NDEGE WETU: A Tribute to the Birds of Kenya (Part 5 – Visitors from Far and Wide)

Of Kenya’s 1100 or so species of birds, over 200 are migrants – birds that are only in Kenya for part of the year and spend other months somewhere else. Migrants live some very fascinating lives. They are born in a certain part of the world, and then travel huge distances (sometimes across entire continents or oceans) to some other part of the world, spend several months there and then they return back to where they were born, and if they’re mature they then breed and produce their own young, and the next year they repeat the cycle again.

Usually, breeding happens in warm or wet months and then they migrate to escape the harsh cold/dry season before returning when the weather improves again. Some birds are so specific that they will return to the exact same tree/bush/cliff to breed, fly along the exact same routes when travelling and spend their winters in the exact same places every year for many years (their whole lives in some cases)!

Today’s ‘episode’ is dedicated to this incredible group of globe-trotting birds.

A flock of Barn Swallows (Hirundo rustica) takes a short break during their southward migration. Lumo Conservancy, Taita-Taveta County

Most of Kenya’s migrants are from the Palearctic region (Europe, Asia north of the Himalayas, northern Arabia and Africa north of the Sahara). They breed in the Palearctic during the northern summer and then migrate south to spend the winter in the Afrotropical region (Sub-Saharan Africa and southern Arabia).

(This book is a great guidebook for identifying many of the Palearctic migrants that we see in Kenya.)

Some of the ones we see in Kenya spend the winter here while others only pass through the country on their way further south. We also get a few other types of migrants in Kenya, including intra-African, Malagasy and Oriental migrants. Some birds are also altitudinal migrants, performing small-scale local migrations between high and low altitudes. Some birds do a complete migration, where the entire population migrates, while others are only partial migrants with some individuals staying put.

A non-breeding male Golden-winged Sunbird (Drepanorhynchus reichenowi) near the Masai Mara. This species is an altitudinal migrant that prefers to stay in the cold. It spends warm months in the cool highlands and moves lower during cold wet months.
The movements of many migrants are still poorly known and understudied. Flamingos are not exactly migrants but they are highly nomadic and can travel extensively in search of suitable feeding grounds. Even though they’re among the most famous birds, their movements are still a bit of a mystery. In this photo, a Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus) stands among Lesser Flamingos (Phoeniconaias minor) at Lake Bogoria.
A Basra Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus griseldis) just about to be released after being ringed at Ngulia Safari Lodge, Tsavo West National Park. Much of what we know about Palearctic migrants in Kenya comes from the Ngulia Bird Migration Project, which has been on-going for 50 years and is the longest-running research project on bird migration in Kenya, and probably Africa. The main focus is on studying Palearctic migrants but a lot has been learnt about Afrotropical birds too.
This Eurasian Roller, or European Roller, (Coracias garrulus) was far from amused after being caught in the mist nets. Most Palearctic migrants travel at night and so most of the mist netting at Ngulia is done at night. Birds are trapped in the nets, fitted with a coded/numbered metal ring, measured and released. Thousands of birds are ringed during the annual exercise, which lasts about a fortnight each year. Any birds re-trapped anywhere else in the world can be traced to where they were ringed using the code on the ring. It’s a useful way of studying bird migrations.
Jacobin Cuckoo, or Black-and-white Cuckoo, (Clamator jacobinus) at Ngulia. This is a very interesting species whose migration patterns are still not well known. Several populations converge in Kenya. Some birds we get here breed in southern Africa (so are intra-African migrants), others breed in Kenya but seem to make some local movements following the rains, others are Oriental migrants from the Indian sub-continent and yet some are apparently Palearctic migrants! A complex bird to say the least.
A Common Buzzard, or Steppe Buzzard, (Buteo buteo) soars above Nairobi on its way back north to its Palearctic breeding grounds in April this year. Most Common Buzzards had already left by now but this one clearly wasn’t in a hurry. This is one of the commonest Palearctic birds of prey that we get in Kenya.
Eurasian Bee-eater, or European Bee-eater, (Merops apiaster). A common and striking Palearctic migrant. Nairobi National Park.
Willow Warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus). A tiny bird that is rather unimpressive to look at. It’s migration though is quite impressive. Some Willows come from as far as Siberia (northern Russia) and can travel as far south as South Africa, making them among the longest-distance migrants on the planet. Not bad for a bird that weighs barely 15 grams!

Kenya, being on the equator, receives migrants from both the southern and northern hemispheres. This is a privilege that relatively few countries enjoy and is one of the many things that makes Kenya one of the top bird-watching destinations in the world.

Maintain some natural habitat on your piece of land and you’ll be surprised at how many birds even a small patch of natural habitat can attract. Look out for some of the beautiful migrants as they pass through your area. By keeping some of your land natural, you are helping them to survive and refuel as they undertake their incredible journeys. Migratory birds are one of the wonders of the natural world. They have inspired people for centuries. Many cultures also use migrants to track seasonal and environmental changes. We should all do our part, no matter how small, to conserve migrants so that we and future generations can continue to marvel at and benefit from them.

If you’d like recommendations on good birding guides that can help you spot many migrants in Kenya, feel free to get in touch. And while you’re out birding in Kenya, consider submitting your bird lists to the Kenya Bird Map project to help monitor the distribution and movements of migratory birds in the country.

Tune back next Thursday for the next episode of Ndege Wetu!

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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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