A Trip to the North: July 2019

Article and photos by Mark Bullough


I was lucky enough to be able to host my old birding and biologist friend Michael Thain for a first-ever trip to Kenya with his wife, during which I planned to show him a mix of country and a few new species. We had four weeks, during which we visited Magadi, Nguruman, Amboseli, Nakuru, Hells Gate and my home in Maanzoni before setting forth for a 9 day trip north on an extended effort. This note encapsulates our northern, avian adventures to a number of locations which I had not visited at all or for many years and might be of interest to those considering a similar trip. Our speed of travel did not lend itself to maximum Full Protocol records for the Kenya Bird Map but we did our best. In simple terms a whistle-stop tour of Ngare Ndare Forest, Lake Rutundu, Shaba, Namunyak, South Horr, Loiyangalani, Mt Kulal, the Chalbi and Mikona before a return south to end back in the Ngare Ndare.

Ngare Ndare and Rutundu

We took the Marania turn-off from the A2 in mid-afternoon and headed towards a beclouded mountain that was threatening heavy rain higher up, and worked our way into the forest line. An obliging cock Yellow-crowned Canary and a number of Jackson’s Francolin greeted us, presided over by a very smart Mountain Buzzard. Other “usual suspects” appeared thereafter before, at the 9000 ft mark, 7 obliging Sharpe’s Starlings rattled over a clearing in the canopy. Thereafter our progression was overseen by a number of Stonechats and Scarlet Tufted Sunbirds as we left the treeline and headed towards heavy cloud. Alas, the rain had done its worst and at 9300 ft the volcanic clay had absorbed so much water that even the best 4WD, low ratios, winches, and best efforts defeated the climb and as light began to fade we decided that discretion was the better part of valour and that we should retreat downhill to stay with friends before a second assault on a hopefully dryer mountain the following morning. Shelley’s Francolin escorted us to our destination.

Dawn had us in the Ngare Ndare Forest and skirting thick bush with extremely fresh buffalo and elephant dung. Numerous sunbirds – Variable, Scarlet-chested and Marico – were busy in the bush, alongside a lone Dusky Flycatcher and quantities of rather noisy Hartlaub’s Turaco. A very tiresome, small, lurking bird in low bush had us scrambling in pursuit before it eventually surrendered and showed a prominent double wing bar, and eventually posed briefly for a photograph of my first Thick-billed Seedeater in decades of walks in that part of the forest.

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Thick-billed Seedeater

Judging the mountain to be drier by midday we re-entered the attack and once again tackled the forest and higher tracks. Moorland Chats were numerous before we even left the tree line. As we ascended, a brace of Jackson’s Francolin scurried in front of the vehicle and once again Scarlet Tufted Sunbirds were in good numbers, although very camera shy. By lunchtime we were at Lake Rutundu at 10,300 ft to be greeted by a flock of Yellow-crowned Canaries, a soaring Mountain Buzzard, a passing Martial Eagle and, at least 2000ft above us – say at 12500 ft – a pair of raucous Fish Eagles that over the next 24 hours paid regular visits to the lake.

The afternoon – that was meant to be dedicated to catching supper in the form of trout – was rather spent pursuing the local resident avifauna. Plenty of Scarlet Tufted Sunbirds, Hunter’s Cisticola, and a few Cape Robin Chats were joined by the very friendly and resident Slender-billed Starlings around the cabins whilst the lake held a number of Yellow-billed Ducks, Coot and Little Grebe. Plain Martins hawked at dusk over the decidedly cool water in temperatures of about 2c.

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Cape Robin Chat
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Slender-billed Starlings
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Female Slender-billed Starling

After an excellent, if chilly, night we descended all too soon the following morning, through large numbers of Nyanza Swift and were lucky to see from the vehicle, a Trogon, at the top of the treeline at 9,200ft which caused some consternation as it refused to pose correctly! I am assured it was an immature Narina’s from rather poor photographs I have submitted to the wider community. We restocked with provisions for a week in Nanyuki and headed for Shaba.

Shaba

We had 36 hours to spend exploring this ever-dry park from the conveniently-located Sarova Lodge and tried to divide time between the more readily accessible acacia bush and kopje’s, whilst not ignoring the Ewaso Ng’iro – which was fuller than anticipated.

Our first evening yielded only the most usual of residents though we did have a particularly obliging Striated Heron…. and, to my disappointment, not a single Nightjar.

We deployed at first light and were distracted for some time by a roadside Leopard which temporarily took our eyes off the ball. But thereafter we went to work and began to see a number of Shaba’s specialties – Golden Breasted and Bristle Crowned Starlings, Yellow-billed Hornbills, Black-capped Social Weavers, Black-throated, Red-fronted, White-headed, Red and Yellow and D’Arnauds Barbets, and in one swampy area a pleasing and unexpected Glossy Ibis. We were looking for Larks and with the exception of a few Pink Breasted I was surprised by the absence of the normal players – Rufous Naped or Fawn Coloured – and entirely failed in finding Masked. Similarly, Cisticolas were extraordinarily thin on the ground (or in the bush).

