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Birding Paradise on the Mara – A Different Kenya Adventure

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A Vibrant Ecosystem

The Maasai Mara – chances are you have already heard of it, even if you don’t know the name. If you know what the Great Migration is and can imagine herds of wildebeest stampeding through a river shoal and zebras moving in large numbers on their yearly pilgrimage you are thinking of the Mara. It is one of the greatest National Reserves in the world.

The vast Mara is spread over 1510 square kilometers in south-western Kenya. It touches the edge of the Kenya-Tanzania border, and the even bigger Serengeti National park (14,750 square kilometers) – together, they form the Mara-Serengeti Ecosystem. The Masai Mara was established as a wild game sanctuary in 1961. When visitors flock to this amazing park, they come for the wildlife. Here, you can take a driving safari and see a variety of wild and rare game.

Safari Animals You Shouldn’t Miss

The “big five” are the much sought after safari animals that everyone hopes to catch a glimpse of – lions, elephants, cape buffalos, lions, leopards and rhinoceros. They share their territory with zebra, topi, wildebeest, Thomson’s gazelle, hyenas, cheetahs, and many other species of savanna dwelling animals. Crocodiles and giant hippopotami reside in the rivers of the Masai Mara. These are enough to put any naturalist into a frenzy, but there is a whole other chapter of wildlife that I haven’t mentioned yet: birds.

How About Birding?

The Maasai Mara is a very unique place to go birding. If you’re an experienced birder, it’s probably already on your bucket list. If you are just a beginner then this is the perfect place to get even more excited about it:

There are eight kinds of stork, six types of vultures, three kinds of ibises, over thirty one kinds of hawks, eagles and  harriers and their relatives – the list goes on and on and on. Not to mention the many different kinds of quails, guineafowl, rails, crakes, cranes, stilts, plovers, lapwings, snipe, sandpipers, terns, pigeons, cuckoos, owls, woodpeckers, sparrows and swallows… you get the picture. There are over 470 bird species in this tiny “Mara Triangle”.

Why is it such an important habitat? One of the secrets of the Maasai Mara is the Mara river. It originates in the Kenyan highlands, it flows, ebbs and snakes through Kenya, finally draining into Lake Victoria.

The Mara River is important to the Maasai tribe because one of it’s governing regions are the Kenyan Rangelands – this is where the Maasai group ranches use it’s banks for livestock pasture. This tribe is known for semi nomadic lifestyle and cattle herding. This area is also used for agriculture.

Further Into The Mara National Reserve

The Protected areas of the river starts once it takes it journey further into the Maasai Mara National Reserve. Once it leaves the National Reserve it flows through other protected lands in Tanzania. The river flows in a thin ribbon during the dry period, supplying animals with water, even if it’s very low. During the rainy period it grows to almost twice its size and expands into the floodplain in some places, while creating quick and dangerous rapids in other parts. During the recent decades, the river has been managed differently – the weather patterns also changed.

This created more permanent wetlands along the banks instead of the temporary, fast drying ones that appeared during the wet season and disappeared for the rest of the year. With more stable and established wetlands, migratory birds became a more common sight in some parts of the Mara floodplain.

If you aren’t ready to hop on the next plane to Kenya, you can see some of the very same birds in your backyard.  If you live in Europe, chances are that some of the birds you can hear out your window at this very second have flown here from the Masai Mara ecosystem. You may not have realised it, but your common backyard bird is a much more hardened traveler than you.

Travelling species

Here are two species that spend the warm months in Europe, and take to the skies in the late autumn:

Cuckoo

This one is a surprising migratory bird. But as I recall, the cuckoos were silent in the winter, and once your heard one it really meant that spring was finally here. The common cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) is silent during the winter because it simply isn’t around. The males of the species are responsible for the loud and characteristic “cuckoo” that can be heard echoing through the forests of Europe and Asia. This bird is a very bad parent indeed – it lays its eggs in other birds’ nests. The poor step parent takes care of the egg, and when it hatches (often eliminating it’s step siblings as soon as it can) the poor step parents feed it as much as they can – the cuckoos are very hungry birdlings.

Sometimes, the cuckoo chick outgrows the foster parents’ nest. It looks almost comical when a large, fluffy cuckoo balances its plump body on a tiny nest, while the tiny victims fly madly around stuffing morsels into its beak. Stunningly, the female cuckoos are divided into groups – each group picks a specific host species to “adopt” their eggs. Thanks to this, different cuckoo’s eggs will look like the host species’ eggs. They flock to Africa in the autumn, and the forests fall silent.

