Saturday, November 12, 2016

Kisumu - a failed quest

Our Uganda leg was amazing. We'd hit the country's most unique birding sites, smashed our main targets, and seen much more. And yet, I still felt unsatisfied. There was an emptiness left inside after our papyrus segment in Mabamba, having missed most of those targets. This word kept on reverberating through my head - Kisumu. 

At the Nairobi bird walk, I talked to this guy Mohamed who told me he could easily hook me up with a boat and a guide to visit Hippo Point in Kisumu, the best spot for all my papyrus birds according to ebird. It could be done in 3 days. But I pulled an amateur mistake - I too easily agreed without checking other options. 

At the last minute, the morning we were to catch the bus to Kisumu, I got another guide's number from Fleur, Tom Mboya. If Fleur recommends you a guide, you know he's gonna be the best. I called him and we met up to see if we could do some kind of combo, benefit from his expertise while not bailing on the boat guide who we'd promised to hire.  

To make a long story short, the boat guide ended up switching with another guy at the last minute, so we should have cancelled. Tom told us we could easily access all these species by land near his house, and there was no need to waste our time on the boat, because it turned out the launching point was crazy far from the birding site, but he didn't want to take away from the other guy's business. Martha's silence strongly urged me to not owe loyalty to guides, as we didn't owe any guide any promises. I should have listened. 

To make a long story short, our assault on Hippo Point was hugely a failure, missing the Papyrus Gonolek by seconds when I split up with Tom (never split up with the guide!). We also missed papyrus canary and papyrus yellow warbler, spending all our time tracking a White-winged Warbler which was THE most frustrating bird I've ever tracked. Waist deep in the swamp, I finally caught a mediocre glimpse of this bird as it sang from the papyrus. I had to sacrifice the Gonolek because if I had moved and rushed over, it would have been game over for the warbler. By the time I saw it, it was already mid-day and the birding was over. As a silver lining, I did see a Hartlaub's Widowbird, which is actually a pretty damn good bird. 

Our efforts to get our birds from land involved lots of waking in the heat and no birds, although we did hear many interesting stories from Tom. Tom is one of the best nature and cultural interpreters I've ever met in my life. He tends to ask questions to his clients more than tell them stuff, which, as a teacher, I can relate to. It really makes you think a lot more, and especially helps sharpen your birding skills - he makes you identify all the birds! (Of course, he'll correct you when you're wrong). 

An overwhelming theme was that Lake Victoria is a place of contrasts. On the one hand, the birding can be spectacular. Then, it can be extremely frustrating. 

Our wavering prosperity mirrored that of the local community. An abandoned track reminded Tom of a time long ago when there used to be a bustling loading dock. Goods coming to and from Uganda would all come through via the railroad. Then, one day, the new president Moi decided that he didn't want the economy to be based on that because Indians built it, so they started shipping things by boat but that didn't really work out. Now, people do whatever then can. One lady managed to build a small house by selling illegal home-brewed cane spirit for 20 bob a glass. 

A Malachite Kingfisher making due amongst Water Hiacynth
The lake itself is a natural treasure with some really unique species, but I have seen few aquatic ecosystems more damaged by man. All around us was invasive water hyacinth, a plant that has completely taken over the ecosystem and laid waste to its biodiversity. Sewage, heavy metals and farm runoff flow into the lake, detectable by a subtle smell. A spattering of garbage added to the overall picture. 

Lake Victoria is a contrast of beauty and destruction

Fishing boats
Fishing boat

Black-headed Gonolek - the less handsome, less loved brother of the Papyrus Gonolek

We did have one more day until I had to fly home, which meant we could leave as late as 9:00 am. This left us with a difficult decision. We could go to the Nyanza River as planned for the Rock Pratincole (the only river in Kenya with this species), or stay in Kisumu one more night and probably in the morning get the Gonolek and Canary at least. I figured if we go for the Pratincole in the evening, we could come back to Kisumu since it was only like a 2 hour trip or something.

