Bird-watching in Kenya

The variety of Kenya’s habitats — from barren deserts to lush forests, and coral islets to alpine moorland —is matched by the variety of her birds. Approximately 1,070 species have been recorded, more than in any other single country in Africa and a large proportion of the global total of 8,554 species.

Most species recorded in Kenya are resident, but a substantial minority (especially waders, ducks and warblers) are migrants that breed in eastern Europe, the Soviet Union or the Middle East. Depending on the species, these birds spend the northern winter in Kenya or pass through twice a year, in autumn and spring, on their way to and from wintering grounds in southern Africa.

Lake Nakuru National Park flamingos
Flamingos in Lake Nakuru National Park

`Migration’ is usually applied to movements of bird populations occurring at predictable times, and in predictable directions, each year. Wings make birds extremely mobile: they thus show more extensive migratory behavior than any other group of animals.

The distances travelled can be enormous. The Arctic Tern, Sterna paradisaea, breeds in the Arctic and the North Atlantic during the northern summer, and spends the northern winter in the far south, at the edge of the Antarctic continent or on the shores of the Indian Ocean — a round trip that can often exceed 35,000 km. The Eurasian Swallow, Hirundo rustico, passes through Kenya on its way from northern Europe to South Africa, often flying more than 22,000 km on its round trip.

Why do birds migrate? In the extreme north, the winter is so harsh that only a few tough and specialized birds can survive. In the short northern summer, on the other hand, food is extremely abundant. In temperate countries there is a similar but less extreme alternation between the seasons, while in many parts of the tropics, food is abundant during the wet season but scarce during the dry. Birds’ migrations take advantage of these seasonal alternations. In general, they allow the birds to breed in one place during periods of abundant food supply, then move elsewhere as conditions become unfavorable on the breeding grounds.

In Kenya, most migrants come from the northern temperate zone (the Palearctic region). Others, how-ever, the so-called intra-African migrants, come from elsewhere in Africa.

Palearctic species

Every year in October-November and again in March-April, large numbers of Palearctic birds pass through Kenya on their way south. (Some come ear-lier or leave later, but these are the main peaks.) The breeding quarters of these species are mainly in east-ern Europe or the Soviet Union, and most of them fly across land bridges in the Middle East at Sinai or over the Horn of Africa, avoiding long journeys over-the sea.

The timing and speed of migration varies greatly from species to species: in general, those birds coming from furthest north, where the summer is shortest, arrive earliest and leave latest. Some species, including many shorebirds and ducks, spend the winter in Kenya, and numbers at favored wintering sites such as Lake Turkana or Mida Creek (near Watamu at the coast) may be very large. Others, like the Eurasian Swallow, mainly pass on to Wintering grounds further south.

Intra-African migrants

As a generalisation, species that migrate within Africa usually follow the rain, taking advantage of the fact that the seasonality within the northern tropics is opposite to that in the south. For example, the race parasites of the Black Kite, Milvus migrans, arrive in Kenya from August to October, the end of the northern rainy season, and depart again in March after breeding (the Palearctic race, migrans, of this species is a non-breeding visitor- from around September to April). Other species are non-breeding visitors to Kenya from the southern tropics, such as the Spotted Ground Thrush, Turdus fischeri (recorded March to October), or from Madagascar, such as the Madagascar Squacco Heron, Ardeola idae, (recorded May to October). Some other intra-African migrants, like Abdim’s Stork, Ciconia abdimii, are mainly recorded on passage and usually do not breed or winter in Kenya

Much of our knowledge of bird migration in East Africa has come from long-term work carried out at Ngulia in Tsavo West National Park. Here, on misty moonless nights in November and December, large numbers of passing migrants (mainly small songbirds) are disoriented by the bright lights of Ngulia Lodge, and fly down towards the ground. Here they are trapped by scientists, ringed with a metal band and measured before being released. Over the last two decades more than 100,000 birds have been ringed at Ngulia, and recoveries of the rings have done much to shed light on the movements and biology of these migrants.

Crown cranes - bird-watching in Kenya
Crown cranes

Several of Kenya’s forests are of particular note for birdwatchers. The Arabuko-Sokoke forest on the Kenya coast contains six endangered species of birds, including two that are found nowhere else in the world. These are Clarke’s Weaver (Ploceus golondi) and the Sokoke Scops Owl (Otus irenae). The stops owl is a tiny bird that lives mainly on insects, and is confined to one particular habitat type within the forest. With the help of a skilled guide, it can fairly readily be seen at night. The weaver is more mysterious, and scientists still do not know where, when and how it breeds.

Other important forests include those on the Taita Hills — only home of the endangered Taita Thrush (Turdus helleri) — and Kakamega Forest in western Kenya. As the easternmost outlier of the great equatorial forests of Africa, Kakamega holds many rare species that are found nowhere else in the country (in some cases, nowhere else in East Africa), and is thus a mecca for birdwatchers. Work, is presently in progress to conserve these forests and ensure the survival of the unique birds that they contain.

Lilac breasted roller - birding in Kenya
Lilac breasted roller

Kenya’s wetlands are also spectacular bird habitats. The flamingos of Lake Nakuru are famous world-wide, but other Rift Valley lakes such as Turkana, Baringo, Bogoria, Elmenteita and Naivasha also hold a fascinating assortment of waterbirds. More intrepid birdwatchers may penetrate the swamps of western Kenya or the delta of the Tana River.

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