Amboseli – a birding paradise-part1

One of the least talked about beauties of Amboseli is its birdlife. This park has swamps, vast wetlands, open grasslands, and tortilla acacia forests. Out of the total land area of the park, 30% is covered by the dominant woodlands. The swamps cover around 10% of the park. The ecosystem spreads across the Kenya-Tanzania border in the wesetern part. It is crowned by the majestic Mount Kilimanjaro which is the world’s highest free standing mountain on its south west side.

“In today’s world, we consume resources at a pace beyond their making which is out of balance with the natural rhythms of the earth. We use resources wantonly beyond our need for our greed. We do not respect all life and seem to believe that our consciousness is the superior form of intelligence. Climate change is teaching humanity humility. We will have to work consciously for generations to right the balance. It will only come through the active understanding of the natural balance” ~ Mike Haworth

White-bellied bustards are often heard before they are seen. This bustard has a characteristic tawny back and white belly. The male has a blue-grey neck, dark facial markings and a pinkish beak. Most of the African bustards have cryptic colouring on their back for camouflage purposes. A pair of these bustards make a far-carrying, goose-like nasal croaking duet with the male calling “ahnghaa-nghaa” and the female replying “eh-e-e-er”, according to Bird of East Africa by Gale and Arlott. Bustards are classified in the same order as cranes. While they are much smaller than cranes they also have long legs and long necks are mainly terrestrial and never perch in trees. They are good fliers when their need arises.

Amboseli has several habitants. The open plain flora, the Acacia woodlands, the rocky thorn bush, the swamps that are dominated by the papyrus and Cyperus. The semi and permanent water catchment areas like swamps have their own distinctive plant species. 

“It is the diversity of life in front of us which makes our eyes dance, our minds race, and our heart sing.” ~ Mike Haworth

Sometimes it is worth slowing down and taking a closer look. Do your self a favour and just watch a cattle egret operating for a while. They are characters and opportunists. Some of them are happy to perch on an elephant’s back and go along for the ride, offering the rider a great perspective and view of the insect life the elephant disturbs as it is feeding.

The late afternoon is warm, still and the grasslands and swamps are bathed in colour. The sky is busy. It is deep blue, with its activity punctuated by lightning bolts and distant downpours. There is a deep sense of order and peace. The greater flamingoes are head down filter feeding. The filter of the Greater Flamingo traps crustaceans, mollusks, and insects an inch or so long. By contrast, the Lesser Flamingo’s dense filter is finer sifting out single-celled plants less than two hundredths of an inch in diameter. 

We come to Amboseli to see Mount Kilimanjaro, to see great tuskers and vast green spaces with big skies. Less appreciated but just as marvelous is the incredible birdlife in Amboseli. The colour and variety of birdlife in this park is is spellbinding.

Most lakes in Amboseli located on the western part of the park are seasonal and fill up during the rainy seasons from March to May and October to December. Large numbers of Flamingos are seen during these wet periods.

Mother and daughter – pink, tall, slender, and excellent flyers. An adult Greater Flamingo has soft pink to whitish-pink plumage in general, though there are moments when it becomes very white in color. Its underwings are coral red, while its flight feathers are coloured black. All flamingoes have the same shaped head but the greater flamingo has a light pink down-curved beak with a black tip. The juvenile Greater Flamingo appears grayish to white when it is born and does not develop its true pink colour until it is several years of age. Its bill also takes a while to develop its full color – it is yellow when the chick is first born.

This bird feeds on mud and will filter out any edible organisms in it. The bill is equipped with a filter system with hair-like structures that allows them to filter food from the water and mud they pick up. Various animals and organisms include shrimps, small fish, crabs, blue-green algae, mollusks, plankton, seeds, and insects. Sometimes, it consumes marsh grasses and decaying leaves. When forging in the algae laden shallow waters these pristine looking filter feeders can look decidedly dirty. They must rinse their heads and necks in clear water because you seldom see really dirty flamingoes.

Yellow-throated spurfowl. One of the things that has intrigued me about birding in Kenya is the variety of birds like spurfowl, barbets, starlings to name just a few. Like all spurfowls the male Yellow-necked spurfowl has large spurs on the back of its legs which it uses for fighting. The degree to which the spur has been worn down is an indicator of age. The next image shows a female Yellow-necked spurfowl because she has no spurs.

A female Ruff. This wader migrates annually from Russia to summer in Africa. The wetlands around the swamps in Amboseli are ideal foraging grounds for these birds. These waders feed on insects on the water surface and their beak is built for probing the mud for invertebrates. The female and the non-breeding male have grey-brown upperparts and mainly white underparts. Thankfully, the Ruff is classified as “least concern” on the IUCN Red List because of the large numbers that breed in Scandinavia and the Arctic.

“If you truly love nature, you will find beauty everywhere.”~ Vincent van Gogh

A secretive African Snipe is not well researched because of its habitat, it prefers wetlands and swamps which are relatively inaccessible and it is crepuscular meaning it is mainly active in the twilight times of the day. It was a lucky sighting to see this individual hiding in the reeds next to the open water of a swamp. These snipe are cryptically coloured which makes them difficult to see in the reeds. During the breeding season male snipes perform dramatic flight displays which consist of steep dives that create an eerie, winnowing sound, which can last as long as 10 seconds. As the display proceeds, the volume of the sound increases steadily. Drumming displays are best seen and heard early in the morning or in the hour before sunset.

A breeding pair of Grey crowned cranes with two chicks. Generally, this crane breeds in the summer season when rain is plentiful to ensure an abundance of food. Like all cranes, the Grey crowned crane is an omnivore eating grass seeds, small seed bearing plants and insects. Grey crowned cranes are plentiful in Amboseli and their familiar “ooh up” can be heard all over the park. I love their spectacular mating displays which involve dancing and jumping with open wings, and the dancing is punctuated with respectful bowing to each other between the dance sequences.

We saw generous numbers of Pied avocets in the open water sections of the several swamps. The next pair of avocet were in a courting display where the female looked to be trying, unsuccessfully to get away from the male. This species of avocet is known to have impressive nuptial displays involving acts of dance, flight and song, If the male is successful, the egg incubation period would be around 22 to 24 days and the eggs would be laid in a nest built of grass and reeds on the ground. The nest is built cooperatively by both male and female.

“Ride the energy of your own spirit.” ~ Gabriella Bach

It was a bright overcast day and we were shooting into the brightness so I converted the images into black and white to suit the colouration of the avocets, though they do have light bluish legs. Surprisingly, these birds are known to live for over 20 years.

I am always intrigued by the shape of their beak. At first glance it does not look effective. Yet they successfully feed mainly on small crustaceans, insect larvae and small fish which they find visually and by by touch. This wader uses its beak like a scythe to forage for food as it wades through shallow water it sweeps its head from side to side much like a spoonbill in search for food in shallow water.

This post is the first of three showing a selection of the birds you are likely to see in Amboseli and we were not especially trying to photograph birds so a dedicated trip to photograph mainly birds in Amboseli would be highly productive.

“Photography is a love affair with life” ~ unknown

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its interconnectedness and let it be.

Have fun,


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