Kenya safari - November, 2006
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For some years, a full African safari had been at the top of our most wanted holidays, and it was this year that we finally realised the dream. We had been fortunate to have been on a short weekend safari to Phinda in South Africa, which certainly whetted our appetites. However, enjoyable as it was to track for a limited number of generally reintroduced animals within the reserve, the lure of the East African plains and the potential for huge numbers of wildlife in the open was paramount.
The decision of where to go was simplified on cost grounds. Botswana, Zambia, etc, sounded idyllic, but these destinations are restricting the impact of tourism by charging high prices. Alas, our budget this year was well outside of these destinations, so Kenya it was. Despite this, the experience we had was superb, with good lodging and food, but particularly masses of wildlife, and many species in both good numbers and also close proximity. We chose the package offered by Travel Collection (www.travelcollection.co.uk) which is a budget branch of the well established Kuoni group, and who we used for our trip to Borneo last year. The more than reasonable cost included a varied itinerary of different reserves over 8 nights, as well as 5 nights “chilling out” at a medium class hotel on the beach at Mombassa.
Many hours passed in the quest for varied habitat, although this may have been less in mileage terms, since the roads often led to very slow speeds. This is an unfortunate situation now within Kenya. Some roads were quite reasonable, with one or two short stretches being under construction. However, most roads were at least potholed, and some quite lengthy stretches were so bad that we had to drive on the roadside edges. Having a driver included was a definite boon, since directions and road layouts are poor, with the vehicle itself receiving a hammering. Time of travel between reserves was relatively high, for instance 5 hours from Nairobi to Samburu, and 6 hours from Naivasha to the Masai Mara.
Reserves and accommodation
This relatively small reserve (about 100 km2) is 325 Km North of Nairobi, and is located on the northern banks of the Ewaso Ngiro river. Buffalo Springs reserve, which is slightly smaller, is on the opposite side (South) of the river, and we crossed the bridge to the West of Samburu Lodge on the last afternoon game drive to this area. Samburu is generally a dry semi open and arid reserve, with a reasonable amount of mainly thorn bush cover, but little grass. It thus provides larger mammals such as Elephant and (Reticulated) Giraffe with good feeding grounds. However, we had heard that the night after we left, torrential rains had closed the reserve, both to outside traffic, and also to game drives within the reserve itself. Additional species which are specialities of the more northerly reserves include Grévy’s Zebra, (Beisa) Gemsbok, and Gerenuk, as well as the Somalian race of Ostrich.
There only seem to be about 5 lodges in Samburu, with Samburu Lodge lying along the northern bank of the river. It is certainly a very comfortable accommodation, with well appointed rooms (and also a tented area), and plenty of character, including reception, lobby and restaurant all being in the open air under tents. This gives the resident Vervet Monkeys a good chance to steal food whenever the guard is lowered. Crocodiles are common along the river, but the management have decided in their dubious wisdom to feed them in a safe area at 6pm each evening for closer views. A tadge too theatrical when surrounded by a wealth of wild show stoppers for my taste. A hunk of meat is also hung out on the opposite bank of the river in the hope of attracting Leopard. The grounds are worth exploring for a small but tasty variety of birds, with the pick including close Red-billed Hornbills, Superb Starlings, and White-browed Sparrow-weavers, as well as regular Nubian Woodpecker and Grey-headed Kingfisher.
It’s difficult to know how to classify Treetops. It is situated in a verdant and wildlife rich area of the Aberdare Mountains, but seems to be unique in its operation. We were only allowed to take a small backpack with overnight essentials, since the rooms are very small with no amenities. The stay is initiated with a visit to the Outspan Hotel, which is the parent hotel of Treetops. The majority of the luggage is tagged and left here, and then the guests are transported by bus in a 30 minute ride to Treetops. The gardens around the Outspan are worth a stroll after lunch, since I saw numerous Sunbirds (Variable and Scarlet-chested), as well as Yellow White-eyes and Tambourine Doves, with an unidentified large Hornbill passing through.
The Treetops experience is based around watching the wildlife visit the two water holes, and this means throughout the night as well as the last couple of hours of daylight. There is a buzzer system in each of the rooms to alert those who are interested to the presence of popular animals (Hyaena, Leopard, Elephant and Black Rhinoceros). There was a constant traffic of animals throughout the visit, with the highlights being a herd of Elephants at midnight, and a Buffalo seeing off a visiting Black Rhinoceros. Some interesting birds were seen around the pools, with the only Black Crakes, Yellow-billed & Red-billed Ducks, and Red-knobbed Coots of the trip. Speke’s Weavers and Greater Blue-eared Glossy-starlings were common, and even regularly visited the bird table within the building.
