An introduction to Birding in Nairobi National Park, a wonder-site for birders

A short account by Washington Wachira  

Birding, an art and a Science, but in all manner of life, a very exciting activity. I have been lucky to enjoy birding in many parts of Africa and some little birding outside the continent. However, I have never quite found another location as productive as Nairobi National Park, when compared part for part.

I have birded in some very exciting forests, such as Kakamega Forest of Kenya and Bwindi Forest of Uganda. Some lakes are also very exciting and full of birds, such as Lake Manyara of Tanzania and Lake Baringo of Kenya.

the dazzling Little Bee-eater

Open habitats, savannah and scrubland parks can also have their excellent beauties; such as Kruger National Park of South Africa, Queen Elizabeth National Park of Uganda, Tsavo West National Park of Kenya and Serengeti National Park of Tanzania.

However, these locations are either specialized, with a specific group of birds e.g. Kakamega Forest with forest birds; while the more diverse (in terms of habitat) parks are often much larger in land area e.g. Serengeti National Park.

At just about 117 square kilometres, Nairobi National Park hosts a list of close to 600 birds species; which is amazing in bulk. But the most exciting part of this park is the number of species you can score within a short time period. I have severally scored over 100 species of birds here in under one hour of birding. I have also been here with some top birders and collectively we have raked over 220 species on a single day, with a team of four birder in one car. When you look at these numbers, you may already be converted to a Nairobi National Park lover.

a Malachite Kingfisher with prey

One specific area around the North-Western end of the park is believed to be the “top birding pentad” in the World. This is owed to the fact that it has scored a huge list of birds (close to 600 species) within a small area of 5minutes longitude by 5minutes latitude or 9 kilometres by 9 kilometres. The pentad is a unit used by the African Bird Atlas Project; a wonderful Citizen Science project that I have been lucky to work with for several years. This famous pentad is named “the Finch Pentad”; after a great birder who lives in it and has kept a list of all birds recorded within the square.  

Red-collared Widowbird breeding male

Numbers aside, the beauty of birding in Nairobi National Park also comes from the variety of birds and birding habitats. This small park, by African park-sizes standards, has virtually all major habitats of Africa. These include rocky cliffs, forests, bushland, grasslands and wetlands.

The grasslands often host several scattered trees that rise above the plains. These trees are amazing nesting sites for birds of prey e.g. Tawny Eagle and Martial Eagle. These urban raptors also spend time perched on the tall trees as they scan the savannah for prey. A few species also nest or roost on these trees. In many parts of the park, African White-backed Vultures will use the trees for roosting and nesting.

African White-backed Vulture

Other large birds that often nest or roost on these trees include the Secretarybird, Black-headed Heron, Hadada Ibis, Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl and Lappet-faced Vulture. Below the tall trees, many birds enjoy feeding in the grassy plains. Larks and pipits are particularly at home here. Common pipits in the park include Grassland Pipit and the migratory Red-throated Pipit. Larks include Rufous-naped Lark (the Nairobi race may be taxonomically distinct from other populations farther West), Red-capped Lark, Athi Short-toed Lark, Foxy Lark and Short-tailed Lark. Widowbirds are also at home in the grassy plains of Nairobi National Park; where species include Jackson’s Widowbird, Red-collared Widowbird and White-winged Widowbird. The largest bird in the world is also found in this habitat, the majestic Common Ostrich. Other large birds here include the Kori Bustard and the uncommon Hartlaub’s Bustard.    

Short-tailed Lark

Rocky cliffs to the Southern sector of the park are a great site for Lanner Falcon, Verreaux’s Eagles, Rock Martins and Long-billed Pipits. These habitats are often lined with bushes and succulent plants like the Euphorbia and Aloe species; the latter being a great habitat to find sunbirds like the attractive Scarlet-chested Sunbird. Sometimes Cinnamon-breasted Rock Buntings, Helmeted Guineafowls and Yellow-necked Spurfowls enjoy hiding in the local cliff bushes.       

