Most birders may find it challenging to locate Samburu on a map. I would like to take the opportunity to change that and suggest to anybody visiting Kenya they should not miss out on this magnificent reserve.
Samburu offers a sublime birding experience with coveted endemic and arid specialists such as the Somali ostrich, vulturine guineafowl, Hunter’s sunbird and William’s lark as well as a cast of fascinating creatures such as gerenuk, reticulated giraffe, Grevy’s zebra, Beisa oryx and striped hyena, all specialities of the Somali-biome.
After, 35 years’ daydreaming about this place, I finally made it to its gates in last year’s Africa Geographic Predator Tour to Kenya. Here are my top 10 picks of Samburu’s best birds:
1. The Somali ostrich
They may be common and gangly but they have great personalities and a fascinating past. Ostriches are endemic to Africa, but there was a time when they used to roam Europe and Asia, with fossils found in Greece, Russia, Mongolia and India.
2a and 2b. Dusky and Donaldson’s Smith nightjars
I love, love, love nightjars. Every time I see one I am reminded that I am doing what I love most, which is birding, despite how late it is or how tired I might be. Samburu is no different and the lodge we were staying at, on the banks of the Ewaso Nyiro River, proved to be a midnight feast for nightjars. Two of which I was particularly chuffed with: the chunky Dusky nightjar (above) and the tiny Donaldson’ Smith nightjar (bellow).
3. White-headed mousebird
Cute as a button, what characters these are; with their hoodies that resemble a dollop of whipped cream. They look quite different to other mousebirds and are rather spiff to say the least.
Close your eyes and listen carefully: on any given morning in Samburu you are likely to hear this bird calling incessantly. Their days generally start atop a bush, clasping a branch for dear live and exposing their dark potbellies to the rising sun trying to raise the temperature of their core. A true solar powered species, I’d say!
4. D’Arnaud’s barbet
The D’Arnaud’s barbet is not particularly hard to see when driving around Samburu. If you do spot a pair displaying, switch off the engine and give them space and time to do their thing. If you are lucky you will be in for quite a show.
These barbets have an amazingly complex polyphonic duetting repertoire. The duets and calls vary between races and regions throughout East Africa. The norm within a given population will be two song types per couple. However these calls are not sex-specific, and if you watch and listen carefully you will see how males and females switch their parts, almost randomly, but always seamlessly orchestrated, which is pretty mind-boggling.
Further, when they are performing you can expect much swinging and jiving from tail-flaring to wing spreading, bill snapping, leap-frogging over each other, full face on challenges, neck extensions, crunchings and all sorts of fantastic gyrations.
The dominant pair will generally end their routine and listen to a neighbouring pair that may respond. They will also ensure that no subordinate helper or group member is ever perched higher than the primary singing pair.
5. Somali bee-eater
Finding and showing Somali bee-eaters to my clients has always reminded me that I am at the edge of what I call birding-comfort-zones, testing out some of Africa’s most underrated birding places. Samburu is a reliable place to make this feathered acquaintance.
6. Golden pipit
This must be the one and only pipit in the world with the ‘wow’ factor. It is bright and much easier to identify than most of its subspecies. Its flight displays are so impressive you want to put your binoculars down and clap. The golden pipits belong to a monotypic genus Tmetothylacus which is more closely related to longclaws than to pipits. And to throw a spanner in the works, notice the un-feathered tibia, a very rare and peculiar trait for which taxonomists have no functional explanation. A three day stay in Samburu produced 12 sightings of this good-looking bird.
7. Donaldson’s Smith sparrow-weaver
As a compulsive lister, no one should be surprised that I keep a list of species under the title: My AK-47 list. This list hosts species that I have not yet seen and would require an expedition where the number of AK’s would most definitely outnumber the number of binoculars in the party. Birds on the list include the Bulo Burti bush-shrike, Warsangli linnet and golden-winged grosbeak in Somalia, yellow-crested helmet-shrike in the Ituri mountains of Congo and the cinnamon weaver in central Sudan.
Having birded the Ethiopian-Kenyan, and Ethiopian-Somali borders extensively over the past 15 years, and never seen anything that remotely resembled a Donaldson’s Smith sparrow-weaver I was convinced that this species was a perfect AK-47 list candidate. But I have to confess elatedly that I was wrong, Samburu has them a dime a dozen.
8. Golden-breasted starling
In Samburu, if you bump into one golden-breasted starling you are likely to bump into several more. Not only are they common and gregarious in this part of the world, but they also indulge in the benefits of cooperative breeding and allow helpers and offspring to become part of an organised breeding effort to maximise reproductive success in an unpredictable climate.
9. Rosy-patched bush-shrike
This very cool bush-shrike is very closely related to the southern Bokmakierie to which it resembles in plumage pattern, tail-shape, behaviour and voice. A male in full display is quite a sight, and since they are highly territorial, a visit to Samburu would definitely yield more than one encounter.
Territorial males seem to be on constant alert for other male intruders as well as any other “wannabee” bush-shrikes, such as boubous. It is hilarious to watch and listen the minute a boubou accepts defeat and stops singing, the rosy-patched bush-shrike will break into a totally different victory chant that is so ear-piercingly loud that it can be heard across two territories beyond his, or the equivalent of 25 rugby fields yonder.
10. Black-capped social weaver
Although this species is not as sociable as the other sociable weavers in the sub-region, it still breeds and feeds in family units. Their colonies are easy to spot, much like those of sparrow weavers, where several groups that are closely related will breed, sleep and defend their nests, most of which are roosting chambers.
Invisible borders demarcate where the different groups may or may not perch. Amnesty is automatically declared when a snake, owlet, mongoose or raptor pay the colony a visit. On the ground whilst feeding, there is no disputes, shoulder to shoulder pecking is the order of the day.
For more about birding in Samburu read: Samburu Sensations.
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