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Global Big Day – May 2023

African Blue Flycatcher in Kakamega Forest

Adventures of a Global Big Day

As I woke up well before dawn and rolled (very reluctantly) out of bed, I was only one of over six hundred birders across Africa and over sixty thousand across the world sacrificing their Saturday sleep-in for a full day of exploring, searching, and tallying up lists of species. It was May 13th, 2023 – the first of two Global Big Days for the year. Kakamega was my patch for the day.

Kakamega Forest, nestled in the western region of Kenya, is a natural gem that beckons both nature enthusiasts and solace seekers year-round. As the last Kenyan remnant of the ancient Guineo-Congolian rainforest that once stretched across the African continent, this lush stretch of forest spans over 200 square kilometers and stands as a vital ecological preserve. Within its dense canopy of towering trees, there hides a flush tapestry of biodiversity which offers a unique experience for any visitor. On this particular day in May, it was the rich birdlife, much of it unique within Kenya, that brought me to the ancient rainforest.

My girlfriend, an amicable non-birder, very sweetly decided to join me for my morning outing. We grabbed an early breakfast and tea at Rondo, the retreat center we were staying at (and the only decent lodging available within the rainforest, unless you fancy sleeping in a rain-soaked tent – to each his own). As we finished our breakfast, I threw my dorky harness on and attached my binos and camera to it and slung my bird book over my shoulder and we headed to the parking lot to wait for our guide, Patrick, to meet us.

Since Rondo sits right in the middle of Kakamega, surrounded by and and dotted with enormous trees, some several hundred years old, it was a perfect place to start birding as we awaited Patrick’s arrival. I quickly wandered around the parking lot and lawn and took note of who the early risers were. A calling chinspot batis was the first record for the day, announcing his survival of the night with its common high-pitched, two-toned song. My tally had started. 

Birding at Rondo Retreat

Before Patrick showed up, I had heard a red-eyed dove and a tambourine dove cooing from the forest edge and an African emerald cuckoo heralding the morning from across the road. A black-faced rufous warbler rang out its song that reminds me of a squeaky see-saw. Black-faced rufous warblers are restricted to the western region of the country from which their range spreads across Uganda into the Albertine Rift (as well as a disjunct range sitting in West Africa’s armpit – Cameroon, Gabon, and Equatorial Guinea – although they very likely occur throughout the continent’s data-deficient middle). Three weaver species were easily seen in and among their woven grass nests hanging from some trees just in front of the reception: Baglafecht, brown-capped, and Viellot’s black weavers. I had just enough time to take a quick look at the massive tree that overlooks the dining hall at Rondo and check to see if the resident crowned eagle and her chicks were around. No sign of the mother but one of her chicks was eagerly awaiting her breakfast delivery – most likely some kind of monkey. We’d hardly finished breakfast twenty minutes ago and just from the area in front of reception, our list had reached nine species already!

Patrick arrived just after 6:30 and the three of us embarked on the walk that would provide the bulk of our birds for the day. We made our way out the gate and began walking down the long dirt road that bisects the Kakamega rainforest from east to west. Before we’d even walked twenty meters, we’d added several more to our list included Mackinnon’s shrike and Chubb’s cisticola, another western Kenya special (and my girlfriend’s favorite bird of the day – solely because of the name). This was only my third trip to Kakamega so I still had a good number of targets that I was hoping we’d find throughout the day, and the first one that we spotted was probably one of my two favorites for the trip. 

Maybe 200 meters down the road, we stopped because of a call we heard coming from the forest to our left. It was unmistakably a turaco but I didn’t have the ear to know which one it was. The day before, on our recce outing, we’d seen both the iconic great blue turacos, showing very well within Rondo’s grounds, and my first Ross’s turaco, also at Rondo. (Kenya’s most widespread turaco species, the Hartlaub’s turaco, is largely absent from the area we were in – there are two records on eBird, both from 1988.) But there was one more turaco species that could only be found within Kenya in the Kakamega and South Nandi forests – the black-billed turaco. Patrick, being a seriously keen local expert, immediately recognized the throaty call as a black-billed turaco and I insisted that we find it. Luckily for us, that took all of about ten seconds because almost immediately an individual flew overhead, across the road, flashing the distinctive turacin-based red on its wings. (Turacos’ red wings get their color from the pigment turacin, which comes from the copper-dense fruits that the birds eat. Most other birds get their red-colored plumage from carotenoids, a pigment also taken from food.) The black-billed turaco gave us some decent looks high up in the canopy but just near enough the road for me to get a half-decent shot of it. The day was off to a great start as far as I was concerned.

