A way to see Nairobi is through its birds, and there’s no better place to do that than the Wednesday bird-walking tour organized by Nature Kenya, starting at the Nairobi National Museum.
To get there by 8:30am, I need to leave my home on Mombasa Road by 7 am. Nairobi traffic cannot be predicted, especially when using public transport; you’ve got to factor in waiting time at every other bus stop, the short-cuts the matatu might choose to use (that might result in you having to alight at the bus stop that was not your intended route), and then the trek to your actual destination. This morning ride was going well, all things considered; the song that was playing while when I entered was Jose Chameleon’s Champion, and this is how I feel about arriving in town without incident. This is how I feel when I alight at the GPO bus stop and walk unobstructed all the way to the bus stop close to Nairobi Fire Station on Tom Mboya Street. I survive Nairobi by seeing miracles when they are not. I claim my first victory of the day in the fact that I’m at the museum by 8 am.
Our lead guide first briefs us on the day’s plan (interrupted by an ibis call, of course): We’ll be going to Nairobi City Park, mainly because it’s jacaranda season and City Park has a rare Jacaranda tree that has white flowers. Everywhere in October there are carpets of purple on the ground (and on twitter, there’s #JacarandaPropaganda reminding us of the beauty that’s here). Managed by the County Government, City Park is a National Monument under the National Museums of Kenya, one of the few public spaces in Nairobi that don’t charge an entry fee.
This is only the second time I’m bird watching at City Park. I’m not your regular bird watcher. I do not own binoculars; I tend to forget the names of birds as soon as I learn them; but I’m at least at the point where I can make observations like that one has a white breast, that one is blue feathers, that one has a red bill, and that one is big. But nobody cares what you know here; we are here to see the birds, not to impress each other, and whoever sees the bird will tell the rest of us where to look.
There are people here who know all the names of birds in all the languages that they are named. I do not. A friend recently gifted me with a hard cover copy of Birds of Kenya and Northern Tanzania, afterI’d spoken so enthusiastically about previous bird watching expeditions. The truth is, I want to know about birds but I’m not that intent on studying. I’m hoping it will all happen by osmosis. Mostly I keep returning to the bird walking because Nairobi is stuffy.
We linger at the entrance of the park where a group of traders have taken over a shaded space and use it to sort and repackage their miraa. I find myself wondering what happens to birds that eat miraa. We can hear the White-browed sparrow-weaver—it’s loud—and those of us with binoculars can see it. We walk, on and catch the sound of the Ruppell’s robin-chat and our first sighting of the Sykes’ monkeys, which I’m not bolding because they aren’t birds. City Park has plenty of Sykes’ monkeys, which is why people don’t come here to picnic. With the ever-present sound of construction never far away, the Park is a sanctuary where monkeys can roam freely. As we walk we notice maize cobs on the ground, likely supplied or taken from the nearby City Park Market; monkeys watch and follow us, some chewing on cobs.
The cape chestnut trees are flowering, so we stop to compare a pair of adjacent trees with slightly different flowers, different shades of pink. There are seeds on the ground, apparently used for making jewellery. There’s a bougainvillea draping the Lusiola/markhamiatree. Here we observe an African pied wagtail, an Olive thrush, a Common bulbul, a Grey-backed camaroptera, and an Eastern honeybird. I learn that the honeybird is related to the honeyguide but that it doesn’t guide (the honeybird likes wax and gets it from the insects, so…).
We keep walking, catching sight of a Yellow-billed kite, a Streaky seedeater, and a Black kite (though categorized as birds of prey, black kites are more scavengers than hunters). There is also a Hadada ibis, a Pied crow, a Red-billed firefinch, and another Rupell’s robin-chat, which we can hear before we can see. We pause by the bougainvillea shrubs that have been carefully pruned into trees, where someone notices the black kites at the top of a tree. They are mating.
There’s a bridge across the Kibagare River that cuts through the park, but it’s currently inaccessible because of the ongoing sewer construction in the park. All the flowers in the park are blooming and there’s all this color: pink cape chestnut flowers, purple jacaranda flowers and the white Jacaranda tree. It’s positioned fairly close to the bandstand, a central feature of the park. The Hadada ibis on the ground, stepping on the white jacaranda petals, is unmoved by our presence. We spend more time staring at these flowers. There’s a part of me that wants us to keep moving, to keep doing something, to look busy. But no.
We move to the forested part of the park, where we’ll probably see fewer birds (but that’s fine, all of these things go together; you come to see birds, but you get to see more). The forested area is cooler and there are more Sykes’ monkeys. We encounter a kite spider on its web that is just above head height; the version of me that would be screaming and hiding, instead, says wow with everyone else, listening intently when someone explains that this spider eats mosquitos. Amazing! I don’t know this me. We keep walking and talking about all the plants we see. Sometimes our words are drowned out by the voice of the man who is shouting his prayers.
A camaroptera flies in the sky. A sailor butterflystays still, even when one of us puts their hand very close to it (it is still cold and the butterfly is not ready to move). We see a Forest swallow.
