Thursday, 26 April 2012

Flamingo Carnival

A Wedding Luncheon
A national holiday in December, Jamhuri or Republic Day was approaching and it was an extended weekend. I got down to plan a short trip with one night stay somewhere not too far away. We chose Lake Elementaita as our place of stay - on our prior visit we had skipped this in between point between Naivasha and Nakuru.

Saturday morning came and we set out for Lake Elementaita in our four wheel drive with our driver at the helm. Enjoying the scenic views on the way, we reached Elementaita around two hours later. The lake is fenced by lodges with near similar names and it took us some time to locate the correct lodge. It was almost past lunch time when we arrived at the right destination and I could sense the hunger alerts from Adi. Aamir decided that being a mhindi he must haggle on the price for the lake side cottage, which resulted in a long wait at the reception till the manager could be summoned. Post negotiation, we headed straight for the dining area which was completely empty by then. We talked to two waiters who were cleaning up; they made us sit at a table. After twenty minutes of no action followed by some discussion, we were able to get lunch by queueing up in an ongoing wedding party near the swimming pool! We had just about managed to finish our lunch when two people came separately asking for the payment – they could however be satisfied easily when we explained that we were staying the night on full board basis. The highlight of the lunch was an African lady at the party neatly dressed in a sari. We had seen locals wearing salwar kameez previously, in fact our land lady is an ardent fan of the dress; but this was the first time when we had seen an African in a sari. One of the longest lunches of our lives finally behind us, we decided to move out and explore after a round of freshening up.

Ludo’s Cousin
We set out for Hyrax Hill in Nakuru town, an archaeological site, where archaeologist and anthropologist Mary Leakey had discovered evidences of settlements, tombs and a fortress built of stone (and supposedly 19 beheaded bodies lying in a crooked position) dating from 200 years to about 2000 years in the past (representing primarily African Iron Age i.e. the period between second century AD and 1000 AD). In Africa, unlike Europe and Asia, Iron Age was not prefaced by a Bronze or Copper Age, but rather all the metals were brought together. Arriving about the same time as agriculture, the efficiency of iron over stone was realised in all spheres, be it cutting trees or quarrying stones. Our visit to the small museum containing excavated stone implements, pottery, beads and human bones turned to be a tough ask with Adi – he just could not understand why he should be dragged inside such a "drab" place (with similar thoughts like Adi, our driver had chosen not to get inside in the first place). We had very little choice but to come out and instead see the excavation sites. A museum official showed us depressions in land, now covered by wild bushes and grasses, known as Sirikwa Holes. The Sirikwa were iron-working pastoralists between 1400 and 1700 AD, who disappeared later by amalgamating to new communities in the area, such as Maasai and Kalenjin (tribes existing to this day). Sirikwa Holes are round depressions having a diameter of 10–20 metres and average depth of 2.4 metres, built on hillsides. They were surrounded by stone walls or wooden fences. The Sirikwa kept their cattle inside these enclosures, but built their huts outside them. Away from the depressions, the official showed us something really interesting - cup marks made in rocks, which can be imagined to be a board for a board game. The board, with two rows of 13 pits, is believed to have been made for the mathematical strategy game of bau, still played around the world. The game goes by a variety of names, including mancala, with variations of rules and equipment – like pebbles, beads and seeds – with which to play. I imagined people playing Ludo’s cousin (Ludo originated from Indian board game Pachisi; although I have absolutely no idea if the rules are similar in bau) on the boulder indentations – which period who knows, since the cups could not be dated.
Hyrax Hill bau game indentations

Home of Pipits and Pied Crows
Back at the lodge, walking through the green lawn, scaring and scattering away superb starlings; we made our way through a crowd of still lingering wedding hosts and guests towards the near bank of Lake Elementaita. The serene lake flanked by acacia bushes in the setting of subdued hills in the far distance was an instant refresher for the eyes and mind. There were no flamingos in sight, although the lake is famed to be a soda lake with these birds abounding in plenty in high seasons. The locals indicated that the heavy rains till almost a month back had turned it into a fresh water lake (the lake water had completely submerged the lane on the bank). Pelicans however hanged near the lake, but they preferred less human inhabited sections; so we could not spot them either. Approaching sunset, the clouds gathered overhead – not the dark rain clouds but white snowy ones – changing the weather with them; giving the cue to the breeze to gently sway the reflections of fluffy whites in orange tinged blue. We made ourselves comfortable on the lake shore and Adi started playing in and with the grass, trying to provoke me by putting some in his mouth. The merriment however was cut short when Adi called out for a potty emergency. I ran with him (Aamir refused to touch him) over the lawn back to the cottage, over a distance which somehow seemed to have widened since the time we had come in. The emergency having been dealt with, we came out for a late evening stroll. In the feeble light, we could see a pair of pipits on the slanted thatched roof of the adjacent cottage – looked like they had made it their home; each of their movements instantly becoming a cause for great animation in little Adi.

