Above: Sabaki Estuary. Copyright Rupi Mangat

From the archives: May 2010

On the mudflats of the Sabaki, a strong sun beats down so fierce that it makes the water over the sand sparkle. On the bridge above, cars and matatus speed over the estuary – Kenya’s biggest – unaware of the stunning vistas below and of its importance as an IBA or an Important Bird Area.

Sabaki River Mouth. Credit Cisticola Tour Ltd (800x302)
Flocks of waders at Sabaki River Mouth. Credit Cisticola Tours Ltd

Standing on the shores of the river that starts as Athi near Nairobi and joins the Tsavo to flow into the Indian Ocean, the landscape is a visual delight of shifting sand dunes, green mangroves and golden sands against a canvas of the bluest of skies and waters. Colours and forms fill the natural scape with flocks of birds on the waters edge.

l ask Fleur Ng’weno, Kenya’s leading birder about the Sabaki river mouth.

“Sabaki is a “must do” for birders for many reasons,” says Fleur, “It’s a place to see many water birds, shore birds and sea birds. Even flamingoes!

“For birders it’s even more of a must to do because it hosts more than 1% of the biogeographic population of several bird species. These include the Sooty Gull, Saunders’s Tern, Lesser Crested Tern and Madagascar Pratincole (a migrant from the South, and is usually seen from May to Sept). This is what makes Sabaki an Important Bird Area.”

African Open-bill Stork at Sabaki estuary. Copyright Washington Wachira of Cisticola Tours Ltd (800x649)
African Open-bill Stork at Sabaki estuary. Copyright Washington Wachira of Cisticola Tours Ltd

Kenya is without doubt a global hotspot for birding.

“At times, Sabaki hosts more than 50% of the biogeographic population of Saunders’s Tern,” continues Fleur. “Although the Saunders’s Tern is not threatened at the moment, it is important to note that ALL seabirds are threatened, because of loss of seashore habitat and pollution of the oceans.”

”The terns are spectacular. They feed out at sea during the day, so only a few are seen during a morning or afternoon visit,” explains Fleur.

The best time to see the flocks is during a full moon count. Colin Jackson of A Rocha Kenya, a Christian nature-based organization based in Watamu narrates a recent full moon night walk on the estuary.

Full Moon Birding on Sabaki

“On 30 January we did the monthly night time count of roosting terns on Sabaki River Mouth,” writes Colin. It’s done every full moon to take advantage of the maximum light at night.

“This time numbers exceeded anything I’ve seen before by a looooong way – except perhaps the very first time we discovered the tern roost a few years ago,” gushes Colin. “As we walked along the river bank we could hear some 500-600 metres from the mud flats this intense chattering.

Sabaki River Mouth for a night bird walk. Facebook A Rocha Kenya
Sabaki River Mouth for a night bird walk. Facebook A Rocha Kenya

“As we reached the edge of the flats where the mangroves have started to grow along the bank we saw our first ‘flock’ of Saunders’ Terns. In that one flock we estimated 35,000 birds.

Sand flats along Sabaki estuary. Copyright Washington Wachira of Cisticola Tours Ltd (800x533)
Sand flats along Sabaki estuary. Copyright Washington Wachira of Cisticola Tours Ltd

“As we went further out on the mud the immenseness of the number of birds started to hit home. They were packed in and stretching right along in front of the mangroves, clearly sheltering from the strong wind, and the flocks just went on and on and on. Every now and then a section of the flock would take off – and it would look like smoke swirling around in the moonlight. It was incredible.

“Overall, on that Saturday night, there were almost 500,000 birds roosting at Sabaki River Mouth. It was a truly amazing sight,” estimates Colin.


Sabaki bridge over the eEstuary. Copyright Rupi Mangat

Sabaki River Mouth is five kilometers north of Malindi and a two hour drive north of Mombasa.

Malindi District is home to some of the richest and most diverse habitats in the whole of Kenya including 10% of Kenya’s Important Bird Areas, considered internationally important for bird conservation. These are found within a 30 km radius of Malindi.

Sabaki Sojourn
Near Sabaki, check in at the beautiful Barefoot Beach Camp and enjoy the blue bay by the sand dunes.

Barefoot Beach Camp
Barefoot Beach Camp, Malindi

In Watamu, stay at A Rocha’s Mwamba Field Study Centre.

Both offer great accommodation, food and the beach front is a delight. The best thing is that you are in the company of the naturalists who you can hire to guide you on your outings, which makes it more fun.

Malindi hotspots

Hell’s Kitchen(Marafa) in the Dakatcha woodlands and Gede ruins, Vasco da Gama’s pillar and the museums. At Watamu visit Mida Creek, the turtle center and the fascinating Arabuko-Sokoke forest,

birds-of-Sabaki-600x600 (600x600)
Checklist of the Birds of Sabaki Estuary.

Get a Sabaki bird list which is an essential tool for birders because it tells you what birds to look for, and also gives information on the habitats, local guides and so on. Be sure to get a copy from Nature Kenya- email office@naturekenya.org.

Biogeographic is the study of the distribution of biodiversity over space and time. It aims to reveal where organisms live, and at what abundance.

For birding safaris log on www.cisticolatours.com