Category Archives: Birding & bird counts

THE TRIP TO TANA DELTA; THE UNFORGETTABLE EXPERIENCE!

On Tuesday morning of the 9th of February, our team of four set out on the journey to Tana Delta for the annual water bird count. We drove north from Watamu for about four and a half hours, reaching the end of the road mid-afternoon.  There, we boarded a small boat that took us down the river to the lodge where we were to stay for our two nights, right on the mouth of the river. It was a really amazing experience, travelling by boat through beautiful mangroves and sand dunes to reach our destination. We were the only people staying at the lodge at that time and it felt very isolated and cut off from the rest of the world. On our arrival we quickly put our bags down, grabbed our binoculars and headed for the beach to see what birds we could count before sundown. This was my very first time conducting a bird count, and I quickly saw how knowledgeable and experienced Kirao, Juma, and Albert were, as I watched them identify and count the different species we saw with ease.

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The next day was even more successful as we got up early and headed out to count water birds in the fresh water channels of the river. We had to go back and travel by car through thick bush and bumpy roads to where the boat would pick us up. We commenced day two of our counting in the morning, and we didn’t stop until past fourteen hours for snacks; just to refuel our system for the remaining portion. Never before had I seen such an abundance of birds in one area and in such a diverse range of species as well. Before we had been in the boat for long, we were already counting great and Cattle egrets, White-faced and Fulvous Whistling Ducks, Open-billed Storks, Black-crowned Night Herons, Pied Kingfishers and Water Thicknees in hundreds. Not to mention the endless number of Spur-winged Plovers! There seemed to be a pair or flock of them around every corner we turned. Other great sightings we had that day included Long-toed Lapwing, African Darter, Goliath Heron, Little Bittern, Glossy Ibis, Collared Pratincole, and African Skimmer.

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We even came across a very large group of hippos, watching us curiously as we peered at some birds through our scope. So, after a very successful day we headed back to the lodge, tired from the long hours spent in the sun, for a well-earned rest.

On our last morning came with lots of high hopes as we wade through the mangrove channels of the salt water areas in the delta. This took us through more mangrove areas and even out onto some mudflats. Like the day before, there was no shortage of birds for us to count. Terek Sandpiper, Caspian Tern, Grey Plover and many more were seen in abundance over the course of the morning. We even managed to spot a Western Reef Egret, a very uncommon species at the coast! When we got to the mudflats, we couldn’t resist hoping out of the boat for a while to try and catch a better glimpse of a group of gulls. It really was a lot of fun trudging through deep mud with our scope and binoculars counting birds as we went! By then, I had had around thirty lifers as I had no more space on my personal list of birds! After washing our feet off in the river we rushed back to the lodge and grabbed our things before taking the long drive back down to Watamu, thus concluding an extremely successful trip to the Tana Delta.

Prepared by,

Tim Curie,

Science & Conservation Volunteer.

NOTE THE RESULTS; THE HARD WORK PUT IN SPITE THE HARDSHIP TO BE ENDURED IS WHAT COUNTS…2016 WATERFOWL COUNTS

Our just concluded waterfowl counts for 2016 saw us record sixty one species. The 23rd and 24th January 2016 started on a high note when we started off with Malindi harbor, Gongoni, and Sabaki River Mouth. Day 2 covered counts in Lake Jilore, Lake Mbaratum and Lake Chemchem. We endured long moments of standing under the heat and on the tiresome but fun mud in Sabaki. Climbing up and down the steep mountains in Lake Mbaratum and Lake Chemchem did not make us stop at anything rather we diligently counted the birds, with a dedication that can only emanate from the heart. However, the difficulties were nothing compared to the electrifying moments that characterized the spotting of rare bird species, among them Green Sandpiper, Osprey and a very rare species at the coast, the Grey-headed Gull.

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With a crew of 12 people on day one and 7 people on the second day, 5 species with the largest numbers were counted. They were Curlew sandpiper-3751, Common ringed plover-921, Greater sand plover-540, lesser sand plover-773 and Crab plover-656.

