A Day with the Birds at Lake Nakuru
By “Awake!” correspondent in Kenya
“THE greatest bird spectacle on earth.” “An ornithologist’s paradise.” “A birdwatcher’s Serengeti.” How could I resist an opportunity to visit such an area? The place is Lake Nakuru, covering about 25 square miles (65 square kilometers) in East Africa’s Rift Valley. This shallow alkaline lake has become known internationally for its flamingos, sometimes numbering into the millions. That is a “spectacle” indeed!
A friend of mine at Kenya’s capital city, Nairobi, kindly offered to take my family along for a day to see the birds at Lake Nakuru. We got an early start, and before long the 100-mile (161-kilometer) drive brought us to the lake. Birds already were soaring in the warm air currents rising from the sun-drenched land.
We made our way to a high vantage point on the western shore of the lake. From there we could view the entire body of water. It seemed incredible that a shallow basin not more than 12 feet (3.7 meters) deep could sustain such a large collection of birds.
Besides the 1,125,000 flamingos that have been counted at a time (and estimates of 2,000,000), there are hundreds of other bird species at Nakuru. Although there is a chain of soda lakes in the Rift Valley, Lake Nakuru especially enjoys chemical and physical characteristics ideally producing the blue-green algae upon which the flamingos and fish feed. This, together with a complex combination of saline and alkaline content, suspended nutrients, freshwater influx, sunlight exposure and evaporation, makes Lake Nakuru most suited to sustain this “ornithologist’s paradise.” The lake might also be considered essential to the survival of migrant species coming from as far away as the shores of the Arctic Ocean. Some of these world travelers have been known to spend more time on the lake annually than at their distant breeding grounds.
Although we cannot claim to be ornithologists, it was not difficult to identify a hawk eagle perched on an offshore pole. Viewed through binoculars, the bird appeared to be about 20 inches (51 centimeters) long from crest to tail. Predatory birds, like the eagles, have an attraction all their own, due to either their handsome appearance or their dramatic mode of flight.
No sooner had we settled ourselves to continue our drive through Lake Nakuru National Park than another bird of the eagle family came into view. Perched on a dead tree stump was a fish eagle. Its white head, chest, back and tail, chestnut-colored belly and black wings gave it a magnificent appearance. The fish eagle’s shrieking call is one of the characteristic sounds at Lake Nakuru. This bird’s unusual practice of throwing back its head when making the call seems to add to its wild gull-like cry. The fish eagle can be seen plunging from a height of some 30 feet (9 meters) into the water for a meal, or it may be seen chasing other fish-eating birds in the hope of sharing their prey. For that matter, on an alkaline lake like this the fish eagle may turn to feasting on other water birds as a staple of its diet, and flamingos are easy to catch. But the fish eagle is essentially a fish eater. The talons on its feet enable the bird to grip slippery fish in water.
As we viewed the lake from our high vantage point, it was a delight to see such a variety of water birds along the shore and wading in the water. For instance, with the naked eye we could identify the “funereal” marabou stork. He stood, undertakerlike, among the greater flamingo and the lesser flamingo, as well as the white pelicans.
When we looked through the binoculars, several of the thirty-nine species of waders common to the lake came into view. They range from the long spindle-legged stilts to the tiny five-inch-high (13-centimeter-high) stints. The little stints breed in Scandinavia and Siberia. We listened with pleasure as these tiny intercontinental travelers chirped and tweeted while basking in the African sunshine.
Overhead I counted thirty birds in a cloud of white pelicans gliding about. Among them was a Verreaux’s eagle, distinctive for its grace of flight and black plumage with white patches on the rump and wings. A bird-watching colleague indicated that this magnificent bird confines its feeding interests mainly to the hyrax, the rock badger of the Bible. (Lev. 11:5) The hyrax abounds in the cliffs of the western escarpment rising from the lakeshore. Shortly after our viewing this hunter on the wing, two rock badgers were sighted attacking a vulture in a tree on the escarpment, no doubt because that predator was getting dangerously close to their nest. Another remarkable feature about this eagle is that it has been known to breed in Kenya at altitudes of 11,000 to 13,500 feet (3,353 to 4,114 meters).
