Why The Nairobi National Park Bird List Is One Of The Longest In Africa

In my previous blog post, I described a day of birding in Nairobi National Park in which a few friends and I jointly recorded 213 bird species in the park. I also mentioned that, despite it being a great number, it is fairly average by the park’s standards. This is because the Nairobi National Park bird list is in fact the longest among Kenya’s national parks, with over 520 species recorded, despite the park’s tiny 117 km2 size! This is almost half of all the birds recorded in Kenya (about 1,100 species).

Exceptional diversity

The reason for such a staggering diversity of birdlife in such a small area is simple: habitat diversity. Nairobi is situated at the transition zone between two of Kenya’s major ecological regions:

  1. The Afrotropical Highlands biome – a high, cool and wet zone that includes Kenya’s large mountains and massifs e.g. Mount Kenya, the Aberdares, the Mau and the Cherangani Hills. The dominant natural habitats are forests, moist grasslands and wetlands.
  2. The Somali-Maasai biome – an area of low-lying dry savanna, thornbush and semi-desert that includes most of eastern and northern Kenya.
This map roughly shows the different biomes of Africa. (Courtesy: BirdLife International)

It might be difficult to appreciate this while in the city, but Nairobi is at the meeting point of these two biomes and the park shows this well. Nairobi National Park is therefore a great place to appreciate what the whole of Nairobi would have looked like before human development.

The Afrotropical Highlands are represented in Nairobi National Park by the upland dry forest in the west/northwest of the park, from the main gate and clubhouse area to the Lang’ata, Banda and Workshop gates. This area is above 1700m in elevation and receives more rainfall than the rest of the park.

As you move east/south-eastwards, you notice that the habitat changes from forest, through a narrow strip of bushland to open savanna. This savanna is fairly moist near the forest and gets drier as the altitude gradually drops until about 1500m in the Athi Basin, in the park’s south-eastern corner, which receives the least amount of rainfall in the park. This drier savanna zone represents the beginning of the Somali-Maasai biome, which stretches all the way east and north to Somalia and Ethiopia and south into northern Tanzania. Amboseli, the Tsavo national parks and the Samburu-Shaba-Buffalo Springs reserves are all within this biome.

Transition from the forest to the savanna in the north-western section of the park. Closer to the forest, the grass is typically long …
… as you move south-eastwards, the grass gets shorter. These zebras are in the Athi Basin, the park’s driest area.

Each of these biomes has its own wildlife community. And within these broad zones, there several micro-habitats including dams, streams/rivers, seasonal wetlands, rocky gorges, riparian woodlands, forest glades, dense shrub and different types of grasslands. All these are home to different types of birds and other wildlife that feed, breed and live in them. In general, the higher the diversity of habitats in an area, the higher the number of species that can be found there.

A rich avifauna

As NNP has an exceptionally high habitat diversity, the diversity of bird species is equally high. In the forest, you have the chance to see forest specialists like Hartlaub’s Turaco, Crowned Eagle, Lemon Dove and Cabanis’s Greenbul, while in the savanna you can see birds of the dry country such as Black-faced Sandgrouse, D’Arnaud’s Barbet, Short-tailed Lark and Desert Cisticola. In the dams and wetlands you can find numerous species of waterbirds including Yellow-billed Duck, Purple Swamphen, African Water Rail, Little Grebe and African Darter. Additionally, there are numerous birds which are generalists that are not restricted to a particular habitat. Add onto this of course that several migratory species use the park at certain times of year.

It is not unusual in a single day in the park to see two or three similar species that occur in completely different habitats. Examples include Cinnamon-chested Bee-eater (forest) and Little Bee-eater (savanna); Ayres’s Hawk Eagle (forest/moist woodland) and African Hawk Eagle (savanna/dry woodland); Crowned Eagle (forest) and Martial Eagle (savanna); Yellow-throated Longclaw (moist grassland) and Pangani Longclaw (dry grassland); African Pygmy Kingfisher (forest/woodland) and Malachite Kingfisher (wetlands); Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird (forest) and Red-fronted Tinkerbird (savanna); and Tambourine Dove (forest), Emerald-spotted Wood Dove (savanna) and Namaqua Dove (dry savanna).

Hartlaub’s Turaco. Denizen of the montane forests. Some people have suggested that this species should be declared the national bird of Kenya since it has all the colours of the Kenya flag: black, white, red and green. It is also nearly endemic to Kenya, with its range only slightly extending into northern Tanzania where it is found on the major mountains near the border including Mt. Kilimanjaro, Mt. Meru, the Pare Mountains and the West Usambaras.
Desert Cisticola. A bird of dry short-grass plains. With 10 cisticola species, Nairobi National Park has the second-highest number of cisticola species of any protected area in Kenya. Only the Masai Mara has more; 12 species. This is a reflection of the diversity of grassland habitats in NNP, as cisticolas are birds of the grasslands. The name ‘cisticola’ is a Latin word that literally means “grass dweller”.
Yellow-billed Duck and Red-billed Teals at an inundated patch of grassland in the park. These are two of the many waterbirds that can be seen in NNP.
The Black Stork is also a waterbird. But it is only present from around October to April, as it is a migrant from the Palearctic region.

A natural heritage to be proud of

The long length of the Nairobi National Park bird list is also slightly influenced by the fact that the Nairobi region has more bird watchers than any other part of Kenya. It is therefore logical that the more birders there are, the longer the area’s list will be over time. This, however, does not take away from the fact that the park is exceptionally diverse and rich in species. It is quite impressive, to say the list, that one of the country’s smallest national parks has its longest bird list. All else being equal, Nairobi National Park and its wider ecosystem still ranks among the most ecologically productive regions not only in Kenya but in Africa, and in fact on the planet.

Add to this that it is the only national park in a capital city globally, where mega-fauna like lions, rhino and giraffe still roam free. Is it therefore a long shot to suggest that Nairobi National Park should be declared a World Heritage Site?

(Click here to check out the full report of the coordinated team effort that resulted in 213 bird species recorded in the park on a single day)

To support conservation efforts on the plains south of Nairobi National Park, where a new conservancy has been set up to help protect the remaining wildlife dispersal area that is so crucial to NNP’s wildlife, please visit The Wildlife Foundation’s website.

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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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