We did what more or less amounted to a slow drive through along the southern shore of this famous lake. The prime reason for any visit is usually to see the millions of flamingos, and they were certainly abundant when we were there. All the birds that I looked at were Lesser Flamingos, and it was possible to get quite close to them on foot when the bus stopped on the alkaline shore for a short time. Many Black Rhinoceros have been relocated here, but the species that we saw were the more exposed grazing White Rhinoceros. The area was also good for the Rothschild’s subspecies of Giraffe, as well as regular White-fronted Bee-eaters.
After an enjoyable lunch at Lake Nakuru lodge, we stayed for an evening and the following morning at Lake Naivasha Country Club, which is a rather impressive accommodation on the shores of the lake. The grounds themselves are both spacious and of a birding interest. The real wildlife action is at the head of the gardens, where there is a jetty protruding into the lake. The walk to here found African Paradise-flycatchers, Black-headed Orioles, and Long-crested Eagle, but there was even more to be seen along the shoreline of the lake. Waders included Three-banded Plover, ducks Hottentot Teal and Southern Pochard, and 2 magnificent African Fish-eagles were perched on a bare tree alongside the jetty. Pelicans were coming and going constantly, and the multitudes of Great Cormorants contained the odd Long-tailed Cormorant.
Even more enjoyable was the discovery that it is quite safe to walk on the adjoining grazing land adjoining the hotel gardens. Here we walked past Wildebeest, Waterbuck, and saw herds of Zebra and Giraffe in the distance. White-fronted Bee-eaters played around the isolated bushes as we progressed, and we also chanced upon a small group of Grey-backed Fiscals.
For sheer numbers of wildlife and the wide open vista spectacle of the African Savannah, perhaps the best of the safari was left until last. We spent 3 nights here, with game drives in the morning and evening of the first full day, and a full day game drive on the second day. The rough tracks crisscrossed the open plains in a relatively subtle jigsaw, and the animal numbers were dominated by the antelope, headed by Wildebeest, and supported by Thomson’s & Grant’s Gazelles, with supporting casts of Topi and numerous African Buffalo. Due to the nature of the safari, many birds were passed by to allow for the interests of the group, but many others were locked on to and enjoyed by all. Even the non birding fraternity seemed to enjoy Ostrich, Secretary Bird, Ground Hornbill, varied Vultures, Lilac-breasted Rollers, and many more.
Our accommodation in this idyll was the Keekorok Lodge, which surprisingly has no outer fences. The beauty of this was that it created a more open and natural feel, highlighted by a small group of Zebra feeding on the front lawns one evening, but the dangers (which are apparently rare) exemplified by a Buffalo attack near to our own cabin later on. That being said, there is a rich mixture of birds which can be found by wandering the grounds through the day between game drives. The open grassed area seems to attract regular Superb & Hildebrandt’s Starlings, Purple Grenadiers, Grey-capped Social-weavers, and White-bellied Canaries amongst others. The trees throughout are even better, and finds here included Mariqua & Scarlet-chested Sunbirds, Chinspot Batis, White-browed Scrub-robin, Cardinal Woodpecker, White-throated Bee-eater, and Bare-faced Go-away-bird. A path through the edge of the trees leads to a Hippo pool, which unfortunately was too dry for Hippos during our visit, but did hold Wooly-necked Storks, White-headed amongst Black Sawwings, and a Bateleur overhead.
Mombassa Beach Hotel
The last 5 nights of our Kenyan sojourn were spent here. The hotel is on the beach to the North of Mombassa, and has potentially some very interesting and well vegetated grounds. These did have one or two interesting species, but it was evident after a few days that the same birds were being seen, including Golden Palm Weaver, Speckled Mousebird, Purple-banded Sunbird, African Palm-swift, and the noisy and unfortunately introduced House Crows. The fun came with a couple of early morning walks along the beach. This found two main habitats – a rocky shoreline which was good for waders (including a couple of long awaited Crab Plovers), and a scrubby area just to the rear of the sandy margins. The latter habitat turned up goodies such as Tropical Boubou, Fischer’s Lovebird, Zanzibar Red Bishop, Lilac-breasted Roller, and White-browed Coucal.
Timing and weather
There are two wet seasons in Kenya. The main one is in the Spring, but there is also a “mini wet” season at the end of the year, just when we decided to visit. Despite the reports of Samburu being flooded just after we left (heavy rain fell at the same time as we were leaving Treetops) we were very lucky in that no rain fell during the day at any of our locations. The nights on safari were pleasantly cool (to downright cold when watching wildlife from the terraces during the night at Treetops) due to the altitude, but Mombassa reminded us of our proximity to the equator with very high temperatures during all hours.