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Golden-breasted Starling
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Bristle-crowned Starlings
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Black-capped Social Weaver

As we moved east we were particularly keen on finding as many raptors as we could and apart from Tawny Eagles and Eastern Chanting Goshawk, had to work hard. A few Pygmy Falcons – always a pleasure – a Black-chested Snake Eagle, 2 Black-shouldered Kites and a melanistic Gabar were threatening to be all we had in a morning before Bataleur and White-backed and Ruppell’s Vultures joined the tally together with an immature Martial and a Fish Eagle or two. And very much to my surprise, with camera well distanced and thermos in hand, a White-headed Vulture obligingly shimmered over from behind a kopje, did 3 well-presented circuits and promptly vanished… my first ever sighting for Shaba and first for a very long time anywhere in Kenya.

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Immature Eastern Chanting Goshawk
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Immature Martial Eagle

Other surprises or treats for the day included quite large numbers of Rosy Patched Bush Shrikes, my first ever Brown tailed Rock Chats, several Golden Breasted (not Somali) Buntings, a near-catatonic Water Thick-Knee, several Somali Coursers with young, 2 Somali Bee Eaters and, as dusk approached a small flock of Magpie Starlings followed at close to last light by a Bat Hawk in full pursuit of a rather small (and now consumed), unidentified bat. A wonderful end to a day that had yielded a number of gaps – not least a dearth of sandgrouse from dawn to dusk….. we had only a couple of pairs of Chestnut-bellied all day.

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Magpie Starlings

Heading North

The following morning we set forth early to make Koros camp, north of South Horr, in time for an evening scout about, via Reteti, Laisamis, Ngurunet, Illaut and South Horr. So time was at a premium and only cursory investigation took place en route. Excellent Golden-breasted and Fischer’s Starlings posed obligingly along with Buff Crested Bustards and African Hawk Eagles. And at a picnic lunch, we were joined by Variable and Shining Sunbirds west of Laisamis.

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African Hawk Eagles

Arrival at Koros at teatime had us greeted by a typical evening crowd of NFD inhabitants – with a particular preponderance of Mourning Doves amongst the 5 dove species present, plentiful Bristle-crowneds and a pair of very tame Green-winged Pytilia resident in camp. Yellow-spotted Petronia were the dominant sparrow, outnumbering the Parrot Billed Sparrows and White Browed Sparrow Weavers by some degree. We planned an early start for Turkana the following morning.

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Green-winged Pytilia

Loiyangalani and Return

Our approach trip to the lake, after leaving a camp bubbling with activity including a very bold Gabar Goshawk which took up residence on a branch next to the dining area, took us towards and through the serried ranks of pylons in the  new windfarm and before reaching them it became clear that a very frequent ‘spot’ would be Buff Crested Bustards that  we were to see over the next few days every few hundred meters. One question we had was “do they particularly like the road… because if they don’t there must be carpets of them over these pentads”! En route we also had our first cock Heuglin’s Bustard – a target species for the trip – which obligingly posed appropriately.

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Buff-crested Bustard
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Heuglin’s Bustard

I had expected to be horrified by the visual impact of the wind farm but found that its “eyesore” quality was less offensive than feared and was also boosted by the anecdotal reports of very few bird deaths therefrom. (One interesting comment from scientific research globally we gathered, is that it is suspected that casualties occur less from “bird strike” and perhaps more from the drop of pressure immediately downwind of a pylon which can impact stressed lungs on migration).

As we approached the lake we began to meet large flocks of Chestnut-headed Sparrow Larks, which became very common…. although their willingness to stay still for long was infuriating, given that their extraordinary camouflage amongst the lava made picking them up in a viewfinder tricky enough! Somali Crows flew in pairs throughout the area and we strove, mainly unsuccessfully, to bolster the Lark count. Throughout the day we had a smattering of Crested Larks and only one Thekla.

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Chestnut-headed Sparrow Lark

At the water’s edge, on a surprisingly clement, cool day (33c) we found both cormorants and a thin collection of Egrets (Great and Little) and the odd Grey heron. Heat haze made some of the Little Egret work tough and we were surprised by a few that didn’t look right. Most were dark morph for a start and appeared brown on the back. Bills were definitely black but at least 2 had prominent white “elbow joints” in flight, reminiscent of Dimorphic – which I ruled out (as the books suggested I should!). Feet and bills conformed to the extent we could see, with Little Egret.

Grey Headed Gulls were present in small numbers and we eventually found two Slender-billeds on the ground which were another target for the day. Otherwise, a few Great White Pelicans, Yellow-billed Storks, Kittlitz Plovers and the inevitable Egyptian Geese made up the balance of waterbirds on view. Our return to camp yielded a terrific Greater Kestrel and a pair of Somali Bee Eaters en route and the start of the next few days Fiscal arguments – Taita or Somali. As we learned we saw plenty of both.

