LUTMAN'S KENYA 2006 BIRDING SAFARI TRIP

Report 4.

Comments below added after the original emailed reports are in red.

Wednesday, November 8, 2006. Birding Day 6. Kakamega First Day

Wake up in: Rondo Retreat House, Kakamega Forest

It's about 6:30 am, and a sign next to the slightly raised, stone-embedded sidewalk says one word -- SLIPPERY. And even with our cleated soles, we begin to slip immediately, so everyone steps off the sidewalk onto the grass.

Rondo Retreat House - Dining Room Building

THE BOOTS

Sharon has a pair of walking boots, which can repel dirt, mud, water from rain, puddles, and shallow streams. I have lightweight overboots called Neos, which fit over my Hush Puppy Body Shoes, velcro closing the front instead of laces, snap and lanyard at the top, and a tightening velcro strap around the front of the ankle. These are fantastic, as I can take them off and leave them outside the cabin or room. They have become rusty red with the dirt and mud we have proudly accumulated through our travels so far.

Back to the tour...

We are going to bird the open area in the center of the compound, with its huge tall trees and bushes, then get into the vans and drive to another location in the forest, bird some more there, then come back for breakfast. After which we'll hit the vans, go back to another forest location. Hey, that's what we do all the time...

So on the grounds, we get Blue Monkeys playing on the grass. An African Green Pigeon is a new bird. We get Petit's Cuckoo-shrike, which shows a yellow mouth when it opens its bill. White-headed Saw-wings hawk for insects in the air. An African Thrush is seen, much like the American Robin, but with a brilliant orange bill. Very eye-catching. It's 6:50 am.

We get Bocage's Bush-shrike, aka Grey-green Bush-shrike, and Southern Hyliota. Steven says this bird will be split into two species, because of the differences between the two birds currently only at subspecies status. Anyway, this one will be called Kakamega Hyliota. White-throated Bee-eaters are beautiful, and a fitting bird for the retreat center is the Joyful Greenbul, which is yellow despite its name. The African Yellow White-eye is a tiny yellow bird with white circles around each eye. Grey-throated Barbet has a projection it can raise and lower below each eye. Very weird, but attractive in its own special way. We get poor views of a Cardinal Woodpecker, then Green Sunbird and Northern Black Flycatcher.

Birds are all over. Brown-capped Weaver is next, then on the ground a Tambourine Dove, with its brilliant white undercarriage, dark brown, almost black above. Two female Vieillot's Weavers are the first of that species we've seen.

We pile into the vans and are driven to another location in the forest.

It's our day in the front seats, so we have the premier view today.

We exit and form loose groups, walking as we bird. Luehder's Bush-shrike looks like a bandit, with the black mask over its eyes. Several Great Blue Turacos make an appearance high in the tops of the trees. They are like huge turkeys, but with brilliant blue, red and yellow colors -- a spectacular bird, especially when seen flying.

Snowy-crowned Robin-chat looks like the American Robin, but with a wnow white stripe on top of their head and other streaking. Chubb's Cisticola (say siss-TICK-uh-luh) does its sharp call again and again. African Blue Flycatchers are a very soft light blue color, and are lovely. Did I just say 'lovely'? What am I, British? Scuse me.

A group of Stuhlman's Starlings make an overflight. Colobus Monkeys crash around the very tops of the tallest trees, totally fearless and confident of their ability to grab on when they do their jumping and squabbling. Great scoped view of the monkeys.

An elegant Eastern Black-and-white Colobus Monkey stares right back.

Common Wattle-eye again, another great look at African Emerald Cuckoo, this time in the open, through the scope.

THE SCOPES

Each guide, Steven and Kevin, has a scope on a tripod. When we leave the van for any significant walk, they each carry one, so there is one scope per five clients. Both guides are extremely proficient at seeing a bird, getting the tripod set, lining up the view, focusing, stepping back and saying for example, "Wattle-eye's in the scope." Then those near him line up, first for about a two or three-second view, then after everybody has their short look, we can go around again for a longer view or take photos through the scope if we want to. I have done this quite a bit with mixed results.

Back to the tour...

I get a Yellow-crested Woodpecker with its long bill and yellow spots on the chest, but it flies before Sharon can get on it. We'll hope for another try later. Hope, hope.

Shelley's Greenbul, Green-throated Sunbird and Black-faced Rufous Warbler all make their appearances. A poor view of the Red-headed Bluebill (Sharon says, "That bill's not blue") is next, followed by us watching a Black-billed Weaver working its magic on a nest. Honeyguide Greenbul, then a few birds we've already seen before, and we head back to the retreat center for breakfast. It's 9:30 am.

