Bird ‘Atlassing’ in a Wet Amboseli

As long as I can remember, I have been keen on birds – the feathered ones, I mean. In fact, I have it on authority from my parents that my very first word was ‘bird’. Whether I was pointing out of the window at a black kite fly-by at the time… that could be only my imagination.

As a family we would go to the morning bird walks and monthly ‘pot-luck’ outings organised by Nature Kenya and the National Museums. I also remember a rather ingenious gift idea my Dad came up with once – to offer me my first pair of binoculars if I could name 50 bird species.

Then high school and university happened. While they’re not great excuses to have stopped me from my birding, it took a back seat. However, it was memories of time spent in the bush, such as the trip we took to Lake Bogoria to count over a million flamingos, that helped push me towards my current career as a guide and environmental writer.

In the formative years, I spent a lot of time in South Africa, surrounded by some renowned birders. Many of them regularly took part in an activity known as ‘Atlassing’ for the Southern African Bird Atlas Project (SABAP 2). It was started to let citizen scientists gather distribution data. This involves actively recording species over a minimum of two hours in a pentad – an area of five minutes of latitude by five minutes of longitude, roughly 85 square kilometres. The enormous volume of data collected by thousands of ‘lassers’, as they are known, is contributing to science and developing a greater understanding of bird distribution and, therefore, habitat conservation efforts.

You can imagine my delight when I found out that bird atlassing was in Kenya too. After all, with over 1,000 recorded species, it is second only to the DRC as the most bird-diverse country in Africa. The Kenya Bird Map Project is a joint initiative between the National Museums of Kenya, A Rocha Kenya, and the Tropical Biology Association. It is implemented in conjunction with Nature Kenya, with technical support from the people who set up SABAP – the Animal Demography Unit at the University of Cape Town.

While in the past all the recording had to be uploaded through their website, there is now a clever app known as ‘BirdLasser Kenya’. All you need is an Android device that has inbuilt GPS and all the atlassing can be done offline, even in the most remote pentads. Be sure to Google the project for more information.

Bird watching brings many people pleasure as it offers a much needed connection to nature, and it can be done virtually anywhere. Birds come in all shapes, sizes and colours, and their behaviour is often fascinating to see. However, many people still remain perplexed about birding enthusiasts. This is where I see the added benefit of atlassing. Recording birds doesn’t just help research and conservation – it generates a sense of competition. And that is what can convert even the most stalwart anti-birder.

I’ve ‘atlassed’ numerous times and gotten a few friends on board too. Last week I spent a full day in Amboseli with such a group. I must add that the park is looking incredible at the moment. The rains have flooded the marshes to levels not seen this century, and the birdlife has responded appropriately. While mammals have spread across the ecosystem, as they usually do in the wet seasons, we saw countless birds, including nomadic water lovers like Great Painted Snipe and both flamingo species.

The less enthusiastic group members very quickly perked up when they realised we were racking up dozens of species, especially as one of our pentads was a ‘virgin’. They loved knowing that we were the first people collecting data there. They even upped our target from 50 to 60 and then to 75 species.

Now I must add a word of caution. It’s all well and good getting caught up in the spirit of healthy competition, but it’s also important to avoid false records. We had a policy that required consensus on a species’ identification – whether by sight or sound. It meant cracking out the books and birdcall applications on virtually every occasion.

I once received an email from a Kenya Bird Map administrator asking for more details of a rare Abbot’s Starling record of mine, well out of its normal range. It turned out I had mistakenly logged it and hadn’t thoroughly checked my list before submitting. It was good to know the data is monitored for likely errors or special records.

Only a few nondescript birds – often fleeting glimpses of brown ones – escaped our count on our full day in Amboseli. We managed a total of just under a hundred across two pentads, but it was the new-found enthusiasm of my less-than-regular birding buddies that was the real achievement.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation