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Sunday, September 25, 2016

Baringo - Quest for the White-crested Turaco

If this trip had a theme, it would be "not holding back." 

I had 3 days between our triumphant return from the epic Samburu-Meru-Mt Kenya-Mukuruwe-ini expedition, it was just barely enough time to insert a quick trip to Baringo with the legendary Wilson Tiren. 

Wilson is just about as epic a character as Baringo itself. Growing up beside the "big brown lake," Wilson knows every single bird and every character in down. This includes all the cute girls obviously. 

Chillin' at the "choma zone"
I met Wilson in nearby Bogoria where we did whatever any Kenyan does before doing anything worth doing - drank some chai. After enjoying our traditional refreshment, Wilson told me to wait while he arranged transportation. Seconds later he pulled up on a sweet new motorbike. Apparently it was at our disposal for the entire weekend, for a price to be determined upon return. "It won't be alot" he assured.

Baringo high street
Our first of two mornings called for an amphibious assault. We would charter a boat on the lake for Allen's Gallinule, Saddle-billed Stork and Madagascar Bee-eater et al., then while the morning was still young (hopefully), we'd rip up into the hills for the stunning White-crested Turaco.

The boat ride failed to yield my nemesis the Saddle-bill, but did compensate with an epic sunrise decorated with African Darter silhouettes. We turned up the Bee-eater and the Gallinule, along with a bonus Greater Flamingo fly-over and the usual suspects (bellow).

African Darter and Great Cormorant
Goliath Heron
Madagascar Bee-eaters
Northern Masked Weavers
Senegal Thick-knee
Birds everywhere, we were mesmerized. Then I checked my watch. Crap! We'd gone past the 2 hour mark on our boat ride. Although Willy had gotten us a discount (2000 per hour instead of 3000), 6,000 bob was still a hefty blow to my Baringo budget. I ended up having to mPESA the guy the money when I got back to Nairobi...woops.

Not only had our little boat ride taken me overboard on the budget, but the morning was pretty much spent. This meant we'd be hard-pressed finding the White-crested Turaco, which was almost an hour's ride up into the hills. That did not stop us from buying a couple of fish from a dude in a little bamboo punt and feeding them to the Fish Eagles (finally I know how people get those awesome pics of them swooping down on fish!). Mine were blurry.

African Fish Eagle 
We hustled up to Kipcherere, a tiny hamlet up in the hills inhabited by Kalenjin folks. Always curious to see a mzungu, they were eagle to offer us some advice. Some old-timers emphasized how hard-pressed we'd be this late in the morning, but bragged that they had seen "a whole bunch" earlier in the morning. Defying these nay-sayers, we started up into the hills by way of a stream. The forest was lush and full of birds and butterflies, but no White-crested Turaco. We returned to the village empty-handed. The old-timers were still there sipping chai, eager to confirm that we would not have seen any this late in the morning. But they clearly did not know Wilson Tiren fully. He has never missed them with any of his clients and was determined not to spoil his perfect record! 
Martha ID tafadhali
The town of Kipchere feels like the middle of nowhere
Chestnut-crowned Sparrow-weaver
An old lady was saying something to us in Kalenjin. Wilson's translation sounded like "give me 50 bob to make you some chai." I said ok, duly handing her the 50 shilling note. It turned out she was saying "give me 50 bob so I can have some chai." Our afternoon refreshment budget spent, we decided we might as well head back out there for round two. 

Not long after, we heard two Turacos calling up another hill! To make a long story shorter, we bush-wacked until we tracked it down. Wilson strategically startled it up right in front of me for a PERFECT view. What a STUNNER! Only too bad all I managed was a shot was this one bellow. Evidently the key field mark is obscured...
White-crested you-know-it
That night we celebrated our victory with a well-earned beer and nyama choma. This local joint was tended by a friend of Wilson's (who happened to also be a hot babe), who apparently had no problems with him manning the bar while she cooked us up some nyama choma in the kitchen. Several customers came in while he served their various drinks and collected the money in the cash box which he seemed to already know the location of. 

