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The Water Birds of East Africa

Birding is one of the fastest growing hobbies in the world. In America, bird watchers rose from 21 m in 1982, to an astonishing 68 million in 2000. In the US, birding is now the second most popular outdoor recreation after gardening. Technology advances have made this hobby more fun and appealing. It is now easier with powerful binoculars and other equipment to view birds from a distance. And Global Positioning Systems have improved navigation in unfamiliar places.

Parents are also able to amuse their youngsters by luring birds from the bush with recordings of bird songs. Africa is a treasure house for birding. The continent has over 2,050 bird species recorded, two thirds of which are found nowhere else. East Africa, in particular, has an amazing variety of birds, perhaps due to a mild climate devoid of extremes. The region has 4 of the Top Ten Birding Sites in Africa as rated by the African Bird Club (www.

africanbirdclub.org) -an international organisation devoted to the study of Africa's birds. These sites are: Bwindi Impenetrable Forest (Uganda), Bale Mountains (Ethiopia), the Rift Valley Lakes (Kenya) and Murchison Falls Park (Uganda). East Africa's birds are scattered in all sorts of habitats: mountain forest, lowland forest, seacoast, deserts, savannah, lakes, marsh, swamps and mudflats. In this article, we shall look at the region's water birds. This category refers to those birds that depend directly on water for food, habitat and breeding or indirectly for a certain component of their life cycle. Most water birds linger along the shallow shoreline of lakes, temporary waters in the inland ecosystems and rivers and very few venture far away from shore. Water birds delight birders, being easier to spot and photograph, as they tend to be larger and live more in the open. Flamingo's, on account of their size and huge numbers rank as East Africa's foremost water birds. Out of a world population of about 4 million, an estimated 95 % reside in East Africa.

Flamingos are found only in saline water, and East Africa's Rift Valley lakes are their favourite habitat, particularly Manyara and Natron in Tanzania and Nakuru and Baringo in Kenya. Small populations are also found in Lake Abiata in Ethiopia and at the Etosha Pans of Namibia. The flamingo is very biologically unique among wildlife species. It is highly gregarious and lives in large groups. In Kenya's Rift Valley Lakes, up to one million birds have been known to gather- forming the largest bird flocks anywhere. The birds are characterised by pink plumage, which is especially thick on the underside of the feathers and is gracefully exposed during flight. Young flamingos are however more grey than pink - they turn full pink at sexual maturity. You are then likely to see them in courtship displays that look like mock fights. Flamingos' beaks are S shaped and pink in colour, while the legs are straight and webbed to facilitate wading in water. They feed on microscopic blue green algae plants that only thrive in saline waters.

These plants are suspended in water and to extract a meal they swallow large volumes of water, which is filtered by the beak through specialised anatomical devices. For this reason, flamingos are said to be filter feeders, a status they share with a number of other aquatic animals. Lake Natron on the Kenya-Tanzania border is the principal breeding ground of East Africa's flamingos. Scientists do not know for sure why they don't breed in the other alkaline lakes. But research indicates that Natron is favoured on account of its ecological stability and minimal human disturbance. By reason of its remoteness in location, it has recorded little change in soil chemistry - a critical factor in nest formation. At Lake Natron, incubation of eggs takes about 3 weeks, after which the mothers fly back to their preferred habitat, mostly Nakuru, Baringo and Manyara. About a week later, the hatchlings usually follow their mothers northwards. There are two types of flamingos, the greater and lesser flamingos. The casual observer may be unable to tell them apart.

But the greater flamingo is considerably larger and has a whiter plumage. The majority of flamingos in East Africa are of the lesser species. The greater flamingos feed on invertebrates like molluscs and crustaceans. This is the ecological factor that may largely explain their smaller numbers in relation to lesser flamingos, which are primary consumers in the food chain. The pelican is the other bird likely to be found in large aggregations in East Africa's wetlands. These are large, stout birds with large white beaks specially adapted for catching and swallowing fish. Most fresh water lakes in East Africa are generously stocked with pelicans. You will see them swimming most gently and graciously as they search for fish, their primary food. They habitually swim in a team of 3 and offer a spectacular show as they dive for fish rhythmically and simultaneously.


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