A whole year has completely changed Lake Mbaratum and Lake Chemchem. It was sad to notice how population growth and effects of global warming have dried up the two lakes and chased away the birds. The communities have taken over by firing up the grass that was grown around the lakes with reasons of farming, and the too much hot weather has dried up the lakes. The places look like deserts now and it’s sad to say that not unless we experience very long and heavy rains in the near future, there is nothing that can be done to them.

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All in all, the exercise was completed on 24th evening and as we left Lake Chemchem very tired and worn out, we still were very happy that we recorded a good number of species. We thank the whole crew that joined us during the exercise, including Kenya Wildlife Service (Gede Station) Mida Creek Guides, Arabuko Sokoke Forest Guides Association and Turble Bay who supported us with means of transport and providing us with snacks and water.

LEARNING AND EXPLORING THE UNIQUE BIODIVERSITY OF ARABUKO SOKOKE FOREST

Arabuko Sokoke forest reserve lies between Kilifi and Malindi on Kenya’s North Coast. It was gazetted in 1932 as a crown forest and in 1943 as a forest reserve. Within the forest area 2,699 hectares were designated as a strict nature reserve in 1977 and extended by 1,635 hectares in 1979. Arabuko Sokoke forest covers an area of 420 km2 with 382 km2 being constituted of indigenous forest. There are over 230 birds’ species and over 50 mammal species in the forest reserve. Six birds’ species are considered globally endangered while others are endemic to the forest and six mammal species are endangered. A Rocha Kenya together with Kenya wildlife Service (KFS) and other forest stakeholders like Nature Kenya have identified a knowledge gap where most of the KFS staffs are not able to positively identify some important wildlife species and habitats found in the forest reserve. In collaboration with these stakeholders a program was developed to build capacity among the interested staff members and stakeholders. The program has three volunteer guides and is open to all the staff and any other people willing to gain general knowledge of the Arabuko Sokoke Forest Reserve habitats and species. The first session was conducted in the plantation area (an area approximately 500m from the forest office with a group of eight participants. The group gathered at Arabuko Sokoke Forest reserve education hall at 0615 hrs and proceeded to the plantation area. The session lasted for approximately four hours ending at 1030 hrs.

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The participants walked for 2kms recording the bird species seen or heard along the way and they were given a lecture on the general habitat and other species such as butterflies, beetles and ant lion. The group rested at the 500m stretch to make birds’ observation and references from the guide books.

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These were the major observations: Zanzibar Sombre Greenbul, Yellow-fronted canary, Chestnut fronted helmeted shrike, White-browed coucal, Black-bellied starling, Black-headed oriole, Eastern Bearded shrub-robin, Yellow bill, Collared sunbird, Common drongo, Trumpeter hornbill, Ashy fly catcher, Scaly Babbler, Yellow-bellied Greenbul, One cut stump, One bushbuck and several families of Sykes monkey. Butterflies observed were: diadem, Dark blue pansy, African queen and Junonia, Apart from the species observed 31 birds’call were recorded.

The session ended at 1030 hrs and the participants gathered at Arabuko Sokoke Education hall for brief discussions and every participant was given a chance to give their observations. The next session will be on 19th December 2015 and the participants will meet at the ASF education hall at 0615 hrs and proceed to the mixed forest area. The group will like to express special gratitude to Mzee Ngala, Albert Baya and Kirao Lennox for volunteering to teach the group and also A Rocha Kenya for providing binoculars for use to all the participants.

BIRDING EXPLORATION IN PWANI UNIVERSITY

“Am so sorry for the poor turnout, members have not yet arrived because of communication issues”, said Jackline, the chairperson of the Pwani University Environmental Club when we arrived at their campus for a long planned bird-walk. It was still very early (around 0600 hours), with only two club members and so we gave members more time before we started off. We were taken to the botanical garden for introduction and before we were halfway, ten enthusiastic members joined us. In five minutes time, we had flagged off our session with almost fifteen energetic members.