Various inoculations are required for Kenya, including Yellow Fever. We only really experienced insect bites at Mombassa, where mosquitoes didn’t seem to a problem apart from the odd itchy patch which appeared. However, this is also the main area of the country where malaria can be a problem, making anti-malarials essential.
The “Field Guide to the Birds of East Africa” by Terry Stevenson and John Fanshawe (T & AD Poyser) has to be the best ID guide to the regions birds. The plates are excellent, and the text and maps sufficient for accurate identification, while being placed in the preferable facing the plates format. Due to the large number of species which occur in the region, the book isn’t light, although I believe there is now a paperback version available.
Samburu (Day 1)
The flight from the UK to Nairobi landed after dark, and so there wasn’t a great deal of the countryside to be seen until the following morning, apart from what seemed to be hordes of Marabou Storks perched on the tops of trees lining the roads through the city streets. The first full day had as its objective a journey from Nairobi to the northern game reserve of Samburu, culminating in a short game drive before booking into Samburu Lodge for a two night stay. The journey took most of the day. We started off with breakfast at around 7:30, stumbling straight away across African Pied Wagtails around the breakfast tables. Returning to the room unearthed a couple of Speckled Mousebirds.
We set off in a loose “convoy” of 6 safari buses, each with its compliment of 6 passengers. The drive was along roads of various conditions, until we arrived at the gates of Samburu about 1½ hours before dark. Most of the route was through populated areas, which meant no mammalian interest, and only a limited amount of birding presence. Those that were seen were mainly Pied Crows, Ring-necked Doves, Superb Starlings, and Common Fiscals. However, a perched Long-crested Eagle was picked up as we sped past its roadside lookout post. Two hours after departure, we stopped for a rest at a curio shop, which did turn up a couple of birds (Baglafecht Weaver and Red-billed Firefinch), before continuing to our lunch stop. This proved to be a refreshing experience, being an al fresco barbeque surrounded by woods, and based on a fish farm from which our lunch was extracted. A couple of Olive Thrushes during lunch preceded a tour around the grounds, which unearthed a Double-collared Sunbird (not specifically identified), 2-3 Mariqua Sunbirds, yet more Speckled Mousebirds, and, as we completed the walk, close and impressive White-eyed Slaty-flycatchers. A handful of Singing Cisticolas habituated their preferred marshy abode.
The final part of the journey turned into a rally, since once we had passed through the last checkpoint, which was apparently to sieve through for Somalian refugees, we proceeded to tear along a very uneven yet wide track through increasingly interesting shrub and bush country to eventually arrive at the gates of Samburu. This was where the real fun started. Once through the gates, I vacated my shotgun seat in the bus when the roof was opened for proper game viewing. No sooner had we set off than a small collection of Reticulated Giraffes crossed the track around us, interspersed with a few Grévy’s Zebras. Birds continued to be by and large difficult to identify, since the primary objective for the group was to see mammals, although we did stop to take in a huddle of 3 juvenile Ostriches. However, we did unearth a single Kori Bustard, plenty of Vulturine Guineafowl, lesser numbers of Yellow-necked Spurfowl, various Glossy Starlings, and noisy groups of both White-browed Sparrow-weavers and White-headed Buffalo-weavers. Despite the late start to the game drive, we totted up more mammalian wildlife in the guise of Gerenuk, Grant’s Gazelle, Impala, impressively close Elephant, African Buffalo, and a pair of somnolescent Lions. We reached the Lodge as the light was fading, but not too late to spot a handful of Vervet Monkeys monitoring our progress through the grounds with interest.
Samburu morning game drive (Day 2)
After a delicious cup of cold tea, we began the first morning game drive at 6:30, and this lasted about 2½ hours, where we crossed many of the same tracks as on arrival the previous evening. The morning was fairly calm and warm, and we zigzagged the reserve during the drive, seeing both familiar species from yesterday and a growing addition of new ones. Reticulated Giraffes again opened up the assembly, with 5-6 gently grazing a path through the acacias. The Lion pair was only metres from their former position, and proceeded energetically to sleep within snoring distance of the watching tourists. Patience was rewarded after about 15 minutes, when the female woke up, had a short groom, before offering herself to the male. Behind the Lions, a party of White-headed Mousebirds passed through, and the adjacent riverbank held a pair of Water Thick-knees, with European Bee-eaters flying over the water. A further welcome addition to our mammalian wanted list was a herd of Elephants with small young. A single female with small follower were seen initially, but these were followed by a much larger herd making their way through the foliage. During the morning, some eagerly awaited birds put in an appearance, with characteristic sightings of Secretary Bird and Martial Eagle perhaps topping the roster. A stunning single Golden-breasted Starling was in an acacia being bypassed by the strutting Secretary Bird. An impressive and entertaining display was given by a young Brown Snake-eagle, which was totally perplexed as to how to catch and devour an equally sized Monitor Lizard on the ground. It danced around the unconcerned reptile for some time before realising the futility of the situation. Some species proved to be very common in the bush, including Superb Starling, White-browed Sparrow-weaver, and White-headed Buffalo-weaver. The two other possible Mousebird species, White-headed and Blue-naped, were also added to the trip list during the morning. Rosy-throated Longclaw and d’Arnauds Barbet only gave fleeting views as we drove by, but a pair of Eastern Chanting-goshawks and a couple of Pygmy Falcons were much more obliging. As we were almost re-entering the confines of Samburu Lodge, we stopped for a small troop of Baboons next to the track, with Little Bee-eater forming a flypast.
