehicle and birded on foot a few hundred meters down the dirt road to the clearing around the Forest Station. Along the way we had good looks at White-chinned Prinia, Uganda Woodland Warbler, Brown-throated Wattle-eye, Black-billed Weaver, Barn Swallows, African Grey Flycatcher, and Square-tailed Drongo. Roger and I let Simon know how much we appreciated his driving the vehicle and then staying with it for hours to protect our belongings. As we started down the Pumphouse Trail, a troop of Black-and-white Colobus Monkeys watched us from their perches in the trees.

Black-and-white Colobus

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At the start of the trail, we saw several Cabanas' Greenbuls, Pink-footed Puffback, Brown-eared Woodpecker, African Blue Flycatcher (such beauties), Dark-backed Weaver, Turner's Eremomela, Yellow-crested Woodpecker and Black-necked Weaver. Despite the dry conditions it was very birdy. We also had a smaller troop of White-nosed Monkeys that did not allow a decent photo.

Then we got into the Black-faced Rufous Warblers. They are strikingly handsome birds! Sadly I never managed a decent photo, despite seeing and hearing them every day. These birds are real skulkers that simply do not give unobstructed views, or many views at all. We also had Red-tailed Bristlebills, plenty of Shelley's Greenbuls and Joyful Greenbuls, plus Brown-chested Alethe, Southern Black Flycatcher, Blue-winged Robin-Chat and Black-collared Apalis.

Working our way down the trail, we saw Banded Prinias at several points. We also had a couple of white-phase African Paradise-Flycatchers. Sadly they and lighting conditions did not cooperate for a photo. Photography - and birding - was difficult in shady Kakamega Forest. Ben had warned us that even under normal circumstances it can be difficult birding - with shy+elusive quarry, that are scattered in a big landscape and thick cover. The dry conditions made things even more difficult. But Roger and I are no strangers to jungle birding, and we found Kakamega to be fun and challenging.

Working our way along, we enjoyed Violet's Black Weaver as we approached the little stream behind the pumphouse. We heard a Spotted Flufftail calling but did not see any sign of it and it only called twice. Working our way back uphill for a return down the trail, we saw Grey-throated Barbet, Black-and-white Casqued Hornbill, Common Stonechat, and an Equatorial Akalat! This East African endemic is highly sought-after by birders. Our bird was rather scruffy - looking at the photos, I think it was an immature bird coming into adult plumage.

Equatorial Akalat

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Then we had a wonderful encounter with two Blue-headed Bee-eaters! Like @@michael-ibk, this was a bird we had really wanted in Kakamega Forest. The birds were backlit for much of the encounter, so no great photos. But they were nice to watch in the spotting scope and with binoculars.

Blue-headed Bee-eater

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Coming into the clearer area near the station, we saw Western Olive Sunbird, Green-headed Sunbird, African Thrush, and African Dusky Flycatcher, among other birds.

Returning to Rondo Retreat, we were greeted by the resident pair of Great Blue Turacos. Lunch was tolerable and Roger and I used some free time afterwards to copy a backlog of photos to our portable hard drives.

In the afternoon we explored a different trail system on the west side of the ranger station. This section was drier and the plants much more drought-stressed than the Pumphouse Trail had been. Birding was slower as well. But we had some real gems - quality over quantity.

A pair of Black-and-white Casqued Hornbills posed for us for quite some time. And we saw a skulking White-tailed Ant-Thrush that did not cooperate for photos. Other nice sightings included Blue-headed Bee-eaters, Chestnut Wattle-eye, and Red-legged Sun Squirrel. We also saw a Green-throated Sunbird. And we had a pair of Yellow-spotted Barbets.

Black-and-white Casqued Hornbill

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But the sighting of the afternoon was when the light began to fade. We saw a Scaly-breasted Illadopsis feeding on the ground beside the trail. These birds are not rare in Kakamega Forest but they are very shy skulkers and good sightings of them (and good photos) are few and far between.

Scaly-breasted Illadopsis

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Before long we came to the edge of the woods behind the forest station. There was good bird activity along the ecotome - or transition zone from forest to clearing. I think I even saw some Elderberry bushes. We saw Diederick's Cuckoo, Willow Warbler, Uganda Woodland Warbler and more.

Habitat behind forest station

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Then we returned to Rondo for dinner and were greeted by the resident MacKinnon's Fiscals.

January 19's post will have more photos - I kind of took a break on the 18th in the deep forest.

Edited by offshorebirder
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Posted (edited)

January 19

We got an early start and proceeded 5 kilometers southeast of Rondo Retreat, to where the Ikuywa River crosses the forest road. Roadside and trail birding here was the best of our time in Kakamega. We had swarms of birds (too many to process at times) beside the bridge. At first there was not any vehicular traffic, but then small trucks started coming through - including a comical pickup with two cows in the back.

Cattle hitching a ride

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In addition to truck traffic, people were walking the forest road with loads of water and firewood

Woman carrying wood

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In the area around the bridge we enjoyed Brown-chested Alethe, African Blue Flycatcher, African Thrush, Red-tailed Bristlebill, Yellow-spotted Barbet, White-throated Prinia and Scaly Honeyguide. Then we had one of the birds of the trip - an AFRICAN SHRIKE-FLYCATCHER! Kakamega Forst and South Nandi Forest are about the only places in Kenya to see this rare and localized species.

African Shrike-Flycatcher

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Other good roadside birds included a pair of African Paradise Flycatchers, Olive-bellied Sunbird, Yellow-throated Leaf-Love, Mountain Buzzard, Great Blue Turaco and Green Hylia. Then we ducked into the woods and had Yellow-billed Barbet, Ashy Flycatcher, Yellow-rumped Tinlkerbird and Stuhlmann's Starling. Back on the road, the parade of birds continued with Brown-throated Wattle-eye, Grey-headed Negro-Finch, Blue-headed Bee-eater, Red-headed Malimbe, an Olive-backed Sunbird building a nest, Yellow-whiskered Greenbul, and Petite Cuckoo-Shrike.

After a while, bigger and bigger trucks came roaring past, generating more and more dust. So we took the trail south away from the forest road.

We walked over to start down the trail on the south side of the road and Ben spotted movement in the undergrown along a little stream beside the trail. It was a Spotted Flufftail! We got a few hasty photos and then saw a second Flufftail. This shy forest crake is supposedly difficult to observe and photograph, but @@michael-ibk and I seemed to have had good luck with them recently. Unfortunately, despite using ISO 5000 and having a wide-open aperature, I only managed a 1/200 second shutter speed during the brief encounter. So most of my photos are blurry, since the Flufftail was constantly in motion.

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After the Flufftail encounter, we proceeded up the trail. We saw Red-headed Bluebill, European Bee-eater, Equatorial Akalat and another pair of Great Blue Turacos.

 

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Then we had a Jameson's Wattle-eye, a very sought-after bird. It is difficult to observe and in Kenya is only attainable in Kakamega and Nandi forests.

After some more good birding along the trail, we turned around and worked our way back towards the forest road. At the Flufftail spot we caught another glimpse of the Flufftail but did not have any photo opportunities.

We decided to head back to Rondo Retreat to do some birding along the trails behind the garden before lunch. A Blue-shouldered Robin-Chat was spread out on the ground beside the pond sunning itself.

Blue-shouldered Robin-Chat sunning

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A bit farther down the trail, we saw a White-tailed Ant-Thrush

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We worked our way along the loop trail and had several nice bird encounters. Then proverbial lightning struck. We came across a pair of DUSKY-CRESTED FLYCATCHERS! These shy and retiring birds are very difficult to observe in the dense undergrowth they inhabit. But these birds were hawking insects low in a gully - we were looking down at them for much of the encounter. Ben said it was the best looks at the species he has ever had. The very dim light made for difficult photography but I fared better than with the Spotted Flufftail earlier.

Dusky-crested Flycatcher.

 

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Dusky-crested Flycatchers look amazingly similar to our Gray Catbirds in North America - I joked to Roger that we should call them "Catbird Flycatchers."

At the end of the loop trail near the Rondo gate, we had a very confiding Grey-throated Barbet. I ventured that this bird should have been named "Rhinocerous Barbet" for its bill bristles - similar to Rhinocerous Auklets.

Grey-throated Barbet

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After lunch and a rest period in the heat of the day, we returned to the Pumphouse Trail to try our luck. Our good luck from the morning held. We had more Red-tailed Bristlebills, another Jameson's Wattle-eye, Giant Squirrel and Black-and-white Colobus, Sykes' Monkeys, White-bellied Tit, Toro Olive Greenbul, more Black-faced Rufous Warblers, Banded Prinias, East Coast Akalat, and a very good bird - Olive-green Camaroptera.

Then we had another highly sought-after bird - Turner's Eremomela. Sadly I did not manage photos of the Camaroptera or Eremomela.

I will not trot out our entire list, but we were all very pleased at the activity. I also found a beautiful orchid flower that had fallen on the forest floor - even though past its prime it was still gorgeous.

Unknown Orchid species

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We had a little daylight left after finishing the pumphouse trail, so we walked the edge of the tea plantation across the road from Rondo Retreat. There was a termite emergence happening near the corner of the field and we had a pair of MacKinnon's Fiscals gorging themselves on the termite feast. A Tawny-flanked Prinia, Chubb's Cisticola and White-tailed Ant-Thrush also enjoyed the bounty.

Returning to Rondo, we bid the Great Blue Turacos goodnight as they settled down to roost.


Edited by offshorebirder
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Black-and-white Colobus - wow, look at that tail !!!

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Dusty-crested Flycatcher. - never heard of it but I like it.... not as much as the snake though.

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Posted (edited)

January 20.

We checked out of Rondo Retreat after an early breakfast. It was a relief to be heading for the Mara, by way of Kisumu.

@@Treepol - please do not let my somewhat poor experience at Rondo Retreat dissuade you from visiting Kakamega Forest. To be honest, they are not worse in the food department than some places I have stayed in Kenya. I guess my impression might have been partly affected by having higher expectations of Rondo (and their higher prices) And I am sure the nature experience will be better when not in the midst of a serious drought. Do send me a PM if you have any questions about places I've visited.

We headed west through the forest and out the other side, and drove to Kakamega town. Then we turned onto the A1 heading south. In short order we were in Kisumu and proceeded to the Kisumu Yacht Club (a lofty title for a modest place).

Birding our way into the grounds, we enjoyed a flyby Palm-Nut Vulture - a species I was very happy to see. I missed them on my previous Kenya safari. An obliging Double-toothed Barbet also posed on a telephone line.

Double-toothed Barbet

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We also enjoyed Brown Parrot, Red-eyed Dove, Angola Swallows, Common Snipe, Hadada Ibis, and Glossy Ibis outside the yacht club gate.

Proceeding into the grounds, we saw good activity in some large trees. A Black-headed Gonolek played peekaboo with us, a pair of Red-chested Sunbirds flitted between flowers, Northern Brown-throated Weavers foraged and squabbled, and a flock of Brown Babblers bounced around the undergrowth. Nearing the water's edge, we saw a Pied Kingfisher looking for breakfast.

Pied Kingfisher

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A sharp local bird guide named Titus then joined us - he was very knowledgeable and I recommend him for anyone interested in a Kisumu boat ride on Lake Victoria.

A little more birding on land produced Black-billed Barbet, Broad-billed Roller (such striking birds), Yellow-backed Weaver, White-winged Tern, Swamp Flycatcher, Slender-billed Weaver and Sedge Warbler.

The Sedge Warbler was foraging in the vegetation down by the water and we watched it catch and consume a dragonfly larvae.

Sedge Warbler

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As we got into the boat and proceeded slowly out into the lake, a Pied Wagtail sat in the bow and looked for insects.

Pied Wagtail stowaway

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We saw many White-winged Terns on the lake and a few Gull-billed Terns as well. A Malachite Kingfisher watched us motor out into the lake, which was choked by Water Hyacinth, an invasive plant from South America. The winds had recently shifted to blow lots of hyacinth into the cove on Lake Victoria where Kisumu lies. We had to ease our way through channels in the hyacinth to get away from the shore. We had many White-throated Bee-eaters perched in bare trees and snags.

White-throated Bee-eater taking flight

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Perched in trees in the lake we saw Open-billed Storks and Red-billed Quelia. Then we started seeing lots of waterbirds - Intermediate Egret, Little Egret, Great Egret, African Jacana, and Sqacco Heron. We saw some shorebirds too - many Common Sandpipers and Water Thick-Knees, and scattered individuals and pairs of Wood Sandpipers, Spur-winged Lapwings, and Common Greenshank.

Water Thick-Knee

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Common Greenshank

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Then Roger spotted a Whiskered Tern among the many White-winged Terns. As the boat ride progressed, we saw a few more Whiskered Terns among the dozens of White-winged Terns. Our main target at Lake Victoria was Papurus Gonolek. It is a very difficult target indeed - they live in Papyrus and are loath to show themselves. We heard four of them vocalizing but never saw one; we only saw their close relative Black-headed Gonoleks.

We worked the few remaining papyrus stands along the shoreline - Ben said development, fishermen, drought and other factors were conspiring to reduce the papyrus habitat in the area to almost nothing. Apparently fishermen burn the papyrus repeatedly in the dry season to make accessing the lake easier.

We saw many Common Sandpipers on rocks and logs, several Swamp Flycatchers, and various weaver species. We also had multiple sightings of Black-headed Gonoleks.

Common Sandpiper

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Swamp Flycatcher

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Black-headed Gonolek

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There were a few fishing boats out working the lake. Some were propelled by poles, some by sails.

Fishing boat 1

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Fishing boat 2

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We enjoyed the boat ride, and time flew past. When we tried to return to our launching point, the mats of Water Hyacinth would not let us through. So we went to a spot a couple of kilometers south of there - Dunga Hill Camp. Ben phoned Simon, who came to pick us up in the alternate landing site.

We had some good birding on land, scoring great looks at Water Thick-Knee and Sedge Warbler plus multiple Weaver species.

Water Thick-Knee

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When Simon arrived, Roger and I thanked Titus warmly and tipped him very well, as had been our custom. Business had been slow for bird guides everywhere we went in Kenya - and at lodges as well. So we tipped better than normal to try and take up the slack.

If anyone wants to know contact information for local guides mentioned in my trip report, shoot me a private message and I will be happy to give you their contact info.

Getting back on the road, we proceeded through some rather grim, poverty-stricken areas on our way to the ring road. For the umpteenth time, I felt guilty parading along in a fancy vehicle through such a hardscrabble scene. I did not want to stare, or to wave imperiously - so I just kind of gazed into space. I also did not want to take photos or video of people - especially without permission. So I have very few photos of Kenyan people and daily life. Roger shot more in the way of photos and video of the scenes of daily life as we traveled...

Following the ring road to the B1, we headed southeast and then took the A1 when it split off the B1 again. We stopped at a nice spot for our picnic lunch that Rondo Retreat had packed for us - their final culinary revenge I suppose.

We drove on, eventually getting onto dirt roads through the Trans Mara. We had some good birding along the roads and then not far before nearing the Nyakweri Forest, we had a couple of great sightings.

At a little seep beside the road, we saw some little birds coming to drink. We stopped and saw a Firefinch come hopping into view. It looked a little different than the Red-billed Firefinches I was used to. Ben exclaimed "It's a Bar-breasted Firefinch"! The bird had a brown (rather than red) crown and nape. It also had striking cream-colored undertail coverts, with a sharply defined border along the lower belly. Their range is in Uganda and a tiny sliver of Kenya between Mount Elgon and the northeast corner of Lake Victoria.

The Firefinch disappeared into cover and we kept watching birds coming to drink. Then a little Indigobird hopped into view. Unlike a Village Indigobird, it had brownish-red wing panels. It seemed to be a Variable Indigobird (but Purple cannot be 100% ruled out). The Indigobird was even farther out of its range than the BB Firefinch but many bird species wander widely in times of drought, and this may well have been the case with the Indigobird. Roger got his camera unpacked in time to get a few shots of the Indigobird - I will see if any came out.

We continued on, and Ben told us about the nice birds that can be found in the Nyakweri Forest. I would like to visit it some day. Nearing the edge of the Oloololo Escarpment, I felt a surge of joy as I saw a familar scene. Before long we could see the Oloololo gate leading to the Mara Triangle, and then looking down, the forest around Kichwa Tembo and Bateleur Camp. Soon we crossed the bridge over the Mara River and then slowed to a stop near Mara Rianta.

I looked up to see an Offbeat Mara vehicle with Josphat and Kapeen beside it! What a nice surprise - they had been texting Ben and hatching a plan to pick us up. Simon was going to drive back to Nairobi that night and just then a friend of his and Ben's pulled up in a safari vehicle from another outfitter. He and Simon were going to caravan to Nairobi together.

After hugs and handshakes and introductions, we moved our luggage from Ben's vehicle to Offbeat's. Then we had a nice game drive back to camp in fading light. Damn, it was good to be back in the Mara!

Pulling into Offbeat Mara camp, I had the strongest feeling of being in the right place. And good old Pumba, the camp dog, greeted us warmly. We met Chania and Jesse and had our safety briefing, chatted about our goals and our lunch plans at Governor's Camp and a few other details. We saw a few additions - a library tent and where a small deck was going to be behind the lounge and dining tent. And we heard that Offbeat now does bush dinners.

We also met a young Impala that had been orphaned and rescued by the Offbeat crew. She was the sweetest, most beautiful creature ever.

Over dinner, we learned that with the closing of Offbeat Meru, the camp staff got redistributed around the other Offbeat properties (including Offbeat Mara and Sosian). I was relieved to hear everyone landed on their feet. For those like @@mapumbo and @@Game Warden and @@TonyQ who might be wondering: Stanley and the cook among others landed at Offbeat Mara.

I missed my friends Kyle and Lara, who had been the managers at Offbeat Mara on my last visit. But I did get to enjoy dinner with them in Nairobi at the end of our safari.

I was relieved to see that Chania and Jesse are also great at their job - I look forward to returning and doing a bush walk with Jesse next time. He had not quite gotten all his rifle permit paperwork when we were there this year, but I understand he now has it in hand and is leading bush walks for guests. Chania has worked at a camp in the Selous and Jesse comes from a distinguished safari family - they both know what they are about.

Ben got to know Chania and Jesse, and they told some entertaining "war stories" about the safari industry. We also had a nice time talking to Tessa from the U.K. (Cornwall in particular), who was the only other guest for the first part of our stay. It was great to be back at Offbeat Mara.

Edited by offshorebirder
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@@offshorebirder thanks for the comments regarding Rondo Retreat.

 

How long did it take you to drive to Kisumu from Rondo and did you book Titus yourself or did Ben arrange the boat excursion?

 

 

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@@Treepol - it took about half an hour from Rondo to Kakamega town, and an hour from Kakamega to the south side of Kisumu. So an hour-and-a-half total I would estimate.

 

Ben scheduled with Titus who I think hired/arranged the boatman.

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Superb photographs of the birds and many that I have not seen before, I am glad I have purchased a decent book of birds (Birds of Kenya and Northern Tanzania) and I can read all about them.

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Thank you @@CDL111 - I have not used that field guide yet, is it a good one?

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You recommended your book to me last year, but I could not buy it in the UK, I bought this as it was recommended on tripadvisor and yes it is useful. It describes and illustrates 1089 bird species recorded in Kenya and South Tanzania. ISBN978-0-7136-7550-4

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@@offshorebirder I particularly love your photo of the Narina Trogon. It has long been high on my list of dream species of birds which I love to see.

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Posted (edited)

@@offshorebirder, very much looking forward to your Offbeat Mara visit. What a contrast from all the rain last year to the drought they are now experiencing. Is David still guiding at the camp?

Edited by mapumbo
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@@offshorebirder, very much looking forward to your Offbeat Mara visit. What a contrast from all the rain last year to the drought they are now experiencing. Is David still guiding at the camp?

 

@@mapumbo - next installment coming right up.

 

You and Mama Ndege were asked about by multiple staff members. Y'all are remembered fondly - as is @@Game Warden. David is indeed still happily guiding at Offbeat Mara - I think he may have been on break while we were there. I am kicking myself for not making an effort to step out back and hang with the guides more. Next time for sure - so much to learn from those guys, I might risk intruding on their off time.

 

@@Game Warden - Kapeen was tickled that I learned about Fisherman's Friends from you. He was so surprised/happy to get them that he chomped the first lozenge to bits, rather than letting it dissolve slowly. Ouch.

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Posted (edited)

January 21, 2017 - before lunch.

Just like last year, I shook off my jet lag and slept like a baby starting my first night in the Mara. It is not just the good dinner, quality beds and fine linens at Offbeat Mara. Because last year my first night was at Encounter Mara camp and the same thing happened. I think the sounds of the bush have something to do with it. Lions roaring, Buffalo chomping and snorting, Bushbabies caterwauling, night insects chirping - combine to make an effective lullaby. Some people get freaked out by Lions roaring forty meters away, Hippos brushing aginst your tent, Buffalo snorting and stomping around, etc. but Roger thought it was cool (as it is).

Here are a few photos of a twin bed tent at Offbeat Mara. The shower, twin washbasins, flush toilet, etc. were all very good. The solar powered lights worked well and lasted as long as we needed them each evening and morning. There was a nice writing desk with camp chair inside the tent and some chairs and a table outside on the "porch".

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Some of the last uneaten green vegetation remaining in the area was in and around camp. So the nighttime herbivores paid us regular visits. And the Offbeat Pride (up to 17 members now) had been all around camp the night before. During the night they caused a few scuffles, and then killed a warthog just two tents down - it was a rather loud affair. We were in tent 4 and the Lions made their kill right behind tent #5 - see the map of camp on the next-to-last page of this document:

https://static1.squarespace.com/static/554081cee4b01d5bf73a9e19/t/587b2a2617bffc8c1ec8b287/1484467137576/2017+Factsheet+-+OB+Mara.pdf

 

-- Incidentally, the map of Mara North Conservancy on the last page of that document is pretty interesting (zoom in to see better detail).

Here is the location of the Warthog kill on Google maps:

https://www.google.com/maps/place/1%C2%B015'52.4%22S+35%C2%B009'03.2%22E/@-1.2649423,35.1503366,169m/data=!3m1!1e3!4m5!3m4!1s0x0:0x0!8m2!3d-1.26455!4d35.150883

After an early Jambo wakeup call with coffee and biscuits, Roger and I waved our flashlights for the Askari. We were in place at the pickup zone with Ben as Josphat and Kapeen pulled up in our vehicle just before 6:30am. Chania saw us off and we said bye till lunch. We were raring to go. We were going to follow the same plan as last year in the Mara - give our Maasai guides free rein to show us cool stuff, and let the birds and birding sort themselves out along the way. Josphat and Kapeen knew we wanted to see a variety of critters in a variety of habitats and they worked that and things like the big cats, plains game and small mammals into the plan. It worked well for us again this time.

There is nothing like that first morning on safari in the bush. That sense of anticipation pulling out of camp in the dim predawn light is such a buzz - knowing that anything could happen, that one might get lucky and sight anything from a Zorilla to a Pangolin. Or that you could get lucky and see rare and amazing behavior in addition to rare animals.

