Saturday, November 12, 2016

Kisumu

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?

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