The second morning consisted of rounding up as many Baringo birds as possible along the lake shore and cliffs. A couple Verreaux's Eagle Owls were hooting their super-creepy hoot all morning, their version of romance, while bristle-crowned starlings frolicked on the lawn. Love was in the air.

Bristle-crowned Starlings
Verreaux's Eagle-owl
Verreaux's at the height of breeding season
African Scops Owl
Jackson's Hornbill
One last trip to the cliffs was still in order, not because we wanted to, but because we had to. We were birders, after all, and I didn't come all this way to sip chai and look at cute girls. When else am I gonna get another chance to see a Familiar Chat, anyway? So, despite being knackered, we worked the cliff until our time was up, because I had to get to Nairobi before dark (note this mom, I am very safety-conscious when I travel). We came up empty handed, but as we started to drive away, I twisted my body around for one last scan, and, spotting a small brown passerine lifting its tail atop a shrub. Stop! I said. I raised my binoculars. It was a Familiar Chat! Now we could leave, knowing we'd birded Baringo to the limit.
Familiar Chat

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Fellowship is Broken

One Canadian science teacher. One Kenyan tour guide. The first, a canuck-turned-London man, is a neurotic, over-rushed maniac with a bipolar nature of being at times a well-rounded gentleman and at others, an obsessive-compulsive twitcher with sudden urges to wrangle reptiles. The other is a calm, collected and wise woman who takes her time to enjoy nature and with a matriarch-type personality.

These two haphazard companions were brought to southeastern Uganda for a single divine purpose: to slay the Albertine Rift endemics (and maybe photograph a few butterflies and even have a little fun by accident). At odds with this later objective was a dark and sinister force: the wrath of forest birding, whereby birds are like ghosts - more often heard and seldom affording even a second's view, ever keeping to the shadows of the thick undergrowth or up high in the canopy. Luckily, in Semuliki forest, we had Justice on our side (literally, our guide's name was Justice). That is so African, we thought, spurring a small brainstorming session for what I might name my first kid. Some kind of name, I thought, that is a good virtue, like "Wisdom", "Purity", "Precious" or "Favour." But then there are the ones I would call tier 2, like "Godliness", 'Prudence", "Innocent", etc.. I could go one step further and name my kid after an even more specific virtue or good character trait. How about "Steadfastness" or "Loyalty". No, I thought, if I were an African, I'd name my son: "Stick-to-itedness Snieder".

Back to our tale. We followed Justice into the forest to some nice hot springs, nabbing an assortment of Semuliki specialities along the way. For the non-bird-savy, Semuliki a little bit of Congolese lowland tropical forest that justs into south-western Uganda. Since nobody can really go birding in the Congo, aside from in the Virungas, it is the best place to see these Congolese lowland forest species. We managed to pick up such tasty ones as Fire-crested Alethe and the aptly named Leaf-love. An evening foray failed to hear the highly coveted and mythical Nkulengu Rail, which Justice told us would be a waste of our time if they are not calling at the time. Nor were we able to get a visual on a calling Swamp-palm Bulbul. Such is the unforgiving torture of Semuliki birdng where a second's distraction could spell lifer-missing misery.

A fire-crested Alethe, one of the low-altitude specialties of Uganda

A reclusive Forest Robin offers a second's view

Rails aside, the day-time birds were not enough to satisfy my heart's desires. I asked Justice of a great  and mythical swallow that dwelleth deep in the jungle, on the Semuliki River which divides Uganda and the Congo. "What if we were to harness its power and use it to our own advantage" I thought. We discussed the possibility. I sensed hesitation and doubt in his voice at the mention of this bird. I soon knew why. It would involve a 14 km march through uncertain (most likely swampy) jungle. Justice summoned another guard to accompany Martha in case we were to split up.

