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my kenya diary part four

2004-02-11 - 9:35 a.m.

This is Part Four of my Kenya diary based on my January Raptours trip 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 guides. Part One can be found right here. Part Two can be found right here. Part Three can be found right here. And here's the bird list and the animal list.

male common ostrich surveys the mara
2004 by Elaine Radford, all rights reserved

Jan. 21, 2004

A splendid black and blood-red bird, the Black-Headed Gonolek, serenaded the morning. We checked the roof and grounds for a few last minute birds, and I got the Woodland Kingfisher that I'd missed yesterday when I was hiding from the heat of day.

The roads seemed to be lined with birds. Not all that far into our trip, while checking a spot where we'd seen snake eagles on our original journey, we came to a screeching halt to admire a fine specimen of an extremely rare adult Beaudouin's Snake-Eagle. Bill commented that there are only about five records of the species in Kenya, so he was careful to get photographs after we'd all had a chance to fully enjoy the posing bird in the scope.

If your only experience of the so-called third world is Mexico or Central America, where paying a toll gets you access to a broad modern highway, then you're going to have the wrong idea about roads in Kenya. We paid a toll to access a "privately maintained road" which gave no evidence of having ever been maintained. If not for the guards at each end, I would have assumed that it was a dry stream bed. An extremely rocky dry stream bed. The original van couldn't have progressed a mile, so it was a good thing we'd switched to the Land Rover.

And this, my friends, is the road into the Kichwa Temba camp:

mara road
2004 by Elaine Radford, all rights reserved

No, I'm not kidding. We thought that there just had to be a better road hidden somewhere, but there wasn't. The excessively well-to-do get in and out by private plane.

It was a fine day for raptors, as the day's list reveals:

  1. Black-shouldered Kite
  2. Black Kite
  3. African Fish-Eagle
  4. Hooded Vulture -- new today
  5. White-backed Vulture
  6. Rueppell's Vulture
  7. Lappet-faced Vulture
  8. Beaudouin's Snake-Eagle -- new today, rare
  9. Black-breasted Snake-Eagle
  10. Bateleur
  11. Pallid Harrier
  12. Augur Buzzard
  13. Tawny Eagle
  14. Long-crested Eagle
  15. Secretary-bird
  16. Common Kestrel

mother cheetah with three well-grown young
2004 by Elaine Radford, all rights reserved

The photo doesn't do the special moment justice, but we were held spellbound by a mother cheetah with her three healthy cubs. Hmm. Is it cubs or is it kittens? Although they're clearly growing up, they were very playful with each other.

three cheetah youngsters horsing around and never all looking in the 
same direction for their photo at the same time
2004 by Elaine Radford, all rights reserved

Then, around another corner, we encountered three indolent female lions doing what they do best -- idling in the sun.

female lion close-up
2004 by Elaine Radford, all rights reserved

After a gratifying day, we checked into our tented camp with the stone bathrooms built right into the tent. Bill was concerned because the nearly impassible road meant that we were on the opposite side of the river from the area that he'd previously scouted.

The rest of us were just a tad weirded out by the live band by the campfire performing the most lugubrious folk songs of the 1960s and early 1970s. Now I like a good folk song as much as anyone, and no one is a bigger Dylan fan, but it can't all be Blowin' in the Wind and Leavin' On a Jet Plane and (my nomination for the worst song of all time) John Denver's Sunshine. Spice up that nostalgic depression with a little Leopardskin Pillbox Hat or whatever. I'm pretty sure our band covered every depressing old folk song ever made, including This Land is Your Land, which wasn't originally meant to be depressing of course but when one has lived to see the end of democracy in one's native land, then it's just a tad...melancholy. The only one they missed was Guantanamera. Maybe it wasn't depressing enough.

When I got back to my tent, the covers were turned down and there was a hot water bottle in my bed. It was wonderful sinking into warm bed linens on a cool night.

Jan. 22, 2004

do not feed the warthogs
2004 by Elaine Radford

What a day. My wake-up call was a young lady who served tea on the front porch of my tent. As I settled in to sip my tea, who should come marching down the trail but a humongous male warthog heading straight for me. I'm afraid I let out a scream that brought D. running out of his nearby tent -- and which encouraged the warthog to change to another path, where he could find someone more congenial to feed him sugar lumps. About that time, the blue monkeys appeared, and they were happy to grab all the sugar they could get. I tried to photograph one monkey running from D's porch with a lump of sugar in each hand, making it difficult for the poor monkey to actually climb, but it was still too dark and the picture didn't come out. Ah well. It never hurts to try.

