February 21st – Under African Skies…….#1

Cloud presaging rain over central Kenya.

Just the thought of going to Africa for the first time was exciting for me. But, the reality didn’t begin to actually sink in until the plane had crossed the Mediterranean with its marvellous islands and began to penetrate the Sahara Desert. I had read about this massive desert in so many different contexts – Rommel vs Montgomery in the Second World War, the Tuareg nomads, feats of travel (for fun and commerce and conquest) over the centuries, and, of course, bird migration. It took us over 3 hours at 900+ km/hour to begin…begin to clear this arid land. How do passerines, flying at 30+ km/hour, handle it!? What about dissipating heat and managing water metabolism? And food? Do they go nonstop or make rest stops to replenish….what? I looked and looked and saw almost NO green spots signalling an oasis. The deseert has an austere beauty. Even at 11,500 metres you could see landforms. I was amazed and enthralled at times by long threads of dunes which must have been massive to stand out at this height.

It wasn’t until Khartoum that I began to be aware of a faint green smudge on the landscape and this only in spots. But these spots grew bigger (if not more green) as we continued south. In a few places you could see 20 to 30 big green circles standing out vividly against the brown and tan – “crop circles” made possible by irrigation from deep wells, water applied by a big pipe revolving around a central point. Hardly the population of what I would consider to be a village.

As we pushed on toward Nairobi we were treated to a marvellous sunset bouncing off distant rain clouds. This surprised me as I was under the impression that this was the dry season….but, evidently Kenya (or at least parts of it) had received and was continuing to receive a healthy amount of rain. (I think I recall someone, was it Titus Imbomo(?), telling me that the country had benefited from a 50-year record rainfall this past year.) This beneficial amount of rain would prove a bonanza to what I was trying to do in Kenya.
In the deepening night, just before getting ready to descend, I could see long lines of fires burning below – farmers burning off last season’s dead vegetation, preparing the soil for this year’s harvests. The smell of smoke would be a constant for me during the next 4 weeks.

From Nairobi I took a short flight west to Kisumu and then by small truck to the town of Bondo. Seven kilometres south was the “village” of Matangwe where I would do most of my “work”. The term village is a poor term to describe the the hundreds of small homes and farms that dot the countryside over a considerable area – nothing like the compact villages of our experience. The Matangwe Primary School (up to grade 8) has an enrollment of over 500 students with some grades having 60 students to class. Seems to me to be a large population for a “village”…..

Matangwe Primary School students sorting out an ID for their teacher Kenn Otieno.

My “job” was to teach the students and any adults that were interested about the birds in their area. I proposed to do this by teaching them how to use the guide books and binoculars that were donated and by using mist nets to catch birds for closer study and banding. My experience at Ruthven has shown pretty clearly that a bird in the hand is an inspiring thing.

This impressive field guide from Princeton Press was extremely helpful both in and out of the field.

But before I could do that, I had to become familiar with the local birds and develop some facility with the excellent Princeton Press guide book, Birds of Kenya and Northern Tanzania: 124 colour plates (many showing 15 or more species per page) and 294 pages of text and maps. Kenya boasts over 1,080 species. For the first day or two the most difficult (and frustrating) thing was just to find the right plate. But netting and banding birds helped enormously and it wasn’t long before I could identify most of the local species.

Local women at the Community Centre made some much-needed bird bags.

Here’s a taste of the birds I was catching:

One of my favourites: an African Pygmy Kingfisher.

Grey-capped Warbler.

Male Spectacled Weaver (with black chin)

Female Spectacled Weaver (note the lack of black feathering on the chin).

The map in the text did not show the Emerald-spotted Wood Dove as breeding directly in this area.

Male Red-cheeked Cordon-Bleu.

Female Red-cheeked Cordon-Bleu.

Note the heavy orange/brown wash on the breast and red eye of this male Jackson’s Golden-backed Weaver.

Male Jackson’s Golden-backed Weaver – named for obvious reasons.

White-browed Scrub Robin

Note the yellow “collar” and brown eye of this Yellow-backed Weaver.

Male Red-billed Firefinch – the most commonly caught “small” bird.

Yellow undertail coverts of a Common Bulbul – the first Kenyan bird I was able to readily identify.


2 thoughts on “February 21st – Under African Skies…….#1

  1. Hello Rick

    Just a note to point out that the bird labeled, White-browed Scrub Robin, I believe, is actually a Tchagra, possibly Black-crowned.

    Have fun!

    Jim Heslop
    Ancaster ON

  2. Pingback: A bird book goes to Africa

Leave a Reply