The Water Birds of East Africa

Birding is one of the fastest growing hobbies in the world. In America, bird watchers rose from 21 m in 1982, to an astonishing 68 million in 2000. In the US, birding is now the second most popular outdoor recreation after gardening. Technology advances have made this hobby more fun and appealing. It is now easier with powerful binoculars and other equipment to view birds from a distance. And Global Positioning Systems have improved navigation in unfamiliar places. Parents are also able to amuse their youngsters by luring birds from the bush with recordings of bird songs.

Africa is a treasure house for birding. The continent has over 2,050 bird species recorded, two thirds of which are found nowhere else. East Africa, in particular, has an amazing variety of birds, perhaps due to a mild climate devoid of extremes. The region has 4 of the Top Ten Birding Sites in Africa as rated by the African Bird Club ( -an international organisation devoted to the study of Africa’s birds. These sites are: Bwindi Impenetrable Forest (Uganda), Bale Mountains (Ethiopia), the Rift Valley Lakes (Kenya) and Murchison Falls Park (Uganda).

East Africa’s birds are scattered in all sorts of habitats: mountain forest, lowland forest, seacoast, deserts, savannah, lakes, marsh, swamps and mudflats. In this article, we shall look at the region’s water birds. This category refers to those birds that depend directly on water for food, habitat and breeding or indirectly for a certain component of their life cycle. Most water birds linger along the shallow shoreline of lakes, temporary waters in the inland ecosystems and rivers and very few venture far away from shore. Water birds delight birders, being easier to spot and photograph, as they tend to be larger and live more in the open.

Flamingo’s, on account of their size and huge numbers rank as East Africa’s foremost water birds. Out of a world population of about 4 million, an estimated 95 % reside in East Africa. Flamingos are found only in saline water, and East Africa’s Rift Valley lakes are their favourite habitat, particularly Manyara and Natron in Tanzania and Nakuru and Baringo in Kenya. Small populations are also found in Lake Abiata in Ethiopia and at the Etosha Pans of Namibia.

The flamingo is very biologically unique among wildlife species. It is highly gregarious and lives in large groups. In Kenya’s Rift Valley Lakes, up to one million birds have been known to gather- forming the largest bird flocks anywhere. The birds are characterised by pink plumage, which is especially thick on the underside of the feathers and is gracefully exposed during flight. Young flamingos are however more grey than pink – they turn full pink at sexual maturity. You are then likely to see them in courtship displays that look like mock fights.

Flamingos’ beaks are S shaped and pink in colour, while the legs are straight and webbed to facilitate wading in water. They feed on microscopic blue green algae plants that only thrive in saline waters. These plants are suspended in water and to extract a meal they swallow large volumes of water, which is filtered by the beak through specialised anatomical devices. For this reason, flamingos are said to be filter feeders, a status they share with a number of other aquatic animals.

Lake Natron on the Kenya-Tanzania border is the principal breeding ground of East Africa’s flamingos. Scientists do not know for sure why they don’t breed in the other alkaline lakes. But research indicates that Natron is favoured on account of its ecological stability and minimal human disturbance. By reason of its remoteness in location, it has recorded little change in soil chemistry – a critical factor in nest formation.

At Lake Natron, incubation of eggs takes about 3 weeks, after which the mothers fly back to their preferred habitat, mostly Nakuru, Baringo and Manyara. About a week later, the hatchlings usually follow their mothers northwards.

There are two types of flamingos, the greater and lesser flamingos. The casual observer may be unable to tell them apart. But the greater flamingo is considerably larger and has a whiter plumage. The majority of flamingos in East Africa are of the lesser species. The greater flamingos feed on invertebrates like molluscs and crustaceans. This is the ecological factor that may largely explain their smaller numbers in relation to lesser flamingos, which are primary consumers in the food chain.

