September 19, 2015
I’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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
*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):
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
Red Headed Blue Bill
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
Black Collared Apalis