It turned out way more difficult than that. Our journey took almost twice as long as we thought, reaching the river just barely before sunset. There were no Pratincoles. The water was too high, leaving not enough of their favoured rock perches exposed. We got our motorcycle driver to take us to a second spot along the river, but with no more luck. A Senegal Coucal was meager consolation, but at least it was a lifer. With funds depleting rapidly, we found a place to stay for crazy cheap, like 5 US dollars for both of us. I even had to ration my road snacks.

The Nyanza River: washing away our birding dreams
Then we hit both river sites again in the morning, but no luck. We missed the morning busses to do this, forcing us to wait till noon to get one. The trip was long and uncomfortable, taking about 8 hours. We hit Nairobi during traffic, which is the worst traffic I have ever seen in my life. We hit night club that night with another friend, something we'd been wanting to tick off our list for the whole trip but left till the last night. My cab driver came to get me at 3:00 am to take me to the airport for my early morning flight, I said goodbye to my friends. The night was much less climactic then I'd expected, more like ticking an item off a list. Then in't that what life basically is, ticking stuff off lists?

Sunday, November 6, 2016

The Shoebill

We felt like Frodo and company as they left Rivendell when we said farewell to Emmy and his hospitable staff. Alas, thus is the life of a traveler, becoming friends with people only to bid them goodbye. It is one of the many costs of freedom, I suppose. Our next destination was Mabamba Swamp, which would bring us toward Kampala, from where we were to catch the night bus back to Nairobi. With Rwanda and the wonders of Nyungwe forest out of the picture (waaaaay more expensive than I thought - you pay park entry plus a per-hour fee which is specific for each trail!). We decided to cut out losses short and end our Uganda leg on a guaranteed high note - with the iconic Shoebill. 

Malachite Kingfisher
The shoebill is a bird that divides. Some consider it to be beautiful, others to be something of nightmares. Personally, I am undecided. In any case, it's a HUGE bird to get on any birder's life list and there is no other bird remotely like it. 

We'd secured the services of a reputable bird guide and boat operator with Emmy's help and were relived to arrive at the dock after a rough bus ride and a very rough motorbike ride during the dark hours of the morning. Already off to a late start, I was getting anxious in my typical fashion because we were behind schedule. After our motorbike guys failed to turn up at the agreed upon 6 am or whatever, trying to find 2 replacements at that hour took some time - time we could not afford to waste. Then having to wait a little extra for our guide with the boat added to my stress levels. The wishlist was: 

Shoebill
Papyrus Gonolek
Papyrus Yellow Warbler
Papyrus Canary
White-winged Warbler
Lesser Jacana
Weyn's Weaver

We had a lady guide who pointed out the birds while the guy who we'd asked for piloted the boat. I wondered if she was newer and wanted more guiding experience. In any case, we must have been in good hands since they'd come on good recommendation by Emmy. She started us off by pointing out many common species, which caused me concern that we would be mis-directing our efforts. So I informed her that we were only here to see a short, specific list, the one I've written above. By that point I think we had an understanding. In any case, it was nice to photograph some common characters like the old Malachite which is never harsh on the eyes. 

It did not take long to find our first Shoebill, and man was it an ugly one. 

A young Shoebill
Shortly after, we located an adult. I temporarily forgot about the wishlist, so stunned was I by the absolute ominousness of the Shoebill's gaze. I was now mentally prepared to welcome the Shoebill into my nightmares.

It stared into our souls...
... pure evil
We paddled around in a flanking move for better lighting, while in the meantime, classic swamp birds made their appearances. Suddenly, out of nowhere, our boatman/guide called out "LESSER JACANA!" I was simply not ready and barely got my bins on this fly-by, but with a good enough naked eye view to see the distinguishing frontal knob, just good enough to count it.

White-backed Ducks
Blue-chested Bee-eater
The adult Shoebill
At the end of the day, the Shoebill was the star of the show with 3 seen. As for the rest, 

Shoebill - check
Papyrus Gonolek
Papyrus Yellow Warbler
Papyrus Canary
White-winged Warbler
Lesser Jacana - check
Weyn's Weaver

I had underestimated the trickiness of papyrus birding. Oh well, we had a go. And you can't be dissapointed with shots like that. 