At breakfast, we noticed the warthog families everywhere, peacefully sniffing around the tables for leftovers. Of course, now that I wanted a warthog to come take treats from my hand, they didn't trust me and wouldn't quite get close enough.

To avoid bouncing over the rocks, we stayed on this side of the Mara, which Bill had not scouted, and I think all were very pleased by the surprises we encountered.

For instance, we saw a butt-load of elephants today. Is there a more dignified term for a huge herd of elephants? D.B. said that he counted 108 in this horizon-to-horizon herd before he got tired of counting:

part of a huge elephant herd in the mara a short distance away from the 
tanzania border
2004 by Elaine Radford, all rights reserved

I thought the African Elephant was all but extinct. I don't think I knew that there were so many elephants left in the world. They looked quite healthy, with plenty of youngsters. Keeping my fingers crossed that they will continue to thrive...

We spotted more evidence of Leopards, when we studied a Lappet-Faced Vulture sitting in a tree with a zebra carcass hauled up into the branches. No actual Leopards though. Not just yet.

From F. we learned that when female felines go hunting, they hide their cubs under cover so they won't have to drag them along. He knew a place to check, and under some thick, thorny brambles, we spotted an adorable lion cub.

And talk about the raptors. We saw so many species, often so upclose, that it would take all month to give the details, so I'll just supply a raptor checklist for the day:

  1. Black Kite
  2. African Fish-Eagle
  3. Hooded Vulture
  4. White-backed Vulture
  5. Rueppell's Vulture
  6. Lappet-faced Vulture
  7. White-headed Vulture -- new today, our first sighting was a male on a nest with young
  8. Beaudouin's Snake-Eagle -- yes, another one, this one in an immature plumage
  9. Black-breasted Snake-Eagle
  10. Western Banded Snake Eagle -- new today, Bill is preparing an article about this bird, which will be accepted as a full species
  11. Bateleur
  12. Western Marsh-Harrier
  13. Montagu's Harrier
  14. Lizard Buzzard
  15. Dark Chanting-Goshawk -- new today
  16. Shikra
  17. Steppe Buzzard
  18. Augur Buzzard
  19. Tawny Eagle
  20. Wahlberg's Eagle
  21. Long-crested Eagle
  22. Secretary-bird
  23. Common Kestrel
  24. Gray Kestrel -- new today, with great close views of this handsome species

Jan. 23, 2004

I'll just get it out of the way right now and admit to another huge day's bird list, including our new raptor, the Ovampo Sparrowhawk, and hilarious sights such as the Dark Chanting Goshawk being mobbed by White-Crowned Shrikes, who succeeded in chasing him out of their tree. But the poor Goshawk found no rest, for at his new location, he was immediately attacked by an indignant Lesser Kestrel. Probably my favorite non-raptor of the day was the Crowned Hornbill, who was calling and flying about his territory early in the morning before breakfast.

Here's the list:

  1. Common Ostrich
  2. Gray Heron
  3. Black-headed Heron
  4. Great Egret
  5. Intermediate Egret
  6. Rufous-bellied Heron
  7. Cattle Egret
  8. Green Heron
  9. Hamerkop
  10. Yellow-billed Stork
    saddle-billed stork
    2004 by Elaine Radford, all rights reserved

  11. Saddle-billed Stork
  12. Marabou Stork
  13. Sacred Ibis
  14. Egyptian Goose
  15. Black-shouldered Kite
  16. Hooded Vulture
  17. White-backed Vulture
  18. Lappet-faced Vulture
  19. White-headed Vulture
  20. Bateleur
  21. Western Marsh-Harrier
  22. Pallid Harrier
  23. Montagu's Harrier
  24. Dark Chanting-Goshawk
  25. Ovampo Sparrowhawk
  26. Steppe Buzzard
  27. Tawny Eagle
  28. Steppe Eagle
  29. Wahlberg's Eagle
  30. Long-crested Eagle
    black-shouldered kite
    2004 by Elaine Radford, all rights reserved

