Looking for Blue in the Kakamega Rainforest

September 19, 2015

Kakamega ForestI’m not satisfied with the blue headed bee-eater photos that I’ve taken so far, and though I have probably spent the most time with this particular species, their behavior makes good photography very difficult. For all but about two months of the year, they spend the majority of time high in the canopy. They descend periodically to perch for a few seconds and then often ascend. Looking at the branch where they land and snapping a sharp, well composed photo feels more like luck than anything else. Moreover, even when “low” they are usually well above eye level, which makes the angles challenging.

I decided to head back to the famed Kakamega Forest in western Kenya to give it another go. Rather than track down the bee-eaters, I figured I’d go to a spot where I see them on about 80% of my visits and wait ‘em out. My wife and I loaded the cooler with the fixings for bacon, lettuce, and tomato (with avocado) sandwiches, some chips (or crisps, as they call them here), and a few cold beverages. We left these in the car and come back for them in the heat of the day when everything in the rainforest rests (aside from the mosquitos… oh, those mosquitos). We made the drive to the forest road and by 9:30 arrived at the station to pay our fee and enter the forest. We loaded our gear and began the 15-minute trek to the spot. This little gem is situated on a small creek that emerges from a spring about one kilometer away. This source of clean water is a major benefit to the local community whose children come to collect their daily supply. Conveniently, this regular human activity has made the wildlife rather used to us, and they go about their business without much of a care. What a welcomed change from fly-fishing the alpine streams of the western United States.
Forest Birding
Before we even set down our bags, a juvenile blue headed bee-eater zipped overhead alerting us to its presence by the snapping of its beak on a freshly caught butterfly. This was a welcomed sight. Unwelcomed was the sight of it disappearing high into the canopy to enjoy its feast. Regardless, I was in the forest, away from work, and with a turned-off cellular phone. It would be a great day with or without the photo. After settling in and observing the timing and movements of the bee-eaters, I was able to relax and see what other species were around (you’ll find a list at the bottom if you’re tired of reading). The only lifer for me was a spectacular find: the Turner’s eremomela. This endangered species is small and, though active in its habitat, is tough to find. I never anticipated seeing it. But while calling for the black faced rufous warbler, two of these rare birds decided to check out what was going on. I almost missed them while musing at the comedic behavior of the warblers on the fritz. The eremomelas were off to the side, not wanting to get too involved. They stalled for about 20 seconds and looked around before flying into the middle levels of the canopy. I was delighted.

Not soon after, I was able to tally the Jameson’s and chestnut wattle-eyes whose diminutive size makes them great finds. Their abundance is plenty, but being skulkers you really need to know what to listen for as they snap their wings and hop around, or you’ll miss them completely. Both the red- and yellow-fronted tinkerbirds were close by, and a yellow spotted barbet was hawking insects. With about 13 species of greenbelt, the forest is never (EVER) quiet. I recorded at least eight of them, with the highlight being the Shelly’s (or Kakamega if you’re a splitter) species. Luhder’s bushshrikes rounded out the mid-morning affair as they responded nicely to my “pshing”.

Ludher's Bushshrike

Ludher’s Bushshrike

In the midst of the activity my mind was never far from the bee-eaters, and every few minutes I’d look around to take inventory of their normal perches. Unfortunately, they were always occupied. Attempting to get a better view of a nest-building grey-headed negrofinch, I crossed the creek and climbed about 20 feet up a small trail. The lighting was bad on the nest, but I enjoyed the industriousness of this little bird. Turning around, I waited for about 20 minutes hoping that I’d find an openly perched bee-eater. Thankfully (after much patience), one landed nearby and rested for about 15 seconds. This is not a long time. I was using a 300mm fixed lens which meant zoom wasn’t an issue, only focus. I spotted the red of the throat through the view finder and rifled off about 15 shots before it flew away. Not sure of what I got, I exhaled and quickly reviewed my work. I was pleasantly satisfied given the rushed job.
Blue Headed (2)
It was hot and the bugs were bad…really bad. We both have the welts to prove it. We packed up and headed back to the car for our BLTs. They were perfect. A chilled soda cooled our cores, and after 30 minutes in the shade we felt much better. However, the itching was not abated by the food. Given the temperature and lack of activity we decided to head over to the Rondo Retreat Center where we relaxed on the grounds and drank some fresh orange juice. We strolled around their nature trails and enjoyed summoning a couple of white spotted flufftails (my wife’s favorite bird). These little guys are notoriously hard to view well, but their ranking on the cute scale makes them highly desirable. We also found great blue turacos, grey barbets, and yellow billed weavers all going about their business.