After breakfast, we bird the grounds some more before vanning out. A radical bird, the Hairy-breasted Barbet comes through, perching enough to give us looks. Next, three incredible Black-and-white-casqued Hornbills fly straight line shots overhead, landing high in the tallest trees. We get Yellow-spotted Barbet and a beautiful Yellow-fronted Canary, then another Blue Turaco.

We head out and about 10:30 am we are parked, out of the vans, and walking on a long, straight, dirt road through the forest. It is filled with locals doing things like herding goats, bicycling with huge loads of things on the back of the bike, carring bundles of sticks about five feet long on their heads (women and children). These are for firewood, and Steven says they are nipping away at the forest itself.

Grass for the roof of the huts. The women build the round, cone-shaped-roof structures.

Sharon bought some pencils in a store earlier, and gives them out to five or six kids.

Firewood carriers in the Kakamega Forest.

Their smiles are fantastic. This road is a bicycle freeway, with bikes going the same way we are and others coming towards us. The dirt roadway is rough and uneven. Sometimes groups of individuals will stop, set their loads down and just watch us, curious to see what we're doing. Frequently some young adult man will come by on a bike and yell something like, "Give money?" or "How are you?" With very few exceptions, if someone is staring at you, and you look at them, smile and say, "Jambo," they will get a huge smile and say it back. Very quick to smile.

Also sharing the trail are the donkeys, with folded bags on their necks, accompanied by drivers. They will travel to some supply location and pick up some goods, like firewood, load the donkeys, then come back.

As this group was just passing us, the fellow in the blue shirt jumped onto a donkey, and as he rode past, with a huge smile, said, "Give me something small."

An Olive-green Cameroptera is beating the tar out of a worm he has caught. Ansorge's Greenbul appears and my mind jumps.

MIND JUMP

When I was in San Jose, I used my scanner, Photoshop and Filemaker Pro to make a database of paintings of the birds we would see in Kenya. I began to memorize them and Sharon jumped into this activity too. Just before we left, I had memorized almost 700 pictures. I could play them back in random order and could nail the ID with about a 1-2% error rate. I was so proud.

Here are the things I should have done:

1) Shrink the birds down from the 3" size I was using to about a half-inch. The birds were much farther away than I was expecting. Lots of exceptions though, and we did well with these. Sharon did well with the ones farther away than I did. My theory is that her eyesight is better than mine. Just a theory...

2) Stick half the bird behind a leaf, so we could see only the front or top or rear half.

3) Have somebody spray a bottle of water in my face while I was trying to ID the picture on the computer. Sometimes it rained.

4) Shake the computer back and forth to simulate binocular quaver, a term I just made up.

5) Stick a strong light behind the computer, pointed at my eyes, simulating the sun.

6) Flash the bird on the computer screen for 2 seconds, then off. Simulating the length of time some birds like to stay in one place.

7) Fasten the computger screen to the ceiling, so I had to bend backwards and look straight up.

If ONLY I had done these things, I could have done much better.

The GOOD news is that whenever the guides would hear a bird call, say aloud the name of the bird as they tried to get the bird to come into the open, Sharon and I would get a picture in our minds of the bird. This was EXTREMELY useful and made us feel like amateur experts. Expert amateurs. Something like that. Birders who hadn't studied the birds would have to ask the name of the bird, and it would be like hearing "Throatwarbler Mangrove" or something, to which they would say, "Oh." Or "Sacre Bleu."

OK, back to the tour...

Kevin says he just saw a Tambourine Dove. Last night he said it is good luck if you see this particular bird on your right, but bad luck if you see it on your left. In the latter case, you might as well turn around and go back home. He says that means we're going to be successful with our next target bird. So goes the local legend about this bird.

Thinking of sister-in-law Loretta, we see this beautiful butterfly, but never get an ID on it.

We get the wonderfully-named Equatorial Akalat, then another Western Black-headed Oriole, with its "too TOO loo" call. We get small Red Monkeys and Red-tailed Monkeys a little later. Little Grey Greenbul shows itselfr as does Yellow-whiskered Greenbul. A group of Dusky Tits show up, and I hope this sentence makes it past your internet provider's bad language filter. They are dull black all over, with red eyes, and move around the forest in mixed flocks of birds.

We get Pink-footed Puffback, who can puff out the feathers on its back. Wild. A Least Honeyguide is heard, and we have to have the guides mimic the call so we can recognize the real bird, in order to claim it for our life list. Originally we didn't count "heard-onlys", but when we found that all the top birders do, arguing that they determined the presence of the bird, we decided to count them too.

