Bird watching is no easy task especially when having a birding tour in a foreign destination. Without a bird guide you’re likely to record few bird species after consuming a lot of time and energy. As a result we’ve decided to highlight some of the best places for bird watching in Yala swamp when visiting Kenya.
When organizing your itinerary to have best birding vacation remembers to carry your useful birding equipment including but not limited to binoculars, notebook, camera and a birding guide book. Without some of these basic tools, your birding will dull and non effective costing you resources. As a birder ensure to conduct your bird watching activities in one of the following identified location
1. Birding in Papyrus Vegetation
Yala Swamp is a fresh water wetland covering about 17,500 hectares and the third largest in Kenya after Lorian swamp and Tana Delta wetland. Geographically the swamp is located on the north eastern shore of lake Victoria one of the largest fresh water lake in the world. Yala swamp altitude ranges between 1130m – 1160 with a latitude of 34 4E, 0’2’N. The swamp covers two counties in Kenya namely Busia and Siaya counties respectively and can be approached from either side by birders. Yala Swamp Complex is a wetland of national importance teeming with a unique variety of swamp birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, invertebrates as well as the endangered swamp antelope, Sitatunga. The swamp is constituted with two predominantly unique vegetation cover namely the short and woody bush land, the terrestrial vegetation surrounds most of the Northern, Western and Eastern segment of the Yala wetland. The swamp boost of the Papyrus (cyperus papyru) covering the three lakes and the southern part of the swamp. Yala wetland is designated as one of the most Important Bird Area (No 140) and host array of birds that includes the Blue-breasted bee-eater Merops variegates loringi, Swamp Fly catcher Muscicapa aquatic infulata, the Papyrus Canary S. koliensis, Papyrus Gonolek Laniarius ruficeps rufinuchalis, Caruther’s Cisticolas , and Papyrus Yellow Wabbler Chloropeta gracilirostri, White-winged Swamp-warbler, Bradypterus carpalis, Northern Brown-throated Weaver Ploceus castanops and Greater Swamp-warbler Acrocephalus rufescens among other unique bird species. To enjoy birding in the dense papyrus vegetation, mosquitoes or insect repellants may be necessary when having early morning birding and late evening bird watching expedition. Birding in the Papyrus vegetation requires one to wear long sleeve clothing and a trouser, enclosed boots or foot wear to prevent one from mosquitoes and insects nuisance during morning and evening hours while enclosed birding boots should be light to ease your movement. Avoid putting bright clothing as this will scare the papyrus endemic birds and preferably put on dull outfits. Other than birds, the swamp papyrus vegetation hosts various mammals that you may come across including but not limited to the following.
• Water buck ( Kobus defasa)
• Bushbuck (Trigelophus sriptus)
• Spekei Sitatunga (Trigelaphus Spekei)
• Reedbuck (Redunca redunca)
• Vervet Monkey (Larcopithecus aetrioprius)
• Clawless otter (Aonyx capensis)
• The spotted-necked otter (Lutra maculocollis)
• Bush pigs
The clawless and spotted-necked otters are shy mammals that can only be spotted in the Lake or swampy places. A birder planning a trip to the papyrus vegetation should consider setting aside 2 days for intensive bird watching and nature walk and not forgetting the insect repellants and birding gears. Also consider carrying packed lunch, snacks and water to boost your energy level as this will help in enhancing your concentration in the field during hot weather condition. Having birding telescope enables one to watch birds in the distance, but not a must. First time birders to the area mayl need the assistance of local guides to but not a must, having a local bird guide helps in identification of the best possible routes, save you time locating direction and above all helps you identify residents and migratory birds of the area.
Did you know? That Papyrus Gonolek was named by Ogilvie-Granin 1911; the bird is currently distributed in the following countries Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi and restricted to papyrus vegetation of up to 1600m altitude. Now you know some of the best places for bird watching the Papyrus Gonolek.
