NDEGE WETU: A Tribute to the Birds of Kenya (Part 10 – Birds that Catch Your Eye on Safari)

Out on safari in Kenya, most people are looking for the big famous animals like lions, elephants and rhinos and pay little attention to smaller wildlife like birds.

African Bush Elephant (Loxodonta africana) and Spotted Hyena (Crocuta crocuta). Two of the more popular safari characters.

There are certain birds, however, that catch people’s attention even if they’re not bird enthusiasts. Their unusual, beautiful or unique appearance makes them stand out.

Here are four of the most eye-catching groups of birds you might encounter on safari …

Bustards

These big, long-legged, ground-dwelling birds of savannas and deserts are not hard to notice when they’re walking around looking for their next meal, or mate. More often than not, people on game drive will find them worth a stop, to snap a couple of photos of them or simply admire them.

The world’s heaviest flying birds in fact belong to this group.

Kori Bustard (Ardeotis kori). Every regular safari-goer in Kenya recognizes this bird. It’s breeding display is particularly eye-catching.
Kori Bustard male in search of a female in Nairobi National Park. When it finds one, it will begin a full breeding display with its neck bulged out to look big and impressive.
Heuglin’s Bustard (Ardeotis heuglinii). Look out for them on the dry plains of northern Kenya.
Hartlaub’s Bustard (Lissotis hartlaubii) adult male. Not to be confused with the nearly identical Black-bellied Bustard (Lissotis melanogaster).
Their females are also almost identical. This is a female Black-bellied Bustard at dusk.
White-bellied Bustards (Eupodotis senegalensis) on the Athi Plains
Buff-crested Bustard (Lophotis gindiana). Kenya’s smallest bustard. These are not always easy to see as they like bushy habitats, where they blend in well.

Ostriches

Even bigger than the bustards is the ostriches; the largest birds of all. It’s obvious why they would catch the attention of anyone on a game drive.

Masai Ostrich (Struthio camelus massaicus) having lunch in Nairobi National Park. This species is replaced by the blue-necked Somali Ostrich (Struthio molybdophanes) in northern Kenya.
A scene from the Masai Mara. Masai Ostrich and Grant’s Gazelle (Nanger granti). If you were on a game drive, which one is more likely to make you stop? The ostrich or the gazelle?
A female Masai Ostrich near Konza

Large birds of prey

These include eagles, vultures and the unique Secretarybird. Something about them seems to intrigue even the regular, non-birding, safari-goer.

Secretarybird (Sagittarius serpentarius). This unmistakable “marching eagle” is an entertaining bird to watch even for non-birders as it hunts methodically for rodents, large insects, lizards, snakes and other prey on the open plains. It is only found in Africa and is so unique that it is placed in its own taxonomic family (Sagittariidae).
A pair on the prowl – Nairobi National Park
A pair of Martial Eagles (Polemaetus bellicosus), aerial equivalent of the lion, in Nairobi National Park. Seeing these massive eagles up close while on game drive almost always warrants a stop.
Long-crested Eagle (Lophaetus occipitalis). This eagle is not particularly large. It’s actually quite small. But its funky ‘hairstyle’ draws the attention of anyone who sees it. It’s also the logo of Nature Kenya (The East Africa Natural History Society).
Rüppell’s Vultures (Gyps rueppellii) and White-backed Vultures (Gyps africanus) taking their daily bath in Nairobi National Park. These two species often congregate in big numbers at large carcasses, jostling for space with other vultures, jackals and hyenas. These interactions can be amusing to watch.

Rollers

These colorful birds are always a pleasure to see on safari. For photographers, they make great subjects too.

Lilac-breasted Roller (Coracias caudatus). Possibly the most photographed bird in Africa. This beautiful bird is so popular among safari-goers that many often call it the national bird of Kenya (though this isn’t official).
Lilac-breasted Roller in flight with a snack
Rufous-crowned or Purple Roller (Coracias naevius) at Olorgesaillie Prehistoric Site
Eurasian or European Roller (Coracias garrulus). A Palearctic migrant.

I hope you enjoyed this selection. There are a good number of other birds in Kenya that fascinate wildlife enthusiasts, whether birders or not, on safari.

They add some flavor to game drives and make them more interesting, especially if you’ve been driving around looking for the ‘Big 5’ all day with little success.

Take time to appreciate even the little things you see and you will enjoy your safari a lot more. There is a lot more out there than just the Big 5.

If you enjoyed this, look out for the next NDEGE WETU ‘episode’ next Thursday.

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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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