Travel Notebook

Birding in East Africa

March 27th, 2018

I still remember watching the birds that frequented our garden when I was a young girl, checking their distinctive and colorful markings in our trusty bird guide, given to us by our mum. Today, my fascination with our feathered friends continues – I just finished reading The Genius of Birds, penned by an award-winning science writer who reveals incredible insights into the extraordinary mental capacity of birds.

I’ve asked my friend Valdemar Holmgren (Valdi) to act as guest author for this Travel Notebook post. He opens our eyes to the wealth of bird life in East Africa – there’s so much more than you might imagine. Valdi’s bird-watching experience harkens back to the age of eight, when he had started watching the birds in his Nairobi garden with the binoculars his granddad gave him. This kicked off a life-long birding fascination that has included ornithology population dynamics studies at Lund University, Sweden; ringing of migrants and raptor migration counts at bird observatories; and leading bird tours in East Africa, Europe and Nepal. Despite a busy career in environmental conservation in international organizations, Valdi is always keen to bird watch in his spare time. He enjoys the challenge of field identification of tricky species like eagles and warblers, loves to share his knowledge and is happy to lead bird tours in East Africa and South Asia.

Valdi birdwatching in the Kathmandu valley in Nepal

To arrange bird-watching excursions for your clients in Kenya and northern Tanzania, contact us about Rebecca Recommends partner, Africa House Safaris. And for ornithology-based adventures in Colombia and the Yucatan, please don’t hesitate to reach out about Amakuna and Catherwood Travels.

A Guide to Africa’s Rich Bird Life

Going on a safari to Kenya and northern Tanzania? During your visit, you will notice birds everywhere. In town, and in hotel gardens, in villages en route to the wild places and throughout the large vistas of your safari. “What’s with birds?” you might ask. Well, with their calls, lively movements and many times brilliant plumage, they are a vibrant part of nature in general, and on safari in particular, as they complete the picture of the safari landscape with magical colors and evocative sounds. And birds are at times the creatures that make the moment, when wildlife action is otherwise quiet, or if you are waiting for something to happen (“Is that black-maned lion ever going to sit up for a photo?”). Some birds seem comical in movement and style, and some birds simply are a pleasure to look at because they are beautiful.

If you didn’t notice birds much before your safari, hopefully you will afterwards. Whether you enjoy birds because they are fun, or interesting, or beautiful, or it’s because you are a serious birder who keeps track of species seen, there is a wonderful world of birds to discover in Kenya and Tanzania. A bit more than 1,100 bird species have been noted in this region, and there is something of interest for everyone — the amazing Ostrich, the world’s largest bird (with the world’s largest egg) tops the list!  

During the northern winter months, there are many species that spend the winter in East Africa, before going back to Europe as migrants, to breed again. The species’ numbers and prominence will vary depending on the time of your visit. Anytime is good, but its best to avoid the long rains between April and June.

You will often see these Little Bee Eaters perched in dry bushes as they take a rest from (yes, actually!) catching bees and other fast flying insects.

The sounds of the safari, day and night, are something many safari-goers speak wistfully of after their trip, and birdcalls are a large part of that memorable experience: Francolins yelling raucously at first light, Southern Ground Hornbills’ booming, mysterious dawn call, Barbets with bobbing duets from termite mounds, Hornbills’ dry chuckling from acacias, Doves’ soft cooing in hot dry bush country, the wild and rousing Fish Eagle cry from the water’s edge, the repetitive, insistent Red-chested Cuckoo call when rain is near, and the haunting Montane Nightjar whistle soon after dark. (But maybe not so the Nile Goose, whose endless alarm cackle is exasperating!) 

It is the varied topography of the landscapes of Kenya and northern Tanzania that make the region so rich in plants and wildlife, including the many birds. There’s much to see, from the coast, across vast bush and grass savannahs, to the highlands with forests and meadows, cut through by the spectacular Great Rift Valley with its lakes. Each landscape has its particular ecosystems and array of bird species and the expertise of your Africa House safari guides will astound you as they name the birds seen along your journey. It can become one long roll call, with two to three hundred species easily seen. Serious birders can book up to 700 species on a three-week trip. Amazing! (Interested folks can read trip reports online.)