2. Birding along Lake Kanyaboli
Lake Kanyaboli is a fresh water body covering some 1,500 hectares and enclosed by the dense papyrus (cyperus papyrus) vegetation. Lake Kanyaboli provides a home for the cichlids fish species that are reduced to near extinction in Lake Victoria due to the introduction of Nile Perch. Before reclamation of Area 1 of the swamp, river Yala flowed through the eastern swamp uninterrupted into Lake Kanyaboli before discharging into the swamp and eventually to Lake Victoria. The Lake offer one of the best birding locations not only in Kenya but in the world at large. Here bird watching is either done in the Lake using a boat or at the beaches or the Lake shores; here birders have a chance to record species such as the Black Crake Amaurornis flavirostris African Jacana Actophilornis africanus, Common Moorhen Gallianula chloropus meridionalis. Other than bird watching you’ll enjoy the cool breeze from the Lake, line fishing and other water spot activities such as Kayaking. Watching birds while in the boat is the most amazing experience for any novice and experience birders and with low to no tide at the Lake you’ll enjoy uninterrupted session. Whiskered tern will be flying above you all the time moving from left to right. There are four beaches in Lake Kanyaboli that one can use to gain entrance to the lake; these are the Kombo beach, Ngangu Beach, Kadenge Beach and Ohiwa beach. You’ll require a boat which is easily accessible upon paying the required boat ride fee by the Beach Management Units. Also a bird guide is required to help in water navigation. Boats currently available for bird watch at Lake Kanyaboli are the wooden boats manually navigated hence the need for a local bird guide for assistance. The Lake’s residential bird includes the Papyrus gonolek Laniarius erythrogaster, Papyrus yellow warbler Chloropeta gracilirostri, the greater Swamp warbler. The best time to watch birds in Lake Kanyaboli are morning and evening hours and due to mosquitoes bites in the early morning and late evening dress appropriately and if possible carry with a mosquito’s repellant lotion.
To reach Lake Kanyaboli from Siaya town, you can either use the local cars for hire, private cars, your personal car or the motorbikes that will drive for a distance of about 18 kilometers. The all weathered ring road along the lake might be a challenge during the rainy seasons due to the backflow of water from the Lake. But at the lake all birding activities doesn’t require a vehicle as most of the time you’ll be on foot. Other than bird watching in Lake Kanyaboli, you have a chance to watch the O. escalentus an indigenous Tilapia species now only available in Lake Albert and Kanyaboli, O. nilotica, the Nile tilapia which is under intense predation from the Nile perch in Lake Victoria. Protopterus aethiopicus, the mad fish, O.variabilis, Halphlochromines among other fish species. Water proof binoculars are best suited for bird watching in watery places but not a must, any binocular is recommended to aid your observation and identification of birds. Also don’t forget to carry yourself a camera to capture some eye-catching birds’ photos.
3. The Ndere Caves
A little is known of the Ndere Caves located in Kaugai Gangu Sub location in West Alego, Siaya County. With huge stone lying on top of each other side by side, the place is treated as a shrine by local community and also serves as a fasting place for Christian who spent days and night pray without food. Besides all these the caves host some of the amazing birds that as a birder may constitute your list of lifers. Other activities include rock climbing, nature walk, photography among others.
4. Bunyala rice scheme and grassland
The Bunyala rice scheme in Busia is known for hosting the African-opened bill stork. The best times to get a glimpse of these birds are during busy rice planting and harvesting season. The open field offers an opportunity for different bird species ranging from the African jacana, Spur-wing plover, Cattle egret, little egrets among others. During bird’s migration to Kenya, Bunyala rice field hosts hundreds of migrant species feeding on rice hash, fish, insects, earth worms etc. The best time to bird watch are in the month of April towards July. Early mornings are the best time to watch these amazing birds species in the irrigation scheme, it’s get too hot during the day due to lack of trees and vegetation providing shade controlling temperature. Avoid wearing bright colored clothing as birds are always in the open spotting people and other animal easily from a distance. Having a bird guide at the scheme will aid your activities but not necessary as the area is an open field with clear access paths for vehicles and motorcycle. During rainy season your vehicle is likely to get stuck in the muddy roads. Also wear weather friendly foot wear that allows you to walk with ease when it rains. Bunyala being one of the best places to watch birds is facing challenges from the locals killing the African-open billed stork for consumption and sales. Locals are known to use insecticide during planting seasons to capture the birds and as they poison this particular bird for meal other water birds are threatened too. As a result there is need for more sensitizations sessions to the community stop killing the African open-billed stork. Did you know that the local community predicts the onset of rain with the sighting of the African open-billed stork?. The Bunyala rice scheme can either be accessed through Siaya or Busia County with the means of transports from these two counties being by road, it’s a 30 minutes drive from Siaya County while accessing Bunyala from Busia town take about 1 hour drive.
