Sunday, July 27, 2008

An Adventure in Africa Begins

*Note: Text and all photos in all Kenya posts are by Shawn Billerman unless otherwise noted.
Day 1 and Introduction

From June 25 to July 10, I was in Kenya for a field course offered by Cornell. The course is taught by Irby Lovette, my advisor, and Dustin Rubinstein, who will be starting at Columbia in the fall. Also on the trip was famed herpetologist Harry Greene, who was invited in part so he could develop ideas for new field opportunities for undergraduates at Cornell. While in Kenya, we stayed at the Mpala Research Center in the Laikipia District. Mpala is west of Mt. Kenya, the second highest peak in Africa (at 5,199 meters), near Nanyuki. Mpala at an elevation of approximately 1,100 meters, and is characterized by acacia bushland, with interspersed glades formed by bomas (traditional cattle corrals made from acacia). There are also areas of more open grassland, but those are widely scattered. Irby and Dustin have been bringing students to Mpala for 4 years.

I was very excited to go to Kenya, and spent months studying the field guide before leaving. It was my goal to see 200 species of bird while in Kenya. I was unsure of how I would fare with that goal, however. Only time would tell.

Day 1 – June 25, 2008

I did much of my traveling with fellow classmate and labmate, Jess Marion. We flew out of JFK on June 23rd, and we had a stopover in London’s Heathrow Airport. I was shocked at the utter size of the airport. We flew into the brand new Terminal 5, which in itself is like multiple terminals. It took a 20-minute shuttle ride to reach Terminal 4 from Terminal 5. On the way though, I managed to get my UK list up to a whopping 4 species! During my layover, I saw European Starling, Carrion Crow, Rock Pigeon, and Common Kestrel. I wish I had the opportunity to explore the nearby countryside. I suppose that’s for the next trip!

Jess and I arrived in Nairobi slightly before some of the other students, so we had time to sit in the airport parking lot and wait. This wasn’t all bad though, since it gave me some time to get familiarized with the local city birds, which, I might add, are a bit nicer than our city birds. Sadly, by the time we were ready to leave, Superb and Red-winged Starlings had gone from being awesome, beautiful new birds to trash birds in a matter of hours, as I watched them eating trash on the sidewalk, and flying around in the airport. I was up to nearly 20 new birds by the time we left the airport, including a Lanner Falcon, Marabou Stork, African Palm Swifts, and many Black (Yellow-billed) Kites (strangely, I saw no Black Kites at Mpala, only near Nairobi). By 10:30 AM, everyone had arrived. There were 12 students who were taking the class, 9 Cornell students, 1 student from Berkeley, and 2 Masters students from Kenya. Also with us were Harry, Ben Rubin, another undergrad in our lab who came with us to collect acacia ants for his honors thesis, and Jamie, Irby’s son. Once we were all accounted for, we were off to Mpala.

Sign we were greeted with upon leaving customs at Nairobi Airport (Photo: Jess Marion)

The Nairobi Airport short term parking lot; Pied Crow (Corvus albus); Superb Starlings (Lamprotornis superbus) feeding on our muffin crumbs

Navigating the streets of Nairobi, however, is no simple task. The streets are narrow, and crowded with cars and pedestrians. The sides of the streets are lined with countless numbers of shops, where one could get anything from scrap metal, to furniture, to clothing to food. In addition, at every gas station, there were always people ready to sell you something, with 3 or 4 people often circling the car until you left. Once we got beyond the city, we finally got to see some of the countryside. Not far outside the city are large-scale farms and plantations. We mainly saw coffee and pineapple, but we were told that during the rainy season, there are also large-scale wheat plantations. We also saw many trucks drive by that were full of an assortment of produce, including corn, avocados, cabbage, bananas, and mangos to name a few. Farther from Nairobi still, we started climbing in elevation, and saw lots of greenery, and some very beautiful tall trees, often covered in blooming Bougainvillea. Lantana and other tropical flowers that I could not begin to name were also planted and growing all over. In these areas, there were many small-scale farms, and in the small towns, people were selling many fruits and vegetables from small stands, like mangos, corn, tomatoes and squash. A brief stop in this area for a chameleon, which yielded no chameleon, did provide looks at two male Bronzed Sunbirds, and a Singing Cisticola. I can’t begin to imagine what I would have found there if I actually had time to look.

