Gangs of Vulturine Guineafowl roam the dry bush of Samburu and Tsavo. Photo: Steve Rooke
The vast expanses of East Africa have long been part of every traveller’s dreams, a land of rolling grasslands dotted with acacia trees, snow-capped mountain rising above the limitless horizons, and riverine forests harbouring colourful birds and troops of monkeys. Of course the large mammals of the East African plains are readily summoned to mind, and it is a wonderful fact that by visiting Kenya it is still possible to see huge concentrations of animals along with, not incidentally, 500 or more species of birds.
November is the time for Palearctic migrants, which pass through in vast numbers on their southbound passage. Our tour is designed to take full advantage of this annual phenomenon. Of course we won’t overlook the showy residents, either, and we’ll spend most of our time seeking out the area’s many specialities.
Day 1: Our tour begins this evening in Nairobi. Night near Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.
Day 2: We’ll fly this morning directly to Samburu/Buffalo Springs National Reserve for a three night stay; this gives us an instant immersion into the natural wonders of East Africa. Night in Buffalo Springs National Reserve.
Days 3-4: The combined reserves contain more than 100 square miles of very scenic rugged, arid terrain, bisected by a ten-mile stretch of intermittently flowing water, the Uaso Nyiro River. Dense vegetation fringes the river and shelters a terrific number of both birds and mammals. The riverine oasis at Samburu is alive with birds. Riparian specialties include African Bare-eyed Thrush, Northern Brownbul, Northern Puffback, Black-bellied Sunbird, and Black-necked Weaver. Away from the river near-desert conditions prevail, and yet birds are still surprisingly abundant. Typical bush species conspicuous here include Somali Ostrich, Somali Courser, Pygmy Falcon, Buff-crested Bustard, Crested Francolin, White-bellied Go-away-bird, Blue-naped and White-headed Mousebirds, Somali Bee-eater, Red-billed, Eastern Yellow-billed, and Von der Decken’s Hornbills, Namaqua Dove, Nubian Woodpecker, Pink-breasted Lark, Abyssinian Scimitarbill, Taita Fiscal, Rufous Chatterer, Hunter’s and Kenya Violet-backed Sunbirds, Donaldson-Smith’s Sparrow-Weaver, and Black-capped Social-Weaver. Scarcer species we hope to find include Lichtenstein’s and Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse, Somali Tit, Yellow-vented Eremomela, Magpie, Fischer’s, and Golden-breasted Starlings, Shining Sunbird, and the startling Golden Pipit. Large raptors are diverse and conspicuous in the bush, including the graceful Bateleur and the massive Martial Eagle. Special mammals of Buffalo Springs/Samburu are the endangered Grevy’s Zebra, Beisa Oryx, Reticulated Giraffe, Gerenuk, Cheetah, and Leopard. Also, we’ll watch for parties of Dwarf mongooses foraging among the ground squirrels and some good-sized Crocodiles in the River. Nights in Buffalo Springs National Reserve.
Day 5: After a final morning in the land of the proud and elegant Samburu people, we’ll drive to Mountain Lodge on the slopes of Mt. Kenya. Located in the heart of Mount Kenya National Park, the lodge is a superb place, and the rooftop and private balconies overlooking a water hole are always entertaining. Groups of Silvery-cheeked Hornbills and Bronze-naped Pigeons are often common, and Crowned Eagle is regularly seen soaring over the trees. From the roof of the lodge we’ll look for Moustached Green Tinkerbird, Waller’s Starling, Rueppell’s Robin-Chat, White-starred Forest-Robin, Mountain Greenbul, Grey-headed Negro-finch, and White-browed Crombec, along with many other species. After dark, the waterhole attracts a variety of mammals, among them African Buffalo, Bushbuck, and the occasional Bush Pig or Giant Forest Hog. Even Black Rhinoceros sometimes arrive to drink, and groups of Elephant arrive throughout the night. Large Spotted Genet sometimes visits a floodlit feeding station, and if we’re lucky, a Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl will be in residence. Night at Mountain Lodge.
