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Peregrine Falcon strikes at Lake Baringo
Munir Virani — in East Africa Project    Share

Note from Munir Virani, Africa Program Director

Seren Waters is conducting a study via the University of Durham in the U.K. to assess African Fish Eagle habitat at Lake Baringo in Kenya, one of the many dotted lakes in Africa's Great Rift Valley. I have known Seren since he was born. His father David and I played cricket for Nairobi Gymkhana and had the pleasure of touring India on a cricket tour in the late 1980s. Seren is an avid naturalist with a keen interest in birds. I remember taking him out to band fish eagles when he was only six and it gives me great pleasure to see that he has held birds of prey close to his heart. In addition, Seren is a fantastic cricket player having represented Kenya in the recently concluded Cricket World Cup that was held in India in April 2011. In this first blog, Seren writes about his experiences of conducting his fieldwork in a very beautiful yet volatile part of Kenya.

Lake Baringo Research - Seren Waters

I was delighted when Munir Virani accepted my research proposal, and said that my work would help add to the ongoing research on the African Fish Eagle at Lake Baringo. My first real encounter with the African Fish Eagle had come 15 years earlier (when I was 6...), and I was lucky enough to see Munir doing some of his early research on Fish Eagles at Lake Naivasha. Since then, this iconic raptor has remained close to my heart, and I have followed the steady decline in their numbers with great concern.

My research focuses on assessing the impact of human activities on the African Fish Eagle habitat at Lake Baringo. The first step was to determine the current population status of the eagle. For this task I accompanied Shiv Kapila, who has been tracking the fish eagle population at Lake Baringo in recent years.

This morning we woke up at the crack of dawn to start the first half of the Fish Eagle count that took us around the Northern part of the lake. The sky was clear; the lake was still, and the sun starting to appear over the eastern edge of the Rift Valley. The campsite at Roberts Camp was alive with the sound of bird song, interrupted at intervals with the unmistakable grunt of the resident hippos, which were back to the water after a night of grazing. As my watch struck 6:30, our young, and very knowledgeable boatman, Benson, pulled up on the lake’s edge having manoeuvred his way through the Acacia trees that were engulfed by the rising water level of the lake. Unseasonal rains in the month before we arrived had meant that the level of the lake was significantly higher than it has been in recent years, and thus it was not uncommon to see well mature trees completely surrounded by water.

Dawn at Lake Baringo

As Benson got the motor going, and pulled back from the shore, our counting mission was greeted by the charismatic call of the pair of eagles whose territory includes Roberts Camp. With our first two Eagles recorded, we set off past the local town of Kampi ya Samaki. The plan was to hug the shore of the entire Northern half of the lake, a distance of about 50km, in order to log all the Fish eagles present. For a passionate birder like myself, hugging the shore not only provided an opportunity to count eagles, but also take in the vast array of bird species that Lake Baringo has become renowned for - a sign at Roberts Camp boasting that450 species have been recorded. And it did not disappoint, a number of the highlights included the Madagascar Bee-eater, the African Darter, the endemic Northern Masked Weaver, and my personal favourite the Giant Kingfisher.

As we neared the Northern tip of the lake, my exposed arms started to feel the fierce heat of the sun. Shiv let on that it was around this point during his last trip that he encountered a pair of Peregrine Falcons. Having only witnessed the Peregrine in fleeting glimpses, this news had me staring intently at the tree line in anticipation. To my astonishment and elation, less than five minutes after Shiv and had mentioned the word Peregrine, we spotted a pair of them sitting on an exposed branch on the cliff top. As Benson gently steered the boat to a point on the rocky shore, less than 20 metres from the birds’ perch, they twitched their necks and took off in unison, flying straight over our heads. Turning around, we caught sight of a flock of weavers flying low over the water, oblivious to the imminent danger. “”They are hunting”, I exclaimed, sounding like an excited child! Before I had time to say anything else the female had flown high behind the weavers, stooped and descended at astonishing speed plucking a helpless weaver out of the air. Wow... I was speechless, taken aback by the effortless skill shown by the bird. My heart was beating a lot faster than usual as I scrambled about trying to ready my camera, in the hope of capturing the bird as it flew back to its perch. As it sat there tearing apart what we discovered was a Jacksons Golden Backed Weaver, I was able to reflect on what is undoubtedly one of the most thrilling sights of the natural world.

The falcons had disrupted our counting progress but we would have not missed this experience for the world. We spent the next half an hour marvelling at their beauty and skill, before saying good bye and continuing with the count. By 13:30 we had completed the Northern half of the lake, including the four Islands of Ol Kokwe, Parmalok, Samatian and Loskut. We had counted 15 individual birds, of which 5 were pairs and one a young chick. Shiv had done his last count 6 months ago, and thankfully the number of birds and their location seemed to remain stable in this half of the lake.

Sitting in the bar that evening at Roberts Camp and sipping a cold Tusker to the call of the African Scops Owl, I was able to savour the excitement of a fantastic first day in the field. And looking forward to the next 10 days of my research, I could only hope that it would be as interesting and fulfilling as today.

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