Swamp explorers
After enjoying lunch of fried Tilapia, Plantain and chai, I had one last try along the swamp edge for the papyrus canary and yellow warbler, but to no avail. Even the Red-chested Sunbirds would not let me photograph them. Our motorcycle guys getting impatient, I resigned to the papyrus abyss and packed up my camera. Of course, whenever you pack up your camera, that's when something appears. In this case, a Blue Flycatcher started flitting about right above our heads. I frantically assembled my camera just in time to rip 2 frames. Check it out: 

Blue Flycatcher hunting spiders (look at the bill)

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

The House of Gongo

If one were to approach the great Bwindi Impenetrable forest by means of Kabale up winding, rural roads, then turn up a gnarly dirt track at a humble wooden sign, then were to come upon a lush garden flourishing with sunbirds, flowers, bees, goodness and cheer, then one would have arrived at Broadbill Forest Camp.

High on the slopes of the Albertine Rift, amidst rampant over-cultivation of the land, there lyeth a sanctuary for many a weary naturalist in search of peace and natural tranquility. This sanctuary hath summoned many naturalists from all across Middle Earth, and indeed, from all of Earth. A place of peace and calm amidst a bustling world of corporate greed and desperate subsistence. 

Regal Sunbird
We were greeted by a charming young lady at the reception office, who told us to wait for Emmy. It seemed as though he had made us wait intentionally, for just long enough, to be able to calm our minds from the journey and absorb some of the natural tranquility of the camp, before popping in at just the right moment. A man in coveralls appeared and gave me a hearty handshake. His hands suggested he was not unaccustomed to a little manual labor. He wore a grin on his face, not an over-exaggerated one of so many hospitality people, but a measured grin which conveyed just the indented amount of warmth. His eyes had the certain sort of depth and gleam that betray vast amounts of knowledge and wisdom.

We took a walk around the camp, talking of our journey, of the camp, the local people, the guests, and ultimately, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Then I realized, Emmy is basically the Elrond of Uganda. He is on good terms with all of the community residents and the park personnel, and is a reservoir of knowledge on the local flora and fauna.

One day, many years ago, Emmy was taking a wander in these hills, with an idea in his mind to start a camp and where to build it. A certain hillside caught his attention with Dusky Twinspots and even African Green Broadbill near the forest edge. 

Dusky Twinspot
However, another discovery saddened him. The bones of two Duikers, small forest antelope. It had become quite difficult to find these in the park, and now he knew why. The locals were trapping them for bush meat. Emmy decided to take action. His solution was simple: provided the people with what they need (food). So he bought them a few pigs. Of course, money is needed for these things, but that's where the camp comes in - as a revenue source. The positive effects of the camp have been so great that the Duikers and other animals became once again easy to see, which in turn makes the area all the more attractive as an eco-tourism destination. 

We stayed a full 3 days here, which is longer than our usual two. The idea of a "mid-range" lodge frightened me at first, but my fears soon evaporated once we met our host. Of all my travels, I cannot think of an experience where I felt my money was so well spent, because the memories we gained are priceless. To do a birding trip in Uganda and to pass up a stint at Broadbill, you would have to be a "fool of a Took". And it was comfortable. 

If you were to take a canvas tent, set it upon a wooden platform overlooking beautiful unspoiled rainforest, then add a porch with a rustic straw roof and comfortable chairs, then you would have a very charming accomdation indeed. If you were then to build a permanent self-contained bath room complete with a bath, decorated with nice rocks and constantly supplied with hot water, and finally, put hot water bags under the bed covers, then you would have built the tents at Broadbill Forest Camp. The only thing imperfect about our sleep here was that it was not interrupted by the calls of Rwenzori Nightjars, owing to the absence of moonlight. Otherwise, perfect. 

View from our "tent"

Now, the birding. Our first morning was spent hiking to the Mabwindi Swamp, one of the few breeding sites of the Grauer's Rush Warbler. More importantly, however, was the nesting area of the African Green Broadbill halfway to the swamp. The odds were against us. Broadbill nesting season was over, so these birds would not be vocal and could be scattered for all we knew. Besides that, it was very windy, and the high-pitched wispy whistling call of the broadbill is difficult to detect by the keenest ear on even the calmest day. Emmy had even summoned an extra guide to help us, a young protégé of his whom I've forgotten the name.

