Kenya Wildlife Safari Aug 01—16, 2007

Posted by Brad Schram

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Brad Schram

Brad Schram became fascinated with birds as a child in the mountains of California, the start of an enthusiasm that has modified and enriched his life. He has birded on all...

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Samburu Reserve encompasses rugged terrain made of metamorphic hills and slopes clothed in luxuriantly-spined acacias, grasses, and wait-a-bit thorns. This landscape drains to the Uaso Nyiro River that separates Samburu from its companion Buffalo Springs Reserve. Scores of miles of reserve land teem with wildlife of which African elephant, Beisa oryx, impala, Grevy's zebra, and reticulated giraffe are most prominent. Samburu commands attention; it inevitably holds large place in the memory of all who visit it.

Our evening drive had taken us away from the river into the hills, winding amongst acacias through rocky grassland. No other vehicles could be seen. The occasional group of Black-capped Social-Weavers presented itself. A pair of Rosy-patched Shrikes followed by a Crested Bustard kept the birding typically exciting. Bernard, our driver, suddenly called our attention to a massive Lappet-faced Vulture! Shifting my focus to the left, I noted that an immature Tawny Eagle was perched below the Lappet-face in the acacia just ahead to the left. This surprised Bernard, who asked where I was looking, then—yes—he saw "my" bird, before pointing out that "his" Lappet-face was on the ground further left not 100 feet away. Oh—THAT Lappet-faced Vulture!

We admired the two immense birds in the evening light, eventually noting a second Tawny Eagle, an adult, perching in an acacia beyond. Up close, a Lappet-faced Vulture is a remarkable creature. Approximately the size of a California Condor, its huge bill and the pink wrinkled skin of its face convey a sense of power not present in lesser vultures. They dwarfed the attendant eagles. We speculated at the cause of the gathering; something hidden from us had drawn them. After some time we decided to move on with the comment, "I wonder what we're missing here?" The answer became obvious behind a screening shrub once we drove only a few feet further.

A Martial Eagle crouched in the grass nearby, mantling its prey, wings extended extravagantly, its crest raised, golden eyes fairly blazing! Engine switched off! Almost unbelievably, a third Tawny Eagle—another immature—perched on a low branch within four feet of the defiant Martial Eagle. Though a juvenile and obviously hungry, the Tawny Eagle was not foolish enough to test the defenses of the larger bird, continuing to mantle its prey and yelp defiance of the unwanted assemblage.

Bernard angled our van closer to the Martial Eagle; the young Tawny Eagle withdrew. There was no surrender, no retreat in the Martial Eagle! The magnificent bird continued mantling its prey—probably a guineafowl or bustard judging by a few nearby downy feathers—hurling screams in our direction. The bird's beauty, its defiance, and its command of the situation remain indelible in the memory. We withdrew, leaving it to its prey and chosen space. The Lappet-faced Vultures seemed content to wait their turn.

Adventures with elephants and giraffes, lions and cheetah, were still ahead, but all agreed that the memory of the Martial Eagle continues as the most pungent from this year's excursions in Samburu. And much was yet ahead.

Lakes Nakuru and Naivasha held spectacles of flamingos and white rhinoceros, African Fish-Eagles, Giant Kingfishers, bee-eaters, and herons. Close-up scope views of Red-chested Cuckoos impressed us all. The vision of zebra and buffalo herds, swaying giraffes providing contrast, continued to please us and populate our memories. Safari in East Africa holds few quiet interludes.

The Masai Mara, Kenya's fabled reserve bordering Tanzania, comprises the northern part of the vast Serengeti system. It is to the Mara that the herds of wildebeest and zebra migrate and from which they return to the Serengeti Plain once they have eaten through the Mara's welcoming grassland. We had three days exploring the Masai Mara, days punctuated by elephants, cheetahs, mating lions, and, of course, wonderful birds like Bateleur eagle, Pygmy Falcon, and Black-bellied Bustard. The spectacle of the wildebeest and zebra migration may have been the most impressive of all, however.

Although the herds proved irresolute, not daring to cross the Mara River where we watched, we were treated to a sense of the annual crossing east of the river one evening. A vanguard wildebeest herd stopped at a pond in a donga—a steep-walled gully. Instead of finding a way around, the herd decided to ford the gully as if it were the mighty Mara River itself. First one, then another and another wildebeest flung itself wildly across the water before gravity forced it short of the far bank with a resounding splash. Scores of wildebeest crash-landed in the river after extravagant leaps, and look out below to the zebra already in the water! We watched in amazement as the herd kept coming—and then abruptly stopped. A Hammerkop flew up suddenly in front of the herd, yelping. The herd retreated from the donga edge uneasily. Silly animals, startled by a heron with a flamboyant crest!

Then, amazingly, we saw it—the leopard concealed in the high grass next to the emerging wildebeest trail. The herd may well have smelled the leopard, or started at the alarm in the Hammerkop's call—it couldn't possibly have seen the cat. In any case the spectacle of leaping, plunging, water-logged wildebeest was over for the evening. We then followed the leopard as it moved amongst the growth in the donga—stealthy feline, supremely beautiful.

Near the Mara River one stops the van, then sits quietly amidst natural grassland extending miles in all directions. Awareness of grass smell, together with the faint pleasant animal smell of milling thousands of plains animals, adds to the ancient scene. Scores of thousands of animals must be at once in sight, yet the idea of counting seems unworthy to the occasion—it's better to simply enjoy it, open-mouthed at the inexorability of it all. Buff-colored grass swarmed by deep-brown wildebeests, a riot of pattern here and there provided by a zebra herd, vultures overhead, the grunts of wildebeest, and the barking of zebra complete the sensation.

Memories continue to present themselves, but we agreed that the vitality of the mantling Martial Eagle and the spectacle of migrating herds are the supreme memories from among many pinnacle Kenya experiences. Great beauty and fine memories attend an interesting bird list accompanying this report.