Cleaning Crew

When you have a game reserve with almost one and a half million wildebeest and nearly a thousand lions, you should expect that some of the antelopes die every day. The cleaning crew will be seen on the grasslands of Maasai Mara fairly often. The featured photo shows a constant member of the work gang: the Marabou stork. I first saw one in Nairobi; a large number of them gather in the neighbourhood of the National Stadium, but I couldn’t get a good photo in the traffic. My next sighting was in Amboseli, but at a distance, through a heat haze which made my photo a little blurred. It was only here that I got my first good photo of the Marabou stork. They are perhaps the only species of birds which completely lack a voice box.

The cleaning crew sat on a berm, and below them in the ditch was the remains of the wildebeest they were cleaning up. How did it die? It could have been chased into this place by a predator, where the high wall on one side did not allow it to escape. It could have been killed elsewhere and dragged here. Or it could have fallen down and broken its neck. The Family speculated that it could also have had a heart attack. It is unlikely that we would ever find out. We wouldn’t even have noticed it if we hadn’t spotted the cleaners sitting there.

The crew contained a few white-backed vultures (Gyps africanus). This was our first view of this critically endangered species. You can tell them from the back by the white wings covering a darker body. The face is uniformly black, and lacks any yellow in the beak. You can see a couple very clearly in the group photo of the cleaning crew. Off on one side, a large vulture examined me as I took its photo. It turned out to be another critically endangered species, the Rüppell’s griffon vulture (Gyps rueppellii), one of the most remarkable fliers among birds. We’d met some earlier in the morning in another part of the reserve.

Two more birds

On our way out for a second drive in the morning, the first thing we saw was a Cape buffalo, one of the fearsome five out of hunters’ legends from the late 19th century. It stood placidly munching its cud, and I wondered about its fierce reputation. I was to see it in action before the day was out. It was only later that I realized that the shot that I took for the record (below) had my only shot of a yellow–billed oxpecker (Buphagus africanus). What a miss! I should have looked more carefully and taken a close up of the bird.

Almost immediately I looked down at the grass and saw another bird. I took a shot, but could not identify it until a very experienced birder told me it was a pipit. Then the field guide told me that it was the African pipit (also called the grassland pipit, Anthus cinnamomeus). It turns out to be the most common pipit of East Africa, and therefore continues my unbroken stream of spotting only the commonest of African birds.

Thick-knees and Geese

We’d left the lodge when it was still dark, and now we’d spent about three hours on the drive. I was beginning to feel hungry. There was some trail mix and some fruits to keep us going for a while, so I didn’t mind when we stopped at a little pool of water to look for birds. There must be many such pools around, because this wasn’t thickly populated. The first one I spotted had noticeably long legs and knobby knees. A thick-knee clearly. It turned out to be the water thick-knee (Burhinus vermiculatus) We were lucky to see this nocturnal bird, perhaps it was half asleep, or just a little late in seeking cover. Little seems to be known about this bird except that we were in one of its breeding ranges.

A fixture at all water bodies in the Maasai Mara, at least in this season, is the Egyptian goose (Alopochen aegyptiaca). We saw a pair here. This was the closest I ever got to one, and got to take this very satisfying photo which shows that little fleck of orange on its beak.

But the most intriguing sighting was this little bird, standing on what could be its nest. I haven’t yet managed to identify it, and any help would be highly appreciated. Could it be the Golden pipit? It has been seen before in the Mara triangle. But this one lacked a crest and the black neck markings of the male. The photos I have seen of the female are very drab, not the bright yellow that it looks here.

Black-bellied bustard

Everyone knows that bird watchers get up before the crack of dawn. This morning yielded a lot of sightings of birds, even though we were not really in the Maasai Mara for its birds. I asked Stephen, our guide, to stop when I saw some motion in the grass next to the road. A long legged bird was hurrying away from us at a comically slow speed. The legs and the long neck reminded me of a bustard. There was only one African bustard whose name I could recall. But both the male and the female of the Kori bustard have a crest. This was very clearly without one.