White Spotted Flufftail

White spotted flufftail taking a bath

Great Blue Turaco

Great Blue Turaco

Grey Throated Barbet

Grey Throated Barbet

We eventually made our way back to our morning spot to see if the drop in temperature as evening approached would draw the bee-eaters lower. At one point, we were surrounded by a noisy group of black and white casqued hornbills and had nice viewing of two Mackinnon’s fiscals. The bee-eaters however were not cooperative. Eventually we called it a day and made our way back to the car enjoying a white morph paradise flycatcher and two very accommodating red chested cuckoos. Driving out of the forest, I attempted to lure out the shy and deep roosting black billed turaco but to no avail. The most I could muster were a few callbacks.

White Headed Saw-Wing

White Headed Saw-Wing

Regardless of the misses in photography due to tough lighting situations and uncooperative wildlife, Kakamega remains my favorite place to bird, hike, and explore “close” to where we live. This place is simply remarkable.

BW Casqued Hornbill

Black and White Casqued Hornbill


*Not all bird photos shown here were taken on this trip. However, they were all taken by me and in this forest.

Birds of note (in no particular order):
Mackinnon’s Fiscal
White Headed Wood Hoopoe
Black Billed Weaver
White Spotted Flufftail
Cinnamon Chested Bee-Eater
Blue Headed Bee-Eater
African Paradise Flycatcher (White Morph)
Red Chested Cuckoo
Ludher’s Bush-Shrike
Red Headed Blue Bill
Various Greenbulls
Grey-Headed Negrofinch
Black Faced Rufous Warbler
Great Blue Turaco
African Green Pigeon
African Pygmy Kingfisher
Black and White Casqued Hornbill
Red Fronted Tinkerbird
Yellow Fronted Tinkerbird
Yellow Spotted Barbet
Wire Tailed Swallow
White Headed Sawwing
Pied, Yellow, & Mountain Wagtails
White Browed and Snowy Capped Robin Chat
Chestnut & Jameson’s Wattle Eye
Turner’s Eremomela
Black Collared Apalis

Arabuko-Sokoke Forest (Coastal Kenya)

Early September 2015

Watamu Marine Reserve

My wife and I needed to get away and spend some quality time together. Work has been very busy and at times very rough lately. Incorporating a pre-birthday celebration, we felt that the beach was in order. We booked flights to Malindi and a villa in Watamu. The trip was not about birding, but there was no way that we could visit the area without at least exploring the Arabuko-Sokoke National Forest. This remnant of the coastal forests that once stretched from South Africa to Somali is home to endemics, near-endemics, and severely range-restricted species due to habitat loss. There are three main “types” of forest found here, each with its own concentration of unique birds. Additionally, the region receives migratory species from various parts of Africa and Europe depending on the time of year. We arrived as the palearctic migration was in its beginning. Nonetheless, the influx was evident.

Francis a friend and phenomenal guide (Lake Nakuru, Lake Baringo, Lake Bagoria, & the Keio Valley) referred us to Willy a local expert. We connected with him at 7:00am at the gate. Paying our 500 shilling entrance fees and 300 shilling vehicle fee we were off. The primary targets for the day were the Fishers Turaco, Retz Helmetshrike, Trumpeter Hornbill, Northern Carmine Bee-Eater, and Sokoke Scops-Owl. With the trusty bluetooth speaker in hand and a host of downloaded calls we anticipated a decent day as the cooler temperatures meant that activity would persist even until 1:00.

