Friday, August 31, 2012

Day 13--Taita Hills

We were out birding around the grounds of the lodge by 6:30.  It proved to be one of the birdiest lodges we had visited, and it kept us busy for well over an hour.  It was one of the few times so far during the trip where we were simply birding--seeing what was there, sorting thru so many different birds that were hungrily starting their day.  The photo below is of one of the huts we stayed in at Village Shasha Camp.

One of the prettiest birds of the morning was the little bee-eater (all the rest of the photos in today's post were taken by Bob--click on any photo to enlarge).

We also got very good looks for the first time on our trip of a northern brownbul (just above), and our first sighting of a red-fronted tinkerbird which is related to the barbets (just below).

It proved to be a barbet morning as we also had our first sightings on the trip of a brown-breasted (just above), and spot-flanked (just below).

We finally tore ourselves away from the birds including the Abyssinian white-eye just below in order to have some breakfast before making the drive up into the Taita Hills.  We had the first french toast of the trip, along with some scrambled eggs, and fruit.  It was a nice change of pace. 

Our main goal for the day was to find 3 endemic species in the Taita Hills.  It took us about an hour to make the drive up to the birding area.  On the way we found a melanistic form of the augur buzzard.  Once we reached the edge of the forest, we picked up a park ranger who knew best where to look for the endemics. As we traveled further up into the hills to reach the endemics' habitat, we found 3 striped pipits feeding on a grassy hillside (just below).

Once we entered the main forest area, we got out to search for the endemics.  We walked a short way into the forest on a trail and immediately located the Taita thrush, a skulker that feeds on the forest floor.  Bob's photos of the bird were mostly obscured by the foliage, so I have not used any here.

Next we walked down the road a bit, and heard the Taita apalis singing.  It took us no time to find it feeding in some dense leafy trees.  Unfortunately, the apalis photos also turned out poorly.  The good news photo-wise is that Bob was able to get a nice diagnostic shot of the 3rd endemic--the Taita white-eye.  The eye ring is so pronounced that we all thought it looked like someone had glued a wintergreen lifesaver candy on the bird's face.

We found all 3 endemics so quickly that we were able to begin the long drive back to Nairobi earlier than expected.  We would occasionally stop to check out spots along the highway, but nothing special was found.  We had to make the drive around part of Nairobi to get to the Masai Lodge which is on the edge of Nairobi National Park.  The traffic was quite bad at times, including an accident.  This was one of those points where we were so glad to have John driving the landcruiser.

We arrived at the lodge after dark having bumped and bounced our way down 10 kilometers of heavily rutted dirt road, and went straight to dinner.  Instead of a buffet, we ordered off the menu.  I had a very good steak with french fries.  Stu ordered a pizza which was surprisingly good.  Bob and Brian had an Indian curry dish that they liked just fine.  We did not finish eating and doing the bird list update until after 10:30.  We headed to bed to be ready for another early morning start for our day in Nairobi NP.  Stay tuned!

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Day 12--Tsavo East NP

We were on the road by 7:30 AM to make the full day drive to and thru Tsavo East National Park.  Brian told us the park is larger than the country of Wales, and became a park in 1948. The spring (April/May) rainy season in Kenya was abnormally light in 2012, so we found the park to be quite dry which caused us to miss a key bird--the chestnut-backed sparrow-lark.  We did see the chestnut-headed sparrow-lark (photo taken by Bob--click on any photo to enlarge). 

One of the raptors we saw several times is the bateleur which means acrobat in french (photo taken by Bob).

We found a nice sized group of vulturine guineafowl which were pretty oblivious to our vehicle.

The dryness of the park is very apparent in this photo of 2 warthogs trucking along.  We did see a pygmy falcon along the way.

We kept looking for both black-bellied and Kori bustards, but instead found a buff-crested bustard.

We also found our first Somali ostrich of the trip (photo taken by Bob).

At one point we were able to get out and walk around a bit, and Bob got nice shots of a Somali bee-eater (photo above), and the Tsavo sunbird (below).  We saw some other birds in the same area including the amazingly colorful, large golden-breasted starling but none of Bob's photos turned out clear enough to add here. 