The dinner was thankfully uneventful; one high excitement meal in the day was enough for us. It was a full moon night and after putting Adi to sleep, it was the pleasantly chilly perfect night to star gaze from the balcony. And the night to get our hands set on the new camera – the new camera was making its first safari.
Full moon photography with new camera
The morning view of the lake from the cottage was mesmerising; it was a canvas in quietude – far removed from the “dusty place” or “muteita” as the name means in Maasai Maa language. In the clear light, I could discern a few hillocks jutting out in the closer distance. Looking at the drifting clouds above, the unforgettable Tagore classic began playing in my mind.
Aaj dhaaner khethe roudro chayae luko churi khaela re bhai, luko churi khaela
Neel aakaashe ke bhaashale shaada megher bhaela re bhai, luko churi khaela
Over the fields, a game of light and shade goes on...
Who is it that floats rafts of white clouds in the blue sky? The game of hide and seek goes on...
Lake Elementaita
A series of “kraaaks” and “krows” from the adjacent cottage attracted my attention towards it; the thatched roof had new visitors – a pair of pied crows with their glossy black skins and contrasting white bibs. Pied crows are native to the land as against Indian house crows who were introduced in East African coast from India (the latter have become a serious pest, believed to be responsible for the decline of the speckled mousebird, morning thrush and palm weaver – it is rather difficult to imagine people carrying crows overseas in ships, but apparently some did). Pied crows are monogamous, and pair-bonds probably last all their life, both adults building the nest and taking care of the young. Unthinkable for most Indians, some people keep pied crows as pets.
Pied crows
After checking out from the lodge, just outside it we stopped to look more closely at a structure in the neighbouring property. It was built in the style of a traditional hut (our driver said Maasai, but very unlike the huts that we had seen in Maasai village). It had more elaborate design with thatched, slanting roofs at multiple levels and angles; and was much taller and larger in area than any of the tribal huts that we have ever seen. Its purpose was not too clear; could be a lake view point built for tourism.
The elaborate hut

Birds’ Carnival
We started back towards Nairobi and reached Naivasha. We did not have any particular travel agenda in mind apart from exploring the area around Naivasha. We kept on going on the road bordering the lake and after a point, it could not be called a road any more. Not deterred by moon’s crater like dents on the "road", we reached the Crater Lake sanctuary. The lake is a green (supposed to be) soda lake at the bottom of an extinct volcano on the western side of Lake Naivasha. The sanctuary around it is a private property; Kenya has many such private sanctuaries buzzing with wild life. An African safari cannot be possibly complete without wild life sighting. So we saw wild life: acacia munching carefree giraffes; grazing plains’ zebras and Thomson’s gazelles; a lone warthog sniffing around (our driver was finally relieved that we were looking at noteworthy things - not birds or museums). Crater Lake is one of the parks, like Hell’s Gate where people can walk with wild animals. Need less to say with a baby, hiking was not the highest priority item for us. But there was no escape from walking - a long descent starting from a volcanic wall with wrinkles and crinkles, down a set of stairs bounded by trees with hanging weaver birds’ nests, led us to the small scenic lake - but here again the flamingos eluded us. For some odd reason however a single greater flamingo had stayed back and was meditating in one corner. We left it alone and went for the ascent back with a baby who immediately wished to be carried.