As the morning wore on, we were anxious to get a closer look at the birds on the shores of the lake. So we drove along its western shore and were rewarded with close-ups of the African darter. This bird is distinguished from the cormorant by its longer neck with a characteristic “kink.” Here and there, an African spoonbill came into view.
Our View from Pelican’s Corner
In time, we arrived at Pelican’s Corner. Appropriately named, indeed! Hundreds of white pelicans were seen there. It was a delight to watch them paddle majestically along the lake, usually in flotillas. We counted twelve in one lineup. At this “aquatic airport,” there appeared to be incessant takeoffs and landings.
A pelican’s takeoff is surprisingly efficient, even if a little cumbersome in appearance. This heavy bird rises from the water flapping its large wings, with webbed feet still splashing the surface water three, four, five or six times before it becomes truly airborne. Its appearance in flight, with head held well back, is the epitome of grace and grandeur. When they were landing, these birds reminded us of the flying boats of years gone by.
Pelicans display instinctive fishing qualities. They sometimes fish in groups, gathering in a half circle to drive a shoal of fish into the shallows.
At Pelican’s Corner we also were rewarded with a view of several hundred flamingos. Predominant in numbers were the lesser flamingos, with their pink plumage. The greater flamingos stand about 4 feet (1.2 meters) high. Mainly, they have whiter plumage, with black and bright red on the wings. As flamingos fly, they stretch their long necks forward and their stiltlike legs backward. Their diet consists chiefly of the algae in the mineral-rich waters. The bills of these birds have a network of fine, tough bristles through which water is pumped by the tongue, leaving the trapped algae to be swallowed.
The flamingo really is the glory of Lake Nakuru. When birds congregate in an area a few hundred yards wide and probably a half mile (.8 kilometer) long, individual takeoff is impossible and there has to be a maneuver in mass formation to get airborne. After feeding all day, the birds are known to take flight en masse in the evening, heading for another part of the lake or for a nearby body of water. This event is the sight that has drawn bird lovers from all over the world.
Other Treats Await Us
Reluctant as we were to leave Pelican’s Corner, we realized that we had traveled only halfway around Lake Nakuru. Along the south shore, we had another treat awaiting us. There was a steppe eagle perched supremely on an upper branch of a tree. As we viewed it through a telescope, we noted that the bird’s bluish-purple beak was accentuated by bright-yellow markings on either side curving around the lower parts of the eyes. Otherwise, the bird was dark brown. As the name implies, the steppe eagle breeds on the steppes of Asia.
Stalking a secretary bird, but being no match for its long-legged gait through the grassland, I raised my camera to photograph another, perched in a tree. Just then, two yellow-billed storks flew into view and I snapped a picture of them instead. Such are the frequent surprises of bird-watching at Lake Nakuru.
Proceeding along the eastern side of the lake, we left the water’s edge and traversed forest and bushland. Once we stopped to allow four Jackson’s francolins to cross the road. In a hollow near Lion Hill, we spotted a family of three ground hornbills. Their red skin markings on face and throat gave them the appearance of domestic turkeys. Now and then the attractive hoopoe would fly past and we recalled that the Mosaic law termed it an unclean bird.—Lev. 11:13, 19; Deut. 14:11, 12, 18.
No bird sanctuary is complete without a place of concealment called a “hide.” At Lake Nakuru this facility also is provided for visitors. What a treat it was for us to see the glamorous pied kingfisher perched just a few yards away! It hovers over the water before dropping like a stone to catch a fish. There, too, were the “sacred” ibis and the Egyptian goose. The picture framed by the covering of the “hide” was delightfully enhanced by the presence of a small herd of docile-looking defassa waterbuck, browsing in the grassy areas near the water.
This brought to an end our day among the birds at Lake Nakuru. We had identified some thirty different species. It is claimed, however, that ornithologists have little difficulty spotting some 120 species of birds in a good day’s viewing in this area.
Brief though our bird-watching excursion had been, it brightened our hope for the time, near at hand, when the whole earth will be a restored paradise. Then these delightful examples of our Creator’s handiwork will grace the earth in great profusion and wing their way through clear, clean, untroubled skies.