Birding in Western Kenya – The little visited Western Kenya is host to about two thirds of the 1,134 bird species found in Kenya.
It stretches from Maasai Mara in the South, bordering Tanzania, to Mount. Elgon National Park in the North, bordering Uganda. Western Kenya protects the world’s greatest and most spectacular wildlife migration and is western extremity of the world’s largest single inland fresh water mass, Lake Victoria, source of the Nile, the longest river in the world.
Thinking of where to go birding in Western Kenya? Well, Oluokos Signature guide to Western Kenya Birding Hotspots will be a great read. To the west of the Great Rift Valley there’s an abrupt drop to the Trans-Nzoia plains. From here, the Cherangani Hills rise abruptly to 3,365 meters at the peak.
A number of forest reserves including Kapkanyar, Kapolet and Kiptaberr Forest Reserves that form a large western block of forest and Embotut, Kerrer, Kaisungor, Chemurokoi, Lelan, Cheboit, Kupkunurr, Toropket, Sogotio and Kapchemutwa in the eastern side covers Cherangani hills. All those forests offer great opportunities for birding and other tourist activities in Cherangani Hills.
Cherangani Hills is one of the important Bird Areas (IBA) in Kenya and birding activities can be done throughout the year however, the best time to visit these hills for birdwatching is during November to April when migratory birds from Europe and North Africa are present.
The following are bird species in Cherangani Hills that you can spot during your birding tour in Kenya;
Away from the Cherangani Hills, another geographical zone of great interest is the Western Plateau, the region around Lake Victoria. Sandwiched between the eastern and western branches of the African Rift system, this zone is fissured by numerous faults and escarpments with valleys in between.
The last remaining equatorial rainforest in Kenya is located there. This zone is unique in that 80 species of birds in the Kakamega Forest are found nowhere else in Kenya. Also, an exploration to the high altitude of the Kongelai Escarpment onto the Western Plateau adds to the diversity of bird species that are unique and therefore are restricted to this region.
The dense Papyrus swamps and other lakeshore vegetation around Lake Victoria and its satellite lakes are home to specialty species. Moving a little to the north from Lake Victoria with its super aquatic species, the Busia Grasslands and the surrounding hills near the northeast shore of Lake Victoria is home to several localized bird species.
In western Kenya, Kakamega Forest is a little patch of Guineo-Congolian rainforest in Kenya. Among the
many rainforest species found are spectacular Turacos and Hornbills, and the tiny, endangered Turner’s
The scarce and threatened Papyrus Yellow Warbler is found in papyrus swamps on the shores of Lake
Victoria, alongside the Papyrus Gonolek, White-winged Warbler and Papyrus Canary, all papyrus
- Kakamega Forest
Kakamega forest is the only remnant of the Guineo-congolese rainforest in western Kenya, which makes it a hotspot of unique bio-diversity. Close to 450 species have been recorded here.
The forest has species found here that are found no where else in East Africa such as; Blue-headed Bee-eater, Ansorge’s and Kakamega Greenbul. Other uncommon birds that can be found in the forest are; Yellow-bellied Wattle-eye, Equatorial Akalat, Turner’s Eremomela, Southern Hyliota and African Broadbill.
The streams in the forest are great for spotting White-spotted Flufftails, Banded Prinia, Grey-chested and Black-faced Rufous Warblers and Scaly-Breasted Illadopsis. While clearings in the forest are good places to look for Great Blue Turaco, African Crowned Eagle, Western Banded Snake-eagle and Black-and-white Casqued Hornbills.
Dozens of different greenbuls can be found in the higher canopy to lower canopy of the forest, these greenbuls can be tricky to differentiate by sight, so call are a good way of knowing what bird you are seeing. Not forgetting the lovely barbets of which there are many species like; Yellow-spotted, Grey-throated, Hairy-breasted and Yellow-billed Barbets.
- Ruma National Park
This 120 square kilometer Ruma National Park is sandwiched in Lambwe River Valley, the Kanyamwa Escarpment and the Gwasi Hills. The park is characterized by a mosaic of landscapes, ranging from riverine woodland and rolling savannah to magnificent escarpments and towering cliffs and volcanic plugs offering stunning views of Lake Victoria and the surrounding landscape.
