Two birds in the bush

Kenya has about 1300 species of birds, probably slight in excess of the number of species of birds in India. I’d known about this for a while. During my preparation for the trip I tried to order a field guide but found it would be delivered long after our scheduled departure. As a result, we landed in Nairobi without any preparation, fearing that most birds we saw would be new and unidentifiable.

Standing in the kitchen of the Mother of Niece Tatu, I heard a chirping and twittering. I looked out and a nearby tree seemed to be full of motion. MONT said, “That tree is full of nests.” The Family went off to unpack her binoculars while I picked up my camera. The kitchen looked out on an open green space bounded by trees below several apartments, with a low house set in the middle of a clearing. Perfect terrain for urban bird-watching. One of the first birds I saw was a small sparrow sized bird on the roof of the house below us (featured photo). I’d never seen anything like this before.

We saw it in close association with a red bird of similar size. “Male and female”, was The Family’s guess. We saw a little brown on the back of the bird, and the noticeably white eyes. Later we would find that the two were indeed the male and female of the Red-billed firefinch (Lagonosticta senegala), also called the Somali firefinch. It is a rather common bird, whose habitat stretches east-west across sub-Saharan Africa and in a very wide band down the east coast of Africa all the way to South Africa. Although it is so common across Africa, and its call is part of the soundscape of the continent, this was a lifer for us, since it is not found outside of Africa.

The tree had a very large number of a noisy brown long-tailed bird with a very stylish brown crest. We could see them flitting through the leaves without settling into an exposed branch. I managed to take a few shots which could together give me a picture of the whole bird. Later I would find that it was another very common bird of Africa, the Speckled mousebird (Colius striatus). We were excited by these two lifers although they happen to be among the commonest birds of East Africa, and in larger parts of the continent.

But Father of Niece Tatu had broken out a pack of Tusker’s Malt, and we left the birding to go on to another lifer.

Matbronze gallery and cafe

I’d heard about Nairobi’s cafes from Niece Tatu, “Fabulous.” Reviews I’d seen on the web gave me a similar impression. The Mother of Niece Tatu and the Father of Niece Tatu (I adopt the respectful Swahili way of referring to them) had our day chalked out for us when they picked us up from the airport. After a stop to see giraffes we were whisked off to the nearby Matbronze Gallery.

The bronze pieces are cast in a foundry in the grounds of the gallery by local artists. I’d read that the gallery and foundry were started in 1987 by artist Denis Mathews, but the work has been carried on by younger Kenyan artists after his death in 1997. The huge bronze head of an elephant, balanced on its trunk, which you see at the edge of the parking area is probably one of the pieces by Mathews. The only human bronze I saw was the bust of the conservationist Mervyn Cowie holding a pair of binoculars under a stylized bronze acacia. We walked through the gallery admiring the beautiful pieces. Some of the ones which I liked best were the delicate ones of birds perched on stalks of bronze grass, or pecking at de3lciate bronze flowers. The beautiful texturing of the bronze and the subtle colours imparted by mild oxidizing were wonderful devices. I wish I’d not put off visiting the foundry, because our tight schedule meant that we never went back. One result is that I’ve fallen, inadvertently, into the colonial trap of mentioning only the founder of the gallery and not the artists who sustain it now.

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It was well past our lunch time in Mumbai, but the odd breakfasts (yes, in plural) that we had eaten had left us feeling full. So we agreed with FONT that coffee and cake would be good. The Family’s cappuccino (featured photo) came with the signature lion’s pawprint of the gallery done in cocoa; you can always recognize the lion by its claw. The chocolate brownie was dense and moist, but the cake was taken, so to say, by the oatmeal cookies. I’m afraid I forgot to take a photo of these until I’d polished off half a plate.

The beautifully preserved skull of an immense tusker had caught my eye as we sipped our coffees. When we got up to leave, I threaded my way through the tables on to the lawn where it was placed. That’s the photo you see above. Kenya was the first country to destroy seized stocks of illegal ivory in 1989. It is not illegal to own ivory which was obtained before the 1973 ban on elephant hunting. So I guess this skull predates the ban. We were to hear more about elephant conservation and the ivory ban in the coming days, but for now, we were in the hands of MONT and FONT, who had planned a wonderful day for us.