Samburu through the day
With the time between game drives being around 7 hours, there was plenty of the day to kill, so I spent an hour or two pacing around the grounds of Samburu Lodge. General wandering was only allowed within the grounds of the lodge rooms, unless a guide was taken, and I preferred the former restriction with freedom and ability to make my own identification mistakes than to have a chaperone and posse of additional guests. Very common and equally tame were Red-billed Hornbills and Superb Starlings, some tottering up to only a few metres away. Equally as confiding was a small band of White-browed Sparrow-weavers which were feeding on the lawn towards the end of the lodge boundary. It was also here that I had a couple of sightings of Grey-headed Kingfisher, and a nesting Sunbird, which appeared to be either Scarlet-chested or Hunter’s. When I ventured to the rear of the rooms, a tiny African Pygmy-kingfisher landed briefly on the tangle of branches not far from where I was standing. Vultures were a frequent sight here, if only in small numbers. The juveniles were predictably impossible to identify, but the adults seemed to indicate that all were White-backed. Other confiding birds included Southern Black-flycatcher, with one almost landing on my feet to catch its prey. One of the most impressive sights was from a Martial Eagle soaring over the reception area. Below this, and just outside of the gates, a Black-backed Puffback was greatly outnumbered by Blue-naped Mousebirds. Further round the compound was a complimentary group of White-headed Mousebirds. Sedately flowing alongside the lodge is the river, with a group of menacing Nile Crocodiles sunbathing on the opposite bank. A couple of Striated Herons mingled with the crocs, with a trio of Pink-backed Pelicans over. Perhaps one of the strangest of the resident birds here is the White-bellied Go-away-bird, which eventually showed well.
Evening game drive
We set off from the lodge at 4 in the afternoon, and after swiftly passing a Rufous-crowned Roller, we doubled back on ourselves and crossed the river to enter the Buffalo Springs reserve. A Yellow-billed Stork greeted the crossing, and we then embarked on 2½ hours of game drive through a subtlely different habitat, in a much stiller, warmer, and clearer evening than we had experienced. The vegetation seemed to be much more open and low growing than in Samburu reserve. Initially, there were far fewer animals present, apart from a huge Waterbuck hiding in the shade, and the usual plethora of Red-billed Hornbills and White-browed Sparrow-weavers. After an almost barren 30 minutes, we headed to a much flatter part of the reserve, where we stumbled upon a large herd of Elephants. This was the elephant topping on the cake, since it contained a good range of ages, including a very young calf, being sheltered by its older family members. One large tusker even threw an impatient trumpet at us. We then climbed through some more enclosed bush, passing the first Gerenuks since entry yesterday, as well as single Von der Decken’s Hornbill. We emerged on a flat escarpment, with impressive male Baisa Gemsbok and Grant’s Gazelle to either side. We then stopped with another 10 or so safari vehicles to alight and admire the vista of the plains beneath, which stretched towards the hills of the North. Herds of Elephant, Gemsbok, and Zebra could be seen winding towards the river in the distance. I broke away from the group for a short time, and found a small and initially elusive collection of Fischer’s Sparrow-larks, which were seemingly unaware of my presence, with Red-billed Buffalo-weaver close at hand. We were one of the last buses to leave here, but then the driver sped up, and after only stopping to gorge on Kori Bustard, we eventually pulled up alongside a collection of safari buses to gaze on a Leopard strewn across the branches of a large tree. The fading light caught it beautifully. Despite being the commonest of the three large African cats, it tends to be the hardest to locate, due to its nocturnal and stealth hunting habits, leaving this as an unexpected treat at the end of the game drive.
