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The Happy Herons of Manguo Swamp

Above: Grey Crowned Crane on its nest (not in Manguo Swamp because they don’t nest there)
Copyright: International Crane Foundation / Endangered Wildlife Trust Partnership

Published: Saturday magazine, Nation newspaper 31 March 2018

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Fleur Ng’weno in green jacket who has started bird walks in Nairobi in February 1971 and still at it – Manguo Swamp March 2018 Copyright Rupi Mangat

It’s a cold and rainy March morning but some of us need to escape the dull city skies. So meeting the Nature Kenya friends for the regular third Sunday of the month (including Wednesday mornings) that have gone on uninterrupted since the eminent Fleur Ng’weno started them in February 1971, we settle on Manguo Swamp.

There are two reasons for this.

One because of the heavy downpours, no one wants to be stuck out of town because of the flooded roads. The other is that the swamp attracts most of us because it would have more water in it and hence full of the waders that we don’t often see.

And then of course it’s a healthy way to stay fit and fine in good company.

Hippos ashore Copyright Rupi Mangat

Hippos ashore Copyright Rupi Mangat

Half an hour later we’re at Manguo swamp on the outskirts of Limuru on the main Nairobi-Naivasha road. In the local lingo, manguo translates into hippo. However the hippos must have fled some decades ago as the surrounding areas became more urban.

Nevertheless, minus the hippos the herons are a plenty.

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Manguo Swamp on a rain March morning in 2018 with the water birds Copyright Rupi Mangat

Scanning the waters of Manguo as 99.99 per cent of the cars speed past without a glimpse at it, we’re treated to the Purple heron. It’s a beautiful tall heron and not quite often seen.

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Purple heron

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Grey heron

A Grey heron stands statuesque in the middle of the pool and then we come to the Black-headed heron that’s more prolific all the way up to Madagascar. They all search the swamps for fish, frogs and other aquatic creatures.

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Black-headed heron

At the furthest end of the swamp we catch sight of a pair of the stately Grey crowned cranes that were once so common in African wetlands. It’s listed by the IUCN as Critically endangered. Studies show that in the last two decades in Kenya and Uganda, Grey crowned crane populations have spiralled down by 80 per cent with an alarming decline of nests due to human-wildlife conflict around nesting sites.

The cranes are spending more time looking out at humans and livestock rather than looking after their eggs and chicks. This translates to high mortality rates of the chicks. And they do not nest at Manguo because there are too many people and livestock around including boda-bodas being washed and all the slimy oil entering the water.

Flock of Grey crowned cranes by Lake Ol Bolossat in the shadows of the Aberdaresin central Kenya Copyright Rupi Mangat

Flock of Grey crowned cranes by Lake Ol Bolossat in the shadows of the Aberdares in central Kenya Copyright Rupi Mangat

Walking down the embankment closer to the swamp, we’re treated to a few land birds like the gorgeous Golden-winged sunbird first described by the German naturalist

in 1884, the same explorer after whom Fischer’s Tower, the 25m-high volcanic column is named. The German explorer reached the gorge in 1882 and there are quite a few species named after him including the beautifully coloured Fischer’s Lovebirds.

On the red earth where the local women have planted Sukuma wiki, a flock of yellow birds hop around. On closer look they are Yellow wagtails. So here’s the spiel on them. These little birds fly to the warmer climes of Africa from as far away as Russia and the rest of Europe to escape the cold winter months.

We get to see them in Kenya around September onwards until around March when they begin to head back to the northern hemisphere.

“Look,” points Fleur to the wet red earth that’s scattered with the wings of termites that flew out of the mounds with the rains. The Yellow wagtails have been feasting on the termites.

There’s so much drama in nature. From the swamp to the red-earth banks and up in the skies we’re watching an African harrier hawk aka the nest raider being chased around by the ordinary Pied crow.

Yellow-billed ducks line the spillway Copyright Rupi Mangat

Yellow-billed ducks Copyright Rupi Mangat

By now we’re on the upper reaches of the swamp heading to Limuru. The Red-billed coots, Yellow billed ducks and 50 more species of birds have kept as well entertained for a couple of hours. In many countries this number would be impossible to see.

But there’s concern as wetlands and swamps disappear under the weight of ‘development’.

“Manguo swamp is special,” says Fleur. “It is a seasonal wetland that doesn’t depend on rivers but rain from the surrounding countryside. The water flows through the ground to refill Manguo.

“So the swamp helps to regulate water. During flood times it fills instead of flooding farms. During dry times, there is still water for livestock.

“Such seasonal wetlands are instrumental to regulate water. As we destroy these wetlands, there is more flooding in towns and cities.”

Fact File

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