NOTE: Comments added after sending the original email reports are in red.
Jambo Bwanas and Bibis,
We are back in Nairobi, safe and sound, and properly in awe of Africa and Kenya.
Bad News -- well not terrible, but temporarily bad. I can't get any photos to go out, so I'm going to send text-only reports till we get back to San Jose. The photos are fantastic but you'll just have to wait. It's text or nothing right now.
Wake up in: Panafric Hotel in Nairobi
It's 6:30am, We're in our room, having just finished breakfast. Yesterday was Nairobi National Park. Today is birding-while-traveling, making several stops along the route. Everybody's getting their luggage together, putting it outside our doors where porters will come and bring it down to the two vans we're riding in. We have five bags -- three that get put "away", in the back of the vans and two smaller ones that ride in the van with us. It has things we might want to get to during the day -- batteries, jackets, snacks, toilet paper and so on. "Away" means between the last row of seats and the back door in each van. They put a heavy cloth over the bags for dust protection and to hide what someone may see when looking in the window -- I made both of those up. I don't really know why they do it. But doesn't it sound good?
Van #1 has younger brother Steven, a fantastic birder, and Peter, the most experienced driver and long-time friend of Steven and Kevin's. Van #2 has older brother Kevin and second driver Joseph, who somehow has taken a liking to me. "Hi Bob!" he says in a low tone, with a grin on his face. Like an uncle.
We are lucky in that originally 12 birders were signed up, but two have dropped out, so the rear seat, going wall to wall, seats one person, plus lots of gear -- our small bags, bottles of water, box lunches if we're not stopping somewhere. So van arrangement is driver and bird guide in the front (you drive on the left in Kenya), and two people behind them. The seat in that "front" passenger row, next to the sliding side door, rotates up to let the rear passengers in and out. Then there is what we call the "middle" row -- those seats being next to windows, with nothing between them except floor and air. Then the rear seat. Each van has a top that can be raised and locked in place, so you stand up to look around while driving slowly through birding or game preserve territory. And so the lions don't getcha. The reason we're lucky is that it's pretty crowded with just five people standing up under the raised top.
Our first stop is at Limuru Pond, a large bit of water with lots of waterbirds. We pick up several nice lifers and stay about an hour. My favorite bird here is the Pintail Whydah, a little black-and-white bird with a very long tail, proportionally looking a little like the cloth tails I'd put on kites as a kid -- very elegant. When he flies, it looks a little like those airplanes that fly around during the Superbowl, lugging the banners. Only he doesn't have quite enough horsepower and so the banner droops down a bit. You oughta see it.
Another bird, which will be our company throughout almost the entire trip is the Hadada Ibis, a dark bird with subtle bits of color, and which gives a very nasal and awkward sounding "hadada" honk. It also reminds me of that bit Steve Allen used to do -- "Schmock Schmock!!"
Just before we leave, a local man comes up to us with a High-casqued Chameleon on a stick. He shows it to us and it's pretty cool. The man wants money and I don't recall if anybody gave him any or not. It's always a conflict between wanting to help him vs. encouraging him to pester us and others who come after us.
We leave and head down the escarpment from the central highlands towards the
Great Rift Valley. We drive on to what Steven calls the Great Rift Valley Lodge
Road, and make a stop when Steven hears a call he recognizes. We get a little
bird that goes "tink tink tink.", and it's appropriately called a Yellow-rumped
Tinkerbird, cute as a button. Another bird, called the Chestnut-throat Apalis
(say Apollo, but change the last 'o' to 'us' as in you and me) makes a call
exactly like a telephone ringing, so we call him the telephone bird. The Northern
Double-collared Sunbird just sparkles in the sunlight.
A little further on, we get a beautiful bird, flitting around its nest, with the female nearby. It's a Golden-winged Sunbird, and no words can describe what a sharp dressed bird this fellow is. Continuing on, we get the Yellow-whiskered Bulbul, a brown bird with a yellow moustache.
Golden-winged Sunbird. From the internet.
We arrive at our next stop, the Gatamaiya Forest, and the bird intensity picks up. Forests and high mountain passes are great places to bird. Blue Monkeys watch us tramp through their home, and it is a little before noon. Spectacular Colobus Monkeys are wonderful, with their long, flowing black and white "robes." The Moustached Green Tinkerbird adds its call to the forest sounds.