Giraffe

The first thing we did in Nairobi was to go off to the Giraffe Center in the suburb of Langata. I’d read about this effort to breed the critically endangered Rothschild’s giraffe and reintroduce it into the wild. We didn’t have the time to visit Lake Nakuru or other places where there is an established population of this giraffe species, so visiting the center was the only way we were going to be able to see this rare animal. For a wildlife enthusiast like The Family, this counts as a failure. We drove through a suburb full of sprawling colonial era bungalows, hidden behind tall walls surrounding immense gardens. The colonial era ranches were as large as some cities. That era’s greed for land is at the root of the crisis which the Giraffe Center tries to mitigate.

The Giraffe Center is open from 9 in the morning to 5 in the evening. A busload of school children was getting down in a disciplined queue as we entered. You can buy a paper bag full of chips of acacia branches to feed to the giraffes if you wish. I decided to keep my hands on the camera, as The Family gingerly fed the beasts. A tall animal dipped its head down to pick up the pieces of branches from her hand with its prehensile lips. I had expected its shoulders to be higher than her head, but I hadn’t realized that a giraffe’s lip is a grasping organ! Their really long tongues are their main organ for grasping and manipulation, but the lip also seems to be able to grasp quite delicately.

I’d been primed by my reading to look closely at the pattern on these giraffes. The irregular dark patches could be roughly six, or five, or four sided. But the colour was darker towards the center than at the edge. The background was lighter, but quite a dark shade of beige at places. But most distinctive, I thought, were the “white socks”. The pattern on its hide did not continue all the way down the legs, so the giraffes looked like they were wearing socks. We climbed up to a feeding balcony which was about two meters up. The necks of the giraffes easily came up here, but not much higher. So I guess Rothschild’s giraffes are between 2.5 and 3 meters tall.

The giraffe has its heart in the right place, protected by its rib cage. This must be a huge and muscular organ, since it needs to pump blood up a couple of meters to the animal’s head. I watched all the interesting motions that a giraffe makes: it walks with both front and back legs on the same side of its body moving forward together. This is quite unlike a cow’s gait, for example. A cow moves front and back legs on opposite sides of its body forward together. I watched with interest how a giraffe sits and gets up. This did not look very different from the way a cow gets up from a sitting position. The most interesting thing is the way it dips its head to eat or drink. You would think that excess blood pressure needed to pump its blood up to the maximum height of its stretched head would be enough to burst its arteries when it lowers its head. But there must be something special about its circulatory system that prevents this pressure overload. Such an amazing creature!

Instant winter

When I booked tickets to Nairobi on a flight which left Mumbai before 6 in the morning, I was looking forward to arriving at 10 AM, with a whole exciting day in front of us. I’d forgotten that, this being an international flight, we would have to be awake half the night. As it was, we finished the formalities quickly and had a very early breakfast in the lounge before boarding. My first priority was to catch up on sleep. When I woke up we were halfway through the flight. The map told me that we were flying over the Carlsberg ridge. This is one of the more active zones on the earth’s crust, the border where the Indian and Somali continental plates are pulling apart. This geological feature is named after the brewery which financed the expedition which discovered the ridge. What a lovely and positive piece of advertisement; I promised to raise a glass of their brew to cheer their commitment to science. I peered across the still sleeping figure of The Family. The sea looked pretty calm.

A little later we were over Africa. A whole new continent! We’d sighted land a little south of Mogadishu. I gazed down at the parallel rows of clouds which you see in the photo above. I’d never seen this kind of weather before. I was to find later that these so-called cloud streets are parallel to the direction of the wind. So the cloud street showed me that a cool wind was blowing in from the sea as Somaliland heated up. The land below us remained brown as we passed over the equator. Another lifetime achievement for us; this was our first time in the southern hemisphere. In an instant we’d passed from summer to winter!

Everything would be new and different (even the style of artwork on the sachets of salt and pepper given by the airline). We peered out of windows eagerly as we landed in Nairobi. The landscape was brown and dry, as it had been as we flew over Somalia and inland to Kenya. “Karibu”, one of security men said in welcome as he showed us which way to go. The Family and I looked at the windows near the immigration queue; zebras and acacia trees, lions and elephants were painted on them. We would see them soon enough. I pulled a jacket over my t-shirt. It was colder than a winter’s day in Mumbai.