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The botanical garden is blessed with a seasonal water pool that was once a dumping site for the Institute of Agriculture and Technology. African Golden Weavers could be seen perching on plant twigs, displaying  their beauty before they get into their nice grass-weaved nests and coming  out, while White Browed Coucal sun basking from a well perched bamboo edge near the pool. It was a hustle for the first few minutes as we adjusted the scopes and demonstrating how to use them. And of course, everyone wanted to be the first one to see through, which required a bit of strictness and direction which did not take long before they realized that cooperation is required. Speckled mouse-birds were the most common sun bathing from Neem trees (Azadirachta indica). “These birds are somehow inactive when it’s raining and when the sun comes out after raining, they hang on tree branches with their chest facing the sun. They actual do that for the heat from the sun to break down their food to give them warmth”, noted Albert Baya of Spinetail Safaris.

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“See that thick orange-billed bird on that tree! Its actually blue on the wings and grey on the chest”, exclaimed one of the members. On a Terminalia catappa calmly sat a well decorated Mangrove Kingfisher. We had to work extra fast to make sure that it is actually in the scope and everyone had seen it. “Wow, it so beautiful”, expressed another member. We walked for about half a kilometer into the bushes and open farms as we followed closely a group of Common Waxbill. “These guys are tiny but see how beautiful they are”, said Kafulo of Gede Community Guide.

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No one realized how time flew, it was already Ten o’clock, having recorded almost forty species within a distance of only two kilometers. As we turned and headed back to the botanical garden, we were joined by Red Cross members who wanted to know what was happening. The crowd was now quite big as new comers became more excited, either by just using the telescopes and binoculars or learning new things.

Young environmentalists from Moi University and Technical University of Mombasa were eagerly waiting for us at the botanical garden. The expert in charge of the botanical garden had also arrived to give out a brief talk on the same. We had actually gone back to wind up but that couldn’t happen until mid day as late comers asked questions and wanted to know almost everything about birds and bird-walks. “It was actually an experience I had never imagined in my life. I did not know that birds are very special and could be used to tell a lot about the status of the environment”, sighed one member.

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The whole team vowed to start organizing frequent bird walks to learn more about birds and adopting a bird each for conservation concerns. It was such a nice moment to get to reach such a strong youth group to interact and share God’s love for His creation and our role as humans who were mandated to care for the creation.

Breeding Sites of Clarke`s Weavers.

Clarke`s Weaver (Ploceus golandi) is a threatened species whose breeding sites have been sought by bird enthusiasts for the last one and a half decades.
In 1998 A Rocha Kenya led by Colin Jackson, and partners visited Dakatcha Woodlands where the birds are believed to be breeding. This was the first of the series of expeditions that would follow and although the ornithologists found no weaver during the first visit, they never gave up. In May 2004 the team found an unoccupied weaver nest on the top of a tree. The previous year they had spotted an adult female feeding a juvenile. In 2007 Colin Jackson wrote,” [U]ntil we actually find a Clarke`s Weaver at a nest, the mystery remains”

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A Clarke`s Weaver at a nest.

Early this month A Rocha Kenya`s Science and Conservation team, aided by university interns visited the  Dakatcha Woodlands in search for breeding evidence of the birds. At last a couple of sites are discovered! Bore    is a large swamp (approximately 10 acres), probably the largest within the woodlands. The team arrived here in the evening. A flock of about 500 Clarke`s Weavers including juveniles, fly some metres high then abruptly descend and perch on  sedges; an aquatic reed with luxuriant stem and long parallel- veined leaves. The crafty birds wove the spine-like reed leaves into nests which firmly rest on the stems, above the water lilies.

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Sedges woven into nests.

