Results from the Bird Atlas – Raptor changes since the first Atlas

This is an excerpt from an email by Colin Jackson to the KENYABIRDSNET on March 22 2018. It is a great example of how hard data collected by citizen scientist for the Kenya Bird Map is showing the dramatic changes that have occurred in species distribution since the first Bird Atlas of Kenya in 1989:

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We’re at the 24th Fundamentals of Ornithology Course in Naivasha enjoying some wet weather and dozens of Willow Warblers – almost 2-3 in every tree, hundreds of Barn Swallows and many Sand Martins, House Martins among the migrants passing through – and 8 Steppe Buzzards high and heading north 3 days ago. We have been atlassing and teaching participants how to use BirdLasser – but today we looked at some of the results from the atlas so far and especially changes in distribution since the first bird atlas (published 1989).

So we have gone back to the first atlas, dug out the map of some species and compared with the current bird atlas coverage – and got a serious shock at the reality of what the data is saying. i.e. we all ‘know’ that certain species, especially raptors, have declined over recent times – but nothing beats actual data from shouting loudly what is going on – and especially visual results… like a map.

We are working to get the first atlas maps up on the Kenya Bird Map website – which will be hugely useful for showing this and as a tool for conservation, but in the meantime here are some scans from the first atlas and what the current coverage shows:

First, how much of Kenya has been covered by those of you who have done an awesome job at playing a part in collecting these records? Coverage for Full Protocol cards (ad hoc records are not shown on the coverage map) currently stands at:

…so a good part of central Kenya, the Rift, the coast and a reasonable scattering of pentads across western Kenya have been covered pretty well. Thus at least for these areas, if the birds are there, then we can be pretty sure they would have been picked up. Now to some comparisons:

African White-backed Vulture: (link takes you to the species map in the Kenya Bird Map)

in the 1970s and early 1980s on the left (large black squares are confirmed breeding, small black squares are confirmed presence; grey means historical records – i.e. pre-1975) and as at 21st March 2018 on the right (red and pink = high reporting rate, yellow = very low reporting rate; grey = single record or less than 4 full Protocol cards submitted):

African White-backed Vulture Gyps africanus distribution: 1989 (left) vs 2018 (right)

We all know about the Egyptian Vulture population having declined hugely but look at this! In the ’70s and ’80s African White-backed Vultures were right across the country – breeding in many places. Only in western Kenya nearer to Kisumu was there a suggestion of a decline (the small grey squares) which would make sense since human population and agriculture spread sooner on that side of the country. Today, of the areas that have been covered, it is almost only Mara, the Athi-Kapiti plains and a few scattered places also mostly tied to protected areas that White-backs are found…

Egyptian Vulture:

Egyptian Vulture Neophron percnopterus distribution: 1989 (left) vs. 2018 (right)

A well-known decline – BUT when you SEE the change in distribution, it is truly shocking. Today, in the past four years of atlassing, there have only been a handful of records submitted despite there being reasonable coverage (see above).

Lappet-faced Vulture:

Lappet-faced Vulture Torgos tracheliotus distribution: 1989 (left) vs. 2018 (right)

…again a massive contraction in range – only in Mara, Amboseli, Nairobi National Park and Tsavo East are there any level of reporting rate. For the rest of the country where records have been submitted – gone.

And the story goes on. These results are critical for us as we seek to address issues of poisoning, maintaining protected areas etc. Hard data cannot be beaten – especially when collected following a tight and proven protocol. But we can only fight the problems if we get the data in. As can be seen from the coverage map, there are still large gaps – and for best results regular and repeated coverage of pentads generates a solid understanding of what is going on in a species.

There are a good number of skilled birders whose records would make a significant contribution to the bird atlas and to Kenyan conservation and research. If you have not yet joined the growing team of atlassers in Kenya, can I urge you to do so? Contributing to eBird etc is great but unfortunately as eBird does not insist on a tight protocol tied to set locations, data from eBird cannot be simply imported to the Kenya Bird Map and even then could not be used for Full Protocol card analysis (reporting rate etc), only distribution – however, the other way round is very possible and indeed, BirdLasser now allows you to export your BirdLasser data to your eBird profile.

These KBM maps are immediately available online and the basic data can be downloaded for free (see link below the maps on the species page) and we are working on developing more tools for analysis online directly from the website (watch this space!).

It is awesome to see how my and your records can contribute immediately to our knowledge of birds and to conservation so directly – as you submit your record of Egyptian Vulture and it is vetted and accepted, the species distribution map is updated real time.

Thanks again to all those who have contributed – keep it up!

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Colin Jackson
A Rocha Kenya

 – Author: Colin Jackson (Kenya Bird Map management team) –

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