The birds kept coming as we continued down the long dirt road, passing by men and women hauling wood that they would sell or use to make charcoal in the town. The management of the entire forest has always been a complex matter. The northernmost section of the rainforest is the Kakamega Forest National Reserve (KFNR), which is managed very strictly by the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS). The KFNR is under a strict centralized government management scheme and means that the local, surrounding communities are entirely excluded from the management of that section of forest. The rest of the forest is (confusingly) the Kakamega Forest Reserve (KFR) and is under what is called participatory forest management, a joint effort between the Kenya Forestry Service (KFS), the local communities, and other stakeholders. The two types of forest management indicate the complexity of conserving natural spaces that are surrounded by increasingly densely populated areas. Old forests must be kept in tact as much as possible . . . but people need to eat. 

The KWS tends to have a more totalitarian take on conservation, while the section of the rainforest that is under the KFS is less tightly controlled. People can come in and out freely and even have some access to resources and land within the reserve, but without strict regulations, boundaries can become blurred. Most (if not all) of the wood we saw people carrying down the main road was illegally cut from within the reserve, but the likelihood of those people facing any consequences was very low. It can be a reminder that the wilderness and its inhabitants that we love to experience is changing very quickly. Better go look for those birds now, before they’re gone.

Along the road we ticked off a good number of species. Chestnut wattle-eyes and Lühder’s bushshrikes were calling incessantly from the edge of the forest on both sides. A cardinal woodpecker was high up in a tree drumming away, looking for insects to eat. Just after we had spent a good ten minutes trying to get a look at the yellow-spotted barbet that we could hear seemingly just next to us, Patrick told us we were coming up on one of the more “reliable” spots for the grey parrot, an increasingly difficult bird to see in Kenya. Kakamega is the only location in the country to see the wild parrots (sometimes you may see the occasional escapee flying around Nairobi or Mombasa) and I had never seen one myself, so I was suddenly very determined to find the bird. 

Walking very slowly down this stretch of the road, a sort of garbled screech rang out from the forest to our left. It wasn’t anything we’d heard yet and it certainly wasn’t something I recognized. Even Patrick couldn’t immediately confirm the call, but he had a suspicion – and I had a hope. Patrick whipped out his bluetooth speaker and quietly played a recording of a grey parrot. (Using playback while birding can present one with an ethical quandary, but I am in the camp that believes there are ways to do it ethically and safely, with minimal to no disturbance to the bird.) It was a series of call-and-response for probably fifteen minutes and we had just about given up hope of actually laying eyes on the bird when suddenly a grey parrot let out one more shriek and whistle and curiosity got the best of it. It flew right overhead and deep into the forest on the other side of the road. After that, we couldn’t even get a response, and there was zero chance of getting a photo of the parrot, but we had seen it and that was good enough.

Not long after that brief but glorious grey parrot sighting, we turned off the main road and started down a trail that would take us toward the Yala River, a tributary of Lake Victoria, at the southern end of the forest. My girlfriend, as good a sport as she had been, was already starting to tire so I told Patrick we didn’t need to go all the way to the river and instead could use a shorter circuit along this trail. (I think he was also more than happy to cut off what probably would have been another two or three hours of hiking.) 

Now within the dense canopy of the rainforest, this would offer our best opportunities to find some of the shier species we wanted on our list. As we maneuvered our way around the muddied trail, covered with evidence of cattle having been led to and from the river, we heard a curious call from the understory – a lovely rhythmic, three-toned series followed by what Terry Stevenson and John Fanshawe’s field guide, Birds of East Africa, aptly described as “a rising whiplash wi-pipi wi wu kwip! – a yellow-bellied wattle-eye, another lifer for me. The curious little orange-yellow bird with odd, green bits of skin surrounding its eyes, giving the bird its name, eyed us watchfully from its perch.

Another fifty metres in and we were gifted with another new bird for me and a good Western bird to get. A pair of green hylias flitted about quietly but conspicuously in the understory by the trail. Fairly drab, dark green bush warblers, green hylias can only be appreciated for their subtle elegance with a close look. With luck, one can see the  cream-colored supercilium (line above their eye) and their decurved bill which could almost lead an observer to confuse it with a sunbird species. 

As we trekked toward the river, we added many more species to our list. Purple-throated cuckooshrikes played in the canopy, pink-footed puffbacks rang out their obnoxious calls, and a pair of red-tailed bristlebills made an appearance. There was no shortage of greenbul species, including the eponymous Kakamega greenbul. A family of equatorial akalats searched the trail for bitings, causing us to pause and give them way as they worked on their breakfast. As we waited, a lovely tune came from the leaf litter just off the trail to our left. There was a small brown and grey bird skulking on the forest floor, calling out that he’d survived yet another night in the perilous rainforest – a scaly-breasted illadopsis. We had found one the day before, which was my first time seeing this species, so I was pleased we got another record on the day that I could add to my big day list. Little did I know, that it would prove to be only the first of four illadopsis species for the day!

