Lake Nakuru (Day 2): Caitlin’s perspective

In previous years, we have left Top Camp early in the morning in order to travel to Lake Nakuru in time for an early game drive. Part of the fun of staying in the park is that you can rise early and head out into the field before the sun is even up—no long road trip to get there, no long wait at the gate while the tickets are sorted.

We were so organized this morning that it was still dark for the first half hour or so of our drive, during which time we could hear many tantalizing noises, but could not see anything in the murky forest or grassland. One of our first sightings was a bird that had been a common find the evening before: an augur buzzard. We eventually added several other species, perhaps most exciting of which was the grey-headed helmet-shrike; the family that we encountered was located in almost exactly the same place where we had seen the same species last year, suggesting that the birds were maintaining a prime territory in the park.

(Morning at Lake Nakuru)

(We had a fantastic long-crested eagle sighting right by the side of the road)

Although the students were particularly keen to spot another leopard, we ended up seeing the other big cat in Lake Nakuru:  lions. Actually, we wound up with two lion sightings, the first of which was made possible by a tip from another safari driver in the park. Our driver, Elijah, received a phone call and told us that there was potentially something very exciting just up the road; indeed, we found three lions lounging in the shade of a large tree. The students were so exciting about the lion sighting that they were willing to speed right past a group of feeding rhinos in order to get there. Incredibly, the second sighting occurred just outside the fence of our campsite. There, lions had made a kill during our absence, and two of the cats were defending their prize from a half dozen jackals and some greedy-looking vultures; they were also being dive-bombed by a brave pied crow. It was quite a surprise to come home to such exciting activity right on our own front porch, as it were, though also a little unnerving to think about how easily the large cats could have hopped over our fence if they’d really wanted to (though why would they with such an abundance of their natural prey available?).

(This is not just a photo of a beautiful landscape; look closely and you may spot some lions lounging under the tree in the center)

(A family of white rhinos–probably the same ones we’d seen the previous evening down by the shoreline of Lake Nakuru)

(We also saw many baboons, of which the students are now very wary because of their experiences at Baboon Cliff)

(Bitter apple nightshade, a plant commonly seen growing by the roadside in Kenya)

We eventually had to tear ourselves away from this natural soap opera in order to have a late breakfast and pack up in preparation for our trip to Naro Moru, our home for the next 3 nights. The drive is not the longest we undertake, but it can still be a little tedious, so we broke it up into several portions separated by brief recreational breaks. Our first stop was at Thompson’s Fall Lodge, where we looked at the waterfall, observed a chameleon that had serendipitously been located near the toilets, and enjoyed some chilled Coca-Cola out of glass bottles—one of the greatest pleasures that can be experienced in the middle of a hot and dusty Kenyan day. Not long afterwards, we stopped again for a picnic lunch at a shop located on (or more likely near) the Equator. The shopkeepers let us use their toilets and chairs/tables because they know that at least some of us will purchase souvenirs; they also earn a small fee by doing a demonstration of how water (supposedly) spirals in different directions when poured on different sides of the Equator.

Having already visited, and shopped in, Kenya twice before, I had not intended to purchase any souvenirs. However, a carved cat caught my eye as I walked through the store, and I could not resist purchasing it. At the insistence of one of the sales people, I haggled very weakly, bargaining him down a mere 300 shillings. Later, however, I made up for this by haggling for another souvenir like a pro; it is the first time I have ever managed to do this, and I am quite proud of myself. I wound up buying two items for 1200 shillings instead of a single item at the original named price of 3700 shillings. A minor portion of the final price—200 shillings—was sneakily pocketed directly by the salesperson, who told his boss at the register that the entire transaction was only 1000 shillings. I don’t mind that at all, though a part of me feels a little guilty about bringing down the price of the items so low. It’s true that shop owners grossly inflate the cost of everything in order to make as great a profit as possible off tourists, but it’s also true that even the exorbitant price is something that I can easily afford—and something that could significantly influence the quality of life for all those who ultimately receive a piece of that payment. Like many aspects of tourism in Kenya, it is a conundrum.

After our lunch break, we made the final push for our campsite. Our route took us past the far side of Solio Game Reserve, which we would be visiting the following day. Solio has a number of unusual and interesting species—including camels (which I assume are semi- or wholly domesticated) oryx, which I have heard about previously but not spotted until today. As much as our eyes were on the animals on the other side of the fence, we were also watching the horizon, where we could see Mount Kenya looming before us behind a massive storm front. We experienced a brief period of intense rain, but luckily this cleared up before we arrived at Mountain Rock Lodge and began to set up our tents.

