An account by Washington Wachira (photos by Washington and Maureen)The El Karama Conservancy is an amazing savannah habitat located at the foothills of the mighty Mt. Kenya (Kenya’s highest and Africa’s second-highest mountain). The ranch has both wildlife and livestock co-existing happily and without any conflicts. The main accommodation facility at the ranch is the beautiful El Karama Eco Lodge, located next to the famous Ewaso Ng’iro River.
The local birds are a great spectacle and even a casual birder will find this place exciting and full of life. I was lucky to spend two nights at the ranch and was able to enjoy a great variety of birds during my stay. The species numbers were great, but another amazing aspect is the ease with which you see them. We literally had birds everywhere we drove and melodious sounds from White-browed Robin-Chats would wake us up every morning. Grey-capped Warblers would also respond as if competing with the White-browed Robin-Chats for who is the loudest “chirping chap” of El Karama.
Brown Babblers were very common around the ranch and especially outside our tent, where an entire group would visit us each day. These beautiful Babblers are always a nice bird to see in Kenya, since they are not common in many parts of the country.
On the grassy plains, Plain-backed Pipits (the Central Kenya race, which is lighter-coloured than the Western race) and Pangani Longclaws take homage and show off near roadsides. On the roadsides, we also encountered good numbers of Crowned Plovers, and were also lucky with two shy Shelley’s Francolins. Ethiopian Swallows and Rock Martins were also common on these grassy plains.
These grasslands are also a home for the Helmeted Guneafowls and Yellow-necked Spurfowls, both of whom tend to favour sections with some small bushes. Here, Reichenow’s (Yellow-rumped) Seedeaters, Kenya (Rufous) Sparrows, Superb Starlings and Northern Red-billed Hornbills were also in plenty. Another great hornbill that was abundant across the ranch is the Von der Decken’s Hornbill; and this one also visited the lodge every day. On almost all game drives that we did on the ranch, White-bellied Bustards were also very abundant and on one occasion we saw a Black-bellied Bustard flying in the distance.
Hildebrandt’s Francolins were common along the river and as usual they tend to be quite shy. A few Yellow Bishops were also added here, although they were not in their full breeding dress. One female Black Cuckoo-shrike, White-browed Coucal, Pale Flycatcher, several Striped and Grey-headed Kingfishers (although they rarely hunt along rivers) and a pair of Chin-spot Batises were also found here. This was also the home of the African Fish Eagle, an icon of the African Eagles. These charismatic eagles are common across the continent and will often associate with rivers, lakes and other wetlands – which is their main hunting ground. They majorly prefer to eat fish and waterbirds, so they can get these with ease along the shores of different wetlands.
In the woodlands that line the conservancy, birds of prey are at home; often choosing the tallest trees for perches. Common raptors on the ranch include the African Black-shouldered Kites, Gabar Goshawks, Augur Buzzards, Martial Eagles, Brown Snake Eagles and Tawny Eagles.
Other woodland birds that were common included the showy Red-fronted Barbets, Brubru, Red-fronted Tinkerbird, Nubian Woodpecker, Brimstone Canary, White-browed Sparrow-Weavers, Black-headed Orioles, Blue-naped Mousebirds, Taita Fiscal, Red-faced Crombec, Meyer’s (Brown) Parrot, Orange-breasted (Sulphur-breasted) Bush-Shrike, White-bellied Tit, African Grey Flycatcher, African Paradise Flycatcher, Laughing Doves, Ring-necked Doves and Emerald-spotted Wood-Doves.
The dams or reservoirs around the ranch are also a great birding habitat. These beautiful water pools host Egyptian Geese, African Sacred Ibises, Hadada Ibises, Blacksmith Plovers and Spur-winged Plovers. Other waders include the tiny Three-banded Plover.
The rocky cliffs were also interesting and produced some great birds. These cliffs and their associated bushes were a good place for Red-billed Firefinches, Red-cheeked Cordon-bleu, Grey-backed Camaroptera, Fischer’s Sparrow-Larks, Purple Grenadiers, Rattling Cisticolas and Slate-coloured Boubous. Here the local flowers, and especially Aloe species, hosted Sunbirds such as Bronze Sunbird and Marico Sunbird.
On the drier sections of the ranch, Abyssinian Scimitarbill, Greater Honeyguide, Rosy-patched Bush-Shrike, Buff-crested Bustards and Vulturine Guineafowls were at home and easy to spot. Other species that seemed to favour the drier parts included the amazing Foxy Larks, although a few of them also ventured into the wetter grasslands. This species was formerly considered a race of the Fawn-coloured Lark. Now the Fawn-coloured Lark is only comprised of the Southern Africa races; and all the populations around Kenya are now in the Foxy Lark group. Grey-capped Social-Weavers, Speckle-fronted Weavers and Chestnut Sparrows also flashed around, as we drove, often associating together in large flocks.
On the mammals we also found some symbiotic species of birds, mainly from the bigger Starling Family. The key species included a pair of Yellow-billed Oxpeckers on one Greater Kudu, flocks of Wattled Starlings feeding with Common Zebras and Greater Blue-eared Starlings, also feeding with Common Zebras. Cattle Egrets were not as many, but we connected with a few flocks as we drove around the ranch.
The bird feeding table at the El Karama Eco Lodge is a great place for some easy birding. This beautiful table is built into a tree-shaped stump and has a great vantage view from the main restaurant. From the comfort of the swimming pool of the bar, you can enjoy watching birds as they visit the table. Some of the main visitors here include Greater Blue-eared Starling, Yellow-spotted Bush Sparrow (Petronia), Red-headed Weaver, Speke’s Weaver, Holub’s Golden Weaver, Baglafecht Weaver and Rufous Chatterer.
On the beautiful El Karama Eco Lodge, they also organise night game drives across different routes on the ranch. This is a rare opportunity on safari and not all locations allow night drives. The night drives do provide an opportunity to see or hear some of the nocturnal birds that would otherwise be almost impossible to find during the day. We ventured out in the night to try our luck and were very much impressed with the results. On many locations we found good numbers of Spotted Thick-knees, which is a typical nocturnal species. On one afternoon, we were lucky to find these Thick-knees during the day. Another really great bird we found at night is the spectacular Three-banded or Heuglin’s Courser. We did not find many Owls on the night drives but we got to hear the nice call of the African Scops-Owl. There were also good numbers of Dusky Nightjars flying around especially just after sunset.
Migratory species from the Palearctic group were very few during the month of September, but we connected with a good number of European Bee-eaters.