While I could wax poetic about the hundreds of bird types to be seen, I will mention only some of the beautiful and striking birds you can expect on your safari.

Many of the common birds in and near East Africa’s urban areas have bright and shimmering colors, or striking looks, such as Superb Starling, African Paradise Flycatcher, Red-billed Fire-finch and Spectacled Weaver. They are like animated art pieces and should perk up your interest in birds. And the funny African Hoopoe will have you look twice with a laugh.

While enjoying the white-sand beach and coconut palms of the coast, look out for Terns, Gulls, Stints, Sandpipers, and Sand Plovers, with perhaps the African Skimmer and Crab Plover as coolest in style.

The Grey Crowned Crane, one of the spectacular birds to look for around wetland areas.

The bush and grass savannahs host many famous national parks and reserves and big game wildlife, and also teem with birds. It’s hard to keep track of them all, but flashes of shimmering blue or green help one spot Kingfishers, Starlings, Rollers and Bee-eaters when sunlight brings out their amazing colors. Same goes for the smaller-sized Sunbirds; spot them when sunlight brings out the stunning metallic sheen of the males’ plumage as they visit flowering bushes and trees. Watching nesting Weavers make their hanging grass-nests with beak and feet is also a spectacle. Cheerfully noisy and colorful, with yellow often the color in vogue!

Two savannah species are very popular: Lilac-breasted Roller and Secretary Bird. The former is liked for its smart blue-purply plumage and sitting openly for photos, and the latter both for its fashion statement looks and for its habit of purposefully hunting on foot, so it is quite easy to see what it is up to. This walking hawk is a threat to any small ground-living creature, but also to large snakes, which it dispatches by well-aimed stamping blows with hard feet.

Don’t forget to also look above sometimes, to spot other birds of prey: the Eagles, Falcons, Hawks and Vultures rule the skies and soar overhead. The large and fierce Martial Eagle is awesome, easily taking down young gazelles and monkeys.

Forests hold a wealth of birds, and although many are secretive, watch out for flashes of bright red in the trees that reveal the presence of the flamboyant Turacos. They have unique pigments in their plumage, containing copper in their flashy red wing feathers. Parrots, Woodpeckers, Pigeons and others also roam the forests, and your guides will help point them out.

The Rift Valley Lakes are always included on wildlife safaris because here, the variety of mammals large and small, and birds, is astounding. If you thought there weren’t that many birds in the other landscapes, here you will get your fill. Firstly, many of the birds mentioned above will be found in the savannah and woodlands adjoining the lakes, and then add to those the numerous wetland species of Egrets, Herons, Storks, Ducks, Geese, Cormorants, Plovers, Cranes, Coots and Jacanas.

The lakes’ flora and fauna depend on the salinity of the water, and the star of the salty Rift Valley Lakes is the unique and fabulous Flamingo. There are two species and sizes – the Greater and Lesser Flamingo. When the light is right, to see several hundreds of thousands of Flamingos moving in unison and feeding in the water, or flying to a new spot, is a truly tremendous sight and pink never looked better.

It should be mentioned also that throughout the safari landscapes, there is a large number of those similar-looking, nondescript and often secretive “little brown jobs” species, the famous LBJs, and joy for the serious birders. For casual birdwatchers trying to sort out who is who among the LBJs is exasperating and difficult, but for dedicated birders, the ID challenges they pose is satisfyingly stressful and gratifying. Included in this group are the small Cisticola warblers in bush and grasslands, Greenbuls and various other Warblers in forest and woodland, and Larks in dry country and semi-desert.  

As the local saying goes in Swahili, “enda salama” (safe trip/go in peace) on your safari. You can’t wait now, to get there and find Bare-faced Go-away Bird, Hammerkop (that makes the world’s largest nest), Slate-colored Boubou, Amethyst Sunbird, Red Bishop, Fischer’s Lovebird, and more, can you?