Nairobi National Park, Kenya

October 06, 2021  •  Leave a Comment

This is probably my most belated post ever - I started writing this after my first visit to Nairobi National Park (NNP) over a year ago! I could reel off a whole host of feeble excuses...but I'll spare you that!

I mentioned in my previous post (which you can read here) that, following our arrival in Kenya in August 2020, we were unable to do any travelling for quite some time. This was largely due to a prolonged delay with my family obtaining their Kenyan residency (which they only received in December!). The price of doing anything here as a non-resident is painfully high - far beyond the means of a mere teacher! So, I mostly kept my interest in wildlife photography alive by photographing the garden wildlife either with my camera trap or with my macro lens.

However...to say that we were totally deprived of the safari experience would not be entirely accurate. One great thing about Nairobi is that it has a national park right outside the city, and actually - it's really quite a wonderful place. Traffic-depending, the entrance gate is a mere 45min drive away from where I live and it is home to an impressive selection of East African wildlife. I have managed to visit six times so far and this post acts as a summary of all of my visits to date. I will no doubt add to this post over time!

It's probably fair to say that most people come to Africa on safari to see large mammals, and NNP is a good place to see a decent number of them. The only significant absentees for most people will be elephants, which are not present in the park. So, on to the mammals:

Mammals

In my opinion the rhinos are the star attractions of NNP. Rhinos are so heavily poached across Africa (and, historically, in Asia) resulting in the fact that there are not that many places where they are easy to see. NNP is, however, a great place to see them. Here there are both southern white rhinos (Ceratotherium simum simum) and black rhinos (Diceros bicornis) and I have been fortunate to see rhinos on four of my six visits.

Interestingly, southern white rhinos are not indigenous to Kenya - their native range is southern Africa (as their name would suggest!). By the end of the 19th century they had been hunted so extensively that they were thought to be extinct in the wild, until a small population was found in South Africa. Focused conservation efforts (involving translocations to other African countries such as Kenya) saw their numbers rebound tremendously.

White rhinos, being grazers, tend to be generally easier to see and on my first visit, I had excellent views of a group of three - two adults and a calf - grazing contentedly in the plains:

White rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum)White rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum)

White rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum)White rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum)

I only saw black rhinos on my fourth visit - and they were trotting in the wrong direction...and rather far away. So no photos came from the encounter - but in a later post I will share my black rhino photos from Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Laikipia.

Time for the understatement of the century - big cats are popular here. They seem to be firmly at the top of most people's safari must-see lists. Indeed, most professional photographers here seem to make a living out of this popularity - put the term 'fine art wildlife photography' into a search engine and you will see for yourself*. Their popularity is also evident in the field by the fact that virtually every wild big cat in Kenya seems to spend its life surrounded by what my wife calls a 'jumble' of jeeps. Anyway, small rant complete.

Online literature states that NNP possesses the full range of African big cats (lions, leopard and cheetah). I have not personally been lucky with leopards (though I have seen photos proving that they are definitely there) or cheetah, but I can certainly vouch that lions can be seen there. On my first visit, we were very fortunate to observe a pride of no fewer than 10 lions (all females and their cubs). They were lazing about quite prominently on a rocky area near to a small lake. Writing this a year into my time in Kenya I have learned that this is a fairly typical daytime lion sighting! This made it quite easy to photograph them from the road. We watched them for about half an hour during which they would occasionally get up, strike a dramatic pose, and then lie down somewhere else:

Lion (Panthera leo)Lion (Panthera leo) Lion (Panthera leo)Lion (Panthera leo) Lion (Panthera leo)Lion (Panthera leo)

Driving out of NNP towards the end of our first visit, we had a rather surreal experience when we drove alongside another lioness sat on one of the signposts. These are quite large stone structures, and they all bear some kind of message / warning at the top. She was definitely  trying to tell us something!

Lion (Panthera leo)Lion (Panthera leo)

My second and third visits were devoid of cat encounters, but on my fourth I finally got to see a male lion. He was sat in the grass in a fairly remote part of the park and quite a distance away from the road. I decided to break out my 1.4x teleconverter to photograph him - something I have been quite reluctant to do of late**. You will note that he has a bad eye (a cataract presumably?), making him rather distinctive in appearance. Apparently he is named 'Kitili' - in fact all of NNP's lions seem to be celebrities...

Lion (Panthera leo)Lion (Panthera leo)

Continuing with the theme of large mammals, we have been very lucky with giraffes (Giraffa spp.) on every visit. I love giraffes - they are just one of the strangest animals out there and I never tire of seeing them. The ones found at NNP are of the Maasai species (Giraffa tippelskirchi). Although not yet fully adopted, a system treating giraffes as four separate species (rather than one) is starting to become more widely accepted and it's what I will be using.

