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Commonly Sighted Birds

Other large terrestrial birds that are hard to miss during a day in Laikipia’s grass and bush lands include five species of Bustard: Black-bellied, White-bellied, Hartlaub’s, Buff-crested and Kori. These stout birds are generally seen striding purposefully through the grasses foraging for seeds, insects and lizards. Bustards are ponderous flyers, making them easy prey for raptors, such as the Tawny and Crowned Eagles that share their habitat. The Kori Bustard is reputedly the heaviest flying bird in tropical Africa, with males weighing as much as 18 kg. Male bustards undergo an extraordinary physical transformation during breeding displays. By lifting feathers and inflating air sacs, they expand their necks to as much as four times their normal size. They add to this spectacle by flipping their tails upward, exposing a large white puff of feathers visible from more than one kilometre away.

Two common and conspicuous bird species of the Laikipia grass and scrublands are Helmeted and Vulturine Guineafowl. Both are big-bodied birds with incongruously small, bare heads that forage in flocks of 50–60 individuals. On the run, Helmeted Guineafowl present a frying-pan profile of white-spangled black and grey feathers. Vulturine Guineafowl are more pear-like in profile, with necks and chests clothed in stunning cobalt blue, offset by white pinstripes. While Helmeted Guineafowl are long-term Laikipia residents, Vulturines have arrived only in the past three decades, during which time populations have grown rapidly. Vulturine Guineafowl tend to be denizens of arid lands, so this range extension could herald a changing climate.

There are at least five hornbill species in Laikipia. Von der Decken’s, Red-billed, Eastern Yellow-Billed, African Grey and Crowned Hornbills are denizens of the dry bush lands. The larger Silvery-cheeked Hornbill inhabits Ngare Ndare and other forests, where it plays an important role in dispersing the seeds of fruiting trees. Hornbills are known for their unique nesting behaviour. The female uses mud and excrement to seal herself into a tree hole, leaving only a small slit through which her mate feeds her and her growing chicks. Male hornbills work hard to feed themselves and their demanding families, and have little time to cavort with other females. As a result, hornbill pairs are among the most faithful of all birds. Genetic studies show no sign of cuckoldry.

Laikipia’s abundant mammal fauna attracts avian predators whose feeding habits depend on fresh or rotting meat. Martial and Verreaux’s Eagles are among the largest raptors that rely on live kills. Martial Eagles, easily distinguished by their brown and white speckled chests and pantaloons, are seen in open areas where they forage for hares, dikdik and guineafowl. Verreaux’s Eagles, feathered in crisply contrasting black and white, tend to forage around rock outcrops where they can pick off their preferred prey – hyraxes. The Bateleur is easily recognized in the air by its white wings, extremely short tail, protruding red feet and matching red bill. But it is the Bateleur’s graceful flight that sets it apart. The name, meaning ‘acrobat’ in French, was inspired by the species’ characteristic ‘tipping’ while flying, as if balancing on a tightrope.

Various raptors visit Laikipia seasonally, as they migrate to and from their summer breeding grounds in Eastern Europe and western Asia. Commonly seen visitors include Pallid Harriers, Sooty and Red-footed Falcons and Lesser Kestrels. While these raptors find safe, healthy wintering grounds in Laikipia, many of their northern breeding habitats have been disturbed and fragmented. The International Convention for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) considers the Lesser Kestrel ‘Vulnerable’ to extinction, while the other species are classified as ‘Near-threatened’.

The oddest raptor of the grasslands is the Secretary Bird. This long-legged hunter spends its day striding across the landscape, scanning the ground for snakes, lizards and large grasshoppers. The Secretary Bird’s grey and black plumage is offset by startling orange-red skin around the eyes, trailing tail feathers and a crown of spiky feathers, said to resemble a secretary with pens in her hair. Yet anyone watching a Secretary Bird attacking a snake might be convinced the name stems instead from its technique of jumping up and down on prey like a typist pounding away on keys.

Whereas eagles use keen eyes and hunting skills to take live prey, vultures rely on olfactory senses to locate the rotting flesh of dead prey. Visitors to Laikipia have the chance to see at least five species of Vulture – White-faced, White-backed, Lappet-faced, Rüppell’s and Egyptian. Over the past decade, vulture numbers have declined by more than 50 %, due mainly to consumption of poisons injected into carcasses intended for leopards and lions targeted for killing livestock. The IUCN classifies the Egyptian Vulture as ‘Endangered’, the other four species as ‘Vulnerable’. When these avian janitors are removed from the landscape, the scavenging mammals that replace them take far longer to clean up kills and are thus more likely to pick up and transmit diseases.

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