Day 227: Prickly Birding

A day at Lake Baringo.
Sunrise at Lake Baringo.

August 15, 2015: Lake Baringo, Kenya  The thorn forest around Lake Baringo is spiny and sharp, and it’s become spinier and sharper since two invasive plants were introduced here. One is an Australian acacia tree with long thorns that blends in with the native acacias. The other is a species of prickly pear cactus (native to North and South America) which, without its usual diseases and bugs, seems to have exploded at Baringo.

I’ve never seen prickly pears grow so big. The locals have adapted by planting them in dense rows along fencelines. After a few years the fence becomes an impenetrable cactusy hedge, 20 feet tall, which not even a goat can pass through. Any gaps are plugged with thorny acacia branches, similarly formidable; I stepped on one thorn which stabbed through my shoe and into the sole of my foot. How people go barefoot around here is beyond comprehension.

Joe says this land has never been given official protection and is owned by the pastoral community. When not guiding occasional birding visitors, his main employment is environmental education. He goes into schools and tries to impress the next generation with a value for their natural resources. “We have a little funding from Switzerland,” he said. “You can put up a big fence and a man with a gun, but then that’s what the local people will think of conservation. All of us use this land, so we have a special interest in maintaining it.”

Joe’s interest in birds began when he was about 13, herding goats around the Baringo thorn forest. He happened across a birding tour group and politely tagged along (as many kids do), listening to its leader pointing out birds. After a while, he learned some of the species himself, and realized that, as a local, he had an advantage: He could find roosting owls and charge visitors to see them (per yesterday’s impressive demonstration). Joe and several friends did just that, and he’s been hooked on birds ever since.

We had a great day on Joe’s home turf, from a sunrise boat trip on Lake Baringo to a dusty afternoon in the place where he first discovered birds. As my time in Kenya winds down, new birds become harder to find; we saw more than a hundred species today but I added just six to the yearly total. One by one gets the job done.

New birds today: 6

Year list: 3,993

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