Mountain Rock is a rather luxurious campsite, where hot showers are the norm rather than the exception, and where there is a bar where students can buy drinks and relax in front of a roaring fire while waiting for dinner to be prepared. Before that could happen, though, we heard a brief talk from Kenyan staff member Martin Odino of Wildlife Direct, who discussed the avian diversity of Kenya and his efforts to conserve it. Throughout the trip, Martin has been known as the person to help with bird identifications, and this presentation offered him an opportunity to show how he applies his expertise.

Post-presentation drinks were followed by a late dinner, after which the students prepared themselves to experience the excitement of trying to sleep through the cacophony of tree hyrax calling.

Lake Nakuru (Day 1): Caitlin’s perspective

The fifth day of our field course begins what is usually my favorite portion of the entire trip, and this year was no exception. We left Top Camp early so that we could run some errands in Naivasha Town before heading on to the biodiversity hotspot that is Lake Nakuru. Our stop in town marked the first time we had visited an urban area rather than simply driving through it. Like most of the built-up Kenyan areas that we see, Naivasha Town is an explosion of color and activity; there are vendors everywhere selling a huge diversity of goods—from caps featuring the insignias of American baseball teams to locally grown bananas and mangoes.

Our main goal in town was to do some grocery shopping to top up on snacks and any essential items that had run out or never been packed at all. The shop that we always visit features a strange collection of goods, with food and toiletries and dishes downstairs, and electronics and appliances upstairs. It is not easy to go shopping in a store where you don’t recognize any of the brands, but it is still fun to wander up and down the aisles looking for treats and exploring what sorts of things are on offer. I seem to buy the same thing every year—a small jar of peanut butter and a couple packs of crackers, which, together, offer a hearty and filling snack that does not get crushed in luggage as easily as potato chips and biscuits. Of course I also had to buy some candy, because it is important to be able to reward yourself with something sugary once you reach the top of Mount Kenya later on in the trip.

(Lake Nakuru under an impending rain storm.)

We reached Nakuru just before lunch, which gave us time to have a bit of a safari before stopping to picnic around midday. Although the water is unusually high this year, there were still a number of Nakuru’s iconic flamingos, along with a huge abundance of other waterbirds—gulls, terns, ducks, herons, ibises, and nearly anything else you might expect in or near a lake. We also saw many mammals, including impala, gazelles, rhinos, vervet monkeys, and baboons. At Baboon Cliff, where we stopped to have lunch, one large male baboon got a little too close to comfort as soon as the first couple buses pulled in; he ran over and reached through the open window in order to steal whatever was closest (a notebook in one bus, and a soccer ball in another). He continued to harass us during lunch, periodically sneaking up and rushing through our group in order to grab bits of food.

(One of two hamerkops that we observed mating by the side of the road. Our bus driver said it was the first time he had ever seen such a thing)

(One of many long-crested eagles seen at Lake Nakuru)

(Two zebras tussle at the base of Baboon Cliff. This was some of the most exciting animal behavior I have ever seen on one of the field courses.)

(View of Lake Nakuru from Baboon Cliff)

One bus group was lucky enough to see a leopard on the way up to the overlook before lunch, and a couple more buses caught a glimpse of the same cat on the way back down afterwards. After a couple dozen safaris, I still have only experienced one leopard sighting, so I hope the students realize how very lucky they were! The lucky streak continued during our evening game drive, when we spotted a female hyena next to a den with several pups, a large family of Verreaux’s eagle-owls, and a fairly large group of white rhinos—again with young. Nakuru’s reputation as a great place to see a high concentration of fantastic species can clearly remain intact.

(Vervet monkey lounging on a fallen log)

We spent the evening in a campsite located in the national park itself. Surrounded by a fence and patrolled by night watchmen, the area is perfectly safe, but still allows visitors to freely experience wild sights, sounds, and smells. Despite some heavy afternoon downpours, the skies were clear all night, and afforded an incredible view of the stars; additionally, we could hear the rumbling, cooing, and yapping of various beasts on the other side of the fence. This evening provides a good taster of what it is like later on in the trip, when we stay at an incredible unfenced site in the Mara Conservancy.

