Thrill of the Waterbird Census – The Standard
It’s 4:30 a.m. and birdwatchers participating in the biannual National Waterbird Counts have converged for a briefing at Lake Bogoria National Reserve before 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 famous birding destination that is home to almost a third 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 East African birdsa book that lists all the birds, to facilitate identification.
Ornithologist John Gitiri 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.
Bird data and trends
The exercise brings together experts from the National Museums of Kenya, Nature Kenya, the Kenya Wildlife Service and ornithologists from Baringo County Government. He also brought volunteers on board.
“As the county birder, the goal is to get data and trends on Baringo’s birds. This informs critical decision-making,” said Michael Kimeli.
The exercise consists of ravaging around the lake in search of water birds. Kimeli’s team was deployed at the furthest and southern end of the lake, 26 km from the main entrance.
The team must ravage 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 Nairobi wetlands, and ongoing counts are taking place in Nyanza, on the West Coast and in the Rift Valley.
“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 waterfowl regularly encountered in wetlands, including grebes, cormorants, pelicans, herons, egrets, storks, ibises, spoonbills, flamingos, ducks, geese, swans, cranes, rails, jacanas, shorebirds, gulls, terns and skimmers. Raptors, including kingfishers, are also often recorded.
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 have shown declining trends, with Lake Nakuru experiencing massive declines in flamingo numbers.
According to Principal Director James Kimaru, statistics from the current census are expected to record lower flamingo populations compared to figures recorded in July last year.
“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.
“Rising waters have also impacted the flamingo population in Rift Valley Lake as it changes the conditions for algae production. Over the past few months, water levels have dropped,” says 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.