Day 222: A Cat and an Owl

Birding in Kenya’s sandy coastal forest.

August 10, 2015, Kilifi, Kenya — Somewhere inside the Sokoke Forest Reserve this morning, a mile or two from the beach, our van was moving along a sandy track when an animal walked across in front of the vehicle. At first I thought it was some small variety of antelope, but then the creature stopped in an opening and looked back at us. “Cat!” I exclaimed. “It’s a cat!”

It was straw-brown all over and had long ears ending in elegant black tufts. “That’s a caracal,” said Joe—Africa’s fourth-largest wild cat after lions, leopards, and cheetahs, and much tougher to spot than the first three. The caracal stood for a few slow heartbeats while we checked it out, then melted into the trees. Cool! I’ve now encountered eight wild cats in my life (the big African three plus puma, bobcat, jaguar, margay, and now caracal), which is about one-fifth of the world’s total feline species.

We spent the day in the forest reserve with a sharp local birder named David Ngala who seemed to know every bird personally; he identified each sound and we went bushwhacking to track down the good ones. This strategy paid off nicely and extended even past nightfall, when David was determined to find us a Sokoke Scops-Owl, a super-endemic bird he has studied extensively in this forest. When a scops-owl started calling off the trail, he fired up his GPS and a flashlight and we crawled several hundred meters through a tortuous tangle of vines and scrubby trees in pitch blackness, until David whispered, “there it is!” The little owl sat on a branch and tooted at us for a while in the flashlight beam before, like the earlier caracal, it disappeared into the trees.

New birds today: 25

Year list: 3923

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