The first forest section we birder was the “Mixed” classification. Here we found a whole host of new (to us) species. Ritz Helmetshrikes squawked, hawed, and hemmed around us. These little beauties respond wonderfully to callbacks and fly in within seconds. Their airborne squabbles and acrobatics caused us all to smile and Willy to chuckle. We trekked around a bit looking for good views of the trumpeter hornbills whose calls sound like hungry cats. It’s not very pleasant. The viewing was good but photos were not possible due to the backlighting caused by the morning clouds. We found the skulking yellowbills calling back and forth as they’d recently arrived from Uganda and four-colored bushshrikes which showed very briefly along the road before disappearing into the thick undergrowth. Finally we scored a fantastic time with two very cooperative fishers turacos. Using the callback we’d get them to fly overhead across the path time and again. Their red crests and shimmery plumage shown brilliantly. However, their penchant to scramble made photos impossible (oh well, maybe next time).

Retz Helmetshrike

Retz Helmetshrike

We moved off to the next section of forest: Cynometra. This dense thorny and relatively short (in stature) section is home to the world’s cutest bird: the Sokoke Scops-Owl whose height struggles to reach seven inches. Their coloration various from grey to brown and even a rufous (burnt orange) morph. They can be found roosting during the day in groupings from a single member to even four huddled together. They are rarely more than 8 feet off the ground which makes for great viewing if you can manage to find one. Thankfully that where Willy’s value is secured: he arrived before 4:00am to seek them out as they call before roosting down for the day and “shutting off.” This day however, did not prove lucky. He was unable to secure a location in the dark and our hopeful visit during the day did not turn any up in their traditional roosts.

Slightly disappointed we moved on to Lake Jilore just outside the forest. Here we found a whole host of water species hawking insects driven out by the intermittent showers. Northern Carmine bee-eaters and their young (it appears some coastal hold-overs bread locally this season) hawked wasps as they emerged from their mud nests. African skimmers patrolled the deeper water while African spoonbills and a variety of storks sifted through the muddy edges. By 2:00 we were toast. One more attempt to photo the turaco was unsuccessful. We thanked Willy for his time and headed back to the villa to rest before a dinner reservation at The Old Man and the Sea in Malindi. This place is a must! A cocktail, shrimp crevice, poached red-snapper, lobster, side salad, mango cheesecake, and crème brule all for under $45. Need I say more?

Northern Carmine Bee-Eater

Northern Carmine Bee-Eater – notice the green/blue throat

The following morning we received a call from Willy that he’d found a single Sokoke Scops-Owl back in the forest. We decided to give it a go hoping that it would not fly off in search of a partner. We made the long motorbike ride (35 minutes each way) and trekked for about 15 minutes in the compressed forest until we found our target. We spent a good 30 minutes enjoying ourselves and this little gem as she was relaxed and calm. It’s very important not to call these birds during the day. This agitates them and can give away their position to owlets who feed on them. I know this sounds odd, an owlet feeding on a owl but it’s true. The local owlets are larger than the lovingly tiny scops-owl and imitate their call to lure them in. Satisfied with our time we headed back to Watamu and made for the Turtle Bay Marine Reserve to soak up the emerald water, white sandy beaches, and time alone.

Sokoke Scopes Owl

Brown morph Sokoke Scops-Owl

For reference: we stayed at the Villa Solemar in Watamu which was great. We were the only guests and had the place to ourselves. Two attendants and a guard were available at all times to support us in any capacities. Gelato was a common place (we may have enjoyed it for breakfast our last morning) and the local Italian joints are legit. We highly recommend Hosteria Romano for their carbonara pasta.

Willy’s contact information: willynganda@gmail.com +254(0)723314416

Notable Species Seen
Fishers Turaco
Retz Helmetshrike
Four-Colored Bush Shrike
Trumpeter Hornbill
Northern Carmine Bee-Eater
Open Bill Stork
Woolly Necked Stork
African Spoonbill
Yellow Billed Stork
Zanzibar Bishop (breeding plumage)
Sokoke Pipit
Sokoke Scops-Owl
Golden Palm Weaver
Green Barbet
Yellow Bellied Greenbul
Crab Plover
African Skimmer
*Sykes Monkey
*Golden-Rumped Elephant Shrew