The birding was extremely frustrating. I would say it was as frustrating as Semliki, minus the heat. But we were strong of mind and we had some serious guide power, but Emmy made no promisses. We worked hard for every species, and eventually had a pretty nice mixed-species flock going. We decided to split up, but after going at it for a while, hope was starting to wane and we considered continuing to the swamp to avoid missing other specialties. Just then, our younger guide called from a great distance. We ran up a massive slope which we had just gone down (well, I ran, Martha walked). I got my bins on the bird immediately. By the time I had caught my breath and could actually hold them without shaking, Marta was there too, and we both admired a pair of broadbills feeding at medium range in the lower canopy. This might have been my highlight of the whole trip, to be honest. I mean, what a spanking bird! And to think it only lives in Bwindi.

African Green Broadbill with that spanking blue bib
Continuing to the swamp, we snagged more specialties like Yellow-eyed Slaty Flycatcher, an Albertine Rift endemic.

Yellow-eyed Slaty Flycatcher

Then to the swamp, where the warbler proved difficult to detect. We tried the recording but could not elicit a response. But the swamp was big, so we worked the edge until we could hear one. This is the shiest of a genus of uber-shy warblers that all live in dank vegetation. I'd been really lucky to see the Evergreen Forest Warbler, its close relative, earlier in the trip and I was really keen on adding another. Luckily, it did a flight display, fluttering up from the reeds and promptly back down, but alighting on a reed for part of a second, just long enough for a view! Stunningly, 3 more joined in on a calling frenzy, and we were able to see two displaying right in the open! Hence the shot bellow:
Grauer's Rush Warbler
We were getting quite tired by this point and ready to leave. But our exodus was cut short by the sound of a Red-chested Flufftail calling from the marsh. I wasn't really sure if the 4 flufftail species actually existed until that day, because I see them in the book but I never hear about anybody hearing let alone seeing one. The tiniest, shyest, most mythical rails that no one ever sees. Unless they have Emmy Gongo. We looked at each other and I sensed a reluctance in his expression, like "aw, now we gotta stay at least another half hour for this." Obviously, we did. As still as statues, we placed ourselves with a view of a crushed reedbed, the sort a crazed rail might impulsively run across. Emmy called persistently, but not too persistently, and gingerly, at tantalizing intervals. The rail responded. And so did 3 more. A mix of males and females, we reckoned. After half an hour or so of this, we could tell one was about to rush the gap. It was right on the edge of a clump of reeds, rearing to go. I had to decide between readying the camera, or bins because it would be quick. I opted for bins. Then, a female emerged in full view for about 1 second, before darting for cover upon seeing us. It would have been a perfect photo. I have no regrets.

Later, the birding quieted down but was punctuated with excitement, like a Great Lakes Bush Viper crossing the trail, which Emmy could have stepped on had he not been careful. All-in-all, an epic morning.

Great Lakes Bush Viper

For the second day, we'd decided we'd hammered enough of the high elevation stuff to warrant a trip down to the neck. We'd only missed Grauer's Warbler and Lagden's Bush-shrike, but at the neck, several lifers awaited. Plus, if could be birded from the road (without paying the enormous park fees).

Cassin's Hawk-Eagle

Our precious morning hours were hampered by some construction along the way. However, I was impressed that they could install a culvert in about 40 minutes, and we were soon able crush the residual dirt mound in Emmy's Land Cruiser. Along the way, we enjoyed views of several monkey species.
Our birding was interrupted

Silver Monkey

Colobus Monkey

Arriving at the neck, I was thrilled to be able to spot a bird before Emmy. It was a Black Bee-eater hunting from a snag in trademark fashion. Other than that, the neck proved anticlimactic, our expectations having been boosted to unrealistic heights by the day before. So, we returned with no Woodhouse's Antpecker or Many-coloured Bush-shrike in hand, but definitely with some great laughs and great memories and a couple of excuses to come back.
Black Bee-eater
Thank you to Emmy and all others who made our visit to Bwindi so special.We left feeling truly inspired by a great naturalist and community leader and cannot wait till our next birding adventure (eastern TZ, perhaps??).
The crew: Mfalme, Martha, Emmy
Oh, and I cannot forget the Handsome Francolins (rift endemic) which we snagged from the taxi on our way back down! MORALE WAS THROUGH THE ROOF!!

