An account by Washington Wachira (photos by Washington and Maureen)
I never pass an opportunity to go birding, and especially when we are talking about Nairobi National Park. This small park has wonders to behold and each birding tour yields exciting species encounters as well as fun moments with friends. So, on the last Saturday of July, we decided to visit Nairobi National Park; after over five months of not being there. Expectations were high and we were eager to see what new birds may have moved in during this time, or even how the park ecosystem has transformed since the last rainy season.
We left home before day break to allow us a smooth drive with no traffic and to also be at the park gate when birds were waking up. This proved to be a good strategy, and the drive was very smooth. On arrival, the park gate was active with bird calls from all directions – Abyssinian Thrush, Dark-capped Bulbul and African Goshawk, were chanting away.
Going through the Kisembe Forest towards the Ivory Burning Site, a few more species were added, including our first Tawny-flanked Prinias of the day and our only Streaky Seedeater. At the Ivory Burning Site, we added a nice Yellow-throated Longclaw singing from a perch and imitating some lark notes in his song. Ruppell’s Robin-Chats, Cape Robin-Chats and Tropical Boubous were singing from the nearby bushes. Here we also connected with our first of many Helmeted Guineafowls; as we would later see many more in the day.
The loop through Nagolomon Drift yielded our first cisticola species- a nice Winding Cisticola. We would later connect with several more species in the day, including Rattling Cisticola, Stout Cisticola, Red-faced Cisticola, Desert Cisticola, Siffling Cisticola and Rattling Cisticola. There was a Moustached Grass Warbler singing behind us, but our great views came later on near the Olmanyi Dam Circuit.
Nagolomon Dam was active as always, with the heronry containing multiple species- Reed Cormorants, Great Cormorants, Cattle Egrets and African Sacred Ibises. Below the reeds, a showy Black Crake gave us great views, and a tiny Three-banded Plover was active feeding too. We searched for sandpipers with no luck- we were lucky to find a Common Sandpiper later in the day. We would later see many more of these species in other wetlands across the day. An African Darter flew over our vehicle.
Leaving the dam, we encountered our first of the day’s Northern Fiscal and Rufous-naped Lark around the sandy loop towards the Hyena Dam. There was news of a lion towards the Hyena Dam, so most vehicles were headed that way. We opted to avoid the groups and take a diversion away from Hyena Dam, and try it on our exit journey. We had all day in the park and felt we had great chances for more lions elsewhere- this proved to be a great call, as we ended up finding two nice males near the Athi Dam later in the day. We also found eight Southern White Rhinos to add to our mammals splendor.
Cruising through the grassy plains was quite productive, adding a solo Laughing Dove, Long-tailed Fiscals, a solo Crested Francolin, many Northern Pied Babblers and a mega find- a Black-shouldered Kite feeding on a form of rodent!!! We could not identify the rodent to species level, as the kite had already snacked most of the identifiable parts; but it was great to see some raptor ecology in action. There were also many scatterings of seed eating birds- Reichenow’s Seedeaters and Common Waxbills, being the most abundant.
We also found some Little Bee-eaters hawking for flies around the grasslands. There was a huge population of Wattled Starlings today across the entire park, but our first bunch was across the railway line. This group was feeding with a herd of Common Zebras. Later in the day we found them feeding with Maasai Giraffes, Southern White Rhinos and Common Elands- in most acting like oxpeckers. We also had our first Scarlet-chested Sunbird here, a female feeding on some Leonotis flowers. A lone Pangani Longclaw was also found along this stretch, not far from the railway line. On the upper side of the railway line, we found a nesting Martial Eagle sitting tight in her nest. This pair has been in the park for several years and I have been lucky to find some young from the territory in the past. There are a few other territories of Martial Eagle in the park and chances of finding this eagle here are usually quite good.
The rocky cliffs around the Mokoyeti Valley and the Mbagathi River circuit were quite exciting as well. We found our mega raptor of the day here- a magnificent Verreaux’s Eagle came cruising from the Mbagathi Valley and flew over our vehicle headed to the Mokoyeti Hyrax Cliffs. Maybe she was feeling an appetite for her favourite meal?
