Sheets of jungle rain enveloped the canopies of giant Milicia and Antiaris trees then formed broad puddles on the rust-red track. We waited out the storm, sheltered beneath a big-leaved Crotons as droplets gathered and trembled on the brims of our bush hats. Just two metres above us a pair of Blue-breasted Bee-eaters huddled together in an attempt to keep dry, as a tiny brown frog leapt onto my boot. Then, as the rain eased off, two small thrush-like birds silently hopped from cover onto the wet track ahead of us. The first was a White-tailed Ant-Thrush and the second a Brown-chested Alethe. These are cryptic skulkers of the forest understorey which can usually only be lured out by a taped playback of their call, but the promise of easy pickings on the wet forest track had tempted them into the open. As the sun turned rain droplets into diamonds, the forest fringe suddenly came alive with bird activity. A flighty White-tailed Crested-Flycatcher pirouetted around a mossy tree trunk and a pair of striking Lühder’s Bushshrike bounced out of a wild coffee bush. High above us, a party of Great Blue Turacos belted out their raucous cackling call as a troop of Colobus Monkeys. We may have been drenched in the late afternoon downpour, but – after all – this was a ‘rain-forest’, and it sure provided its rewards!
It’s 2005, and we were in the Kakamega forest of western Kenya with local guide Benjamen Okalo. Kakamega is the only true tropical rainforest in Kenya; it is home to nearly 200 species of mid-altitude and lowland forest birds, many of which do not occur elsewhere in the country. Kakamega also supports around 20% of Kenya’s plant species, 40% of its butterflies, and rare mammals such as the Tree Pangolin and Potto (a nocturnal, virtually tail-less primate) more typical of West Africa. This treasure chest of biodiversity, has shrunk steadily in recent decades due largely to a lack of official protection, but its recognition as an Important Bird Area (IBA) by BirdLife International, combined with the stalwart efforts of an inspired local community initiative known as Kakamega Environmental Education Programme (KEEP), and increased visitation by birdwatchers, naturalists and other travellers, is helping to secure Kakamega’s long term survival.
Situated in Kenya’s densely-populated Western Province, Kakamega Forest lies between 1500 and 1700 metres above sea level and is the eastern-most fragment of the Congo Basin rainforest of which it was a part until around ten thousand years ago. Climate change at the end of the Pleistocene era caused the vast belt of equatorial rainforest to retract, leaving isolated patches on higher ground or in valley bottoms. The impact of increasing human populations during the past hundred years has further reduced and broken these remnant forests into fragments.
Getting to see some of the elusive and restricted-range birds of Kakamega has long been a sort of ‘Holy Grail’ for birders within Kenya and around the world. Although there are many truly spectacular species in the forest, the two most sought-after by serious birders are the tiny Turner’s Eremomela and the rather drab Chapin’s Flycatcher. Both are classified as ‘globally threatened’ species, each known from just two localities: here at Kakamega, and in isolated forests of the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Like several other Kakamega ‘specials’ these two species are inexplicably absent from the Ugandan forests which lie between western Kenya and the DRC. Among the more dramatic birds to delight the eye and ear at Kakamega are the aforementioned Great Blue Turaco and its equally gaudy cousin, the Ross’s Turaco, not to mention Emerald Cuckoo, Double-toothed Barbet, White-headed Wood-hoopoe, Bar-tailed Trogon and Red-headed Malimbe. These jaw-dropping birds share the forest with less splendiferous but no less interesting greenbuls, illadopsis and honeyguides which will challenge and enthral the most experienced birder. One bird, the Kakamega Greenbul, is named in honour of the forest (although it too occurs in the Albertine Rift of the DRC) and was recently accorded full species status when split from the similar Shelley’s Greenbul. Kakamega is home to a small remnant population of just ten or so Grey Parrots, those charismatic, talkative creatures which are so often put behind bars where they lead out their lives in frustrated confinement. Seeing a small screeching flock of these dashing scarlet-tailed parrots skimming free over the forest canopy is a not to be forgotten thrill.
