A Birder’s Eye View of the NNP Wildlife Census – August 2018

On August 12th I took part in the bi-monthly Nairobi National Park wildlife census (game count), organized by the Kenya Wildlife Service in collaboration with the Friends of Nairobi National Park (FoNNaP). We had great close-up sightings of lions, rhinos and other big game, but for an avid birder like myself, these were only the tip of the iceberg. Here’s a look at some of the highlights, from a birder’s perspective:

The very first photo I took … a distant Secretarybird rising from its roost to begin its day. We had a brief sighting of a female Black Rhino with a young calf earlier but it was still too dark to get a decent photo as the sun had not yet risen.

As we approached the Sosian Valley we could see the unmistakable shape of two big male Lions sitting out in the open, right next to the road.

A lion at dawn

When we got closer we noticed that these were the two brothers known locally as Cheru and Sam – the oldest male lions in the park. Cheru is the lion that caused a stir in 2016 when he showed up outside the park near City Cabanas along Mombasa Road, in broad daylight, to the astonishment of the public.

Cheru keeping an eye on proceedings, as the SGR (Standard Gauge Railway) construction through the park continues…

Sam snoozing off in the warmth of the morning sun

A sub-adult male Common, or Masai, Ostrich strides through the long grass. Ostriches continue to do well in NNP.

Another group of large ground birds easily seen in NNP is the bustards. Although on this day we only saw one species – the White-bellied Bustard. This one is also a sub-adult male and was accompanied by two females.

At the vulture bathing pools above the Athi Basin, we encountered our first Palearctic migrants of the day – a group of 12 Little Stints. Also at the pools were a few Quail-finch and Three-banded Plovers.

All the stints were still in breeding plumage, which is a clear sign that they are freshly arrived migrants rather than individuals that over-summered in Kenya.

They were feeding voraciously, making sure to re-fuel adequately before continuing on their migration.

Sandpipers in general are always among the earliest group of Palearctic migrants to arrive in Kenya on the autumn migration. Later on at the Athi Dam we also saw another recently arrived sandpiper – a Common Greenshank.

As we descended into the Athi Basin, we met this Spotted Thick-knee on the road

It was very reluctant to fly off the road into the long grass. It kept on flying away as our car approached, only to land back on the road several meters in front of us. Some of the other birds were also behaving in this way – possibly avoiding the long grass because it obstructs their view of potential on-coming predators.

Eastern Black Rhinoceros. Second sighting of the day.

A pair of Black-faced Sandgrouse near Athi Dam. This dryland species is typically uncommon in NNP. We saw two pairs on this day, both near Athi Dam.

Two male ostriches were sizing each other up near Athi Dam. No fight erupted but this one came out victorious as the other walked away. Females were nearby but seemed to be paying absolutely no attention to the ‘dueling’ males.

Juveniles feeding near the dam…

The tallest bird in the world and tallest animal in the world in the same frame. Behind them, the SGR.

Impalas were abundant as always. Here, a dominant male keeps his harem close as a Crowned Plover (in the foreground) looks on.

A closer look at the Crowned Plover (or Crowned Lapwing)

Near the pipeline, a collared lioness was walking with purpose towards Athi Dam. We quickly lost sight of her in the thick bush. The only lion we saw in our counting block.

White-browed Coucal (juvenile). Every animal in the park seems to have young at the moment.

The ever-energetic Black-backed Jackal. Their population in NNP appears to have grown substantially in recent years.

A small herd of buffalo relaxing along the Mbagathi (Empakasi) River

An adult male Martial Eagle was perched on a tall Yellow-barked Acacia tree along the Mbagathi

Top avian predator of the African savannas. Capable of killing prey several times its own body weight. Avian equivalent of the lion.

Marabou Storks were beginning to congregate for their daily ‘political rally’ as they always do in the Athi Basin.

Masai Giraffe. These were mostly in the southern parts of the park

Brown-crowned Tchagra near Hippo Pools

From Hippo Pools we doubled back to Athi Dam using a different route, where we encountered these three Southern White Rhinos

Striated (or Green-backed) Heron – Athi Dam

Lesser Striped Swallows (juveniles)

Common Elands, with the Ngong’ Hills behind them.

A rather confident and inquisitive juvenile Helmeted Guineafowl approaches us for a closer look. The rest of the flock had fled into the long grass. This type of confidence in the face of potential danger is probably not a good trait for a guineafowl to have and this fellow might get snapped up by a predator soon if he doesn’t change his ways. After all, that’s how natural selection works!

A young Olive Baboon taking life slow

Little Bee-eaters showing where they got their name from

At Mokoyeti PS, the Yellow-spotted Rock Hyrax were at their usual spot

Emerald-spotted Wood Dove at the edge of Kisembe Forest

White-backed Vulture with a full crop. These Critically Endangered raptors breed in the park in significant numbers and are a major reason why the park is designated an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area (IBA), and more recently a Key Biodiversity Area (KBA).

Mother and calf – Southern White Rhinoceros

Zebra were in small groups scattered throughout the park, with a large number still outside the park on the Athi-Kaputiei Plains along with Wildebeest (of which we didn’t see a single individual of). This is part of a seasonal migration pattern very similar to that of the Mara-Serengeti, although very greatly reduced in scale over recent decades. This migration is the reason why many people who visit NNP for the first time when the herds have moved south get the impression that ‘there is no wildlife in the park’. The park is in fact a dry season refuge.

Kongoni (Coke’s Hartebeest) were however in fairly good numbers, along with Grant’s and Thomson’s Gazelles and Impala. Their movements tend to be less dramatic than those of the wildebeest and zebra.

Black-crowned Night Heron among the reeds at Nagolomon Dam. These have bred successfully at the dam this year. There was still one active nest, as well as a couple of active African Darter, Reed Cormorant and African Spoonbill nests.

All birds recorded were submitted to the Kenya Bird Map project.

All in all, we had a great day (as usual) in NNP. The fact that such an ecologically rich area persists at the doorstep of East Africa’s largest capital city still amazes me. Though the challenges it faces are big and its future is far from certain. This park and its wider ecosystem is a national treasure that Kenya must strive to conserve even as the country develops, and that more Kenyans must visit, explore and enjoy!

Feel free to get in touch if you would like to go on a guided bird watching tour of Nairobi National Park with me.

P.S. Please check out my photo on the GLF Nairobi Photo Competition and give it a vote if you like it (click here to see it). Cheers! 

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About Sidney Shema

Sidney is a Kenya-based ornithologist and photographer specializing in the birds of Africa, with an especially keen interest in the birds of prey (raptors) of Kenya.
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Ken Schneider
2 years ago

A wonderful assortment of wildlife images from this important preserve!