Day 5: Bird Watching and Animal Tracking

Living among the African wildlife, Smithsonian researchers are busy studying the symbiotic relationships between flora and fauna

Aptly named superb starlings enjoy the bird feeder at Mpala Ranch. (Smithsonian Institution)

June 16, Mpala Research Centre, Laikipia, Kenya. Weather—cool breezes, clear, sunny.

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There are more than 300 species of birds on the Mpala Ranch and it is easy to appreciate their beauty and vitality. The bird feeder on our porch serves up a bit of theater as it attracts a raucous crowd who jockey for a turn at the feeder. The joker in the deck is a vervet monkey who also likes the fruit the staff puts out. He has to be shooed off before he cleans out the feeder.

The feeder attracts small and large customers. The smaller birds include the yellow-fronted canary and the sparrow weaver. They have to compete with the larger superb starlings, doves and hornbills.

(Interruption—while writing this on the back porch, two beautiful giraffes stroll up to watch the humans. They have a long look before loping off to more open territory.)

For those of us from urban areas it may be hard to imagine a “superb” starling, but these fellows deserve the name—they are plumed with iridescent blue feathers on their backs and orange/brown feathers on their breasts. The doves are much like those we know in the United States but the males have red colorings around the eyes. Hornbills are large gregarious birds that mate for life. The pair that visit the feeder not only enjoy the food but also seem expressively curious about the humans watching them.

Other birds that frequent the grounds include the beautiful marica sunbird that feeds on nectar from long-throated flowers. Common guinea hens move in flocks kicking up dust as they scour the ground for insects. Less seen and shyer birds include the hadada ibis and the lovely black-crowned tchagra.

It is tempting just to sit on the porch and watch the parade of birds and animals that just show up. But, we use the early morning of this day for one more wildlife drive. A new addition to my list of animal sightings is the eland, another of the large number of grazing animals found here. The eland is a powerful animal with short horns that spiral out from the head.

Our drive takes us along a road between the river and a high ridge, a favorable haunt for raptors who feed on fish and land animals. Sightings include Verreaux’s eagle, a dark chanting goshawk, and an augur buzzard. All are beautiful creatures, including the augur buzzard, which looks nothing like its U.S. relatives, but more like a fish eagle.

We also see impala, baboons, zebras, giraffe and waterbucks. There are also four or five groups of elephants, most with calves. We stop to watch the elephants and take a few pictures. Where the road takes us close to a group, the mother elephants become nervous, and let us know our presence is not appreciated with loud growling and shrieks and wagging of their ears. We move along rather than risk the wrath of the elephants.

After lunch we tour the “tented village,” an area used by up to 30 visiting students and their faculty advisors. This accommodation and the housing at the Research Centre is available for researchers from universities and other organizations in support of their investigations related to African wildlife and environmental issues, particularly those pertinent to Mpala. Along with the Smithsonian, Princeton University has been involved with Mpala since the Research Centre was formed, but faculty and students from many other universities take advantage of the opportunities offered here.


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