Ruma’s pristine nature makes it a suitable home to a wide variety of biodiversity. It is the last remaining sanctuary for the nationally endangered Roan antelope (Hippotragus equinus) in Kenya. Ruma is an important bird-watching destination hosting more than 400 bird species. It is also the only protected area in Kenya where Blue Swallow (Hirundo atrocaerulea), a globally vulnerable and scarce intra-African migrant, is regularly recorded.
- Aderema Hills
Located in the expansive hills of Amukura, the Aderema hills is part of a small rural village located in Busia County in Western Kenya. Climbing the heights of the pristine Aderema Hills is a perfect choice for many birders. The views are breathtaking and so is the biodiversity of the unbound nature.
Aderema hills are part of the Kavirondo series rocks are developed around Busia, Nambale and Butula while the granites dominate the Northern parts of the Busia County. The Northern part of the central region features granitic outcrops, which are essentially part of the peneplain and characterized by the presence of large granitic hills and tors such as Amukura and Chelelemuk escarpments.
Birding in the Aderema hills is key as it highlights some of Western Kenya key target species namely Piapiac, Bar-breasted Firefinch, Whistling Cisticola, Black-bellied Firefinch, Compact Weaver, and much more. Please find the Aderema Hills Ebird checklist for detailed species observations.
- Katotoi Hills
For those with some good number of days around birding the Northern sections of Busia County at the Katotoi Hills along the Malaba River valley that also marks the boundary between Kenya and Uganda will be rewarding.
An investigative birding along the rocky sections yields Foxy Cisticola (this small bird was a great fit for the species; and lacked the eye-ring-look portrayed by Siffling Cisticola. This must have been a first record for the species in the locality, and more visits will help uncover more). Others notable species include the Garden Warbler, Speckle-breasted Woodpecker, Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird, African Firefinch, Red-headed Lovebird, Common Swifts. Whistling Cisticolas, Steppe Buzzard, Black-headed Waxbills and much more. Please find the Katotoi Hills Ebird checklist for detailed species observations.
- Ochilata Wetlands and Malaba River Banks
These late rites and shallow incised swampy systems that are densely covered with Papyrus swamps and the hippo grass along the banks of Malaba River at the border with Kenya and Uganda often cap these.
The area forms a colony of papyrus growth broken by irregular water channels and occasional small lakes with grassy islands. These are interspersed by a peneplain marked by low flat divides of approximately uniform height, often capped by lateritic and a shallowly incised swampy drainage system often creating seasonal floods plains.
These moist grasslands, wetlands and swamps probably have close biodiversity connections with Ugandan ecosystems and hold key species that are not found anywhere else in Kenya. Here is the list of some target species Magpie Mannikin, Red-headed Lovebird, Senegal Coucal, Compact Weaver, Speckle-breasted Woodpecker, Yellow-mantled Widowbird, Green Crombec, Blue Swallow, Purple Starling, Black-bellied Firefinch, Black-rumped Waxbill, Great Snipe, Yellow-backed Weaver, Brown Twinspot, Red-chested Sunbird, Marsh Tchagra, Blue-breasted Bee-eater, Shining Blue Kingfisher, Zebra Firefinch and much more.
- Lake Margins of Sio Port and Busemba
Visiting the lake towns of Port Sio and Busembe, which are also accessible off the C30 will allow us to go along the lakeshore of Lake Victoria and get up-close to papyrus.
We’ll closely observe a good number of weaver bird species namely; Slender-billed Weaver, Northern Brown-throated Weaver, Yellow-backed Weaver, and Golden-backed Weaver, Spectacled Weaver and Village Weaver, African Openbill Stork, Blue-cheeked and Eurasian Bee-eaters, Angola and Lesser Striped Swallows, Red-chested Sunbird, and Swamp Flycatcher in the riparian areas.
Within the papyrus, Carruthers’s Cisticola, White-winged, Greater and Lesser Swamp Warblers, and Papyrus Yellow Warblers can be heard regularly, with an occasional fleeting glimpse.