And the sensory feast that is the African bush was also invigorating. The pastel sights and herbal smells, the sounds of Common Bulbuls and Ring-necked Doves ("drink lager, work harder"), plains game vocalizing - all combine to give a very soothing feeling.

But one of the first things we saw was not calm or peaceful at all. A vicious brawl broke out among some Speckled Mousebirds. One - for whatever reason was suddenly attacked by another.

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Then just as suddenly another Mousebird helped the attacker press the fight.

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Sensing this, the bird being "set upon" dropped its hold; it and the attackers went tumbling down off the tree limb. They semi-fluttered down - falling in a writhing mass - and another two Mousebirds flew down to join the fray in the grass.

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The dim light, long grass and frantic activity did not make for clear shots but they convey the idea - mayhem. In this case, the "crazy stare" look that Speckled Mousebirds always seem to wear was appropriate. The Mousebirds were darned lucky not to have been nabbed by a predator, with all the racket they were making and their "distracted" nature.

Moving on, we saw a sharp-looking male Impala. Bird sightings included Coqui Francolin, Red-faced Cisticola, Grey-capped Warbler, and Diederick Cuckoo.

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Josphat and Kapeen wanted to cross the Olare Orok river to check on the Lion pride while they might still be active. We did so and at 6:45am we sighted a female Lion and the cubs of the Offbeat Pride. She seemed to be moving them from the plateau down into a lugga feeding the Olare Orok. The smallest cub was the only one left of his siblings - his mother had dumped him in the creche with her sister's cubs and abandoned him. But since he was just one, the sister Lioness was apparently raising him OK. He seemed to be getting along and holding his own with his older and larger cousins. If I am interpreting my scribbled field notes accurately, the camps are calling him "Bahati" which is Swahili for lucky.

Bahati following 1

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Bahati following 2

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Several cubs came bumbling along and sniffed at intervals to make sure they were following correctly. They went down into the lugga and mostly disappeared from view.

This cub was very cautious and stuck close to cover as it went down into the lugga

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My what a full belly you have

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Cub down in the lugga

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We worked our way around and looking across the river to tent number five at Offbeat, we saw another adult female Lion and two half-grown cubs around the warthog kill behind the (unoccupied) tent. One of the cubs brandished a front leg of the Warthog as a grisly toy. Sorry, no photos - there was some brush in the way.

We also watched a Klaas's Cuckoo perching in some branches lining the lugga.

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We retraced our path a bit, went a little downstream, and at 7:15 ran into Frank and Jesse and some more of the Offbeat Pride of Lions.

Jesse was washing his front paws.

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Then he flopped over to reveal a moderately full belly.

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Frank looked around, got up, and butted heads with Jesse to greet his compatriot. Or perhaps to say "have a good sleep."

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Then Frank ambled over to a grassy tunnel between two Acacia trees and flopped down again.

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We decided to go looking for Cheetah and Leopard and any neat birds along the way. Getting underway, we saw more of the pride scattered along a hillside. The young males would probably be getting the push soon and seemed to be avoiding Frank and Jesse at the moment.

As we roamed around scanning the hillsides, we had nice encounters with a pair of Red-throated Tits - an East African endemic that only lives in southern Kenya and Northern Tanzania. Maasailand basically.

Red-throated Tit.

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We also came upon a Speckle-fronted Weaver that seemed to be snoozing. It eventually woke up and started preening - in fact, it might have fallen asleep in the middle of a preen session.

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Ever alert for small mammals, Ben spotted an African Grass Rat foraging close by.

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Other nice birds included Chin-spot Batis singing "dee-doo, dee-doo", Grey-backed Fiscal, Rattling Cisticola, Northern Wheatear, Black-winged Cisticola, and Slate-coloured Boubou.

Then we came upon a Verreaux's Eagle Owl

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And a Common Scimitarbill that was holding a flower and waving it back and forth (another courtship ritual perhaps?)