The White Stork 

(Ciconia ciconia) is another example of migrating species. This amazing, large bird lives in most of central europe and further east as far as Turkey and as far as the Iberian Peninsula on the other end. In parts of Central Europe, these birds are especially liked – people build special towers for their nests, and having a stork make it’s huge nest on your house is said to bring good luck.

These carnivorous giants stroll the wetlands in search of frogs and mice. These birds were largely affected by industrialisation in Europe. Their habitats began to shrink, and currently they have a few regions where their population still  thrives – Portugal, Spain, Ukraine and Poland. It has been noted that the storks are responding to climate change and changing their altitude, as well as migratory times, coming home over a week earlier than they used to. The storks come back to the same exact place year after year – or rather, to their summer residence – the nests they built are gigantic mansions, often used like layered housing projects by other birds like starlings, sparrows and even small owls.

The Non Travellers

The Mara is home to birds that would rather not leave – those have their permanent home on the Maasai Mara and don’t even dream about leaving. They are fine just where they are, and you will have to fly to them before they fly to you. But it is worth the trip.

Secretary Bird

One of the birds who can always be seen on the Maasai Mara is the secretary bird (Sagittarius serpentarius). The name comes from times that are probably too historic and far off for any of us to remember. This extremely long legged bird has a mohawk of feathers protruding from the back of it’s head that look like quills. Quills, or writing instruments of a bygone era. The first european naturalists that decided to name species in this region thought the bird looked like a secretary with quills stuck behind his ear. If you do this with pens, you can appreciate this likeness.

Some language experts have argued that the name derives from the French pronunciation of saqr-at-tair – or a bird of pray, a hunter. This would liken it’s head to a quiver of arrows, which is also very fitting. The secretary bird has bright orange makeup around its eyes, with a bright yellow outline around the beak. This bird would look like an eagle or a hawk – if not for it’s extremely long, stilt like legs.

It almost looks like two birds that got put together out of spare parts of eagles and cranes or storks! This brave carnivore is definitely the bird to look out for out on the plains. Despite it’s unusual shape and name, the secretary bird is not to be smirked at – it is a snake eater, and beloved by farmers to control the snake population. It has also been known to go after young gazelles and cheetah cubs. It’s African nickname is Devil’s Horse.

Martial Eagle

Another non-migratory bird worth mentioning is the martial eagle (Polemaetus bellicosus). This gigantic bird of prey hunts anything it can get it’s claws on – from mammals, to reptiles and other birds. Because of this, it is considered somewhat of a nuisance to farmers who have hunted it to the status of Vulnerable to extinction, as classified by the IUCN. The martial eagle has gorgeous charcoal grey plumage with piercing yellow eyes. They have incredible eyesight – about 3.0 to 3.6 of human accuity – they can spot prey from up to 6 kilometers.

If you do see this magnificent bird of prey in the wild, it is most likely you will spot it sailing above you. This eagle spends more time in the air than most other species – and at higher altitudes. You better bring some binoculars! The martial eagle is an amazing eater. This bird eats an astounding range of animals including a lot of carnivores, which are an important source of food. Another impressive source of food are young ungulates (horses, donkeys, cattle and giraffes belong to this family). The martial eagle is a specialist in swooping in and grabbing young ungulates of their choice, like antelope, dik-diks, or gazelles.

These are just two species of the amazing Mara birds. There are hundreds more to see – and each of them is more exciting than the last!

Birding Safaris

If you have decided to come to Kenya for vacation, birding safaris are a great thing to try. You are pretty much guaranteed to come back with amazing photos and memories. How to look for a good guide? Look for businesses that are situated close to the Masai Mara. A lot of them offer safaris – most of them are driving safaris, some are walking safaris and some are birding safaris. If you feel like splurging, there are multiple luxury safari lodges around the Mara that will cater to your culinary and pampering needs as well as your sense of adventure.

It’s safe to say that you never want to just wander into the wilderness alone. You need guidance and people who know what they’re doing. This isn’t a trip to a park or a zoo – this is the genuine wild, with very large predators. You will need a professional. Make sure to check out local guides and review sites like tripadvisor before committing to a birding safari company.

A great time to go is from April to June – this is the “green season”. This is not only a good time for birding, but a great time for wildlife as well.

July to September is the migration season, and if you are looking to see herds of wildebeest moving through the Mara, as well as the first of the European birds arriving – this is a good time for you.

The Best Times to Go Birding in Kenya for Your Holiday!

Enjoy your holiday, see as many beautiful birds as you can, and relax! This is a unique vacation to spend in Kenya, make each and every moment count!

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One Response to " Birding Paradise on the Mara – A Different Kenya Adventure "

  1. Anna Makridi says:

    Interesting post! Good job!

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