Saturday, September 7, 2013

Amboseli National Park - 12 Jul 2013

Amboseli National Park is located approximately 90 miles s. of Nairobi and is 3100 sq. mi. flat, dusty, absolutely stunning elephant reserve that has Mt. Kilimanjaro as its backdrop. I couldn't wait to see the place.

suspected Gambaga Flycatcher
We started at 7:30 am from the lobby of the Sopa Lodge. At breakfast we had brief views of Mt. Kilimanjaro through the broken clouds, but would soon lose sight of the mountain entirely. I walked around the courtyard in the pre-dawn light and found a tiny flycatcher that I (questionably) identified as a  Gambaga Flycatcher.

Though we are in the mountains it is the dustiest place to date. The roads are covered with inches of fine, clay dust that hang much longer than the dust in the Masai Mara. Though the roads are graded they are washboard-ridged to the point that the entire van shakes like hell while we drive. Not the most pleasant 25 minute drive to the park.

Eastern Chanting Goshawk
Andrew had spotted a couple of thin gray hawks last evening, and we encountered them again. I was able to get early light photos of Eastern Chanting Goshawks, all gray with smooth gray heads, and thin gray-horizontal striped chests. The cere is yellow, and separates the Eastern from the Dark Chanting Goshawk, with its red cere, that I photographed later. A short distance later we spotted an all brown African Goshawk on a light pole that showed just the hint of its horizontal chestnut banding.

African Pied Wagtail
Just before reaching the gates to the National Park we had roadside views of a White-bellied Go-away Bird. At the gates a pair of African Pied Wagtails entertained me as we waited for tickets and avoided the extremely aggressive Masai women hocking their crafts. A few tried to get me to buy daggers and spears, but I don't think the TSA would let them on the planes. I did convert US dollars to Shillings for them.

Once inside the gates we came upon our first of many herds of Elephants. This herd had a fresh baby so the adults were agitated as they crossed the road in front of us. A Von Der Decken's Hornbill gave me few pics from the van while we waited for the elephant troop to pass.

Yellow-necked Spurfowl
As we drove on we encountered more Eastern Chanting Goshawks, a Lappet-faced Vulture, and a Bateleur Eagle sitting in a distant tree. More Elephant, Cape Buffalo, Hippopotamus, Eastern Wildebeest (paler gray cousins to the darker Western ones we saw in Mara), TopiZebra, and Thompson's Gazelles appeared in front of us. To the west we could see the mountains, and they made a nice backdrop against the yellow grass and acacia and umbrella trees. A Yellow-necked Spurfowl stopped the van for a few moments before running into the grass.

Black-headed Heron

We drove down to a marsh where a herd of elephants were wading. I had hoped to get some pics of the Grey Crowned-cranes, Cattle Egrets and Great Egrets that were among the elephants, but a big ornery bull elephant started stalking the van, so we hightailed it out of there. Too bad, 'cause the lighting was nice with sun streaming through heavy clouds. As we left we encountered a tiny plover that I could only guess was a baby Blacksmith Plover, which were everywhere. Scattered pairs of Crowned Plovers were also seen.

From there we drove on to the Ol Dukai Lodge, which had been abandoned years ago. Now it is home to dozens of Olive Baboons, which were all over the place. We stopped to photograph those with cute little babies.

By now folks needed a hippo stop, so we drove across a barren wasteland to the airstrip to use the restrooms. Dust devils were popping up everywhere, so it was surprising to see Zebra and Wildebeest in the area. We even saw another herd of Elephant. Outside the building the parking lot played host to Red-rumped Swallows and tiny flocks of Fisher's Sparrow-Larks, which closely resemble House Sparrows.

Fisher's Sparrow-Lark

Saddle-billed Stork (male)
Since we were close enough to it, we decided to drive to Observation Hill, a large hill with a walk-up observation deck that give gorgeous views of the lake and marshes below. As we approached the hill the marshes to our right showed hippos and elephants. Charles spotted a Spur-winged Goose, and I found a Long-toed Plover. Dozens of African Jacana were flying around with their white heads and bright rufous bodies and wings visible in the distance. A flock of Hottentot Teal came close enough for some flight shots. While I photographed them I finally saw a Red-capped Lark foraging on the ground next to the van. As we drove on I spotted more Egyptian Geese and more crowned-cranes. A pair of Saddle-billed Stork were quietly sitting the grass next to the road (note that the females have yellow eyes and the males have brown eyes). I was bummed because we were now in a hurry and I couldn't get Charles' attention to the Collared Pratincole we just passed.


But we reached the parking lot to the Observation Hill and made the long trek up the steps to the top. By now the sun was nearly overhead and it was getting hot. Dozens of small yellow weavers were flying around and offered great photos, but they were difficult to ID. My best guess at ID were Taveta Golden Weavers, mostly due to their bi-colored bills. Red-billed Quelea and Cardinal Quelea were also scatted among the scrub bushes lining the road. More Fisher's Sparrow-Larks also appeared on the top, as well as another Eastern Chanting Goshawk. An African Silverbill made a very brief appearance, but flew off before I could get a better photograph.

