December 22nd – Out Of Africa – Kenya

“Together Forever” – birding and beer. Underscores the importance of staying hydrated under the blazing African sun.

I just got back from a trip to Africa, spending the last week of November in western Kenya (just SW of Bondo) and 18 days in southern Malawi, just outside the town of Bangula. In Kenya I spend most of my time wandering the back roads and trails counting birds and noting species – the latter exercise for posting on ebird and the latter to contribute data to the Kenya Map Project. The country is trying to develop an atlas of sorts of what species can be found when and where in the country. The mapping project protocol has elements of our Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas – the country has been divided up into 10-km (or so) sections or “pentads”. One birds for at least 2 hours straight in a pentad for results to be valid (you can certainly bird longer!). You keep track of the species encountered in the order you encounter them. After the initial count species can be added within the pentad for 5 days. After a 5-day period you can start a new count for that pentad. If you Google “Kenya Map Project” you can pull up a map which outlines which pentads have been counted and how many times. Most of the pentads west of Kisumu have been covered by myself and/or by my two birding friends: Dan Odhiambo and Brian Ochiago. It’s interesting to me how many pentads have not been counted or have been counted only once or twice. There’s a lot of work to do in Kenya!

A dramatic sky over Homa Bay.

I trained Dan and Brian when I first started going to Kenya 7 or 8 years ago and I’m pleased with how good they have become. If you’re looking for a birding guide in that area I would highly recommend them! And they could sure use the work as jobs are hard to come by in Kenya (and all African countries for that matter).

With Dan and Brian I trawled the countryside doing counts for ebird and for the Kenya Map Project.

Dan, Brian and I used to band there but they’re out of bands and our source, Titus Imboma at the National Museum in Nairobi, is in China working on a PhD. So we banded for 6 days straight covering not only the “main” pentads – the ones we’ve done numerous times – but also getting out to some of the more distant/less covered ones. Travel is on the back of a bodaboda (motorbike) which makes it much more interesting and, on the slippery roads after a rain, challenging.

This woman sells the BEST chips in Kenya (if not the world) from her modest stall in Nyang’oma.

For the last few visits to the area I’ve stayed in the village of Nyang’oma with the Sisters of St. Francis – they have a couple of modest houses with semi-running water that they rent out very reasonably. Located in the village is market with the best chip store in the world – talk about fresh, home-cut fries!

The “chip kitchen” at work.

I like to visit Lake Victoria, one of the largest fresh water bodies in the world. There is so much going on there and so much to see – both people and birds. But recently there have been a couple of insidious developments that can only have a negative impact on the lake: gold mining and sand “harvesting”. People are simply digging up the shoreline. In some areas (e.g., the village of Wagusa) they are looking for tiny flecks of gold that they eventually work out of the matrix through a labour-intensive process that involves liquid mercury in the final stages. In Wagusa there are huge scars from this process and the water along the shore is filled with sediment. And I don’t know how much mercury escapes and enters the food chain. My travelling companion, Andrew Bremner, asked a miner what he was getting for this gold. The miner gave some astronomical amount if he could garner a kilo of this unrefined gold. These folks have been “taken”: first of all, the chances of putting together a kilo of gold through this process are remote at best; further, the price they’ve been quoted exceeds the going rate per ounce for refined gold by a huge amount. Whoever has been manipulating these folks to work their claims by promising this payoff has simply lied to them knowing that no one is going to come remotely close to getting a kilo of gold. But when you’re terribly poor and work is hard to come by the promise of a better life by just digging up the earth under your feet is hard to turn down.

Just a small section of the gold-mining district along the shores of Lake Victoria.

Miners at work.

The negative impact on the shoreline is considerable.

The other assault to the lake shore is through the digging up of sand along the edges. This sand, in some places, extends well inland and the diggers don’t stop until they’re almost right up to an existing house. Big storms that this lake can generate can push waves and storm surge into these gouges doing even more erosion damage. What the impact of these activities will have on the fishing industry of the lake has not been calculated – in fact, I doubt if any research is being done on it.

Gold mining isn’t the only thing that is destroying the Lake Victoria shoreline. Large swaths of sand have been dug out allowing storm waves to come increasingly further inland – in some cases almost right up to the foundations of some of the houses.

Here are some pictures from the area:

Fishing dhow setting a large trawl net on Lake Victoria.

This is just one section in which nets have been set out in the sun to dry the small fish brought in by the trawls. On a good day several acres would have drying fish set out like this. When dry the fish are packed in large bags for shipment to local and even distant (eg, Nairobi) markets. The fish is a good source of protein.

Andrew getting ready to take a picture – people just loved to see the photos of themselves.

These two young ladies watched me tear out a terrible invasive vine that has invaded this part of Kenya and is killing trees and shrubs. They then joined in to clear this wall of the stuff – Dodder I believe it’s called. It was brought from SE Asia to combat the marsh marigold explosions on Lake Victoria and then found another home on land.

My good friends and birding companions Brian and Dan with Dan’s daughter, Marg.

Abdim’s Storks searching the watery fields for amphibians and insects.

African Gray Hornbill

Bare-faced Go-away Birds

Well-camouflaged Black-headed Heron.

White-browed Coucal

Double-toothed Barbets – this pair roosted in a hole in a tree about 6 feet off the ground right in front of the place I was staying. They would sneak in right at dusk when they thought no one was watching.

Gray-backed Fiscal

Hamerkop searching the flooded fields.

This Hamerkop was going after easier pickings: the tiny fish spread out to dry.

Unmistakable – Long-crested Eagle.

Long-crested Eagle taking flight.

While fisher folk strain on the rope to pull in the large fishing nets, Egyptian Geese, Sacred Ibis and a Gray Crowned Crane search the fields. Note the ibis at centre-front – it has what appears to be a green plastic bottle around its neck.

Northern Brown-throated Weaver – always associated with the lake front.

Speckled Pigeon

Spur-winged Plover (Lapwing)

Well out of its normal range – Straw-tailed Whydah.

European Winter visitor – Whinchat.

Very colourful (and noisy) Woodland Kingfisher.


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