Heading back to Naivasha in the car, I felt like living the lines from Adi’s favourite nursery rhyme “the people on the car go bumpity bump, bumpity bump, bumpity bump, all over the town”. At last the ordeal was over and back on paved road, we went to check the spectacle that had caught our attention on our way to Crater Lake – off the road was a vivid red band around a water body. Yes indeed, those were lesser flamingos – probably many more than what we had seen in Lake Nakuru in July. We had hit the jackpot in our exploration! The water body is Lake Oleiden or Oloidion (I have got different spellings from different sources; different meanings too – it means either shallow or salty water in Maa language), a lake that we had not heard of before and certainly not many people know about it. The lake water is deep green, thick with algae. Based on my internet research; Oloidion, which used to be connected to Lake Naivasha, has steadily been going saline since its water levels fell and it became a separate lake in 1979 (a shallow lake is left with concentrations of salt and other minerals post evaporation; hence it is likely to be alkaline i.e. will have high PH level and saline i.e. will have high sodium content). In July 2006 it passed the magic salinity mark and began to produce blue green algae or cyanobacteria (which simply mean cyan coloured bacteria) called Spirulina, the main food for lesser flamingos – and sure enough the flamingos discovered it the same year. It was a low key tourist area, with no wild life officials around, with a single outlet operated by locals to cater to boating needs. In fact the fence around the lake was being used by locals to hang their clothes to dry and at some point we saw cattle drinking from the lake together with flamingos (not certain if the cattle prefer soda water or the herders were too lazy to take them to fresh water). Overlooking these minor aspects, the experience was unbelievable – we were incredibly close to the birds – and there were countless of them! On at least one occasion, scientists have observed nearly a quarter of a million flamingos at the lake. The atmosphere was booming with their noisy honks and grunts, similar to geese calls. Coming from these delicate  birds, I was expecting the calls to be more pleasing to the ears; but I guess nature knows best what and how much to endow each one with. So this is where the flamingos from Nakuru and Elementaita were coming to. The lines from the song came humming again…
Aaj bhromor bhole modhu khete, oore baeraay aaloi mete
Aaj kisher taure nodir chaure chaukha chokhir maela
The bee forgets to suck honey today as it flies about in a heaven of light
For what reason do the birds gather on the banks of water?

What we were witnessing was not just a gathering - it was a carnival, an extravaganza in white and bright red – red plumage breaking through the white; reddish white sinuous necks coiled around the body to make way for the scooping red bills to preen (i.e. to distribute oil from a gland at the base of their tail to their feathers for waterproofing); long (longer than the body) red stilts - few standing on one leg swaying back and forth with the wind (curling a leg under the body keeps the foot warm and conserves body heat); red bills half submerged in water for feeding; hardly visible red webbed feet for wading and swimming - the pattern of red and white broken only by the drab grey bodies of the immature.
Lesser flamingos - grey is a sign of immaturity
Flamingo carnival

We went for a boat ride, our driver decided to opt out – his quota of bird endurance for the day (probably a year) was over. There were a number of small birds flying overhead and diving on the water once in a while – our boatman told us they (could not give us the English name) were feeding on mosquito eggs. Well what a high utility bird - wonder if some can be exported to malaria infested areas. A herd of Thomson’s gazelles could be seen feeding on yellow flowered bushes on the other side. There were hippos - single and with their families – shimmering black masses bulging out of water, sometimes the protrusions of ears and head bumps and rarely super sized yawns visible too. And their deep roaring grunts in sequence were very much audible, only the red billed oxpeckers dared to get near in search of ticks. A lone Egyptian goose with its brown eye mask was swimming near a family of hippos; then we found the entire bunch making merry on the other bank – the congregation could have been on the occasion of moulting (shedding feathers); the shed feathers scattered all over the ground. There were two great white pelicans as well – they did not appear to have too much of a business there. Per our boatman they could either be sun basking or waiting for a feeding opportunity in case one of the geese did not feel well and threw up a fish!
Egyptian goose with its eye mask
Red billed oxpeckers riding hippos

Black, White and Red
The high point of the trip was undoubtedly watching flamingos, only a little mindful of the presence of our motor boat, in various stages of flight – taking off, gliding overhead and landing – blacks in the under wings appearing in flight, contrasting with the whites and reds. The boatman told us that the adults were teaching their young to fly. They do not like to fly in the sun (hence kept their distance quite low during practice flying sessions to avoid heat). They fly during night - flight speed of a flock can reach 50 to 60 kph (31-37 mph); they have been known to fly 500 to 600 km (311-373 miles) each night between habitats! It was fascinating to watch them run several steps, begin flapping their wings, lift off into the air and stretch out their heads, necks and legs in a single straight line; and do just the reverse for landing - touch down followed by running several paces. At some point, formations of flamingos flying in diverse directions encircled our boat; gusts of red, white and black engulfing us, leaving us wonder struck and delighted. The rippling water had the song back in my lips...
Jaano jowar jaule phenar raashi, baataashe aaj chutche haashi
Aaj bina kaaje baajiye baashi kaatbe shaukol bela

Foamy waves are running wild, with the breeze spreading laughter
For no reason at all I will play the flute today…
Gusts of red, white and black