When it judged that it was sufficiently far away, it stopped and examined us, giving me another opportunity to take photos. I could later use the photos to identify it as a female of the black-bellied bustard (Lissotis melanogaster). The family and I scanned the neighbourhood for another of these birds, but did not see one. We had come across this bird in the middle of its breeding season, so I guess this was a little unusual. I was seeing a lot of new birds, but they were all fairly common in Africa. This one is classed as being of least concern by IUCN, because it is widespread across sun-Saharan Africa and fairly far south down the east coast.

Topi and dove

I’d seen a lone topi (Damaliscus lunatus) in passing the previous day as we drove into Maasai Mara. Now on this early morning drive I saw one in the beautiful light. The reddish brown coat, the purple patch over the hind quarters, a mask-like colouring on the face, and the bands of dark over the thighs are very distinctive. The hugely fragmented habitat of the Topi has led to drastic reductions in their numbers. There are several subspecies, and some of them are classed as vulnerable. I would see more of them over the day.

I hadn’t spotted many doves in Kenya, so when I saw this ring-necked dove (Streptopilia capicola) I quickly took a photo. I confused it with the Eurasian collared-dove, but a quick look at the field guide told me that the collared-dove is not found in Africa. The beady black eyes distinguish it from other collared doves of Africa. It has a large range, being found in South and East Africa, and their numbers are actually on the increase. Nevertheless, this was my first view of this increasingly common African bird.

Gnus and Oxpeckers

The morning light was now superb: the kind where even a stained trash can looks wonderful. And instead of such mundane subjects I had before me a bunch of wildebeest, intent on feeding. Wildebeest and zebras can feed together because the picky wildebeest takes only the leaves of grass, whereas zebras don’t minding picking up the less nutritious sheath and stem. This pickiness is also the reason why wildebeest have to keep moving with the seasons.

What was that on the back of one of the gnus? I cast about for the name; yes, an Oxpecker. My night of reading was coming in handy. There were two varieties and I had to figure out which. The beasts were far away, and I had no tripod. I would have to zoom out as much as I could with my pre-breakfast shakiness. As I took the photo, The Family had already noted the round yellow patch around the eyes: this was the red-billed Oxpecker (Buphagus erythrorhynchus). Although it has been noticed pecking at open wounds on large mammals, its diet is almost completely made up of insects. Under controlled conditions it has been seen to be extremely efficient at keeping cattle free of ticks. We would later see the yellow-billed Oxpecker (Buphagus africanus). These two species are found in large parts of sub-Saharan Africa down to Zambia. The yellow-billed live largely in West Africa, and the ones we saw are perhaps among the easternmost part of the population.

Half a day in the Mara triangle

A bend in the river Mara lay a little way down from the hotel that we were in. This part of the Maasai Mara Game Reserve was called the Mara Triangle, and lay pretty far from the main entrance to the reserve. We arrived in the middle of the afternoon, and left for a game drive soon after lunch.

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Although we spent a long time waiting for wildebeest to cross the river, an iconic sight, we managed to see quite a variety of wildlife that afternoon. The slideshow above has a selection of what we saw: from butterflies to lions.

Two more residents of Nairobi

Nursing a morning cuppa in MONT’s kitchen I heard much chattering outside the window. I would be a very bad naturalist, because I paid no attention to it. The Family looked out and was instantly excited. I ran for my camera and caught the featured photo. Finally with a field guide at hand I sat down to identify it. Perhaps an oriole? No, it didn’t fit. A field guide with almost 1400 entries is no good unless you have some idea of what you are looking at. I flipped through it looking for all black and yellow birds and finally landed up with the weavers. Could it be one of the five different subspecies of Baglafecht weaver? The males and females have different but equally bright colours, so I had to be careful. It was; a male Ploceus baglafecht reichenowi. That was my first successful field identification in Kenya.

