About Me

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Canberra-based naturalist, conservationist, educator since 1980. I’m passionate about the natural world (especially the southern hemisphere), and trying to understand it and to share such understandings. To that aim I’ve written several books (most recently 'Birds in Their Habitats' and 'Australian Bird Names; origins and meanings'), run tours all over Australia, and for the last decade to South America, done a lot of ABC radio work, chaired a government environmental advisory committee and taught many adult education classes – and of course presented this blog, since 2012. I am the recipient of the Australian Natural History Medallion, the Australian Plants Award and most recently a Medal of the Order of Australia for ‘services to conservation and the environment’. I live happily in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise surrounded by a dense native garden and lots of birds.

Thursday, 15 July 2021

Shaba National Reserve; superb 'outback Kenya'

For the natural history aficionados among us (and surely that's anyone reading this blog), Kenya calls  loudly and clearly, even if we can't answer the call at the moment. Amboseli, Mount Kenya, the Maasai Mara and Tsavo are all eagerly sought destinations, but Shaba? Or Buffalo Springs? Perhaps not quite so much, but I'm hoping that in a small way I can do something about that. 

The green-fringed Ewaso Nyiro River flowing through a semi-arid volcanic landscape at Shaba.

Shaba is one of three adjacent reserves safely right in the centre of Kenya, though tours that do go there usually describe it as in the north; that's only relative to the bigger attractions though. 

The red arrow points to Shaba; note that Maasai Mara, Amboseli and Tsavo
are all down on the southern border with Tanzania (though you'll probably have
to click on the map to see that detail).

Shaba, along with adjacent Buffalo Springs and Samburu, was declared a reserve in 1974; Shaba is the largest of the three, at 23,900ha. Despite the designation of national reserve, it is actually managed by the local county council rather than the very experienced national parks service. I'm sure there's some political history there but I'm not aware of the details. 

The vertical red line is a major highway leading north from Nairobi to Ethiopia.
The Ewaso Nyiro River forms the northern boundary of Shaba and more or less
separates Samburu and Buffalo Springs.
I was going to write a single post about the whole unit, but there are obvious differences between the landscapes of Shaba and the western parks, and too much for a single post, so I'll leave Buffalo Springs for later (we didn't get into Samburu). I love the dry country of Australia, and so was very excited to be going into this different semi-arid landscape, which was the furthest north we went in East Africa, and with strong elements of the Horn of Africa among the animals, which caught my imagination when I first read about the trip. (I'd been a bit further north in Uganda, but I think of that as Central Africa, and it was very different again). 
Our lodge on the river was really more of a resort, and seemed a bit incongruous in the setting, with swimming pool and lush lawns; I think it was just outside the reserve. Our impression was that many of our fellow guests didn't venture far from the (excellent) buffet and the pool. It was a lovely setting on the river though.
Walking to breakfast pre-dawn (us that is, though the baboon was probably crossing
the river to try his chance around the restaurant). The Marabou was happy in the water.
At the lodge, big Nile Crocodiles come up on the bank at night, under lights, where doubtless they are fed. They are impressive animals.
They lie just below the path, with guards keeping an eye on them (and us, I imagine).

We did a couple of excellent drives, in late afternoon and early morning, and again as we left in early afternoon to cross the road to Buffalo Springs. The sandy plains are dominated by steep-sided volcanic plugs and ridges; the sand is comprised of eroded material from these outcrops.

These Umbrella Thorntrees are either Vachellia (formerly Acacia) elatior or V. tortilis;
both are present and look pretty similar from a distance.

The Doum Palms Hyphaene compressa (though some describe these as H. thebaica) are
characteristic of the park, and of many hot East African landscapes. Both species
are widespread and it could be that both are present.

The Doum Palms mostly grow along the river or near soaks. The branched form is
typical of the genus; most other palms are single-stemmed.

Succulents such as these big euphorbias are another feature of the plains and slopes.

Also characteristic are the huge and knobbly termite nest 'castles';
presumably, as in the Australian tropical savannas, the termites are reliant on the grasses.

