The past week has seen a team of intrepid bird-watchers and guides scouring the Dakatcha Forest for the endangered and elusive Clarke’s Weaver. This bird is a great unknown, without any information recorded on its breeding habits, habitat or breeding season, so finding it presented a great challenge!
I was representing A Rocha on the trip, after over-stretched leader Colin was forced to withdraw due to meetings and lack of vehicle (another story entirely!) so I was the highest ranking (and only) A Rocha member present. The team was led by Fleur Ng’weno, a veteran and well-known birder from Nairobi, accompanied by myself and half a dozen local guides and birdwatchers.
We set off Monday afternoon from Malindi, after stocking up on provisions and gear, to Marafa, at the edge of the Dakatcha Woodland to meet the District Officer and let him know what we were up to, as well as visiting the local Woodland Support Group, volunteers supporting conservation of the forest and wildlife. We continued on to Adu, a village on the far northern edge of the woodland, home to many of our party. Near the town, we found an ideal campsite and pitched tents in a hurry to beat the sunset. After dinner, everyone was eager to turn in early, in anticipation of a pre-dawn start the next day.
The Dakatcha Woodland is a unique area of forest populated mostly by majestic Brachystegia trees and an abundance of grasses and shrubs and is home to many rare birds and animals, and made a stunning place to camp, surrounded by owls, nightjars and frogs.
Tuesday morning, and the 8-strong group was setting off at 5.30am after hot chai and buttered bread, optimistic and excited about discovering the first known breeding site of the Clarke’s Weaver. However, it was not be, though we did record many bird species, as well as some unidentified flowers and shrubs. After a morning of walking, we returned to camp for lunch, then repeated the exercise in the afternoon, with a similar result.
The next 3 days looked much the same. Though we searched different habitats, areas of the forest and farmland, from before dawn till after dark, the Clarke’s Weavers continued to escape us. On previous surveys, a few birds have been spotted flying overhead, but this month not a single one was seen, a bit disappointing.
However, we did have some exciting finds. 5 new species were added to the list for Dakatcha, including the Spotted Thick-Knee and the Booted Eagle, which felt like a bit of a consolation prize! The local guides (and myself!) also received some very valuable training from Fleur, and had plenty of time to appreciate the beauty of such a timeless forest.
Of great concern to the area is the highly destructive industry of charcoal. Charcoal production and use is extremely inefficient, polluting and requires the cutting of ancient and precious trees for burning. We saw a worrying number of charcoal kilns and timber harvesting sites deep in the woodland, far from any settlement. Up to 7 lorries filled with charcoal are leaving the area each day, destined for Mombasa and Nairobi, taking invaluable material from the ecosystem and habitats from the wildlife. If Clarke’s Weaver breeding sites are discovered, it will go a long way to protecting the area, as sanctuaries for the birds can be installed and monitored.
Friday, the final day of the search, and we had moved camp to a site in which a possible Clarke’s Weaver nest has been sighted in the past for one final look. All week we had avoided the rain, with only a few showers while we had ben driving, but during our last effort, the forest decided to send us off with a drenching. Half an hour into our walk, we were soaked to the bone, and dashed back to the car trying to shield binoculars and notebooks from the rain with our bodies, to little avail.
So, we left the forest wet, tired and Clarke’s Weaver-less, but still happy to have added new birds to the list, trained guides and witnessed some amazing countryside, and eager to renew the search!
Sam Oldland (A Rocha Kenya volunteer)