The marsh is surrounded by shrubs which form a hedge. Water between the hedge and the sedges creates a buffer and reaching for the nests would require some deal of wading. Some cattle can be seen quenching their thirst here. Some members of the community have been doing some washing and are packing up their clothes.
The following day the team visited another swamp known as Gandi. It is approximately 4 acres though nests are concentrated on a relatively small portion; an acre or so. Some scores of adult Clarke`s Weavers can be seen. Some are mending the nests, and occasionally some enter the nests and before long, fly out. It is highly probable that the birds are roosting.

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An adult Clarke`s Weaver mending a nest.

Wader Ringing in Coastal Kenya.

Kenya is important for tens of thousands of wintering waders. While some species like the Little Stint (Calidris minuta) and Caspian Plover (Charadrius asiaticus) prefer the fresh water bodies inland, many others target the coastal zone. The rich inter-tidal mud of Mida Creek, Sabaki Estuary, Tana Delta and Lamu are essential for their survival. After breeding in the Artic Region, in places such as East Kazakhstan and Mongolia, vast numbers of waders migrate southwards spending their non-breeding season in India, East and Southern Africa. Between September and May, they feast on worms, shrimps, crabs and other invertebrates along the coast.
Wader ringing forms an important part of A Rocha’s research programme. Monthly monitoring, annual counts, anthropogenic disturbance, nutrition and moulting strategy are part of our research efforts which have been carried out on over 5000 waders which have also been ringed and measurements taken on them. We have demographic data of different species which has helped in designation of IBAs and general habitat conservation which local communities can access. We are working with conservation partners to safeguard wader habitats and migration corridors. The ringing itself creates excellent opportunities for training as it is a way of establishing environmental education knowledge of wader ecology in their non-breeding habitats.
Our lead scientist, Colin Jackson, is currently in the process of preparing a number of research publications on the collected data. Recently, Jaap Gijsbertsen; Science and Conservation Director at A Rocha Kenya, organised a birding event, and as he narrates, it was quite an experience:

The cloud layers gradually thicken as I feel the wind drop. A first quarter moon is visible behind the clouds and radiates blazing light every time it hits a gap in the clouds. It is neap tide, with a water level of 2.45 meters expected for 01.12. On the exposed tidal plain next to the ASSETS boardwalk, gentle wind blows through the wader net which is supported by long bamboo picks running deep into the mud to withstand wind and waves. These are the perfect conditions for catching wintering waders.
The team, comprising A Rocha Kenya, local bird guides and students from Pwani University gathers at around midnight to go round to inspect the more than 200-meter-net stretched across the plain, which is now flooded. Equipped with bird bags and ‘red’ headlights, we pull up our pants and wade towards the net. We are curious and full of anticipation. It is now deep dark and we rely on our experience to avoid deep pools.
As we progress, the last group of Crab Plovers (Dormas ardeola) fly off to their high-tide roost on one of the off-shore islands. Most birds have been pushed off by the incoming tide. We just hope some of them fell into our net. After wading for five minutes, we find a Lesser Sand Plover (Chardrius mongolus). Skillful hands safely drop it into the bag. Then another Sand Plover, Curlew Sand Pipers (Calidris ferruginea ) and Terek Sand Pipers (Xenus cinereus). Soon we discover that we have a good catch and eager students carry the birds. Large birds like Crab Plovers, Grey Plovers (Pluvialis squatarola) and Whimrel (Numenius phaeopus) go into larger bags. We return to the table and it is hands on as we ring, colourflag and take measurements on the more than a hundred birds belonging to eleven species, including a Ruddy Turnstone (Arenaria interpres) and a juvenile Ruff (Philomachus pugnax) which we have caught for the first time at Mida.  Assessing moulting patterns requires much experience and dominates our discussion all night long. At day break, we down our net and drive home through the early morning, tired but inspired. The wonder of creation diversity and beauty overwhelms me.

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The team at the ringing table.

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A Ruff being ringed for the first time at Mida.

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A Ruddy Turnstone ringed for the first time, too, at Mida.