As is often the case in Africa it's hard to say whether the birds or mammals are more exciting. I don't feel a need to take sides, but let's start with some birds, and in particular with one I was really looking forward to seeing. Until recently it was accepted that there is only one species of ostrich, but we now know there are two, with the Somali Ostrich Struthio molybdophanes replacing the widespread Common Ostrich S. camelus in the far north-east of Africa.

Male Somali Ostriches have distinctive blue-grey necks and legs, in contrast to the white neck
and pink legs of the Common Ostrich. They also lack the white ring around the lower neck and
like scrubbier country than the generally grassland southern species.

Here are some other north-eastern Africa specials which I was especially happy to see.

Female Buff-crested Bustard Lophotis gindiana; a bird of the arid bushlands,
about which not a lot seems to be known. It is beautifully patterned.

Black-faced Sandgrouse Pterocles decoratus. I'm a big fan of sandgrouse, though
I've not had many opportunities to get to know them. We regularly saw these attractive
birds on and by the roads. Again it seems that not a lot of work has been done in
this part of the world, which is perhaps not surprising.

Vulturine Guineafowl Acryllium vulturinum, a truly spectacular big bird -
the largest of the guineafowl - also restricted to the Horn of Africa and
adjacent countries. Like other guineafowl it congregates in big flocks,
but strangely we only saw two birds, and both were among the much more
familiar Helmeted Guineafowl Numida meleagris.

Male Eastern Violet-backed Sunbird Anthreptes orientalis, a truly
lovely little north-eastern special. Click on the photo to see the delightful
violet highlight on his back.

Eastern Yellow-billed Hornbill Tockus flavirostris. Previously there was just
one widespread species of Yellow-billed Hornbill recognised, but now the
north-eastern birds are separated. One obvious difference is the skin around
the eye - black here, red in the southern species. And I do like hornbills!

Red-bellied Parrots Poicephalus rufiventris (which should by rights be called
Orange-breasted, but you can't see it in this photo anyway) are yet another
bird of the arid and semi-arid north-east. Acacia seeds, which these may have
been snacking on before we distracted them, are an important food item.
Other Shaba birds that we enjoyed are more widespread in Africa, but I never tire of them so I hope you don't either. 

Black-bellied Bustards Lissotis melanogaster are found in grasslands across much
of sub-Saharan Africa. This is the male (she lacks the snappy black waistcoat).
I love that slightly manic stare.

Cinnamon-breasted Buntings Emberiza tahapisi have a similarly widespread
distribution but, like this one, are generally found on rocky hillsides.
However it had hitherto eluded me, and I recall it fondly as being my hundredth new
bird for this glorious trip.

Purple Roller Coracias naevius, yet another widespread African bird which I'm always
glad to see again, though it's not as colourful as many other rollers. It typically sits high
in thorn bushes (or on wires) in order to pounce on insects, spiders and small reptiles on the ground.

Rosy-throated Longclaw Macronyx ameliae. To an Australian, from a continent
with just one pipit, very sombrely clad, pipits such as longclaws are an exciting
revelation. They also sit up in bushes and hold singing contests.

Tawny Eagle Aquila rapax. This magnificent predator is found across Africa and India,
and scattered in the Middle East. They hunt hares and small antelopes, large birds such as
hornbills, bustards and guineafowl, and lizards.

White-throated Bee-eater Merops albicollis. Bee-eaters are another favourite group
of mine, and this one is well up there. It has an interesting life history, breeding
(when it rains) right across the southern edge of the Sahara, then flying hundreds of
kilometres south to spend the rest of the year in the tropical forests of central Africa.
The mammals, as I've noted, are equally impressive, in numbers and diversity, and for the presence of species not found much further south. As we with the birds, let's start with the biggest.

African Bush Elephants Loxodonta africana are well known as the largest living land
mammals; a big male can weigh ten tonnes. Tragically they are now listed internationally
as Endangered, but the Shaba park system supports an apparently healthy population.
Elephants - eg in Namibia - can live in desert situations, but in this dry land they have the
invaluable resource of the Ewaso Nyiro River. More on that when I post on the
other part of the reserve system, where we watched a herd drinking and bathing.