Morning Samburu, evening Treetops (Day 3)
We packed the safari bus at Samburu, and left the lodge at 8 in the morning, but only after adding a few more species to the trip list, with early African Mourning Dove and Speckled Pigeon just outside of the room. As opposed to the sedate drive through the reserve of the game drives, the intention this time was to make headway towards our next destination, so we zipped past herds of Impala, Grant’s Gazelle, and Gemsbok to the delights of the rough track southwards. We again stopped at a curio shop half way on the journey to lunch, and more diligence here paid just rewards, with what looked like Brimstone or White-bellied Canary singing from the wires above, and a pair of African Citrils subsequently landing on the same spot. A rather dingy and washed out Kenyan Rufous Sparrow was on the entrance fence, while Common Fiscal hunted from its perch across the road.
We eventually reached the Outspan Hotel, which serves as the reception and base for Treetops, and offered a more than acceptable lunch overlooking impressive and lively gardens. Various birds could be seen as we sat and munched on lunch, which left ¾ of an hour or so to wander and seek. Most prevalent were Variable Sunbirds, which had to be seen well to separate from Collared Sunbird, due to the local subspecies here having yellow belly similar to the latter species. A stunning Scarlet-chested Sunbird also appeared amongst the flowering plants. Within the bushes were a couple of pairs of Yellow White-eyes, as well as a shy and retiring Tambourine Dove. The suitcases had to be left at the Outspan, due to restricted space in the rooms at Treetops, and about 100 or so guests were pinched into 3 medium sized buses for the half an hour transfer. Just as we entered the boundary of Treetops, a Blue Monkey (probably the Kenyan race – Sykes’s) was spotted rooting around in the trees.
Treetops is very much a novelty, looking like a wooden built artefact from the past, and functions as a sort of sleep over superhide, with water holes either side of the viewing balconies. Despite being offered the chance of a 2 hour safari around the reserve, for the sum of £20 each, the decision was made to use the uniqueness of the place to observe the animals coming to us. This meant that from 4pm until darkness fell, which was around 7pm, a selection of mammals were scrutinised, including various antelopes, a large troop of Baboons, the first Warthogs of the trip, which eventually turned into tens of Warthogs strewn around the reserve, and a hefty party of African Buffalos. The vigil also produced an interesting if limited number of bird species, with a healthy colony of Speke’s Weaver nesting on both of the water holes, with the odd Baglafecht Weaver occasionally joining them. Greater Blue-eared Glossy-starlings were also self evident, with plentiful Little Swifts in the air, presumably with nests within the wooden structure somewhere. With patience, a smart African Green-pigeon landed on the salt lick next to one of the water holes, with a Cape Wagtail and a small number of Black Crakes amongst the reeds. A single Silvery-cheeked Hornbill landed on a large bare tree in the distance. Once it was dark enough for the floodlights to be switched on, an Elephant strolled in on the scene. Just before we were about to go to dinner, a pair of Spotted Hyaenas put in a sinister appearance, the first of the trip.
After dinner, some of the animals put on a bit of a show. The earlier Elephant was added to by a second, with an African Buffalo joining the group. It is said that Elephants have a poor tolerance of other animals at water holes, but the Buffalo had other ideas. Despite the Elephants squaring up, the Buffalo was immovable. A Black Rhino entered the scene at about 10:30pm, edged its way around to the spot where the other behemoths were residing, and the Buffalo repeated its belligerence by seeing it off, whereupon it left the vicinity completely. On the opposite side of the lodge, a larger pack of four Hyaenas looked constantly as if they were up to no good, and they eventually left the area just before midnight. Just before retiring, a small herd of Elephants appeared, including small calf and larger juvenile, and mooched around the saline water hole before ambling into the distance and the dark.
Treetops to Lake Nakuru (Day 4)
We set off from Treetops at 8:30am in the pouring rain, with no animals to be seen at either of the water holes, apart from a trio of Grey-crowned Cranes which had flown in during the night. Apparently, the heavy rain had been widespread, and we heard that Samburu had been flooded, bringing to a halt all game drives and even transfers into and out of the reserve. Once we had picked up our bags from the Outspan Hotel, we made our way to Lake Nakuru through tracts of broken cloud and rain. Once at Lake Nakuru reserve, the weather had brightened up somewhat, with little or no rain throughout the drive. Vervet Monkeys again greeted our arrival through the gates, which mark the beginning of a 12Km or so track on the South side of the saline lake, slicing through open grassland bordered by woodland. The myriads of Lesser Flamingos were expected, but the herds of mammals weren’t. We quickly passed Plains Zebra and African Buffalo, finding 3 feeding Rothschild’s Giraffes amongst the bushes and trees. The pair which were closest to us seemed to be about the same size and age, until one started to suckle from the other. A pair of White-fronted Bee-eaters was near to the Giraffes. Nearby were both Grant’s and Thomson’s Gazelles, interspersed by the odd Warthog and troops of Baboons. After feasting on close views of a pair of White Rhinos, we stopped the safari bus and walked closer to a selection of the Lesser Flamingos, with the familiar stench of salty mud all around us. We had almost completed the South side tour when we passed two feeding Warthogs, which stopped their culinary foraging as we stopped, and proceeded to have a bit of a battle instead. We were due to have lunch at the Lake Nakuru Lodge, and as we approached from the end of the lake, good numbers of Northern Anteater-chats were encountered, with a Lilac-breasted Roller standing sentinel outside of the entrance gates.