Handsome Francolin

Kibale - Quest for the Green-breasted Pitta

One reason I love East Africa so much is that you don't have to plan things very far in advance. Such was the case as I ringed up a certain bird specialist in Kibale NP. Nothing against Semliki, but we had had enough of that place. I was pleasantly surprised that this guide was available. So we did the usual routine: bird in the morning, pack up, get a motorbike to the nearest stage, take a minibus or taxi to the next park, find a cheap accommodation and organize a motorbike for 5:30 am or so the next morning. We had a system of budget birding perfected. 

We met our guide in the wee hours of the morning outside the park office. After figuring out what to do about the fee situation (the accountant had not shown up for work yet, obviously), it was decided that there was no time to waste and off we went onto some mysterious trail, navigating by way of headlamps in the dark. 

It took extreme discipline to ignore the persistent calls of Red-chested Owlets, but our quest was a singular one: to see the Green-breasted Pitta. For the non-bird-savy, its a bloody good bird. 

The principle strategy was to listen in the dark for the males's flutter flight display which he prefers to do in a small arena of flat leaves within a certain vegetation type. 

We continued this strategy for a couple hours, spotting some really nice things in the meantime: white-tailed ant-thrush, grey parrots, but no pitta. Suddenly, I noticed the sound of liquid being poured from somewhere up in the trees.  I followed the discreet stream up to its source. I could not believe my eyes, for looking back down at me was a little juvenile chimp! 

Hello there!
Over the course of the morning, we hiked up to 8 km to 3 different Pitta sites, but we found no Pitta. Instead, we were very lucky to see 8 chimps. Most fortunately of all, we did not have to pay the chimp "tracking" permit, which would have been $150 for me plus more for Martha. Instead, we paid the birding fee which was about half that. 

I could not believe our luck as we stood frozen on the path and this huge male chimp crossed the path, stopping to peer at us from behind a tree. Then, stealthily, his female followed with her tiny baby. 



The rest of the morning was spent photographing butterflies, which was not difficult, as they decorated every sun-lit path with suitable minerals or flowers. 

Thrilled with our amazingly successful morning, we returned triumphantly to our guest house to relax and watch more birds. On the property was a colony of Vieillot's Black Weavers displaying vigorously from their nests. We strategically had our tea next door to our budget accommodation, at the fancy lodge in a magnificent cafe overlooking the park border. Whist sipping the finest tea I've ever tasted, we spotted Cassin's Honeybirds, Great Blue Turacos gorging on fruit and enjoyed a one-time appearance for the trip: African Shrike-flycatcher.

Vieillot's Black Weavers
Great Blue Turaco

Fully refreshed by much needed doses of tea and lifers, we were back at the office the following morning, ready to destroy the Pitta once and for all.

This time, we focused on a different area, splitting up and combing the forest floor systematically. After almost 10 total hours of searching we finally had good views but they were not easy. Our epic guide spotted it the first time. In fact there were two, but they were moving quickly and silently. I could not believe that such a plump bird could hop on dry leaves without making a sound. His idea was to flank it, then drive it slowly toward us while we waited in ambush. "It is as quiet as a rat," described our guide. Just then, an actual rat walked by. Confused by the reality vs. the simile, there was a bit of miscommunication. Around that time, I saw something dart by, a bird of some sort. We concluded that because it was just a flash in my peripheral and I could not tell what it was, that must have been it; "being ambiguous" is indeed one of its principal field marks. It took almost an hour of creeping around and calling each other over with "come quick!!" to eventually get good views for all three of us. Bellow is the best shot I could manage, and I feel pretty damn lucky to have gotten it!