If we’re fortunate at Sio Port we could get a glimpse of Papyrus Gonoleks, Little Bitterns or a pair of Palm-nut Vulture. Birding the Busembe sector and the Sio Port could be very rewarding with some unique species.
- Mount Elgon National Park Kenya
Mount Elgon is located app. Located 470 kilometers from Nairobi and 140 km north-east of Lake Victoria Mount Elgon National park is bisected by the Uganda and Kenya border.
It is an ancient, eroded volcano with a huge caldera and, on its summit, the spectacular flat-topped basalt column known as Koitobos at 4,200 m. Another unique feature of the mountain is the ‘lava tube’ caves, some over 60 m wide.
The mountain soils are red laterite, and rainfall is 1,200 mm/year on the mid-slopes. Mount Elgon is an important water catchment for the Nzoia River, which flows into Lake Victoria, and for the Turkwel River, which flows into Lake Turkana.
The park boasts over 240 bird species. Three of the eight Kenya Mountains Endemic Bird Area species, five of the thirteen species of the Sudan-Guinea biome species, 19 of the 43 Guinea-Congo Forests biome species, 47 of the 70 species of the Afrotropical biome, and a number of the Sudan-Guinea Savannah biome species that occur in Kenya have been recorded here.
The park also favours one globally threatened species- Sharpe’s Longclaw along with some regionally threatened and range-restricted species; Gypaetus barbatus, Stephanoaetus coronatus, Francolinus streptophorus, Sarothrura affinis, Bubo capensis, Glaucidium tephronotum, Indicator conirostris, Phyllastrephus baumanni, Kakamega poliothorax, Sheppardia polioptera, Campephaga quiscalina and Cisticola hunteri, Francolinus jacksoni respectively.
- Gwassi Hills
Sitting on the rich volcanic soils, the Gwassi Hills are remnants of natural montane forest restricted to the canopy of the Gwassi Hills. It is dominated by Euphorbia candelabrum trees, which often attain a height of 10 m and tend to form a dense continuous canopy that suppress undergrowth, Balanites aegyptica, Acacia drepanolobium, A. seyal, A. sieberiana, A. pennata, Allophyllus alnifolium and Mystroxylon aethlopicum.Common shrubs included Scutia myrtina, Maytenus senegalensis and Scolopia spp.
The herbs spp was dominated by Sansevieria and Aloe spp. Gwassi Hills Water Tower is also covered by a thick layer of the grass species Hyparrhenia fillipendula, (commonly in the stony clay soil of the upper slopes of the Gwassi and Themeda triandra, Setaria sphacelata.
Gwassi Hills has the presence of 34 forest-dependent species, including a globally near threatened forest raptor, the Crowned Eagle, as well as the first known occurrence of the Western Citril in Kenya. Including noteworthy species recorded from other, non-forested areas at lower elevations on the volcano, we provide 46 new or updated distributional records for these two quarter degree atlas squares.
Tambourine Dove, Ross’s Turaco, White-browed Coucal, Speckled Mousebird, Narina Trogon, Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird, Cardinal Woodpecker, Brown-throated Wattle-eye, Black-backed Puffback, Tropical Boubou, White-bellied Tit, Rock Martin, Red-faced Cisticola, Chubb’s Cisticola, Grey-capped Warbler, Grey-backed Camaroptera, Common Bulbul, African Yellow White-eye, Red-capped Robin Chat, Amethyst Sunbird, Northern Double-collared Sunbird, Baglafecht Weaver, Black-billed Weaver can be observed here.
- Sio Teko Swamp
Further exploration to Busia Grasslands, are an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area, situated a few km southeast of Busia town where the main road crosses the Sio River.
A Western Citril and Copper Sunbird can be seen here, as well as Common Waxbill and Red-billed Firefinch. If time allows, birding the southern parts of the IBA that can be accessed through the Matayos-Samia road.
Sparrowhawk and Common (Steppe) Buzzard. Golden-backed Weaver was also widespread in this habitat, Lesser Masked Weaver was seen occasionally. The Busia Grasslands are an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area, situated a few kms southeast of Busia town where the main road crosses the Sio River.