I will say though - they are a tricky animal to photograph! Being so tall, they make for a rare use of portrait orientation and they always seem to be a less than ideal distance away. Note to anyone thinking of coming here on safari - a zoom lens is your friend! I regret my move to a full set of prime lenses on basically every safari trip - my gear is now so full of dust from constant lens and body swaps. A new 70-200mm f/2.8 is firmly back on my Christmas list...

Maasai giraffe (Giraffa tippelskirchi)Maasai giraffe (Giraffa tippelskirchi)

Maasai giraffe (Giraffa tippelskirchi)Maasai giraffe (Giraffa tippelskirchi)

I would normally delete photos like the next one - but sometimes a photobomb actually improves a photo. In this case, I realised that there was something special in having the world's largest bird intruding on a photo of the world's tallest animal:

Maasai giraffe (Giraffa tippelskirchi)Maasai giraffe (Giraffa tippelskirchi)

Staying with ungulates (hoofed mammals) but taking a step-down in size, NNP is a good place to see and photograph a range of 'common' plains species. First up is the beautiful impala (Aepyceros melampus), most easily distinguished by the males' lyre-shaped horns, but also from their reddish fur:

Impala (Aepyceros melampus)Impala (Aepyceros melampus) Impala (Aepyceros melampus)Impala (Aepyceros melampus) Impala (Aepyceros melampus)Impala (Aepyceros melampus)

There are plains zebra (Equus quagga) - one of Kenya's two zebra species. I wouldn't describe them as being particularly abundant at NNP, often you may have to do a bit of searching to find them (based on my experience):

Common zebra (Equus quagga)Common zebra (Equus quagga) Common zebra (Equus quagga)Common zebra (Equus quagga)

On a couple of occasions I have encountered common eland (Taurotragus oryx), huge and impressive antelopes. The males in particular generally seem quite happy to stand there and be photographed:

Common eland (Taurotragus oryx)Common eland (Taurotragus oryx)

The next species is one that I have seen only a handful of times at NNP, although they are quite easy to see elsewhere in the region. The Thomson's gazelle (Eudorcas thomsoni, affectionately known as 'Tommies') are rather cute little gazelles which seem to be quite shy. The ones that I have encountered have all bolted quickly when they sensed me taking an interest in them, making photographing them a challenge:

Thomson's gazelle (Eudorcas thomsonii)Thomson's gazelle (Eudorcas thomsonii)

Next up are Grant's gazelle (Nanger granti) which, in the books, look quite similar to the 'Tommies' mentioned above. These two species seem to regularly occur in mixed herds though when you see them side-by-side they are visibly quite different. Grant's gazelle are a fair bit bigger and don't have the same neatly defined black stripe down the sides (though for the latter there is some variability across the region, with some subspecies/species (don't get me started) having dark patches here).

Grant's gazelle (Nanger granti)Grant's gazelle (Nanger granti)

Next up is the African buffalo (Syncercus caffer). These animals gather in large herds and are relatively easy to spot at NNP. However, taking a 'compelling' photo of an animal that (to many people) is 'just a cow' remains a mission that I have yet to accomplish! The babies are cute though...

African buffalo (Syncerus caffer)African buffalo (Syncerus caffer) African buffalo (Syncerus caffer)African buffalo (Syncerus caffer)

This next one is rather interesting. In the first draft of this post I had this down as a bohor reedbuck (Redunca redunca). However, the animal was subsequently re-identified as being a Chanler's mountain reedbuck (Redunca fulvorufula chanleri), a highly endangered subspecies of the mountain reedbuck:

Chanler's mountain reedbuck (Redunca fulvorufula chanleri)Chanler's mountain reedbuck (Redunca fulvorufula chanleri)

For comparison - this is a bohor reedbuck (Redunca redunca):

Bohor reedbuck (Redunca redunca)Bohor reedbuck (Redunca redunca)

The next species goes by many names. Across Africa, this variable species is generally known as the 'hartebeest' (Alcelaphus buselaphus). The particular variety in this area is the subspecies A. b. cokii - 'Coke's hartebeest' or 'kongoni'. With their long, flat faces and curiously-curved horns I think they are rather distinctive animals:

Coke's hartebeest (Alcelaphus buselaphus cokii)Coke's hartebeest (Alcelaphus buselaphus cokii)

From one 'beest' to another - 'common' wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus) are best known from the Mara-Serengeti ecosystem but NNP has the occasional herd or, like this one, a lost individual!

Common wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus)Common wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus)

It took me three visits to NNP before I discovered that there were hippos (Hippopotamus amphibius) there. We sat watching a group of them for quite some time during our first sighting. The photo below highlights our most entertaining experience - watching a young hippo having a piggyback on its mother! Hippo-watching, as we discovered, requires quite some patience - they spend most of their time partially or wholly submerged, just periodically re-appearing for breath with a hard-to-miss snort! Only once (in Amboseli National Park), have I seen a hippo out of the water.

Hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius)Hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius)

It also took three visits to NNP for me to see my first 'common' warthog. These animals are actually not at all hard to find in the region, though they can be tricky to photograph. They are shy and usually run before you get close enough to take a photo.

Common warthog (Phacochoerus africanus)Common warthog (Phacochoerus africanus) Common warthog (Phacochoerus africanus)Common warthog (Phacochoerus africanus)

I have seen three primate species in NNP - vervet monkeys (Chlorocebus pygerythrus), Syke's monkeys (Cercopithecus albogularis) and olive baboons (Papio anubis). Vervet monkeys are fairly easy to see (though not to photograph) and Syke's I only saw once - in my most recent trip. Olive baboons are probably the easiest photographic subjects - as they frequent the picnic stops where you are permitted to exit your vehicle. The one shown below was briefly standing on its hind legs, making for an interesting portrait:

Olive baboon (Papio anubis)Olive baboon (Papio anubis)

It is unusual that the 'mammals' sections of my write-ups take up such a large proportion, but things are different here in Africa!

Anyway, now I move on to the 'reptiles' section, which is disappointingly short. One of the things about going on safari over here is that you are typically not allowed to step out of your vehicle for probably quite obvious reasons. The down-side of that is that it is very hard to pay attention to the smaller animals that inhabit the landscape. I must have driven past countless snakes and lizards that I simply didn't see. I hope before long to visit somewhere where it is possible to explore on foot and make up for this!

Reptiles

I have only had a couple of reptile encounters at NNP. On my fourth visit I was surprised to see this large leopard tortoise (Stigmochelys pardalis) amble out of the grass and cross the road right in front of me. Interestingly, they are not indigenous to this area - the ground has historically been too cold for their eggs to hatch. It is possible that climate change is now allowing them to breed in the area. This one has probably been relocated from elsewhere and released here:

Leopard tortoise (Stigmochelys pardalis)Leopard tortoise (Stigmochelys pardalis)

My four-year old daughter has joined me on three of my six visits to NNP. Her attention span is fairly short (as you'd expect for a small child) so her interest in the experience is a bit variable, but when she is paying attention her spotting skills can match that of most experienced safari guide! I was driving along on our third visit when she suddenly and excitedly yelled 'lizard!'. When I stopped, we released that she had spotted this male Kenya red-headed rock agama (Agama lionotus) which was displaying on a rock:

Kenya red-headed rock agama (Agama lionotus)Kenya red-headed rock agama (Agama lionotus)

The one other reptile that you can normally see at NNP is the Nile crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus). There are usually a few basking on the edges of the numerous bodies of water around the park. I have, sadly, yet to photograph them well enough to feature here! I shall add them if I manage to...

That's already it for reptiles, so now I'll move on to the birds.

Birds

The official bird list for the park is rather impressive, so it probably goes without saying that on any visit you will see many. I will first highlight a few special encounters before sharing a gallery of the rest.

On my fourth visit to NNP, we saw a number of black-shouldered kites (Elanus caeruleus) early in the morning. We noticed that one of them had perched in a tree by the roadside so we cruised up for a closer look. When we got near to it, a gruesome scene materialised - it had taken some kind of rodent and decapitated it, and was proceeding to eat its head whole!

Black-shouldered kite (Elanus caeruleus)Black-shouldered kite (Elanus caeruleus)

Common ostriches (Struthio camelus) are usually fairly visible in the park. Even though they may look a little like a bush (please see the bottom photo as a good example!), there are not that many other animals which are so distinctly black as the adult males so you can usually spot them quite easily from a distance. According to the Helm 'Birds of East Africa' field guide, Somali ostriches (Struthio molybdophanes) were also introduced to NNP in the 1970s though I have not seen them there myself.

Common ostrich (Struthio camelus)Common ostrich (Struthio camelus) Common ostrich (Struthio camelus)Common ostrich (Struthio camelus) Common ostrich (Struthio camelus)Common ostrich (Struthio camelus) Common ostrich (Struthio camelus)Common ostrich (Struthio camelus) Common ostrich (Struthio camelus)Common ostrich (Struthio camelus) Common ostrich (Struthio camelus)Common ostrich (Struthio camelus)

Everywhere that I have lived there has always been something that I have seen frequently, and yet never managed to photograph satisfactorily. Here in Kenya there are numerous candidates for that position but occupying the top spot would have to be the helmeted guineafowl (Numida meleagris). These birds are everywhere here, and yet, just impossible to photograph compellingly! I suppose as a fairly fat bird they are pretty easy prey for a range of predators and so have evolved shyness as a defence strategy - making them hard to get close to. They are also constantly on the move. I think I will leave Kenya before I have managed to take a photo of them that I am happy with!

