Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Nairobi National Park

The political scientist and historian Timothy Garton Ash once memorably described all British foreign policy since 1945 as "footnotes to Churchill". For me, all my birding in East Africa has been footnotes to Nairobi National Park.

A Long-crested Eagle (Lophaetus occipitalis) in Nairobi National Park last Saturday. 
It was here, back in 2000, that I had my first ever experience of African birding. I was taking a group of British MPs around Central Africa - Rwanda, Burundi, DRC - and like most people we had routed ourselves through Nairobi because that's where all the NGOs are headquartered for their operations in this part of the world (this was all before I joined the dark side and became a diplomat). I was blown away. Even without my binoculars, and with only the antediluvian Ber van Perlo guide to the Birds of East Africa to show me the way, I still came away having seen several tens of species in a matter of hours.

But that was nothing. The legendary Brian Finch, who has published a checklist to the birds of the Park, regularly reports seeing between 180 and 200 species of birds in a day. A day! My own best total for the park - and it's the largest number of species I've ever seen in a day, anywhere in the world - was 129. That figure is pretty fresh in my memory, because it happened this Saturday. But when I lived in Kenya I would come to the park every second or third weekend, and it was only on my very last visit before we left the country - and perhaps there's some symbolism here - that I had my first visit without seeing a species that was new to me.

Grey Crowned-cranes (Balearica regulorum), looking like they've just had a tiff
Those pesky Cisticolas - a complex group to tell apart. Ten species occur regularly in the Park, one of the highest species densities I've encountered anywhere. On this visit I saw six of those species. I make this a Stout Cisticola (Cisticola robustus), common in the grassy areas of the park.
There are many things that make this place special. Let's start with the most simplistic; it's on the doorstep of a major international city, right next to that city's two major airports, and yet it is still a place where you can reasonably expect to see three of the "Big Five" African mammals (Lion, Buffalo and both species of Rhinoceros) and have a reasonable chance at a fourth (Leopard). And these are wild animals, some of which regularly migrate in and out of the Park. A Cheetah showed up recently. It wasn't introduced. It walked here. To find this kind of megafaunistic wildness right next to a big city is, almost literally, incredible. Perhaps needless to say, it's also under threat - a subject I'll return to.

Turning to what makes it special for birding, though, the key element of the Park is variety of habitat. Effectively it's divided into three areas; highland forest, long-grass plains, and short-grass plains. These support a different variety of both mammals and birds, but there are further micro-climates around the various dams that have been built throughout the park, and the riparian forest that follows the Mbagathi river. There's more to it than this, of course, but that'll do for the broad-brush introduction.

What can I say about this particular visit? Well, in short, it came up trumps. After my last, melancholic visit in 2013, the place was back on form, or perhaps I was. I visited over two days and saw, in total, 150 species of bird, 17 species of mammal and three identifiable reptile species. Of these, seven of the birds and one each of the mammals and reptiles were new to me. So still, after perhaps 15 or 20 visits, this place continues to launch surprises at me.

Striped Kingfisher (Halcyon chelicuti)

Female African Paradise-flycatcher (Terpsiphone viridis).
In short, Nairobi National Park is a treasure. It's one of the best and easiest places in Africa to see Common Ostriches (Struthio camelus), which live in high densities here. I had a male Kori Bustard (Ardeotis kori) saunter out in front of me on the road, and watched at least 70 White Storks (Ciconia ciconia) launch themselves northward in a favourable thermal. I saw my first African Emerald Cuckoo (Chrysococcyx cupreus) in a treetop, and jumped for joy in my car at my first African Pygmy Kingfisher (Ispidina picta). I saw a huge African Rock Python (Python sebae) shimmy out of a hole in the road and watched a magnificent Ayres' Hawk-eagle (Hieraaetus ayresii) quartering over the forest. There were Lions (Panthera leo) basking near one of the dams, and a Bush Duiker (Sylvicapra grimmia) creeping through the undergrowth of the forest above. This is still a place (touch wood) where numbers of White-backed Vultures (Gyps africanus) and Ruppell's Vultures (Gyps rueppellii) remain healthy, and where Palearctic migrants like Turkestan Shrikes (Lanius isabellinus phoenicuroides) and Greenshank (Tringa nebularia) can find fuel to come back to us for the summer. And all these were just on this visit. I could go on, and on, and on, but rather than do so I'll let the unusually large number of photos in this post speak for themselves.

My first ever African Pygmy-kingfisher
Another Kingfisher - this time a Juvenile Malachite (Corythornis cristatus), biting off more than it could chew.
A Ruppell's Vulture (R) with two African White-backed Vultures.
Despite all this I have a feeling that people think that birding, or seeing animals here, is cheating, just because it's next to a city. But these creatures are as wild as those you'll see in the Masai Mara or Amboseli. It's not cheating. It's extraordinary. It's almost unbelievable.

And perhaps, soon, it will be unbelievable that it ever existed. Nairobi is expanding, and, thankfully, increasing in prosperity. It needs space, and infrastructure. To those with a certain frame of mind the Park is wasted space - a blank area through which lines can be driven. There has probably never been a time when someone has not had their eye on the Park for one economic reason or another, but the latest threat is serious; there is a proposal to drive a new train-route through the Northern section of the park, right through some of the most important watering sites and with potentially devastating effects on the Park's ecology.

So, come. And pay to come, and make it worth everyone's while to keep this unsurpassed urban birding location in existence, and springing surprises on me and you, into the future. If you don't come, they will build on it.

The ever-photogenic Superb Starling (Lamprotornis superbus)

Looking down towards the Mokoyeti river. Long may it continue to look like this.


  1. 180 to 200 species a day! I spent a month (february 2016) in SW Uganda and while the birding was very good, productive, exhilarating - all of that, the species count was just under 130. That, I guess is what you get by staying around one area.

    1. LakeOntarian - sorry for the delay in replying. I wonder if the reason is also that in Uganda there's so much forest (thank goodness!) and forest is a good deal tougher for birding than savannah. Ben.