Sabaki River Mouth Bird Walk
I have always wanted to walk theSabaki River Mouth. I have also always believed in the old adage that if you want to get something done the best way to achieve it is to do it yourself.
The Sabaki River Mouth is where the Athi, Tsavo and Galana rivers that rise and converge in upcountry Kenya ultimately disgorge their heavily silted waters into the coral reef fringed seawater of the Indian Ocean five kilometres north of Malindi. This convergence in turn provides one of the richest feeding grounds for birds in Africa and the Sabaki River Mouth has rightly taken its place as one of the Important Bird Areas (IBA’s) in Kenya.
In October, particularly, the recently arrived Palaearctic migrants waders congregate in their tens of thousands, some before dispersing southwards down the coast, but many are content to winter in this coastal food larder, mingling with the resident herons, egrets, gulls, terns and the numerous other species that frequent the lagoons, reed-beds, and sand-dunes adjacent to the river mouth.
But to return to the initial challenge, how does one get to the Sabaki River Mouth, a journey I have attempted on more than one occasion in the past, without success. The older guide books suggest leaving your vehicle in the public car park at Sabaki Bridge and walking eastwards down a track for 2 kilometres, where after passing through a chicken farm, the sand dunes and lagoons are only a short distance ahead, not I feel an attractive proposition when the return journey has to be made after an early morning visit, in the heat of the day.
I telephone the Kenya Wildlife Service office at Gede for an update, who were helpful, if a little imprecise, in so much as the track is now driveable with a 4 wheel-drive vehicle but is un-signposted on the main road. The KWS advice is to get yourself to Sabaki Bridge village and ask from there. There may be a birding guide at the river mouth is the other comment.
A solution presents itself in Ali, the resident taxi driver at The Driftwood Club, and the base for my birding safaris in the Malindi area in recent years. What is more, Ali has a Mitsubishi Pajero, albeit a left hand drive model which had probably been a bargain when imported second-hand some years ago.
Nor does Ali know the elusive track, it transpires, as we set off on a glorious October Sunday morning just after dawn, on the five kilometre tarmac drive to Sabaki Bridge where twenty minutes later our problems are solved. The first person we come across to ask directions is David, the Driftwood Club receptionist, who lives in the village and could have directed us before we set off had he known of the expedition.
Ali’s Pajero then comes into its own for the next 2 kilometres and then we are at the dunes with the river to our right and the roar of the surf ahead of us on the distant coral reef. It is high water, which, I may say is, no coincidence in planning, as the birds congregate at high watermark on the high tide before dispersing for feeding as the tide ebbs.
And, yes, there is a guide on site who says his name is Mtawali and he can show us the birds.
We set off and it is a remarkable walk, whether you are a birder or not, along a sandy shore, amidst a panorama of sand dunes to the left, a tranquil flowing river, lagoons and reed-beds to the right and the distant sea and spray on the reef ahead, and surrounded by thousands of birds.
I had made enquiries earlier in the week as to any unusual species likely to be encountered at the Sabaki River Mouth and had been told that four African Skimmers, a species listed as vulnerable in Kenya, had been sighted earlier in the month.
I ask Mtawali whether it is true that there are four skimmers and could he locate them for me. No, he says seriously, there are not four skimmers here, there are six and five minutes later he has identified them amongst a flock of several hundred Common Terns, flying over the river scooping the surface for breakfast.
My respect for Mtawali increases as he realises I am looking for the more unusual species, and he locates a Winding Cisticola in the reed-beds by its call, surrounded by numbers of Zanzibar Red Bishops, the males in breeding plumage.
I find small numbers of the more uncommon migrant waders including Curlew
among the many Whimbrel and Ruff among the many thousands of Curlew Sandpipers and higher up from the shoreline, White-fronted Plover and Spurwing Plover, a not so common bird at the coast. I have the advantage here as I have binoculars to assist in the identification of the wader species in their winter plumage at a distance. Mtawali replies that his eyes are his telescope and his book is in his head.
Whistling Duck, Long-tailed Cormorant, Goliath Heron and Great White Pelican are also present at this meeting point of fresh and salt water and I then ask whether any migrant Yellow Wagtails have yet arrived. Mtawali leads me a short distance into the dunes and finds the bird within a few yards, on the way pointing out a Grassland Pipit, remarking that there is too much white in the tail for the bird to be the much rarer and near threatened Malindi Pipit. By now I am regarding Mtawali as one of the better guides I have ever had the good fortune to meet.
We return along the beach as the morning warms up and a resident African Fish Eagle circles overhead to take advantage of the first thermals of the morning. Mtawali points skywards and says Pratincole as a bird flies overhead and through the binoculars I see the telltale collar of a Collared Pratincole with which Mtawali agrees as he says all the migrant Madagascar Pratincoles have just left.
We stop to talk to a local fisherman and he shows us the large mesh net he uses, in contrast to the smaller mesh that ensnares immature fish, but says sadly he only catches one good size fish a month now, the large foreign trawlers that ply the northern Indian Ocean, are to blame, he believes, for over fishing, and there is no future in fishing for his children he asserts.
We arrive back to Ali and his vehicle and for the record the count in less than two hours is 47 species including 16 waders and in bird numbers, I can only estimate as tens of thousands.
I say goodbye to Mtawali and ask how I can contact him again when visitors need a bird guide at the Sabaki River Mouth, is there a telephone number?
No, my father has no telephone he says and by the way he is the fisherman you have just met on the shore and it is difficult to contact me as the school has no telephone either. Maybe you could leave a message at the call box in the village is Mtawali’s suggestion as he looks up at me and I realise he is only four foot tall. Now I am twelve and in Standard Five most people in the village know me, is his farewell comment.
The late Robin Cahill, written in 1996.
kenya-coast.com have created a route of this walk in Google Maps:
View Sabaki River Mouth Bird Walk in a larger map
Mtawali's father, Rodgers Karabu now runs a budget Guesthouse, called Sabaki River Mouth Camp and Cottage, situated close to the Sabaki River Mouth. His family also offer guiding services in the area.
Further information can be found on their websitehttp://www.sabakirivercampandcottage.com/
Further information about birding at the Sabaki River Mouth may be found through contacting the A Rocha Mwamba Field Study Centre, situated in Watamu.