The pelican is the other bird likely to be found in large aggregations in East Africa’s wetlands. These are large, stout birds with large white beaks specially adapted for catching and swallowing fish. Most fresh water lakes in East Africa are generously stocked with pelicans. You will see them swimming most gently and graciously as they search for fish, their primary food. They habitually swim in a team of 3 and offer a spectacular show as they dive for fish rhythmically and simultaneously.

Though a saltwater lake, pelicans abound in Lake Nakuru, where over 44,000 have been recorded. They are a dazzling sight to behold as they spiral upwards in huge columns. In Kenya they only breed at Lake Elementaita. Pelicans are found in plenty round river mouths hosting high fish populations. Other popular sites to see them in East Africa include Kazinga Channel in Uganda and Lake Victoria.

Cormorants are a bird species closely associated with pelicans. Of these, the most common type is the greater cormorant. Cormorants are mostly grey and black and are usually slightly smaller and less gregarious than pelicans. They favour lakeshores well sheltered by vegetation; they feed on fish and other aquatic invertebrates and breed in trees close by. For this reason, cormorants are less easy to sight than pelicans.

Cormorants have been observed swimming under water in pursuit of fish. After making a catch, they emerge from water and resume their lofty positions on the banks. You will see them at East Africa’s inland waters, and especially Kenya’s Rift Valley lakes.

Herons and storks constitute a large category of water birds. Herons are tall slim birds with long forward pointing necks and elongated stout beaks. There are about 10 species of herons in East Africa, the most commonly sighted being the Goliath heron, the Grey heron and Black-headed heron. The Goliath heron, as the name suggests, is a huge bird that can attain an overall length of 5 feet.

With few exceptions, herons are mostly sighted around marshes and shallow waters, but can also be seen around inland grassy habitats. Their favourite menu includes snakes and other small vertebrates that live in wet areas. One of the herons -the Green-backed heron is noted for its use of the advanced technique of baiting fish with live insect. Herons are quite common throughout East Africa.

The shape of the beak distinguishes storks, and from this feature they derive their name. With about 10 species around East Africa, only the Marabou stork and the white stork are not directly water dependent. Marabou storks are very large and unlike the other storks fly with head and neck retracted. This bird is quite common in the urban areas where it feeds on refuse and carrions, and hence its dirty reputation.

Marabou storks are also common around water shores where they target fish and other small and young animals especially the weak and injured. They are thus happiest in areas with high populations of other birds, such as flamingos. Another unique stork is the Saddle-billed stork, easily noticeable due to its red beak with a black patch at the middle and yellow base. This stork is quite common in shallow waters and swampy areas.

The Hamerkop is a popular medium size bird associated with storks. Its name is derived from the Afrikaans word for hammerhead, the shape formed by its head and beak. They are common all over East Africa’s wetlands. It is uniquely popular among bird watchers on account of its massive nests. Built with lots of dry vegetation, the nests average a depth of 1.5 m, and can take upto 6 weeks to complete.

Undaunted by the labour of putting up the ostentatious nest, hamerkops go on to build as many as 6 nests in a territory. The mystery is that they occupy only one! This apparently irrational behaviour is not lost to other birds; Egyptian geese and Verraux eagle owls frequently take over some of the nests. Thus the saying that you cannot tell a bird’s size from its nest rings most true with hamerkops.

The Shoebills and Spoonbills are two other species of water birds that are uniquely identified by their beaks. The shoebill is a large and dark grey bird that looks almost prehistoric. The bill is shaped like – you guessed it- a shoe. It is often found in large swamps but is not easily sighted.

The spoonbill derives its name from the shape of its beak, whose posterior part enlarges into a “spoon”. The most common type is the African spoonbill, which is well distributed in East Africa especially around the shallow ranges of large water bodies and swamps. As it wades in shallow water, it uses the sensitive inner bill surface to sense food- usually fish, frogs and snails.

In the East African wetlands, you are definitely bound to come across one or two species of ibises. They have narrow beaks of almost uniform thickness that curve forwards and slightly taper at the end. The sacred ibis is the most common and usually has a black and white neck and beak. They tend to be gregarious and are mostly found around marshlands and lagoons.