- Farmlands, Grasslands and Scrub (North of Budalangi, Busia Grasslands IBA, and Alupe)
Taking a drive through farmlands, we’ll be able to observe a number of raptors. African Black-shouldered Kites, Lizard Buzzards, Wahlberg’s and Long-crested Eagles. We could also spot the occasional Shikra, Little Sparrowhawk and Common (Steppe) Buzzard. Golden-backed Weaver and Lesser Masked Weaver.
Further north of Busia town is Alupe, where various research organisations have facilities. The Field Station of the Lake Basin Authority has good mixed habitat and some relict woodland. On the irrigated fields of the station, we could see Plain-backed Pipit (of the western race zenkeri), as well as Yellow-throated Longclaw.
- Samia Hills
The southern part of Busia is covered by a range of hills comprising the Samia and Funyula Hills which run from the north-east to the south-west terminating at Port Victoria. These form a very conspicuous topographic scape.
Samia Hills are sandwiched between Sio Port and Port Victoria and are the most prominent of Busia’s volcanic igneous rocks, which underlay most of the county. These pyramid like hills and their associated colluvial basin stand out prominently to the east and southwest areas of Funyula and Bunyala and are marked by deep valleys made by the major rivers – Nzoia, Yala, and Sio – on their dendritic drainage to Lake Victoria.
Samia Hills are well known for bird species like the Bronze-tailed Starling, Whistling Cisticola, Purple Starling, Bar-breasted Firefinch and many more.
- Yala Swamp
Birders to Yala Swamp wetland should be looking forward to the vistas of the open water of Lake Victoria from sundry vantage points spread out around the wetland, the cultural passages to Swila and Seje, and boating experience at Lake Kanyaboli.
Yala Swamp, which is situated in the southwestern corner of Busia County, is one of Kenya’s most important wetlands. Covering about 200 km2, it is a major natural resource for wetland eco-tourism. Its formation is a result of backflow of water from Lake Victoria as well as flooding of the Rivers Nzoia and Yala.
The swamp is mainly fed by River Yala which flows right through the swamp with a small contribution from River Nzoia in the north-eastern section of the swamp. Contiguous with Siaya County, this ecosystem also encompasses three lakes namely; Kanyaboli, Sare and Namboyo all in Siaya County.
Yala Swamp is one of Kenya’s Important Birding Area (IBA). Much to the delight of birders, it is almost impossible to keep up with the diverse and fascinating species of birds at Yala estimated to be over 200. This list include endemic species like Great Snipe, Baillon’s CraKe, Papyrus Gonolek, Papyrus Canary, Papyrus Yellow Warbler and the White-winged Warbler.
- Nzoia River
The main quest for exploring the rocky islets in River Nzoia is for less observed Rock Pratincole. This species is quite rare in Kenya and sightings in this part of the country is a priceless treasure.
- Saiwa Swamp National Park
Saiwa Swamp has over 390 amazing bird species recorded in its area. It is a good place to pick up some of the Western Kenya bird species. It is a great birding destination where a good walk on it wooden walk board along its meandering forest trails will allow you to spot the rare Sitatunga antelope.
Still, they are also a great vantage point for identifying swamp specials and looking into the canopy. Some of the key bird species include: the Red-Headed Bluebill, Grey Winged Robin, Splendid Starling, Mountain Illadopsis, Double Toothed Barbet, Eastern Grey Plantain Eater, Ross’s Turaco, and the Buff Spotted Flufftail.
- Dominion Farms Sanctuary
This is located within the 17000-acre privately run farm is an impressive nesting and feeding ground for abounding migratory and indigenous bird varieties. Construction of paddies and canals continued for years, early batches of rice, corn, soybeans and cotton proving the most commercial viable of the operation.
The papyrus reeds and rice paddies make for a thriving roosting habitation for herons, Hamerkop, Long-tailed Cormorants, Grey-crowned Cranes, Long-crested Eagles, Plovers and numerous duck species among many others. Also of interest at Dominion Bird Sanctuary are the remarkable semi-aquatic Sitatunga antelopes and their agri tourism guided tours.
Entrust our experts to plan for your Western Kenya birding experiences
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