Through My Lens – Birding among Elephants in Laikipia

I recently spent a couple of days in the Mutara Conservation Area, bordering Ol Pejeta Conservancy to the north. With great views of both the Aberdares and Mount Kenya, and good numbers of large mammals like elephant, buffalo and lion, Mutara offers a great all-round safari experience. And the birding was nothing short of amazing!

Here are some highlights from the trip …

On our way to Mutara, we drove through Ol Pejeta and enjoyed several great sightings, the highlight of which was three lions on a buffalo kill. Off to the right of this photo (out of frame) was a big sleeping male lion that had clearly already had his share. To the left were some Spotted Hyenas and Black-backed Jackals patiently waiting to gain access to what remains.
The view from Jambo Mutara Camp. This photo does not do it justice.
Blue-naped Mousebird seen as we were having breakfast at the camp. The camp overlooks a waterhole that attracts many birds and other wildlife.
Colors of Africa
Black-backed Jackal about to go get some breakfast
Reticulated Giraffe. One of northern Kenya’s special attractions
Two oxpecker species on the backs of two zebras. Red-billed Oxpeckers on the leading zebra and a Yellow-billed Oxpecker behind them.
Wattled Starlings were also common. Surprisingly, we saw no Cattle Egrets among the herds.
African Quailfinches were not uncommon on the plains
This Red-eyed Dove was sitting tight on its nest, which was well-hidden in an Acacia
Mutara’s main dam held this courting pair of Grey-crowned Cranes (I narrowly missed a shot of the birds dancing!) and a decent assortment of waterbirds including Egyptian Geese, Yellow-billed Ducks, Red-billed Teal, African Spoonbill, Red-knobbed Coot, Yellow-billed Stork and several sandpipers.
Three-banded Plovers were feeding on the shoreline
Little Stint – a long-distance migrant from the Palearctic region (Europe, Asia north of the Himalayas and Africa north of the Sahara). Other Palearctic migrants seen at Mutara included Common, Green and Wood Sandpipers, Common Greenshank, Ruff, Pallid Harrier, Western Yellow Wagtail, Barn Swallow, Common House Martin, Eurasian Bee-eaters, Northern and Isabelline Wheatears, Eurasian Golden Oriole, Willow Warbler and Spotted Flycatcher.
African Spoonbills taking a break in between bouts of foraging
Tawny Eagle in a rush to get somewhere. Apart from this and the Pallid Harrier mentioned earlier, other raptors on our list were Black-shouldered (Black-winged) Kite, White-backed and Rüppell’s Vultures, African Hawk Eagle, Martial Eagle, Eastern Chanting Goshawk, Gabar Goshawk and Yellow-billed Kite.
While still birding on foot at the dam, several herds of elephants came down to drink. Some of them got quite close to us but non showed any signs of aggression. An incredible experience.
With so many elephants around, getting back to our vehicle was a tricky and hair-raising affair. But we managed!
The boys you do not want to walk into.
My first Eurasian Golden Oriole of this migration season.
Somali Short-toed Lark (of the southern race athensis). A lifer for me. We had four good sightings of this species. This was very significant as it turns out that this population of athensis birds on the Laikipia Plateau had not been recorded for close to two decades and was presumed to be locally extinct. Bird of Kenya and Northern Tanzania (Zimmerman et. al. 1999) notes them as “formerly” on the plains below Mount Kenya.
While trying to photograph the lark, a Speckled Sand Snake suddenly darted across the road! The lark was about as surprised as we were.
Red-capped Lark (pictured here) and Rufous-naped Lark were also in decent numbers. Other LBJs on the plains included Fischer’s Sparrow Lark, Plain-backed Pipit, Grassland Pipit and Pectoral-patch Cisticola.
Kori Bustard foraging in the long grass
Interestingly, they were always in areas with stands of Acacia (Vachellia) drepanolobium trees. Never out in the extensive treeless plains. Just a coincidence? Perhaps
White-bellied Bustards were a very common sound but only seldom seen as they were easily concealed by the long grass.
Spotted Flycatcher. A Palearctic migrant.
Among mammals, one of the highlights was the Steenbok. In an attempt to stay hidden, it stood motionless facing us and retracted its big ears behind its head. A typical predator-avoidance tactic of this small antelope. (more on this behaviour in this detailed guide to African mammals)
This photo I took 2 years ago clearly shows why the Steenbok tries to hide its ears when it feels threatened. They’re big and conspicuous.
The absolute highlight of the trip was this Orange-winged Pytilia! A small bird that is very rare in Kenya and who’s occurrence in the country, especially central Kenya, remains poorly known. This was a lifer for me and the first record of this species in Laikipia on the Kenya Bird Map. The photo is terrible but the sighting was one I won’t forget any time soon!
Eastern Black-headed Oriole. This beautiful bird’s bubbling song is a common sound at Jambo Mutara Camp.
Common Scimitarbill in some riparian woodland. Abyssinian Scimitarbill and Green Wood-hoopoe were seen as well.
A small number of Violet-backed Starlings were also around.
A young bull elephant walks past some White-bellied Bustards just after sunset.
Elephants grazing out in the open as the last of the daylight fades away.
At night, Dusky Nightjars were quite common on the roads. This one sat for a few seconds, giving a brief window of opportunity to photograph it. Before I could get my camera settings right, it flew off! Night-time photography is far from easy.
Here’s a better photo of a Dusky Nightjar. Taken during the day in Kajiado.
Mountain of mist, snow and fire … A view of Mount Kenya at dawn.
Speke’s Weaver nesting season was in full swing at Mutara. Big noisy colonies were busy building nests in several trees.
A male trying to attract a female’s attention to his freshly-constructed nest
Black Cuckooshrike looking more blue than black
Black-lored Babblers of the central Kenyan endemic race vepres (aka Mount Kenya Babbler). Like typical babblers, they were noisy and hard to miss. A few flocks of Arrow-marked Babblers and Rufous Chatterers were also seen, but Black-lored seemed to be the dominant species in the area.

A weekend at Mutara produced a list of 142 bird species. And this is definitely not all the birds that can be seen there. Lion prides were highly vocal at night. A very nice part of Kenya for sure. And one I would not mind re-visiting.

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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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