Day 6: After another early morning at Mountain Lodge, we’ll drive across the plateau, with birding stops en route to Lake Nakuru National Park. As we cross the plains we will be on the lookout for upland species such as Long-tailed, Jackson’s and Red-collared Widowbird, Northern Anteater Chat, Capped Wheatear and if we are lucky Greater Kestrel. At a quarry we will look for a Mackinder’s Eagle Owl that is sometimes in residence, having our picnic lunch along a mountain stream in part of the Aberdare Forest. After lunch we’ll continue on to Lake Nakuru dropping down in a series of steps to the floor of the Great Rift Valley. Night in Lake Nakuru National Park.
Day 7: We’ll spend the whole day birding around the lake, world-famous for its vast flocks of flamingos and its wealth of waterbirds that can be present when they are not away breeding following good rains. The acacia woodland around the lake is a fine example of this habitat, and we’ll look for such species as Narina Trogon, Red-throated Wryneck, Arrow-marked Babbler, and Red-headed Weaver. Hildebrandt’s Francolins wander the shaded tracks, and shy Tambourine Doves scuttle off the road into the undergrowth. There is a good population of White Rhinoceros at Nakuru, and we’ll likely see one or more of these magnificent beasts grazing along the lakeshore. Water levels at the lake vary greatly, but under normal conditions dense flocks of thousands of Lesser Flamingos feed in the shallows, while doughnut-shaped rings of White Pelicans are scattered across the lake. This memorable sight is surely one of the natural wonders of the world. Night in Lake Nakuru National Park.
Day 8: We’ll leave Lake Nakuru this morning and drive north up the Great Rift Valley. We’ll look for Dark Chanting-Goshawk and Silverbird along the way and before long we’ll arrive at Lake Baringo. Night at Lake Baringo.
Day 9: Before breakfast we’ll visit cliffs near our lodge where Mocking Cliff Chats nest, and in the scrub along the escarpment’s edge we’ll look for Hemprich’s, Jackson’s, and Yellow-billed Hornbills, Brown-tailed Rock-Chat, and Bristle-crowned Starling. This is also a regular nesting site for a pair of Verreaux’s Eagles. The rest of the morning will be spent exploring the bird-rich habitats around Lake Baringo. Night at Lake Baringo.
Day 10: After a pre-breakfast walk we’ll drive across the Rift looking for local species such as White-crested Turaco flashing crimson wings, diminutive Western Black-headed Batis, attractive Silverbird and rather cryptic Chestnut-crowned Sparrow-Weaver. We will have our picnic lunch at a suitable birdy location before climbing out of the Rift and continuing westwards. Crossing the high grasslands near Iten, we’ll explore a couple of marshy areas and after passing through the town of Eldoret carry on to Rondo Retreat set inside Kakamega Forest. Night at Rondo Retreat.
Day 11: Nearly eighty species in Kakamega and the nearby Nandi Forest occur nowhere else in Kenya, as this is the extreme western extremity of the great Congo basin rainforest. Breakfast may be interrupted as Rondo has such a wealth of species including Great Blue Turacos which can be breeding in a large tree on the front lawn and White-spotted Flufftails live by the fishponds. Monkeys of three species live around the garden as well, Guereza Colobus, Red-tailed and Blue. Even with just one full day here, we’ll make a good dent in the list. Skulkers such as White-tailed Ant-Thrush, Equatorial Akalat and four species of Illadopsisrequire extra effort as they hide in the deep and darkest recesses of the scrub. Other species are flamboyant and easily seen, including White-headed Wood-Hoopoe, Dark-backed and Black-billed Weavers and Green, Green-throated and Green-headed Sunbirds, along with a number of more somberly colored but no less interesting species. We’ll probably have a picnic lunch to make the most of our day here. Night at Rondo Retreat.
Day 12: After a final morning in Kakamega continuing our search for trogons to hylias and from bee-eaters to honeyguides, we’ll take our picnic lunch and head for the Busia grasslands along the border with Uganda. Leaving Kakamega, we’ll stop at a bridge that is the only known Kenyan site for Rock Pratincole; we may also find glowing rainbow- colored Red-chested Sunbirds and bright Yellow-backed Weavers here, and perhaps a Yellow-shouldered or Fan-tailed Widowbird. Continuing to the relict scrub and grasslands, we’ll look for such local species as Senegal Coucal, Blue-breasted Bee-eater, Red-headed Lovebird, Swamp Nightjar, Green Crombec, Compact Weaver and the skulking Locust Finch. Night in Busia.
