Big Birding Day in Nairobi National Park

Endangered Grey crowned cranes in Nairobi National Park Copyright Rupi Mangat

The car l’m in has an equally outstanding birder, the young Sidney Shema who only started birding in 2011. If you want to learn about Kenya’s eagles, follow his blog. He also manages the Kenya Bird Map project. Anyone can join it and play their part as a citizen scientist to map the current distribution of Kenya’s bird species and hence provide a powerful tool for conservation. You simply plot your birds using the BirdLasser app.

We head out to our designated area in the 117-square-kilometres park, and with Jagi Gakunju an environmental advocate plus keen birder at the wheel, our first sighting is a raptor, a Little Sparrowhawk. It’s at eye-level five minutes from the gate. A few feet away, in a tall eucalyptus tree, Shema points to an abandoned nest of a Verreaux’s Eagle Owl. It’s the largest African owl, standing at two feet. With its enormous pink eyelids it would make any make-up artist’s muse.

Yellow-throated Longclaw in Nairobi National Park 4 June Copyright Rupi Mangat

“I love all birds,” says Shema. “But my favourites are the birds of prey (raptors). And among raptors, there are none I enjoy watching more than the eagles. Eagles are the absolute kings (or should I say queens, since the females are bigger) of the sky. They are powerful apex predators that play a crucial role in keeping our ecosystems healthy. Raptors in general are top predators, but eagles are the top of the top.”

And according to him, Kenya is one of the world’s most eagle-rich countries with 22 species recorded.Compare this to the North American continent which has two species: the Bald Eagle and Golden Eagle.

I’m happy to be in the same car with him because he’s been studying the raptors in the park and beyond. So by 4 p.m. when it’s time to exit the park in these pandemic days, we’ve seen four of the big eagles: Long crested, Bateleur, Martial and five minutes from the main gate, the most powerful of all, ‘the leopard of the skies’ that is the Crowned Eagle by the abandoned Verreaux’s Eagle Owl nest, occupied by a pair of White-backed Vultures in the late afternoon.

To write about each of the 211 species seen in less than 12 hours here is a task impossible but there are highlights.

At midday, Fleur Ng’weno calls to tell us about the vultures at the murram pits. “There are about 40 of them, splashing in the water and sunbathing on the ground like tourists at the beaches.”

She’s talking about White-backed Vultures, considered Critically Endangered in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species… and Nairobi National Park is a good place to see this globally threatened species. There was a pair of Lappet-faced Vultures but by the time we arrive, the red-headed vultures have flown away leaving the lounging White-backed Vultures.

White-backed Vultures after a bath in a murram pit in Nairobi National Park. Copyright Rupi Mangat

Kenya, Top Ranked 

In the 2018 ranking for countries on the Mongabay website, Colombia with 1,826 species has more species of birds than any country on Earth. Kenya comes in 13 with 1,058 species in Kenya. “However, it’s more like 1,100 species,” states Finch.

Nairobi is the birding capital of the world with 600 species.

We could have listed more in a day, but as Ng’weno states, “June is usually the low month for birding in Kenya.

“Migratory birds from Eurasia have gone back to their breeding grounds. Migrants from the South are few in Nairobi. Resident birds have usually finished breeding in June, so they are not singing and displaying. A tally of 211 species observed in one day in Nairobi National Park is therefore really good.”

Finch enthuses: “Whilst I have birded in all corners of the world, I have never come across a region with such an incredible variety of different habitats, all bird rich and with their own unique collections of species in each of them, and all with an impressive modern skyline of a large bustling city.

Long-crested eagle. Copyright Rupi Mangat

“Nairobi National Park boasts the largest number of bird species in Kenya, but also has the greatest variety of mammals for its size as well. On very clear days it is the only Park where both Mt Kenya and Mt Kilimanjaro can be seen from the same spot. It testifies to the uniqueness of Nairobi National Park and to Kenya as a whole.”

Besides the birds we see three white rhino and three black while other even catch the lions…on camera.

White rhino by the standard gauge railway in Nairobi National Park. Copyright Rupi Mangat

For Pete Steward, a scientist at CIFOR-ICRAF (World Agroforestry), the event was a pilot study to see how it can be developed into  a big day in collaboration with Friends of Nairobi National Park (FoNNaP) and the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS).

“The ultimate aim is to raise the profile of birding in Kenya for ecotourism, for conservation and to encourage the big game enthusiasts to take a look at the wealth of feathered friends. The more we raise awareness the more people will value our natural riches and fight to conserve them,” states the scientist. 

A similar idea is being worked on in the Maasai Mara that could be dovetailed with the NNP. It could become a really fun event for visiting and national birders to challenge their existing bird lists.

Diverse habitats – Ngong Hills from Nairobi National Park 4 June Copyright Rupi Mangat

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