Birds of Kenya

If you’ve read any of my descriptions of our adventures in Kenya, then you have probably already realized that I get more excited about avifauna than I do about anything else. It seems almost counterintuitive that someone could go to Kenya and not really care about the charismatic megafauna–including the “big five”–for which the country is so famous, but the truth is that you rarely observe those animals doing anything very exciting. Lions, for example, are generally just lounging around napping, while rhinos are either sleeping or munching on grass. There have, of course, been a few exceptions to this general rule; we once saw a cheetah chase a gazelle, for example, and then there were multiple instances of lion sex this year.

(Male rufous sparrow at Hell’s Gate National Park)

However, even when I see the big animals wandering around doing something interesting, I can’t help but feel as though I’ve already encountered this before–in zoos, wild animal parks, and breeding facilities, or on televised documentaries. It should feel different seeing these animals au naturale, but the view from inside a car is strangely similar to the view through a television. Wandering amongst these species on foot might make me feel a bit different–indeed, I quite enjoy our trips to Crater Lake and Hell’s Gate precisely because we are able to commune with nature a bit better–but even then we tend not to see anything very interesting going on amongst the mammals.

(Lesser flamingo at Crater Lake)

For the, the real excitement is in birding. Birds engage in all sorts of activities, they often appear and disappear very quickly, and we see hundreds of different species (many of which can look quite similar to one another). Because of all these things, birds are a challenge–and challenges are interesting. I also appreciate bird aesthetics; elephants may be huge and leopards may be sleek, but it’s hard to think of anything more spectacular than an iridescent sunbird flashing its colors in the sunlight. That said, my favorite group of birds–in Africa and on any other continent–is the vultures, since I have a soft spot for the underappreciated organisms of the world. It’s hard to pick a favorite individual species, but I am rather fond of hamerkops and African dusky flycatchers. This year I was also thrilled to see an African blue-flycatcher, which I’ve longingly eyed in my bird guide, never thinking that I’d actually see one in person.

(Malachite kingfisher on Lake Naivasha)

My strength as a birder is auditory rather than visual, which makes Kenyan birding very challenging for me. We do not own any audio guides to the birds of Kenya (yet!), and we only visit for two weeks each year, so it is difficult to learn the vocalizations of the birds we encounter. This is frustrating because we hear many more birds than we ever see, which means that there are probably dozens of species that are erroneously left off my bird list. I am trying to add more species to my ID repertoire each year, so maybe I will have decent identification skills one day…maybe around the time I retire!

(Grey-crowned cranes at Solio Ranch)

Without further ado, here is my 2013 bird list, alongside the lists from previous years. It only includes the species that I personally saw or heard, and contains only birds that I was 100%–none of the trickier cisticolas and larks, for instance, which I just didn’t get to look at in enough detail for a solid ID. As pleased as I am to have extended the list quite a bit this year relative to what I’ve seen in the past (thanks to the long rainy season!), I should note that my list pales in comparison to those compiled by the even more serious birders in our group; they managed to rack up tallies exceeding 300 different species. To put that into perspective, Kenya is inhabited or visited by nearly 1,100 types of bird. That means that some of our students managed to see over a quarter of the country’s avian diversity in just two weeks–an impressive achievement.

(Sacred ibises taking flight at Lake Nakuru)

Content by Dr. Caitlin Kight