We knew instantly that Oloidion was a place that we would go to more than once. Our intuitions were proved right when we made a return trip to Oloidion during the extended weekend of Good Friday Easter 2012. The subsequent experience turned out to be even better. In the picturesque setting of mountains and hills, scattered zebras and hippos; in the lake bounded by acacias with preying giraffes; our own junior bird watcher with his “for baby” binoculars, tried to spot a few greater flamingos standing tall in the middle of marching lesser flamingos – yes marching indeed. It is not clear why flamingos march, but they do, moving about in synchronised movements. Not only had more tourists discovered the place (we had roles to play as well in this word of mouth propagation), more birds had made it their home (if only temporal). The count of lesser flamingos had swelled considerably since December; what was more the other bank was bustling with white faced whistling ducks, yellow billed ducks, red billed teals, fulvous whistling ducks, Hottentot teals, red knobbed coots, Egyptian geese, grey headed gulls, yellow billed egrets, southern pochards and also a lone hammerkop – hungry tummies calling some to water for feeding sessions. For the first time, we saw a sitting giraffe as well. Sitting down or standing up from the ground is difficult for giraffes as they must sway with their necks and backs to keep balance, and certainly not something to be attempted with predators around. The category of the giraffes in the area had baffled me for some time, but one of the local guides cleared the mystery - all of them were progenies of mixed marriages between Rothschild and Maasai giraffes, so most had the white socks of Rothschild and pattern and darkish colour of Maasai (but not as dark).
Junior bird watcher - lesser flamingos in the background
Hottentot teal
Yellow billed egret
A portion of the bank was monopolised by great cormorants in black and white - sticking out short tails, reptilian long necks, peering emerald eyes, the shining under eye orange in males and scarlet in females, some flapping or holding out their wings to dry, some of them breeding birds with white patches on their sides. On closer look, I found that the backs are not plain black – they have scaly brown patterns all over. And when they flew together over the surface, they turned the water more black than white. Blacksmith plovers with their collaged black and white bodies (it is astonishing how the same black and white can make so many diverse patterns), deep red eyes and longish thin legs could be seen on the dry ground, giving out their characteristic metallic ‘tink tink’ calls. We did not have to go too far to see another exhibit in black and white – black winged stilt wading in the water with its long red legs, sweeping its slender black bill over the water surface to catch insects and molluscs.
Great cormorants with a grey headed gull; in cormorants orange in the face indicates male and red indicates female, white on the sides of the body indicates a breeding bird

Blacksmith plover
Black winged stilt
While we were marvelling at the flurry of flamingos above and all around, Adi could not help but doze off during the boat ride – why blame him, with the cool breeze and the gentle rocking of the motor boat who would not love to practise some shut eye? What a photo opportunity did we present – sleeping Adi in a red life jacket supported on mamma’s lap, mamma puffed up in a red life jacket too. Adi’s siesta made of think of birds assembling to roost at dusk – I looked around to see which trees would be the likely resting spots. The memories of flocks of cormorants and egrets perched on their respective trees – bedecking thorny acacias with copious black or white spots (black for cormorants, white for egrets) during late evening hours at Nakuru National Park the previous day was fresh on my mind.
Who would not doze off in the cool breeze?
Great cormorants roosting in a tree for the night

Birds on a Platter
The last stop of the journey was Elsamere centre, home of Joy Adamson of “Born Free” fame, Elsa being the name of her lioness. The open air lunch was a great delight, specially the desserts. But what made the experience one of a kind were the birds hovering in the branches above, waiting in anticipation for the left over from the meals, sensing when the diners were about to leave a table. Then they would descend – some more courageous than the others leading the way; others following shortly; sometimes too late to get a bite. The vervet monkeys jumping on the roof were eyeing the food as well, thankfully they were not courageous enough to come in such proximity to humans. Bulbuls with raised feathers on the nape and yellow under tails, mouse like speckled mouse birds with their white head crests and long tails, spectacled weavers with their black spectacles on bright yellow bodies, similar bright yellow Baglafecht weavers with slightly different black eye masks, another variant of bright yellow and black in the form of black headed weavers, red headed weavers with their bright red heads – male weavers more gorgeous than the females – all fought over each remaining morsel on a plate. There were shy birds too - white browed robin-chat with white eye brows who could be spotted on the big pepper tree in the lawn; a common fiscal with uncommon beauty (another black and white combination for you) sitting on a thorny branch; white-eyed slaty flycatchers with white eye rings who could be seen while walking on the lake side.
Male red headed weaver
Spectacled weavers - with their spectacles