We keep walking. The soil in Nairobi is not so deep, so trees don’t grow as tall as the ones you’d find in Kakamega forest. A few people have told me that I must go bird watching in Kakamega forest, and don’t expect there are birds worth seeing in Nairobi. I can understand this; Nairobi is growing and changing and shaping itself into a place where living things are not supposed to thrive. But City Park is the rare place where they do. I’d prefer to travel shorter distances to see living things though. We pause by the tall muhugu (silver oak)tree. I learn that it’s popular for making furniture and woodcarvings, and that it’s an endangered tree; tree poachers will go as far as sneaking into the forest at night to work quietly with handsaws. We will pass the tree stamp of another muhugu tree.
There are pentas flowers on the ground and safari ants cross our path. It’s the rain season, so we encounter them three times in this four-hour walk. Each time, we pause to study their disciplined march. Each time, we share personal safari ant horror stories, stories that end with stripping naked to be sure there is nothing left. The more we talk about these insects the itchier I feel. When we encounter these ants for the third time. I stand as far away as I think allows me to stay with the group without putting myself at risk..
Safety tips: Pouring wood ash around your house will prevent safari ants from entering the house. But if safari ants invade your house, just leave. They will abandon the house when they have consumed everything that’s edible. Your house will be very clean.
Dragonflies move past the Carissa tree. There is a Grey heron flying above. As we walk out to a more open space we meet people lying asleep on the grass. Clothes hang to dry on an acacia tree. The Grey-backed camaroptera calls us back into the trees. We are walking, already content with the birds we’ve seen when we spot a Barn owl (and it’s a wonder that the person who shouted “barn owl!” didn’t scare it away). Though the name suggests that it doesn’t belong here, it does; they belong all over the world. We watch as two Sykes’ monkeys try to run it out of the tree, shrieking, teasing, circling, trying to get close to it, and even shaking branches. The owl stands its ground (or its branch); it turns its head and spreads its wings—as if prepared to charge—but it stays put. The monkeys tire, and we leave, content from the drama, emerging from the forest just in time to see a Eurasian bee-eater and more dragonflies. A woman sits on the ground on her khanga, reading her book.
We walk to a purple carpeted walkway where there are more butterflies fluttering. It’s warmer now. Someone, not me, comments that it’s time to leave (though that had been me the first time I went bird watching).
We stop by the Warbugia eugendensi.There are beetles and insects eating the sap from the trees. That’s a good sign that it’s safe to eat the leaves. One of the guides suggests that the leaves are tasty. Some of us volunteer to taste the leaves. Chew a little and spit it out. Notice the sudden taste of pepper. We find out that the leaves are medicinal and are used to treat many ailments.
Marabou storks were once confined to the Nairobi National Park and environs but they are now here also. It’s an uphill trek; I’m panting when we pause for the African palm swift. We spot the cycad often confused with palms, a teachable moment because (like the coelacanth) it’s a living thing that dates back to the dinosaurs. We move to the Murumbi Memorial Garden and hear more Ruppell’s robin-chat, see the Puff back, Augur buzzard, and Africa Grey-backed camaroptera. Those who can whistle, whistle at the birds, and the birds—who can whistle—whistle back. Orange back olive thrush, Paradise flycatcher, Holub’s golden weaver, all of them.
I am tired and the best thing about the Murumbi Memorial Garden is that there are metal and soapstone sculptures you can stare at, and there are also benches. This is a well-tended part of the park, and receives 24-hour security as the gravesite of Kenya’s second Vice President, Joseph Murumbi, and Sheila Murumbi his wife. Birds sighted: warbler, white-headed barbet, Common bulbul, Black-backed puffbird, Yellow-rumped tinkerbird. My brain is overloaded. There are people who never tire of seeing the same bird.
Forget-me-nots grow within the Goan Cemetery next to the Murumbi memorial; I’m getting accustomed to visiting graveyards to see birds. We walk past rows of graves, mostly children’s graves. Some of the concrete slabs are broken, overgrown with weeds, some have photos engraved on the tombstones, and some have baby angels guarding the dead. We get to the adjacent Commonwealth cemetery which has graves of soldiers who died during WWII and before Kenya’s independence. The rain lilies are blooming between the neatly ordered gravestones. There’s a worker tending to the graves, sweeping and pruning the overgrown bushes. There’s a house here, where she likely lives with her family. There are clothes hanging on a laundry line next to the house.
There’s a Black cuckoo-shrike on the croton tree and a Bronze mannekin nearby. One of us knows to uproot the parthenium plant, an invasive species invading this otherwise well tended graveyard. We walk past the hibiscus flowers and away from the graveyard. We stop by the patch of grass where you can come for yoga on weekends. We avoid the motorcycles cruising on the road and rest under the tall bougainvillea hedges near the park entrance where it all started. I’m back to the Nairobi of noise, exhaust fumes, and the need to hurry up, often because of the desire to evade traffic jams more than the need to arrive somewhere.