Birds of East Africa: poetry and birdwatching

Birdwatchers in action

Recently I’ve been learning about birds, and can now identify over 70 African birds by their calls, and a similar number by sight. Bird life in Lewa in the Northern Rangelands of Kenya is prolific, with over 400 species recorded in the area. Some of these are just passing through on migratory routes to Europe, the Palearctic, or to Southern Africa at this time of year (northern hemisphere autumn).

          In Lewa and surrounds we’ve seen many birds lately that are fairly unusual – Hartlaub’s Turaco, the Rufous-Crested Roller, and Von der Decken’s hornbill – of the latter the female is striking, with her black and white body and entirely black banana-shaped beak. Hornbills are fairly tame and often hang around camp, cocking their heads sideways in an evaluating way, as if they are about to pose you a tricky question.

        I never thought I would ever take up birdwatching. Many twitchers bring to it a trainspotter’s instinct to record names and sightings and tick off birds on their avian supermarket list. Dedicated birders will travel thousands of miles to a remote part of Africa to see a bird that makes rare appearances in a particular season. Why I enjoy birdwatching so much is a mystery to me. Maybe it doesn’t support that much analysis, but I find birdwatching both absorbing and soothing.

        Birdwatching involves sitting in a vehicle, a bird hide or on a log, say, and tracking the habits and gestures of typically a few species at a time which might be in a tree or a watercourse. Good binoculars (Swarovskis, ideally) are a must, as is a bird identification book such as Birds of East Africa. Each bird has a distinct physical presence, either commanding and beacon-like, as with the Martial Eagle, or bizarre and comical (the Secretarybird) or just plain pretty (Red and yellow barbet).

        Birds also have a self-containedness and an unawareness of humans that make them fascinating to watch – an exception is the Go-Away bird, so-named by the original big-game hunters because it emits its call (go-awaaaay) very often to alert each other and any other animals in the area of your presence.

        Personal favourites include the Long-crested Eagle, Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl, African Scops-Owl, the Miombo double-collared sunbird, the Northern Carmine bee-eater, Orange-bellied parrot and the Abyssinian Nightjar  (below) – for the poetry of its name as much as its fluting nocturnal call, a signature sound of the wooded suburbs of western Nairobi.


        You can follow all the Kenyan bird news on the African Bird Club’s informative site, which reports the startling news that ‘a Red-chested Flufftail, Sarothrura rufa was observed in a swamp at Entasekera, southern Loita Hills, on 22 October, and an African Water Rail, Rallus caerulescens, in Amboseli NP on 20 June.’

        I have written a few short poems with these birds in mind, although the birds themselves are not the topic of the poem but present an image or inspiration as a dais around which thoughts can circulate:


African Firefinch


Aldebaran watches over all creatures with

fire in their names, their carmine

fleeing arrival, their too many dreams, a pelt

of stars. Fire starting for the night and us burning

in a previous immolation. We spark and flare down

the hurricane lamps lighting the hyena’s saunter through

camp. All fire animals know each other,

beg the night for the loam of water.



African Paradise Flycatcher



A paralysis. Shadow of what we most need. Amaryllis

In the evening. For a better, more honest

version of you to melt out of cobalt shadows.

The cool evening in our hands.



Abyssinian Nightjar



Nairobi nights, wood cold

stars in Karen. Molasses eyes, panic

of insects rising as Jupiter and Venus

sear the August sky. Two or three

Tusker nights on the Wildebeest

verandah. Some ease cast off when they left,

now these lean tent hours. In London

listening to the sound over and over

into the raw November.




Northern Carmine Bee-eater




Red mountain morning. Finally we have found

the secret forest. We wade through mangrove days

through the wrong montane slide of hunger. All

that month we saw the rose flash and teal wings, then

the injured heron, doomed, walking the fence perimeter.

We all have masked faces, we all have steel throats for

swallowing stings. We earn our days anew by eating

dead Somali poets and bitter skies. The mountain

knows us, it injures us with its questions: what worth

can grow out of this knowledge? Why meet

at all only to never see each other again?

The northern variety is paler, its roseate breast. Look –

we are flying now from the mountain

to the plains, the loam of our starvation under

a swollen sky with rain, which never comes.