We get White-breasted Negrofinch. Where this name comes from must be a story, but we don't know the story. The brilliant red of the Red-headed Malimbe reminds me of the bright red on bishops (birds). Slender-billed Greenbul is another in a long list of greenbuls species in Kenya. Uganda Woodland Warbler is called in by Steve after he hears its call.

We get more poor looks at Red-headed Bluebill, and I am hoping for better looks later. We drive back to the retreat center and have lunch, then take a short siesta.

Several years ago, a huge tree fell in the forest. It made a sound, putting an end to that question. It was the feature around which Rondo Retreat Center was originally built. They used the wood from the huge tree for various purposes, one of which was carvings.

A Widowbird carved from the great fallen tree at Rondo Retreat Center.

Back on the grounds about 2:30 pm, we begin working our way downhill, along a stream. We get the extremely endangered Turner's Eremomela, which exists in only two forests as I understand it, and is slowly losing its habitat. The same is true of other rare birds in the forests, but this one is near the top of the list in likelihood-to-go-extinct on the earth.

We're working our way down the stream. Green-throated Sunbird is pretty. We get Black-billed Weaver and a White-chinned Prinia. We arrive at a pool with thick brush around, and Steven plays the call of a certain little rail or crake, hoping to lure it out and giving us a chance for a glimpse. We can hear it coming closer, closer, but it never pops out. Steven says it is very rare that the bird will actually appear, and we mark it as heard-only. It's the fabulouly named White-spotted Flufftail.

We go back up to the center, board the vans, and go back to another location in the forest. Back on the long long dirt road. Somebody rides by on a bike and yells, "You study?" We get a few birds, then it begins to sprinkle. It's 4:00 pm. The vans are close. We get Yellow-billed Barbet, then hear some thunder.

I have a note which says, "Don't forget to mention elephant poop." So... Elephant Poop. I can't recall what I had in mind with that note [I already mentioned the elephant dung in the forest in the account of Day 2]. It begins a downpour, and we got into the vans just in time. With rain this hard, Steven says we either go back to the retreat center or wait it out. We wait a little bit, then decide to go back.

We sit on the veranda and talk, while retreat personnel supply us with tea and cake. The rain clears and we bird around the grounds, but get no new birds.

We have dinner, then do our checklist. Following Kevin's instructions to those who want to change money, I give $100 to a fellow who is going into the local town to change dollars to shillings.

KENYA MONEY

You get about 70 Kenya Shillings, or 70 ksh, or just 70 sh per dollar. So $10 gets you 700 shillings. A 1000 shilling bill, very common, is worth about $14.30 or so.

Back to the tour...

After the evening's events, we go back to the room to take advantage of the generator-supplied electricity and lights till their going off at 10:30 pm. Sharon reads and I catch up on the bird statistics.

DAY 6 TOTALS

Trip Birds Seen Today (First Time on the Trip): 56
Total Trip Birds to Date: 42

Life Birds Seen Today: 54
Total Life Birds to Date: 365

Best Birds: White-throated Bee-eater, Grey-throated Barbet, Leuhder's Bush-shrike, Snowy-headed Robin-chat, African Blue Flycatcher (very soft light blue), Common Wattle-eye (beautiful and not common at all, with red wattles around the eyes), African Emerald Cuckoo (gorgeous, with emerald green striping on white chest), Grey-headed Negrofinch (last name being changed to Negrita), Hairy-breasted Barbet, Yellow-spotted Barbet, Equatorial Akalat, Western Black-headed Oriole, Dusky Tit, Red-headed Malimbe, Turner's Eremomela (endangered), Yellow-billed Barbet, Great Blue Turaco, African Thrush (looks the most like the American Robin, with flashy orange bill and not-so-orange breast), Oriole-Finch.

Best Mammals: Black-and-white Colobus Monkey, Red-tailed Monkey, Blue Monkey, Red-legged Sun Squirrel, Bush Squirrel

Best Reptiles and Amphibians: Tropical Gecko

 

Thursday, November 9, 2006. Birding Day 7. Kakamega Second Day

It's a little before 7 am, and we have picked up Ben, a local guide Steven knows well. He rides in our van, in the back with Frank.

After the first few days of birding, Kevin asked what birds we still hadn't seen that most of the group HAD seen. I went through my list and told him. From that moment on, whenever one of those birds popped up, he'd get the scope on and say, "Bob, here's your bird." Or Sharon, here's yours. Incredible ability to remember who has got what birds.

They know we want better views of a bird that they spot beside the road. They stop and from inside the van, we get great binocular views of a couple of Red-headed Bluebills right on the road. Excellent.