The final part of the day was the journey from Lake Nakuru to Lake Naivasha, traversing a wide variety of roads, from brand new and gleemingly smooth, to some of the worst postholes and ruts we had yet encountered. We arrived at the Lake Naivasha Country Club at 5pm, and found the comfortable rooms to be set in spacious grounds, which rolled down to the shores of the lake itself. Walking down to the jetty, we were immediately overlooked by 3 Rothschild’s Giraffes, but no signs of any of the African Fish-eagles for which the lake is well known. Many other water birds were in the vicinity, with pride of place to the Pied Kingfishers fishing from and above the jetty itself. A small group of Hottentot Teals and a Yellow-billed Duck were in the water, with Pelicans, mainly White, in the distance. A mixture of waders were feeding along the mud-fringed shore, with Three-banded Plovers and Marsh Sandpipers being picked out of the throng. A group of 4 Hippos made themselves known, wallowing in the water about 50 metres away. As I approached our room, with the light fading, there was a great deal of commotion and noise from the two palm trees above, and this turned out to be a roosting site for Fischer’s Lovebirds.
Lake Naivasha (Day 5)
After a slightly longer lie in due to no morning safari and a welcome breakfast, we wandered through the grounds of the hotel. We were greeted by the sight of a Sacred Ibis on a large bird bath while strolling towards the jetty. Even more majestic was the welcoming duo of African Fish-eagles perched on a bare tree just down from the jetty, where they lingered for some time. Many of the birds present the previous even were still foraging along the shoreline, with the dominant species by number being White Pelican and Great Cormorant. Single Southern Pochard added to the wildfowl fare, along with the familiar Hottentot Teals and Yellow-billed Duck. Additional waders were Avocets, Ruff and Little Stints. The Hippos were now a little further into the distance, this time forming a platform for some perched Great Cormorants. Along the edge of the lake were also occasional Long-tailed Cormorants.
When walking back from the jetty, we realised that we were able to walk freely on the open grazing land adjacent to the hotel grounds. This was quite an exciting prospect, since we had spotted the first Wildebeest of the trip in the distance. After wading through plenty of wild animal poo, the bushes became sparser, and a few White-fronted Bee-eaters were found, along with small collections of Spur-winged & Blacksmith Lapwings. Wildebeest and Waterbuck allowed us to approach quite closely, with larger herds of both in the distance, along with Impala and 3-4 Giraffes. White-fronted Bee-eaters continued to appear, until we re-entered the trees, and found a trio of Grey-backed Fiscals. A juvenile African Fish-eagle flew into the trees and was found perched. The return walk to the hotel for lunch continued to unearth more birds, with 3 African Paradise-flycatchers, Black-headed Oriole, and Long-crested Eagle.
The drive to the Masai Mara was long, with initially smooth roads giving way to possibly the worst we had encountered. However, after a couple of hours, the habitat which we traversed changed to more open bush country, with not only Plains Zebra and Thomson’s Gazelle being picked out, but also Secretary Bird and Kori Bustard. The Masai Mara was reached well before Keekorok Lodge, and as soon as we entered the boundaries of the reserve itself, the animal activity escalated. Thousands of Wildebeest were joined by Kenyan Giraffe, Elephant, and Plains Zebra, with the usual multitudes of gazelles & antelope. The intention was to proceed to Keekorok Lodge, but a collection of safari vehicles drew us to a pair of Lionesses, and a male Lion a little further on. In the vicinity were also a couple of White-browed Coucals and a Sooty Chat perched quite close to us. As we approached Keekorok Lodge with the light fading, we noticed large numbers of Wildebeest and Antelope just outside of the hotel boundary.
