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.

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
Yellowbill
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
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*Sykes Monkey
*Golden-Rumped Elephant Shrew