In the meanwhile, another bird had arrived in the same palm tree outside MONT’s kitchen. I snapped off a couple of photos thinking it was a speckled mouse bird. But it wasn’t. The crest was much paler. I jumped to the conclusion that it was the rarer white headed mousebird. The Family was not slow to point out that this must be wrong, because it doesn’t have the long tail that mousebirds always do. Now it required a careful page by page look through the book. I couldn’t identify it. The Family tried a second trawl, and came up empty too. Now we are waiting for a kind reader to help us with an id.

[One possibility that more than one birder suggested is that this is a mousebird which lost its tail to a predator.]

Two more birds in hand

As Anthony stopped just inside the gate of Amboseli national park to scan the surroundings, Mother of Niece Tatu pointed out a bird on the ground. The cryptic colouring made it hard to spot if it stood still. I saw it next and pointed out the heap of dung next to it as a guide to The Family. It was our first clue that MONT was a natural birder. This looked like a courser, and we admired the beautiful bird with the two distinctive rings around the neck which give it its name. Later, when I’d identified it as a double-banded courser (Smutsornis africanus) I found that it was common and widespread in Eastern and Southern Africa. It seems that in South Africa it is considered as a little bit of a pest. Population control methods have been to identify its main food, the harvester termite, and to kill it with a specific pesticide. We didn’t see termite mounds in Amboseli, so I wonder whether the Kenya-Tanzania population feeds differently.

The white-bellied go-away-bird (Corythaixoides leucogaster or Criniferoides leucogaster) was a lifer for which we had no referents. The Family and I saw it from our grand tent in Amboseli, and wondered what it was. “Maybe a bulbul,” ventured The Family. It turns out to belong to a clade of birds called banana eaters (Musophagidae), which we have never seen in India. The long crest together with the white belly, and the long pointed tail with a white stripe across the inside make it easy to identify (once you have a field guide). It is widespread and common in East Africa, but we didn’t see it again.

Five big ones

When you use the words five and big together in the context of East African safaris, people think you are going to talk about The Big Five: the elephant, the leopard, the lion, the rhino and the Cape buffalo. That’s not really what I want to show you here. Instead I want to introduce you to five things in Amboseli national park that came as surprises (and very pleasant ones) because I had no idea that I would see them. In fact, until Anthony pointed out a East African black-backed jackal (Canis mesomelas) I didn’t even know of this creature. The sight of it running through the grassland with a stolen part of a kill, an antelope’s hindquarters, was an exciting sight. I met this species later, for a much better sighting, but it wasn’t as thrilling as this.

Seeing an Egyptian goose (Alopochen aegyptiaca) for the first time also counts among my big memories of Amboseli. I should have been aware of this species, it is after all visible in ancient Egyptian artwork. For a moment I thought I was looking at a ruddy shelduck, but Anthony gave the correct identification immediately. The red eye and the patch around it is a dead giveaway.

The huge dust devils which spring up through the national park in this season also count as a big surprise. I’d noticed little whirligigs of dust spin across the plains for a while, but this spout was amazing. I’d read about the dust, and was prepared with a breathing mask and lots of antihistamines. But nothing had prepared me for these incredible tall devils.

Meeting the iridescent glossy ibis (Plegadis falcinellus) definitely counts among the big ones. Not because it was a lifer, but because it was like meeting an old friend for the first time in a decade on a street car halfway across the world. This was something I knew, but hadn’t given much thought to. The fact is that it is one of the most widely distributed of Ibis species.

The Cape buffalo (Syncerus caffer) is definitely one of the Big Five, no matter which way you think of it. I thought it surprising that it looked so much like an Indian water buffalo. But then I began to notice differences: its more robust build, and the way its horns meet at the center of the forehead. Fortunately I never got to test the bad temperament which has led to its genes never being mixed into domestic bovines.