Migrants on safari: My incredible visit to Kenya
After a decidedly wintry February and a wet March, signs of spring are all around in April. Migrants such as swallows and house martins, at least those that have survived their perilous journeys, will soon be searching for breeding sites.
We recently returned from a holiday in Kenya where it is rarely cold and often hot, the seasons there being largely defined by drought or rain rather than by seasonal shifts in temperature.
Among the marvellous array of resident species were familiar birds including common swifts, swallows and martins swooping and feeding alongside exotic relatives such as lesser striped swallows, and palm and little swifts. Here their aerial prey is abundant and worth making the hazardous journey south.
Rollers, colourful relatives of crows, are favourites of mine. The resident lilac-breasted rollers were joined by European rollers wintering in the insect-rich bush country.
On the soda lake of Elmenteita, flocks of pink flamingos fringed the shoreline, numbering I estimated more than 50,000, while dozens of migrant waders pecked at the damp mud nearby, familiar species such as ruffs and little stints among them.
I looked in vain for African fish-eagles but did not even hear their characteristic call. Perhaps the fish are much scarcer in the highly alkaline waters here? Later, at Lake Naivasha, almost the first bird I heard was a fish-eagle, whose yodelling call became the soundtrack to our stay there.
These magnificent eagles swoop down to pluck fish from the surface of the lake, and several pairs were guarding their huge nests or soaring over the water.
At our third safari site, in the famous Masai Mara, white storks, winter migrants from southern and Eastern Europe, roamed the savanna in their hundreds. Some could even be heard bill-clapping in pre-breeding displays. They too would soon be making the long flight back to their breeding sites as spring returns to Europe.
Native marabou storks were much less numerous, scavenging, vulture-like, for prey, alive or dead, appropriately with the distinct air of undertakers.
Cuckoos are well-known migrants. The red-chested cuckoo is resident in Kenya but also arrives as a migrant, in this case from the south. The locals were pleased to hear its song, often rendered as “it will rain”, hoping this was a confident prophecy in the prevailing drought! European cuckoos will reach us around the middle of this month.
The main attractions for most tourists on safari are the mammals, especially elephants, giraffes and buffalos, and the big cats -- lions, cheetahs, and leopards. Watching mammals is generally much easier in Africa than it is here.
In the open, bush-studded grasslands they are often not that hard to track and, unlike many European mammals, most are active by day. Watching ‘game’ is undoubtedly aided by the fact that they do not seem to be disturbed by the large vehicles that carry tourists up close.
It is as if the animals are quite unable to compute the vehicles, and certainly do not see them as a threat.
On one magical day we saw several lions resting in the heat, and two cheetahs, apparently brothers, just starting to scan the area for potential prey. But the absolute highlight was to come.
Close to a small stream fringed by dense bushes and trees I spotted a red object in the branches. This proved to be the flesh of a young wildebeest and through the leafy twigs we saw with awe and delight that it was in the clutches of a leopard who had its meal wedged firmly between the branches.
Leopards are powerful cats well capable of dragging large prey up into a tree away from any interested lions or hyenas. Just beyond the tree, low in a ditch, lay another leopard. Both eventually appeared in the open, providing amazing opportunities for photography. This for me was one day when the mammals trumped the birds for my attention.
By the time we returned home, soon to be followed by many of those migrant birds, winter still seemed to be holding a firm grip and we had only our memories and photographs to remind us not only of the tropical warmth, but also of the exciting and fundamentally different habitats and wildlife of East Africa.