Above: On Lukenya ridge. Copyright Rupi Mangat
Published: Saturday Nation magazine 30 November 2019
On the ancient granite rock-filled ridge of Lukenya, it’s a 360-degree view of Africa. A mountain climber from the Mountain Club of Kenya is scaling a vertical wall of an immense rock face, his tiny figure carefully inching his way up as we drive from the plains to the top of the hill that is a feature on the Nairobi-Mombasa highway.
It’s on this rocky crop that our ancestors lived in the era of Stone Age, a perfect spot where the caves became homes and the plains below a rich hunting ground for food. For us modern sapiens it’s simply amazing to be stepping on the same rocks as our good old ancestors and be fortunate to marvel at the beauty of space around us.
“It’s absolutely spiritually uplifting looking out at every corner of Africa,” states Rupert Watson, author of the African Baobab, exploring its early Madagascan beginnings to its future in a changing Africa. “You almost feel like everyone below is missing out on something.”
It’s turning out to be an exciting morning. Wild flowers blossom with the coming of the short rains late in the year. Bright orange aloes pop in the green while the grass is a mix of peach coloured crossandras, tiny heads of bright yellow flowers, purples and lilacs. Even the bare-leaved commiphora, a survivor of the drylands has leaves amidst its thorny branches.
The younger birders are even more fascinated with the wildlife around when a herd of beautiful impalas in russet-earth coats scamper in the grassland and a wildebeest turns around to watch us.
Before the roads became wider and the traffic increased, these were game-filled plains migrating with the seasons to grass filled plains. Now fragmented populations no longer able to migrate, survive in pockets of open spaces. It’s a concern as the genes become weaker.
But above, the raptors have us enchanted.
High on the ridge, a pair of Verreaux’s eagles regal us for hours using the hot thermals to lift and soar without a wing beat, at times just hovering in the same spot, suspended in space.
It’s not the only bird of prey that’s enjoying the day. A Lanner Falcon zips across in the sky space. It’s quite comparable to Eluid Kipchoge in speed but there’s a faster one than it. It’s the Peregrine Falcon that can go beyond 321 kilometres per hour in its hunting dives. They can be seen around Nairobi and the country. The Lanner is still impressive and the Usain Bolt of the skies at a striking speed of 200 kilometres per hour. Its hunting skills are fascinating. It will strike a bird in flight to stun it, and follow it to the ground for the final kill.
But here’s news from the recent DNA testing on the falcon. It behaves like one, hunts like one and even looks like one. But DNA testing proves that appearances can be deceptive. The falcon is closely related to the parrot that is most definitely not a bird of prey.
For comic relief, the ordinary Pied crow chases the black eagles away in the sky. “They are normally nice birds,” quips Fleur Ng’weno who started the bird walks from the Nairobi Museum car park in 1972 and they have gone on uninterrupted since then – something to consider for the World Guinness Book of Records.
The monthly Sunday potluck is proving to be one of a kind with some of Kenya’s top birders on the scene like the amazing Brian Finch who has birded all over the world. Only he could spot the African penduline tit in the dense bushes. It is Africa’s smallest bird.
But the bird that has everyone excited is the Levant Sparrowhawk. It’s a lifer for Ng’weno and the third time for Finch. Lifer in birding lingo means ‘seen for the first time’. Everybody follows this raptor till is grows fainter than a dot in the sky. “They fly down from Russia in their tens of thousands,” tells Finch. “They go through the Middle East and then Israel into Africa and then disappear. Nobody knows where they go to.”
We are truly impressed with this little raptor from the eastern ends of the globe.
And then Kennedy Sikenykeny another keen birder tells of the Mongolia Cuckoo Project, with one of the five transmitter-fitted cuckoos from north Mongolia seen in Kitui in November 2019 – and they were tagged in June before the start of the migrations time.
The birds have been named by local schools who follow “their” birds to learn about the migration route and wintering grounds and you can follow them, too, by logging on to Birdingbeijing.com.
It’s been a fascinating Sunday with vultures and flying Secretary birds, falcons and eagles that everyone is overwhelmed. The list is 104 species strong at the end of the day.
“Lukenya Ridge is perfect for raptors,” says Finch. “It’s got good thermals, plenty of nesting places and the open plains below for hunting.”
To soar and to soar so high, to be a bird is beautiful.
Life on Lukenya
At Lukenya Hill, the cliff face area belongs to Mountain Club of Kenya. Entry is free to MCK members but non-members pay a Day Membership (KES400 for Kenyan citizens, KES800 for others). For more information log on – https://www.mck.or.ke/membership/
Keen birders can get an updated Checklist of the Birds of Kenya published August 2019 to record their sightings available from Nature Kenya @ Ksh 200.