Water Invasion
The stunning views of Lake Naivasha from Elsamere called my attention to two kinds of species in the aquatic plant kingdom. The first one is papyrus – the lake is fringed by its tall reeds in shallow water; each stem making a dense umbrella of thin, bright green, thread-like grasses. Islands of papyrus can also be seen floating on the lake. Papyrus sedge has a very long history of use by humans, notably by the ancient Egyptians (though now rare in the Nile Delta). It was the source of papyrus paper, parts of it can be eaten, and the highly buoyant stems can be made into boats. The labour-intensive paper making process involved stripping off the stem coverings, removing the inner pulp-like fibres and slicing them into wafer-thin strips. Laid side by side, the papyrus strips were moistened, pressed, then dried into a sheet. The oldest written papyrus known to be in existence is an account-sheet belonging to the reign of the Egyptian king Assa, which is approximately dated to be from 2600 B.C. I have read mixed views on papyrus - some feel they are weeds and have cleared parts of the swamp in the surrounding wetlands of Naivasha for cultivation. Others feel the lake would not be the same minus the papyrus, which serve vital functions in climate stabilisation, water nutrient retention and as wild life habitat (the swamps provide refuge to fishes for their oxygen needs and from their predators; and are an important habitat for several bird species).
Floating island of papyrus
The second one is the water hyacinth (ubiquitous on the lake shore). The attractive lavender flowers or thick glossy leaves could fool any one, but it is one of the fastest growing plants known. Even the plants that appear to be dry on land in the shore will rejuvenate once the water reaches to them again. Up to 400 minute seeds may be produced by a single plant. These seeds usually sink and remain dormant in periods of drought (the seeds can remain dormant for fifteen to twenty years), and lose no time in preparation for germination upon flooding. When not controlled, water hyacinth will cover lakes and ponds entirely; it may double its mass in as few as 6-15 days. This dramatically impacts water flow, blocks sunlight from reaching native aquatic plants (we could also sense this when we touched a mass of upturned roots lying near the lake), and starves the water of oxygen, often killing fish (the local fishing industry is surely concerned). The plants also create a prime habitat for mosquitoes, the classic vectors of disease. It is believed that the sharp increase of water hyacinth in Lake Naivasha has been made worse by the presence of high quantities of nutrients coming from water catchment areas and nearby flower farms. I do hope this beautiful lake comes out of the invasions unscathed.
Water hyacinth leaves and flower
We completed the tour with a video session on Joy Adamson’s life, enjoying some great paintings by her and museum visit (Aamir was thrilled to know that George Adamson was born in Etawah, Uttar Pradesh during British Raj era; he almost felt a kind of a fellow UPite bond with him) followed by tea with mouth watering cookies. The journey’s final moments were spent on watching another round of avian squabbling – over bits and pieces of food as before, this time on cups and saucers.

The watch indicated it was time to move, but the lines murmuring inside me sung a different tune.
Ore jaabona aaj ghaure re bhai, jaabona aaj ghaure
Ore aakaash bhenge baaheer ke aaj nebo re lut kore, jaabona aaj ghaure
Oh I won't go back today, I won't go back…
I'll climb the skies and loot the expanse of the heavens, Oh I won't go back today….

But return we must and we did. Something tells me the red carnival will call us again.

PS The photos of our Good Friday Easter Trip 2012 include images of Lake Oloidion and Elsamere.
References (Wikipedia comes by default here):


  1. Very informative. The photos especially, the flamingo carnival is excellent.

  2. Cyanobacteria are aquatic and photosynthetic, that is, they live in the water, and can manufacture their own food. Because they are bacteria, they are quite small and usually unicellular, though they often grow in colonies large enough to see. They have the distinction of being the oldest known fossils, more than 3.5 billion years old, in fact! It may surprise you then to know that the cyanobacteria are still around; they are one of the largest and most important groups of bacteria on earth.

    Many Proterozoic oil deposits are attributed to the activity of cyanobacteria. They are also important providers of nitrogen fertilizer in the cultivation of rice and beans. The cyanobacteria have also been tremendously important in shaping the course of evolution and ecological change throughout earth's history. The oxygen atmosphere that we depend on was generated by numerous cyanobacteria during the Archaean and Proterozoic Eras. Before that time, the atmosphere had a very different chemistry, unsuitable for life as we know it today.

    The other great contribution of the cyanobacteria is the origin of plants. The chloroplast with which plants make food for themselves is actually a cyanobacterium living within the plant's cells. Sometime in the late Proterozoic, or in the early Cambrian, cyanobacteria began to take up residence within certain eukaryote cells, making food for the eukaryote host in return for a home.