Tuesday, February 09, 2016

The Kenyan Coast - Watamu and Malindi

I am only a recent convert to the joys of guided birding. There was a time when I regarded this as cheating. Part of the point of birding, surely, is to both find and puzzle out the identification of a bird oneself? Compared to these, the collection per se – adding a bird to your list – is not the most satisfying part of the process, and being shown a bird robs you of both.

But there comes a point when you have to accept your limitations. Taking the individualistic approach is all very well when you’re amongst birds that are familiar and manageable in terms of the number of species. But as soon as you extend it to environments and avifaunas that are unfamiliar, the likely result is frustration and disappointment. This I discovered to my cost in the forests of South America. It’s not that I didn’t see birds, but I was constantly and painfully aware of the scores of species that were passing by me either unseen or unidentified.

My epiphany came in 2014 in Kenya. I was staying on the coast and needed, I thought, someone to show me the places rather than the birds; the famous Arabuko-Sokoke Forest, Mida Creek, the Sabaki Rivermouth etc. At the reception in the hotel where I was staying was a short advertisement for guided birding, accompanied by a photograph of an avuncular-looking man with a professional-looking pair of binoculars. His name was Jonathan Baya and I gave him a ring.

A hot day at the Sabaki Rivermouth. A nice atmospheric shot thanks to my older son, Jovan.
What followed were three of the best days’ birding of my life. This was my last substantive birding in Kenya in 2014 before I left the country, so the 52 species I added to my year list over those three days were more than respectable, especially when you consider that 40 of them were lifers. They included some globally-endangered gems; the Sokoke Scops-Owl (Otus ireneae), for instance, and the Sokoke Pipit (Anthus sokokensis). But the experience was fun too. Our attempt to find Broad-billed Sandpipers (Calidris falcinellus) at the Sabaki Rivermouth had us up to our – well, arses, I suppose is the bon mot – in fine, warm, sticky esturine mud for a couple of hours. It took me almost as long to clean my legs and trousers when I got back to the hotel afterwards.

Jonathan’s skills are manifold. Most guides tend to have an excellent knowledge of bird songs and calls, but Jonathan’s is encyclopaedic and is matched by his ability to mimic. He has patience in abundance, but a sense of realism too. I was disappointed at first when he said we should do two half days of birding each day, with a long break for lunch, rather than keeping at it from dawn until dusk. But, by God, he was right. If we had attempted to bird through the day I would have had sunstroke by 2 p.m. A third factor is that it’s not just the birds, with Jonathan. He started life as a gardener and maintains an avid interest in botany, which makes him a fantastic all-round naturalist. He’s also passionate about the places that we visited, meticulously removing rubbish from the paths as we walked through the forest, for instance. That impressed me enormously. And, finally, there’s a humility that makes birding with him a collegiate enterprise, as it should be, rather than one in which you’re simply shown one thing after another as on a bad safari. There were times when we were puzzling out identifications together, so I was made to feel less like the lost foreigner and more like a partner in a shared experience. I doubt that he really needed my advice, but it was very nice to be asked.

Setting the gold standard for bird guiding, and always with a smile. Jonathan Baya at the Sabaki Rivermouth.
So, for me, it was a no brainer that returning to the coast for a long weekend with my family over my son’s half-term, I would call Jonathan again. For a start, we had unfinished business. Although we had had an excellent half day there, despite the mud, we had failed to find the Broad-billed Sandpiper at the Sabaki Rivermouth last time I was here. And as for the Arabuko-Sokoke Forest the elusive Clarke’s Weaver (Ploceus golandi) had indeed eluded me.

Since this time I was here with my family, I limited myself to two mornings of birding. On the first we made a quick circuit through the lower parts of the forest before moving on to Mida Creek for a scan of the mudflats.

The forest is a remnant of larger woodlands that must have been much more extensive on the coast in the past. In this respect it’s similar as a refuge to some of the Atlantic Rainforest reserves in Brazil. We’d had two mornings and an afternoon here last time I was here, and had seen many of its specialities, but I remember being frustrated at hearing an East Coast Akalat without seeing one. Alas, the same experience was repeated this time. And as for the hoped-for Clarke’s Weavers, these too I missed, as I suspected I would. It was simply the wrong time of year as they move out of the forest in the dry season.

But there were still surprises. We had excellent views of a compact Pallid Honeyguide (Indicator meliphilus), of gorgeous White-throated Bee-eaters (Merops albicollis) and of the forest’s iconic mammal – the Golden-rumped Elephant-shrew (Rhynchocyon chrysopygus). The bee-eaters were followed, though, by a surprise cameo appearance of another speciality mammal of the forest; the critically-endangered Aders’ Duiker is an animal of uncertain specific affiliation, but treated by Jonathan Kingdon in his Field Guide to African Mammals as a subspecies of Harvey’s Duiker (Cephalophus harveyi). Forest birding is difficult, even in Jonathan’s company and his unrivalled knowledge of songs and calls to help you along, so although we saw a couple of mixed feeding flocks, dominated by Chestnut-fronted Helmet-shrikes (Prionops scopifrons), the other lifers I saw were glimpsed only – an adult male Blue-mantled Crested-flycatcher (Trochocercus cyanomelas) and a Red-tailed Ant-thrush (Neocossyphus rufus).

The Brachystegia woodland within the Arabuko-Sokoke forest, doing a reaasonable impression of a European Beech-forest in the Spring

At Mida Creek the tide was at its lowest ebb, and the sun at its highest zenith. Most of the birds were distant and obscured by a miasmic heat-haze. I wasn't about to walk out into that. Luckily, even through this haze the hundreds of Crab Plovers (Dromas ardeola) were unmistakable, but most of the other waders went unidentified and I was forced to accept missing the Dimorphic Egrets (Egretta garzetta dimorpha) that I've seen here before.

The following morning took us to the scene of our mud-bath of 2014; the Sabaki Rivermouth north of Malindi. This time after a brief discussion we decided to avoid the straight march – or rather wade – across the mudflats and instead skirted around to follow the beach, accompanied by an inevitable group of curious local children, who listened intently and obediently to Jonathan’s instruction never to get ahead of us.

At the Sabaki Rivermouth, with entourage.
The beach and mudflats were, of course, awash with waders; Curlew Sandpipers (Calidris ferruginea) were the most numerous, followed by Little Stint (Calidris minuta), Lesser Sandplover (Charadrius mongolus), Greater Sandplover (Charadrius leschenaultii) and Ringed Plover (Charadrius hiaticula). There were plenty of Terek Sandpipers (Xenus cinereus) too, once we'd rounded the point, and then a smattering of Whimbrels (Numenius phaeopus), Curlews (Numenius arquata), Greenshanks (Tringa nebularia), Common Sandpipers (Actitis hypoleucos), Wood Sandpipers (Tringa glareola) and Marsh Sandpipers (Tringa stagnatilis). Last time I came here we did not see White-fronted Plovers (Charadrius marginatus) at the rivermouth, but on this occasion there were at least a few tens of them.

Terns and Gulls were also resting on the mud in mixed flocks. The most numerous were Caspian Terns (Hydroprogne caspia) and Saunders’ Terns (Sternula saundersi), followed, in order, by Great Crested Terns (Thalasseus bergii), Heuglin’s Gulls (Larus argentatus heuglini), Sooty Gulls (Larus hemprichii), Lesser Crested Terns (Thalasseus bengalensis) and, the first surprise of the day, at least three Slender-billed Gulls (Larus genei), two of which were already showing the pink wash beneath. These last were lifers for me and genuinely unexpected.

A young Saunders' Tern at the Sabaki Rivermouth

But after searching en masse, it was time to start searching in detail, going through the Curlew Sandpipers one by one in search of our Broad-billed Sandpiper. We thought we’d found him for a while, until the bird took off and showed its white rump, which sent us back to the drawing board. Eventually, though, next to two Ringed Plovers, we found our bird. It was distant, but clearly the Broad-billed Sandpiper we were looking for. It was moulting into breeding plumage and gaining large spots on its breast, which was a clear indicator that it was not a Curlew Sandpiper. The back was a mixture of greyish feathers, and darker ones with white edging. The bill was, indeed, broad-looking but the giveaway was a very clear white spot in front of the eye which swept back behind as a standard supercilium, but also seemed to sweep upwards towards the crown, losing distinction above and beyond the eye. I would dearly love to have seen this bird closer-to, but I wasn’t going to wade out into the mud after my last experience, so this will have to do, for now, for this supremely elusive species.

Walking back across the scrubby dunes we were blessed with a stunning Northern Carmine Bee-eater (Merops nubicus) – only my second after one in Mogadishu in 2014 – and the year’s first Yellow Wagtails (Motacilla flava) of two different subspecies – a lutea and a beema.

A distant Northern Carmine Bee-eater, but even in this photo the vibrant colours are obvious

So, yet again, a wonderful couple of days. Tourism on the coast of Kenya is suffering because of fears of insecurity, but for birding this place is a must. You’re highly unlikely to see any of its key speciality birds – the Scops-owl, and the two local pipits, Sokoke and Malindi (Anthus melindae) – anywhere else, at least in the same place, and over a few days Jonathan can show you several wildly differing environments with wildly differing birds and at an extraordinarily reasonable price.  I’ve said it repeatedly in this Blog, but without visitors injecting money into the local economy on the basis of habitat preservation, communities will have little incentive or ability to resist the constant pressures for alternative, and inevitably destructive, forms or development.

Malindi Pipit at the "Swamp" in the Arabuko-Sokoke Forest. A tricky bird, like all pipits, but the streaking on the flanks is diagnostic. You'll have to magnify in order to see this.

And as for Jonathan, well I cannot recommend him highly enough. It’s not just because he was the first person to take me birding professionally, but for me the way he does it marks the gold standard of bird guiding. So if you go to the Kenyan coast, and go you should, then contact him. You will not regret it. He can be reached at jonathanbayakarisa@yahoo.com or through a website facilitated for him by T.R.A.C.K Tours in the UK. He also specialises in tours of both Tsavo National Parks and to the Taita Hills.

Until next time. Jonathan at "John Fanshawe's Roundabout" in the Arabuko-Sokoke forest, where Fanshawe carried out his research on breeding Clarke's Weavers.


  1. Hi Ben

    What a fantastic report. Thank You for reminding birders about Jonathan. I have supported him for several years [ I bought him the safari vehicle after years of fund raising]. It's such a shame that the fear of terrorism stops people going at the moment. Hopefully,that will change in time.

    It's a small world. I'm off to Ethiopia on Friday with 3 others to be guided by Meseret. We're looking forward to that!

    All the Best.
    Bob Biggs

  2. Dear Rob - glad you liked it, and I hope Jonathan did too. Feel free to link anything you think valuable through to your webpage in the hope that it can help drum up additional custom.

    Enjoy your time with Meseret - he's also great and has almost as encyclopaedic a knowledge of bird songs and calls as Jonathan does. Where is he taking you? Ben.

  3. Hi Ben

    Safely back from an interesting 12 days. We timed our trip badly as the drought affected wildlife in certain parts and then we came across a tribal dispute, which left us in the van for 8 hours when it should have taken less than 3 [road blocks etc]. We arrived back home to see updated guidance from the FCO that we shouldn't travel to the places we were in...

    We didn't travel to the south as it was too far. Still, we saw well over 300 species. Hopefully, the tensions will abate and normal life will resume.

    I emailed Jonathan about your blog. He has seen it and is delighted. Hopefully, others will see it too.

    Thanks again