Tuesday, 31 March 2020

Kenya 3-15 November 2019. Part 4 - Tsavo East and Watamu

Other parts are here:   Part 1     Part 2     Part 3     Part 4 

Tsavo West and East together make up the largest national park in Kenya. The two halves are divided by the main road from Nairobi to Mombasa, and the two are different in terms of habitat and climate. East is drier with red earth. West is more wooded with acacia trees.

Despite being normally drier, Tsavo East had also had a lot of rain. Joseph, our driver, had never seen it so lush. The game tracks had much standing water, slowing progress. The approach to our lodge was very waterlogged. We spent three nights there; two full days.

The rain meant that we saw nothing in the way of big cats. Other large mammals were plentiful. Zebras, giraffes, many antelopes and, of course, birds. 

The lodge, Sentrim Tsavo East, was again 'tented'. The tents were widely spaced and ours faced directly towards the waterhole. The accommodation was dated, but certainly good enough. The restaurant and bar were right next to the fence, and there was a raised viewing platform nearby. From there, a group of Black-headed Village Weavers were feeding. Here is the sequence:


The female Black-headed Village Weaver finds a juicy caterpillar. . .
. . . I'll just give it a shake to get the juice out . . .


.  . . . then the male tries to take it from her, without success!

I really love the sound of certain parts of Africa, and Tsavo East was particularly good. I mean that the 'silence' at certain times of the day was deafening. The insects and birds are so vocal. Here is the sound of the bush from the restaurant at dusk:

There aren't many owls to be seen in these parts, but on the way in, we stopped to see a roosting Verreaux's Eagle Owl. Owls always hide deep within a tree to roost, but here it is:
Verreaux's Eagle Owl; the largest owl in Africa with a wingspan of up to 1.4m

Lynne really loved the mammals, and there were plenty. I've already posted lots of elephants so I won't repeat them here.


Oryx with the Zebras, and nearly as tall!

Waterbuck, a large antelope. Easy to recognise by the big white ring around it's bottom!

Giraffe with baby, which still has the umbilical cord attached so it's probably only ten days old. Newborn giraffes are 2 metres tall and weigh about 70Kg. Imagine giving birth to that!!

Many birds were drawn to the red earth tracks, especially coucals, sand grouse and guinea-fowl. Elephant dung attracts beetles and insects. Beetles and insects attract birds. Here are some:


Black-faced Sandgrouse. This is the male. 

Black-headed plover - an elegant, long-legged wader.

A Red-billed Hornbill eating a large dung beetle. Mmmm! Crunchy!

Vulturine Guinea-fowl. A large bird with, apparently, a very small brain.

White-browed Coucal. Coucals are quite common, but they can be very skulking and hard to see. Unusually, this one was out in the open on the road.

Brown Snake Eagle. Actually quite common. Easy to spot with that round face and vivid amber eyes.

There are more colourful birds around too. Here are some of the prettiest:


Golden-breasted Starling. They have a lot of different starlings in Kenya.

Rosy-patched Bush-shrike. These two were singing at the side of the road.

Grey-headed Kingfisher. One of those several species that doesn't (or rarely) eat fish.

Until recently, I used a Canon 500mm f4, a lovely lens with which all my previous photos were taken. After 14 years, I was finding it a little heavy at c. 4.5Kg with the camera body. My shoulders are not getting any younger.

Last year, another photographer friend of mine, Naveen, mentioned that Nikon had brought out a very small and light 500mm prime lens. For my non-photographer readers, 'prime' means a fixed focal length lens, not a zoom. I went to see it, and was convinced. The lens weighed only 1,450g (as against 3.2Kg) and was really quite small. Perfect for travel. 

I decided to sell my lovely Canon lens and get the Nikon. I was on a steep learning curve, but I've never looked back. The new camera/lens is 2Kg lighter. It's much smaller, easily manoeuvrable in a vehicle, small enough to fit inside a compact rucksack fully assembled with hood, easy to carry all day, allows most shots to be handheld and, importantly, it doesn't look much, so it doesn't attract attention.

Now, our guide, Lorenzo, was also a keen photographer. He had a gorgeous Canon 600mm f4 lens, with a professional camera and a large tripod. Wherever we went, everyone admired his camera. No-one said anything about mine, and I was happy!

Whilst on the subject of gear, I had bought, to take mammals on this trip, a second-hand 70-200mm zoom lens from MPB in Brighton, for my Canon camera. When I used it for the first time, it didn't work. Lorenzo kindly lent me his 70-200mm so I could take mammals close-up. I am very grateful to him for that.  When I got back, MPB gave me a refund.

Back to the lodge, and more specifically, the bar! Even in remotest African lodges, a nightly gin and tonic is to be had, and we - had! Here we are at bar before dinner.


Enjoying a G&T at the bar. Our guide, Lorenzo, is to the right.


Huge snail on the path. Wonder how many get stepped on in the dark? Squelch!

We saw some other species of Starling in this park.
Greater Blue-eared starling. This photo doesn't really do it justice. It was raining. The coat is iridescent in sunlight and those eyes are vivid orange.

Wattled Starlings. Only the males have those hanging black wattles. The longer they are, the more attractive they are to females.

Soon it was time to leave Tsavo East. We had to leave the park by a certain time or they charged for another day. We had seen few bee-eaters up to this point, but on the way out of the park, the habitat became drier and we saw a few species. I love bee-eaters. They are rather like kingfishers, you can't get enough of them. The Blue-cheeked Bee-eater photo was too distant to show. They were all a little too far away, but these are record shots.



White-throated Bee-eater. A clean-looking bird.



Northern Carmine Bee-eaters. Wonderful to see with their blue-green head and dee[ red underside.

The last bird we saw was a young Pallid Harrier.

Pallid Harrier. Flew right over the road in front of us.

Then we started the long drive to the coast, to Watamu. I was  particularly looking forward to the day in the Arabuko Sokoke Forest, a closed reserve where there may be several birds I had not seen before, one or two of which are found only in this corner of Kenya.

On arrival, it was raining and the forecast for the next several days was not encouraging. We had a proper chalet this time, but quite a way from the restaurant. It was the Ocean Sports Resort, and was home to some keen deep water fishermen. You know, those hunter types who fight to reel in huge Marlin, Swordfish and Tuna weighing many kilograms. 

The resort was owned/run by a charming Frenchman. As a consequence, the food was generally really good.

There was a pool, and Lynne took the plunge.
Lynne tries the pool. I wasn't man enough!
Cats were welcome in the resort. We didn't touch though. Because of all the rain, the cushions from the outside seating was piled up inside. This was heaven for cats.

The first full day at Watamu was a washout. As a result, all we could do was visit a local hotel to have a drink and see the nesting weaver birds, right in the hotel courtyard. There were two species with confusing names: African Golden Weaver and Golden Palm Weaver.


African Golden Weaver. This is a female.
Golden Palm Weaver. This is a male, and is therefore more attractive.
Both species nested together in these bushes, just a few metres from the bar.

Returning to our resort, the fishermen had arrived with their catch of the day. The resort routinely bought the catch, and cooked it for the guests. We had fresh tuna steaks for lunch. They were delicious!
The fish were weighed on the resort's own permanent scales before being taken to the kitchen.

We had a relaxing day, ready for the visit to the Arabuko Sokoke Forest next day. 

Seasoned birdwatchers who have travelled will know that forest birdwatching is not easy. The vegetation is thick, the leaves get in the way, throwing off the auto-focus, and birds have a habit of flying away a split second before you're ready to take their photo. The birds are often small and green, the same colour as the background, so they are hard to see in the first place. Furthermore, they favour the top of the canopy, where they are distantly silhouetted against the bright sky. All in all, a photographer's nightmare!

Luckily for us (well, me really), our local guide, David Ngala, knew the forest like the back of his hand. As my camera was small and portable, I was able to follow him through the thick undergrowth and see many birds which I would never have seen. For obvious reasons, I did not manage to photograph half of them, contenting myself with observing them through my bins (binoculars).

Here are the ones I was lucky enough to photograph.


Black-headed Apalis. 

Forest Batis

Chestnut-fronted Helmet-shrike.

Retz's Helmet-shrike.

Common (not really) Scimitarbill. Named because its bill resembles a scimitar.

Amani Sunbird, a rare endemic species.

Plain-backed Sunbird

We also glimpsed the rare endemic Golden-rumped Elephant Shrew. This was not really shrew-sized, more like rabbit-sized!

The highlight of our tour of the forest was to be another rare bird. Our way was blocked, however, by a large tree, which had only fallen the previous night and had not yet been cleared. We agreed to leave the park, drive round to the other side by the main roads, and enter the park from there. It was worth the drive! David led us, one by one, into one of the thickest parts of the forest to see the Sokoke Scops Owls. How he found their roost, god only knows.


Sokoke Scops Owls. Are they cute or what?

Sokoke Scops Owl. They never took their eyes off us.

Apart from the birds photographed above, I also saw Narina Trogon, Green Barbet, Eastern Olive Sunbird, Cinnamon-breasted Bunting, East Coast Akalat, Tiny Greenbul and Black-bellied Starling, all 'Lifers' except the Trogon - 15 lifers in all for the forest. We celebrated with a well-earned G&T before dinner.

The planned river boat trip on the Mnarani Creek was badly organised. In fact, not organised. The last minute boat was arranged too late in the day (literally) and was a failure. By then, it was too hot, and it was too late for birds. Highlights were Sooty Gull and Woolly-necked Stork fly-overs.


Sooty Gull. Actually a lifer for me.
Woolly-necked Stork. You can see the 'woolly' neck quite clearly.

We paid a visit to the local snake museum in the afternoon. The Bio-Ken Snake Park was actually very interesting. Our young guide was enthusiastic and knowledgeable. 

In the evening we enjoyed dinner and, later, the full moon.



The moon, our nearest celestial body.
The final day was an early morning trip to nearby Mida Creek. Lynne decided to lie in while I went to the creek. We again had the services of a good, young local guide. We saw quite a few birds, including one or two lifers.


Yellow-throated Longclaw. You'll have to take my word for it that it does have a long claw!

Sombre Greenbul. Why Sombre? I don't know!

Mangrove Kingfisher. A lifer. Looks initially like the Grey-headed Kingfisher, but it's not.

Yellow-fronted Canary. OK, yes, this is a common bird, especially in cages!


Red-eyed Dove. Lynne's not so keen on 'Pigeons', but I love them.

Speckled Mousebird. It's called that, apparently, because it crawls around the bush like a mouse.

Pale Batis. Quite common, but pretty.

Amethyst Sunbird. Beautiful if the sunlight catches the iridescent throat.

Purple-banded Sunbird. Again, looks stunning in the sunlight.

Lesser Sandplover.

Yellow-billed Stork. A huge bird.

Dimorphic Egret. You know our own Little Egret, don't you? This is the dark morph, i.e. the dark version of the same bird.

Pin-tailed Whyda. Quite why his tail is that long is a mystery. It's surprisingly easy to miss in the field.

After the walk, we waited for the tide to come into the creek a bit, so there was enough water for a canoe trip. As the tide came in, more and more birds arrived. We had a visit from a small reptile.


Looks like a lizard. It is, in fact, a skink, but don't ask me which one.



Greater Sandplover. A lifer. Not the same as the Lesser above. 


Water Thicknee. Very like our Stone Curlew.

Lesser-crested Tern. Much bigger than our terns.

Finally, the star of the show appeared, the Crab Plover. This large bird had a massive bill so it could eat the crabs, which make up 70% of its diet. A final lifer of the trip.


Crab Plover. Just look at that bill to strike fear into the heart of any crab!

Crab Plovers in flight.

Joseph went to fetch Lynne while I was on the creek. We enjoyed lunch cooked on the spot for us by the local chef, and then returned to the resort to pack up. A short ride to Malindi Airport, a short internal flight to Nairobi and we were ready for our flight home to London. We had several hours to kill, as our flight home left a few minutes after midnight. Lorenzo, Lynne and I went to a new hotel in the airport and enjoyed our last dinner together.


Lynne before our flight home.
It had been a very interesting trip. I was forced to get to know my new camera by using it every day. We could stop whenever we wanted, in order to watch or photograph the big game or birds. The pace was ours. I did get a stomach bug on leaving Tsavo East, but it wan't too bad. Some Imodium helped.

I really like Africa. It is still relatively unspoilt in most countries. I can't wait to go again.

If you haven't read the other parts, they're here:

Part 1     Part 2     Part 3     Part 4

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