Masai Mara game drive (Day 6)
As usual, we started the morning game drive to the Masai Mara at 6:30, with the sky looking clear and a cool breeze blowing. This was only after a swift cup of coffee accompanied by Purple Grenadiers and Superb Starlings at our feet. It was immediately obvious that the terrain here was very different to Samburu, with vast open plains filled with many sizeable herds of mainly Wildebeest, along with Plains Zebra and a selection of antelope. They were even waiting in good numbers as we exited the gates of the lodge, with the addition of some African Buffalo next to the track. Our first hit of the day was a duo of Black-backed Jackals, taking it easy amongst the leg high grasses, with a watching Black-bellied Bustard standing guard nearby. We continually passed the masses of Wildebeest, when the driver made a sharp turn, aiming for a couple of parked safari vehicles. This was to observe what proved to one of the highlights of the trip. Ensconced in a small “wigwam” of high grasses was a female Cheetah with 5 very young cubs. We gorged on this spectacle for some time, watching as the family eventually wandered off through the low grasses. Back on the hunt again, we passed an adult Ostrich and Yellow-throated Longclaw, shortly after finding another small collection of safari vans, eagerly watching a pride of 7 or so spread out Lions, three of which were feeding on a recently killed Wildebeest. A female was approached to almost tickling distance, 2 cubs were busy play fighting, and all of the time there was a constant flypast of White-rumped Swifts. Even on the walk back to the room on return to Keekorok Lodge, a quick inspection of the swimming pool unearthed a White-browed Robin-chat, with a single Grosbeak Weaver feeding in front of the room.
Following breakfast, I had the opportunity to have a good look around the Keekorok Lodge grounds. These are set in the centre of the Masai Mara, yet have no restraining fence around the boundary, so in theory animals are free to come and go as they please. The individual lodges radiate from the dining and restaurant building, with a central lawn. A track leads from here along a boardwalk to the Hippo pool, which had too little water during our visit for noteable Hippo appearances. Some birds were regularly seen around the grounds, such as Superb Starling, Purple Grenadier, White-bellied Canary, and Black Sawwing (occasionally supporting the odd White-headed Sawwing). Many more interesting birds were found during the exploration, including small flocks of Speckled Mousebird, intermittent sightings of Cardinal Woodpecker, and an African Hoopoe, which seemed to have a favoured spot on the lawn. The White-browed Robin-chat was also relocated, still around the pool area, with the Superb Starlings harbouring the occasional Hildebrandt’s Starling, and later on a few Rüppell’s Long-tailed Starlings. Sunbirds were common, particularly in front of the reception, and they took some sorting out, with the identification eventually falling to Mariqua Sunbird, as opposed to the smaller Purple-banded. Scarlet-chested Sunbirds were dotted in amongst these. On the lawn below, among the White-bellied Canaries, were small numbers of Grey-headed Social-weavers and Common Bulbuls. The Hippo pool was very quiet, apart from 3 Wooly-necked Storks, a few Three-banded Plovers & Wood Sandpipers, with 2 brief Yellow-throated Longclaws.
Masai Mara game drive
The evening game drive began very well, with a Mongoose passing the track in front of us, and then an African Pygmy-kingfisher directly over it when we stopped for a closer look. We then covered the plains to the opposite side of the main track to the morning, where the wildlife was much quieter than earlier. We did bump into a small pride of Lions, comprising 2 females and 5 playful partly grown cubs. Thomson’s Gazelles and Plains Zebra were very common, and we passed small numbers of Elephant and Giraffe. Later additions to the antelope were small numbers of Grant’s Gazelles and Topi. Birds were low in numbers, apart from Lilac-breasted Roller and 2 Ostriches. Ground dwelling birds were usually Bustards, with a couple of White-bellied adding to the Black-bellied, but a Scaly Francolin and Harlequin Quail were bypassed quickly by the safari bus towards the end of the drive. The last animal seen was a single Spotted Hyaena, resting before the nights harassing as the light began to fade.
Masai Mara game drive (Day 7)
In contrast to the usual format of morning and evening game drives, today the drivers decided to vary this by conducting a full day game drive with lunch al fresco. The objective was to leave at around 8:30 and head for the Talek River where Wildebeest often cross in season, with a late afternoon return. This we duly did and we left to begin the game drive. The first task of the day was to visit one of the local Masai villages, and on the way to this divert where necessary for anything interesting. A good initial sign for the day ahead was a ghostly male Pallid Harrier on the ground as we passed. A group of vultures, represented by Rüppell’s Griffon and White-backed, was on the ground in the distance and presumably at a carcass – they wouldn’t be the first such group that we would see through the day! After passing one or two Sooty Chats and a pair of perched Mosque Swallows, we left the reserve to savour the village. Once we had completed our tourist task, we returned again to the reserve to continue with the faunal delights, immediately chancing upon a pair of Ground Hornbills amongst the grazing Wildebeest. We then headed on through the plains to the North-west, and this is where we had some of he best big cat views yet. First was a little perplexing, when a female Lion was discovered under a bush with a dead Thomson’s Gazelle. The cat obviously wasn’t hungry, since it just played with the carcass, but it was also unusual for a gazelle to be caught by a Lion. The theory was that it had been stolen from another predator such as a Leopard or a Cheetah. We then caught up with a trio of Cheetahs prowling the plains – a mother and her well grown cubs. After shadowing them for a short distance, they caught sight of a pair of Thomson’s Gazelles, and as we made our way towards the unsuspecting antelope the Cheetahs started the stalk. Unfortunately (for us, not the gazelles!), they were spotted with time to spare, and we were treated to the exhilarating spectacle of a chasing Cheetah in full sprint. Following this, we rounded the three when they maintained a pose on a handy lookout mound.
