Kenya has a more than 1,000 species of birds in a vast variety of habitats.
The big variety of birds is made possible by lack of climatic extremes. Kenya straddles the equator and has only two seasons, wet and dry. In the northern latitudes huge numbers of birds migrate southwards to avoid the harsh winter. From as far east as the Bering Straits and as far west as the northern tip of Norway, they come in their millions to East Africa. It has been estimated that 6 billion birds make the journey each year. Add the visiting birds to the incredible variety of local birds, and you have an ornithological paradise.
Kenya’s national parks and reserves have their own quota of this ground variety and with a few exceptions, each one of them covers a different type of habitat. There are of course overlapping areas which need to be taken into account when planning a bird safari. However, even on a more standard wildlife safari, taking in all or some of the major game viewing areas, the birds provide an added attraction.
Of great importance to those planning bird safaris is that the birds can be found in abundance outside the national parks. There are many areas of Kenya covering the same wide variation of habitat, that do not have national park status. In these places game may be scarce, but birds are always present. Examples are: Lake Magadi, only 110 km south of Nairobi in the Rift Valley; Kakamega Forest in Western Kenya, a remnant of the great rain forest that once covered much of East Africa; Lake Naivasha 90 kms from Nairobi; and the thousands of hectares of farmland, private ranches and even suburban gardens in Nairobi. All these areas have plenty of birdlife.
Those keen on photographing birds should use motor vehicles or boats on lakes and rivers. Viewers get closer to the birds than would be possible on foot. The use of hides, on very specialised safaris, can be arranged, and it would be unusual not to be able to photograph many species using this method.
Between 300 – 400 species can easily be seen on a well-planned safari and sometimes as many as 500, provided the basic rules are observed, the most important being time! A rushed safari, trying to cover as many places as possible in the least time, may not yield enough.
A number of field guides and handbooks on birds are readily available in Nairobi. The most commonly used being The Field Guide to the Birds of East Africa by John G. Williams. This book is available in English and German.
The following summary indicates which parks or reserves fall into which major habitats as well as naming some of the principal birds. It should give a bird-watcher on a primarily wildlife safari some idea as to what can be seen.
The Aberdares National Park and Mount Kenya National Park
Highland forest and Afro-alpine moorland A visit to either of these areas provides an opportunity for bird-watching in three distinctive vegetational zones. These are thick highland forest, bamboo forest and Afro-alpine moorland. Highland species found here include several extremely uncommon birds. Green Ibis, rufous sparrow hawk, mountain buzzard, crowned eagle, Jackson’s francolin, bronze-naped pigeon, red-fronted parrot, Hartlaub’s turaco, scarce swift, white-headed wood hoopoe, silvery-cheeked hornbill, moustached green tinkerbird, fine banded woodpecker, montane oriole, alpine chat, Abyssinian ground thrush, Sharpe’s longclaw, slender-billed chestnut-winged starling and no less than 13 species of sunbirds; including the northern double-collared, golden-winged, tacazze, green-headed, variable and scarlet-tufted malachite.
Samburu, Meru, Tsavo East and Tsavo West
Savannah bush These areas are predominantly acacia bush, interspersed with more open pockets of seasonal bushed grasslands. All the parks have large rivers running through them. Tall acacias along the banks attract many species. Notable birds to look for in these areas include: ostrich, vultures, African hawk eagle, pale-chanting goshawk, martial eagle, vulturine guineafowl, buff-crested bustard, chestnut-bellied and black-faced sandgrouse, white-bellied go-away bird, green wood hoopoe, yellow-bellied eremomela, pygmy batis, rosy-patched shrike, Taita fiscal, golden-breasted starling, eastern violet-backed pytilia, as well as a wide variety of starlings, weavers and waxbills.
Savannah grasslands This is a vast area of rolling grasslands with scattered pockets of acacia woodland. Interesting species include: secretary bird, numerous vultures, eagles and hawks, wattled plover, yellow-throated sand-grouse, bare-faced go-away bird, gabon nightjar, lilac-breasted roller, ground hornbill, red-throated tit, sooty chat, and a wide variety of larks, pipits and widowbirds. In the thick riverine forest bordering the Mara and Talek rivers, several notable birds are found: African finfoot, Livingstone’s turaco, Ross’s turaco, giant and woodland kingfishers, blue flycatcher, double-toothed barbet and occasionally the rare Pel’s fishing owl.
Lakes Baringo, Bogoria, Nakuru and Naivasha
Freshwater and alkaline lakes Four of the lakes in the southern part of Kenya’s Rift Valley are alkaline. Lakes Bogoria and Nakuru are frequently the gathering and feeding grounds for huge numbers of the lesser flamingo. Over one million are often present. The greater flamingo are also found in smaller numbers. The freshwater rivers entering Lake Nakuru attract many other water birds, however there is not the diversity of species on the soda lakes as are found on the freshwater lakes – Baringo and Naivasha. Over 400 species have been recorded at each of these lakes and hardly anyone would fail to be impressed by the number of species which can be seen in just a couple of days at either lake. White pelican, pink-backed pelican, cormorant, long tailed cormorant, little bittern, goliath heron, purple heron, squacco heron, little, yellow-billed and great whilte egrets, hammerkop, yellow-billed stork, sacred ibis, African spoonbill, fish eagle, black crake, Aller’s and purple gallinules, jacana and pied and malachite kingfishers are all resident. In addition, large numbers of migrant waders and duck may be seen during the northern winter.
The following areas are not normally included in wildlife safaris, but are important habitats for a large number of interesting bird species. These places could be included in a specially constructed bird-watching safari.
Sokoke and Gede Forests
Lowland forest The only areas of true lowland forest in Kenya, the Sokoke-Gede forests are the habitat of some very localised birds, including: cuckoo hawk, Kenya crested guineafowl, Fisher’s turaco, Sokoke scops owl, green barbet, red-tailed ant thrush, east coast akalat, forest batis, Sokoke pipit, Retz’s and chestnut-fronted helmet shrike and the amani sunbird. Additionally, from June to October four species which are very rare in East Africa can be seen, these being the: African Pitta, the Scaly Babbler, the Spotted Ground Thrush and Clarke’s weaver.
Desert and Semi-desert The desert around Lake Turkana and the vast area to the east, including the Dida Galgalla, host a variety of birds. Sand desert, rock desert and lava fields are found with some grass cover occurring after rains. Acacia grow in scattered clumps or strips, particularly along the numerous dry-river beds. Larger areas of semi-desert scrubland border the true deserts wherever slightly higher rainfall occurs. The birds here include: swallow-tailed kite, fox kestrel, Heuglin’s bustard, cream-coloured course, Lichtenstein’s sandgrouse, Abbyssinian roller, masked and crested lark, William’s bush lark, brown necked raven, Somali fiscal, white-crowned starling, shining sunbird and Somali sparrow.
Central African Rainforest This is the easternmost extension of the vast rain forest which covers much of Zaire and Uganda. Today Kakamega is a “forest island”, and an excellent venue for bird-watching. It has many species not found elsewhere in Kenya. Grey parrot, great blue turaco, blue-headed bee-eater, black and white casqued hornbill, yellow-spotted barbet, hairy-breasted barbet, brown-eared and yellow-crested woodpeckers, African broadbill, many species of illadopsis and greenbuls, southern hyliota, Jameson’s chestnut and yellow-bellied wattle-eyes, pink-footed puffback, red-headed bluebill and oriole finch.