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At 9am we were starting to think about finding a place for breakfast and Kapeen spotted a CHEETAH! Josphat said it was a young male that has been hanging around Mara North Conservancy lately.

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We were thrilled to see him and sit taking in his magnificence as he lounged around and occasionally looked around for trouble. He had a bit of a wash, took brief little catnaps and glanced around from time to time.

Two big cat species (one with cubs) and lots of plains game before breakfast! Roger was digging the Mara.

After a while, our stomachs won out and we cranked up to head to a breakfast spot. On the way we saw Giraffe, Eland, Wildebeest, Zebras, Thomson's Gazelle, Grant's Gazelle, Warthog, Topis and Coke's Hartebeest.

Eland

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We reached the Breakfast spot at 10:20 - a bit late but nobody cared. The spot was beside a large bare tree - partly, but not completely dead. It had a Blue-headed Tree Agama that seemed to be staking out a territory (the photo at the beginning of this trip report). Except when a bird flew past, then it ducked down and lowered its profile.

Blue-headed Tree Agama not advertising at the moment.

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We watched an Isebelline Wheatear and a Northern Wheatear foraging while we ate breakfast. And I set up the tripod and spotting scope and we watched all the plains game just mentioned plus Elephants and Bushbuck. Then we checked out some White-backed Vultures and Tawny Eagles soaring.

Isebelline Wheatear

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It was fun to chat with Josphat and Kapeen over breakfast and hear about things in the Mara. We hoped to get some rain soon at least to cut down the dust. Then we packed up the trusty vehicle and got underway.

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We saw some Plains Zebras feeding close at hand - looked like they were still getting some grass to nibble on.

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This Grant's Gazelle was also finding forage

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And Wildebeest ambled past

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Josphat suggested heading for Leopard Gorge and then working our way back to camp for lunch. We endorsed the plan immediately. On the way we saw Bateleur, Black-shouldered Kite, Common Kestrel, Yellow-fronted Canary, Red-cheeked Cordon-Blue, and Wattled Starling.

Thomson's Gazelles

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Young Giraffe on a rocky hillside

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Suddenly Ben called out "Slender Mongoose" and we all saw the small lean mammal dashing from shrub to shrub.

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We saw more Red-throated Tits and a young male Reedbuck in a damp grassy spot.

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Before long we reached Leopard Gorge. A White-headed Barbet perched at the entrance, and a Spotted Hyena watched us from a ledge on our right.

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We kept seeing a troop of Banded Mongoose scurrying in and out of crevices.

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And a Striped Kingfisher kept watch from a low perch. Coming out the back of the gorge, we had two African Grey Hornbills and a Sooty Chat.

A nearby tallgrass area held a Red-billed Oxpecker and a female Reedbuck.

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Not far from the Reedbuck, a Rufous-naped Lark was pulling apart some Buffalo dung - presumably in search of insects.

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Then we had a nice encounter with a group of Buff-bellied Warblers. I can now say that I have seen the Buff-bellied Warbler's buff belly!

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And not to be outdone, a Wattled Lapwing came strutting around the tree.

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Nearby we had Grassland Pipit, Brown-crowned Tchagra, and Tawny-flanked Prinia. Sitting atop a tree was a Black-chested Snake-Eagle.

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At that point, a very light rain began so we raced back to camp. The rain did not last long, however. We got back to camp and thanked Josphat and Kapeen for a wonderful morning. We were relieved to see there was still some time to chill and chat with Chania, Tessa and Jesse before lunch.



Edited by offshorebirder
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wow, so many great bird sightings! I can't even pick a favorite...but one that sticks in my mind is the Double-toothed Barbet because you can actually see how it gets it's name...great shot.

 

Lots of lifers there for me! At some point I definitely need to do a similar, bird-focused Kenya trip so I may contact you for the organizational details.

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@@janzin - I will send you my contact info in a PM - I am happy to share advice, contacts and experiences.

 

For what it's worth, Ben Mugambi is Art Morris' (Birds as Art) go-to guy in East Africa!

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