Bird ringing at Karara

Birds are excellent tools for monitoring and understanding environmental changes as well as wildlife resources that bring employment and enjoyment to millions of people all over the world. It is for this reason that there is need for their conservation. For effective conservation to take place, their migratory and behavioral patterns should be known to both conservationists and ornithologists, hence the need for bird ringing.

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Bird ringing, also known as bird banding, is the process of attaching a small, individually numbered metal or plastic tag to the leg or wing of a wild bird. This process involves identification of the bird species, its age, sex, moulting state of the flight, body feathers and weight. Other measurements such as bill length and tail length can also be taken if one wants to do a keen observation of a certain species.

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Through monitoring of the birds, information such as their life span and migration habits is obtained, which is crucial in their conservation.

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A Rocha Kenya, in conjunction with the National Museums of Kenya carried out a bird ringing session at Karara (A Rocha Kenya’s Nairobi Office). The session which lasted half a day, begun with mist nets being set up along the nature trails in the forest. A total of 33 birds were captured from 13 different species. The green backed twin spot was the most beautiful bird ringed on this particular day.

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We are indeed grateful for the great partnerships, as we carry out conservation work.

Mapping Kenya’s birds – website now operating!

In January we reported on the start of the Kenya Bird Map an ambitious project that A Rocha Kenya has been instrumental in getting started that is mapping the current distribution of Kenya’s bird species and comparing it with the atlas of birds that was carried out in the late ’70s and early ’80s. The project has continued to grow and whilst it has been a slow start to get going, the website is now functional to the level that it is possible to upload data and already over 2,600 records from 54 cards covering 37 atlas squares (known as ‘pentads’ as they are 5 mins of latitude by 5 mins of longitude in size). However there are another c.8,960 pentads still to be covered – so there is plenty more work to be done!

DSC00538 Chin-spot Batis is a common species in the Kenya highlands (Photo by Patrick L’Hoir)

Atlassing is in fact a LOT of fun and to be highly recommended. Yesterday I had to travel to Nakuru for a meeting but thought to “add value” the trip and do an atlas square en route – and not only that, but do it with a local birder and get him enthused and trained up to do lots of atlassing in his area! So I met up with Doug ‘Tchagra’ Gachucha from Naivasha – a leading birder and conservationist in the community around Naivasha and a lot of fun to spend time with! – and on our way back from Nakuru stopped near Lake Elementaita to do the minimum 2 hours of birding for it to count as a Full Protocol card submission. A ‘Full Protocol’ card simply means that with a minimum of two hours focussed birding, that data is now useable for doing much more than simply mapping species distribution. It can be used for estimating abundance of a species to work out if it is becoming more or less common and so flag any possible problems that might be happening in a species’ population.

2014-05-24 Coverage map – Part of the Google Maps map showing where some of the pentads already covered are. The different colours indicate how many cards have been submitted for that pentad – the more the better! Clicking on a pentad shows it’s code and clicking on that takes you to a separate window that zooms in on the pentad and gives you a chart showing which month the records have been submitted and the full species list of accepted records.

The fun of atlassing is that it not only takes you to new sites – you can go online and see which pentads have not been done yet or had only a little effort and then make a plan to go birding there, but it also stimulates you to really keep your eyes open to look for any new species you can find even as you are going about your normal business. How? Well, once you’ve done the minimum two hours, you can keep adding species to that list or card for up to five days thus giving you a chance to add much more than what you otherwise might have seen in just a two hour period.

Not only that, but even common ‘boring’ species become of interest since each species counts afresh for each new card you start. It is amazing how often you think a bird is common but when it comes to actually looking for it and recording it, you discover it perhaps isn’t around at a certain time of the year etc. By atlassing, you get to see this.

Despite it being the heat of the afternoon yesterday and by far not the best time for birding – in fact, I would never normally have stopped to bird at that time… nor even have thought to driven down the couple of tracks we followed off the main road, we actually managed to record 66 species in just two hours including species such as Little Rock Thrush, Red-fronted Barbet and Cinnamon-breasted Rock Bunting. There were dozens of Rock and Plain Martins skirting the cliffs by Mwewe Camp overlooking the lake – and the view from there was stunning – again, not a place I have ever stopped at before, but by atlassing we did and it was beautiful (see below)!