Reticulated Giraffes; these strongly-patterned giraffes are a sub-species
of the Northern Giraffe Giraffa camelopardalis. Giraffe taxonomy is still vexed,
but the knots are unravelling with the help of ever more powerful tools.
The existence of three species is now widely (but not universally) accepted;
my go-to reference for mammal taxonomy is the mighty Illustrated Checklist
of the Mammals of the World
, published in 2020 by Lynx Editions..
However a very recent study (2021) using whole-genome analysis
suggests a fourth species - this Reticulated Giraffe, which would be Giraffa reticulata.
These things might seem of little practical interest, but in terms of conservation they are
critical. There has been a tendency to say 'well, it's just a subspecies, we can afford to
lose it if necessary'. I think that's fallacious anyway (a subspecies is evolution in action)
but it becomes catastrophic if the population is really a full species..

And on that general theme (though less controversially), while we often think of  'the Zebra' there are actually three zebras, two of which have limited ranges. One of them, Grevy's Zebra Equus grevyi, is found only in Kenya and Ethiopia. Fortunately for me its range includes Shaba, and this was another exciting moment for me.

Grevy's Zebra is an Endangered Species, but we later saw herds of them over the
Highway in Buffalo Springs. This was the first one for us though. Note the white
belly and narrow stripes on the rump, which distinguish it from the other two zebra species.
See here for more on this (but note that the discussion on giraffes there was written
before the recent publications).
Yet another Horn of Africa special that I'd looked forward to was the Desert Warthog Phacochoerus aethiopicus. The familiar Common Warthog P. africanus lives across most of the rest of the continent, but the story's not quite that simple. Until the 1860s another population of 'Desert' Warthog lived thousands of kilometres away in South Africa.

The key differences from Common Warthogs are in somewhat obscure features like
teeth, but one clue in this picture (at least if it is enlarged) is in the curled-back ear tips.
As you might expect, antelopes dominated the larger mammals in terms of species (and numbers). Many of these too are restricted to north-eastern Africa.

Galla Oryx Oryx gallarum. The oryxes comprise a group of big powerful antelopes, lovers
of arid lands. This one lives only in northern Kenya and adjacent Uganda.
Gerenuks were also high on my wish list for this trip. They are ridiculously slender and graceful antelopes, extended to browse shrubs out of the reach of other species (except giraffes). There are two species. The Northern Gerenuk Litocranius sclateri lives in a tiny area in Djibouti on the Gulf of Aden. The Southern Gerenuk L. walleri has a larger range, but still only from north-eastern Tanzania to Somalia. 

Southern Gerenuk females in the Shaba landscape.

Male Southern Gerenuk, a wonderful animal that made my heart sing.
Guenther's Dik-dik Madoqua guentheri, yet another Horn special!
There are 14 species of dik-dik, diminutive antelopes (this one weighs less than 5kg)
each occupying a small range, scattered across Africa, mostly in the east.
And finally of the north-east African antelope endemics, the Northern Kudu Strepsiceros chora is every bit as handsome and imposing as the other three kudus now recognised.
We intercepted a small group of Northern Kudus walking along the river bed while going
to drink in the heat of the day as we left.
Male above with the superb spiral horns, female below.
Compared with all these, the Ellipsen Waterbuck Kobus ellipsiprymnus is very widespread, extending through east Africa to South Africa. I'm always pleased to see them though.
Male Ellipsen Waterbuck taking a break in the limited shade available.
And with all these grazers there are bound to be predators. Lions and Leopards are both present (Joy Adamson's book Born Free was set here), though we didn't encounter any. Our one cat though was much rarer than these!
Cheetah Acinonyx jubatus, also seeking thorntree shade near the road.
We saw these lovely animals, a prize of any African trip, in no less than four parks
in the course of our three weeks. We were very fortunate indeed!
And we felt very fortunate to have had the opportunity to visit this wonderful off-the-track park with its wealth of restricted range species that would be hard to see safely elsewhere I imagine.

The Marabou in the predawn river isn't at all hard to find, but it's one of the images of Shaba that I'll treasure for the rest of my life. If you're able to get to Kenya in the future (and if you can you certainly should) be sure to incorporate Shaba-Buffalo Springs into your itinerary. It's special.


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