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kenya diary part 1

2004-02-07 - 8:54 a.m.

This is part one based on my handwritten diary created during my visit to Kenya in January 2004 as part of a Raptours group headed by Bill Clark, author of A Field Guide to the Raptors of Europe, The Middle East, and North Africa as well as several other leading raptor guides. For the bird list from that trip, please click here.

male lion seen in Mara, Kenya
2004 by Elaine Radford, all rights reserved

Jan. 7, 2004

A full moon was setting in the west, a red sunrise blazed in the east, and in the direction of the airport BF and I could see Norco venting huge amounts of natural gas. Little Vs of Double-Crested Cormorants crossed the lake. BF dropped me off at D's, and we spent the morning in search of D's Lariam. Then onward to the airport.

Jan. 8, 2004

Our flight to Amsterdam was remarkable for the free-flowing Skyy Vodka and Chilean wine. It was even more remarkable for the abysmal food served with metal knives. Since I don't believe the boxcutter theory -- the tape released by Cleveland Air Traffic Control makes it clear that the hijackers at least on United Flight 93 had a bomb and there is little doubt in my mind that the whole boxcutter story was created to reduce the airlines' legal liability -- I wasn't afraid of being hijacked by crazed passengers wielding knives, but I was a trifle concerned that someone despondent over the unspeakable food might take their own life. Still it seems odd that you go through security with guards confiscating tweezers and manicure scissors only to be issued a knife on the airplane itself.

Be that as it may, with a stiff tail wind, we landed in the Netherlands without incident an hour early. Unfortunately, instead of being able to deplane, we had to sit in line waiting for a gate, so we didn't end up saving any time.

The first bird seen out of the window of the airplane was the Rock Dove or Feral Pigeon as it is called when we are being European. The next birds seen were House Sparrow and Mallard.

The driver -- called the chauffeur in the Netherlands, where they don't know we think that word pretentious -- reminded me of classic stories of New York City cab drivers. He drove like a maniac and laughed aloud when D. hurriedly strapped on his seatbelt and shoulder harness. He also had an opinion on every topic and was ready to fix the evils of the world if only the world would listen.

For instance, he pointed out the bike paths with pride, making some comment to the point that we could probably have bike paths in America too if the rich paid taxes. Then he inveighed against the U.S. dollar -- "toilet tissue" -- and our poor leadership which resulted in same. Hey, I agree, but what the heck does he expect me to do about it? It must have been fairly widely reported in Europe that only nine votes were counted, and I can guarantee that mine wasn't one of them.

thatched roof of one of the interesting homes of Aalsmeer
2004 by Elaine Radford, all rights reserved

The weather in Aalsmeer was cold and rainy when we arrived, so we concentrated on resting from our journey rather than birding. Before dinner, we braved the elements to take a stroll to sightsee the interesting houses of this picturesque area. Apparently, there are television studios nearby, which seems appropriate, because the yards, homes, even the ducks and coots, seemed doll-house cute, like something designed to be filmed.

D. spotted a Great Egret but I'm troubled that it may be a Great Egret hitching post. Tomorrow I hope to check by daylight to be sure.

In a cozy restaurant, I enjoyed a Heinecken in its natural environment before an excellent dinner.

Jan. 9, 2004

It was still dark at 8 A.M. with the full moon and a bright planet (perhaps Saturn?) glowing in the west. I realize that Saturn is not usually so bright, but it seemed too high for Venus, and I had heard that Saturn is unusually bright at the moment. I will have to look it up when I get a chance.

Again we strolled among the picturesque houses punctuated by the many canals. Poor D. His egret proved to be a statue. We also met geese and a Black Swan that asked for bread. Sadly, we came unprepared. I had read that Black Swan was introduced to the Netherlands, but as it was associating with the geese, who wore bands, I suspect that it was someone's pet, and I won't be counting Black Swan on my life list just yet.

In the afternoon we learned the bus system and went into the center of Amsterdam, where we strolled around the historic old buildings and got somewhat oriented. There are Argentine steakhouses everywhere, and we enjoyed a good steak in one of them along the way.