WP_20140523_001 Lake Elementaita mid-afternoon – there were White-fronted Bee-eaters on the hill to the left…

If you’re a birder and in Kenya or ever visiting Kenya – please do sign up and get involved!! Even if you only contribute one or two pentads worth of bird lists, it will be worth it! To register, wrote to kenyabirdmap(at)naturekenya.org and ask to be registered. You’ll receive an email with your Citizen Scientist number and more information.

Fundamentals of Ornithology 2014

05.45 I wake up five minutes before my alarm. Outside it is still dark but the first signs of the new morning are already floating into my room. A soft melodious song tells me the Easter Bearded Scrub-Robin has already woken up. I walk into a cool morning breeze after a refreshing shower. In front of Elsamere Field Study Centre on the shores of Lake Naivasha welcomes me an enthusiastic assembly of students. Yesterday’s lecture on equipment and a birders attitude proves to be fruitful. All my students are up before sunrise, binoculars ready and determined to spot another bird. Teams for the morning walk have barely been formed of overhead flies flashed a falcon silhouette. Although the bird flies high over the chestnut-orange legs and undertail-coverts are visible in the early morning sun. After a good discussion we conclude that it was clearly a Eurasian Hobby, a Palaearctic migrant moving north after spending the winter in Africa. I enjoy listening to the freshly learned terminology to describe colors, patterns and other characteristics of a bird proving that our lectures have had their impact.

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‘Fundamentals of Ornithology’ has been a tremendous success this year. It was the 20th time A Rocha Kenya, together with the National Museums of Kenya, Nature Kenya and the Tropical Biodiversity Association offered this course. With 23 keen students ranging from University lecturers to Safari guides the course was fully booked. Hosted at the pleasant Elsamere Centre we spent nine intensive days on this for East Africa unique training. Lectures covered topics ranging from fundamental knowledge of bird taxonomy and evolution, via physiology topics such as flight, feathers and food, to conservation issues worldwide and in your home area.

It is well known that education and increased understanding influences our attitude and mobilizes to act responsibility. In that respect I believe this course goes beyond bird facts appealing to our attitudes and deeds. The passion and enthusiasm expressed by this year’s student indicates that we reached their hearts and equipped them to take part in conservation. And that is exactly where A Rocha is all about: touching hearts and changing lives. Encouraging people to enjoy birds (as part of the whole of creation) and care for their wellbeing.

Jaap Gijsbertsen

Director Conservation & Science _ A Rocha Kenya

BIRD WALK AT KARARA PLOT NAIROBI

We thank God for the great partnerships that we as A Rocha Kenya enjoy with friends and other organizations that are as well cautious of the environment. We complement each other’s efforts and it is an honor to have such people who see what we see! Recently our friends from Nature Kenya led by Fleur Ng’weno visited us for a bird walk at our Karen plot, Karara in Nairobi. We are indeed grateful for the close network which has existed between us and Nature Kenya.

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The day began with a short assembly for a brief introduction about the Karara premise especially the forest and the organization in general, and then the walk began. Initially, it looked disappointing a day for bird watching with showers of rain both impending people’s movements and keeping the birds away. The fact that we were doing bird watching on the thicker portion of the forest didn’t help the situation either.

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Despite all this, Fleur’s bravery and charm kept us moving, and when there were no birds to watch, she had other stories about nature to tell us! She brought to our attention orchids and other epiphytes, the silver oak (Brachylaena huillensis) among other tree species.

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The walk did bear fruits eventually and we ended up identifying 25 different species of birds including a pair of superb Hartlaub’s Turaco and a Cabanis Greenbul with a ring!

Jointly with the National Museums of Kenya, we have undertaken ringing on the site in the past and therefore this was quite a significant finding. We do pray for more partnerships and to able to undertaken more of these activities in the future!