Weekend at the Lake

January 9-10, 2016

Lake Baringo

It was a spur of the moment decision, we visited Lake Baringo for the weekend. We knew that two things will soon happen at the lake: the northern carmine bee-eaters will migrate north between February and April, and it will become unbearably hot.  A bit of advice…don’t travel to northern Kenya in February or March. We made the standard Nakumatt run for supplies, packed our bags/cooler box, and checked the car’s vitals. The drive was (as usual) quite interesting with the terrain constantly changing. Farmland and fields are soon replaced by escarpments and acacia thickets, which then transition to scrub hillsides, which become lush forested hills, which then morph to dry bush, and finally dusty rock outcroppings with scattered trees. Thankfully, the forecast predicted cloud cover at night, which meant cooler temperatures.

We stayed at Robert’s Camp once again and opted to rent one of their dome tents for 2,000ksh per night. Quite affordable considering the local safari lodges charge ten times that rate. After settling in (which only takes about 6 minutes with an already setup tent), I began walking the grounds for signs of birdlife. This in and of itself is a misnomer. You don’t look for birdlife here. It’s everywhere (this is not an exaggeration). What you look for are birds of personal interest. I quickly found a pearl spotted owlet, Verreaux’s eagle-owl, weavers, pied kingfishers, superb starlings, Ruppell’s long tail starlings, bristle crowned starlings, dimorphic egrets, a flock of 30ish northern carmine bee-eaters, African fish eagles, and more.

Verreaux Eagle Owl

Verreaux’s Eagle Owl

Unfortunately, Francis (our go-to guide) was not available, as he’d been contracted for a Samburu safari. Not to worry because we connected with Joseph Aengwo. That name might look familiar to some of you as he’s the owner of kenyabirding.me and Silent Fliers Safaris. Jumping to the end, it was a honor and privilege to spend time with Joseph.

Green Winged Pytilia

Male Green Winged Pytilia

He met us at Robert’s, and we went for a drive/walk/trek to see what we could find along the western shores, northern basin (above Loruk), and the cliffs. We encountered a good array of species, with highlights being a pair of green winged pytilias, a lanner falcon, a juvenile black and white cuckoo, two African grey hornbills, a pygmy falcon, three rufous-crowned rollers, a couple fan tailed ravens, a Somali fiscal, slender-tailed nightjars, and scattered blue-cheeked bee-eaters overhead. On the mammal front we found a couple of dik-dik, a wild hare, and two rock hyrax. We hoped to find the Hemprich hornbills returning to the cliffs for their night roosts, but alas, none cooperated. With darkness approaching, we called it a night and agreed to meet at 7:30 the next morning for a boat ride.

The evening cooled off quite nicely, and we enjoyed a dinner of stir fried chicken and vegetables in a coconut soy-sauce gravy. We played some card games, read a bit, chatted with other guests, and generally unwound. It’s amazing how even after the holidays and a couple of days off, a recharge can still be necessary. Just because the holidays translate to no work, they don’t translate to rest. We slept well thanks in part to a few things. One, we took cold showers before trying to sleep. Two, the clouds cooled the sun’s intensity as it was setting. Three, there was a breeze most of the night. Four, we removed the rain-fly from the tent. We awoke and saw that a layer of clouds dimmed the sun considerably. Undeterred, we met Joseph and Louis (our boat driver) at the agreed-upon 7:30 and embarked. The target was bee-eaters (no surprise for those who know me). But the lake holds a multitude of great species so even without bee-eaters, it would have been a great morning. We found a pair of giant kingfishers, reed (long tailed) and greater cormorants, egrets, weavers, and more fish eagles right out of docking station. We traveled south and before long, came upon a small flock of blue-cheeked bee-eaters high in the partially submerged trees. Continuing, we spotted a couple of carmine bee-eaters that sat in the slowly warming sunlight that struggled to penetrate through the clouds.

Carmine BE2

Northern Carmine Bee-Eater

We stalked the bee-eaters as they hunted a bit, and we were told that on particularly hot mornings they can be found by the hundreds. Today’s cooler weather meant less bee-eaters but very nice soft lighting combined with higher densities of water birds that depart for shelter in the normal heat. Goliath herons were easy to find, a couple of white-faced whistling ducks lingered overhead, and a couple of species of tern presented themselves.

Goliath Heron

Goliath Heron

We continued to look for the blue-cheeked bee-eaters and along the way spent time being stalked by an African fish eagle that hoped we’d stir up a morsel or two. We also spent about 15 minutes watching a male pied kingfisher beat the living daylights out of a young tilapia. It struggled to figure out how to get breakfast down the hatch and seemed determined to solve the problem. Deciding to part ways, a doubt was left in our minds as to whether or not that particular fellow would be successful. My opinion was that its eyes were bigger than its gullet.

