July 16th, 2018
The Kalya Hotel – Makutano, Kenya
I had mandazi for the first time recently, which is basically an African donut and is often served with tea aka “chai” for breakfast in the morning. On the way to Saiwa we stopped at a hotel for breakfast. It always gets cold overnight, into the 50s, so we needed something to warm up with. Biting into the mandazi was like eating a warm donut without any toppings, crisp on the outside and soft and doughy on the inside. It was delicious. If Dunkin’ Donuts served mandazi I would be there every morning.
So I probably should have done this earlier (thanks for the idea dad), but here’s a map of Western Kenya. I flew into Kitale, am staying in Makutano/Kapenguria, and will be flying from Eldoret to Lodwar near Lake Turkana in a couple of weeks.
Saiwa Swamp National Park is one of the smallest national parks in Kenya and is located near Kitale, only about 20 minutes from my hotel. It’s also one of the few parks in Kenya that you can walk around unescorted and is famous for the Sitatunga, a semi-aquatic antelope, and the De Brazza’s monkey. My friend in Kitale, Ajay, told me to call Richard Barnley, who’s family started Sirikwa Safaris with the goal of making Western Kenya a birder’s destination. They certainly succeeded! Visitors can stay at The Barnley’s Guesthouse and travel all over Western Kenya on birding, fishing, and sightseeing expeditions. Richard put me in touch with Maurice, the bird guide who takes their clients out, and Maurice suggested that we go to Saiwa. I got up at 5 am, excited to do some birding, and met Maurice and Dan (our driver for the day) outside the hotel. We headed off in the morning darkness, and as I mentioned in the intro, stopped a few kilometers outside of the park for a delicious breakfast of chai and mandazi. When we got to the park Maurice got his bird book out and we were off! It was so incredible to be with someone as knowledgeable as Maurice. He would identify the species by call and show me where they were so I could look through my binoculars. It seems a bit surreal that I could hire him for a private tour for $30 USD for the whole day. As we were walking through the gate we saw a black-and-white colobus monkey and a black-faced vervet monkeys. In other mammal news, we saw the elusive De Brazza’s monkey, which apparently is rare for two reasons: 1) habitat destruction, they like to live alongside swamps, and 2) they’re fierce crop raiders and so people consider them to be pests and try to get rid of them. We did see a few guard dogs along the corn field bordering the swamp – a useful deterrent for monkeys.
We also saw 6 Sitatunga, 5 females and a male. The male was really impressive with big horns. We saw a lot of brush buck in the park as well, and I learned that the Sitatunga are basically an aquatic brush buck. They’re virtually impossible to tell apart, except of course for what habitats they occupy. Also, Maurice said the Sitatunga wave their ears constantly. I guess there are a lot biting insects in the swamp!
I wasn’t sure how to write this blog post; by definition it’s going to be bird heavy. I’ve tried to group the species somewhat and give highlights. I wish I could go in-depth for every species, but a quick google search can help you learn more. For you non-birders out there, look at the pictures? For you birders, enjoy!
Hawks and Eagles:
Bat hawk – It was so cool to see one of these during the day. As the name suggests, it is most active when its prey of choice, bats, are out around dusk and dawn. When we first walked out on the boardwalk over the swamp, it was chasing a Crowned crane, another one of my favorite species we saw.
Great sparrow hawk
Western banded snake eagle – Maurice said they do feed predominantly on snakes. I wish I could see that in action!
Black sparrow hawk
Long-crested eagle – The first one we saw was sitting on a snag in the middle of the swamp, and we got to watch it for a long time. The feathers on top of its head are very distinctive.
Shrikes: carnivorous passerine birds, easily identied by their hooked beaks
Luhder’s bush shrike
Purple-throated cuckoo shrike
Flycatchers: INsectivorous passerine
African dusky flycatcher
African blue flycatcher – Beautiful blue color, so neat to see in a flycatcher
White-eyed slaty flycatcher
Warblers: Small, vocal, and insectivorous passerine
Black collared apalis
Weavers: Make nests shaped like baskets
Holub’s golden weaver
Chats and Finches:
Grey winged robin chat
White-browed robin chat
Red-cheeked cordon-bleu– I was blown away the colors on these guys. Bright blue breast, the color of a robin’s egg, and a cardinal-red patch on their cheek.
Hadada ibis – These birds were incredibly loud. You could hear them calling to each other as they flew the length of the swamp.
Grey-crowned crane – The national bird of Uganda. They have a “crown” of golden feathers and a bright red throat patch. When I watched them fly I was immediately reminded of the Ikrans from Avatar, they had such a large wingspan but seemed incredibly powerful and graceful.
These were some of my favorites, because they were so new. I didn’t realy have anything to compare them with from back home.
Blue-headed coucal – This was an exciting bird for me, because I spotted just a tiny part of its wing in the top of the canopy. I told Maurice that I saw a rufus-colored wing. He took a quick look and got really fired up that I had made such a good find from the tiny window through the branches that we had. I guess I come by my birding skills naturally ;-).
Northern double collared sunbird – Sunbirds are a beautiful group of birds that feed on nectar, similar to our hummingbirds.
Yellow-billed barbet – It’s really rare to see this species at Saiwa. Maurice said he’s never seen one there in all the years he’s been leading tours. Very exciting!
Pin-tailed whydah – Taty’s sister saw one of these in LA. Now I’ve seen it where it’s suppose to be!
African yellow white-eye
Violet-backed starling – Unlike our starlings, African starlings are different shades of bright, iridescent colors. It has something to do with how the light reflects off their feathers.
Lesser blue-eared starling
It seemed strange to be birding without Taty on this trip. I’m so use to us going together for the past couple of years; one of us calling out distinguishing characteristics, the other looking at ibird to try and ID. Hopefully some time in the future we can make it here together! I had an amazing time with Maurice, and although our afternoon trip to Tartar Falls got cancelled, we’ve made a plan to go there next weekend. I can’t wait!
Project Update: I finally got a meeting with the County Director of Veterinary Services (CDVS). He’s completely on board and also offered to set up my trips to Konyau and Alele to meeting with community members there. All he needs is the UoN ethics letter, which I’ve made good progress on and hope to finalize and turn in tomorrow for submission. Diana, bless her, is going to go and sit in the ethics committee office all day until we get this thing figured out. Sometimes pure stubbornness will get the job done. I’m looking forward to starting my interviews!