We saw some small groups of zebras, and elephants including 2 trying to find some shade.  At the major road intersections we came upon large directional monuments.

We stopped for lunch hoping that it would be better since we had asked them to put some of the tasty pork rice pilau from the buffet dinner in our box lunch.  They had, but it was in a paper bag which had leaked oil all over the rest of the food--what a mess!  I asked Brian if he ever got upset about how "crummy" things could be in E. Africa--a seeming lack of caring about providing a quality experience.  He said no, and his clients would be happier if they just accepted that was the way it is in E. Africa.

We continued to find new trip birds along our way including a golden pipit, and a gabar goshawk (both photos taken by Bob).

We also found a group of helmeted guineafowl which was the last species of this family of birds for us to see during our trip.

We arrived at Village Shasha Camp just after dusk.  Our meal was not particularly inspired.  My shower was a bit tricky--you had to turn on the single water faucet first, and then flip a switch for a small water heating mechanism to work.  If you did it in reverse, you would get shocked when you touched the faucet.  Bob and Stu ended up having no hot water at all in their hut.  We at least had good beds with mosquito netting.  Tomorrow we would be searching for the Taita Hills endemics.  Stay tuned!

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Days 10 and 11--Sokoke Forest and Mida Creek

We met at 6:30 for a made to order breakfast--we were there way to early for the buffet to be set up.  Fruit, fruit juices, scrambled eggs and toast with coffee and tea got us out the door of the hotel.  We picked up Albert, a local bird guide, on the way to the interior of the Arabuko--Sokoke Forest, which is called Sokoke for short.  Our first new trip bird for the day was the crested guineafowl.

It was intermittently overcast and clear, and as we drove the road slowly we would stop to check out any feeding flocks that we encountered.  Another new trip bird was the Amani sunbird. Bob got a nice picture of a pale batis just below which was our first sighting of this previously heard only bird.

Late morning it began to sprinkle at times.  We found one of our target birds, the four-colored bush-shrike, but the bird is such a skulker that even though we played a tape for probably 15 minutes, we only got very brief glimpses of it as it moved thru the foliage.

Soon after seeing the bush-shrike, we had a good sized mixed feeding flock cross the road.  We decided to follow it off road.  We had walked maybe 15 minutes into the woods when it began to rain, and it continued to rain for 10-15 minutes which ended up totally soaking us except for Stu who had a small umbrella.  While it was raining, we were circling back towards the road.  But after walking another 10 minutes after the rain had stopped we had not found the dirt road.

As we were heading into the forest, Stu had asked what we were doing to mark our route, but neither Brian or Albert seemed to think that would be a problem.  We got out Brian's small compass to determine which way was north because we knew that the road ran east/west, and we had been walking south initially.  The forest can be very dense in places, so as we worked our way back north, we would have to zig and zag to follow elephant and poacher paths (we found one snare).  After another 15 minutes we still had not reached the road, so we tried to call our driver, John, to have him honk the truck horn, but we could not get him to answer his cell phone.

Next we called 2 other people to see if they could get John on the phone.  After a few more minutes we finally got John on the phone.  He had to move the truck to get cell service, and once he did we were able to reach him.  He began to honk the horn every few minutes.  We realized after the first honk that we were pretty close, and 10 minutes later we zigzagged our way back to the road.  It turned out we had overcompensated in our circling back during the rain, which is why it took so long to find our way back to the road once we got the compass directions worked out.  Where we came out onto the road was a full kilometer east of where we had entered the forest.

It was now well past noon, so we ate our box lunch.  We had asked the hotel to make us a sandwich instead of the usual tired grilled chicken, and requested that they put some potato chips which are known as crisps or crackles in E. Africa.  We discovered instead that they had packed cornflakes for us to eat.

After eating we drove some distance to walk a different forest road.  Our target bird was the Sokoke forest dwelling pipit.  We spent 2 hours walking out and back a distance of about 5 miles, but did not find the stealthy pipit.  We did see Retz's helmetshrikes, blue-mantled crested-flycatchers, and an elephant shrew.  We also found a Bell's hinged tortoise eating a mushroom.

