Category Archives: aberdare national park

Leaving Aberdares: Vultures, a Hyena Stake Out and a Giant Spider

We left Sungare Ranch later than we hoped. We did not make a road count of raptors on the way as we needed to get a proper method in place. But we did see a migrant Steppe Buzzard and a local Peregrine Falcon above the road.

We were both filthy dirty when we arrived in Nairobi and dumped the car on Bali, my old friend and increasingly angry mechanic. He raised his eyebrows and temperature as we rattled off the various mods (modifications) required on the car. Mods we had so recently learnt from the overlanders the day before.

After getting a lift we arrived at home. On arrival we saw a kettle of vultures swoop and fold out of the sky to a dead cow near “my” windmill. Without stopping from a long day driving we pushed on to get pictures. One of the vultures had a yellow tag on its wing, and may have been one of the vultures that Laila and I captured last year in the Mara. We found a dead calf nearby.

vultures leaving aberdare
Vultures

Laila insisted we make use of the dead calf by holding a “stake-out” for hyenas. We moved it close to the house, and fixed a remote camera with a cheap, and as it turned out useless, remote control firing system. The idea was to get very close up shots of hyenas as they went about their gruesome business. This malfunction was one of a number of others that ruined the evening, including no headlights on the car, the burning out of the spotlight, failure of the flash camera, rain, insects in their thousands and lack of obliging hyenas.

After our disastrous “stake-out,” we returned to the empty house. Laila sat editing pictures while I wrote on another computer. Our studious work time was interrupted by Laila asking from the next room, “What was that”? I went over to have a look and she turned over my briefcase from the wall. There crouching in the shadows was a huge and hairy spider. The body from head to rear was about 6.5 cm, but the legs were fairly short. It gave me the creeps and we both went for the cameras. Laila asked if I would put my finger next to it to show just how big it was while she took a photo. Swallowing hard, I poked a shaky finger at it, whereupon it leapt into the air and let off a growl. No kidding the thing had a voice! (The sound was more like a harsh buzz). When I ran away I was cruelly called a wimp.

spider at Simon’s house
Big, hairy spider

As Laila sleeps on the floor, she thought it would be best if we removed the spider lest it crawl about her face in the night. My ego bruised, I went and found a huge pan from the kitchen and a sweep. Laila unkindly turned the video camera on us as the battle began. I started scooping it out the door when with a flick, the spider dashed across the floor and vanished. I searched in vain. It occurred to me that it could be nowhere else but climbing up Laila’s leg. This conclusion was crossing Laila’s mind too, and a look of panic crossed her face. I then glanced down and saw it spread large and malignant on her leg, and asked as calmly as I could if I could have the video camera. I guess Laila knew what was coming, but the result was recorded for posterity, with loud shrieks and yells as she bounced about the house. I knocked it off her leg and we did finally get it out the house.

You can see what tough and hardy characters we are from this story … exactly what you need to undertake this trans-African expedition.

Aberdare, Melanistic Servals and Mountain Buzzards

Very few places can duplicate the sudden transition, in the space of less than a meter from human-dominated landscape to apparent pristine jungle, as well as the Aberdare National Park in Kenya. The moment you cross a line you have your eyes peeled for animals which are abundant and secretive. As you drive through the lower forests and make your way to the higher altitudes, the forests change in species composition. The bamboo zone is at the limit of true forests, but beyond that there is hagenia woodland and Erika heath growing as tall as trees. Although the high heath moorlands look like those in Canada or Scotland, there are elephants and leopards.

Our target species on this trip was the Mountain Buzzard, a slender and less powerful hawk than the ubiquitous Augur Buzzard. The species, as its name suggests, lives in mountainous (or more properly, high altitude) habitats. The species is very similar to the Steppe Buzzard and Common Buzzards of Eurasia. It has a near relative in South Africa called the Forest Buzzard. They are tough to separate, all having similar wing and tail shape and fairly drab indistinguishable plumage. But the Mountain Buzzard is easy to separate if one gets a close look. They are dark grey brown, seldom with rust red tint on their chest. They have uniform dark spots down the front from chin to belly. They call, make territory flights and nest, whereas all other local look-alikes do not.

mountain buzzard
Mountain Buzzard

I personally have a disturbing feeling that the species is one of the rarest and most rapidly declining raptors in Africa. In the business of birds, it pays to be a skeptic and I worry about most records of this species. However, in view of the fact that we saw individuals at a lower altitude than I would have thought, perhaps records I had previously doubted may not be erroneous after all.

The mountain buzzard’s preferred habitat is moorland and hagenia woodland, juniper forest fringes to open highland heath. It hunts rodents in the short cropped grasses and herbs and sometimes in the tussock grasses. It is poorly designed for forests. However, the few that we did see close enough to photograph well were tight on the edge of this presumed altitude boundary.

aberdare moorlands
Habitat picture of moorlands

I had on an earlier trip caught a few and took blood samples for DNA analysis with a friend and raptor expert Bill Clark. They were fairly common six years ago, but we took two days of hard searching to find one. Perhaps significantly, we saw many Augur Buzzards, and on our first encounter with a flying Mountain Buzzard, we saw it get dive bombed and driven away by an Augur Buzzard. It is too quick an assumption to make that this species is being out-competed by the more aggressive and more successful Augur Buzzard. A few trips back to Aberdare NP may be more revealing.

Our attention was taken by other animals of course. I was driving when Laila turned and said “Simon!” Only a few meters from her, out jumped a Serval and raced away. We then saw another eight melanistic (black) Servals over the two days we spent on the moorlands. Melanism is predicted to occur at a higher percentage at higher altitudes in vertebrates, but the ratio seems little different with Augur Buzzards (which also has melanistic individuals) at this altitude and those at their lowest distribution.

The black Servals were stunning and we managed to call one close to the camera by mimicking the call of a squeaking rodent. It ran towards us and stopped just in front of the car.

black serval
Melanistic Serval (Photo by Laila Bahaa-el-din)

With only an hour left to exit the park and resigned to poor distant pictures of only two Mountain Buzzards, we rounded a bend to see one sitting in a tall tree. Unfortunately it was very high up, but the pictures Laila took are a valuable record of a poorly known raptor.