5. Thogoye beach
Thogoye Beach is located at the shore of Lake Victoria in Usenge town, the beach hosts a variety of water birds everyday and the best time to have some great birding is morning hours. Be equipped with your essential birding gears to capture stunning images of the beach, vegetation and the people. A bird guide isn’t necessary while birding but could offer some alternative site to make your more enjoyable. Every moment during the sun rise is enjoyable, as a birder you’ll love to watch the sun’s rays reaching the floor of the Lake.
6. Got Ramogi
Got Ramogi is located in East Yimbo Ward in the north eastern shores of Lake Victoria, and is more than a tourist attraction site. Various documentations show that the Luo community while migrating from Sudan settled at the Ramogi hills. A vantage position where they could easily spot an enemy approaching from any direction to the hills. Got Ramogi offers multiple purposes to both the locals and non local. To the locals it’s a shrine and a holy place where blessing abound. It host a unique stone known as Rapogi that belonged to Ramogi used for sharpening spears during hunting sessions and war times. Rapogi was not only used for sharpening but was consulted during difficult period such droughts and war time to bring blessing upon the luo community. Got Ramogi is one of the best places for bird watching and hiking. Known as a hiker’s paradise, climbing the hill can create nervous moments for people fearing heights but at the same breath offers moments of pleasure for exploratory hikers. With an indigenous forest covering 283 hectares a birder will have a field filming and documenting forest birds. Other than forest birds Got Ramogi is surrounded with papyrus vegetation housing various Papyrus endemic birds’ species such the Papyrus Gonolek, the Northern Brown-throated Weaver, the White-winged Swamp-warbler, Greater Swamp-warbler among other migratory species. At Got Ramogi you need to be accompanied by a local guide to help navigate the dense plantation to the top of the hill. As the saying goes that the higher you go the cooler it becomes, Got Ramogi offers complete opposite as you move to the top of the mountain, the climatic condition changes drastically from warm to hot weather. Brighter and heat absorbing wears aren’t recommended. Light foot wears will aid your movements throughout the excursion at the hills. Due to dehydration consider packing with you enough water and food or snacks to keep you strong and healthy. Don’t forget your birding binoculars and camera to capture sun rise and sun set moments at the mountain top. Good accommodation facilities are found in Bondo town, a 1 hour drive from Got Ramogi hills. Ramogi forest is a gazetted government forest and you may need authorization to conduct activities such as research but its open for tourists visiting the area. The best time to bird watch at Got Ramogi are morning and evening hours while other activities such as mountain hiking can be done at any time. The site is easily accessible by road from Kisumu and Siaya County. While birders from Busia County heading to the site can either have a boat ride from Mau Mau port or Sio Port spending at least 2 hours to the venue or use the Mau Mau – Nyadorera road to Siaya, then from Siaya to Usenge and alighting in Usenge town. Got Ramogi is about 7 kilometers from Usenge town and 21 kilometers from Bondo. At Got Ramogi you’ll get to learn the culture and history of the luo community. Other activities that can be conducted include picnics, camping, and team building session. It offers the best view of the meandering of River Yala in the dense Papyrus vegetation.
7. Other best bird watching sites includes the Akara hills, Rawalo hills though far from Yala wetland, Whiro river, a seasonal stream hosting different species of weaver birds and the shrub surrounding Lake Kanyaboli.
These are some of the best birding places when visiting Western Kenya, and in particular the Yala wetland and its environs. Available locally are the camping sites, where one can reside for one or more days while bird watching. Local bird guides are also available to offer valuable guidance during the excursion. Want to conduct bird ringing activity in Western Kenya, then Lake Kanyaboli and its environs offers some of the best spot to trap birds and be prepared to ring many bird species.