Wings of Kenya - the Birdwatchers Paradise

New Book by Swiss Ambassador to Kenya Jacques Pitteloud proves why Kenya is a mecca for bird watchers.

The ongoing wildebeest migration in Maasai Mara may be Kenya's most spectacular wildlife event, but it is not the biggest. That title is lifted high by millions of birds that migrate through Kenya every year.

The largely unnoticed bird spectacle makes the country one of the world's most important migratory corridors and a mecca for birdwatchers. Every year, millions of birds from Asia, Middle East, Europe and as far as Russia, pass through Kenya running away from harsh weather.

Others arrive from Southern Africa headed north when the weather improves there. The year-long movement, which attracts less pomp and publicity, is the biggest migratory event in Kenya. To ardent birders like Swiss Ambassador to Kenya Jacques Pitteloud, the country is indeed a bird-watching paradise.

Ambassador Pitteloud, embassy counsel Lorenzo Barelli and Kenyan bird expert Samuel Mugo have now captured some of these birds in one of the largest ever publication on birds in Kenya.

"Bird watching tourism remains a largely untapped and potentially very lucrative source of income for the hospitality industry," says Ambassador Pitteloud. "This beautiful country has more bird species than the whole of Western Europe."

Pitteloud, who came to Kenya in 2010, goes birdwatching in his free time, off the beaten track of traditional game safaris. The hobby has taken him through Samburu, Nyeri, Arabuko Sokoke, Baringo, Turkana and Naivasha among other places.

He says: "Being able to capture roughly three fourths of Kenya's birdlife on camera was fascinating challenge, considering that this was just a hobby, albeit a time-consuming one."

The high-resolution pictures, painstakingly taken over four years, have been compiled in the book titled: the Wings Of Kenya. Proceeds from the book, being launched in Nairobi this week, will go to conservation programmes by Nature Kenya.

The book idea came when Pitteloud and Lorenzo had photographed more than 400 different species of birds. He says: "The idea for this book began to emerge, wouldn't it be an interesting legacy to try and show potential guests of this great country that there is much more to Kenya than the big five?"

Pitteloud says bird watchers are some of the most important tourists Kenya can focus on because they are ready to spend money and go where the Safari tourists are not willing to go. Kenya Tourism Board says the country's birding potential is enormous because it has 11 per cent of all the world's bird species.

"Even without venturing outside Nairobi, more than 600 resident and migratory bird species are found; more than in any other capital city, and more than in most countries," says KTB.

Migratory birds, even in their millions, only make up 10 per cent of Kenya's birdlife. KTB says the rainy seasons between April and November coincide with migration of birds from and to Europe and Asia.

The book captures all the eight species endemic to Kenya and a huge selection of the African and foreign birds. Birdwatching or birding is usually done with the naked eye, or through binoculars and telescopes and by listening for bird sounds.

However, many bird species are more easily detected and identified by ear than by eye. Pitteloud, who is not a professional photographer, relied on Boniface Mwangi for technical advice and image-processing techniques.

The book hopes to boost Kenya's bird tourism potential and improve conservation. "Some of the species featured in this book might well disappear from Kenya or even from the surface of the earth in the next ten years if the worsening loss of habitat and human-wildlife conflict are not addressed as a matter of urgency," Pitteloud says.

This concern mirrors the decline of vultures in Kenya. The book notes that 30 years ago, eight different types of vultures were roaming freely through Kenyan skies but today their numbers have decreased dramatically.

"Today only two species are left and we were lucky to be able to capture six of those. Poisoning of carcasses to get rid of hyenas (another very useful scavenger) seems to have brought these magnificent birds to the verge of extinction."

He notes the reason Kenya became a mecca for migratory birds is the string of lakes in the Rift Valley. These include lakes Bogoria, Baringo, Nakuru, Elementaita and Naivasha. Destruction of some of these already threatened lakes may also affect Kenya's position as a bird-watching paradise.

The country also boasts a surprisingly wide range of habitats, which are also threatened but are important in sustaining the migration. These include Lake Naivasha in the Rift Valley, the dry bush around the Olorgesailie Prehistoric Site, and the Escarpment Forests in the foothills of the Aberdare mountain range.

Pitteloud says the book does not pretend to be a scientific guide, or work of professional wildlife photographers, but it nevertheless achieves its target: to show the incredible beauty and diversity of one of the world's great ecosystems.