Bird Atlassing in Kora, Mwingi and Meru

The wild and dry east is currently the least-covered area on the Kenya Bird Map. It’s remoteness and relative insecurity being key reasons for this. To try and increase the coverage of this area, we conducted a four-day bird mapping trip to Kora National Park and its environs at the end of May. It was a small team of four atlassers. We mainly focused on Kora National Park but also did a little atlassing in the neighbouring Mwingi National Reserve and Meru National Park. Many people fear visiting Kora due to insecurity, but if you inquire from KWS (the Kenya Wildlife Service) beforehand and arrange for a ranger guide, you should be ok.

 

Above: Coverage of the area before (left) and after (right) the expedition (only Full Protocol coverage shown). We managed to do full protocol lists for 6 pentads in Kora and one in Mwingi National Reserve. On the last day, before leaving, we added a full protocol list to a pentad on the Meru/Kora border, along the Tana River, and another to a pentad in Meru NP. We also got adhoc records for 12 other pentads throughout the area. *Note that the map above is in Google Maps format, which does not accurately show the boundaries of Kora NP and Mwingi NR. Contact KWS for accurate maps.*

Here is a pictorial look at some of the trip’s sightings and highlights:

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We accessed Kora through Meru National Park. One of the first birds we encountered as we entered Meru was this Black-headed Plover, a relatively common bird in the dry thornbush regions of Kenya, though a lifer to most on the team!
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Soon afterwards, we noticed a raptor perched high on a dry tree in the distance. It was a Martial Eagle and it seemed to be feeding on something. It was too far away to identify the prey.
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We saw several other raptors in quick succession as we drove through the open plains, including a juv Tawny Eagle, a Brown Snake Eagle, several Bateleurs, White-backed Vultures and Rüppell’s Vultures (pictured).
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The commonest mammal throughout the trip was Kirk’s Dik-Dik. Pairs were numerous, except in areas with open plains in Meru NP.
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Flocks of Vulturine Guineafowl were also common. This was the only guineafowl seen throughout, except for a single sighting of Helmeted Guineafowl in Meru NP on the final day. Kora and Mwingi are dominated by dry dense thornbush, and Vulturine Guineafowls seem to do well in this habitat while the Helmeted Guineafowls avoid it.
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The Kora landscape.  A flat expanse of dense thornbush dominaded by various Acacia and Commiphora species. Grassland is virtually non-existent in Kora. Numerous luggas (dry riverbeds) snake through the area, with doum palms growing along them. The only permanent river is the Tana.

 