It was getting late enough that we decided to return to the office area of the forest to check a roost where a bat hawk had been seen for the past month.  When we first got to the site, the bird was not perched in its usual spot, but we looked around and located it nearby.  This hawk eats bats at dusk and dawn, thus its name (photo taken by Bob).

We continued to bird the area as dusk approached.  We heard some scaly babblers, but could not locate them in the failing light.  We also played an African wood-owl tape, but could not call one in.  We still had a 45 minute drive back to Malindi, so we decided to call it a day. 

We gathered for dinner at 8 PM to find another large buffet spread plus our waiter informed us that we could order a pasta starter dish.  I tried the amatriciana sauce over bucatini, and the others ate the tuna and olives over fresh tagliolini.  Both pastas were excellent.  It turns out that the hotel is owned by Italians.  Malindi is a beach destination for Italians, and supposedly there are a few mafioso who have "retired" to Malindi.

The Skorpio Villas felt like a beach resort hotel that you may have seen in the Caribbean.  The photo just above shows a lounging area next to the swimming pool.  The photo just below is of the entry to one of the rooms with outside mosquito netted beds for taking a nap.

On day 11 we were up early again with the same made to order breakfast.  We picked up Albert on the way to the forest.  Some of our first birds of the day was the scaly babbler we had only heard the day before; a little sparrowhawk; a trumpeter hornbill (photo just above), and several chestnut-fronted helmetshrikes (both photos taken by Bob).

Our main target bird for the morning was the Sokoke pipit that once again was a no show.  But while slowly working thru the undergrowth, Albert did find us a beautiful pygmy kingfisher (photo just below taken by Bob).

John needed to run some errands in Malindi, so we decided to return to Mida Creek for lunch while John was gone.  The sun was out brightly at mid day, and we enjoyed the cool breeze that was blowing in off the water.  We had another mediocre lunch though. 

One of the rangers at Mida Creek showed us some artwork done by the local children to sell to support their school.  I decided to pick up 2 pieces--on the left is a spotted thick-knee and on the right is a northern carmine bee-eater.  We had seen the bee-eater at Mida and Sabaki, but had not yet seen the thick-knee.

There was also a sea turtle that had been caught in a fishing net.  In Kenya, they pay fisherman to not kill any turtles that they may snag in their nets as a way to protect the sea turtles.  This one was waiting to be returned to the water.

Once John returned from his errands, we drove back to the same dirt road we had walked yesterday afternoon in hopes of finally locating a Sokoke pipit.  As we slowly worked our way down the road, we found a dung beetle rolling up its dung ball (click on any photo to enlarge).

We also came across one of the many ant "troops" that we would see in the forest areas.  You did not want to step into them because their bites can be very annoying.

Soon after avoiding this ant "troop", we found another elephant shrew.  Then Albert came out of the forest to say he had finally located 2 Sokoke pipits.  We followed him in, and did see them moving quietly thru the undergrowth.  Bob tried very hard to get a photo, but none of them were clear enough.  As we were working to see the pipit, a bearded scrub-robin briefly popped into view (photo just below taken by Bob).  We had only heard this bird so far.

We began the 2 mile walk back, and as we neared the entrance we decided to try again for an African wood-owl.  Albert walked back the remaining distance to get a torch.  He returned to say that a Verreaux's eagle-owl was calling by the gate.  We rushed up to the gate area, but by the time we got there the owl had stopped calling.  We looked around for 20 more minutes, but did not hear it, so we climbed into the landcruiser as dark descended on us.

For the 3rd night in a row we feasted on a buffet dinner, but also tried a pasta dish to start--gnocchi with bolognese sauce was my pick.  We went thru the day's birds, and discovered that we had only 6 new trip birds, but after 11 days of birding we had passed 400 different species seen and/or heard.  Tomorrow's destination was Tsavo East.  Stay tuned!