The road to Mpala from Nairobi; After a couple of hours, we start getting higher and greener (photo by Jess Marion); In the smaller towns, roadside fruit stands are a common sight (photo by Jess Marion)

After about 3 hours of driving, we made our first stop for lunch at a place called The Trout-Tree Restaurant. Trout-Tree is located in a small patch of forest, and is a very low elevation extension of forest from Mt. Kenya. This was some of my first real birding time, and it didn’t take me long to start wandering the paths of the place while I waited for lunch to be prepared. One of the first birds I found was a Narina Trogon, a bird I was not expecting (Tyler, one of Dustin’s field assistants who I knew from Cornell was pissed… it was the number one most wanted bird on his Kenya list). When I told Irby what I had seen, he was in disbelief; part of the reason I got the picture (also because it was just so close). While we ate our lunch, we were under the watchful stare of many Black-and-White Colubus Monkeys. At one point, one monkey stole fish right off of a hungry patron’s plate. The monkeys captivated most of the people in my class, but I was not so taken with the dirty mammals. I focused on the birds. By the time we left, I had found 5 species of sunbird all foraging in a single bottlebrush tree (Callistemon sp.) (Green-headed, Northern Double-collared, Variable, Golden-winged, and Amethyst), a Gray Cuckoo-Shrike, Mountain Wagtail, a pair of Crowned Hornbill, Montane White-eye, an incredibly awesome Giant Kingfisher perched in a tree right next to our tables at lunch (actually found by Jess), and a flock of 20+ Violet-backed Starlings, among many other birds that I would not see anywhere else on the trip.

From the top: Narina Trogon (Apaloderma narina); Green-headed Sunbird (Cyanomitra cyanolaema) (photo by Jess Marion); Amethyst Sunbird (Chalcomitra amethystina) (photo by Jess Marion); Bottlebrush tree (Callistemon sp.) where I saw all 5 sunbird species

From top: Black-and-white Colubus Monkey; One of two Mountain Wagtails (Motacilla clara) that landed on the edge of trout pond; Giant Kingfisher (Megaceryle maxima) (photo by Jess Marion); Crowned Hornbill (Tockus alboterminatus); Forested habitat at Trout Tree

Sadly, when we finished eating, we left Trout-Tree and all the awesome birds there. I easily could have stayed there and just watched the sunbird tree for hours, probably adding more species. From there, we crossed the equator, drove through Nanyuki, and headed straight for Mpala. Compared to areas further south, Nanyuki and the surrounding areas, including Mpala, were incredibly dry. The rains apparently ended early this year, and they were in the midst of a drought. On our drive towards Mpala, we left paved roads behind, and passed grazed fields and acacia bushland. In one of the fields, I spotted a pair of Grey-crowned Cranes. I saw them again in the same area on the way towards Nanyuki on another day.

We finally arrived at Mpala at around 5 in the evening. We got a brief tour of the riverside camp that we would call home for the next two weeks, and then were off to unpack and settle in. Ben (my tent-mate) and I chose the last tent to be occupied by our group, so we could be away from the noise of the class. As we were settling in, we noticed some elephants approaching from behind our tent. They were moving toward the river, and moved between our tent and the unoccupied tent next to us. It was an awesome, but somewhat frightening experience. We were soon joined by 4 of the camp staff, who eventually told us to quietly leave so they could deal with the elephant. We watched and realized that “deal” with the elephant meant throwing rocks at them until they left.

From the top: The view I had from my tent entrance; The camp, with my tent in the foreground; Elephants (Loxodonta africana) that we encountered the first evening driving around (not the ones that walked by my tent)

That night was a quiet night, where we just had dinner, sat around the campfire for a bit, and then went off to bed. So ended my first day in Kenya. When I tallied my list for the day before bed, I had ended the day with 70 birds for the trip (69 of which were new), as well as 15 new bird families!


  1. All the pictures are so beautiful, I love the nature, thanks for the information.

  2. Very beautiful. I love to see all the nice wildlife.

  3. love the road. If you want, you could post any pictures of Kenyan highways you have here:

    There is also a gallery on Nairobi if you have any pictures.

    Thank you.

  4. This looks great... always wanted to travel to Nairobi :)