We see what look like brown grassy balls about five inches in diameter, and we are told that they are elephant dung. Elephants in THIS forest? I don't believe it, but am assured that they are night feeders, and they call them forest elephants or mountain elephants.
We go back to the vans and eat our box lunches, keeping eyes and ears out for new sights and sounds. What I like about our guides is that they separate the uneaten food, like apples, sandwiches, crackers, cakes, fruit juice boxes, oranges etc., into a couple of boxes to hand out to needy children, who come running up to the vans as we drive by their neighborhoods. Kevin knows which ones are friendly and which ones are demanding, and reserves the distribution to the friendly ones. Some of them seem to recognize Kevin and are very appreciative. And the smiles - oh my, I've never seen such sunshine. Steven says that's what he likes about the Kenyans away from the city. Although they are dirt poor, living an extremely meager existence, they are totally happy. It's so reassuring, and makes me think about us Americans having so much, but always having complaints about things that seem trivial compared with what I'm seeing here.
Kids anticipating our lunch leftovers from Kevin and pens, pencils and candy from us.
We start cutting back a little on what we eat so we have more stuff to give out.
We go back into the forest and bird some more, picking up some more good forest birds, then drive on to what I would describe as a field on a farm, with small bumps and hills and medium length grass -- maybe four or five inches tall. It's the home of a very rare and endangered bird. Both vans empty out and we spread across the field, then walk across it, hoping to scare up one of the three or four pairs that inhabit this field. I'm on the far left, and after a bit I get a sign from the others that they have the bird. We all collect around the guides, and they get the bird in the scope, a bright yellow Sharpe's Longclaw, with a "necklace" of black marks on its chest and extra long toes. Sometimes, it's the quantity of birds -- the more the better, of course, but sometimes it's the quality, as in this case.
We go back to the vans and kids have gathered. Kevin gives out some candy which he has bought, and the leftovers. The kids are great. We drive on, passing through 8850 feet in altitude. Soon we can see Lake Naivasha below and after dropping further, we arrive at the Naivisha Country Club, pour out of the vans, pooped from jet lag and the long day. The guides have our rooms all arranged and give each of us our room keys. We show the porters our particular luggage, who mark our room number on each of the pieces in white chalk. Then we head off for the room, knowing the porters will be close behind. Our room is very rustic and pleasant.
Mosquito netting probably wasn't needed, and added a nice flavor to the room.
We clean up a little, and dinner will be in about an hour. This time period is perfect, giving us time to unpack leisurely the things we want. After a bit we head up to the restaurant, where we enjoy the buffet-style dinner.
After dinner, to my surprise, several servers come out with a small cake and a candle, and the group sings happy birthday to me. One of the older waiters or servers, instead of singing the traditional two-step person's name ("... Happy Birthday, Dear Bo-ob"), sings "Bob" extremely low and long, sort of like what Joseph did, but MUCH lower and MUCH longer, and with a long 'o'. We all crack up, and for the rest of the trip, I will often be called "Bobe" in a very deep voice by members of our group. I'm lovin' it, being the natural attention-loving fellow that I am. You can ask Sharon.
DAY 2 TOTALS
Trip Birds Seen Today (First Time on the Trip): 62
Total Trip Birds to Date: 214
Life Birds Seen Today: 50
Total Life Birds to Date: 176
Best Birds of the Day: Pintail Whydah, Golden-winged Sunbird, Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird, Capped Wheatear, Sharpe's Longclaw, White-starred Robin, Bar-tailed Trogon.
Best Mammals of the Day: Eastern Black and White Colobus Monkey, Blue Sykes Monkey.
It's a one-night stop, so we did most of our suitcase packing last night. We get up and finish that task, then set our three big pieces out in front of the door. Finally we go out the door to start our birding day.
When I took Sharon to Vancouver, BC, on a surprise 25th anniversary trip in January of 2005, we went to an arboretum which had some tropical birds, one of which was a Superb Starling, a bird destined for our future, but we had no inkling at the time. We see this beautiful bird sticking its head out of a nest hole, high in a tree. It may have been using it as a roost hole for the night.
We bird the grounds together and get some very nice birds, including an immature African Goshawk, a single Red-billed Quelea (Brother George said that he has seen a million or so in a swarm on public television). Well, George, this one came alone. Our guides say that the swarming is seasonal, and right now they're spread out. Other good birds are African Fish-Eagle, Grey-backed Fiscal (like a shrike) and White-fronted Bee-eater. The term "front" in birding means the area just above the bill -- sort of like forehead.