We later drove through the Hippo Pools area, and onwards towards the Athi Basin. On the road down to the picnic area, Maureen spotted a spectacular African Hoopoe hiding deep among the bushes. We reversed to have a better look and a few safari vehicles joined us in the joy of birding, although most did not spend a full minute at the spot- hahaa. There must have been a better animal ahead maybe? There was a calling Nubian Woodpecker and Hybrid Lovebirds here; together with scattered Common Ostriches. We had our only Southern Black Flycatcher or the day, another uncommon bird that seems to do well around Nairobi and Thika areas of Kenya. This individual was half-blind with one eye clouded and looking very dull- I hope he makes it to live many days here. I don’t suppose they have many predators, but a Goshawk or Sparrowhawk would not pass an easy meal!!!
The Cheetah Gate loop was alive with many birds in the bushland, with the highlight being a D’Arnaud’s Barbet making a very harsh call in an Acacia mellifera bush. This call attracted many small birds, including Red-cheeked Cordon-bleus, Purple Grenadiers and Speckle-fronted Weavers. A Banded Parisoma was also calling in the background. Not far from here, we connected with a lovely Foxy Lark, formerly treated as conspecific with the Fawn-coloured Larks from Southern Africa. We also found a great flock of swallows and swifts feeding on some insect flocks near the Cheetah Gate; adding Little Swift, White-rumped Swift, Red-rumped Swallow, Barn Swallow and Plain Martin. The Barn Swallows were the first of only two Palearctic migrants that we found in the entire day. There was a calling White-bellied Go-away-bird around this circuit too.
At the Athi Basin Dam, we met another vehicle with birding friends and we chatted a little about our day’s findings. We then continued our exploration, adding Spotted Thick-knee and Grey Heron. We then encountered a big flock of Egyptian Geese; and close to these was a beautiful Kittlitz’s Plover- one of the smartest species in the Genus. There was also a Hamerkop feeding here. We also scored a pair of African Open-billed Stork, busy hunting snails here and they seemed to be doing a great job so far!!! This species has a specialized bill that can prob mud for snails and extract them from their shells with ease. We added some Fischer’s Sparrow-larks here and a pair of noisy Crowned Lapwings. In the bushes above, we found the only Lilac-breasted Roller of the day. Here we also found a family of Common Ostriches patrolling the plains.
We visited the Vulture Murram Pits, and here we connected with our second Palearctic migrant- a nice and neat Common Sandpiper. He was feeding with a Three-banded Plover, in their little private water pool. Vultures did not disappoint here, and we connected with two Gyps species- African White-backed Vulture and Ruppell’s Vulture, now split away from the Griffon Vultures. A massive Lappet-faced Vulture was sunning here too, Africa’s largest vulture species. He was flanked by a few Marabou Storks and quarrels kept arising, maybe for the best sunning spot!!! As we were departing, we found a Grassland Pipit and then a pair of the rare Short-tailed Lark, a phenomenal bird that probs the ground like a Ground Woodpecker.
We decided to take a look at Hyena Dam before exiting, as we had avoided in in the morning. We took the back road to try for widowbirds, expecting them to be in non-breeding dress at this time of year. We failed to find any widowbirds, but were treated to an amazing encounter with a family of Shelley’s Francolins feeding close to the road. This is always a rare bird to find anywhere, but Nairobi National park has proven to be a great place to try your luck. Above the dam, a pair of Grey Crowned Cranes were busy feeding in the grasses. This is an endangered species that is losing habitat fast across Africa due to the conversion of wetlands to farmlands and housing estates. The dam itself was alive with African Spoonbills, Cattle Egrets, Black-headed Herons and our first Pied Kingfisher sighting of the day- we heard one calling at Nagolomon Dam earlier, but this was the first seen individual; and he was busy hunting over the water.
We continued across the main courseway back towards the main gate, adding a nice Yellow-necked Spurfowl along this route. The park rangers were busy adding tarmac on the exit road through the forest, so we did not hear much on our exit. But it was also getting late and we needed to head out.
At the end of the day, we had scored 122 birds species, and an array of mammals, plants, insects and reptiles. We can’t wait to be back here for more birds and more fun….