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Interview with James Kiptoo, birding guide in Kenya

Tell us about yourself Kip:

My full names are James Kiptoo and I’ve been interested in birds for a very long time.  During my childhood, I didn’t pay much attention to birds because in my culture we didn’t consider birds as something special.  I used to be a scout and then they chose me to be a scout leader. We used to go camping a lot and also being a leader I used to teach the other scouts.  We used to go on outings but we didn’t use real tents, just poly-thin papers, so I got used to camping.

After primary school, I went to high school and after high school I joined Wildlife Clubs and it was from there that I studied more about nature and animals.  After high school, I joined college and there I started studying birds, animals, reptiles and other things you find in the wilderness.  So my interest in birds grew and I started joining other clubs and societies.  We have the National Museums of Kenya where the Natural History Society of Kenya is based as well as the museum’s Ornithology Department.  On one visit to the Ornithology Department we were shown all the stuffed birds in the drawers and from there my interest really started developing more.

I was introduced to Nature Kenya in 1996. At Nature Kenya, I really praise my mentor Fleur Ng’weno (my daughter is also called Fleur).  Fleur knows birds like the back of the hand; she can tell you everything.  Every Wednesday we have bird walks at the museum and every Wednesday we would come close to her and she would give us binoculars.  It was our first experience with binoculars so we couldn’t tell if they were bad or good, but we were very happy to have them.

With the birds there are many ways of identifying them, one is by the call. You can also tell the bird by the mode of flight, by the habitat, and the mode of feeding. For example, in Nairobi we have the scavengers like the Marabou Stork. We also have the sparrows and here at home I have a Rufous Sparrow nesting outside.

Easter Birding Tour, OTA Kenya, http://www.ota-responsibletravel.com/#!birding-tour/cfme

Nature Kenya does ringing of birds. They put the ring on their feet and that ring has lots of information.  If you find a dead bird and it has a ring, take it to the museum and they can tell where it breeds, how far it has travelled, and so on.

What is your favourite bird?

I don’t have a favourite, all are my favourite.  When I find a new bird, that’s a ‘lifer’, and then it becomes a favourite.

Easter Birding Tour, OTA Kenya, http://www.ota-responsibletravel.com/#!birding-tour/cfme

In Kenya we have about 1089 species of birds because we have the right habitat for all these birds.  We have deserts, forests, seas, savannahs, and oceans. So birds have no reason why they cannot come here.  Kenya has a flyway where birds from Eastern Europe, as far as Siberia, migrate.  We have interesting birds like the Warblers and the Blackcap who move for a very long distance, and this makes me really appreciate birds.  You know how cold and far away Siberia is: this tiny bird comes all that way to escape the cold weather!  They come because they want to breed or feed.

Where is your favourite place for birding?

In Kenya we have places called IBAs – Important Bird Areas.  They are special according to what species you can find there, so the 60 IBAs in Kenya are my favourite places.  They are recognised globally, and also regionally, because of one or a few individual species found there.  In Kenya we have quite a number of endemic birds.  For example if you go to Kinangop Grasslands not far from Nairobi, near Naivasha, we have a bird called Sharpe’s Long Claw which is endemic to that area. People from all over the world come to that area to see the Sharpe’s Long Claw.  When you go to Kiriaini or Mwea you have the Hinde’s Babbler, which is the only endemic species you can find in that area.

We also have the coastal birds of Kenya.  When you go to Arabuko Sokoke for example, you have birds like Sokoke Scops Owl and Sokoe Pipit, just to name a few.  In north-eastern Kenya we have the William’s Lark that we don’t have anywhere else; it’s endemic.

Why is Lake Magadi so special during the Easter period?

Easter is when Lake Magadi will have received some rain.  Bear in mind that Magadi is very hot, but after the rains it’s beautiful because of all these small grass and other plants emerging and the area becomes green and flowers grow.  The bees are sucking the nectar from flowers and the birds are flying in because the water has just landed.  In the Magadi area we have unique habitats for water species like Spoonbills, Flamingos, Crowned Plovers, Kittlitz’s Plovers, and Three-banded Plovers.

But before you get to Magadi, there are a number of places you have to visit first.  For instance, this trip will be starting from Ngong Hills.  The change in altitude is quite drastic – from Ngong town you go up to the wind turbines and met station.  Then from Corner Baridi you descend to see more dry land species.  Among them you might see or hear the White-bellied Go-away-bird, the Chinspot Batis or the Brubru.  The Brubru is a very small bird with rufous or red flanks.  It’s tiny but makes a very loud call, like someone whistling.

Given March to June is the season for seeing migratory birds in Kenya, can you tell us more about that?

As I said earlier, birds migrate from Eastern Europe, Russia, and Siberia, that’s the long-distance migration.  The short-distance migration is like the flamingos moving between Lakes Nakuru, Bogoria, Baringo and Oloiden.  The other is the vertical migration where you might see a bird such as the Tacazze Sunbird at the top of Mt Kenya and then next time it is in the Naro Moro area (at the base of the mountain).  They come down to breed.

The long-distance or intra-africa migration is starting now and we are seeing several birds from Europe like the Spotted Thrush, Rock Thrush and Eurasion Bee-eaters.  The birds that migrate from Madagascar (which is a unique habitat) form the Malagasy migration.

What are some “fun facts” you can share with us about birds?

In some communities, if you see a Woodpecker pecking on the left side of the tree they advise you not to continue with that safari.  If you are walking and see an Auger Buzzard and it shows you its white belly then that is good luck.

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About overlandtraveladventures

A philanthropic tour operator, creating positive experiences both for travellers and the local communities we interact with. We provide quality tailor-made tours that visit the sight-seeing highlights as well as community-based organisations.

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