Tag Archives: ololokwe raptors

Vultures, Eagles and Falcons on Ololokwe

Ololokwe, or Ol Donyo Sabache as it is more properly called, is a huge flat topped, cliff-lined mountain lying just North of the very centre of Kenya. To many it is the doyen of all mountains in the arid lands of Kenya. It forms the subject of cliché paintings of the north. Geographically it appears as an isolated bump lying at the southern extreme of a massive chain of highlands and mountains that extend into the Ethiopian Highlands. Just to its north is the Mathews Range that reaches deep into the Turkana deserts, with sister mountains of Nyiro and Ndutus.

It provides a last physical stop for large migrating raptors that have taken the easy ride down mountain slope winds of the Great Rift Valley. Here they have to summon their energy for a real flight to more distant mountains and hills. It is a natural gathering point that could be found by running a finger down a map. Whether or not it actually does funnel migrant raptors had to be found by hard work, for Ololokwe stands at 6200 feet rising out of flat hot plains at some 2700 feet. It’s a long walk up.

When I lived at Lewa Downs, I had made a few exploratory treks up there pushing through rhino trails. Then it had the Big Five, and it was normal to encounter leopards gamboling about on the flat pans of rock. Buffalo were particularly spooky and ill tempered. The rhino were down to one, when it finally got rescued by Lewa Downs.

A Crowned Eagle used to nest in a broken off cedar tree that lay in a small valley through which clear spring water flowed, and continued some 600 meters on to flow over the cliff edge. It has been gone now almost 20 years.

When I first joined the Peregrine Fund, I was asked to search Kenya for an area of raptor abundance in terms of species diversity and numbers of individuals. It was important to find an area in which migrant raptors were as abundant. The choice took only a moment. Ololokwe has some 60 species of raptors recorded in an area of some 9km/sq. The rate of encounter is impressive. Sit long enough anywhere in Kenya and you get a huge list. But the “rate of encounters” of raptors is a useful way to get a real picture of its importance. There is hardly a moment of the day when eagles, buzzards, vultures and falcons are not airborne.

Laila and I visited Ololokwe and as it is now owned by a community ranch called Namunyak, we had to take the necessary guides and asakaris with us. It is not the way I used to do it, but it worked out well especially as our guide was very knowledgeable and keen to learn more about raptors. The area has changed recently. There is a lodge positioned between two valleys where the rhino used to drink at a spring. Lesser Kudu were once in large numbers here, but now only tracks of a single individual. Obvious was the intensive grazing pressure by livestock, from base to summit. The result has certain led to the impoverishment of bio-diversity at every level, but it is still fantastic and redeemable.

We spent two nights in old cattle rustler’s caves. Laila took some awesome photographs despite the rather gloomy weather. Ololokwe remains Kenya’s foremost raptor place. We spent two pleasant days and nights overlooking vast scenery and watched Peregrines, Ruppell’s Vultures, Verreaux’s Eagles, Augur Buzzards zoom past our faces most of the day. We did not see the Taita Falcon or Barbary, perhaps because of an overly protective pair of adult Peregrine Falcons defending their young

ruppell’s vultures stacking ololokwe
Ruppell’s Vultures stacking

ruppell’s vulture at sunrise ololokwe
Ruppell’s Vulture flying at sunrise

peregrine ololokwe
Peregrine Falcon

egyptian vulture ololokwe
Egyptian Vulture

(Photos by Laila Bahaa-el-din)

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Ololokwe is a mountain in northern Kenya. Simon did work there in the early nineties and knows it to be a particularly good spot for raptors, particularly rare ones such as Barbary and Taita Falcons and Egyptian Vultures. We found John Lesepe, our guide, who was to take us up the mountain and he helped us to organise the donkeys to carry up our equipment and food. We also needed a guard to watch the car at the bottom of the mountain and a guard to take us up. We camped at the base of Ololokwe ready to start the climb at first light.

In the morning, our donkeys arrived and we packed them up. I felt really bad about making them do our heavy lifting and tried to compensate by feeding them some carrots. The donkey handlers laughed at me, saying their donkeys didn’t know what a carrot was. I decided to try anyway and sure enough, they had no idea what to make of it and just turned their heads away.

We reached the top to find a Eurasian Sparrow-hawk, a Peregrine and a Booted Eagle all flying within good photographing range. Unfortunately, the cameras were packed on the donkeys. By the time I had the camera off the donkey and ready, all the birds had mysteriously vanished. We walked to the edge of the cliff where we found ourselves a nice spot and sat waiting for the raptors to emerge. It was pretty cloudy and the photo opportunities weren’t great. Good sightings included two Tawny Eagles having a fight right by the cliff, a Peregrine attacking a young Verreaux’s Eagle, an Egyptian Vulture and lots of Ruppell’s Vultures.

fighting tawnies ololokwe
Tawny Eagles fighting mid-air

I slept in my sleeping bag on soft straw in a cave and it was quite pleasant. In the morning, we walked over to the other side of the mountain, to see if the light and quantity of raptors were better. We sat on top of the cliff, watching the vultures go about their morning routines. It was very cloudy all day and the best opportunity I got was of Augur Buzzards stooping down the side of the cliff.

augur buzzard ololokwe
Augur Buzzard

Another night in the cave over, we went back to our cliff site from the first day but, again, it was very cloudy and not many birds were around. Just as we turned our backs to leave, a Peregrine shot past at eye level. We went back to our caves and packed up all our stuff onto the donkeys. It took a while getting the camera equipment balanced on the donkey but it was finally done and we were ready to set off when an Egyptian Vulture flew low and came down to drink some water. We couldn’t believe it! Just when everything was packed! All Simon had was the video camera so he managed to get some footage but what we had been waiting for had finally happened and we didn’t have a camera. Gggrrrr! To make it worse, we saw a Mountain Kestrel and a Booted Eagle after that too.

It was a great few days at the top of Ololokwe and we did see plenty of raptors, though not as many as Simon used to see. I’m sure he’ll write his own blog entry of how he found this experience in comparison to his visits almost two decades ago.