Day 13: This morning we’ll search the Busia grasslands for species we might not have found the day before. Hoped-for species include Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird, Speckle-breasted Woodpecker, Marsh Tchagra, Red-shouldered Cuckoo-shrike, Yellow-throated (Greenbul) Leaflove, Purple Starling, Olive-bellied and Copper Sunbirds, Black-winged and Black Bishops, Marsh Widowbird, Brown Twinspot, Bar-breasted Firefinch and Fawn-bellied Waxbill. After lunch we’ll descend to Kisumu for our first look at the birds of Lake Victoria. Night at Dunga Point, Kisumu.
Day 14: In the morning we’ll search the nearby papyrus swamp and lake edge for Open-billed Stork, African Hobby, Western Banded Snake-Eagle, Eastern Gray Plantain-eater, Black-billed Barbet, Black-headed and Papyrus Gonoleks, Black-lored Babbler, Carruthers’s Cisticola, White-winged and Greater Swamp Warblers, Swamp Flycatcher, Slender-billed and Northern Brown-throated Weavers, and Papyrus Canary. In the afternoon we’ll drive to the Mara National Reserve. Night in the western Mara.
Day 15: In some respects, the Mara is the most spectacular part of the trip, with its long views over flat-topped acacias and grassy plains filled with animals. We’ll spend the days driving in the reserve and should see most of the plains species for which East Africa is famous: Lion, Cheetah, Wildebeest, Hartebeest, Topi, Thompson’s and Grant’s gazelles, and many others. Birdwatching here will be delightful, and highlights should include Maasai Ostrich, Temminck’s Courser, Yellow-throated Sandgrouse, and, with luck, Black-bellied Bustard. Night in the western Mara.
Day 16: After another morning in the western Mara, we’ll drive across the reserve to Siana Springs Lodge. Here we’ll have a rare opportunity for a nighttime game-and-bird excursion, and we have a chance of meeting some of the more rarely seen nocturnal mammals such as Civet, Porcupine, or White-tailed Mongoose. Birds could include Dusky, Slender-tailed and Square-tailed Nightjars, Spotted Thick-knee, and Heuglin’s Courser. Night at Siana Springs Lodge.
Day 17: This morning before breakfast we’ll visit a nearby valley, home to several species that are on the edge of their ranges in this part of Kenya. The attractive pied Magpie Shrike with its liquid call is here, as well as the diminutive Tabora Cisticola. Other species include African Scimitarbill, Flappet Lark, Red-throated Tit, and the colorful Green-winged Pytilia. This afternoon we’ll farewell our reliable driver who has been escorting us for the whole of the adventure and fly back to Nairobi, where we will have time to prepare for a final dinner before catching our flights home. Those staying for the extension will have a night at our hotel near the Nairobi airport.
Days 18-19: After breakfast on Day 18 we’ll drive to Tsavo National Park, where we’ll spend two nights at Ngulia Lodge, situated on a dramatic escarpment overlooking the vast expanse of Tsavo stretching out below. The lodge has become famous for the huge numbers of European and Asian migrants that pass through on their way south, and in November, we might find the bushes alive with Thrush Nightingales, Marsh Warblers, and Isabelline Shrikes, while careful searching usually reveals splendid male White-throated Robins and Barred, River, Olive-tree, Upcher’s, Olivaceous, and the enigmatic Basra Reed Warblers. Ngulia is also a great place for nightbirds, and during the day European Nightjars roost on the beams in the open-fronted restaurant before joining Plain, Dusky, and Donaldson-Smith’s Nightjars in hawking insects around the lodge. Away from the lodge, large migrating flocks of European Rollers can sometimes be found, often with one sitting on every bush, and the giant baobab trees can hold resting parties of Amur Falcons, then there is also a vast assortment of resident species, many of which will be familiar sights from Samburu. Nights at Ngulia Safari Lodge.
Day 20: After a final morning around Ngulia, we’ll return to Nairobi in time for a final dinner and our flights home.
Updated: 17 November 2020