Considered amongst the most important forests in Africa for it’s bird conservation value, it is the global stronghold for one Globally Endangered, Spotted Ground Thrush, and five Globally Threatened species of birds — Sokoke Scops Owl, Sokoke Pipit, East Coast Akalat, Amani Sunbird, and Clarke's Weaver (which is found no-where else in the world).
It is also home to a large number of species restricted to the coastal strip and particularly forest.
Much of the coastline is an expanse of tidal reef and beach exposed at low tide that attracts unusually large flocks of roosting terns and gulls as well as providing feeding ground for a variety of waders. This is a good site to see the migrant Heuglin’s Gull from northern Russia alongside the Lesser Black-backed Gull that many visitors from northern Europe will be familiar with. Terns that are often seen here are Lesser Crested, Greater Crested, Saunder’s, Gull-billed, Common, Roseate, and less commonly, White-cheeked. The huge Caspian Tern is not uncommon at this site and White-fronted Plovers are easily seen along the beach in Malindi. This stretch of coastline is also the most likely place to turn up a frigatebird – more usually Greater though Lesser has also been recorded in the last few years. A colony of up to 1,500 pairs of Roseate Terns breed on Whale Island just offshore from the mouth of the creek. A few pairs of the more pelagic species Sooty Tern and Brown Noddy also breed on the island.
These pools, mostly several kilometres inland from the coastline itself, fill up during the rains and many develop a dense carpet of purple and white water lilies which not only look beautiful but attract interesting birds. The shallows around the edge provide good feeding habitat for herons, storks and waders, whilst on the open water large concentrations of cormorants and duck may gather. In good years these are extremely rich habitats sometimes holding well over 1,000 birds of many species. Most notable species found include African Pygmy Goose, White-backed Duck, White-faced and Fulvous Whistling Duck which can reach 6–700 birds on one pool, and African Open-billed Stork which can number up to 3–400 at times. Indeed when full, Arabuko Swamp on the northern edge of Arabuko-Sokoke Forest, is probably the best place in Kenya to find the tiny, exquisite Pygmy Goose as well as attracting often hundreds of the dazzling Carmine Bee-eater which feed on the myriad of dragonflies and other insects. These wetlands are also a regular site for finding the very hard-to-find Lesser Jacana.
Only 20–30 km inland from Watamu, the more lush coastal vegetation is replaced by a drier Acacia thorn and Commiphora scrub that stretches for over 100 km into Tsavo East National Park. This habitat also comes right down to the coastline to the north of the Sabaki River where it is very accessible along the new tarmac road. This inhospitable thorn scrub can be great birding and holds yet another group of birds that are of interest to birders.
The abandoned 15th century Arabic city of Gede is surrounded and over-grown by indigenous forest different to that of Arabuko-Sokoke Forest as it is growing on ancient coral unlike the sands of the main forest. This small patch of now quite seriously impoverished forest has for many years been an important wintering site for the Spotted Ground Thrush, a globally Endangered species that migrates to the Kenya coast from it’s breeding grounds in southern Africa. In recent years however, numbers observed in Gede have seriously declined which has given cause for concern for their breeding grounds. Gede also has breeding Palm-nut Vultures, African Wood Owls, African Barn Owls (in the wells), and Red-necked Falcon have been seen regularly here. It’s also a good site to find and see the beautiful Narina Trogon.
A 35km2 enclosed creek open to the sea through just a narrow, 500m-wide mouth, surrounded with mangrove forest and at low tide has vast areas of exposed muddy sand flats. These sand flats provide an optimum feeding habitat for thousands of migrant waders during the northern winter, the majority being Little Stint and Curlew Sandpiper. Mida is particularly well known for it’s population of Crab-plovers which can number over 1,000 birds in December and January. Other birds of interest to birders are the pretty much resident flock of c.200 Greater Flamingo, Dimorphic Egret – often observed trailing Sacred Ibis, Terek Sandpiper, Lesser and Greater Sandplovers, Saunders’s Tern, Gull-billed Tern and the larger and longer-billed eastern race orientalis of the Eurasian Curlew.
A relatively narrow river mouth emptying water from the Athi-Galana-Sabaki River originating over 400kms away near Nairobi, Sabaki is legendary among east African birders for the number of rarities that turn up there such as frigatebirds, boobies, skuas, vagrant waders and terns. At low tide, huge areas of mud flats are exposed as well as sand banks nearer the sea, the former a feeding ground attracting many thousands of waders, the latter providing excellent roost sites for gulls and terns. Being less saline, the estuary attracts species not commonly found elsewhere on the coastline such as Marsh Sandpiper and Wood Sandpiper, with whistling duck, cormorants, African Spoonbill, Water Thick-knee, and Spur-winged Plover found just up stream of the mouth itself. It also holds Kenya's only established wintering population of Broad-billed Sandpipers and is the best site to find Madagascar Pratincole (sometimes numbering into the thousands) between the months of May-September and White-fronted Sandplovers. In 1998 and 1999 2-3,000 Lesser Flamingos were resident here, a species which previously was absent from the coastal region, and since then it has not been unusual to see up to a few hundred on the mud flats. A few kilometres to the north of the river near Gongoni is a breeding site for the Malindi Pipit, another species with a restricted range and that is hard to find elsewhere (and unlike most birders seem to think, is not found regularly at the river mouth).
A group of birds that are in fact very under-watched are the pelagic species that occur from 5–10 km off-shore. Many of these are little-known and whilst numbers of birds seen on any pelagic trip are pretty small (it is not anything like pelagic birding in the southern seas), there is a chance of seeing something quite unusual. The most likely birds to be seen are mixed species flocks of 1,000s of terns fishing amongst which one can see the more pelagic Sooty and Bridled Terns, and Brown Noddy. It is also possible to see shearwaters, especially Audubon’s Shearwater, and more infrequently petrels, frigatebirds, tropicbirds, skuas and even albatrosses if you’re fortunate. In 2004 the first record of Sooty Shearwater was found dead on the beach at Watamu indicating that there are rarities to be had out at sea.
Most hotel gardens in Watamu contain mainly exotic plants which are not very good for birds. However one can still see some species of interest and the bush around the hotel is home to one or two typical coastal species.
Inland from the hotels is an area of cultivation with some scrub patches and odd bits of woodland remaining. This can provide some great local birding with all of the above to be seen as well as Lizard Buzzard, Great Sparrowhawk, Wahlberg’s Eagle, Grassland Pipit, Northern Brownbul, Rufous Bush Chat, Black-crowned Tchagra, Grey-headed Bush-shrike and Pin-tailed Whydah.
There is still a lot to be found out about the birds of this overall area. Surprises continue to occur such as the recent discovery of the Sokoke Scops Owl in the Dakatcha Woodlands – the first record outside of Arabuko-Sokoke Forest other than in the Usambara Mountains of northern Tanzania. Since the number of active birders are relatively few, there is every chance that a visiting birder will be able to find some unusual and new record to add to the overall picture of ornithological value of this diverse and interesting area of Kenya. Any such observations would be welcomed — please send them to: Colin Jackson, Mwamba Field Study Centre and Bird Observatory, A Rocha Kenya, PO Box 383, Watamu. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. All records will be acknowledged.
Updated May 2006