Helmeted guineafowl (Numida meleagris)Helmeted guineafowl (Numida meleagris)

One of the birds that I was particularly keen to see here was the very distinctive hamerkop (Scopus umbretta). It turns out that they are not that difficult to find - but they are very cool birds, and worth appreciating! Their nests (the largest of any bird in Africa) are also an amazing site to behold.

Hamerkop (Scopus umbretta)Hamerkop (Scopus umbretta)

A big highlight for me came on my fifth visit to NNP, where I finally got to see my first African vultures - specifically the Critically Endangered African white-backed vultures (Gyps africanus). Sadly, vultures in this region are  widely persecuted, with many being poisoned - in particular because their presence in the sky can give away the activities of poachers. They are really wonderful creatures - as well as being fundamentally interesting birds they provide valuable ecosystem services by removing (potentially diseased) animal carcasses from the landscape.

White-backed vulture (Gyps africanus)White-backed vulture (Gyps africanus) White-backed vulture (Gyps africanus)White-backed vulture (Gyps africanus)

Needless to say, in my numerous visits to NNP I have racked up quite a collection of bird photos - the remainder of which I will just share as a gallery below:

Little bee-eater (Merops pusillus)Little bee-eater (Merops pusillus) White-bellied bustard (Eupodotis senegalensis)White-bellied bustard (Eupodotis senegalensis)

Long-tailed fiscal (Lanius cabanisi)Long-tailed fiscal (Lanius cabanisi) Black-winged stilt (Himantopus himantopus)Black-winged stilt (Himantopus himantopus) Sacred ibis (Threskiornis aethiopicus)Sacred ibis (Threskiornis aethiopicus)

Great egret (Ardea alba)Great egret (Ardea alba)

African spoonbill (Platalea alba)African spoonbill (Platalea alba)

Spur-winged lapwing (Vanellus spinosus)Spur-winged lapwing (Vanellus spinosus) Malachite kingfisher (Corythornis cristatus)Malachite kingfisher (Corythornis cristatus)

Common waxbill (Estrilda astrild)Common waxbill (Estrilda astrild) African gray flycatcher (Bradornis microrhynchus)African gray flycatcher (Bradornis microrhynchus) Rufous-naped lark (Mirafra africana)Rufous-naped lark (Mirafra africana) White-faced whistling-duck (Dendrocygna viduata)White-faced whistling-duck (Dendrocygna viduata) Pin-tailed whydah (Vidua macroura)Pin-tailed whydah (Vidua macroura) Grey crowned crane (Balearica regulorum)Grey crowned crane (Balearica regulorum) Three-banded plover (Charadrius tricollaris)Three-banded plover (Charadrius tricollaris) Rufous sparrow (Passer rufocinctus)Rufous sparrow (Passer rufocinctus) Rufous sparrow (Passer rufocinctus)Rufous sparrow (Passer rufocinctus) Egyptian goose (Alopochen aegyptiacus)Egyptian goose (Alopochen aegyptiacus) Shelley's francolin (Scleroptila shelleyi)Shelley's francolin (Scleroptila shelleyi) Common greenshank (Tringa nebularia)Common greenshank (Tringa nebularia) Black-headed heron (Ardea melanocephala)Black-headed heron (Ardea melanocephala) Yellow-billed oxpecker (Buphagus africanus)Yellow-billed oxpecker (Buphagus africanus) Cattle egret (Bubulcus ibis)Cattle egret (Bubulcus ibis) Red-rumped swallow (Cecropis daurica)Red-rumped swallow (Cecropis daurica) African open-billed stork (Anastomus lamelligerus)African open-billed stork (Anastomus lamelligerus)

White-winged widowbird (Euplectes albonotatus)White-winged widowbird (Euplectes albonotatus) Purple grenadier (Granatina ianthinogaster)Purple grenadier (Granatina ianthinogaster) Yellow-necked spurfowl (Francolinus leucoscepus)Yellow-necked spurfowl (Francolinus leucoscepus) Namaqua dove (Oena capensis)Namaqua dove (Oena capensis)

That's it for now - hopefully it will take me less than a year to put together my next blog post!

Cheers,

Robin.

*Me and my friends coined and make regular use of the term 'cat spam' to describe this...

**I've been increasingly frustrated with my photos taken with my 1.4X teleconverter. I think it might be because, on safari, I am always photographing from a vehicle and, with the vibrations from the engine, with the teleconverter on there is considerable camera shake. Though I turn the engine off when waiting for an extended period, if I did so whenever I took a photo I would probably kill the car battery. Not something that you particularly want to do when surrounded by lions...


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