Kenya’s birdwatchers flock to annual census
It’s 4:30 a.m. and birdwatchers who take part in the biannual national waterbird counts converge for a briefing at Lake Bogoria National Reserve in Kenya’s Rift Valley ahead of the expedition.
The partial darkness that surrounds the camp only draws the silhouettes. The birds, the main guests of the day, are barely awake, perhaps having their last sleep before dawn.
Being a world-renowned birding destination that is home to almost half of the world’s flamingos, the first census in the Rift Valley Lakes begins here. Teams are divided into eight groups, each consisting of three members.
Each group has a starter kit for birdwatchers – a fact sheet containing a list of common birds likely to be encountered across the vast territory. It also contains a list of less common and migratory birds that might be seen.
In addition to data sheets, essential tools such as binoculars and telescopes are mandatory for a successful bird count. Each team also has an electronic copy of Birds of East Africa, a book that lists all the birds, for easy identification.
John Gitiri, an avid birdwatcher, says, “Early morning is prime time when the birds are active. It’s their feeding time and birdwatchers should be in the sections they’re supposed to cover, no later than 6am.
The exercise brings together experts from the National Museums of Kenya, Nature Kenya, the Kenya Wildlife Service and local government ornithologists from Baringo County. Volunteers also participate. “As the county birder, the goal is to get data and trends on Baringo’s birds. It informs crucial decision-making,” said Michael Kimeli.
The exercise involves scouting around the lake in search of waterfowl. Kimeli’s team was deployed to the furthest southern end of the lake, 16 miles from the main entrance. The team should walk the section to its end, recording each species spotted, whether individual birds or a flock.
“Being the last team, we will follow the shores until the very end. While other teams meet at some point, ours is to go along the shores to the tip,” says Kimeli.
The Gitiri team is the penultimate; Team Seven. Team members begin their count where Kimeli’s team begins, only that they head in the opposite direction.
The plan is to walk several miles along the shores until they meet Team Six, to avoid overlap. Gitiri’s team covers the famous hot springs and geysers section, a favorite spot that often hosts flamingos in droves.
Counting consists of scanning flocks of waterbirds that include several species. Close herds are best counted using binoculars and those further away using a telescope. Small herds are counted individually while large herds are counted in blocks.
Experienced counters can accurately estimate 10, 20, 50, 100 or more birds almost instantly while looking through binoculars.
“In case of flying birds, we count those arriving and those landing in front of us and not those flying behind, heading in the direction we are heading. These were probably counted by another team said Gitiri.
Before counting a flock of birds, a preliminary scan is made with binoculars, and the total number of birds and the proportion of each species are assessed.
To carry out counts at the other end of the inaccessible banks, a team was deployed to viewpoints specifically to sweep the distant banks.
Richard Kipng’eno, a bird species expert with Nature Kenya, says bird counts are important for monitoring waterbird populations as well as documenting changes in numbers and distribution.
“Bird counts also help us identify wetlands while providing information on the protection and management of waterbird populations through international conventions and national legislation,” says Kipng’eno.
National waterbird counts, he said, take place in January and July. Already, counts have been carried out in the wetlands of the capital, Nairobi, and are underway in other parts of the country.
“The population trend of these birds also helps to take appropriate measures to avoid this threat. Long-term monitoring and repeated data collection helps a lot in developing policies,” Kipng’eno said.
Species likely to be encountered in wetlands nationwide include grebes, cormorants, pelicans, herons, egrets, storks, ibises, spoonbills, flamingos, ducks, geese , cranes, rails, jacanas, shorebirds, gulls, terns and skimmers.
Volunteer ornithologist Martha Mutiso says that while ravaging the coasts during the census is difficult, it’s part of the fun of the exercise.
“Sometimes we get lost. We walk along the banks and reach a dead end and have to retrace our steps. That’s the fun part,” she says.
Over the years, data from waterbird counts in the Rift Lakes region have shown declining trends, with Lake Nakuru experiencing massive declines in flamingo populations.
According to Senior Director James Kimaru, statistics from the current census are expected to record lower flamingo populations than those recorded in July 2021.
“This is because the flamingos have returned to Lake Natron to breed. By the time the next counts are made in July, the numbers will have increased as they will have returned with their young,” Kimaru said.
Current counts are also being undertaken in East African lakes to determine population trends and migration patterns. Counts also help map breeding and foraging areas. “The rising waters have also impacted the flamingo population in the Rift Valley Lake as it has changed the conditions for algae production. Over the past few months water levels have dropped,” explains Kimaru.
The flamingo population of Lake Bogoria was estimated at 300,000 in January 2021. At the time, data indicated that Lake Nakuru had 6,000 flamingos. Of these, 4,000 lived in sewage treatment ponds near the lake. Data shows that Lake Nakuru’s bird population dropped by around 850,000 in 2000.
This article is reproduced here as part of the Space for Giants African Conservation Journalism programme, supported by major shareholder ESI Media, which includes Independent.co.uk. It aims to expand the reach of conservation and environmental journalism in Africa and bring more African voices into the international conservation debate. Read the original story here.