As in any tropical forest, birdwatching at Kakamega fluctuates from frustrating to wondrous. Stiff necks will result from scanning the 40 metre canopy where birds are little more than dark silhouettes, while cryptically-plumaged greenbuls might drive you delirious as they call tantalisingly from dark thickets to reveal little more than a tail or underbelly. But when you encounter a mixed flock of 20 different species moving through a tangle of flowering vines, you’ll quickly understand why this forest is so very special. By far the best approach to birding at Kakamega is to walk slowly down the broad sand road and its offshoots, which cut through the forest. Here, you have excellent visibility into the forest fringe on either side, and will easily see birds that fly across the gap created by the road. Birds such as the gorgeous Red-headed Bluebill, Banded Prinia, Red-tailed Bristlebill, Yellow-whiskered Greenbul and Oriole Finch favour the tangled growth along the road verge, while Yellow-billed Barbets and Brown-eared Woodpeckers work the exposed branches on the forest fringe. In the canopy, mixed flocks typically include birds such as Grey-green Bushshrike, Pink-footed Puffback, Brown-capped Weaver, Grey-headed Nigrita and Dusky Tit, while any flowering vine or tree is likely to attract six or more species of iridescent, nectar-feeding sunbird. There are, of course, some birds which favour the interior of the forest and rarely venture out. A good deal of patience and some luck will be needed to get a sighting of gems such as Jameson’s, Chestnut or Yellow-bellied Wattle-eye, Black-faced Rufous Warbler or Equatorial Akalat. Finding birds such as these necessitates knowledge of their distinctive calls, so it is as well that guides such as Benjamen and his colleague Wilberforce Okeka (the two of them are also the driving force behind KEEP) are on hand.
As is so often the case, excellent birding is also to be had close to human habitation and there is none finer than in the gardens of the tranquil Rondo Retreat. This former house and property of a saw-miller is now managed by the Trinity Fellowship which welcomes birders and naturalists at very reasonable full- or half-board rates. Rondo comprises a number of spacious colonial-style garden cottages, each with a broad wrap-around veranda, and a charming dining hall set in lovingly tended gardens which merge into the rainforest. A quaint chapel adds to the charm of this magical setting, although bands of noisy Black-and-white-casqued Hornbills frequently break the peace! On a recent trip back to Rondo with my family in July 2005, we enjoyed repeated encounters with resident White-eyed Slaty Flycatcher, Cinnamon-chested Bee-eater, Grey-throated Barbet, Bronzy Sunbird, Joyful Greenbul, African Blue Flycatcher, Brown-throated Wattle-eye and Veillot’s Black Weaver in the gardens, and watched Yellow-spotted and Hairy-breasted Barbet excavating nest holes in tree boughs above our veranda. A short trail at Rondo leads down to a bubbling stream and lily-clad pond, and this wonderland of ferns and moss is prime habitat for Grey-winged Robin-Chat, Snowy-capped Robin-Chat, White-throated Prinia and – if you are extremely lucky – the elusive and highly secretive White-spotted Flufftail. A great advantage of forest birdwatching in Africa (as opposed to birding in the savanna or bushveld), is that birds are fairly active throughout the day, although there is still a definite peak of activity in the early morning.
Rondo Retreat is not the only place to stay at Kakamega. For the birder who prefers to rough it, or is on a tight budget, campsites at Isecheno and Udo’s or the rustic Isecheno Guest House are set in forest clearings and require that you bring your own food, cooking equipment and bedding. There are a number of local bird and nature guides but it is advisable to liaise closely with Wilberforce or Benjamen who will recommend an alternative if they are unavailable themselves.
To make the most of Kakamega, a minimum three night stay is recommended. This will allow ample time to explore the different forest habitats at Yala, Isecheno and the northern circuit surrounding Buyangu Hill. Kakamega can be reached from Nairobi via Nakuru and Kapsabet on a reasonable tarmac road but potholes in some sections, and busy traffic on others, means you need to bank on up to eight hours travelling time. All of the specialised bird tour operators include Kakamaga in their Kenyan itineraries which typically feature the Masai Mara, Samburu, Mount Kenya, Lake Baringo and the Arabuko-Sokoke forest north of Mombasa in their circuits. These trips are led by experienced international birders aided by local guides and routinely clock-up over 500 species in 15 or 16 days.
For more information go to www.rondoretreat.com
This article first appeared in TRAVEL AFRICA magazine (Autumn 2007)