Back on the tracks again, and we passed our first Northern White-crowned Shrike, along with one or two Lilac-breasted Rollers, until we arrived at the bridge over the Talek River. We stopped for a short break here, taking in one or two basking Hippos, Hammerkop, and a handful of Grey-backed Cameropteras. The spot for our picnic on the plains was just a short drive from here, where we noshed under the shade of a lone tree, with views over the grasslands with its incumbent herds, with the Serengeti of Tanzania visible in the distance. While we chomped, soaring Tawny and Martial Eagles were overhead, with the surrounding grasslands holding both Grassland & Plain-backed Pipits. The stream of Barn Swallows contained a single Banded Martin.
On the return journey, we came across more Lions. One was a young unmaned male trying to get comfortable under a bush, and the other 2 resplendent old sleeping males finding peace under a copse. More vulture feeding frenzies around carcasses were seen, perhaps 3 or 4, with the closest and most nasal being around a dead Hippo near to the Tanzanian border. Most of the birds here were Rüppell’s Griffon & White-backed, but there were also a few Lappet-faced and a single Marabou Stork. After a celebratory Tusker beer back at Keekorok, the walk back to the room unearthed full breeding male African Paradise-flycatcher, Chinspot Batis, and a pair of Swahili Sparrows under our window. We returned to the Hippo pool, where Elephants had been reported passing. None were present, but we were treated to the sight of a single Cheetah posing on a mound in the distance.
Mombassa beach (Day 8)
After a full days journey from the Masai Mara to eventually arrive at Mombassa at midnight, the first day was spent slobbing around. This meant that an early morning sortie of the hotel area had to be done early morning on the second day. The original plan was to explore the reasonably sized hotel grounds, but the lure of a fairly quiet shoreline, which is usually full of locals looking to extol money from tourists, was too much, especially with some exposed rocks further along. This short trudge along the sand was worthwhile. The hotels had ended by now, leaving a partly scrub covered backdrop to the beach, and the sand gave way to razor sharp rocks, and this heaved with wading birds. These were mainly Turnstones, Ringed Plover, and Pacific Golden Plover. I had half hoped for Kittlitz’s Plover here, but a much bigger prize was on offer in the guise of a pair of Crab Plovers. These had been searched for in Africa and Asia for some years, and the quarry present proved to be very approachable. Behind the beach I saw an early perched Lilac-breasted Roller and calling White-browed Coucal. Cisticolas were quite a prevalent species, and behaved well enough for identification as Rattling Cisticola, one of the most common members of the family in the area. After sifting through the waders, the scrubby habitat was explored. Common Bulbuls were the most common sight and sound, but Fischer’s Lovebird landed briefly, with Parrot-billed Sparrows more obliging. Emerald-spotted Wood-doves were in small numbers. On return to the hotel, the abundant Golden Palm-weavers were found to be stitching together some rudimentary nests.
Mombassa beach (Day 9)
Waking up early again for the
second morning in a row, I made the same tracks northward up the beach. Despite
a cursory look over the exposed rocks, where many of the waders had left for
the exposed reef further out, I concentrated on the scrub behind the beach this
morning. Early Pied Kingfishers and Lilac-breasted Rollers were again on the
same perches as on the previous visit, with Common Bulbuls again the
predominant species, and Rattling Cisticolas just as obvious. The Fischer’s
Lovebirds made occasional appearances, and there was a flypast of a pair of larger
parrots, which seemed to have the markings for Meyer’s (Brown), although this
spot is out of their normal range. There were plenty of hirundines and Little
Swifts flying over, the former having Lesser-striped Swallows in their count.
The scrub became more interesting as the morning progressed. A rather exotic
call from deep with a bush pinpointed a very skulking bird, which eventually
gave tantalising views and the identity of Tropical Boubou. A female Zanzibar
Bishop was followed by a stunning male, which landed briefly before flying over
the wall into the next tree lined area, but was followed and tracked down
easily. White-browed Coucals were calling constantly but too distant to see.
Parrot-billed Sparrows were again in the area, along with a very timid