Kenyan delights

Happy New Year! To launch us in to 2013, we have a post from Steve Spawls on some of the amazing wildlife you can see in Kenya.

Once in a while my wife lets me off the leash to go and look for snakes, usually in Kenya, on the strict proviso that I do some serious field work and don’t stay at any fancy lodges or hotels; which would make her jealous. So I went to Kenya at half-term, and spent a couple of days with Glenn Mathews, my co-author and long time friend, at his smallholding on the southern edge of Nairobi National Park. It’s a lovely place; you sit on his veranda and look across the Mbagathi River straight into the park. On a good day you might see a rhino or two. Glenn’s plot slopes down to the river, and the bush is thick there.

Sunbird tapping at the window

Sunbird tapping at the window

A stroll by the river is hazardous. It’s not like walking on Buxton Heath; there you might see a roe deer, or hare, and an adder or two in the right season. And yellowhammers, always. But at Glenn’s place, the thick bush often provides shelter for buffalo, and you don’t want to startle them. I always sing or whistle when going through the riverside bush, which scares the birds, of course, until you can find a vantage point and sit quietly. The first morning, after being awoken by an irritable variable sunbird banging on my window – he wanted to fight with his reflection – I went down to the river. I was sitting there, watching a gymnogene on her nest when Glenn’s son Jesse spotted a young rock python and shouted for me to come. I lost my balance on the slope, covered myself with mud and by the time I arrived the python had slipped into the river. So back to Glenn’s house to clean up, and I decided to go for a walk higher up along the ridge, not forgetting to spray my legs with insect repellent. In the grass there are pepper ticks, which are really tick larvae, and if you get these tiny mites on your skin they get into the pores and cause intense itching. A stroll along the ridge produced a real gem. It’s always the way, when you walk in a wild place. As I pottered through the grassy savanna, among the low whistling-thorn trees, a nightjar suddenly fluttered up from under my feet. Usually, when you flush a nightjar, it floats away on silent wings, flies off thirty or forty yards and settles. You can try to stalk it again, if you can spot it. Their camouflage is superb and if they think you haven’t seen them, they will sit tight. But this nightjar didn’t respond normally. She squawked as she got up, plumped down five yards away and began limping away, trailing a wing and hissing at me. She was trying to drag me away, which meant she had young nearby. I took a couple of pictures of her and looked around carefully, but could not see the chicks. So I walked away, sat down thirty or so years and waited. She didn’t come back, so I made a little cairn of stones and went back to the house for some coffee with Glenn and Karen.


I came back an hour later, and approached my cairn slowly. This time the mother nightjar tried a different technique; she shuffled off her nest very quietly and began to creep away. I saw her as she was shuffling off. I sat down, and after a few minutes she crept back, into a patch of grass. Then I approached obliquely, and eventually, after staring for a good five minutes, saw her blink an eye. And she had two chicks, right in front of her. I got a couple of photographs, and then backed off.

Montane Nightjar or Dusky Nightjar?

Montane Nightjar or Dusky Nightjar?

I find Nightjars are tough birds to identify. I can tell a few by their calls – the freckled nightjar, often on stony hills in Africa, has a squawk like a little dog, but all nightjars look very similar, although the males of two species develop magnificent wing projections that enable identification. I sent my pictures to Nik Borrow, an expert African ornithologist, and he said either Montane Nightjar or Dusky Nightjar. But not even he was certain. However, Nigel Redman copied the pictures on to a friend who specialises in nightjars, Nigel Cleere, and he reckoned it was dusky. But when you struggle with a particular group of birds, it’s nice to know that even the experts are sometimes unsure.

Steve is the co-author of Kenya: A Natural History.


Find out more about Nightjars:


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