African Fish Eagle

African Fish Eagle

 

Pied Kingfisher

Male Pied Kingfisher

We ventured back to the large trees where we’d spotted the blue-cheeks earlier, but with bland light and only juveniles, we called it a morning and went back to camp for breakfast. For the rest of the day, we took it easy. Usually I’m itching to get out and squeeze in every last bit of birding. But today, I felt that some R&R with my wife was in order. We resumed our card games, reading, and laziness and loved every minute of it. There were a few anxious moments in which I heard an interesting bird, so I’d grab my camera and play a round of hide and seek. My efforts paid off in cracking views of a pearl spotted owlet, a klass cuckoo, and a number of Dierderic cuckoos.

Pearl Spotted Owlet

Pearl Spotted Owlet

 

Diederic Cuckoo

Diederic Cuckoo

As the day wound down, a single adult carmine bee-eater landed on a tree at the lake’s edge and was not the least bit shy. I walked to within a few paces and shot a few frames of the outlandishly-colored, sleek specimen. The northern species is differentiated from the southern by the throat and tail-streamer length: green and shorter for the northern groupings, vibrant pink (carmine) and longer for the southern.

Carmine BE4

Northern Carmine Bee-Eater

Unsure of what the weather would look like in the morning, we decided to release Joseph. We did not want him to rise early only to find out we’d cancelled to morning’s excursion. Unfortunately, we were met with a beautiful sunrise and quickly arranged with Louis for another boat ride. We wasted no time and made right for the bee-eaters. A couple of carmine obliged us as they chased after dragonflies and butterflies in the morning light. The low sun cast their plumage in bright display for our viewing pleasure, and the backdrop of the cliffs made for nice photographic moments.

Carmine BE

Northern Carmine Bee-Eater

The blue-cheeked bee-eaters were still playing hard to get. In fact, we traveled up and down the western shore trying to locate a mature male. The females and juveniles were a dime a dozen (plentiful), but the jewel-like males were nowhere to be found. Finally, as we zipped over to the large tree from the first morning, my wife spotted one perched on a low branch. We’d nearly overshot him, and thankfully her eyes zeroed in on the rather out-of-place emerald green breast. The females are a bit bluer in frontal coloring, and the juveniles are generally dull and lack the pointed tail streamers. We edged as close as possible to enjoy this colorful bird and took a few photos before he sailed off for a higher and more private lookout.

Blue Cheeked Bee-Eater

Blue-Cheeked Bee-Eater

Incandescently satisfied, we retuned to Robert’s Camp to enjoy breakfast and leisurely pack our things before departing. On the way back to camp, we asked if Louis knew of the new roosting spot for the African Scops Owls who’d moved from their normal spot at the Lake Baringo Club property. He assured us he’d find them while we ate our morning meal. After a short time he called me and told us to bring our cameras. We strolled to the gate, entered, and were quickly ushered to a back section of the abandoned camp. There we spent time with the diminutive six-inch scops owl. He just peered at us and occasionally slow-blinked while we soaked in our experience of this little beauty.

African Scops Owl

African Scops Owl

All in all, it was a fantastic couple of days at the lake with quality birding, quality birds, and quality time with my wife. Thanks again to Joseph and Louis for the effort you put into our positive experience.

The Birdiest Lake in Kenya

April 2015

I’d never visited Lake Baringo. We’d heard from many friends and colleagues that it’s a great spot, with the best barbeque goat (don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it), and with hundreds of bird species. There are also ornery hippos and decent sized crocs meaning: no swimming. Honestly, no loss there. I’m not a huge fan of swimming in brown water. It’s a bit of a trip from our sides of Kenya but after 4.5 hours we made it. The last 20km north from the town of Marigat were rough. It may have been the worst highway I’ve every driven. I expect dirt roads to be bad. I expect a highway that leads to a tourist destination as well as Kenya’s wilderness military training camps to be quite good. Woah was I wrong. We stayed at Robert’s Camp in the community of Kampi ya Semaki which is a combination facility that caters to anybody not in the luxury class. There are a few bandas (round plaster huts with thatched roofs) with beds and mosquito nets, there is a single house that sleeps up to six with a kitchen and enclosed shower and toilet. Then there are safari tents, standard camping tents, and space for you to bring your own accommodations. Naturally the price is dependent upon which arrangements you decide to use. Their restaurant, The Thirsty Goat, provides a decent selection. The chicken adobo is not bad and the fresh fried tilapia and chips is quite delicious.