Jan. 10, 2004

An all-day flight to Nairobi. Despite the early hour, our driver was in full form as he took us to the airport and informed us in colorful terms that Mormons have serious hang-ups. I do hope he realizes that only a tiny minority of Americans are Mormons! We are from New Orleans and may have seen a scantily clad girl or a baggie of herb offered for sale from time to time, although admittedly not under any government license. For this leg of the journey the vodka was Absolut and the wine South African but the food alas no better. We arrived after dark, which thankfully made it impossible for my first bird of Africa to be a Feral Pigeon.

maasai giraffe looks at nairobi, kenya skyline
2004 by Elaine Radford

Jan. 11, 2004

I awoke around 5:30, while it was still dark. I could hear a bird singing, and I hurried to catch it in my binoculars before it was too late. I suspected a thrush and soon located my first bird of Africa in the tree outside my hotel window -- a lustily singing Olive Thrush, which reminded me a bit of our American Robin.

We spent the whole day at Nairobi National Park. At the entrance, we were greeted by a large troop of olive baboons. It was almost too much to absorb. We saw 20 raptor species: a huge crocodile rolling its prey in the water; a cute Common Ostrich family complete with mommy, daddy, and little ones; Syke's and Vervet monkey troops including an adorable mother Vervet nursing a baby who came right up to the vehicle.

this vervet monkey with child was so close to the vehicle that i had to 
get down and shoot it through the glass instead of from the open top roof -- 
animals getting too close for effective photography was actually a recurring theme
of this trip since i didn't want extreme close-ups that could have just as well been 
taken in a zoo
2004 by Elaine Radford, all rights reserved

My notes for the day are dominated by lists.

Here's the mammal list:

  1. Olive Baboon
  2. Maasai Giraffe
  3. Eland
  4. Impala
  5. Zebra
  6. Warthog
  7. Black Rhinoceros -- 3, 2 were distant but 1 was very close
  8. Hartebeast
  9. Syke's Monkey
  10. Vervet Monkey
  11. Cape Buffalo
  12. Reed Buck
  13. Water Buck
  14. Bush Buck
  15. Grant's Gazelle

one of skazillion common zebra herds
2004 by Elaine Radford, all rights reserved

Here's the first day's raptor list:

  1. Black-shouldered kite
  2. Black kite -- the first raptor seen in Africa, sailing low over the parking lot of the hotel
  3. African White-Backed Vulture -- first seen being chased by African Hawk-Eagle
  4. Ruppell's Vulture
  5. Lappet-Faced Vulture
  6. Black-Breasted Snake Eagle
  7. Brown Snake Eagle -- distant
  8. Bateleur -- distant
  9. Gymnogene or African Harrier Hawk -- put on a great show of checking woodpecker holes for eggs and nestlings
  10. Pallid Harrier
  11. Montagu's Harrier
  12. Western Marsh Harrier
  13. Steppe Buzzard
  14. Augur Buzzard -- views included a dark morph covering its prey to protect it
  15. African Fish-Eagle pair
  16. Tawny Eagle
  17. Long-crested Eagle
  18. African Crowned Eagle -- twice!
  19. African Hawk-Eagle
  20. Common Kestrel -- distant
To flash forward for a moment, I will mention that all three birds first noted here as "distant" would later be seen very well.

the ubiquitous tawny eagle was first met at nairobi national park
2004 by Elaine Radford, all rights reserved

There was also a huge list of other birds. I don't think I have the energy to keep typing up each day's complete bird list, but since it was the first day, and so many of these birds were lifers, I might as well post today's list to give you an idea of the overwhelming impact of seeing so many new birds.