In the forest section, many arboreal birds call this place home. A good selection of ground-dwelling forest birds also live here; as do the skulking species, who enjoy hiding among the vines and branches. Common species here include the African Emerald Cuckoo, Tropical Boubou, Yellow-breasted Apalis, Cinnamon-chested Bee-eater, African Paradise Flycatcher, Red-eyed Dove, African Crowned Eagle, African Goshawk, Montane Nightjar, African Palm Swift, Hartlaub’s Turaco, Narina Trogon, Yellow-whiskered Greenbul, Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird and the “chief of mimicry”, the beautiful Ruppell’s Robin-Chat. Along the forest edges, small seed-eating birds feed on the ground or perched on nearby trees e.g. Red-cheeked Cordon-bleu, Reichenow’s Seedeater, Holub’s Golden Weaver and African Citril.   

Holub’s Golden Weaver

The bushland habitat, which is often lined along dry river beds and on the edges of the forest zones, is another top area for birds. Here Spot-flanked Barbets, White-browed Coucal, Moustached Grass Warbler, Kenya Rufous Sparrows, Speke’s Weavers, Lilac-breasted Rollers and Speckled Mousebirds feel at home. Another group of birds that loves this habitat are the migratory warblers, including a great selection of Palearctic migrants which winter in Nairobi National Park. These include Marsh Warbler, Garden Warbler and Willow Warbler. Cisticolas, which are small warblers, also love this habitat. Species such as Siffling Cisticola, Croaking Cisticola and Rattling Cisticola are common in Nairobi National Park. Shrikes and fiscals are also common here; including the Long-tailed Fiscal and Northern Fiscal. Migratory shrikes include the Isabelline Shrike, Lesser Grey Shrike and Red-backed Shrike. The drier bushland areas are a great place for Black-faced Waxbill, Chin-spot Batis, Northern Pied Babbler, Red-faced Crombec, Speckle-fronted Weaver, Hildebrandt’s Starling, White-bellied Go-away-bird and Banded Parisoma.

White-browed Coucal

Wetlands are abundant in Nairobi National Park and form virtually the easiest birding habitat. Here many waterbirds enjoy feeding or relaxing by the water throughout the day, with a few species visiting the wetlands during certain hours to drink. Common wader/ shorebird species here include the Common Sandpiper, Wood Sandpiper, Spur-winged Lapwing, Blacksmith Lapwing and Three-banded Plover. Ducks and allies include the Spur-winged Goose, Egyptian Goose, Red-billed Teal and White-faced Whistling Duck. Other species which love the wetlands include Sacred Ibis, African Spoonbill, Yellow-billed Stork, Marabou Stork, African Open-billed Stork, Grey Heron, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Black Crake, Little Grebe, Water Thick-knee, Common Moorhen, African Swamphen, Long-tailed Cormorant, African Darter, Malachite Kingfisher and African Water Rail.   

an African Open-billed Stork feeding

Riverine woodlands are also quite interesting, offering a mix of species. The main river in the park is the Empakasi or Mbagathi River. Some of the common species that live along the Mbagathi River include arboreal, wetland and ground-dwelling species. Common residents here are Snowy Barbet, Emerald-spotted Wood-Dove, Spotted Palm Thrush, White-browed Scrub Robin, Grey-headed Kingfisher, White-bellied Tit, Common Drongo, Pale Scrub White-eye, Grant’s Wood Hoopoe, Black-headed Oriole, Pallid Honeyguide, African Pied Wagtail, Hybrid Lovebird, Hadada Ibis, Hamerkop, African Grey Woodpecker, African Grey Hornbill, African Grey Flycatcher and Southern Black Flycatcher.

African Grey Flycatcher

Some man-made structures also attract birds, such as power lines and buildings along the park fence. Here the Wire-tailed Swallow, Red-billed Firefinch, Village Indigobird and House Sparrow make a good home.

Another spectacular thing about Nairobi National Park is that there are many mammals and reptiles too- which makes for a great wholesome experience. It is also a great place to take your friends birding, because between seeing the Pied Crow, Stout Cisticola, Northern Wheatear and Pangani Longclaw; you may well see an African Lion or a Southern White Rhino.

Yellow-billed Oxpecker

On the Maasai Giraffes, you can find Red-billed Oxpeckers feeding; and on Common Zebras Wattled Starlings often perch. African Buffaloes may host the rarer Yellow-billed Oxpecker. This makes it that much more fun to be birding here.

Nairobi National Park still holds its magic as one of Africa’s top birding sites; and I hope that this status remains for many generations to enjoy.

Please give it a try, if you have not birded this wonderful park, it will surely warm your heart…

Three-banded Plover

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