Article by Beth Jorgensen and Scott Jorgensen,
Photos by Christy Chow, Scott Jorgensen, Brittany Leick and Bruce Szczechowski
Kenya, a country roughly the size of Texas, provides bird enthusiasts with a wide variety of ecosystems and landscapes to view its more than 1100 bird species. Savannahs, mountain highlands, lake-lands, Indian Ocean coastlines and the Great Rift Valley all provide opportunities to see birds endemic to each area. Some species are vibrant and colorful; some blend so well into the landscape they are hard to see; others have such long tails it looks like they are floating above the grasses. Big and small, they all play an important part in the ecosystems in which they live. On our 15-day tour of the country, we saw 366 different bird species, as well as 50 animal species. Every day was a new and wonderful adventure. This article only highlights a small portion of what we experienced but will give you a taste of what this small country offers for birders.
Long-tailed birds are abundant in Kenya. The Blue-naped Mousebird is one of five native Mousebird species. This long-tailed social species is widespread across the country. They use their beaks and feet to scramble through bushes and trees in search of food. Large numbers can be seen in the early evening roosting in trees. The Go-away-bird is named for its distinctive call, a loud “Kweh” or “Go-away”, which makes its presence clearly known. Usually seen in the upper canopy of trees, the White-bellied and Bare-faced species are common throughout the country. The African Paradise-flycatcher with its flowing tail is usually seen at the edges of forested areas where it often poses for a quick photo. The flycatcher comes in a rufous morph, but also a white morph that appears ghostly as it flies.
Fifteen species of owls and owlets are native to Kenya, including the Barn Owl. While they hunt at night, they can be seen and photographed roosting in trees during the day. The Pearl-spotted Owlet is the smallest at 7.5”; it has eye-markings (false eyes) on the back of its head. This species co-exists with humans and is often seen in the wooded areas at bush camps.
Africa has no species of hummingbirds but does have a wide variety of sunbirds whose long downward curved beaks are perfectly designed for gathering nectar. Over fifty species are native to Kenya. Sunbirds range from dramatic colorful birds with long tails to subtle browns with short tails. In these species, the males use their colorful breeding plumage to attract their less colorful mates then molt to a less colorful non-breeding plumage until it’s time to mate again.
July in Kenya means that temperatures can drop into the 50-60 degrees Fahrenheit range, even though it is near the equator. While people living there bring out their coats, birds like the Mousebird and Little Bee-eater can be seen huddling together to conserve energy and body heat in the cool morning air. Once the temperatures rise, they will separate and begin the day’s journey of gathering food and hunting insects.
Fifteen Kingfisher species can be seen in Kenya ranging in size from the African Pygmy Kingfisher at 4.5” to the Giant Kingfisher at 17”. While the name suggests they eat fish, many of the species here do not and some are not dependent on water. Like our Belted Kingfishers, no matter the size or color of their plumage, they are easily identified by their distinctive stocky, dagger-shaped bills.
Coursers and sandgrouse in Kenya can be hard to spot. Their beautiful feather designs help them blend into their environments. Coursers have long legs, while sandgrouse have short legs and a more dove-like shape, both are seen in the open country. Bustards are widely distributed with different species in different areas. All are long legged and blend well with their surroundings but have gorgeous feathers.
Breeding male widowbirds and bishops show off their dazzling colors with many species also boasting long tails. They hover in and about brushy grasslands, marshes and cultivated farm areas. The males are easy to spot while the females are often more difficult to identify.
Kenyan birds come in all shapes and sizes. Hamerkops are easily identified by their unusually shaped heads. Its name is derived from the Afrikaner word meaning hammerhead and they are considered magical birds of ill omen. Hamerkops build several massive nests. The Hamerkop pictured is adding a piece of broken glass to a nest it is constructing near a building that was destroyed by massive flooding in 2018. The White-crested Turaco, with its distinctive green body and white-crested head inhabits forested areas and are often seen in the canopies of trees running and jumping along branches before gliding to the next nearby tree. The iconic Grey Crowned Crane with its bristled golden crown is commonly seen in swampy areas to agricultural fields; groups and flocks are widespread. The Squacco Heron is small, hunched and rather plain on the ground, but in flight it shows its bright white wings and tail. In contrast, the Goliath Heron is the world’s largest heron. The Open-billed Stork is one of the odder wading birds with its bill that cannot fully close. This may seem like a handicap but is actually a clever adaptation that allows it to crush the shells of their mollusk prey. The saddle-billed stork has a brightly colored, upcurved bill; While it makes this famous African species easy to identify, the bill also is well suited to tossing captured prey in the air and swallowing it.
Some birds have a mutualistic relation to other animals such as the egret species that follow large herbivores and capture insects and lizards disturbed by the large animals. Oxpeckers benefit their hosts by removing insects from their hides.
Of course, Africa has many predators with birds being among the best. There are dozens of predatory birds from the tiny pygmy falcon to the dozen species of eagles to awesome predators like the Secretary bird.
Our ability to observe so many birds and animals was only possible with the help of an expert Kenyan bird guide (Willy Tiren, who truly is a bird whisperer), and an expert driver (Geoff Safaris). Their keen eyes enabled us to see more than we could ever have done without them. If you are interested in joining future Kenya Birding Safaris contact Bruce Szczechowski. Birding in Kenya is an unforgettable adventure and well worth the time and investment.