We finally break and have breakfast. The big event for today will be a boat trip on Lake Naivasha. There will be two boats, bench seats, no sun shades, outboard motors, driver and a bird guide in each boat. I always love a good boat trip when ocean waves don't make my equilibrium go nuts.
On our way to the boat, we get some local waterbirds, including a Three-banded Plover, some Hotentot Teals (Hotentot is the name of one of the tribes of Africa), some great Pied Kingfishers and more.
We step into the boats at about 8:30 am. Steven is the guide in our boat, then Mike and Judy - a couple from Vancouver, then Sharon and I, and finally the boat driver.
Some plovers are mobbing a Harrier-hawk to get it out of their territory. We see Cape Teal and Spur-winged Plovers and ahead on the left, a long fantastic line of pink. It's the flamingos! Steven explains that they are about 98% Greater Flamingos and 2% Lessers, though Kevin later says that he's not sure there were any Lessers. Even the experts disagree sometimes.
Greater Flamingos on Lake Naivasha
The other boat gets the prop tangled in some moss and we all stop while he rotates the motor out of the water and clears the moss.
This boat ride is slightly different from any other I've taken. I look down and there is water. Up slightly and I see plants. A little more and there are pink flamingos. Still more and I get Wildebeest, also called Gnus. Up more and there are zebra, and up into the air I get African Fish-Eagles. And mountains on both sides. Spectacular. Especially the flamingos. I get smashing photos of the flamingos.
Flamingos in Flight
We come near a resting herd(?) of hippos. There is a Great Cormorant perched on most of them. We've all seen hippos on public television swim under canoes and turn them over. We don't get close enough to let them even have the thought.
Hippos and Cormorants
Closeups are a little freaky.
We end up back at the boat dock, unload, and bird our way back to the rooms. We get Nubian Woodpecker, Green Woodhoopoe, White-bellied Tits, a Red-headed Weaver and Great Sparrowhawk, also known as Black Goshawk. It's a little before 11:00 am. Then someone spots a fantastic Long-crested Eagle, perched to the left. I get a great photo if the dark bird, with a crest of feathers pointing straight up, from the middle of his head.
We go back, finish packing, then bird a little more. Arrow-marked and Black-lored Babblers chatter away, moving in groups. Bearded Woodpecker, a great mimic of a bird -- the White-browed Robin-Chat. Ruppell's Starling, Collared Sunbird, with a shorter, straighter bill than the typical sunbird. Our first Laughing Dove sits by the fountain. Great waiting-to-board-the-bus birds.
We head out, aimed for Lake Baringo. We pass a Masai tribesman, watching over a herd of about a hundred goats. He is tall and lean, and dressed the way you might expect a Masai to be dressed.
Kenya is famous for its weavers. There are forty different species, and we expect to see about thirty. Each has a slightly different type of nest. Sometimes one pair of one species will have an entire tree. They will build a dozen different nests. Eleven are decoys and the twelfth is the one that they will lay the eggs and raise the young in. Sometimes a tree will contain two hundred different nests, each with one pair of weavers of one species. And each nest is meticulously woven in the shape that is programmed into their genes. Awesome. Weavers are usually yellow of some shade or other, but that yellow may extend to brown or chestnut. In the back of our bird book are several pages of the different nests, labeled with the species that builds that type. We occasionally get a glimpse of a weaver at work, and it's mesmerizing.
But back to the trip...
We get to a spot Steven and Kevin know about, for the special birds we may find there, and we all pile out of the vans. As we are watching, a Little Sparrowhawk snags some sort of little finch as it flies past. We get Eurasian Golden Oriole, a bird we tried for in England without success. Helmeted Guineafowl, Greater Blue-eared Starling and a few others.
World birders know that the general rule for starlings is that they are beautiful, except for the only one that is in the U.S. - the European Starling. So we have to put out of our mind our preconception that starlings are ugly, unwanted and are often seen in huge, swarming flocks. Here they are widely varied and are beautiful. One special class of starlings used to be called glossy-starlings because of the sheen from their feathers, but the glossy has been dropped to shorten the names. And the king of the starlings -- well, I'll get to that when we see one.
Back to the tour...
