Tony Beck - Photography, Nature and Birding Tours, Local Birding Excursions

Archive for November, 2010

POST CARDS FROM KENYA

Superb Starling

Superb Starling

A narrow brook gently cascades along a garden trail, lilac-coloured blooms ornament the prominent Jacaranda trees. A mixed flock of iridescent sunbirds with long curved bills and tail streamers – flashes of emerald, bronze, amethyst and scarlet, each one chattering as they probe the blossoms for nectar. African Mourning Doves, perch high in the canopy singing the words “Drink Lager, Drink Lager…” Montane Wagtails, tiny, slender, black & white – they pump their tails as they follow us along the trail. Meanwhile enormous Crowned Hornbills, with their brilliant red toucan-like bills, and long tails, fly from tree-to-tree. Amongst them, a single Hartlaub’s Turaco, a flamboyant bird with a bushy crest, and crimson wings. Above all the activity, a Violet-backed Starling emerges from the canopy, its upper side shining with a rich magenta gloss – a colour rarely seen in the world of birds. The dawn chorus rings like a well-orchestrated symphony – sweet and melodic. A quick walk around the gardens reveals about 30 species of birds – all before a tasty cup of fresh Kenyan coffee and a plate of juicy fresh fruit.

This begins a typical day of birding in Kenya.

Fourteen days into our journey, and our group has tallied more than 500 species of birds and 60 species of mammals.

Equatorial regions provide the greatest diversity of species in the world, and Kenya is a perfect example of this. A country the size of New York State, about 1200 different birds have been recorded here – more than a tenth of the world’s total. With many different habitats, at different elevations, we discover a wonderful world of immense natural colour, drama and beauty. So far, our group has only visited areas north and west of Nairobi. Traveling around Mount Kenya, through the Rift Valley, down to Lake Victoria and into the Masi Mara, we go through many different habitats exploring lush montane forest, moorland, brushland, thorn scrub, lakeshore, various grasslands and wetlands – they contain the widest variety of life-forms I’ve ever experienced, much of it highly visible and easily photographed.

Elephants, Cheetahs, Giraffes, Lions, Monkeys, Zebras, Hippos… But, none match the kaleidoscopic colour of the birds. We’ve marveled at the likes of Lilac-breasted Roller, Superb Starling, Cinnamon-chested Bee-Eater, Malachite Kingfisher and Red-billed Firefinch. We’ve seen the abundant wildlife surrounding the shores of Lake Nakuru and Lake Bagoria, with its endless flocks of flashy pink Lesser Flamingos – more than 120,000 lining the shore. A morning hike through Kakamega Forest produces a new symphony of sounds, and 60 new species for the trip. Driving through the arid savannah grasslands of the Masi Mara, open and vast, sprinkled with the occasional dominant BalanitesTree. We’re surrounded by large herds of big mammals like Burchell’s Zebra, Impala, Wildebeast and Cape Buffalo – an abundance of life, thrilling, beautiful and photogenic – a childhood dream-come-true.

And, we’re only half way through the itinerary. What great adventures await in the days ahead? Stay tuned.

male Black-bellied Sunbird

male Black-bellied Sunbird

Lilac-breasted Roller

Lilac-breasted Roller


Lesser Flamingos

Lesser Flamingos


Cinnamon-chested Bee-eater

Cinnamon-chested Bee-eater

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Hand-feeding The Birds

My First Hand-fed Downy Woodpecker - Photo courtesy of Nina Stavlund

My First Hand-fed Downy Woodpecker - Photo courtesy of Nina Stavlund

Fresh-fallen snow shrouds the surrounding conifers, a distant raven’s croak disturbs the calm air as I approach the forest trail. I hear the chatter of chickadees emerging from the thickets. I dig deep into my jacket pocket, pull out a fistful of crushed walnuts, hold out my offering, and they arrive. Black-capped Chickadees, Red-breasted Nuthatches, and even a Downy Woodpecker, hopping onto my hand, grabbing a chunk, then flying away. One after another, often without hesitation, and sometimes several at a time, they come to you like an old friend.

So, what is it about feeding a bird from your hand? Why do so many people, from all age groups, find this so delightful?
I’ve seen many smiles, heard much laughter, when a chickadee alights onto a person’s fingers. I see all their cares and troubles vanish, replaced by joy and fulfillment. It’s a connection with nature, with the world around us. It’s the power of dispelling the fear of an innocent creature, to be accepted by something that normally fears us. Whatever it is, for some it has a lasting and profoundly positive effect – good, healthy therapy for the soul.

Here in Ottawa, we have several natural areas where the birds have become accustomed to free handouts. Some people have even trained the birds in their own back yard to come to the hand. Black-capped Chickadees are the easiest to train. In time, Red-breasted Nuthatch gets in on the act. Next to follow is the White-breasted Nuthatch. I’ve even had Downy Woodpecker, Pine Siskin, and Common Redpoll come to my hand. No doubt, they learned this from the nearby chickadees. Judging by their bold assertiveness, I suspect that some of our local Blue Jays will eventually do the same.

In the book “Hand-feeding Backyard Birds” by Hugh Wiberg, walnuts are a favourite. Pecans, cashews, hulled sunflower and peanuts are also popular menu items.

Training these birds often requires time, patience and a slow, methodical determination. You can’t force them to accept your hand. They are in complete control. But, you have to give the birds some credit. They’re resourceful enough to learn you mean them no harm. Their reward is nutritious food. Ours is a few moments of bonding with nature.

Nina Stavlund Photographing the Chickadees

Nina Stavlund Photographing the Chickadees

Black-capped Chickadees are amongst the easiest birds to hand feed.

Black-capped Chickadees are amongst the easiest birds to hand feed.