Another common ibis is the hadada ibis. It is usually grey and has a glossy patch on both sides of wing coverts. They stand out on the basis of the loud distinctive calls they make during flight. They are at their most vocal at dawn and dusk. They are quite common throughout East Africa around wooded streams, marshes, lagoons and moist grasslands.

The hadada ibis is surrounded by many legends among African communities. It is often associated with long life and witchcraft. Among the Kikuyu of Kenya, a person of advanced age is said to be as old as Kagogo, the vernacular reference to the hadada ibis. Indeed Kenya’s leading writer, Ngugi wa Thiongo has recently published a novel titled in Kikuyu Murogi wa Kagogo, literary “The Witch of the Hadada Ibis”. Conceding that this ibis has a rather haunted look, my considered opinion is that this is not sufficient ground to sustain such a serious charge as witchcraft.

In the wetlands of East Africa, also lives the crane, which is often called crested crane. Several species exist, but the crested crane -sometimes referred to as the Uganda crane- is the most common. It is mostly found in tall grasses and cultivated areas, but breeds mainly in wet areas such as marshes. The crane is widespread in Uganda’s numerous swamps and estuaries and is indeed the national symbol.

Despite sitting on Uganda’s court of arms, the elegant crested crane is considered endangered. In most parts of East Africa, suitable breeding habitats are increasingly being converted to agricultural use and the crane is now confined to very few areas. In addition, the crane has a most peculiar social behaviour, which in some way further jeopardises its long-term survival. Cranes practice true and perhaps absolute monogamy. Often, they are found in pairs and share strong bonds that are never broken, even unto death. When one of a pair dies, the other never pairs up again for the rest of its life.

The African Jacana is another bird that has unique social and mating behaviour. It is one of very few in the animal kingdom that exhibit “reverse polygamy”, -technically known as polyandry, where females date and mate with multiple males. Under this practice females are always busy. The female starts off mating with one male, which it leaves incubating the eggs, then shamelessly hops off for an encounter with another male and so on and on.

The way the African Jacana brings forth young ones is highly specialised and rather shocking from the perspective of humans. It is easily recognisable by its purple-brown plumage and yellow chest. You will find it in wetlands especially shallow lakes, ponds and swamps.

The plovers are also associated with lakeshores and big swamps. The most common types are the blacksmith plover, kittlitz’s plover and spur-winged plover. The blacksmith is named after its sharp, distinctive extra high “metallic” voice that will remind you of the goings on in a blacksmith shop. This is usually an alarm call whose pitch is raised when a threat stalks her eggs or chicks. You will find plenty of blacksmith and spur-winged plovers at Amboseli.

Geese are also very common in lakes and ponds throughout East Africa. The most common type is the Egyptian goose. This bird is thoroughly adapted and can even be found in shallow waters in cities. Africa’s largest waterfowl is the spur-winged goose, which can reach a length of 100 cm. You can sight it at the swamps of Amboseli and in the marsh areas of the Maasai Mara in Kenya.

Most people on safari are after the big five- lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant and rhino. But you will get more value if you can also look out for the birds. Unless you are a really specialised bird watcher, you will get to see the common water birds on a classic wildlife safari, especially in Kenya. As lots of birds are found outside national parks, real birding enthusiasts opt for a custom itinerary accompanied by expert bird guides.

East Africa is a year round safari destination. The rains come around April- May and November-December. This however does not much affect the travellers’ ability to get around. Generally the best time to go on safari is over the drier months when the grass is short and sighting animals is so much easier. The peak season falls around January to February and July to August. April to June is the low season and prices for accommodation in the lodges can fall by as much as 40% compared to the busy season.

On safari, wear light cottons and linen. Warmer clothing is needed for the evenings and for your early morning game drive. Some rainwear is advisable between March and June and October and December. You should bring along a decent pair of sunglasses. The glare you experience in bright tropical light is a new and uncomfortable experience for most. You should also pack a good pair of binoculars to bring the birds and other animals closer.