The rest of the morning walk got quieter and quieter as the sun heated up the day and the birds went deeper into the cool cover of the rainforest. We still managed to add many more species to our list, which would end up with 77 species for the morning – quite a good start, I felt. Jameson’s wattle-eye, Sharpe’s drongo, Bocage’s bushshrike, a pair of brown illadopsis, a green-throated sunbird, and a group of about eight western crested guineafowl (one of a recent three-way split from the nominate Guttera pucherani), another lifer on the day, all showed well for us before we had made it back to Rondo for a break.

Before we took lunch, I had a quick walk around the grounds at Rondo to see if I could add any common birds that had eluded me in the morning. A white-browed robin-chat called incessantly from just by our cottage, as did a Diederik cuckoo. At the lower edge of the lawn area, I found the family of great blue turacos that had been around the day before – check. Both black and white-headed saw-wings were flying erratically about above the canopy. And how could I forget our dear friend, the dark-capped, or common, bulbul

My girlfriend and I took lunch and went for a brief siesta in the lawn in front of our cottage. I read a book about the Rwandan genocide, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, and she read a tome on the brutalities of British colonialism in Kenya – you know, light lunch-time reading. (Yikes.) As I added the cinnamon-chested bee-eaters, one of all-time favorite birds, to my list, I decided I had taken a long enough break and needed to get back out on the trail – Team Kenya needed me (or at least that’s why I told myself).

Rondo has a lovely set of trails that begin right from the lower garden into the forest and take you by some water. The streams down there are probably some of the most reliable spots in Kakamega, if not in Kenya, to see white-spotted flufftails. Flufftails, members of the rail family, are notoriously hard to see birds, most often recorded only by their varying calls. Patrick and I had had the most incredible view of a white-spotted flufftail the day prior (predictably, it was the one walk I opted not to carry my camera) and I wanted to see if I could coax the bird out again. I made my way to the exact same spot we’d seen it yesterday, sat myself down on the bench there and waited. And waited and waited and waited. I thought it would be more fun to try and lure it out without proper playback but instead by trying to imitate the bird’s call myself. If only you had seen me there, sitting alone on a bench in the middle of the African rainforest, gleefully whistling over and over and over again, while looking intently at the bushes in front of me for a solid half hour – we do strange things to see birds. But finally, after probably forty minutes of sitting, whistling, and waiting patiently, the white-spotted flufftail I had come to get popped out to the edge of the bushes by the stream for about one second, most likely just to confirm that it was indeed the pale, hairless ape that was making that annoying sound, before disappearing again into the dense forest. Add it to the list.

On my way back up to the retreat center, I caught a glimpse of my first grey-winged robin-chat! Kakamega is an excellent spot to find a handful of robin-chat species, some of the more constant callers of the forest, and the grey-winged was the last of the expected species from the area to add to my personal list, as well as my list for the big day.  After going back to my girlfriend (who had understandably tired of the colonial atrocities of Britain and was taking in the royal gossip of Prince Harry’s recent autobiography instead – or is that just a modern version of British atrocity?) to enjoy a tea break. We were in Kenya, after all. 

At about four, after hearing from Patrick that he would unfortunately not be able to join me for another outing that day, I decided to check out the other side of the trail from Rondo. I got good views of joyful greenbuls, a dusky crested flycatcher, and an olive sunbird. One of my more glaring omissions on the day so far finally showed – the resident pair of black-and-white-casqued hornbills flew overhead, making quite the typical ruckus. As I sat by a little waterfall (at a different spot from the flufftail), I noticed a small, dark bird hopping about sneakily nearby, seemingly checking me out. I wasn’t sure what it was, but I managed to snap some bad photos of it and make of note of it before it disappeared into the darkening forest. I would get confirmation later from a ornithologist friend of mine that it was a mountain illadopsis, the last of the four illadopsis species that are found in Kenya to add to my life list! 

As the sun set and the day wound to a close, I wanted to go across the road from Rondo and past the tea field to see if I could get one more good bird that we had seen the day before. Just as it was almost too dark to see into the brush, I found the spot and played the call of the bird, really just hoping, not expecting, to get a response. But alas, it must have known that it was my big day and wanted to be a part of it, as the buff-spotted flufftail I was hoping for called out from the dark. I didn’t get my eyes on it this time, but that counts. It was nearing 7:30 PM and that would end up being the only Kenyan record for that species for the day – worth the effort. 

As much as I would have loved to go look for the red-chested owlet that calls Kakamega home, I knew that without a guide, in the dark, well, I may have just ended up spending the night in the forest. Not seeing a bird this time just gives me an excuse to go back again. Lying in bed after the long day, I heard the unmistakable call of a montane nightjar – an icon of many an Kenyan night’s soundscape – and I pulled out my phone to add one more bird to my list. That brought me to 102 species for the day – a good haul, especially given that I’m no ornithologist (despite what my bio says). Kenya would end the day seventh in the world and first in Africa with 723 species. This had been my first proper big day and it only left me excited for more.