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, 16 December 2021

Mount Kenya; wet forests in dry plains

Some five months ago I wrote a post about Shaba National Reserve in northern Kenya, wonderful arid wildlife-rich landscapes reminiscent in some ways of outback Australia. I promised then to offer another post on its neighbouring reserve, Buffalo Springs, and so I shall. But before doing that I'm going to introduce you to (or perhaps remind you of your own time on) magnificent Mount Kenya, a nearby but very different landscape. It is the highest peak in the country, and second only to mighty Kilimanjaro in all of Africa, though it doesn't get the press of Kilimanjaro. 

The volcanic peaks of Mount Kenya, some 5200 metres above sea level and way above the tree line.
The sides are streaked with huge glaciers, which sadly are shrinking fast. Our excellent
South African guide (we also had a Kenyan guide), Gareth Robbins of Rockjumper Tours,
told us that he had never seen it clear of clouds!
In 1849 German missionary-explorer and linguist Johann Krapf became the first European to sight the mountain, and asked its name. It is not entirely clear as to the meaning of what he was told, but he recorded it as both Kenia and Kegnia, which later became Kenya, and was applied to the entire British colony in the following century, and finally to the Republic of Kenya after independence in 1963.

We were only there for two nights and the intervening day, and could easily have spent more time there (as indeed everywhere!), but in that time we saw enough for me to want to share something of the experience with you. 71,000 hectares of the peaks and their flanking forests were declared as national park in 1997 and listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

Our two-storey wooden lodge was situated in tropical forest 2200 metres above sea level, overlooking an artificial waterhole with suffuse lighting at night.
The waterhole by night (above) and day (below). Cape Buffalo Syncerus caffer came and went
seemingly 24 hours a day.

The constant proximity of the buffaloes means that the lodge is fenced,
and there is an armed guard on the gate.
We discovered late in our stay that there is a tunnel from the ground floor to
a viewing room quite close to the waterhole, from where this photo was taken.
Red-billed Oxpeckers Buphagus erythrorynchus were constant attendants of the buffaloes,
removing ticks and other skin parasites.
Also regular at and around the water were smaller numbers of the very handsome antelope, Defassa Waterbuck Kobus defassa. This species, from central and west Africa (this is close to its eastern limit),  has recently been separated from the Ellipsen Waterbuck K. ellipsiprymnus which is found south and east from here.
Defassa Waterbuck male. He is distinguished from the Ellipsen Waterbuck by
the absence of a distinctive white ring around his rump.
Apart from the obvious attraction of the water, the mud seemed to contain chemicals attractive to the antelope, especially the smaller elegant Cape Bushbuck Tragelaphus scriptus.
Female and young Cape Bushbuck. For more on mud-eating in animals, see here.
This Spotted Hyena, moping home early in the morning, was not at all enjoying the mud
which by now was not confined to drying pools!
When the mud was dry (the rain came towards the end of our stay, fortunately) it was attractive as a dust bath, especially for the delightful Speckled Mousebirds Colius striatus.
The mousebirds are just six species, confined to Africa, of a whole Order of birds.
Below is a slightly clearer photo of a Speckled Mousebird, taken elsewhere in Kenya.

Lovely Cinnamon-chested Bee-eaters Merops oreobates hunted insects over the waterhole.
Bee-eaters are (yet) another favourite bird group of mine.

However we spent much of our time in the top floor balcony, a magnificent open-sided area which looked over the waterhole towards Mount Kenya on one side, and into the forest canopy on the other three sides.

This male Blue Monkey Cercopithecus mitis seemed to spend his time between the balcony
and the kitchen surrounds, hoping to scrounge food. He had only one hand, perhaps due to a
poacher's snare, but seemed to be doing fine.

From this balcony we enjoyed a range of forest-dwelling birds, though most of them didn't stay long enough to photograph.

Montane (or Mountain) Oriole Oriolus percivali. This special bird is restricted to
a very few mountain rainforests in east and central Africa.

The demure little White-eyed Slaty Flycatcher Melaenornis fischeri
is another specialist of central and eastern African mountain forests.
An afternoon drive in the forest produced two very exciting bigger birds, with excellent views.

Hartlaub's Turaco Tauraco hartlaubi is found almost solely in Kenyan
mountains, and was especially welcome.
Silvery-cheeked Hornbills Bycanistes brevis are more widespread, in tall wet forests
for most of the length of east Africa, but I'd not seen it before this trip. At 80cm long
it's up there with the biggest hornbills, and very impressive indeed.
In more open areas roadside wires are always worth a look too.
Abyssinian Thrushes Turdus abyssinicus are another bird of the north-eastern highlands.

Holub's Golden Weaver Ploceus xanthops lives across much of the southern
half of Africa, often building its big woven grass nests in colonies.

The Northern Fiscal Lanius humeralis is a very widespread and familiar species,
a shrike which is often seen watching for prey from powerlines and telephone wires.
Arriving back at the lodge in the near dark, we were greeted by a couple of delightful little Mount Kenya Duikers Cephalophus hooki. These tiny antelopes are found only on Mount Kenya and the nearby Aberdare Range.

Mount Kenya Duiker, a recently recognised species, based on the work of the eminent
Colin Groves of the Australian National University, who sadly died recently.
But our mammal highlight of the stay came that night as we watched from our balcony the rain pouring down, when suddenly a family of Giant Forest Hogs Hylochoerus meinertzhageni appeared from the other side of the clearing. This is a shy species which I'd long wanted to see, and is the world's largest all-wild pig which can be two metres long and weigh a quarter of a tonne. They made their way in the rain around the waterhole and came to a flat area under a soft light almost below us - I suspect that this is a feeding station with which they're familiar, but there was no food that night and they didn't stay long.
Giant Forest Hogs, mother and babies, our farewell treat from Mount Kenya!
When you can eventually go (or go back) to Kenya, of course you'll want to visit the 'classics' such as Amboseli, Maasai Mara and Tsavo, but you really should include Mount Kenya if you possibly can. It's something very different indeed. 

I'll be back here just once more in 2021, to relive our natural history year with one photo from each month - though it won't be easy this year!
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Anonymous said...

I was fascinated to hear more about the Mt Kenya area and the animal and bird life. I was given a book many years ago
'No Picnic on Mt Kenya' bu Felica Benuzzi, published in 1953. He was an Italian POW at a camp close to Mt Kenya and was one of a small group that assembled what equipment and food they could and escaped to climb the mountain. Their map was a jam tin label. They nearlyu got to the top, found their way back to camp and surrendered and only served 7 days of imprisonment as the VBritish Commander found their adventure rather sporting. Felice Benuzzi became Italian Consul in Brisbane after the war and I saw his name signed in a visitor book in a hut in the saddle of Mt Barney, one of the SE Qld peaks.He has some descriptions of the terrain, below the snow line especially, and of course the insects which attacked them. I must re-read it.

Kath H said...

PS: Kath Holtzapffel - forgot to give my name with comment.

Ian Fraser said...

Hi Kath and good to hear from you as always. I'm glad you enjoyed the post and thanks for taking the time to say so. I didn't know about Benuzzi, but must now try and find the book - many thanks for this too.