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Buff-crested Bustards were widespread. The only other bustard of the trip was a single Kori in Meru NP.
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As we crossed the Tana River into Kora NP, we encountered these Bush Hyrax. They were common on rock outcrops throughout Kora.
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The bridge across the Tana on the Meru-Kora border. We arrived just as the sun had set. Slender-tailed Nightjars had already started their foraging rounds, hawking insects along the riverbank.
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We started the next day at dawn. The first pentad we covered was in Mwingi NR along the Tana. John Wanyoike was the official list-keeper for the trip, recording all birds seen and heard on the BirdLasser app.
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Ann with her eyes to the skies …
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A bird that surprised me in this pentad was this Spot-flanked Barbet, which I did not expect in such an arid area. But perhaps the habitat along the river is suitable enough.
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The commonest barbet was its cousin the Black-throated Barbet. Other members of the family recorded were Red-fronted Tinkerbird (highly vocal throughout) and D’Arnaud’s Barbet (only in Mwingi).
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In the Mwingi pentad, we had three species of honeyguide: Scaly-throated (pictured), Greater and Lesser. Of the three, only the Greater Honeyguide was recorded in other pentads (all in Kora).
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Nubian Woodpeckers were common and noisy throughout. The only other woodpecker was Cardinal Woodpecker, seen in two separate pentads in Kora. (Photo by Paul Wachira)
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Along the Tana we searched for Pel’s Fishing Owl, White-backed Night Heron and African Finfoot, but to no avail.
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We did however have great sightings of other wildlife along the river. A highlight was these stunning Bushpigs drinking on the opposite bank, which were lifers for most of us. A few hippos were also nearby.
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While searching for roosting owls, we instead found this roosting Epauletted Fruit Bat.
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Eastern Paradise Whydahs were not uncommon. This one is a female. Pin-tailed and Straw-tailed Whydahs and Village Indigobird were also recorded in Kora.
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A common sound of the bush in this part of Kenya is the Pygmy Batis. We recorded them in nearly all pentads that we covered.
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Tsavo Sunbirds were also common, as were Black-bellied, Hunter’s, Variable and Eastern Violet-backed sunbirds. Collared and Beautiful sunbirds were recorded in the Mwingi pentad, near the river.
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Eastern Violet-backed Sunbird (adult male)
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Variable Sunbird of the white-bellied race (albiventris)
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Yellow-billed (left) and Marabou (right) storks along the river. These were the only storks recorded, though each was recorded more than once. Waterbirds did not feature prominently on our list.
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Pair of Pygmy Falcons. We were also hoping for Red-necked Falcon but the Pygmy turned out to be the only falcon species of the trip. We only saw these in Kora, although their coverage map on the KBM website shows that they’ve been recorded in Meru NP severally.
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Every now and then we would stop at a lugga and walk along it to see what we can find. These were often the best places to find birds in the blistering midday sun.
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Crested Francolin crossing a lugga. These were common throughout. Yellow-necked Spurfowl was the only other francolin and it was seen only once, in Kora.
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Mouse-coloured Penduline Tit was recorded only in two pentads, both in Kora. (Photo by Paul Wachira)
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Rocky outcrops like this offered the best raised views of the land. We used these viewpoints to search for potential new habitats to explore.
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Getting a hyrax’s-eye view
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Latastia lizards like this one were common on the red sandy soil, as were Speke’s Sand Lizards. African Five-lined Skinks and Rock Agamas (species uncertain) were on the rocks. (Photo by Paul Wachira)
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It was quite surprising that we only saw one species of lark for the entire trip – Pink-breasted Lark (Photo by Paul Wachira)
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The Eastern Chanting Goshawk was by far the most frequently-encountered raptor of the trip (this one is a juvenile), while the Bateleur was the commonest of the large raptors.
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We encountered this Eastern Chanting Goshawk as it had just caught a green Boomslang (snake) in Kora.
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At one of the KWS camps in Kora, they regularly put out feed for the birds
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Eastern Yellow-billed Hornbills, Red-billed Hornbills and Von der Decken’s Hornbills (not in this photo) all take advantage of the free feast. All three species were seen frequently throughout the trip. Crowned and African Grey hornbills were also seen, but only in the Mwingi pentad.
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Chestnut Weaver also taking its share
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Yellow-spotted Petronia was not left out. Others who joined the party included …
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Ring-necked Dove …
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Laughing Dove …
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Parrot-billed Sparrow (Northern Grey-headed Sparrow race gongonensis)
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At the camp we also got our only Speckled Pigeons of the trip. They didn’t seem to care about the free food on offer!
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We also stopped by George Adamson’s old camp. A nice place to have your picnic lunch.
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This Slit-faced Bat was roosting in what looked like some sort of small non-functioning fish pond
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We recorded Violet Woodhoopoes in two pentads; one along the Tana and one towards the interior of Kora.
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African Orange-bellied Parrots were common throughout
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On the final day we decided to complete a full protocol list for the pentad that our camp was in by doing an hour of atlassing around camp, mainly along the river
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We encountered this Keller’s Bark Snake
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The only African Fish Eagle of the trip was seen on this morning.
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Once we got our list to the 2-hour minimum for a full protol, we drove through Meru NP on our way out and decided to do one more full protocol card for a pentad within the park. This was a pentad that already had 6 FP lists so ours was the 7th (but only the second for 2019).
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Highlights in this pentad included Rosy-patched Bushshrike, Somali Ostrich, Secretarybird, Black-chested Snake Eagle and a nesting pair of Tawny Eagles (pictured above) with a recently-fledged juvenile feeding on an unidentified prey item nearby.

We ended the trip with 143 species recorded. Surprisingly we did not get a single pipit or longclaw (African Pied Wagtail was the only member of the Motacillidae on our list). We also had only one lark, one falcon, one nightjar, no cisticolas and no owls (although we saw an unidentified owl in flight one night). Kora NP, Mwingi NR and the neighbouring reserves (Rahole, Bisanadi) remain very poorly covered on the Kenya Bird Map. Meru also still has several pentads that have no full protocol cards. I encourage bird mappers to visit these areas and do more atlassing in unmapped pentads so that we can get a better picture of how this conservation area’s bird fauna is doing. For security reasons (mainly outside Meru NP) it is best to arrange for a KWS ranger or two to accompany you. Click this link to see the species recorded and pentads covered so far in this area: http://sabap2.adu.org.za/coverage/group/40147_UpprTnPrksndRsrvs. Feel free to get in touch with kenyabirdmap@naturekenya.org for contact details of the KWS Warden in charge of Kora National Park.

– Author: Sidney Shema (Project Manager – Kenya Bird Map) –

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