Pocket Guides to Birds, Butterflies, Insects and Snakes

Years ago, when we moved into a rented house in Gitanga Road, Nairobi – a plot that is now a carpark for the Braeburn School – the grass in the garden was more bush than lawn. And in the long grass there were snakes.

Mwangi, the guy who worked in the garden, killed a grey one. My wife took it to the Herpetology Department in the National Museum for identification. They said it was a non-venomous house snake. A day or so later, Mwangi killed a green one. My wife took it to the Museum. They said it was a non-venomous tree snake.

A staff member in the Herpetology Department said that the only dangerous snake around

Nairobi is the Spitting Cobra. So we told Mwangi to stop killing snakes.

However, some weeks later when we came back from a trip to the Coast, we found that Mwangi had killed yet another snake. It was a garter snake, with distinctive bands of black and orange.

‘But, Mwangi, we asked you not to kill any more snakes,’ I said, quite tetchily.

But when my wife took this third snake to the Museum, one of the staff said, ‘Where did you find this?’

‘In our garden in Gitanga Road.’

‘No, it’s not found around Nairobi… And it’s very venomous.’

Ok, why am I telling you this? Because if we had had a guide book on snakes, it would have saved three trips to the Museum – and stimulated more respect for these much maligned creatures. And this will be a sequel to what I wrote about last week: the CD and book, ‘100 Most Common Bird Calls in East Africa’, which is a publication of Struik Nature and Penguin Random House in South Africa. They also publish a very interesting series of Pocket Guides on nature things in East Africa. There are three of them: Birds, Butterflies and Insects. There is also a companion pocket-sized book: ‘A Photographic Guide to Snakes, Other Reptiles and Amphibians’.

All these little guide books have a text describing key identification features of a range of species, full-colour photographs of them, and distribution maps.

The snake book is by Bill Branch, a well known herpetologist and author of many books and papers on African reptiles and amphibians. He has done fieldwork in over twenty African countries.

After my first trip to Kenya a long time ago, I was back in England and being shown a collection of butterflies kept by an English ‘old Africa hand’.

‘I had no idea there were so many species of butterflies in Kenya,’ I said.

Well, if I had had Dino Martin’s and Steve Collins’ ‘Pocket Guide: Butterflies of East Africa’, I wouldn’t have been so ignorant. I have just learnt from the book that there are over 2,500 different species of butterflies in East Africa. 247 of these most beautiful of the insects are described in the book.

Steve Collins is a biologist who has researched in over 50 African countries and the surrounding islands. In 1996, he founded the African Butterfly Research Institute, which is at Karen down the Dagoretti Road. It is home for more than 1,000 butterfly species – and it is well worth a visit.

You most likely have heard of Dino Martins – known as East Africa’s ‘Dudu Man’. He is a passionate entomologist, active in Nature Kenya, a lively advocate for conservation, and a prolific writer. He is also the author of the book on the less beautiful but nevertheless fascinating insects: the ‘Pocket Guide to the Insects of East Africa’

Dino tells us that over one million species of insects have been identified. He argues that they are ‘the most wonderful, interesting and diverse groups of creatures on our planet’. (I wonder if he is so enthusiastic about the mosquito that buzzes his ear in his bedroom, or the safari ant that crawls up his trouser leg.)

Anyway, he points out that insects can be found everywhere in East Africa: from the snow peak of Mount Kilimanjaro down to the dry deserts of Kenya’s North. In his book he tells us about more than 400 of them.

This leaves us one more of the collection: the ‘Pocket Guide to Birds of East Africa’. It is written by Dave Richards, the photographer and author, who has written a number of books on travel and wildlife in Kenya and one of the authors of the CD on bird calls. He leads photographic and ornithological safaris through East Africa and also further South.

There are over 1,000 species of birds in East Africa; Dave Richards describes and presents photographs of 296 of them.

All four of these books are authoritative, well written and attractively laid out. They are good companions for your pocket when on safari – or for the glove box of your car.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation