Kenya Part 1

I have had the best intentions to blog this as soon as I got back, but that didn't turn out the way I expected. I was lucky enough to be able to visit Kenya recently (Late May/ early June.) It was for work. It goes without saying that the opinions expressed in this blog are my own, and do not represent or reflect those of my employer.

My colleague and I arrived over an hour late at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi in the middle of the night. I paid $50 for a visa, and was fingerprinted and waved through. I was convinced that my checked bags would not make it, but they did. After grabbing some cash at one of the many ATMs on the way out, I managed to avoid the taxi touts, and we found the driver sent from the Wildebeest Eco Camp for an additional KSH2,500. The amount was added to the hotel bill when we checked out.

I was very glad we made this arrangement. Arriving bewildered, tired, jet lagged and disorientated in a foreign country does make one quite vulnerable. The driver fetched my colleague and I and shep herded us to his vehicle.

It was after midnight when we finally arrived, and I was shown to my tent. It was very comfortable, and I did have a midnight visitor - a very sweet white cat that tried to share my bed. I didn't want to be disloyal to Maddie, so I gently put my new feline friend outside.

I was woken up the next morning by the wonderful sounds... of birds.

The tent I stayed in was quite comfortable, and the breakfast provided on a gorgeous deck at the main house was very filling. It was very relaxing waking up to a lush verdant paradise, and the sound of birds.


This was my first trip to Kenya. Would it be anything like the place of my birth? Would it feel the same? Would it be at all familiar? The entire time I spent in Kenya I felt a strange sense of disorientation - as though I should feel "at home" but wasn't. My frame of reference - South Africa. The birds - some of them were the same, and then there would be a flash of the exotic and the unknown.

The next morning my colleague and I were met by our driver (pre arranged) and we made the drive north to Nanyuki. Nanyuki is about 92km from Nairobi. It had been so dark when I had arrived the night before, I was eager to get my first glimpse of Nairobi and the surroundings.

My first view of Nairobi...


My first impressions of Nairobi ? A large teeming city, and vibe that reminded me of Johannesburg. 

The countryside as we headed north towards Nanyuki was verdant, and rolling. I was amazed to see vendors on the side of the roads selling seedlings. I finally managed to take a photo of these road side plant nurseries, but it was only outside Nanyuki that I got organized enough!


 The photo above was taken on the way out of Nanyuki, but it is a nice example of the road side nurseries.


The condition of the roads once outside of Nairobi on the way to Nanyuki were in very good condition. Better than the condition of some roads here in Colorado! We had just enough time to take a photo of this tourist attraction: - the marker for the Equator. We were actually at the equator... I could feel the intensity of the sun's rays; I could feel my skin (even with the highest SPF that I could find) burning.


What I didn't realize was in fact that Nanyuki was cooler than where we ended up going. Context is an amazing thing.

The drive to Nanyuki from Nairobi was about 3 - 4 hours. There were a number of vehicles on the road - and the ever present Matatu's (mini bus taxis) and motor bikes. In Kenya motorists drive on the left side of the road, like South Africa. Overtaking where ever there is "space" happens more often than not. Drivers need nerves of steel, and so do the front seat passengers!

We ended up spending four nights in Nanyuki. I stayed at the Falcon Heights hotel. It was very comfortable. I enjoyed the breakfasts, and the gardens. The security was good, and our driver met us at the hotel each day.

Here is one of the photos of the Falcon Heights gardens...


I loved watching the birds.

We visited the Ol Pejeta Conservancy.  This visit was part of work as we had a student class based there for a number of days. While we were there we managed to get a little bit of "sight seeing."

The Conservancy has all the big five, and it has the Jane Goodall Chimpanzee Sanctuary, and Barack the blind black rhino. On the way in to meet up with the student group that was already on site we managed to see this African Buffalo...


And a couple of Grants Gazelle (a species of Gazelle I have never seen before.)


We met up with the student group, travelled with them to an afternoon of rangeland assessment, and finished up with some lectures. I felt so envious of what these students were experiencing! After we said our good byes, we headed for the Jane Goodall Chimpanzee Rescue Sanctuary. On the way there we came across this herd of waterbuck and helmeted guinea fowls.


It was raining, and we could only see one chimp behind fence.


Occassionally we would see one chimp swinging and jumping around on one of the jungle gyms on the other side of the fence.  At another part of the Conservancy, we were lead to Barack, the blind black rhino and allowed to feed him. It was surprisingly satisfying. I could feel the hot breath of the rhino as it breathed all over my hand, and munched on the hay I gave it.


View of Mt Kenya (in the clouds) from an abbreviated game drive in Ol Pejeta Conservancy.


 Oddly enough I really battled to spot Mt Kenya. It is huge and quite impressive, although it spent most of the time hiding behind clouds.

One of the days we were at Nanyuki we accompanied one of professors to the School to meet with one of the students who was completing a scholarship provided by the Samburu Youth Education Fund. We met Isaiah, who showed us around the school. We met his teacher. Isaiah is head boy at the school. 

Part 2 to follow...

Part 2.



Bald Eagle, Boyd Lake

We have been discovering various places around Fort Collins that have good birding. We have been going to Boyd Lake (in Loveland) which is not far from where we live. We spotted this bald eagle sitting in a dead tree. He allowed is quite close. I took this picture with my little point 'n shoot.


Isn't he magnificant?

Mystery Goose

We are experiencing a wonderful extended Fall. Gorgeous golden days, warm and sunny. Last weekend we visited a small lake in Longmont call Jim Hamm Wildlife Area. The weekend before we had seen a great diversity of ducks - American Widgeons, Coots, Gadwells, Mallards, and Pied Billed Crebe.

This weekend we wanted to go back.

We went and saw a flock of Canadian Geese. Nothing to get too excited about. Except in amongst the Canadian geese was this mystery goose.


We think that what we are seeing is an immature blue morph Snow Goose. The other option is a Canadian Goose who has bred with a domestic goose.

Very mysterious.

Why I watch Birds and other things

Blogging has been light. I had a work related exam which I passed (phew!) and we have been getting prepared for Kevin's Artist in residency at Rocky Mountain National Park. I spent 5 stunning days up at Rocky staying with him. It was simply glorious to kick back and do nothing.
Of course all these events conspired to keep me from blogging and I missed a number of Blog Carnivals that I really, really wanted to participate in.

I love I and the Bird blog carnival. I missed its anniversary carnival. The theme: Why? Why do we bird watch?

I am busy browsing through the various entries. Check out the carnival round up at 10,000 Birds.

Reading through the wonderfully written posts got me thinking too. Why? Why do we do it? I grew up surrounded by birds, wild and caged. My family toyed with birdwatching. As a little girl I can remember being bored silly at a birding event. It was hot, I was getting bitten by mosquitos and I didn't get it. I thought the grown ups around me were a fussy lot. I just didn't think birds were that interesting.

It was only later on while I was studying for my law degree that I met a birder. Not a fussy type. But a real honest to goodness, no nonsense birder. I would spend long weekends with her and our group of friends. We would walk through the bush - I just followed. She would walk purposefully through the bush, armed with her binoculars. Through her I learnt about birds, and how fascinating they are. Through her we invented a game. (To annoy the fussy birding types.) We would learn the latin names of the birds, and only refer to those birds through their latin names. Many years later, all I remember is Haliaatus vocifer (I pronounced it "Halitosis wash haare".) Learning the latin names made us look at the groups and families of birds. Why are Fish Eagles in a different grouping to other Eagles (aquila)?

I found that the more I looked the more interested I became. Not only was I noticing birds, I could take the time to stop and observe behavior. Ducks feeding, finches singing, hawks scanning and hunting. I remember vividly the sound of a Martial Eagle tearing at its prey. The sound the birds make exactly one hour before sunrise.

Then I moved from South Africa to Colorado. Within the first month of my arrival I had bought a bird field guide. 5 years later Kevin and I always have our field guide and our binoculars no matter where we are going. We love to return to well known birding spots. But mostly it is about discovery, of learning new things.

Spring never fails to excite me. Where will the thrushes build their nests? Will it be the same as last year? Will the finches return to their urban pole apartment (inside the wash line support pole) ? Who will be new to my garden?

Walden, CO

Over Memorial Day we packed up our fishing rods, threw in binoculars and a bird book and decided to head up Walden way to do a spot of fishing. We were lucky to have our birdwatching gear with us, because our long weekend of fishing turned out to be a superb weekend of birding.

I got to see some birds that I have never seen before. The variety of birds that we saw in a single day was amazing.

Fishing was not so good but the birding certainly made up for it.

Walden is a small depressed town that is trying valiantly to attract tourism to Northern Colorado. You can see signs of this in the town itself - art galleries (only 2), a coffee shop that offers lattes, and a fancy restaurant and hunting lodge kind of hotel with very impressive decor, but glacially slow service. Kevin and I used the town as a base for sit down bathroom use. Both garages in town have very clean restrooms. We camped both Saturday and Sunday nights at the Delaney Butte Reservoirs. While there were people about (it was a holiday weekend afterall) our fellow campers were quiet serious fishermen types.

Just outside Walden are the Walden reservoirs. We were lucky because during the time we were there these reservoirs were teeming with bird life, and there was a strong sustaining wind that seemed to keep the birds from flying off. I watched as a pelican tried to fly against the wind, but just hung there like some enormous white battleship in the sky.

Apart from our usual assortment of ducks (Cinnamon Teals, Mallards, Canadian Geese, Western Grebes, Pied Billed Grebes, Coots, Eared Grebes, Gadwells, Canvasbacks, and a pair of Lesser Scaups) there were some birds that I had never seen before: they were very active and they spun like whirling tops in the water. What could they be?

They turned out to be Wilson's Phalaropes.

We saw dozens of them, feeding in the shallows, bobbing up and down with the water, and spinning like tops in the water. We also saw avocets, and gulls as well as one black headed gull that we identified as a Franklin's Gull.

All around us hundreds of swallows (two kinds, Cliff and Barn Swallows) battled the high winds, often settling on the road to rest.

We videoed a Forster's Tern fishing in the waters, and saw a pair of snowy egrets feeding in one of the reservoirs while a farmer's bull wallowed in the shallows.

We then photographed this bird which I think is a Willet... I am not too good at sandpipers...

Up at the Delaney Buttes Reservoirs we saw Pelicans, and Western Grebes who seemed to have more luck catching fish than any of the fisherman.


In the evening of our second night there we had an excellent sighting of a Long Eared Owl sitting on a fence in the fading light. We awoke each morning to the sound of birds: I could especially hear the yellow headed black birds, and song sparrows.

We explored the surrounding area - it is strangely beautiful; wild rolling hills of sage brush, and neat farms with green meadows and contented cattle. Overhead turkey vultures soared riding the thermals. Harriers skimmed the rolling land, hunting. We came across a Greater Sage Grouse crossing the road. It was completely unafraid, and didn't seem to move off very quickly.

There were storms popping up and we did see some rain. Kevin made us drive like bats out of hell to get to Walden as he had calculated where the rainbow would appear. We got to our spot in time. I was in charge of the umbrella (to protect the camera from getting wet) and we spent some time charging through sage brush to get the right spot. Then Kevin said, "We should be getting a rainbow about now." He pointed to where he expected the rainbow to be. I was, I admit, quite skeptical. And then, there it was, a rainbow over the town of Walden, made (it seemed) especially for me.

See the Sandhill Dancers - Wray, CO Greater Prairie Chicken Viewing Tours

This weekend we managed to get reservations for the Wray Greater Prairie Chicken Viewing Tour. We managed luckily to nab the last two reservations for the last tour of the season. We were extremely excited.
A couple of weeks back we did a DIY trip to see the Lesser Prairie Chickens near Campo/ Springfield CO. We wanted to experience something different, and also to have the opportunity of supporting a local economy.

The Viewing tours have been held for about 14 years sponsored by the Colorado Division of Wildlife, East Yuma County Historical Society, The Wray Museum and the Wray Chamber of Commerce.

The tours run typically May 24th through April 23 and 2 tours a weekend are offered: the basic tour package (orientation on Friday night with prairie chicken viewing on Saturday morning) and the Special Tour package (orientation on Saturday afternoon, and viewing on Sunday morning.) The special tour package includes: motel accommodation, orientation, tour of Wray, dinner, breakfast after the viewing, transportation to dinner, tour of Wray, transportation to and from the viewing site (which is on private land) and transportation to breakfast and back to Motel.

We did the special tour package. Cost $105.00 per person, double occupancy. Go here for more info.

For questions and reservations (the 2006 season is now closed) contact the Wray Chamber of Commerce at 970 332 3484

It takes about 3 - 4 hours to drive from Denver to Wray. Kevin and I arrived with plenty of time to spare. We explored the town and found some interesting houses and buildings to photograph.
This photograph was of an odd house that looked as if the bottom half had been cut off.

This is the Wray High school and Elementary School. You'll be forgiven for thinking this was a prison (Wray residents are used to that by now.) It is supposed to represent the rural life. I thought it looked like a factory.


We had to meet at the Wray Museum at 4pm. We assembled there, registered and browsed the Museum. Some monies from the viewing tour go to the museum. The Museum is small and modest but it is jammed packed with some fascinating local interest stuff - from old prom dresses to a collection of brands from farms in neighboring districts. It also has an exhibit of the Greater Prairie Chicken as well as historical exhibits of Beecher Island Battle ground, a trophy room and a country store exhibit.

This photograph was of a collection of ranch brands.

A school bus then collected us and drove through the town. The bus took us to Flirtation Point a point atop a large bluff that overlooks the town. It is really an unusual view:- one doesn't often think of prairie towns as being hilly.


This is Kevin at Flirtation Point.


This is a view from Flirtation Point.

We were also taken to Crider Ponds, a private facility with a man made pond and beautiful cotton woods. Apparently the area is open for hire for private functions such as parties, wedding receptions etc. We could spot some really large sunfish swimming around.
The School Bus parked at Crider Ponds.

Then it was onto the Laird School for a steak dinner, entertainment and orientation. The steak dinner was superb. Produce donated by local farmers. And the Laird Ladies did a superb job with the cooking. My lemon meringue pie was superb! And my steak was delicious - incredibly tender (and I don't often eat steak!)

During dinner we had live music from a local musician. I can't even pronounce the instruments he played, but the music was especially fitting to the occasion.

Here our musician poses for me.

Dessert!!! I had the Lemon Meringue pie - it was FAB!

After eating far too much we waddled into the small hall for our Prairie Chicken Orientation given by the local Colorado Division of Wildlife ranger. He explained that the Greater PC (Prairie Chicken) is doing well. Conservation efforts have resulted in a substantial increase in the population. This was done in cooperation with landowners. Birdwatcher/ tourism interest in the species resulted in many landowners gaining revenue (and incentive) in GPC watching. This incentive lead to habit conservation, and increased population.

The population is now considered sufficiently stable for hunting permits to be issued. Our ranger advised that over the years since hunting has been allowed, hunting permits and bird kills have actually gone down.

I found out some useful facts that I didn't know before:

- that the males hang around until June to remate with females who have lost their nests,
- That the characteristic male "booming" can be heard up to 5 miles away,
- that the dominant males inhabit the center of the lek, and the subordinate males the periphery
- that females will sometimes mate with a number of males from different (but close by) leks. This is to ensure egg fertility
- that the Ranger hasn't found a nesting female or eggs in the entire 15 some years that he has been studying the GPC - goes to show how clever they are at hiding themselves
- that there are 2 kinds of leks - ones that are on top of hills, and the other on a large flat plain. The lek where we ended up viewing the birds was of the latter variety - a large flat piece of prairie.

The Ranger also had a greater horned owl baby that he showed to us. What a gorgeous bird.

After orientation we were herded back into the school bus (my first ride in an American school bus) and taken back to our motel. We were instructed to congregate at 4:20 am in the parking lot of the motel.

We were so excited we barely got any sleep. I kept on waking up expecting it to be 4am.

We were fetched from the parking lot at 4:20 am sharp. The bus drive was a 20 minute drive to the lek. The lek is on private land, and I certainly could not recreate the trip there or back. The viewing hide is a large trailer, with two rows of benches with cushions and blankets to protect the bottoms and legs from the cold and wind. There is an electric light bulb, and a heater (for the extreme cold - but it makes a noise). Once we were all settled, with our gear, tripods etc, the side openings were raised slowly. It was dark but already we could hear the noise - the collective booming of 33 males.

When we visited the Lesser Prairie Chickens we had had a different experience. The sounds they made were different. They didn't "boom" as much as gurgle. With this viewing experience I finally understood what the books were talking about. It really is a boom. But it is a beautiful musical experience; one that vibrates the dark with a thrilling sound. No wonder the sound travels over 5 miles! I can now imagine why the females are drawn to such a wild and thrilling sound.

As the light came we could make out the dark shapes of the chickens: They strutted, and stamped, and boomed. They were quite aggressive, and they often were overcome with the need to take a feather or two away from a competitor.


This is a photo that Kevin took. It shows two males, one with his sacks fully distended.

With the light we saw their booming sacks - fully distended, their proud heads thrown forward and their ear tufts and tail feathers erect. There were some similarities between the two species; both puffed out their ear sacks, and both held a certain erect posture. Both species would occasionally break off to do the "blink and its over" contest, and both would leap unexpectedly into the air.

The first to blink loses...

The differences were a little more subtle. The sounds they made were different. The Greater Prairie Chickens had a deeper "boom" and their range of sounds were different. Kevin is working on striping some audio from our video of both species so we can compare the two.

The Lesser Chicken seemed to "moonwalk" more than the Greater. The Greater would do their stamping, but it didn't look like moonwalking.

We counted 33 males, and 1 female. The ranger told us that this was because most of the females had mated. About three weeks ago they had over 80 chickens at this particular lek. A prairie dog colony had appeared in the lek this season, and about 8 burrowing owls had taken up residence. The presence of 2 other species on the dancing grounds did not seem to worry the chickens at all. We had fun trying to track the female prairie chicken as she did her rounds. It was also fun to see the burrowing owls digging out their burrows, and sleepily blinking at the chickens.

Here is a 1 minute video of the Greater Prairie Chickens that we made. Lots of competition between displaying males! In the first 20 seconds you can plainly hear the booming sound. Kevin thinks it sounds more like "hooo... hooo".

Compare it with the following 1 minute video of the Lesser Prairie Chickens. Several females are the center of attention of the hyperactive males.

After a while the males quieted their dances. All the females were gone, and the males, distracted by hunger were starting to peck here and there in the dust. This was the sign. Quietly we reached out and closed the blind viewing doors. Then we quietly exited the trailer, and went into the bus. I was worried that this activity would scare the chickens away. No sign of any anxiety - not one chicken took off in fright. Astonishing.


Here is my wide angle view of the lek. As you can see it is flat as a pancake and you can just make out dark specks of the prairie chickens.


In this photo I try to capture both bus and trailer situated in the middle of nowhere.

Then it was onto a fabulous farm style breakfast at a local farm. We had scrambled eggs (eggs donated by a local farmer) pancakes and bacon. Coffee and juice was also provided. Again I managed to eat even more.

On the bus ride back to our motel I had to engage in some post breakfast napping.

All in all this was a $105 well spent. I highly recommend this tour. You have some great views of the Prairie Chickens, and if you want to engage in some other birdwatching our hosts are only too happy to oblige. One other great thing about spending the money on the tour is that it helps a small and marginal local economy.

A couple on the tour, Fred and Norma had come up from Holly CO. This couple had just started similar tours on their farm to a lek of the Lesser Prairie Chickens. They call themselves Arena Dust Tours. Go here for more information.

Lesser Prairie Chicken Weekend

This last weekend we did what we have been talking about doing for a year: we drove down to Campo (extreme south eastern Colorado) to view the Lesser Prairie Chickens perform their mating dances.
We left mid morning on Saturday. It takes about 6 hours to drive from Denver to Campo. We had gorgeous weather and we were determined to enjoy every second.

The lek is located on public lands, so there is no problem with access. The route in is well marked, but the signs are unobtrusive. I recommend that you scout the location in daylight because at night it may be difficult to find your way around. We arrived at the lek at about 4pm to scout the location. There are parking spots for about 4 vehicles, and there is a hide. You have to reserve the hide ahead of time at the local USFS office in Springfield. Apparently while the office is not open on a Saturday they are quite accommodating in making the key available (leaving key at motel etc etc.) Call 719 523 6591 to reserve hide.

We met 2 parties of out of state birders - all enthusiastic about the upcoming dancing.

Since we had time to spare we decided to drive around and see what we could see. There were lots of horned larks, meadowlarks, white crowned sparrows. We also saw wild turkey, and a female lesser prairie chicken.

We had planned to camp nearby (the rules state no camping within a mile of the lek, and we had found a great campsite well away from everyone.) But we decided since we had time we visit the lek and see what we could see. We were rewarded with the mating display of 2 visible males. They danced well into the fading light, their sounds floating into the prairie night. We waited well after dark for their sounds to fade away, before we too departed.

Even though we had already one sighting we decided to come back anyway the next morning.

I am glad we did. We set our alarm for 3:45am. We got to the lek at about 4:15am. We had decided to set up the back of our pick up topper as a "blind" and we wanted to get into position with all our tripods well before the time. We had a bit of a wait, but that was fine. We watched the brilliant stars in the sky.

We heard the prairie chickens before we saw them. They had already started to vocalize when a white van pulled up. Quickly about 4 people piled out and walked to the hide, where they seemed to spend forever before getting inside. I was starting to get anxious. We had heard that the sound of coyote could scare the birds away, and here were people standing around. Luckily they moved inside. We then had the most wonderful time watching through telescope, and binoculars these wonderful little birds displaying for us.

The male stretches himself out, and sticks out his "ears" and tail feathers. Behind his ears he has two sacks that he puffs up. He then holds himself in an uncomfortable position while "Moon walking" across the grass. He stops, vibrates his wing feathers, and throwing his head forward, he makes his call. The male rivals seem to ignore each other for the most part. They seem more interested in enticing the females. In a sudden flurry of activity a pair of males will (seemingly) suddenly line themselves up, and facing each other, eyeball to eyeball they stare at each other. They seemed to me to be having a blinking contest;- the first to blink loses. Or, perhaps they are comparing the size of their tail feathers. In any event, what seems confusing to us, must make sense to the prairie chickens.

The males are sent into greater, and higher frenzies of activity if a female should happen to walk toward them. Their calls (a mixture of clucks, and liquid gurgling like calls) become more intense. Their efforts more frantic.

In the midst of all this activity another vehicle arrived - this time USFS enforcement. (I was concerned that this newest arrival would scare the birds, but luckily they did not.)

The females seem shy, coy almost. Occasionally a male will launch himself into a vertical leap into the air. I watched one male on the periphery whose leaps did not seem so good. I tried to imagine if I was a female prairie chicken what I would like. It was enough to give me a headache. (I recommend you do not try it.)

The prairie chickens were still displaying when we were astonished to see people leave the blind. The birds immediately stopped vocalizing and displaying and took off in fright. We were astonished. Couldn't these people have waited another 20 minutes? What was so urgent that they had to leave at that very moment?

The USFS Ranger did speak to the driver of the mini van. But when the mini van left, Kevin decided to talk to the ranger to see what had happened. We found out that the mini van was a tour group from a well known birding tour group. We also were astonished to find out that the viewing guidelines were basically unenforceable, and that the ranger had simply asked to see the driver's permit.

I plan to write to both the USFS and the Tour group.

UPDATE: I have learnt that this is becoming an increasing problem on public lands - tour groups disregard the viewing guidelines, and this impacts both the viewing enjoyment of others, and the birds themselves. I have found out that similar behavior has been observed by tour groups visiting this lek in past seasons, and it has been reported that the numbers of birds now found displaying at the lek have decreased in numbers.

NOTE: The Lesser Prairie Chicken is not an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act. USFWS were petitioned in 1995 to list this species. But the petition was declined. Check out this link here. and check out this link here at the Audubon.

On the way out we saw a pair of Swainson hawks who were quite calm and let us approach them. We also saw a Peregrine Falcon with a lizard. He was more skittish, but it was wonderful to watch him tear at his prey.