Green-breasted Pitta: one of the most sought-after and mysterious species in East Africa

Would I have been ready to pay for a third day of guiding and searching for this enigmatic bird? Hell yes. But it did not matter, for we had slayed the Pitta and could now leave, wallet relatively intact. But Kibale had one last treasure in store for us. As we were hitchhiking in some guys' truck, I asked them to stop because I saw a snake on the road. The two gentlemen were very obliging, to my surprise, and willing to entertain my impulse to see what is not the most popular creature among Africans to say the least. It was a gorgeous Rhinoceros Viper, which I aided across the road and undoubtedly saved. With its rectilinear locomotion (undulations of contraction rather than winding in an S-shape), it would have taken this guy all day to cross that road!

Rhinoceros Viper Bitis nasicornis
Next, we would head to Bwindi to meet the legendary Emmy Gongo. 

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Semliki - the Kirumya Trail

It's been a couple months since that fateful day in Semliki National Park whenst two companions were drawn apart by the mysterious and sinister influence of a certain swallow. Time has flown by, and with it, a healing process begun. Sitting in my room this half-term, still financially crippled from this very adventure, I've had a lot of time to kill. So, hoping to not aggravate my old companion (whom I hold so dear), I will now unleash some of the pics from that 28 km epic bird hike along the Kirumya Trail.

The uber-shy Red-billed Dwarf Hornbill, which we had chased around vainly at the hotsprings, reappeared on this magical trail. They afford 1 good view and if you miss that view then you won't find another one for at least 24 hours. I can't even imagine trying to find this bird ourselves without the help of Justice's whistles and calls on his phone. We did. The rest of the morning comprised of marching at a determined pace, punctuated by abrupt stops when Justice heard an interesting bird. The man's senses are razor sharp.

We were baffled and surprised to hear a story of the park almost losing him to some random nowhere park (the exact details of which it is not my place to share), but in the end, a bizarre intervention prevented his unholy exodus from taking place, and he continues to be one of the word's best local guides to one of the toughest birding locales. Thank God, because without Justice, we would have been hopeless.


After what seemed like endless walking or 'mud peddling' as Justice called it, when it seemed like the trail got worse and worse and I was starting to guess when we'd have to turn around, I spotted a body of water. I thought it was a lake but actually, this was the Semliki River itself. I was not expecting it to be so wide. I quickly scanned the horizon for the characteristic poles which the fishermen use to string their nets to. Justice said that on this segment, the swallows always use these poles as perches while hunting for insects over the water. There were many, all vacant of metallic blue tops. I told myself to be patient and while Justice chatted up the local fishermen, I scanned until I spotted two ducks squabbling far on the Congolese side. Hold on a sec', those aren't ducks...those are Finfoots! The African Finfoot, one of my great nemeses, just appeared out of nowhere. But as soon as I raised my sniper lens, they had gone into the reeds. The finfoot is an extremely shy bird.

Later, I did spot two swallows, far, far over the water. This called for a special boat charter, which set me back approximately 1 US dollar (Justice and I each had our own boat). I felt like a British explorer being taken into the jungle with my expensive gear and this fisherman prodding me gondola-style in an actual hollowed-out log canoe. "Man, I wish Martha were here" I thought.

The vessel of choice
 Around the bend of the river, we found 7 White-throated Blue Swallows congregating on some dead branches hanging over the water, exactly as described in the book.

White-throated Blue Swallow
I had my boatman gently prod us forward until the last swallow took off, then went to check on the finfoots. They were long gone, but the search did reveal a group of Orange Weavers, apparently not known to occur at this site although the book says they've been recorded along the Semliki River at some point. 

Chestnut-capped Flycatchers

As the day got later, the temperature got hotter, the birds quieter and our pace quicker. But this was one of those long hikes where the suffering pays off. Crossing the swamp again, I knew we only had another 6 km to go. 

Very carefully...one step on a thorn or spike and I could get a jungle infection
This picture of me crossing the swamp pretty much sums up the Semliki experience. My expression is a combination of triumph and pride mixed with a feeling of deep guilt and shame for abandoning my friend. In my eye, a flicker of incensed rage. 

Justice told me many stories of people he's taken around Semliki. Pretty much all of end with people yelling at each other, yelling at him, going mad, going broke, or preparing for divorce. Yes, this forest certainly has an intoxicating effect on those foolish enough to enter it. In the case of Martha and I, our friendship survived, and is now stronger than ever. Perhaps one day we can return, conquer the swamp and see the blue swallow together. 

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