  1. Common Ostrich
  2. Long-Tailed Cormorant
  3. Cattle Egret
  4. Black-Headed Heron
  5. Hamerkop --one flying
  6. Black Stork
  7. Saddle-Billed Stork
  8. Marabou Stork
  9. Yellow-Billed Stork
  10. Sacred Ibis -- in fact, they roosted at our hotel
  11. Hadada Ibis
  12. Yellow-necked Spurfowl
  13. Helmeted Guineafowl
  14. Black-bellied Bustard
  15. Three-banded Plover
  16. Marsh Sandpiper
  17. Common Greenshank
  18. Ring-necked Dove
  19. White-bellied Go-Away Bird
  20. African Palm Swift
  21. Nyanza Swift
  22. Little Swift
  23. Speckled Mousebird
  24. Malachite Kingfisher
  25. Little Bee-eater
  26. Cinnamon-chested Bee-eater
  27. African Gray Hornbill
  28. Rufous-naped Lark
  29. Barn Swallow
  30. Red-rumped Swallow
  31. Rock Martin
  32. African Pied Wagtail
  33. Grassland Pipit
  34. Yellow-throated Longclaw
  35. Common Bulbul
  36. Northern Pied-Babbler
  37. Northern Wheatear
  38. Olive Thrush
  39. White-eyed Slaty Flycatcher
  40. African Gray Flycatcher
  41. Willow Warbler
  42. Stout Cisticola
  43. Rattling Cisticola
  44. African Paradise-Flycatcher -- spectacular
  45. Chinspot Batis
  46. Red-tailed Shrike
  47. Long-tailed Fiscal
  48. Common Drongo
  49. Pied Crow
  50. Ruppell's Long-tailed Starling
  51. Collared Sunbird
  52. Bronze Sunbird
  53. Red-billed Firefinch
  54. Common Waxbill
  55. Red-cheeked Cordonbleu
  56. Bronze Manakin
  57. African Citril
  58. Brimstone Canary
  59. Yellow-rumped Seedeater
  60. Cinnamon-breasted Rock-bunting
  61. Golden-breasted Bunting
i could never get a photo to do justice to the jaunty crest
of the long-crested eagle but perhaps this silhouette will 
give the general idea
2004 by Elaine Radford, all rights reserved

Jan. 12, 2004

From the second floor of the hotel, D. and I studied a tree hopping with confusing weavers. At first we thought it was hopeless, and then a pair of adult male and female Baglafecht Weavers posed together, and it all seemed to snap into focus. We also feel that we saw several Village (also known as Black-Headed) Weavers, but unluckily the guides didn't see them, so we couldn't get confirmation.

After breakfast, we visited Lamura Pond, where we added several new species, most notably Gray Crowned Crane (which cooperated nicely by flying overhead once we'd observed it long enough strolling about in the scope), Maccoa Duck, and African Spoonbill. The Little Grebe with its powderpuff rear end was an amusing sight.

longenot volcano with hint of the rift valley
2004 by DD, all rights reserved

The eastern part of Africa is being slowly split off by continental drift, and as we climbed into the Aberdare Mountains, we could look across at the old volcanic cone of Longenot and down into the huge Rift Valley. We were in search of Mountain Buzzard, which soon appeared to put on a fine show, with the first bird (a light morph) appearing overhead in the sky with the sun shining through its wings like liquid gold. It performed spectacularly above us and then descended a little ways into the valley, soon to be followed by the cry of a dark morph bird, which followed its path exactly. A mating pair? I would not be surprised. The birds appeared to take such joy in the day and in each other that it would be difficult not to anthropomorphize.

Closer to Nairobi, in a field pocked by aardvark holes, we encountered a surprisingly tolerant young Black-Breasted Snake Eagle. Alas, my camera was already acting up -- my battery charger had not worked properly even in Aalsmeer -- but I just focused on getting so close to this calm, magnificent raptor rather than worrying about my "battery dead" message.

Along the way we noticed evidence of a leopard -- a dead Thompson's gazelle dragged up into a tree -- but we didn't see the leopard itself.

The day's new raptors were Mountain Buzzard and Eastern Chanting Goshawk. Other notable new birds include the very impressive Kori Bustard.

To read Part Two of my Kenya diary, click right here.

i love to repeat this image of a young augur buzzard just after 
getting knocked on the head by common drongo
2004 by Elaine Radford, all rights reserved

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