Though not often the main attraction, birds play a pivotal role in the safari experience. While Africa’s charismatic megafauna represent the primary game viewing impetus, the reality is that for every sighting of one of the Big Five, there is an equally interesting avian observation. Imagine watching lions on a kill without vultures rowdily posturing nearby, or a heard of buffalo sans their industrious oxpecker friends, or elephants lumbering across the savanna without Lilac-breasted Rollers sallying forth after disturbed insects? If a safari were a magnificent symphony, birds would be the accent notes.
Nearly everywhere you go in Africa, there is a regional checklist on offer. Here in the Maasai Mara, for instance, upwards of 470 species of birds have been recorded to date – and we’re more than happy to share our checklist with all our guests.
But where does that smart, crisp checklist go after the first day of excitedly ticking off the birds pointed out by your guide? It’s disappeared, mysteriously absent . . . because truth be told, how many amateur birders really care about the eleventieth species of cisticola of the day? You were probably bored by the second one. And what the heck is a cisticola, anyway?
The fact is that while impressive 470 birds is simply overwhelming for the majority of non-birders. And it’s probably somewhere between 450 and 469 more than most can remember or even truly appreciate.
Plunging non-birders into the deep-end of the world of birds never works (just ask my wife), so we asked our guiding team to come up with a list of their local favourites, from which we chose a dozen avian icons as a focal point. Intended as a gateway for the novice birder, these Early Birds are not only representative of the 450-odd others that can be found in our lovely reserve, but they also provide an entertaining challenge for greenhorn and expert alike.
Angama Mara’s Early Birds, presented in a beautiful booklet designed by naturalist and artist Duncan Butchart, span the gamut of beauty, East African endemism, fascinating social behaviour, and even sentimentality:
- Ross’s Turaco – one of the most oddly beautiful birds of Africa, seemingly prehistoric in appearance, and a resident of the forested escarpment around our Lodge
- Superb Starling – a brilliantly-coloured bird living in groups of up to 30, exhibiting fascinating social dynamics and cooperative breeding behaviour
- Red-throated Tit – an endemic to East Africa, found chiefly in dry acacia woodlands with a range centered on the Mara-Serengeti ecosystem
- Brown-throated Wattle-eye – a striking pied forest denizen with a flamboyant red wattle above the eye, and at the eastern extremity of its range
- Grey Crowned-Crane – one of the most regal and photogenic birds of the Mara, and a favourite of many visitors
- Yellow-throated Longclaw – a stunning grassland species showcasing uncanny convergent evolution with North America’s meadowlarks
- Martial Eagle – one of the most majestically powerful of all African eagles, they’ve been observed taking down small antelope
- Purple Grenadier – a brilliant little purply-blue feathered gem that lights up the bush like a Christmas ornament
- Black Sawwing – a striking jet-black swallow that is among the most conspicuous of birds as they glide about like black angels on the wing
- Cinnamon-chested Bee-eater – what’s an African bird list without a bee-eater? This stunning Central/East African species can be found in the forest around the Lodge
- Augur Buzzard – a beautiful raptor reminiscent of North America’s ubiquitous Red-tailed Hawk, and an omen bird for journeying Maasai
- Rufous-naped Lark – last, but certainly not least, one of the most beautiful and surely the most recognizable song of African savannas . . . and Nicky’s favourite!
These avian icons are representatives of the Mara’s feathered community and make an exciting list for all safari-goers. Can you find all 12 during your safari in the Maasai Mara? Easier said than done, and be warned . . . it may just be the first step towards becoming a birdnerd like yours truly!
Note from the Editor: I know the guides take the mickey out of me for my little Rufous-naped Lark but how can you stop your heart from going pop when you hear that sweet song?