It's 2:00 pm, and we are driving in good farming country now, with a circular irrigation sprayer system in the farm we're passing. There is a very tall shed, and in my mind I see a giraffe walking into it to get out of the rain. Steven leads the vans up to higher country and we stop in a pass with vertical cliffs on both sides.
We get a nice Schalow's Wheatear in the scope, then Little Rock Thrush, Lyne's Cisticola and finally, after about 11 years of birding, we get Life Bird #2000 -- White-crowned Shrike. [In the original report, I said that Nyanza Swift was #2000, but after a thorough review, the shrike was the Y2K bird. ] We don't realize it at the time because the birds are coming thick and fast and I haven't had time to do subtotals, so there's no pause in the birding.
A surprise Hildebrandt's Francolin walks its way on a steep path up the left cliff, after we notice a number of Rock Hyrax -- a small mammal like a marmot. Steve and Kevin say they are the favorite meals of eagles. Sharon spots a very nice Cliff Chat for the group, high up on one side. We wind up birding here and head back down to lower elevations again, stopping at another location to get Eurasian Roller and a very nice immature Cuckoo-Hawk.
An eagle-eye bird spotter in our group named Robin gets us on a Black-chested Snake-Eagle, perched on a tower. We take off again, getting another Long-crested Eagle on a fence post. She (Robin) will be a great asset.
We stop at a petrol station, and take advantage of the situation to use the toilet. I buy some ice cream, but it's not very good and I dump the last third.
We take off again, and pass some saisal fields. Frank, one of the group, says that they used to make rope from saisal, and I seem to remember it as sissal. Anyway, the world has switched over to nylon, but Kenya still makes some rope with it, I think.
We see lots and lots of white plastic bags about 2.5 feet high, filled with charcoal. They have some greenery on top to prevent the charcoal from spilling out if the bag falls over. The charcoal is used for heating and cooking.
At 5:31 pm, we cross the equator, Steven says for the first of maybe six or so times we'll do that. Frank asks if we can take photos, and Steven says that on the last day of the tour, we'll stop at one of the places where they will demonstrate the water-draining-opposite-directions-in-opposite-hemispheres thing. We all laugh and everybody offers an opinion of whether it's true or not. No conclusions.
We make Lake Baringo a little before 7:00 pm, and Steven and Kevin have us checked into Room 9. dinner will be at 7:45. The porters bring our three big bags while I take our two smaller ones to the room. I shower and it's wonderful. I turn the water off when I'm done, but it's still running. Or rather, I still HEAR it running. It's raining and adds coziness to the evening.
We go to dinner with the house's umbrella, in the rain. We get to know Frank a bit better -- how he studies for an upcoming trip, where he's been, how he knows the Easleys and so on. After dinner, we do our nightly ritual of going down the master checklist, with a column for each day of our trip, checking off the birds we've seen this day.
Kevin tells us stories of hippos that come out of the lake, walk up near the cabins and munch grass in the middle of the night. We are told emphatically NOT to approach them, to stay far away and not to intimidate them. Kevin tells us about people who have been "sliced in half" by the hippos. Nothing like a little fear to keep you in line.
The electricity goes off, and we finish the checklist with flashlights, then head back to our room.
As we're walking back, we can see a hippo on the grounds! How exciting. He runs away from us. During the walk back, the electricity comes back on, then after we get back in the room, it goes off again. Oh well... It's flashlights and candles till we're tucked away.
At about 4 am, Sharon is shaking me awake.
"Shh. There's a hippo right outside our front door." I shake off the sleep and
get up, but the lights are off, and he's very, very hard to make out. I can
hear him munching grass, and after failing to get any good photos or video,
I go back to bed.
DAY 3 TOTALS
Trip Birds Seen Today (First Time on the Trip): 64
Total Trip Birds to Date: 278
Life Birds Seen Today: 48
Total Life Birds to Date: 224
Best Birds of the Day: Yellow-collared Lovebird, African Goshawk, African Fish-Eagle, White-fronted Bee-eater, Greater Flamingo, Wahlberg's Honeybird, Long-crested Eagle, Little Sparrowhawk, Eurasian Golden Oriole Greater Blue-eared Starling, Hildebrandt's Francolin, Mocking Cliff Chat, African Cuckoo-Hawk, Black-chested Snake Eagle, Silverbird, Chin-spot Batis.