Just like a London bus… (post by MSc student, Luke Meadows)

Sometimes safari can be just like waiting for a London bus…
..you wait ages for 1 to turn up, then 2 come along at once…

But we’re in Kenya, so we’re not talking buses…
We’re talking lions!

 

The background:
Author: Luke Meadows (MSc Conservation & Biodiversity) – that’s me!
Place: Lake Nakuru
Date: Thurs 10th Jan
Time: 7:45am
Activity: Safari
Transport: Van
At the helm: Prof Brendan Godley
Days in Kenya: 7

The anticipation:
7 days I’ve been here in Kenya now. 7 days and still no lion…
7 days of tents, long-drops, sunshine, storms, more birds than I know existed, incredible scenery, awesome biodiversity, outstanding gluten and lactose free food, flower farms, chameleon farming, a near leopard sighting, lots of education, talks, inspiration and even a few hot (yes hot!) showers…

But still no lion.
I’m in Africa.
Where are the lions??

So, it’s today, day 7, we’re here. I’ve folded all 6’5” of me up and back into the back on the van. Cooped up collecting bird data. It’s early (up at 5am). The breakfast wasn’t gluten or lactose free. The shower was cold. We’re driving along the same tracks we drove yesterday alongside Lake Nakuru.

This time there had better be some lions!!

Signs of hope
Prof Godley is at the helm. We’ve been stopping religiously for everything with wings, birds, avian activity and anything with a beak. We’ve also seen incredible wildlife: rhino, giraffe, zebra, waterbuck, buffalo, eland, vultures, hippos, eagles. 43 different species in fact (and counting)…

But still no lion.

And then the Prof Godley takes command. Another bird flies into view, but this time he commands our driver, not to stop, but to,
“Drive on. Sowa sowa. Let’s find ourselves a lion.”
Yes Brendan! My thoughts exactly. Enough of the birds, let’s focus here. Eyes on the prize. Let’s go find us some lion!

We drive on…

Around the corner, through the forest and out into the open savannah.
The safari bus in front of ours has stopped.
Binoculars are out.
What have our fellow students seen?

What’s this?
Wait just one minute…
Could it be…?

Halleluia and oh my good golly gosh, it’s only 3 female lions relaxing in the cooling shade of an Acacia tree!! Lying there, in broad daylight. Wild and in their natural environment. Dreams can come true. And what majestic animals they are. Absolutely stunning. Every inch of their bodies perfectly evolved for the kill – every muscle clearly defined and primed; this is a beast that knows it’s on top of the food chain. Just a shame that they’re being so docile. No kill to see, no carcass nearby… but no one gets lucky enough to see that in just a few days of safari… surely not.

All good things must come to an end (or must they?)
After staring open-mouthed for quite some time at one of the most impressive animals in the world, we reluctantly turn the van around and head back to HQ – high on the sights we’ve just encountered and safe in the knowledge that a fine proper breakfast awaits.

We pull into base camp.
Step out of the bus.
Then a call.
“Lion!” someone yells in celebration.
“Yes” we reply “wasn’t it amazing!”
“No! Lion!
Here!!”

Prof Godley is running off to the base camp’s perimeter fence. Everyone else is running to the fence.

What’s this??
Surely absolutely not.
You have to be joking.
More lions!

Not 500m from our camp are a pair of lions, up, strolling around, in full view, protecting their fresh kill from some pesky jackals. Unbelievable. They’re there, just outside our camp. Feeding, dragging the carcass, chasing off the jackals and looking pretty happy with themselves. Stunning. We all lean on the fence, transfixed, watching the lions’ every single move, every flick of the ear, every tear at the kill, every pace forward with the prey between those powerful jaws, dragging it away from any scavengers – away to the serene calm at the base of a shady acacia tree.

Incredible. I could have stayed there all day in the African heat, watching one of the finest sights the natural world has to offer.

Like a London bus (that I’m so very pleased not to be anywhere near), you wait for ages, then 2 come along at once.

It’s not every day you see not 1, but 5 lions – all before breakfast.
Now all we need to see is the hunt in action.
We couldn’t be that lucky…

Could we…?
(p.s. maybe the lions knew it was Said’s birthday and wanted to wish him many happy returns in their own special way. Happy Birthday Said!)

