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Pedal to the Metal, Chronicles of Day 1 on Safari

We deliberately arrived in Nairobi a couple days before the scheduled commencement of the safari itself, as there was the mutual understanding that once the birding begins, it begins. All energies replenished during the easy days, everyone was eager for the 6am start at Nairobi National Park. Located in Nairobi itself, the park is over a hundred square kilometres of welcoming African bush comfortably close to the sprawling city.

I made somewhere around 110 images (as in keepers, not how many times I clicked the shutter, that’s in the thousands) over the course of our twelve-hour extravaganza in Nairobi National Park, which I will share during the course of this week – both here on this blog as well as daily (probably twice daily) on my Instagram. Probably by next week I’ll get to day 2 :-)

The first animal we saw upon entering the park was this Bushbuck. Not the most impressive find but immediately I came to notice a trait of these wild animals which I would continue to observe during our time there, one with which I was not familiar. As we pulled up on the side of the road, reversing slightly to get closer to the Bushbuck, it did something amazing. It continued to do what it was doing before we arrived, and ignored us completely! I couldn’t believe my eyes! It made absolutely no attempt to flee whatsoever. I literally felt like I was a guest in this creature’s home.

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Visiting an equatorial region in February carries with it a very exciting prospect: migrants. Here in T&T we get migrants from North America, but in Kenya the already rich avian population is swelled by migrants from Europe and Asia. We had two fantastic migrants immediately after the Bushbuck, an imposing White Stork that refused to move and a Black Kite fluffing its feathers after a short shower of rain.

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There are two subspecies of Black Kite, the one pictured above which is migratory and another, resident subspecies often referred to as Yellow-billed Kite (see below for one I photographed the day before in Nairobi), for its (get ready) yellow bill.

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Stopping briefly at the famous ivory burning site (more on this in a later post) we poked around in the bushes for some small passerines. This was my first taste of how difficult some African birds can get. A Grey-backed Camaroptera escaped me, but I managed to nail a couple frames of this Yellow-breasted Apalis.

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Much bigger (and easier) subjects were around, however. Cape Buffalo are fearsome animals, but we came upon a pair of rather aged individuals calmly chewing on grass.

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Getting good views of multiple species of cisticolas was a definite high point of the day, after all we were being competently taken care of by Cisticola Tours. Fifty members of this frustratingly entertaining family can be potentially found in East Africa, and head guide Washington made identifying them as easy as differentiating sandpipers. This Winding Cisticola sports a unique combination of rufous, black and streaks.

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Checking out a small pond yielded a bounty of new birds – multiple species of lapwings as well as African Spoonbills and a Grey Heron, nonchalantly standing among sunning Nile Crocodiles.

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A familiar movement was not a Jacamar, but a Little Bee-eater. These colourful birds perform the same moves, darting from a preferred perch to snag a flying insect, to return and batter it to bits – or as necessary.

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Maasai Giraffes are the tallest subspecies of Giraffe, making them the absolute tallest animal walking the earth. Completely humbling to be in its shadow, a true icon of the wilderness that once covered all of this vast continent.

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Spending all day within the national park means that you can’t always control the lighting situations, and our first sighting of Common Warthogs was in some of the harshest light I’ve ever photographed in. I converted this image to black and white, in an effort to draw attention to the large tusks of this male Warthog and away from the bright branches of the background. Doesn’t work entirely, but it’s better than the colour version, trust me.

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The two largest and commonest birds around the city were Yellow-billed Kites and Marabou Storks. Within Nairobi National Park, many of these gargantuan storks gathered around a watering hole, drinking and resting through the heat of the day. To give an idea of scale, the pure white bird on the middle-right side of the frame is the very familiar Cattle Egret – the same species we have here.

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Did you notice any strange bird in the previous image? In particular on the lower left of the frame. It’s a Hamerkop, the only member of its family, a bird I had longed to see for many years (since childhood) and one deserving of its very own blog post (I hope I remember).

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The biggest challenge I faced personally during this first day on safari was adjusting my perspective in terms of subject size. I’m accustomed to tiny tanagers and microscopic hummingbirds – I still can’t wrap my mind around the birds which occupy the other end of the scale. Hearing a thump, thump as a bird walks by isn’t something I’m used to. But when we’re talking about the largest bird in the world, it’s a little different, I guess.

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The fact that we were seeing so much wildlife within a stone’s throw of dense human settlement never ceased to amaze.

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Furthermore, seeing wild, large birds was such an alien concept to me, growing up in Trinidad I was made aware of numerous species that were eaten out of existence. No Trinidadian has the chance of seeing a Horned Screamer without flying to another country. The critically endangered Trinidad Piping Guan is on a slippery slope as it is still shot for the pot, albeit illegally. But back to Kenya. Also endangered, Grey-crowned Cranes stroll through the savanna grassland, bothered only by an approaching Warthog. We saw a decent number of these extravagant birds, even outside of “protected areas”.

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Before long, the sun was falling out of the sky and we were faced with one last major decision: guineafowl or lions?

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Once we had comfortably soaked in the glow of being in the presence of a true apex predator, we shifted attention to the guineafowl. Actually, that’s not how it happened. The bird on the right was making a huge ruckus, chasing other members of the flock and basically causing a scene, distracting me from the lions for a brief moment.

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We left that day unaware what had just hit us, some of us anxiously marveling at the images on our cameras’ LCD screens, others choosing to gaze at the infinite landscape before us. It was also here that we learned another essential tidbit about Africa: every sunset is amazing. Our Nairobi National Park sunset image below is courtesy Joanne Husain.

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Do remember to follow me on Instagram to see much more images from this beautiful location during the course of this week!