  31. Secretary-bird
  32. Lesser Kestrel
  33. Red-necked Spurfowl
  34. Gray Crowned-Crane
  35. Black-bellied Bustard
  36. African Jacana
  37. Long-toed Plover
  38. Spur-winged Plover
  39. Senegal Plover
  40. Black-winged Plover
  41. Crowned Plover
  42. Wattled Plover
  43. Three-banded Plover
  44. Common Snipe
  45. Marsh Sandpiper
  46. Green Sandpiper
  47. Wood Sandpiper
  48. Dusky Turtle-Dove
  49. Ring-necked Dove
  50. Meyer's Parrot
  51. Black Coucal
  52. Pied Kingfisher
  53. Eurasian Bee-eater
  54. Lilac-breasted Roller
  55. Green Woodhoopoe
  56. Crowned Hornbill
  57. Plain Martin
  58. Red-rumped Swallow
  59. Black Sawwing
  60. African Pied Wagtail
    lilac-breasted roller
    2004 by Elaine Radford, all rights reserved

  61. Common Bulbul
  62. Northern Black-Flycatcher
  63. White-browed Robin-Chat
  64. Northern Anteater-Chat
  65. African Paradise-Flycatcher
  66. White-crowned Shrike
  67. Tropical Boubou
  68. Long-tailed Starling
  69. Greater Blue-eared Glossy-Starling
  70. Yellow-billed Oxpecker
  71. Baglafecht Weaver
  72. Red-headed Weaver
  73. Yellow-mantled Widowbird
  74. Red-cheeked Cordonbleu
  75. Purple Grenadier
  76. African Citril
  77. Yellow-fronted Canary

And yet somehow the day didn't belong to the birds. It was owned by the cats, with our little group easily viewing all three Big Felines in one day.

We enjoyed the sight of the Cheetah moving slowly through the grass. And we thrilled to the discovery of a mother lion and her two cubs, hidden under some brambles along with a freshly killed zebra. Everyone had clamored for a male lion, and we discovered one after lunch that did everything except leap on top of the Land Rover to pose for pictures.

male lion in the mara, kenya
2004 by Elaine Radford, all rights reserved

But we all agreed that the best of all was the hunting Leopard:

female leopard
2004 by Elaine Radford, all rights reserved

F. had received a tip about a female Leopard with two cubs. The babies were hidden away, never to be seen, but we soon realized with a thrill that it was because she intended to go hunting.

another view of the female leopard
2004 by Elaine Radford, all rights reserved

I must say that Leopards don't have an easy time of it in this world. We tracked her for close to two hours, and when she was first stalking through a more open area, making her an easy photography subject, she was twice chased off by angry mother elephants. I'm not confident that a Leopard could have actually taken a baby elephant, but the mothers weren't about to take any chances. Finally, she chose to stalk through a more forested area, where elephants wouldn't fit under the trees and interfere with her action. After a time, Bill figured out which impala she was likely to attack and made sure that we all knew where the blissfully unaware animal was napping. The final pounce was amazingly fast. The impala never knew what hit, as it barely had time to stand up before it was caught and killed in a single deadly accurate strike.

People take safaris for many years without ever witnessing a Leopard make a successful kill; indeed, for all his years in Africa, I'm pretty sure that Bill said it was the first time he'd witnessed it himself. We just got incredibly lucky.

Jan. 24, 2004

OK, so you know it's a rich area when, on the last day heading home, you are not only still finding new birds, but you are finding new categories of birds. Here's a list of just the new life birds I added today, including one from the new category of coursers and pratincoles:

  1. Temminck's Courser
  2. Caspian Plover
  3. Great Spotted Cuckoo
  4. Rufous-crowned Roller
  5. Rufous-necked Wryneck
  6. Violet-backed Starling

It would be tough to pick a favorite from all these well-seen, almost-posing birds, but I have to say that I was particularly impressed by the sparkling beauty of the Violet-backed Starling.

white-headed vultures, females on the left, simply magnificent
2004 by Elaine Radford, all rights reserved

After what I'd read in the guidebooks, I knew better than to expect to get out of Kenya without experiencing a flat tire, and the last day of the trip did not disappoint:

ye old flat tire
2004 by Elaine Radford, all rights reserved

It was a classic scene -- the tire went flat, the storm clouds gathered, and 17 White-Backed Vultures began to circle in anticipation. But the ever-efficient F. quickly changed the flat before either rain clouds or vultures could claim their prize.

And I can't forget to mention the fine Martial Eagle that we saw perched alongside the road. As A. commented, "You always see a Martial Eagle on the last day!" I'm not sure if that's actually the law of the land or anything, but it was certainly a fine view of a magnificent bird -- and a fine farewell to what is surely one of the most magnificent birding and wildlife areas remaining in the world.

You have just read Part Four of my Kenya Diary. To find out what happened next, go here. To find out how it all started, go back and read Part One , Part Two, and Part Three. Go here for my bird list complete with pictures or go here for my animal checklist.

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