Lake Baringo between Mount Kenya and Mount Elgon in the semi-arid northern edge of the Rift Valley is perhaps my favorite place to bird in Kenya. What do you want to see? What do you want to spend time observing, studying, and documenting? You’ll get it here. No, not every species in Kenya can be found at this lake. But just about every family of bird is represented.
My wife and I needed an excursion and decided that camping at Robert’s Camp on the shores of the lake would do the trick. We loaded the ice chest, charged the camera gear, brought the Helm Field Guide, and packed our bags. It’s a long drive through a couple of valleys that, too, are full of birds. Just driving to the lake we found brown parrots, white-crested helmetshrikes, a flying white crested turaco, and red billed hornbills while lilac and rufous crowned (purple) rollers were also seen. The stretch of “road” from Marigat to Kampi Ya Samaki is rough. Really rough. After about an hour on this tooth rattler, we passed through the gate of Robert’s Camp and made our way to our tent. For about $20 a night, you can rent a tent with a mattress and linens (including towels), which makes “setting up camp” nothing more than relocating a suitcase from the car to the tent.
Before arriving, I’d called my good friend and guide Francis to hire him for a couple of days. He knew our primary targets: the Madagascar and white throated bee-eaters before they left for their annual migrations. We’d come to Lake Baringo before in April and had an epic run in which virtually every local specialty was recorded with prolonged and/or multiple sightings. This meant that for this trip, their acknowledgements would be added bonuses, but the pressure to capture these guys was off. Our agenda was set:
– Evening 1: the northwestern edge of the lake for white throated bee-eaters
– Morning 1: boat ride onto the lake for Madagascars
– Evening 2: journey above the cliffs for white throated bee-eaters
– Morning 2: whatever we had energy for as we drove back home
That evening we met with Francis. We loaded up into the car and headed out. We had about 45 minutes to travel that rough road again, heading further north until we made it to the area known as the shambas (farms) where people have their small plots of corn and green leafy vegetables. We turned off onto a side dirt track and made our way toward a lookout point on the edge of the cliff. We found the white throated bee-eaters, but they were very shy and we could not get within about 20 feet of them before they would move off. As we continued hoping to get some decent photos, Francis exclaimed, “Yellow billed hornbill!” We immediately lost interest in the bee-eaters (at least temporarily) as we watched this locally uncommon bird hop around the acacias. This was a lifer for me, and I had written off this bird until we finally get to travel to Samburu. Attention back on the bee-eaters, we spent another 30 minutes looking for a good photo op, but they all began to make their way down to the lake for their overnight roostings. With the sun setting quickly, we decided to call it a day so that we could easily traverse the rough road back to camp. Fish and chips at The Thirsty Goat restaurant at Robert’s Camp made for a great meal to close the day.
The alarm went off all too early at 5:45 a.m. to wake us from our very comfortable slumber. We connected with Francis by 6:15 and were on the lake soon thereafter. Being that the light was not great yet, we decided to seek out a lifer for my wife: the giant kingfisher. We found the massive bird perched on a distant tree, and all my wife could say was “That’s a kingfisher?” To which I responded, “Yes, that chicken-sized bird is a kingfisher.” Francis got quite the laugh out of this. With the improving light, we went back to the area of the bee-eaters and spent a good 30 minutes watching them hunt, eat, preen, and repeat.
We headed back to Robert’s and found two Verreaux eagle owls, little bee-eaters, pied kingfishers, malachite kingfishers, African grey hornbills, and African fish eagles along with gulls, terns, storks, ibis, and weavers. After breakfast, I walked around the camp property and found four common ostrich, three Jackson’s hornbills, two red billed hornbills, and a partridge in a pear tree.
The sun was hot by 11:00 a.m., and we were forced to relax until about 3:30 when the solar intensity would begin to fade. As we ascended the cliffs to reach the range of the white-throated bee-eater, we found red and yellow barbets, Somali tits, black cuckoos, and pygmy falcons. On the top we found good sized flocks of the bee-eaters and enjoyed decent viewing of them, but again, photos proved tough. Interestingly, most of them were juveniles.
The terrain was not tough to walk, but navigating through the thorny acacia is always a challenge. There’s a reason one of the local varieties is nicknamed “Go Back Slowly”. Unless you’re okay being stripped of your clothing, it’s best to go back how you came to unstick yourself—it’s that sharp. Satisfied with our time, we decided to venture further north to see what we could find. Though still early in the season, it was possible for some inter-African migrants to have already arrived in the area. We decided to give it a shot. Not more than 20 minutes of driving put us right beneath four northern carmine bee-eaters.
This was a lifer for me. I was very excited. They were perched on the wires, but I did not care. I’d finally seen one. Then one flew off and frantic following led me to the tree it landed in. The next 15 minutes were special for all of us, as even Francis had never had such intimate viewings of this species before. He was used to watching them perched in the trees around the lake, which allows for good but not close inspections.
The following morning we were tired and decided to just head home. We spotted more yellow-billed storks, rollers, and turacos in the Kerio Valley, but that was the last of the decent birding for this trip.