Lake Nakuru National Park

General Information

Nakuru town is Kenya’s fourth largest, with a population of 400,000 people. Not far from the town is Nakuru National Park, which lies in the center of the country, 140 kilometers northwest of Nairobi in the Rift Valley Province. The ecosystem contains a like that is surrounded by mainly wooded and bushy grasslands. The park supports approximately 56 different species of mammals, including the white rhino and buffalo, as well as up to 450 species of terrestrial birds. Lake Nakuru was the first site in Kenya to become protected under the RAMSAR Convention.

(Flamingos and pelicans line the shore of Lake Nakuru, Kenya. Image courtesy of Caitlin Kight.)

Lake Nakuru has been named and/or protected over the years by a variety of conservation acts. It was named a bird sanctuary (1960), a national park (1968), a rhino sanctuary (1987), the first Kenyan RAMSAR site (1999), an Important Bird Area (1999), a world-class national park (2005), and an International Bird Sanctuary (2009).

Biodiversity and Ecology

Terrestrial flora and fauna. The park is home to approximately 56 species of mammals and 450 species of birds. It is an enclosed habitat of acacia woodland, which provides nest/shelter for migratory and resident birds, food for Rothschild’s giraffes (Giraffa camelopardalis rothschildi), black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis), olive baboon (Papio anubis), and vervet monkeys (Chlorocebus pygerythrus), among other species.

(Vervet monkey at the entrance to Lake Nakuru National Park. Image courtesy of Caitlin Kight.)

Aquatic flora and fauna. Lake Nakuru is a small, shallow, alkaline-saline endorheic lake situated within Lake Nakuru National Park. The lake supports prominent populations of lesser flamingos (Phoeniconaias minor), greater flamingos (Phoenocopterus ruber), and great white pelicans (Pelicanus onocrotalus), along with many other avian species. The lake is also home to a single species of copepod (Lovenula africana), midge larva (Leptochironomous deribae), and an alkaline-tolerant cichlid (Oreochromis alcalicus grahmi) introduced to control mosquito populations. The lake is abundant in algae in warm seasons on which the flamingos feed.

Threats

Nakuru Town’s population is constantly increasing. Thus, the lake’s basin is increasingly heavily settled, extensively cultivated, and rapidly urbanizing. Human disturbances to the lake’s water may facilitate conditions that threaten local wildlife; certain species of cyanobacteria, for example, may proliferate and contaminate the water with toxins that kill flamingos. Another threat in the park is invasive grass species that provide less biomass than native plants. These may potentially reduce the amount of food available to grazing herbivores. Perhaps most worrying is the threat of poaching, which has caused managers to create a protective fence around the park; while this keeps potential poachers out, it prevents migration and other natural animal movements.

Conservation concerns

Noted recent declines in flamingos may result from: urbanization and its associated pollution; watershed conversion and changes in water quality; intensive crop production; tourism; or all of the above.

Other globally threatened species in the park include the Rothschild’s giraffe (endangered), the black rhino (critically endangered), and the hippopotamus (vulnerable); regionally endangered species include the African darter, great egret, grey-crested helmet-shrike, and lesser kestrel.

(A trio of lions lounges on a fallen log. Image courtesy of Caitlin Kight.)

Content by: Shareen Arnold, Alexander Denton, Riana Gardiner, Zak Mitchell, Liliana Poggio Colman, Louisa Wood (MSc students)

References and further reading:

E. Vareschi (1978) The ecology of Lake Nakuru (Kenya) I -­‐ Abundance and feeding of the Lesser Flamingo. Oecologia, Vol. 32, p.11-35.

N. Dharani et al. (2006) Structure and composition of Acacia xanthophloea
woodland in Lake Nakuru National Park, Kenya. African Journal of Ecology, Vol. 44, p. 523-530.

A. Ballot et al. (2004) Cyanobacteria and cyanobacterial toxins in three alkaline rift valley lakes of Kenya -­‐ Lakes Borgoria, Nakuru and Elmenteita. Journal of Plankton Research, Vol. 26, No. 8, p. 925-935.

E.O. Odada et al. (2006) Experience and lessons learned brief. International Lake Environment Committee, Lake Basin Management Initiative.

C.C. Ng’weno et al. (2010) Distribution, density and impact of invasive plants in Lake Nakuru National Park, Kenya. African Journal of Ecology, Vol. 48, p. 905‐913.

C.C. Ng’weno et al. (2010) Distribution, density and impact of invasive plants in Lake Nakuru National Park, Kenya. African Journal of Ecology, Vol. 48, p. 905‐913.