A dark shadow loomed over our quest as I too shared some doubt, I am ashamed to admit. At dawn, we set out for the river. The fellowship moved at a steady pace, making strategic stops along our way, trying to opportunistically nab lifers along the way while at the same time trying to keep a quick average pace. Crested Malimbes, Brazza's Monkey and White-crested Hornbills meant we were off to a good start by any standard!

Eventually, we reached a secluded forest pool. Immediately, a Shining Blue Kingfisher scooted across the water. I peered around the far corner of the pool to behold a mystical sight: a Hartlaub's Duck making a ghostly retreat. This is the only spot in East Africa to see this reclusive jungle duck, elsewhere found in the Congo. We crossed the pond over a slippery log using poles for balance. Then, a frightening sight: swamp covering the trail as far as the eye could see. Justice and I began the crossing, him in his Wellies and I by removing my boots and wading.

But there was a problem: the girls were no longer with us. There was some confusion and yelling of stuff in the local language, then I came to understand that they were not going to go any further with us. I waited. Were they coming? I could hear Martha's voice but not understand a thing. Would we make it all the way to the river? Justice was getting impatient and entertaining the idea of turning back. I could feel the corrupting influence of the White-throated Blue Swallow taking hold. Men are weak, and it appears to hold great power over them. Alas, it is with great shame that I tell you, we carried on to the river. There were many miles of mud and swamp ahead, and Justice could only wait so long. My worst fear had been realized: I had forsaken my companion and followed my guide to the river to seek for forbidden Swallow. The fellowship was broken.

The Misty Mountains (aka Rwenzori)

We awoke at 3 am. The much anticipated day, what we had all payed big money for, and some trained for, the trip to the summit of the Rwenzoris: 5,109 m Margherita Peak. I had prepared my body and mind for this physical challenge for months - nothing could spoil it. Not even being grouped with Jim for the climb (fake names are used for anonymity). Currently reading the complete works of Shakespeare on his Kindle, Jim is one of the most awkward men I have ever met and you will soon learn how his physical clumsiness, lack of physical preparation and proper footwear put my summit dreams - and safety - in peril. "Want some sunscreen?" asked out guide. "No thanks, I like to live dangerously" replied Jim. "You like to have a red face?" I asked. Anyway, we continued our preparations and started climbing with headlamps at precisely 4 am, hoping to reach the summit after 5 strenuous hours of steep climbing and roped glacier travel. After summiting, we would start the descent to base camp, then another 5 km or so to the next camp from 5,109 m to about 4,000 m or so. We carried on, my group taking the lead. In behind, a young swiss/NZ couple who seemed to know a thing or two about mountaineering and bringing up the rear, a Swiss father and son team. Vulcer, the father, is 72 years old. He would be the 3rd oldest person to reach Margherita Peak.
A typical segment of the trail

A White-necked Raven presides over the camp
Swiss father and son begin ascending the second glacier

Rwenzori means "the mountains of the moon" although technically this is the sun
Getting suited up

This strenuous trek is well described on our tour company's website and a quick google search would reveal to any tentative trekker that it would be no walk in the park. 10 additional minutes of Googling would also reveal that it is significantly more challenging than Mt. Kilimanjaro and Mt. Kenya (Africa's 2 highest mountains). And yet, Jim many times said he had no idea it was going to be this hard. I told him to stay strong and that fatigue is in the mind. With no turning back, maintaining positivity and morale is the best thing I could do. Before this day, I tended to keep some distance behind him - this was to avoid the sound of his heavy breathing and sudden grappling for holds or stumbles which was affecting my mountain vibe. It was evident that he had not done any form of conditioning in preparation for this infamous 8 day challenge. Each time he stretched for a hold, his love handles would bulge out from under his plaid shirt. We came to our second glacier, a very steep one at 4,900 m where the air gets a little thin. Myself, having only traversed my first glacier 30 minutes earlier, was no veteran but I was relishing my first experience, getting right into the techniques. "This is one of the best days of my life!" I exclaimed.
To give you an idea...