A nice Red-headed Bluebill on the side of the road.

We exit the van after a bit and again we walk the long straight dirt road through the forest. We get a wonderful male Chestnut Wattle-eye. Sharon has slowly dropped behind the group and began to talk with a little boy who speaks some English. Sharon says, "You can call me mama," using terms she has learned here. Mama means grandmother in this situation. "No," he says, "Mama means grandmother!" Sharon says, "I'm a grandmother," to which the boy says the Kikuyan equivalent of "Nuh-unh!" Sharon thinks he doesn't believe her that she has eight grandchildren.

We drive over to the Zimmerman Plot, a particular piece of the Kakamega Forest that has some new birds for us. A Cameroon Sombre Greenbul calls, and Steven copies the bid in a sing-song manner, "YOU are WACK-o". Seems close enough.

A huge eagle of some kind flies over. Somebody says, "He dropped something," but later nobody owns up to the statement. We don't know what was said. At first they think it's an immature Crowned Eagle, one of our top target birds, but they back off and say they can't be sure, so it's not counted.

Sometimes, when they turn on the tape player, with the bird calls, the tape is on the wrong speed and goes very slowly and with a very deep tone. "That's Kevin on downers," grins Steven, and we all laugh, as Kevin's in the other van.

We get a top target bird for the Zimmerman Plot -- a Blue-headed Bee-eater, and I get a strange-looking shot through a scope. We get great looks at a Black-faced Rufous Warbler. We continue on through the forest on its trails. We get Cabanis's Greenbul, who flicks its wings. Then a Dusky Crested-flycatcher. We get Square-tailed Drongo, slightly different from the normal Fork-tailed or Common Drongo. Black birds with slightly evil-looking red eyes, but we like these birds.

Buff-spotted Woodpecker. We come to a limb across the road. Everybody goes under it, except Kevin, who seems about 6' 4" or more to me, steps over it. "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for Kevin," he says. We all laugh. Good one. Yellow-crested Woodpecker, then an Eleanora's Falcon flyover.

We exit the forest and come to some tall-grass savannah. Feels like lion country but I hope it's not. We get Brown-crowned Tchagra and an African Cuckoo-hawk overflight. There is an enormous wooden tower which we could climb, but neither Steven nor Kevin has ever climbed it and they don't know whose it is. So we skip it.

Still at the savannah, we get non-breeding plumaged Yellow-mantled Widowbird, then Western Marsh Harrier. Scaly-breasted Illadopsis is one of the names that intrigued me when I first heard it. Keven says he saw the Illadopsis attend some young, on the ground.

We continue back into the forest, doubling back on our route. We get Brown-chested Alethe, Semi-collared Flycatcher, then a heard-only Blue-shouldered Robin-chat. Brown Illadopsis and McKinnon's Fiscal follow, then Red-tailed Bristlebill.

A nice rainbow complements the forest.

Later, Sharon gets Brown-chested Illadopsis, but I don't get it, so we can't count it. We get much better looks at Uganda Woodland Warbler, then a Yellowbill responds to taped calls and carefully works its way over to check out the call.

We're almost to the vans. I turn around and head back into the forest, yelling to Sharon over my shoulder, "Bathroom break." While I'm gone, the rest of the group gets Banded Prinia, a bird that looks like it has zebra stripes. I'm disappointed but relieved, if you get my drift.

We get back to where our vans are, near a 90 degree turn in the road, by the river, and Sharon and I, along with Kevin, get Oriole-Finch, but it disappears before anyone else can get on it. A pretty rare bird is the Chapin's Flycatcher, and the guides hear one, then locate it. All don't see it, but Sharon and I both get poor views -- enough to count.

We celebrte the Chapin's Flycatcher, a very good bird. The Easley brother guides are younger Steven in front, with one leg up, and Kevin, in the rear with the victory signs.

Back to the retreat center, a little freshening, then dinner. Birdlist review, off to bed to do some packing. We'll head out tomorrow.

We love the peacefulness of the Rondo Retreat Center, and drift off to sleep with covers pulled up to our chins. It's cool here.

DAY 7 TOTALS

Trip Birds Seen Today (First Time on the Trip): 26
Total Trip Birds to Date: 453

Life Birds Seen Today: 24
Total Life Birds to Date: 389

Best Birds: Chestnut Wattle-eye, Blue-headed Bee-eater, Square-tailed Drongo, Yellow-crested Woodpecker, Yellow-shouldered Widowbird, Yellowbill, African Broadbill, Chapin's Flycatcher, Jameson's Wattle-eye.

Best Mammals: same as Day 6.

Best Reptiles and Amphibians: none special.

 

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