Lessons from bird-watching tours in the Rift

Thursday, August 1st, 2019 00:00 |
Flamingos in Rift Valley lakes have been a major tourist attraction for bird watchers. Photo/COURTESY

“There are 450 species of birds recorded in this lake. It has been added to the Ramsar list as the fifth wetland of International importance,” said Richard Kipng’eno, Resident Naturalist at  Lake Elementaita Serena Camp.  

We had stopped by Lake Elementaita to watch the vast flamingoes wading in the waters. Richard said there was drought  in the months of January to March but  after the onset of rains in late April, a green backdrop is a sign of abundance of food for the wildlife and birds. 

It was my third visit to this iconic lake that has earned accolades as a bird sanctuary, but  the first time I was on a purely bird-watching tour.

Armed with cameras, binoculars and a pair of comfy shoes, Richard and his assistant Diana led us into the bush, wowing us with their vast knowledge of birds and of the lake. 

Apart from Lake Elementaita, other six wetland areas in Kenya have been designated as Ramsar Wetlands of International Importance because they are vital wildlife habitats. The others are lakes Nakuru, Naivasha, Bogoria and Baringo and the Tana River delta.

Lake Baringo

 These sites are also significant bird watching zones. Globally, Kenya is one of the only 15 countries where more than 1,000 species of birds have been recorded.

Latin countries of Colombia, Peru and Brazil lead this flight, followed by Indonesia, China and India.  In Africa, Kenya  lies third in Africa after Tanzania and DR Congo, offering a rewarding experience to bird watchers. 

At  Lake Nakuru, visitors catch glimpses of bird species such as the pied king fisher, African fish eagle, Goliath heron, Verreaux’s eagle, and a vast number of flamingos.

Over two million flamingos can be seen at a given moment during peak season feeding on the algae that thrive in the lake’s warm waters, though the numbers have been on the decline. 

Lake Baringo is another popular site for visitors seeking excellent bird- watching experiences. In a recent visit to the lake, I was amazed by the many species of birds I saw, some brave enough to want to share my food at meal times. 

According to Dixon Ole Matano, the resident bird specialist, there are more than 500 different species of birds in Baringo such as the common bulbul, white necked commorant, yellow weavers, goliath heron, spotted morning warbler and the resident African fish eagles. 

Should you go for an early morning boat ride along the lake’s reedy shore, one can see several species of hornbill. Occasionally, the massive nest of a hammerkop or that of the rare Verreaux’s eagle came into view. At night, the white-fronted owl is easy to spot. 

Breeding colony

My younger brother and I were speechless at the magnificent sight before us at Lake Elementaita.  Some were flying high, others just skimming the surface of the water.  A rainbow in the backdrop completed the wonderful sight. 

This lake, whose name is derived from the Masaai word muteita connoting a dust bowl, is East Africa’s only breeding colony for Great White Pelicans, with an estimated 8,000 breeding couples. The water here discourages predators while availability of security and food makes the lake an excellent habitat. 

“Lake Elementaita is naturally alkaline, which is good for the algae on which flamingoes feed. When the water levels rise high, the flamingoes migrate to other lakes as the flood waters dilute the sodium bicarbonate present in the lake which in turn kills the algae,” said Richard. 

During the bird-watching gamedrive, we observed other species of birds such as the black-winged stilt, the helmeted guinea fowls, African spoonbill, black-necked Grebe, yellow-billed stork, gull- billed tern, pied avocet, black winged stilt, as well as the grey-headed gull. 

In the western region, Kakamega forest is the only equatorial forest that hosts the witty African grey parrot together with other 380 species such as  grey-throated barbets, the great blue turaco and double-toothed barbet.

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