First, our guide, then Jim, then me, our fate connected by one rope. After only 2 m of glacier travel, I looked up in horror as my teammate grinded the teeth of his crampons into our climbing rope the way you would stamp on a cockroach that refuses to die. "Jim, you're stepping on the rope." He flung his body up the glacier in a bizare leap of faith, limbs flailing about, crampons scratching at the ice but not taking hold. Imagine a fledgling heron in the Everglades in one of those documentaries, leaping from the nest and trying to avoid the alligators below - thus was the grace and power I beheld above me. I continued to watch in horror as this fledgling heron failed desperately to cling to the glacier or decide on any one technique and stick to it. One of his crampons then flung off and slid toward me. A second attempt, with some coaching from the other guide, was no better. This time, the crampon broke. It was no use, he was wearing some sort of work boots that were bending all over the place and not stiff enough for the task. Then, our guide managed to fix the crampon with some shoelace. I expressed my concerns to him. "I don't feel comfortable climbing this glacier attached to Jim, his crampons have come off twice!" His response was classic: "It's ok, no problem." In such moments, one must simply say TIA. I had to decide fast, should I really do this, considering my insurance didn't cover mountaineering, a small detail which the company seemed to overlook (once again, TIA). Anyway, I weighed the risks and rewards and said screw it, and up we went. I guess the 3rd time's the charm, as they say. We made it over the glaciers! Behind us, the semi-experienced mountaineers were discussing technique with their own guide. "Martin, this is too much rope between us, what if you were to fall?" It's ok, I'm not going to fall" replied Martin cockily. "Not even the best mountaineer says that" replied Jared. I have to say, I did laugh but at the same time it added a little hairiness to the whole vibe of the glacier traverse/climb. Here is another memorable exchange from post-climb: I told Jim "next time get some proper mountain boots." His reply was "well, I showed them to the guides before we left and the said it was ok, so it was not my problem." I didn't bother at that point! Back to our tale. The summit came into sight, I requested my guide's permission to be "unleashed," and I bolted the last 100m to the top. I was a true king on that day. My concerns for Jim's imminent death of heart attack or sudden fall disappeared as I basked in the glory of the alpine sun and the clouds cleared to herald my arrival at this legendary summit.

Above the clouds

"One of the best days of my life"

Friday, August 5, 2016

Mt. Kenya: Quest for the African Green Ibis

In Kenya, few birds evoke more mystery than the African Green Ibis. This near-mythical forest bird has eluded me during several days spent in Aberdaires and Mt. Kenya - so we did some intel and returned to Mt. Kenya for unfinished business. Ebird led us to Castle Forest Lodge, a place fit for a king (indeed - Queen Victoria once stayed here). Mfalme approves. As you can tell, it is a true mountain paradise.

We met enthusiastic guide Joseph - I don't think I've ever met a bird guide so energetic. At 6 am your habari ya asubuhi (good morning) is met with an enthusiastic SALAMA KABISA! (extremely peaceful!). Indeed, we did feel an extreme peacefulness in the mist-enshrouded paradise. And yet, a violent fire burned in our hearts - one for the mysterious mountain ibis. In order to see this retreating species, one must intercept them to and from their roosting site, at early dawn or late evening. In between those times, we had a lot of time to kill, so we explored around the lodge, turning up some interesting findings.

Grey-headed Negrofinch

Doherty's Bush-shrike (very shy!)
Jackson's Chameleon, one of the "Jackson Five"
Tacazze Sunbird
 Surprisingly, the Ibis are very noisy birds in flight, and hearing them was not hard. Seeing them, a challenge worthy of team Mfalme. On our final evening, we waited on the porch, beer in hand, for the evening flight. There was a thick smoke from a nearby campfire ebut you can clearly see the ibis in this photo.