Fisher's Sparrow Lark, juvenile

The view from Observation Hill

D'Arnaud's Barbet
I took some panoramas of the lake and marshes before I turned the camera on some Superb Starlings. Just before leaving I spotted a D'Arnaud's Barbet sitting on a rock among all the yellow sparrows. I managed a couple of pics before it disappeared.

one Superb Starling

Long-tailed Fiscal
Robin and I walked back to the van where a Long-tailed Fiscal posed for photos next to the van.

Little Bee Eater
After photographing this gorgeous bird I spotted several Little Bee-eaters up the road. I took a few photos of them befor grabbing a few last minute shots of a flock of Namaqua Doves, with their black throats and rufous wings visible in flight.

Since Guy wanted to get back to the lodge for lunch I thought it best to grab one last photo of the dust devils, then close my eyes for the trip back. That way I wouldn't annoy everyone by asking Charles to stop every two minutes... Charles made great time, and we arrived in time for lunch. I took the opportunity to photograph some lizards and a flock of White-bellied Go-away Birds before settling down to lunch.

Northern Black Flycatcher
While Robin napped I spent the afternoon ID'ing the hawks we had seen this morning, plus a few others. The afternoon Game Drive would start at 4:30 pm so I walked around the driveway looking for birds. A pair of warblers were foraging in the shade, but even with photos I could not ID them - olive green backs, white fronts with a touch of yellow wash, and buffy eyebrows were not enough for an ID. I settled for a nice portrait of a Northern Black Flycatcher.

Marico Sunbird
Out on the driveway a Marico Sunbird put on a show for me and allowed some nice pics to be taken. An African Paradise Flycatcher male made an appearance but was not forthcoming with the images.

Fruit Bat
The old gent sweeping the driveway showed me where a pair of Fruit Bats were roosting, so I was able to to get a few pics as they hung around.

Charles then arrived, and everyone (sans Robin) piled into the van. We sped straight for the park without stopping (except for an unexpected cattle stop). Once inside the gates we we treated to a group of Rothschild's Giraffes in the late afternoon sun. It was especially nice since the skies had cleared to reveal Mt Kilimanjaro in all its glory!

But we were after Elephants, so Andrew suggested turning right at the first possible chance to take the road down into a marshy area to see the elephants and birds. As we drove it became apparent that we were not on the right road. We had barren scrub on either side of the road. I didn't mind until I saw what looked like a large hawk on a bush up ahead. It turned out to be a small bird on a clump of leaves at the end of the branch, so I told Charles to continue on. No sooner did we pass it did I realize I just missed a Pygmy Falcon!

White-bellied Bustard
A pair of White-bellied Bustards made me feel better. They were next to the road and quite cooperative. Several more appeared and were clucking away.

Black-bellied Bustard
A bit farther down the road I spotted a Black-bellied Bustard farther out in the field. A pair of Ostrich were also heading across the dried, barren plain.

We soon came upon a huge herd of approximately 60 Elephants far out in the open grassland several hundreds of meters away. No sooner did Charles turn off the van that the entire herd turned our way and started running! Big old elephants and tiny little babies were now kicking up dust and heading in our direction.

Charles was concerned that they were going to cross the road in front of us, so we took off up the road to turn around and get a better view. But as we turned around the elephants crossed the road farther back, we still got wonderful photos in the now-late afternoon sun.

Once the big herd was far away we stopped every few tens of meters to photograph more single elephants and / or Ostriches and Cattle Egrets.

Cattle Egret

another Eastern Chanting Goshawk
Andrew spotted an Eastern Chanting Goshawk on a bridge ahead of us, but there were two vans blocking our passage. It was no big deal except a huge bull elephant was walking the road right behind us and we were pinned in (classic ambush situation). But he turned into the grass before reaching us. Whew...

With the sun now setting we started back. I spotted a Collared Pratincole on the road side but we were moving too fast. Charles slowed only for a pair of Spotted Hyenas that were rooting around in a large bush. While stopped I grabbed a quick few photos a small Double-banded Courser (also referred to as Two-banded Courser).

Double-banded Courser

It was now dark and we were outside the gate. Speeding back on the 20 Km of washboard road I decided to snooze. I was suddenly awakened when Charles had to hit the brakes hard to avoid hitting a huge giraffe that ran across the road in front of us! How do you explain to AAA that you just hit a giraffe?

Once back at the lodge it was time for our farewell dinner. Guy arranged for Champagne to be brought to the table in honor of our last night in Kenya. Robin and I will be heading back to the States tomorrow while Guy, Andrew, Sandi and Deb continue their trip for another week. We toasted, expressed thanks, ate, and headed back to our rooms to pack. Great day!

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