We arrived in the mid afternoon and relaxed for a few hours. We enjoyed the birds found on the grounds themselves and were delighted by the diversity. White bellied go away birds, various starlings, many different weaver bird species, red billed hornbills, lilac breasted rollers, paradise flycatchers, pied kingfishers, little bee-eaters, malachite kingfishers, cormorants, doves, beautiful sunbirds in breeding plumage, and a courting pair of Jackson’s hornbills were all encountered within about one hour.

Malachite Kingfisher

Malachite Kingfisher

Red Billed Hornbill

Red Billed Hornbill

Jackson Hornbills Bonded Pair

Jackson Hornbills Bonded Pair

White Bellied Go Away Bird

White Bellied Go Away Bird

Eventually it was time to connect with our guide Francis for our first excursion. We’d found him through a guide in Kakamega and he came highly recommended as well by Terry Stevenson. One significant advantage of using Francis is that he has a moto-bike which makes covering ground very easy. We focused on some of the area specialties and many of these we found at the “ruins” next door at the site of the Lake Baringo Club which was destroyed by major flooding from 2012 onwards. Here we found both the pearl spotted owlet and two daytime roosting African scops owls. We also found the red-fronted barbet, and white crested helmetshrikes. Moving outside of the grounds and into the bush we found pygmy falcons, the short-tailed nightjar, an African cuckoo and more. We headed back to the restaurant early so that we could discuss the plan for the next two days.

Pearl Spotted Owlet

Pearl Spotted Owlet

African Scops Owl

African Scops Owl

By 6:30am the following morning we were loading a boat to take a morning tour of the lake. After carefully navigating the pod of hippos blocking most of the waterway we headed out to open water and hightailed it north. We would work our way south for about 2 hours before it was time for breakfast. Highlights included a giant kingfisher perched at the top of dead tree limb, flocks of blue-cheeked bee-eaters, a malachite kingfisher diving for fry, two African grey hornbills, and to top it off we found a roosting pair of verreaux eagle owls. Breakfast comprised of eggs, bacon, toast, roasted tomatoes, and tea. In other words, it was your classic English breakfast (aside from the sausage because we ordered double bacon). We went back to our banda, napped for a bit, and then read for a while.

Blue Cheeked Bee-Eater

Blue Cheeked Bee-Eater

Squacco Heron

Squacco Heron

Eventually I grew bored and went out for walk. I saw much of the same as the previous day’s walk but also added a solitary female common ostrich, three Hemprich’s hornbills flying to the lake from the cliffs, a red & yellow barbet, and a great viewing of the white headed buffalo weaver with its bright orange rump clearly visible while it preened. Walking back to Robert’s I found a small flock of the always enjoyable white crested helmetshrikes who obliged me with decent photos provided I kept my distance.

Female Ostrich

Female Ostrich

Red & Yellow Barbet

Red & Yellow Barbet

White Crested Helmetshrike

White Crested Helmetshrike

In the late afternoon Francis returned with his piki-piki and we made our way to the cliffs to find owls, hornbills, and more. Though it was a bit of a trek, we really enjoyed the viewing of a spotted eagle-owl perfectly camouflaged against the rocks and tree branches. The scampering rock hyraxes provided some laughs as well. We found a single spotted thick-knee and family of three Heuglin’s coursers with a youngster in the mix. We watched the adults try to distract us away from the juvenile. The bands across the lower breast are very beautiful and provide a special richness to this shy bird. We then proceeded to find an African hoopoe, my first, and both the Somali tit and diminutive mouse-colored penduline tit. Our next highlight was a pair of close-up Hemprich’s hornbills, followed by the comedic D’arnaud’s barbets doing their song and dance. Our final stop was at a lookout where we found a rufous crowned (aka purple) roller and Francis favorite: the green winged pytilia. With darkness (and mosquitos) fast approaching we high-tailed it back to the camp in the fading light. Dinner was good, the showers were great, and the sleep was fantastic.

Heughlin's Coursair

Heughlin’s Coursair

D'Arnaud's Barbet

D’Arnaud’s Barbet

Green Winged Pytilia

Green Winged Pytilia

We went out for another boat ride with the explicit purpose of finding the last northern carmine bee-eaters before they migrated north. We extensively searched for them but to no avail. We did however have great viewings of the emerald green blue cheeked bee-eaters, more kingfishers, a goliath heron, and an African fish eagle as it swooped down to collect its tilapia breakfast. In light of the long journey back “home” we had another English breakfast Americanized with double the bacon, hold the sausage. We then packed up and headed out. In the Kerio Valley a white crested turaco was the last bird of significance for this adventure.

African Fish Eagle

African Fish Eagle