African Green Ibis seen from the lodge patio flying to their evening roost

Based on their trajectory that evening, we estimated where they would fly over the road and headed to that spot the next morning before dawn. Amazingly, they passed right over us, circling a couple of times and affording this shot, in which you can see the shiny cheek-patch from my built-in flash. Their silouettes were very clear through the morning mist and their calls a loud Ahhnk ahhnk. They would be the first of 3 epic-ally rare birds we would see in one day.

African Green Ibis flying from their roost

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Carnage on the Savannah


Long has been the struggle over the past year in London. Working tirelessly up to 70+ hours per week has taken its toll, while the cash flow continues at a steady trickle like an over-ranched Salinas creek. The cattle of this picture are the nameless, faceless businessmen that run London and it's education. The vultures that patrol these arid lands, the politicians, who corrupted the masses into voting us out of the EU. I will call these masses the sheep, who dwell mainly in the countryside/midlands, etc. [BREAKING NEWS: British accents do only make Brits sound more intelligent than they actually are].

Meanwhile on the African Savannah, a struggle for life and death rages on just as it has for millions of years. Fleeing far from my 1st world problems, I was joined by rafikis Martha, Jackson and Wilson for an epic quest to finally fill a deep, gaping void in my soul: the lack of leopard. To find this elusive beast, we hired a van to take us to Samburu and Meru for a 3 day Safari. It did not disappoint.

Our driver, Duncan, was a last minute substitution for the bird-savy Robert, a consequence of African organisation. Let's just say he wasn't exactly on the same page as us when it came to birds and budget accommodations. Echoes of simama hapa (stop here) and nyuma kidogo back up a little bit) will be troubling his dreams for many nights.

Now, imagine life as diminutive, ground-dwelling reptile or small rodent on the savannah. Your entire existence consists of avoiding an arsenal of aerial predators, such as this Brown Snake-eagle surveying the savannah from its prominent perch. Nearby, a small lizard falls victim to a Taita Fiscal. Fiscals are relentless killing machines that impale their prey on thorns, which has garnered them the nickname "butcherbird." Pole.

It took this Tawny Eagle mere seconds to rob a baby impala of its pathetic existence.

We continued to the river, where we met a small group of lions.

These future killers have already been given a taste for blood

Up ahead, a land cruiser was stopped, intently watching something we pulled up behind them and it was evident why they had stopped. Sitting in the shade of some shrubbery was a leopard. After some minutes, we watched it wander around, appearing to give zero care for being watched by 2 vehicles. It was a young one as evident by its small size and lack of hunting experience, as it seemed that bounding hare startled it more than the other way around. Suddenly, the non-challant feline took a slight interest in us, only to rub its head against our front tire! As it approached us in that brief moment, I was able to to capture its expression in a photo which I consider the best I've ever taken.

I hope this lousy hunter finds something to eat soon. It could take a lesson from the lioness we were about to encounter.

Following the river, we spot a pair of ears poking up from a bush. A lioness, waiting patiently by the river. Nearby, a herd of impala grazes peacefully, unaware of the possible impending death.

The herd made its way over the exposed riverbank, ever closer to the lioness but oblivious to the danger. We waited patiently. I paid a lot to organize this safari and we were all desperate to see blood. Suddenly, the impala became restless and started bounding around. The lioness continued to bide her time for the perfect moment. It came. The impala scattered, one male hesitated and started zigzagging, a rearward retreat blocked off by the river. The lioness capitalized on its hesitation, going straight for the neck. It was all over in seconds. The impala subdued but not yet asphyxiated, it was dragged up the shoreline in a powerful and savage display, its legs kicking in the air as it waited to die.

In nearby Shaba nature reserve, we set out to scout William's Lark habitat for the following day. We were accompanied by an armed guard to this remote area, who agreed to show us the grassy lava desert where this habitat-specific Kenya endemic dwells. His substantial rifle was not for protection against animals, but Somali bandits. By the roadside, a young Grevy's Zebra, who did not have this same luxury. Its mom was devoured by lions. Pole sana. 

A flock of vultures prepares for the evening roost, perhaps the same ones that may have fed on the entrails of the mama zebra. Hard life.