Above: Timothy Mwinami of National Museums of Kenya at 2021 Jan waterfowl count – Lake Baringo. Copyright Rupi Mangat
Published: The East African Nation magazine Jan 6 – Feb 12 2021
The annual waterfowl count starts at the crack of dawn before the birds take advantage of the rising thermals to fly off for the day. By 6.15 a.m. the teams meet at the starting point
It’s 4 a.m. The stars are splattered bright in a dark sky as the birders prepare for the start of the annual waterfowl count on Lake Bogoria and Lake Baringo, both internationally famous birding destinations in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley.
The counts must start at the crack of dawn before the birds take advantage of the rising thermals to fly off for the day.
By 6.15 a.m. the teams meet at the starting point of Bogoria, at the ‘new’ main gate of the alkaline lake that now measures 50 square kilometres, up from 30 square kilometres since the the Great Rift Valley lakes began rising phenomenally in 2011.
It’s brought changes.
The Annual Waterbird Count
“The annual waterbird census takes place in more than 150 countries around the world,” explains Titus Imboma, a scientist in the Ornithology section of the National Museums of Kenya (NMK). “The sole purpose of monitoring waterbirds is for the conservation and sustainable management of wetlands.”
Baringo and Bogoria boast international ratings such as Important Bird Areas (IBAs) for hosting extremely large concentrations of waterbirds, Ramsar sites which are wetlands of international importance and more recently, Bogoria together with lakes Elmenteita and Nakuru declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site ‘as a natural property of outstanding beauty’ under the Kenya Great Lakes.
“The counts have been on for more than 50 years under the umbrella of the International Waterbird Census (IWC),” continues the scientist. “In Kenya, counts are carried out twice a year.”
The January count is both for local waterfowl and the Eurasian migratory species arriving in Kenya for the non-breeding season. In July, the counts are for the local species because the migratory species have returned north to their breeding grounds. Counts are carried out by volunteers from different institutions and coordinated by the National Museums of Kenya, the Kenya Wildlife Service and Nature Kenya (the EANHS).
In Kenya, the counts have taken place since 1990, mostly in the Rift Valley Lakes, the Kenyan coast and the wetlands around Nairobi and central Kenya and sometimes on Lake Victoria.
However, the waterfowl counts were skipped due to Covid-19 in July 2020.
The January 2021 Waterbird Count
Bogoria has increased from 30 square kilometres to 50 square kilometres since 2011. The alkaline soup bowl rich in spirulina algae is the preferred diet of the pretty pink Lesser Flamingos lacing the shoreline. Unfortunately, many are now dead, caught in the thorny Prosopis juliflora, an invasive tree that has colonised the entire riparian shoreline. It was introduced in the region to curb soil erosion but the plan backfired.
“Prosopis has become a deadly killer to flamingos,” comments Timothy Mwinami, research scientist with the NMK Ornithology section. “The mortality rate of the flamingos is high on this lake.”
“The reason for this is that flamingos fly at night between lakes” he continues. “They have their preferences in which lake to breed, eat or drink. At night, water is the brightest point on earth (save for artificial lights), even on the darkest of nights.
“So when they see the lake from above, they land thinking they have arrived. only to land and become entangled in the thorny trees.”
The lake is at its highest since 1903, says James Kimaru, senior warden at Lake Bogoria National Reserve.
“The annual counts are very important because the data collected informs management plans, such as the Lake Bogoria 2019-2029 Management Plan,” continues Kimaru, who is also an active member of Friends of Nature Bogoria (FoNB) and participating in the bird count. FoNB established in 1997 by the local people living around the lake, regularly monitor the lake and hold awareness rallies in schools and community barazas. “We translate science into everyday language for everyone to understand.”
An indicator that the community is involved in looking after its ‘backyard’ is the rich number of Lesser Flamingos and the increase of the Greater Kudu, a handsome antelope with massive spiralling horns. From a low of 40 in 1997, today there are more than 600, mostly found near the villages to avoid being killed by hyenas and leopards.
“The community earns 10 per cent from the gate fee and 100 per cent from the four wildlife conservancies they have established,” informs the warden. “They have taken ownership of the wildlife.”
The following morning, eight boats fan out from Ol Kokwa Island to cover the lake for the second waterfowl count. The waterfowl counts on Baringo started when Dr. Bonnie Dunbar, part-time resident on the island approached Nature Kenya in 2018.
It’s a mixed group with the team from National Museums of Kenya and Nature Kenya, Friends of Nature Bogoria, Baringo Warden Jackson Komen and his team and Alfason Sakerine, a young Il Chamus fisher. Dressed in his traditional finery, Sakerine is excited to be invited by Dunbar – not because he is a birder but because he knows how to navigate the thick swamps on the recently flooded plains where the Molo River drains into Baringo. Google map, outdated, still shows the area as land.
The first waterbird on the count is the Goliath heron, the world’s largest. When the rare Lesser Jacana is listed, it creates excitement in the bird world for it is not often spotted.
“Birds are indicators of the health of the environment,” states Dunbar, a veteran scientist. “It is very important to follow not only the natural cycles but also the day to day changes that happen, like the pollution from the rivers flowing in.”
I see her point for she was among the first to raise the alarm when the water hyacinth entered the lake via River Molo in 2016. It’s now there to stay.
“Monitoring is important because there are new developments like the geothermal energy plant at Loruk. We don’t know what impact that is going to have on the environment.”
Her records from regular monitoring on the lake already show major changes in the bird migrations and in their breeding areas. “The breeding areas have been affected first by lots of livestock and now the flooding.”
Unlike Lake Bogoria which boasts a current management plan between 2019 and 2029 involving all stakeholders, Baringo lacks one. “A management plan would list important breeding sites for fish and birds to preserve.”
Baringo supported a thriving fishing industry until the 1990s, with fresh tilapia exported to Nairobi and beyond. Today, few Il Chamus fishers on the kaadich, their signature floating rafts, are seen on the lake. One theory is that when the lake flooded, the fish swam into inaccessible areas.
“But without studies we cannot prove that. However restocking the lake with indigenous tilapia in times of emergency like now would be an option.”
But it hasn’t happened. “The data is out-dated including the maps from the fisheries. Their boats are rarely seen on the lake.
“So the waterfowl count is one way of monitoring the lake,” concludes the scientist.