Saturday, October 28, 2023

Kenya part 2 - into Tsavo East (October 9-10)

I won't write about the war

I can't write about the war

I can write about birds and wildlife

After we were done with the wonderful Arabuko-Sokoke forest (see previous post), our Rockjumper tour headed on October 9th towards Tsavo East National Park. First stop, on the northern side of Arabuko Sokoke forest reserve was at Jilore, a known site for the range-restricted (in Kenya) Zanzibar Red Bishop. It was a short stop, because we had a long day of driving ahead of us, yet it was a very enjoyable one. It was our first group birding session with common Kenyan farmland birds. We did find a large flock of the bishops, but they didn't pose very well for photos. It was also our first encounter with Northern Carmine Bee-eaters, hawking for flying insects from overhanging powerlines. 

Zanzibar Red Bishop

The drive along road C-103 heading to Sala Gate was actually really good. There were lots of great birds by and on the road. We made slow progress with all the eBirding...

There were lots of fun birds to stop and watch, including entertaining White Helmetshrike, Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse, Eastern Paradise Whydah and the first stunning Golden-breasted Starlings.

White Helmetshrikes

Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse - subtle and beautiful

Tail with a little bird attached to it (Eastern Paradise Whydah)

In Tsavo East NP past Sala Gate the terrain became very dry and it was hot. As a result bird densities were rather low. We had to cross the park from east to west to reach our accommodation in Voi. The first half of the drive provided encounters with some typical dry-country birds, including Somali Bee-eater and Bunting, Chestnut-headed Sparrow-Lark and more.

Somali Bee-eater - poor photo of a quality bird!

Kori Bustard

Buff-crested Bustard was common

Chestnut-headed Sparrow-Lark

Von der Decken's Hornbill

Because of the habitat aridity there were few mammals in the eastern side of the park. We did encounter our first Gerenuks, such unique antelopes, the way they stand up to reach fresh acacia leaves with their long giraffe-like necks. Also out first Fringe-eared (Beisa) Oryx and Coke's Haartbeest.


Fringe-eared (Beisa) Oryx

Coke's Haartbeest

The further west we made it in the park, towards Aruba Lodge and dam, mammal and bird densities increased. Elephants, Plains Zebras, Northern (Masai) Giraffes and many antelopes were frolicking in the lush vegetation around the dam. There were more cool African birds to be seen too.

Southern Ground-Hornbill

Kittlitz's Plovers were plentiful by the dam

Working on the next gen

Yellow-throated Spurfowl - stunning and common

The next day (October 10th) was happily spent in the western section of Tsavo East and around our accommodation, Voi Safari Lodge. So many excellent birds, too many to mention. Lots of mammals too, including our first Lions, sleeping of course. 

Fischer's Starling - Carrying Nesting Material

Golden-breasted Starling - wow

More Stunnery

Hence the name: Blue-naped Mousebird

Taita Fiscal

Straw-tailed Whydah

Yellow-spotted Bush Sparrow. I love Petronias.

Cut-throats in large flocks - quite unusual

Abyssinian Scimitarbill

Two of the pride of Lionesses, with their heads up!

The lodge grounds and waterhole were excellent, with large numbers of animals coming in to enjoy a good splash. This theme of wildlife lodges with cool waterholes is a great feature of African safari trips.

The lodge gardens held several sunbirds, including this stunning male Black-bellied Sunbird (such an uninspiring name for a brilliant sunbird!) that waited for us in the carpark:

Next stop - Taita Hills. Stay tuned!

Saturday, October 21, 2023

Kenya part 1 - Arabuko-Sokoke and coast, October 6-8

The first leg of our Rockjumper tour to Kenya took us to the east coast. We flew from Nairobi to Malindi, where me met our excellent driver-guide Lenard Korir. Already at the airport carpark we had Coastal Cisticola and Ethiopian Swallow, demonstrating how special this part of Kenya is. Without further ado we drove to the Arabuko-Sokoke Forest, where we met up with legendary Willy, our local guide. Practically the first bird we saw in birding mode was a stunning African Wood-Owl, day-roosting near the park headquarters. What a start!

The first pre-lunch session in the park was amazing. The forest was full of good birds, including Red-capped Robin-Chat, Narina Trogon, several greenbuls. But the highlight was without doubt a breathtaking orange-morph Sokoke Scops-owl, expertly found by Willy in its day roost site. We couldn't have asked for a better start to our tour, enjoying an intimate encounter with this globally Endangered beautiful Owl. I have seen it in the past, but this close encounter, at eye level, provided me and the clients with the best photo opp ever.

Over the next two days we spent much time in different sections of the forest. Forest birding is usually quite difficult, dependent on calls. Often the forest was very quiet, then suddenly we found a purple patch or a nice mixed feeding flock, and it felt like birding in a candy store. 

Our main targets were the endemic or near-endemic species of Sokoke forest. The main target after the owl was the globally Endangered Sokoke Pipit. It took us a few attempts down different trails, until on our final morning we had a magical time with them. As soon as we stepped off the vehicle we heard their soft, high-pitched contact calls. Bingo!

It took us a while to get good views of them - they were very shy, moving secretly between trees. Eventually we found a pair walking quietly on the dark forest floor. They walked down to few meters from us, to our complete awe. 

The same site with the pipits had also a good number of another rare species, Amani Sunbird. We have seen them before but over there they performed really well, males and females. They are difficult to photograph...

The list of quality species we had over the days we spent in the Sokoke forest is too long. Fischer's Turaco, Black-headed Apalis, Spotted Ground-Thrush, Scaly Babbler, Chestnut-fronted and Retz's Helmetshrikes, Scaly-throated and Pallid Honeyguides, Red-tailed Ant-Thrush, Malindi Pipit, Forbes-Watson's Swift, Mottled Spinetail, Fasciated Snake-Eagle, Lizard Buzzard, Mombasa and Bearded Woodpeckers, Green Barbet and Green Tinkerbird and more - really excellent haul for our three days there.

Spotted Ground-Thrush (globally Vulnerable)

Black-headed Apalis

Malindi Pipit

Mottled Spinetails and Forbes-Watson's Swifts were flying over the Elephant Swamp

Fasciated (AKA Southern banded) Snake Eagle showed beautifully

Eastern Crested Guineafowl (recent three-way split)

White-browed Coucal - common and stunning show-off

Mammal watching in the forest isn't easy because of the thick cover. Still, we had Suni (small and rare forest antelope), Golden-rumped Sengi (Elephant-Shrew) and Northern Lesser Galago on a night drive we did.

The coastal region provided excellent birding opportunities too. I have fond memories from the region, working with A-Rocha on exciting projects out of the Watamu Field Study Center. Mida Creek mudflats held huge numbers of shorebirds. The main attraction there was Crab-Plover of course - such unique and curious-looking quality shorebirds. Among the migrant shorebirds were Greater and Tibetan Sand-plovers and Terek Sandpipers.

Sabaki River Estuary held large numbers of gulls and terns. Most sought-after was Sooty Gull that showed in various plumages. 

The tern concentration attracted quality species including White-cheeked, Roseate and Great Crested.

We stayed in Turtle Bay Resort, where there was an active breeding colony of African-Golden and Golden Palm Weavers. The walk between the rooms and dining hall couldn't have been more golden.

Golden Palm Weaver

African Golden-Weaver

Next up - Tsavo East NP!

Tuesday, October 17, 2023

Global Big Day in Ethiopia

I returned unexpectedly early from Africa on Sunday morning. Over the next few days/weeks I will share here stories and images from the main portion, a tour into the beautiful landscapes of Kenya I led for Rockjumper Birding Tours. The first post will be about the tour aftermath. A day after the official start of the tour, a war broke in Israel. It wasn't easy to keep my head straight and focused on leading the tour, knowing that back home things are very tough and that my family wasn't safe. I had to shorten my trip and return home to my family. Rockjumper management were so supportive and helpful. Together with the excellent ground agent, Cisticola, they arranged a replacement. The earliest I could leave the group was on Friday when we returned to Nairobi. It was sad saying goodbye to my group - they were all awesome and we had a great time together. I flew from Nairobi to Addis Ababa, hoping for a smooth connection back home to Tel Aviv. I flew with Ethiopian Airlines, one of the few foreign airlines that still flies to Israel, more or less. When I arrived in Addis Ababa I discovered that my onward flight to Tel Aviv had just been cancelled and postponed to the next day. I had 24 hours to kill in Addis. Actually, it was my first time in Addis city, outside of the airport, after many layovers that had allowed me only terminal window birding. 

On Saturday, October 14th, it was Global Big Day, organised by eBird and Global Birding. In recent years I have been very keen on doing proper big days on GBD. This time, outside of Israel, away from Kenya, I had to find something to do in Ethiopia. I consulted with eBird Hotspots, chatted with a few friends, and chose two birding sites not far from the airport. I was up with the birds and started the day with a good look out of a dirty window on the 6th floor of Skylight Hotel where Ethiopian Airlines put me up. First endemics out of the window included Wattled Ibis, Swainson's Sparrow, Brown-rumped Seedeater and White-collared Pigeon. eBird checklist here.

I was not permitted to leave the airport hotel without a visa (certainly not without a shirt), but nobody asked any questions at the door, so I just went for it. I caught a taxi that first took me to a patch of neglected land adjacent to a smelly sewage stream, known on eBird as Bole Airport Grasslands. You can get the impression of the Addis-style urban birding site in the background of this video:

My driver Ibrahim insisted to escort me while birding - he said he was concerned over my safety. Very quickly the interaction between us changed. It was Ibrahim's first ever birding session, in fact the first ever contact with birds. Very quickly he started spotting birds by sight and sound - he was good! He was super keen for the remainder of our morning together and I think he really enjoyed it. Birding the airport patch was quite nice, dodging demonstrations of Africa's back yard, i.e. slums, poor people, animals, rubbish, sewage. I had a few good birds, including three more endemics - Ethiopian Cisticola, Thick-billed Raven and Black-winged Lovebird. Also Roguet's Rail was nice. It disappeared into the thick vegetation before I could get a photo of it. eBird checklist here.

Brown-rumped Seedeater

Swainson's Sparrow

African Citril

Northern Fiscal

Ethiopian Cisticola (thanks Itai and Forrest for correcting my ID)

Isabelline Wheatear - one of several palearctic migrants I had during the morning

Our second birding site was in the gardens of Ghion Hotel in central Addis. It's a well-established hotel, very different from other modern, synthetic hotels in Addis. The hotel grounds include spacious, quiet, beautiful and lush gardens. Again you can get an idea of the gardens and habitat in this photo:

I enjoyed birding and photographing there, as some of the birds were very tame. eBird checklist here.

Abyssinian Thrush

Abyssinian Slaty-Flycatcher

Speckled Mousebird

That concluded my big day effort in Ethiopia. I recorded a modest total of 47 species. I hope that I contributed something to the global effort. It was good fun anyway.