The enormous variety and concentration of birdlife in East Africa has been sadly neglected. So far 1,293 bird species have been recorded and scientists believe that many unrecognised birds are yet to be discovered, especially in remote areas. Compare this figure with the 250 or so recorded bird species in Great Britain or the 850 in Canada, Mexico and United States and you will understand why Kenya, with over 1,100 different birds, is an ornithologistís delight.
Nature has provided East Africa with a tropical environment with every conceivable type of habitat. Snow on the equator from volcanic mountain ranges, cool lush forests on their slopes, vast open temperate plains, harsh dry deserts and lowland equatorial forests, sea shores and mangrove swamps providing perpetual food supplies, all contribute to this unique region. The vast majority of birds live and breed here year round, but several hundred species come from northern latitudes, when harsh winters destroy their food sources.
From as far east as the Bering Straits and as far west as northern Scandinavia it is estimated that up to 6,000 million birds make the annual journey, with some birds flying as far as the southern tip of the continent. Those that survive make the return journey each spring to breed in their chosen latitudes.
In East Africa there are only wet and dry seasons and even these vary dramatically from place to place and year to year. Driven by some age-old instinct birds know when to leave their breeding areas to go to find a better place to live.
This is instinctive, not learned behaviour. Many species that breed in the northern latitudes and migrate to Africa each year, actually leave their young to find their own way south, or perish in the attempt. A perfect example of this is the Eurasian cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) which lays its eggs in the nests of foster parents. The young cuckoo, even when totally blind, instinctively and forcibly ejects any other egg or even young chick from its nest. Foster parents spend the next 20 or so days feeding this voracious monster until it can fly and feed itself. By now its parents have long since left for Africa, often weeks before the European weather turns miserable. The young cuckoo starts the long journey south with no guidance, following its instinct to go or die.
Birds play an important role in the lives of man, not least for their aesthetic value. We all know how much pleasure can be derived from watching them in our gardens, but birds also perform an essential function in keeping the number of insects under control. Perhaps most important though is the way birds serve as an indication of manís destructive activities on the environment.
The classic example is the effect of DDT (dichloro diphenyl trichloroethane) on the eggs of birds of prey. This phenomenon was widely published and alerted governments throughout the world to the perils of using long term insecticides. Birds of prey are at the end of a food-chain. Their prey, be it mice, rats, lizards or other birds, all feed on grains or insects which, in this case, had been treated with DDT. The compound built up in their bodies, without serious effect, to very high levels. But the effect on the birds of prey was to weaken their egg shells, effectively destroying their ability to reproduce. Once this was realised and conclusively proven DDT was banned.
The East African climate is controlled by
two major factors: a meteorological phenomenon known as the intertropical convergence zone, which produces the two main rainy seasons with specific wind directions, and the various ranges and altitudes of mountains in relation to these winds, at different times of the year.
The water birds:
On the coast the climate is tropical year round, and the beaches with wide tide differentials (up to four metres or 13 feet) provide massive food supplies for migrating waders or shore birds. At low tide from September to March, thousands of these birds can be seen feeding along the beaches, coral pools and mud flats.
Sanderlings (Calidris alba), Whimbrels (Numenius phaeopus), Ringed Plovers (Charadrius hiaticula), Turnstones (Arenaria interpres), Oyster-catchers (Haemantopus ostralegus), Greenshanks (Tringa nebularia), and other migrants live and feed here storing up energy for the long flight back to their northern breeding grounds in the spring.
Resident birds are also much in evidence. Grey herons (Ardea cinerea) feed in the shallow pools, gulls of several species are ever present, and in the evening large flocks of terns come to roost on the coral cliffs. Breeding colonies of the roseate terns (Sterna dougallii) establish themselves on off-shore islands, and there is a confusing variety and large numbers of egrets, with all their oddities.
In shallow water without coral cliffs, mangrove swamps develop. Here, the mud attracts mangrove kingfishers (Halcyon senegaloides), night herons (Nycticorax nycticorax), and other species of heron, including the strange black heron (Ardea melanocephala), with its unique feeding behaviour. It paddles with bright yellow feet and then brings its wings up over its head in umbrella fashion to shade the water underneath.
There are also crab plovers (Dronius ardeola), and yellow billed storks, (Ibis ibis) which feed by sticking their partly opened, long bills into shallow water and, with sweeping action, snap them shut when they touch something edible.
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