Birding in Lake Nakuru is still worthwhile

SCENIC: Avocet
SCENIC: Avocet

Lake Nakuru National Park has had its share of bad luck since the rising of the water level began three years ago. As at the moment, almost 80 per cent of the road network has been changed in order to keep up with nature. As has been commented before, one cannot fight nature and expect to win. What the conservationists do is to let nature take its course and work with it. Most of the shoreline is gone, and the only place where one can get close to the waterfront is at the Lake Nakuru Lodge entrance. The shoreline used to be the core gaming area. This was the grazing ground of the rare white rhino. It was also the commonest area where we could get out of vehicles and walk along the shore to be closer to the pink flamingos – the highlight of the Lake Nakuru National Park. The flamingos have since left the lake for a more comfortable feeding area since the blue green algae only grows at certain PH value in alkaline water. The rising lake has diluted the concentrates to a point where the algae no longer thrives.

These changes by no means have dampened the spirit of birdwatcher. Lake Nakuru Park has always been classified as the bird-watching paradise in East Africa. Other than flamingos, we have several other birds’ species that can be seen within the lake region. One of the species that gets a special mention is the avocet. This bird is a migrant from Europe, arriving in the country between November to March. First thing that strikes you about the avocet is its strange shape of the beak. The beak curves upwards. Most birds have either a straight beak or if the beak is curved, it curves downwards. But the avocet breaks the rule and has his beak pointing to the sky.

Avocets nests in small colonies in which their relatively small nests are sometimes only half a metre apart. In sandy areas they nest like the plovers – no nesting materials are needed. But if available, some vegetation may be used by the avocets to build a small island in the shallow grounds. Since the nest is in the water, flooding can cause panic when the avocets have to rush around collecting materials to raise the eggs and clear off the water.

Since the avocets come here mainly to breed, there are a lot of activities in the lake involving mating. Mating is accompanied by an elaborate ceremony, and is almost always in the water. The female crouches low in the water while the male walks back and forth behind her, preening himself continuously perhaps as a sign of nervousness or indecision. Gradually he draws closer until he brushes the tail of the female and then jumps on her back. After mating, the male jumps to one side of the female, opens his wings and the pair run together with the male placing one of his wings on the back of the female.

In common with most other waders, avocets show very little fear of man, refusing to move far from their nests when flushed. More likely, they will fly towards a human intruder and swoop over his head in an effort to frighten him away from the nest. They will also perform distraction displays to lure an enemy way. The “broken wing” display is typical of avocets. The bird lurches over the ground with one wing flapping helplessly, at the same time crying as though in great pain. In doing this, it makes itself very conspicuous to any predator, who will probably be distracted from the camouflaged eggs or the young avocets and try to get to the bigger and apparently more accessible prey of the adult bird. The displaying bird deliberately leads the predator away from the eggs and, or, chicks then suddenly recovers and flies off when the predator draws too close for comfort.

During the early part of the breeding season when the avocets are still forming pairs, elaborate ceremonies take place apparently to strengthen the bonds between the pairs. Groups gather on a sandbank or other open space and bow, their long bills pointing towards the ground. Sometimes they arrange themselves in a circle with the birds facing inwards and start bowing towards each other like the Japanese greeting style. A very interesting phenomenon, if you have a chance and patience to sit and watch.