It’s 4am. The birders prepare for the start of the annual waterfowl count on Lake Bogoria and Lake Baringo, both famous birding destinations in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley.
The count must start at the crack of dawn before the birds fly off for the day.
By 6.15am, the teams meet at the starting point of Bogoria, at the "new" main gate of the alkaline lake that now measures 50 square kilometres, up from 30 square kilometres since the Great Rift Valley lakes began rising phenomenally in 2011.
“The annual waterbird census takes place in more than 150 countries around the world,” said Titus Imboma, a scientist in the Ornithology section of the National Museums of Kenya. “The sole purpose of monitoring waterbirds is for the conservation and sustainable management of wetlands.”
Baringo and Bogoria boast international ratings such as Important Bird Areas for hosting extremely large concentrations of waterbirds, Ramsar sites, which are wetlands of international importance, and more recently, Bogoria together with lakes Elmenteita and Nakuru were declared a Unesco World Heritage Site ‘as a natural property of outstanding beauty’ under the Kenya Great Lakes.
“The counts have been on for more than 50 years under the umbrella of the International Waterbird Census,” said Mr Imboma adding that, “In Kenya, counts are carried out twice a year.”
The January count is both for local waterfowl and the Eurasian migratory species arriving in Kenya for the non-breeding season. In July, the counts are for the local species because the migratory species have returned north to their breeding grounds. Counts are carried out by volunteers from different institutions and co-ordinated by the National Museums of Kenya, the Kenya Wildlife Service and Nature Kenya.
In Kenya, the counts have taken place since 1990, mostly in the Rift Valley Lakes, the Kenyan coast and the wetlands around Nairobi and central Kenya and sometimes on Lake Victoria. However, the waterfowl counts were skipped due to Covid-19 in July 2020.
Bogoria is rich in spirulina algae, the preferred diet of the pretty pink Lesser Flamingos lacing the shoreline. Unfortunately, many are now dead, after being caught in the thorny Prosopis juliflora, an invasive tree that has colonised the entire riparian shoreline. It was introduced in the region to curb soil erosion but the plan backfired.
“Prosopis has become a deadly killer of flamingos,” said Timothy Mwinami, a research scientist with the National Museums of Kenya's Ornithology section.
The lake is at its highest since 1903, according to James Kimaru, senior warden at Lake Bogoria National Reserve.
“The community earns 10 percent from the gate fee and 100 percent from the four wildlife conservancies they have established,” said the warden. “They have taken ownership of the wildlife.”
The following morning, eight boats fan out from Ol Kokwa Island to cover the lake for the second waterfowl count. The waterfowl counts on Baringo started when Bonnie Dunbar, part-time resident on the island approached Nature Kenya in 2018.
The first waterbird on the count is the Goliath heron, the world’s largest. When the rare lesser Jacana is listed, it creates excitement in the bird world for it is not often spotted.
“Birds are indicators of the health of the environment,” said Dr Dunbar, “It is important to follow not only the natural cycles but also the day to day changes that happen.”
This article was first published in The EastAfrican newspaper on February 6, 2021.