614, the total number of bird species that were counted in Kenya on Global Big Day, Saruni contemplated. On this day birders all over the world took part in counting birds. In a country home to an impressive 1,100 bird species, Saruni was glad to have made his participation count.
As some of his friends took international and local tourists to Masai Mara and Amboseli National Parks, Saruni stayed in Nairobi to guide members of Nature Kenya in bird watching. Nature Kenya usually coordinates bird walks every third Sunday of the month and Wednesday. Consequently, he would be expected to share all the ecological information there is about every single bird observed.
As he stood next to his 4×4 vehicle waiting for his guests who he had agreed with to meet at a central place, he took notice of all the birds flying by.
Saruni used the waiting time to nostalgically go over his first encounter with birds, as he tacked in his shirt which had come undone from his anxious pacing up and down. Immediately after circumcision he had to hunt birds for their feathers. He put these feathers in his hand-crafted hat that he would wear proudly when he came back home after 3 months in the open savannah of Masai Mara.
This is a test that all the circumcised candidates had to endure to prove they’re macho and worthy of the adulthood stage coming up. Circumcision among the Maasai, the tribe Saruni belonged to, was very significant. It marked the end of childhood and the beginning of an era of adulthood which would see Saruni climb the ranks to one day become an exemplary and wise elder.
By the time Saruni was done reliving a precious moment in his childhood, all the guests he expected arrived. He had never led such an event that attracted both experts and beginners. Luckily he had conducted a reconnaissance a few minutes before his guests arrived, wearing a pair of binoculars around the neck (a birder’s way of showing off their passion).
With a wastewater treatment Lagoon, open grasslands, and a eucalyptus forest, Saruni got the slightest idea of what to expect when his friends arrived. These three habitats presented a variety of conditions that would result in the presence of different birds.
There would be birds that preyed on water-dwelling animals like frogs, fish and their young. There would be some opportunistic birds that would wait for startled insects to emerge from the grass to snatch them mid air.
When they say water is life, there is no lie in that. Since even the smallest of insects are usually drawn to any water body, consequently they become food for certain bird species, hence supplying the food chain.
Birders are usually drawn to any location that seems to be booming with life. Be it in a park or even a milk processing plant that uses a lagoon to treat its wastewater before releasing it into the main sewer system.
The bird walk began and Saruni’s guests started getting comfortable, sharing some of their first experience with birds. Some who were Kenyan (these bird walks even attract expatriates) recalled having their first encounter with birds while on farms. It was a child’s responsibility to ward off birds from maize plants or millet stalks. It must have graduated to gauging if they could run faster than birds fly, to hunting them for their amusement.
However, now they had come to learn that birds played important roles in balancing life on Earth. Therefore, they joined Saruni in order to be equipped with more information that they would use to secure their existence.
The bird walk kicked off with brief interruptions where Saruni would lift the pair of binoculars to his eyes. This he would do to identify the species of bird that was flying around, triggering his group to do the same.
Saruni used that opportunity to brief everyone on key details about the bird they just saw. Particularly he is keen on sharing the different feeding habits of the birds so that word gets out on the importance of habitat and food for migratory birds that spend significant energy.
Migratory birds, as explained by Saruni during the bird walk, are birds that undertake seasonal movement in search of conducive environments for the survival of their kind. Saruni explained that in some cases strategically placed feeders can help migratory birds replenish their energy as they passed through different areas.
Migration was a common phenomenon, Saruni explained. For instance, birds migrated from Europe to Africa at the slightest change in weather, and for ideal nesting grounds.
Just before the walk turned into interactive sessions, a participant who had focused very much on the flock of Egyptian Geese flying overhead stepped in an army of Safari Ants. The drama and laughter that ensured has never been witnessed before. The participant was hastily advised to hide behind a bush that could hardly hide his built figure, to remove his clothes, inspect them for any cunning ants before applying an anti-histamine cream that Saruni carries in his first aid box for such eventualities.
The walk resumed. The gentleman named Otieno from Dandora (a residential area in Nairobi, Kenya) who had just been attacked by Safari Ants was given the first opportunity to share his experiences with birds. This he gladly accepted with a mischievous smile that showed through his mask.
He started by sharing the names of the birds he knew in his slang. All children in his neighbourhood, including Otieno, named the birds according to their calls, behaviour or feeding habits. For instance the hadada ibis he and his friends called mkwekwe and the call made by the Grey Crowned Crane earned it the name muhau (are you there) to depict the communal nature of the crane.
Otieno also went ahead to describe the African Jacana as the Jesus bird or the water walking bird. The participants from Dandora explained that it had very long legs that made it seem like it was walking on water. According to the Bible, Jesus walked on water. They described the bird’s mating behaviour. The female would lay eggs for one male, and once done, she would move on to the next male candidate without a second thought about her previous partner nor her young ones.
At this juncture, Saruni took over from Otieno to redirect everyone’s attention to the activity of the day.
These are the types of events that bring birders from different backgrounds together. With their khaki pants, where lunch is usually tucked away in one of the many pockets, sunscreen-covered faces, binoculars and, in some cases, a CamelBak for rehydration. Birders are ready to walk a whole day’s journey just admiring birds for their feeding, mating, grooming and socialisation skills.
As others go to see the lion for the hundredth time, birders look forward to new birds that might have come in from a different part of the world or changed feathers due to a particular seasonal reason.
Are you interested in birdwatching or becoming a birder? Find out how you can get involved in the next Global Big Day on 8 May 2021!
In the meantime you can explore migratory birds and flyways with help from BirdLife International.
Interested in photographing birds? Check out these 10 practices for ethical wildlife photography.
About the Author
Sarah Anupi Kutahi is an environmental scientist, who champions responsible tourism through information sharing. She is a birder, a natural hair coach and a creative writer. She is undertaking a postgraduate diploma in Mass Communications with the hope of becoming a features writer – to tell the often overlooked stories of our time in an upbeat way. She is the founder of the Mau Forest Restoration project She aspires to run a hair salon that is eco-friendly by using products that are packaged in reusable containers and incorporate organic ingredients in the manufacture. She loves writing and hopes to better her craft by volunteering with Terra Incognita.