January 9-10, 2016
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.