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Greater Kestrel
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Somali Bee-eater

Mt Kulal

The next morning had us heading East for Mt Kulal and we were pleased to find 2 Grevy’s Zebra near camp before cruising for some 15kms through numerous Gerenuk, a few Somali Coursers and more Buff Crested Bustards. The turn north sparked an avian black hole for 4 miles or so where we saw exactly nothing before we began to encounter movement as we climbed. White-throated Bee-eaters in some numbers, our first Somali Buntings and at least 5 pairs of Rosy Patched Bush Shrike kept us occupied until we had an excellent, perched Red-necked Falcon – another first for me. And as we ascended an increasing number of Hornbills began to appear – Von Der Decken’s in quantity, many Red-billed and no shortage of Yellow-billed too. On this day and all subsequent too, we failed to find Jackson’s.

On arrival at Gatab (having tried not to look down on some of the “road” bends) we secured the services of a forest guide and the closest thing to a bird specialist – whose claim to fame was that he could whistle up a Montane (kulalensis) White-eye. Having found us a number within 15 minutes he evaporated thereafter and we walked quietly towards the top, past the telephone mast that was still swathed in cloud (as were we at times). The sun struggled and bird activity was slight although Hooded Vultures, Tawny Eagles, a Buzzard that I took to be Mountain, a Shikra and a noisy calling pair of Lanners kept us company. The forest – which lay chiefly below us and which mercifully lacked the noise of both chopping and sawing, yielded little of excitement save the call of Hartlaub’s Turaco which I found encouraging in this isolated forest spot. And we had a Little Rock Thrush too which I had not expected at all. On departure a few hours later I was glad to be told that the single column of smoke (charcoal) we had identified within the forest would result in a “one cow” fine on the owner.

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Somali Courser

We headed back down the mountain and had good Black Chested Snake Eagles before finding 2 Red-fronted Warblers, skulking in low bush and a clear Long-billed Pipit. We returned to camp through the inevitable Buff-crested Bustards, encouraging numbers of Pygmy Falcon and found 4 Magpie Starlings to greet us. A fulfilling day visiting this extraordinary “stand-alone”, verdant habitat, surrounded by blasted lava.

Kargi, Chalby, Mikona.

The following day we targeted to visit dry country where we expected few birds. The good road east to Kargi, as on the previous day, yielded plenty of BC Bustards, Somali Coursers and Pygmy Falcons. Otherwise, apart from our first Kori Bustard, the birdlife was thin and unremarkable. The occasional Crested Lark and a Thekla outside Kargi were welcome. We struck north across the Chalby for 25 miles to intercept the old Kalacha Road and as predicted saw nothing. Again in perfectly acceptable temperatures, we cruised back down the old road to Kargi via Mikona (not recommended without stellar suspension) and were pleased to find White-crowned Starlings in some numbers in Mikona along with a most peculiar sight. On the western outskirts of Mikona is a flat and bare plain with hundreds of small mud “lumps” some one foot  square and high, presumably the result of heavy overgrazing and livestock trails. In the shade cast by nearly every one of these mounds stood a single Kittlitz Plover, motionless and presumably waiting for cooler temperatures. There were scores of them – each alone and nearly all facing north. It looked like a rather surreal and hazy painting!. I guess that’s a day in the life in Mikona!

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White-crowned Starlings

We headed back through Kargi, intercepting numerous Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse and Chestnut-headed Sparrow Larks near the lava fields and as we headed back west we had our only Black-bellied Bustard so far and a good female Heuglin’s as well. This time on reaching camp we found a good gathering of White-headed Mousebirds. And as we cooled off after a dusty day and watched the light go, Wild Dog serenaded us in camp with their eerie ululations and an African Scops Owl tolled the knell of parting day.

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White-headed Mousebirds

Southward

The next day required some speed and we utilised the new wind power road back to Illaut and on to Laisamis, having been waved off by a Verreaux’s Eagle. One of the few highlights was putting up a Buff-crested Bustard in the early morning and ruining the stalk of an African Wild Cat that trotted disgustedly into the bush on its failure. Hooded Vultures, a single White-headed Mousebird and Shining Sunbirds were amongst the few protagonists to cause the car to stop. We reached appropriate sustenance and refreshment with our friends on the Lewa/Ngare Ndare border in good time that evening, only delayed by copulating Rhino, overwatched by a 15-monther who took exception to the car and very nearly was the cause of a trip to the body shop.

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Verreaux’s Eagle

All trips end and our last morning was spent trying to refind our Thick-billed Seedeater and its Turaco friends in the Forest. It didn’t oblige but a pair of Klaas’s Cuckoo and a pair of Mountain Wagtails did, alongside Scarlet Chested, Variable, Violet backed, Marico, Northern Double-collared and Amethyst Sunbirds. We left for Nairobi with the customary escort of Shelley’s Francolin, and commented…. “we deserve one more ‘piece de la resistance’ ”. Obligingly, one mile from the tarmac, a Swallow-tailed Kite gave us a 5-minute acrobatic display over the plains……..

[229 species were recorded during the trip.]

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