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Day 9--Sabaki River Mouth, Mida Creek and Sokoke Forest

Because we arrived so late the night before, we did not meet for breakfast until 8 AM.  It was a large buffet with all kinds of pastries, potatoes, sausage, bacon, eggs, fruit, fruit juices, yogurt, cereal and more.  We headed out before 9 feeling quite full from all the food choices we had tried.  We stopped to walk along the beach, and immediately began to find new trip birds like Fischer's lovebird, and coastal cisticola.  As we walked back to the landcruiser Bob took a photo of some local fisherman sitting under a concrete dock.

Our morning focus was to go to the mouth of the Sabaki River, but enroute we stopped at one small pond to check out the lily pads for African pygmy geese.  There were none of them, but we added several new trip birds including African jacana, mangrove kingfisher, violet breasted sunbird, and golden palm weaver (photo taken by Bob).  The weavers are another very large family of birds that we regularly saw throughout the trip.

The tide was low when we arrived at the river, and we were able to scope the mudflats for birds.  We saw greater and lesser sand plovers; sanderlings; common greenshanks; black bellied, three banded and common ringed plovers; Eurasian curlews; whimbrels; common, terek and curlew sandpipers; and the white-fronted plover in the photo below taken by Bob.

We had 2 Senegal lapwings fly over, and upwards of 30 Madagascar pratincoles pass thru while we were scoping the river (photo just below taken by Bob).

We could see lots of gulls and terns further out by the river mouth, so we took a looping route thru the sand dunes where we had 4 northern carmine bee-eaters fly over as they migrated south.  We flushed a few African pipits, and a black crowned tchagra.  The African reed warbler just below responded to a tape (photo taken by Bob--click on any photo to enlarge).

A pair of yellow-billed storks appeared out on the edge of the dunes.  The walk out to the river mouth took about 30 minutes, but fortunately it was fairly overcast and there was a nice breeze, so we did
not get fried by the sun.

Once we made it out to the river mouth, we did see roseate, common, great and lesser crested terns; sooty, and Heuglin's gulls (photo taken by Bob).  Bob and I began to work our way back upriver so we missed seeing a pair of Saunder's terns picked up by Stu and Brian.

After about 3 hours of working the river area, we were getting pretty hungry again, so we drove about 45 minutes to Mida Creek.  Enroute we picked up a zanzibar bishop (photo taken by Bob).  The ranger at the creek told us that the day before they had seen a greater frigatebird which made Brian salivate since he had not yet seen one in Kenya.

The tide was far out at Mida Creek, but we still got good looks at several water birds including the crab plover just below (photo taken by Bob).

Our second stork species of the day was the wooly-necked in the photo just below.

With the tide out, we were able to see 1000's of snails working their way slowly across the sand.

We saw 3  more northern carmine bee-eaters migrate past, and a yellow-billed kite was circling the creek area in search of food (photo taken by Bob).

About 4 PM we climbed back into the landcruiser to make the 30 minute drive to the Sokoke forest where we met David, a local guide who has been birding in the forest for 40 years.  He took us to some fields on the edge of the forest where we saw lots of Ethiopian swallows (photo just below taken by Bob).

One of our target birds was the Malindi pipit that was feeding in a cultivated field (photo just below taken by Bob).  We also saw our first yellow-throated longclaw of the trip.

As dusk was approaching, David took us into the forest to look for owls and nightjars.  First he found the Sokoke scops owl on its roost which was just 6 feet off the ground (photo taken by Bob).  Then we called in an African barred owlet but none of our photos were successful.  Next up was the fiery-necked nightjar that also eluded our cameras.  Finally we attracted 3 African wood-owls, but we never got good looks at them either.

After working unsuccessfully for at least 30 minutes to get the wood-owl to fully show itself, it was time to head back to Malindi.  We met for dinner at 8:30, and were greeted by another large buffet meal which was probably the best so far on our trip. We did the bird list update after eating, and found that we had added almost 50 new trip birds for the day.  Tomorrow we would be spending most of the day in Sokoke forest.  Stay tuned!